Archives for December 2009


First off, Happy New Year! And now, on with our regularly scheduled post, the first in what will doubtless be a series drawn from Kornei Chukovsky‘s Diary, 1901-1969 (see my Xmas post); I’ve just started it, and I’ve already hit a couple of entries I want to share [Russian below the cut]. From February 20, 1909 (Chukovsky’s son Nikolai, or Kolya, is about five, his daughter Lidia, or Lida, about two):

I’m surrounded by Ukrainian books and, oddly enough, as I read them I start thinking in Ukrainian. And what’s even odder, when I’ve been reading all day I dream in Ukrainian. And even odder than that: the Ukrainian verse I knew as a child but have completely and utterly forgotten—pushed into the background by Blok and Bryusov—is surfacing, coming back to me…. And even odder than that: I feel a sort of Ukrainian naïveté, artlessness welling up in me—in my mood, my spirit. So not only does the soul create language; language (in part) creates the soul.
Lida put on Kolya’s brown coat today and refused to take it off, even inside. It’s odd: her language is developing in an entirely different way from Kolya’s. Kolya creates his own words, but retains only a few of them; he increases his vocabulary gradually. Lida can pronounce all words more or less properly and has an enormous vocabulary, but they are not so much words as their shadows. That is because she doesn’t create them; she merely reports what she hears.

And from July 15, 1910:

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As I mentioned here, one of the books I got for Christmas was Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, and since AJP and jamessal thoughtfully had Amazon leave it unwrapped so I could get started on it as soon as it arrived, I’ve already finished it, and am as wrung out as if I’d been reading a great, tragic novel.

That may raise doubts about either my judgment (it’s just a book about how some intellectuals dealt with the last decades of Communism in Russia, after all) or the book itself (you don’t usually want a history book to be like a novel), but I stand by it. Zubok has accomplished a near miracle, making an intellectual history both gripping and accurate (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources in both Russian and English—the author seems to have read everything available on the period, and talked to some of the participants as well). Every page provides fresh insights; he mentions many people and events I was to some extent familiar with (along with many unknown to me—for instance, he describes the huge MGU dormitory on Stromynka Street where many of the book’s characters lived during their college years), and always puts them in a context that makes me understand them better. Furthermore, dealing with a subject that lends itself to one-sided presentations, his perspective is impeccable—he has a clear-eyed sympathy for all his protagonists, and every time you think you know how to feel about them he provides a view from another angle that makes you think twice, and then think again. Zubok, in his epilogue, sums up his book this way:

It is a story about the struggle of intellectuals and artists to regain autonomy from an autocratic regime seeking to control society and culture. Yet it is also a story about the heavy price they paid for this autonomy, and above all about the slow and painful disappearance of their revolutionary-romantic idealism and optimism, their faith in progress and in the enlightenment of people, beliefs and values inherited from the milieu of the Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century.

I would urge anyone with any interest in that story to read this remarkable book. To give some idea of its riches, I’ll quote a few snippets. Here is a surprising result of Stalin’s Great Terror, which in the 1930s wiped out so many Old Bolsheviks:

Most of the survivors of the terror at universities and other cultural institutions were, paradoxically, the professors who did not share the communist idealism. They, who had instead been brought up in the nineteenth-century traditions of liberalism and humanism, could not help passing on to their students their manners, habits, ethical standards, and aesthetic attitudes — while keeping their political views to themselves.

On the stilyagi (whom he calls alternately stiliagi and “style apers”):

From the start, the admirers of American style and jazz, as well as their broader following of imitators, engendered a dual conflict: between children and parents and between them and Soviet institutions, especially the school and the Komsomol. At the same time, identities were not black and white. Most jazz lovers and famous future guitar balladeers, among them Vladimir Vysotsky, Yuri Vizbor, and Alexander Gorodnitsky, had never been style apers, although they absorbed some of their language and manners. And some of the Komsomol oppressors of stiliagi would later become avid advocates of Western-style openness and liberalization. American cultural influences did not lead automatically to anti-Soviet views among the young. Paradoxically, many of them recalled that love of jazz and fashionable clothing coexisted with unquestioning acceptance of the cult of Stalin.

On the first cracks in the Iron Curtain (and it astonished me that most Russians had no contact with Eastern Europe for a decade after WWII):

The first layer of the Iron Curtain that Russians might penetrate, the first boundary to cross, took the form of the border with the “fraternal” countries of the Soviet bloc. After 1955, newspapers from “people’s democracies” were available on some newsstands in Moscow and Leningrad, including on university campuses; those papers provided the first alternative source of information to reports in the Soviet media. At the same time, Soviet tourism to Eastern Europe grew rapidly; in 1957 more than half a million Russians traveled to Poland, Romania, China, East Germany, and other communist countries.

Poland was especially important. One linguist and poet from Moscow recalled that “for a certain part of intelligentsia in the Soviet Union, Poland after 1955-1956 served as a bridge to Europe, to European culture — beginning with the general culture of ideas and ending with political culture.” Some poets and other writers, budding intellectuals, and scholars learned Polish before they learned other foreign languages. Polish newspapers and books on philology, art, philosophy, and sociology were like a secondhand version of the Western original, yet they provided a good start. Some American and European authors, such as William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce, were banned from Russian libraries, yet available in Polish translation.

On the wildly popular 1957 World Youth Festival (about which I knew nothing, and which I learn was the source of the popularity of the song “Moscow Nights” [Подмосковные вечера]):

The festival was a time of revelation and, for a brief moment, liberation for Russian fans of “style,” especially young musicians and artists. In their eagerness to demonstrate the diversity and creativity of “Soviet life,” the party and Komsomol authorities suspended the ban on “Western” and formalist styles in music and pictorial art for a week, and suddenly Moscow was jolted by Scottish bagpipes, Spanish and Hawaiian guitars, and jazz saxophones. On Pushkin Square, in the middle of Gorky Street in the center of the city, bands from different countries played, day and night. Americans and other Western youth taught Russian volunteers how to dance rock-and-roll and boogie-woogie, dances that were forbidden in the USSR and practiced only at the style apers’ private parties. Russian formalist and abstract artists, the persecuted underdogs of the Soviet art world, were able to participate in international art competitions and publicly display their works. The variety of artistic styles contrasted sharply with the customary oppressive monotony of official Soviet art. The traditional Russian-Soviet cultural hierarchy with its top and bottom, the refined and the vulgar, began to erode. The idea of a multiplicity of cultures, and cultural pluralism, which had been excluded by socialist realism, returned.

That’s all from the first half of the book, filled with the illusory optimism of the late ’50s and early ’60s; I don’t have the heart at the moment to go on and transcribe from the second, darker, half, in which the best lose all conviction and the antisemitic nationalists are full of passionate intensity, but I hope I’ve given an idea of what is to be found here.


I’m almost halfway through Andrei Bely’s Peterburg (complete Russian text of the earlier, longer 1913 version, with introductory essay by Igor Sukhikh)—I’ve read it before in English, but this is my first time reading it as Bely wrote it—and I’m perfectly willing to go along with Nabokov in calling it one of the great novels of its century. Its prose is even more mesmerizing than that of The Silver Dove (discussed here), with brilliant use of repetition (all of Bely’s prose works on the incantatory principle), and the plot is far more interesting, with intertwining strands on the generational theme (still productive a half-century after Fathers and Sons), the theme of love and marriage (two very different things in Bely), and the prescient theme of red revolution, all played against the backdrop of a murky and frightening city that Bely knew well but didn’t like (he was a proud Muscovite). I’ll probably have more to say when I finish it, but right now I just want to share a sentence that struck me with its inadvertent foreshadowing of Martha and the Vandellas and the Rolling Stones: “Apollon Apollonovich thought [while watching the dancers at a party in the revolutionary October of 1905]: just let these seemingly innocent dances go on here, and, well, of course these dances will continue in the street; and the dances will end, of course—there, there.” (Russian below the cut.) The final “там, там,” literally ‘there, there,’ carries the sound of тамтам ‘tomtom,’ and in general is meant to bring to your ears (if you will) the sound of marching, charging feet, boy.

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A couple of months ago I wrote about The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century by Comrie, Stone, and Polinsky; I’ve continued working through it, and I thought I’d pass on this interesting bit from the chapter on morphology:

Analyticity in the Nominal Paradigm
Indeclinable nouns

The most distinctive feature of grammatical change in the twentieth century has been the growth of analyticity—the increasing tendency for the grammatical meaning of words to be expressed by their context rather than their form and for the expression of separate meanings by separate words that can be used on their own, in isolation. An obvious aspect of this tendency is the growth of indeclinability among nouns. With the increase in the number of indeclinable nouns in the twentieth century growing account has to be taken of them in describing the morphological system….
Some [indeclinables], but not many, were borrowed as long ago as the eighteenth century, including депо [depo ‘depot’] and бюро [byuro ‘bureau’]. The habit of not declining them grew up in the first half of the nineteenth century among the upper class, but declined forms too, such as на бюре, на фортепиане are attested from that period… Only certain members of the intelligentsia and upper class, owing to their knowledge of Western languages, were conscious of the foreign origin of these words, and it was only in upper-class circles that they were not declined….
The vast majority of the population were ignorant of the Western languages from which these words came, and, on the rare occasions when they knew and used such words, they declined them. At the time of the Revolution non-declension of neuter loan-words had acquired prestige among the ruling class, but to the illiterate masses it was unknown or (if known) incomprehensible. It would therefore have been quite possible in the early years of Soviet power to codify declension of these words as standard, approximating Russian practice to that of most other Slavonic languages. Only a small minority of the population would have been offended.
After 1917, however, non-declension continued its progress under the impetus of the pre-Revolutionary prestige structure. And so, when in the 1960s, as part of the RJaSO [Русский язык и советское общество] project, a survey was carried out in which 1500 Russians were asked: ‘Do you accept the possibility of declining … nouns … of the type пальто, депо?’ only 3 per cent said ‘Yes’. The actual text of the replies received indicates that most of the informants were quite indignant at the thought of declining them.

So non-declension, like classical music, was an upper-class preference continued by the Soviets.


Finally got my computer back, but I’m still recovering from the holiday, so I’ll just list the books I found under the Xmas tree (a balsam this year—we decided fragrance was important to us):
Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, by Anders Nilsen (thanks, Eric!)
The Annotated Lolita: Revised and Updated, by Nabokov (thanks, Brooke!)
And two from those commenters sans peur et sans reproche, AJP and jamessal (you guys are nuts, but I’m not about to sic the nice men with the butterfly nets on you):
Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok
Diary, 1901-1969, by Kornei Chukovsky
I’m almost done with the Zubok, one of the best books I’ve ever read on Russian cultural history, and will be reporting on it shortly; there will doubtless be more to say on the others as I get to them. Books always put me in that ho-ho-ho spirit!


Back in August I posted about an odd development by which a minor Indonesian language, Cia-Cia, was using Korean hangul as a writing system; Victor Mair has an update at the Log. (I apologize for scanty posting; my computer is still hors de combat, and I’ve been trying to get a book edited. Hopefully regular languagehatting will resume shortly.)


I’ve got a small stack of books that publishers have sent me and I’ve enjoyed looking through, but for one reason or another haven’t written posts about. Here’s a brief description of each; any of them would make a good stocking-stuffer if you’re stuck for a last-minute giftie.
The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, by Chris Baldick, is a nice, compact reference work that includes entries as general as “romance” and as specific as “rispetto” (“An alternative name, especially in Tuscany, for the Italian verse form more widely known as the strambotto“). The entry for skaz is quite well done; the heart of it reads: “The term is now used more generally in studies of fictional prose for the exploitation of colloquial speech in first-person narratives, especially where the narrator’s language is marked by non-literary or indecorous features such as slang and dialect terms, expletives, solecisms, malapropisms, hesitations, and other indications that the narrative is to be understood as being ‘spoken’ rather than written down.” Of course, these days one is likely to reach for the computer if one wants to know this kind of thing, but if you like actual books to leaf through, this is a good one.
Curse and Berate in 69+ Languages is just what it sounds like, and would make a fitting accompaniment to my book except for the minor detail that it’s thoroughly unreliable. I have no idea how thoroughly the entries for languages like Sinhala, Slovenian, and Northern Sotho were vetted (though I suspect the answer is: not very thoroughly), but the ones for languages I know are full of typos, misspellings, and other blemishes. (On page 30, the names of three different Soviet general secretaries are misspelled in inventive ways; Yeltsin, for instance, becomes Ыелтзен.) If you know someone who is more concerned with fun than accuracy, this book is a hell of a lot of fun.

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A. O. Scott’s review of the new Romanian movie Police, Adjective makes it sound like something I’ll have to try to see:

True to its title, the new Romanian film “Police, Adjective” is a story of law enforcement with a special interest in grammar. Its climactic scene is not a chase or a shootout, but rather a tense, suspenseful session of dictionary reading. I’m not being in any way facetious…. The dictionary in that scene is a versatile comic prop, and also an instrument of instruction and humiliation….
At another point, as Anca, a teacher and something of a linguistic pedant, listens to a romantic pop song over and over on her computer, she and Cristi have a debate about images and symbols in literature. Why, he wonders, don’t people just stick with the literal meanings of words, and forget about all the fancy stuff.

Sounds like my kind of cop movie. (Thanks go to LobsterMitten, aka LobboMobbo, for the link.)


I recently posted about the “is is” phenomenon, which has been much discussed (see this Language Log post, for example); people may find it more or less acceptable, but one could hardly be surprised by its existence. Now, however, Logger Mark Liberman has written about a construction that I find so improbable I’m amazed it’s as common as it apparently is, the doubling of that around an adverb. Examples:
“There are statements that obviously that she has made that the president doesn’t agree with…”
“… knowing that in most cases that they will mess up the drawings.”
“…it seems that apparently that they just wanna be me…”
I assume, perhaps too hastily, that no one will find this grammatical, but is anyone familiar with it? Do any of you find yourself occasionally producing a sentence like this? It may be an up-and-coming phenomenon that I just haven’t noticed, geezer that I am.


I know we’ve covered the topic recently, and I wasn’t going to post about The Economist‘s longish article on difficult languages, even though it has a lot of interesting examples and doesn’t get too gee-whiz about it, but when I hit this part I couldn’t resist:

For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).

A language that gives you a lump on your larynx just from speaking it—now that’s badass. (Thanks, John!)