Martin West, RIP.

A good obit, by Gregory Hutchinson, of a remarkable scholar:

Martin West’s achievements stagger every classicist – but he himself was not staggered. He worked on, matter-of-factly, producing endless illuminating books. [...]

West’s work concentrated especially on the archaic and early-classical periods of Greek. He edited the two vast narratives of Homer, and the two characterful poems of Hesiod, which he also wrote lengthy commentaries on. Other editing work included the personal (or seemingly personal) poetry of authors like Archilochus and Theognis, and the tragedies of Aeschylus.

But his work went further, in various directions. He deployed his intimate knowledge of ancient Greek poetry in books which surveyed particular areas, such as metre or music, in all their knotty detail, and depicted their historical development. Importantly, he did not see Greek poetry as springing from nothing: it was shaped by cultures outside of itself – by Indo-European traditions, and still more by the literature of the Near East.

Although these perceptions were not new in themselves, West amassed material (deliberately not confined to the most striking cases) to link Greek literature to the East. With severe criteria, he pursued poetic and religious elements in Greek and Vedic literature and more,back to earlier cultures and languages, such as “Mature” Indo-European. A huge range of knowledge underlay these explorations; they made the home territory of ordinary classicists look small.

Two contrasting tendencies appear in West’s work: on the one hand, his ambitious reconstruction; on the other, his precise fidelity to what is known. [...]

It’s that “precise fidelity to what is known” that I particularly value in a scholar, but he added to it a nice touch of humor (“The ‘mean sun’ is a notional body which moves at a uniform pace, with the real sun generally a few minutes behind or ahead of it like a dog off the lead”), and he seems to have been a genuinely good person (“When his daughter was young, he once had to leave home early on her birthday; but first he mowed ‘Happy Birthday’ into the lawn”); the whole obit is worth reading. Thanks, Trevor!

Thieves’ Cant.

I don’t normally post about commercial websites, whether they’re promoting books or other products, but Pascal Bonenfant’s site for his book Cant: A Gentleman’s Guide slipped past my defenses with a sneaky added feature:

I have used three sources: Collection of Canting Words from Nathan Bailey’s 1737 The New Canting Dictionary and the 1811 Lexicon Balatronicum based on Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and the glossary from the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, published in 1819. [...] I have put both dictionaries into a Cant Database Search facility. This has the complete (or nearly complete) contents of both Bailey and The Lexicon but a lot of the 1811 ones will appear in the “Uncategorised” category.

It’s loads of fun. If you put in “cant,” for example, you get a dozen entries ranging from CANT OF DOBBIN ‘a roll of riband’ to RANTUM SCANTUM ‘making the beast with two backs.’ Thanks, Paul!

The St. Petersburg English Review.

Looking for something else (as usual), I stumbled upon something that startled me considerably: The St. Petersburg English Review of Literature, the Arts and Science (vol. 1, 1842). I knew there was an English colony in the city and it was fashionable for the Russian upper crust to study English, but had no idea there was enough demand to support a journal, even if short-lived (it lasted a little over a year). The first issue opens with a List of Subscribers, which begins (of course) with His Majesty the Emperor and Her Majesty the Empress and continues through a bunch of Highnesses to H.E. the British Ambassador and an alphabetical list starting with Abaza, Mlle. Vera and ending with Zacharevitch, Mr. Neginn; presumably “Tolstoy, the Count” is this guy. And that turns out not to be an isolated phenomenon; checking Google Books further I learned from People, Languages and Cultures in the Third Millennium: Book of Proceedings, 2000 FEELTA International Conference (ed. L. P. Bondarenko) that “In the middle of the 19th century, some magazines in English were being published in St. Petersburg and Moscow, such as The St. Petersburg English Review of Literature: The Art and Science (1848 [sic]); The Nevsky Magazine: A Journal of Literature, Science and Art (1880); English Literary Journal of Moscow, etc.” Who knew?

Incidentally, the first issue of The St. Petersburg English Review (which consists mainly of anodyne reprints from English publications) ends with a Miscellanea section that today might be labeled News of the Weird; I quote two of the entries:

A Yankee Gourmand. — A man returned home one night very late and rather the worse for liquor; and being hungry withal, he stuck his fork in a bowl of something that his wife had left upon the table before retiring. He worked away with his mouthful very patiently for some time; at length, not being able to masticate what he considered was intended for his supper, he sung out to his wife, “I say, old woman, where did you get your cabbages from? they are so ‘nation stringy, I can’t chew them.”
   “My gracious!” cried the good lady, “if the stupid filler ain’t eating up all my caps that I put in starch over-night!”

American Artists. — A painter in New Orleans possesses such extraordinary talents, that he can paint a pine-plank, or any other piece of wood, so exactly like marble, that when thrown into the river it will instantly sink to the bottom.

Shades of Zeuxis! (In the first, “‘nation” is short for “tarnation,” a euphemism for “damnation”; I presume “filler” is intended to represent “feller” = “fellow.”)


Kobi wrote me with the following interesting question:

In Hebrew people use the word שויצר to describe a person who boasts. I found the word in Raphael’s dictionary but I have no idea if it’s a credible source.

shvits verb, participle ge…t, sweat, perspire adjectival form with -ik, adverbial complementdurkh
shvitser noun, plural in -s, gender m, braggart

I wonder where shvitzer comes from and if there is more to know about this word.

I wonder too; anybody know?

Thirteen Years of Languagehat.

As of today, it’s thirteen years since the first LH post. Amazin’, amazin’! (as Casey Stengel used to say); I vividly remember being surprised I made it to six months, at which point I hoped “to keep everyone entertained for at least another half-year.” The fact that the ship is still afloat is entirely due to the lively commentary provided by my readership, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for sticking around and keeping the conversation going. Me, I have no intention of stopping unless and until I hit an iceberg, at which time life jackets will be issued to all passengers. Like Jack and Stephen, we sail on!

The Queen’s Latin.

Ben Yagoda has a Lingua Franca post on an often-discussed phenomenon, “why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, especially if they’re bad guys”:

The invaluable website TV Tropes dubs the custom “the Queen’s Latin” and has this explanation for its use in historical dramas:

Britain’s long history causes British accents to seem somehow “older” — they are used to suggest a sense of antiquity. This is actually inaccurate from a linguistic perspective; the modern British accents actually represent a more evolved form of English. Older English accents were closer to modern Irish and American accents.

In any case, using the Queen’s Latin makes a series or film commercially viable in the U.S. It alleviates the need for subtitles, while maintaining the appearance of historical authenticity. It’s just foreign and exotic enough. (Many British actors already Play Great Ethnics.) It’s also no doubt inspired by productions of Shakespeare‘s plays set in Ancient Rome. Remember: Romeo might have been Italian, but he’s not realistic unless he talks like a proper British toff.

(That last link mentions “the exaggerated smack of a boxing glove” and notes: “Real-life fistfights tend to be eerily silent, which obviously wouldn’t be very dramatic or exciting.” I never knew that.) And it’s not just movies and TV; Yagoda discusses a book that “is set in France and Germany during World War II, yet the author, Anthony Doerr — an American — continually uses British terms: crisps instead of potato chips, lift instead of elevator, and biscuits.” The sun may have set on the Empire, but this silly tradition shows no sign of going away.

Cockney Disappearing from London.

This MetaFilter post has a roundup of links pertaining to the arrival of Multicultural London English (MLE) and its gradual displacing of Cockney as the form of speech of working-class London youth. This brief BBC News story from 2010 refers to “a study by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University .. to be published in early 2011,” but it doesn’t seem to have been published, and the Wikipedia article doesn’t have any sources more recent than 2011. Anybody know more about this interesting development? (Apparently kids today are no longer dropping their aitches!)

Familiae Rossicae.

I was looking up something else in my Russian edition (Русские фамилии, Moscow: Progress, 1995) of Unbegaun’s Russian Surnames when I found myself getting lost in Boris Uspensky‘s essay “Социальная жизнь русских фамилий” [The social life of Russian family names], appended to Unbegaun’s text. I was first struck by a passage on the history of the name Zinoviev (my translation):

For example, the Russian noble family [род] of the Zinovievs goes back to the Polish-Lithuanian family of the Zenovichi [Зеновичи], of Serbian origin: the Serbian Zenovichi despots, having moved to Lithuania, started calling themselves Zenov’evichi [Зеновьевичи], and afterwards, in Great Russian territory, they were renamed Zinovievs [Зиновьевы].

On the next page, Uspensky writes:

The capacity of Russian family names for modification, adapting themselves to one or another social norm, should not surprise us, if we bear in mind that family names are a relatively new phenomenon in Russia. This is evidenced by, among other things, the foreign origin of the word фамилия ['family name'], which was borrowed in the 17th century, originally meaning ‘clan, family’ [род, семья] (corresponding to the meaning of the Latin or Polish word familia); the sense of a designation for the family began to crystallize around the 1730s, but did not become solidly fixed until the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. It is instructive that until the 18th century there was no way in Russian to adequately express the concept (such words as прозвище and прозвание could refer either to family or individual appellations).

In a footnote, he quotes this delightful passage from Vyazemsky‘s notebooks:

В каком-то губернском городе дворянство представлялось императору Александру, в одно из многочисленных путешествий его по России. Не расслышав порядочно имени одного из представлявшихся дворян, обратился он к нему: “Позвольте спросить, ваша фамилия?” — “Осталась в деревне, ваше величество, — отвечает он, — но, если прикажите, сейчас пошлю за нею”.

In a certain provincial capital, the nobility was being presented to the Emperor Alexander during one of his many journeys around Russia. Not having heard properly the name of one of the nobles being presented, he turned to him: “Your familia, if I may ask?” “They’re back in the village, Your Majesty,” he answered, “but if Your Majesty wishes, I can send for them.”

Curse Words as Dialect Maps.

Check out the amazing maps at this HuffPo story by Lorenzo Ligato, reporting on research by Jack Grieve, a professor of forensic linguistics at Aston University in Birmingham, who published the maps on Twitter last week. The one for “fuck” is a thing of beauty: you could replace the hackneyed phrase “flyover country” by “where they don’t say ‘fuck.’” (Via Mark Liberman at the Log.)

Chinese Billiards.

I was recently reading Turgenev’s charming one-act comedy Где тонко, там и рвется (It breaks where it is weakest, translated in 1909 as One May Spin a Thread Too Finely), and hit a crux before a line was spoken: the stage directions, in describing the furniture of the stage (the hall of a landowner’s house), include китайский бильярд ‘Chinese billiards.’ What did that refer to in 1847 Russia? (The translation just says “a small billiard table.”) I found this piquant anecdote from Gilyarovsky’s memoir Москва и москвичи (Moscow and the Muscovites):

The billiard room kept its old character, described by L. N. Tolstoy. Even on my last visit to the club in 1912 I saw there a Chinese billiard table in memory of L. N. Tolstoy. On this billiard table in 1862 Lev Nikolaevich lost a thousand rubles to an officer passing through and experienced an unpleasant minute: he had no money to pay his debt, and the club rules were strict — he could have been blackboarded [banned from attending until the debt was paid]. There’s no knowing how it might have ended if Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Messenger and the Moscow News, hadn’t been in the club; when he learned what was going on, he rescued Tolstoy, giving him a loan of a thousand rubles to cover his loss. And in the next issue of the Russian Messenger appeared Tolstoy’s The Cossacks.

(You can read the original Russian here; scroll down to “Бильярдная хранила старый характер.”) But that doesn’t help. If anyone knows what kind of game this was, I will be glad to learn.