Archives for November 2009


Is the husband of your wife’s sister your brother-in-law?
I would have said “no” and been pretty sure I was reflecting standard usage, but it turns out I would have been wrong. Bill Poser at the Log has a post about this, sparked by “a news item in which men in this situation (one of whom is accused of trying to hire an assassin to kill the other) were described as brothers-in-law”; he was surprised to see it, because to him “there is no named relationship” between such men. I agreed with him, but he and I are in a distinct minority; most of the (so far) 74 comments say things like (to take the first two) “I use brother-in-law in that context, as does my wife” and “It never occurred to me not to use ‘brother-in-law’ to refer to my wife’s sister’s husband.” I thought perhaps it was a generational thing, since Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary has the definition “broadly : the husband of one’s spouse’s sister,” whereas the entry in the newest (eleventh) edition drops the “broadly” and just includes “the husband of one’s spouse’s sister” as one of the basic senses, but I asked my wife and she has no problem with the broad sense. Furthermore, in the Log thread, Jerry Friedman (November 20, 2009 @ 3:14 am) said, “This has come up on alt.usage.english a few times, and the results are much like those here—everything from people who’ve never heard the extended sense to people who thought everyone used it. I don’t recall any regional pattern ever showing up.”
So I thought I’d ask you all the question I began with; you might add, for scientific purposes, where you’re from (or, if different, what dialect you speak), and (if, of course, you feel like it) your approximate age.

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Someone at MetaFilter linked to “In the Shadow of the Patriarch,” a long, long New Republic article by Enrique Krauze on “Gabriel García Márquez and the demons of his time.” I’ll confess up front that I’ve only read the first of its nine pages, and furthermore that I may very well not get any farther; I’ve enjoyed most of the García Márquez I’ve read, but I’ve already read more than I really need about his life, times, and politics. However, the article begins with a reflection on his relations with the dictionary, which seemed like obvious LH material:

Many years later, in the course of writing his memoirs, Gabriel García Márquez was to remember that distant afternoon in Aracataca, in Colombia, when his grandfather set a dictionary in his lap and said, “Not only does this book know everything, it’s the only one that’s never wrong.” The boy asked, “How many words are in it?” “All of them,” his grandfather replied.

Anywhere in the world, if a grandfather presents his grandson with a dictionary, he is giving him a great instrument of knowledge; but Colombia was not just anywhere. It was a republic of grammarians. During the youth of García Márquez’s grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía, who was born in 1864 and died in 1936, a number of presidents and government ministers—almost all of them lawyers from the conservative camp—published dictionaries, language textbooks, and treatises (in prose and verse) on orthology, orthography, philology, lexicography, meter, prosody, and Castilian grammar. Malcolm Deas, a scholar of Colombian history who has studied this singular phenomenon, claims that the obsession with language that was expressed by the cultivation of these sciences—their practitioners, Deas notes, insisted on calling them “sciences”—had its origin in the urge for continuity with the cultural heritage of Spain. By claiming “Spain’s eternal presence in the language,” Colombians sought to possess its traditions, its history, its classic authors, its Latin roots. This appropriation, preceded by the foundation in 1871 of the Colombian Academy of Language, the first offshoot in America of the Royal Spanish Academy, was one of the keys to the long period of conservative hegemony—it lasted from 1886 to 1930—in Colombian political history.

García Márquez’s grandfather is a prominent figure in the writer’s early novels, and he was no stranger to this politico-grammatical history. Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía fought in the ranks of the legendary Liberal general Rafael Uribe Uribe (1859–1914), one of the few caudillos in Colombian history. His story in turn inspired the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude. A tireless and hapless combatant in three civil wars, Uribe Uribe was also a diligent grammarian and a soldier in the civic battles between conservatives and liberals. During one of his stays in prison he translated Herbert Spencer, and in 1887 he wrote the Diccionario abreviado de galicismos, provincialismos y correcciones de lenguaje, or Abbreviated Dictionary of Gallicisms, Provincialisms, and Proper Usage, which seems to have been a moderate success.

In 1896 the general stood alone in Parliament against sixty conservative senators. Finally the crushing majority left him no choice but—in his own words—to “give voice to the cannons.” Uribe Uribe was the protagonist of the bloody Thousand Days War in 1899–1902, which ended with the signing of the Peace of Neerlandia. The signing was witnessed by Colonel Márquez, who, years later, would receive his former general at the family home in Aracataca, near the scene of the events. Uribe Uribe was assassinated in 1914. Two decades later, his lieutenant presented his eldest grandson not with a sword or a pistol, but with a dictionary. This tome that anywhere else would be an instrument of knowledge was, in Colombia, an instrument of power.


Volta: A Multilingual Anthology “contains seventy-five poems in seventy-five languages. Seventy-four of these poems are translations of one poem, the seventy-fifth.” You can read the English poem (the original) at wood s lot for November 18, 2009, where I got the link; it and all the translations (in, among many others, Maltese, Mongolian, Nepali, Nigerian Pidgin, North Eastern English, and Norwegian) are available in pdf form via the first link. Here’s an etymological passage from the long introduction by the poem’s author, Richard Berengarten:

The title ‘Volta’ itself comes from Modern Greek. The noun βόλτα is a noun meaning ‘turn’ and also ‘walk’, ‘stroll’. The Greek expression πάμε βόλτα [pame volta] means literally *let’s go a turn,6 i.e. ‘let’s take a turn,’ ‘let’s go for a walk/ stroll,’ ‘let’s stretch our legs.’ The word βόλτα is also used to mean, more precisely, ‘evening promenade’, βραδινή βόλτα [vrathini volta]. The custom of the evening promenade is expressed in Italian by the word passeggiata and in Serbian, Czech and Slovak by the common word korzo. During certain hours of the early evening, around dusk, everyone in the town who might feel like going for a walk takes a saunter or stroll up and down the main street. The custom used to exist in widely different cultures, including for example, in Portugal. A version of it exists among Jewish communities on the Sabbath.7

The idea of ‘turning’ is embedded in the Modern Greek word and usage: βόλτα is a word of Latin origin (volgere [actually volvere—LH], to turn). So a volta in this sense is a ‘turn’, up and down and back again, in the pleasurable presence of an indeterminate number of other people who, for whatever reasons of their own, happen to be engaged in the same activity. The word volta also exists in Catalan, Galician and Portuguese, and is cognate with Spanish vuelta.8 In all these Romance languages the word has the primary idea of ‘turn’, ‘return’, and more or less the same idiomatic meaning of ‘taking a turn’ as in Greek.

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I just read in Sally Thomason’s post at Language Log that Dell Hymes died in his sleep last Friday. I do not have a particular interest in his area of specialization, the languages of the Pacific Northwest, but his work in linguistic anthropology combined brilliance in both elements of that term with a remarkable sensitivity to literary and artistic qualities in oral texts, and I am extremely fond of his book “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. A brief passage from its opening essay, “Some North Pacific Coast Poems: A Problem in Anthropological Philology,” will give an idea of what he thought needed to be corrected in his chosen field:

On the one hand, some of those who concern themselves with the materials of verbal art assert or assume the irrelevance of linguistic control and analysis to their interpretive interest. Contrary to the experience and standards of scholarship in other fields, the style, content, structure, and functioning of texts seem to be declared “translated” (in the theological sense of the metaphor as well as the linguistic) bodily from their original verbal integument, and available for interpretation without it. Original texts are even declared in a scholarly review in the pages of the American Anthropologist to be of concern only to linguists — as if only linguists would mourn the loss of the original texts of Homer or the Bible! On the other hand, those who undertake linguistic description too often pursue it without effective concern for other students of the American Indian, or such fields as comparative poetics, to which American Indian studies should contribute.

The next essay, winningly titled “How to Talk Like a Bear in Takelma” (first page available here, or the whole thing if you have JSTOR access) is a gentle and meticulous takedown of a hasty statement by Edward Sapir that had more influence than it deserved; it ends “…this study shows in a small way that even genius and native speaker intuition together cannot always substitute for attention to the details of actual texts.” My condolences to his wife Virginia, and may his influence continue to spread.


Anatoly makes a very interesting point about change in Russian usage since the nineteenth century (Russian below the cut):

On of the things that strikes me in Anna Karenina (which I’m rereading) is how ty [intimate ‘you’] and vy [polite ‘you’] work in comparison to now. Naturally, there’s a different sense of distance, and naturally, there’s intimacy[1], but what sticks in my memory is something else—that you can return from ty to vy, as Dolly and Oblonsky do when they quarrel. It’s as if the passage from vy to ty is like a peg pressed on a stretched-out piece of rubber; all you have to do is let go of it, and immediately you return to the realm of vy. But in the Russian that is native to me, that doesn’t happen; once you pass over to the intimate ty with someone, you never return, whatever happens: quarrel, divorce, burning hatred, it doesn’t matter.
[1]”Forgive my having come, but I could not pass the day without seeing you [using vy forms],” he continued in French, as he always did, avoiding the vy that was impossibly cold between them and the ty that was dangerous in Russian.

This is the kind of insight you can only get from a native speaker (although I hasten to add that some of his commenters disagree that you can’t go back to vy again).

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Rudi Seitz is a software engineer by profession but a logophile at heart, and he’s started a website, Quadrivial Quandary, for fellow word aficionados: “Each day we present four words from our favorite dictionary sites. Your challenge is to use them all in a sentence that illustrates their meanings.” On his Origins page, he expands:

Quandary is a site for logophiles but it is contraindicated for the prim variety. What characterizes this site is exuberance, the joy of using esoteric and sometimes questionable words…
The challenge is intensified by our occasional inclusion of slang words alongside archaic Latinate constructions. How to use words that would never be uttered by the same speaker? … I like to think of each Quandary as rare mix of flammable substances, combusting in the minds of us who behold it, the shared memory connecting us.

If it sounds like your kind of thing, check it out.


Mark Liberman has a Log post taking the hapless NY Times science writer Nicholas Wade out behind the woodshed for a well-deserved thrashing in regard to his credulous reporting of the “language gene” (a real thing even if the popular name is misleading) and the “god gene” (not a real thing); I was pushed over the edge into blogging it by his conclusion:

The beauty part is the universality of this argument. My current favorite application leads us to postulate the Hat Gene. […] Think of the manifold advantages of head-coverings to paleolithic hunter-gatherers, and the near-universality of head coverings among human groups at all subsequent stages of development — the Hat Gene hypothesis is a winner all around.

It sure is, and now, when anyone asks me why I always wear headgear when I’m outside, I can just say “It’s genetic.”


Because of my diverse set of interests, plus my dogged insistence on looking up references to even the most minor names I run across in a text, I sometimes happen on striking coincidences that bring together utterly different realms, and I am about to recount one such happenstance. (A warning for those who dislike literary gossip: this post involves literary gossip.)
I’m reading an extremely interesting book, Time of Troubles: The Diary of Iurii Vladimirovich Got’e: Moscow, July 8, 1917 to July 23, 1922 . Very few diaries exist from the period of the Russian Revolution and Civil War (those foolish enough to set down their views of current events during that time of violence and starvation tended to sensibly destroy them once the all-encompassing vigilance of the Bolshevik rulers became apparent), and this one survived only because an American, Frank Golder, was in Russia in 1922 and persuaded Got’e to let him smuggle it out of the country (Got’e [Готье], by the way, is a Russianized form of Gautier—his great-grandfather, “Jean Dufayet dit Gautier,” was a French immigrant during the reign of Catherine the Great, and the family had owned the main French bookstore in Moscow for over a century). It’s fascinating to see this grumpy forty-something historian reacting to events as they happen; on Oct. 13, 1917, he writes “Moscow is full of rumors about a citywide strike and bolshevik manifestations—either on the 15th or the 20th. Is this the frightened fantasy of the terrorized townsman or is something really being prepared?” It turned out, of course, that the latter was the case, and within a couple of weeks he is writing about gunfire within earshot of his apartment at No. 4 Bol’shoi Znamenskii pereulok (a few blocks west of the Kremlin). On November 6 he mentions a visit by “V. E. Kokoshkina,” and a footnote tells us that she was married to Vladimir Kokoshkin, the brother of Fedor Fedorovich Kokoshkin, a name well known to students of the Russian Revolution—he and his fellow Kadet and member of the Provisional Government Andrei Shingarev were murdered in their hospital beds in January 1918 by Bolsheviks, one of the first clear signs of the brutality that was about to descend on Russia.

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Don’t miss the Poemas del río Wang post about one of those astonishing 19th-century wanderers long forgotten in the rush to delineate the world and its history in nationalist terms, with neat little boxes in which Persians live in Persia and speak Persian, French persons live in France and speak French, etc. etc. The post is about Mollah Sadik, given name Ishak/Izsák (1836-1892), brought to Hungary by the orientalist Ármin Vámbéry:

Izsák remained in Hungary and within a short time he perfectly mastered Hungarian. He was Vámbéry’s servant, librarian of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and even the “Tatar teacher” of Vámbéry’s friends József Budenz and Áron Szilády. For at that time he was the only one in Europe to speak Turkic languages, including his Uzbek mother tongue as well as Chagatay, the literary language of Central Asian Turks, and the Turkic scholars of Hungary were enthusiastic to draw on this never-hoped-for source.
Contemporary science of languages still professed the Turkic origin of Hungarian language. One had to wait some twenty years until the outbreak of the so-called “Ugrian-Turkic war”, the passionate scholarly debate in which Vámbéry was opposed by his former friend Budenz, and which made the theory of the exclusive Finno-Ugrian origin official for a century. Only recent scholarship has rehabilitated Vámbéry to a certain extent by saying that the Finno-Ugrian substratum of Hungarian language was enriched during the centuries of nomadic life in the steppe by such a great amount of Turkic elements both in its vocabulary and its grammar that it brought fundamental changes to the language.
“Vámbéry’s Tatarman was a great sensation”, writes Iván Sándor Kovács. “As if the young Veinemöinen came to visit Professor Elias Lönrot and his colleagues while compiling the Kalevala, or as if one of Ulysses’ sailors held a presentation of knotting at the Dutch Naval Academy.”

There’s too much in the post to try and summarize; go and enjoy. (And while you’re there, check out the latest post on the many names of Venice and the putative etymology of the Hungarian town of Velence, where the Tatarman is buried.)


István Deák has a NYRB review of a couple of books about Hungarian exiles in the U.S. that starts with a few jokes (“Another story was about a meeting of top US atomic scientists at which, when Enrico Fermi has stepped out of the room, the others sigh with relief: ‘Now, at last, we can speak Hungarian'”) and goes on to an astonishing list of people:

Marton’s nine [Hungarian] Jews include four nuclear scientists, two photographers, two film directors, and a writer. What both Marton and Frank demonstrate is that such Hungarians as the scientists Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller, the biochemist and sociologist Michael Polanyi, the photographer Robert Capa, the writer Arthur Koestler, and others have together altered the ways we think, act, and work. And unlike many of their predecessors, the two authors do not shy away from admitting that, with very few exceptions, the world-famous Hungarians they discuss […] were Jews by religion, or at least converts of Jewish origin.

[…] Indeed, the ethnic and national identity of Theodore von Kármán, Karl Polanyi, Karl Mannheim, Nicholas Lord Kaldor of Newnham, Eugene Ormandy, Sir Georg Solti, Joseph Szigeti, Antal Dorati, George Szell, Fritz Reiner, Ferenc Molnár, Joe Pasternak, Sir Alexander Korda, Michael Curtiz, Brassaï, André Kertész, Marcel Breuer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and hundreds of other illustrious expatriates presented a dilemma to anti-Semitic and rightist Hungarians before and during World War II and, to a lesser extent, to Hungarian Communists after the war.

Wow. I knew some of those people were Hungarians (mainly those with obviously Hungarian names, like Solti, Szigeti, and Dorati), but many of them I would never have guessed, and when you put them all together it’s a hell of an impressive list.
In a footnote, Deák mentions an interesting fact about names: “…late in the eighteenth century, the Habsburg authorities gave the Jews of Hungary German-sounding names, many were later converted to Hungarian-sounding family names, and then again, when abroad, to German-, French-, or English/American-sounding names. Thus Manó Kaminer became Mihály Kertész while still in Hungary and Michael Curtiz when in the US.”