Archives for April 2009


Anatoly Vorobey recently had a post on his renewed love for his native Russian that I liked enough to translate (clumsily) and share it; the original is below the cut.

It’s so strange, reading a book in Russian again after reading only a lot of books in English for a long time. Again that feeling of something simultaneously my own and remote. A return to Ithaca. Words somehow not right, and at the same time absolutely right. They force their way into the very inmost part of my brain and whisper there; they pass through, like owners, into places where foreign words can’t squeeze themselves or make their way by shouting.
My own, forever my own. Quiet and clamorous. Ravines and hills, tranquil grandeur and petty malice. So poor and so rich. Clumsy and concise, weighty and quick-witted. I can’t get away from you.

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A while back I posted about the movie The Linguists, which “follows David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, scientists racing to document languages on the verge of extinction.” If, like me, you missed it when it was shown on TV (my taping skills somehow failed me), you will be glad to know it’s online, for the time being, at Babelgum. It’s an hour long and quite enjoyable, though I wished they had spent less time on local color and more on the actual documentation of the languages. But when they finally turn on the cameras and tapes and start eliciting, it’s a blast, and if (like me) you were particularly interested in Chulym, don’t worry—they get back to it towards the end and even transcribe some onscreen. (I just wish they’d clarified whether it’s closer to Tatar—i.e., Western Turkic—or Khakas—i.e., Northern Turkic; accounts differ.) Anyway, catch it while you can!


As I said in my first post on his new book Empires of the Silk Road, Beckwith has an appendix on “The Proto-Indo-Europeans and Their Diaspora,” and I was probably one of the only readers to turn to it first and devour it eagerly. I was, of course, interested in what he had to say about Scythians, Turks, and so on, but I had no expertise in those areas and would have to take his word for a lot of things. I spent the better part of the 1970s immersed in the study of Proto-Indo-European (I was at one point the world’s leading expert on zero-grade thematic present-tense formations in the early IE languages—the topic of my unfinished dissertation, which would surely have been one of the more boring dissertations ever), and I figured if he could convince me he knew what he was talking about in that area, I’d be willing to trust him on the other stuff.
Now, the problem with the study of Indo-European is that the groundwork was done over a century ago, and although exciting discoveries have been made since (notably Hittite and Tocharian), the basic story is still what it was then. You can tinker with the decorations, but the framework was set firmly in place by Bopp, Rask, Grimm, and the other punchily named nineteenth-century forefathers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of people who want to tear everything up and connect it all differently (usually to Caucasian or Semitic or Ural-Altaic), but those people tend to have either an insufficient knowledge of the linguistic facts or an excessive willingness to throw the rules of historical linguistics overboard. Actual Indo-Europeanists tend to be commendably but boringly conservative.
Now, this guy is not an Indo-Europeanist by trade, but he’s published on the PIE obstruent system in Historische Sprachforschung (which was known in my day as Kuhns Zeitschrift and has been in business since 1852), and he has an admirable respect for the regularity of sound laws that sets him apart from the wild-eyed theorists. Nevertheless, he’s willing to make sweeping changes to the accepted picture. First, he takes on the notorious problem of the PIE stop system (“a typologically unlikely, if not impossible, phonological system”), saying PIE had “only a two-way phonemic opposition of stops”:

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The time has come once again to justify the “hat” portion of Languagehat’s name. Any kid growing up in America during the last two-thirds of a century has surely encountered Archie Comics, and has probably wondered what the deal was with that strange jagged object Jughead wears on his head. Now, thanks to dogged sleuthing by “the in crowd” at I’m Learning To Share!, we learn from this copiously illustrated post that it was an actual style of headgear, developed after World War I by “mechanics, welders and other workmen who found they could get the same ‘safety’ function of a factory worker’s beanie by altering an old worn-out fedora. The method was to turn a fedora upside-down, push the hat’s crown inside-out, then turn up the brim and trim away its excess with a scalloped cut.” It was quickly imitated by kids who wanted to look cool. After WWII the style began to die out, leaving Jughead’s lid as an increasingly incomprehensible remnant. (Jeff Goldblum, however, wore one as “‘Freak #1” in the 1974 revenge flick Death Wish; there’s a deceptively goofy image at the I’m Learning To Share! page.) This may be the single best piece of information I’ve ever gotten from MetaFilter.
Totally unrelated, but I thought I’d pass it along: did you know that the given name Elmer was originally a surname (derived from Old English æðel ‘noble’ and mær ‘famous’)? It “has been used as a given name in America since the 19th century, in honor of the popularity of the brothers Ebenezer and Jonathan Elmer, leading supporters of the American Revolution” (in the words of Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, A Dictionary of First Names, p. 101).


We all see the world and its history through blinders. As children we care only about our immediate family; as we grow up, our scope broadens, but for the most part we remain in thrall to the preconceptions and perspectives of our country, our class, our religion—take your pick of the many ways we slice the cake of humanity. Perhaps the main intellectual task of the modern period of cultural history is the dismantling of such barriers, the increasing refusal to privilege one version of the world over another, from Einstein’s theory of relativity (the usual resort of those who want a scientific metaphor for these things) to the various attempts to present history from different angles. But it’s a maddeningly slow and incomplete process. Americans still think of history as leading up to the glorious Founding Moment of 1776, and the world since then as focused on the fortunes and interests of the U.S.; the worldview of the Chinese is heavily Sinocentric; every nation and ethnic group has its grudge-filled version of history, with its own moments of glory.
Even when we try to counteract such narrow views, we only go so far. In college I took a mandatory two-year History of Civilization course, which did an admirable job of introducing us young and ignorant Americans to the world at large; we spent entire semesters on non-European regions most of us hadn’t given much thought to. But though we read Sources of Chinese Tradition and Sources of Indian Tradition, what we were getting were simply alternative blinders: the world as focused on China, India, and so on. We could triangulate, so to speak, but there was no really broad view that dispensed with the time-honored borders and categories.
That’s why it was such a thrill to encounter Marshall Hodgson. Hodgson thought both Eurocentrism and the traditional Islamic categorizations were impeding useful thought, and he created his own categories and terminology and did his best to rethink the way we conceived of the world’s past. (It’s a tragedy he died so young, in his mid-forties.) Reading The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam was one of the formative experiences of my intellectual life, giving me not only a continuing interest in what he called the Islamicate world but an appreciation for the interconnections between what we think of as separate civilizations. (In a less academic way, Amin Maalouf does similar things, and I recommend his The Crusades Through Arab Eyes to anyone who wants a lively recounting that will shake up the way they think of the Crusades.)
Over a decade ago I read a book that impressed me in a similar way: The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power Among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese During the Early Middle Ages. I know it sounds like a recondite topic, but at the time the book deals with—roughly the seventh through the mid-ninth centuries—Tibet was a power in the world, capable of defeating any of the surrounding nations and central to the complex web of overland trade and other contacts of the period. Not only was his approach refreshingly new but his command of the relevant languages and materials was awe-inspiring, and in an epilogue called “Tibet and Early Medieval Eurasia Today” he took my breath away with his sweeping but carefully grounded pronouncements on the rise of the Turks, the cities of the Roman Empire (“one must ask if these ancient cities were really centers of commercial life. In fact, most were creations of the Roman government, just like the military camps and the military roads that connected them all to Rome. It would thus appear to be no coincidence that many of them disappeared when the Roman government collapsed and the subsidies ended”), medieval coinage (“the entire civilized world of the Early Middle Ages was in fact on a silver standard. Gold was a valuable commodity, but unimportant as coinage”), and the alleged devastation of Western Europe by the “barbarian invasions” (“The supposedly highly cultured northern regions of the Roman Empire… were almost totally devoid of important literary figures during the classical and late classical periods. From the seventh century onward, however, there were — suddenly, it seems — many writers in those places… In other words, literate civilization expanded into what had been essentially preliterate territory”). The author was Christopher I. Beckwith, and I wanted very much to see what he could do on a broader canvas.
Now he has published Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (kindly sent to me by Princeton University Press), and it is even better than I might have hoped. Essentially, he’s applying the same combination of dogged detail work and sweeping reevaluation to the entire history of Eurasia, focusing on that often neglected portion called Central Asia. You can read the Introduction online, and it will give you an idea of the approach, but it’s the details that make the book. As a minor but telling example, each chapter starts off with an epigraph: the prologue with an excerpt from the Kalmyk national epic, the first chapter with one from the Rig Veda, the epilogue with a bit of Cavafy, and so on. Perfectly normal, but he also includes the originals, in the original script: the first thing you see in the prologue is Эртиин экн цагт һаргсн [Born in a bygone age long ago]. This isn’t just a nod to multiculturalism (and a demonstration of the ease of setting multilingual texts in the computer age), it’s a refusal to privilege the easy-to-read translation over the normally effaced original, an insistence on the fact that the Kalmyks see and express the world through their Mongolic language and we have to bear that constantly in mind even if we don’t actually learn Kalmyk.
This is by no means an easy read. Each page has its full complement of footnotes, there are forty pages of more substantial endnotes at the back, there are two appendices (one on “The Proto-Indo-Europeans and Their Diaspora,” which was of course of particular interest to me and which I will report on next, and one on “Ancient Central Eurasian Ethnonyms”), and there is frequent discussion of minute details of historical reconstruction. But if it has the impact I hope it will, its findings and approaches will have a ripple effect, and before too long more popular histories will appear that treat the world from a similarly all-encompassing point of view, and the average reader will start to become aware that history is a much more multifarious thing than it had seemed, and that there is no such thing as a “barbarian.” In the meantime, anyone with an interest in the crucial but too often ignored part of the world between Europe and Asia owes it to themselves to read this groundbreaking work, on which I will be reporting in future posts [2, 3, 4] as I make my way through it.


In this post, I mentioned an O. Henry story called “The Green Door”; a gentleman who enjoys reading aloud (as do I) has chosen it for the first of his offerings at Mystery Man Podcast: ” A brand-new podcast, recorded monthly, dedicated to reviving deliciously rare yet neglected masterpieces of mystery, adventure, suspense, and horror ~ from centuries past.” He adds: “Who am I? For now ~ that must remain a mystery.” Well, we all like a good mystery, so if you’ve got 21 minutes, 33 seconds to spare, give a listen.


If you go to the New York Times front page today and scroll down, you will see a row of boxes labeled “Inside,” one of which is “Happy Birthday, Strunk and White!” If you click on it, you will be taken to their “Room for Debate” forum page, which now features a colloquium on the fiftieth anniversary of what I once called a “malign little compendium of bad advice”; the five participants are Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics; Patricia T. O’Conner,; Ben Yagoda, professor of English; Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl; and—ahem—me. (I’d like to thank Picky for his final comment in this thread, around which I built my contribution.) I’ll be curious to see what Times readers have to say, and I hereby extend a hearty welcome to any who venture over here; all sorts of things related to language and languages get discussed here, and people of all levels of knowledge and experience have a good time. Take a look around and feel free to join in!
Update. The comments are up! I’ve read all 215 so far posted, and not surprisingly, most are defensive about their beloved icon (though a pleasing number of them admit that it may be out of date and not all the rules are dependable). Popular line of attack: so why don’t you losers write a better style guide yourselves? Popular form of exculpation: “The experienced writer has learned the rules and therefore can break or ignore them.” (This assumes, of course, that S&W are indeed providing “the rules.”) A charmingly inane variant: “I hear a subtle chorus of the postmodern view that all forms of language are equally valid and that rules impose some sort of oppression on those that won’t follow them or have their own rules.”
KCinCan (127. April 25, 2009 1:46 pm) n:icely sums up vox populi:

Stuffy and arcane doesn’t mean it is wrong or bad. I am a stickler on grammar and this book gives great guidance. I happen to believe that “None of us are perfect” is absolutely wrong; I don’t care if I don’t have a Phd in linguistics.
Where is Lynne Truss? She is the person whom I trust to give me the straight answer. Long Live Lynn!

Few of the responses were as forthrightly idiotic and self-refuting as Austin’s (65. April 25, 2009 10:18 am):

Those are the voices of the sore losers who wish they had written a book as concise and successful as the Elements of Style. Who are they to suggest that “The advice on “data” and “media” is outdated” when data and media has [sic –LH] been plural since the birth of the Latin language?

My favorite defense was by Palmer Ward (131. April 25, 2009 2:18 pm):

I love S&W simply because it was always sitting on my father’s desks – both at home and at his newspaper. It still sits on my desk in my office, as I lie on my bed downstairs writing into my laptop. I still find myself drawn to it when a thorny question arises. This shouldn’t infer I actually open it, however. I’m just drawn to it like a guilty Grandchild.

Who can argue with that? I cherish an 1855 edition of The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, not one of my favorite poets and not a book I’ll ever actually read, because it belonged to my father’s father, Daddy Joe (as we called him). Long live familial sentiment!

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In one sense, this post will be of limited interest, since it discusses a Russian word (or non-word) used only in a single poem. However, even those who don’t know Russian may find it interesting to contemplate the issue of a poet using a word nobody else understands.

Probably Mandelstam’s most famous poem is the “Stalin epigram” that got him in serious trouble and contributed to his arrest and eventual murder by the state. You can see a translation of the whole thing at that Wikipedia link (here‘s the original Russian); what I want to focus on is this couplet:

Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет
One [of the “thin-necked chiefs” around him] whistles, another mews, a third whimpers;
He [Stalin] alone babáchit and prods.

You’ll note that Kline, in the translation at Wikipedia, renders the line “He alone pushes and prods”; that’s a copout, but an understandable one, because nobody knows what babachit means. When I first read this poem, there was so much in Mandelstam I didn’t understand, and my vocabulary was so limited, that I didn’t bother worrying about it—it was just one more puzzle I’d deal with later. Well, now it’s later, and both my vocabulary (and my range of resources to supplement it) and my acquaintance with the poet have expanded tremendously, and I figured it was time to deal with it.

So I looked in my three-volume bilingual dictionary, and I looked in Dahl, and I looked in the Dictionary of Russian dialects: nothing. There is a word бабатя [babátya] that Dahl defines as “womanish man; hermaphrodite,” and the verb could theoretically be derived from this, but as far as I know Stalin has never been accused of hermaphroditism, and it’s just too far-fetched. So I turned to Google, and discovered that Russians have been wondering too. In this forum discussion, for example, Vladimir asks what it means; someone cites an irrelevant verb meaning ‘strike,’ someone else suggests it might be related to бабай [babái] ‘bogeyman,’ but it’s hard to see how, and the discussion trails off. I found a story, “Как они бабачили в 1934” [How they babached in 1934] by Vitaly Rapoport (first published in Vremya i my in 1998) which features this very issue; Stalin calls a meeting to ask about the word, Alexander Poskryobyshev (Stalin’s personal assistant) says he couldn’t find it in the dictionary, Aleksei Tolstoy (after making the faux pas of addressing the dictator as “Iosif Vissarionovich” rather than the mandatory “Comrade Stalin”) babbles that “this word, like others coming from the popular lexicon, doesn’t have any definite sense… I think it means having a jolly time, probably playing babki [a children’s game]. Well, I’m not really sure. You could look it up in Dahl.” Poskryobyshev acerbically says that Dahl “gives no instructions on this point”; Tolstoi retreats in confusion. Later, Stalin reads the poem over by himself and thinks “Only Stalin is a Person, the poet got that right. “Whimpers”: of course that’s Bukharin and others like him. Babachit? You can’t figure it out, even if you turn to the Academy of Sciences.”

Now, writers have the right to invent words, but it seems odd to do so in such an opaque way, especially in a political epigram that is intended to skewer a villain unforgettably. Did Mandelstam just like the sound so much he couldn’t resist throwing it in? Did it have some private meaning for him? I guess we’ll never know, but it’s one of the more interesting hapaxes I’ve come across.


Yves Bonnefoy is one of my favorite French poets, and (as I said here) I would never dare try to translate his gorgeously opaque off-classical poems myself. But at wood s lot I found a link to this fine version:
The Edge of the Woods
Thorn: you tell me that you love the word,
And there I might have much to say,
Sensing a fervor come alive in you
Without your knowing, that was all my life.
But I have no response: for words
Have something cruel about them, they refuse
Themselves to those who love and honor them
For what they might be, not for what they are.
And nothing stays with me but images,
Almost enigmas, which would turn
Your gaze away and leave it suddenly sad,
Your gaze, that takes in only what is clear.
You see, it’s like a morning in the rain,
One goes to lift the water’s hem
In order to risk plunging deeper than color
Into the unknown of pools and shadows.
And yet it’s certainly daybreak, in this country
That staggered me, that you love now.
The house of those few days is still asleep,
And you and I have slipped outside of time.
The water hidden in the grass is dark,
And yet the dew reanimates the sky.
Last night’s storm is calm, the cloud
Has put its fiery hand in the hand of ash.

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I was reading the excellent and harrowing Nation article “Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666’” by Marcela Valdes, which I found via a MetaFilter post, and all the while part of me was annoyed at the use of what seemed to me the badly formed word femicide, a product (as I thought) of our politically correct era, like “herstory” to counter history. Then I checked with the OED and found that it’s been around at least since 1801 (“This species of delinquency may be denominated femicide“). It’s still ill formed, and it still irritates me, but at least it’s got pedigree.