Archives for July 2007


The Scottish Corpus (which I blogged here) has all sorts of good stuff, and a correspondent sent me a link to a long document, “Conversation 14: Two male students on university life,” with accompanying video that can be accessed by the speaker link (third from the right at the bottom). The neat thing is that the transcript of the conversation moves down to keep pace with the video, so you can watch, listen, and read without any effort. I think I’m sort of getting a handle on what happens to the vowels in the dialect, and as a bonus there’s an interesting discussion of attempted gentrification in Glasgow and Edinburgh. And I was amused to see that one of the students had gone to a suburb of Glasgow called Rutherglen and been corrected by the locals when he said (as I would have, knowing what I do of Scots accentuation) “ruther-GLEN”—apparently it’s RUTH-ergl(e)n, with a barely perceptible final e. Good to know it’s not only clueless foreigners who get these things wrong. (Thanks for the link, Lynsey!)


I’m still reading Shklovsky (see this post), and have gotten to the section where, disgusted with the increasing chaos of the Provisional Government, he “went to the War Ministry at the Soviet and said I would go anywhere, only as far away as possible,” and wound up in Persia, “which had already been occupied by Russian troops for ten years” (the northern part, that is). “We had gone to a foreign country, occupied it, added to its gloom and violence our violence, laughed at its laws, hampered its trade, refused to let it open any factories and supported the shah. And for this purpose, we kept troops… It was imperialism—what’s more, Russian imperialism, which is to say, stupid imperialism.” (Yes, the parallel occurred to me too.) Of the area he was in, around Urmia, he says “A mixed population. Persians, Armenians, Tatars, Kurds, Nestorian Aissors and Jews made up the population.” I was, of course, familiar with most of these groups, but “Nestorian Aissors” produced only a faint echo. I knew that the Nestorians were officially the Church of the East and that “Aissors” (usually Aisors or Aysors) was a term for the Assyrian ethnic-religious group of the Middle East, but other than that I had only a vague memory that there had been a massacre of Assyrians in Iraq in the ’30s. So I did a little googling and turned up an article by Arianne Ishaya, “From Contributions to Diaspora: Assyrians in the History of Urmia, Iran,” where I learned of the astonishing enclave of culture represented by the Assyrian community in that region a century ago:

Until 1918, at which time they were uprooted from the region, the Assyrians lived in compact villages along the three rivers of Nazlu, Shahar, and Baranduz. These rivers flow eastward towards the lake of Urmia from their sources in the Zagros Mountains bordering Turkey. Of a total of 300 villages in the region, 60 had exclusively Assyrian population, and another 60 had a mixed Assyrian, Azari Turkish, and/or Armenian population… The Assyrian population of the town of Urmia itself was only 600 people, or about 100 families. They lived in the special Christian quarter of the town. It is estimated that around 1900, 40% of the population of the region was Christian (Assyrian and Armenian). The uniqueness of the Urmian community was that it was highly urbanized and westernized. This was essentially attributed to the presence of various foreign missions in the region… Although foreign missions brought educational opportunities and a measure of intellectual enlightenment to the Assyrians, they were a mixed blessing. The privileged position of the Assyrians made them a subject of envy and resentment to their Muslim neighbors. The unified Church of the East became dissected into various protestant, Russian Orthodox, and Catholic denominations. Moreover, the younger generation became alienated from their ethnic traditions and was trained in skills for which economic opportunities were scarce.

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Those of you who (like me) were avid readers of Jonathon Delacour’s old blog The Heart of Things will rejoice to learn that he’s returned to Blogovia. He says:

Whereas the previous incarnation, The Heart of Things, dealt with subjects ranging from CSS to the Iraq War, this time I’ve decided to restrict myself to the things which lie closest to my heart: photography, the cinema, and (indirectly) the Japanese language. We’ll see how it goes…

Obviously I’m hoping he’ll drop tidbits about Japanese from time to time, but whatever he wants to write about is fine with me. Welcome back.


In the process of packing I keep running across books I’d forgotten about, and one was so pertinent to my recent focus I started reading it immediately, A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 by Viktor Shklovsky. He’s one of those seminal thinkers I keep running across and meaning to investigate, and reading the introduction I realize how important he was for Zamyatin, Mandelshtam, and other writers I care about. But I’m not here to talk about that now, I’m here to report on a far more obscure writer mentioned as an influence on him, Konstantin Leontiev (Константин Николаевич Леонтьев). Leontiev lived from 1831 to 1891 and was one of those uncategorizable, contradictory figures Russia specializes in, so much so that the three descriptions I’m about to quote are barely recognizable as the same person. First, Sidney Monas, from the Historical Introduction to the Shklovsky book:

In Russian literature, Shklovsky had as his particular and peculiar predecessor a lonely and almost forgotten genius, Konstantin Leontiev. For many years, Leontiev served as a Russian diplomat in the Turkish Mediterranean. Like the English and French romantics, he was impressed with the variety, the antiquity, the contrasts, the energy, the interlocking layered quality, the bewildering traces of contrasting past civilizations, the color, the vitality, the instability, the unreliability, the extreme cruelty, and the severe contrasts of asceticism and sensuality, the sheer raw material available to feed the imagination. Unlike his western European counterparts, however, Leontiev saw the East as the place where Russian values were fulfilled rather than reversed; the source of all Russian values, for Leontiev, was Orthodoxy, and the possibility of Orthodoxy in the East was a new kind of community very different from the western European power-state. Shklovsky does not exactly share Leontiev’s “Byzantinism,” but I believe that Leontiev, who was also, incidentally[,] a precursor of formalism in literary criticism, has influenced him in many ways.

Intriguing, no? Now extended quotes from two of the best books about Russian culture I know, James H. Billington’s The Icon and the Axe and D.S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature. First Billington (pp. 440-441):

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There’s a wonderful thread at Crooked Timber (which I found via The Tensor): the post involves a (not that amusing) anecdote about a doctoral candidate defending her dissertation on Samuel Pepys and pronouncing the surname wrongly because she’s only seen it written, but the commenters provide endless examples of words and names that they or others have mispronounced (as well as names with local pronunciations), and I learned some things. I was unfamiliar with the name Keohane, for instance; apparently it’s a variant of the Irish name usually spelled Cohan, and is pronounced either koh-HAN (as in Ireland) or ko-HANE (the version apparently used by the theorist of Utilitarianism). And someone asked about pronouncing Kristeva (“I always assumed that her native land stressed the penultimate syllable and her adopted France the last one, so you could say it either way”), which is something I’d vaguely wondered about on the rare occasions I encountered her name, so I looked it up and composed the following response:

You can’t assume anything about Bulgarian names; the stress can fall on any syllable, and (annoyingly) it’s very hard to find out the correct way—Bulgarian reference works, unlike Russian ones, don’t tend to provide stress marks. Her name in Bulgarian is Юлия Кръстева, for which a standard transliteration would be Yuliya Krŭsteva (another version of the last name would be Krasteva: see Wikipedia); since the Russians stress the name on the first syllable, I make the risky assumption that the Bulgarians do too, in which case it would be pronounced in Bulgarian CRUST-eh-vah. I don’t know why she chooses the i vowel, but I say KRIST-e-va, and that’s the way I like it.

My full comment was considerably longer, since there were already 179 before me and I had to respond to a bunch of them.


I had been irritated by this myself when I read Michiko Kakutani’s review of A.A. Gill’s The Angry Island (and let me add that Kakutani is the most consistently irritating reviewer I know): “he delivers a finely observed monologue on English accents from ‘Received Pronunciation’ (the sound of the classic novel and the King James Bible) to the increasingly popular Estuary (“flat, unimaginative, diluted Cockney”), adopted by the young who think there is nothing cool about ‘sounding like a character from “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”‘” This may be stupider than anything William Safire ever wrote, and I do not use such a comparison lightly. Received Pronunciation is the public-school accent that used to be de rigueur at the BBC; it has nothing to do with “the classic novel and the King James Bible,” and I find it hard to imagine how Kakutani thought it might. Anyway, I had meant to gripe about it and forgot, but Mark Liberman at Language Log reminded me, so thanks, Mark, and anyone who wants to know more about RP should go to his post and follow his links.


Trevor sent me links to three interesting-looking sites, and since I’m frantically boxing books, I’m just going to throw them up here and hope somebody likes one or more of them. Thanks, Trevor!
Metro Gael: “Gearóid Ó Colmáin’s blog consists of articles written for Metro Eireann, The Irish Democrat, and other writings. His interests include current affairs, the arts and languages. … Gearóid speaks Irish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Russian, Swedish and English and has a rudimentary grasp of Latin, Ancient Greek, Welsh and Japanese.” A man after my own heart. This post is about leprechauns: “It has become the most effete cliché in our vacuous tourist industry. Yet very few people know what it means, where the word comes from.” Yes, some of the posts are in Irish; just scroll down. Unless, of course, you read Irish.
If you do read Irish, you’ll get more than I can out of Acadamh Fódhla, according to this page “a steering group on seanós song, music and lore.”
Finally, Keltalingvaj Novaĵoj has “Novaĵoj pri keltaj lingvoj, bretona, irlanda, kimra, kornvala, manksa, kaj skotgaela, speciale kiel ili esta parlataj kaj instuataj en Kanado kaj Usono.” But don’t worry, the actual posts aren’t in Esperanto!


By popular demand (well, a couple of comments), herewith two more Prigov poems with my translations. The first is a parody of a Pushkin poem (“The Black Shawl”) unknown to English-speaking readers; I’ve taken the liberty of making it instead a parody of Keats.

Когда я в Калуге по случаю был
Одну калужанку я там полюбил
Была в ней большая народная сила
Меня на руках она часто носила
А что я? – москвич я, я хрупок и мал
Однажды в сердцах я ей вот что сказал
Мужчина ведь мужественней и сильней
Быть должен – на том и рассталися с ней
I met a fair Kaluga maid
As in Kaluga I did dwell
Alone and palely loitering –
I loved her well.
She took me in her well-thewed arms
And carried me as I were light,
For she was of the people, with
The people’s might.
But I, I came from Moscow town
And I was puny, small and weak
And I was wroth and full of rage
And thus did speak:
“A man must be the manlier
The stronger of a loving pair –
Farewell.” I went my lonely way
And left her there.

And here’s another, perhaps more serious:

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I discovered (via Anatoly) that the artist and poet Dmitri Prigov (Russian Wikipedia) died early today following a massive heart attack. It’s hard to describe his wonderful little poems; I’m afraid a couple of slapdash translations won’t honor his memory very effectively, but I’ll do the best I can:

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This is the first of what will doubtless be numerous reports on Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (see this post for background). I’ve only read the prologue, and I’m already thrilled. It starts off “On 8 November 1519 Hernán Cortés and a band of three hundred Spaniards met for the first time the supreme ruler of Mexico.” Ostler sets the scene, the ruler of a great empire in his finery confronting the bearded newcomer, and says “Then Motecuhzoma, whose official title was tlatoani, ‘speaker’, returned to greet his guests… Their words set the tone for all that was to follow… It was the first step towards the replacement of Nahuatl as the imperial language of Mexico, and the progress of Spanish towards its establishment as the language first of government and religion and then of everything else in the New World. Motecuhzoma opened with a flowery speech in Nahuatl…” So far, so good: a famous moment dramatizing a turning point in the history of language. Then you turn the page and find that all excerpts from the speech are given in Nahuatl as well as in English translation!

Totēukyoe, ōtikmihiyōwiltih ōtikmoziyawiltih.
Our Lord, how you must have suffered, how fatigued you must be.

After the first couple of excerpts, he gives the Nahuatl in footnotes, but it’s all there, in “a convenient form of romanised spelling” based on linguistic analysis rather than simply reproducing the inconsistent (and of course hispanicized) transcription of Bernardino de Sahagún. Compare the snippet shown in the right column here (“[first line illegible: thanks, Google snippet view!]…oipan tommovetzitico in mopetlatzin, in mocpaltzin, in oachitzinca njmjtzōnopielili, in onjmjtzonnotlapielili…”) to the semi-rationalized version here (499. *oitech*. oitech tommopachihuiltico in matzin, in motepetzin mexico, oipan tommohuetzitico in mopetlatzin, in mocpaltzin, in huachitzinca nimitzonnopielili, in onimitzonnotlapielili…”) and Ostler’s version (h represents the glottal stop): “ō īteč tommopāčiwiltīko in mātzin in motepētzin, Mešihco, ō īpan tommowetziko in mopetlatzin, in mokpaltzin, in ō ačitzinka nimitzonnopiyalīlih, in ōnimitzonnotlapiyalīlih…” (‘you have approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you’). The account of Cortés’s response is, of course, given in both English and Spanish. And the epigraph to Part I (The Nature of Language History) is a quote from Plutarch, given in both Greek and English. Like Helen DeWitt, I want to see books printed with all relevant languages in their proper form, and I see no reason why this cannot be done with today’s techonology. I’m sure it was a nightmare getting the Ostler book typeset (and I think I caught a mistake in the Nahuatl: shouldn’t “tommowetziko” be “tommowetzitīko”?), but it’s a shining example of what can and should be accomplished.

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