Archives for March 2011


An interesting National Post story by Robert Fulford about a guy with an enviable career:

In 1948, when William Toye was about to graduate from the University of Toronto, what he wanted most in the world was a job in Canadian book publishing. This was an outlandish career plan, since Canadian publishing barely existed. We had few publishers and they produced few books. They spent much of their time importing whatever the Americans and the British published. They kept afloat by selling Bibles, dictionaries and schoolbooks. Was this any way for a bright young man to start out?
But young Toye saw his destiny and insisted on it. When he applied for a job at the Canadian branch of Oxford University Press, he was told they had nothing for him but a place in the warehouse. He said that would be fine….
After starting at the bottom, he eventually learned the techniques of book production, began editing schoolbooks, then travelled the country to make Oxford books known in universities and schools. He wrote children’s books and edited Marshall McLuhan’s letters. He taught himself typography, not an easy thing to do.

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I’m finally reading Kate Brown’s A Biography of No Place (which I got for Christmas back in 2008), a book succinctly described in the back-cover blurb as follows:

This is a biography of a borderland between Russia and Poland, a region where, in 1925, people identified as Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, and Russians lived side by side. Over the next three decades, this mosaic of cultures was modernized and homogenized out of existence by the ruling might of the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, and finally, Polish and Ukrainian nationalism. By the 1950s, this “no place” emerged as a Ukrainian heartland, and the fertile mix of peoples that defined the region was destroyed.

I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but it has some passages very relevant to LH concerns, which I will excerpt. The context is the situation described here, the development of thousands of little ethno-territorial units in the 1920s; Jan Saulevich, vice secretary of the Ukrainian Commission for National Minority Affairs, is scouting the Ukrainian hinterland in 1925 to try to find a suitable place to establish a Polish autonomous region:

Once Saulevich and his inspectors arrived in the villages, they encountered an even greater problem: they could not see nationality. Because of the distances and the difficulty in traveling, the lack of communications, and an incoherent consumer economy, villagers lived in isolated subcultures that eluded standardizing taxonomies. Investigators sent ambiguous reports back to Saulevich: “There is no one picture of the border region. There are many; the picture is diffuse.” Or investigators found that people supposedly belonging to different nationalities were indiscernible: “Ukrainians and Poles hardly differ from one another in their material existence beyond their conversational language—however, language too is problematic because the local Polish sounds very much like the local Ukrainian.” Another investigator stated the problem a different way: “The issue of gathering conclusive evidence on the Polish population is hindered by the fact that people, especially the rural population, are bilingual.” Language, dress, religion, the social and ethnic composition of the populations, changed from village to village, which made it difficult to fix nationality in place, as the definition of what it meant to be Polish shimmered about in a haze of vernacular. And yet Saulevich and his staff set out to encircle and chart nationality, such as “Polishness,” assuming that it existed in some definite, invariable form. Perhaps Saulevich was thinking he would find a peasant version of the secular, aristocratic Polish culture into which he was born on his family’s country estate in the northern reaches of the kresy….

Eventually the Marchlevsk Autonomous Polish Region “was founded in the borderlands, a place considered the most backward, poor, and un-revolutionary part of Ukraine,” centered on the town now called Dovbysh:

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The Endangered Language and Cultures blog (“about linguistics, language documentation, research technology, and generally everything to do with endangered languages and cultures… predominantly written by linguists Jane Simpson and Peter Austin”) recently had a post called “Small and strong” that begins:

Alongside all the talk about Last Speakers and loss of particular endangered languages, it is important to remember that not all the world’s minority languages are endangered. Languages can be small (having relatively few speakers) and yet be strong, in the sense that they are spoken by everyone in the community and show no signs of language shift or replacement by some other language.
A reminder of this came last month when Steven Bird sent a message to RNLD email discussion list asking:

Can anyone suggest the names of languages having small speaker populations that still have a good level of intergenerational transfer and good survival prospects?

This elicited a number of responses that identified small and strong languages in Africa, Brazil, and the Australia-Pacific region (probably reflecting more the readership of the RNLD list rather than anything particular about these regions). The full details are here (scroll down to topic 13), but I thought a short summary might be of interest to readers of this blog.

It’s nice to see a description of languages that aren’t actually in the process of dying out, which can get depressing to read about, and there’s a brief but interesting discussion in the comment thread (including Claire Bowern, who helped pick the Australian languages for the list). Thanks, Paul!


I’ve finished Konstantin Simonov‘s famous WWII novel Живые и мёртвые [The living and the dead], first published in 1959 and available online (along with its two sequels) here, at the amazing Военная литература site (to which, like the novel, I was alerted by Sashura), so I thought I’d say something about it. It’s a tremendously powerful and convincing evocation of what the last six months of 1941 were like for well-educated true believers in the Red Army (see Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 for a more comprehensive factual account of an army that was three-quarters peasant and wretchedly ill-prepared for war). As a novel, it starts out strong but eventually dissipates its energy somewhat; it begins with its central character, journalist-turned-officer Sintsov, and his wife Masha learning of the German attack as they have just arrived in the Crimea for a vacation having left their infant daughter back home in Grodno—now occupied by the Germans—with Masha’s mother, and [warning: spoilers ahead] after a quick return to Moscow Sintsov heads west to join his newspaper at the front and try to find out what has happened to his family. In the chaos of the invasion he is soon turned into a political officer attached to a division that is trying to fight its way out of encirclement, with no way to get a message to his wife, and the first half of the book is filled with the tension of wondering what will happen to him and what has happened to his wife. About halfway through, after harrowing adventures (which involve losing his documents), he makes it back to Moscow and has a quick reunion with his wife before heading off to the front again (now frighteningly near the capital) to try to prove himself as a simple foot soldier and earn reacceptance into the Party. From this point on, the novel takes us through the defense of Moscow and the Soviet counterattack of early December; there are many good scenes, but the basic narrative drive is dissipated unless you care a lot more than I can make myself care about the restoration of his precious Party card. To find out what happens to his wife (and the daughter who is barely mentioned again after the first chapter), you have to read the sequels, which I will probably do eventually.
A point of linguistic interest is Simonov’s careful attention to forms of address, particularly the use of formal and informal pronouns. In Chapter 10, Efremov says “Get up!” using the informal pronoun to the sleeping Sintsov, then switches to the formal when Sintsov wakes up:

Вставай, ну, вставай же! — тормошил его Ефремов, не считая нужным обращаться на “вы” к еще не проснувшемуся человеку. — Вставайте! — сразу перешел он на “вы”, как только Синцов спустил с лавки ноги. — Комбат вас к себе требует!

And later in the same chapter, it is explained that Sintsov and Lyusin use the informal with each other, despite not knowing each other long, because the pressures of war have produced instant intimacy.
One scene that struck me was when a badly wounded character is transported away from the front and realizes that he is being removed from the intense life he has been living and the company of the men he has been fighting with and will soon be in an entirely different world. It’s a situation and an emotion that to my mind was explored most memorably by David I. Masson, among whose few brilliant stories from the 1960s was the unforgettable “Traveller’s Rest,” which if the Force is with you you can read at the last link on this page.


De Gruyter is “delighted to offer complimentary online access for 30 days to the first volume of Jahrbuch für Germanistische Sprachgeschichte.” Just go here and follow the simple instructions, if Germanic language history is your thing. (Thanks, Paul!)


Posting is thin because I’m in the final throes of a rush editing job, but I’m happy to direct you to this fine translation by “F” of Gumilev’s “Жираф” (“Giraffe”), which I had a go at myself two years ago. Note the similarities, especially the fairly recherché word “caravel.” (An interesting difference: F takes the poem to be describing a particular example of the species, “an exquisite giraffe,” whereas I took it as a paean to all of giraffedom and thus wrote “the exquisite giraffe.”) The previous post has a translation of Nikolai Oleinikov’s “Бублик” as “The Bagel”; as F says, “a bublik is not the same as a bagel, but I’m guessing there are no places outside of maaaybe Brooklyn where you might get confused.” I hadn’t been familiar with Oleinikov (shot in 1937 and obscure enough he doesn’t have an English Wikipedia article), but fortunately his oeuvre is online in Russian here, so I can investigate at my leisure (when I have some).


The dog’s out
and she won’t come back.
“You get back in
right now, you hear!”
It’s no use—
the dog’s out
and she won’t come back.
It ain’t no use!

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I wrote the esteemed Conrad as follows: “I thought ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae‘ was a long title until I was flipping through my 1919 Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson and saw ‘O Mors! quam amara est memoria tua homini pacem habenti in substantiis suis.'” As I hoped, he had a topper:

Fair, but these moderns have nothing on the 17c. My favourite is John Taylor’s charming poem entitled ‘The essence, quintessence, insence, innocence, lye-sence, & magnifisence of nonsence upon sence: or, Sence upon nonsence. The third part, the fourth impression, the fifth edition, the sixth addition, upon condition, that (by tradition) the reader may laugh if he list. In longitude, latitude, crassitude, magnitude, and amplitude, lengthened, widened, enlarged, augmented, encreased, made wider and sider, by the addition of letters, syllables, words, lines, and farfetch’d sentences. And the lamentable death and buriall of a Scottish Gallaway nagge. Written upon white paper, in a brown study, betwixt Lammas day and Cambridge, in the yeare aforesayd. Beginning at the latter end, and written by John Taylor at the sign of the poor Poets Head, in Phoenix Alley, near the middle of Long Acre, or Coven Garden. Anno, millimo, quillimo, trillimo, daffadillimo, pulcher’.

Of course, it looks much better in its proper layout, which you can see here; you can then proceed, if you like, to read the poem itself. (The odd form at the start of the first line, “MOūt meekly low, on blew presumptuous wings,” is an abbreviated form of “Mount”; the poem is dated 1653.)


Aye Can is an interesting site:

As part of this year’s census people in Scotland will be asked to say if they can understand speak, read and / or write Scots.
Listening to people on this site speaking Scots will help you decide whether or not you are a Scots speaker.
You will also find examples of writing in Scots which can help you decide if you can read Scots.

Sent me by bulbul, who says, doubtless correctly, “That’s bound to make Mr. Cowan’s day.”


Errol Morris has for the last few years been writing the occasional brilliant series of articles in the NY Times; his latest, just completed, is about his deep disagreement (which I share) with Thomas Kuhn‘s cockamamie idea of the “incommensurability” of different “paradigms,” a theory he was never able to explain to the satisfaction of anyone who could think clearly. I recommend it highly, but the bit that made me want to post about it comes at the very end, in the last few sentences:

There are endless obstacles and impediments to finding the truth – You might never find it; it’s an illusive goal. But there’s something to remember, there’s a world out there that we can apprehend, and it’s our job to go out there and apprehend it. It’s one of the deepest lessons that I’ve taken away from my experiences here.

But his “illusive” implies exactly the worldview he’s fighting against (the Kuhnian view that you can never find the truth); the word he wanted was “elusive.” What are the odds against a verbal error so perfectly encapsulating a philosophical one?

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