Archives for October 2010


Két Sheng has a post at Poemas del río Wang that discusses the propensity of some Renaissance writers to proclaim the stylistic similarity of their own languages to Hebrew (which of course was considered the original language of the Garden of Eden), ending as follows:

Pei Di thinks that the discovery that the translator’s own language is the closest one in its style and metaphors to the Hebrew, may have been general in this period. “If you regularly read 16th-century vernacular literature in more than one language, you will clearly see that their archaic way of speaking still used many metaphors in every vernacular. The contemporaries, however, usually knew only their own vernacular version to the extent to realize this, while the common school Latin was in fact poor in metaphors. This is why, when they discovered the richness of Hebrew figurative language, they may have felt that they found the closest relative of their own mother tongue, certainly in style, and perhaps also regarding its its origins.”
Was this idea, the stylistic closeness of the various vernaculars to Hebrew, really so widespread in the Renaissance? We want to ask for the help of the polyglot readers of Río Wang in this question. If you have ever encountered any contemporary declaration on the similarity between the Hebrew language and any Renaissance vernacular, please share it with us.

I thought it was a striking hypothesis and a good question, so I’m passing it along.


A reader in an e-mail wonders “whether any of those translator pens really work”:

Have you seen them? You can scan a word or a line of text and it’ll OCR it and it’ll give you a translation. … I tried googling for reviews but I haven’t found any sources that look reliable. So I thought of asking people I knew, and then I thought of the LH community, because if anyone would be interested in a pen that translates into 30 different languages, it would be you and the people like me who frequent your website.

As I responded, “I never heard of such a thing (sounds like the flying cars and tricorders we were supposed to have by now), but then I’m very much out of step with the twenty-first century.” So I’ll pass along his questions: Do you have any personal experience with them? Do any of them work reasonably well for translating single words, especially in the more heavily inflected languages? (My correspondent doesn’t care about translating phrases, though supposedly some of them can do this too.)


The basic tool of a copyeditor in the U.S. is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Of course there are times when one needs to consult the OED, specialized reference sources, and the Great God Google, but for basic “how is this word spelled” situations, that’s the book to have at hand (yes, you can check their Online Dictionary as well, but it doesn’t have all the material in I’m a fuddy-duddy and prefer the physical book). As I flip through looking for a particular entry, I tend to notice the guide words at the top of each page (Shangri-la and shittim always bring a smile, for different reasons), and sometimes I wind up investigating them to the detriment of efficient copyediting. Such a word is serviceberry. I’d seen it more than once and vaguely wondered about the odd name; this time I focused on it and discovered an interesting story.
The “service” involved has nothing to do with helping others; it’s the Collegiate‘s 4service, “an Old World tree (Sorbus domestica) resembling the related mountain ashes but having larger flowers and larger edible fruit; also: a related Old World tree (S. torminalis) with bitter fruits,” and the word was originally serves, the plural of serve, Old English syrfe, from Vulgar Latin *sorbea, a popular equivalent of Latin sorbus ‘service (tree).’ The OED’s first citation for service is 1530 PALSGR[AVE] 265/1 Sarves, tree, alisier; you can see the last gasp of the old plural before it was reinterpreted in Robert Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy I. ii. II. i. 92 “Nuts, Medlers, Serues, &c.”


Jan Freeman is another consistently excellent writer I should link to more often; her column on “could(n’t) care less” is so compendious that I will never have to address the issue myself. Her conclusion is exemplary: “Last month in Reader’s Digest, this month in the Simmons College Voice, all over the Web, sober professionals and spelling-impaired amateurs continue to insist that ‘I could care less’ really must mean ‘I care to some extent.’ But it doesn’t; it never has; it never will.” And along the way she has a delightful overview of the peeves of our forefathers:

Among the peeves of 100 years ago, there are plenty of short-lived scandals, nits nobody has picked since the Treaty of Versailles. Usagists once scorned ovation (for “applause”) because the word “really” meant a minor Roman triumph. Dirt was supposed to mean “filth,” not good clean soil. Reliable was called a “monstrous” coinage, practitioner “a vulgar intruder.” But none of these rulings had much effect.
In our time, bemused has quietly shifted its sense from “befuddled” to something like “wryly or quizzically amused.” Apparently everyone finds it more useful in its new role, because objections (though they have been recorded) are relatively rare. The transition from “was graduated from college” (once the proper form) to “graduated from,” in the 19th century, met little resistance, and the 20th-century move to the simpler “graduated college” is well underway.
Other peeves just won’t die. Aggravate was aggravating Latin-minded usage writers in the 1860s, and you still hear from people who think it should mean only “make worse,” not “annoy.” Other issues nearing the 150-year mark are the propriety of “there’s two more,” the use of decimate to mean “destroy,” and the debate between “taller than I” and “taller than me.” Compared to these hardy perennials, “could care less” is a mere sprout.

You think the language is going to hell in a handbasket? Me, I could care less.

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There was much talk, a couple of months ago, about a NYT Times Magazine article called “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” by Guy Deutscher (whose earlier book I discussed here and here). I didn’t read it, because I knew Metropolitan Books was sending me a copy of the book it was based on, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. The book arrived in due course, and now that I’ve finished reading it I’m filing my report.

As I expected, this is a very good book, and I hope a lot of people read it. Deutscher has a gift for explaining difficult issues in a way that most people should be able to follow not only with comprehension but with enjoyment; his robust sense of humor is certainly an asset here. Furthermore, the subject of his book, the ways in which languages may influence the thoughts of their speakers, is such a contentious one, and its history is so full of scholarly errors and downright nonsense, that it took a brave man to wade into it at all. I don’t think all the parts of the book are equally successful, but he certainly doesn’t fall into any of the obvious traps, and for that alone he is to be commended (and perhaps issued a Medal of Courage).

The thing is, this is not really a single book except in the sense that it is all crammed into one set of covers. It is two different books separated by a barely relevant rant. The first book, and the one that is of most interest to me, is his Part I: The Language Mirror. This is a fascinating investigation of the history of how the Western intellectual world has dealt with color and how people see it, and how they saw it long ago. He starts with William Gladstone and his 1858 Studies On Homer And The Homeric Age, a massive three-volume work that was savaged by reviewers (the Times regretted that “so much fertility should be fertility of weeds, and that so much eloquence should be as the tinkling cymbal and the sounding brass”). The bit that is of interest here is what Deutscher calls “one unassuming chapter, tucked away at the end of the last volume” (you can read it at Google Books) titled “Homer’s Perceptions and Use of Colour.” Deutscher says (and this will give you a sample of his style):

Gladstone’s scrutiny of the Iliad and the Odyssey revealed that there is something awry about Homer’s descriptions of color, and the conclusions Gladstone draws from his discovery are so radical and so bewildering that his contemporaries are entirely unable to digest them and largely dismiss them out of hand. But before long, Gladstone’s conundrum will launch a thousand ships of learning, have a profound effect on the development of at least three academic disciplines, and trigger a war over the control of language between nature and culture that after 150 years shows no sign of abating.

As he sums it up, “what Gladstone was proposing was nothing less than universal color blindness among the ancient Greeks.” He goes on to discuss Lazarus Geiger, who “reconstructed a complete chronological sequence for the emergence of sensitivity to different prismatic colors” and asked the crucial question “Can the difference between [the ancient Greeks] and us be only in the naming, or in the perception itself?” Then there was Hugo Magnus, who decided sensitivity to colors had been evolving since ancient times, and William Rivers (Siegfried Sassoon’s World War I psychiatrist), who studied the color sense of the Torres Strait Islanders. In the chapter “Those Who Said Our Things Before Us,” he brings the story up to the present, discussing the well-known findings of Berlin and Kay. Most of this is long-forgotten history, dug up and recounted with riveting enthusiasm, and I would happily recommend the book based on this part alone.

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Great news, via Dwight Garner at the New York Times: the new editor of the Paris Review, Lorin Stein, has “made the entire run of The Paris Review’s storied interview series, previously almost impossible to find in electronic form, available there, free for the browsing.” Just go here and splash around to your heart’s content. I confess I never had much interest in the Paris Review otherwise, but the interviews are classic, and I doff my hat and bow deeply in Stein’s direction for this generous act.


Eve Léonard, of the lovely city of Montréal, wrote me to ask about a verb she had just encountered, “to intricate.” As she says, the Urban Dictionary defines it as follows: “to bring people on board or to get them onside with an idea or a proposal or an initiative of some type by getting them intricated into the process bit by bit, almost without their noticing that they are making a commitment.” They quote this example of usage: “First we’ll get the League’s Board of Governors intricated then we’ll get the franchise!” She suggests that it might be a backformation from “extricate,” and this seems like it must be correct. (The OED has an obsolete verb of the same form, having the senses “render intricate” and “entangle or ensnare”: 1579 Geoffrey Fenton, The historie of Guicciardini 227 “The Frenchmen beginning to intricate and intangle themselues, fell to flying.” The latter sense is similar, but the new usage is obviously a separate development.) Like “prepone,” it’s logical and self-explanatory, and I have no problem with it (not that the English language would give a fig if I did). So I ask the assembled multitudes: are you familiar with it, and do you use it yourself?


Sashura sent me a link to this NYT obituary by Margalit Fox of Sol Steinmetz, “a lexicographer, author and tenured member of Olbom (n., abbrev., < On Language’s Board of Octogenarian Mentors)”; Ms. Fox lards the obit with as many word histories (“his surname is the Yiddish word for stonemason”) as she can, and I’m sure its subject would have loved it. An excerpt:

An ordained rabbi, Mr. Steinmetz was a particular authority on Yiddish, in all its kvetchy beauty. His books on the subject include “Yiddish and English: A Century of Yiddish in America” (University of Alabama, 1986) and “Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish” (Simon & Schuster, 2002; with Payson R. Stevens and Charles M. Levine).
Mr. Steinmetz was a keen etymologist. In interviews and his own writings, he expounded ardently on the pedigrees of words like “klutz” (from Middle High German klotz, “block, log,” via Yiddish) and “clone” (from the Greek klon, “twig”), which entered English as a noun in 1903.
He was also a master of the first citation, scouring centuries of literature and decades of the airwaves to determine precisely when a particular word or phrase made its debut. “Suit,” in the sense of a bureaucrat, for instance, he traced to the television show “Cagney and Lacey” in 1982.

Before he became a lexicographer in the late 1950s, he worked as a cantor (he “had a fine tenor voice”) and as a rabbi (in Media, Pa.); the obit ends with this wonderful passage: “‘He never had a bad word to say about anyone,’ said Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and a former protégé. ‘And he knew a lot of bad words.'” Alevasholem.
Addendum. Z. D. Smith has sent me a link to this Log post announcing the death of the linguist and Yiddishist Ellen F. Prince; he left the first comment on that post, talking about her “combination of erudition and communicative humanity on nearly every topic.”


The excellent Bathrobe (aka Bademantel and various other variants) has sent me a couple of enjoyable BBC News links on typefaces, which I hereby share with you.
Making things hard to read ‘can boost learning’, by Cordelia Hebblethwaite: “Researchers at Princeton University employed volunteers to learn made-up information about different types of aliens – and found that those reading harder fonts recalled more when tested 15 minutes later. They argue that schools could boost results by simply changing the font used in their basic teaching materials.” Makes sense to me; one reason I enjoy reading Russian is that I have to work harder at it, which means that I don’t skim as I do in English, and therefore retain more.
Do typefaces really matter?, by Tom de Castella, who provides a collection of quotes on the topic, ranging from positive (“Selecting a font is like getting dressed, Ms Strawson says. Just as one chooses an outfit according to the occasion, one decides on a font according to the kind of message you are seeking to convey”) to negative (“Mr Battista concludes that the font has been elevated to an absurdly high cultural status by a small, self-indulgent elite”). Frothy but fun.


I don’t link to Poemas del río Wang as often as I probably should, because I figure everyone goes there as regularly as I do. But sometimes I just can’t resist. His post Man with a cat begins: “As in China with the ascension of each new emperor the years started being counted from zero, so the time of Studiolum is divided by the protagonists of the projects following each other. … The era that began in this March is marked by the name of the greatest Hungarian Iranologist Sándor Kégl (1862-1920).” This guy Kégl makes me feel lazy and stupid:

The knowledge of foreign languages was self-evident in his family whose members spoke and wrote to each other just as often in English or French as in Hungarian. Nevertheless, Sándor surpassed everyone. To the astonishment of his professors, already at high school he read all literature in the original – Latin, Greek, German, English, French, Italian – languages, and in the following four years he perfectly acquired Russian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese. After the main European languages he turned to the Oriental ones, and mastered Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Tatar and Sanskrit. He kept learning languages all along his life: he learned a number of other Iranian and Indian languages, living and dead Scandinavian dialects, and during WWI he even learned Chuvash and Mordvin from the captive soldiers of the Russian army working on his estates.

He studied with Ármin Vámbéry, another amazing polyglot, and went off to Persia to study the language and collect manuscripts, which he later edited and published.

On his return he became a private lecturer of Persian language and literature at the University of Budapest, but he also taught Indology and held comparative courses in Persian and Sanskrit epic poetry – all for passion, without any remuneration. Twice a week he made the equipage harnessed, went to the local railway station, then from the Eastern Railway Station of Budapest he went by droshky to the university. After his lessons he immediately returned to his estates where he spent the largest part of his time by learning languages, reading, writing essays and increasing his library. It is typical of the period that the bookshops of the nearest little town immediately provided him with the most recent scholarly books and reviews from all over the world, from London through Saint-Petersburg to India.

What a life! There are, of course, the numerous images one expects at río Wang, as well as links that could easily eat up a day or more if you explored them as they deserve, and the post ends with a series of photos of “the veritable lords of the estate: the cats.”

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