Archives for August 2007


I decided it was high time I investigated the bibliopolic delights of Northampton, just across the river and said to have more bookstores than Cambridge. My lovely and tolerant wife drove me there and dropped me off, promising to return several hours later; I went into the nearest store on my list, Half Moon Books, and stayed until my stomach let me know in no uncertain terms it was well past lunchtime. The proprietor, David Ham, is a knowledgeable and interesting fellow (and was kind enough to photocopy a map of local used bookstores for me, facilitating my further adventures), and the store is the kind of place I haven’t seen since I left NYC: full of interesting books it would never have occurred to me to look for (which is why bookstores are still better than Amazon). Fortunately, I was limited by the need to carry my purchases around with me, or I might have gone hog-wild; I wound up getting a half dozen books, including Aksakov’s Years of Childhood, the two-volume 1966 paperback edition of Yuri Annenkov‘s Dnevnik moikh vstrech (a collection of his essays, with drawings, about precisely the set of early-20th-century figures I’ve been reading about: Gorky, Blok, Mayakovsky, Babel, the whole crew of the Second Golden Age), and A. Kvyatkovsky’s 1966 Poeticheskii slovar’ [Poetry dictionary], a book useful for its collection of examples and appalling in its complete effacement of the brilliant Russian analysts of poetry who flourished in the early years of the last century, from Andrei Bely to Shklovsky and Jakobson. As it happens, the last two items illustrated perfectly what the owner was telling me in our discussion of bookstores: “I try to stock what I think will sell, but sometimes I’ll see something on the shelf and think ‘Why have I got that?’—and then someone will walk in and buy it.”
He recommended, given my esoteric interests, I visit Troubadour Books in North Hatfield (raved about here), which I certainly will do; in the meantime, I grabbed a quick lunch at a barbecue place and headed over to Raven Books, where on an earlier (and much more fleeting) visit to Northampton I found some good stuff on the dollar rack. I spent an hour or so looking around but this time left empty-handed (only because of the fear of shoulder strain—there are a couple of things I may go back for). I crossed Main St. and found my way to the Old Book Store, where the prices were lower but the stock limited, and (fortunately for my shoulder and pocketbook) they didn’t take credit cards; I wound up getting only The Uncertain Crusade: America and the Russian Revolution of 1905. There were more bookstores to visit, but I was out of time and energy; I went to the arranged meetup spot and gratefully sank into the air-conditioned car. Man, I love a good bookstore.


Just after we moved, our real estate agent back in Pittsfield called to say that a package had been left on the doorstep by the FedEx truck. I asked her to hold it for us until the closing; when it became apparent we wouldn’t make it to the closing, I didn’t know what to do about it, but she said “Don’t worry, I’ll mail it to you” (you’re a peach, Barb!), and today it showed up: an incredibly generous LH reader used the Amazon wish list to send me a copy of An Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe! Just flipping through the book makes me want to drop the copyediting job I’m working on and spend a few days immersed in it; it has entries on everything you can imagine (Vandalic, Venetic, Veps, Vestinian, Visigothic…), and I’ve already had my preconceptions shaken up by the entry on Belarusian:

The emergence of Belarusian as a fully fledged language used in all areas of human activity came to an abrupt halt with the onset of Stalinism at the beginning of the 1930s. The grammar and spelling norms of the Tarashkevich grammar were altered by decree in 1933 to bring them closer to Russian. Active use of Belarusian was likely to attract accusations of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ and the inevitable consequences.
After 1945 the pace of Russification quickened, so that by the 1970s there were almost no schools, and certainly no higher educational establishments, in which classes were conducted in Belarusian. Parents were given the right to withdraw their children from what were supposed to be compulsory Belarusian language classes, and apparently made abundant use of that right. The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was virtually the only ‘national’ (i.e. non-Russian) republic in the USSR in which such a situation had been allowed to arise.

I had assumed that all “national” languages were officially supported in the USSR. They go on to say that Belarusian is likely to fade away: “Belarusian, unlike Slovak for example, has probably arrived too late on the scene to be promoted to the ranks of ‘high-culture’ languages.”
The book is full of figures and maps and bibliographies; it immediately goes into a place of honor on my linguistics shelf, and I’ll be consulting it frequently. Many thanks, Pamela!


Richard Parker, who runs the enjoyable new blog Notes From a Small Island from Siargao Island in the Philippines, sent me an e-mail saying “I started a few months ago on what I expected to be a simple study of Austronesian numbers, to see if I could find out anything that could reveal a little bit new about the prehistory of that intrepid group of language-speakers, who managed to spread from Madagascar to Easter Island, Hawaii to New Zealand… It has grown from a minor diversion into an unmanageable monstrosity (my original spreadsheet now has 1443 separate entry rows, and 130 analysing columns), ie that’s 1443 number systems, in 1443 languages, Austronesian, ‘Papuan’ and anything else I could think of that might be remotely connected… In the hope that someone else may have some bright ideas on how to process this mass of information, and be able to help me get through my current attack of ‘researcher’s block’, I’ve posted it, in its present unfinished state, warts and all, online at
Warning: The file size is 2.7Mb, so it may take a while to download.”
I don’t have Excel on my computer, so I can’t actually see the spreadsheet, but it sounds like an interesting project, and I thought I’d throw it up here for you all to see. You can read more about his numbers project here and here, and he’s planning more posts on the subject. (Oh, and he knows about zompist’s Numbers from 1 to 10 in Over 5000 Languages—that’s what got him started.)


I discovered the May Day Mystery some years ago via a MetaFilter post; now Conrad has done a typically thorough and exhilarating post on the subject.

Every year since 1981, more than once a year, and almost always on May 1, the [Arizona Daily] Wildcat has published a cryptic ‘advertisement’ from an unnamed source. These messages typically contain images, mathematical diagrams and formulae, quotations (literary, philosophical, religious, and commonly in the original language) and other fragments of text…
These advertisements were noticed in 1995 by one Bryan Hance, and in 1997 he established a website to collect and analyse them. He referred to the affair as the May Day Mystery. There also exists now a MDM wiki. On Hance’s site, the texts are arranged by date, with scanned images, and comments from various would-be exegetes, attempting to decode the individual piece and the overall pattern. For instance, the comments to the 1990 image provide translations and sources for the Biblical Greek and Latin, a gloss on ‘Weavers Needle’, a description of a circular slide rule, attempts at Biblecodesque wordcounting, references to particle physics and Lutheran theology, an identification of the musical passage, and so on and so on. These disjointed annotations remind me of nothing so much as the fragmentary insights heard around the table at a Finnegans Wake study group. One person notices that a word resembles the Irish for ‘wind’, another detects reference in the flow of a clause to a Victorian ballad, and another spots the letters H C E embedded in words running backwards through a line. But nobody has a damn clue why Joyce would have combined these elements (and many others) in the sentence—let alone what it all means. One thing is for sure: the comments on the MDM advertisements have become an integral part of the ongoing text as a whole…
The question, then, is what the devil is the point of these things? Who is trying to communicate what to whom, and why?

I don’t much care about the “solution” of the “mystery,” but I sure enjoy Conrad’s meta-exegesis. And I love his term “nutnut.”


From Deutschlandradio, a story (in German) about a young student of Indo-European who likes learning languages, sometimes three or four in a year: “Pashto ist seine Lieblingssprache: Und das will wirklich was heißen, denn alles in allem spricht Sebastian Heine etwa 35 Sprachen: Altpersisch, Sogdisch, Sakisch, Aramäisch – die Liste ließe sich noch lange fortsetzen” (‘Pashto is his favorite language, and that really means something, since all in all Sebastian Heine speaks some 35 languages: Old Persian, Sogdian, Saka, Aramaic—the list can be lengthened still further’). It’s typical journalistic silliness to think you can “speak” Old Persian or Sogdian, but he’s clearly a man after my own heart. (Thanks, Franz!)
From the Telegraph, a story about “a campaign to preserve a unique hybrid language spoken by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers”:

Norfolk Island’s blend of 18th-century English and Tahitian, known as Norf’k or Norfuk, will be featured by Unesco in the next edition of its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing.
The language, one of the world’s rarest, is under threat because Norfolk Islanders are increasingly marrying outsiders and because of the influence of television and radio from neighbouring Australia and New Zealand…
Its broad burr evokes West Country English, but it is peppered with Tahitian and other Polynesian words incomprehensible to English speakers.

They give a list of phrases (All yorlye gwen? ‘How are you all?’; Car do far dorg et ‘Not good enough even for a dog’s meal’). Thanks, Trevor!
And the always interesting Mary Beard discusses Esperanto, Welsh and the language wars: “It was through my Dad that I ventured into Esperanto a little. He, in the spirit of his times, saw Esperanto as a weapon in Moral Rearmament – as well as a blow to Welsh…”


This Wikipedia article is a lot of fun, if (like me) your idea of fun is:
* Averham, Nottinghamshire — /ɛərəm/ (“airum”)
* Avoch, Highland — /ɔx/ (“och” rhyming with loch)
and so on.
And as lagniappe, here’s a story by Eleanor Arnason called “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters.” It’s a little too faux-fairytale for me, but you may well like it, in which case you may thank Kattullus, who sent me the link.


This AP story describes a curious problem:

Residents thought changing the name of their small village in southern China would improve their fortunes.
Instead, it left them in a legal limbo after police computers were unable to register a very rare Chinese character that is part of the new moniker, newspapers reported Tuesday.
“Many villagers have not been able to get marriage certificates and are facing difficulties while seeking jobs, traveling and dealing in property,” the China Daily said, citing an earlier report in the Nanguo Metropolitan News.
The 50 residents of the tiny hamlet in Wenchang county on the southern island province of Hainan followed a fortune teller’s advice earlier this year and changed the name “to improve the village’s prosperity,” the reports said.
The village’s name used to be Tianmeidong, but was changed to Tianwei, plus a third character that even the Nanguo newspaper was forced to describe in its article because its computer could not write it…

MMcM, who sent me the link, adds: “A little Googling turns up a Xinhua article with a picture and an explanation of how to draw the character,” but he’s not sure what the character is. Anybody know more about this?


Presented for your consideration:
Dark Roasted Blend. From the About page: “The ‘Dark Roasted Blend’ is also a part of ‘Thrilling Wonder’ family of sites, dedicated to the on-going quest for Wisdom and Beauty, for all things cool and wonderful in our world, and beyond”; for a taste of the kind of bean that goes into the blend, check out Unusual Books & Book Sculptures: “As for today’s subject – we are covering wildly modified books (which exist mainly for the sake of art), books that are essentially impossible to read, and pieces of art made FROM books (though I have doubts about the last idea. I am one who would rather see “no books were hurt during the production…” disclaimer)” Thanks, Carol!
Ephemera: “exploring the world of old paper.” Sample post: Reminiscenses of a Book Inscription Collector. I forget where I ran into this blog, but it’s a gem.


One of my favorite American poets is Louis Zukofsky, and in a comment to this post I asked “Has anyone done a Zukofsky bio?” Well, now someone has, to wit Mark Scroggins; the publisher page says:

The Poem of a Life is the first critical biography of Louis Zukofsky, a fascinating and crucially important American modernist poet. It details the curve of his career, from the early “Waste Land”-parody “Poem beginning ‘The’” (1926) to the dense and tantalizing beauties of his last poems, “80 Flowers” (1978), paying special attention to the monumental, complex, and formally various epic poem “A,” on which Zukofsky labored for almost fifty years, and which he called “a poem of a life.”
Zukofsky was a protégé of Ezra Pound, an artistic collaborator and close friend of William Carlos Williams, and the leader of a whole school of 1930s avant-garde poets, the Objectivists. Later in life he was close friends with such younger writers as Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Robert Duncan, Jonathan Williams, and Guy Davenport. His work spans the divide from modernism to postmodernism, and his later writings have proved an inspiration to whole new generations of innovative poets. Zukofsky’s poetry is oblique, condensed, and as fantastically detailed as the late writings of James Joyce, yet it bears at every point the marks of the poet’s life and times.

This I have to read. (Via wood s lot.)


While doing some research, I ran across an interesting article, Paul K. Longmore’s “Good English without Idiom or Tone”: The Colonial Origins of American Speech (pdf of Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxvii:4 (Spring, 2007), 513–542; there doesn’t seem to be a Google cache available):

This study offers not a linguistic analysis but a historical interpretation of Early American English that draws on historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, as well as Early American historiography and scholarship about nationalism. It examines the interplay between modes of speech and demographical, geographical, social, and political history. It explains the interaction of linguistic and historical processes in terms of the experience of these societies as settler colonies that eventually redefined themselves into an independent nation. The emergence of American varieties of English was first recognized two generations before the Revolution…

Some excerpts follow:

[Read more…]