Archives for February 2003


Why not? I love Raymond Queneau (Exercices de style makes me happy every time I open it, or even think about it), and although I haven’t actually read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, I have it in both French and English and I’m looking forward to tackling it. So let’s add Oulipo to the word burst. If it’s good enough for Caterina, it’s good enough for me. Besides, isn’t it fun to say? Oulipo!
Addendum. Kip has joined the Oulipo word-burst pump-primers and has linked to several more sites, including Matt Madden’s wonderful comic-strip avatar of Exercices de style; from this template come all manner of good things.


The Queen Bee points out that the ad above Languagehat features two language-related products and wonders if blogs are now being specifically targeted as a result of Google’s purchase of Blogger. Could be. It obviously makes sense from an advertiser’s point of view, and I guess it makes no never-mind to me. Spooky, though.


This amazing site allows you to enter a French word on the left side and get both a set of translations into English and a set of French synonyms simultaneously; you can then click on any of the words and get a further set. The same holds, mutatis mutandis, when you enter an English word on the right. Thanks go to La grande rousse for this boon to translators.


Just discovered a new poet, thanks to wood s lot, where the following moving meditation is featured:

The Numbers
How many nights have I lain here like this, feverish with plans,
with fears, with the last sentence someone spoke, still trying to finish
a conversation already over? How many nights were wasted
in not sleeping, how many in sleep—I don’t know
how many hungers there are, how much radiance or salt, how many times
the world breaks apart, disintegrates to nothing and starts up again
in the course of an ordinary hour. I don’t know how God can bear
seeing everything at once: the falling bodies, the monuments and burnings,
the lovers pacing the floors of how many locked hearts. I want to close
my eyes and find a quiet field in fog, a few sheep moving toward a fence.
I want to count them, I want them to end. I don’t want to wonder
how many people are sitting in restaurants about to close down,
which of them will wander the sidewalks all night
while the pies revolve in the refrigerated dark. How many days
are left of my life, how much does it matter if I manage to say
one true thing about it—how often have I tried, how often
failed and fallen into depression? The field is wet, each grassblade
gleaming with its own particularity, even here, so that I can’t help
asking again, the white sky filling with footprints, bricks,
with mutterings over rosaries, with hands that pass over flames
before covering the eyes. I’m tired, I want to rest now.
I want to kiss the body of my lover, the one mouth, the simple name
without a shadow. Let me go. How many prayers
are there tonight, how many of us must stay awake and listen?
–Kim Addonizio

Here‘s your source for all things Addonizio, including a page where you can hear her reading her poems; she even has a blog (well, there are no links, so I guess it’s actually a journal, but who’s counting?).


In reading the Karakasidou book (discussed here and here), I have noticed (with the sadness you might expect) that her linguistic understanding is, shall we say, less than sophisticated. She wants to be accurate and evenhanded, and in larger matters succeeds, but little things like her use of the pseudo-Greek* form comitadjidhes for the Slavic partisan groups known in English as comitadjis or komitadjis,** her use of Phanariotes (“the Phanariotes Greek elite under the Ottomans”) for English Phanariote, and her italicizing of English words like “eparch” and “nomarch” as if they were foreign give her away. But what really incensed me was the following piece of idiocy (fortunately hidden away in a footnote at the back, where it won’t mislead too many people): “Although the ethnic origins of the Vlahs [sic] has been widely disputed, some scholars claim their language is derived from Roman Latin roots.” Some scholars! That’s like saying some scholars claim English is a Germanic language. So let’s talk about the Vlachs.

[Read more…]


Today’s NY Times carries the obituary (by Michael T. Kaufman) of Robert K. Merton, “one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, whose coinage of terms like ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘role models’ filtered from his academic pursuits into everyday language.” I know nothing about sociology, so I’ll take their word for his eminence in that field; what I know and love him for is his book On the Shoulders of Giants. The obit says:

Referred to by Mr. Merton as his “prodigal brainchild,” it reveals the depth of his curiosity, the breadth of his prodigious research and the extraordinary patience that also characterize his academic writing. The effort began in 1942, when, in an essay called “A Note on Science and Democracy,” Mr. Merton referred to a remark by Isaac Newton: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” He added a footnote pointing out that “Newton’s aphorism is a standardized phrase which has found repeated expression from at least the 12th century.”

But Mr. Merton did not stop there. Intermittently during the next 23 years he tracked the aphorism back in time, following blind alleys as well as fruitful avenues and finally finished the book in 1965, writing in a discursive style that the author attributed to his early reading and subsequent rereadings of Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy.” Denis Donoghue, the critic and literary scholar, wrote of the book admiringly as “an eccentric and yet concentric work of art, a work sufficiently flexible to allow a digression every 10 pages or so.” He admitted, “I wish I had written ‘On the Shoulders of Giants.'”

This doesn’t begin to do justice to the loony thoroughness and anfractuosity of the book, and anyone who enjoys such investigations should run out and read it posthaste.


Allow me to introduce you to one of the most intractable problems of nomenclature I’ve run across.
You have probably seen references to the Hmong people; many of them fled Southeast Asia after working with the American military and finding themselves on the wrong side of the Communist takeover, and a sizable community has settled in the U.S. They have established themselves enough to have begun to find a voice; the NY Times yesterday published a long article by Felicia R. Lee about the birth of a literature out of an oral tradition, in particular the literary journal Paj Ntaub Voice, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an anthology, Bamboo Among the Oaks. A quote from the article:

As for the Hmong, they are gradually coming into their own in America. They have elected their first state senator, from Minnesota, and the St. Paul police have learned to speak Hmong. The anthology is being bought particularly by educators and those interested in Asian culture, said John van Vliet, a spokesman for the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Since October, about 3,200 of the 4,500 books in print have been sold, said Kevin Morrissey, a marketing manager for the press.

Note that in none of those links does the word “Miao” occur.
Now let us turn our attention to the minority languages of China. One of the most prominent (spoken by 5,000,000 people, behind only Zhuang, Uighur, and Yi) is Miao, part of the Miao-Yao group. A striking feature of Miao is that it has a large number of consonants (49 in one representative dialect) but few vowels, and syllables can end only in a vowel or in the consonant -ng (in some dialects, this becomes nasalization of the preceding vowel). The usual romanization system takes advantage of the fact that no syllable ends in a consonant: the tone (except for the mid tone) is indicated by a consonant letter written at the end of each syllable. Thus pob ‘ball’ has high tone, poj ‘female’ has high falling tone, and so on, with po ‘spleen’ representing the mid tone. This is a clever and economical system, with the disadvantage that foreigners not used to the conventions find it virtually impossible not to “hear” the final consonant they see written. Thus the name of the journal I cited above, Paj Ntaub, is pronounced something like “pa ndau” (with tones as in my examples). Note that in neither the above paragraph nor in the links does the word “Hmong” appear.
The attentive reader will already have anticipated the surprise ending: Miao and Hmong are one and the same. It took me some time to figure this out, and once I did I was quite annoyed. There are many languages that are known by more than one name (Gypsy/Romanes, Galla/Oromo, Araucanian/Mapuche, Votyak/Udmurt, etc., the latter of each pair being the “correct” name), but when these are referred to acknowledgment is usually made of the duality. Only in the case of Hmong (written Hmoob in the standard romanization) and Miao do the two terms lead such separate lives. The explanation is simple enough. The group that migrated from southern China to Laos and Vietnam within the last couple of centuries (many of whom have now emigrated to the U.S.) call themselves Hmong and quite naturally passed the term on, first to the soldiers they worked with and now to Americans at large; meanwhile, the much larger group that remained in China has always been known to the Chinese as Miao, and since there is no common self-designation (only a minority using “Hmong”), Miao has quite naturally been used by linguists and others who deal with the minorities of China. So what are we who want to refer to the whole population to do? Joakim Enwall has written a short article on the subject, and I am willing to accept his conclusion:

I propose that the term Hmong be used only for designating the Miao groups speaking the Hmong dialect in China and for the Miao outside China. This usage is by now well established in Western literature. However, I think that it is best to use Miao as a general term, especially as this is in accord with tradition and is also practical for making the situation clear to persons not specialising in Miaology. Many persons have already been confused by the present terminological state and see no connection between the Hmong and the Miao. There is perhaps not much that can be done about this now, but I hope that some people will understand the relation between the words Miao and Hmong better, if they are used in a more logical way.


The NY Times review of Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built (by James Shapiro, Feb. 2) is no longer online, but here’s a nice quote from it; it follows a description of Spufford’s learning to read by tackling The Hobbit as a six-year-old in bed with the mumps:

Spufford wonders in retrospect how he could have gotten the gist of Tolkien’s novel while unfamiliar with so many of the words. He finds an explanation in the research of Claude Shannon, a mathematician who worked for Bell Telephone and discovered that even if a third of its words were garbled, the message gets through: “There is no difference between a phone call one-third obscured by static on the line, a manuscript one-third eaten by mice and a printed page one-third of whose words you don’t know. Ignorance is just a kind of noise.”


A few years ago the Atlantic ran this piece by Ian Frazier on Martin Tytell, king of the typewriter repairmen (now retired, I’m afraid, if anybody reading this has a beloved machine that needs looking after, but here‘s a list of typewriter repair shops worldwide). It’s wonderfully written, but I’m citing it here for the material on foreign languages, something of a specialty of Tytell’s.

We sidled through right angles into a dark and cramped part of the shop where we had to proceed by flashlight. “In these cabinets reposes the largest collection of foreign type in the world—a hundred and forty-five languages, over two million separate pieces of type,” he said, sweeping the beam over banks of minutely labeled metal drawers. Sixty years of converting typewriters to different alphabets has amassed this inventory; Mr. Tytell can list man’s written languages better perhaps than any nontenured person in the world. “Over there are some languages of India—Hindi, Sindhi, Marathi, Punjabi, and Sanskrit—and next to that is Coptic, a church language of the Middle East; it’s a beautiful-looking thing. Then there’s Hausa, a language nobody here has ever heard of, spoken by twenty million people in northern Nigeria. Over there’s Korean, and the Siamese I took off those Remingtons during the war, which I’ve relabeled Thai, and Aramaic script, and Hebrew, and Yiddish …” He pointed out with the flashlight drawers of Malay and Armenian and Amharic, and boxes of special symbols for pharmacists and mathematicians. One drawer seemed to be mostly umlauts. He opened it and took out a small orange cardboard box and shone the light on the dozens of mint-bright rectangles of steel inside, each with its two tiny raised dots. “Nobody else in the world would even bother with this stuff,” he said.

My favorite bit is this anecdote from his World War II years (his machines were a vital part of the war effort; armies “took typewriters with them into battle and typed with them in the field on little tripod stands”):

He spent much of his time assigned to the Army’s Morale Services Division, at 165 Broadway, which dealt in information and propaganda. There he received his hardest job of the war—a rush request to convert typewriters to twenty-one different languages of Asia and the South Pacific. Many of the languages he had never heard of before…. Morale Services found native speakers and scholars to help with the languages. Martin obtained the type and did the soldering and the keyboards. The implications of the work and its difficulty brought him to near collapse, but he completed it with only one mistake: on the Burmese typewriter he put a letter on upside down. Years later, after he had discovered his error, he told the language professor he had worked with that he would fix that letter on the professor’s Burmese typewriter. The professor said not to bother; in the intervening years, as a result of typewriters copied from Martin’s original, that upside-down letter had been accepted in Burma as proper typewriter style.

(Link courtesy of the ogre.)


I have resumed reading Anastasia Karakasidou’s book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990, which is described in this earlier post, and what is fascinating me at the moment is the concept of ethnicity not as an immutable aspect of identity (as we tend to think of it) but as a garment chosen to suit an occasion or a preferred lifestyle. Here is the quote that struck me (I remind the reader that she is writing about a village in Greek Macedonia, part of the Ottoman Empire until the Balkan War of 1912):

Nearly everyone in the Guvezna area spoke Turkish during the late Ottoman era. Yet by the mid-eighteenth-century Greek had become the language of the marketplace throughout the Balkans. As Stoianovich* puts it, “Balkan merchants, regardless of their ethnic origin, generally spoke Greek and assumed Greek names.”
*Trajan Stoianovich, “The Conquering Balkan Orthodox Merchant,” The Journal of Economic History, vol. XX, No. 2, June 1960, p. 291

She later adds: “The bakal (Turkish: ‘grocer’), on the other hand, was generally known as a Greek, regardless of what language he spoke.” This reminded me of the situation in Central Asia before the Bolshevik occupation, where urban merchants of any ethnic background spoke Persian (the variety now known as “Tajik”) in the course of their professional activities and were known as “Sarts”; the term disappeared once the inhabitants of the region were forced to choose a “nationality” for their Soviet identity cards. The same thing happened to the term “Macedonian” in the old sense once the Greeks and Bulgarians began violently competing for the territory and enforcing their new ideas of nationality once it had been divided up; as Karakasidou says, “The imposition of new national categories meand that Slavic-speakers were now either Greeks or Bulgarians. In Guvezna, being a ‘Macedonian’ was simply not an option.” Thus the triumph of the nation state means the end of older, more complex identities (and the greater tolerance for difference that accompanied them).
A very different form of chosen ethnicity is exhibited by the Abayudaya (a clearer orthography would be abaYudaya, the aba- being a prefix meaning ‘people’) of Uganda, who in the years immediately following World War I chose to become Jews; despite their devoted adherence to ritual laws and courageous resistence to government pressure, the state of Israel has refused to recognize them; the New York Times ran a story on the situation this week.
Addendum. A striking illustration of the elective nature of ethnicity is given in this sentence from Karakasidou (quoting Duncan Perry’s The Politics of Terror): “Cases of families divided are extant in which, because one brother was educated in a Bulgarian school, another in a Greek school, and a third in a Serbian school, each adopted a different nationality.” Such divisions of families were not uncommon in Central Asia at the time of forced division into “Tajik,” “Uzbek,” and other Soviet-created nationalities, and presumably in similar situations elsewhere (e.g., Rwanda and Burundi). Note also the discussion of “Ted Yannas” in the Addendum to the earlier post linked at the start of this one.