An Ottoman Calendar.

Check out the remarkable page from an Ottoman calendar for 1911/1327/1329 that’s Figure 1 on this page (click on the picture to see a larger and annotated version). “The calendar contains six languages: Turkish, Greek, French, Bulgarian, Armenian, and Ladino.” Thanks, Andy!


David Crystal has posted about what sounds like a remarkable museum:

Last week I finally managed to get to see the amazing Mundolingua – the language museum in Paris founded by Mark Oremland a couple of years ago. I don’t use the adjective lightly. He has managed to pack into two floors of a small building a remarkable array of pictures, books, artefacts, and interactive facilities relating to language, languages, and linguistics, all presented in a user-friendly and multingual way. […]

The museum is open every day between 10:00 and 19:00, with a modest entrance fee of just a few euros. Don’t rush the visit. There is so much material that a language buff could spend a whole day here – or even two – exploring the collections in detail. The day I was there a group of visitors was sitting around a sociolinguistic exhibit with headphones, happily listening to usages in various languages. Another couple was by the phonetics chart copying the IPA sounds represented there.

I spent some time trying the braille quiz: a chart in front of you gives you all the braille letter codes, and then you place your hands under a cover and feel the message hidden there. I thought it would be easy and found it really challenging.

I hope it sticks around, and if I ever get to Paris again I will definitely pay it a visit.

Woody Words.

I don’t know if this is “Monty Python’s best sketch ever,” but it’s certainly their most linguistically focused, and it’s hilarious throughout. Gorn! (Or is that “gone”?)

Sholem Aleichem in Russian.

This piece by Julie Masis is full of interesting stuff. It starts (after a great picture of the magnificently mustachioed author) by describing a Sholem Aleichem short story called “Homesickness,” one of his stories that were censored in the Soviet Union and have been translated into Russian for the first time.

“This story expresses Zionist sentiments. It shows us the Sholem Aleichem that we didn’t know,” said Rabbi Boruch Gorin, editor of Knizhniki, the Moscow-based publishing house which translated the story from Yiddish. The story wasn’t included in the Soviet collections because “it didn’t fit with how Soviet authorities portrayed Sholem Aleichem,” he said.

Sholem Aleichem, best known for his “Tevye the Dairyman” story on which the film “Fiddler on the Roof” is based, was born in the Russian Empire in 1859 and died in 1916.

Yet while extensive collections of his work were published in the Soviet Union, some of his stories were never translated — sometimes for murky reasons. […]

In the pieces that were actually published in the USSR, chunks related to religion were cut, as were Hebrew passages that Soviet translators (who spoke Yiddish but not Hebrew) didn’t understand, Gorin said. In one story, published in the 1930s when there was hunger in the Soviet Union, even the Shabbat meal was censored.

“In the Soviet translation, half the dishes weren’t included. I think they didn’t want people to read about how well people ate in a poor shtetl,” Gorin said. […]

Despite Soviet shortcomings with Sholem Aleichem, the books of other Yiddish authors — many of whom lived and wrote about the Russian Empire — were even less likely to be translated to Russian.

For example, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize in literature, was completely unknown in the Soviet Union. His books were not translated to Russian at all because of his anti-communist views, Gorin said.

The books of Isaac B. Singer and his older brother Israel J. Singer, who was also an acclaimed writer, were printed for the first time in Russian in recent years.

In the next six months, Knizhniki will publish Zalman Shneur’s historical novel about the arrest of the first head rabbi of the Chabad dynasty by the Russian tsar in the 18th century. The novel, entitled “The Rabbi and the Tsar” has never been printed in Russian.

“We want to introduce the public to a great European culture. It’s a forgotten culture that we need to return to the readers,” Gorin said. “Yiddish literature compares (in its sophistication) to English and Russian literature. Yet it appeared and died away within one generation. That’s a tragedy.” […]

Despite some problems with Soviet publications, more of Sholem Aleichem’s work has been translated to Russian than to English, said Itzik Gottesman, the president of the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in New York.

In addition, Russian translations were usually of better quality than the English ones because they were done by professional writers rather than by academics, Gorin said. For example, renowned Russian author Isaac Babel translated and edited some of Sholem Aleichem’s work but the translations were lost after he was arrested by Stalin’s police.

Incidentally, I notice that the cover of a magazine shown in a photo features an interview with “Эфраим Зурофф” [Efraim Zuroff]. It’s always seemed odd to me that foreigners of Russian descent get their surnames rendered in Russian with -офф rather than -ов; since the two endings are pronounced exactly the same, it seems to come from a need to emphasize that the person is Not Really One of Us.

Thanks for the link, Paul!

Fragments, Ellipsis, and Sluicing.

Scott Rappaport reports for

“A lot of talk is fragments—it’s the kind of thing we understand reflexively as human beings, but it’s much harder for machines,” notes Jim McCloskey, professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. “Linguistic theory teaches us what kind of structures there are in our mind, but how to make sense of these fragments is also a nuanced engineering problem.”

This problem is one that appeals to a researcher like McCloskey, who has dedicated his work to understanding language, and now Silicon Valley tech companies that are seeking to make mobile devices—phones, tablets, and more—that can understand and decode the subtleties of human language.

And in the search for solutions, UC Santa Cruz students helping with this research have found they are able to apply their knowledge and research skills after graduating as analytical linguists for tech companies big and small. […]

McCloskey notes that speakers and writers often leave out informationally redundant grammatical material—such as when the verb “call” is omitted in “Jay Z called, but Beyoncé didn’t.” This process, known as ellipsis, is widespread across the languages of the world, and is particularly common in informal language and dialogue.

Among the many varieties of ellipsis is “sluicing,” where what is omitted is not a verb, but an entire sentence. For example, a speaker may leave out the understood sentence “he called” after “why” in a sentence like: “He called, but I don’t know why [he called].”

Ellipsis creates challenging scientific and engineering problems. Although research over the past 50 years has shown that the principles permitting ellipsis involve many different types of information (grammatical structure, context, real-world knowledge), the precise mix of these principles and their interaction is still an open question.

Progress to date has been delayed by the lack of one crucial resource: databases that are large enough to validate theories and rich enough to form the basis for machine learning.

At UC Santa Cruz, McCloskey is collaborating with faculty and students in the language sciences to develop that resource—a richly annotated database of naturally occurring ellipsis, which will be freely available to researchers around the globe who are trying to understand what their implications might be for our understanding of the nature of human language.

Interesting stuff; thanks, Trevor!

Intervocalic Fortition.

The secret of language change, courtesy of xkcd (be sure to read the mouseover text). Thanks, Paul!

Unmossed Siberia.

I’m reading Pisemsky’s “Плотничья артель” [The carpenters’ cooperative], an 1855 story narrated by a landowner who has hired a mysterious fellow named Puzich to build a barn for him — he seems comically self-important, but turns out to be a moneylender who holds his fellow workers in his thrall. When the work is done and Puzich has left, the narrator gives vodka to the others, and the suddenly talkative Pyotr tells him his father was more intelligent than he is. Of course he asks why, and Pyotr says: “А потому он умней тебя был, что уж он бы, брат, Пузичу за немшоные стены не дал ста серебром — шалишь!” [He was smarter than you because he, brother, wouldn’t have given Puzich a hundred silver rubles for nemshonye walls — that’s nuts!] I hadn’t seen the adjective nemshony, but I guessed it had something to do with moss (мох [mokh]; compare the adjective мшистый [mshisty] ‘mossy’), and that turned out to be correct; Dahl has Мшить ‘to caulk the framework of a log house with moss,’ and adds: Сибирь немшеная, дразнят сибиряков [Siberians are teased/mocked with “unmossed Siberia”]. On the other hand, the insult went the other way as well; this site has: Расея немшёная, бран. – о жителях России, которые из-за бедности не строили домов на мху, как в Сибири» [“unmossed Russia,” insulting; said of inhabitants of Russia, who out of poverty did not build houses with moss as they do in Siberia]. I’ve learned a number of new words from this story (щурята are young pike — who would have guessed the offspring of a щука was a щурёнок?; красна = кросна ‘woven cloth’; мелево ‘grain to be ground’ or, figuratively, ‘windbag’), but this is my favorite so far.

Her Italian Resembled the Iliad.

The world-conquering Elena Ferrante has invaded our household as well; my wife is on the second novel in the Neapolitan series and has passed the first, My Brilliant Friend style=, on to me. I’m enjoying it greatly — it’s one of those unputdownable books — but I was stopped by an expression in chapter 2 of the second section. A teacher is said to speak “Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad,” and since the Iliad is not in Italian, I was puzzled. I checked the original, L’amica geniale, in Google Books, and sure enough: “il suo italiano che assomigliava un poco a quello dell’Iliade.” Of course there are translations (here’s one), but why would the Iliad be taken as a measuring-rod for Italian?

Update. Biscia provides the answer in the comment thread:

I asked my Italian partner what the phrase made him think of (without giving any other context) and he instantly said, “Monti’s translation of the Iliad, i.e., solemn, pompous language.”

Addendum. I just ran into another bit of text that badly needs added information. The narrator’s father takes her to the center of Naples, where she’s never been, and shows her the sights: Piazza Carlo III, Via Foria, Piazza Dante, etc. Then he takes her to Piazza Municipio, where he works, tells her everything has changed, and adds “the only old thing left is the Maschio Angioino, but it’s beautiful, little one, there are two real males in Naples, your father and that fellow there.” I asked my wife what she had made of that when she read it, and she had guessed the same thing I had, that it must be a masculine-looking statue. But no; Google tells me it’s the popular nickname for the Castel Nuovo. Now, how the hell is the English-speaking reader supposed to know that? Again, if you don’t want to footnote it, shoehorn the information into the text somehow.


The paper “Excellence R Us: University Research and the Fetishisation of Excellence,” by Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel O’Donnell, and Damian Pattinson, is not about language as such, but it’s on an important topic I’ve been mulling over myself, so I’m shoehorning it into LH based on the discussion of what the word “excellence” means, as well as the paragraph about literature I quote from Joe Carmichael’s post about it:

In fiction, as well as many other fields, it’s impossible to quantify excellence. We can recognize excellent writing — somewhere halfway between our gut and our noggin, normally — but there’s no numerical value that explains a novel’s greatness. “Could you imagine if there were a bar that you had to cross as a fiction writer, where you had to show — you had to show — that you were measurably more excellent than Faulkner or Joyce?” O’Donnell asks. “How would you do that? There’s no way it would be good for fiction writing.” The fact that objective criticism is much harder in literature cushions writers from some of the blows scientists routinely take. Good experiments don’t always lead to world-changing results, and world-changing results are quantifiable. It’s possible to be a good scientist while remaining inconsequential.

I have been thinking about this because as I read my way through Russian literature I realize ever more strongly that it is ludicrous to restrict oneself only to the “greatest” works; I love War and Peace, but I also love The Sebastopol Sketches, and I understand the former better for having read the latter. One can love Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without having to look down on his mandolin music. Celebrate the good, and the excellent will take care of itself. (Via MetaFilter.)

Seeking the Sirens’ Song.

That’s the title of a piece Armand D’Angour posted a couple of years ago, describing research into ancient Greek music. It starts with a terrifying anecdote about his viva at Oxford (we called them “orals” at Yale, and I used to have nightmares about them), then goes on to the discoveries made by Martin West and others:

Thanks to these publications, any classicist with a basic musical training can now attempt with (relative) ease and confidence to hear how dozens of ancient Greek songs might have sounded. The fascination of this material is enhanced by the astonishing musical notation invented by Greeks in the mid-fifth century BC, details of which are preserved for us by the late antique author Alypius. Consisting of letter-forms placed over the vowels of words to indicate their relative pitch – a letter A, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than an N – the vocal notation preserves a faithful record of ancient melodies. Absolute pitch, by the way, can be approximated from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes, supplemented by measurements taken on ancient instruments.

Texts using this notation have been known of since the late 16th century, when some pieces of Greek music on papyrus were published by the musician Vincenzo Galilei, father of the more famous Galileo. Since then, around 50 documents have been discovered on papyrus or stone inscriptions, providing a small but precious corpus that allows us to understand something of how ancient Greek melodies were heard and rhythms realised. […]

Yet little attention is paid even to the rhythms so carefully inscribed into the words of these songs, which have long been known and studied under the forbidding aegis of Greek metre. Even less attention is paid to melodic structures, which thanks to the surviving fragments – as well voluminous writings by ancient authors and musical theorists (admirably translated and compiled by Andrew Barker in Greek Musical Writings) – is something on which we are now in a position to exercise an informed scholarly imagination. By neglecting the aural dimension, readers of ancient texts are bound to be missing something of the original aesthetic impact of these songs.

What difference to the appreciation of the poetry might the original melodies have made, in conjunction with their complex and often offbeat rhythms, and the sounds of lyres and reed-pipes? In October 2013 I embarked on a two-year project, supported by a British Academy Fellowship and sabbatical leave from Jesus College, to recover the sounds of Greek music and to try to answer this question. In pursuit of my inquiry I shall be visiting Greece, Sardinia, and Turkey, on the trail of surviving ancient musical traditions, and collaborating with experts from many countries on instruments, dance, and ancient musical texts.

I’ve got work to do, so I’m not going to go down what no doubt will be a time-consuming rabbit hole of investigating what has been learned since then, but of course I’ll be glad to hear from anyone who knows. Thanks to Lars for the link!