Archives for September 2009


No, no, not that one, a peaceful one a century earlier. My pal Jason at Henry Holt sent me a copy of Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt, which arrived at the perfect time, just when I was finally trying to understand the various turns of the German philosophical wheel from Hegel to Schelling and beyond (having read Isaiah Berlin’s “The Counter-Enlightenment” and gotten a running start). Hunt has a nice description of the young Engels attending Schelling’s 1841 Berlin lectures (as a partisan of Hegel, he was there to “shield the great man’s grave from abuse”) along with Jacob Burckhardt, Mikhail Bakunin (who called them “interesting but rather insignificant”), and Søren Kierkegaard (who said Schelling “talked ‘quite insufferable nonsense’ and, worse, committed the cardinal academic crime of ending his lectures past the hour: ‘That isn’t tolerated in Berlin, and there was scraping and hissing’). But what I came here to pass along is this fascinating passage about Paris in the 1840s, where Engels went to hang out with Marx and spare his pious German family the disgrace of his increasingly notorious presence:

In 1848, Paris had 350,000 workers, with one-third of these engaged in the textile trades and much of the remainder divided between construction, the furniture trade, jewelry, metallurgy, and domestic service. A large part of the workforce was made up of Germans—Engels described them as being “everywhere.” By the late 1840s, there were some sixty thousand of them, and such was their strength that in certain Parisian quarters barely a word of French was to be heard.

I had no idea, and I love learning this kind of forgotten detail from history books.


I can’t believe Motivated Grammar has been around for over two years and I haven’t heard of it until now—its tagline, for Pete’s sake, is “Prescriptivism Must Die!”—but thanks to an e-mail from peacay, my ignorance has been remedied. It’s written by Gabe Doyle, a graduate student in Linguistics at the University of California, San Diego (here‘s his academic website: “My research mostly relates to the issue of what it means to know a language. How is a language represented in the mind? How does one decide what to say in a given situation, or whether a sentence is grammatical? Where, if anywhere, should a distinction be drawn between competence and performance?”), and his motto is “Grammar should not be articles of faith handed down to us from those on high who never split infinitives but always split hairs.” And in a recent post, as a public service, he has assembled a resource I will be sending people to:

I’ve wanted for some time to have one place to send everyone who complains about singular they, a single page that can debunk whatever junk they’re peddling against it. There’s been lots of great stuff written about why singular they is acceptable, but every time I want to smash the arguments against it, I have to waste time jumping through old Language Log posts and books and whatnot, so I figured I’d finally go about summarizing it all. Without further ado, here’s the evidence for singular they, and why you ought to stop “correcting” it.

I like his style, and I offer him a sadly belated welcome to the linguablogosphere.


Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts (just a few miles south of where I live) has put up on its website a marvelous set of videos, called “For Parents” (presumably so that prospective students from one of the countries represented can show the appropriate clip to their parents and say “See, there are people there who speak our language and recommend the school!”), in which two or three students spend a few minutes chatting in their native language about how great Mount Holyoke is (I must say, they’re very convincing—after watching a few, I wanted to enroll myself). So far, they have videos labeled Bengali, Български (Bulgarian), 中文 (Chinese), ქართული ენა (Georgian), हिन्दी (Hindi), नेपाली (Nepali), اردو (Urdu), Tiếng Việt (Vietnamese), 日本語 (Japanese), Ghana, Português, 한국어 (Korean), Español, and العربية (Arabic—one girl is from Algeria and the other from Egypt); they all have subtitles, which is what makes it such a joy for those of us who aren’t part of the target audience. It’s a great way to spend a few minutes immersing yourself in a language you half know or have an interest in; listening to Georgian made me want to pick up the language again (for the fourth, I think, time). I presume “Ghana” represents an Akan language (I wonder if using the country name is a result of some controversy about language labels?); I’m guessing Twi, but I’d be glad if someone who actually knows would chime in.


One doesn’t think of Dostoevsky as laugh-out-loud funny, but this passage from Notes from the Dead House (see here and here) had me doing just that (Russian below the cut). A policeman has caught some tramps trying to rob a house and is questioning them:

– Who are you?
– Cut-and-run, your honor.
– That’s your name? [Or: “That’s what they call you?” Same thing in Russian.]
– That’s it, your honor.
– OK, fine, you’re Cut-and-run. And you?
– I’m after him, your honor.
– But what do they call you?
– That’s what they call me, your honor: “I’m after him.”
– And who calls you that, you rascal?
– Good people have called me that, your honor. This world is not lacking in good people, your honor, it’s a known fact.
– So who are these good people?
– Well, that’s slipped my mind a bit, your honor, begging your noble forgiveness.
– You’ve forgotten them all?
– I’ve forgotten them all, your honor.
– But you must have had a father and a mother, right? You remember them at least, don’t you?
– You have to assume I had them, your honor, but you know what, they’ve slipped my mind a bit too; I may very well have had them, your honor.
– So where have you been living until now?
– In the woods, your honor.
– The whole time in the woods?
– The whole time in the woods.
– How about in winter?
– I haven’t seen any winter, your honor.
– All right, how about you, what’s your name?
– Hatchet, your honor.
– And you?
– Sharpen-and-be-quick, your honor.
– And you?
– Sharpen-for-sure, your honor.
– None of you remember a thing?
– We don’t remember a thing, your honor.

At this point everyone has a good laugh, though the convict telling the story points out that on another day the policeman might have given him one in the teeth instead.

[Read more…]


Paul W. Goldschmidt, aka Paul Wickenden of Thanet, is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism who founded the Slavic Interest Group, which “promotes amateur research into medieval life in Eastern and Central Europe”; in consequence of his interests, accompanied by an admirable doggedness about detail, he has created The Russian Archive, a collection of links to his pages about all manner of topics related to medieval Russia, from beasts and monsters to weddings to wills. But most of the pages are about Russian names, and his Dictionary of Period Russian Names (“Being a compilation of over 25,000 Russian names, taken from period sources”) is a remarkable resource. Thanks for the link, Bathrobe!


This is one of those posts where I take shameless advantage of the Varied Reader to solve a mystery for me. In reading Isaiah Berlin’s excellent essay “Herder and the Enlightenment” (I’m finally overcoming my aversion to trying to wrap my mind around what the thinkers of two centuries ago were thinking about), I’m realizing that Herder and I have much more in common than I had thought: e.g., “to the end of his life he detested and denounced every form of centralisation, coercion and conquest, which were embodied and symbolised both for him, and for his teacher Hamann, in the accursed state… True human relations are those of father and son, husband and wife, sons, brothers, friends, men; these terms express natural relations which make people happy. All that the state has given us is contradictions and conquests and, perhaps worst of all, dehumanisation.” But I’ve just hit the sentence “[Herder] dreams of a visit to the Northern seas reading ‘the story of Utal and Ninetuma in sight of the very island where it all took place’,” and not only do I have no idea who Utal and Ninetuma might be, Google only sends me back to that essay. (You can see the context here, but it doesn’t really help.) So I turn to you lot: does anybody have any idea which heroes of myth or epic these exotic names, so casually tossed out by the erudite Berlin, refer to?
Update. Thanks to the learned and indefatigable MMcM, we learn that the personages involved are actually Uthal and Nina-thoma, from the Ossian tales.


Balashon, a Hebrew-oriented blog with a focus on etymology (see here), has a new post discussing the Hebrew words solet סולת and kemach קמח, both meaning ‘flour.’ Since MMcM is on extended hiatus, it’s good to have someone else doing that kind of detailed historical investigation; here’s a taste:

So actually both those that say that solet was coarse and those that say that it was powdery were correct. In the beginning of the process, solet was coarser than the kemach that would result from a standard milling. But by the end of the process, solet was powdery, whereas the kemach would have been comparatively coarse. Nahum Sokolow (in Bemarot Hakeshet, pgs 552-4) distinguishes between the two stages, by calling the first one “solet” and the second one “kemach solet“, which was later abbreviated to simply “solet“, adding to the confusion. But in the end, what distinguishes solet from kemach is quality more than granularity.

As a bonus, there’s an excursus on how “Aramaic semida סמידא gave us the Greek semidalis and the Latin simila,” the latter in the north of Italy becoming “‘powdery flour’ (Italian semola, German semmel, Yiddish zeml, and later the English word ‘simnel’ – cakes or rolls made of fine wheat flour)” and in the south “progressed in the other direction, to the coarser ‘bran.’ From here came the diminutive ‘semolino‘ (from which came the English ‘semolina’) – little bran, i.e. a coarser flour than the generic Italian word for flour ‘farina.'” Fun!


I’m reading a book that’s alternately irritating and fascinating, Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich. It’s one of those “I decided to cure my first-world angst by impulsively moving to someplace new where I would be thrown into a completely unfamiliar environment and have to deal with raw authentic life and become a new, more mature person” books, and frankly my interest in the genre is minimal. But in this case the pretext for her moving to Udaipur in India was to learn Hindi, and along with the fairly banal account of what it’s like to learn a new language (“The more Hindi I understand, I find, the more perplexing my life becomes”) she passes along tidbits she picks up from linguists she interviews after her return to New York, and these are often quite interesting. Early on, she cites Michel Paradis, a neurolinguist who specializes in the psycholinguistics of bilingualism, on a couple of striking cases: an Austrian, “once fluent in German and Italian,” who after a head injury “was able to speak to his wife only in the remnants of his Italian, to his doctors only in what was left of his German,” and a Moroccan nun who after an accident “could still speak French and Arabic, but only on alternate days.” This last seemed so unlikely I googled for backup, and found the story with more detail in François Grosjean’s Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism:

[Read more…]


I’ve run across another book I’ll have to acquire someday, linguist A. L. Becker’s Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. It’s a collection of essays that describe “Becker’s experiences in attempting to translate into or out of Burmese, Javanese, and Malay a variety of texts… emphasize important kinds of nonuniversality in all aspects of language and look toward a new theory of language grounded in American pragmatism.” I was immediately smitten by this passage in the introduction (Becker has returned to Burma a quarter of a century after studying the language in the late ’50s):

I have always kept field journals about learning languages in various parts of Southeast Asia.
That evening I wrote in my journal, “If you take away grammar and lexicon from a language, what is left?”
Then I wrote, “Answer: Everything!”
At that moment, as I was trying to remember the Burmese I thought I had once known, grammars and lexicons seemed beside the point, just things we do with languages, not things that are somehow within languages, not part of their being as languages. People like me make grammars and dictionaries — these artifacts are not in the minds of the users of languages. Grammars and dictionaries were not what was buried in my memory. This came to me with the force of a revelation.

[Read more…]


Helen DeWitt, the wonderful writer who blogs at paperpools, has an intriguing idea in her post mute inglorious Nabokovs: spend a few hours introducing people to three different languages, just enough to read a few lines by a great writer in each (her examples are Italian and Calvino, Greek and Homer, and Arabic and Ibn Rushd). Her post title is explained thus:

Nabokov was taught English and French from an early age; this early exposure to languages other than his mother tongue seems to have been important in his formation as a writer. In Speak, Memory he talks about the entertainment offered by working through a little grammar book, in which the student started on simple sentences, could look forward to ever more exciting grammatical features, and at the end was able to read a simple story. He remembers sitting inside while a servant swept the gravel walk outside; he wonders whether she might not have been happier sweeping the walk than driving a tractor in later years under the Soviets.

That last sentence is a reminder of Nabokov’s least appealing side, the smug aristo; Helen responds: “But perhaps she was a mute inglorious Nabokov. Perhaps the servant, too, had gifts which would have benefited from reading an introduction to English culminating in an adventure for little Ned.”
Incidentally, she ends by welcoming “visitors from Guardian Books Blog”; out of curiosity, I visited that fine site and discovered that that in their latest post they link to both Helen and me (“The slightly disappointing subject of the sentence: ‘It’s the only thing I read on the train apart from the Talmud‘”). So: Hello visitors from Guardian Books Blog!