Archives for September 2003


PF has an excellent post about the Buryats, a Mongol people near Lake Baikal in Siberia. There are links about Buryat history, the epic Geser (“the Iliad of Central Asia”), teaching in the Buryat capital, a Buryat summer festival, and much else, including a couple of Buryat stories; here’s one:

[Read more…]


Today is International Translation Day, aka the saint’s day of St. Jerome, patron saint of translators; read all about it at Transblawg, Enigmatic Mermaid, and Open Brackets.


The latest New Yorker has a review by Louis Menand of the new fifteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. Well, I call it a review, but it doesn’t get around to the actual book until halfway through the essay; first Menand goes on an extended riff about pre-computer all-nighters trying to get the end matter right on a term paper, then riffs for a while on the evils of Microsoft Word: “Strike the wrong keys in Word and you are suddenly writing in Norwegian Bokmal (Bokmal?).” All of this is amusing enough, but I tapped my fingers impatiently. What about the book?
Here, I regret to say, Menand, a writer I admire, lets us down. He doesn’t take the job seriously, and I don’t see the point of reviewing a massive reference book if you’re not going to take it seriously. Here’s how he begins:

It is important to note at the outset that the new edition has nine hundred and fifty-six pages and retails for fifty-five dollars. The only reasons to buy it are (1) that you want to start up a press and (2) that you want it to be exactly like the University of Chicago Press.

Well, that would seem to be that; no point saying anything further, and the book will sell, what, six copies? But of course he doesn’t mean it, he’s just riffing. And he continues in the same vein: “It explains things like half titles; CIP (Cataloguing-in-Publication) data; bound-in errata pages; and the distinctions between perfect, notch, and burst bindings—matters of no relevance to the average term-paper writer.” Nobody said anything about term-paper writers except for Menand himself. He picks out a few obvious statements to make fun of (“Hardcover books are often protected by a coated paper jacket (or dust jacket)”), ignoring the fact that a serious reference work has to start with the obvious. He mentions some idiosyncrasies (all style guides have idiosyncrasies) and changes they’ve undergone for this edition. Then he gets to his real subject, the one that actually seems to engage his passions, the need for laying down the law.

[Read more…]


Moorishgirl links to a review by David Kipen of the new 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which we’ve recently gotten at work. It’s not bad for a newspaper review—it points out that “dictionaries are snapshots from life, not idealized friezes” and makes the useful observation that few of the periodicals combed by lexicographers for usage “are edited west of the Mississippi, or even the Hudson”—but I’m mainly using it as a pretext to talk about a dictionary problem that came to light at work. A fellow editor discovered that somebody had inserted a space into cannot, and wanting to back up his insistence that it had to be one word, he turned to his brand-new Webster’s. Imagine his horror, and mine when I saw it, at finding that the definition for the word was “can not.”
This is appalling for two quite distinct reasons: from a copy-editing point of view because it implies that cannot and can not are interchangeable, and from a lexicographical point of view because it’s a lousy definition. The definition of cannot should be either “the negative form of can” (as the AHD has it) or a periphrasis like “is not able to.” The only context in which can not, two words, occurs is as an emphatic alternative: “You can do it, or you can not do it.” In that case, it is clearly two separately spoken words, with the not given special emphasis, and equally clearly it means something very different from cannot, namely “have the option of not (doing something).” The only acceptable form for the unabbreviated negative of can (or, if you prefer, for the expansion of can’t) is cannot, one word. People are always trying to put a space in there, and we poor overworked editors need some backup; help us out, Webster’s!

[Read more…]


I usually enjoy Michelle Berdy’s Moscow Times columns on various features of the Russian language; the latest, “Paronymic Problems,” is about what she calls “confusingly similar words, like sensual and sensuous.” Her first example is straightforward (and not something I was ever confused by): “Абонемент [abonement] is a season ticket, a subscription; абонент [abonent] is the subscriber.” Then she plunges into deeper waters:

[Read more…]


I just learned, from Margaret Marks of Transblawg, that Friday was the European Day of Languages. This sounds to me suspiciously like declaring October the International Month of Artichokes, and I wouldn’t bother you with it except that it inspired the BBC to present “a snapshot of 35 main European languages” on this page. I admit I was a bit put off when I clicked on the first one, Albanian, and found that the first statement was “Albanian is not related to other languages!” But they go on to add “Like a rare winter plum, Albanian is the sole surviving member on its branch of the Indo-European family tree,” from which one should be able to deduce that it’s related to the other Indo-European languages, and they have a dozen “key phrases” with RealAudio clips, so it’s probably worth your while. Furthermore, the Luxembourgish (Lëtzebuergeusch) page will teach you how to say “Et deet mer leed, mä ech schwätzen nët Lëtzeburgesch” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Luxembourgish), and I’m sure that’s something you’ve always wanted to do.

[Read more…]


Faithful reader xiaolongnu sent me a link to the Mojikyo Font Center; the page itself doesn’t provide much explanation, so here’s xiaolongnu’s:

It’s a Japanese organization that offers expanded font sets for Chinese and Japanese (including all 50,000 characters from Morohashi, the definitive dictionary of obsolete and alternate characters) and also for several other obscure writing systems such as Shui and Tangut… The Tanguts were just one (and rather late) example of Central Asian people who came up with a writing system for their own language after making contact with the Chinese. Most of these scripts were lost… Anyway, the Tangut script has actually been deciphered, though I don’t think there’s a standardized system for pronunciation… but Mojikyo appears to have worked out a radical system analogous to that used for Chinese/Japanese kanji, which is fascinating, since you can see just by looking at Tangut that it’s a sort of a funky take on the Chinese character idea. In fact, Tangut documents are maddening if you read Chinese, because it seems that they should be legible if you only stared at them enough. There’s a contemporary Chinese artist called Xu Bing who’s done an installation based on this principle.

And if that’s not enough, she also sent a link to the International Dunhuang Project, which promotes “the study and preservation of pre-eleventh century manuscripts and artefacts from Dunhuang and other Silk Road sites… including almanacs on wooden strips from the first century BC, third-century letters from Sogdian merchants, examples of the previously unknown Indo-European Tocharian language; a Judeao-Persian document, and secular and religious material in over 15 languages and scripts” (including some still unidentified). I can think of several Languagehat readers who will be interested in all this great stuff, and I offer a deep bow in xiaolongnu’s direction.

[Read more…]


Amazingly, the proudly reactionary (linguistically speaking, of course) Vocabula Review has published an article by Joan Taber Altieri (under the clever disguise of jjoan ttaber altieri) supporting the (common and much needed) use of “they/their” as a (gender-neutral) singular pronoun. Welcome to the real world, Vocabula! Of course, the imperial troops will continue fighting a rear-guard action for some time, as evidenced by this classic response from Michael Dietsch:

I accept their arguments and in principle I agree, but I’d be loath to accept this use of they in my writing or editing. The onus against it is still so strong that one who uses it, even consciously, is deemed a lesser writer for so doing. And although I know that’s silly on its face, I’ll still allow every grammarian dog to have his or her day.

The last refuge of the defeated Defender of Grammatical Sacred Cows: Credo quia absurdum!
Addendum. See UJG’s persuasive argument against the historically incorrect use of “they” as third-person plural pronoun. You heard me, plural.
Further addendum. Geoff Pullum provides further evidence of the triumph of singular they, which is used even in contexts (the wall of a men’s room, a discussion of pregnancy) where there is no need for gender ambiguity.


The photographer Abelardo Morell has a book out called A Book of Books, with a preface by Nicholson Baker (a hero of mine for his efforts to preserve old newspapers and his denunciation of libraries for destroying them and discarding other valuable old things); I hope to get a chance to leaf through it, based on the pictures accompanying this PBS interview with Paul Solman:

ABELARDO MORELL: In 1993 I was looking through a book of paintings by El Greco and flipping through the pages and this funny reflection came off the page. And I sort of said to myself as an artist, wouldn’t it be nice to make a picture of that effect. And I did it and it became really this beautiful photograph. And I thought okay, let’s do more.
PAUL SOLMAN: In the last decade, Morell has shot a vast variety of volumes: from the laughably large, Audubon’s Birds of America, to the stunningly small, a hymnal by Rudyard Kipling… from a blank book dappled in daylight, to the starry juxtaposition of “two books of astronomy”…from a peeping monk (by Raphael) to this autobiographical close-up of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms….

[Read more…]


If you like sonnets, MetaFilter’s got ’em, thanks to a post by La thomas j wise, who has a highly literate blog. (And even if sonnets aren’t your thing, you should check out the thread for the Kenneth Koch I snuck in: “Fresh Air” is one of the funniest poems you’ll ever lay eyes on.)