Archives for November 2005


Those of you who like both mystery novels and word puzzles should check out a post at Suzanne E. McCarthy’s Abecedaria:

This novel is set in Thule Bay in northern Greenland. This could only be Qaanaaq, a settlement whose name is a palindrome. Several clues point to the use of the palindrome in deciphering the two ‘keywords’ of the story, the words written on the scroll placed in the golem’s mouth…
The first keyword is the ‘word of creation’ which brings the golem to life; and the second keyword, a reverse of the first, will destroy him…

I particularly enjoyed this tidbit:

Next, I switched to researching the legend of the golem in history. I found out that one of the original ‘words of creation’ was ‘emeth‘ (truth) written on the golem’s forehead. With the erasure of the ‘e’ altering ’emeth’ to read ‘meth’ (death), the golem was destroyed.

Language is powerful stuff!


The Unbound Bible allows you to view any section of the Bible in four languages at the same time (in parallel colums). Right now I’m looking at the gospel of John in English, Russian, Georgian, and Greek (of which you get seven choices for the New Testament and four for the old). I meant to post this months ago when Joe Tomei sent me the link (thanks, Joe!), but it somehow slipped through the cracks. Better late than never!

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So MetaFilter member acoutu mentioned in an AskMeFi thread that her family name, Coutu, was traditionally pronounced “Koo-chee.” Her explanation for this was that

…my great-great-grandfather worked on the railroads with a bunch of Italians. Being an Italian in North America at that time was not exactly a great thing, but it was a heck of a lot better than being a French Canadian. So, when Coutu was pronounced lightly as “Cootchyu”, some of the railroad guys thought it was “[C]ucci”. And my great-great-grandfather just went along with that. This makes sense to me because of the discrimination against French Canadians.
As late as the 40s or 50s, my grandfather was mistaken for being Italian—something he gladly accepted. One day, a guy asked him something about Italians and my grandfather said he was actually French Canadian. The guy said, “Me too!” And my grandfather said, “Since when is McCready a French Canadian name?” And the other guy said, “It’s Mercredi. You think I’m going to say something if they think I’m Scottish?!”

I absolutely love that story and had to share it at once.


Last week’s New Yorker (which arrived a week late, so I’m still working my way through it) has an essay by Wyatt Mason on the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, who sounds like a writer I’d enjoy reading; this certainly appeals to me:

Over the years, Marías has translated a vast range of American and English writing, including poetry by John Ashbery, W. H. Auden, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Frank O’Hara, and Wallace Stevens; and fiction by Anthony Burgess, Raymond Carver, Thomas Hardy, J. D. Salinger, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Updike…
This work has had an impact on Marías as a writer. On the most basic level, Marías has made all his narrators in some sense translators; whether they happen to teach translation theory or work as interpreters, ghostwriters, or opera singers, each is giving voice to other people’s stories.

But what brings me to post about it is a reminiscence about his mother:

[My mother] published an anthology titled “España como preocupación” (“Spain as a Preoccupation”), with the subtitle “Literary Anthology.” Her name was Dolores Franco—her surname, which is rather common, being the same as the dictator’s. Dolores… in Spanish means literally pain, or pains. The censorship argued that “Spain as a Preoccupation,” plus Dolores Franco, meaning “pains Franco,” wouldn’t be accepted.

It seems inevitable that the more power you acquire over others, the more you fear retribution (since power over others is always, in a basic sense, undeserved), and fear makes people do foolish things. This particular bit of folly is essentially comic, but the fear and folly of power, it hardly needs saying, often have more serious consequences. The novelist’s father “was denounced by a former friend, who accused him, falsely, of writing for Pravda and of consorting with Communist leaders”; he was jailed and lost his job, which in the context of his time and place, made him a lucky man. The stories are very different, but share this quality: it is difficult for those who haven’t experienced life under a dictatorship to fully credit them. How can men run a country who have so little sense?

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That’s how I’d transliterate the Yiddish title, אין מױל אַרײַן, of a delightful blog I just ran across, using the Lithuanian pronunciation I’m familiar with, but the URL uses the spelling inmolaraan, which leads me to suspect the blogger, the chocolate lady, uses the Polish dialect. At any rate, the name means ‘into the mouth,’ and the blog features עסן און װערטער [esn un verter] ‘eating and words’: what could be better? Don’t be alarmed if you follow the link and see a sea of Yiddish; just scroll down and you’ll find English entries as well, of which this is a fine sample:

A sakh zmires un veynik lokshn (Lots of hymns and just a little pasta) is a Yiddish expression meaning great effort expended for a disappointing result—a long run for a short slide. Zmires are the para-liturgical hymns sung at festive meals, and lokshn (noodles) are especially associated with the Sabbath in Ashkenazic tradition.
For much more on lokshn in the Yiddish language and Jewish life see the hilarious dialogue “Lokshn” [pdf file] by the eternally amazing Noyekh Prilutski. Yet more on lokshn, including a Romanized version of Prilutski’s “Lokshn” can be found in The Mendele Review Special Lokshn Issue, parts one and two. Have a look at A. Almi’s poem about Prilutski while you’re there…
I’ve taken some of the sidebar titles from John Evelyn’s Acetaria: a discourse of sallets. I really like that he has a chapter called “Of composts, and stercoration, repastination, dressing and stirring of the earth and mould of a garden” (all punctuation is in the original), so I’ve used this for my compost entry, even though I have no immediate plans to write any further about compost. For the Yiddish title of this category I used the saying “emes vakst fun der erd aroys” “The truth grows out of the earth.”

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In a comment to an earlier post, Keira Ballantyne mentioned work she’d done on Yapese, including interlinear translations, and I liked the site so much I thought I’d give it its own post.

This corpus is split into two parts. The first, the Honolulu Corpus of Written Yapese, was collected at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in the spring of 2001. The source materials for the corpus come from various upper elementary school readers first published in the late seventies by the Yap State Education Department… The second part of the corpus, the Colonia Corpus of Spoken Yapese, was collected in Yap in late 2002. It consists of three interviews… Keira Gebbie Ballantyne edited the translations and prepared the interlinearized version of the texts.

Keira says: “I’m currently looking for an application which I can use to generate concordances from the xml files on the web. If you know of something that will do that, I’d love to hear from you.” So drop her a line, and once again: isn’t the internet great?


Exciting news from Greece:

Archeologists in Crete have found an important trove of archeological treasures containing some of the earliest known examples of Greek writing.
The culture ministry said the finds were excavated at a long-abandoned site on a hill overlooking the port of Chania in Western Crete, which has been identified with the Minoan city of Kydonia.
Among the discoveries was an amphora containing an intact text written in linear B, the language of the court at Mycenae where the legendary Agamemnon ruled.
Also found were two terracotta tablets containing texts in Linear A, an even older alphabet—used around 1,700 years before the common era—which has not yet been deciphered…

It pleases me that the discoveries were made at Khania, a city of which I have fond memories; you can read more about the archeological digs in this interview with Maria Andreadaki-Vlasiki. (Via ilani ilani.)


I ran across a scanned image of a Russian schoolbook page and started to read it when I was stopped cold by the second line:
2. Запишите 2-ой абзац текста, подчёркивая все орфограммы.
[2. Write out the second paragraph of the text, underlining all orfogrammy.]
What the hell is an orfogramma? It wasn’t in my Oxford dictionary, so I went to the big gun, the three-volume New Great Russian-English Dictionary, and there it was… defined as “orthogram.” This sort of thing really bothers me (I’ve posted about a similar situation here). There is no such word in English as “orthogram.” It’s not in the OED, it’s not in the big Webster’s, it’s not online—if you google it, you get a bunch of French pages (for some reason) and a stray Egyptological page claiming that an orthogram is “a sign in the script which is to indicate a dual or plural form.” That may or may not be a technical term in Egyptology, but it’s clearly not relevant here. So I went to my handy Russkii yazyk: entsyklopediya [Russian language: encyclopedia] and found a whole article about орфограммы, which I will summarize for you thus: an orfogramma is a point of uncertainty in the spelling of a word, a place where you can’t tell from the sound alone how to write it. Classic examples are final consonants (since all final consonants are devoiced: pyad’ ‘span’ and pyat’ ‘five’ sound the same) and unstressed vowels (golova ‘head’ could equally well be written galava to represent the standard pronunciation); writing words with small or capital letters would also fall under this rubric. So the line I quoted means ‘underline all letters whose spelling requires the application of orthographic rules.’ I sympathize with bilingual lexicographers; it’s not easy to deal with a situation like this. But it’s a dereliction of duty to say “орфограмма? orthogram!” and go on to the next word, not bothering your head about whether your “definition” is of any help to the users of the dictionary.
Update. Andrew Dunbar posted a request at Wiktionary, and already there’s an article with the following definitions:
1. A spelling that is in accordance with orthographic rules, usually etymological or historical rather than phonetic.
2. A consistently reproducible way to represent phonomorphological features of a given language in writing, such -ого for the Russian masculine genitive singular of adjectives, instead of the phonetic spelling -ава: нового (nóvəvə).
I hesitate to dispute a native speaker about the definition of a word I was unacquainted with until the other day, but “a spelling” to me implies the spelling of an entire word, whereas (if I understand correctly) an орфограмма is a particular point in a word where the spelling requires the application of special rules. I will be happy to be corrected.


Just a couple of words whose etymology I found interesting:
1) Elver ‘a young eel’ is a variant of eelfare ‘the passage of young eels up a river; a brood of young eels’; the first OED citation shows nicely the phonetic development:
1533 Act 25 Hen. VIII, c. vii, Any frye, spaume, or brode of yeles, called yele fares, or Ell vares.
2) Album is from Latin album ‘a white tablet or notice-board, esp. that on which was inscribed the edict of the praetor’ (the definition of the Oxford Latin Dictionary, more up-to-date than the OED’s ‘blank tablet’) which is itself the neuter singular form of the adjective albus ‘white’ (from Proto-Indo-European *albho- and thus perhaps related to both elf and oaf). I’m sure I had read this etymology before, but it had slipped right out of my mind; perhaps thinking of the Beatles’ White Album will help keep it there.


Ready Steady Book has a very fetching interview with Charlotte Mandell, a translator of French poetry and philosophy. Apparently it’s her first interview, and she burbles happily: “Translators never get asked anything, so when someone listens to us we tend to rabbit on. I could give you an entire Proustean list of things (favorite number: 4; favorite color: burgundy; favorite flower: yellow sea poppy; favorite movie: tie between Cocteau’s Orphée and Renoir’s Rules of the Game…) but I won’t.” (I will interject here that Rules of the Game is my favorite movie as well.) She has interesting things to say about Maurice Blanchot:

Reading Blanchot is a little like watching someone think. You have to have patience, since his essays move by nuance and suggestion, and come to focus slowly. English readers – Americans especially – are used to being fed information; in the case of an essay, they’re used to the conventional statement-exposition-conclusion format. The nice thing about Blanchot (and the thing a lot of people find exasperating about him) is that he doesn’t follow that formula, or any formula for that matter. Often no conclusion is reached. The subject is examined, and questioned, and looked at from different angles, but never really resolved. I like that a lot – it’s sort of like reading poetry.

She provides a list of Books That Changed My Life that ends:

When I was 17: Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I fell madly in love with Julien Sorel. Also The Charterhouse of Parma and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Dead.
When I was 18: William Carlos Williams’ Selected Poems. Also Rilke’s Duino Elegies and EM Forster’s Howards End.
When I was 20: Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I fell madly in love with Prince Andrei. Also Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. And also Robert Kelly’s Not This Island Music. I fell madly in love with Robert Kelly.

Reader, she married him!

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