Archives for January 2009


Another fascinating post by Mark Liberman at the indispensable Language Log, linking to an article published today in Science, “Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement,” by R. D. Gray, A. J. Drummond, and S. J. Greenhill. The abstract:

Debates about human prehistory often center on the role that population expansions play in shaping biological and cultural diversity. Hypotheses on the origin of the Austronesian settlers of the Pacific are divided between a recent “pulse-pause” expansion from Taiwan and an older “slow-boat” diffusion from Wallacea. We used lexical data and Bayesian phylogenetic methods to construct a phylogeny of 400 languages. In agreement with the pulse-pause scenario, the language trees place the Austronesian origin in Taiwan approximately 5230 years ago and reveal a series of settlement pauses and expansion pulses linked to technological and social innovations. These results are robust to assumptions about the rooting and calibration of the trees and demonstrate the combined power of linguistic scholarship, database technologies, and computational phylogenetic methods for resolving questions about human prehistory.

I’m glad they came down on the side of Taiwanese origin, because that’s how I’ve always understood it, and it would have been a painful effort to dislodge the idea. Mark adds “An unusually clear explanation of the project, along with a great deal of background information, is available on the web here,” describes some earlier work, and invites comment, as of course do I (I hope the recent spate of Russian-related posts hasn’t driven off the Austronesianists!).


Joe Clark has very kindly put up a snatch of an interview in Occitan on Flickr. As he says, “Do not be surprised if Occitan sounds like French as spoken in a Spanish accent.” If you can’t understand it, no problem: there are subtitles… in Breton!


Clarence Brown, writing about Mandelstam’s early poems, says (on page 177): “One quickly becomes aware that the voice uttering these poems is quite clearly an ‘Alice,’ to use Auden’s marvelous term. It is very Alice, this fastidiousness, this dainty swoon. And yet one is just as quickly aware that the whole Alice tonality is a sort of trick; to be more precise, it is a gambit, a shrewd surrender of material in the expectation of gain. For the speaker ends his poems too often with very confident assertions of superiority…”
Google has failed me, so I turn to the Varied Reader. Are any of you familiar with this allusion? (Yes, I thought of Alice in Wonderland, but it’s not at all clear that that’s what Auden had in mind, and I’d like to know the passage Brown was so confidently alluding to a generation ago.)


Here’s a passage from Brown’s Mandelstam that strikingly illustrates how presuppositions can affect a translation. He’s discussing the poem “Silentium” from Mandelstam’s first book; here’s his translation and discussion (pp. 165166):

It has not yet been born,
it is music and the word,
and thereby inviolably
bonds everything that lives.
The breast of the sea breathes tranquilly
but the day is brilliant, like a fool,
and the pale lilac of the foam
lies in a bowl of cloudy blue.
May my lips acquire this
primeval quietness
like a crystal note
congenitally pure.
Remain foam, Aphrodite;
and return to music, word,
and heart, be ashamed of heart
when blent with life’s foundation!
The first word is something of a problem, though it never was until a friend of mine, Richard McKane, presented it to me in a translation different from the one I had always mentally been using. The word is a Russian pronoun that can mean ‘it’ or ‘she’ depending upon the antecedent, which is of course the problem. The ‘it’ of my translation means ‘silence’; the ‘she’ of his meant ‘Aphrodite.’ I discover from this provocative conflict what provocative conflicts are best at disclosing, namely, the assumptions that I had made without being really aware of them. ‘Silentium’ is a neuter noun in Latin, but its Russian equivalent, tishina, is feminine, to which one refers by the feminine pronoun. That is one assumption, that Mandelstam had named his poem ‘Silentium’ but had thought of its subject, ‘silence’ or tishina, in his native Russian. The other assumption is much broader and involves my whole conception of his image of silence as something that pervades and unites everything in existence. That seems to me fundamental…. McKane evidently thought that the reference was to Aphrodite, who is after all the principal feminine person (and noun) in the poem and who has in fact, in the poem’s chronology, not yet been born, for the speaker asks her to ‘remain foam.’ But is she the other things represented by those predicative nominatives? Is she both ‘music’ and ‘the word’? Is she that which connects all living things? Love?
Finally, I am not sure, nor do I believe that anyone ought to be. The argument from the gender of a word that remained merely latent, tishina, is not, now that I am aware of having made it, unassailable. It is — I hesitate to say, knowing that some readers detest even innocent puns — the argumentum ex silentio, a feeble one at best. But the problem, if it is a problem, lies more in the translation than in the original, it being one of the penalties of speaking English that one must resolve an ambiguity of which the Russian reader may hardly be aware. In English the Russian ona is either ‘it’ or ‘she’; it cannot, as in Russian, be both it and she.

(I don’t know which version is better, but I enjoyed the argumentum ex silentio pun.)


For years I’ve read articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates and mentally pronounced his name /ˌta-nǝˈhisi/ (i.e., tah-nǝ-HEE-see), which seemed obvious enough. But this evening Terry Gross interviewed him on Fresh Air, and she introduced him as /ˌta-nǝˈhasi/ (tah-nǝ-HAH-see). My first thought was that she was misspeaking, but then she did it again, and I did a little investigating, and lo:

Also for the record Ta-Nehisi (pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) is an Egyptian name for ancient Nubia. I came up in a time when African/Arabic names were just becoming popular among black parents. I had a lot of buddies named Kwame, Kofi, Malik (actually have a brother with that name), Akilah and Aisha. My Dad had to be different, though. Couldn’t just give me a run of the mill African name. I had to be a nation.

Now, leaving aside the Egyptological side of it (the hieroglyphs transliterated as nḥsy and translated “Nubian” cannot, of course, be confidently provided with vowels, and I don’t know where the “Ta” comes from), I think it’s pretty nifty that there is a name in which graphic i is pronounced /a/; anything that adds to the weirdness and unpredictability of English orthography is fine by me. (I added the pronunciation information to his Wikipedia entry.)


The Romani Morpho-Syntax Database (part of the Romani Linguistics Page) is operated by
the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester. According to Anggarrgoon, where I found the link, it features:
* Comprehensive documentation of over 150 varieties of the language
* Phrase exemplification of all data in sound, transcription, and translation
* Browse, search, and query facilities
* Dynamic map-generating function that plots the distribution of features
* Extensive Help menu
* Link to Romani Linguistics Page with
** background information on the Romani language
** bibliographical database of Romani linguistics
** downloadable DVD presentation in 17 languages on the historical development of Romani
It took me a while to figure out how to search, but you can do it from this page; the maps of dialectal variants are here. It would be nice if they made it more obvious how to use the site, but I’m glad it exists!


I finally got my very own copy of Clarence Brown’s classic Mandelstam, and I’m reading it with great pleasure and learning all sorts of interesting things. A few of them:
1) From page 2:

…it was in fact [his wife Nadezhda] who had insisted to Mandelstam himself that the poems be written down. In the most literal sense, he was no ‘writer.’ He was contemptuous of paper and ink, kept his poems in his head, and believed so strongly in their objective existence that once he had finished them he had no fear of losing them…. In the autobiographical Chetvertaia proza (Fourth Prose) he furiously megaphones:

I have no manuscripts, no notebooks, no archives. I have no handwriting because I never write. I alone in Russia work from the voice while all around the bitch-pack writes. What the hell kind of writer am I?! Get out you fools!

A writer who doesn’t write!
2) From page 89: “Mandelstam despised translation, especially translation in verse, even though Innokenty Annensky, a poet revered by Mandelstam and himself a masterful translator, had urged him to practise that discipline as a means of learning verse technique.” One result (Nadezhda is speaking):

In Voronezh, he and I translated some Maupassant. I think he did ‘Yvette.’ I took the manuscripts to Moscow and sat down to correct them and proofread what the typist had done, and suddenly I realized that some sort of butler was talking in the story. There wasn’t any in the text. I thought it must be another edition. Took another edition out: no butler. Then it dawned on me what had happened. Mandelstam hadn’t even translated — he’d described one of the illustrations! There was an illustration in the book showing some sort of very dignified butler. I mean, he was so bored by translation that he couldn’t even read the text!

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Don Ringe has been doing guest posts at the Log (I linked to them here and here); he’s posted a final one on Wanderwörter (words that travel between languages in a region) before vanishing into the maw of the new semester, and I thought I’d bring it to your attention.
And on the historical linguistics front, it occurred to me that some might be interested in the question of how to find English words that descend from a common root, explored in this AskMetaFilter thread.


I had intended to post a translation of this excellent post (“о норме”: ‘on the norm’) over at Anatoly Vorobey’s blog, but my computer crashed when I was almost done, and I don’t have the heart to do it all over again, so I’ll just say that he’s explaining the poor correspondence between the alleged “rules” propagated by alleged purists and the actual rules of the language, and pointing out that the situation in Russia is still worse because there even the linguists largely subscribe to the shibboleths—a sad situation indeed. (And I note comments in the thread like one saying sure, there are educated people who use the “illiterate” verb ложить, just as there are educated people who consult horoscopes, and I sigh.)
Anyway, John Emerson in this thread kindly links to a post by Rohan Maitzen at The Valve, Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat!, and I enjoyed it so much that as a substitute I will copy the passage from Carlyle found there:

Consider, for example, that great Hat seven-feet high, which now perambulates London Streets. . . The Hatter in the Strand of London, instead of making better felt-hats than another, mounts a huge lath-and-plaster Hat, seven-feet high, upon wheels; sends a man to drive it through the streets, hoping to be saved thereby. He has not attempted to make better hats, as he was appointed by the Universe to do, and as with this ingenuity of his he could very probably have done; but his whole industry is turned to persuade us that he has made such! He too knows that the Quack has become God. Laugh not at him, O reader; or do not laugh only. He has ceased to be comic; he is fast becoming tragic. To me this all-deafening blast of Puffery, of poor Falsehood grown necessitous, of poor Heart-Atheism fallen now into Enchanted Workhouses, sounds too surely like a Doom’s-blast! . . .
We take it for granted, the most rigorous of us, that all men who have made anything are expected and entitled to make the loudest possible proclamation of it, and call on a discerning public to reward them for it. Every man his own trumpeter; that is, to a really alarming extent, the accepted rule. Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat: true proclamation if that will do; if that will not do, then false proclamation,—to such extent of falsity as will serve your purpose; as will not seem too false to be credible!

I have long since made proclamation of my Hats, and I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are not finer hats in the realm!


Back when I read Döblin’s novel and saw Fassbinder’s movie (discussed in this post), I had little access to the internet and it wasn’t what it is today (no Google, no Wikipedia), so a lot of stuff went over my head. Now I can get background information on just about anything, and oh what a difference it makes! Two samples from the Second Book of the novel and the second episode of the Fassbinder:
1) On page 90 of my F. Unger paperback, when our man Franz and his girlfriend Lina approach the newsvendor who pressed sex manuals on Franz, gravely upsetting Lina when Franz tried to explain to her what he had been reading about the oppression of homosexuals, he lets her go on the attack while he hangs back, and we get this: “In the fighting zone, Lina, the hearty, sloppy, unwashed, weepy little girl, made an offensive of her own à la Prince of Homburg: My noble uncle Friedrich von der Mark! Natalie! Let be! Let be!” And the scene ends with this fairly impenetrable paragraph:

Oh immortality, thou art my very own, beloved what sheen is now outspread, hail, all hail, to the Prince of Homburg, victor in the battle of Fehrbellin, all hail! (Court ladies, officers, and torches appear on the castle terrace.) “Waiter, how ’bout another Gilka.”

The only thing I could have looked up at the time was the battle of Fehrbellin, whereupon my old standby Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary would have told me Fehrbellin, a town northwest of Berlin, was the “scene 1675 of victory of Great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg over the Swedes under Karl Gustav Wrangel.” Which would have meant nothing to me (except that it would have occasioned a brief perplexity as to why they translated Friedrich Wilhelm’s name but not Karl Gustav’s).

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