Archives for August 2010


I recently learned of the death of the Slavist Horace Lunt, a student of Roman Jakobson who taught at Harvard; I still consult my first edition (1955) of his compact Old Church Slavonic Grammar, admirably sensible and structuralist. You can read some reminiscences here. (Thanks, Cherie!)


I am deeply grateful to the blogger at Particularly in Burma for first reposting the wonderful anecdote recounted by slawkenbergius in this contentious thread (“my uncle, who lives in Israel, sent me this great story…”) and then, in today’s post, translating it from Russian, saving me the trouble. So instead of producing and posting my own translation of a hilarious story that gave me a much-needed laugh that day, I can just send you there, adding only that getting the joke depends on awareness of the beginning of Pushkin’s Ruslan i Lyudmila: ‘By a sea-cove [stands] a green oak,/ on that oak a golden chain,/ and day and night a learned tomcat/ walks on the chain around [the oak]. If he walks to the right, he starts singing a song; if to the left, he tells a fairytale.’ These are some of the most famous lines in Russian poetry, and any Russian with more than a minimal education knows them by heart.

While I’m at it, let me highly recommend to readers who know Russian the latest post at Anatoly’s blog, in which he asked readers to describe their experiences with Soviet elections. I’ve read all three pages of the thread, and it’s a fascinating look at one aspect of Soviet life. Everyone remembers the holiday atmosphere and the spread of hard-to-find items (sausages, books, etc.) offered as inducements for voting (i.e., dropping the ballot into the urn—there was, of course, no choice of candidates); opinions differ on how widespread failure to vote was and what the consequences were (apparently none in the last years of the USSR, but older people remembered the harsher conditions of Stalin’s day). I particularly recommend this lively comment by drakosha_ru about what voting was like in a small town in 1958.


Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 has astonished me yet again. Back in 2003 I posted about Eugene Garfield’s 1975 effort to get Russians to “give up their ugly Cyrillic … for the flexible, international Roman alphabet.” Now, in Chapter 5 of Martin, I learn that there was a serious project along those lines decades earlier:

The main obstacle to NA [the new latinized alphabet]’s world mission, within the Soviet Union at least, was the Russian alphabet. There had been some talk after the Revolution of latinizing the Russian alphabet, but nothing came of it. In 1929, with a second wave of utopian internationalism rising, the subject was again broached. Lunacharskii wrote several articles in support of latinizing Russian. Like Agamali-Ogly [an Azerbaijani revolutionary who led the campaign for latinization of the Turkic languages], he claimed he had Lenin’s endorsement. Most important, Lunacharskii helped put the educational bureaucracy behind the idea. On October 19, 1929, Uchitelskaia gazeta (Teachers’ Newspaper) published a discussion article on the latinization of the Russian alphabet. A month later, Izvestiia announced plans to reform the Russian orthography. Three committees had been formed within the Scientific Department of the Education Commissariat: on orthography, spelling, and the latinization of the Russian alphabet. At the same time, another committee was formed within the Council on Defense and Labor (STO) to deal with the publishing consequences of the proposed reforms. At least one of its members also publicly advocated latinization. The Communist Academy, an early supporter of latinization, hosted an exhibition devoted to the new alphabet, which showed how under the russificatory Tsarist regime the Russian alphabet had expanded outward, and how under the new progressive Soviet regime its domain was continually contracting. This flurry of activity suggested that the latinization of Russian was being seriously considered.

The idea was quickly quashed (in “a laconic Politburo resolution of January 25 1930”), but that it was taken seriously for even a time is amazing.
By the way, as Jongseong Park said in this thread, Korean was one of the languages for which latinization was proposed, as was Chinese:

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One of the few literary critics I both respected and always enjoyed reading has died at 90: Frank Kermode, for whom John Mullan wrote a good obituary in The Guardian. A few excerpts:

This was what he did best, and with grace: unravelling the ways in which ideas worked in literature. Some of the poets to whom he was most drawn were, indeed, self-consciously difficult: John Donne, on whom he published a book in 1957; Wallace Stevens, whom he, in effect, introduced to an English readership in a study published in 1960, and whose “lucid, inescapable rhythms” often return in Kermode’s criticism.
While at Reading he also wrote his major work of the 1950s, Romantic Image (1957), which secured his intellectual reputation. It was an account of the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism, with the poetry of Yeats at its heart. With its easy erudition, but not a footnote in sight, this book seems a long way from today’s average academic output. In range it is huge, reaching into European and classical literature, aesthetic philosophy as well as poetry, verse from the Renaissance as well as the 19th and 20th centuries – yet in tone it is modest, provisional (it calls itself an essay). Learning with a certain lightness was his style. […]
He had become surer and surer that literary theory, which he had once invited into the seminar room, was strangling the understanding and love of literature. He had come to think that many university teachers and leading critics of literature, particularly in America, had no “appetite for poetry”. Earlier works from the 80s, Forms of Attention (1985) and History and Value (1988), had explored the need for a literary canon – a core of especially valuable works of the imagination to which we can keep returning. Now he believed that theory, frozen into formula, was the addiction of academic critics “who seem largely to have lost interest in literature as such”. Thus, a final irony: a man who had been one of the country’s leading literary theorists became a scathing critic – sometimes satirist – of literary theory’s self-importance.

Via Helen DeWitt’s paperpools.
Addendum. Like Helen, I had been saying ker-MODE all my life (and that is the only pronunciation given in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names), but apparently Kermode pronounced his name with stress on the first syllable, so I shall retrain myself.


Mark Brown has a story at The Guardian about Stephen Pax Leonard, a Cambridge University researcher who’s off to Greenland to document the language and traditions of an Inuit community:

Leonard, an anthropological linguist, is to spend a year living with the Inughuit people of north-west Greenland, a tiny community whose members manage to live a similar hunting and gathering life to their ancestors. They speak a language – the dialect is called Inuktun – that has never fully been written down, and they pass down their stories and traditions orally.
“Climate change means they have around 10 or 15 years left,” said Leonard. “Then they’ll have to move south and in all probability move in to modern flats.” If that happens, an entire language and culture is likely to disappear.[…]
The Inughuits thought they were the world’s only inhabitants until an expedition led by the Scottish explorer John Ross came across them in 1818.
Unlike other Inuit communities they were not significantly influenced by the arrival of Christianity in Greenland – so they retain elements of a much older, shamanic culture […] Their language is regarded as something of a linguistic “fossil” and one of the oldest and most “pure” Inuit dialects.[…]
Leonard intends to record the Inughuits and, rather than writing a grammar or dictionary, produce an “ethnography of speaking” to show how their language and culture are interconnected. The recordings will be digitised and archived and returned to the community in their own language.

I’m not sure why creating an “ethnography of speaking” would keep you from writing a grammar or dictionary, which it seems to me could be useful to the community as well, but I wish him well in his frigid journey (“Although the average temperature is −25C, it can plummet to −40 or soar to zero in the summer”). Thanks, Doc Rock and Paul!


I’m still reading Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (see the previous post), and I want to quote some material from the start of Chapter 3, “Linguistic Ukrainization, 1923–1932.” Martin is explaining the policy of korenizatsiia, which he translates “indigenization” (it’s derived from the adjective korennoi, as used in the term korennoi narod ‘indigenous people’; I myself would prefer to transliterate it korenizatsiya, but it’s his book):

Korenizatsiia, as definitively formulated at party congresses in March 1921 and April 1923, consisted of two major tasks: the creation of national elites (Affirmative Action) and the promotion of local national languages to a dominant position in the non-Russian territories (linguistic korenizatsiia). Linguistic korenizatsiia would prove much more difficult to achieve. Between April 1923 and December 1932, central party and soviet organs issued dozens of resolutions urging the immediate implementation of linguistic korenizatsiia. Local republican and oblast authorities issued hundreds, if not thousands, of similar decrees. Nevertheless, linguistic korenizatsiia failed almost everywhere. Why?

Martin says he “initially assumed that central authorities must have been sending mixed signals, publicly trumpeting the need for immediate korenizatsiia while privately letting it be known that this public rhetoric was largely for show,” but this turned out not to be the case: not only the “soft-line bureaucracies” were urging it, but the hard-line organs “frequently rebuked local party organizations for failing to implement korenizatsiia.[…] Stalin publicly and privately defended korenizatsiia and silenced its critics. Despite this sustained central support, linguistic korenizatsiia failed. Why?”

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I’m barely fifty pages into Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 and it’s already clear to me that this is one of those basic works of scholarship that everyone dealing with the field has to come to terms with. As Raymond Pearson writes in his detailed review (which, along with Martin’s response, I urge anyone interested in the topic to read): “The Affirmative Action Empire is overwhelmingly a product of archive-based research. Martin’s positively Herculean labours in six historical archives in Moscow and another two in Ukraine have been rewarded with a rich and abundant harvest of hitherto-inaccessible primary documentation.” And the picture he puts together as a result is astonishing. Like everyone who’s studied the Soviet Union at all, I was aware that each official nationality was awarded its own territory in which its language would be taught and its customs maintained, but I had no idea how complex the system had been. How many such territorial units do you think there were? Fifty, a hundred, a few hundred? At its peak, tens of thousands. These ranged from the well-known union republics (e.g., Ukraine), autonomous republics (e.g., Tatarstan), and autonomous oblasts (e.g., Chechnya) down through autonomous okrugs, national districts, national village soviets, and national kolkhozes “until they merged seamlessly with the individual’s personal nationality” (as recorded in everyone’s passport). This system, established in the mid-1920s and elaborated in the 1930s, was called raionirovanie ‘regionalization, division into raions or districts.’
The rationale for the system was the need to resolve a dilemma of Marxism-Leninism: what do you do about nationalism? Theoretically, it was the product of a prior stage of history and was superseded by the rise of the proletariat and the move to socialism, but—as Lenin and the other early Bolsheviks were well aware—however retrograde nationalist feelings were, people were very attached to them, and to try to repress them would lead to massive revolt on the part of non-Russians who felt that the Revolution had only brought a new form of tsarist “Great Russian chauvinism.” So one possible solution, assimilation, was out. Another, the strategy of “extraterritorial national-cultural autonomy” championed by Austrian Marxists like Otto Bauer, called for “non-national administrative territories and for special representative bodies, elected by all members of a given nationality,” but this was rejected as well; the Bolsheviks insisted on a strictly territorial definition of nationality. The solution was “the strategy of ethno-territorial proliferation” in which the system of national units was extended “downward into smaller and smaller territories, the smallest being the size of a single village.” (In Ukraine there were thirteen Czech village soviets, three Albanian, and one Swedish; in Leningrad Oblast there were Norwegian, Jewish, and Chinese national kolkhozes.) They hoped this would put an end to nationalism (the idea being that if, say, ethnic Germans were being oppressed by other ethnic Germans in their own territory, it would sharpen class struggle rather than causing ethnic resentment); in fact, it exacerbated the problem, as could have been predicted by anyone not hampered by ideological blinders. But never mind that for the moment—I want to single out a couple of fascinating language-related bits. From pp. 49-50:

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MetaFilter user lapsangsouchong posted an interesting AskMetaFilter question: “Which of the thousands of neologisms coined in the Turkish language reforms of the 1920s and 30s stuck, which ones didn’t—and why?” In the course of the discussion he posted this fascinating anecdote:

The word günaydın, ‘good morning’ or ‘good day’, was coined at this time and achieved widespread currency. But it was one of a pair, with tünaydın, ‘good afternoon’. This has achieved absolutely no currency except in schools. In the morning, when the teacher comes into class, the children stand up, the teacher says “Günaydın!” to them, and they say the same thing back; and in the afternoon, when the class comes back after lunch, the same ritual is repeated but with the word “Tünaydın!” Outside this context the word is never used. The explanation my friend suggested is that while gün was and is the normal word for day, so the new coinage (which literally means something like ‘bright day!’) made sense, tün was one of the ‘new old’ coinages, an ‘authentic’ ancient Turkish word… which no-one ever used. So a new word formed from tün had less chance of sticking than a new word formed from gün, despite 65 years* of teachers saying it to their classes every day after lunch.
*According to Nişanyan it was coined by the TDK in 1945. Bizarrely, Nişanyan has tünaydın but not—except in the entry for tünaydıngünaydın.

Anybody know more about this?
By the way, “Nişanyan” is Sevan Nişanyan, who among his other books has written a Turkish etymological dictionary that is available in online form.


The Bodleian Library announces a new publication, The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699:

The first dictionary of slang, out of print for 300 years, is being published by the Bodleian Library from a rare copy unearthed in its collections.
Originally entitled A New Dictionary of Terms, Ancient and Modern, of the Canting Crew, its aim was to educate the polite London classes in ‘canting’ – the language of thieves and ruffians – should they be unlucky enough to wander into the ‘wrong’ parts of town.
With over 4,000 entries, the dictionary contains many words which are now part of everyday parlance, such as ‘Chitchat’ and ‘Eyesore’ as well as a great many which have become obsolete, such as the delightful ‘Dandyprat’ and ‘Fizzle’. […]
Playfully highlighting similarities and contrasts between words, B.E. [the anonymous author] includes entries ranging from rogues’ cant, through terms used by sailors, labourers, and those in domestic culture, to words and phrases used by the upper classes.

The Sample Entries include Arsworm “a little diminutive Fellow,” Buffenapper “a Dog-stealer, that Trades in Setters, Hounds, Spaniels, Lap, and all sorts of Dogs, Selling them at a round Rate, and himself or Partner Stealing them away the first opportunity,” and Grumbletonians “Malecontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one.” Thanks for the link, AJP!


Having finished my rereading of Platonov’s Kotlovan (see this post), I find myself more moved than ever by the ending, but I don’t really have anything more to say about the novel as a whole, so I’ll quote this section from A Companion to Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, by Thomas Seifrid:

Reading Platonov is a matter of learning to set aside expected clichés and perceive what is truly there.[…] It was for this reason that the typists who had to prepare Platonov’s manuscripts for publication would request triple the normal rate of pay—not because of his handwriting, which was clear enough; but because it was impossible with his texts, as it was possible for other writers, to remember an entire phrase by looking at its first few words. Every word had to be checked painstakingly to make sure the typescript followed what Platonov had written.

If you think about it, that’s a pretty impressive tribute to a writer.