Archives for July 2005


I was idly leafing through a book on Gunnar Ekelöf‘s “A Mölna Elegy” (don’t ask me why, since I knew nothing about Ekelöf and have never been particularly interested in Swedish poetry) when I was struck by the mention of his great respect for the poet Edith Södergran. (So great was his respect that he incorporated chunks of her poetry into his own long poem without attribution, about the ethics of which there has been much discussion, but that’s another story.) It turns out Södergran was one of the first modernist poets in Scandinavia, one of the Swedish minority in Finland… and she was born in Saint Petersburg in 1892, a year after Mandelshtam! She went to a German-language school in SPb and started writing poetry in German, only switching to Swedish later; as this impassioned webpage says:

Her first poems fill a school notebook, 225 altogether, never published. Most of these youthful poems were written in German — only 10% in her mother tongue, Swedish. At fourteen Edith Södergran had become a cosmopolitan, reading Heine, Goethe, and other classical poetry in French, Russian, German and Swedish. One day she wrote in her notebook, Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben (‘I don’t know in which language to write’). At this point in her writing a long series of poems in German comes to an end. After one poem in French, she now began to write exclusively in Swedish.
For any poet, fluency in foreign languages enriches the diction of the mother tongue, as Chaucer’s daily use of French as ambassador in Paris brought so much wealth to the English language. At the beginning of her switch to her mother tongue, Edith showed better mastery of German than Swedish. She had been intensely studying Goethe, Heine and other German poets, whereas she had read very little Swedish poetry. She grew up outside the boundaries of Swedish culture, just as Jules Laforgue and Isidore Ducasse (“le comte de Lautréamont”) grew up outside of French culture in Montevideo, Uruguay. She spoke an old-fashioned Swedish, often grammatically incorrect. Her spelling was also shaky.

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I have to admit it surprises me this thing is still going after three years of near-daily posting. If I were simply talking to myself, I’d have given it up long ago; it’s the feedback that makes me want to continue, so let me repeat what I said in my first anniversary post:

People occasionally apologize for intruding on my time or say they don’t know enough to comment; I want to make it clear that I welcome everyone with an interest in the things I write about, whether they have any prior knowledge or not, and I love answering questions I get in e-mails—if your message comes at a busy time, I may take a while to get around to it, but I will answer it. And, of course, if you have an interesting link to pass along or a subject you’d like to hear about, let me know; I’m always on the lookout for new topics!

I thank all those I thanked there, and I note with pleasure that since the second anniversary the number of countries from which I’ve had visitors has grown from 120 to 150 (hello, Tonga and Ethiopia!). I quoted Pound (the end of Canto IV) in that first anniversary post; this time I’ll quote him (in Canto CIX) quoting Coke:
Si nomina nescis perit rerum cognitio.
[If you don’t know names the knowledge of things perishes.]

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Name another city that falls into the same category as Carthage and Chiang Mai.


Thanks to the never-to-be-sufficiently-praised aldiboronti at Wordorigins, I hereby present to all and sundry the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names.

The Lexicon of Greek Personal Names (LGPN) was established to collect and publish all ancient Greek personal names, drawing on the full range of written sources from the 8th century B.C. down to the late Roman Empire… The work thus starts with the period of epichoric scripts, embraces the classical and hellenistic periods of Greek history, following dialect and the development of koine, and continues through the period of the Roman Empire when Greek nomenclature underwent changes as a result of Roman rule, and religious, social and other factors. Excluded names include mythological and heroic names, Mycenaean names, later Byzantine names and geographical names.

The search page explains the two different searches available, and the Greek names section includes

an introduction to Greek personal names themselves, how they were formed and used, and how we know about them… Although LGPN is concerned with Greek names in antiquity, we are aware that many modern Greeks are interested in our site, and contact us with questions about their names. Although we must stress that this is not our area of expertise, we add here some paragraphs on how modern Greek name-giving has been influenced by the past, and how some ancient names came through to be used in the modern world.

A wonderful resource; may it thrive and expand!


I was very happy to read about Baboo Jabberjee, BA, and his influence on the immortal Wodehouse in the latest post at Dick & Garlick, and you will be too if you have any interest in “Babu English,” Bertie and Jeeves, or a good laugh.


Plep yesterday featured Apmonia, The Modern Word‘s Samuel Beckett page. I’m familiar with the site and its wonderful author sections, but I wondered about the odd name. It turns out to come from Beckett’s early novel Murphy; the quotes page has the relevant passage from the first chapter:

Murphy’s purpose in going to sit at Neary’s feet was not to develop the Neary heart, which he thought would quickly prove fatal to a man of his temper, but simply to invest his own with a little of what Neary, at the time a Pythagorean, called the Apmonia. For Murphy had such an irrational heart that no physician could get to the root of it. Inspected, palpated, ausculated, percussed, radiographed, and cardiographed, it was all that a heart should be. Buttoned up and left to perform, it was like Petrouchka in his box. One moment in such labour that it seemed on the point of seizing, the next in such ebullition that it seemed on the point of bursting. It was the mediation between these extremes that Neary called the Apmonia. When he got tired of calling it the Apmonia, he called it the Isonomy. When he got sick of the sound of Isonomy he called the the Attunement. But he might call it what he liked, into Murphy’s heart it would not enter. Neary could not blend the opposites in Murphy’s heart.

Now, isonomy is an English word (meaning ‘equality of laws, or of people before the law’), as is attunement, but not so “apmonia”; where did Beckett get it? I googled, and on the first page of results found a Greek book page that included the title EPΩTIKH APMONIA [erotikí armonía]. The upper-case form of the Greek word αρμονία ‘harmony’ happens to look exactly like Latin-alphabet “apmonia”; Beckett had presumably noticed this at some point and made a note of it for future use.


Daniel Foster of Logos writes to tell me his organization is hoping to produce the Oxford Latin Dictionary on CD-ROM; they are trying to gauge interest by soliciting pre-orders. The deal is that people who pre-order get a steep discount; they will not be charged until it’s completed, and they won’t be charged at all if the project is cancelled. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.


English and Russian both have words derived from Greek hupóstasis ‘sediment; foundation; substance; (in Christian use) any of the persons of the Trinity.’ The Christian sense is basic to both English hypostasis and Russian ипостась (ipostás’). Looks like an easy case for bilingual equivalence, eh? Think again, and consider these sentences from “Stovelore in Russian Folklife” by Snejana Tempest, whose Russian seems to have taken precedence over her English:
“In Russian folk tales the stove frequently appears as a female character endowed with a specific, if varying, name. In this hypostasis, her main role is to reward respectful attention on the part of children by extending them protection in her bosom in case of danger.”
“Different hypostases of the Russian dragon slayer—a brave protagonist of fairy tales and legends who rescues his bride-to-be from the clutches of the dragon—bore names which pointed to their connection with the stove: Ivan Popialov, Matiusha Pepel’noi, Zapechnyi Iskr, Ivan Zapechnik (from the Russian words for ashes and stove).”
Whereas the English word has remained a technical term in philosophy and theology, unknown (I would venture to say) to 99.9% of the speakers of the language, the Russian word has entered common use in the extended sense ‘role, capacity’—the only definition in Katzner. The Oxford dictionary, stuck in an earlier era, defines it as ‘hypostasis,’ which helps not at all when trying to read modern texts. Another example of the perils of treating lookalikes as synonyms. (And another example of the havoc wrought by the lack of editing in books these days; even the laziest of copyeditors would query the use of “hypostasis” in the Tempest article, and it should definitely have been changed to “capacity” in the first sentence and “version” or perhaps “avatar” in the second.)

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The Russian Primary Chronicle, or Повесть временных лет (Povest’ vremennykh let, in traditional orthography Повѣсть временныхъ лѣтъ), is a remarkable document that has always been the basic source for the early history of Russia (or rather Rus, since “Russia” was a much later concept). It contains eyewitness, or at least contemporary, accounts of the late 11th and early 12th centuries and reports drawn from oral history for earlier periods. As James Billington says in The Icon and the Axe:

Chronicles were written in Church Slavonic in Kievan Russia long before any were written in Italian or French, and are at least as artistic as the equally venerable chronicles composed in Latin and German. The vivid narrative of men and events in the original “Primary Chronicle” struck the first Western student of Russian chronicles, August Schlözer, as far superior to any in the medieval West, and helped inspire him to become the first to introduce both universal history and Russian history into the curriculum of a modern university.

There are excerpts in English here, here, and here (among others [first two links are dead as of Oct. 2014]), but the full text is available in Likhachev’s modern Russian translation here, in manuscript reproductions here, and (the main reason for this post) in Donald Ostrowski’s collation of the manuscripts here. The sections are in pdf files (and, alas, there is no Google cache, which means I can quote only as much as I’m willing to painstakingly type in), but it’s worth downloading Adobe if you don’t already have it—not only for the sake of the Chronicle itself, but most especially for Ostrowski’s introduction (pdf), which is the best thing I’ve read on the history and practice of textual criticism in Russia and the West. He explains why the stemma came into use and then fell out of favor due to a logical conundrum, and describes his own solution to the latter. He discusses in detail the various proposed (or implied) stemmata for the MSS of the Chronicle, then proposes his own. There is of course much that is of interest only to fellow specialists, but the many lucid discussions of subjects of general interest (for instance, “Textual Criticism vs. Textology,” about halfway through, comparing Western and Russian approaches) make it worthwhile for anyone interested in the subject.

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Project Gutenberg has put online Charles G. Leland’s The English Gipsies and Their Language (2nd ed., 1874).

The book contains some remarks on that great curious centre and secret of all the nomadic and vagabond life in England, THE ROMMANY, with comments on the fact, that of the many novel or story-writers who have described the “Travellers” of the Roads, very few have penetrated the real nature of their life… There is also a chapter containing in Rommany and English a very characteristic letter from a full-blood Gipsy to a relative, which was dictated to me, and which gives a sketch of the leading incidents of Gipsy life—trading in horses, fortune-telling, and cock-shying. I have also given accounts of conversations with Gipsies, introducing in their language and in English their own remarks (noted down by me) on certain curious customs… There is a collection of a number of words now current in vulgar English which were probably derived from Gipsy, such as row, shindy, pal, trash, bosh, and niggling, and finally a number of Gudli or short stories.

(Via wood s lot.)