Archives for July 2010


Lord knows I get frustrated with the general level of ignorance concerning language and linguistics out there in the world; lashing out at it has been a feature of LH from the beginning. But I direct my fire at those who have a professional responsibility to know better, primarily journalists. Journalists reporting on language cannot be expected to know the facts as a linguist would (apart from those rare exceptions like Michael Erard, who took the precaution of getting an MA in linguistics before going into journalism), but they have the same responsibility to get the basic facts right as those reporting on astronomy, nuclear physics, or for that matter politics. When they fail egregiously, as they do on a regular basis, I let them have it.
But it is folly to expect a member of the general public to get things right. To expect the public at large to grasp the fundamentals of physics or chemistry is setting oneself up for disappointment, but at least they are taught these things in high school, so one can, if one is so inclined, blame them for being inattentive or for forgetting what they once knew. No one who has not taken a linguistics course can be expected to know about, let alone understand, the scientific view of language. So I was not pleased to visit Language Log this morning and find Victor Mair attacking the Chinese-American author Ruiyan Xu for a brief op-ed piece she wrote for the NY Times a couple of months ago (finding her “claims to be highly dubious, some to be rather troublesome, and yet others to be downright annoying”) and saying “Mark Swofford, over at, has just written a masterful dissection: ‘Chinese characters: Like, wow‘, 7/2/2010.” Upon visiting, I found Swofford saying Xu writes like “a stoned grad student with a large vocabulary” and dissecting her little op-ed practically word by word as though it were a dissertation, or a paper in Language, scrawling contemptuously “No, no, and no…. No, that’s wrong….” and hauling out the big guns of sarcasm (“Alas, poor English! How confused we must be to be using a mere alphabet. Oh, if only we could achieve linguistic, aesthetic, and historical meaning!”) and irrelevant snide observations (“The author of the poem… lived from 1140 to 1207 and was thus a contemporary of such Western poets as the troubadours Bertran de Born, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Giraut de Borneil — hardly poets whose work suffered for having been written with an alphabet”). I am reminded of Pope’s line “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” (though I’m afraid I tend to remember it as I first learned it from William Rees-Mogg’s famous 1967 Times editorial attacking the prison sentences handed down by a vengeful court to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the title of which ended “….on a wheel”).
What was Xu’s sin? Talking about language in general and Chinese characters in particular the way virtually everyone who has learned any Chinese and is not a linguist talks and thinks about them. What was her main point? That something valuable is lost when the phrase 百度 bǎidù ‘hundred times,’ which in Chinese alludes to a well-known poem by Xin Qiji (or, for people who still use Wade-Giles, Hsin Ch’i-Chi), becomes in a non-Chinese context the meaningless Baidu. Is her point correct? Unquestionably. Does either Mair or Swofford appear to understand or care about it? No. They are far too concerned with bashing her for not being a linguist.
Now, if her little op-ed were somehow to become a major source of people’s understanding of language, then sure, blast away; I attack Strunk and White on precisely those grounds. But to drag out an inoffensive little op-ed by a novelist who makes no pretense of being a linguist and is concerned with other matters and to attack it at such length suggests exactly the kind of seething rage the Loggers are always attributing to those who get upset about “incorrect usage” in English. If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I guess a foolish intolerance is the hobgoblin of frustrated specialists.

[Read more…]


Formerly (and hopefully future) frequent commenter Xiaolongnu sent me a link to the Periodic Table of Swearing (click image for large version). This is a U.K. model, with entries like “Looking Like A Right Arsehole” and “Bollocks To That”; someone should do equivalents for the U.S., Australia, and other English-speaking regions. Actually, now that I think about that, someone should do equivalents for every language with a decent swearing culture.


I’ve been trying to investigate Schlegel‘s use of Arabesk ‘arabesque’ as a literary term (Nicholas Saul says in the “arabesque or hieroglyph” the “material is to be ordered into complex symbolic forms which allude ironically to the inexpressible absolute rather than attempt prosaically to embody it”: The Cambridge History of German Literature, p. 230), because it influenced Gogol in his Arabeski (1835; Proffer writes: “There are two works of Gogol which nobody reads: The Arabesques is one and Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends the other”). Google Books sent me, inter alia, to Ginette Verstraete’s Fragments of the Feminine Sublime in Friedrich Schlegel and James Joyce, and in perusing it I discovered that she translated Schlegel’s Parekbase as parabasis. Why not “parecbasis,” I wondered? So of course I went to the OED, where I discovered that parabasis does indeed have the required meaning (“In ancient Greek comedy: an interlude in the action of the drama in which the chorus dance and sing, addressing the audience”), but there is also a word parecbasis “A deviation, a digression,” which has the remarkable property that “almost all early uses evidenced involve transmission errors”:

1584 R. SCOT Discouerie Witchcraft XV. xxiii. 438 A parecuasis or transition of the author to matter further purposed. 1589 G. PUTTENHAM Arte Eng. Poesie III. 195 (margin) Parecnasis, or the Stragler. 1599 A. DAY Eng. Secretorie (rev. ed.) II. sig. Mm4v, Pareonasis [sic], or Digressio, a speech beside the matter in present spoken on, as to say, But here let me remember vnto you something of the deserts and eternized memory of your worthy and most vertuous parents. 1678 E. PHILLIPS New World of Words (ed. 4), Parechasis [1706 parecbasis], a digression, in Rhetorick, it is a wandering in discourse from the intended matter.

Note. Closed due to a massive influx of spam. I will try opening it later, perhaps tomorrow, to see if the spammers have gotten bored and gone away; in the meantime, if you have a comment you’d like to add, drop me a line and I’ll reopen it for you. [Later: Reopened it, had to delete a huge influx of spam. Bah.]


As I wrote here, I’ve been reading Tynyanov’s Смерть Вазир-Мухтара [Smert’ Vazir-mukhtara], “The death of the vazir-mukhtar [ambassador plenipotentiary],” and now that I’ve finished it, I’m trying to figure out why I didn’t like it more than I did. Tynyanov is a fine writer (as well as a brilliant critic), and I certainly enjoyed his novella Podporuchik Kizhe (“Lieutenant Kije”), but I found the novel something of a slog. It wasn’t just that the characters were uniformly unsympathetic, and it certainly wasn’t a failure to paint an adequate background for the protagonist Griboyedov‘s doings—in fact, it was the well-drawn picture of Qajar Iran and its courtly intrigues that kept me going toward the end. No, I think Chukovsky hit the nail on the head in his diary entry for March 17, 1926, discussing the excerpts Tynyanov read him: “They were well written—too well written. He overdoes the archaic style. There isn’t a line left unstylized. The result is overly concentrated, lacking in inner truth, smacking of ‘literature.'” [Отрывки хорошо написаны — но чересчур хорошо. Слишком густо дан старинный стиль. Нет ни одной не стилизованной строки. Получаются одни эссенции, то есть внутренняя ложь, литературщина.] And as I was trying to finish last week’s New Yorker (the new one has already come), I found that James Wood, in his review essay on David Mitchell, has things to say that are equally relevant to Tynyanov:

Mitchell is ancestral in another respect, too. He may be self-conscious, but he is not knowing, in the familiar, fatal, contemporary way; his naturalness as a storyteller has to do not only with his vitality but also with a kind of warmth, a charming earnestness. This is why he can so speedily get a fiction up and running, involve the reader in an invented world. One would be hard pressed to separate the quality of his sentences from the quality of the human presence.[…]

Despite the novel’s liveliness and deep immersion in the foreignness of its world, there is something a bit mystifying about its distance from contemporary life, something a little contrived in its brilliant autonomy. The publisher promises “a bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history,” and this is not wrong, except that choosing rarely visited points in history for novelization seems to lack inner necessity. Mitchell’s new novel has already been likened to Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace” because he felt compelled to examine and dramatize a great national crisis, and it is that compulsion that makes “War and Peace” a novel of the eighteen-sixties, and not merely “a novel of 1812.”

It is precisely War and Peace that kept occurring to me as a point of comparison as I read Tynyanov, who sometimes seems to be deliberately playing off its methods. It is, of course, unfair to use Tolstoy as a stick to beat another novelist with, but I think it’s reasonable to point out the difference between Tolstoy’s compulsion (the mot juste, as one expects from Wood) and Tynyanov’s… desire to illustrate his critical theories? I’m frankly not sure what made him want to write historical novels (this was his second), but one doesn’t get the sense that he had a burning need to tell us this particular story. And there is certainly none of the warmth and “charming earnestness” Wood sees in Mitchell; this is even more unfair, of course, but let’s face it, “the quality of the human presence” is something most of us look for in a piece of writing, and here it’s so dry and arm’s-length it doesn’t invite us in or lure us onward.

I think the main point Tynyanov wanted to emphasize is the ways in which a title, and the role that goes with it, can take over a life (and cause a death). Here are a few salient quotes involving the Persian phrase vazir-mukhtar ‘ambassador plenipotentiary,’ which provides both the book and its hero with a title:

Abu’l-Kasim-Khan came up to him in a gold-embroidered robe and bowed low:
“Bon voyage, votre Excellence, notre cher et estimé Vazir-Mouchtar.”
Griboedov sat in the coach.
Thus he became the Vazir-Mukhtar.

[Абуль-Касим-хан подошел к нему в шитом золотом халате и низко склонился:

– Bon voyage, votre Excellence, notre cher et estimé Vazir-Mouchtar.
Грибоедов сел в карету.
Так стал он – Вазир-Мухтаром.]

He stopped understanding the rank of ambassador plenipotentiary.
The Persian word Vazir-Mukhtar seemed to him more understandable.
[Он переставал понимать звание: полномочный министр.
Персиянское слово Вазир-Мухтар казалось ему понятнее.]

And it was true that the Vazir-Mukhtar saw himself in mirrors. But he tried not to look for long. The tenfold, brightly colored Vazir-Mukhtar did not bring any special pleasure to Alexander Griboyedov.
[И правда, Вазир-Мухтар видел себя в зеркалах. Но он старался не смотреть долго. Удесятеренный, расцвеченный Вазир-Мухтар не приносил особого удовольствия Александру Грибоедову.]

After his death (which is slipped in casually), it is repeated several times that “the Vazir-Mukhtar continued to exist” [Вазир-Мухтар продолжал существовать]. When a false story of his death, putting all the blame on him, is told to and accepted by the Russian court:

The Vazir-Mukhtar moved no more.
He did not exist either now or earlier.
[Вазир-Мухтар более не шевелился.
Он не существовал ни теперь, ни ранее.

And in the final chapter, when another Russian is named ambassador to the Qajar court: “The Vazir-Mukhtar was now another” [Вазир-Мухтар был ныне другой]. In a way, he’s making the same point he did with Lieutenant Kije, but the novella was a lot shorter, and funnier.

This is totally irrelevant, but I can’t resist quoting a paragraph from David Mitchell’s new novel that Wood also couldn’t resist quoting; it shows why I like Mitchell so much, and why I’m looking forward to reading more of him:

“On Mr Grote’s last trip home,” obliges Ouwehand, “he wooed a promising young heiress at her town house in Roomolenstraat who told him how her heirless, ailing papa yearned to see his dairy farm in the hands of a gentleman son-in-law, yet everywhere, she lamented, were thieving rascals posing as eligible bachelors. Mr Grote agreed that the Sea of Courtship seethes with sharks and spoke of the prejudice endured by the young colonial parvenu, as if the annual fortunes yielded by his plantations in Sumatra were less worthy than old monies. The turtledoves were wedded within a week. The day after their nuptials, the taverner presented the bill and each says to the other, ‘Settle the account, my heart’s music.’ But to their genuine horror, neither could, for bride and groom alike had spent their last beans on wooing the other! Mr Grote’s Sumatran plantations evaporated; the Roomolenstraat house reverted to a co-conspirator’s stage prop; the ailing father-in-law turned out to be a beer porter in rude health, not heirless but hairless.”

Addendum. There’s a new Russian television serial based on the novel; you can watch it here. It’s in ten parts; I’ve watched the first (45 minutes) and enjoyed it greatly.


In a recent post, Anatoly discusses his occasional reluctance to look up English words he doesn’t know, preferring to deduce their meaning from context, a habit which occasionally leads him astray. (This is not a problem for me; I obsessively look up words, fearful of missing a shade of meaning that’s important in context.) He says the actual meaning sometimes turns out to be a letdown, but this was not the case for the word gossamer. It is indeed a great word, and I wonder how many languages have a specific word for (in the OED’s definition) “A fine filmy substance, consisting of cobwebs, spun by small spiders, which is seen floating in the air in calm weather, esp. in autumn, or spread over a grassy surface”? The etymology is both straightforward (goose + summer) and mysterious: why “goose summer”? OED:

The reason for the appellation is somewhat obscure. It is usually assumed that goose in this compound refers to the ‘downy’ appearance of gossamer. But it is to be noted that G. mädchen-, altweibersommer mean not only ‘gossamer’, but also a summer-like period in late autumn, a St. Martin’s summer; that the obs. Sc. GO-SUMMER had the latter meaning; and that it is in the warm periods of autumn that gossamer is chiefly observed. These considerations suggest the possibility that the word may primarily have denoted a ‘St. Martin’s summer’ (the time when geese were supposed to be in season: cf. G. Gänsemonat ‘geese-month’, November), and have been hence transferred to the characteristic phenomenon of the period. On this view summer-goose (which by etymologizing perversion appears also as summer-gauze) would be a transposition.


Victor Mair has a post at the Log featuring “Brian Holton’s ongoing translation of Shuǐhǔ zhuàn 水滸傳 (Water Margin; All Men Are Brothers) into Scots, part of which is available online.” Holton calls his version “The Mossflow,” a wonderful term which the DSL defines as “a wet peat bog, a quagmire, swamp.” Mair gives as an example the following passage:

那时西岳华山有个陈抟处士,是个道高有德之人,能辨风云气色。一日骑驴下山,向那华阴道中正行之间,听得路上客人传说:” 如今东京柴世宗让位与赵检点登基。”

Which Sidney Shapiro translates into standard English as:

At that time on Huashan, the West Sacred Mountain, lived a Taoist hermit named Chen Tuan. A virtuous man, he could foretell the future by the weather. One day as he was riding his donkey down the mountain towards the county town of Huayin he heard a traveller on the road say: “Emperor Chai Shi Zong has surrendered his throne to Marshal Zhao in the Eastern Capital.”

Holton renders it thus:

In thae days there wis a hermit hecht Chen Tuan bydin on the Wastlin Tap o Mount Glore: he wis a kennin an gracie sowl at bi glamourie cud guide the wind an wather. Ae day whan he wis striddlin his cuddie doun the brae ti the Gloresheddae Road he heard an outlan bodie sayin “Richt nou in the Eastren Capital Chai Shizong hes reteirit an Gaird-Marischal Zhao hes taen the throne”.

I love this sort of thing and wish to encourage it. Also, if you follow the first link to Mair’s post, you will find a vigorous discussion in the thread on language, dialect, and fāngyán 方言 ‘topolect.’


Anatoly recently posted about the Acapela Text to Speech Demo, saying he was struck by how well the Russian voice (Алена) rendered the text he entered. I tried it with both Russian and English and was similarly impressed. So I ask the same question he did: is this a particularly good, cutting-edge, site, or is this pretty standard for the current technology? If so, it’s come a long way since I last noticed it.


I presume we all know about the first appearance of the word America on the Waldseemüller map of 1507; what I, at any rate, didn’t know was that the text of the map and accompanying book, and hence the coining of the word, is thought to be the work of Waldseemüller’s friend Matthias Ringmann. As a Fourth of July post, therefore, I offer “How America got its name: The suprising story of an obscure scholar, an adventurer’s letter, and a pun,” a lively Boston Globe piece by Toby Lester. A sample:

The author, for example, demonstrates a familiarity with ancient Greek, a language that Ringmann knew well and that Waldseemüller did not. He also incorporates snatches of classical verse, a literary tic of Ringmann’s. The one contemporary poet quoted in the text, too, is known to have been a friend of Ringmann.
Waldseemüller the cartographer, Ringmann the writer: This division of duties makes sense, given the two men’s areas of expertise. And, indeed, they would team up in precisely this way in 1511, when Waldseemüller printed a new map of Europe. In dedicating that map, Waldseemüller noted that it came accompanied by “an explanatory summary prepared by Ringmann.”
This question of authorship is important because whoever wrote “Introduction to Cosmography” almost certainly coined the name America. Here again, I would suggest, the balance tilts in the favor of Ringmann, who regularly entertained himself by making up words, punning in different languages, and investing his writing with hidden meanings. In one 1511 essay, he even mused specifically about the naming of continents after women.

[Read more…]


Plato’s Protagoras, a translation is “an attempt at a collaborative translation of Plato’s Protagoras, a beautiful and challenging dialogue. The (lead) author is Dhananjay Jagannathan, a graduate student in ancient philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.” You can read a little more about it here:

The basic principle is this: every day for a few months, I will post roughly a page of the dialogue on a blog (, side by side in Greek, in my own translation, and in Jowett’s classic 1871 translation that appears commonly online. I’ve invited readers to comment and offer suggestions to improve the translation. My goal is to communicate Plato in English the way readers of his would have interpreted his Greek, aiming to capture his range of styles (colloquial conversation on the street, philosophical debate, rhetorical displays, poetic analysis, and so on) in a contemporary idiom. The nature of the project requires a wide readership for its success, so I hope you will pass this along.

So I am passing it along, with best wishes for its success.


Robert McCrum’s new book Globish, about how English is becoming the world language because it’s so “unique” and “direct” and “universal” and what have you, has gotten a well-deserved thrashing from linguist John McWhorter in The New Republic. After some nice bits of paralipsis, or, if you prefer, preterition (“Never mind overall that a considerable proportion of the text is breezy recapitulation of English and American history with brief asides about implications for the development of English… And never mind the endless misinterpretations and downright solecisms….”), he gets down to the meat of his attack:

But the central problem is that McCrum’s sense that English is somehow uniquely “direct” and “universal” and therefore well-suited to bestride the world is false. In two ways.
First of all, to the extent that McCrum is taking this from English being light on conjugation suffixes (in the present, just little third-person singular –s) and not having gender (no el sombrero for hat but la luna for moon as in Spanish), you can’t claim that this makes it easier for a language to be universal without looking at the fate of other languages. [McWhorter uses the “murderously complex” Russian as a counterexample.]
Then McCrum errs in a second way. He misses that to the extent that geopolitical dominance and linguistic structure can be correlated, it’s in that the dominance causes the grammatical simplification, not the other way around.[…] McCrum knows this – but misses that it upends his paradigm. The Vikings didn’t pick up English because it was enticingly “universal” – they made it easier by picking it up.

He goes on to explain why “Globish reinforces some questionable ways of thinking about language.” It’s a good demolition job that I commend to your attention. (Joel at Far Outliers points out a minor error: “Unfortunately, McWhorter confuses Papua New Guinea, where Tok Pisin is the lingua franca, with Papua, where Indonesian is the lingua franca. Otherwise, he’s right on target.”)