Archives for April 2010


A few years ago I had a post about this annoying expression (annoying both because it’s strangely worded for its normal use—”invites the question” would be much better—and because it brings all the petitio principii pedants out of the woodwork); there I linked to a comic strip for amusement, now I link to Mark Liberman’s definitive explication of the history and uses of the phrase, from Aristotle’s τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι (not, as the Log has it, αἰτεσθαι—it’s from the start of Prior Analytics ii:16) to the present. His conclusion:

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question”, depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

Which makes sense.


I’ve loved libraries as long as I can remember (they were homes away from home during my peripatetic childhood), and I’m particularly fond of college libraries, so I’m very glad that Leslie Fields, Records Service Archivist at Smith College, has put online the excellent exhibit she created on the history of the Neilson Library at Smith that I saw in person a few months ago. Leslie is very good at this sort of thing (I still remember an exhibit on William Henry Jackson’s Yellowstone photographs she put together almost a decade ago for the Morgan when she worked there), and she’s assembled “letters, photographs, architectural drawings, ephemera, and much more” to give the viewer a good idea of what the library was like a century ago and how it’s changed since. The photograph of the stacks of the brand-new library makes me want to dive into the image and start pulling books off the shelves, the reading room of 1910 was light-filled and inviting, and this 1937 carrel (note the “hat” tag) is a timeless image of college life. Click on any of the images to enlarge them; some are quite spectacular. (Should anyone feel tempted to try doing something similar, Leslie used Omeka to create the online exhibit, and the results are certainly a good advertisement.)


An article by Sam Roberts in today’s NY Times describes some of the many obscure languages spoken in New York City, and the efforts to document them before they disappear. I knew there were a lot of languages spoken in the city, but I had no idea of the variety: the article mentions Vlashki (“a variant of Istro-Romanian”), Garifuna (an Arawakan language now “virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize”), Mamuju, Ormuri (“believed to be spoken by a small number of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan”), Massalit (from Darfur)…

In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan), Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands), Irish Gaelic, Kashubian (from Poland), indigenous Mexican languages, Pennsylvania Dutch, Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland) and Romany (from the Balkans) and Yiddish.

There are some interesting personal stories, and an amazing coincidence. Thanks, Bonnie!
Update. There’s a great video (four and a half minutes) associated with the story in which you can hear several of the languages spoken. Thanks, Gary!


Venkat Ramdass sent me a link to his site linguos with the following explanation:

Linguos is unique in its function as phonetic search engine. Sort of a ‘soundex’ for non-Latin scripts/languages. It lets you spell terms phonetically and using the English alphabet. For example, if you want to search for the equivalent of ‘book’ in Arabic, you would pick Arabic, type ‘kitaab’ and search. The idea is to eliminate the need for complex keyboards and transliteration schemes. Linguos also handles English phonetics well when searching. For example, ‘george’ instead of ‘jorj’ will still find the right results in your target language. An additional, experimental feature is the ability to input your search terms in one language and search in another language. Basically a true cross-language or “any to any” language search. This works best in alphabetic and syllabic languages.

If I click on the “Cyrillic” tab, I can type on my Latin keyboard and it will search the web for the equivalent in Cyrillic, saving me a trip to, and it can do this for Indic, Semitic, CJK… Well, check it out. It’s quite wonderful. And it has no ads!


Fedor Gladkov’s Cement was on the reading list in my college days, forty years ago, and my memory was that it was nearly unreadable, a dreary mass of Socialist Realist rhetoric and cardboard characters. I’m glad I’ve taken the opportunity to reread it (a copy having been practically forced on me by a bookstore owner who saw me fingering it reminiscently), because I’ve revised my opinion. Not that I think it’s a good novel—it’s terrible, from an esthetic point of view. But it’s a fascinating depiction of the initial period of the New Economic Policy and its effect on loyal Party members (like the author) who hadn’t fought the Civil War so that a bunch of “blackguards and vampires should again enjoy all the good things of life, and get fat by robbery” (Mandelshtam, though neither a fighter nor a Bolshevik, felt pretty much the same way); it’s set in the period from February through November, 1921. (There’s a slight problem with chronology in that characters are talking about the NEP before the Tenth Party Congress, held March 8-16, at which it was announced.) It also has a genuinely moving depiction of the relationship of its main protagonists, Gleb and his wife Dasha; the novel opens with Gleb’s return, after three years of fighting, to find his wife completely changed; she is unemotional, refuses his advances, and seems uninterested in anything but Party work. Furthermore, she has put their daughter Nyurka into a children’s home and only sees her on occasion; she says Nyurka is no better than other children and should get the same treatment.

So far, so formulaic (the Party trumps sex every time, and individual happiness means nothing beside the work of reconstruction, comrade!), but Gladkov shows a real concern for the situation of women caught between the demands of family life and those of the Revolution, and in a powerful chapter later in the book he has Dasha reveal how she was tortured and raped by the Whites and how torn she feels about Nyurka. And it is not only the enemy who are portrayed as capable of such behavior: the Party chairman, Badin, is a serial rapist, and one of his victims, Polya Mekhova, tells Gleb: “There’s something frightful in men. It seems to me now that there’s a Badin in everyone of you.” (I quote the translation by Arthur and Ashleigh; I haven’t found a Russian text online, which probably is an indication of how the novel has fallen from popularity since its heyday in the Stalin era—it was a favorite of Uncle Joe’s, and reprinted often, with emendations by the author, who was happy to follow the twists and turns of the Party line.) In the opening scene Dasha is seen reading Bebel‘s Woman and Socialism, with its insistence on the equality of women, and it’s a real pleasure to see feminist principles upheld in a Russian novel of the masculinist 1920s, when far greater writers like Babel and Platonov basically saw women as distractions from the manly, important things in life. [I am reminded by a commenter that I have neglected to explain the title: the plot of the novel is driven by Gleb’s attempt to get the cement factory he used to work at in operation again, despite opposition by Party bureaucrats and attacks by bandits.]

As for matters of linguistic interest, Gladkov was criticized by Gorky for overuse of dialect, and after the first edition “Gladkov replaced the regionalisms of Novorossiysk (a southern Russian port near Krasnodar) with standard-literary language” (Thomas Lahusen in V. Y. Mudimbe, ed., Nations, Identities, Cultures, p. 131). And this sardonic early passage could almost come straight out of Platonov:

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“The Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (henceforth SDBH) project is carried out under the auspices of the United Bible Societies. It was launched in the year 2000. Its aim is to build a new dictionary of biblical Hebrew that is based on semantic domains, comparable to Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, which was first published in 1989.” So says their About page; I’m not familiar with the Louw-Nida work, but the definitions here are broken down by semantic categories, so that the first sense of אָב /av/ is given as “(a) Kinship = direct male progenitor; ► who normally provides protection, care, instruction, and discipline; ≈ is usually regarded with respect and associated with wisdom, security, and comfort – father,” with what other dictionaries would give as the definition coming last. If anyone is familiar with this sort of dictionary, I’d appreciate hearing how you use it; it’s certainly interesting to glance through. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


Cathi Szulinski did a lot of research and wrote up her findings:

This extraordinary story was brought to my attention by an intriguing footnote. It told me only that four young Russian men had been sent to England by Tsar Boris to learn English, but that the Time of Troubles had prevented their return.
What initially intrigued me about this remarkable early foreign-exchange project were the individual stories. If the young men had not returned to Russia, then what had become of them? I decided to try to find out. The quest has led to some surprising places. …

It’s long, but if you have any interest in 17th-century England, well worth your attention. (I found it in an annotation at Pepys’ Diary.)


Jon Lackman has a very interesting discussion at Slate of the history of the word kabuki in English; I did not know this background:

…the word didn’t appear in print in English until the late 19th-century, and then only rather infrequently. That changed when, following World War II, Japan’s government tried to shed its image as a global marauder by touring its best Kabuki troupes. … Although America’s urban theatergoers lauded Kabuki, their good opinion did nothing to improve ties between the United States and its one-time enemy. Indeed, relations worsened due to drawn-out treaty negotiations. When American official James C. Hagerty visited Tokyo in 1960, protesters surrounded his car, broke its windows, and nearly flipped it.
According to my research, it was in this hostile atmosphere that Kabuki acquired its modern derogatory meaning. Writing in 1961 about a State Department plan to revise its security measures, Los Angeles Times writer Henry J. Taylor declared, “[By] finally dismissing Chester Bowles as undersecretary of state at the moment he did, the President unhitched the plan’s kingpin in this shoddy piece of left-wing kabuki.” Six months later, Taylor struck again, “Agriculture Secretary Freeman announced he has discussed Billie Sol Estes’ political corruption kabuki with Robert F. Kennedy and ‘had mentioned it informally to the president.’ ” Writers have enlivened their prose with Kabuki ever since.

Unfortunately, Lackman spoils the effect of his historical research by insisting that current speakers of English should adjust their usage to reflect the Japanese cultural value of the institution. This would not matter so much except that Slate is billing him as a language columnist. Go to the back of the class until you master the concept of the loan word, sir.


A New York Times piece by Michael Kimmelman is about the French language, which, according to Nicolas Sarkozy, among others, is “under siege.” This is, of course, the usual xenophobic idiocy (though in Sarkozy’s case it probably has more to do with wanting to pick up the votes of xenophobes than personal belief), but fortunately it’s not what Kimmelman is primarily interested in, which is the majority of French-speakers who are not from France:

The fact is, French isn’t declining. It’s thriving as never before if you ask Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal, who is the secretary general of the francophone organization. Mr. Diouf’s organization has evolved since 1970 from a postcolonial conglomerate of mostly African states preserving the linguistic vestiges of French imperialism into a global entity whose shibboleth is cultural diversity. With dozens of member states and affiliates, the group reflects a polyglot reality in which French is today concentrated outside France, and to a large extent, flourishes despite it….

The French language is a small but emblematic indicator of this change. So to a contemporary writer like the Soviet-born Andreï Makine, who found political asylum here in 1987, French promises assimilation and a link to the great literary tradition of Zola and Proust. He recounted the story of how, 20-odd years ago, his first manuscripts, which he wrote in French, were rejected by French publishers because it was presumed that he couldn’t write French well enough as a foreigner.

Then he invented the name of a translator, resubmitted the same works as if they were translations from Russian, and they won awards. He added that when his novel “Dreams of My Russian Summers” became a runaway best seller and received the Prix Goncourt, publishing houses in Germany and Serbia wanted to translate the book from its “original” Russian manuscript, so Mr. Makine spent two “sleepless weeks,” he said, belatedly producing one.

“Why do I write in French?” he repeated the question I had posed. “It is the possibility to belong to a culture that is not mine, not my mother tongue.”
Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born novelist here, put it another way: “The world has changed.” She moved to Paris during the 1970s. “The French literary establishment, which still thinks of itself as more important than it is, complains about the decline of its prestige but treats francophone literature as second class,” she said, while “laying claim to the likes of Kundera, Beckett and Ionesco, who were all born outside France. That is because, like Makine, they made the necessary declaration of love for France. But if the French bothered actually to read what came out of Martinique or North Africa, they would see that their language is in fact not suffering.

He goes on to quote “Yasmina Khadra, the best-selling Algerian novelist, whose real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul,” who says “I decided to become a novelist in French partly because I wanted to respond to Camus, who had written about an Algeria in which there were no Arabs. I wanted to write in his language to say, I am here, I exist, and also because I love French, although I remain Arab. Linguistically it is as if I have married a French woman, but my mother is still Arabic.”

And Dennis Baron makes a similar point about English in this blog post:

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I gave my impressions of the first half of Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur here, and I’m glad I did, because the novel takes a sharp turn when it settles into the titular village at that point, and my feelings about it changed accordingly. Now that I’ve finished it, I’ll give a brief account of them (brief because I’m trying to make a Friday deadline on the book I’m editing).

First off, Platonov, like Proust and Tolstoy, could have used an editor. Until the various characters converge on Chevengur, the book is tight and compelling; at that point, it’s as if Platonov relaxed and started tossing in every bit of ironic observation on village life and popular misunderstandings of communism he’d been saving up for years. I will probably read it again at some point, and perhaps then I’ll see more of a point to some of the vignettes and repetitions, but this time around I got a little impatient. And then, as if he’d suddenly realized he had to end the damn thing somehow, we get Cossacks ex machina to bring it to a close. The scene of Dvanov and his fellow orphan, the horse Proletarskaya Sila (“Proletarian Power”), returning to his native town is touching, but would have been more so if the preceding two hundred pages had been ruthlessly tightened up. It makes me appreciate even more the ferocious concision of Kotlovan (The Foundation Pit), which says and does more in 150 pages than the earlier novel in three times as many.

One thing that bothered me (as it did in Proust) was the attitude toward women, who are treated as irrelevant distractions to the important thoughts and activities of men. Platonov himself was married (and wrote his wife about one of his stories “You won’t like it, but that’s how it has to be”) and presumably appreciated the women he knew in what we think of as real life, but intellectually he took part in the masculinist strain that dominated Soviet culture in the 1920s. There’s a whole book on this topic, Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917–1929, which I’ve ordered and will doubtless be reporting on in due time (along with Platonov it discusses Babel and Olesha, both of whom I expect to be reading soon).