Archives for July 2010


How time flies! As always, I thank my commenters, without whom I wouldn’t bother blogging; this time around, I thought I’d link to a selection of posts, one from each year, that I remembered with fondness as I skimmed through the archives:
2005: DIVAN.
2008: NORMAL.
2010 is the year in which we currently are, so history comes to a .
Addendum. Frequent commenter Sashura has done a very flattering post at Tetradki celebrating my octennial, for those who read Russian. (He calls me “русовед и славолюб” [‘Russian-knower and Slav-lover’], imitating the fictional writer Evgeny Sazonov’s “людовед и душелюб” [‘people-knower and soul-lover’], itself a takeoff on those time-honored Russian insults людоед ‘cannibal’ and душегуб ‘murderer’ [literally ‘people-eater and soul-destroyer’ respectively].)


Dave Wilton at presents this video with the words “This is a great little story about the expectations people have about language,” and I won’t add anything to that except that it choked me up a little. It will take less than ten minutes of your time, and it’s worth it.


Dave of Balashon – Hebrew Language Detective (which I welcomed here and have since linked to less often than I should), has done a post—the last in a series on the five grains of the Land of Israel—on the Hebrew word כוסמת kusemet, which now means ‘buckwheat’ but once meant… well, that’s not clear, but I urge you to read his thoughts on the subject. And his final paragraph describes an interesting morphological/semantic split:

As we mentioned, Ben Yehuda made no reference to this usage. And in halachic literature, kusemet continued to refer to spelt. But even heavyweights such as these didn’t have control over the living language of Modern Hebrew. And the language seemed to come up with a solution of its own, and a strange on at that. Kusemet continued to be used for buckwheat, but the plural, kusmin כוסמין, was reserved for spelt – and you can actually find the two next to each other in the supermarket, even produced by the same company.

(In the course of his discussion, he links to this old LH post about emmer, spelt, and Italian farro; as usual, the thread wandered into a discussion of hats, snake goddesses, and what have you.)


Copy Editing at The New Yorker with Mary Norris. As I said here, “That was interesting, although I rapidly tired of the interviewer’s snarky-twelve-year-old style (apparently mandatory these days). But from her description of the painstaking process of editing and fact-checking, you’d never guess how error-ridden the magazine is these days.”
What It’s Really Like To Be A Copy Editor, by Lori Fradkin. As I said here:

That was amusing, and I certainly identified with some of her stories, though starting off with the “douche bag” business can only reinforce the standard image of copy editors as humorless pedants who wield dictionaries as bludgeons. I agree with the commenter who said “I enforce Chicago and Webster’s 11th with shock and awe, though I am flexible and respectful of variance and alternatives, as long as they are consistent.” To my mind, a slang term like douchebag is a prime candidate for flexibility, especially at a popular magazine like New York. Me, I would have issued a memo the first time the subject came up, saying “Look, guys, Webster’s says it’s two words; if it’s important to you to spell it as one, I understand and will abide by it, but I want it on record that I provided the dictionary spelling.” And then I would have let it go.

And a response to the previous one, What it’s really like to be copy-edited, by R.L.G. As I said here:

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I linked to an interview with the excellent translator Robert Chandler here; now I’d like to present a short essay he wrote on translating Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter. It begins like this:

Five years ago, a Russian friend, hearing I was intending to translate ‘The Queen of Spades’, said, ‘That will be very difficult, harder even than translating Andrey Platonov. You’ll find you can’t afford to change a single comma.’ My friend proved only too right; every slightest liberty I had allowed myself in the first draft came to seem unacceptable. I imagined, however, that The Captain’s Daughter would prove easier. I remembered it as being less deliberate, less precise in both style and structure, than ‘The Queen of Spades’. I could not have been more wrong. Like the novel’s young hero, Pyotr Grinyov, Pushkin is a trickster. The Captain’s Daughter, apparently a mere historical yarn, is the most subtly constructed of all nineteenth-century Russian novels. It took me some time, however, to realize this.

He describes the complex structure of the novel and goes on to discuss in detail some examples of Pushkin’s sound play (“Pyotr’s French tutor, Beaupré, carries with him his own sound world, centred on two of the consonants from his own name. Pushkin’s first description of him begins as follows: Beaupré v otechestve svoem byl parikmakherom, potom v Prussii soldatom, potom priekhal v Rossiyu pour être outchitel.“) Now I want to read the novel again.
(Thanks for the link, Giri!)
Addendum. G.L. at Johnson discusses Chandler’s piece.


Stan Carey of Sentence first has an occasional feature he calls “Link love” in which he presents his readers with a bouquet of intriguing links; I hereby pass on to you Link love: language (20), which starts with “Emailing while sleeping” and concludes with a couple of rude bits from the Log. In between, one of my favorites was “Do you have a book with a title that was written by an author?”—a link to a 1978 cartoon by the wonderful Mark Alan Stamaty. I was working in bookstores in those days, and I can assure you that’s just what it was like.
As lagniappe: “L’Office du Jèrriais est l’office tchi fait la promotion d’la langue Jèrriaise.” Mèrci bein des fais, Geraint!


As I wrote here, I’ve been reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, and now that I’ve finished I thought I’d try to sum up my feelings. It’s not easy, though, because they changed considerably as I progressed through the book—which is not surprising, because the book is not a consistent piece of writing but a mishmosh of articles (almost all previously published) strung together on the thread of Batuman’s sensibility. The last chapter, which gives the book its title, is the weakest (and the only previously unpublished one) and left me feeling irritated, so I’ll get that off my chest before proceeding.

The chapter starts with a potted history of the circumstances surrounding the composition of Dostoevsky’s novel Besy, variously translated The Possessed and The Devils; proceeds to a plot summary and a discussion of whether it is a “flawed novel” (bringing in Joseph Frank for the prosecution and René Girard for the defense); and finally gets to what she really wants to talk about, the group of people she knew in grad school, which she compares unconvincingly to the circle of young Stavrogin-worshippers in the novel. This part reads like a higher-toned version of a True Confessions story (…so this incredibly charismatic guy hadn’t slept with a woman in seven years, and then we got drunk and went to bed, and then he started acting weird towards me…). She finishes up, for unclear reasons, with a summary of Chekhov’s story “The Black Monk.” It’s more like a series of blog posts than a coherent part of a book, and I think it would have been better omitted.

But that’s a small part of the book, given undue prominence by being the last. The rest, while not necessarily more coherent, is better written and more interesting. As I said here, she has excellent taste in Russian literature, and I’m perfectly happy to listen to her talk about it, even if it’s not part of a consistent narrative or argument. Indeed, the main narrative of the book is an account (broken into three parts—it was originally published in n+1) of a summer she spent in Samarkand studying Uzbek. Around this are interspersed “Babel in California” (also published in n+1 and focusing on an international Babel conference held at Stanford which included the translator Peter Constantine, whose translations she criticizes and whom, possibly for that reason, she renames “Michael”—indeed, she’s curiously reticent about names throughout, for some reason disguising a “well-known twentieth-centuryist” as “Boris Zalevsky” on p. 61 and leaving the director He Ping unnamed on page 74), “Who Killed Tolstoy?” (originally published in Harper’s; you can read it here), and “The House of Ice” (about the ice palace built for Empress Anna; this was published in the New Yorker in somewhat different form, which you can read here). Like I said, a mishmosh; it’s a combination of My Thoughts about Russian Lit with My Cultural Adventures Abroad, both things I tend to enjoy.

I guess what bothers me about her, even as I enjoy her lively writing and keen eye, is her focus on the exotic, a category I think should be eliminated as far as possible, since we are not exotic to ourselves, only to those who do not care to get to know us well enough to get past the surface strangeness. In this, of course, she does not differ from most travel writers; there is an inexhaustible appetite for the odd, the fantastic, the unexpected, and it’s quixotic to wish away such a basic part of human nature. But both Russia and Central Asia have suffered unduly from the exoticizing regard of foreigners, and her account of Uzbekistan makes the place too bizarre and inexplicable. If you’re interested in an account by someone who grew up in the region and describes it with affection and understanding, I cannot recommend too strongly Marat Akchurin’s Red Odyssey: A Journey Through the Soviet Republics. You’ll learn a lot about both the places he visits and the last days of the Soviet Union, from a clear-eyed and believable traveler.


I’ve quoted John Derbyshire a number of times; here‘s a nice piece he wrote about his experience having one of his books translated by Alexei Semikhatov, an unusually scrupulous, thoughtful, and literate man. Derbyshire asked “an erudite Russian friend” to explain to him one of Semikhatov’s Russian footnotes, which turned out to mean:

NOTE. The Russian language as spoken by educated people at the beginning of the 20th century clearly demonstrated the same effect, using tretievo dnia, “the third day,” to indicate the day before yesterday. Nowadays this term has been almost completely supplanted by the word pozavchera, “day before yesterday.” The word pozavchera was formerly considered as belonging to the speech of the common people.

The erudite friend added “I have probably heard this expression tretievo dnia, but never used it myself. I always use pozavchera. In my opinion, this shows that your translator loves the Russian language.” What better tribute could a translator ask?

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I learned about Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them back in February (see this post, whose thread devolved into the usual inexplicable mix of topics, this time including skis, Jenny Lind, and hunting bears), and having gotten it for my birthday (thanks, Brooke & Elias!) I’m finally reading it, and enjoying it thoroughly. Herewith a passage on what Batuman was told by her Uzbek teacher in Samarkand (where she went to study the language, not knowing that the majority of the population spoke the unrelated Tajik, as did her host family):

Timur was the opposite of Genghis Khan. The Mongols destroyed eleven centuries in 130 years; but Timur rebuilt it all in seventy years. This “Second Uzbek Renaissance” reached its fullest expression in the lifetime of Alisher Navoi. …
Navoi lived for four years in Samarkand: a city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse. But before Navoi himself transformed the Old Uzbek vernacular into a literary language, all of this poetry was written in Persian. In his Muhakamat al-lughatayn, or Judgment of Two Languages (1499), Navoi mathematically proved the superiority to Persian of Old Uzbek, a language so rich that it had words for seventy different species of duck. Persian just had duck. Impoverished Persian writers had no words with which to differentiate between a burr and a thorn; older and younger sisters; male, female, and infant boars; hunting and fowling; a beauty mark on a woman’s face and a beauty mark somewhere else; deer and elands; being adorned and being really adorned; drinking something down all at once in a refined way, and drinking slowly while savoring each drop.
Persian, Dilorom told me, had only one word for crying, whereas Old Uzbek had one hundred. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and for crying while uttering the sound hay hay. Old Uzbek had special verbs for being unable to sleep, for speaking while feeding animals, for being a hypocrite, for gazing imploringly into a lover’s face, for dispersing a crowd.

All of this is ludicrous (as Batuman puts it, “It was all just like a Borges story”), but I’m afraid this kind of thing no longer activates the ludic centers of my brain. As Jim Bisso said in the first comment to my first post, “The sad thing about Goropism is that within it lie the seeds of the evil nexus of nationalism, racism, and linguistic chauvinism.” (A few pages earlier she tells the story of how the Soviets invented both Uzbek and “Old Uzbek,” which is actually Chagatai, as part of their divide-and-conquer strategy in Central Asia. Alas, the Soviets are gone but the fruits of their strategy live on.)


In a discussion of French chapeau ‘hat’ that developed in the meandering course of this thread, our caprine constituent AJP asked “m-l, is there a connection between chapeau and chapel (its current English meaning) based on physical resemblance?” And the learned marie-lucie replied:

AJP, an interesting question! I had to go check in the Trésor de la langue française informatisé … Yes, there is a connection, but it is rather roundabout and has nothing to do with the physical appearance.
In French chapeau (Latin cappellus) and chapelle (Latin cappella) are related to the old word chape which originally meant a kind of cape (Latin cappa), a wraparound garment. There is a well-known story about Saint Martin (the most popular saint in France), who was a Roman officer, cutting his cape in half with his sword and giving one half to a beggar. His own half (or what passed for it) became a relic preserved in a small addition to the palace of Charlemagne, which was named cappella from the cappa that was preserved in it (in French, Charlemagne’s capital Aachen is called Aix-la-Chapelle for this reason). Later the word was applied to such additions to churches (often recesses off the nave), or to small churches dependent on larger ones or built for private use (ie not parish churches).

You would think that, as a noted hat person, I would have known that, but I didn’t. For comparison, here’s the OED’s etymology:

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