Archives for September 2006


A charming essay by Jay Parini discusses a vicarious pleasure known to many bibliophiles:

In restaurants I always want to eat whatever someone else at the table has ordered, even if it’s not something I would normally consume. Along similar lines, I find myself thoroughly intrigued by other people’s books. I want to borrow them and read them. Sometimes I go so far as to mimic other people’s collections, adding my own copies of their titles to my shelves at home.
I still remember going to visit a friend in Scotland, long ago. He lived in a tiny house in a back alley in St. Andrews, where I spent many years as a university student. He had a pristine row of novels by Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite writers, then and now. I often used to go to his house for afternoon tea, and the conversation was absorbing. But it was hard to keep my eyes off that uniform edition: the colorful spines, the remarkable titles (Ada, Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight). I liked the elegant typeface, and the sense of a complex international life captured in a shelf of books. Decades later, when I got my own house, in Vermont, I went to some trouble to acquire from British booksellers that exact row of Nabokov, recreated volume by volume at considerable expense…

Thanks for the link, Paul!


Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat (who has finished his dissertation, hurray!) has a new post about Tamazight (Berber) language activism:

To my mind, this is perhaps the single biggest problem of some branches (certainly not all) of the Tamazight movement: they talk about developing Tamazight, but they talk and write and think in French. Tizi-Ouzou’s walls are covered in aza signs (the Tifinagh letter resembling a man that has become a symbol of Amazigh activism), but its shopfronts and signs are covered in French, even though Arabic signs are regularly vandalised. This gives many other Algerians who would otherwise look more favorably on the idea of developing Tamazight the impression that it’s simply a cover for maintaining or extending the (frankly negative) role of French in public life – an impression that is not always false. Personally, I favour a coherent policy: more use of Algeria’s native languages – Arabic and Tamazight – in all spheres of life, and less use of foreign ones except in dealing with foreigners.

He links to a cartoon showing a guy making a fiery speech about the need to preserve Tamazight; unfortunately, the speech is in French, and the audience can’t understand it.


That’s the title of a blog that’s been going since May, subtitled “Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK.” Plenty of people make such observations, but few are actual linguists, and I’m very happy to find this. Here she discusses acclimate and acclimatize:

Either is acceptable in AmE, but to me, acclimati{s/z}e sounds better with physical rather than figurative climates. A quick look at Google suggests that there’s something to that intuition…
Interestingly, most of the acclimatizes were about adjusting to high altitudes, and many of the acclimates were about adjusting to life at an American university. No wonder it leapt into mind today, as I was almost in the word’s natural environment. (But haven’t acclimated to saying acclimatised.)
Acclimate was originally used in Britain, but, like many other things we’ve discussed, it faded out of use here while hanging around in the US. The OED records acclimate as slightly older (1792 vs. 1836).

Thanks go, once again, to aldiboronti.


Yet another find from that eternal scavenger of the internet, aldiboronti (at Wordorigins): the full story of the creation of the term wiki, in the form of an exchange of letters between Ward Cunningham, coiner of the word; Patrick Taylor, the etymologist for the American Heritage Dictionary; and Catherine Soanes, a lexicographer for Oxford University Press:

I learned the word wiki on my first visit to Hawai’i when I was directed to the airport shuttle, called the Wiki Wiki Bus. I asked for that direction to be repeated three or four times until the airline representative took the time to define the word wiki for me. The next day I picked up a small book about Hawai’ian and learned more interesting things about the language.
I wanted an unusual word to name for what was an unusual technology. I was not trying to duplicate any existing medium, like mail, so I didn’t want a name like electronic mail (email) for my work. The community that formed around my site were willing to explore its capabilities without preconceived notions of how it should work. An example of such a notion is the “timeless now” in which “conversation” takes place.

Apparently he intended the word to be pronounced “weaky” (“My preference would be that the word be pronounced as a Hawai’ian would, and that wick-ey be an acceptable alternative”), but I don’t know anyone who says it that way (and to my ears “Weaky-pedia” sounds particularly ridiculous). Once you set the word free, it’s out of your control!


A wonderful Le Monde interview (in French) introduced me to Alain Rey, the chief editor and lexicographer at Dictionnaires Le Robert (considered the populist alternative to the magisterial Larousse). The article says “il y a aussi, et surtout, le fait qu’il n’ait jamais joué au puriste, qu’il a toujours prêté aux mots une vie propre” [there is also, and above all, the fact that he has never played the purist, that he has always let words have their own lives]; clearly a man after my own heart. Thanks for the link, Paul!
(A minor and very tentative quibble: my French is rusty, but shouldn’t that be “le fait qu’il n’a jamais joué au puriste,” parallel to “qu’il a toujours prêté”? What’s the subjunctive doing there?)


The historian Orlando Figes, in both A People’s Tragedy and Natasha’s Dance, mentions a mythical land which he describes in the former book thus:

And there were equally fabulous tales of a ‘Kingdom of Opona’, somewhere on the edge of the flat earth, where the peasants lived happily, undisturbed by gentry or state. Groups of peasants even set out on expeditions in the far north in the hope of finding this arcadia.

He sources this to Gorky, M., ‘On the Russian Peasantry’, in R.E.F. Smith (ed.), The Russian Peasantry 1920 and 1984, London, 1977, and thanks to the magic of Google Books I can actually see the page where Gorky talks about this; Figes has basically reworded his account in the first sentence, but Gorky says nothing about expeditions. The other source cited is Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, but Amazon’s “Search inside” feature allows me to discover that there is no reference to “Opona” in the book. Stites does talk about an expedition to find a similar utopia, “Belovode” [Беловодье] (“the Kingdom of the White Waters”) in the late 19th century, and mentions “similar arcadias… the City of Ignat, the Land of the River Darya, Nutland, and Kitezh.” So the trail peters out with Gorky’s 1922 book on the peasantry, to which I can find no other reference. I’ve checked the online Russian editions without success; you’d think it would be on this page if it started with О ‘about, on’ in Russian, and you’d think it would be here or here if it was published in 1922. Anyway, I’m fascinated by mythical places like this, I’d like to know more about “Opona” (there’s a word opona ‘covering, curtain’ in Russian, which may or may not be relevant), and if anyone knows more (about Opona or about Ignat, Darya, or Nutland), please share.


I’m back to reading Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy, and on page 73 he says “in Lithuania, which for so long had been dominated by the Poles, a national language was also developed during the latter half of the nineteenth century (just to spite the Poles it was based on the Czech alphabet) and a native literature began to appear.” On first glance this Pole-spiting business looks like one of those wacky linguistic legends—for one thing, the Lithuanian alphabet has ogoneks beneath its nasal vowels, just like Polish (though they call them nosinė)—but it’s true they use hacheks on their consonants like Czech. Anybody know if there’s any truth to this rumor?


Via Varieties of Unreligious Experience, I learn that the journal Oral Tradition is now online, or as they put it:

On September 15, 2006, Oral Tradition enters a new chapter in its existence as an international and interdisciplinary forum for the discussion of worldwide oral traditions and related forms. As of this date the journal will become available
   ■ electronically at
   ■ free of charge to all readers
   ■ as a series of pdf (Adobe Acrobat) files
   ■ with key-word searching of all online texts
   ■ with multimedia eCompanions embedded

The latest issue covers a wide range of topics; I’m not so interested in the current oral-poetry scene, but there are articles on Homer, medieval Japan, the influence of French Carolingian lore on the Italian chivalric-epic tradition, and Carneades of Cyrene, among others. Well worth your bookmark.


A long article by Vera Ryklina in Русский Newsweek (in Russian, obviously) describes the rapid and probably irreversible decline in the use of the Russian language. Since the collapse of the USSR, it is studied and spoken less and less in the countries that have won their independence; even within the Russian Federation, there are regions where it is less used. Ryklina says Russian is needed by only half of those who now know it, and still less will it be needed by their children. She quotes a number of academics who compare it to the languages of other vanished empires; English, obviously, has been a tremendous success, French less so. I was particularly struck by the comparison to Dutch. Historian Ivan Belenkii is quoted as saying:

But Russia’s situation is more or less like Holland’s. A century later, there will remain not a trace of our presence over half the globe, just as happened with the many colonies of that great maritime empire. People without much education aren’t even aware that Holland had those colonies; the language has remained only in Suriname. And yet only 60 years ago Holland ruled Indonesia, a country with a population greater than that of Russia. Today absolutely nobody there wants to study Dutch.

There is much discussion of causes; the article suggests that Russian might have had a longer shelf life if the USSR had promoted it as an attractive cultural language rather than an administrative tool (the way France has promoted French abroad), but frankly I doubt anything would have changed the desire of the ex-colonials to reject everything having to do with the Soviet regime. Anyway, it’s a good read if you know Russian, and I thank bulbul for the link. (His latest two posts are an interesting discussion of “blue blood,” in which he laments the lack of an etymological dictionary of the Slovak language, and an annotated list of Books He Hasn’t Read, inspired by this.)


All Russian-language publicity materials (like the official website) for the film Trust the Man carry the tagline:
Любовь — это слово из четырех букв. [Lyubov’ — eto slovo iz chetyryokh bukv.]
Which is to say: Любовь is a four-letter word.
(Yes, Lyubov’ means ‘love,’ but something got lost in translation.)
Via Avva.