Archives for April 2005


“Divan” is one of the most complicated words I know. The American Heritage Dictionary gives the following definitions:

1. A long backless sofa, especially one set with pillows against a wall.
2. a. A counting room, tribunal, or public audience room in Muslim countries. b. The seat used by an administrator when holding audience. c. A government bureau or council chamber.
3. A coffeehouse or smoking room.
4. A book of poems, especially one written in Arabic or Persian by a single author.

The OED adds the meaning ‘a room having one side entirely open towards a court, garden, river, or other prospect’ and expands on the fourth sense as follows: “A Persian name for a collection of poems (Persian, Arabic, Hindustani, Turkish); spec. a series of poems by one author, the rimes of which usually run through the whole alphabet. [From the original sense ‘collection of written sheets’, perh. influenced by later uses of the word.]” And speaking of “original sense,” check out the etymology:

A word originally Persian, dēvān, now dīwān, in Arabic pronounced dīwān, diwān; in Turkish divān, whence in many European langs., It. divano, Sp., Pg., F. divan. Originally, in early use, a brochure, or fascicle of written leaves or sheets, hence a collection of poems, also a muster-roll or register (of soldiers, persons, accounts, taxes, etc.); a military pay-book, an account-book; an office of accounts, a custom-house; a tribunal of revenue or of justice; a court; a council of state, senate; a council-chamber, a (cushioned) bench. The East Indian form and use of the word is given under DEWAN. Another European form, older than divan, and app. directly from Arabic, is It. dovana, doana, now dogana, F. douane (in 15th c. douwaine), custom-house: see DOUANE.

For a more discursive collection of definitions, with 19th-century stabs at etymology, see the Hobson-Jobson entry. The mix of senses is so confusing that when I asked the proprietors of an excellent Lebanese restaurant in Astoria called Al Dewan (long defunct, I’m afraid) why it was so named, they muttered and fumfered and couldn’t come up with anything convincing. (To my mind, it was clearly named with the ‘poetry collection’ sense in view, since the window displayed a plaster model of an open book with the name inscribed calligraphically, but when I drew their attention to this, they shrugged—I’m guessing whoever named the place and ordered the plaster book was no longer around, and nobody else knew.)

And where does the Persian word come from, you ask? The AHD says:

Persian dīwān, place of assembly, roster, probably from Old Iranian *dipivahanam, document house : Old Persian dip-, writing, document (from Akkadian tuppu, tablet, letter, from Sumerian dub) + Old Persian vahanam, house; see wes-1 in Indo-European roots.

I hope that’s correct, because there aren’t many words in English that go back to Sumerian (tunic and chiton are two more; according to AHD they go back via Akkadian kitû, kita’um, ‘flax, linen’ to Sumerian gada, gida).

The reason I’m telling you all this is to give you the background for appreciating the amusing error made in this article (Google cache; the original story has gone 404) by Ana Keshelashvili:

Revaz Baramidze looked in amazement at the crowd of people gathered in Parnassus, Tbilisi’s newest bookstore. The store’s two rooms were so tightly packed that it was difficult to move around, and more people stood outside waiting to get in.

“What do I see, so many young people and everybody came to buy a book. I can’t predict, but it seems to me that we are turning back to reading literature,” said Baramidze, professor of literature at Tbilisi State University.

That cold but sunny winter afternoon, Vakhushti Kotetishvili was seated at a small desk in the downstairs room, signing copies of his newly published collection “East-West Sofa.”…

Now, you also have to know that a famous collection of Goethe’s was called West-östlicher Divan, translated as West-Eastern Divan. I strongly suspect that Mr. Kotetishvili (described here as “an incredibly dignified translator of persian poetry”) gave his book the same title in Georgian. But Ms. Keshelashvili looked up Georgian დივანი (divani) in her Georgian-English dictionary, found “sofa,” and the rest was history.

I’d feel worse about making public fun of Ms. Keshelashvili if she hadn’t publicly identified me as David Foster Wallace in her master’s thesis, “Patterns of Self-Expression and Impression Management in Blogs” (pdf; Google cache here). Check out #104 in APPENDIX A: LIST OF BLOGS ANALYZED.

Addendum. See now dahween and divan at Balashon, which (among other things) explains the origin of Chicken Divan (mentioned in the thread below).


I’m not adding it to the blogroll because I don’t read Chinese, but those of you who do might want to check out Linguistics Paradise, a blog by :

Linguistics Paradise 開淌大吉
對語言學的那種出於本性的熱愛與天賦,是涕淌創辦Linguistics Paradise的原始衝動。我選擇了MSN上的個人空間,是為了能讓更多人有意或無意地來到這裏。在這裏,你們會讀到我在語言學上學習過程的觀察、記錄與思考。涕淌會盡全部能力把這個專欄辦好!也歡迎大家常來捧場或是與我交流。涕淌知道在大多數人眼裏,Linguistics是一門枯燥異常的學科,希望 Linguistics Paradise會改變你們的成見!
To those English speakers who have come to Linguitics Paradise, I express my sincere appreciation. As a college student majoring in geography, I also show great interest in linguistics. That’s why I wanted to originate this blog. Born and brought up in China, I speak poor English compared with my mother tongue. Therefore, most of the articles will be posted in Chinese. However, I will add an English summary to every blog. I hope you like this place: Linguistics Paradise!

Update (Sept. 16, 2006). Well, that’s sad: it’s gone now. 牛冬, if you see this, please let me know if you have a new site and I’ll link it! (Write to languagehat AT gmail DOT com; I’m closing comments on this thread because of spam.)


The Loggernaut Reading Series presents an interview with Ammiel Alcalay, scholar, critic, translator and poet/prose writer and a favorite here at LH (1, 2, 3, 4), in which he has a lot to say about his past [“Boston, Gloucester (where we went for part of the summer and counted amongst family friends Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini), and later Cape Cod (where I lived for several years working in trucking and automotive stuff), did leave some very indelible marks on my sense of place, landscape, light, speech patterns – the textures of everything deeply familiar. Not to mention the Red Sox, which could the subject of a whole other interview”], the value of the local and genuine [“When I was a kid there was a wonderful guy named Mr. Chase who would paint our house. He also worked on the Boston & Maine, I can’t remember whether as a brakeman or an engineer, but I do remember that I would fake any and every possible kind of illness so I could stay home from school and hang around with Mr. Chase, carrying his bucket of spackle, watching him work the walls and listening to him tell stories”], and translation [“I think there’s a lot of mystification in translation. For me, an essential element has to do with the choice of the materials and figuring out ways to somehow insulate or attempt to insulate the fate of the text. In other words, can you figure out ways to build in some of the resistances that the text might have presented to its readers in the original in its new context”], among other things. I’m particularly intrigued by what he says about not translating:

This idea of NOT translating has become increasingly important to me. As I said before, now that we’ve entered a kind of post-NAFTA world, along with the post 9/11 idea that it might not be a bad thing to be informed about other parts of the world, all kinds of people are ready to step in as speculators, in some sense panning for the gold of some unknown potential Nobel Prize winner by suddenly becoming interested in all kinds of previously obscure literatures. I think of Thoreau’s wonderful line that goes something to the effect of, if a man comes to your door trying to help, turn around and run. While there are a lot of good intentions out there now and some very valuable work being done, I remain deeply skeptical and suspicious about how translation continues to be done in this country. We get solitary literary works, removed from any context, and often this only helps to buttress and reconstitute the privileged ideas of art and the literary artifact in our own tradition, removing texts from social, political, economic, historical and spiritual contexts. So we get the one or several great novels of a writer or the book of selected poems without the letters, biographies, literary histories, politics, gossip, and everything else that embeds a text in a particular time and place.

And I’m excited by his description of what he’s up to now:

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According to Jan Maksimiuk’s article “An Unclaimed Creative Potential or the Belarusians in the Bialystok Region as a Trilingual People,” the almost 50,000 ethnic Belarusians living in eastern Poland are divided into two groups. About a fifth are litsviny (‘Lithuanians’: see below), who are rapidly being polonized; thus “the future of the Belarusian minority in Poland will be increasingly shaped by its padlashy demographic component,” ie, the “Podlasian Belarusians (padlashy in the Belarusian language), who live in the centre and south of Podlasie Province.”

In their everyday life padlashy use a language that is markedly different from the Belarusian literary language and its dialectal variants used by litsviny, that is, Belarusians living in the northern part of Podlasie Province. However, the language of padlashy, which is much closer to the Ukrainian than the Belarusian literary standard in terms of its phonetic and morphologic characteristics, has not become a decisive factor for the padlashys’ ethnic self-determination…

Belarusian as a language of domestic communication was declared by 39,900 people in Podlasie Province (82 percent of the total number of Belarusians in the province). This means that approximately 30,000 Belarusians belonging to the padlashy group officially identified their domestic language as Belarusian. From a “political” or an “emotional” point of view, this was a fully justifiable step. However, linguists and some others may have some justifiable arguments against such an identification, as well. The point is that in reality the Belarusians in the Bialystok region are a trilingual community — apart from Polish and Belarusian (or its dialectal variants), the overwhelming majority of them also speak a third language (or its local dialect), which has so far not been given any generally accepted name. This actual trilingualism of Belarusians in the Bialystok region was not registered by the 2002 census (at least, no such census data have been made public).
Our further considerations will be devoted to this third language of those Polish Belarusians who belong to the group of padlashy. Since this vernacular has no generally accepted name among its users, we will tentatively call it Svoja mova (literally: one’s own language) or Svoja for short, proceeding from the fact that when you ask padlashy what language they speak at home, the most frequent answer will be this: We speak our own language (po-našomu or po-svojomu).

Maksimiuk goes on to discuss efforts to standardize this language (which I think would better be called Padlashy, but never mind) and propagate it in written form; he links to a sample of the language, written in a Latin script (since “the circle of active users of the Cyrillic script among Belarusians in the Bialystok region is unavoidably shrinking”). Those who focus on the benefits of widely spoken languages will doubtless deprecate this effort to establish a tiny one of no practical use; personally, I welcome it. Let a thousand tongues flourish! (Via; I should mention, in case it’s not obvious, that the j in Svoja mova is pronounced as in Polish or German—in English orthography it would be “svoya.”)

The term litsviny or “Lithuanians” harks back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita); Elena Gapova has an interesting discussion of “Belarusian Identity and Its Mythologies”:

Adam Mickiewicz, the creator of the Polish literary canon, began his poem “Pan Tadeusz” with the exclamation, “Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!” [text corrected — LH] (Oh, Lithuania, my fatherland). Written in Polish, these words were addressed to the territory he was born in, called Litwa (Lithuania), where people for centuries were called “Litsviny” and spoke what we now think of as Belarusian. Another work by Mickiewicz, Dziady (“Forefathers’ Eve”), is based on local folklore and tales that peasants retained among themselves, and several Belarusian literati insist that Mickiewicz is, basically, “our” poet and that he (among many other pillars of Polish spirit) was aware of his Belarusian (Litvan) cultural roots.

Now these lands are in Belarus, while the city of Vilnius (Wilno), which all XX century Belarusian intellectuals have considered their spiritual capital (the first Belarusian books were published there more than 400 years ago, and the first newspaper at the turn of the century), but also where one of the oldest Polish universities was founded by Jesuits, is now the capital of Lithuania… […].

In 1569 Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (of which Belarusians think as “their” state, and Lithuanians as their, and Poles also can have a say in the controversy, and even Russians sometimes put their three cents in) signed the Lublin Union, a treaty against Moscow which is considered the end of Belarusian statehood. Since that year, at different times in history, the territory or its parts were incorporated into different states. Tsarist Russia regarded the region as North-West Province, a distant outpost, while for Poland Belarus and Lithuania were the Eastern Borderland (Kresy Wschodnie) facing what was seen as a huge Asian kingdom… Quite often Belarusians mention their country’s location in the geographical center of Europe as a matter of some special pride. Intellectuals view their land between Poland and Russia, on the borderline of two great cultural worlds, as a bridge between Orthodoxy and Catholicism (Belarus may be the only country in the world where both Catholic and Orthodox Christmas, Easter and All Saints Days are official holidays); between Byzantine and European political traditions, as “a unique place in the context of European cultural space, where the world of Slavia Orthodoxa meets with the world of Slavia Romana — and with the Baltic world as well”. Most European nations are probably unaware of Belarusian claims to the heart of their continent, and make their own claims and live in their own very different geographies. Simple folks, however, would have rather blurred ideas about their belonging. Quite often peasants or petty traders were not sure of the name by which to call themselves: they were neither Russians nor Poles (who could also be a different social status) nor Jews (who were of a different religion), while the medieval name of Litsviny or Litvans (related to the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania) went out of use by the eighteenth century or was referred to Lithuanians (very different ethnically). For a number of historical, political and cultural reasons, words “Belarus” and “Belarusian” are rather late and ambiguous coinages, and this fact had (and still has) political repercussions. As a way to still have a name, simple folk called themselves “tuteishyja”, which literally means “from here”, unable to define in any other way who they were and, probably, not very much interested in an identity defined as a “national belonging”. A 1931 newspaper article (published in Western Belarus, then part of Poland) devoted to the life and work of the turn-of the-century poetess Alaiza Pashkewich explained to the readers who they were by demonstrating how the poetess came to recognize her belonging:

(she) finally understood that the person who speaks as here – he, in fact, speaks Belarusian and, hence, he is Belarusian. From that moment all hesitation about what nation (people) to belong to were over for her.

Evidently, the search for the historically true and uncontested Belarusianness is too problematic, while with time the “tuteishyja” phenomenon took on the shape of a regional culture, a mythological construct and an ideal. In 1922 Belarusian greatest poet Yanka Kupala authored a play, “Tuteishyja”, with Western Scholar and Eastern Scholar among the characters. They make their appearance several times to discuss (one in Polish, the other in Russian, both of which are understandable for the Belarusian audience) how to scientifically classify the people around them. It is self-evident, one would say in Polish, they are an uncivilized off-spring of the Western Slavic group and their language is of Polish origin. It is absolutely clear, the other would say in Russian, they are just spoilt Russians and their language is Eastern Slavic and they belong with us. Meanwhile German troops (it is 1918) occupy the city, and dwellers have to think how to co-exist with still new power…

Addendum. For the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its relation to modern Belarus and its language, see the discussion in this comment thread.


Peer Wandel Hansen has created a number of virtual keyboards:

Do you want to write the letters and scripts from around the world, then pick from the list below. The message you write can be included in Web-documents and Email without using Graphics or extras. Use the “keyboard” at the bottom of these pages and copy’n’paste the HTML codes to your Email or HTML program. Try my Multi Language Virtual Keyboard where I remap your US-keyboard to write some of these scripts. If you see a lot of ??? below, your browser is not supported.

The scripts are Arabic (العربية), Japanese (ひらがな, カタカナ), Greek (Αλφάβητο), Georgian (ქართული), Armenian (Հայերէն), Hebrew (ורמ – עברית), Korean (한국어를), Indian (Devnagari, देचनागऐ), Chinese (汉字练习纸), Russian (Кирилица), pan-Ēŭŗôpěąņ enhanced alphabet, Tamil (தமிழ), and Thai (ภาษไทย) (“Oh it bring back memories of spicy Siam. Words that are a great mystery to me and have looong word that become entire sentances.”). He’s extremely concerned (to the point of constant pop-up warnings) to let you know that it’s only guaranteed to work in Internet Explorer, but Firefox seems to be OK with it. (Via Mithridates.)


The new movie The Interpreter doesn’t sound very good (reviews use words like “bloated” and “hooey”), but the gimmick of an invented language, Ku, provided with grammar and vocabulary by an actual linguist can’t help but attract my interest; fortunately, Mark Liberman of Language Log has done the necessary spadework, and you can read all about it in his posts Ku? and Ku Two. A particularly useful find was this page, which explains the background and the associated culture, and says:

Although known as ‘Ku’ to foreigners, the actual language spoken by the Tobosa people of the fictional Democratic Republic of Matoba is indigenously known as Chitobuku, literally meaning ‘the language of the Tobosa people’. Ch’itoboku is the only surviving ancient Bantu language, and the Tobosa oral traditions indicate that ‘Ku’ is the root of modern Bantu languages spoken in contemporary sub Saharan Africa. The structure of Ch’toboku is characterised by its use of indicators to make up words. For example, ‘tobo’ is the root and ‘sa’ is the indicator for ‘they’. There is no gender distinction as in French, hence the word for ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the same, ‘a’. Verbosity is positively valued in Ch’toboku, and ordinary speech should approximate the elegance of poetry.

(Chi- is a variant of ki-, the class 7 noun prefix in Bantu, frequently used for the names of languages: ki-Swahili, chi-Nyanja.)


To celebrate the birthday of Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, and perhaps to tweak him a little (he wanted to be valued more as an American writer than a Russian one”), I’ll tell the story of how I came to realize what a wonderful Russian writer he was. It took me a little over a paragraph. I had decided (for reasons that escape me now) to read his early novel Zashchita Luzhina (translated as The Defense); Chapter 1 begins with a teasingly vague conversation between a couple who had been worrying about telling their son… something; the father says he took it well. Thank God, says the mother.
The next paragraph starts with the statement that that was a real relief, and continues: Все лето – быстрое дачное лето, состоящее в общем из трех запахов: сирень, сенокос, сухие листья – все лето они обсуждали вопрос… [Vsyo léto – býstroye dáchnoye leto, sostoyáshcheye v óbshchem iz tryókh zápakhov: sirén’, senokós, sukhíye líst’ya – vsyo leto oní obsuzhdáli voprós…: ‘The whole summer – the quick dacha summer, consisting on the whole of three smells: lilac, haymaking, dry leaves – the whole summer they had discussed the question…]. I was stopped in my tracks by the phrase set off by dashes; not only did the phrase siren’, senokos, sukhiye list’ya [lilac, haymaking, dry leaves] brilliantly sum up the experience of a summer in the country by means of three distinctive smells corresponding to the early, middle, and late parts of the season, but the phrase itself, with its seductive sibilants and perfectly placed vowels (soo-KHEE-ya LEES-tya), sank instantly into the memory like a lyric poem. I repeated it to myself, enjoying its taste on my tongue, and continued reading with the comfortable feeling that I was in the hands of a writer who would continually surprise and delight me. I was not disappointed.

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Book arson ‘a Taleban-style’ act,” by Subir Bhaumik of BBC News:

Officials of a prestigious library in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur say nearly 145,000 books have been destroyed in an arson attack.
Protesters demanding the introduction of Manipur’s ancient Mayek script set fire to the Central Library in Manipur’s capital Imphal on Wednesday.
Officials say many of Manipur’s most ancient texts were among the books destroyed by the fire.
The arsonists want the Mayek script to replace Bengali script in the state…

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I’ve just run across a wonderful blog called “Dick & Garlick: Notes on Indian English, Hinglish, Tamlish, Bonglish & other -lishes.” The last entry was on November 19, 2004; I hope that it’s simply having a nice rest rather than being defunct, because it’s a stylish, hilarious, and well-informed look at the forms of English spoken on the Indian subcontinent. The first entry that caught my eye was Hazaar fucked; hazaar (or more scientifically hazār) ‘thousand,’ a Persian loan word, has been combined with a widespread English participle to produce a memorably resonant phrase, the subject of the following quote from Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August:

“Amazing mix, the English we speak. Hazaar fucked. Urdu and American,” Agastya laughed, “a thousand fucked, really fucked. I’m sure nowhere else could languages be mixed and spoken with such ease.” The slurred sounds of the comfortable tiredness of intoxication, “‘You look hazaar fucked, Marmaduke dear.’ ‘Yes, Dorothea, I’m afraid I do feel hazaar fucked’—see, doesn’t work”.

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My all-time favorite comment thread is this one, which was ignited by a post about a poem, “A Dish of Peaches in Cluj,” by Maria Benet (there’s a nice piece by Beth Ashley about her in the Marin Independent Journal). I am happy to report that the poem is included in her new collection, Mapmaker of Absences (published by Sixteen Rivers Press), a gorgeous book inside and out—even the table of contents is unusual and pleasing to the eye. You can read a couple of the poems at the book site; here’s a couple more. First, another poem about her native city:

    after William Carlos Williams

Trunks by the door
blue and gold

obscured in dim light—
smell of dust—

Sun of early morning—
on the wood floor

a wood frame, the picture
missing, next to it

scissors are lying—and the
cavernous empty room

(That’s the first of “Three American-Style Studies of a Landscape Rendered Foreign,” the third of which is “Peaches in Cluj.”) Another:

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