Archives for October 2008


In this story from yesterday’s NY Times on Obama’s upcoming trip to Hawaii to visit his sick grandmother, Liz Robbins writes: “Mr. Obama calls Ms. Dunham ‘Tutu,’ a local term for grandparent that he sometimes shortens to ‘Toot.'” Naturally, I turned to my Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary, but under T it simply said “All loan words from English sometimes spelled with initial t– are entered under k-.” Well, this didn’t seem to be an English loan, but I tried the K section anyway and there it was:
kūkū. 1. (Usually pronounced tūtū.) Granny, grandma, grandpa; any relative of grandparent’s generation.
Now, for one thing, I don’t understand how the same term can be used for ‘grandpa’ and ‘grandma’ in a kinship system that distinguishes by gender; more relevant for LH, though, is this business of the consonants. Can any reader more familiar with Malayo-Polynesian than I explain why this word is “Usually pronounced tūtū” when Hawaiian does not have /t/?


A typically thoughtful essay by Orhan Pamuk on his relation to Turkish literature and to books:

I regret that I have not been able to shake off the enlightenment idea that books exist to prepare us for life. Perhaps this is because a writer’s life in Turkey is proof that they are. But it also has something to do with the fact that in those days Turkey lacked the sort of large library where you could easily locate any book you wanted. As for books in foreign languages, not a single library had them. If I wanted to learn everything that there was to be learned, and become a wise person and so escape the constraints of the national literature – imposed by the literary cliques and literary diplomacy, and enforced by stifling prohibitions – I was going to have to build my own great library.
Between 1970 and 1990, my main preoccupation after writing was buying books; I wanted my library to include all the books that I viewed as important or useful. My father gave me a substantial allowance and from the age of 18 I was in the habit of going once a week to Sahaflar, the old booksellers’ market in Beyazit. I spent many days in its little shops, which were heated by ineffective electric heaters and crowded with towers of unclassified books; everyone from the shop assistant to the owner, the casual visitor to the bona fide customer, looked poor. I would go into a shop that sold second-hand books, comb all the shelves, leafing through the books, and I would pick up a history of the relations between Sweden and the Ottoman empire in the 18th century, or the memoir of the head physician of the Bakirköy Hospital for the Insane, or a journalist’s eyewitness account of a failed coup, or a monograph on the Ottoman monuments of Macedonia, or a Turkish précis of the writings of a German traveller who came to Istanbul in the 17th century, or the reflections of a professor from the Çapa Medical Faculty on manic depressive disorder; and, after bargaining with the shop assistant, I would cart them all away.

Thanks, Jeremy!

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I’ve barely started reading Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917 (see the end of this post, and here‘s the webpage for the book, with a link to supplementary materials) and I’ve already hit on a gem, “Guak, or Unbounded Devotion: A Knightly Tale.” This is one of those tales of chivalry that trickled into Russia from the West; its Russian version originated in the eighteenth century but wasn’t published until the nineteenth. It begins: “Prince Zilagon, ruler of the Princedom of Florida, was a great and glorious man who who greatly expanded his territory and struck fear into the hearts of neighboring peoples.” The Princedom of Florida? Zilagon travels through “Greece, Persia, India, China, Japan, and Greater Bukharia,” impressing everyone with his knightly and heroic feats, but when he returns home he discovers his father has died and “Florida, left without a ruler, had fallen to the enemy.” He raises an army, expels the enemy, and becomes ruler. “Canada was the first to feel the weight of his sword and surrendered to his mighty power; thereafter, twelve more realms surrendered to the unconquerable and awe-inspiring Zilagon, and after extending the borders of his domain, he married the daughter of the king of Mexico.” He leaves his realm to his son Gualikh, who “established peace and in his land, and determined to decorate his capital with a magnificent monument. He ordered that a massive amphitheater be built from white and green marble… This amphitheater was built directly across from the royal palace; inside it was so large that it could hold 50,000 spectators. Under an enormous canopy in the amphitheater were twelve places for visiting magnates.”
Gualikh goes on to marry an African princess named Refuda and have a son named Guak, who needless to say becomes a hero in his own right and has many adventures, including winning the heart of an Amazonian princess named Veleuma, but I’m not going to tell you about all that. Instead I’m going to mention the cognitive dissonance induced by seeing exotic names like Zilagon, Gualikh, and Guak associated with the homely (to me) place name Florida (and if anyone has any suggestion about where those names might have come from, by all means share it), and point out that the whole thing is manifestly a prediction of the victory of the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs. Of course, it would have been clearer if rather than Canada the Princedom of Florida had conquered the Duchy of Massachusetts (home of the Red Sox), but I submit that the 50,000-seat amphitheater with its “places for visiting magnates” is obviously Tropicana Field with its luxury suites.

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There’s an interesting post at the Log today in which Geoff Pullum surprised me by writing:

At some time in the middle 1970s, Deirdre Wilson and I noticed that we had never seen the past participle of the verb stride anywhere. In fact we didn’t even know what it was. When you stride off, what is it that you’ve done? How would it be described? Have you strided? Have you strode? Have you stroded? Have you stridden? Have you strodden? We realized that we hadn’t a clue. None of them sounded familiar or even mildly acceptable to us as native speakers.

As I said in the thread:

I am American and spontaneously produced stridden (which I’m pretty sure I’ve actually used in speech); so did my wife, though since she had a British-born father her testimony may be tainted. At any rate, it is clearly a ridiculous overstatement to say it does not exist or is never used. The OED says, quite properly, “The pa. pple. rarely occurs.”

A number of other people also said stridden seemed natural to them. One commenter said “This reminds me of the fact that in Russian, there are a couple of nouns which lack a genitive plural form (but have all the usual forms, including a genitive singular). The word for ‘poker’ (the thing you find by a fireplace) is one of them.” To this I responded:

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I recently ran across a Russian word unknown to me, мухояр [mukhoyár], an obsolete term for a kind of cotton fabric mixed with silk or wool. It looks like a purely Slavic word, perhaps having something to do with муха [mukha] ‘fly’—imagine my surprise when I looked up the etymology and discovered it’s from Arabic! Vasmer (in my Russian edition) says “Из тур.-араб. muḫajjar ‘ткань из козьей шерсти’, откуда нем. Масhеiеr, польск. muchair, франц. moire”; in other words, it’s from Arabic mukhayyar ‘preferred, chosen’ (referring to the material, presumably), a form of the verb khayyara ‘prefer’ (from which comes also the common adjective khair ‘good’). French moire does not come directly from the Arabic but from English mohair, which the OED says is ultimately from the Arabic but “probably partly via Italian mocaiaro” (itself, of course, from Arabic); the earliest citations have –c-, e.g. 1570 J. CAMPION in R. Hakluyt Princ. Navigations (1599) II. I. 115 “There is also cotten wooll,.. chamlets, mocayares.” We later borrowed moire back from the French. What a tangled multinational web!
The other Russian word whose etymology recently surprised me is a very common one, внезапно [vnezapno] ‘suddenly.’ I’ve known the word for forty years, but for some reason I looked at it and thought “I have no idea where that comes from,” so off I went to Vasmer, where I learned that it’s from Old Russian запа, заапа [za(a)pa] ‘hope, expectation’ and its derivative вънезапу [v”nezapu] ‘suddenly, unexpectedly’ (literally ‘in-not-expectation’); Church Slavic has невъзаапъ [nev”zaap”] (literally ‘not-in-expectation’) in the same sense. But the base word за(а)па is itself a compound, consisting of the prefix за- and a verb that occurs in Old Czech as japati or jápati ‘observe,’ which has a derivative nedojiepie ‘unexpectedly’—comparable to внезапно (or more closely to the obsolete form незапно) but with -do- instead of -za-. But wait, there’s more! The Slavic root *ар- is probably related to Latin op-, found in opīnor ‘think, suppose, hold as an opinion,’ opīnio ‘opinion,’ and inopīnus ‘unexpected’ (a nice parallel). Who would have thought that the root of внезапно was ап?


For many years, I had wanted to read C.L.R. James’s famous Beyond a Boundary, to quote the blurbs on the back “the most important sports book of our time” (Warren Susman) and “a dazzling guide to all our contemporary games” (Robert Lipsyte). Finally, a week or so ago, looking for a break from Tolstoy, I noticed it on the shelf, said to myself “Why not?” and pulled it down.

I should preface my remarks, which are not in line with the quoted blurbs, by saying that I came to the book (like your average Yank) knowing nothing about cricket other than its fabled exemplification of British upper-class ideals. I had thought this might not be a great obstacle—I had, after all, read a number of books about soccer with enjoyment despite my lack of expertise—but it turns out that an intimate acquaintance with the history, terminology, and experience of the game is a prerequisite to the enjoyment of large chunks of the book. I skimmed pages and pages full of stuff like this: “I was an off-side batsman, drive, cut and back-stroke through the covers. Of course, I could also hook.” “This is what happened to George in Australia: 23, 82, 131, 34. Then he failed steadily: 27 run out and 16; 0 and 11 (Test, to Grimmett both times); 3; 14 and 2 (Test); 19 and 17.” “Constantine in the first innings went in at No. 8 and made 24 not out. The score was 132 for eight in the second innings when Burton joined him.” I perused Wikipedia’s excellent entry on the game, with its very useful illustration of the fielding positions (cover, point, gully, and so on) and related terms (deep, fine, forward, backward), but it didn’t really help. You have to know what all of it means, in the way I know what is meant by “a hard bouncer to third” or “an easy double play.” Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to make fun of what I don’t understand (I got over the apparent silliness of terms like, well, “silly mid-off” a long time ago), and my respect for the game was if anything increased by realizing how much there was to understand. But there was no help for it: understanding it would take far more effort than I was willing to put into it, so a great deal of the book was lost on me.

Furthermore, it is not a book of the sort I expected: a carefully designed fabric in which the strands of sport, autobiography, and politics were woven together to create a brilliant pattern. It’s more like a collection of essays loosely united by those themes. It starts with pure autobiography (focused, to be sure, on the cricket games played just outside the window of the house in which he grew up), moves to his attempts to establish himself in England, passes on to the history of cricket as a game, and winds up with an impassioned brief for West Indian cricket and the nationalism of which it is an inextricable part; some of the chapters could be excised without the book as a whole suffering in the least. This meant that I could skim long sections with an easy conscience, since I knew it would not much affect my appreciation of the whole, but it made me wonder why the book is so revered… except that, of course, I know that someone who knew nothing of baseball would think the same of Roger Angell’s The Summer Game or John Thorn’s Armchair Book of Baseball or Arnold Hano’s A Day in the Bleachers.

My advice to someone who shares my ignorance of cricket but wants to get the best out of the book would be to read the first chapter, “The Window,” James’s evocation of his childhood; Chapter 18, “The Proof of the Pudding,” an exciting account of the scandalous behavior of the West Indian cricket crowd in 1960 and its consequences; and in between, Chapter 8, “Prince and Pauper,” which focuses on the West Indian cricket hero Learie Constantine and James’s relations with him following his journey to England in 1932. Here is the crucial paragraph that sums up the book in its last sentence:

I accepted [Constantine’s] offer, and we agreed to meet in England the following spring. The plans were as rapid in the making as in the telling. At the time he had, I think, dined in my house once. I doubt if his wife and mine had yet met. We didn’t know it but we were making history. This transcendence of our relations as cricketers was to initiate the West Indian renaissance not only in cricket, but in politics, in history and in writing.

The story he tells about the West Indian renaissance is a good one; you just have to extract it from the sticky wicket on which it resides.

A couple of items of linguistic interest: the etymology of the word cricket is, in the OED’s word, uncertain; and James repeatedly uses a phrase between wind and water in a way I am unclear about, e.g. “That particular [Victorian] age he [W.G. Grace, the Babe Ruth of cricket] hit between wind and water.” The OED says “along the line where anything is submerged in water or in damp soil, esp. on the load-line of a ship, which, as the vessel tosses, is alternately above and below the water’s surface,” but that doesn’t help much.

I’m still not ready to go back to Tolstoy, but that’s OK—my wonderful sister-in-law just gave me a copy of a book I’ve long wanted, Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917, edited by James Von Geldern and Louise McReynolds. I’m about to dive in!


Patricia Yollin of the San Francisco Chronicle has a great story, “UC linguistics students get lesson of lifetime,” describing an unusual Field Methods class. A similar class was one of the highlights of my own linguistics education: we met every week to elicit forms from a speaker of Toba Batak (a language of Sumatra), and each had to produce a grammar by the end of the semester; we were not supposed to use English with our informant, although sometimes we slipped up. The difference here is that the language has never been described by linguists (except for a word list):

Nzadi is one of the most obscure tongues in the world. That’s exactly why a UC Berkeley class has embraced it.
“There’s nothing like the joy of discovering a language from scratch,” said Cal linguistics Professor Larry Hyman.
The 10 students in his course, Introduction to Field Methods, are focusing on Nzadi this semester – the first such effort in any college or university to examine this remote member of the Bantu linguistic family.
“It’s a chance to study a language that nobody has studied before,” said graduate student researcher Thera Crane. “That opportunity does not come around very often.”
Nzadi is spoken by thousands of people in fishing villages along the Kasai River in Congo, a country with about 220 languages.
The students in Hyman’s class have two goals. They want to figure out how to analyze an unfamiliar language and they plan to document Nzadi – a tongue so unknown that it cannot be found in the Ethnologue, a compendium of almost 7,000 languages across the globe….
Hyman also would like to produce a grammar by the end of the semester that could be published. Each student would be responsible for a chapter.

You can watch a minute-long YouTube clip with snippets of the class and talks with the professor and the informant; read the story for more (the informant, Simon Nsielanga Tukumu, “grew up in the Congolese village of Bundu in a family of fishermen,” has been ordained as a Jesuit priest, and “is now working toward a master’s degree in ethics at the Graduate Theological Union”). I will seize this opportunity to once more propagandize for the old-fashioned kind of linguistic training that emphasized intensive study of non-Indo-European languages as a necessary part of a linguist’s background. Thanks for the link, Eve! (Incidentally, Prof. Hyman founded the Comparative Bantu On-Line Dictionary (CBOLD), a very useful project.)


Translator Daniel Hahn has started a very interesting blog:

Translation – like most kinds of writing, like most kinds of artistic creation – tends not to expose itself to an audience till it has reached its finished form. A reader is encouraged to read a finished book – which may be a third, fifth, or fiftieth draft, which has been worked and re-worked, corrected, questioned, edited, polished and proofed – and to disregard the imperfect stages that have preceded this final one. You are requested kindly to keep well away from the rehearsal room until the performers and production team have their show ready for public viewing, if you please.
In this blog I hope to examine the translation process, working through a novel from my own first launching into a first draft, right up to publication. It’s not a blog about the life of a translator – musings about translation generally, reports of events I’ve attended or readings I’ve given, people I’ve met at launch parties, books I’ve read – but intimately about a single piece of translation work, which I hope will bring you closer to the experience, to the pleasures it brings and the questions it raises.

He’s translating Estação das Chuvas by José Eduardo Agualusa, “a wonderful Angolan novelist I’ve been privileged to work with a few times before.” There are three posts up so far, with lots of thought-provoking stuff, like this from the latest:

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Geoff Pullum presents an interesting conundrum at the Log:

In 1934, the philologist A. S. C. Ross wrote a review of the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary Supplement (Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 35: 128-132) in which he referred to taboo words as “mumfordish” vocabulary. He used the same word again in the same year in a short note in Transactions of the Philological Society (volume 33, issue 1, page 99), and again made it clear that for him it was a synonym for “taboo” or “obscene” as applied to lexical items. Charlotte Brewer of Oxford University, an expert on the history of the OED (author of Treasure-house of the Language: The Living OED and creator of the marvellous Examining the OED website), mentioned in a paper presented at the ISLE-1 conference in Freiburg last week that she was baffled by the word mumfordish. So am I. Can any Language Log reader shed serious (rather than speculative) light on its etymology?

I join him in the quest, except that I welcome speculation as well as solemn scholarship. My guess is that the reference is to Lewis Mumford, who was already well known as a literary critic and authority on architecture and urban life by 1934, but of course it could be to some now-forgotten person or literary character of that name, perhaps even a personal acquaintance of Ross’s (although it seems unlikely that in those buttoned-down days a scholar would make a puckish personal reference that his readers had no hope of deciphering). I was briefly encouraged when I discovered that Lewis Mumford had a book called Sticks and Stones (1924), but it turns out to be about American architecture. Any suggestions?


The Onion takes us back:

In late 1783, change was sweeping the Western world. The Revolutionary War had drawn to a close, the Treaty of Paris had been signed, Mozart’s Great Mass was performed for the first time, and, with the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon, mankind was poised on the threshold of flight. And only one newspaper, H. Ulysses Zweibel’s The Onion, had the courage to stand against it all. Here, for the first time ever, is a reprint edition of The Onion‘s October 6, 1783 issue.

I would like to draw your attention in particular to their attack on that Rogue Noah Webster: “Have we, in this Newe Wourld, cast off one Tyrant, who would taxx our Tea and Gov’rn us from A Far, only to adopt an Other who would shew us How to Speak, and Standerdise our Speling with a Rod of Iyrn, and Up Braid our ev’ry Pronouncement, as does a Dictinrie?” (Thanks, Kári!)