Archives for October 2006


A few years ago I did a post about homophonic translations, where the translator tries to preserve the sound of the original poem; blind translations (from Cipher Journal, which publishes “creative works of art & literature that call attention to the process of translation”) are superficially similar but turn out much better to my mind:

Blind Translations (elsewhere known as homophonic translations) are a fine blend of translation & creativity: the poet-translator can neither speak nor read the poem’s original language but has formed a translation nonetheless. The linguistic materials are laid bare as acrylic in an abstract painting, and the poetic result is at once a rigidly excising form poem and a tribute to Surrealism, an extension of avant-gardist poetic activity spanning many traditions.

I don’t agree with the identification with homophonic translations, since in my experience the latter are done with an awareness of the original text’s meaning and a stronger commitment to keeping the sound; these, at least from the examples they give, use the sound/look of the original as a springboard to inspire a new poem in English, and I think utter ignorance of the meaning is a help to producing good work. Here’s a brief example; the original is by the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, the “translation” by John Bradley:

Yes, you, my angel.
You used to, possibly in a cradle
Slowly but always sooner.
A meadow talking in its sleep.
Barely gone no beetle pulls you.
I ravine your oxygen.
Just please slap me pretty hard.

My Slovenian is nonexistent, but with the help of a dictionary plus general knowledge of Slavic [plus bulbul’s comment—thanks!] I can tell you that the original (below the fold) means ‘You are my angel / mouth sprinkled with chalk / I am a servant of the ceremony. / Untouched [intact/virgin] // White mushrooms on a white field. / In a plain of fire. // I walk on golden dust.’

[Read more…]


And speaking of family names, I love this excerpt from They Call Me Naughty Lola, a collection of “witty and eccentric lonely hearts ads from the London Review of Books ” (reviewed here—thanks, Nick!):

Stroganoff. Boysenberry. Frangipani. Words with their origins in people’s names. If your name has produced its own entry in the OED then I’ll make love to you. If it hasn’t, I probably will anyway, but I’ll only want you for your body. Man of too few distractions, 32.

I dunno, though: the OED says only “said to be from Frangipani, the name of the inventor” (emphasis added); this guy could get his heart broken by an imposter.
Update. The County Clerk has done a thorough investigation of all things frangipani/plumeria-related along with various enjoyable divagations, such as a long description of Septimus Piesse’s odophone. Visit and revel!


An occasional feature here at LH is Family Names With Surprising Etymologies (e.g., Janeway), and today’s is Pancoast. When my nonagenarian mother-in-law mentioned that somebody she’d known seventy years ago was called that, I thought she might be misremembering, but no, it turns out there is such a name, and furthermore, it’s a chopped-down form of Pentecost! Man, I love etymology.
Totally unrelated, but in honor of an exchange between John Emerson and Aidan Kehoe in this thread, here‘s a good Penny Arcade. (Thanks, Songdog!)


Lameen at Jabal al-Lughat has come across a language textbook that sounds like a satirist’s invention, but it’s apparently all too real:

I’m researching Chadic imperatives at the moment, so I opened Angass Manual – written by H. D. Foulkes, Captain (late R. F. A.), Political Officer, Nigeria in 1915) to the appropriate section, and found it to consist solely of the following advice:

The Imperative is of the same form as the rest of the verbal forms, only uttered with the necessary tone of authority.

[…]I particularly like how he explains that Angass grammar is really simple:

“The language is so simple in construction that I am hoping a study of it may help in elucidating the groundwork of more elaborated Negro languages.”

This is the best bit:

“The only difficulty – but it is a very real one – in the colloquial is the apparently capricious employment of a large number of particles, the use of which, though immaterial from a grammatical point of view, is, however, necessary in practice, for without them the sentence certainly loses its flavour, and seemingly some of its sense, in that an ordinary man cannot understand a phrase unless it is enunciated exactly in the way he is accustomed to hearing it, and the omission or transposition of a word bothers him considerably.”

Truly, the mind boggles. We’ve come a long way, baby! (I presume “Angass” is the language Ethnologue calls Ngas.)


1) I’m excited about this. I may have to read it in hardcover. (Great, another thousand-page hardcover after November 1916—it will either strengthen me or kill me.)
2) There’s an interesting AskMetaFilter thread about slang migrating westward across the Atlantic: “Are there any British / Australian / New Zealand or wherever phrases and words that have become commonly used by people in North America recently? Do Brooklynites ever exclaim ‘Crikey!’ or ‘Bloody Hell!’?” A surprising number of Americans do seem to use bits of slang picked up from The Office or Harry Potter; as I say in my comment, “I always have to temper my irritation at Yanks tossing around Brit slang they picked up from watching TV with the reflection that it’s just language change at work and I don’t want to turn into a fuddy-duddy before my time.”
3) A MetaFilter post linked to Street Use (featuring “the ways in which people modify and re-create technology”), which links to this wonderful Russian site, where not only can you see things like hangers made from insulators, but if you click on the audio icon at the bottom of the page you get a page with a transcript of someone (often the creator) talking about the object and how it came to be made (e.g., here‘s the page for the hangers), and if you click on the icon on that page you hear the voice itself (RealAudio, I’m afraid). It’s great to hear these people reminsicing about the conditions under which they or their relatives came up with these creative solutions to Soviet shortages.
4) One of my linguistic heroes, Franz Bopp, gets extensive coverage at Varieties of Unreligious Experience: “It was for his brutal rigour that Bopp was admired ever since: the science he brought to perfection still survives, though many of his conclusions have been revised.” I think the dryasdust stuff is overstated (in historical linguistics, quiet rigor is infinitely preferable to excitable speculation), and I could have done without the final paean to the linguistic genius of Joseph Stalin, but it’s all forgivable beside the unexpected pleasure of seing Opa Franz celebrated here in the 21st century.


See back formation and morphological reanalysis in their full glory at this hilarious post (it would be worthless without the picture!) by Mark Liberman at Language Log. And while we’re at it, has anybody ever heard/used “an ahundred” (from the second part of the post)?


The Arabic Papyrology Database allows you to search Arabic documents on papyrus, parchment and paper from the 7th up the 16th century A.D. – there are now 414 (out of ca. 2,000) at your disposal. Use this database to locate relevant historical data, investigate linguistic peculiarities, find references and more. [The APD is for] papyrologists, historians, philologists, editors, professors, students: Specialists in Arabic studies, Islamic studies, history of the Middle East upt to the 10th/16th c., Islamic law, linguisits, historians in general – just anyone dealing with Arabic documents. Try it out!

Firefox only, so far; sorry, IE users. (Via wood s lot.)


In the “Talk of the Town” section of last week’s New Yorker, there’s a story about an incident in which rich person Steve Wynn decided to sell a Picasso to rich person Steven Cohen for $139 million, but in the course of showing off his prize possession to a bunch of other rich people he accidentally put his elbow through the painting and decided to keep it after all. This being a language blog, I don’t have to try to express exactly how I feel about these rich people and their art deals, but I do want to comment on one phrase in the story, which I have put in bold: “Mary Boies ordered a six-litre bottle of Bordeaux, and when it was empty she had everyone sign the label, to commemorate the calamitous afternoon.” Now, there is a well-established system of nomenclature for wine bottles, and the correct term for a six-liter* bottle of Bordeaux is imperial (image). I find it baffling that when the rare occasion arises for talking about such a bottle you would scorn the chance to use a wonderful word like imperial (not quite as imposing as methuselah, the word for a six-liter bottle of Burgundy or champagne, but splendid enough). I’m guessing that the rich person ordering the bottle did not use the mot juste (“Bring us your biggest bottle of Petrus!” is more likely), but it saddens me that the magazine did not choose lexicographic precision over the mathematical variety.
*Why on earth is the New Yorker using the British spelling of liter? Nothing against British spellings, but they do not belong in New York publications.


Last year I posted about Glagolitic in Unicode; now I’m happy to report that Avva has created a gizmo that converts Cyrillic text into “true Cyrillic,” or Glagolitic, in image form. He says you can copy the result into a blog post, but when I try to post the Glagolitic equivalent of истинная кириллица ‘true Cyrillic,’ I get: “The image “[long string of code]” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors”; perhaps someone can explain to this neanderthal how to make it work.


Language Log has been on a tear for some time now about the increasingly ridiculous insistence on the part of the NY Times on a figleaf of dashes to avoid the horrid appearance of words which it is virtually inconceivable any of their readers have not encountered; here is the most recent extended discussion, and here for your convenience is a full listing of all “Language Log postings on taboo vocabulary.” It has rarely seemed so ridiculous as in Deborah Solomon’s interview with Harry G. Frankfurt, author of a bestselling book whose title the Times gives as “On Bull—.” Needless to say, the actual title is On Bullshit; you can read a description (and the first chapter) at the publisher’s site, which also has a link to images of the covers of a number of translations (oddly, it’s simply Bullshit in German; I’d be interested in the verdict of people who know Hebrew and Japanese on the titles used for those languages). The entire interview focuses on the book, the word, and the concept, and by my count the fig-hidden term “bull—” appears eight times in a very short talk. It’s almost as if Ms. Solomon was deliberately highlighting the absurdity of the policy; if so, good for her. The Times routinely commits worse sins against language, but you’d think they’d want to avoid looking not only dumb but laughably out of it.