Archives for June 2007


Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat has an intriguing post questioning whether the Omotic languages of eastern Africa are (as they are said to be) part of the Afro-Asiatic family, linking the skeptical paper “Is Omotic Afroasiatic? A Critical Discussion” by Rolf Theil (pdf, HTML cache). I haven’t got time or energy to actually read Theil’s paper at the moment, so I’ll just accept Lameen’s judgment that it’s a “pretty good… argument against the hypothesis” (the discussion in his comment thread supports that judgment as well). I like Theil’s final passage:

My conclusion is that Omotic should be treated as an independent language family. No convincing alternative has ever been presented.
Hayward (1995: 11) writes that «[i]t is, of course, a relief not to have Omotic as an isolate; we do not need a whole family of ‘Basques’ on our hands!» An alternative point of view is possible. Africa is the cradle of mankind. Why are there no language isolates on a continent where humans have lived since language was invented?

The Hayward quote is bizarre. What could it possibly mean to say “we do not need a whole family of ‘Basques’ on our hands”? Are isolates somehow a threat to our well-being? Should we shove them into closets where they don’t belong just so they won’t stare at us from the abyssal depths of their mysterious eyes?


In my ongoing immersion in Russian history, I’m up to the Civil War, and one of the books I’ve been looking forward to is Ivan Bunin‘s Cursed Days, his diary of those awful times. The translator, Thomas Marullo, is a Bunin scholar, and the book comes with all the scholarly apparatus you’d hope for: preface, introduction, bibliography, glossary of names, index, and above all lots and lots of notes, sometimes taking up half the page (they’re footnotes, much easier to use than endnotes). Bunin is one of the great (and too neglected abroad) masters of Russian prose, and his unwavering eye brings wartime Moscow and Odessa to life, but those notes…

I was mildly irritated at first by the sheer plethora of them, the dutiful explication of things anyone could look up for themselves, sometimes on the map provided in the book: “Smolensk is an administrative and cultural center, 350 miles south of Saint Petersburg…” But I told myself “better to err on the side of excess,” and it was good to have detailed information on each newspaper Bunin mentions and be given a précis of the historical events he alludes to. An early warning sign of serious trouble came on page 36, when the footnote talked about a city called “Oredyosh”—it’s actually Oredezh (with the stress on the first syllable). But I didn’t actually put an appalled exclamation mark in the margin until page 59, when Bunin says “The Romans used to brand the faces of their prisoners with the words: ‘Cave furem'” and the footnote said “Beware the Madman.”

Fur (accusative furem) is the Latin word for ‘thief’; I can only suppose that the annotator got it confused with furor ‘madness,’ but really, you’d think the incongruity of the translation would have prompted a further look into the dictionary or a quick consultation with someone from the Classics Department. On page 60 Bunin mentions “Karakhan,” whom I looked up in the list of “Prominent individuals mentioned in the text” (many of them the opposite of prominent, but I’m not complaining) and found Karakhan, Lev Mikhailovich (1889-1937) with the helpful parenthesis “(pseudonym of Rozenfeld, Lev Borisovich)”—except that that belongs to Kamenev, Lev Borisovich (1883-1936), a few lines above! Furthermore, if you look up Karakhan in the index it says “See Rozenfeld, Lev”! On page 61 Bunin says “Derman has received news from Rostov: the Kornilov movement is weak there,” and the footnote says “Rostov, also known as Rostov the Great, is one of the oldest cities in Russia and is located roughly two hundred miles northeast of Moscow.” All well and good, except that the Rostov the author is talking about is Rostov-na-Donu (or Rostov-on-Don), about 600 miles south of Moscow, something that should be obvious to anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the geography of the Civil War: what the hell would Kornilov have been doing in the Yaroslavl Oblast? If there are mistakes like that in the things I know about, how can I trust the notes about things I don’t?

By comparison a minor annoyance, but the one that made me head for the computer to blog this whole mess, is the consistent spelling of Clemenceau as “Clemençeau”—why on earth would there be a cedilla on that c, coming as it does before an e? (If you’re going to misspell Clemenceau, the proper way is to put an accent aigu on the first e, which better reflects the pronunciation.) It bothers me more than I can say when books like this, which deserve to be sent out into the world with the best apparatus scholarship can provide, are treated so shabbily.


Language Log’s Ben Zimmer has a new column at OUPblog called “From A To Zimmer”; the first installment discusses the chances of getting invented words in dictionaries, about which he has useful things to say. (One candidate: hangry, “an extremely useful adjective to describe a person suffering from hunger-induced crankiness.”) A hearty Languagehat welcome to this newest addition to the linguablogosphere! (Via Mark Liberman at Language Log.)


I recently discovered, a site that reprints excerpts from century-old Russian newspapers (and I mean exactly century-old—they’ve just put up material from June 15/28, 1907). I was planning to post about it anyway, but today I happened on one of their many subsections, called Без’Ятие (bezyatie, “yatlessness”), about efforts to reform Russian orthography, and in particular to expel the letter yat. I had no idea there was such serious discussion of it as early as 1904 (the actual reform didn’t occur until 1917), and it’s fun to see the journalistic discussion of it. I particularly enjoyed this, from the Apr. 14/27, 1904 issue of Rus’:

Diary of a Columnist
Today I received the following letter:
“In Petersburg a club has been formed called “Azbuka” [‘Alphabet’], with the aim of eliminating the letter yat from Russian spelling by the simple method of not writing it any more. Anyone joining the club is thereby committed to writing without the letter yat. Those who wish to join the club should send their full name to the following address: St. Petersburg, Znamenskaya 10, apartment 3, Pavel Bryunelli.”
Fully sympathizing with the goals of the club, I immediately enrolled and thus am obliged to write from now on without the yat, and I invite all my readers to do the same. The sooner this completely superfluous and unneeded letter is removed, the better it will be for both schools and life: in school there will be fewer chances to waste years unnecessarily, printers will eliminate one compartment from their type cases, typesetters and especially proofreaders will feel a tremendous sense of relief in correcting proofs. I am not exaggerating in the least if I say that every newspaper that decides to expel the letter yat from use will come out half an hour, if not an entire hour, earlier…
So godspeed! long live “yatlessness”! may social/public/voluntary [общественная] initiative go forward even in this small matter.

It all makes me even more eager to read Orfografiya.


Back in January I mentioned the name Iwo Jima in connection with its first element (which means ‘sulfur’); now it’s in the news because the island has been renamed Iwoto (more accurately, Iōtō), which is what its inhabitants called it before the war:

“I have felt something was wrong because the name of my hometown was called by a different name after the end of the war. I’m really happy,” said 74-year-old Yoshiharu Okamoto, who heads an association of former Iwoto residents.

The interesting, and very Japanese, thing is that the written form stays exactly the same, 硫黄島; the last character, meaning ‘island,’ can be read either (the Sino-Japanese reading) or shima/jima (the native Japanese reading). Thanks for the Japan Times link go to frequent commenter (and superb blogger) MMcM.


A 1917 article from the the Washington Post reproduced by etymolog (the link goes to his promising new blog) in this Wordorigins thread sheds light on the new slang created or popularized by British soldiers during WWI and how it was perceived:

War Brings New Lingo
British Soldiers Enjoy Slang as Hospital Pastime.—Talk In Strange Metaphor—Visit to Operating Room Known as “Going to the Pictures”—Recruits From All Parts of World Add to New Language of Army Life in Europe.
London, July 21.— An entirely new crop of slang has come into force in the British army during the past year. They have taken the place of “blighty” and the rest of the picturesque synonyms that were uppermost a year or so ago. A hospital orderly writes about them as follows:
“There is a brand of cheap cigarettes, popular in the army, known by the name of ‘Singles to Woking.’ The allusion enwrapped in this mild witticism is typical of the oblique mischievousness which characterizes the best of Tommy’s slang. Tommy has a passion for what one might call the pseudo-grumble. He is a grouser who doesn’t mean his grousing to be taken seriously.
Jokes of “Danger Last.”
“Having served for two terms as an orderly in a war hospital, I may claim to speak with some assurance of that lovable, absurd, cheery malcontent — the British soldier. I have heard him crack jokes about a timber shortage, for instance. Can you guess why? Because he had found out that officially he was on what is known as the Danger List (and let me say that only a hero could crack jokes when in such a state as to be on the Danger List), and was voicing the charming theory that he might be ‘bilked of a coffin.’ That is our fearless and macabre Mr. Atkins all over. Another of his war hospital pleasantries is to announce that he is ‘going to the pictures.’ This is the regular phrase for the visit to the operating theater. And isn’t it rather fine?
“But I wish Tommy would rid himself of his habit of using rhyming slang. It is a curse, this vast list of synonyms which, I can only surmise, originated somewhere far back in the thieves’ latin of the tramp. Both the old army and the new are in the thraldom of the inane lingo. ‘Chevvy chase’ means ‘face,’ ‘mince pie’ means ‘eye,’ ‘false alarm’ means ‘arm,’ ‘almond rocks’ means ‘socks,’ ‘daisy root’ means ‘boot.’ I could (for my sins) continue the dismal catalogue down a column.

There’s considerably more at the Wordorigins thread; it’s a great look into the linguistic environment of 90 years ago.


There is apparently a Senegalese-American hip-hop singer and producer named Akon (IPA pronunciation: /ˈeɪ.kɑn/) who says his full name is Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam. I haven’t kept up with the pop music scene for, oh, a couple of decades now, so I learned of his existence from this stereogum thread (sent to me by Liosliath—thanks, Liosliath!), which links to a heated Wikipedia discussion on whether the name is real. People who actually know Wolof are saying it’s bullshit, and in particular that the “Damala Bouga Time” part means “I wanna f*ck you” in Wolof. (The counterargument that “The ‘truth’ doesn’t matter, it’s sourced and should stay” showcases the crazed nature of Wikipedian fundamentalism.) My Wolof references make it clear that dama la bëgg (to use the accepted orthography) means ‘I like you’ (bëgg being ‘to love, like, want’), so it’s plausible that dama la bëgg timee (if the spelling used by a stereogum commenter is correct) means what it’s said to mean; the fact that my dictionary doesn’t have an entry for timee makes sense if that’s as vulgar a verb as it’s cracked up to be. Anybody know?


I’m reading Hayden N. Pelliccia’s review of two newish translations of Virgil (by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo) in the Apr. 12 New York Review of Books. I haven’t gotten to the part where he talks about the translations yet (in true NYRB fashion, that comes as an afterthought on the last page), but I thought I’d share an interesting excursus on a particular allusion. He’s discussing the famous scene in Book VI of the Aeneid in which Aeneas, having descended to the underworld (in imitation of Homer’s Odysseus), is confronted with the shade of Dido, the woman he left behind in Carthage. Aeneas apologizes for having driven her to suicide; she refuses to talk to him and stalks back to her husband Sychaeus, with whom she has been reunited in death (as Dryden puts it, “Then sought Sichaeus thro’ the shady grove,/ Who answer’d all her cares, and equal’d all her love”). In the course of his anguished self-justification, he says “invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi”—’against my will, queen, I left your shores.’ But as Pelliccia says, “The words… are taken almost word for word from a poem of Catullus’…”

The problem is that this other Catullan poem is, not to put too fine an edge on it, a joke—an exercise in Hellenistic facetiousness. The poem is spoken by a lock of hair, cut from the head of a queen and dedicated by her in a temple, in thanks for the safe return from war of her husband the king. The talking hair says, “I left your head, my Queen, against my will” (in Latin, invita, o regina, tuo de vertice cessi).
For many readers the implications of this allusion are extremely upsetting, even painful. The Marx Brothers seem suddenly to have clambered onto the set of a tragic opera. What could Virgil have been thinking? Perhaps he was not thinking at all, these readers suggest, and the line is “a wholly unconscious reminiscence.” But the idea that Virgil was capable of being “unconscious” of anything in Catullus is insupportable; he knew Catullus’ poetry better than the back of his own hand. So that explanation fails. Others see in the allusion a deliberately subversive irony. But the joke seems too undignified and crude to be taken seriously as such.
The matter is more complex than the bare linking of the two passages might lead one to believe. Catullus’ poem about the lock of hair is a translation from Callimachus (third century BCE), the unofficial head of the Alexandrian school of poetry of which both Catullus and Virgil were latter-day members. Callimachus’ original survives only in the briefest fragments: our knowledge of it derives primarily from Catullus’ translation. But the situation so humorously depicted was a real one: the Egyptian king Ptolemy had just married his cousin Berenice, and immediately went off to war in the East. The poem tells of the bride’s tearful lamentations, and of her vow to offer a lock of her hair (i.e., of the poem’s speaker) at a temple in the event of her husband’s victorious return. He did return victorious, and she dedicated the lock. Soon thereafter, however, the lock was found to have disappeared from the temple. But all’s well that ends well: the royal astronomer Conon promptly noticed a new constellation—the now-deified lock of Queen Berenice’s hair, which speaks to us in the poem from its new perch in the sky.

He then has a footnote tracing the possible allusions back even farther:

[Read more…]


Mark Liberman has a Language Log post about the implications of the fact that not only do very few of the U.S. Foreign Service officers in Baghdad have any proficiency in Arabic, but what proficiency they have is in the literary (standard) language, known in Arabic as fusha, which is spoken on a daily basis by almost no one in the Arab world. The following anecdote represents the exception that proves the rule:

Parkinson relates the story a friend who was a passionate supporter of fusha and who decided to stick to it exclusively in his family in order to give his children the full advantage of having it as a native language. Getting on a busy Cairo bus with this friend and his three-year-old daughter, the two of them, father and daughter, were separated and the yelling that was necessary to reestablish the contact took place in fusha making the entire bus burst out in laughter.

The quote is from Mohamed Maamouri‘s 1998 paper “Language Education and Human Development: Arabic Diglossia and its Impact on the Quality of Education in the Arab Region” (pdf, html cache), which has much more information if you’re interested in the topic.


I had always thought that the concept of a “Moldavian language” (as opposed to Romanian) was introduced by the Communists as part of their drive to support, or if need be create, a single “national language” for each of the constituent republics of the USSR (insisting, for example, on separate languages for each of the Turkic-speaking republics and ensuring their orthographies were as distinct as possible). My 1986 edition of Kenneth Katzner’s The Languages of the World says “Moldavian is merely a dialect of Rumanian, but since the creation of the Moldavian S.S.R. and the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet it is generally thought of as a separate language.” (I see the current edition changes the name to Moldovan but continues to treat it as a separate language.) But in the (fascinating) diary of Princess Ekaterina Nikolaevna Sain-Vitgenshtein (i.e., Sayn-Wittgenstein; the family was of German origin but her branch had been Russian since the 18th century), the entry for 4 (17) December 1918 says “это большая немощеная площадь, или ‘майдан’ (площадь по-молдавски)” [‘it’s a large unpaved square, or maidan (square in Moldavian)’]. I wonder if she thought of it as a separate language or just meant “the dialect of Romanian they speak here in Moldavia”? (Her family had recently fled across the Dniester/Dnestr/Dnister/Nistru from the increasingly dangerous anarchy of newly quasi-independent Ukraine to the newly Romanian town of Ataki, now Moldovan Otaci, which was at the eastern edge of Bessarabia, which is the eastern chunk of Moldavia. It’s a complicated part of the world.)