Archives for May 2010


I’m fine with the normal use of “begging the question” (see this recent post), and I regularly mock those who insist on the petitio principii sense. But a line from a baseball story in my local paper this morning made me shake my head. It’s an AP story; here‘s the (somewhat longer) version carried in the Louisville Courier-Journal. I was reading along, agreeing with my wife (and many of those quoted) that these celebrations at home plate have gotten out of hand, when I hit the sentence “The question begs: Why go crazy celebrating a victory in late May like it was October?” How do you get from “begging the question” to “the question begs”? My first thought was that it was an invention of the writer, but then I realized that was unlikely, and sure enough, when I googled I found others. Most of the hits are for longer versions, presumably precursors: “the question begs to be asked” and “the question begs to ask” (sic). But a few seem to show this use; in particular, there’s an interesting line from “Late for Your Life,” a Mary Chapin Carpenter song from an album released in 2001: “Still the question begs why would you wait And be late for your life.” This could be taken as a tortured equivalent of “Still there is the question of why…,” but it seems more straighforward to take it as “Still the question begs [i.e., must be asked]: why…”
Is anyone familiar with this usage? (I think we can take it as a given that those who don’t use it themselves will object strenuously to it, but let’s face it, it’s just more language change coming over the horizon.)


I’m progressing through Chukovsky’s Diary, 1901-1969 pari passu with my reading of Russian fiction, and on October 11, 1927 he had some interesting things to say about Tynyanov (see my Kije gripe):

He read his Lieutenant Kizhe. The opening sounds like Leskov, the middle like Gogol, and the end is Dostoevsky. He doesn’t quite convey the horror of Kizhe’s nonbeing, but his Meletsky and Emperor Paul are marvelous, the language is magnificent, and the work as a whole is a good deal more airy than the Griboedov novel he’s slaving away at now. He read me an excerpt from the latter — about how Griboedov was plagued by his own Wit Works Woe — the emptiness, the soullessness, the absence of a knack for fertile foolishness. As I see it, the two subjects — Kizhe and Griboedov — are one, and both are about Tynyanov. To some extent he himself is a Kizhe, as is evidenced by his Heine translation: it lacks the “fluid,” “lyric,” “melodic” qualities that come only to fools. He’s got everything else in spades: he is charming in his tiny book-lined flat at his bazaar-stand of a desk amidst pads covered with notes of plans for future works such as novellas about Maiboroda and the dying Heine (Maiboroda is to some extent a Kizhe too); he is charged with creative energy; he’s got thousands of themes in his head; he goes on about Sapir and Nekrasov’s influence on Polonsky and the film version of Poet and Tsar.

(The Russian is below the cut; Arkady Máiboroda — an odd surname, primarily borne by Ukrainians, whose etymology is not explained by Unbegaun, my usual source for surnames — was an infantry commander who died in 1844.)
I’m just starting the second chapter of his Griboedov novel (which he wound up calling Smert’ Vazir-mukhtara, “The death of the vazir-mukhtar [ambassador plenipotentiary],” just one example of the many exoticisms he lards the novel with), so I can’t make any judgments yet, but I do feel the force of what Chukovsky says: it is definitely less airy, more clogged, than Kizhe. Which is not to say that I’m not enjoying it.

[Read more…]


Over at the Log, Mark Liberman has an interesting post about a performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters he saw; as linguistic notes, he mentions Kulygin’s ut consecutivum and brings up the issue of accents, saying “a provincial town in the Russia of 1900 — especially one far enough away from the capital that the three sisters would not have gone back for a visit in eleven years — would have had a distinctive regional accent, I think, one that everyone involved would have been quite aware of.” I responded:

This is both true and irrelevant. Russian does have regional accents — broadly, northern (in which unstressed o’s are clearly pronounced, among other features), southern (in which unstressed o’s are pronounced as /a/ or schwa, and g is frequently a pharyngeal fricative, as in Ukrainian), and central (Moscow), which blends the two (basically, southern vowels and northern consonants) — but these accents are not culturally significant. What is significant, in fact essential, is that the speech be “educated”: accents in the right places, “correct” grammatical forms, etc. If your speech is educated, you will be accepted as a member of cultured society, and any provincial accent will simply be a clue to one’s origin (unless, of course, it is so strong as to seem peasant/uneducated, as with Khrushchev and Gorbachev, among others).
What this means for Chekhov (and Russian literature in general) is that regional accent is pretty much not an issue. There are only three kinds of speech: educated, peasant, and foreign (Germans and people from the Caucasus are frequent targets of mockery in this regard). All of the main characters in this play are educated, even if Natasha is just hanging on by her fingernails, and to give any of them a noticeable accent would (I believe) misrepresent the situation. I’ve seen a couple of productions in Russian, and I don’t remember any such thing.

Does this seem right to the Russians in the house? (I also link to this article by Anne Lounsbery, which is well worth reading if you’re interested in “the provinces” in Russian literature.)


I wrote about Shanghainese here; alas, the site I built that post around seems to have bit the dust long ago (it was truly excellent—I wonder what happened?), but you can get a start on learning the language with a charming set of little video lessons available from China Daily here. Having learned the hard lessons of internet mortality, I expect this won’t be around indefinitely, so enjoy it while it’s there! (Via jiawen at MetaFilter.)
Note that in the sixth video, we not only learn how to say “the Bund” (the riverfront stretch of the old city) in Shanghainese (na te), we get reinforcement for the fact that the name in English is pronounced as an English word: /bʌnd/, not (as I have heard clueless radio announcers say it) /bund/ (BOOND), as if it were an exotic transliteration. This is because it is from Hindi band (from Persian, ultimately from Avestan *banda-), where we have the Hindi/Urdu “short a” that is pronounced as the central vowel /ʌ/ (as in but). The announcers’ error is the same one that makes “Poonjab” out of Punjab (Urdu Panjāb < Persian panj ‘five’ + āb ‘water’), in which the first syllable should be pronounced just like pun.


eXchanges, “the University of Iowa’s online literary magazine devoted to translation,” has a new issue called “Hackwork,” featuring Mémoires of Translation by Lawrence Venuti as well as translations from Latin (the Aeneid), Romanian (Dan Sociu), Chamorro (translating Chamorro translations of the Psalms!), and Spanish. I got this, as I get so many interesting links, from wood s lot, whose proprietor is going on a well-deserved vacation for a couple of weeks—bon voyage, Mark, and come back refreshed!


Anatoly has two recent posts about Russian words that have somehow eluded the dictionaries, one a couple of centuries old and the other… newish, but it’s impossible to know how new because, well, the dictionaries ignore it. In this post he quotes Vyazemsky as saying of a woman that she had “an excellent mind, was well read and inclined to literature, had an excellent gift for words and a lovely organ [organ].” Anatoly couldn’t find the word organ in this sense (apparently meaning ‘voice,’ to judge by the many other nineteenth-century uses he dug up) in any dictionary, and he’s not even sure whether the stress should be on the first syllable (implying a more abstract use parallel to “organ of government” or “organs of the press”) or on the second (implying a musical instrument). Remarkably, his commenters turned up printed examples with the accent explicitly marked each way!
In the other post, he remarks on the fact that by far the most common way to say “to censor” in modern Russian, цензурировать [tsenzurirovat’], is not in any dictionary; they give цензуровать [tsenzurovat’], which is hardly used these days by actual speakers, and цензировать [tsenzirovat’] as an archaic variant. He ends with a fully justified complaint that “the tradition of Russian lexicographers is not to track what people actually say and write but rather the artificial and emasculated ‘literary norm’ that they themselves have made into a law.”
Incidentally, I have a complaint of my own; I’ve already dealt with it, but I’ll mention it to get it off my chest. I finished reading Tynyanov‘s marvelously sly novella Подпоручик Киже (“Second Lieutenant Kizhe,” 1927), about identity, power, and language (and its relation to “reality”), and I was horrified on checking the Wikipedia entry (the link is to the old version) to see that not only was it incoherent and misleading but the story it described was that of the wretched 1934 movie, in which all the subtlety and secondary plotlines are ditched in favor of bottom-pinching and other sight gags (and the ending is completely changed). So I sighed and spent a good while revising it; here‘s the version I created, and here‘s the basic article link (though hopefully the current version it links to won’t diverge too far too fast). I’m not sure why the movie, and thus the Wikipedia article, has him as a first lieutenant (poruchik) instead of Tynyanov’s second lieutenant (podporuchik), but such is life in this unstable world.


I ran across the odd Russian word мадаполам, looked it up, and found it defined by the equally odd English word madapollam. That wasn’t in my smaller dictionaries, but it was in the OED, which revised the entry just last year:

[< Madapollam (Telugu Mādhavayya-pāḷemu encampment, fortified village of Mādhava), the name of a suburb of Narsapur in Andhra Pradesh, India, and formerly the location of one of the commercial agencies of the East India Company. Compare French madapolame (1823).]
More fully Madapollam cloth, Madapollam muslin, etc. A kind of plain-weave calico or cotton cloth, originally manufactured at Madapollam (see above). Cf. LONG CLOTH n.
[1610 S. BRADSHAW Let. Sept. in W. Foster Lett. received by E. India Co. (1896) I. 74 Madafunum is chequered, somewhat fine and well requested.] 1685 in A. T. Pringle Diary Fort St. George 9 Mar. (1895) IV. 49 Mr. Benja Northey having brought up Musters of the Madapollm Cloth, Itt is thought convenient that the same be taken of him. 1826 Brit. Consular Rep. Lat. Amer. (1940) 189 The British articles best suited to the markets are prints, muslins, madalaporams [sic], and shirtings. 1827 J. B. PENTLAND Rep. Bolivia iv, in Camden Misc. (1974) XXV. 214 British and Indian cotton goods, especially of that kind of glazed calico called Madopolams. 1829 in M. Russell View Anc. & Mod. Egypt (1831) viii. 366 He intends.. to send long-cloths, maddapollans, &c. 1858 P. L. SIMMONDS Dict. Trade Products, Madapollam, a kind of fine long cloth, shipped to the Eastern markets. 1882 S. F. A. CAULFEILD & B. C. SAWARD Dict. Needlework 339/1 Madapolams. A coarse description of calico cloth, of a stiff heavy make, originally of Indian manufacture, where it was employed for Quilts. 1885 Manch. Examiner 31 Dec. 4/4 Buff-end madapollams. 1923 J. CONRAD Rover iii. 46 A remnant piece of Madapolam muslin. 1969 New Scientist 25 Sept. 647/3 They used standard 15×12 inch flags, made of a special cotton cloth called ‘Madapollam’.

The Wikipedia article spells it madapolam, and judging from the OED cites, it’s spelled with either one or two l’s, according to taste. (If anyone’s browser is having trouble with the Telugu name Mādhavayya-pāḷemu, it’s Madhavayya-palemu, but the first and last a’s have macrons and the l has a dot underneath.)


The time for his autobiography to be published, that is. Twain left instructions not to publish his autobiography until 100 years after his death, and the century is finally up; you can read all about it at Guy Adams’s story in The Independent. Of course, most of the juicy stuff has been skimmed by biographers and others who have had access to the material over the years, but it will still be good to have the master’s “extensive, outspoken and revelatory autobiography” available in full (in several volumes—the whole thing runs to half a million words!). Apparently it’s pretty bitter, but he certainly had a right to be after what he’d seen of the world and of the direction his country was headed, and I like my coffee black, unsweetened, and strong.
Incidentally, the Mark Twain Project Online is worth bookmarking; it “offers unfettered, intuitive access to reliable texts, accurate and exhaustive notes, and the most recently discovered letters and documents” and its “ultimate purpose is to produce a digital critical edition, fully annotated, of everything Mark Twain wrote.” Another fine use of the internet.


I’ve just finished Mandelstam’s novella “Egipetskaya marka” (see this post), and it probably took me longer than any other thirty pages of Russian prose I’ve read—not because the vocabulary was especially difficult (though some of it was) but because it’s very much a poet’s prose, and a particularly knotty poet’s at that, and it has to be nibbled at rather than gulped, and thought about in between bites. What little plot it has revolves around a Petrograd nebbish named Parnok (one of whose boyhood nicknames was “the Egyptian stamp”), who fails at both the goals he sets himself on a summer day in 1917: to get his morning coat and shirts back from the tailor who had repossessed them for lack of payment, and to save a man from being lynched by a mob. The first story line goes straight back to Gogol and “The Overcoat”; the second is ripped from the headlines of that revolutionary year (see examples in Russian here) but doubtless was intended to carry implications extending into the period of Bolshevik rule. But as always with Mandelstam, it’s more about the language and the network of images than the plot.
Clarence Brown, in the introduction to his translation, gives several examples of how words and images beget each other, like the bit in the fifth chapter that begins “The January calendar with its ballet goats, its model dairy of myriad worlds, its crackle of a deck of cards being unwrapped. . . .” He says, “The word ‘ballet’ appears because this is in the context of talk about Giselle, but it is applied to goats because it refers to the saltant image of a goat which is the tenth […] sign of the zodiac, Capricorn, covering the period from December 21 to January 20, and represented on the calendar.” A few lines later we get “The Petersburg cabby is a myth, a Capricorn. He should be put in the zodiac.” If you don’t follow his train of thought, the images appear to come out of nowhere. I’ll quote (in my own translation) a more extended passage from near the end, in which fear and railroads and prose are all intertwined; among many other things, it’s Mandelstam’s apologia for the complicated way he writes:

Fear takes me by the hand and leads me. White cotton glove. [Fingerless] mitten. I love, I respect fear. I almost said, “with it nothing frightens me!” Mathematicians should build a tent for fear, because it is the coordinate of time and space; they participate in it, like rolled-up felt in a Kirghiz tent. Fear unharnesses the horses when we have to drive, and sends us dreams with pointlessly low ceilings.
At the beck and call of my consciousness are two or three little words: i vot [‘and here’], uzhé [‘already’], vdrug [‘suddenly’]; they rush around on the half-lit Sevastopol train from car to car, lingering on the buffer areas [platforms between cars?], where two thundering frying pans rush at each other and crawl apart.
The railroad has changed the whole course, the whole construction, the whole tempo of our prose, handing it over into the power of the senseless muttering of the French peasant from Anna Karenina. Railroad prose, like the woman’s purse of that death-foretelling peasant, is full of coupler’s tools, delirious particles, hardware prepositions, which have their place on the table of legal evidence, set loose from any concern for beauty or roundedness.
Yes, there, where hot oil is poured over the meaty levers of locomotives, there she breathes, my darling prose, all set down lengthwise, falsely measuring, the shameless wench, winding on her own predatory yardstick all six hundred and nine Nikolaevsky versts, with little carafes of sweating vodka.

“Six hundred and nine Nikolaevsky versts” represents the railroad line (called Nikolaevsky, for Nikolai I, before the October Revolution and Oktyabrsky, for October, after it) between Moscow and Saint Petersburg (proverbially a distance of 609 versts). As Brown says, “[Mandelstam’s] prose could never be submitted as legal evidence in any imaginable court, for its aim is beauty and to be beautifully rounded. Its only testimony is to that ineffable satisfaction that comes when sentences wave like flags and strut like peacocks and roll trippingly off the tongue.”

[Read more…]


Via the latest entry at Pepys’ Diary (“then home to my wife, who is not well with her cold, and sat and read a piece of Grand Cyrus in English by her”) I learned about what is alleged to be the longest novel ever written (“with the possible exception of Henry Darger’s unpublished The Story of the Vivian Girls“), Artamène, or Cyrus the Great, and from the Wikipedia article I got to Artamè, which has put the entire novel online. The thought of reading over two million words is daunting, but Artamè does it very cleverly; they point out that consecutive solitary reading, such as we are used to, was not the norm in Madeleine de Scudéry’s day, and the novel was expected to be read aloud in company, “a piece” at a time (as Sam is doing with his wife), and they present the text thus:

L’accès au texte du roman, ainsi qu’aux illustrations d’époque, est possible à tout moment par le biais de la rubrique “Texte” dans la barre de menu de gauche. Il suffit de sélectionner la subdivision désirée (Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus est divisé en dix parties contenant chacune trois livres). Apparaît alors, « par défaut », un résumé de premier niveau. Un clic sur l’un des paragraphes de ce texte permet d’accéder à un résumé de second niveau. Un nouveau clic sur l’un des paragraphes de cette seconde série donne ensuite accès au texte du roman, présenté dans une version respectant la graphie et la pagination de l’édition de 1656, mais renumérotée en continu par nos soins.

In other words, you go to the Synopsis page, where you get a first-level summary; you click on whichever section interests you and get a more detailed second-level summary; then, when you click on a section of that, you get the actual text of the novel. It’s a brilliant solution, if you ask me.