Archives for August 2006


John Emerson of Idiocentrism is trying to trace the Aristotle/bottle, Plato/potato school of doggerel back to its source. So far he’s gotten it back to Lord Byron, Don Juan (Canto I, 204; Canto VII, 4) and Conrad Roth of Varieties of Unreligious Experience has found a near-match in Ronsard; if anyone knows of earlier versions, cite away!

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I’ve almost finished Pat Barker’s Regeneration (a wonderful book, and I’m looking forward to the two sequels), and I’ve just run across an interesting conundrum in punctuation. A sentence on page 202 reads “Sassoon, Rivers left till last, and found him lying on the bed in his new room, wrapped in his British warm coat.” I was taken aback by the first comma, which seemed to me wrong (there’s not normally a pause after a preposed object—cf. “Hegel I’ve never been able to read”), until I mentally rewrote it without the comma and had “Sassoon Rivers left till last,” which temporarily threw off the sense of syntax and perhaps suggested a phantom character named “Sassoon Rivers.” So I turn to you, my picky and keen-eyed readers; comma or no comma? (No fair suggesting a rewrite of the sentence; it’s perfectly good English, you’d say it without a second thought, and what the mouth can say, the pen—or pixel—should be able to reproduce.)
Addendum. I’ve just (Sept. 6) run across “British warm” (see comments for explanation) in In Parenthesis, on page 97: “A young man in a British warm, his fleecy muffler cosy to his ears, enquired if anyone had seen the Liaison Officer from Corps, as one who asks of the Tube-lift man at Westminster the whereabouts of the Third Sea Lord.”


A typically multifarious post from The Daily Growler goes on to discuss burgoos, structuralism, golf, and Mezz Mezzrow, but it starts with a reminiscence of how the Growler learned to speak and write:

I could already “speak” by the time I entered public school; I was taught not to use contractions, especially “ain’t,” a forbidden word in my house. “Is not, young man, and if I catch you saying that word again, I’ll wash your mouth out with Lava soap” [an exceptionally harsh soap said to have been made from volcanic pumice ash] and I was afraid of my folks when it came to proper language; they really would have washed my mouth out with Lava had I tried to get away with using it again.

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My current focus on WWI is leading me to revisit David Jones’ wonderful In Parenthesis (review), whose preface includes this dizzying parade of allusions:

Every man’s speech and habit of mind were a perpetual showing: now of Napier’s expedition, now of the Legions at the Wall, now of ‘train-band captain’, now of Jack Cade, of John Ball, of the commons in arms. Now of High Germany, of Dolly Gray, of Bullcalf, Wart and Poins; of Jingo largenesses, of things as small as the Kingdom of Elmet; of Wellington’s raw shire recruits, of ancient border antipathies, of our contemporary, less intimate, larger unities, of John Barleycorn, of ‘sweet Sally Frampton’. Now of Coel Hên—of the Celtic cycle that lies, a subterranean influence as a deep water troubling, under every tump in this Island, like Merlin complaining under his big rock.

I remember the first time I read this, years ago, I was completely flummoxed; now, with the internet and Google, it reveals most of its secrets within seconds. “High Germany” turns out to be a song from the European wars of the 18th century, and “Goodbye Dolly Gray” a song from the turn of the 20th. And the Kingdom of Elmet? Ah, therein lies a bit of Languagehattery. Elmet was a Celtic holdout in what is now the southern part of Yorkshire, around Leeds; when it was overrun by the Angles in the early seventh century, the way was clear for further Germanic expansion and the creation of the kingdom of Northumbria. But before that, probably in the last years of the sixth century, it had sent a band of warriors to Eidyn (Edinburgh) to accompany the men of Gododdin on a last-ditch expedition to push back the Germanic invaders, which came to grief at Catraeth (probably Catterick in northern Yorkshire). The epic Y Gododdin, considered the earliest poem in Welsh and the oldest Scottish poem, eulogizes the heroes of that doomed expedition, including Madog of the small kingdom… except it’s called Elfed (pronounced EL-ved). Why? Because of one of the features of the Celtic languages, the lenition of intervocalic [m] to [β̃], which became /v/ (written f) in Welsh.
The Wikipedia article on Elmet mentions “an acclaimed 1979 book combining photography and poetry; Remains of Elmet, by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin… re-published by Faber in 1994 simply titled Elmet, and with a third of the book being new additional poems and photographs.” I’ll have to look for it.


Lately I’ve been reading about World War One, and I happened on the kind of detailed, specialized site I love: Gallipoli Placenames. If you get confused between Abdel Rahman Bair and Abdul Yere, look no further: the first is “The great northern spur of the Sari Bair range, coming off Hill 971 and stretching its lower slopes as far north as the plain east of Hill 60,” and the second is “Turkish Anzac sector. The northern one of the two hills forming Hill Q.” And Anafarta could really be confusing if their entry didn’t separate it out for you:

(1) The Turkish name for the Suvla front.
(2) There are two villages inland from Suvla Bay called Buyuk (big) Anafarta and Kuchuk (small) Anafarta.
(3) Nickname (‘Anafarta Annie’) of a Turkish long-range artillery gun firing from the hills of the Anafarta Spur.

Now if only someone would produce a glossary or list of abbreviations for the novels of Pat Barker! I’ve just started Regeneration, and every once in a while she throws in an unexplained term like VADs or CCS, and although it only takes me a few seconds’ work with Google to discover that the first stands for Voluntary Aid Detachment and refers to nurses, while the second stands for Casualty Clearing Station (a kind of small mobile field hospital, the WWI equivalent of a MASH unit), not everyone is as expert at ferreting out such things as I (the Acronym Finder gives a daunting 175 hits for CCS), and it would be convenient to have them gathered in one place. (It would be even more convenient to have a glossary in the book itself, of course.)


There’s a great thread over at Crooked Timber that starts with a comparison of the English and German versions of the Kant quote from which the blog title is derived (“Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden”—I’m with Ingrid, the author of the post: I prefer Isaiah Berlin’s memorable English rendering, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”) and proceeds to all sorts of translation anecdotes and arguments, as well as discussion of which language to read works in when you know the original to some extent. My favorite strand of the discussion took off from the remark that “The first translation of The Master and Margarita allegedly translated ‘dentist’ as ‘Dante scholar'”; Anatoly (from whose Avva post I got this link, and who provided some of the best comments) explained that “dantist is not pretentious in Russian, and it doesn’t transmit French overtones if you don’t already know it comes from French. It’s used alongside ‘tooth doctor’ [zubnoi vrach] more or less synonymously; stomatolog is another word with exactly the same meaning in common speech” but said he couldn’t find dantist in the text of the Bulgakov novel, whereupon WorldWideWeber announced he had found it in the rewritten chapters—and linked to Simon Karlinsky’s 1972 NY Times review of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which contains a wonderfully splenetic blast at poor Michael Glenny, the translator:

My spot-checking failed to locate any truly spectacular howlers of the sort that made Michael Glenny’s earlier translations of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels proverbial among literary scholars (among other gems, he rendered “dentist” as “an expert on Dante,” “saints” as “swine,” “squirrel fur” as “protein,” and, mistaking the Russian word for bathtub, vanna, for a woman’s name, added a new character to Bulgakov’s cast). But I did find one instance of Glenny’s notorious penchant for introducing female anatomy or nudity where there is none in the original: Xenya’s daydream of wearing a locket with a gauzy dress in Chapter Four is expanded into “ethereal in voile with a pendant between her breasts.” This is the same kind of breast fixation with which Glenny had previously saddled both Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn.
(In Glenny’s version of “For the Good Cause” in “Stories and Prose Poems” a “head-and-shoulders portrait of a young woman” is translated as a “bosomy pin-up” and the innocuous description of that portrait grossly and gratuitously sexualized).
The haste with which “August 1914” must have been translated is suggested by the occasionally careless and distorted transcriptions of proper names and place names. “A family that descended from Riurik” (i.e., the dynasty that ruled Russia before the Romanovs) is not very helpfully rendered as “the Riurikovich family” and “Yelena Molokhovetz” the celebrated Julia Child of pre-Revolutionary Russia, for some reason emerges as “Malakhov’s cookbook.”
“August 1914” is admittedly a most difficult text for translation; still, in fairness to the reader, the English version of the novel should have been labeled by the publishers “adapted” or “paraphrased” by Michael Glenny, rather than translated by him. it is hard to think of another recent instance where the old maxim traduttore—traditore would be more apt.

One thing I’m curious about is this comment by Ingrid (the original poster):

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I’m grateful to the volunteers who have helped me out with Finnish, Romanian, and Bulgarian; now I’m in need of someone who knows Swahili well enough to correct a mistaken phrase. As always, write to languagehat AT gmail DOT com, and you’re guaranteed the thanks of a grateful nation editor.
That’s a pretty mingy post, so let me fill it out with a quote from the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Pogo, specifically the strip from Aug. 27, 1949:

Albert the Alligator: What’s all the fuss?
Pogo: Ol’ Doc Seminole Sam, the carpet bag man, is got a bug name of Currier B. Ives what engraves funny stories on the point of a pin.
Porky Porcupine: Since only you can see Mr. Ives or read the jokes, pray read off a bit, Doc.
Doc Seminole: Very well. [squinting at point of pin] It say here: “The maximum inclination of the plane of a navigational planet to the plane of the e[c]liptic is three degrees.” ——Hmmmm! [consternated] Gentlemen, apparently I’ve mixed the pins. This one seems to bear the constitution of a small southern republic in a foreign tongue.
Albert [smiling happily]: Go ahead an’ finish her—she starts out funny.


From an article by Tom Segev, this fascinating report on an ethnic group I didn’t know much about (though I had a brief post about them a couple of years ago):

Sometimes, when Gila Hakimi leaves a note for her husband, she writes it in Rashi script, in Aramaic. That’s only natural: This is the language used by the Hakimis for everyday discourse as well; they speak Aramaic to their eldest son too.
I phoned her in my search for the story furthest removed from the war, but Gila Hakimi said it isn’t all that remote. Anyone who says prayers, opens the Talmud, and in effect anyone who speaks Hebrew speaks Aramaic in one way or another. But as an everyday language of discourse? Yes, says Hakimi. At least several thousand Israelis, who are generally described as “Kurds,” speak Aramaic, in one dialect or another. Unfortunately, more and more people are ceasing to conduct their everyday lives in Aramaic and are forgetting the language. That is why Hakimi created her one-woman show. As far as is known, she is the first Aramaic stand-up comedian. She is extremely successful.
Aramaic is a language with a fascinating and very complex story. The Babylonians and the Persians used it as their official language, and afterward, it was mainly a Jewish language. There is ancient, middle and modern Aramaic. From its inception it was heard in at least two dialect groups, Eastern and Western. In Eastern Middle Aramaic there is a Tadmor and a Nabatean dialect, among others; in Western Middle Aramaic there is a distinction between Christian, Eretz Israel, Galilee and Samaritan dialects. There is Syrian Aramaic, which is generally located between Eastern and Western Aramaic, and in all the dialects, the spoken language is not identical to the written language.
All this is also meant to explain the difficulty of understanding what the “Kurdish” Israelis mean when they say Aramaic; they are not all referring to exactly the same thing, because there are different types of Kurds among them: Some come from Kurdistan in Iraq, some from Iran, Turkey or Syria – some are “ours” and some are not. For example, there is a Web site that perpetuates “Nash Didan” – “our people,” and includes a dictionary, songs and jokes. No, said Hakimi, they (the operators of the Web site) come from Urmia and that’s something else. Her one-woman show is called “Belishna Noshan” – “In our language.”

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Or so says the Guardian, in a story by Alan Smithers about a decline in the study of French and German: “The four most often spoken languages in the world are, in order, Mandarin, English, Hindustani and Spanish. Spanish is fast rising in importance and there are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than English.” [Emphasis added.] This is one of the most mindbogglingly stupid statements I’ve seen in a professional publication (though I realize that in the case of the Grauniad the word “professional” has to be applied loosely). As Mark Liberman says in the Language Log post where I found the story:

We can’t directly blame the (admittedly often slipshod and credulous) research practices of journalists, because the author of the article, Alan Smithers, is “director of the centre for education and employment research at the University of Buckingham”, and thus not a journalist at all. On the other hand, we can’t be sure that this is just one of the (often careless and even dishonest) talking points of public intellectuals, because the article was edited at the Guardian, and might well have been changed substantially from the text that Prof. Smithers submitted.
It’s that old problem of attributional abduction. My best guess is the one I started with — the Guardian’s entire editorial staff is on vacation, and has delegated its duties to the night office-cleaning crew, who are having a little competition among themselves to see who can slip the most extravagant falsehoods into print.

Oh, if you’re curious about the numbers: “according to the data from the 2000 census, 10.71% of households use Spanish, as opposed to 82.105% who use English.”
Update. See now this Language Log post for further information on both Smithers and the facts of the case.


OK, everybody, I need some specialized knowledge. I’m involved with a book of foreign expressions, and I have the gravest doubts about some of them, which seem to have been taken over from other such books, the original form, if any, having gotten garbled along the way. If anyone knows what the originals of the following might be, I’ll be deeply grateful:
basa basa (Persian)
The Arabic phrase “basa basa” means to ogle, cast amorous glances or make sheeps’ eyes at someone [is it Persian? Arabic? Arabo-Persian?]
quibo (Chinese)
the clear bright eyes of a beautiful woman [qu- is clearly wrong; is it qibo?]
Also, I need some help with Bulgarian, Romanian, and Finnish; if you know any of these languages, please drop me a line at languagehat AT gmail DOT com. Together we can make this an accurate book, unlike the ones described here!
Addendum: I forgot to mention mamihlapinatapai, an alleged Tierra del Fuegan [actually Yaghan (Yagán)—thanks, Jess!] word meaning “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start”; anybody know where The Guinness Book of Records might have gotten this (“most succinct word”)?
Update: Beth at Cassandra Pages brought basa basa to the attention of her amazing father-in-law and reports the results in this post:

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