LITERALS.

In the longest LH thread ever, AJP asked about the meaning of “literals” in “However, there are a number of literals in here, which is a shame. What has become of editing within publishing houses?” I explained that it was an old-fashioned (though evidently not obsolete) word for, as the OED puts it, “A misprint of a letter.” (See this Log thread for more.) I also provided a couple of citations, the first of which was “1622 R. HAWKINS Voy. S. Sea [170] Errata sic corrige… The litteralls are commended to favour.” Whereupon marie-lucie said “even after seeing the definition I am not sure what this means: The litteralls are commended to favour.” I responded “I don’t understand it either, and it’s not in any of the editions of Hawkins’s Voyage into the South Sea accessible through Google Books (the 1622 edition isn’t available, presumably because it was reprinted in 1968, but without this text!).” Then it occurred to me that 1) not that many people were reading the thread any longer, and 2) there was no point adding to its length with this particular derail. So I’m giving it its own post. Any ideas about what “The litteralls are commended to favour” might mean? And while we’re on the subject, are you familiar with this sense of literal?
Update. I should have known better than to allow myself the indulgence of eating dinner before posting this; Noetica has already solved the mystery in the other thread:

[Read more...]

BELLA AKHMADULINA, RIP.

I was shocked to learn from the NY Times obituary (by William Grimes) that Bella Akhmadulina died yesterday at what now seems to me (as I approach 60) the absurdly early age of 73. You can read translations of some of her poems en face with the originals here; when I have more leisure I’d like to translate one or two myself. When I was a college student just beginning to splash around in Russian, I neglected Akhmadulina, who seemed timid and staid to me next to my favorite Voznesensky; many years later I realized she was the better poet, her use of traditional forms no more indicating timidity than Brodsky’s. (Incidentally, I was quite taken aback by the quote from Sonia I. Ketchian in the obit: “She was one of the great poets of the 20th century. There’s Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam and Pasternak — and she’s the fifth.” I’m not sure which is the more charitable assumption, that she doesn’t think Brodsky is Russian because he left the country or whether she simply forgot his name for the moment.) For a wonderful examination of one of her poems, I refer you to this article by Alexander Anichkin, known to LH readers as Sashura.
Update. Mikhail Kaluzhsky writes about Akhmadulina’s death, followed by a discussion by commenters. (In Russian.)

MUCHEMBLED.

I just ran across a reference to the historian Robert Muchembled, and of course wondered about the origin of that odd family name, which didn’t look especially French. So I googled and googled, and was about to give up when I got a hit on Google Books for J. B. Jouancoux, Études pour servir à un glossaire étymologique du patois picard (Jeunet, 1880), p. 214, at the end of the entry for mucher ‘cacher [to hide]‘: “Le nom de famille Muchembled, cache-en-blé, est assez répandu en Picardie” [The family name Muchembled, 'hide-in-wheat,' is fairly widespread in Picardy]. So that answers that. My questions are: Does anybody know if the final -d in the name is silent, as is implied by its equivalence to blé? And what is the difference in use between blé and froment, which are both defined as ‘wheat’?
Update. Fernand Carton, a linguist specializing in Picard, says that embler in Old Picard meant ‘to steal,’ so that the name was originally Muchemblé ‘one who hides stolen goods,’ a sobriquet embarrassing enough that it was disguised with the -d and reinterpreted as ‘hide-in-grain.’ Authoritative and satisfying, and I thank Geraint (see comments below) for contacting Professor Picard and passing on the results.

INTERVIEW WITH DAVID HARRISON.

The Economist’s “Johnson” language blog has an interview with linguist K. David Harrison (see this LH post from last year), in which he has interesting things to say about languages and their preservation; here’s one snippet:

In indigenous cultures we observe the decline of languages and lifeways occurring in parallel. There’s an astonishing book called “Watching Ice and Weather Our Way,” co-authored by Yupik elders and scientists. In it, the Yupik elders describe, define and draw sketches of 99 distinct types of sea ice formations which their language gives specific names to.
Their climate science astounds with its precision, predictive power, and depth of observation. Modern climate scientists have much to learn from it. As the Arctic ice melts, and new technologies like snowmobiles advance, Yupik ice-watching becomes the passion of the elderly few. Their knowledge of ice, their words for it, and the hunting skills and lifeways are all receding in tandem with the Yupik language itself.

Thanks, Kári!

THE BOOKSHELF: COGNITIVE POETICS AND CULTURAL MEMORY.

I wrote briefly about Mikhail Gronas in my account of the Brodsky symposium last month, and at greater length in this post about his article “Why Did Free Verse Catch on in the West, but not in Russia?” Well, that article is a chapter in his book Cognitive Poetics and Cultural Memory: Russian Literary Mnemonics, brand new from Routledge, which has been good enough to send me a review copy, and I’m happy to say the whole thing more than lives up to the free-verse article. In fact, it’s one of those rare works that gives me hope that literary theory still has the potential to say new and interesting things.
I realize the title sounds off-puttingly academic, so to balance that I will quote the first line of the introduction: “Have you ever thought about why lovemaking tends to be pleasurable?” The answer, of course, is that “a species whose mating happens to be boring and tiresome would die off quick as a wink.” This leads into memetic theory and the statement that “cultural evolution does not care about our joys, but is very keen on replication and perpetuation”; personally, I’ve never found the “meme” idea compelling except as an occasionally useful metaphor, but if it helped Gronas give his thoughts form, I’m all for it. As always, he displays his eye for the striking quote; here’s Walter J. Ong, from his Orality and Literacy (a book I’ll obviously have to read), on how to retain your thoughts if you’re preliterate:

The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence.

We are, of course, no longer preliterate, but Gronas points out:

A written literary culture still faces a virtually boundless universe of cultural artifacts, all competing for the limited resources of society’s attention and memory. Just because a work is written down, printed, or posted online offers no guarantee that it will even be noticed, much less remembered. The only thing that it ensures is a longer (and possibly eternal) physical existence. In order to survive culturally, a text must still have certain mnemonic qualities, no less so than an ancient epos or a folksong: it must comply with the demands of individual readers’ memories and fit in with the mechanisms of institutionalized cultural memory, also known as the literary canon.

And his book is an exploration of those mnemonic qualities, which his own prose (most unusually for an academic) frequently displays, especially when he’s talking about poetry: “An internalized poem—frequently read and, ideally, memorized—provided names and patterns for fuzzy and formless internal events and thus anchored them in memory. A lyrical poem maps your soul.” He ends his introduction with a charmingly frank admission that he may have gone a bit overboard: “If some daring reader of this introduction had committed herself to having a drink every time she came across the word ‘mnemonic,’ I surely lost her quite a few pages ago.[...] And one needs no statistics to suspect that what has been presented here amounts to something like mnemonic reductionism.” But he has an apposite quote for this occasion as well, from Douglas Hofstadter:

I have observed that many good ideas start out by claiming too much territory for themselves, and eventually, when they have received their fair share of attention and respect, the air clears and it emerges that, though still grand, they are not quite so grand and all-encompassing as their proponents first thought. But that’s all right. As for me, I just hope that my view finds a few sympathetic readers. That would be a fine start.

[Read more...]

HEBREW SLANG.

From the oldest Hebrew to the newest: the Forward had Judith Shulevitz, “a cultural critic and magazine editor who helped to start both Slate and Lingua Franca,” guest-edit a special section on Parsing Israeli Slang. At that page you will find links to Stuart Schoffman on haval al hazman ‘It’s a waste of time,’ Janet Aviad on ha-matzav ‘the situation,’ Philologos on Sa l’shalom ‘You can go now’ (literally ‘Go in peace,’ a phrase with an ancient pedigree), Gail Hareven on hazui ‘weird’ (literally ‘hallucinated’), Toby Perl Freilich on freier ‘sucker, naif’ (there is no mention of the different but comparable Russian фраер fraer ‘noncriminal,’ which presumably has the same Yiddish origin), Ruvik Rosenthal on ha-medina ‘the state’ (not slang, but an interesting cultural analysis), and Yossi Klein Halevi on large—yes, the English word, but borrowed as a measure of character: “‘Tihiyeh large,’ Israelis exhort each other: ‘Be generous, expansive, grand.’” Thanks for the link, Scott!

THE INVENTION OF HEBREW.

Back in April, Douglas Mangum at Biblia Hebraica et Graeca had a tantalizing post briefly discussing The Invention of Hebrew, by Seth L. Sanders (2009), which Mangum calls the book that “best deals with the question of how, why, and when the Israelites started writing Hebrew and how that impacts our theories of biblical composition.” Now he’s posting a Q&A with Seth Sanders (Part 1, Part 2). It’s full of interesting stuff; among other things, he talks about an article by Sheldon Pollock, “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History”:

Pollock makes a very basic point: in most times and places people didn’t read or write the language they spoke. The norm is for there to be a universal, supposedly timeless, written language, what he calls a cosmopolitan language, one implicitly intended for everyone no matter who or where they were. Latin is an example.
So why does Israel’s language and literature outlast its polity? What Pollock points out is that local literatures are actually invented, usually in reaction to these cosmopolitan literatures. A light bulb goes on and people say, “Hey, why don’t we write about our place, our culture?” And what’s so remarkable is it seems to have happened in Western Europe around the 10th century CE when people moved from Latin and invented written German, French, and Spanish and in South Asia, when people moved from Sanskrit to Tamil and Javanese. I realized that maybe Hebrew was part of a similar movement but almost 2,000 years earlier. It means that the Bible may have a different historical significance than we’ve assumed.

I love this kind of thing. Thanks for the link, Paul!

PLUOT.

I’m tearing through last week’s New Yorker (trying to get as much of it read as I can before this week’s descends upon me), and I just finished Lauren Collins’s “Burger Queen: April Bloomfield’s gastropub revolution.” Well, I say “finished,” but in fact I skimmed the last couple of pages impatiently; there’s some interesting stuff in there (I had no idea carrots were purple until the Dutch discovered how to make them orange in the seventeenth century—until then, people didn’t like to cook with them because they turned everything they were cooked with purple), but it’s basically an overlong puff piece full of chummy references to celebrities and annoying statements like “What Friedman really wants is a tongue-in-cheek red-sauce Italian place.” But I did learn a new word, pluot, which is new not only to me but to the language, having been invented in 1988 by Floyd Zaiger. The online OED defines it as “A proprietary name for: (the fruit of) a complex hybrid between the plum, Prunus domestica (which provides a greater proportion of the parentage), and the apricot, Prunus armeniaca” (which shows us that unlike most publications, the OED does not abbreviate genus names after first mention); it’s pronounced PLOO-ot, and the first cite is:

1988 N.Y. Times 7 Aug. VI. 62/1 ‘Primarily we work with peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots.’ Lately the focus has been on the last two; Zaiger is cross-pollinating them, and what he has dubbed ‘pluots’ are on the way.

However, the magazine piece managed to annoy me even in teaching me the word, because it occurs in the sentence “In California, Bloomfield acquainted herself with American ingredients; she ate a pluot, and, she said, ‘my eyes rolled back into my head.’” Not only do they not bother to define a word that only their most dedicated foodie readers will be familiar with, they refer to it as an “American ingredient” as though it were a sweet potato rather than a newly created hybrid.
I should point out that despite my kvetching, the Food issue of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and this is no exception, with writers like Calvin Trillin, Jane Kramer, and Alexander Hemon (a hymn to borscht). I just have a low and ever decreasing tolerance for hype.

UTO-AZTECAN.

Uto-Aztecan, “A website for Uto-Aztecan Studies,” is a welcome new addition to the internet, and just the sort of thing that the internet is ideal for. Brian D. Stubbs, who created the site, writes:

Welcome to Uto-Aztecan.org, a website devoted to the comparative study of the Uto-Aztecan (UA) language family. Located in the southwestern United States and western Mexico, UA consists of some 30 related Native American languages descended from a common parent language that linguists now call Proto-Uto-Aztecan (PUA). Hopi, Ute, Pima, and Aztec/Nahuatl are among the better known of UA languages. The valuable works of many linguists are listed in the bibliography and some are discussed in the introduction accessible above and will be cited here increasingly over time, but the initial offerings are portions of the book, A Uto-Aztecan Comparative Vocabulary (by brian stubbs), available on this website, intended to encourage and facilitate the comparative study of Uto-Aztecan languages.
The book presently contains some 2650 Uto-Aztecan cognate sets (groups of related words), which is only the latest plateau of progress or new foundation for future research. After three decades of studying UA and compiling the book, I realized that an undertaking as large as a language family has no end, like running a race without a finish line. Each new discovery creates rows of ripples of adjustments to so much else, and there is no end to new discoveries[...]

You can read more at the Introduction page, and of course sample the various offerings of the site. (Thanks, Yoram!)

FROM FIFE TO RUSSIA.

I just discovered that this Edward Lear limerick:

There was an Old Person of Fife,
Who was greatly disgusted with life;
They sang him a ballad,
And fed him on salad,
Which cured that Old Person of Fife.

has been translated into Russian and, in my opinion, considerably improved; of course, this is bound to be the case with the removal of the tedious repetition in Lear’s last lines, but the outcome of the treatment is also more appealing to me:

Жил-был старичок у причала,
Которого жизнь удручала.
Ему дали салату
И сыграли сонату,
И немного ему полегчало.

Which, translated literally, is:

There was an old man [moored] at the pier,
who was dispirited by life.
They gave him salad
and played a sonata,
and he felt a little better.