Archives for July 2009


A couple of days ago wood s lot quoted Ashbery’s “Syringa” in honor of the poet’s 82nd birthday; I wasn’t familiar with it, though it’s from a book I own (Houseboat Days—it was first published in Poetry in April 1977), but the more I read it over the deeper it sank in. It’s a long poem, which you can read here; I’ll quote the first section to give you a taste:

Orpheus liked the glad personal quality
Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part
Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends
Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks
Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon
To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.
Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth.
Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to
Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not?
All other things must change too.
The seasons are no longer what they once were,
But it is the nature of things to be seen only once,
As they happen along, bumping into other things, getting along
Somehow. That’s where Orpheus made his mistake.
Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade;
She would have even if he hadn’t turned around.
No use standing there like a gray stone toga as the whole wheel
Of recorded history flashes past, struck dumb, unable to utter an intelligent
Comment on the most thought-provoking element in its train.
Only love stays on the brain, and something these people,
These other ones, call life. Singing accurately
So that the notes mount straight up out of the well of
Dim noon and rival the tiny, sparkling yellow flowers
Growing around the brink of the quarry, encapsulates
The different weights of the things.

Another tasty bit: “Stellification/ Is for the few, and comes about much later.” I can understand why people have a hard time with Ashbery—I used to myself—but I’ve come to value him more and more; he phrases like a jazzman.

[Read more…]


The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has put online Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter’s Plant Names in Yiddish, which it published in 2005. (Dr. Schaechter died in 2007; I wrote about him here.) You can download it from a link on this page, which says:

Plant Names in Yiddish is a fascinating study not only in botany, but also in the development of the Yiddish language as reflected in botanical vocabulary. For example, Schaechter cites Yiddish terms for willow: sháyne-boym, noted in the writings of Mendele Moykher-Sforim and A. Golomb (from hoysháyne >hesháyne >sháyne – ‘willow twigs used ritually on the holiday of Sukkoth’). He also notes that Yiddish terms for the halakhically appropriate vegetable species for a Passover seder have been documented since at least the 12th century, and that ‘potato’ is regionally known as búlbe, búlve, bílve, kartófl(ye), kartóplye (!), érdepl, ekhpl, ríblekh, barbúlyes, zhémikes, mandebérkes, bánderkes, krumpírn, etc. The Galician town of Sanok, at a crossroads of languages and cultures, boasts five different synonyms for ‘potato’; such examples display the richness of the Yiddish language and its regional diversity.
…The Trilingual Latin-English-Yiddish Taxonomic Dictionary section helps those who may know a word in one language to find it in another. An extensive index (including a geographic index) makes searching easier, and there is a detailed source bibliography. There are many cross-referenced variations of plant words in Yiddish, a useful tool given the diversity in spelling, dialect, and region. A special section on orthographical and morphological variations is also included. The online edition now adds a Yiddish-Latin-English index.

In the words of Z. D. Smith’s post on the book:

[Read more…]


Geoff Pullum has a post at the Log in which he painstakingly analyzes a sentence uttered at a concert by an exasperated Van Morrison. (I forgive Geoff his lack of appreciation of the great Belfast singer; as I wrote in a comment there, “I am a huge fan of his, but I can easily understand why his voice turns some people off.”) Warning: People offended by the f-word should not click on the link, which blasts it from both barrels in the very title, but they will be missing a fascinating and very funny discussion. Curse words, among their other interesting features, tend to muddy grammatical analysis.
Related only by the most tenuous of threads are the video linked by Dave Wilton at and the cartoon I link in the first comment, but I wanted to share them with you. (Thanks for the cartoon, tanahair!)
Addendum. And it turns out Jesse Sheidlower has a new edition of The F-Word coming out in September—read all about it!


A recent study, “Selective deficit of second language: a case study of a brain-damaged Arabic-Hebrew bilingual patient” by Raphiq Ibrahim (Behavioral and Brain Functions 2009, 5:17), describes something rather remarkable; in the words of Mo at the neurophilosophy blog:

The study, by Raphiq Ibrahim, a neurologist at the University of Haifa, describes a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew speaker who incurred brain damage following a viral infection. Consequently, the patient experienced severe deficits in one language but not the other. The findings support the view that specific components of a first and second language are represented by different substrates in the brain….
The results support a neurolinguistic model in which the brain of bilinguals contains a semantic system (which represents word meanings) which is common to both languages and which is connected to independent lexical systems (which encode the vocabulary of each language). The findings further suggest that the second language (in this case, Hebrew) is represented by an independent subsystem which does not represent the first language (Arabic) and is more susceptible to brain damage.

Thanks for the link, Trevor!


The NY Times has a nice article (“Linguist’s Preservation Kit Has New Digital Tools,” by Chris Nicholson) about Tucker Childs and his work in Sierra Leone trying to understand and record the Kim language (which I presume is what Ethnologue calls Krim, “alternate names Kim, Kimi, Kirim, Kittim”—the Kim languages of Chad are entirely different).

For centuries, social and economic incentives have been working against Kim and in favor of Mende, a language used widely in the region, until finally, Dr. Childs speculates, the Kim language has been pushed to the verge of extinction.
It used to be that field linguists like Dr. Childs, a scattered corps working against time to salvage the world’s endangered tongues — more than 3,000 at last count — scribbled data in smeared notebooks and stored sounds on cassette tapes, destined to rot in boxes. But linguistics has gone digital. Dr. Childs now uses a solid-state recorder, and he has applications that will analyze the elements of a vowel in seconds or compare sounds across languages.
Using Geographic Information Systems, software that translates data into maps, he and his research assistants, Hannah Sarvasy and Ali Turay, pinpoint villages that are not to be found on any official map. “There’s a whole bunch of reasons linguists want these languages preserved,” Dr. Childs said, “but for me it’s more an emotional thing. It’s not noblesse oblige, it’s capitalist oblige. These people are totally peripheralized.”
In its new digital form, this kind of research is more accessible. It allows larger projects to share the world’s linguistic heritage with a wider public of teachers and learners, including, when possible, the original speakers.
The aim is not just to salvage, but to revive. Financed by the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dr. Childs’s recordings will find their way, once his study ends and he returns to his post as a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, to a huge data bank in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Let’s have no muttering about how useless it is to try to save languages. If people want to let their languages die, they will, no matter what linguists do, but if they want to save them and linguists can help, it’s noble work, and I deeply respect Dr. Childs and his fellow field linguists. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)


Those of you who follow U.S. news media are doubtless aware of the recent death of Walter Cronkite, and many of you may have noticed the claim in the obituaries that (in the words of the AP) “In Sweden anchors were sometimes termed Kronkiters; in Holland, they were Cronkiters.” This seemed highly implausible to me—I said to my wife, “They don’t watch American news shows in those countries, why would they even know about Cronkite?”—and sure enough, it turns out to be a myth; Ben Zimmer has the scoop.
Update. And the NY Times [reprints the AP’s] correction: “Olof Hulten, a journalism educator in Sweden, and Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s Expert Desk say the term is unknown in their countries.”


The person who runs Forgotten Bookmarks says: “I work at a used and rare bookstore, and I buy books from people everyday. These are the personal, funny, heartbreaking and weird things I find in those books.” Telegrams, death notices, photos, letters, a coupon for Octagon Soap Chips (buy one get one free—with translations into Italian, Polish, and Yiddish!) found in Lou Gehrig: Boy of the Sand Lots by Guernsey Van Riper, Jr. (Bobbs Merrill, 1949)… This is a great site. And if you leave a comment on this post before tomorrow, you have a chance to win a beautiful 1941 Heritage Press edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, complete in one volume. (Via MetaFilter.)


Back at the start of the year the LRB ran a review (only a couple of paragraphs online, I’m afraid) by Bee Wilson of Geoffrey Brock’s new translation of Pinocchio. Wilson writes:

Until now, the best-known modern translation has been Ann Lawson Lucas’s, and in several respects it is still a better buy, thanks to Lucas’s detailed explanatory notes and full historical preface, which are more useful than Umberto Eco’s thin introduction to the new edition. Judged purely as a translation, however, Brock’s version is more natural and engaging, with a better feeling for how to turn colloquial 19th-century Tuscan into colloquial modern English (or rather colloquial American, which is effectively the same thing).
Brock is better at the humour, and unlike Lucas doesn’t use quaint idioms (‘Poodle’ and ‘Tuna’ rather than ‘Poodle-Dog’ and ‘Tunny-Fish’) or over-translate (Lucas turns ‘tortellini’ into ‘steak and kidney pudding’, apparently unaware that today most English-speaking children are far more familiar with different pasta shapes than with stodgy meat puddings).

It turns out Lucas also renders Collodi’s Geppetto as “Old Joe” (out of a “desire to get away from the awful, denaturing ‘cuteness’ of the Walt Disney school of thought”)—as Wilson says, “You might just as well rechristen the whole book ‘Pine Nut'”—but I didn’t need any further counts in the indictment; I refuse to read anything that translates “tortellini” as “steak and kidney pudding.”


Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston have published a paper called “Swearing as a response to pain” (NeuroReport 20: 1056-1060) demonstrating that cursing actually does increase pain tolerance and decrease perceived pain; unfortunately, only the abstract is online free, but you can read journalistic accounts by Linda Carroll at MSNBC (focusing on “why cursing works better for women”) and by Frederik Joelving at Scientific American (focusing on the involvement of the amygdala). I wish I’d known about this when writing the introduction to my book!


Malcolm Gladwell has an article in the latest New Yorker called “Cocksure: Banks, Battles, and the Psychology of Overconfidence.” I’m enjoying it thoroughly, as I always do Gladwell, but I’ve run across a couple of things that bother me. As usual, he’s using one topic to illustrate another, and his illustrative example in this case is the Battle of Gallipoli in World War One. (Incidentally, “Gallipoli” is an odd name; the Greek name is Καλλίπολις [Kallipolis], ‘beautiful town,’ and the Turkish name derived from it is Gelibolu. Does anybody know the history of the hybrid form?) He writes: “Command of the landing at Sulva Bay—the most critical element of the attack—was given to Frederick Stopford, a retired officer whose experience was largely administrative.” I thought “Tsk, another misprint, and the New Yorker used to be so dependable.” But the misspelling is consistent: “he rushed to Sulva Bay to intercede”; “they held that ten-to-one advantage at Sulva Bay.” Now, I realize the war is almost a century old, and many once-famous place names have sunk beneath the waves, but hasn’t anyone at the magazine heard Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda“?

And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay,
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.”

(If you’re not familiar with it, I particularly recommend the Pogues‘ version; you can see them perform it live here.) I have no idea whether Gladwell mistyped it once and the magazine’s diligent staff made it consistent throughout or whether it was wrong throughout his manuscript, but sheesh, this is what fact-checkers are for. And take a look at this sentence (which begins the last paragraph on page 25 in the physical magazine): “Cohen and Gooch ascribe the disaster at Gallipoli to a failure to adapt—a failure to take into account how reality did not conform to their expectations.” As you all know, I am the last person to go hunting through published writings searching for “ungrammatical” nits to pick—look, a dangling participle! ooh, a split infinitive!—but this is truly terrible; there is no referent for “their” except “Cohen and Gooch,” which is not the intended one, and I had to reread the sentence to understand it, which is the ultimate sin in edited writing.
And all of this is an inadvertent but perfect illustration of Gladwell’s thesis. The New Yorker was so famous for so many years for its impeccable editing and bulletproof fact-checking that it got overconfident and lazy, and now allows mistakes that would embarrass a good local newspaper.