Archives for October 2009


Over at The Millions, Sonya Chung has an excellent review of Sergei Dovlatov’s Ours: A Russian Family Album, which I had no idea was so hard to get hold of: the NYPL only has one copy (which Chung had been hogging), and so, at the moment, does it’s pretty expensive at Amazon. Chung doesn’t understand it, and neither do I; Dovlatov is one of the funniest and most likable writers I know, and I’m sure Americans would love him if he were properly introduced. Here’s a snippet of Chung’s review:

Ours is composed of 13 stories, each about a different Dovlatov family member (the collection was published as fiction but is quite evidently based on Dovlatov’s real-life family). There is Grandpa Isaak, a Jew of enormous physical stature, who was mysteriously arrested for espionage and killed in a prison camp; Grandfather Stepan, an Armenian Georgian, who threw himself into a ravine; Dovlatov’s bastard cousin Boris, handsome and talented, who courted danger and whom “life turned into a criminal”; Uncle Leopold, a “hustler,” who disappeared from their lives for over 30 years before being rediscovered in Belgium. Mother and Father, an actress and a theatre director, “often quarreled,” and divorce when Dovlatov is eight years old; and of course there is Lena (pronounced “Yenna”—more on Lena later), Dovlatov’s wife, who emigrates with their daughter Katya years before Dovlatov, the two of them estranged by then. In the opening of the story that describes their courtship and marriage, the narrator Sergei Dovlatov tells us, “I emigrated to America dreaming of divorce.”
Would you guess that Ours is essentially a comedy? The humor is exhilarating, in a specific way that I find hard to describe. It’s likely there is something that Russians who experienced the Stalinist and Soviet eras first (or at least second) hand recognize as “Russian humor,” and as a Westerner I am just an enthusiastic tourist, smitten by an approach to the terrors and darkness of life that is both sharp and silly.

Read the whole review, then pester any publishers you know to get Dovlatov out before the English-speaking public. This is one of those times I’m especially glad I can read Russian.


Over at the Log, Mark Liberman adduces a nice bit of language peevery from Love’s Labour Lost, where Holofernes complains about Armado’s pronunciations:

I had forgotten the passage where Holofernes complains about Armado’s pronunciations. The complaint is not about Armado’s Spanish accent, but about his unetymological pronunciations — omitting the ‘b’ in doubt and debt, and the ‘l’ in half and calf; leaving out the reflex of ‘gh’ in neighbor and neigh; inserting (or removing?) [h] in abominable:

He draweth out the thred of his verbositie, finer then the staple of his argument. I abhor such phanaticall phantasims, such insociable and poynt deuise companions, such rackers of ortagriphie, as to speake dout fine, when he should say doubt; det, when he shold pronounce debt; d e b t, not det: he clepeth a Calf, Caufe: halfe, haufe: neighbour vocatur nebour; neigh abreuiated ne: this is abhominable, which he would call abhominable: it insinuateth me of infamie: ne inteligis domine , to make franticke, lunaticke?

The text fails to make it clear whether the alleged flaw is adding or lacking an [h] in abominable, since both Holofernes’ own pronunciation and his presentation of Armado’s pronunciation are spelled “abhominable” in the text…

Read Mark’s post for explanation of the history of the unetymological “abhominable”; he ends by saying “In any case, this passage is the earliest example of linguistic peeving that I can think of. Can anyone give me an example before 1598?” I’ve quoted Catullus and Aristophanes in the comment thread.


Reddit has a thread started off by this post:

I am a student studying ancient greek and am consistently blown away by its difficulty and triviality. The construction I mentioned in the title is the word ὡς (pronounced os) plus a participle. Please, kind redditors, comfort me and show me that there is a more arbitrary and capricious rule or language. Thanks so much… 🙂

This, of course, is very silly—what’s so difficult, trivial, or capricious about ὡς or any other linguistic phenomenon? (of course, I suppose the emoticon at the end is supposed to convey “I know it’s silly, I’m just being funny, so don’t take it seriously and mock me”)—but there are a few nuggets of interest among the drearily predictable complaints about cases, tones, and the like; I particularly liked “Of all languages, Russian has probably the most developed cussing. You simply have no idea how strong and elaborate Russian cursing could get until you’ve spent some serious time in Russia. Say тримандоблядская пиздопроебина (tri-man-da-blia-tska-ya piz-da-pra-yo-bi-na) a dozen times.”
What drew the attention of Avva (from whom I got the link), however, was this subthread, in which “maloney7” says: “The Russian word for ‘stop’ has 7 syllables – ‘ost-an-av-le-va-yet-yes’ – which always made me laugh it’s so impractical.” The first respondent, “lampochka,” says, quite correctly, “It’s not ‘the’ Russian word for ‘stop’, it’s the longest you can deliberately drag it out. Ostanavlivaytes’ is a way to tell several people to stop several times or to be in the habit of of stopping. Even so, it has 6 syllables, not 7.” Another commenter points out that the seven-syllable version is indicative (‘you (plural) are stopping’), and lampochka adds that “there is a convenient monosyllabic bark, stoy.” Throughout all this, maloney7, while admitting the truth of what the others are saying, refuses to let go of the misguided attitude: “it just seemed odd that a word often used in emergencies was so long. And yes, you can say it shorter, but you get my drift.” No, not really, unless your drift is equally willing to make fun of English because you can say “Will all of you please be stopping, please?” Which is probably used in emergencies about as often as останавливаетесь.


Jan Freeman has long been a LH favorite; her Boston Globe language column has been in my blogroll for years. Now she’s come out with a wonderful book her publisher, Walker & Company, was good enough to send me: Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers. When I first heard about the book, I assumed it would be a reprint of Bierce’s crotchety but amusing 1909 usage guide Write It Right (Project Gutenberg edition) with a well-written, sensible introduction. When I got it, however, I discovered that besides the well-written, sensible introduction, each of Bierce’s entries was followed by Freeman’s well-written, sensible update, saying pretty much what I would have wanted to say about each of his rants and shibboleths. Under “Less for Fewer,” she starts off discussing the history of the prohibition (which goes back only to the 18th century), goes on to describe the history of the usage (citing my preferred authority on these things, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage), mentions modern mavens who didn’t subscribe to the consensus disapproval, and finishes by talking about how it’s actually used (“when the number is thought of as a limit”).
The next entry is short enough I’ll quote the whole thing; the first paragraph is Bierce, the second Freeman:

Liable for Likely. “Man is liable to err.” Man is not liable to err, but to error. Liable should be followed, not by an infinitive, but by a preposition.
The critics of Bierce’s day worked hard at fine-tuning the uses of liable, likely, and apt, but the notion that liable could not be followed by an infinitive seems to be Bierce’s own hallucination. In fact, the construction had been in use for more than two centuries: “All would be liable to die,” wrote Thomas Creech, a British scholar, in 1682, and writers ever since have followed his example.

Anyone who enjoys well-grounded usage discussions and/or the great Bierce should run out and get this delightful little book.


Back in June I discovered a book I immediately lusted after, The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century by Bernard Comrie, Gerald Stone, and Maria Polinsky. Alas, list price was $260.00, and used copies started at over $100, so I sighed and tried to forget it. But recently I revisited the Amazon page and found that a seller was offering it for a little over $20, and I jumped at the chance. It arrived and I plunged in; so far I’ve just read the first chapter, on pronunciation, and I’m sure I’ll have more to report later, but I wanted to share some striking bits I’ve run across so far. Just about every page has something that makes me revise my ideas; these are a couple of passages I think might be of more general interest. From page 44:

However, for a significant period in the history of the Soviet Union, the palatalized pronunciation of -изм served as a sign of solidarity among the party élite, which led to an unusual case of intertwining of politics and pronunciation. The trend was probably started by Stalin, hardly a bearer of standard Russian, of whom F. Burlackij writes: ‘I fail to understand why he so stubbornly pronounced коммунизьм with a soft з … I am a hundred per cent sure that he did this on purpose, creating a certain standard, to be followed by all the initiated . . . One after another, all the members of his inner circle, including those with university education, leaned towards that pronunciation. This jargon was a sort of key to the room at the top, into the narrow circle of people closely knit to one another both by shared activities and also by shared cultural background.’…
[footnote:] Stalin’s accent, a research question in its own right, was most likely a combination of spontaneous Georgian accent and some deliberate mannerisms, possibly including the pronunciation -зьм. The soft pronunciation of з was expectably apparent in the speech of NS Xruščev, who was a speaker of southern Russian and Ukrainian. A popular joke of the 1960s was that Xruščev’s contribution to Marxism consisted of the soft sign (мaркcизьм).

And from page 60, in a discussion of loan words:

[Read more…]


A reader writes:

The other day the expression “borio boola gha” popped out of my subconscious and just sat there, so I looked it up, and find myself puzzled about its origins. It’s not in Brewer’s Dictionary, at any rate… I half suspect maybe a music hall song lyric, but I have not found the origin.

Here are the earliest of the examples she turned up, from and Google Books:
From Harper’s magazine, December 1867 to May 1868:

I mean some day to marry somebody who will indulge my likings; and how am I to find him in this benighted place, where the only men I meet are schismatic fledgelings, every other one preparing himself for the Gaboon mission or Borio-boola Gha? Do I look like a female missionary? No, I thank you!”

From Lichen Tufts: From the Alleghanies, 1860:

And this was not in Tartary, nor “Borio-boola Gha,” nor in the dark ages, but in the United States, in the middle of the nineteenth century.

So does anybody know where this piquant expression originated?


Another serendipitous discovery while googling: (or Словарный запас), a collection of searchable dictionaries of English, Greek, Georgian, Icelandic, Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, Sanskrit, Ukrainian, Faroese, Hindi, Romanes, and Estonian; some of them (e.g., Mongolian, Sanskrit, and Hindi) are searchable in English as well as Russian.
And I’ll toss in another random dictionary find on Google Books (I had actually been looking up a Russian word, but a Greek word had been mis-scanned): Dictionnaire grec moderne français by Félix Désiré Dehèque (1794-1870), from 1825; naturally, I looked up the dirtiest word that came to mind, and sure enough, there it was on page 144: “Γαμῶ, expr. obscène, avoir commerce avec une femme.” By 1825 the Greeks had been in revolt against the Ottomans for several years and Philhellenism was sweeping Europe, which explains why a dictionary was published, but who Dehèque was and how he came to write it I have no idea.


This is one of those discoveries you can make serendipitously while googling: Gregory Nagy has updated his contributions to Greek: A Survey of Recent Work, a book he coauthored with Fred W. Householder in 1972, and put them online. There’s all sorts of good stuff in there (and I am pleased to see that he quotes my mentor Warren Cowgill); I’ll reproduce here a couple of paragraphs from his conclusion that emphasize the importance of continuity in scholarship, of not forgetting what our forebears knew in the excitement of current research:

A cautionary note is in order here: with the passage of time, certain early compendia on Greek grammar and dialectology have tended to become neglected or even forgotten by succeeding generations of scholars, despite the value of these works not only for linguistic insight but also for a conscientious assimilation of the extant grammatical and dialectal testimonia of the ancient world; representative of such compendia are those of Lobeck 1853 / 1862 and Ahrens 1839 / 1843. Drawing attention to these is all the more relevant because later treatises tend to betray far less appreciation or even awareness of the ancient testimonia. Another problem of obsolescence is that certain reference-manuals slated for replacement remain useful; for example, despite the admirable additions, improvements, and streamlining in Frisk’s etymological dictionary of Greek (1960, 1961-), the details collected in Boisacq’s reputedly obsolescent manual (1950) retain their value as possible points of departure for further investigation. Then too, Chantraine’s etymological dictionary (1968-) should not be viewed as a replacement of Frisk’s in turn, but rather as a complement to it; each has its own value, practically its own genre: one is, straightforwardly, ein griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch – was der Titel besagt, while the other, transcendentally, aspires to be une histoire des mots. Chantraine apparently succeeds. […]
In the best of possible worlds, scrutiny of the Greek language will become such a discipline that it will impel its scholars to ever greater efforts at consolidating both the relevant textual material and the analytical contributions. The format of these contributions, furthermore, will eventually require that authors explain any grammatical phenomenon cited by them and essential to their arguments but likely to be unknown or unfamiliar to their readers; in other words, there would be no more relegations of such phenomena to obscurity by the expedient of cross-referencing to another remote work for an explanation and then expecting the reader to consult immediately in order to understand the argument at hand. If knowledge of the given phenomenon is not commonplace, then an immediate summary of it – though it may not be original – is nonetheless a contribution to the continuity of Greek study.


The Language Atlas of China (“Its aim has been the graphic presentation, on 36 large multi coloured maps, of the many languages and dialects spoken by the non-Han Chinese people in China who have largely been included in a number of National Minorities and of the numerous large and small dialects of Chinese itself”) was published two decades ago; I am pleased to discover that some of the most useful maps from it are online here: Languages in China, Chinese Dialects in China, Minority Languages in China, Chinese Dialects (Southeastern China), Chinese Dialects Overseas: Insular Southeast Asia, Chinese Dialects Overseas: Other Parts of the World, and Minority Languages in Southern China. I found it via an excellent MetaFilter post that focuses on linguistic change in Chinese communities abroad:

“Chinatown” communities across the United States (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco) are undergoing a shift in linguistic identity, as recent immigrants are more likely to natively speak Mandarin (the official spoken language of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) instead of Cantonese.

There are plenty of interesting links in the post and thread; one commenter links to Victor Mair’s recent Language Log post about the “injunction to speak Mandarin at the expense of the regional Sinitic languages,” with several long quotes from relevant articles in the South China Morning Post.


Stephen Chrisomalis reports on a Google Scholar screwup that produced the following citation:

Embuggerance, E., and H. Feisty. 2008. The linguistics of laughter. English Today 1, no. 04: 47-47.

It is, of course, hilarious, but the fact that it (along with many other similar, if more prosaic, screwups) exists is not. Not only is the author listing wrong, the review is from 1985, not 2008. Google has a serious metadata problem (see Geoff Nunberg’s discussion), and it needs to work harder on fixing it. I don’t understand Chrisomalis’s “I don’t mean this as an indictment of Google Scholar,” which smacks of forelock-tugging and/or Kool-Aid drinking; of course it’s an indictment of Google Scholar, and Google needs to be slapped around, not coddled, if this sort of thing is to stop. (I got to Chrisomalis’s post via the Log; In case you’re curious, the actual author of “The linguistics of laughter” is Walter Nash.)