Archives for September 2002


Sunday’s New York Times Magazine contained a 66-page (!) insert entitled “wordsearch: a translinguistic sculpture by Karin Sander.” It turns out to be an advertising supplement, and normally I wouldn’t be promoting such things here, but I think you’ll see why I couldn’t resist when you read this description:

Her work of art, which she calls a “translinguistic sculpture,” will be printed on October 4, 2002 in the New York Times. Wordsearch explores the hybrid surfaces of New York’s linguistic landscape: on four double page spreads in the newspaper’s business section, and thus in place of the daily share quotations and stock prices, words from 250 mother tongues spoken in New York are arranged into columns, each one having been donated by a native speaker living in the city and representative of the entire respective language, which has an opportunity to “get a word in” here in a literal sense. Each word, whether personally meaningful or particularly characteristic of the “donor’s” culture, is in turn translated into every other language spoken in New York. The filigree web of text arising out of this and covering the pages of the newspaper may be read as a kind of dictionary – the result of a research project in linguistic anthropology. At the same time, however, it works as an abstract image: even at a short distance from the page, it resembles an information matrix difficult to comprehend and comprised of a pattern of lighter and darker grays.

That’s taken from a website put up by Deutsche Bank to plug the project; unfortunately, the supplement itself doesn’t seem to be online, but here‘s a news story about it, and here‘s a list of the languages — click on any one and get a page where you can hear the chosen word spoken. The supplement itself includes not only six pages showing chosen words as written by the speakers (‘help’ in Burmese, ‘guest’ in Pakistani Punjabi, ‘culture’ in Icelandic, ‘music’ in Chickasaw, ‘white’ in Irish Gaelic, etc. etc.) but all sorts of essays, including one by Hilton Als on Marianne Moore. And everything’s in both English and German. All in all, well worth trying to find (or digging through your Sunday paper for if you haven’t thrown it out yet). I think it’s an interesting idea, and I’ll try to remember to buy the Times on Oct. 4.
Update. It’s out today, and it’s well worth checking out. English words across the top of the pages, other languages in columns below; under “butterfly,” for example, are bilinwal, pillangó, papillon, farashah (in Arabic script), farfalla… The original chosen word of which the others are translations (in this case Turkish kelebek) are in bold and underlined, forming a diagonal pattern. It’s pages C9-C16 of the New York edition.


From a calendar of “vanishing vocabulary and folklore” given me last Christmas by a certain musical canine, for your delectation…
dateless: stupid; stupefied, dazed, without memory. From the analogy of a deed or letter which, without date, is legally useless.
smicker: to look amorously or wantonly.
gizzen: to grin audibly.
hempy: mischievous; having the qualities likely to suffer by cat o’nine tails, or the halter.
rotten logging: a term used when romantic couples sit on a log by moonlight to court.


I lived in Taiwan many years ago (teaching language and wearing hats), and one of the features of Chinese I remember fondly is the prevalence of proverbs and “four-character expressions” in everyday conversation. (I can remember it fondly because I wasn’t seriously trying to learn Chinese; the woman I was living with was overwhelmed with the number of allusions she had to memorize in order to carry on a simple chat.) Here is a marvelous illustration of what it can be like (from Poagao’s Journal), which gave me the first good laugh I’ve had this weekend (lovely weather, and I have such a wretched cold I can’t even take advantage of it):

Just today after work I went to one place on Heping E. Road to let them know I wasn’t interested in one of their places, but the lady was quite insistent. “So you’ll take it?” she asked, nodding agreeably not two seconds after I had told her I wasn’t overfond of the room.
“I don’t particularly like the neighborhood.”
“But one can only be a successful official when living in a peaceful residence,” she countered, using a Chinese saying.
“I’d rather ride a donkey to look for my horse,” I replied with another.
“I think you’re painting legs on a snake here.”
“The only snake is being reflected in my soup.” This went on for awhile, but I knew when she started shifting to old Taiwanese sayings that I was fighting a losing battle. “I’m going to take a walk around the neighborbood,” I said firmly, and as she tried to figure out what I was really trying to say with this apparently unknown ancient saying, I took advantage of the lull to beat a hasty retreat before I was drowned in irrelevant flowery rhetoric.


I am inspired by Moira Russell’s A Constant Reader to quote some poetry here from time to time; after all, what could be more language-oriented? Today’s portion is from Basil Bunting, the great and nearly forgotten Northumberland poet, of whom Allen Ginsberg said “I’ve taken his model syntactical swiftness as corrective for my own ‘too many words'” and W.S. Merwin “There is no one like him among English poets of his time.” Herewith the first of his two little gems dedicated to Anne de Silver:

Not to thank dogwood nor
the wind that sifts
petals are these words,
nor for a record,
but, as notes sung and received
still the air,
these are controlled by
yesterday evening,
a peal after
the bells have rested.


Another great link from the Merm: “Wisconsin tribal languages in danger of dying out” (from the University of Wisconsin’s student newspaper — how does she find this stuff?). The focus of the article is on Menominee, which apparently “has only 10 to 20 fluent speakers left, all of whom are elderly”; a group of linguists is helping the tribe with a language preservation project. What saddened me (besides the imminent extinction of the language, that is) was that the article didn’t mention the linguist whose name used to be indissolubly linked with Menominee, the great Leonard Bloomfield, whose book The Menomini Language is a valued denizen of my linguistics shelf. (I see from that it’s going for $125 and up! Hmm… but no, that would be wrong. Unless I really need the money.) A natural place to include him would have been their statement, “Currently, there is a Lexicon, but it’s extremely hard to use and only goes from Menominee to English.” That lexicon is Bloomfield’s (edited by Charles F. Hockett, another great). I guess this is one of the consequences of the Chomskyan takeover of the field: everyone before Chomsky is forgotten.


Well, not exactly. But he’s planning to make a movie in Aramaic and Latin (Latin? how about Greek?) about the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus. I don’t care how bad it is, I won’t be able to pass up a movie in Aramaic.
Update: Naomi has a splendid list of reactions to the idea of this movie, and I’m definitely going to want to see what she has to say if it ever gets made!


Inuktitut is having a language workshop. (Courtesy of Enigmatic Mermaid.)


I just learned that Peter Kowald, the great German free-jazz bassist, died early Saturday morning, apparently of a heart attack. Peter was a big part of the New York jazz scene, especially the Vision Festival, and his bald head was a familiar sight. I’m going to shoehorn him into Languagehat by pointing out that the title of his amazing solo album, Was da ist, often provided with a spurious question mark in English-language publications, is not an interrogative; it could be translated as ‘what’s there,’ but the liner notes correctly translate it in context (Kowald’s “Was da ist, das ist ja sehr viel, eigentlich fast alles”) as “What there is”: “What there is is quite a lot, actually almost everything.” Or you may prefer the version at the end of the quote: “…But there is so much there, so much is at my disposal for which I am grateful, and I try to comprehend, to grasp, to utilise and to leave out, simply take what is there [was da ist].” Fine words for any artist to live by.

Update: Tuesday’s New York Times has a well-informed obituary by Ben Ratliff:

There was great power and concentration in his improvising: he had a broad, strong sound, impeccable intonation and could spend long periods investigating a single pitch and its overtones. At certain moments, he would bend his torso so that his bald head pointed toward the audience, aim his mouth at the resonating chamber within the bass and perform the low subharmonic growls of Mongolian throat-singing, which he had learned while staying a Buddhist monastery in Japan during the early 1980’s.

Also, on Wednesday WKCR, in my opinion NYC’s best jazz station, will devote the entire day, midnight to midnight (EDT), to broadcasting Kowald’s music, so if you’re curious, it’s a great way to hear him (they broadcast over the internet).


I have complained elsewhere about the loss of the “might have” form in English, which is now rare even in printed periodicals. Here, from an article about an FBI agent who tried to warn about one of the 9/11 hijackers, is the first instance I have seen of the older and newer forms in hand-to-hand combat:

Through hearings this week and some in the future, Hill is painting a picture of missed opportunities. Individually, none may have prevented the attacks. But collectively, they might have unraveled the plot.


I dropped by the Mid-Manhattan Library and visited their ongoing sale, coming away with a couple of poetry books for a buck each. One, Robert Kelly‘s 1973 The Mill of Particulars, is a signed limited edition (#190 of 200 hardcover), worthless, of course, because of the library stamps (I can’t believe what libraries put in the sale bin, but that’s a rant for another day), but irresistible at the price. It’s worth mentioning here for the first poem, “prefix:) Against the Code,” which begins:

Language is the only genetics.
“in which a man is understood & understands”
        & becomes
        what he thinks,
becomes what he says
            following the argument.
. . . .
So the hasty road
& path of arrow
must lead up
from language again
            & in language the work be done,
work of light,

The other is a very strange book called Gut Yuntif Gut Yohr, by Marie B. Jaffe; this 1966 “revised and enlarged edition” cost $3 at the time, and (amazingly) it’s still in print for only $7.95, well below the rate of inflation (for books anyway). It contains Yiddish poetry in transliteration, some original but mostly translated; I’m not sure in what spirit Ms. Joffe intended the translations to be read, but they range from the respectable:

In der fertzarter Caravanserai,
Vu mir gefinen zich i tog und nacht,
Bemerk vie yeder Sultan in zein shtoltz
Voint zein besherteh shoh, und shtarbt avek.
Der Rubaiyat

to the dissonant:

Ver is Sheyndeleh? Vos is zie,
Geloibt bei alleh mentshen?
Gut und frum und sheyn is zie,
Der oilim vil ihr bentshen.
(after Shakespeare’s “Who Is Sylvia?”)

to the just plain bizarre:

‘Sis geven erev krismess, und shtill is in heizel,
Kein nefeshel rirt zich, afileh kein meizel…
(after “A Visit from St. Nicholas”!)

I’m still shaking my head in bewilderment, but I couldn’t pass it up.