Archives for January 2008


Beijing Sounds – 北京的声儿 has been going since last October, but I just found out about it via an e-mail from occasional commenter Xiaolongnu (thanks!). It’s syz’s blog about learning the Beijing dialect of Chinese, and it won my heart immediately with its sidebarred “WARNING: Contains explicit use of singular they, gratuitous passive voice, and shamelessly split infinitives.” A recent post asks “Does the Beijing-R mean anything?” and presents a discussion of the famous -r that gets tacked on to just about everything in the dialect:

The general perception among outsiders is that it’s just a way of speaking. It doesn’t really mean anything. HOWEVER, my two experts for today’s post, one six and one sixty-ish, say it ain’t so. There are words you can say with or without the Beijing-R (commonly called érhuàyīn 儿化音 or érhuàyùn 儿化韵), but often the different pronunciations really mean something different.

His best example is: “tāng 汤 and tāngr 汤儿 simply refer to two different liquids. The former means broth/soup, while the latter is the liquid that comes with your non-soup dishes, something cooked out of the meat or vegetables that you might spoon onto your rice.” This is backed up by a quoted talk with the two “experts,” and best of all, like all material presented on the blog, it’s got an audio link so you can hear for yourself. Excellent idea and presentation!


This Slate article by Ron Rosenbaum has started a fierce debate on MetaFilter and doubtless many other places: “It’s the question of whether the last unpublished work of Vladimir Nabokov, which is now reposing unread in a Swiss bank vault, should be destroyed—as Nabokov explicitly requested before he died.” My own take is that if he felt that strongly about it he should have destroyed it himself, and that once you’re dead you lose the right to determine the fate of your work, but I can sympathize with those who believe Nabokov’s wishes should be respected. Mind you, we’re talking about “fifty hand-written index cards, equivalent to about thirty conventional paper manuscript pages,” so The Original of Laura can hardly be called a novel, and it certainly shouldn’t be published as if it were (much less “completed” by someone else), but I think it should be available at least to scholars. VV would be furious, but he was furious about a lot of things, including nonliteral translations and using the feminine forms of Russian names, so this would just be one more hypothetical annoyance.


Nizo is “a mostly secular Palestinian raised in the Melkite faith”; in his blog he writes about many topics, but the one of interest here is Aramaic, about which he has a couple of posts. He says that although he doesn’t speak the language, he “worshipped at a Maronite church while growing up and the service was in Syriac and Arabic… Learning Hebrew opened the door to understanding even more of this stale old tongue that has been relegated to the bearded priests with funny hats.” In the second post he divides Aramaic speakers in the region into “Ethnic Assyrians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon who speak Assyrian at home as a first language and Arabic as a second language” (“These people are the main speakers of the language and make the contemporary contributions in music, literature and WWW”) and “NON-Assyrian Maronites In Lebanon whose clergymen are fluent in Syriac and whose church services are partially conducted in that language” (“The general population however does not speak the language except for a handful of individuals who are either uber-religious or interested in reviving the language”). Nizo is refreshingly unsentimental about the language: “I don’t care to listen to some sad song about an Assyrian shepherd in Mosul whose goats were devoured by Kurdish wolves. It doesn’t speak to my daily reality.” I hope he continues his investigations.
I also hope he writes more posts like this one (warning: Not Safe For Work!), which will be of great use to me should I ever do a follow-up to my curses-and-insults book. (Speaking of which, I’m going to be interviewed about it by PRI’s “The World” program Thursday morning; it will be archived on their site.)

[Read more…]


I was listening to “Says You” (described here), and in the “guess the real definition” part the word was fion, which they pronounced FYE-on. The fake definitions involved subatomic particles, the real one was “A piece cut from a fish and used for bait.” After the show I looked it up in the OED, and sure enough, there it was, with that definition, but with no pronunciation or etymology and only a single citation: 1875 WILCOCKS Sea-Fisherm. 137 “This [mackerel] bait is termed a last, lask, float, or fion.” Naturally I turned to Google Books, and sure enough, there it was, except that it’s on page 126 of the 1884 fourth edition of The Sea-fisherman: Comprising the Chief Methods of Hook and Line Fishing in the British and Other Seas, and Remarks on Nets, Boats, and Boating, by James C. Wilcocks. The only other use Google turns up is on page 65 of The Rail and the Rod; Or, Tourist Angler’s Guide to Waters and Quarters Thirty Miles Around London, by John Greville Fennell, or (as the title page has it) Greville F. (Barnes): “This bait is known as a float, lask, last, fion, or mackerel bait in different localities.” Since the latter book is from 1867, I presume it’s Wilcocks’s source, since he lists the same four synonyms.
Now, that’s about as fringe as a piece of vocabulary can get. It’s even conceivable that it’s a misprint in The Rail and the Rod and was picked up trustingly by Greville F.; certainly without a hint of what locality it was from or how it was pronounced, it’s hard to take it very seriously. It seems to me a poor choice for the radio show, since there’s no way anyone could possibly have encountered it except by reading the OED (it’s not even in Webster’s Third), but I guess that depends on your philosophy of the game. Oddly, the alternate term last is not recorded in the OED, though lask is (but not from either of these books). Lexical items like this make you realize how amorphous the borders of both languages and dictionaries are; the OED’s apparent original ambition of including everything that ever occurred in print in English is surely now impossible, and I wonder if the current editors would choose to include fion now if it hadn’t been in the first edition.


Robert F. Worth has a nice essay about learning Arabic in this week’s NY Times Sunday Book Review. It starts:

One dark afternoon last winter, after too many hours spent studying Arabic verbs, I found myself staring uncomprehendingly at a video on my computer screen. An Arab man was holding forth tediously, his words half drowned by the rain outside. At first all I could make out was the usual farrago of angry consonants and strangled vowels. No progress there. Then, at last, the letters lighted up at the back of my brain.
“I understand what he’s saying!” I shrieked to the empty apartment, spinning backward in my desk chair. “I understand every word!”
I felt a warm rush of gratitude to the speaker, a bespectacled doctor. It made no difference that he was Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, or that he was threatening to slaughter large numbers of Americans. He spoke a slow, clear fusha, the formal version of Arabic I had been struggling to decipher on the page for 10 hours a day. Even better, his words matched my limited vocabulary: arsala, “to send”; jaish, “army”; raees, “president.” I was almost drunk with exhilaration.

Via the wonderful Helen DeWitt, who knows that “Aha!” moment.


Here’s the second paragraph of a NY Times Magazine article by Rob Hoerburger about singer Shelby Lynne:

“Do you know the difference between the words ‘bringing’ and ‘taking’?” she practically whispered into my sleeve, as if not to embarrass me. “Because you just used one of them incorrectly.” I do know the difference, and though I couldn’t remember what I said, I agreed with her anyway, dizzied by the sudden altitude of the conversation. Lynne then proceeded to conduct a sobering mini-symposium on grammar: subjective and objective cases; “begging” versus “raising” the question; parts of speech. “It’s all about using the proper pronouns,” she asserted with the calm authority of a linguistics maven promoting her latest book on NPR.

Needless to say, I rolled my eyes at the alleged “grammar,” but hey, Ms. Lynne is just parroting what she’s learned from people she respects, and I have no beef with her. No, it was the “linguistics maven” that got my goat. Listen up, Rob Hoerburger: those people are “grammar mavens.” The main NPR linguistics maven is Geoff Nunberg, and he doesn’t go around babbling about “‘begging’ versus ‘raising’ the question” and “using the proper pronouns,” because that’s not what linguistics is about. Why is this so hard to understand?


A couple of sites I found that gave me a chuckle:
Родословная русской эпиграммы [Rodoslovnaya russkoi epigrammy, ‘the genealogy of the Russian epigram’] starts with an amazing anecdote about a young guy named Nikolai Glazkov who in 1941 had just gotten a medical exemption from the draft and wrote an epigram predicting the suicide of Adolf Hitler:
Может быть, он того и не хочет,
Может быть, он к тому не готов,
Но мне кажется,
что обязательно кончит
Самоубийством Гитлер Адольф.
A quarter of a century later, he played the guy who took the balloon ride at the start of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev!
The other site is Гусарская азбука [Gusarskaya azbuka, ‘Hussar’s alphabet’], which has obscene little distichs for each letter of the Cyrillic alphabet:
Жизнь на радость нам дана.
Жопа – фабрика говна.
[Life is given us for joy;
The ass is a factory for shit.]


Last year I posted about finding an online reproduction of the first issue of Современные записки [Sovremennye zapiski, the Parisian journal that published Nabokov’s Russian work in the ’30s]; now I’ve found the corresponding nineteenth-century journal, Отечественные записки [Otechestvennye zapiski], thanks to the infuriating (insert “Snippet view” rant) but invaluable Google Books. I was looking for something else and discovered one of the hits was to Sovremennik, a famous radical journal founded by Pushkin and shut down by the censors in 1866. The link was to the 1859 volume (which includes Dobrolyubov‘s famous article “Chto takoe oblomovshchina?”), but in the “Other editions” section there were links to other issues. It immediately occurred to me that there must be scanned volumes of Otechestvennye zapiski (closed in 1884 for similar reasons) as well, and so there are (1830, 1882, etc.). The second one I investigated is from 1848; on the flyleaf it bears the inscription (in a careful, slightly awkward hand, presumably that of a Crimean War soldier) “this book i found in the Great redan Sebastopol,” and below that is the stamp of the Taylor Institution, with the notation “Confined to library.” The physical (and doubtless crumbling) volume may be so confined, but the words are now available to all, thanks to the internet, Google, and Oxford University.


I was intrigued by a passing reference to an obscure mid-19th-century Russian writer called Yakov Butkov, did a little investigating, and found a chapter on him in the reminiscences of Dostoevsky’s friend Aleksandr Milyukov (Literaturnyya vstrechi i znakomstva [1890], pp. 105-131). It was a sad and moving story of a young writer who got in trouble with the authorities and disappeared from view, his promise wasted, and I wanted my wife to read it, so I started translating it. (It took me all weekend and ran to over 4,500 words, so it would be nice if I could get it published somewhere; if anyone has any ideas, let me know!) At one point I ran into the kind of pun that’s completely untranslatable; it seems to me that you either footnote it (in an academic version) or omit it (in a popular one). Butkov has been summoned to the censorship committee and is very nervous about it, and he says: “Right at the University a stock exchange hare [birzhevoi zayats] I know ran across my path, he just nodded at me. And you don’t believe in omens, sir!” This made no sense to me, but I correctly presumed “hare” was a slang term. First I went to Dahl, where I discovered that to Russians a hare crossing your path is a sign of bad luck, like a black cat in English; then I googled “биржевой заяц” and found that it was slang for an unofficial broker, one of those middlemen who scurries around making deals for people. Now all was clear, and I could see what a clever pun it was, but I also realized there was absolutely no way to render it in English. (If only unofficial brokers were called “black cats”!)

Addendum (May 2010). Butkov is mentioned in Kornei Chukovsky’s Diary, 1901-1969 (see this post), in the entry for May 23, 1927: “The most amazing thing is how ignorant a RAPP literary historian can be. He has never heard of Iakov Butkov…”


I was just pointed to a 1963 paper by anthropologist Jack Goody and literary historian Ian Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy” (pt 1) (pt 2), that’s well worth reading if you’re interested in such things. A sample:

Early British administrators among the Tiv of Nigeria were aware of the great importance attached to these genealogies [which “stretch some twelve generations in depth back to an eponymous founding ancestor”], which were continually discussed in court cases where the rights and duties of one man towards another were in dispute. Consequently they took the trouble to write down the long lists of names and preserve them for posterity, so that future administrators might refer to them in giving judgement. Forty years later, when the Bohannans carried out anthropological field work in the area, their successors were still using the same genealogies. However, these written pedigrees now gave rise to many disagreements; the Tiv maintained that they were incorrect, while the officials regarded them as statements of fact, as records of what had actually happened, and could not agree that the unlettered indigenes could be better informed about the past than their own literate predecessors. What neither party realized was that in any society of this kind changes take place which require a constant readjustment in the genealogies if they are to continue to carry out their function as mnemonics of social relationships…
It is obvious that the process of generation leads in itself to a constant lengthening of the genealogy; on the other hand, the population to which it is linked may in fact be growing at quite a different rate, perhaps simply replacing itself. So despite its increasing length the genealogy may have to refer to just as many people at the present time as it did fifty, a hundred, or perhaps two hundred years ago. Consequently the added depth of lineages caused by new births needs to be accompanied by a process of genealogical shrinkage; the occurrence of this telescoping process, a common example of the general social phenomenon which J.A. Barnes has felicitously termed ‘structural amnesia’, has been attested in many societies, including all those mentioned above…

On the other hand, Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole in The Psychology of Literacy (1981) claimed that schooling is far more important than literacy. Geoff Nunberg’s review describes their findings:

[Read more…]