The inimitable Poemas del río Wang continues to astonish: the latest post rescues from the dustbin of history a person—nay, a phenomenon—ubiquitous a century ago, the Hungaro-Moravian Queen of Hirsutism, Anna Csillag (pronounced CHILL-log; csillag is the Hungarian word for ‘star’ and is derived from csillog ‘shine,’ from Finno-Ugric *ćɜlk-). The redoubtable Ms. Csillag had ads in every periodical in Europe, in Russian, German, Hungarian, Polish, and who knows what else, all featuring a drawing of her holding a sprig of flowers and displaying a floor-length, luxuriant head of hair and beginning “I, Anna Csillag…” They talked of how she had once had such scanty hair that her entire town pitied her (she claimed to be from “Karlovice in Moravia”—there are several towns of that name in Moravia, as well as Velké Karlovice ‘Great Karlovice’), but God had favored her with an infallible remedy that not only produced her staggering mane but allowed the men of her town to grow awe-inspiring beards and mustaches. These ads were as well known and commonly referenced in their day as Avis’s “We Try Harder” was in the 1960s, and Studiolum of río Wang has gathered a florilegium of ad reproductions and literary quotes in various languages: Bruno Schulz, Józef Wittlin, Czesław Miłosz, Karl Kraus, Leonid Dobychin, and a bunch of Hungarians. (Incidentally, I just spent much of the morning creating the Dobychin Wikipedia entry, since I was distressed they didn’t have one on this tragic, too little remembered figure.) The post ends with an actual photo of the lady in question a photo of an “anonymous double of Anna Csillag” [thanks, Studiolum!]; while her hair is impressive, it is not as long as in the drawings. You can’t trust advertising.


It’s time for another extract from The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century, by Comrie et al. (see here and here). These paragraphs are from the Word Formation section of the Morphology chapter:

From the beginning of the century onwards the suffix -ка has been extremely productive, forming nouns from both verbs and adjectives, e.g. маёвка ‘pre-Revolutionary illegal May Day celebration’, майка ‘sleeveless shirt’, буденовка ‘Red Army helmet’, семилетка ‘seven-year school’, пятилетка ‘five-year plan’, обезличка ‘lack of personal responsibility’, уравниловка ‘wage-levelling’, неувязка ‘lack of coordination’, скрепка ‘paper clip’, авоська ‘mesh shopping bag’ (from авось ‘perhaps’), похоронка ‘notification of death in the battlefield’ (in the Second World War), and the more recent кофеварка ‘coffee-maker’, стыковка ‘space docking’. Though it had been in use long before the twentieth century, the suffix -ка appears to have been at its most active in non-standard varieties, especially the speech of students (Seliščev 1928: 175) and in educated spoken language (Zemskaja 1992: 50, 154). Its extended representation in the standard language stems from the general readjustment of social and functional varieties resulting from changes in the structure of social control (Janko-Trinickaja 1964b: 27–9). Many -ка formations now recorded in dictionaries are still qualified as ‘colloquial’ or prostorečno….
During the first years of Soviet power there was a remarkable burst of activity by the previously unproductive suffix -ия to designate various social groups and areas—regional, political, or professional. In 1918 the area held by the Bolsheviks was called Совдепия by their opponents, but later this name was used by the Bolsheviks themselves (Pavlovskaja 1967: 16). At about the same time Скоропадия (from the name of Hetman Skoropadskij) and Красновия (after General Krasnov) came into existence (Seliščev 1928: 184). The Soviet state or system was called коммуния. To the Komsomol and Pioneers the names комсомолия and пионерия were given. Worker, peasant, and military correspondents (as groups) were referred to as рабкория, селькория, рабселькория, военкория. So quickly did most of these words fall out of use, however, that they were never recorded in dictionaries. The only exceptions are комсомолия, пионерия, инженерия ‘engineers’, which continue in rare use to the present day but with a very specific literary stylistic colouring. The suffix is now once again unproductive…

They go on to say that the borrowed suffix -изм became popular during the twentieth century; before that, it was only supposed to be used with Romance roots—”Russian roots and stems were supposed to attach the suffixes -ость and -ство (this meant, for example, that the normatively acceptable name of Bolshevism had to be большевичество, not the current большевизм).” Nowadays you can get words like жестокизм ‘cruel attitude’ and селявизм (from c’est la vie).
Incidentally, I’ve run across one forgotten form in -ка in Chukovsky’s diary: чрезвычайка (chrezvychaika, ‘the extraordinary thing’) for what quickly became standardized as ЧК or Чека (Cheka = Чрезвычайная Комиссия ‘Extraordinary Commission’).


A remarkable report (by Mark Liberman at the Log) on the appearance in a New South Wales court of a soi-disant “plenipotentiary judge” on behalf of an applicant; after much dispute over his right to appear, he provides his “pertinent information,” which follows:

The paperwork in this case goes back twelve years, as you well know, and I saw the file brought in, it’s about four inches thick. The syntax, and I am the judge in 1988 who wrote the mathematical interface on all 5,000 languages proving that language is a linear equation in algebra certifying that all words have 900 definitions through this mathematical algebraic formula and over the course of the past 21 years have developed an accuracy level in the syntaxing of language sentence structure to prove the correct sentence structure communication syntax language is required in a court system.
Now, the seal behind you which advertises the Crown’s seal and jurisdiction of this court uses the correct syntax. That is why you have the dots. Now, the dots between the words are prepositional phrases. There’s only two places where dots as allowed as a syntax prepositional phrase to certify the value of each word and that is on money, coinage and on seals. When you created, when your Government created the seal they used the correct sentence structure, they used the correct syntax and they are advertising that you have the correct syntax and knowledge of it.

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I’ve finished reading Bely’s Peterburg (see here and here), and I’m even more willing than before to join Nabokov in calling it one of the great novels of its century. It moves slowly, concentrating on building up musical and incantatory effects by means of the repetitions he (unwisely) pruned heavily for the later revision, and as it reaches its end all the themes come together satisfyingly, with what might have been sentimentality in a lesser writer carefully cushioned by a wide variety of distancing mechanisms. I won’t try to sum it all up, I’ll just mention one example of the kind of build-up and payoff I’m talking about, and one radiant moment that must have impaled the book firmly in Nabokov’s soul when he read it as an impressionable teenager.
In this post I quoted this sentence: “Apollon Apollonovich thought: 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.” That final “там, там” [tam, tam] had been prepared for by a cluster of a half-dozen previous instances of the percussive phrase within a few pages of the third chapter (and once again I must thank the internet for providing the entire text of the novel on one page, making it trivially easy to locate every occurrence of a word or phrase; I’m lazily quoting McDuff’s translations rather than doing my own):

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Frequent commenter Sashura sent me a link to this episode of the BBC’s Open Book program, which features Mariella Frostrup talking to the Swedish thriller writer Henning Mankell, Alex Clark on “the most compelling private diaries of the last two 200 years” (finishing up with a discussion of the struggle over Kafka’s papers now winding its way through the Israeli courts), and German scholar Michael Maar on Nabokov (whose name, irritatingly, the presenter insists on pronouncing with the stress on the first syllable). The Nabokov section starts at 19:20 (of the half-hour show) and covers, among other things, the author’s homophobia (which he had the grace to feel guilty about after learning of his gay brother Sergei’s death in a concentration camp) and his dislike of authors who had won the Nobel Prize, especially if they were German (Maar, who’s done studies of Thomas Mann as well as Nabokov, has found hitherto unsuspected digs at Mann in N’s work); Maar points out that N’s claim of not having learned any German during his years in Berlin is clearly untrue. An interesting listen.


Ofer Aderet has an interview in Haaretz with pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who recently turned 106:

Sommer was born into a secular and educated Jewish family. Besides her twin sister, Mariana, she had another sister and two brothers. She discovered a love for music at the age of 3, and it has remained with her to this day. Her family home in Prague was also a cultural salon where writers, scientists, musicians and actors congregated. One of these, author Franz Kafka, she remembers well: He was the best friend of the journalist, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch, who married her sister Irma.
“Kafka was a slightly strange man,” Sommer recalls. “He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories. He was an excellent writer, with a lovely style, the kind that you read effortlessly,” she says, and then grows silent. “And now, hundreds of people all over the world research and write doctorates about him.”
She says she knows about the ongoing trial in Israel, at the center of which is the question of who owns the rights to Kafka’s estate. “Kafka would have been against this. Don’t forget that he asked his friend Max Brod not to publish his writings. That much I know,” says Sommer – she is the last person alive who knew Kafka personally.

Her story is quite dramatic; you can read more about her in a Guardian interview from 2006. (Via MetaFilter; also on MetaFilter: semicolons.)


This is something I’ve been wondering about for many years, and even in this age of instantly available information I can’t get a real answer, so I thought I’d turn to the Varied Reader for informed suggestions (plus the usual japery). As every schoolboy knows, when Archimedes noticed that the water level in his bath rose when he stepped into it and realized the volume of irregular objects could be calculated with precision, he exclaimed “Eureka!” Well, actually he exclaimed “Εὕρηκα,” Greek for “I have found [sc. it]!” But the Greek is, transliterated, heúrēka (the perfect of heurískō ‘I find, discover’); where has the h- gone?
Russian has Эврика (évrika), but that makes sense because it took its Greek from the Byzantines, who used essentially Modern Greek pronunciation; by the same token, it has эвристический (evristícheskii) for ‘heuristic.’ English, absurdly, has the h- in the latter case but not in the former, and it doesn’t have the Byzantine excuse: Ancient Greek words in English came via scholars with no interest in either Byzantium or the modern language. The most extended discussion of the word I’ve found is in The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, which simply says “Eureka or, as it may more accurately be transliterated from the Greek, heurēka derives from the same Greek root word as heuristic.” Which is no help at all. So: any thoughts?


Matt Treyvaud of No-sword regularly writes for Néojaponisme, where he has a new translation of Mori Ōgai’s 1914 essay Honyaku ni tsuite 「翻譯に就いて」 (“On translation”), a lively response to his detractors (“The sweets that Nora eats I translated makuron マクロン. Write rather amedama 飴玉, I was told. Advice like this simply boggles the mind”). The first comment in the thread links to the first in a series of five YouTube videos by Paul “Otaking” Johnson, a considerably livelier full-scale assault on the practices of the “fansubbers” who create their own amateur subtitles for anime films. He says the first such amateurs tried to imitate the self-effacing nature of professional subtitlers, but the newer crop is more and more intent on showing off their detailed knowledge of the language and customs (and their ability to produce eye-popping visual effects), placing distracting footnotes at the top of the screen and inserting obtrusive translations into the film itself, to the detriment of enjoying the movie they’re supposedly putting themselves at the service of. I, a certified old fossil, am entirely in agreement with him (and greatly enjoyed his reductio ad absurdum at the end of the fifth and final video), but many of the (presumably hip, young) commenters on Matt’s thread think he’s in the thrall of an elitist hegemony that contradicts the essentially postmodern and multitasking nature of today’s reality. Or something. Anyway, a couple of tidbits; his response to the subtitle “What is this fast thing?” is “Seriously, if that’s the best English you can come up with, you may as well go and drown in a pool of your own making.” And: “Because so many fansubbers believe that the Japanese must not be changed, you often see lines like ‘I… I… you!’” Enjoy. Or disdain, if you prefer. This is Liberty Hall, you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard.
Addendum. Exactly the same debate is going on with respect to manga (comics). Thanks, David!


John McWhorter is a favorite here at LH and has come up repeatedly in my posts (most recently here); I was happy just now to run across an online course guide (pdf) of his lectures on “The Story of Human Language” for the Teaching Company (you can access the three parts separately here). The most interesting aspect to me was his take on the idea that we can use surviving languages, and the proto-languages we can reconstruct from them, to see back 100,000 or more years to find bits and pieces of the very first human language, conventionally called Proto-World. I personally consider this notion (associated with the names of Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen) ludicrous on the face of it, appealing to those who are so enthusiastic about piercing the veil of time that they are willing to overlook the glaring problems (the prevalence of coincidence and the inevitability of sound change rendering forms unrecognizable after thousands of years, for two), but then I’m one of those stodgy Indo-Europeanists the partisans of the theory love to mock. McWhorter has a more nuanced take on it; while rejecting the theory in its strong form, he emphasizes the likelihood that there are regional groupings that can’t be strictly reconstructed but are nevertheless real:

IV. Final verdict.
A. Ruhlen’s point that comparative reconstruction is not the only way to show that languages have a common ancestor is valid in itself. He observes that linguists posited the Indo-European group long before Proto-Indo-European itself had been worked out by working backward from the languages. The similarities between language families are close enough that his point is likely valid for mega-groups, such as Amerind and Eurasiatic.
B. A question still remains, however, as to how realistic even this approach is for Proto-World. The issues could be resolved as more proto-languages are reconstructed, although work of this kind is done increasingly less by modern linguists, and for reasons we will see in later lectures, it may be entirely impossible to reconstruct protolanguages for many families.

He gives some great examples; to illustrate the point about sound change, for instance, he says: “Proto-Algonquian words have been recovered through comparative reconstruction; the word for winter, for example, was peponwi. But the word in Cheyenne that has developed from this root is aa’—because of gradual changes over just 1,500 years.” (He gives all the intermediate stages as well.) And he has very useful bibliographies after each section, with brief descriptions of each item, for instance:

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Such is a typographers’ term for the symbol :— according to Nick Martens in his hilarious The Secret History of Typography in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Citing usage from 1949, the OED calls this mark the dog’s bollocks, which it defines as, “typogr. a colon followed by a dash, regarded as forming a shape resembling the male sexual organs.” This is why I love scrounging around the linguistic scrap heap that is the OED. I always come across a little gold. And by “gold,” I mean, “vulgar, 60-year-old emoticons.” …
Browsing the OED is a tantalizing experience because it provides windows into so many obscure corners of history. But since the citations are small and fragmentary, they invite the imagination to fill in the blank spaces. Take this 1688 quote for bake: “when Letters stick together in distributing… This is called the Letter is Baked.” So we learn that, when printing, the physical pieces of type occasionally stuck together, but we’re left to wonder why this happened, how severe it was, and how printers corrected it. Did baking ruin the type? Did each printer have his own method to prevent baking, a trade secret he passed down only to his apprentice? Did some Elizabethan Edison develop a method for casting type that eliminated baked letters altogether?

He closes with a wonderful definition for “To beat fat,” which I will let you discover for yourselves. (Yes, it’s a superficial and somewhat childish piece, but surely we all have our superficial and childish side, and I figure we deserve a respite after all those scholarly exegeses of foreign vocabulary.)