Losing One’s Antipathies.

I’m getting towards the end of the English translation of Annenkov’s «Замечательное десятилетие. 1838–1848», and I was struck by this passage from Chapter XXXV:

It is understandable, however, that, with his new attitude of mind, the perturbations and squabbles of the Russian literary circles, in which Belinsky had quite recently taken so lively a part, retreated to the background.[...] Belinsky became a solitary figure within his own party, despite the journal founded on his behalf, and the first symptom of the departure from its ranks was his losing all his old antipathies, antipathies to which his followers still firmly adhered as a way of imparting the appearance of staunchness and energy to their convictions. He had so far departed from the frame of mind of the circle that he found it possible to be fair, and he finally rid himself of all his deep-rooted, virtually obligatory aversions which formerly were accounted literary and political duties.

Понятно, однако же, что с новым настроением Белинского волнения и схватки русских литературных кругов, в которых он еще недавно принимал такое живое участие, отошли на задний план.[...] Белинский становился одиноким посреди собственной партии, несмотря на журнал, основанный во имя его, и первым симптомом выхода из ее рядов явилась у него утрата всех старых антипатий, за которые еще крепко держались его последователи как за средство сообщать вид стойкости и энергии своим убеждениям. Он до того удалился от кружкового настроения, что получил возможность быть справедливым и наконец упразднил в себе все закоренелые, почти обязательные ненависти, которые считались прежде и литературным и политическим долгом.

This took place during the final year of Belinsky’s life, while he was at Salzbrunn (a spa town then in Prussian Silesia, now Polish Szczawno-Zdrój) trying to recover from the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. I was irresistibly reminded of an unforgettable scene from Time Regained (Le Temps Retrouvé), the final volume of Proust’s great novel, in which another sick and dying man has a similar loss, though presented in tragicomic rather than matter-of-fact terms (translation by Andreas Mayor):

A man with staring eyes and hunched figure was placed rather than seated in the back [of the cab], and was making, to keep himself upright, the efforts that might have been made by a child who has been told to be good. But his straw hat failed to conceal an unruly forest of hair which was entirely white, and a white beard, like those which snow forms on the statues of river-gods in public gardens, flowed from his chin. It was — side by side with Jupien, who was unremitting in his attentions to him — M. de Charlus, now convalescent after an attack of apoplexy [...] But what was most moving was that one felt that this lost brightness [of his eyes] was identical with his moral pride, and that somehow the physical and even the intellectual life of M. de Charlus had survived the eclipse of that aristocratic haughtiness which in the past had seemed indissolubly linked to them. To confirm this, at the moment which I am describing, there passed in a victoria, no doubt also on her way to the reception of the Prince de Guermantes, Mme de Sainte-Euverte, whom formerly the Baron had not considered elegant enough for him. Jupien, who tended him like a child, whispered in his ear that it was someone with whom he was acquainted, Mme de Sainte-Euverte. And immediately, with infinite laboriousness but with all the concentration of a sick man determined to show that he is capable of all the movements which are still difficult for him, M. de Charlus lifted his hat, bowed, and greeted Mme de Sainte-Euverte as respectfully as if she had been the Queen of France or as if he had been a small child coming timidly in obedience to his mother’s command to say “How do you do?” to a grown-up person. [...] And the exposure of the veins of silver in his hair was less indicative of profound convulsions than this unconscious humility which turned all social relationships upside down and abased before Mme. de Sainte-Euverte [...] what had seemed to be the proudest snobbishness of all. [...] M. de Charlus, who until this moment would never have consented to dine with Mme. de Sainte-Euverte, now bowed down to the ground in her honour.

Shortly afterwards comes this touching passage, of linguistic interest:

But when after a while I had grown accustomed to this pianissimo of whispered words, I perceived that the sick man retained the use of his intelligence completely intact. There were, however, two M. de Charluses, not to mention any others. Of the two, one, the intellectual one, passed his time in complaining that he suffered from progressive aphasia, that he constantly pronounced one word, one letter by mistake for another. But as soon as he actually made such a mistake, the other M. de Charlus, the subconscious one, who was as desirous of admiration as the first was of pity and out of vanity did things that the first would have despised, immediately, like a conductor whose orchestra has blundered, checked the phrase which he had started and with infinite ingenuity made the end of his sentence follow coherently from the word which he had uttered by mistake for another but which he thus appeared to have chosen.

Ten Fascinating Interpreters.

A nice roundup by David Tormsen; from Thomas Pereira and Jean-Francois Gerbillon, who helped bring about the Treaty of Nerchinsk (and thus are doubtless well known to Greg Afinogenov, aka slawkenbergius), to Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek who “became essentially the second-most powerful man in Siam,” it’s well worth your while. And if anyone is, like me, curious about the “poor unfortunate misled girl” to whom Alexander Burnes left 200 pounds, apparently we’ll never know if she got the money, but you can read what’s known here. Thanks, Trevor!

“Arirang” and Korean Etymology.

Victor Mair has a Log post about an interesting situation:

Arirang” (Hangul: 아리랑) is arguably the most famous Korean folk song. Indeed, “Arirang” is so well-known that it is often considered to be Korea’s unofficial national anthem. Yet no one is sure when the song arose nor what the title means. [...]

There are hundreds of theories of the origin and meaning of “arirang”. In “What Does Arirang Mean? The Theories on the Etymology of Arirang” (5/24/15), the author examines nine of the theories, which ascribe the song’s origin to dates ranging from the first c. BC to the late nineteenth century AD and which contend that the title is based on the personal name of two different heroines, that it means “I Part from My Dear”, that it means “Our Escape Is Difficult”, that it means “My Ears Become Deaf”, that it means “Mute and Deaf”, that it is a Classical Chinese onomatopoeic expression signifying the grunts of laborers, that it signifies “Russia, America, Japan, and England” (!), or that it is the name of a hill. The phonological transformations that are required to get from many of these terms and expressions to “arirang”, quite frankly, require considerable imagination.

The linked post by “Kuiwon” sounds somewhat tendentious, and frankly I’m happy to leave the song’s origin a mystery, but the discussion is worth reading, and I was particularly struck by this comment from Bob Ramsey:

[...] After all, Korean etymological “science” itself is pretty free-wheeling—just as the corresponding studies in Japan are. Virtually all of the so-called etymological dictionaries you see in Korea are ridiculously fanciful and often outrageously anachronistic. And that is certainly true of everything you see said about the word arirang. I doubt it’s a mystery that will ever be solved.

I might point out, though, that my old mentor Lee Ki-Moon has for decades now been engaged in a truly serious project of putting together a genuine etymological dictionary of Korean But his work has been excruciatingly slow and difficult. The etymologies that he’s written up and sent me are always carefully documented, but for the most part they are studies about obscure and sometimes obsolescent words. I’m thinking that his project will outlast him and never be completed.

What a sad situation! I realize I’m spoiled being a speaker of a language with over a century of scientific etymological work and a student of other such languages, but it always shocks me to learn about major languages (Arabic being, I suppose, the most prominent) with no good etymological resources. Korean has (according to Wikipedia) about 80 million speakers, for heaven’s sake; it should have at least one decent etymological dictionary, even if it only covered basic vocabulary.

What Australian Slang Has Given the World.

A BBC piece by Mark Gwynn begins:

In 2013, ‘selfie’ became Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year.

It’s become such a ubiquitous word, but few stop to think about where it came from. It may come as a surprise to learn that is has its origins in Australia: the first evidence of the word in use comes from an online forum entry by the Australian Nathan Hope, who posted a photo of his lip, which he says he cut while drinking at a mate’s 21st birthday party.

It certainly came as a surprise to me! Of course, it makes sense, as Gwynn says:

For most Australian English speakers, the ‘-ie’ suffix is a natural part of the language. Unlike similar diminutives in international English, for example ‘birdie’ or ‘doggie’, the ‘-ie’ suffix in Australian English serves as a marker of informality – providing speakers with a shared code of familiarity and solidarity. Australian English is replete with such words: ‘barbie’ (a barbecue), ‘mushie’ (a mushroom), ‘prezzie’ (a present), and ‘sunnies’ (sunglasses) to name just a few. [...]

The Australian penchant for abbreviating words is also demonstrated by the use of the ‘-o’ suffix. In Australian English an ‘ambo’ is an ambulance officer, a ‘reffo’ is a refugee, and a ‘rello’ is a relative. A number of these types of abbreviations have made their way into global English including ‘demo’ (a demonstration), ‘muso’ (a musician), and ‘preggo’ (pregnant). Other abbreviations, including ‘perv’ (a sexual pervert) and ‘uni’ (university), have also migrated to global English. [...]

As with other varieties of English around the world, Australian English has its fair share of idioms and phrases that are often unfathomable to the non-native speaker. This is certainly true of idioms including ‘to carry on like a pork chop’ (to behave foolishly; to make a fuss), ‘to chuck a sickie’ (to take a day’s sick leave from work – with the implication that the person is not really ill), and ‘to spit the dummy’ (to lose one’s temper).

Lots more interesting stuff in there; thanks, Bathrobe!

It Made Most Sense in Greek.

I have to pass along another quote from Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome (see this post); he’s been describing the series of church councils that were intended to reconcile differing positions but usually wound up creating better-organized heresies (the ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381 “paradoxically … caused ‘Arianism’ itself to crystallize as a worked-out religious system, in effect”), and the impossibility of eradicating Monophysitism because it had grass-roots support, and then comes this sensible and delightfully written paragraph:

It is impossible to characterize these conflicts accurately in a few words, for the theology at issue is amazingly intricate, depending on tight definitions and Platonist philosophical developments of concepts which would take many pages to set out in English (it was, furthermore, a debate which made most sense in Greek even then; Leo I was the last Latin-speaker really to grasp and contribute to it). Such detailed characterizations do not belong here. But it is important to stress that they did matter. Pagan observers found these debates ridiculous, even insane, as well as amazingly badly behaved, but having an accurate and universally agreed definition of God became increasingly important for Christians between 300 and 550, not least because the political power of bishops steadily increased. It is relevant that they mattered more in the East, where technical philosophical debate was longer-rooted in intellectual life, but with the ‘barbarian’ conquests Christological issues came to the West as well, and Arian- Catholic debates were bitter there, too; anyway, the Augustinian problematic which dominated theology in the West, centred on predestination and divine grace, was no less complex, even though it sidestepped Christological debate. It is of course impossible to say how many people properly understood the issues at stake at, say, Chalcedon; perhaps only a few hundred, although one should not underestimate the theological sophistication of the citizens of the great cities, exposed as they were to the sermons of some high-powered thinkers. But the problem of the real divinity of a human god, who had even died, at the Crucifixion, was at least an issue that would have made sense in the late Roman world, where the cult of the emperors as gods was still remembered (indeed, it was still practised by some) and the divine being was not, in the fifth century at least, as distant from humanity as he (or they) would be in some versions of Christianity.

It is all too easy to make fun of the subtle distinctions insisted on by the various factions (I’ve certainly done so); he does a good job of explaining why they were seen as important. And in the next paragraph he mentions the Circumcellions (“ascetic peasants or seasonal labourers”)! He calls them the armed wing of the Donatists, and goes on to say “Monks from the countryside were also used as shock troops, usually on the Monophysite side; Jerusalem was a dangerous place because of the number of monasteries around it, which could quickly be mobilized…” Not the way we usually think of monks!


It occurred to me to wonder why the word nephew, which comes from French neveu, is written with -ph-, so I looked it up in the OED, which (though the entry was updated in September 2003) is uncharacteristically unhelpful — after listing over a hundred variant spellings (including neveaw, newowe, neuo, nephwoy, and nevvey) gives the following etymology:

< Anglo-Norman nevou, neveu, nevew, nevu, newu and Old French, Middle French neveu (also in Old French as nevou, nevo, nevu, nepveu, etc.; French neveu), originally the oblique case of Old French nies, niers (c1100; 2nd half of the 12th cent. in sense ‘grandson’, c1500 as nepveux (plural) in sense ‘descendants’) < classical Latin nepōt-, nepōs, grandson, descendant, a prodigal (see sense 2c), a secondary shoot (see sense 5), in post-classical Latin also nephew (4th cent.), niece (13th cent.), cognate with neve n.1. Compare also nepote n.

Which has some interesting information (I didn’t know about the OF nominative nies, niers, or the native Germanic form neve, parallel to German Neffe), but doesn’t address the spelling issue. Spellings with -p- go back way earlier than I would have guessed (?1456 Duke of York in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) II. 100 “To take possession and saisine, in the name and to þe vse of our ful worshipful nepueu th’Erl of Warrewic”); I realize it must be Latinizing, after nepōs, but it seems very odd — we write river, not riper or ripher, even though again French -v- is from Latin -p-. Does anybody know anything more about the history of this spelling change, and the concomitant spelling pronunciation with /f/ which is universal in the US and exists in the UK as well? Come to think of it, that’s another thing I’m curious about — I’ve long been aware of the UK pronunciation /ˈnɛvjuː/, but for some reason I had the impression it was antiquated; the OED, however, implies it’s the more common one:
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈnɛvjuː/, /ˈnɛfjuː/, U.S. /ˈnɛfju/

So I’ll ask you Brits: do you say it with /v/ or /f/, and do you think of the former as standard or old-fashioned?


I had one yanked today, so I thought I’d post about the Indo-European forms, which mostly all come from the same root and which beautifully illustrate all sorts of sound changes; this is the sort of thing that got me interested in historical linguistics. The Germanic forms — Old English tóþ, Old Saxon tand, Low German tan, Dutch tand, Old High German zan(a) (German Zahn), and Old Norse tǫnn (Swedish, Danish tand, Norwegian tonn) — all come from a reconstructed *tanþuz (Gothic Gothic tunþus has a different vowel that must come from the zero grade); French dent, Italian dente, Spanish diente, and Romanian dinte all come from Latin dent- (nominative dens); Greek odont- (nominative odous) shows the o-grade and an initial laryngeal; and all these, plus Sanskrit dant-, Welsh dant, Old Irish dét (i.e., /de:d/), Lithuanian dantìs, and Armenian atamn, come from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as *dent-. The AHD IE Appendix lays it out by root grade, beginning with the suggestion that it was originally a participle:

Tooth. Originally *h1d-ent‑, “biting,” present participle of ed- in the earlier meaning “to bite.”

1. O-grade form *dont‑. tooth, from Old English tōth, tooth, from Germanic *tanthuz.
2. Zero-grade form *dn̥t‑. tusk, from Old English tūsc, tūx, canine tooth, from Germanic *tunth-sk‑.
3. Full-grade form *dent‑. dental, [...] from Latin dēns (stem dent‑), tooth.
4. O-grade variant form *ədont‑, ultimately becoming odont‑ in Greek -odon, [...] from Greek odōn, odous, tooth.

[In Pokorny ed‑ 287.]

The Slavic words (Russian зуб [Vasmer], Polish ząb, etc., all from related to OCS зѫбъ), like Latvian zùobs and Albanian dhëmb, come from a different root, *gembh- ‘tooth, nail,’ which gives English comb among others, and Irish has fiacail, which is just weird.

The Sephardic Bibliophile of Brooklyn.

I’m a sucker for bookstore pieces, and Batya Ungar-Sargon wrote a good one for the Forward that begins:

On a nondescript street of brick row houses, nestled between an insurance office and a computer store, in an out of the way corner of Brooklyn known as Marine Park that is not on any subway lines, lies a small storefront. From the street, it’s impossible to see in — the glass windows are blocked by bookshelves, the glass door covered by a large red and white version of the Israeli flag. A small printed flyer is taped to the top of the door: “Mizrahi Bookstore: Over 60,000 Jewish Books in Stock.” A phone number is provided, and then: “Please knock and ring bell.”

It’s run by Yisrael Mizrachi, who wanted the piece to be about the books and not him: “The focus should be, people should be reading these books. People should know there’s a place they can read stuff which is interesting to read. Jews produced a lot of very good works.” But he’s an interesting guy, only 28 (“‘Such a young guy, and such old books,’ they say”), born in Brooklyn to a Sephardic family of Moroccan descent:

A lover of books for as long as he could remember, Mizrahi had been a buyer well before he began to sell, but shortly after he got married, he started to sell a few titles, and, shortly thereafter, Mizrahi Bookstore was born.

That was eight years ago, and he has in the meantime accumulated a stock of 100,000 books. [...]

Mizrahi —who speaks English and Hebrew fluently and can read Ladino and Yiddish — knows where every single book is. Disturbing a book’s location has catastrophic effects on his ability to sell it. A sign beseeches customers: “We beg, we insist, we plead, we urge, whatever it takes: Please make sure every book gets back in the shelf it started from. We want to continue to serve you.” [...]

He once got a call from a guy in New Jersey asking if Mizrahi wanted an Encyclopedia Judaica. Mizrahi asked if he had anything else, and the man told him he had just disposed of thousands of books. “But you didn’t want them,” the man said “They were old.” To add insult to injury, the man came from a prominent Zionist activist family, just the kind whose library might contain untold treasures. [...]

He regularly finds books that aren’t recorded anywhere else. “There’s something fascinating about picking up a book no one has read for 50 years,” he mused. Twice he found his own great grandfather’s signature in a book.

If you like that, there’s plenty more good stuff at the link. If I were still living in the city, I’d shlep out to Marine Park to visit.

Leaving the Myth Behind.

My apologies to those of you who either subscribe to Chomskyan linguistics or aren’t interested in it, but I still bear the scars of attempted brainwashing from my time in grad school four decades ago, and I can never get enough of attacks on the Great Man and his Theory (or, more accurately, Theories). Herewith, for those who are interested, Christina Behme and Vyvyan Evans, “Leaving the myth behind: A reply to Adger (2015)” (pdf), a satisfying response to Adger’s defense of Chomsky against Evans’s The Language Myth (a book I’ll have to get hold of some time) and article “There Is No Language Instinct.” Here’s the concluding paragraph; click through for the detailed discussion:

Minimalists have directed harsh criticism at The Language Myth and There is no language instinct, but little of this criticism seems to concern substantial issues. Alleged misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the Chomskyan commitment and the Chomskyan framework are in large degree due to the imprecise and, at times, inconsistent formulation of its basic assumptions. Chomskyans refer informally to language as an instinct, do not use key terms (e.g. I-language) consistently, do not provide precise definitions of important concepts (e.g. ‘innate’, ’language organ’, Universal Grammar), and they regularly conflate the meanings of ‘recursion’ Adger wishes to keep separate. Given that most of The Language Myth has been ignored by Adger, he is no position to judge whether it makes a valuable contribution or should be dismissed. And he has given little reason to think that the minimalist research program can shed light on there being “new exciting challenges to be addressed about how language is implemented in the brain, how what we know about language structure can improve statistical translation techniques, how language interacts with other systems in our minds and how it’s put to use in situations of social complexity” (Adger, 2015: 80). Adger seems to believe that generative grammarians continue to play the central role in syntactic research, and that they ought to shape the agenda of a larger, multidisciplinary research community. Yet, as Chomsky pointed out decades ago: “this framework is only taken seriously by a tiny minority in the field … it does not represent a major tendency within the field in statistical terms” (Chomsky, 1982: 41). It is arguable whether this evaluation was accurate in 1982. But, Chomsky could have hardly offered a better prediction for that state of the field in 2015. Anyone who wishes to defend the Chomskyan framework ought to move beyond the fruitless quarrelling that has distracted so much attention from the real issues, and address the following questions: [i] what are the specific theories Chomskyans are currently committed to, [ii] which concrete findings from developmental psychology and neurobiology support the Chomskyan framework, and [iii] how can the Chomskyan paradigm overcome the familiar, long standing challenges stated in the technical literature, including those by other
generativists (e.g. Culicover and Jackendoff, 2005; Jackendoff, 2011; Seuren, 2004).

A Shared Imperial Culture.

I enjoyed Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle so much that I’m now reading a book Brown highly recommended, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000, by Chris Wickham. I already like two things very much about Wickham’s approach: he covers the Byzantine, Islamic, and Eastern European worlds on a par with Western Europe, and he is resolutely anti-teleological, saying:

Any reading of the Roman empire in the fifth century only in terms of the factors which led to its break-up, of Merovingian Francia only in terms of what led to Charlemagne’s power and ambitions, of tenth-century papal activity only in terms of what led to ‘Gregorian reform’, of the economic dynamism of the Arab world only in terms of its (supposed) supersession by Italian and then north European merchants and producers, is a false reading of the past. Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap.

Here’s what he has to say about one of the things that bound the disparate halves of the Roman Empire together:

A shared culture perhaps marked the Roman senatorial and provincial aristocracies most, for it was based on a literary tradition. Every western aristocrat had to know Virgil by heart, and many other classical Latin authors, and be able to write poetry and turn a polished sentence in prose; in the East it was Homer. The two traditions, in Latin and Greek, did not have much influence on each other by now [c. 400], but they were very dense and highly prized.There was a pecking-order based on the extent of this cultural capital. Ammianus reports scornfully that senators in Rome, the supposed crème de la crème, only really read Juvenal, a racy and satirical poet, so by implication not the difficult texts; whether or not this was true, it was a real insult. Conversely, literary experts, such as Ausonius in the West and Libanios (d. c. 393) in the East, could rise fast and gain imperial patronage and office simply because of their writing – in Libanios’ case so fast that he was accused of magic – although both were already landowners of at least medium wealth. The emperor Julian in his attempt to reverse Christianization tried to force Christian intellectuals to teach only the Bible, not the pagan classics, thus enclosing them in a ghetto of inferior prose. This failed, but the assumptions behind such an enactment clearly show the close relationship between traditional culture and social status. Some Christian hard-liners responded by rejecting Virgil, but this failed too: by the fifth century the aristocracy knew both Virgil (or Homer) and the Bible, and might add to these some of the new Christian theologians too, Augustine in the West or Basil of Caesarea in the East, both of whom were good stylists.

I love Ammianus’s dig; I guess the current equivalent would be claiming a politician you disliked only reads People magazine.