Beyond Greek.

I was intrigued enough by a reference to Denis Feeney’s Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature to investigate it; while it’s not as pricey as I expected, it’s still more than I want to pay for a book. Fortunately, there’s a detailed review by Jackie Elliott in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and I was able to have the start of the book sent to my Kindle. Here’s a passage from Feeney that sets out the problem at the heart of the book, one I had never thought about:

Looking at the Mediterranean world in 250, no observer would conclude that an empire needed to have a widely disseminated vernacular literature, or that a state of non-Greeks should have intimate reciprocal links with Greece through a systematically interconnected historiography and mythology, or that another linguistic group should commission literary works to be translated from Greek into their own vernacular. It had never happened before or anywhere else in the Mediterranean that one culture should set out to take over the prototypical literary forms of Hellas in order to create its vernacular equivalent, and for a parallel of any substance we have to wait until the Late Middle Ages, when the Latin forms became in their turn one of the new interactive catalysts for the emerging European vernacular literatures. We are used to thinking of Greek and Latin as the “classical” literatures, with later traditions as the “vernacular” literatures, but from the standpoint of the Western tradition, at least, Latin is the first “vernacular” literature.

So why is there a Latin literature? In case you suspect he’s being simple-minded about it, here are a couple of later passages:

Everything about this project is problematic, starting with the definition of all the terms I have been using so far, “literature” and “translation,” “historiography” and “mythology.” Justifying the use of a term such as “literature” in an ancient context is a notoriously unstraightforward thing to do. These terms are still occasionally treated as self-evident categories, reified concepts that apply across time and space, but they are not givens in nature; instead, in the Roman middle Republic all of them are interactive frames in which Romans, Greeks of different heritages, and many other peoples, encountered and reshaped each other in unprecedented ways. […]

Assimilation is constitutive of Roman identity, marked by their selfconscious advertizing of how they took over their characteristic short sword from the Spaniards (Plb. 6. 23. 6), their distinctive toga from the Etruscans (Liv. 1.8. 3), and their very name as citizens, Quirites, from the Sabines (Liv. 1. 13.5). According to Cornell, in a—justly—commonly quoted aphorism: “an independent or autonomous Latin culture never had a chance to emerge.”

In fact, it is becoming more and more evident that there is no such thing as an independent or autonomous culture at any time or place. As Bayart puts it in his important study, “There is no culture that is not created, and . . . this creation is usually recent. Moreover, the formation of a culture or a tradition necessarily involves dialogue, and occurs in interaction with its regional and international environment.”

In Chapter 1, on translation, he has a section “The Strangeness of Translation” that points out that our modern expectation that we can read all sorts of other literatures in our own language is “a comparatively recent state of affairs” and quotes an Indian scholar, Harish Trivedi, as saying “There is no translation in India […] until very recently, nothing was ever translated directly between Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, and so on”; Feeney adds:

There has never been such a thing as an impermeable culture, but a group is able to represent itself as being its own knowledge-world to one degree or another, and this is particularly the case with forms of textually encoded knowledge. As Jack Goody has demonstrated, literacy’s codification of systems of knowledge and belief within a culture can in itself encourage the apprehension that there is a defined boundary between this knowledge system and the ones codified by other groups. From this perspective, it is not, on reflection, obvious that even a bilingual group will need to set up a dialogue with outside traditions of knowledge and power by importing vernacular versions of texts that matter to those outside traditions.

And there’s more in Elliott’s review, for example:

Chapter 6, ‘A literature in the Latin language’, reviews what marks c. 3-2 Rome as a recognizably literary society, at least from the limited, modern vantage-point that is perhaps all that allows the term “literary” momentary definition and coherence: Rome had “libraries, endowed professorships, a common educational track with a “core” and “periphery” of accomplishments (experience of which was indispensable for anyone with any pretensions to status), copying houses, transmission of authoritative texts together with the scholarship that accompanied them, and empire-wide circulation of texts in a great variety of genres” (p. 154). It is thus Rome’s definitive co-option of a pre-established canon recognized also by others, one that in time acquired the full surrounding social and critical apparatus with which we are familiar, that in Feeney’s view defines what is distinctive about Rome as a literary society in its day. Chapter 7, ‘The impact and reach of the new literature’, complements this by further emphasizing the longevity but especially the mobility of the physical texts produced. These attributes allowed the texts to transcend time and space, as conditioned by initial production and reception. More importantly, they promoted an awareness of that transcendence on the part of author and audience, an awareness that again helps constitute the category of the “literary” (p. 195, citing Lowrie 2009). Inferring growing audiences at Rome and beyond, Feeney argues that the new literature also functioned as a means of systematizing and integrating the expanding forms of knowledge coming ever further within range.

Lots of food for thought!

The Political Power of Translation.

Bathrobe sent me this piece by Chenxin Jiang, saying “This is a slight article but it’s wonderful to see someone moved to translation by the chance to contribute something to the world”:

It goes without saying that literary translation, too, is a deeply political act, one that makes particular texts accessible to particular readers by transporting them across linguistic boundaries. Translators often advocate for the authors and books they translate, but we don’t always think of translation as a form of political advocacy per se. Nor should we, necessarily: it’s true that giving sustained attention to an intricate or challenging narrative makes a political statement about what we value, but we don’t read or translate good books only or even chiefly because of the political import of that gesture—we read them because they’re so good, we simply can’t help it.

That said, some books particularly foreground the political dimension of the translator’s task because of their immediate political relevance—and once I thought about it, I realized that I’ve often been drawn to them in the past. The very first book I translated was a memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a deeply traumatic episode that’s glossed over in Chinese schools and barely addressed in Hong Kong, where I grew up. Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed was, by all accounts, the most widely read memoir of the Cultural Revolution in China itself; I thought it should also be made available to readers of English. But that, of course, would only happen if someone translated it.

And that, of course, is what translation does: it makes the perspective of an Italian doctor on Lampedusa—a story in which much of the dialogue is itself translated from Arabic and Sicilian—accessible to a reader in Newcastle or New Mexico.

A noble goal, and it’s impressive that she translates from Italian, German, and Chinese. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Reading the Unreadable.

Sarah Laskow writes for Atlas Obscura about a woman with an unusual specialty:

On any given day, from her home on the Isle of Man, Linda Watson might be reading a handwritten letter from one Confederate soldier to another, or a list of convicts transported to Australia. Or perhaps she is reading a will, a brief from a long-forgotten legal case, an original Jane Austen manuscript. Whatever is in them, these documents made their way to her because they have one thing in common: They’re close to impossible to read. […]

For hundreds of years, history was handwritten. The problem is not only that our ancestors’ handwriting was sometimes very bad, but also that they used abbreviations, old conventions, and styles of lettering that have fallen out of use. Understanding them takes both patience and skill. “I see the job as a cross between a crossword puzzle and a jigsaw puzzle,” says Watson. […]

Some of the documents Watson transcribes are written by a trained hand; others are scrawled by people with limited literacy, with handwriting she compares to “a spider walking across the page.” Older scripts—court hand, for instance, which was used by lawyers and clerks beginning in the medieval period (and eventually became stylized into illegibility)—have long, narrow strokes and letters jammed together to save space, making it a challenge to find where one word ends and another begins. Some styles of writing lean heavily on space-saving abbreviations: An extra flourish on a letter “p” can turn it into a “per” or “par,” a “pro” or “pre,” depending on the exact position of the extra line. Other documents rely on phonetic spelling and are impossible to understand without reading aloud. Sometimes a manuscript is damaged, or ink has bled through from one side to the other. In these cases, the clearest portions can act as a decoder for the rest: An indistinct word might have the same shape as a legible one—a clue to puzzle out what was written all those years ago.

Since she first started specializing in old documents, Watson has expanded beyond things written in English. She now has a stable of collaborators who can tackle manuscripts in Latin, German, Spanish, and more. She can only remember two instances that left her and her colleagues stumped. One was a Tibetan manuscript, and she couldn’t find anyone who knew the alphabet. The other was in such bad shape that she had to admit defeat.

i have to say, I’m surprised she couldn’t find anyone who knew Tibetan; she must not have looked very hard. Thanks, David!

A New Source for Shakespeare.

Michael Blanding reports for the New York Times on an exciting discovery for Shakespeareans:

For years scholars have debated what inspired William Shakespeare’s writings. Now, with the help of software typically used by professors to nab cheating students, two writers have discovered an unpublished manuscript they believe the Bard of Avon consulted to write “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Richard III,” “Henry V” and seven other plays. […]

The findings were made by Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, who describe them in a book to be published next week by the academic press D. S. Brewer and the British Library. The authors are not suggesting that Shakespeare plagiarized but rather that he read and was inspired by a manuscript titled “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels,” written in the late 1500s by George North, a minor figure in the court of Queen Elizabeth, who served as an ambassador to Sweden. […]

In the dedication to his manuscript, for example, North urges those who might see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, to defy nature. He uses a succession of words to make the argument, including “proportion,” “glass,” “feature,” “fair,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow” and “nature.” In the opening soliloquy of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent …”) the hunchbacked tyrant uses the same words in virtually the same order to come to the opposite conclusion: that since he is outwardly ugly, he will act the villain he appears to be.

“People don’t realize how rare these words actually are,” Mr. McCarthy said. “And he keeps hitting word after word. It’s like a lottery ticket. It’s easy to get one number out of six, but not to get every number.” […]

Those techniques may only be the “icing on the cake,” said Mr. Witmore, who briefly examined an advance copy. “At its core, this remains a literary argument, not a statistical one.” The book contends that Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In another passage, North uses six terms for dogs, from the noble mastiff to the lowly cur and “trundle-tail,” to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”

Seems convincing, and I look forward to many more such discoveries — not necessarily about Shakespeare but about literary history in general — as the techniques become more widely used. (Of course, they will also be badly used, and there will be ridiculous claims made by incompetents that get tail-wagging press coverage, but what else is new?) Thanks, Trevor!


Three readers have sent me three different links about the discovery of a new language, so I’d better post about it! I’ll lead with the most scholarly source, the Lund University website’s “Unknown language discovered in Southeast Asia“:

A previously unknown language has been found in the Malay Peninsula by linguists from Lund University in Sweden. The language has been given the name Jedek. […]

“Jedek is not a language spoken by an unknown tribe in the jungle, as you would perhaps imagine, but in a village previously studied by anthropologists. As linguists, we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed”, says Niclas Burenhult, Associate Professor of General Linguistics at Lund University, who collected the first linguistic material from Jedek speakers.

The language is an Aslian variety within the Austroasiatic language family and is spoken by 280 people who are settled hunter-gatherers in northern Peninsular Malaysia.

The researchers discovered the language during a language documentation project, Tongues of the Semang, in which they visited several villages to collect language data from different groups who speak Aslian languages.

The discovery of Jedek was made while they were studying the Jahai language in the same area.

“We realised that a large part of the village spoke a different language. They used words, phonemes and grammatical structures that are not used in Jahai. Some of these words suggested a link with other Aslian languages spoken far away in other parts of the Malay Peninsula”, says Joanne Yager.

There’s a brief video clip if you want to hear a few sentences in the language. The other links are from NPR and IBT, both basically reprinting the press release; there’s a link to the article in Linguistic Typology, but it is, alas, behind a paywall. Thanks, Trevor, Kobi, and Christopher!

Fidus amor.

Thea Thorsen’s OUPBlog post Want to know the Latin for “true love”? is mainly about Ovid, but this paragraph contains what I’m pretty sure is a false assertion:

Fidus amor. That’s “true love” in Latin. Historically, such love is often claimed to have emerged with the troubadours of twelfth century Provence. The troubadours used the Occitan term fin amor for this kind of love rather than the more famous amour courtois, “courtly love”, which is a modern concoction. However, “Fin amor”, is “derived from Latin fidus, ‘faithful’. Originally, fin amor was admirable and refined because it was faithful, by definition.” So the term, fin amor, comes from Latin, as do many in the romance languages.

The “derived” link goes to a book by Bernard O’Donoghue, but he’s primarily a poet, though apparently he’s been “emeritus fellow and tutor in Old English and Medieval English, Linguistics and the History of the English Language, Modern Irish Literature, Yeats and Joyce at Wadham College, Oxford.” I don’t see how fin could come from fidus, which gives rather fis/fit in Old French, but if anyone knows of any grounds for this assertion, by all means speak up!

Juan Latino.

Via this University of North Carolina Library press release I learn about a remarkable individual:

A free public celebration on March 20 will mark the acquisition of a book of Latin poetry published in 1573 by Juan Latino. Scholars have described Latino as the first person of sub-Saharan African descent to publish a book of poems in a Western language. […]

Latino was born around 1518 in either Africa or Spain. He was a slave in a noble Spanish household, serving as a page to the family’s son. While accompanying the young duke to classes, Latino learned Latin and Greek. He eventually earned his freedom and became a professor of Latin grammar in Granada. He came to use the surname Latino or Latinus, reflecting his mastery of the Latin language.

Latino’s book has an especially lengthy title […] The phrases describe its three parts: epigrams, or short verses, dedicated to King Philip of Spain on the birth of Prince Ferdinand; a book of verse regarding the king and Pope Pius V; and the “Austriad,” a long poem on the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.

The Hanes Foundation gift also includes a copy of Latino’s second book, along with ten scholarly books about Latino’s life and work.

I’ve elided the bit after “lengthy title” because they cite it with a bunch of ellipses, which is a shame. Here’s the full title, in all its glory:

Ad Catholicum pariter et invictissimum Philippum dei gratia hispaniarum Regem, de foelicissima serenissimi Ferdinandi Principis navitate, epigrammatum liber.

Deque Sanctissimi Pii Quinti Romanae Ecclesiae Pontificis summi, rebus, & affectibus erga Phillipum regem Christianissimum, Liber unus.

Austrias Carmen, de Excellentissimi Domini D. Ioannis ab Austria, Caroli Quinti filii, ac Philippi invictissimi fratis, re benè gesta, in victoria mirabili eiusdem Philippi adversus perfidos Turcas parta, Ad Illustrissimum, pariter & Reverendissimum D. D. Petrum à Deza Praesidem, ac pro Philippo militiae praefectû. Per Magistrum Ioannem Latinum Garnatae studiosae adolescentiae moderatorem. Libri duo.

Thanks, Trevor!

Tranquille Yard.

There was a very famous restaurant Яр [Yar] in Moscow, founded in 1826 in the central city (on Kuznetsky Most) but best known in its later incarnation in Petrovsky Park, just outside of the (nineteenth-century) city on what is now Leningradsky Prospekt (and if anyone knows exactly where, please tell me — I like being able to place things on the map). I had thought it was named for the Russian word яр ‘steep bank, ravine’ (borrowed from Turkic), but in the fantastic new Poemas del río Wang post by frequent LH commenter Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA) on the tango “Ojos negros que fascinan” (“I spent years trying to solve the riddles and mysteries surrounding Dark Eyes, a song about fatal love and perdition which almost prophetically touched most of the talents who ever touched it, making them vanish from history”), which I urge anyone interested in music, history, or the untangling of tangled tales to go read at once, Dmitry writes “the famous suburban restaurant, the ‘Yard,’” and sure enough, the accompanying image of a postcard has “Restaurant ‘Yard.'” Why “Yard”?

Well, the Russian Wikipedia article says it was founded by a Frenchman named Tranquille Yard, and this information is also purveyed in a couple of books (e.g., Max Fram’s The Motherland of Elephants: “The original restaurant in central Moscow was founded and owned by the Frenchman Tranquille Yard”). But I don’t believe it. “Yard” is not, so far as I know, a French surname, and Tranquille is only a (rare) surname, not (so far as I can tell) a given name. Of course if irrefutable evidence exists of such a person with such a name, I’ll accept it, but for the moment it seems far more likely to me that something has gotten garbled in the nearly two centuries since the founding of the restaurant. A similar mystification is noted in Dmitry’s post about one of the creators of the song, Florian (or Feodor) Hermann:

Most often, we are told that Hermann was French, and came to Russia with Napoleon’s Grand Army. Sometimes we hear that his Valse Hommage started as a march of the advancing French troops in 1812. But sometimes, that it mourns the French army losses as it forded the icy Berezina river on retreat from Moscow. We even hear that Florian Hermann visited the home estate of Evgeny Grebenka, the author of the lyrics of the future song, during the Napoleonic Wars! But sometimes Florian Hermann turns out to be a German rather than Frenchman. We are even told that the lived in Strasbourg. One has to note that Valse Hommage is always titled in French in the international score catalogs, while some of the other Hermann’s compositions are titled in German. However, my research shows that Florian Hermann was a Russian patriot from the Wilno strip area of Poland / Lithuania, and that he composed some of his most popular pieces in 1870s through 1890s. And very recently, I was able to find out a few details about his youth and his family in Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania).

As always, I welcome all thoughts from the Varied Reader.

Popularity, Grammar, and Vocabulary.

Veronique Greenwood writes for the Atlantic on an ever-interesting topic, A Language’s Popularity Could Influence Its Grammar and Vocabulary:

It’s a peculiar observation that the more people speak a language, the simpler its grammar tends to be. English and Mandarin, for instance, have notably straightforward structures. On the other hand, languages spoken in just a single mountain valley or village can have gorgeously intricate grammars, full of gender and cases and declensions. They also tend to have rather small vocabularies. Meanwhile, the vocabularies of widely spoken languages are enormous.

What is going on here? What connection might there be between how many people speak a language and what it is like?

There are many things that could be at play, from the level of historical trends all the way down to how parents speak to their children. It also isn’t exactly clear which comes first: lots of speakers, or simple grammar? Still, the researchers behind one recent paper wondered whether the fact that grammar is relatively hard to learn and new words relatively easy might be enough to explain this trend, at least in broad strokes. They built a mathematical model in which individuals in small and large social networks have conversations and occasionally learn new words or ways of saying something from each other. What the team found was that even in this simple, stick-figure version of the world, the same patterns emerge. The results suggest that these general rules, along with the number of speakers, can influence how a language grows and changes.

Read further for details and suggested explanations; if you want to dig deeper, here‘s the actual paper, “Simpler grammar, larger vocabulary: How population size affects language” by Florencia Reali, Nick Chater, and Morten H. Christiansen (Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285, issue 1871). Thanks, Bonnie and Martin!

Languages of Persia, 500 B.C.

Via Joel at Far Outliers, this quote from A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy:

Although Darius established a standard gold coinage, and some payments were made in silver, much of the system operated by payments in kind. These were assessed, allocated, and receipted from the center. […] Couriers were given tablets to produce at post stations along the royal highways, so they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BC. There are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than fifteen thousand different people in more than one hundred different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. We know from other sources that the main language of administration in the empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of the Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that histories were recorded, that poems were written down, and that all sorts of other literature once existed and have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there, either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated writing with inferior peoples—or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth—but not to write it.

That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian empires, either. It is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BC, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks an anomaly.

(Lots of Wikipedia links at Joel’s site, which I haven’t bothered to copy here.)