Archives for July 2010


I recently got Brief Lives: Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, by Andrew Piper, as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and I thought I’d add my review here in case anyone wants to talk about Goethe, Felicia Hemans (pronounced HEMM-unz), or anything else.
This book satisfies the basic requirement of a hundred-page “Brief Life”: it gives you the facts of the author’s life and mentions his most important works, with a few quotes thrown in as flavoring. I regret to say it’s not very well written or proofread (“ex-patriot artists”!). On a two-page spread (50-51), we get this unintelligible line from a translation (Piper apparently did them himself): “As though I enter for the first”; he says “Iphigenia was an exploration of what the romantic poet Felicia Hemans … said was the experience of ‘the bitter taste of another’s bread, the weary steps by which the stairs of another’s house are ascended'” when Hemans is simply rendering in her flat prose some of Dante’s most famous lines (“Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e com’ è duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale”); and he refers to Iphigenia’s ill-fated family, the House of Atreus, as “one of the most gruesome genealogies in human history” (history??). Furthermore, Piper has the bad habit of characterizing everything he writes about as “the greatest” this or that, as if he were trying to sell us a car rather than describe a writer’s life. Still, if you want a quick introduction to Goethe, this is a perfectly serviceable one that could give you the impetus to seek out a longer, weightier biography or critical study.


John Wells, at his phonetic blog, has a post offering a professional analysis of just how an American voice teacher went wrong in a video clip in which she tries to teach the British “short o” vowel. I particularly like this paragraph:

Her happY vowel (at the end of coffee) is much too open. It approaches ɛ or perhaps more precisely [ɛ̝̈], which in England is highly marked both socially and regionally. Socially, it belongs in a variety of U-RP which is probably now entirely obsolete, a subvariety of what Cruttenden calls “Refined RP”. Alternatively, geographically it is associated with (the working-class accent of) central Northern places such as Leeds. No actor should use this kind of happY vowel for “British” unless playing an upper-class character in a play set a hundred years ago or more.

His conclusion: “Tracy’s version of BrE represents an impossible mixture of different social classes and different geographical locations. Bits … of it are Scottish, bits of it are northern English, bits are RP/southern. Some of it is caricature-upper-class, some of it is working-class. Nobody, but nobody, talks like that in real life.” You can see the video at that link; here‘s a hilarious parody by a Brit explaining how to pronounce the American short o. (Both links courtesy of Dave Wilton at


Kyoto University of Foreign Studies has an exhibition on “Crepe-Paper Books and Woodblock Prints”; there’s lots of interesting stuff there, but I’ll call your attention to the Preface, which discusses the phenomenon of “crepe-paper books,” called chirimen-bon in Japanese (縮緬紙 chirimen is ‘crepe paper’):

The term “chirimen-bon” refers to books that were made by crinkling “washi” (i.e., Japanese paper) printed with the contents (i.e., text and/or pictures) before binding them Japanese-style as pages. They are called “Crepe-paper books” in English. They arose in the Meiji period, with the publication of translations, made by Westerners residing in Japan, of old legends and tales. Typically, the text was illustrated by a Japanese illustrator in accordance with the plot, and hand-carved woodblocks were used for manual printing on high-grade “washi,” which was crinkled before binding. Besides those relating legends and tales, there were some “chirimen-bon” written about Japanese culture. They come in a diversity of languages, mainly including English, German, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Their success led to the publication of some stories, albeit few, set in other countries. With the help of sales contracts concluded with overseas bookstores, “chirimen-bon” found increasing favor in Europe, North America, and other Asian countries.

I have a few such books around somewhere, relics of my early life in postwar Japan, and I’m glad to know something about their history. (Via No-sword.)


Toward the end of this long thread from February, we got onto the subject of the symbol # being used for pounds; I had never seen it, but was presented with enough convincing evidence that I threw up my hands and accepted it (“Huh, you learn something every day. I wonder how I managed to miss the # = lb. thing?”). Now Mark Liberman at the Log has a post on this very topic:

Yesterday, in discussing Kevin Fowler’s song Pound Sign, there was some debate about the origin of the term “pound sign” for the symbol #. I suggested that it all started with the substitution of # for £ on American typewriter keyboards, but others argued that # was a standard symbol for pound(s) avoirdupois. I’ve heard this theory before, but I expressed skepticism about it because I’ve never actually seen the symbol used that way.

I’m not clear on why he’s so much more stubborn than me about accepting this use of the symbol, since he finds examples going back to 1923 and his commenters are as adamant about being familiar with it as mine, but he comes to this conclusion: “So I’m quite sure that this is why the engineers at Bell Labs called # “pound sign” — it corresponded to a Baudot code-point that had been used for £ in the UK and # in the U.S., probably since the late 19th century and certainly since the early 20th century.” You can find out about Baudot code-points in his post, and there’s already a lively discussion going on. (And that “Pound Sign” song is a lot of fun too.)


Ljiljana Progovac and John L. Locke have published an intriguing paper, “The Urge to Merge: Ritual Insult and the Evolution of Syntax” (you can download the pdf from that page; the article is, admirably, published under a Creative Commons license). Here’s the abstract:

Throughout recorded history, sexually mature males have issued humorous insults in public. These ‘verbal duels’ are thought to discharge aggressive dispositions, and to provide a way to compete for status and mating opportunities without risking physical altercations. But, is there evidence that such verbal duels, and sexual selection in general, played any role in the evolution of specific principles of language, syntax in particular? In this paper, concrete linguistic data and analysis will be presented which indeed point to that conclusion. The prospect will be examined that an intermediate form of ‘proto-syntax’, involving ‘proto-Merge’, evolved in a context of ritual insult. This form, referred to as exocentric compound, can be seen as a ‘living fossil’ of this stage of proto-syntax — providing evidence not only of ancient structure (syntax/semantics), but also arguably of sexual selection.

Their conclusion begins: “Not only do exocentric VN compounds suggest an ancient syntactic/combinatorial strategy, but their semantics and use also provide potential evidence of ritual insult and sexual selection at work, selecting for this basic/protosyntax.” Now, all of this is pretty hand-wavey and involves unhealthy dollops of Chomskyan syntax (like this Merge business), but it’s still an interesting idea, and of course I particularly enjoyed Section 4.4. “Availability across (Unrelated) Languages”:

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Felipe Martinez, an independent researcher from San Diego, California, is “investigating the absence of Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) in the English-speaking world.” To this end he has set up a website called “A Missing Book,” where he invites “any and all inquiries, submissions of articles, essays, translations, etc. concerning João Guimarães Rosa.” The first response links to this site, where you can read the entire (long out of print) translation of his masterpiece, the novel Grande Sertão: Veredas, translated as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís (Knopf, 1963). The second response says “I have cherished it from the first time I was lucky enough to read it and have made it my life’s mission as a writer and filmmaker to disseminate the reputation of this, one of greatest novels ever written.” I’ve heard of it but never read it, which I guess is not an uncommon phenomenon.


The good people at Oxford UP sent me a copy of Ruth H. Sander’s German: Biography of a Language, which I recently finished reading. This odd and entertaining book is not well represented by its title, which suggests a relatively straightforward history of German. In fact, Sanders has chosen to focus on six “turning points, leaving the connecting events largely in the dark.” The chapter titles, each representing one of these turning points, are “Germanic Beginnings,” “The Germanic Languages Survive the Romans,” “A Fork in the Road: High German, Low German,” “Bible German and the Birth of a Standard Language,” “The German Language Gets a State,” and “Postwar Comeback Times Two: A High Point, a Double Fall from Grace, and Recoveries.” (You can see a more detailed table of contents, with descriptions of the sidebars, here.)
You will note that Chapter 2 talks about “The Germanic Languages,” and that’s one odd thing about the book: while German itself is the main focus, a great deal of space and attention is devoted to the other Germanic languages and the history of the peoples associated with them. I’m not sure the average student of German will be quite so interested in Gothic, English, and Yiddish as this book expects them to be. Another odd feature is the emphasis on history; of course, it’s useful to be reminded of the context in which a language is used, but the long and detailed account of the Battle of Kalkriese (which when I was a lad we used to call the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest) seems excessive for a book with just over 200 pages of text, and what the account of Luther’s marriage is doing there (“The Luthers had six children and, to all evidence, a loving marriage…. The highly competent Katharina… kept house, managed the family finances, cooked, grew a vegetable and fruit garden, raised pigs, and brewed beer for visitors and family…”) is anybody’s guess. And the first chapter, on Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic and the peoples who may have spoken them, is pretty much all speculation—interesting speculation, and presented as such rather than as fact, but still, in such a short book one might have expected a brief rundown of the known elements of prehistory and a quick transition to the documented facts of the language.
But I don’t want to give the wrong impression by my carping and quibbling. This is a book that anyone with an interest in the Germanic languages that extends beyond sound shifts and syntax is likely to enjoy and learn from. It’s quite well written for a scholarly book, and one thing that pleases me greatly is her habit of quoting other scholars, frequently in extenso, rather than paraphrasing them and stashing the source in a footnote. To give you a taste, here’s part of her account of Luther’s impact:

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Long-time readers of LH will know my negative feelings toward the much-lauded translating duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (see, for instance, here); imagine, therefore, my pleasure on being sent a link to “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature” by Gary Saul Morson, and my disappointment on learning it was only an abstract. If anyone has a subscription to Commentary or otherwise has access to the full article, I’d love it if you’d e-mail it to me. Otherwise, feel free to discuss Peveolokhonsky, translation, or (as usual) anything else in the comment thread.
Update. I have been kindly provided with the article; many thanks!


A NY Times story by Simon Romero describes the unusually promising situation of the Caribbean language Papiamento:

Papiamentu, a Creole language influenced over the centuries by African slaves, Sephardic merchants and Dutch colonists, is now spoken by only about 250,000 people on the islands of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. But compared with many of the world’s other Creoles, the hybrid languages that emerge in colonial settings, it shows rare signs of vibrancy and official acceptance.
Most of Curaçao’s newspapers publish in Papiamentu. Music stores do brisk business in CDs recorded in Papiamentu by musicians like the protest singer Oswin Chin Behilia or the jazz vocalist Izaline Calister.
“Mi pais ta un isla hopi dushi, kaminda mi lombrishi pa semper ta derá,” goes a passage in Ms. Calister’s hit song “Mi Pais.” (That roughly translates as “My island is a lovely place, where my umbilical cord forever lies.”) […]
“While English and French Creoles get more attention, the extension of Papiamentu into different domains like writing, education and policy is incredibly high,” said Bart Jacobs, a Dutch linguist who studies Papiamentu. “This bodes very well for the language’s chances to survive, and possibly even thrive well into the future.”
Scholars, writers and composers here say Papiamentu’s resilience has roots in a mixture of radical politics and pragmatic planning. They often tie Papiamentu’s resurgence to a violent uprising against symbols of Dutch power on May 30, 1969, known here as Trinta di Mei. […]
Papiamentu’s vibrancy is related to the creation in 1998 of the Fundashon pa Planifikashon di Idioma, a language institute that maintains an orthography. Papiamentu also thrives on the street level, with immigrants from Haiti and Suriname often picking up the language quickly and using it instead of Dutch.

Nice to see an upbeat story on a “small” language for a change. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


Stan of Sentence First has a most enjoyable post about an excellent word:

On a walk last week, I overheard a woman speak a word (Irish English slang, chiefly Munster I think) that I hadn’t heard in a long time: cnáimhseáiling, or knawvshawling. The opening c or k* is pronounced distinctly: /’knɔːv’ʃɔːlɪŋ/. After making a quick note on Twitter, I was too busy to elaborate until now, but you won’t hear me knawvshawling. The word means muttering complaints, whingeing, sullen grumbling, finding fault, or — another very Irish idiom — giving out:

Finish your plate now and don’t mind your cnáimhseáiling.

The Anglicised spelling knawvshawling is a loose phonetic approximation, as are knauvshauling and cnawvshawling. There are short entries in an online dictionary of Cork slang and a directory of Irish slang, but I think the word deserves a longer write-up.

His write-up is well worth reading; I will add a mildly interesting linguistic observation of my own. When I studied Modern Irish, it was the western dialect of Connemara that I learned, and in that dialect initial cn- is pronounced /kr/, so that the word cnáimh ‘bone’ (the first part of cnáimhseáil) is pronounced /krɑ:w’/, sounding something like “croive.” But this word is apparently not used in Connemara, only in the southern dialect region, so that if I follow my natural inclination and pronounce cnáimhseáiling “croiveshawling,” I’ll be using a pronunciation no actual Irish person uses. Ah well, I’m told it’s a grand language by them that knows.

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