Archives for May 2004


I’m continuing the translation I began in a recent entry of Kornei Chukovsky’s comments on changes in Russian and generational reaction to them.

If the youth of those days [the 1840s] happened to use in conversation words unknown to earlier generations such as fakt [fact], rezul’tat [result], erunda [nonsense], solidarnost’ [solidarity; joint responsibility], the representatives of those earlier generations declared that Russian speech suffered no small loss from such an influx of highly vulgar words.

“Where did this fakt come from?” asked the indignant Faddei Bulgarin in 1847. “What sort of word is that? A corruption.”

Yakov Grot at the end of the [18]60s declared the newly appeared word vdokhnovlyat’ [to inspire] “disgraceful.”

Even such a word as nauchnyi [scientific] had to overcome considerable opposition from old-fashioned purists before it entered our speech as of right. Let us recall how struck Gogol was by the word in 1851. Until then he had never heard of it.

Old men demanded that the word uchenyi [learned] be used instead: a learned book, a learned treatise. The word “scientific” seemed to them inadmissably vulgar…

Of course, the old men were wrong. [All these words] are now felt, by young and old alike, as perfectly regular, rooted words that no one could do without!

…I have been put into a quandary by new forms such as [end-stressed] vyborá (in place of vybory ‘elections’ [stressed on the first syllable]), dogovorá (in place of dogovóry ‘agreements; treaties’), lektorá (in place of léktory ‘lecturers’). I heard in them something devil-may-care, reckless, wild, rakish. In vain I told myself that the Russian literary language had long since legitimized such forms.

“Two hundred years ago,” I told myself, “Lomonosov was already saying that Russians prefer the ending –a to the ‘boring’ –i.”

(He gives examples of words that changed endings in succeeding generations, for instance tom ‘volume’:)

If Chekhov, for example, had heard the word tomá, he would have thought the French composer Ambroise Thomas was being discussed…

Each time, I came to the conclusion that it was useless to protest against these forms. I could get as agitated as I liked, but it was impossible not to see that here was a centuries-long, unstoppable process of the replacement of final unstressed –i by the strongly stressed ending –á.

…[In language] everything moves, everything flows, everything changes. And only the most naive purists maintain that language is something immovable, eternally congealed—not a turbulent stream, but a stagnant lake.

This seems to me an exemplary attitude towards language change on the part of someone sensitive to the nuances of usage and attached to the forms he grew up with, but aware of the necessity and inevitability of change. A man after my own heart.


This word refers, in American English, to a type of sausage most commonly encountered as an extremely cheap lunchmeat (on which I survived in my early penniless days in NYC); it is pronounced the way the WWII-era exclamation derived from it is spelled: baloney. I just discovered that the corresponding Russian word болонья (bolon’ya), as in English a lower-case use of the Italian city name, means ‘lightweight waterproof material; a raincoat made of such material.’ Talk about your false friends!


A new blog, translation eXchange, was started in April by a group of translators (and they invite others to join). Their mission:

This is intended as a forum for those interested in translation (and more generally, in world affairs) to post and comment upon relevant articles and information. Anything from political subterfuge to book reviews. Let’s just talk translation.

They’ve recently linked to reviews of translated books and an article by Sarah Enany from Egypt Today about a local prodution of Wilder’s Our Town that is “a translation, not an adaptation: The play retains the original names, setting and even the same music. And this is a good thing, I believe, for two reasons. First, too many translations now are Egyptianized, and in a way it’s a shame. It’s good for Egyptian audiences to really see a piece of foreign culture every once in a while, without a language barrier.”
A very promising site, brought to us courtesy of Transblawg.


“…of curious and interesting uses of the English language,” the title of John Higgins‘s engaging site continues. It contains lists of minimal pairs, homophones, homographs, and much else, including a frequency count of the days of the week (“It seems that we talk about days of the week more than we write about them, and that we are more interested in the weekend than in weekdays, with Saturday, Sunday and Friday filling the top three places both in speech and in writing. It is interesting that Friday overtakes Saturday in speech but is a long way behind in writing”). Thanks to aldiboronti at WordOrigins for the link.


Rangachari Anand has an interesting entry on how South Indian names work:

South Indian names can be confusing. My “official” name on my passport is Rangachari Anand. However, my name is “officially” backwards! If you were to meet me on the street, I’d like you to call me “Anand”.
So then perhaps you might conclude that we write our family name first like the Koreans. But thats not the case either. Its actually a little more complicated…

His blog contains “Essays and articles about IT and Indian English,” and in the latter category is an entry about the word bifurcation:

Bifurcation is one my favorite words in the English language… It is certainly not a commonly used word in the West. Indians however, love this word and use it in common speech. If you were to ask for directions when traveling in India, it is very likely that the person giving you directions would say some thing like “when the road bifurcates, go right…”

[Read more…]


Nancy Gandhi at under the fire star has a wonderful entry “Poems for the Rainy Season,” quoting several poems from Sanskrit Poetry From Vidyakara’s Treasury, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls; this one particularly appeals to me:

A cloth of darkness inlaid with fireflies;
flashes of lightning;
the mighty cloud mass guessed at from the roll of thunder;
a trumpeting of elephants;
an east wind scented by opening buds of ketaki,
and falling rain:
I know not how a man can bear the nights that hold all these,
when separated from his love.

[Read more…]


I’ve mentioned my fondness for the serial comma before (and quoted a wonderful example of the unfortunate results of omitting it: “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”), but I ran across a sentence in the NY Times Circuits section yesterday (in the story “Aiming for Hit Games, Films Come Up Short,” by Seth Schiesel) that caused me real confusion: “On consoles, that means titans like Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo, Mario and Zelda, and relative newcomers like Grand Theft Auto and Halo.” Because of the lack of a serial comma, it looks as if there were a game called “Mario and Zelda,” and I initially assumed such was the case. But my obsessive editorial brain forced me to google it, and I discovered they were two separate games. This would have been clear if a comma had been placed after “Mario,” as the gods of grammar intended.


As I mentioned in a recent entry, I just bought Kornei Chukovsky’s Zhivoi kak zhizn’: o russkom yazyke (Alive as life: on the Russian language), and I am so pleased by his opening paragraphs on language change that I am going to translate them here.

Anatolii Fedorovich Koni [1844-1927], Honorary Academician and famous lawyer, was, as is well known, the kindliest of men. He gladly forgave those around him all sorts of mistakes and weaknesses. But woe betide anyone who, while conversing with him, distorted or disfigured the Russian language. Koni fell upon such a person with impassioned detestation.

His passion delighted me. And yet in his struggle for the purity of the language he often went too far. He insisted, for example, that the word obyazatel’no [‘obligatorily, without fail,’ from the verb obyazat’ ‘to oblige’] meant only ‘obligingly, courteously.’ But that meaning of the word has long since died out. Now, both in living speech and in literature, the word obyazatel’no has come to mean nepremenno [‘without fail, certainly’]. And that aroused the indignation of Academician Koni.

“Just imagine,” he would say, clutching at his heart, “today I was walking along Spasskaya and I heard: ‘On obyzatel’no nab’et tebe mordu!‘ [‘He’s definitely gonna smash your face in!’] How do you like that? One man tells another that someone is going to thrash him in a courteous manner!”

“But the word obyazatel’no doesn’t mean ‘courteous’ any more,” I tried to object, but Anatolii Fedorovich insisted on his point of view.

Meanwhile, in the entire Soviet Union you won’t find anyone for whom obyazatel’no means ‘courteous.’ Nowadays not everyone will understand what Aksakov meant when he said of a provincial doctor: “In his relations with us he acted obyazatel’no.” But no one will be puzzled by, for instance, this couplet of Isakovskii’s:

I kuda tebe zhelaetsya,
Obyazatel’no doidesh.

[‘And wherever you want to go, you’ll obyazatel’no get there.’]

Much is explained by the fact that Koni was by then old. He acted like most old men: he insisted on the norms of Russian speech as they existed in the time of his childhood and youth. Old men almost always think their children and grandchildren (especially the grandchildren) are disfiguring proper Russian speech.

I can easily imagine the grey-haired elder who in 1803 or 1805 angrily pounded his fist on the table when his grandchildren started chatting about razvitii uma i kharaktera [‘development of mind and character’].
“Where did you come upon that intolerable razvitiye uma? You should say prozyabenie [‘growth (of vegetation)].”…

A new epoch arrived. The former youths became fathers and grandfathers. And it was their turn to be indignant about the words that young people were bringing into use: darovityi [‘gifted’], otchetlivyi [‘distinct, intelligible’], golosovanie [‘voting, suffrage’], chelovechnyi [‘humane’], obshchestvennost’ [‘(the) public, public opinion’], khlyshch [‘fop’]. Now it seems to us that these words have existed in Russia from time out of mind and that we could never have done without them, but in the ’30s and ’40s of the last century they were novelty words with which the zealots of the purity of the language could not for a long time make their peace.

He continues with more examples, and I may translate more of it later. Meanwhile, let me just say that his combination of awareness of the inevitability of change (and the comedy of young innovators turning into old prescriptivists) with resentment of the changes occurring in his own day is very close to my heart.


An exceedingly strange BBC News story: Spike Milligan wanted his gravestone to read “I told you I was ill,” there was a long struggle with the Chichester Diocese, and they finally approved it… but only if it was written in Gaelic (Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite)! Can anyone explain this? (Thanks to Jeremy of READIN for the link.)


Mark Liberman at Language Log describes a construction that is both new and repellent to me, the use of “relative clauses with a present participle in place of a finite verb, whose subject is a partitive structure involving a relative pronoun.” That’s pretty indigestible, so let me give you some examples:
Both of whom being influenced by Ellington, Rowles and Brown choose one Ellington tune for each of the two albums that comprise this two-CD set…”
“Ireland and Denmark, both of whom being heavily reliant on British trade, decided they would go wherever Britain went…”
“At present, personal injury cases are heard by many different Judges, some of whom having no experience in this field.”
I share Mark’s judgment that “every single one of these examples seems completely ungrammatical”; furthermore, even apart from questions of grammaticality, they are pointlessly wordy, since in every case the “of whom + participle” construction can be omitted with no alteration in meaning:
“Rowles and Brown, both influenced by…”
“Ireland and Denmark, both heavily reliant…”
“…many different Judges, some with no experience…”
But given the breadth of the examples Mark has googled up (and I’ll add another one: “…do they spread the risk across more players, some of whom having lower capital reserves and security rating?”), it can’t possibly be a chance convergence of individual mistakes; it’s clearly a Phenomenon (and another example of how the internet is revolutionizing the study of language). So I’ll do another LH poll: how many of you find the construction acceptable, whether or not you use it yourself?
Update. Mark has expanded on the subject in a new LL post, inter alia correcting one of my commenters’ misapprehensions on the subject of eunuchs.