Archives for May 2003


Joan Smith discusses the decline of spoken Arabic in the Turkish province of Hatay (formerly the Sanjak of Alexandretta, a part of Greater Syria in Ottoman times).

Although there are no official statistics on language use or on ethnic groups in Turkey, it is clear that in the province of Hatay (in the south, bordering Syria), most people are descended from Arabic speakers. Arabic entered the area as a result of the Arab conquests in the seventh century. Prior to this, the cities were Greek-speaking; people in surrounding areas spoke Aramaic. (Trimingham, 1979) The area first came under Turkish rule for a brief time at the end of the eleventh century, when Seljuks and Turkmen began eroding Byzantine control. Crusader rule followed…. The area subsequently came under Mameluke rule (from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries), then under Ottoman rule (from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries)…. As part of Greater Syria, Hatay was still largely Arabic-speaking when it was annexed by the Turkish Republic in 1938.
Until annexation, Turkish and Arabic co-existed for centuries; under republican policies, however, the use of Arabic began to decline.

Smith’s is one of a number of interesting articles on endangered languages (for example, Language Shift on the Kamchatka Peninsula, about the situation of Itelmen, and Gumbaynggirr, about the comeback of an Aboriginal language of New South Wales in Australia) in a special issue of Cultural Survival. (Via wood s lot.)


The latest New Yorker has a brilliant review by James Wood of God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson that not only makes me want to read the book but introduces me to a fine word and a fine poem. The word comes about halfway through, as Wood is discussing King James’s desire to “elide doctrinal differences”; he quotes Nicolson as follows: “This is the heart of the new Bible as an irenicon… an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace. It is the central mechanism of the translation, one of immense lexical subtlety, a deliberate carrying of multiple meanings beneath the surface of a single text.” The OED defines “irenicon” (or, in the older spelling, “eirenicon”) as “a proposal designed to promote peace, esp. in a church or between churches; a message of peace”; I like the word, and the way Nicolson defines it in context, very much.
The poem comes earlier in the review, as Wood is tracing the line of influence of the King James Bible in some surprising places, like Philip Larkin, “an English poet of decidedly secular leanings.” I’ve never been a big fan of Larkin’s (apart from everybody’s pitch-black favorite, “This Be The Verse“), but the poem Wood quotes to illustrate Biblical echoes, “Cut Grass,” is a gorgeous little lyric:

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A glorious rant by Paul Ford on Ftrain, all about printed books and colophons and monkey grunts and McSweeney’s abuse of ligatures. Many thanks to wood s lot for the link.
A brief excerpt:

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Or your citation can, at any rate. Read the How to contribute page and fill out a submission form, and if you’ve actually managed to sniff out a truffle their professional hounds have missed, you may have the satisfaction of seeing your find, first online and eventually in the next edition. Furthermore, you can see your name online if you give them a proper citation for one of the unidentified quotations from Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, which shouldn’t be too hard; just wade through, say, William Derham’s Physico-Theology: Or, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, From his Works of Creation. Being the Substance of Sexteen Sermons Preached in St. Mary-le-Bow Church, London, At the Honourable Mr. Boyle’s Lectures, 1711, and 1712 keeping an eagle eye out for the seven needed quotations (for example, “In a scarcity in Silesia a rumour was spread of its raining millet-seed; but it was found to be only the seeds of the ivy-leaved speedwell, or small henbit”). Send in the citation and they’ll fade the quotation on the page and add your name in parenthesis, immortalized as a… well, I think they should revive the old Byzantine title of logothete for this purpose.
Furthermore, you can chat with Jesse Sheidlower, the Principal North American Editor of the dictionary, Monday night via A.Word.A.Day (this information courtesy of Ryan at Linguistiblog).


A discussion of Russian writers (in Russian) by Evgeny Rein, a poet who sat at Akhmatova’s feet and was a mentor to Joseph Brodsky, contains the following fascinating (to me, anyway) paragraph:

Brodsky hated restaurants—he didn’t know how to behave in them, and he preferred cheap snack places where he felt sure of himself. In a restaurant the waiters gave him the willies, he felt like everybody was staring suspiciously at him and laughing at him, guessing that he didn’t have any money. All the more because he often got taken out to restaurants. And even though nobody begrudged the money they spent on him, he took it very hard and didn’t want to always be a sponger and a parasite. But then years later when I visited him in America, he’d become a real restaurant hound. The pricier the restaurant, the more eagerly he went there. Obviously, he’d changed places in life—or rather, he’d gotten one.

For Russian readers, here’s the original:

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Jonathan Crowe of sent me a link to this Globe and Mail article, “Rebirth of dialects mirrors new regionalism” by Doug Saunders.

France spent much of the 20th century trying to eliminate the minority languages that were spoken by half its population 100 years ago. But now, France is experiencing a renaissance of interest in its regions and their languages, foods and customs. Not just Breton, but also Alsatian, Basque, Catalan, Corsican, Flemish and Provençal.

Find out about Breizh-Cola, among other things. Thanks, Jonathan! (And anyone interested in maps should investigate his excellent Map Room.)


A fantastic Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative from the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at Texas Tech University, courtesy of Renee. There are Narratives, Music, Epics (Alpamysh, Dede Korkut, Manas, you name it), and much more, mostly in pdf or mp3 files. Enjoy.


I’m slowly working my way through Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs, and I’ve run across a couple of quotations that not only rhyme with each other but enter into a useful dialog with the recent controversy over translation, in which the complete review raised hackles by objecting to the whole concept. I’ve tried to make the case that they were simply pointing out the fallacy of thinking you’ve made real contact with a work of literature by reading a translation, but these quotations put the issue in a larger context.

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Via Jonathan Edelstein at The Head Heeb, a fascinating Al-Ahram supplement on the Armenian minority in Egypt. To steal Jonathan’s summary:

In the 1940s, this community numbered as many as 100,000 members, most of whom arrived as refugees from the Turkish genocide of 1915-17. During the Nasser era, however, they suffered from the same expropriation and punitive measures that affected the Greek and Jewish communities. The Egyptian Armenians, who live mostly in Alexandria and Cairo, are undergoing something of a resurgence today, but they number fewer than 6000.

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An excellent article by William Schmalstieg called “The Origin of the Lithuanian Language” is actually much more comprehensive, giving a good account of how the comparative method works in the case of Indo-European. Highly recommended. (Found in a comment by George Vaitkunas in the comments to this Open Brackets entry. Thanks, George!)