Archives for February 2010


1) John Emerson sent me Interesting Schtoff from Google Books, a section of Steven K. Baum’s virtual cave. It’s a collection of links to old dictionaries, catalogs, and other reference books, not to mention unusual and humorous material. Baum says “Feel free to borrow any or all of this, with the understanding that an attribution will keep the karma dogs off your ass”; seems reasonable to me.
2) Laura Miller reviews Elif Batuman’s “hilarious and charming” The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them in a way that makes me want to read it; Lizok’s Bookshelf links to an equally laudatory NY Times review by Dwight Garner.
3) Ammon Shea reviews the Dictionary of Old English (DOE) being compiled at the University of Toronto in his quirky, occasionally irritating, but infectious way. And here‘s the online home of the DOE itself. (Thanks, Paul!)


An AskMetaFilter question says “My grandmother’s first language [Ladino] is nearly extinct. I’d like to record an interview with her for archival purposes; how should I go about it? … I’m linguistically literate, but far from an expert, so advice from anyone with linguistics experience (particularly field lingustics) is especially appreciated.” If you’re a MetaFilter member, you can respond in the thread; if you’re not but have useful advice, post it here and I’ll pass it on. One response there seems important enough I’ll repost it here, in case anyone is thinking of doing something similar themselves: “Use No Compression. Can’t stress this highly enough. Your recordings must be uncompressed. If you record to MP3 or whatever perceptual encoding scheme, you will lose phonetic information.”


I had never heard of poet and translator Emery George (and there’s essentially nothing about him online except that “He is Emeritus Professor of German at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor”), but he did a terrific translation (judging by the English—I don’t read Hungarian) of “A la recherche,” one of Miklós Radnóti‘s last few poems before he was shot by the SS in 1944. Hexameters don’t come naturally in English, and to make them sound this effortless takes a lot of work:

Evenings, gentle and old, you return as memory’s nobles!
Gleaming table, crowned as by laurels with poets and young wives,
where are you sliding on marshes of irretrievable hours?
Where are the nights when exuberant friends were cheerfully drinking
auvergnat gris out of bright-eyed, thin-stemmed, delicate glasses?
Lines of verse swam high round the light of the lamps, with bright green
epithets bobbing up-down foaming crests of the meter;
those now dead were alive and the prisoners, still at home; those
vanished, dear friends, long since fallen, were writing their poems;
on their hearts the Ukraine, the soil of Spain, or of Flanders.

You can read the remaining five stanzas and get much more information on Radnóti’s life (and of course the usual gorgeous collection of images) at Poemas del río Wang, where I found this. And while I’m at it, let me also recommend an earlier río Wang post about the Holocaust, May it be bound up: “By reading this text, I feel it dreadfully beautiful that in the wasteland of Nagykónyi there has been standing for a hundred and thirty years a sophisticated poem carved in stone which has not been read by anybody in the past sixty-five years, because there is nobody there who could read it any more. It is like the well of the Little Prince which is hiding in the desert until somebody finds it again.”

[Read more…]


The company is Toyota, but the family name of the founder is Toyoda. Why the difference? Bill Poser discusses it at the Log; after citing an implausible theory about stroke count, he says:

Another explanation is that Toyota served to dissociate the motor vehicle company from farming, which advanced the company’s goal of presenting itself as innovative and high-tech. A third is that voiced sounds like [d] are considered to be “murky” while voiceless sounds like [t] are considered “clear”. Finally, it may be that the aesthetics of the logo played a role.

He shows alternate versions of the logo, and I have to agree that the one without the dakuten looks better, which is not to say that I believe that version. A useful comment by Gene Buckley says:

An important fact is discussed in the linked BBC article, and is implied by the link to rendaku on Wikipedia by Dan, but it might be useful to make it explicit on this page. The written form 豊田 can be read Toyo-da, with voicing of the initial consonant in the second morpheme, or as Toyo-ta, without this voicing. (Other family names have similar alternate forms, such as 山崎 as Yama-saki and Yama-zaki.) In fact, the pronunciation Toyota is more common as a family name, according to Japanese, Chinese, and Korean surnames and how to read them (W. Hadamitzky, 1998). It’s hard to imagine that the greater currency of this alternate pronunciation of 豊田 played no role in the choice of the company name. The katakana spelling adopted for the company name removes the ambiguity in the pronunciation of the second Chinese character.

(Please ignore the unseemly squabbling about national flapping in the early comments.)


A couple of days ago Anatoly asked his readers for poems they loved by living poets, and as of now at that link there are almost a thousand responses. If you’re a fan of Russian poetry, it’s a free and nearly inexhaustible anthology of what’s going on now.


I’ve been on something of a spending spree at Amazon lately,* and the latest goodie to arrive is a copy of The History of the Russian Literary Language from the Seventeenth Century to the Nineteenth, Lawrence L. Thomas’s abridged 1969 translation of V. V. Vinogradov‘s classic Очерки по истории русского литературного языка XVII—XIX вв. (2nd ed. 1938). It starts with Thomas’s introduction summarizing the history of the language up to the seventeenth century, when Vinogradov’s story begins, and I’ve already run across a paragraph that was so enlightening to me I wanted to share it. Thomas is discussing the changes between the Kievan and Muscovite periods that “made possible the importation of new Church Slavonic doublets”:

One such development was the loss and vocalization of the jers (ъ, ь), which allowed for new borrowings from Slavonic. In East Slavic, the Common Slavic group *dj had yielded ж; in Church Slavic, the result was жд. In Kievan times, it was not possible to borrow Slavonic words with this consonant cluster because East Slavic had no approximation of it… The East Slavic form жьдати had to become ждати before the assimilation of such Church Slavonicisms as рождение, между, хождение, etc., was possible. Similarly, artificial church pronunciation of a vowel in the prefix въз-, въс-, in places where spoken Russian now had no vowel, led to new Church Slavonicisms. The form возраст was thus doubly a Church Slavonicism; were it not for the influence of Church Slavonic, the Modern Russian form of this word would have been взрост (cf. взрослый). By this time, also, a former е had become [о] under accent before a hard consonant (in modern orthography, it is inconsistently represented by the letter ё). Since church pronunciation tended to be a spelling pronunciation, however, it did not reflect this feature of the spoken language. Consequently, the pronunciation of the genitive plural жён as [žen] rather than [žon] was a Church Slavonicism. Semantic doublets were thus created; cf. Modern Russian небо (sky) as compared to нёбо (palate).

*I’d like to thank whoever bought a Kindle via my Amazon links, as well as everyone who bought enough books and other items to give me a considerably fatter monthly gift certificate than usual; you are helping feed the voracious LH book habit! Remember, when you click on one of my links and buy something, no matter what, on your Amazon visit, I get a much-appreciated cut.


There is a meme running around the internet that takes the form “I’m gonna love him and pet him and squeeze him and call him George” (many variations in wording, but all ending with “…and call him George”). This is ultimately based on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, where Lenny, George’s addled sidekick, has an unfortunate habit of squeezing his pet mice to death, but there is no “name him George” involved; the proximate source of the line is a pair of cartoons, both of which play off of Steinbeck but in neither of which does the line occur as commonly cited. As a public service, I am providing the actual quotes from the cartoons, since it’s probably not going to turn up in the Yale Book of Quotations any time soon. The first is Tex Avery’s 1946 “Screwy Squirrel” cartoon “Lonesome Lenny,” in which the eponymous lonesome dog greets his new pet Screwy Squirrel with: “Hello, George! Glad to know ya, George! You’re my new little friend, George, my new little friend! What I’m gonna do is to petcha and play witcha, George.” After much wackiness: “Now I gotcha, my little friend. I’m gonna petcha and hold ya and petcha and petcha and petcha.” (Warning for the soft of heart: the cartoon does not end happily!) The second is from “The Abominable Snow Rabbit” (1961), in which Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck find themselves in the Himalayas; Daffy runs into an abominable snowman, who picks him up and says: “I will name him George and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him … and pat him and pat him … and love him and caress him…” Daffy escapes his dangerous clutches by offering him Bugs as a substitute; the snowman picks Bugs up and says “I will name him George and I will hug him and… and…” (Here‘s the video clip if anyone wants to check my transcription.) Both these are significantly different from the current version; there may be an intermediate source that I have not found.


The idea of the indeterminate text is associated with postmodernism (e.g.: “the modernism of Eliot has been identified with the autonomy of the text […] and the determinacy of its meaning, the postmodern text is ‘open’ and its meaning is indeterminate”), but there’s nothing new about it. To quote the introduction to a very interesting book I recently got, Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, edited by Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally:

The commodification of literature induced a certain anxiety of authorship among Russia’s elite, for the printing press threatened to drown the originality they associated with literature in a potentially infinite reproduction of texts. Earlier the German Romantics of the circle had also perceived this threat and conceived in response an ideal modern genre that could hold formally diverse parts together in a state of irresolution. This dynamic structure resisted the ossification of reproduction as its resolution into a whole varied with each individual reader.

With that prologue, I introduce you to Whitney Anne Trettien, a PhD student at Duke who’s thinking far more interesting thoughts than I was as a PhD student over 30 years ago (though, to be fair, my department pretty much discouraged interesting thoughts). Her CV starts by giving her research interests as, among other things, the relationship between technology, language and literature; intellectual history; medieval and baroque automata; and digital poetry and literature, and she has combined much of that into her master’s thesis, “Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms,” which exists primarily as a website with a navigation system that forces you to find your own way through it, so that its resolution into a whole varies with each individual reader. (The first thing I learned from her was the word volvelle; it’s the kind of word one can enjoy quite apart from its meaning, and I can imagine its being given as a name by the kind of parent who gives kids weird names.) She writes in her introduction:

[Read more…]


Anatoly posts a YouTube clip from the 10th anniversary performance of Les Miserables, with a bunch of international singers taking turns at the mike for Valjean’s aria “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (I imagine there are many people so sick of tunes from Les Miz that they will not even want to click on the link, but I, for better or worse, have managed to avoid the whole phenomenon so completely I am unfamiliar with the tunes and was able to enjoy its cheesy Broadway chest-thumping splendor.) Unfortunately, the languages are heavily weighted toward the northern European, though there’s a nice chunk in Japanese; as Anatoly says, “А русский где? :(” [But where’s Russian? :(]. Of course, as one of his commenters points out, there’s no one from Italy, Spain, Greece, Finland, Slovakia, Malta, Malta, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Andorra, Israel, Ukraine, Switzerland, or any of the Baltic or ex-Yugoslav states either. Still, it’s fun to hear the range of languages they do include, and they didn’t omit all the tiny countries: Icelandic is there!


This thread developed into a discussion of the parallel between the development of evolution theory and historical linguistics. Now Mark Liberman has a post at the Log about “how close we should expect linguistic and biological descent to be, in general. There are too many ways, both wholesale and retail, for people to end up speaking a language different from the language of their ancestors, and similarly many ways for genes to flow from one speech community to another.” He links to and discusses the abstract of Hafid Laayouni et al., “A genome-wide survey does not show the genetic distinctiveness of Basques”, Human Genetics (published online 1/16/2010), and I urge anyone interested in the topic to check out his post.