Archives for January 2011


I’ve finished my simultaneous readings of Bulgakov’s great novel (to my wife in English, on my own in Russian), and having read two different translations and now the original, I’m not sure what I can add to the reams that have been written about one of the most widely loved novels of the last century. One thing that struck me this time around was the great difference between the two halves of the book; my wife grew restive during the first half, with its heavy dose of Stalin-era satire, but got hooked when the book took flight (quite literally) in the second. It’s surprising how long it takes for the title characters to show up and take over, especially considering that the popularity of the book outside of Russia is (I have little doubt) almost entirely due to them, enjoyable as the devil’s magic tricks are. There are really at least two very different books crammed uneasily together: a wildly romantic story of love and madness, and an Ilf-and-Petrov-style comedy of social relations in 1930s Moscow, with a heavy emphasis on the stupid and corrupt cultural bureaucracy that caused Bulgakov himself so much trouble. And then of course there are the scenes set in the Jerusalem of two millennia ago, which have the reportorial sobriety one might expect rather in the modern sections—and in which the grim realities of Stalinist Russia, from denunciations to arrest by the secret service to torture and execution, are much more openly present (in the modern sections they are hinted at allusively). I’m not sure I can explain how it manages to hang together, but I feel it does. And it’s full of quotable nuggets, from the второй свежести (“of second freshness”) of the hapless and ill-fated bartender/buffet manager to the wonderful line “Вино какой страны вы предпочитаете в это время дня?” (“The wine of which country would you prefer at this time of day?”), which I once had occasion to quote in the Pálffy Palác restaurant in Prague to a woman besotted with Bulgakov and Mandelstam. I expect to read it again one day.


An AskMeFi post asks the intriguing question:

In the film Black Narcissus, the nuns are referred to directly with a formal address that sounds like “lemony.” What is it? You can hear Joseph say it here three times very clearly, at 5:15 and forward. It is used for all the nuns.

A comment in the ensuing thread says:

Yes, it says “Lemini” in the book, so it’s Rumer Godden’s choice, not Powell’s or Pressburger’s. Rumer Godden spent her childhood in Narayanganj, now-Bangladesh. So even though the setting of the book is the Darjeeling area, and presumably the nuns would have been speaking Bengali or Hindi or Nepali, she may have used an honorific familiar to her from one of the other languages of now-Bangladesh.

Since no further information has turned up there, I thought I’d ask my multilingual readers to weigh in. Anybody know what language this word might be, and what its literal meaning is?


Back in 2003, I posted about the whistling language of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. The links there are dead now, so I’ll link to this short piece, where you can hear a sample of this remarkable form of communication. (Thanks, Paul!)


Ben Slade has a post at Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa with a very interesting suggestion, that godspeed (first attested in Tyndale’s 1526 Bible translation, 2 John 10 : “Yf ther come eny vnto you and bringe not this learninge him receave not to housse: neither bid him God spede”) was originally “a compound word, formed of good+speed, which was later reanalysed as God+speed, whence back-formations like God spede (ye), with spede being reanalysed as a causative (i.e. ‘may (he) cause you to be successful’).” This depends on a phonological change in Middle English whereby long vowels in nonfinal close syllables were shortened (e.g. sheep: shepherd, wise: wisdom, Christ: Christmas). Ingenious and, to me, convincing, but I’ll be interested to see what others say.


I’ve always had a soft spot for the I.W.W. (I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me), and I enjoyed this thorough discussion of the origin of their nickname, Wobblies. Conclusion:

All of our research has shown so far that the origin of the term Wobbly cannot be determined, and so we have to unfortunately admit that we don’t honestly know the answer. Though the true origin of the epithet “Wobbly” remains a mystery, most of us IWW members gladly use it to describe ourselves, because the term has become an integral part of the IWW’s history and culture.

I admire their restraint and their dedication to accurate documentation, especially striking in people who are not professional lexicographers. Thanks, Kári!


Adam Kirsch’s review of Lev Loseff‘s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life makes it sound like something I’ll have to read:

Loseff’s book is, as its subtitle insists, a strictly literary biography. The outlines of Brodsky’s life are sketched, but private experiences are related only when they directly inspired his poetry. Thus Loseff tells, in brief and general terms, the story of Brodsky’s long, tumultuous love affair with a woman named Marina Basmanova, which drove him to a suicide attempt, produced a son, and inspired some major poems. On the other hand, Brodsky’s marriage, late in life, is dispatched in a single sentence, and there is little about other friendships or relationships.
Where Loseff excels is in sketching the Russian literary and cultural context for Brodsky’s work—the poets he knew and admired, the “schools” that dominated Leningrad poetry in his youth. This kind of analysis is a reminder of how little Brodsky can be understood through an American prism. Likewise, the excerpts from his early Russian poems, translated (along with the whole book) by Jane Ann Miller, show how much we would benefit from a comprehensive new translation of Brodsky’s poetry. Miller’s excellent work is only seemingly slighted by the odd way that each of her verse translations is followed by the word “non-poetic”: This is to show that the translation is not by Brodsky, but in fact, her lucid and convincing versions are often more effectively poetic than the poet’s own.

And I’m glad Kirsch is willing to come right out and say “Brodsky in English remains, all too often, wrenched, unidiomatic, and unmusical.” Incidentally, Loseff was himself a fine poet; I quoted one of his poems in this post. (Thanks, Paul!)


The following comments from Bathrobe in this thread are so interesting I thought they deserved greater prominence:

But in fact there are also cases where the Chinese have borrowed purely Japanese words into Chinese. The mechanism of borrowing is fairly simple: the Japanese write many native Japanese words with Chinese characters; the Chinese feel free to adopt them into Chinese precisely because they are written in characters. Well-known examples are 手続き te-tsuzuki ‘procedures, formalities’, borrowed as 手续 shǒuxù, and 取り消す tori-kesu ‘cancel’, borrowed as 取消 qǔxiāo. In looking at bird names, I’ve also discovered that quite a few Japanese bird names have been borrowed into Chinese, again based on kanji usage — including cases where the Japanese applied existing characters to different birds from the original Chinese, or where they created new characters that didn’t originally exist in Chinese. All of these have been taken into Chinese as though they were Chinese words.
One example that mystified me for a long time was 鶯 yīng. In Chinese this traditionally refers to the oriole or 黃鶯 huáng-yīng. But modern Chinese dictionaries give as a second meaning ‘member of the Sylviidae’ (i.e., the warblers). The extension of the word for ‘oriole’ to the warblers makes a certain kind of sense, but is still mystifying — until you look at the Japanese.
What seems to have happened is that the Japanese took the character 鶯 and applied it to their own cultural equivalent of the oriole, namely the uguisu (scientifically known as the Cettia diphone), a bird celebrated in Japanese poetry for its beautiful song. Thus, the word uguisu came to be written with the character 鴬 in Japanese. The uguisu eventually gave its name to the whole family of Sylviidae, 鴬科. Under Japanese influence, Chinese ornithologists then appear to have applied the character 鶯/莺 to the Sylviidae and thus to the many species of warbler. Since 鶯/莺 is an old Chinese character, this kind of influence from Japanese goes right under the radar of most Chinese.

I had known about words like denwa ‘telephone’ made from Chinese components that were borrowed as wholes into Chinese, but this was completely new to me and is an excellent example of the less obvious influences of the Sinitic writing system on linguistic development.


A fascinating passage from Katerina Clark’s Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution (pages 285-86):

Gorky and Panfyorov were, at this critical moment, arguing about language, or more specifically about whether the extensive use of substandard folk language in literature (a characteristic of Panfyorov’s Bruski) represents, as Gorky termed it, “language pollution,” and as such should be excluded from Soviet literature. Panfyorov was supported in this argument by the Old Bolshevik author A.S. Serafimovich and several other prominent writers. The issue was laid to rest when M.P. Yudin, the nonliterary, Party-appointed head of the Writers Union‘s Organizational Committee and the other spokesman on literature at the Seventeenth Party Congress, supported Gorky at the Committee’s plenum in March 1934.

A debate about language is never innocent. It is no wonder this one was put to an end by statements from on high. Starting from such earlier disputes as that between Lomonosov and Tredyakovsky in the eighteenth century, or the series involving Admiral Shishkov, Karamzin, Pushkin, and others that heralded the emergence of modern Russian literature early in the nineteenth, debates on language have tended to mark interstitial times in Russian cultural history. In the Soviet period, the impact of such debates became decidedly more political. Consider Stalin’s famous essays on linguistics of 1950 that reversed the base / superstructure model in this sphere and ended the sway of Marr‘s school in linguistics; in so doing, they set in motion, or were a sign of, a major reorientation in Soviet culture that was intensified during the thaws under Khrushchev.

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In reading my way through Russian history, alternating fiction with nonfiction, I’ve finally gotten around to a fat paperback I’ve had for a couple of decades, Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (Russian text online here). For some reason I hadn’t been very interested in reading it; I knew it had caused a sensation when it came out, but I had the idea that it wasn’t sufficiently “literary” for me. Well, it’s true that Rybakov is no Nabokov, nor does he try to be; his model is War and Peace, and while he’s not Tolstoy either, he’s a great storyteller, and his panorama of Soviet life in 1933-34, ranging from Stalin (who is portrayed as intimately and convincingly as Lenin is in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914) through various levels of functionaries down to “little people” enduring interrogations and exile in Siberia (and their relatives trying to find out where they’ve gone and get letters and parcels to them), is brilliantly done (and presents a loving portrait of the Arbat district of Moscow, where the author himself grew up). By the time I was a few chapters in I was totally gripped; it’s a good thing I had no pressing work, because I would have neglected it, and it’s also a good thing I ordered the second volume of the trilogy and got it in record time, because the first one ends on a cliffhanger. In this post I said “I would tell anyone interested in Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s to read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, the classic factual account, and Serge’s novel [The Case of Comrade Tulayev], which will make you feel what it was like”; I can now add Rybakov to my recommendations. The translation is quite good, with a few inevitable bloopers: on page 31 “I worked in a factory in Frunze [now Bishkek]” should be “I worked in the Frunze Factory [in Moscow, as is made clear a few pages later],” and on page 364 “in the nearby side streets of the Zaryad, by the town houses on Glebov Street” should read “in the nearby side streets of Zaryadye, by the Glebov Townhouse” [the latter being a famous inn, the Glebovskoye Podvorye (Глебовское подворье), the center of Jewish life in downtown Moscow; there was no Glebov Street there]. (On page 391 a brief discussion of Siberian dialect words is omitted, but I can’t really find fault with that.) Here, from pages 440-41, is an example of the kind of eye-opening exposition that makes the novel so valuable:

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I’m somewhat leery of posting on such a controversial topic, but what the heck, it’s interesting: the Spanish Senate is now allowing senators to debate in Catalan, Galician, Valencian, and Basque as well as Spanish. There has been considerable opposition, and this Guardian story appears to take the side of the naysayers, putting in the lead paragraph “with interpreters employed to turn their words into a tongue they all speak perfectly: Castilian Spanish” and then saying “Critics claim that allowing senators to speak Catalan, Galician, Valencian and the Basque language of Euskara has turned the Spanish senate into a tower of Babel. They accuse the senate of wasting public money at a time of swingeing public spending cuts.” You can read a great deal of commentary in the Log thread about the story; Quintesse writes “I have lived in Spain for over 5 years now and it never ceases to amaze me how heated discussions will become when talking about the regional languages. The bigotry displayed by both sides is incredible.” I wish people could be a little more rational about language.