Archives for November 2002


G.K. Chesterton’s little essay “On Running After One’s Hat” is really a perfect languagehat link. Not only is it about (inter alia) hats, not only does it express very well one of my basic attitudes towards life (and one which makes me a much happier camper than many), but within its folds is nestled a very pearl of linguistic change at work. The two paragraphs that give the essay its name begin, wonderfully, “For instance, there is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one’s hat. Why should it be unpleasant to the well-ordered and pious mind?” The paragraph continues:

There is an idea that it is humiliating to run after one’s hat; and when people say it is humiliating they mean that it is comic. It certainly is comic; but man is a very comic creature, and most of the things he does are comic—eating, for instance. And the most comic things of all are exactly the things that are most worth doing—such as making love.

We are taken aback: the last sentence is true and apposite, but quite startling in so pious and conservative a writer as Chesterton. We begin to revise our opinion of him. Then we read on: “A man running after a hat is not half so ridiculous as a man running after a wife.” Of course—back then, “making love” meant “courting”! We cease revising our opinion, and commence savoring the dash of hot pepper that has entered the dish while the chef’s back was turned. [Via Chasing Hats, via Gideon Strauss.]


I’ve just gotten around to the November Harper’s, and I was struck by the first letter to the editor, which puts into perspective the recent flurry of attention to the Arab Human Development Report commissioned by the UN. Everyone who discusses the report mentions the appalling statistic that “the whole Arab world translates about 330 books annually.” I’ll let Esther Allen take it from there:

In his reply to Edward Said in the September Letters section, Paul Kennedy alludes to the worrisome news about the cultural stagnation of the Arab world that U.S. pundits have been clucking their tongues over all summer: according to a recent United Nations Development Programme report, the entire Arab world, with a population of 280 million, translates only about 330 books per year.
Gratifying as it has been to see so many of our nation’s spokespeople in agreement that the number of translations is a key indicator of a region’s cultural vibrancy, I can’t help noting, at the same time, a certain grim hilarity. Here in the United States, at the cosmopolitan heart of the universe, with a population of 285 million and a publishing industry that churns out well over 100,000 books per year, we publish—well, what do you know—about 330 books in translation per year. (That figure excludes only technical and scientific treatises.)
The PEN Translation Committee receives about 175 to 225 submissions each year for its PEN Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize, and they actively seek out every translation published in the country. Annotated Books Received, a publication of the American Literary Translators Association, lists about 400 books per year, including a grand total of thirteen books translated from Arabic in the last four years. “Literary” translation, I hasten to add, refers in this context not only to fiction and poetry but to history, journalism, biography, criticism, every category of book written for a general audience, and several categories—e.g., literary theory, philosophy—that are not.
This has been the case for decades; if there ever was a Golden Age of Translation in the United States of America, no one seems to know when it occurred. Yet the trend has never given rise to a UNDP report or any general voicings of dismay in the columns of the national print media. But now that we seem to be reaching such a stirring consensus on the importance of translation as an indicator of cultural well-being, I, for one, am very curious to see what our leaders will do to combat the lamentable isolation and stagnation in which we are foundering.
Esther Allen
New York City


From “Metropolitan Diary” in today’s NYT:

As a ninth grader at Hunter College High School who lives in Brooklyn, I have a pretty long trip to and from school, and I try to get some homework done on the train.
One afternoon, I was working on an editing assignment on the downtown No. 6 train, and as I was putting it away the man sitting next to me told me I had missed something. I took the paper out again, and he told me to add a comma in one of the sentences.
Then the woman sitting next to him piped in. She said that it should, in fact, be a semicolon.
I decided to go with the semicolon, but they were still discussing the right choice when I got off the train a few stops later. Hope I. Reichbach


CAMPBELL MCGRATH. I just discovered (via the excellent a poet heretofore unknown to me, Campbell McGrath. He has written a book of poems about Florida which I may have to buy; samples can be read here and here. He has interesting things to say in an interview; here’s a bit on his poetic development, which is the kind I wish more poets had:

CM: Yes, I think the formal shift was essential. I had been writing sonnets and my diction was more ornate. Pound had been a big influence. All that went out the window. The first 7-11 poems were influenced by William Carlos Williams. A stripping down of syntax and diction. And the form has continued to change, book by book, but it’s certainly never gone back to that older formality.
VW: Do you think there is. more validity to your poetic form because you went through that formal background?
CM: I don’t think you gain ‘validity’ that way, but you do gain a lot of craft. I feel like I can access certain formal virtues and turn on them when I want, or turn them around. I love the range of poetry, from the formal to the free, the new, the invented. From tight lines to prose. ‘The Bob Hope Poem’ was an attempt to explore that formal range, from prose to haiku, and everything in between.

Anybody who can make a fine poem solely out of seashell names (“crenulate nut clams and pointed cingulas,/ dogwinkles, diplodons, donax, dosinia,// emarginate emarginula…”) is worth reading as far as I’m concerned.


I have just discovered that “Linnaeus” was not a latinized version of Carl von Linné’s last name, as I had always supposed and as Webster’s Biographical Dictionary seemed to confirm; his father’s name was Nils Linnaeus, and he took the name “von Linné” when he was admitted to the aristocracy; see the biography here. You just never know. (Thanks, Nick!)


After several dense (though hopefully not turgid) ethnohistorical essays, I thought I’d give us all a break and post a poem I liked from the Ninetieth Anniversary issue of Poetry. Here’s Diane Ackerman:

After Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Like your face,
a thousand-leafed day,
and I who rejoice
in what’s measureless
measure the onset of evening
and the imagined scent
of your eyelashes
shivering like flowers in the wind.
What fate threw us together?
The same chance
that drew airlanes for the bats
swooping like neuroses
from the sky, fluttering
over frail autumn leaves
which cannot harm or save
or be anyone’s victim.


So a certain purist concept of nationalism has had unfortunate effects on the landscape, language, and toponymy of Greece. The worst, though, is its effect on people. The ultimate implication of ethnic nationalism is that only members of the national ethnic group can be allowed to be part of the nation; all others must be eliminated or assimilated. This attitude was part of the Greek War of Independence from the beginning; some quotes from the 1911 Britannica, with colorful but accurate descriptions:

The town itself was destroyed and those of its Mussulman inhabitants who could not escape into the citadel were massacred…. Kolokotrones, a notable brigand once in the service of the lonian government… captured Karytaena and slaughtered its infidel population… [T]he revolt spread rapidly; within three weeks there was not a Mussulman left in the open country….. In the Morea, meanwhile, a few Mussulman fortresses still held out: Coron, Modon, Navarino, Patras, Nauplia, Monemvasia, Tripolitsá. One by one they fell, and everywhere were repeated the same scenes of butchery. The horrors culminated in the capture of Tripolitsá, the capital of the vilayet. In September this was taken by storm; Kolokotrones rode in triumph to the citadel over streets carpeted with the dead; and the crowning triumph of the Cross was celebrated by a cold-blooded massacre of 2000 prisoners of all ages and both sexes.

This sort of thing is not, of course, confined to Greek history; it is a sad feature of similar struggles everywhere. But when the war was over and the Greek state established, the attitude hardened rather than dissipating; the vicious Balkan Wars of 1912–13 featured ethnic cleansing as a modus operandi on all sides (see the first-person accounts here; I highly recommend the Carnegie Endowment’s Report, from which the quotes are taken, to anyone interested in the wars), and the equally vicious Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22 resulted in an “exchange of populations” (as this devastating mass ethnic cleansing was politely called) that uprooted “Greeks” who spoke no Greek from their ancestral homes in Turkey and equally assimilated “Turks” from Greece and sent them to alien countries they had never seen and where they had no homes and no occupation.

The Greek government announced that Greece was now ethnically homogeneous, and from then on ethnic minorities (principally Turks, Macedonian Slavs, Albanians, Vlachs, and Romá [Gypsies; note that Romá is the plural of Rom]) were either ignored or repressed, depending on the political situation. The official attitude is that everyone in Greece is Greek; attempts to discuss, say, the Slavic minority will be met with a denial that there is such a thing—people in the villages you mention may speak with a distinct accent, but certainly not in a different language. A classic example of this attitude was brought about by the research of Anastasia Karakasidou into the history of a village in Greek Macedonia, north of Thessalonica; she had originally thought that the village was divided between the “local” Greeks and the “refugees” (from the 1921–22 war), but as she talked to people she learned that many of them had relatives who came from a Slavic background. Unfortunately, just as she was preparing to publish her results (in the excellent book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990) the Balkan wars of the 1990s broke out, and the Greeks became extremely paranoid about ethnic questions; along with blockading the poor and landlocked new Republic of Macedonia (and forcing everyone to call it “FYROM”), they began a campaign of harassment against the author and her book, calling her a “cannibal” and frightening Cambridge University Press into shamefully caving in and canceling publication (fortunately the book was picked up by the gutsier University of Chicago Press).

Again, none of this is unique to Greece; similar nonsense is perpetrated everywhere that ethnic differences are used and exacerbated by evil politicians (Sri Lanka and Rwanda come immediately to mind, but of course examples are legion), and Turkey has done far worse to Armenians and Kurds in the last century than Greece has done to its minorities. I have concentrated on Greece because of its unique status as the “fountainhead of Western civilization” and because the pernicious theories of ethnic and historical purity used to justify the things I have discussed were imported from the supposedly civilized nations of Western Europe. It is the heirs of the Enlightenment who licensed the Greeks to falsify everything around them in the name of a chimerical Hellas that never was, and it is at their feet (and by extension our own, if we wish to claim the inheritance of “progress” and “rationality”) that we must lay much of the responsibility for the evils that resulted. When we fulminate against the Rwandans, it is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

Addendum. For further information on the background of the ethnic confusion of Macedonia and the political dispute engendered by it, I urge anyone interested to read Loring M. Danforth’s The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World (Princeton, 1995). Like the Karakasidou book mentioned above, it’s unusually well written for an academic work, and Danforth has one of the most sensible takes on the problem of ethnicity and nationalism that I’ve seen. From his first chapter:

According to the logic of nationalism, because nations are equated with states and because states have unambiguous, clearly defined territorial borders, nations must have such borders as well. Complex cultural realities, however, know no such borders. While a particular village must be located on one side or the other of the border separating two sovereign states, the people who live in this village are likely to speak more than one language and participate in more than one culture. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the inhabitants of this village speak the two national languages and participate in the two national cultures of the nation-states whose border the village lies near. The people of this village do not inhabit two homogeneous, bounded national cultures; they inhabit a cultural continuum, a cultural intersystem, in which cultural differences and similarities coexist in complex and constantly changing ways.

Having established his theoretical basis, he goes on to discuss the complex history of Macedonia and the conflicting claims to Macedonian identity. In a particularly moving chapter, he tells us about an Australian he calls Ted Yannas who comes from a village in northern Greece where people spoke Macedonian as well as Greek but identified themselves as Greeks; in Australia, he discovered others from the same village who identified themselves as Macedonians, and he wound up joining them, alienating himself from friends and even his own family. Makes me glad to be an American mutt who doesn’t worry about such things.


The Russian Duma has outlawed the Roman alphabet. Of course, the law will be roundly ignored, but it reminds me of Indiana House Bill #246, introduced (but happily not passed) in 1897, which tried to legislate a simpler value for pi. [Via polyglut.]


Another obstacle in reading Makriyannis, if you’re trying to follow along on a map, is place names. He’ll mention, say, Sálona; you look on your map and find no such place. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you discover that it’s now called Amphissa. Fortunately, the Great Hellenic Encyclopedia not only gives all former place names in its articles, it cross-references them, and there is a copy in the New York Public Library. In the course of reading about the period, I had occasion to look up many such names, and my reference map of Greece is now liberally sprinkled with them, the old names in penciled parenthesis: Lamia (Zituni), Panetolion (Mustafuli), Evinos (Fidaris), Elatia (Drakhmani). What most of these pairs have in common is that the old name, the traditional name, is Turkish or otherwise foreign in origin; the “new” name is the classical name, imposed after many centuries of desuetude by the new government, indifferent to the virtues of allowing people to call their town, river, lake by the names they’d always used but supremely attentive to the desire of Western Europeans to imagine their beloved Hellas restored. The very name Hellas (Ellas in katharevusa, Ellada in dimotiki) was strange, foreign, to Greeks of the day; they called themselves Roman (Romios) and their language Romaic (romeika), and their dreamed-of capital was Constantinople, “the City” (i Poli, which in the phrase is tin Poli ‘to/in the City’ was the source of the Turkish name Istanbul). They wanted Emperor Constantine to reappear and reestablish the Roman Empire (what we call “Byzantine”) again; to reorient them to Athens and Pericles and this strange name “Hellas” took many decades. But it was accomplished, and in the end people could sit in a cafe in Amfissa rather than sitting in a cafe in Salona, and foreign visitors could travel the country using Thucydides or Pausanias as their guide and see the very same place names outside the windows of their bus. Like the Acropolis, the entire country had been wiped clean of distractions from the important reality, that of 2,500 years past.


So what does all this have to do with language? Quite a lot, actually. A good way to see this is to look at the Memoirs of General Makriyannis; I’ll quote Petro Alexiou’s description of the general from his “A Talk on Martin Johnston”:

Makriyannis was a man of humble origins who became a revolutionary fighter and leader in the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Turks in the second decade of the 19th century. He was a veteran of innumerable battles and a political idealist who, after Greece became an independent state with a Bavarian monarchy, was active in a movement for constitutional government. But Makriyannis was more than just a soldier and political fighter; he was a living embodiment of Greece’s oral folk culture. He was also a fine exponent of the improvised song. But what earned Makriyannis an honoured place in Greek literature is that, an illiterate man, he taught himself to write late in life, and, fired by the desire for the truth of his people’s fight for liberty to be known, wrote an account of his life that has the literary stature of an epic. Makriyannis’ Memoirs weren’t published till 40 years after his death and only began to be read more widely in recent years.

Alexiou quotes his friend Johnston as saying “If modern European fiction ‘came out of Gogol’s overcoat’, modern Greek prose came out of the ample folds of General Makriyannis’s kapa.” But in between the writing of the memoirs (they end in 1850) and their general acclaim (they were published in an Athens newspaper in 1904 and in book form, with extensive commentary, in 1907, but were not well known until proclaimed a classic in a famous 1943 lecture by George Seferis) there was a period in which Greek prose wandered in the desert of katharevousa (‘purified’), an artificial Greek devised to bring the “degenerate” spoken language as close as possible to classical Attic, seen as the ideal form of the language. Part of what this involved was purging the language: of unrecognizable descendants of ancient forms (e.g. psari ‘fish’ from opsarion, in place of Attic ikhthys), but especially of the many foreign terms it had borrowed over the centuries, particularly Turkish ones. This is the exact analog of the purging of the Acropolis of the accumulated postclassical structures, and it results in Makriyannis being hard to read even for Greeks (although his language is extremely natural, since he wrote as he spoke) because so many words common in his time have been replaced by echt Greek forms (e.g. tzasitis ‘spy’ [from Turkish casus], replaced by kataskopos). The effort to produce a language that would sufficiently mimic the ancient tongue revered by Western Europe (the final judge of all things cultural, and of course the provider and guarantor of Greek freedom) paralleled the effort to produce a state that would mimic the “civilized” countries of Western Europe, themselves (in their fond self-image) modeled on the glory that was (ancient) Greece. The result was a stilted language that was native to no one and that could be produced only by stifling the inner voice that is the only source of true literature (and that makes Makriyannis so powerful a writer). The difference is, of course, that the language could be restored to human life by the inevitable erosion of the Atticizing furbelows (such as the dative case, not used in speech for centuries), but the Acropolis is dead for good.