Se(d)lo.

I just ran across the archaic Russian (really Church Slavic) phrase крины сельные [kriny sel’nye] ‘lilies of the field’; the ‘lily’ part is straightforward (крин = Greek κρίνoν; the modern Russian word is лилия), but the adjective сельный looks like it should be derived from село [selo] ‘village,’ which is very strange from the semantic point of view. So I looked up село in Vasmer and discovered a simple but instructive explanation: the Russian noun is the result of the falling together in East and South Slavic of two different Slavic words, *selo ‘plowed field’ (cf. Lith. salà ‘island,’ Lat. solum ‘soil’) and *sedlo ‘settlement’ (from PIE *sed- ‘sit’: cf. Goth. sitls ‘seat,’ лат. sella ‘chair’ < *sedlā; West Slavic preserves the -dl-, cf. Czech sídlо ‘settlement’). In Old Russian, село could mean ‘dwelling,’ ‘settlement,’ or ‘field’; it eventually specialized to its modern sense ‘village,’ but the old sense ‘field’ left behind this stranded adjective. (The modern adjective for село is сельский: сельская жизнь ‘village life.’) Note that sound change produced a confusingly multivalent word (the horror! language corruption! degeneration!), but people dealt with it and everything eventually settled down. Sic semper mutatis mutandis.

From Miles Loricatus to Miles Gloriosus.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350, which I bought two decades ago, and have just run across an interesting passage on the history of the miles (horseman/knight):

Heavy cavalry retained its importance throughout the period discussed here, 950-1350. Not all such horsemen were knights. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the history of the period is the very complex interplay between the purely military and the social meanings of the word ‘knight’ — cavalier and chevalier, Reiter and Ritter. The Latin miles did service for both, and the semantics of this term have been investigated minutely by historians. A man described as a miles in the early eleventh century was usually simply a heavy cavalryman, a loricatus; there was normally no implication of high social status — in fact, sometimes the opposite, for at this time the milites were contrasted with the magnates or great nobles. For example, when William the Conqueror deigned to consult his men on the question of his assumption of the crown in 1066, the viscount of Thouars, a man of ancient lineage, commented: ‘Never or hardly ever have milites been summoned to such a decision!’ The milites were a rough and ready crowd, vital but hardly to be idolized. Already, however, in the eleventh century, in some places, the term had begun to acquire an honorific meaning, a development which was to strengthen and spread over the following centuries. In the eleventh century it was possible to make a man a miles by giving him a horse and armour; by the thirteenth century the knight was a member of a closed, hereditary class. Social exclusiveness, religion and romance combined to reshape the meaning of the word.

This historical reenactment may illustrate some of the finer points. (NSWF: language, violence.)

Pisemsky’s Petersburger.

Back in December I wrote that I had discovered Alexei Pisemsky to be a fine writer despite my negative reaction to his first novel; this has been confirmed by his 1852 story “Питерщик” [The Petersburger]. It starts off with a description of a village in Pisemsky’s native Kostroma province: it’s full of women, because the men are off working, often in Moscow or St. Petersburg. The narrator, visiting such a village, meets such a peasant, Klimenty, a man of about thirty-five whose hut proclaims through its very furnishings that he has spent time in the capital and who has been spoiled for village life by his experiences there. The narrator asks to hear about them, and Klimenty’s account takes up the bulk of the story.

He had been happily married and brought his wife to live with him in Petersburg; when she died, it drove him off the rails, and he returned to his village. In his depressed state he found himself married off to another woman, who was neither good-looking nor intelligent, and to escape he returned to the capital, where for a time he worked hard and saved money. But then he ran into a relative who occasionally went on benders and inveigled Klimenty along on one of them; after going from one dive to another, they found themselves in the apartment of a woman and her beautiful daughter Palageya, with whom Klimenty became hopelessly besotted — he pretended he was a bachelor and wound up setting her and her mother up in a fancy apartment and spending all his money on them. They both start drinking to excess, the mother finds out he’s married, and things don’t go well; after nearly dying in the gutter, he is rescued and sent back to the village, where his understanding master puts him to work again.

It sounds like a formulaic I-met-a-fellow-who-told-me-his-tale-of-woe story illustrating the dismal state of the peasantry, of a sort that was exceedingly common in those years, but it doesn’t read like that at all, thanks to Pisemsky’s truly astonishing avoidance of cliché and sentimentality. Every turn of events is motivated and plausible, and every time the reader thinks “How could you be so stupid?” Klimenty interrupts himself to say “I don’t know how I could have been so stupid, a five-year-old should have been able to see what was going on,” and the reader reflects on his own episodes of similarly idiotic behavior. There is no moralizing, and the story ends on a cheerful note. I look forward to reading more Pisemsky, and I thank Erik McDonald for being so enthusiastic about him that I overcame my initial distaste. (Incidentally, Erik has done a very useful post, Pisemskii in Russian and English, story by story, which I recommend to anyone interested in this too little remembered author.)

An Introduction to Old English Metre.

From Rahul Gupta on Facebook:

Alan J. Bliss, ‘An Introduction to Old English Metre’, Oxford: Blackwell, 1962. Once distributed to Oxford English undergraduates, copies of this magisterial pamphlet are now scarce. Perfect to be carried in one’s greatcoat-pocket at all times. Blessedly, a complete facsimile is now currently accessible “online” here. Bliss (1921-1985), author of editions of ‘Sir Orfeo’ (1954) ‘The Seafarer’ (1960) and ‘The Wanderer’ (1969), was supervised by Tolkien 1946-8, and edited Tolkien’s papers concerning “the Finnsburh fragment and episode”, ‘Finn and Hengest’ (Allen & Unwin 1982).

I love the way it begins:

There are three good reasons for studying metre. First and most important, the study of metre increases our appreciation of the poem as a work of art; without it, we cannot read a poem adequately, even to ourselves, and all its musical qualities will be lost to us. Secondly, and understanding of the subtleties of metre adds to our aesthetic pleasure an intellectual pleasure; the skill of a great poet in handling a difficult and complicated metre can be an object of admiration in itself. Thirdly, a knowledge of metre is of the greatest use in textual criticism; the fact that a line has been corrupted in transmission may be revealed by a defect in scansion which in itself may be an invaluable guide to the true reading.

Also, there is a great deal more about the pronunciation of Old English at the page Rahul links to; the reproduction of Bliss’s book (jpeg images of each page) is at the bottom.

Winnie-the-Pooh in Caucasian Languages.

This YouTube video (four and a half minutes) has Winnie-the-Pooh’s song (Russian lyrics here) in Avar, Ossetian, Darghin, Kumyk, Lak, Lezghin, and Tatar (and at the end, for good measure, English, German, and Russian). Fun! (Via Steven Lubman’s Facebook post.)

Update. And here‘s a four-minute clip of Winnie in Chechen!

Doublet Compound Name Request.

A reader writes:

I’d like to know whether there is a linguistics term for a compound made up of two doublets. I suspect the phenomenon is so rare – the only unforced example I can think of in English is “head chef” – that no-one’s ever seen the need for a term. But I’d love to have this confirmed. (I’ve read that literary Burmese delights in using such compounds, so perhaps there’s a term in Burmese – but I know nothing of that language.)

My interest stems from writing on the history of coffee in Indonesia and encountering the Indonesian compound “kopi kawa” (a tea-like infusion made from coffee tree leaves), both elements derived from Arabic qahwa. The transmission route from qahwa to kopi is well established, but perhaps paradoxically that from qahwa to kawa is unclear.

I suspect there is no such name, but it’s an interesting topic, and all thoughts are welcome.

OCS and Old Irish Online.

I hope I haven’t posted this before, but it’s good enough it deserves a repeat if I have: the Linguistics Research Center at the University of Texas has “thousands of web pages, most of them devoted to ancient Indo-European languages and cultures”; Paul sent me their links for Old Church Slavonic and Old Irish, and they’re just terrific — if only I’d had this material available in grad school, four decades ago!

College Girl Fiction.

Keely Savoie of Mount Holyoke College reports on a literary genre I was unfamiliar with:

It was once inconceivable: girls and young women pursuing higher education away from home, where they lived in dorms with one another, apart from their families.

But after Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1837 as the first of the Seven Sisters schools, higher education for women gained a foothold in American culture. Soon after, a new literary genre was spawned: “college girl fiction.”

“In the early twentieth century, it was suddenly possible for more women to go to college, so it became common enough that you could actually write books about it—and young girls would buy them,” explained Leslie Fields, head of Archives and Special Collections at Mount Holyoke.

Four display cases containing the College Girl Fiction exhibit will be in Dwight Hall through February 15. Each case, individually curated by a different student assistant in Archives and Special Collections, depicts an aspect of the popular imaginings of the lives of college women living away from home.

One of the cases focuses on Doris, A Mount Holyoke Girl: “The 1913 book is a first-person narrative of a fictional student who attended Mount Holyoke College from 1846 to 1847.” Another is on college girl pulp fiction. If you’re in the area, check out the exhibit; I always enjoy this sort of thing.

Times Xwords Wax Insular.

In today’s NY Times, Charles Kurzman presents some depressing news (if you’re a fan of cosmopolitanism):

With the permission of Will Shortz, the Times’s crossword puzzle editor, I recently downloaded all of the newspaper’s crosswords from February 1942, when the puzzle began, through the end of 2015. I created an algorithm to search all 2,092,375 pairs of clues and answers for foreign language words and place names outside the United States.

The results are imperfect, since the puzzles can be tricky and there is a lot of overlap between English and foreign words. But the broad trend is clear. The puzzle today uses one-third fewer non-English clues and answers than it did at its peak in 1966, and makes two-thirds fewer international references than its peak in 1943.

For many years, the puzzle expected educated Americans to know the German word for “with” (mit) and the Latin word for “man” (vir), for example. These words have all but disappeared from the puzzle. Solvers were expected to know details about America’s military operations, such as “Mountain battlefield” in 1943 (etna) and (misleadingly, since the answer is actually Japanese) “Forever!: Korean battle shout” in 1951 (banzai). Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, by contrast, appear in the puzzle barely more often than before the United States sent troops to each country. Since the 1990s, puzzlers were occasionally asked to recognize “Burkina ____” but over the last few years, they were given additional help, “Burkina ____ (African land)” and “Burkina ____ (Niger neighbor)” (the answer is “Faso”). […]

So are we going to see Vietnamese or Korean in The New York Times crossword?

“I want the puzzle to reflect our common culture,” Mr. Shortz notes, meaning that the answers and clues should have at least entered the general conversation before they appear. After a moment’s reflection, Mr. Shortz noted that the puzzle did include a Vietnamese word last year. The clue was “Vietnamese soup” (pho).

“This is a word I did not know a few years ago, but it has now become embedded enough in American culture that I can expect American readers to know it. With Vietnamese restaurants in many cities, it has become mainstreamed,” he said.

Recently, the puzzle added “Vietnamese sandwich” (banh mi).

Kurzman sums up, “When we turn from the New York Times news pages to the puzzle page, the rest of the world fades away.” There are interesting tidbits in the rest of the article, as well as some very cool charts.

Site Announcement: Comment Editing.

The cries of the multitude have been heard, and Songdog, the omniscient site administrator, has added a plugin while updating LH to to WP4.4.2; you should now be able to edit your comments for a five-minute interval. Use your power wisely!

Update. The omnipotent Songdog has heard your pleas and has increased the window to 15 minutes. All hail Songdog!