Archives for March 2008


Linguistically, that is. According to this Linguist List report from Edward Vajda, Johanna Nichols, and James Kari:

A long-sought connection between Siberian and North American language families has been demonstrated by linguists from Washington and Alaska. Professor Edward Vajda of Western Washington University (Bellingham), a specialist on the Ket language isolate spoken by a shrinking number of elders living along the Yenisei River of central Siberia, combining ten years of library and field work on Ket and relying on the earlier work of Heinrich Werner on the now-extinct relatives of Ket, has clarified the dauntingly complex morphology and phonology of Ket and its Yeniseic congeners. At a symposium held Feb. 26-27 at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and a panel to take place Feb. 29 at the Alaska Anthropological Association annual meeting in Anchorage, Vajda shows that the abstract forms of lexical and grammatical morphemes and the rules of composition of the Ket verb find systematic and numerous parallels in the Na-Dene protolanguage reconstructed to account for the modern Tlingit and Eyak languages and the Athabaskan language family (whose daughters include Gwich’in, Koyukon, Dena’ina and others of Alaska, Hupa of California, and Navajo of the U.S. Southwest). The comparison was made possible by recent advances in the analysis of Tlingit phonology and Tlingit-Athabaskan-Eyak presented at the same symposium by Prof. Jeff Leer of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and by earlier work by Prof. Michael Krauss of UAF on the now-extinct Eyak language and on comparative Athabaskan, and on Athabaskan lexicography and verb stem analysis by symposium organizer Prof. James Kari of UAF. Working independently, Vajda and the Alaska linguists have arrived at abstract stem shapes and ancestral wordforms too numerous and displaying too many idiosyncratic parallels to be explained by anything other than common descent. The comparison also shows conclusively that Haida, sometimes associated with Na-Dene, is not related.
The distance from the Yeniseian range to that the most distant Athabaskan languages is the greatest overland distance covered by any known language spread not using wheeled transport or sails. Archaeologist Prof. Ben Potter of UAF reviewed the postglacial prehistory of Beringia and speculated that the Na-Dene speakers may descend from some of the earliest colonizers of the Americas, who eventually created the successful and long-lived Northern Archaic tool tradition that dominated interior and northern Alaska almost until historical times.
Vajda’s work has been well vetted. In addition to Na-Dene specialists Krauss, Leer, and Kari, who have reacted favorably, the symposium was also attended by historical linguists Prof. Eric P. Hamp of the University of Chicago and Prof. Johanna Nichols of the University of California, Berkeley, both of whom announced their support for the proposed relationship, and Bernard Comrie, Director of the Linguistics Department, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig and professor at UC Santa Barbara, endorsed Vajda’s method.

As George Bryson says in his (remarkably thorough and accurate—kudos, Mr. Bryson!) Anchorage Daily News story, “Establishing that two such far-distant language groups are closely related is both demanding and rare in the exacting field of historical linguistics.” (Thanks for the links, Patrick!)


One of American’s national treasures, the poet and publisher Jonathan Williams, has died:

“His public persona was a real crank, a gadfly, a loose cannon,” said Thomas Meyer, a poet and Williams’ partner for more than 40 years. “But there was this extraordinary generosity.” …
“Jonathan Williams was truly a Renaissance man. He was articulate on topics as various as baseball and music in the same breath. He spent his career combining visual arts with the spoken and written word, integrating all the arts since his days at Black Mountain College,” said Pam Meyer, executive director of the Asheville Art Museum, which has a wide collection of Williams’ photography. …
Besides his work as a publisher, Williams was a prolific poet, essayist and critic in his own right, with more than 100 books, broadsides, postcards and other published works. His last book “Jubilant Thicket: New and Selected Poems” contained a selection of 1,000 of Williams’ poems. …
Williams said in a 1995 interview that the world didn’t owe him anything as an artist. He adopted his motto from the French novelist Gustave Flaubert: “I am frankly a bourgeois living in seclusion in the country, busy with literature, and asking nothing of anyone, not consideration, nor honor, nor esteem…. I jump into the water to save a good line of poetry or a good sentence of prose from anyone. But I don’t believe, on that account, that humanity has need of me, any more than I have need of it.”

I wrote about him here and quoted a couple of poems, which I urge you to read; Mark at wood s lot has a full set of links and more poems. Here’s one for the road:

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You probably think English has a future tense, don’t you? Past, present, future, that’s what they teach you in grade school (with some complications involving “present perfect” and “past progressive” and what have you). Well, it doesn’t. Don’t believe me? Believe Geoff Pullum, who explains that “Instead of a future tense, English makes use of slew of verbs (auxiliary and non-auxiliary, modal and non-modal) such as be, come, go; may, shall, and will, various adjectives such as about, bound, and certain, and various idiomatic combinations involving infinitival complements” and provides a table of uses of will “ranging over volition, inclination, habituation, tendency, inference, and prediction” that should convince anyone that it is not a marker of “future tense.”

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Since the year 2000 the OED has been trudging its way through the alphabet (starting from M), revising as they go: “According to that model, the present publication batch would include words from quits to somewhere early in the letter R.” The announcement by Chief Editor John Simpson continues:

But after several years of steady alphabetical publication, we have decided to vary the publication mix. The present publication range departs radically from the former model, in that its 2,116 entries consist for the most part of key English words from across the alphabet, along with the other words which make up the alphabetical cluster surrounding them. From now on, we expect to alternate between these two models each quarter, with the next publication range (in June 2008) continuing from quits, and the subsequent one (September 2008) presenting a further range of major words and their associated alphabetical clusters.
The main purpose of this change is to revise, much earlier than would otherwise have been the case, important English words whose meanings or application have developed most over the past century. Some of these key words are, as one might expect, among those often looked up by readers of the OED. This change also brings the revision more in line with our policy for publishing new words and senses, which have since June 2001 been taken from across the full alphabetical range.

You can see the complete list of newly revised words here. Yes, I went straight to the entry for fuck, and I am happy to report that the etymology is greatly expanded. The old one is so spare it suggests a desire to sweep the subject under the rug:

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There’s a word tare, meaning “The weight of the wrapping, receptacle, or conveyance containing goods, which is deducted from the gross in order to ascertain the net weight” (OED), that I’ve looked up any number of times but never remember because it’s not part of my mental world. (If you’re curious, it’s via French from Arabic ṭarḥah ‘that which is thrown away,’ from ṭaraḥa ‘to throw (away),’ which is also the root of mattress, from Arabic maṭraḥ ‘place where something is thrown, hence carpet, cushion, bed.’) Today, reading a fascinating 1986 interview (in Russian; found at Avva) with the manager of a fruits-and-vegetables store that throws a great deal of light on the realities of doing business in the late-Soviet period, I hit the word тара [tara], looked it up, found it meant tare, cursed, looked that up, and got the definition above, which I think may finally stick. But looking through the OED entry I found the following phrase:

tare and tret: the two ordinary deductions in calculating the net weight of goods to be sold by retail: see TRET; also, the rule in arithmetic by which these are calculated.

So I saw TRET, and here’s what I found:

An allowance of 4 lb. in 104 lb. (= 1/26) on goods sold by weight after the deduction for tare.
The reason or ground of the allowance was apparently forgotten already in the 17th c., and has been variously given since: see quots.

(“Origin and history obscure.”) Some of the various explanations:
1670 BLOUNT Law Dict. s.v. Tare and Tret, The other [Tret] is a consideration allowed in the weight for wast, in emptying and reselling the Goods.
1678 PHILLIPS (ed. 4), Tret, a certain allowance that is made by Merchants, before a Commodity is garbled from its refuse [1706 ed. Kersey adds] as Dust, Moats, &c., which is always 4 in every 104 Pounds.
1882 BITHELL Counting-ho. Dict., Tret, an allowance made for wear, damage, or deterioration in goods during transit from one place to another.
Another citation mentions cloff, which is “An allowance (now of 2 lbs. in 3 cwt., or 1/168), given with certain commodities, in order that the weight may hold good when they are sold by retail,” but de minimis non curat Languagehat.


A teacher writes to say that in a recent class discussion, a student named Kolette asked what the world’s newest language might be. “We decided to discount computer languages and manufactured languages, such as Esperanto and, yes, Klingon, even ASL. Would there be an answer to this question or a way to answer this question?” Interesting, thought I, so I’m turning the assembled multitudes loose on it. If you rule out artificial languages, I suppose the answer has to be a creole of recent origin; any suggestions?


I’ve been reading Sergei Aksakov’s Years of Childhood, a wonderful memoir of growing up in the region of Ufa in the 1790s. Aksakov became a well-liked theater critic (and the father of two famous Slavophile sons, Konstantin and Ivan). He came to literary writing late in life, under the influence of Gogol; before writing the family chronicles and reminiscences for which he is mainly remembered, he produced books on fishing («Записки о рыбалке», 1847) and hunting («Записки ружейного охотника Оренбургской губернии», 1852) that were successful with both the public and with critics (the Russian Wikipedia entry says “Каждая главка книги представляла собой законченное литературное произведение” [‘every chapter was a finished literary work’]), and one of the many striking elements of Years of Childhood is the vivid portrayal of his excitement at discovering the world of nature and learning how to fish. (For an overlong and pedantic excursus on a fish name, see below the cut.)
D.S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature has a full and admiring treatment of Aksakov:

The principal characteristic of Aksákov’s work is its objectivity. His art is purely receptive. Even when be is introspective, as he is in the greater part of Years of Childhood, he is objectively introspective. He remains unmoved by any active desire except to find once again the time that has been lost — “retrouver le temps perdu.” The Proustian phrase is not out of place, for Aksákov’s sensibility is curiously and strikingly akin to that of the French novelist… Like Proust, Aksákov is all senses. His style is transparent. One does not notice it, for it is entirely adequate to what it expresses. It possesses, moreover, a beautiful Russian purity and an air of distinction and unaffected grace that gives it a fair chance of being recognized as the best, the standard, Russian prose. If it has a defect, it is the defect of its merit — a certain placidity, a certain excessive “creaminess,” a lack of the thin, “daimonic,” mountain air of poetry…
The most characteristic and Aksakovian of Aksákov’s works is unquestionably Years of Childhood of Bagróv-Grandson. It is the story of a peaceful and uneventful childhood, exceptional only for the exceptional sensibility of a child encouraged by an exceptionally sympathetic education. The most memorable passages in it are perhaps those which refer to nature, for instance the wonderful account of the coming of spring in the steppe. … [I]f ordinary life, unruffled by unusual incident, is a legitimate subject of literature, Aksákov, in Years of Childhood, wrote a masterpiece of realistic narrative. In it he came nearer than any other Russian writer, even than Tolstóy in War and Peace, to a modern evolutionary, continuous presentation of human life, as distinct from the dramatic and incidental presentation customary to the older novelists.

I myself thought of Proust while reading Aksakov, as well as the opening pages of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; few writers give so clear a picture of what it’s like to be a child.

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Serge Schmemann has an amusing column in the NY Times on the subject of American attempts to pronounce Russian names:

I saw it coming as soon as Tim Russert cornered Hillary Clinton into naming Vladimir Putin’s heir. She dodged, ducked and plunged into the now famous: “Med, vay, deva, whatever.” Nobody thought the worse of her. In fact, it drew one of the few sympathetic murmurs in the debate. Russian names are just not something most Americans can do. And if the blogs and online pronunciation guides I’ve checked are any indication, they never will.
One expert on National Public Radio thought that “Medvedev,” the way Russians pronounce it, is simply alien to the American tongue. But admitting that is alien to the American spirit, so there are many places to seek guidance. The Voice of America offers this phonetic spelling: “mehd-V(y)EHD-yehf.” They also provided a voice recording by a man who tried that — in all fairness, he does a pretty good “yehf.” But it’s not a sound likely to make President Dmitri Medvedev turn around….
One of the ways we compensate for the difficulty of foreign names is by adopting our own way of saying them. I once worked with an editor who spoke pretty good French, but used only the feminine article “la,” never “le.” Why, I finally asked? “Oh, it sounds SO much more French that way,” he drawled….
With time, we will learn to cope with Medvedev. We overcame Khrushchev, adopted Rostropovich and cheer hockey players, ballerinas and tennis stars. Medvedev is as elemental as “medved,” Russian for bear. So: Launch with “med” as in “he’s off his med”; put the accent on the “VEH” as in “venomous,” and trail off with a lazy “dev” with just a hint of “z” and “i”: “dziev.” Altogether now: “Med-VEH-dziev.” Whatever.

That “dz” sounds more Polish than Russian to me, but… wev.


Marina Warner has a fine essay in the TLS called “Babble with Beckett: How foreign languages can provide writers with a way out of the familiar.” Her main subject, obviously, is Beckett, but I want to highlight the material on Mallarmé, which I found surprising and hilarious:

It is interesting to think of Beckett’s precursors in relation to foreign languages: one of these, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, like Beckett a supreme artist of linguistic, syntactical music, translated and taught English, and was so involved in aesthetics and semantics that he composed three rare and eccentric works on the language. It is in one of these, Thèmes anglais (English Lessons) that Mallarmé offers, as a phrase that falls from the lips of any English speaker born and bred: “Who can shave an egg?”. I had never heard this before (but that is true of most of the sayings in Mallarmé’s weird and wonderful English phrase book), but it struck me as clownish, a little alarming, and a minimalist’s maxim. Mallarmé’s love of English was not rooted in fluency or familiarity, but rather in something literally other or alien in the language used by the writers he admired – William Beckford, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, and some rather lesser-known authors, such as Mrs Elphinstone Hope, whose forgotten story, “The Star of the Fairies”, Mallarmé translated in 1880. (He also left unfinished a mammoth anthology of English Literature.)…

Mallarmé shows an analogous desire for this erotics of language, a sense of language as sound, as music, as havoc, as nonsense, an understanding of modes of communication that defy semantics. He tried various approaches to overcoming his difficulties in teaching English. Hoping to capture the attention of his pupils, he turned to English’s near-unique richness of nursery rhymes and made versions of them in French prose – with extended, mock-earnest commentary and scrupulous grammatical notes, solemnly expanding on each rhyme’s possible significance. But his efforts did not meet with approval. In 1880, a government inspector, making the rounds of the classrooms, happened to enter M Mallarmé’s when the pupils were chanting a variation on “Tell Tale Tit”: “Liar liar lick spit / Your tongue shall be slit / And all the dogs in the town / Shall have a little bit”. The inspector was scandalized: “Since M. Mallarmé remains a professor of English”, he wrote, “Let him learn English . . . . It’s tempting to ask oneself if one is not in the presence of a sick man”.

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Anyone who loves old book illustrations should have BibliOdyssey (“Books~~Illustrations~~Science~~History~~Visual Materia Obscura~~Eclectic Bookart”) among their bookmarks, and anyone who loves the site will be glad to know that FUEL has published a book by its pseudonymous creator, who has changed his moniker from peacay to PK for the occasion. Since they were kind enough to send me a copy, I can report that it is well worth having even if you read the website assiduously, because about half of it has never appeared there, and the text is almost entirely new—not to mention, of course, that it’s great to have these gorgeous images in permanent form, well reproduced in a beautifully made book. PK himself says:

Ultimately, I envisage a threefold purpose in compiling a book of diverse illustrations — the simple pleasure of eye candy; the evocation of a deeper interest in an historical, artistic or scientific subject; and for use as a projectile, to be thrown at those who would say there is nothing worthwhile to be found on the internet, or who question why anybody would want to spend so much time in front of a computer screen.

To which I say, Amen.
Here’s a sample of the value added by the text; the images The Idol of Vistnum in his third Transformation and The Removal of the Mount Meeperwat (1672) are available at his site, but the book gives the background:

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