Archives for February 2011


Courtesy of frequent commenter and nugget-finder Paul, an interesting Science News piece called “Infants Raised in Bilingual Environments Can Distinguish Unfamiliar Languages,” which accurately describes the contents: “Infants raised in households where Spanish and Catalan are spoken can discriminate between English and French just by watching people speak, even though they have never been exposed to these new languages before, according to University of British Columbia psychologist Janet Werker.” I reported a few years ago on an earlier study Werker was part of that showed that bilingual infants, unlike monolingual ones, can discern different native languages at eight months after birth.

In Werker’s latest study with Prof. Núria Sebastián-Gallés from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, infants of four and six months were shown silent videos of talking faces speaking English and French. They found that babies growing up bilingual with Spanish and Catalan … were able to distinguish between English and French simply through facial cues, even though they had never before seen speakers of either language.
“The fact that this perceptual vigilance extends even to two unfamiliar languages suggests that it’s not just the characteristics of the native languages that bilingual infants have learned about, but that they appear to have also developed a more general perceptual vigilance,” says Werker, Canada Research Chair in Psychology and director of UBC’s Infant Studies Centre.
“These findings, together with our previous work on newborn infants, provide even stronger evidence that human infants are equally prepared to grow up bilingual as they are monolingual,” Werker adds. “The task of language separation is something they are prepared to do from birth—with bilinguals increasingly adept over time.”

Speaking about perceptual vigilance, my own has brought me the extremely unwelcome news that the New York Times has ended its “On Language” column, which has been a going concern for over three decades; Ben Zimmer’s last column, far more graceful than I could have managed under the circumstances, is here. I had planned to write about it yesterday, but I find I’m too bitter to do so effectively. All those years Safire was writing the column in his genial and often bumbling way, I often cursed at it but would have been appalled to see it ended, and now someone who actually knows what he’s talking about is writing it (see my welcome post from less than a year ago), I’m even more appalled. Shame on you, Times.


A scholarly internet pal of mine has a “curious terminological question” that’s come up in her research, and she solicits comments from my readership, who she rightly says “combine sufficient arcane knowledge with broad interest in these areas,” about this tentative paragraph:

The term gosti (which emphasizes in its root the trader as traveler) was used for traders to the south and east, to the Nogai, Persia, Crimean or Central Asian khanates. For men engaged in trade to the north and west, the terms used were kuptsy (which emphasizes the trader’s buying activity) and torgovye liudi, “men of trade.” But there existed a special term in Russia for traders from the steppe, ordobazarets, a “bazaar trader from the lands of the Horde,” and the words bazaar and karavan were used freely in Russian documents without tranlation or commentary when referring to traders from the steppe.

I googled ордобазарцы, and it appears to be quite rare—a couple hundred hits in general and 38 in Google Books (many of which are repetitions of the same text). Anyone know anything about this stuff?


John Cowan has alerted me to this page of what its creator, Kevin Wald, calls “Some other things I’ve written. For the most part, these are parodies of various sorts.” John brought it to my attention, and I bring it to yours, because of the Philological Miscellany section, which will warm the heart of anyone who has ever dabbled in Indo-European studies. I’ll give you samples of “Cole Porter does Indo-European” (“In India they think it’s pleasin’/ To say all alike their e’s ‘n’/ Their a’s ‘n’ o’s./ Anything Goes”) and “Bartholomae, Grassman, and Grimm“:

The cowpokes who roamed the Urheimat
And worshipped a god called Dyeus P@ter
Used plenty of words (and not mime, ought
To mention) which spread just like butter.
A bunch of these seem to include a
Root *bheudh-; we believe this because
We have words like “bid”, “beadle” and “Buddha”,
And three very interesting laws!
  Buddha, tell us!
  Which of your stops should be heh-less?
  We needn’t decide this by whim —
  We’ve Bartholomae, Grassman, and Grimm!

…and let you go there for more, if such is your desire.


I could have sworn I’d mentioned this pleasing Chinese curse etymology before, but apparently not, so I’ll quote the relevant post from Blood & Treasure (“Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent”):

I offered [250 kuai a month for once-a-week cleaning] and she laughed and said that was fine, but could it be 260, because 250 was a swearword. And both my friend and I were “Huh?” Which wouldn’t be strange if it was just me, but said friend has really, really good Chinese.
Anyway, I asked a couple of people and they confirmed that yes, 250 was either “crazy” or “stupid.” So I assumed that it must sound like a similar phrase, but couldn’t think of it, and my Chinese friends said, nope, 250 just meant stupid and they had no idea why. My friend Baidu’d it up, and –
Apparently it comes from the custom of stringing copper cash into strings called diao in ancient china. And one diao had 1000 cash on it. So there evolved a humble term ban diaozi, ”half a diao,” that literary types would use self-deprecatingly. That’s not considered an insult now. But then the insult “250” emerged, because it’s half a half a diao, i.e., a guy who really is stupid.
That is one hell of a complex insult.

Thanks, David!

[Read more…]


I got quite a shock when I opened the latest New Yorker and discovered a long rave review by the extremely prestigious James Wood of “Teju Cole’s prismatic début novel, Open City.” Teju Cole? My Teju Cole? I shouldn’t have been surprised; he’d told me a year or two ago that he had a novel coming out from Random House, but I’ve been distracted by other things and lost track, and now here it was. Of course, it’s not actually his début novel, a distinction that belongs to His prior work, which he says was a novella rather than a novel, was Every Day is for the Thief (which I reviewed here)., but never mind, Teju must be over the moon—it’s hard to imagine a better review:

…Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake. Mysteriously, wonderfully, Cole does not botch it…
…This is one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person. And how very subtle of Teju Cole to suggest, at the same time—but with barely an authorial whisper—that perhaps Farouq leans too heavily on his theoretical texts, and that this was the real cause of the plagiarism charge. … And how delicately Cole has Julius pulsate, in contradictory directions, sometimes toward Farouq, in fellow feeling, and sometimes away from him, never really settling in one position.

I very much look forward to reading it, and I congratulate a fine writer on having so deservedly hit the big time.
Meanwhile, I’m reading Konstantin Simonov‘s 1959 WWII novel Zhivye i myortvye (The Living and the Dead), and I have to thank Sashura for recommending it to me—I’m devouring it faster than I have any previous Russian novel I’ve read, thanks to a combination of relatively simple prose and page-turning action. And at night my wife and I have moved on to P.G. Wodehouse; she loved Something Fresh, so we’re sticking with Blandings and moving on to Summer Lightning. Reading Wodehouse aloud is a constant delight.


Ben Zimmer has an interesting piece in The Atlantic on the recent Jeopardy victory of IBM supercomputer Watson over the two human competitors with the most winnings, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. I saw the last two nights, and it was fairly depressing from a petty human-centric point of view; our guys never had a chance against the mighty Watson. But, as Zimmer says, for all Watson’s data, it would not have been able to make anything of the “complex use of language” involved in Jennings’s quip “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” Zimmer deflates IBM’s hype about the tournament and briefly discusses the distance between what computers can do and “full-fledged comprehension of natural language.” Well worth a read.


Helen DeWitt has a book coming out later this year (hurrah!), and having had her editor suggest she make her use of “afterward(s)” and “backward(s)” consistent, she started trying to find out what actual usage was, and having found little satisfaction, she did what any sensible person would do and wrote Language Log to ask. Mark Liberman responds with a most interesting post, providing this summary and then going on to give some numbers:

• The choice between X-ward and X-wards is subject to variation in all regions and registers.
• In the case of back– and after-, American English uses a higher proportion of –ward forms than British English does (and the proportion of afterward forms in British English is very low).
• In the case of backward(s), in both American and British English, conversation shows a lower proportion of –ward forms (and thus a higher proportion of –wards forms) than academic prose does.
• In the case of afterward(s), American English also shows more –wards forms in conversation than in academic prose, while British English seems to go the opposite way, though there are too few –wards forms overall to be confident about the relationship.
• At least in American English, these patterns seem to be stable over time.

As I say in a comment there, I’ve been wondering about this myself—I’ve been enforcing a style guide that requires –ward on the MSS I edit, but I wasn’t sure what the facts of usage were, including my own. Head over there for details and a good discussion, and while you’re there check out this thread discussing Lameen Souag’s post on Libyan dialect features in Gaddafi Jr’s speech.


A Frenchman who goes by the pseudonym Frédéric Werst has spent a couple of decades developing an artificial language called Wardwesân and has written quite a bit in it. So far, so normal (for certain values of “normal”—see this LH post for an account of the history and current popularity of this once arcane practice); what’s amazing is that he’s gotten an actual publisher, Seuil, to put out his book, Ward : Ier-IIe siècle. It is a bilingual edition, with religious, philosophical, historical, and poetic texts of the Ward people on the left and a French translation on the facing page, followed by a grammar and lexicon, and it has been discussed with brio by Le Figaro (“aucun n’avait mené l’entreprise à ce degré-là de perfection”), L’Hebdo (“On reste perplexe, devant l’incroyable prouesse que représente ce livre bien entendu, mais aussi devant la profonde nostalgie qui en émane”), and The Times (article available only by subscription, but quoted at length here: “Even though there is a French translation running alongside the Wardwesân text, don’t expect to see many people reading it on the beach this summer. But Werst hopes it will sell well enough to convince Seuil to publish a second volume….”). Good for him, and I wish him every success. (Thanks, Conrad!)


The linguist Dovid Katz was mentioned a few years ago in this thread (“The best non-scholarly book on Yiddish is Dovid Katz’s Words On Fire“); now a correspondent has sent me a link to his home page, with links to an amazing variety of materials, including sample maps from Litvish: An Atlas of Northeastern Yiddish that are so beautifully laid out, so readable and informative (he even includes accents to tell you where the stress falls on Yiddish city names, and I learned that Mogilev is Mólev in Yiddish), that they make me want to drop everything and study Yiddish. (The e-mail also included a link to this depressing story about Katz’s being fired from Vilnius University for speaking out against “the trend of Holocaust Obfuscation which has gripped Lithuania and several other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.”) Thanks, Yoram!


I was looking up information on Terence Wade, the author of the excellent A Comprehensive Russian Grammar, when I ran across this fine Times obit from 2005:

…While less fortunate National Service recruits were square-bashing and polishing their buttons, the JSSL students were producing Russian magazines, musical extravaganzas and avant-garde theatre.
In a joint production of Aristophanes’ The Clouds with St Andrews University, Wade was the pianist, dressed as Liberace. In the Greek chorus was a Classics undergraduate, Mary McEwan, whom he married in 1958.
While some JSSL graduates fulfilled its original purpose and worked for Signals Intelligence, the Foreign Office or GCHQ, others, such as Wade, were to build Russian studies into a thriving academic discipline in British universities. In the spirit of the age of polytechnics and red-brick universities, of Lucky Jim and angry young men, Wade always poked fun at the stuffiness of the traditional academic establishment. …

But a reference to “the formidable and dynamic White Russian Professor Elizabeth Hill” sent me to her obit, an even better one (by A. D. P. Briggs) from the Independent:

Eccentricity characterised Elizabeth Hill’s academic achievement. In scholarly terms, she was both a nonentity and a colossus. She wrote almost nothing original, yet she was the direct inspirational force behind dozens of serious articles and books by other people.
As Professor of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge University for 20 years, she was a poor teacher of literature but, paradoxically, a powerful inspirer of love for the Russian writers, and also a brilliant, though terribly demanding, language instructor. Undergraduates loved her as a person but went elsewhere for their lectures and supervisions. …
Yelizaveta Fyodorovna (her name in Russian usage) came from a prosperous Anglo- Russian family, her mother Russian, her father an English businessman (Frederick Hill); they fled from Russia for their lives in 1917 and ended up impoverished in London. Lisa, barely 17, began a succession of language teaching jobs before entering University College London, where she gained a First in Russian in 1924 and a PhD in 1928, though her first university appointment was delayed until 1936, when she went to Cambridge as Lecturer.
Her big opportunity came during and after the Second World War, when the Government gave her the job of training young recruits to read and speak Russian. …
She continued to turn up everywhere in a small car, driving herself and some other diminutive companion in such a way that neither could be seen above steering-wheel height. The recently acquired Mini which still rests in her Cambridge garage is an honourable descendant of the weirdly sprung Renault with which she terrorised that city four decades ago. Hill’s car was reputed to be the only one ever allowed to park regularly in front of the British Museum, such was her bamboozling Russian charm over British policemen.
She was a most satisfying person for those who like their professors to be eccentric. For one thing she never knew which language she was speaking. In one of her last letters, sent to an ex-student who now heads a Department of Russian in Canada, Hill wrote, “she escaped from the Berlin Control Commission hoping to popast’ v Ameriku, no ne vyshlo as the train headed for the British Zone”. That was also how she spoke.