Archives for April 2007


Another quote from Farewell to Salonica (earlier discussed here):

Ever anxious to increase his proficiency in literary Turkish, Father read the works of Dumas in that language, translating into Spanish as he went along, for our benefit. Every now and then he would interrupt himself to find the exact meaning of a word in a thick dictionary, while we waited in silence.

Wherever Father went he took with him one or another of these novels, studying the language assiduously. Once, on a trip to Albania, alone in the compartment of the train, he was reading The Queen’s Necklace when, at a small station, a venerable old Turk entered his compartment and took a seat opposite him. After the usual polite greetings Father closed the book on his lap and placed it on the seat next to him. From across the way the old Turk surveyed him for a moment, then, arising, he picked up the book, kissed it reverently, and laid it on the rack above Father’s head. “My son,” he remonstrated kindly, “praised be Allah! It is praiseworthy of you to be reading the words of our prophet. But you should never treat the Holy Book with such disrespect as to place it where people sit.”

“Why didn’t you tell him it was a novel?” Mother asked.

“A novel!” Father exclaimed smilingly. “To the simple old man, what other book could I have been reading but the Koran? What other book is there but the Holy Book?”

Besides his study of Turkish, Father was working to perfect his Bulgarian…

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I don’t know how I’ve made it into my mid-50s without having seen this story before, but I love it. In the course of Mark Liberman’s Language Log post on “typographical bleeping,” he quotes the American Heritage Dictionary as follows:

The obscenity fuck is a very old word and has been considered shocking from the first, though it is seen in print much more often now than in the past. Its first known occurrence, in code because of its unacceptability, is in a poem composed in a mixture of Latin and English sometime before 1500. The poem, which satirizes the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England, takes its title, “Flen flyys,” from the first words of its opening line, “Flen, flyys, and freris,” that is, “fleas, flies, and friars.” The line that contains fuck reads “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.” The Latin words “Non sunt in coeli, quia,” mean “they [the friars] are not in heaven, since.” The code “gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk” is easily broken by simply substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, keeping in mind differences in the alphabet and in spelling between then and now: i was then used for both i and j; v was used for both u and v; and vv was used for w. This yields “fvccant [a fake Latin form] vvivys of heli.” The whole thus reads in translation: “They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge].”

If only I’d known that in seventh grade! (The OED apparently doesn’t consider this an actual attestation, because their first citation is “a1503 DUNBAR Poems lxxv. 13 Be his feiris he wald haue fukkit”; I don’t know whether that’s because of the code or because it’s fake Latin rather than straight English. And a correspondent cites the lines in Notes and Queries for Oct. 13, 1855 without the encoded words, saying “My omissions are put in cypher by Mr. Wright, and are not producible [sic].” He has misunderstood Wright’s own fastidious words in his Reliquiæ Antiquæ: Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts: “The expressions concealed by the cypher, as in the MS., are rather gross, and do not speak much for the morals of the Carmelites of Cambridge.” At any rate, at the last link you can see the entire poem, such as it is, with the further encoded line “Fratres cum knyvys goth about and txxkxzv nfookt xxzxkt.”)

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Having finished the Papashvily book, I’ve moved on to another memoir, published a year later (1946) and also borrowed from my mother-in-law, Farewell to Salonica by Leon Sciaky (pronounced SHOCK-ee), born in 1893 in what is now the Greek city of Thessaloniki but was then the Turkish city of Selanik, known in the West as Salonica. Diane Matza wrote in 1987 that “Lists of autobiographies by immigrant Jews in the United States do not include Sciaky’s work, nor does criticism of Jewish autobiography mention it” and says “this error must be corrected” because “Farewell to Salonica is the only autobiography written by a Sephardic immigrant who came to the United States in the 1880-1924 period.” Aside from its historical importance, it’s a wonderful read, bringing to life a privileged childhood in a privileged community that had recreated its lost Iberian homeland in the Ottoman Empire (as Mazower says in his Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, about which I wrote here and here, “For this home was not only their ‘Jerusalem’; it was also a simulacrum of the life they had known at the other end of the Mediterranean. They worshipped in synagogues named after the old long-abandoned homelands… Their family names—Navarro, Cuenca, Algava—their games, curses, and blessings, even their clothes, linked them with their past… When Spanish scholars visited the city at the end of the nineteenth century, they were astonished to find a miniature Iberia alive and flourishing under Abdul Hamid.”) I’ll quote from Chapter Three, in which the five-year-old Sciaky visits his great-grandmother Bisnona Miriam (born in 1804) and her sister Tia Gracia (born in 1796) in their house, a block south of his parents’ on Sabri Pasha Street (now Venizelou) in the Muslim center of the city:

“Bisnona, why don’t you sing a romanza?”
“Do you like romanzas, little soul of mine? People don’t enjoy them any more.”
“Nona Plata sings romanzas, and I like them better than Sarica’s songs.”
Bisnona would sigh a deep sigh, a far-away look would come to her eyes, and softly she would croon old songs, songs brought from Spain by our hidalgo forefathers centuries ago. She would sing of Queen Isabella at her embroidery frame, working with needle of gold and threads of love; of Parisi, her first-beloved, and of his ships and sails of silk and purple riggings. She would sing of the son of the good count, a page in the court of the king; of the plotting of the jealous courtiers; of his melodious singing which saves his life when the passing king reins his horse to listen and exclaim:

“Si Angel es de los cielos,
O sirena de la mar?”

“Is it an angel from Heaven
Or a siren from the sea?”

“Another one, Bisnona, please!” I would beg at the end of each. “The one about Julian, Bisnona!” Her eyes sparkling with excitement and with a flush on her wrinkled face, Bisnona would adjust the chiffon kerchief on her snow-white hair and oblige her “little lamb.”

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William Meredith’s 1976 essay “The Luck of It” begins with this meditation on how poems and poets work:

A poet approaches language in the spirit of a woodman who asks pardon of the dryad in a tree before he cuts it down. Words are inhabited by the accumulated experience of the tribe. The average poet adds about as much to the language as he adds to the nitrogen content of his native soil. But he can administer the force that resides in words.

It is the magic inhabiting the language that he administers, all the lived meaning that the noises have picked up in the days and nights since they were first uttered. He finds ways to revive that total meaning, or a part of it he wants to use, as he makes his verbal artifacts. His very attentive use of a word, associating it with other words used with equal attention (for no word is an island), astonishes us the way we would be astonished to hear a dryad speak pardon out of an oak tree. And as if this were not all elfin enough already, he does the job largely at a subconscious level. His intelligence stands around, half the time, like a big, friendly, stupid apprentice, handing him lopping-shears when he wants the chain saw.

In “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” Hopkins demonstrates this magic of association in the tremendous energy of the opening and closing lines. “Towery city and branchy between towers;”—who would have imagined there was all that going on in those six words before they were joined in that sequence? And of Duns Scotus himself, the final line says, “Who fired France for Mary without spot.” Kinesis is all, and the energy is in the words rather than in the thinky parts of man’s mind.

He goes on to discuss his own poetry and my attention wanders, but I like that opening. (Via wood s lot.)


From the e-ZISS website:

The e-ZISS digital critical editions of Slovenian literature offer selected Slovenian texts with integrated facsimiles, transcriptions and scholarly commentary, in some cases including audiovisual recordings.
The e-ZISS project strives to create a synthesis of three components. The first one is the tradition of Slovenian literature, reaching from medieval manuscripts and folk songs to works of literary art. The second component is ecdotics – the tradition of philological study of texts and their presentations in critical editions. The third component is modern information technology… Digital critical editions do not supersede classical printed editions, but offer several additions, and a way to a more varied reader’s reception.

There are a number of items at the site, but the one my correspondent Paul alerted me to is particularly striking, the Freising Manuscripts:

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I’m reading a charming book called Anything Can Happen by George Papashvily (with his wife Helen, but it’s told in the first person by George); it’s the reminiscences, hokey and in sometimes overly cutesy “immigrant English” but heartfelt, funny, and moving, of a man who left Soviet Georgia for America in the early 1920s. (I have the first edition from 1945, borrowed from my nonagenarian mother-in-law, but as you can see from the Amazon link it’s been much reprinted and is still easily available, which testifies to its irresistible quality.) I thought I’d quote some of Chapter IV, “The Sound of Home”:

In all that time except for those first few months in New York I never heard one word spoken in my own language—Georgian… Once when I was still in Pittsburgh a Turk told me his cousin in Wheeling knew a man who could speak Georgian. So when was my day off—I was still in glue factory this time—I rode over on the bus and found this cousin. But it turned out his friend had been in Batum only a week or two in 1918…
Then one day I heard about the big professors at the university. They were writing books and speaking many languages… So I thought—such big professors—maybe one of them can speak Georgian.
On my day off I took plenty of time and got dressed up and went over to the university. High up in a marble building I found two men. Syrian, Russian, Greek, Persian, Armenian, Tartar, they were speaking all those languages like English—but Georgian, no, not a word.
They shook their heads and one took down a big book from the shelf. He said, “Do you know you speak one of the few tongues in the world that is unrelated to any other language group?” [!]
“Traces of Sumerian may be noted in it, I believe,” said the other…. [!!]

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For a long time stately, plump Buck Mulligan used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when he had put out his candle, a yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. And half an hour later he held the bowl aloft and intoned: Introibo ad altare dei; he would try to put away the book which, he imagined, was still in his hands, and he would peer down the dark winding stairs and call out coarsely: Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!; he had been thinking all the time, while he was asleep, of what he had just been reading, but his thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest: a church, a tower, the surrounding land and the awaking mountains. This impression would persist for some moments after he was awake; it did not disturb his mind, but, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he would bend towards him and make rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Then Stephen Dedalus would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would lean his arms on the top of the staircase and look coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him; and at the same time his sight would return and he would peep an instant under the mirror and then cover the bowl smartly. He would peer sideways up and give a long slow whistle of call, then pause awhile in rapt attention, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed.

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A correspondent named Dave wrote me with the following query:

It’s about “Imam bayildi”, a fantastic Turkish eggplant dish that I learnt recently, usually translated as “the imam fainted” with a convoluted folkstory explaining the name (these stories are funny and cool: the imam fainted when he realised the amount of olive oil in the dish, the imam fainted because of how exquisite it tastes etc). Helping my sister-in-law record an evolving recipe, I came across this blog entry with a comment that suggests two meanings for bayil (“The verb BAYIL-MAK has 2 meanings in Turkish. 1. fainted 2. enjoy something very much…”), the second of which, if good, sacrifices fun for sense… What do you think?

What I thought was “Damn, I’ve been telling that story about the imam fainting for years—you mean it’s just bad definition?” I looked in my Langenscheidt and sure enough, it said “bayılmak 1. to faint, to swoon; 2. to like greatly, to be enraptured (by).” So, Turkish speakers: does the dish’s name mean simply ‘the imam enjoyed it a lot,’ or is ‘fainted’ what native speakers understand by it?


Brian of What is food for language? has a post called “Mana 101” that gives good examples of the early early Japanese writing system called mana or man’yōgana. As the Wikipedia entry says:

Man’yōgana (万葉仮名) is an ancient form of Japanese kana which uses Chinese characters to represent Japanese sounds. The date of its earliest usage is not clear, but it seems to have been in use since at least the sixth century. The name man’yōgana is from the Man’yōshū (万葉集, “Anthology of Myriad Leaves”), a Japanese poetry anthology from the Nara period written in man’yōgana.

(I was familiar with that name, but not with mana, and I’m curious to know if there’s any distinction between the terms, and who uses which when.) Brian writes:

Matt at No-Sword introduced me to a text called the Shinji (or Mana) Ise Monogatari, an edition of the Tales of Ise written entirely in kanji… The text is written in “mana,” sometimes called “man’yôgana” in modern scholarship, but the meaning of these terms can seem very fuzzy at times, so I thought it would be useful to go through a section of it to introduce some of the orthographic techniques it uses.

He quotes the first few lines with a kana gloss, a modern text, an English translation, and a photo of the actual book, giving a thorough explanation of how it works (with some nice crunchy Early Middle Chinese reconstructions) and concluding “This text is a great example of the richness of premodern Japanese writing practices, and of the problems with trying to draw a neat line between kana and kanbun writing.” Should be good reading for anyone interested in Japanese writing.


In spelling, anyway, according to this Diário de Lisboa post (in Portuguese), which says:

O português é a terceira língua ocidental mais falada, após o inglês e o espanhol. A ocorrência de ter duas ortografias atrapalha a divulgação do idioma e a sua prática em eventos internacionais. Sua unificação, no entanto, facilitará a definição de critérios para exames e certificados para estrangeiros. Com as modificações propostas no acordo, calcula-se que 1,6% do vocabulário de Portugal seja modificado. No Brasil, a mudança será bem menor: 0,45% das palavras terão a escrita alterada.
[Portuguese is the third most spoken Western language, after English and Spanish. Having two orthographies confuses the propagation of the language and its use for international events. Its unification will facilitate the definition of criteria for exams and certificates for foreigners. With the proposed changes, calculations show that 1.6% of the vocabulary will be changed in Portugal. In Brazil, the change will be less: 0.45% of words will have their writing altered.]

You can see the details of the changes there; the odd thing is that “Portugal keeps the acute accent on stressed e and o before m or n, while Brazil continues to use circumflex in such words: académico/acadêmico, génio/gênio, fenómeno/fenômeno, bónus/bônus.” You’d think if they were going to unify, they’d go all the way. But as Antonios Sarhanis, who sent me the link, says, “It must be that the Brazilians are as attached to their hats as you are to yours.” Thanks for the link and the laugh, Antonios!

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