Archives for April 2008


From an impassioned Poetry Foundation article on translation by Linh Dinh:

One of the defining figures of Vietnamese literature, Phạm Quỳnh helped to modernize the language, encouraged the writing of short stories and novels, and the anthologizing of folk poetry. Admiring the logic and clarity of Western thinking, he felt that Vietnamese needed to learn from it, but that they also needed to identify and protect their distinctiveness. In 1922, he wrote about Vietnamese folk poetry, ca dao: “Even though our oral literature has not been recorded in any book, I will insist that it is a very rich one, richer, perhaps, than any other country. [The more illiterate a population, the richer the oral tradition—L. Dinh.] Although it is not without its crudeness, this oral literature is also profoundly resonant; one can say that the wisdom, morals, and aesthetics of our common folks are all contained within these idioms.” In short, don’t be half-Westernized and half-Vietnamese, one must become an Uber-Westernized Uber-Vietnamese. Warning Vietnamese writers against composing in French, Phạm Quỳnh wrote: “In borrowing someone’s language, you are also borrowing his ideas, literary techniques—even his emotions and customs.” After centuries of writing in Chinese, the Vietnamese had produced no Li Po, he pointed out, and writing in French, it is unlikely that they will ever produce a Victor Hugo or a Anatole France. After reading a story in French, Phạm Quỳnh suggested as an exercise, Try retelling it to one’s wife in Vietnamese.

[Read more…]


I just discovered an etymology that surprised me: barrio, which the OED takes back only to “Sp. barrio district, suburb,” is now considered to be, as AHD puts it, “Spanish, from Arabic barrī, of an open area, from barr, open area. See brr in Appendix II.” And from Appendix II we learn that it’s related to birr, the unit of currency in Ethiopia. (According to Wikipedia, “Before 1976, dollar was the official English translation of birr. Today, it is officially birr in English as well.”)


I would in any case recommend Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 for its superbly annotated collection of the correspondence of the gifted Wilson with his slightly younger and far greater contemporary Nabokov, but I do so with particular enthusiasm because of its important introduction by Simon Karlinsky. After a useful summary of both writers’ careers up to 1940, when Nabokov arrived in the States and the two men met, Karlinsky discusses with admirable clarity and force the mutual misunderstandings that strained their relationship from the beginning and finally destroyed it in the bad feelings over Wilson’s pugnacious 1965 review of Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin. He goes into Wilson’s delusion that Nabokov was ignorant about politics (he wrote to Nabokov in 1947, in the course of expressing his disappointment with Bend Sinister, “You aren’t good at this kind of subject, which involves questions of politics and social change, because you are totally uninterested in these matters and have never taken the trouble to understand them,” and in 1971 made the astonishing statement that Nabokov “does not even understand how [the Communist regime] works or how it ever came to be. His knowledge of Russia, in fact, is very special, extremely limited”), but what I want to focus on here is the literary misunderstanding. Wilson was, of course, one of the first American critics to write about Russian literature in any depth, and certainly one of the few with an ability to read Russian. As Karlinsky says, “His essays on Turgenev and Tolstoy were based on study of sources available only in the original Russian. In his essay on Tyutchev… Wilson ranged into areas of Russian literature most American critics do not even know exist.”

Yet, for all this wide scope, Wilson took almost no notice of the remarkable Silver Age of the early twentieth century — just as he had avoided when he wrote To the Finland Station looking too closely at the socialist and Marxist groups that opposed Lenin. Wilson was acquainted with D.S. Mirsky’s books on the history of Russian literature, which do that period full justice; but his view of the post-1905 situation had been formed earlier by Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, a book that cleverly discredits and slanders some of the finest Russian writers of the early twentieth century…

It was precisely in the brilliant literary flowering of that age, which Trotsky had concealed from Wilson, that Nabokov’s art originated — from the experimental prose of Remizov and Bely, from the more traditionalist, but stylistically exquisite prose of Bunin and, even more importantly, from the great and innovative poetry that was then being written by Annensky, Blok, Bely and, later, Mandelstam and Pasternak, among so many others…

When he warned Nabokov, in the first letter to him we have…, to avoid playing with words and making puns…, Wilson could not have been aware that this was less a personal idiosyncrasy of Nabokov’s than an aspect of a widespread trend in the literature of Russian modernism. Interest in paronomasia, in discovering the hitherto unperceived relationships between the semantic and phonetic aspects of speech, pursued not for the purpose of playing with words but for discovering and revealing hidden new meanings, was basic to the prose of Remizov, Bely and other Russian Symbolists. It was even more basic to the poetry of Mayakovsky, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva, the three poets whose work had some of the same roots as Nabokov’s prose and with whom he shared the bent for verbal experimentation that at first puzzled and then delighted readers of his novels written in English.

Like Joyce, he wrote some good poems but his real poetic gift is expressed in the magical sound-web of his prose. I quoted a nice example at the end of this post, and I’ll add a couple more that I’ve noticed while making my way through Drugie beregá.

In Chapter Five, section 5 of Speak, Memory, describing how he has always hated going to sleep and how he clung to the line of light visible from the room of his tutor Mademoiselle and hated it when she stopped reading and turned out the light, Nabokov talks about “imagining paradise as a place where a sleepless neighbor reads an endless book by the light of an eternal candle.” In English it’s a nice image, but look what it becomes in Russian (where it’s in section 6): “Рай – это место, где бессонный сосед читает бесконечную книгу при свете вечной свечи!” [Rai – eto mesto, gde bessonnyi soséd chitayet beskonéchnuyu knigu pri svete vechnoi svechí!] The slight assonance of “eto mesto” gives way to the snaky hiss of “bessonnyi soséd” and the k’s and n’s of “beskonéchnuyu knigu” before the triumphant entanglement of sounds in “svete vechnoi svechí.”

And a few pages earlier, in section 3, is this concentrated clause, almost a tongue-twister: “Втроем пройдя по полупротоптанной тропинке…” [Vtroyóm proidyá po poluprotóptannoi tropinke…] ‘The three of us passing along a half-beaten path…’ (in Nabokov’s English version: “The three of us followed a fairly easy trail…”). Listen to those tr’s and pr’s—you can hear them tripping proudly along the partly trodden trail, off on a promising trip that will be nipped in the bud by Dmitri.

No wonder it was so hard for him to give up writing in Russian. He wrote to his wife in 1942:

On the way a lightning bolt of undefined inspiration ran right through me, a terrible desire to write, and write in Russian — but it’s impossible. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced these feelings can properly appreciate them, the torment, the tragedy. English in this case is an illusion, ersatz. In my usual condition — busy with butterflies, translations or academic writing — I myself don’t fully register all the grief and bitterness of my situation…


Arnold Zwicky at the Log has noticed something that I desperately want to be a common typo but that I’m afraid he may be correct in thinking a new construction a-borning:

Yesterday on ADS-L, Doug Harris noted a surprise (boldfaced below) in a piece by TVNewser columnist Gail Shister: […] [Emily Rooney said] “What’s she waiting for? Will it getter better after the election? After the inauguration? Of course not.” […] Was this just an inadvertent slip, with the -er of the comparative better anticipated on the preceding verb get (perhaps facilitated by the rhyme of get and bet-)? Almost surely not; Harris got 21,300 raw webhits for {“getter better”}, and even granting that there are many duplicates and that some might be slips, there are still many examples remaining that look like people are saying and writing just what they intend to. It looks like a new idiom — new to me and possibly to the usage literature, and possibly recent.

He gives enough examples to convince me it’s probably more than just a frequent slip of the typing fingers; there is even “Are animals getter more and more inteligent [sic]?” where there is no question of an anticipation of a later -er. Mind you, I don’t dislike this because it’s “wrong” (I think we all know where I stand on artificial correctness), but because it doesn’t sound to me like something a native speaker of English could conceivably say, which means my ear for English is aging out of service even faster than I had feared.
Anyway, I thought I’d turn to the assembled multitudes: have you ever run across this use of “getter”? Have you used it yourself (or can you imagine using it)?


A NY Times story by Christine Kenneally, a freelance journalist who has a Ph.D. in linguistics, discusses some interesting new research that takes the stale Sapir-Whorf debate in a new direction:

Faced with pictures of odd clay creatures sporting prominent heads and pointy limbs, students at Carnegie Mellon were asked to identify which “aliens” were friendly and which were not…
Some had somewhat lumpy, misshapen heads. Others had smoother domes. After students assigned each alien to a category, they were told whether they had guessed right or wrong, learning as they went that smooth heads were friendly and lumpy heads were not.

[Read more…]


I imagine most of you are familiar with the old wheeze about fish being spelled ghoti, with gh pronounced as in laugh, o as in women, and ti as in nation. It’s regularly attributed to Shaw, but no one has ever found it in his writings, and it turns out, as reported in an invigorating Language Log post by Ben Zimmer (now Executive Producer of—congratulations!), that that’s because it goes back before he was born, being attested in a letter dated December 11, 1855, to Leigh Hunt from his publisher Charles Ollier:

And here an experiment in orthography, which it may amuse some of our readers to carry further at this season of puzzles and charades, and kindred jovial perplexities:—”My son William has hit upon a new method of spelling Fish. As thus:—G.h.o.t.i., Ghoti, fish. Nonsense! say you. By no means, say I. It is perfectly vindicable orthography. You give it up? Well then, here is the proof. Gh is f, as in tough, rough, enough; o is i as in women; and ti is sh, as in mention, attention, &c. So that ghoti is fish.”

As Ben says, “it actually makes sense that ghoti made its earliest appearance in the mid-nineteenth century, when English orthographic reform was gaining popularity”; he quotes some far more ponderous examples of the same sort of jovial respellings from the period (showing, incidentally, that as of 1845 postvocalic /r/ was still pronounced in educated usage).
One thing that particularly pleased me was the discovery that the erroneous attribution to Shaw comes from Mario Pei, who Ben calls (with perhaps excessive kindness) “not always the most reliable source when it comes to language-related information.” Pei, like Bryson today, is enjoyable to read but not to be taken seriously as a source of facts.
Oh, and the Log now has comments (again)! Well done, chaps.


The World Atlas of Language Structures is now freely available online:

WALS is a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of more than 40 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject).
WALS consists of 141 maps with accompanying texts on diverse features (such as vowel inventory size, noun-genitive order, passive constructions, and “hand”/”arm” polysemy), each of which is the responsibility of a single author (or team of authors). Each map shows between 120 and 1110 languages, each language being represented by a symbol, and different symbols showing different values of the feature. Altogether 2,650 languages are shown on the maps, and more than 58,000 datapoints give information on features in particular languages.
WALS thus makes information on the structural diversity of the world’s languages available to a large audience, including interested nonlinguists as well as linguists who would not normally read grammars of exotic languages or specialized works by comparative linguists.

I’ve only had a chance to dip into this, but I look forward to exploring it at length. Many thanks to Casey (of Belletra) for the heads-up!


I just ran across Language Is the People’s, subtitled “Notes from the copy editor.” Dan is “a full-time quality assurance technician (read: proofreader) based in St. Paul, Minnesota” who has also worked as a copy editor, and his Manifesto plants its flag in the very middle ground I try to inhabit:

I’ve found that even if you’re in a position where you have to enforce arbitrary rules like the AP styleguide’s preference for adviser over advisor, there’s no harm in knowing that language prescriptions like those in your usage guide are neither magic nor objectively “correct.”
This knowledge can even help you to be less arrogant. There’s no reason to look down on a writer for using which in a way which you wouldn’t, especially when you find out that many other people have the same correctness conditions as that writer. You might recast a sentence with that sort of which in order to fit with internal style rules or promote clarity or satisfy the language cranks in your audience, but all that’s about making writing better, not about right vs. wrong.
There’s also no reason to — as I often did in the past — stop a conversation to enforce a language “rule” when what the speaker said was completely intelligible to you. The latent classism in pointing out that “ain’t isn’t a word,” or the fact that, yes it is, aren’t the point. The point is that you are the people, the language is working for you, and if you didn’t have some WTF reaction to how the speaker is talking, then there’s no reason to bring Strunk and White into this. As they say, or should.
Lest we forget: Language belongs to the people.

Amen, and if people would worry less about whether language is “correct” and more about whether it’s used well, the world would be a better place. (Dan has an interesting discussion of “descriptivism” as bogeyman and as reality here.)


Stanford University Press is pleased to announce that you can now search the full text of our books via Google Book Search. We are currently still in the process of uploading and scanning our backlist, but there are already over a thousand Stanford titles in Google Book Search. When the project is completed, all of our books will be searchable electronically.

This is terrific news, and I hope the idea spreads. University presses, despite the problems they face, are vital to the life of the mind, and the more they make their books accessible, the better off we are. (Via wood s lot, itself vital to the life of the mind.)


A cautionary Aboriginal tale from Anggargoon:

Two guys meet by chance across a chasm. One of the guys shouts a question in Oowini across the gap. The other doesn’t answer, because he doesn’t speak that language. He yells back something in a different language, which the Oowini guy doesn’t know. Then they both turn into stone.

Your teachers warned you this would happen if you didn’t study…