Archives for September 2010


I wanted to like this book. Russian Life sent me a copy because it seemed right up my alley, and it is. Their publisher’s page says: “In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera (‘Faith’ in Russian) from the steppes of Central Asia to a remote, forest-bound community of Estonians, to the chaos of Moscow. … Peter Aleshkovsky’s work is remarkable for his commitment to the realistic novel tradition. Indeed, Fish is the first Russian novel to grapple with post-Soviet colonial ‘otherness’ without transposing it into a fantastic, post-apocalyptic realm or reducing it to black-and-white conflicts of the popular detective genres. Stylistically, Aleshkovsky’s prose most closely resembles the work of Vassily Aksyonov or Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, with its mastery of evocative detail and mystical undercurrents.” That all sounded promising; I had a collection of his stories and knew his prose wasn’t anything like Aksyonov’s, but what the heck, publishers gotta hype. When it arrived, I dug in expectantly.
It does in fact “grapple with post-Soviet colonial ‘otherness'” in a convincing and often enjoyable way; the desire to find out more about life in odd corners of the ex-USSR was largely what kept me going. Because the fact is that this isn’t a very good novel. The narrator is more of an abstract of Suffering Womanhood than she is an actual woman (the fact that they feel compelled to translate her name in the blurb is a bad sign), the plot is basically one damn thing after another, and the translation is… serviceable, with the proviso that it occasionally slips below the level of acceptable English (“Suddenly I flushed as if I hadn’t refreshed at all”; “I believed immediately him”) and doesn’t do a very good job with idiomatic usage (“How dare you say that, you hen!”). There’s a section of notes, and God knows I’m a sucker for notes, but these are often odd or pointless (the text has “a jenny is grazing,” and there’s a note pointing out not only that a jenny is a female donkey but that “a male is referred to as a ‘jack,'” as if the reader did not have access to an English dictionary; the city of Kurgan-Tyube is mentioned and footnoted “now called Qurghonteppa,” although other cities go without similar updates; the translator for some reason points out, in a note on the Abkhazian city of Pitsunda, that “Abkhazia, a northern separatist region in Georgia, has been recognized as an independent state by Russia and Nicaragua,” and at one point feels compelled to give the narrator a slap on the wrist: “The narrator is romanticizing—white markings have nothing to do with a horse’s pedigree”). And there are some bizarre renderings of foreign terms; the Muslim greeting is given as “Salam Aleichem” (to which I guess the appropriate response would be “Aleikum Shalom”), and a truck used to transport donkeys “to be turned into soap” is said to be called by locals “Oswiencim” (which a dutiful footnote explains is Polish for Auschwitz, except that the Polish name is actually Oświęcim, and why are you translating the Russian into bad Polish instead of using the name English readers know?). Oh, and not only is the narrator nicknamed “Fish” but a mention of fish gets slipped into just about every chapter, to increasingly irritating effect.
I could go on, but I think I’ve gotten off my chest what needed to be gotten off. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this translation; it gives a valuable look at a slice of post-Soviet life, and others may have more tolerance for the heavily symbolic than I. (For a different, though not much more favorable, view of the book, with more plot description, see Lisa’s review at Lizok’s Bookshelf from back in April.) And I certainly don’t want to discourage Russian Life from doing similar translations, which are much needed.
Addendum. I should add that my review is based on uncorrected proofs; I have not seen the final published version.


Stan Carey has another fine post at Sentence first (“An Irishman’s blog about the English language”) discussing John Honey’s 1989 book Does Accent Matter? The Pygmalion Factor. He has some excellent quotes and anecdotes (one of which shows that Evelyn Waugh was horrible even as a teenager); I’ll pass on this excerpt about how people were pressured to talk “properly”:

There is little evidence that, in boys’ public schools at least, [RP] was systematically taught. New boys with local accents were simply shamed out of them by the pressure of the school’s ‘public opinion’. The prep schools, having pupils at an earlier, more formative age, were very important in this respect. In the decades immediately following 1870 there was a time-lag before non-standard accents died out among masters (and indeed headmasters) in the leading public schools. New appointees could be, and were, screened for accent. The boys’ reaction to that minority with ‘suspect’ accents who got through this screening depended upon their general effectiveness as teachers: a weak disciplinarian would find that his accent became another stick with which they would beat or bait him. In a popular man, respected for his teaching or sporting gifts, mildly non-standard speech forms were tolerated — even humoured — as part of the idiosyncrasies of a ‘character’.

Apparently an RP accent was “among the main criteria for being a British army officer in the world wars of last century.” Sheesh.


Jessie Little Doe Fermino Baird, whom I mentioned here five years ago and is the subject of the article linked here, has been working for almost twenty years to revive the Wampanoag (or, more correctly, Wôpanâak) language, and I am pleased to learn from a Boston Globe story by Laura Collins-Hughes that she has won a MacArthur Fellows “genius grant” of $500,000:

Baird, one of the principal authors of a developing 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary, does not view her personal role in reviving the language as critical. Instead, she talks about the benefits of being able to speak the language of her ancestors. “The opportunity to hear what my fifth great-grandfather had to say, even though he’s gone, because he wrote it down, really is a powerful motivation,” she said.
She hopes to spend some of the money to hire an artist to illustrate some of the children’s books she has written in Wampanoag.

In related news, Zvjezdana Vrzic is trying to revive Vlashki, the language of Istrian Vlachs: New York City Linguist Gives Dying Language In Croatia A Fighting Chance.


Lameen Souag, of Jabal al-Lughat, doesn’t post often, but when he does it’s always worth reading. His latest post is about the “Kouriya” language spoken near Timimoun, Algeria, described in Rachid Bouchemit’s 1951 article “Le Kouriya du Gourara”:

“Kouriya”, it turns out, was the general-purpose name given locally to any Black African language – “L’unité du terme cache la pluralité des idiomes: Haoussa, Bambra, Foullan, Mouchi, Songhai, Bornou, Boubou, Gouroungou, Minka, Sarnou, Nourma, Kanembou, Karkawi, etc…”, in particular as spoken by ex-slaves in the region. Following the abolition of slavery, these languages, no longer reinforced by the arrival of new slaves, rapidly fell into disuse; the new generation learned Arabic and Taznatit instead. By 1951, the author could find only seven or eight speakers of a “Kouriya” in Timimoun, and only two of them spoke the same language, namely Bambara.

John A. Holm’s Pidgins and Creoles: Volume 2, Reference Survey (Cambridge University Press, 1989) has a brief mention on p. 554: “Hancock (1977b: 387-389) points out some mixed African languages about which little is known except for their (former) existence and location. These include Kouriya, ‘a variety of mongrel Sudanese dialects . . . spoken by slaves and their descendants at Gourara near Touat.'” Lameen suggests it might derive from Songhay koyra ‘town, village’; other possibilities are mentioned in the comments.


According to an AP story, the British Library is making more than a quarter of its collection of handwritten Greek texts available online free of charge:

Although the manuscripts — highlights of which include a famous collection of Aesopic fables discovered on Mount Athos in 1842 — have long been available to scholars who made the trip to the British Library’s reading rooms, curator Scot McKendrick said their posting to the web was opening antiquity to the entire world.

Ancient texts “have to be carefully cracked open and photographed one page at a time, a process the British Library said typically costs about 1 pound ($1.50) per page.” (Thanks, Bonnie!)


My pal Ken Robbins wrote to say he was “looking for a word to describe the psychological (semantic?) process whereby a word is drained of its meaning by mere repetition. Everyone (I think) knows the phenomenon. Say any word often enough and it begins to sound like…well, mere sound.” I’m pretty sure everyone does know the phenomenon; at any rate I certainly do, and I had vaguely wondered if there was a name for it, but Ken’s query prompted me to investigate, and it turns out it’s called semantic satiation, a term coined, according to that Wikipedia article, by Leon Jakobovits James in his 1962 doctoral dissertation at McGill University. So now you know.
Addendum. I’ve had to close this because of persistent spammers. I don’t know why a particular entry attracts persistent spam, but such is life. If you have a comment to make, e-mail me and I’ll reopen it.


August von Haxthausen’s Studien über die innern Zustände, das Volksleben und insbesondere die ländlichen Einrichtungen Russlands (1847-1852; Google Books), an account of his 1843 journey to Russia from the point of view of agricultural economics, is famous for its impact on the Russian intelligentsia—it jump-started the debate on the origin of the mir (commune), which so obsessed late-nineteenth-century Russia—so when I saw a used copy of an abridged English translation, Studies on the Interior of Russia, for a few dollars, I bought it, despite my suspicion that it would prove too dry for extended reading. Imagine my surprise when I found it readable and interesting; I’ve only read a couple of chapters, but I’ve already hit a passage on inns so striking I feel impelled to share it. This has significantly altered the way I envisioned premodern travel:

Now that we have settled down for the first time in a hostel in the Russian interior, I want to make some general remarks on the subject. The European inn was formerly unknown in Russia. Instead, Asiatic caravansaries were customary. These are large, empty, unfurnished buildings, where for a modest price the traveler can find shelter for himself and his animals but nothing more. There is no innkeeper in the real sense; beds are not to be had, and one has to provide one’s own food. It is impossible to speak of a friendly reception by the innkeeper or of the service. There are still such caravansaries in the southern part of the Russian Empire, in Astrakhan and the Caucasian provinces. Throughout these areas there are inns without lodging, where one can get prepared meals and tea or, in the regions around the Black Sea, Turkish coffee. Formerly, when Russians traveled in the interior they had everything they needed with them — beds, provisions, etc. With the spread of European civilization in Russia, European-style inns are being introduced, but only very gradually. Even in Petersburg there is no hotel which one could compare in terms of comfort with an inn in a moderate-sized German city on the Rhine. Hotel Demuth and Hotel Coulon in Petersburg can hardly be ranked with a third-class inn in Germany in respect to elegance and comfort, even though they look like huge palaces from the outside. The beds and furniture are poor, I would say almost shabby. Very seldom is there a table d’hôte. If one wants to eat something in the hotel, it has to be specially prepared. Occasionally the owner leases the restaurant rights. One can hardly speak of service. Moreover, it is scarcely worth the effort to furnish an inn elegantly, since it would be appreciated only by foreigners and consequently would not be very profitable. The modern hotels in Petersburg and Moscow are, moreover, run exclusively by Germans, French, and Englishmen. The Russian merchant still prefers the Russian inns resembling caravansaries; as in former times the Russian aristocrat continues to take along his beds, etc. The very wealthy aristocrat takes with him even his cook and everything he needs. He makes himself at home in the inn and has his servants buy all the provisions.

(I also created a Wikipedia article for Haxthausen, since, shockingly, he didn’t have even a stub.)
By the way, I would like to extend my deepest thanks to the anonymous LH readers who were kind enough to send me the copies of Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews and Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800 by Michael Khodarkovsky that turned up unexpectedly on my doorstep in recent days. You have made me a happy Languagehat indeed.
Update. I hit “Post” just before the mail truck came; when I went out to get the mail, I found a couple of surprises in the mailbox, Viktor Shklovsky’s Third Factory and Serguei Oushakine’s The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia, two more books I’ve been eager to read for some time. I’m starting to feel like the protagonist of Alan Nelson’s story “Narapoia“: “Well, I keep having this strange feeling that people are plotting to do me good. That they’re trying to be benevolent and kind toward me. I don’t know exactly who they are, or why they wish me all this kindness, but… it’s all very fantastic, isn’t it?” Yes, yes it is. Hattic blessings upon the benevolent!


The name of Tokyo until 1868 was Edo (江戸), pronounced /edo/. (Once upon a time, it was pronounced /yedo/, but we won’t get into Japanese historical phonology just now.) That’s not one of the more difficult foreign names; you’d think pretty much any English speaker with the slightest exposure to foreign languages would pronounce it correctly. And yet in Magic Tree House #37: Dragon of the Red Dawn, by Mary Pope Osborne, readers are explicitly told to pronounce it “EE-doh.”
Now, I like the Magic Tree House series a great deal. It concerns two children, Jack and Annie, who get sent on adventures from a magical tree house that appears near their home whenever Morgan le Fay needs their help. They go back to times and places ranging from the Late Cretaceous period to Ancient Egypt to New York City in 1938 to… well, you get the idea. The books are well researched and written in a lively and engaging style, and my six-year-old grandson (who is reading them himself, but still, thankfully, enjoys being read to) is learning a lot from them that he probably wouldn’t get from today’s history-averse schools. But when I hit that “pronounced EE-doh,” I got annoyed. I ignored it, of course, and read Edo with the correct pronunciation, but my grandson (who doesn’t miss a thing) said “I think it’s EE-doh.” I said “I know that’s what it says here, but it’s wrong.” He said “But that’s how they say it on the CD!” I said “But it’s still wrong. I lived in Japan, and I know.” He, bless his heart, knows his Grandpa Steve is the next best thing to omniscient and took my word for it, but I would like very much for the publisher to correct the error for the benefit of all those young readers who do not have access to Grandpa Steve. So I decided to send the publisher an e-mail about it and suggest they change it to EH-doh.
Guess what? The children’s department at Random House does not have an e-mail address, at least not one they’re willing to make public. The publisher’s contact page has e-mail addresses for most of their departments, but for kid’s books they want you to send an actual letter to Children’s Publishing, 1745 Broadway, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10019. As charmingly quaint as that is, I’m too lazy and impatient to do it. So I’ll use my bully pulpit and holler at them from here: Yo, Random House! You’re spreading falsehood! Do something about it! Sincerely, Grandpa Steve.


Oxford UP has published Jonathon Green’s magnum opus:

The three volumes of Green’s Dictionary of Slang demonstrate the sheer scope of a lifetime of research by Jonathon Green, the leading slang lexicographer of our time. A remarkable collection of this often reviled but endlessly fascinating area of the English language, it covers slang from the past five centuries right up to the present day, from all the different English-speaking countries and regions. Totaling 10.3 million words and over 53,000 entries, the collection provides the definitions of 100,000 words and over 413,000 citations. Every word and phrase is authenticated by genuine and fully-referenced citations of its use, giving the work a level of authority and scholarship unmatched by any other publication in this field.

I want one. But the damn thing costs $450.00.


I’m reading a long story by Andrei Platonov (see my post on his novel Kotlovan); the story is called “Впрок” (Vprok, ‘for future use/benefit’), and as far as I know has never been translated into English. Although it’s very much of a piece with Kotlovan, featuring a naive narrator who wanders among villages and collective farms describing people and stories who horrify us but not him (a fanatic named Upoev let his wife and children starve because “he directed all his forces and desires toward care for the poor masses”), it actually managed to get published in 1931 in Krasnaya nov’ [Red virgin soil], causing trouble for both Platonov and the journal (which was forced to print a “craven retraction,” as Thomas Seifrid calls it): “Stalin is reputed to have written ‘scum’ in the margin of the story … and to have said to Aleksandr Fadeev (later secretary of the Writers’ Union), ‘Give him a good beating—for future use.'” (From here.) I assume Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson will get around to translating it eventually, now that Platonov is in vogue.
But what I’m here to discuss is one word that isn’t in even my largest Russian-English dictionaries. Our hero has wandered into a village that has not yet been collectivized and is asking an old man why he is sitting outside his hut grieving; the old man responds:

Да как же не горевать, когда у всех есть, а у нас нету! Все уж давно организованы, а мы живем как анчутки! Нам так убыточно!
Well, how are you supposed to not grieve, when everybody has something, and we don’t! Everybody else got organized a long time ago, but we live like anchutki! That way it’s a loss for us!

Dahl has anchutki (oddly, only in the plural), defining it as ‘little devils’; fortunately, I found a mention in that marvelous repository of old Russian superstitions, The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia:

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