Archives for March 2010


Victor Mair has an interesting post at the Log about an article (in this 2008 book) by Tibetanist Nicholas Tournadre in which Tournadre says that there are 220 “Tibetan dialects” derived from Old Tibetan:

In a forthcoming work, Tournadre states that these “dialects” may be classed within 25 “dialect groups,” i.e., groups that do not permit mutual intelligibility. According to Tournadre, the notion of “dialect group” is equivalent to the notion of “language,” but does not entail standardization. Consequently, says Tournadre, if the concept of standardization is set aside, it would be more appropriate to speak of 25 languages derived from Old Tibetan rather than 25 “dialect groups.”

This fascinates me; does anyone know how controversial it is?


As I wrote here, I’m reading Platonov‘s novel Chevengur (written in 1927-28 but not published until 1988 in the USSR; the English translation is long out of print, but apparently Robert Chandler is working on a new one). Having reached the halfway point, with the scene about to shift to the titular city (fictional, but located in Platonov’s homeland, the Voronezh black earth region), I thought I’d give a preliminary report.
The most surprising thing about it, to me, is its humor. At times it reminds me of Ilf and Petrov (especially since I’m concurrently reading The Little Golden Calf to my wife at night): a couple of guys are wandering around the still youthful USSR, having often absurd adventures and conversations accompanied by ironic sociopolitical commentary. But Platonov sets up the picaresque portion of his novel with a harrowing beginning in which he shows how his protagonist, Alexander Dvanov, barely survives a childhood marked by the suicide of his father (who drowns himself to see what it’s like) and being raised as a barely tolerated extra mouth in a poor household during the hard times of the early twentieth century. You don’t get any psychological analysis (and a good thing too), just an accounting of his behavior, sometimes inexplicable but usually motivated by a strong impulse towards what he understands as socialism (and “what is socialism?” is one of the main themes of the novel). As always with Platonov, the language is fresh, varied, always a joy to read (though sometimes requiring a lot of work with dictionaries and Google to figure out).
Here are a couple of passages, fifty pages apart, that illustrate Platonov’s remarkable gift for physicalizing abstract concepts (my translations; the Russian is below):

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There are two nouns morion; the first, meaning a kind of helmet, does not concern us here (it is probably from Spanish morrión), but the second, a variety of smoky quartz, has an interesting etymology: it is from a Latin word morion that is a misreading of Pliny’s mormorion. I wrote here about collimate, from an erroneous reading of Latin collineare; I wonder if there is a list somewhere of words with similar histories?


I had never heard of the London Library, but an article by Nancy Mattoon makes it sound like a very attractive place:

The London Library bills itself as “a university library for people who are no longer at university.” It is the largest independent lending library in the world, with over one million books and periodicals housed on some 15 miles of open-access shelves. Over 95% of the collection may be freely browsed, and 97% is available for loan. The central tenet of the library is that since “books are never entirely superseded, and therefore never redundant, the collections should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable: except in the case of exact duplication, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the library’s shelves.” This has resulted in a library chock-full of books, ten floors of them and growing, with another half-mile of shelving required every three years. And all of this in a library that has been located in the same London townhouse on posh St. James Square since 1845.

Read all about the history (it was founded by Thomas Carlyle, who was pissed off at the British Library’s “closed stacks and non-circulating collection”) and careful remodeling of this London institution. And they’ve got a very nice website, too. The catch? It’s members-only, and very expensive (according to Wikipedia, £395 a year—the library’s own site seems to take the attitude that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it). But I’m glad it exists; I understand why ordinary libraries feel they have to get rid of so many books, but I still hate the practice and am glad there is a holdout.


The website Knowledge and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire (a project of the Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies of the Higher Education Academy) is a treasure trove of information; the Essentials section “provides a series of short overviews of the political and intellectual contexts of the letters, queries, and reports,” Cuneiform Revealed is “an introduction to cuneiform script and the Akkadian language,” and the Highlights section presents a small selection of the many texts on the site (given in transcription and translation, with enticing names like “Give Straw or Die!“). An excellently designed site, and I thank Kattullus at MetaFilter for bringing it to my attention.


One of my regular diversions is checking the “Random books from my library” list on the lower right and visiting any author pages that I think might be obscure enough to have information missing (which, given my collection, is a lot of author pages). I’ve gotten very good at googling up birth/death dates, information on colleges and spouses, and so on, and I take great pleasure in adding them to LibraryThing so the information will be readily accessible; in a way, I feel it helps these forgotten authors to live on. Sometimes I pull off a real coup, like finding that the mysterious “Lee Eun” who coauthored my First Book of Korean was actually Un Yi (1897–1970), Crown Prince and the last surviving son of His Late Majesty Emperor Kojong. (How he came to write an introduction to Korean I still don’t know.) And sometimes I run across a man so remarkable I’m glad to have acquired one of his books; such a man is Louis Jay Herman, “Linguist And a Devoted Man of Letters” as the NY Times obituary calls him (it’s by the best obit writer America ever produced, the superb Robert McG. Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives, who also did the best weather stories I’ve ever read). I have Herman’s Dictionary of Slavic Word Families, an amazing book that I knew I had to have as soon as I saw it at the Strand: it contains, as the subtitle says, Groups of Related Words in Russian, Polish, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian, for each root lining up first the root word and then derivatives with equivalent prefixes in each language, giving the meaning of each and in the Notes at the end of each root explaining whichever semantic developments Herman found most interesting or unpredictable. I happily paid $15 for it in 1994; it now costs considerably more, but I still am amazed that I am the only LT member with a copy. (More than one visitor to my various dwellings has gasped enviously on looking through it.)

At any rate, the obit makes clear that this is a man who truly loved languages:

Mr. Herman discovered his aptitude for languages at Friends Seminary, a Quaker high school in his native Manhattan. He later received intensive linguistic training at Cornell and was an Army interpreter in Europe in World War II; he did not seem to know how to stop acquiring languages.
He kept on learning them during his years at New York University, while earning a master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism, while working as an associate editor at The New Leader and even after becoming a translator at the United Nations. By the time he finished, he had mastered more than 25 languages, a feat that seemed all the more remarkable because Mr. Herman, who worked exclusively on written documents at the United Nations, generally learned to speak them so well that he got the accents as well as the vocabularies down pat.

And he had a second career as “one of the most indefatigable letter writers to The New York Times”:

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The wonderful Arika Okrent (see this LH post) has an article in Slate about the craze to learn Na’vi, the alien language used in Avatar (which I briefly reviewed here). She writes about Prrton (real name Britton Watkins), who “formulated a paragraph in Na’vi without a complete grammar or dictionary. And he didn’t just stick a few words from the movie into random order or repeat lines that had occurred in the film. He produced an original and grammatically correct statement.”

At this point, you might be wondering how that’s even possible. But it is, because Frommer developed a complex system of rules that determines the “correct” form for Na’vi sentences. And fans who pay close—very close—attention, can figure out those rules just by listening to the dialogue. They can take the information available and back-engineer the system, like anthropologists jotting down field notes in the jungle. Fans of The Princess and the Frog, which came out the same week as Avatar, could not do the same with the made-up language spoken by the frog-prince, who hails from the imaginary kingdom of Maldonia. He utters a few vaguely “European”-sounding phrases, but there is no system behind them. Aspiring Maldonian princesses can exclaim “Ashidanza!” when they think something is “cool,” but they can’t produce never-before-uttered Maldonian sentences.

Aspiring Pandorans, however, can introduce themselves, give opinions, make requests, and even write poems in Na’vi. This, in fact, is what they are doing at The forum there already has 153,000 posts by 4,300 people—aficionados who chat, translate, and encourage novices who have never even studied a foreign language. […] Na’vi, it would seem, has been taken over by the Na’vi speakers. While waiting on Frommer’s full lexicon and grammar, Na’vi enthusiasts have produced their own study guides, word lists, and audio samples. They have posted guidelines for picking a “correct” Na’vi name and compiled warnings about common beginners’ errors.

But here’s the catch: These budding Na’vi speakers don’t want full control over the language. Although it’s possible for them to create the language from the ground up using the little information they have, they’d rather Frommer direct them. After Prrton asked the “Hollywood bosses” for a grammar and dictionary, he started a Web petition asking for the same. As of this writing, there are 3,868 signatures.

She goes on to talk about the desire for a language authority (“If Na’vi speakers just made up words as needed and settled questions of grammar on their own, they would no longer be speaking the language of Pandora”) and Frommer’s pride in his creation and desire to provide more information; in this wonderful corporate world in which we live, however, this cannot be done until the Hollywood bosses take time out from their shmoozing and backstabbing to give a moment’s thought to the issue, decide whether the potential profit justifies allowing Frommer to publish more on his own—excuse me, I mean of course their—language, and issue a ukase accordingly. (Via Ben Zimmer at Language Log.)


This is a tangled tale that will teach you nothing useful, but I have to share it because it took me so much time to untangle; its moral (like that of many of my posts) is that the internet is a good thing, which you already knew. At any rate: I’m reading Platonov’s first novel, Chevengur (I wrote about his later The Foundation Pit here), and I’m exhilarated by his creative use of language; that creativity also means I’m spending a lot of time looking things up, and sometimes it takes me a long time to find out what I want to know. This is one of those times. Platonov refers to a “пал-брица” that is apparently necessary to the functioning of a mill—in the section I’ve just reached, he says that some villagers were repurposing military equipment for civilian use, one example being “из замков пушек делали пал-брицы для мельничных поставов” [from the (firing) locks of guns they made pal-britsy for millstones]. So what are these pal-britsy? Well, the word wasn’t in any of my dictionaries, presumably because it was pretty technical. When I googled it, it seemed to occur only here, which was a bad sign. But Google Books found a snippet from E. A. Yablokov’s На берегу неба that told me it was an искажение (distortion/perversion) of параплица [paraplitsa], other distortions of which were порхлица [porkhlitsa] and поролица [porolitsa], and a параплица was a piece of metal that was used to connect a vertical shaft or spindle with the horizontal millstone. This was excellent, and I really had all I needed to understand the passage, but I also wanted to know what it was called in English, for which it seemed I would need a large technical dictionary from an era when people needed words for millstone accessories. Lo and behold, Google Books turned up just such a thing, P. P. Andreev’s Dictionnaire technologique français-russe-allemand-anglais, contenant les termes techniques, employés dans líndustrie, les sciences appliquées, les arts et métiers (publié par La Société Impériale Polytechnique en Russie, Saint-Petersbourg 1881), which on page 52 has the entry “Anille, Nille f. Meun. [pièce de fer encastrée dans la meule courante et le gros fer] порхлица, порплица, параплица; die Haue, Kugehaue; rynd.” And that last “rynd” gave me what I needed; a brief session with the OED told me the preferred spelling was rind, and Webster’s Third New International told me the preferred American usage was millrind, which they defined as “an iron support fixed across the hole in the upper millstone of a grist mill.” So there you have it, and if I were trying to translate the book my only problem would be coming up with a convincing deformation of millrind. There are probably not many people around any more who would know what country folk used to call them.
Now if only I knew what отпузырьтесь (in “Ребята, идите отпузырьтесь на ночь”) and котма (in “Я, земляк, котма качусь… Стану отдыхать – тоска на меня опускается, а котма хоть и тихо, а все к дому, думается, ближе”) meant, I’d be a happy man!


Sashura sent me a link to today’s program, on apologies, of Michael Rosen‘s Word of Mouth. It’s all worth hearing, but the segment of most LH interest is the first (9 minutes), a talk with linguist Eva Ogiermann, whose thesis was on British, Polish and Russian apologies, all of which she discusses knowledgeably. After her come Mark Stephens, a lawyer talking about apologies in court and the media; Will Riley and Peter Wolf (Will broke into Peter’s house) discussing “restorative justice”; and the founder of
Sashura says that after that came another program on Russian literature; I hope he’ll post the link when it’s available online.


Spoiler: the answer is “No.” But a Telegraph story has been making the rounds that features Huang Youyi, chairman of the International Federation of Translators, allegedly proposing to “ban [Chinese] publications from using English names, places, people and companies.” Actually, according to syz in the Language Log thread on the topic:

I *have* read a bit of what Huang actually said, as opposed to what the headline writers are hyping. In this Chinese article, for example, he seems to say that he just wants things to be written in the local script, Chinese characters: “国际上通用惯例是把外来语变成自己的语言吸纳进来,而不是生搬硬套地直接嵌入。”
Very roughly: “The international standard is to absorb foreign borrowings into one’s own language, not to copy them over unchanged.”
Hardly the language of a xenophobe rooting for a China where residents are “no longer … permitted to speak of ‘lion’ dances, ‘honey’ and ‘honeymoons’…”

So once again what appears to be a loony proposal by a wacky scholar turns out to be another case of hype and misrepresentation by a sloppy journalist.
But the thread did bring forth this great anecdote from Ray Girvan, quoting J.J. Pierce’s introduction to The Best of Cordwainer Smith:

While in Korea, Linebarger masterminded the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops who considered it shameful to give up their arms. He drafted leaflets explaining how the soldiers could surrender by shouting the Chinese words for ‘love’, ‘duty’, ‘humanity’ and ‘virtue’ – words that happened, when pronounced in that order, to sound like “I surrender” in English. He considered this act the single most worthwhile thing he had done in his life.

Ray adds: “My employer’s daughter (who is fluent in Mandarin) confirmed that this makes sense in Mandarin”: ài zé rén dé. (Incidentally, for those not familiar with Cordwainer Smith, a pseudonym of Paul Linebarger, he was not only one of the most remarkable writers ever to grace the field of science fiction, he had an amazing life as well, starting with his godfather being Sun Yat-sen.)