Archives for November 2006


Another gem from wood s lot: Ithaka/Ιθάκη presents all the poems of Constantine Cavafy (Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης) in both English and Greek, many with audio files, as well as a biography (English, Greek), a gallery of images (including his passport, signed in both Greek and Roman script), and much more. I remember a drunken evening in Athens when I celebrated my birthday by reciting “Η πόλις” (“The City“) in public and getting too much retsina bought for me as a result; it’s still one of the most powerful poems of pessimism I know (right up there with “This Be the Verse“). The site does justice to a great poet.


Paul Blackburn has long been one of my favorite poets (he provided one of the first poetry posts at LH), and I’m happy to discover (via wood s lot) that back in 2000 Jacket magazine had a section devoted to him in their October issue, including his Statement:

My poetry may not be typically American, or at least in matter, not solely so: but I think it does make use of certain techniques which, even when not invented by American poets, find their particular exponents there in contemporary letters, from Pound & Doctor Williams, to younger writers like Paul Carroll or Duncan or Creeley.
  Techniques of juxtaposition.
  Techniques of speech rhythms,
        sometimes very intense,
        sometimes developed slowly, as
        one would have
    conversation with a friend.
Personally, I affirm two things:
           the possibility of warmth & contact
            in the human relationship :
as juxtaposed against the materialistic pig of a technological world,
where relationships are only ‘useful’ i.e., exploited, either
   psychologically or materially.
            2º, the possibility of s o n g
within that world: which is like saying ‘yes’ to sunlight.
  On the matter of song: I believe there must be a return toward the
musical structure of poetry, just as there must be, for certain people at
least, a return to warmth within a relationship….


Language Log has been especially lively lately, and I wanted to share some of my favorite items:
1) Comments on the news story that “Mapuche tribal leaders have accused [Microsoft] of violating their cultural and collective heritage by translating the software into Mapuzugun without their permission”: Mark Liberman, Geoff Pullum.
2) Mark Liberman’s post on prescriptivism in literature, with glorious extended quotes from Thomas Pynchon, Mark Twain, and Stephen Fry, not to mention the immortal “Romanes eunt domus” sequence from Life of Brian.
3) Bill Poser’s post of a wonderful map of South Asia that has the name of each region written in its own alphabet.
4) And Mark Liberman doggedly pursues his continuing coverage of the issue of whether women talk more than men: 1, 2, 3, 4.


Random finds while looking up other words in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate:
capoeira ‘a Brazilian dance of African origin’: Brazilian Portuguese, kind of martial art, ruffian skilled in this art, fugitive slave living in the forest, from capão island of forest in a clear-cut area, from Tupi ka’apáũ, from ka’á forest + paũ round
caponata ‘a relish of chopped eggplant and assorted vegetables’: Italian, from Italian dialect (Sicily) capunata, sailor’s dish of biscuit steeped in oil and vinegar, chopped vegetables served similarly, from Catalan caponada dry bread soaked in oil and vinegar, perhaps from capó capon
trocar ‘a sharp-pointed surgical instrument’: from French trocart, alteration of trois-quart from trois three + carre edge
trona ‘a gray-white or yellowish-white monoclinic mineral’: Swedish, probably from Arabic natrun natron


For six months I read Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta to my wife at bedtime, and Friday night we finally got him to Jidda and a respite from dates and danger. To celebrate his, and our, deliverance, here are some quotes of linguistic interest from Vol. II (I quoted an earlier one here):

And there are phrases which, like their brand-marks, declare the tribes of nomads: these were, I believe, northern men. One, as I came, showed me to his rafik, with this word: Urraie urraie, hu hu! ‘Look there! he (is) he, this is the Nasrâny.’ — Cheyf Nasrâny? (I heard the other answer, with the hollow drought of the desert in his manly throat), agûl! weysh yúnsurhu? He would say, “How is this man victorious, what giveth him the victory?” In this strange word to him the poor Beduwy thought he heard nasr, which is victory. (p. 69)
…And opening the sheet, which was folded in our manner, I found a letter from the Pasha of Medina! written (imperfectly) as follows, in the French language; with the date of the Christian year, and signed in the end with his name, — Sabry. [Ad literam.] Le 11 janvier 1878 [Medine] D’après l’avertissement de l’autorité local, nous sommes saché votre arrivée a Khaiber… Mohammed asked ‘What had the Pasha written? he would hear me read his letter in the Nasrâny language:’ and he stood to listen with great admiration. ‘Pitta-pitta-pitta! is such their speech?’ laughed he; and this was his new mirth in the next coffee meetings. (pp. 221-3)
Finally the good Sherîf said, I spoke well in Arabic: where had I learned? (I pronounced, in the Nejd manner, the nûn in the end of nouns used indifferently, and sometimes the Beduin plurals; which might be pleasant in a townsman’s hearing.) (p. 555)
The living language of the Arabs dispersed through so vast regions is without end, and can never be all learned; the colocynth gourd hámthal of the western Arabians, shérry in middle Nejd, is here [at Taif] called el-hádduj. (pp. 560-1)

And there were all manner of unusual words and meanings to send me to the dictionary, such as anatomy ‘skeleton,’ nonage ‘legal infancy,’ and mawkish ‘nauseating,’ not to mention “the enigmatology of Solomon.”

[Read more…]


Bridget Samuels, of the late lamented ilani ilani, has started a new project called, which she describes chez The Tensor (in response to his call for information about language blogs) as “a place where anyone can submit, comment on, and vote for linguistics-related news stories, sort of like Digg for linguists.” If that sounds like a good idea to you, go on over and register; then

When you come across a cool linguistic story, go to and submit the link along with a brief description using the ‘Submit a story’ button on the sidebar… Each story can only go into one basic category. Right now there are categories for animal [communication] & [language] evolution, general linguistics, historical, morphology, phonology, semantics, sociolinguistics, and syntax.

I join her in hoping becomes a useful resource for the linguistics community.


Internet commerce is a wonderful thing, but there’s nothing like spending time in an actual bookstore. Today my stepson and his wife treated me to a visit to the Book Mill, where I found all sorts of great books. Before I headed for the register, I managed to whittle my pile down to four: The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-war Movement by Michael Melancon (an old Louisiana name that is apparently pronounced me-LAW-son), Patriotic Culture in Russia During World War I by Hubertus F. Jahn, Intelligentsia and Revolution: Russian Views of Bolshevism, 1917-1922 by Jane Burbank, and Africa from the Twelfth to the Sxteenth Century edited by J. Ki-Zerbo and D. T. Niane. I started the Melancon book on the way back from the bookstore, and it’s already removed the bad taste left in my mouth from this one.
Update. I wrote to Prof. Melancon to thank him for his superb book after I finished it, and of course I asked him about his name, and he replied that although “the South Louisiana way of saying it is indeed MeLAWso(n),” he himself pronounces it “the more proper French way… Mela(n)SO(N).”


In my journey through Russian history, I’ve finally gotten up to 1917 (having spent two months on Solzhenitsyn’s November 1916—not a great novel, but a great portrait of a country on the verge of revolution). Imagine my delight when I discovered there was a book called A Brief History of 1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution that allegedly answered to the following description:

Much has been written about the key figures—Lenin, Trotsky, Kerensky, and the rest—while the various political movements have been relentlessly analyzed. Yet there is another side to it, a more human story. What was life like for a peasant or a manual worker in Petrograd or Moscow in 1917? How much did a tram driver, his wife, or a common soldier know or understand about Bolshevism? What was the price of a loaf of bread or a pair of boots? Who kept the power stations running, the telephone exchanges, bakeries, farms, and hospitals working? These are just some of the details historian Roy Bainton brings to life, not through memoirs of politicians and philosophers, but in the memories of ordinary working people. As witnessed on the streets of Petrograd, Bainton brings us the indelible events of the most momentous year in Russian history.

That sounded like just the ticket: I had plenty of serious histories and analyses, but a man-on-the-street perspective would provide an invaluable counterpoint. Thanks to the magic of the internet, a few clicks on Saturday brought the book to my door yesterday, and I tore open the package with high anticipation. Today, having read the first few chapters, I am filled with disappointment verging on rage, and I’m afraid I’m going to share it with you.
The author, Roy Bainton, according to the bio in the book “served in the Merchant Navy and has travelled around the world three times. He has written extensively for newspapers and magazines and has been a regular contributor to Radio 4.” So not a historian, then, but so what? As long as he put together a good collection of reminiscences, he could be a professional ping-pong player for all I cared. I wasn’t fazed by hitting a mistake on the very first page of the introduction: “I had paused at a pavement bar on Nachilnaya Street on Vasilievskiy Island for a much-needed cold beer.” Hey, it’s Nalichnaya, not “Nachilnaya,” but he’s just a reporter, took sloppy notes, so what? It’s just the introduction; wait’ll he gets to the good stuff! The introduction goes on too long and is full of cliches and potted history (“Russia’s twentieth-century past is not the golden age socialists had hoped for. Within a few short years of Lenin’s death, the blunt, expedient weapons of terror, mass arrest and imprisonment… a new historical zenith in organized cruelty… a dull, monochrome lifestyle… a giant slap in the face for the hopeful proletariat of 1917…”), but doubtless the publishers demanded a historical summary; wait’ll he gets to the good stuff! Then I hit Chapter 1 and realized there wasn’t going to be any good stuff. Or, more precisely, the good stuff, the actual reminiscences, were occasional tidbits plunked into the great doughy mass of his horrible journalistic prose and his appalling misunderstanding of Russia and its history. For some reason he felt the need to try to make this your one-stop shopping source for the year 1917 instead of a valuable supplement to real histories, ignoring the fact that he was as unqualified to write history as I am to play professional ping-pong. So we get tosh about Rasputin’s murder (“That it should have come not at the hands of some ragamuffin revolutionary but those of Prince Felix Yusupov—an Oxford-educated transvestite in possession of an immense fortune… The Browning revolver which pumped that fatal bullet into the mad mystic was the starting pistol of the revolution…”) and Petrograd (“Yet, this was still a city of contrasts…”) and politics (“Revolution was the loftier aim among the intelligentsia who led the more radical elements in the plethora of political organizations which met daily in Petrograd…”) that would be barely acceptable in a Sunday-supplement travel piece but is ludicrously inappropriate to a supposed book of history. But there was worse to come. On page 33 I hit the following farrago:

[Read more…]


Eric Banks (of the excellent BookForum) directed my attention to an amazing NY Times story by Donald G. McNeil Jr. called “For Some, the Words Just Roll Off the Tongue”:

Lexical-gustatories involuntarily “taste” words when they hear them, or even try to recall them, [Julia Simner, a cognitive neuropsychologist and synaesthesia expert at the University of Edinburgh] wrote in a study, “Words on the Tip of the Tongue,” published in the issue of Nature dated Thursday. She has found only 10 such people in Europe and the United States.
Magnetic-resonance imaging indicates that they are not faking, she said. The correct words light up the taste regions of their brains. Also, when given a surprise test a year later, they taste the same foods on hearing the words again.
(Synaesthetes are hardly ever described as “suffering from” the syndrome, because their doubled perceptions excite envy in many of us mere sensual Muggles.)
It can be unpleasant, however. One subject, Dr. Simner said, hates driving, because the road signs flood his mouth with everything from pistachio ice cream to ear wax.
And Dr. Simner has yet to figure out any logical pattern.
For example, the word “mince” makes one subject taste mincemeat, but so do rhymes like “prince.” Words with a soft “g,” as in “roger” or “edge,” make him taste sausage. But another subject, hearing “castanets,” tastes tuna fish. Another can taste only proper names: John is his cornbread, William his potatoes.
They cannot explain the links, she said. There is no Proustian madeleine moment — the flavors are just there.
But all have had the condition since childhood, so chocolate is commonly tasted, while olives and gin are not.

That’s the strangest thing I’ve heard in a while. (I wonder what “Languagehat” tastes like?)


Josh Wallaert has had the wonderful idea of blogging “Found poetry from the first edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). A new definition every day.” I had no idea Webster was such a creative and lyrical lexicographer, from the short and sweet:

Crowd, n.
An instrument of music with six strings; a kind of violin.


Holloa, exclam.
A word used in calling.
Among seamen, it is the answer to one that hails, equivalent to,
I hear, and am ready.

to the more discursive:

Badger, n.
A quadruped of the genus Ursus, of a clumsy make, with short, thick legs, and long claws on the fore feet. It inhabits the north of Europe and Asia, burrows, is indolent and sleepy, feeds by night on vegetables, and is very fat.
Its skin is used for pistol furniture; its flesh makes good bacon, and its hair is used for brushes to soften the shades in painting. The American badger is called the ground hog, and is sometimes white.

I’ve read that several times now, and I like it better each time: “Its skin is used for pistol furniture; its flesh makes good bacon, and its hair is used for brushes to soften the shades in painting.” (By the way, Jill Lepore had an excellent piece in the November 6 New Yorker, “Noah’s Mark: Webster and the original dictionary wars”; it’s not online, but if you have access to that issue it’s a good read.)
Update. In September 2008, Josh said: “After two years, this little corner of the internet has closed shop. You’re welcome to stick around and check out the Webster’s Daily archives.”