Don’t Try So Hard.

Anne Trafton of the MIT News Office had a report last July on an interesting study:

In a new study, a team of neuroscientists and psychologists led by Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, has found evidence for another factor that contributes to adults’ language difficulties: When learning certain elements of language, adults’ more highly developed cognitive skills actually get in the way. The researchers discovered that the harder adults tried to learn an artificial language, the worse they were at deciphering the language’s morphology — the structure and deployment of linguistic units such as root words, suffixes, and prefixes.

“We found that effort helps you in most situations, for things like figuring out what the units of language that you need to know are, and basic ordering of elements. But when trying to learn morphology, at least in this artificial language we created, it’s actually worse when you try,” Finn says. [...]

Linguists have known for decades that children are skilled at absorbing certain tricky elements of language, such as irregular past participles (examples of which, in English, include “gone” and “been”) or complicated verb tenses like the subjunctive.

“Children will ultimately perform better than adults in terms of their command of the grammar and the structural components of language — some of the more idiosyncratic, difficult-to-articulate aspects of language that even most native speakers don’t have conscious awareness of,” Finn says.

In 1990, linguist Elissa Newport hypothesized that adults have trouble learning those nuances because they try to analyze too much information at once. Adults have a much more highly developed prefrontal cortex than children, and they tend to throw all of that brainpower at learning a second language. This high-powered processing may actually interfere with certain elements of learning language.

You can read more about how the study worked at the link; unfortunately, “Still unresolved is the question of whether adults can overcome this language-learning obstacle.”

Chronologicon Hibernicum.

Colm Moriarty’s Irish Archaeology blog has a post on a wonderful project:

Funding of €1.8 million by has been secured from the European Research Council for a project that will date a large number of 7th–10th century Irish texts.

Professor Stifter, Head of Maynooth University Department of Early Irish, will lead a team of five researchers on the project known as Chronologicon Hibernicum. This will develop and use innovative methodologies and sophisticated software to perform linguistic analysis on a large body of early medieval texts. By looking for subtle changes in the language over the centuries and by applying advanced statistical methods, Prof Stifter will be able to profile language variations in texts of that period.

The major result will be a ChronHib database, which will serve as the key reference point for the linguistic dating of Irish texts and will then provide a model for other old languages in Europe and beyond. Prof Stifter said researchers around the world will be able to use these new dating methods in a way similar to how tree-rings serve as chronological indicators in archaeology. [...]

Such a database is a great idea in any case, but I find it especially exciting because of my love for Old Irish (incomprehensible to anyone who prefers their languages reasonably regular and comprehensible). Thanks, Trevor!

How To Be Funny In Sanskrit.

Suhas Mahesh has begun what looks like a very interesting column for Swarajya, How To Be Funny In Sanskrit:

[...] But Sanskrit is only one facet of the language tradition of India. There are her daughters and foster daughters too: the vernaculars, who are fulgent with best qualities of the mother. The fiercely independent Tamil is a giant in her own right. Together, they form a wonderful language ecosystem— a diversity of languages from different families, each independent, yet together in orbit around a mother-language from whom they have derived (and continue to derive) vocabulary, grammar and inspiration. [...]

This weekly jaunt, starting today, will be my own word-offering— A guided tour through some of the choicest verses from bhāratīya-kāvya-paramparā. While on the road, we shall also divagate a bit into the territories of etymology and historical linguistics, and perhaps make brief halts to pay homage at the altars of two sister tongues, ancient Greek and Latin.

Thanks, Dinesh!

Anton kowolski vicki Chekhov.

This has been posted on the Slavic academic listserv SEELANGS, and I thought it was intriguing enough to repost here:

A few weeks ago I received a draft of a paper from a student who is a native speaker of Mandarin. The first line read: “Anton kowolski vicki Chekhov, as one of the most famous Russian short stories writer in the late nineteenth century Russian society, is valued highly and respectfully by lots of critics, scholars and historians.”

When I googled the phrase “Anton kowolski vicki Chekhov,” I found a Chinese edition that refers to him by this name.

Does anyone have any ideas about why the Chinese might call him by this name? One of my colleagues suggested that “vicki” might be some form of the patronymic ending “-ovich,” but that still leaves “kowolski” unaccounted for. (If I’m not mistaken, “Kowalski” is essentially the Polish equivalent of “Smith” (which in Russian would be Kuznetsov, I guess), but that doesn’t seem to answer my question.)

I also briefly considered the possibility that this was a matronymic of some sort, but I rejected that interpretation when I realized that Chekhov’s mother’s name was Evgeniia Iakovlevna Chekhova (nee Morozova), and not Vicky Kowalski (although I’m pretty sure that I went to high school with a Vicky Kowalski).

Any thoughts?

I join the poster in asking: Any thoughts? (Thanks, Caroline!)

Trilby Before du Maurier.

I’m reading an 1846 story by Elena Kube called “Oksana”; it’s your standard-issue tale of a young aristocrat who falls for and abandons a peasant girl, but it has a lovingly detailed description of hunting in the steppe that is a surprise coming from the pen of a woman (like most women authors of the day, she published under a name that did not reveal her gender, in this case “E. Kube”; in 1850 she married Alexander Veltman, and though her writing enjoyed some success in its day, notably her 1867 novel Priklyucheniya korolevicha Gustava Irikovicha, zhenikha tsarevny Ksenii Godunovoi [The adventures of the king’s son Gustav Eriksson, bridegroom of the tsarevna Xenia Godunova], she became even more thoroughly forgotten than her husband). At any rate, when I hit the phrase “влюбленному Трильби” (‘Trilby in love’) I did a classic double-take. For an instant I thought “Ah yes, Trilby,” with that faint burst of pleasure we get from recognizing an allusion; then I thought “Wait a minute, this is half a century too early for du Maurier’s Trilby — what’s going on?” Furthermore, влюбленному is a masculine adjective, and du Maurier’s Trilby is famously a young woman (with whom all the men are in love).

So I did some research and discovered that there was a much earlier Trilby; I will quote the jovial descripton by the Listener, a columnist for the Boston Evening Transcript (Dec. 1, 1894, quoted in Trilbyana, the Rise and Progress of a Popular Novel, p. 38):

The Listener was asked the other day where du Maurier got the name of Trilby — a sweet and pleasant word, neither English nor French, which seemed to suit so perfectly the adorable young person of his creation. He was able to answer, more by accident certainly than as the result of erudition, that the name was not invented by du Maurier but belongs to the French classics — possibly to Scottish folklore. In the year 1822 there was first published in Paris a nouvelle by Charles Nodier, afterward a member of the French Academy, entitled, “Trilby, or the Fay of Argyle”; it was a sort of fairy story, in which a fay is in love with a mortal woman, and the woman is very far from being indifferent to his sentiment. This ‘Trilby’ attained a considerable degree of popularity; it became, indeed, a French classic; Sainte-Beuve has particularly praised the charm of its style. * * * In his preface to the story, Nodier says: ‘The subject of this story is derived from a preface or a note to one of the romances of Sir Walter Scott, I do not know which one.’ This is a very indefinite acknowledgment. While Nodier may have got his subject from Scott, the Listener doubts if he got the name ‘Trilby’ from him. It is just the sort of name that a French writer would give to a Scotch fay. Nevertheless, Trilby may be a real Scotch elfin. The Listener would hardly claim personal acquaintance with them all.

I should add that Nodier’s novella (Trilby, ou le lutin d’Argail, to give it its original title) provided the inspiration for the ballet La Sylphide (in which Nodier’s male lutin becomes a female sylphide), and of course I would be remiss as a hat man if I did not add the following information about du Maurier’s Trilby from Wikipedia:

The novel has been adapted to the stage several times; one of these featured the lead actress wearing a distinctive short-brimmed hat with a sharp snap to the back of the brim. The hat became known as the trilby and went on to become a popular men’s clothing item in the United Kingdom throughout various parts of the 20th century.

(We discussed the American equivalent, the fedora, here.)


Another gem from Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, providing a nice example of Latin peevery:

There was nothing lukewarm or even particularly “liberal”—in a cozy modern sense—about Pelagius. He remained a layperson and shied away from the use of the originally Greek word “monk” (the “m-word,” which Jerome had brandished with gusto on every occasion so as to shock and thrill his readers):

I want you to be called a Christian, not a monk, and to possess the virtue of your own personal claim to praise rather than a foreign name which is bestowed to no purpose by us Latins.

(Don’t tell him the word “Christian” is also from Greek!)


It’s time for another poll on the theme “how do you say this not-often-said word?” (Cf. re and the surprising pace ["Looking over the thread again, I am freshly astonished at how few people (only one or two, apparently) pronounce it the way I do, which I had foolishly thought was common if not universal"].) The rebec, as the Wikipedia article says, is a bowed stringed instrument of the Renaissance era, and the name is pronounced /ˈriːbɛk/ or /ˈrɛbɛk/). Those two pronunciations, REE-bek and REBB-ek, are given in that order in Merriam-Webster; the AHD and Concise Oxford give only the former; and the OED (updated June 2009) divides it geographically: Brit. /ˈriːbɛk/, /ˈrɛbɛk/, U.S. /ˈrɛbək/, /ˈriˌbɛk/. Note that the OED thinks REBB-ek is more common in the U.S., which seems to contradict M-W; I have no idea whose research is better, but what I do know is that I always said REE-bek (usually in my mind, because one doesn’t often have occasion to talk about rebecs), and I was quite taken aback just now to hear someone discussing Renaissance instruments say REBB-ek with an air of authority. So, for those of you who are familiar with the word, how do you say it? I’m particularly interested in people who have contact with the early-music community, since I suspect this is one of those terms for which specialists have their own usage, but I welcome any and all thoughts on the subject.

Place Names in Jamaica.

The National Library of Jamaica has various interesting stuff on its website, notably including Place Names in Jamaica; I would treat the etymologies with a grain of salt, but they’re fun to read:

“Danks” in Clarendon, was the name given to a property Sir Henry Morgan deeded to his German wife, who said, “danke”, meaning “thanks”.

“Save Rent” in Westmoreland, is not a pot for cheap living; the name is a corruption of that of a French colonist, M. Saverent, as “Shotover” in Portland, is a corruption of the French Chateau Vert.

ACCOMPONG (Maroon settlement) is in St. Elizabeth. This name is said to be derived from the Ashanti word, Nyamekopon, which means “the lone one, the warrior”. This name was also given to one of the brothers of Captain Cudjoe, the second Maroon leader. ACCOMPONG was established in 1739, and the compound is in the charge of a colonel, the army rank being honourable. The colonel appoints a major, several captains, and a council. This council functions like an open meeting. (see MAROOON TOWN).

Thanks, Bathrobe!


Another great link from Paul Ogden:


Electronic Journal for Ancient and Oriental Studies

Le nom BABELAO signifie « Bulletin de l’ABELAO », plus précisément « Bulletin de l’Académie Belge pour l’Etude des Langues Anciennes et Orientales ». L’ABELAO est une association sans but lucratif qui veut promouvoir l’enseignement et la recherche dans le domaine des cultures et des langues anciennes et orientales, notamment par l’organisation de sessions de cours d’été sur le site de l’Université de Louvain, à Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgique).

Son bulletin, le BABELAO, est conçu comme une revue à vocation scientifique. La revue couvre le domaine de l’Orientalisme sous ses différentes facettes : philologie, paléographie, histoire du monde ancien et oriental, histoire des langues et des littératures comparées, édition des textes, etc.

There are three issues online so far, with all the articles freely downloadable as pdfs; most are in French, but each issue has from one to three in English. From BABELAO 1 (2012), for instance, I enjoyed J.K. Elliott, “Recent Trends in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament: A New Millenium, a New Beginning?“; Elliott has a lively and acerbic style apparent in these brief excerpts:

But before we accentuate the positive, we need to speak of the Editio critica maior and of the Latin New Testament, some of whose problems, though now less dire, nonetheless still continue to blight our new century.

Websites accompany this new kindling of interest among younger scholars who have encouraged this electronic medium for intercourse on textual criticism, irritatingly matey though such a form of scholarly contact may be to some of the more “mature members” of the Academy. Nonetheless, a site such as [Actually -- LH] which, despite its off-putting and bizarre name, is in effect a valuable source of information about current activity in New Testament textual criticism, attracting as it does a regular number of generally predictable contributors who seem to keep their collective ears to the ground.

The days should now well be past when an apparatus such as Nestle or UBS (singularly prone to overblown listings of Fathers) can pull the wool over our eyes by adding the mere name of a Father to support a given variant. IGNTP Luke quoted patristic witnesses only with the context of the quotation and the latest printed edition shown where the father’s work could be consulted.

A couple of interesting-looking articles related to Georgia: BABELAO 2 (2013), p. 159-171, Elene Gogiashvili, “About Georgian Fairytales,” and BABELAO 3 (2014), p. 125-144, Emmanuel Van Elverdinghe, “La linguistique marriste et son onomastique: Le cas de la Géorgie.” Lots of interesting stuff here; thanks, Paul!

A Multilingual Magnate.

Two-thirds of the way through Salomea, Veltman has introduced an entirely new character (though I have my suspicions that he may turn out to be our old friend Dmitritsky in yet another disguise), who has a couple of traits of LH interest. He is introduced as follows (search in the full text under “Казалось, что это был воплощенный космополит” for the Russian):

He seemed the very embodiment of a cosmopolite, a European of indeterminate language, a vagabond who had traveled the world to pass the time and had arrived, as a special tidbit, pour la bonne bouche, in Russia. With his servant, a German, he spoke German like a Frenchman; with his French cicerone he spoke French like an Englishman; with the waiter he spoke Russian like a Czech; in addition he sprinkled his speech with exclamations in Latin, Italian, and even Turkish, and he sang and cursed in all earthly languages.

When the waiter asks “Who is your master, anyway?” the valet (камердинер) says he is the Hungarian magnate Volobuzh (“Это магнат унгарски Волобуж, слышишь?”). “Magnate” here has the specific sense given in the Oxford Russian dictionary as “(hist.) member of Upper House of Diet in Poland or Hungary.” As for his name, it appears to be the Sorbian equivalent of Allmosen, a German town in Brandenburg; I have found it given as Wolobuź and Wołobuz as well as plain Wolobuz.

At the theater he meets a rich Russian named Baranovsky, who invites him to his house; he decides he’d better be culturally prepared for the visit, so he drops by a bookstore and asks for some contemporary books (search on “Каких угодно?”):

“Which ones would you like?”

“It doesn’t matter which; I don’t like to think about whether what I’m reading is good or bad — that depends on my disposition… I think the best works at present are novels; they include life, and true learning, and philosophy, and politics, and industry, and everything.”

“Would you like to choose from the catalogue?”

“But my dear fellow, I came to you so as not to have to waste time in choosing… You are French?”


“Excellent; give me whatever you want — it will all be good; my business is to pay you money, the more the better.”

The Frenchman smiled and gathered several novels.

“Would you like these?”

“I certainly would.”

“Here’s a new work, very entertaining.”

“A novel? Give it to me! Aren’t those too few? I don’t read, you know, I devour.”

Having gathered twenty or so novels, Volobuzh went home and spent the whole day reading. But he read without cutting the pages, not from the beginning, not from cover to cover, but opening at random first one novel, then another, as they tell fortunes at Christmastime: what comes out will come true. He said it was foolish to read straight through; from the edge or the middle is all the same — the main thing a sensible man needs who wants to talk and discuss when he pays visits are pocket bits of information, like pocket money. When you’ve gotten from books or magazines several gleaming, newly minted bits of information, you can pay a visit, go to a dinner or a ball — wherever you like.

Plus ça change…