Archives for July 2006

POLYSEMY VS. HOMONYMY.

Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat is back from Algeria and posting again (hurray!), and has some interesting things to say about Algerian Arabic examples of “polysemy (different meanings with a shared conceptual core) and … homonymy (different meanings coincidentally identical in phonetic shape).” I agree with his analysis and think people should be more careful about separating the two concepts.

FOUR YEARS OF LANGUAGEHAT.

A couple of commenters in the previous thread alerted me to the fact that it’s been four years since I turned the crank on this jalopy and got it running for the first time. Since then it’s sputtered and emitted billows of steam and suffered the occasional flat, but it’s still running, and the thanks for that goes to all of you who comment with such persistence, humor, and knowledge—I’ve probably learned as much from you by now as I did from any of my college courses.
The thing I regret most is the fact that I have to keep closing comments on old posts to keep the spam level down to a dull roar; some of the oldest have some of the liveliest comment threads (for instance, my assault on David Foster Wallace’s pretensions to language expertise, written less than two weeks into the existence of LH). I try to keep the most interesting ones open in the hopes that people will discover them and leave new comments. Blogs without comments are like artificial flowers, if you ask me: they can be pretty but they don’t hold the interest.
Four years is a long time in BlogWorld, but I still find this an invigorating ride and will keep motorvating until I run out of gas.

PURGING PERSIAN.

There’s no end to the idiocy of would-be language purifiers; the latest egregious example has cropped up in Iran, where President Ahmadinejad has decreed that “official documents, schoolbooks and newspapers should follow the rulings of the Farhangestan” (the official body that tries to rein in the natural development of Persian/Farsi) and use its absurd substitutes for loan words: helicopters are decreed to be “rotating wings,” pizzas “elastic loaves,” and the like. You can read more details in Mark Liberman’s Language Log post. I hope we as a species outgrow both the desire to control how everyone else uses language and the apparent need to kill each other off in large numbers, but I’m not holding my breath.

LIBRARY HAUL.

My wife discovered that the local library, the Athenaeum, was having a sale this weekend, and being the kindly soul she is, she not only told me about it, she dropped me off there on her way to the grocery store. I spent a very pleasant hour and wound up with ten books (for ten dollars); among them were classic works of history (Dumas Malone on Jefferson, the Parkman Reader), well-known biographies (Catherine Drinker Bowen on Coke, Troyat on Tolstoy), and a couple of books on language that might have been from different planets for all they have to do with each other: the original 1958 Channel Press paperback of Theodore Bernstein’s Watch Your Language and the revised MIT translation of Lev Vygotsky’s 1934 Thought and Language. But the book that most excited me, and that I’ve been poring over since I got back, is a drab little 1936 hardback (sans dust jacket) called What’s the Name, Please? by Charles Earle Funk. In case the title sounds like it might belong to a charming autobiography, the subtitle is “A Guide to the Correct Pronunciation of Current Prominent Names.” Needless to say, the Current Prominent Names of seventy years ago have largely vanished from the memory of man; opening at random to page 21, I see a “noted crime investigator,” a British educator, a journalist, a Brigadier-General (retired), an economist, an author, the president of Trinity College Oxford, an ex-president of the Cotton Cooperative Association, a minister from Haiti, an archeologist, and a baron, and the only one I’d ever heard of was the archeologist (Carl Blegen: “Seeking the pagan is Doctor Blegen“). But that doesn’t matter to me; I love correct pronunciations for their own sake, and these (which originally appeared in a regular column in The Literary Digest) were obtained by contacting the people in question. Furthermore, in the magazine “space could not permit the full publication of the choice bits of history, genealogy, wit, and humor that ever and anon popped up in response to a stereotyped request for information. Those bits are presented here, tho sometimes slightly condensed, for the enjoyment of others, and as aids to memory.” So for the president of Trinity College we find:

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PROBLEMS WITH PRONOUNS.

An LA Times story, “To Know You Is to Love You” by K. Connie Kang, discusses the Korean-born reporter’s love affair with the English pronoun you (and the difficulties others have with it):

You was an ally that empowered me.
It freed me from the encumbrances of my mother tongue, which is one of the world’s most complicated and nuanced languages, laden with honorifics. You pushed me out of the confines of Confucian-steeped, hierarchal Korean language into a world of egalitarian impulses…
Korean has no fewer than six speech levels — each with a unique set of verb endings to indicate the degree of formality, ranging from extremely polite to actively impolite — and many gradations in between…
You represents the essence of democracy,” said attorney Tong S. Suhr, a community leader. “You liberates us from that [Korean] caste system, and it makes life so much easier.”
Korean-born Kay S. Duncan, director of production with Jarrow Formulas in West Hollywood, says you helped transform her from a shy Asian woman who preferred to sit in the back of the room to an assertive executive equal to those around her.
“You can say, ‘You did this, or you did that,’ even if you’re addressing the CEO of your company,” Duncan said.
By contrast, Ho-min Sohn, professor of Korean linguistics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says he has never felt at home with this three-letter word.
Sohn, who came to the U.S. in 1965 from South Korea to work on a doctorate in linguistics, managed to get his degree without once using you when addressing his professors. It seemed so out of place for a student to claim equality with his professor.

There’s further discussion of Korean and its pronouns, and a pleasing anecdote about a mixed couple’s solution to the problem (“Dangshin sounded cold and distant” to him, while Honey gives her shivers). Thanks for the link, Eric!

NABOKOV AND BUTTERFLIES.

A NY Times article by Alexander Osipovich brings to our attention Russian microbiologist Dmitry Sokolenko:

Mr. Sokolenko has organized an exhibition in the Vladimir Nabokov Museum here [in St. Petersburg] that explores the links between the author’s art and his science. Titled “The Nabokov Code,” a riff on “The Da Vinci Code,” it juxtaposes quotations from Nabokov’s books with images of butterfly parts.
The images, taken under a microscope, are the sort of thing that Nabokov would have seen every day while researching lepidoptera at Harvard. The quotations, meanwhile, are filled with allusions to insects. Mr. Sokolenko organized the show to advance his hypothesis: that Nabokov’s meticulous, masterly prose style grew out of his love of science.
“When you do what Nabokov did, when you shift your focus from entomology to literature, you hold onto all the methods and research tools that you’ve been using for years,” Mr. Sokolenko said in an interview just before the exhibition opened on July 3. “I think that his painstaking attention to detail could only have come from his profession, from what he was doing in entomology.”

He clearly goes way overboard in his thesis, but it’s interesting stuff, and I’d like to see the exhibit. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)

REVERSING LANGUAGE DECLINE.

1) In Russia:

…So the main task is survival. Mr Heinapuu and his colleagues try to bolster their kinsfolk’s language and culture and highlight Russian chauvinism. The first is difficult. In the two-room world headquarters of the Finno-Ugric movement in Tallinn, Mr Heinapuu proudly shows a shelf of newly published poetry in Mari and other languages. It is a drop in the ocean. “What we really need is the ‘Da Vinci Code’ in Udmurt,” a colleague ruefully complains.
A more promising idea is to bring students from the Finno-Ugric bits of Russia to study in Estonia. That initiative, the Kindred Peoples’ Programme, began in 1999. It was meant to create expertise, expose students to western society, and boost morale.
It hasn’t worked out like that, though. Half the 100-odd students decided to stay. “These were the first towns they had ever lived in. They adapted too well, and those that went back had problems with Russian life,” says Mr Heinapuu. Now the focus has shifted to graduate education. And the money involved in the student programme is tiny: just 3m Estonian kroons ($230,000). Rich Finland gives only a bit more, Hungary almost nothing.

(From The Economist, where you will find a nice map of the Volga minority-language republics and some history of the “Idel-Ural” separatist movement; via georgeland: the blog.)
2) In Canada:

With only eight competent speakers left, the Ditidaht language is on the verge of vanishing, along with half of the languages now spoken around the world…
So the Ditidaht are fighting back.
The survival of their language now hinges, perhaps, on three tiny bodies crammed together on a couch in the Asaabus daycare. The giggling children are the first to take part in a Ditidaht language-immersion program that begins in early childhood.
Qaatqaat, hiihitakiitl, hi7tap7iq, kakaatqac’ib,” recites four-year-old Krissy Edgar, singing and doing actions to a Ditidaht equivalent of Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

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COLIEROS.

I hereby unleash the awesome power of the internet on a puzzle that’s bothered me for more than a dozen years—or, to be more precise, one that bothered me when I first read Charles Doughty’s wonderful Travels in Arabia Deserta, and is bothering me again now that I’m reading it to my wife in the evenings. On p. 352 occurs the following passage:

In the Nefûd, towards El-Hŷza, are certain booming sand-hills, Rowsa, Deffafîat, Subbîa and lrzûm, such as the sand drift of J. Nagûs, by the sea village of Tor in Sinai : the upper sand sliding down under the foot of the passenger, there arises, of the infinite fretting grains, such a giddy loud swelling sound, as when your wetted finger is drawn about the lip of a glass of water, and like that swooning din after the chime of a great bell, or cup of metal. — Nagûs is the name of the sounding-board in the belfry of the Greek monastry, whereupon as the sacristan plays with his hammer, the timber yields a pleasant musical note, which calls forth the formal colieros to their prayers ; another such singing sand drift, El-Howayrîa, is in the cliffs (east of the Mezham,) of Medáin Sâlih.

When I came across that word colieros, of course I checked all the reference sources available to me in the early ’90s, to no avail. When I again encountered it, I thought “Google will clear this up in a jiffy.” Google only turned up one hit, but it was to a selection from Tales of Travel, by Lord Curzon, and I thought “Aha, if anyone will know, it’s Lord Curzon.” Alas, it turned out Curzon was simply quoting this passage of Doughty for its evocation of the “singing sands”; he had nothing to say about colieros. So I turn to you, my readers; surely your collective experience and wisdom will solve the mystery and allow me to erase the question mark that’s been in the margin all these years.
Update. The awesome power of the internet, and more specifically of my readership, has come through once more. The learned EJP, in the comments, suggested what (once it was mentioned) made me slap my head and say “Of course!”: it’s meant for Greek καλόγερος [kalóyeros] ‘monk,’ formerly (and still in katharevousa) spelled καλόγηρος. I’m not sure whether Doughty misremembered the Greek word or whether he was using the i to indicate an “eye” pronunciation (which would give an inaccurate but comprehensible “ka-LYE-er-ohz,” with an anglicized plural), but that’s definitely the explanation.
The relevant OED entry is interesting and confusing:

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SNATH, RAZOO, TABRIZ.

A miscellany:
1) A recommendation of scythes as a grass-cutting tool brought to my attention the fact that the shaft of a scythe is called a snath (description and picture here). I don’t know why, but I really like the word. Snath, snath, snath.
2) The OED has an entry “razoo Austral. and N.Z. slang. [Origin uncertain.] A (non-existent) coin of trivial value, a ‘farthing’. Also in phr. brass razoo. Used in neg. contexts only.” (First two cites: 1930 Bulletin (Sydney) 5 Nov. 21/1 The useless graft on patch and flat! They never think a bloke has earned a darned razoo for that. 1931 W. HATFIELD Sheepmates xxx. 268 Richards never has a rahzoo.) They give the pronunciation as RAH-zoo. I looked it up in my Australian Oxford and found the same definition but the pronunciation rah-ZOO, with the stress on the final syllable. How do Aussie/Kiwi readers pronounce it?
3) I recently finished my reading of Dead Souls in Russian (and of all great Russian prose, Gogol is most untranslateable, so I urge readers with any knowledge of Russian to give it a try). To help with difficult passages I kept the Andrew MacAndrew translation handy—it happened to be what I had left over from college days. It’s no worse than any other, but in the final chapter I found a real howler (comparable to Nabokov’s mistaking Khazars for Hazaras). Chichikov’s background is finally being described, and we have reached the moment when he comes up with his brilliant scheme of buying up deceased serfs and mortgaging them to the government. He is considering where he can “resettle” them (since serfs couldn’t be transferred without land); the Russian says “теперь земли в Таврической и Херсонской губерниях отдаются даром, только заселяй. Туда я их всех и переселю!” [They’re giving away land in the Crimea and the Kherson province free to anyone who will settle it; that’s where I’ll resettle them!] But the good Mr. MacAndrew mistook Таврический ‘Tauride, Crimean’ for Тебризский ‘of Tabriz‘ and translated “Today one can get land in Kherson and Tabriz Provinces free,” moving Chichikov’s undead serfs to a hypothetical Russian guberniya in Iran! (I should note for the sake of historical pickiness that Russia did occupy Tabriz in 1827, but they gave it back the next year at the end of the war with Persia.)

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THOSE WERE THE DAYS.

I recently acquired Richard Stites’ Russian popular culture: Entertainment and society since 1900 and am working my way happily through the first chapter, “In old Russia 1900-1917.” I was reading about the superstar Alexander Vertinsky, the “Russian Pierrot” (bio in Russian), when I was thunderstruck by the offhand parenthesis in this sentence: “His rendition of ‘Endless Road’ (‘Dorogoi dlinnoyu,’ known in English as ‘Those Were the Days’) is one of the classics of his repertoire.” “Those Were the Days” is a Russian song?! Turns out that indeed it is. (This page has the text in Russian and English.) It was written by the composer Boris Fomin (stress on the final syllable of each name) in collaboration with the forgotten poet Konstantin Podrevsky circa 1917, and according to this Russian page on the history of the song:

[Vertinsky’s] first benefit performance (of whose program “Endless Road” could have been a part) took place October 25, 1917. In the newspapers of those days announcements and notices of the Vertinsky benefit are cheek by jowl with reports about revolutionary bandits seizing the telephone, telegraph, and Winter Palace. But it’s not surprising that on the day of the coup it was not that song that called forth an ovation but “To, chto ya dolzhen skazat'” [What I must say] (“I don’t know why, or who needed it, who sent them to death with an untrembling hand…”). But it was around then that “Endless road” became one of the biggest “hits” in Russia (unfortunately, then as now there were no Russian hit parades, and it’s impossible to verify the fact).

So the song, which for members of my generation calls up that magical year 1968, for an earlier Russian generation brought World War One and the Revolution to mind. Nostalgia is what it used to be, but its objects keep changing.
Jonathan’s Boring But Useful Site (not boring at all!) makes this point: “Consider how much cash has been made from the 1960s hit Those were the days my friend (Mary Hopkin, 1968), and then ask yourself how much of it found its way to the family of Boris Fomin 1900-1948 who wrote the song on which it was based (called Дорогой длинною, with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii).” Jonathan also mentions a recording by Vertinsky, but the link is to a defunct webpage; anybody have a working one? I’d love to hear the voice that first made the song a hit.