Archives for April 2011


That’s the title of a post at Poemas del río Wang that I discovered only because Studiolum opened up a back door to his wonderful site that allows you to see over a half-year’s worth of posts at once (as opposed to the normal view, which only shows one or two posts because of the large number of images each contains); I never realized how many posts slipped under my radar, and this one from a month ago it would have been a particular shame to miss, because Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said is a favorite of mine (I’ve written about him here and here). I wrote a long enthusiastic comment only to have it eaten by some damn Blogspot glitch (reminding me of how glad I was to leave that motheaten venue back in 2003 when I got my own domain); too grumpy to try again, I licked my wounds and finally decided to post here instead.
As you would expect from río Wang, there are many gorgeous old images of Baku, as well as one of “Essad Bey in Caucasian mountain dress” and one of the cover of this issue of Azerbaijan International, entirely devoted to the silly business of trying to prove that the book was not written by its oddball Jewish/Muslim Azeri/German author but by a “real” Azerbaijani, “the national poet Yusif Vazir Çemenzeminli.” This is comparable to the desperate attempts to prove that the works of Shakespeare were actually by someone other than the commoner who wrote them, a mere actor who could not possibly have written great poetry and seen into the depths of the human soul (as we all know earls are able to do by virtue of their blue blood); class prejudice and nationalism are parallel forms of blindness, and I wanted to warn the good Studiolum against allowing his mind to be swayed (he writes that the issue “offers very convincing arguments for the authorship of Yusif Vazir”), but I’ll do so here rather than chez lui. At any rate, do go over there and enjoy the material on display, and perhaps bookmark that most useful back door link.


I always kind of liked the obscure term hendiadys (hen-DYE-a-dis: two words linked by a conjunction to express a single complex idea), because the name is from a Greek phrase ἓν διὰ δυοῖν [hen diá duoín] ‘one through two’; what I didn’t realize, until I saw it at Memiyawanzi, is that the Germans borrowed the phrase just as it was, creating the magnificent word Hendiadyoin. It’s actually a good thing we didn’t do that in English, because I have no idea how we’d pronounce it, but I’m glad it exists.


I recently picked up a copy of Erich Auerbach‘s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a classic I’ve meant to read for decades now. I don’t know if Auerbach is still much read; I suspect his traditional approach, with its deep philological knowledge and casual allusiveness (he wrote it in in Istanbul, where he had fled from the Nazis and where he had to make do with the scanty resources available to him, but he writes as if he had entire libraries at hand), is long out of fashion, but it’s very much to my taste. I was introduced to the book by Susan Cherniack, one of the finest scholars and people it has been my privilege to know (it is not to academia’s credit that she is not still in academia), but in those days I was immersed in Indo-European and had no time for it. Now I have the time (and more knowledge and maturity), and I should be able to get more out of it.

At any rate, my question to the assembled multitudes is: if you are familiar enough with the titular word to have a pronunciation for it, what is it? I’ve always been torn between /maɪ’miːsɪs/ (my-MEE-sis), the traditional anglicized form, and /mɪ’meɪsɪs/ (mih-MAY-sis), the classicizing form I’m guessing most Americans use (if they use the word at all); I presume Auerbach said /’mimesɪs/ (MEE-may-sis), with stress on the first syllable (which is the way my German dictionary has it), and modern Greeks say /’mimisis/ (MEE-mee-sees), but we can rule the latter two out of court as unbearably pretentious on English-speaking lips. (Wikipedia tells me the Russian equivalent of “mimesis” is мимесис or мимезис, with the stress on the first syllable.) I lean toward the second version (mih-MAY-sis), despite my usual preferences, because that’s how Susan said it, but I’m curious about other people’s usage.

Incidentally, the copy I got is not the currently available Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition (9.2 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches, Shipping Weight: 2 pounds) but the good old Anchor paperback, small enough to fit into my pants pocket. Books have gotten both too expensive and too big.


A post by Grace Neveu and Jake Johnson at reports on a project to digitize all of Balinese literature (as this brief notice says, “They are in the running for being the first culture to have their entire literature go online, even current writings and lectures”):

The documents are centuries-old lontar palm leaves incised on both sides with a sharp knife and then blackened with soot…. The writings consist of ordinary texts to sacred documents on religion, holy formulas, rituals, family genealogies, law codes, treaties on medicine (usadha), arts and architecture, calendars, prose, poems and even magic. The estimated 50,000 lontars are kept by members of the Puri (palace) family and high priests to ordinary families. Some are carefully kept as family heritages while others are left in dirty and dusty corners of houses. Digitizing the lontars makes them available to scholars and students and salvages the documents from getting destroyed by insects or humidity, as many already have.

At the link you can see images of lontars, watch a video of a performance, and follow further links. Thanks, Yoram!


Burkhard Bilger’s article on David Eagleman in the April 25 New Yorker is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a long time; I haven’t even finished it yet, but I had to post a passage from page 59 that provides a nice use of the word postdiction (see this LH post from a year ago) and a linguistic example. Eagleman studies our sense of time and how the brain creates it:

Like Crick, Eagleman was fascinated by consciousness. He thought of time not just as a neuronal computation—a matter for biological clocks—but as a window on the movements of the mind. In a paper published in Science in 2000, for instance, Eagleman looked at an optical illusion known as the flash-lag effect. The illusion could take many forms, but in Eagleman’s version it consisted of a white dot flashing on a screen as a green circle passed over it. To determine where the dot hit the circle, Eagleman found, his subjects’ minds had to travel back and forth in time. They saw the dot flash, then watched the circle move and calculated its trajectory, then went back and placed the dot on the circle. It wasn’t a matter of prediction, he wrote, but of postdiction.
Something similar happens in language all the time, Dean Buonomano told me. If someone says, “The mouse on the desk is broken,” your mind calls forth a different image than if you hear, “The mouse on the desk is eating cheese.” Your brain registers the word “mouse,” waits for its context, and only then goes back to visualize it. But language leaves time for second thoughts. The flash-lag effect seems instantaneous. It’s as if the word “mouse” were changed to “track pad” before you even heard it.

The article is wonderfully written (“The most recent neuroscience papers make the brain sound like a Victorian attic, full of odd, vaguely labelled objects ticking away in every corner”), and you won’t regret devoting a chunk of your day to reading it.


An entertaining Ask MetaFilter thread analyzes the burning question: what did you say as a kid when someone got in trouble? The poster remembers something like “aww-dee!” and is looking for support, since “no one I’ve brought this up to has ever remembered it”; one person agrees (“Definitely heard “aww-dee” as a kid, but I don’t remember where”), but most have never heard of it and contribute their own remembered outcries, which make for enjoyable reading. My pick of the crop:

South Georgia, early-mid nineties: “Ah-woo-woo!” I’ve actually discussed this with peers raised in less rural parts of the world, and they’ve all agreed that this is really weird.
posted by honeydew

Yes, it is indeed really weird. (None of them are familiar to me, but I am a visitor from the Pleistocene; I believe we just said things like “Uh-oh, you’re gonna get it!”)


The waifs of English, that is, the words nobody’s been taking care of, etymologically speaking. Alyssa Ford has a good piece in the Star Tribune of Minnesota about Anatoly Liberman, a linguist trying to finish “his masterwork, a multi-volume dictionary on the history of common English words”

As the professor labors on his dictionary in the solitude of his library carrel, his wordy colleagues from around the world are closely following the progress of the “Liberman Project.”
“At conferences, we ask each other how Anatoly is doing on the dictionary, how close he is,” says Joan Houston Hall, the editor of the DARE at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We are all rooting for him.”
“The work he’s doing is extremely important to our understanding of the history of English,” says Steve Harris, adjunct associate professor of German and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He added that if Liberman is able to complete the dictionary, he could very well be added to the pantheon of great lexicographers including Murray, Walter Skeat and Noah Webster. …

[Read more…]


Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist and one of the moving spirits behind their language blog, Johnson (where his latest post is called “Anti-Peeve Peeve Friday”); last year I praised his column on the best books about language, and now Sophie Roell has a good interview with him at The Browser in which he again discusses language books (like me, he’s a fan of Guy Deutscher and Arika Okrent, but he thinks more highly of Steven Pinker than I do). So I was expecting to enjoy the copy of his new book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity that the good folks at Delacorte sent me—but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as thoroughly as I did. He covers pretty much all the ground I was vaguely thinking of covering in the language book I’ve been vaguely thinking of writing, and does it so well and so convincingly my impetus has been drastically diminished. This is the book I will be recommending to people who want to know how to think about language without getting themselves and others more agitated than is necessary—or, as he puts it in his charming preface, “Too many people are too angry about language too much of the time. That time that could be better spent listening, learning, and enjoying the vast variety of human language around them.”
He starts off discussing some general myths about language (giving Bill Bryson a well-deserved whack along the way), then moves on to “A Brief History of Sticklers,” starting off with the wretched Lynne Truss—”She doesn’t do subtlety”—and leaping back to Caxton’s late-fifteenth-century complaint about varying ways to say ‘eggs,’ moving forward again through Dryden, Swift, Lowth, and the usual twentieth-century suspects, two of whose names rhyme with “funk” and “blight” (“But on what basis could White condemn ‘hopefully’ while accepting the new extension of ‘to dress’? We never find out. Peeves are like that: my peeves are law, yours are unhealthy obsessions”). Then he delves into academic linguistics, where he is fortunate to have Mark Liberman (of the Log) as a guide; my complaint about the chapter, which is also my only complaint about the book, is that he jumps from Saussure straight to Chomsky, ignoring the entire storied history of American linguistics, that beautiful and varied garden that Chomsky stomped into submission and replaced with his identical rows of plastic flowers. In fact, he has a horribly misleading paragraph on page 73 that begins “Having killed behaviorism with this kind of dry wit, and having also published his revolutionary 1957 book Syntactic Structures, Chomsky launched linguists on the task of trying to construct ‘grammars’ of languages.” This is the exact reverse of the truth; it is the prior tradition of American linguists, led by the great Leonard Bloomfield, that worked on constructing scientific grammars of languages. Chomsky had no interest in grammars of anything but English, as illustrated by a remark of his Liberman passes on to Greene (on pages 64-65) to the effect that “it wouldn’t matter a whit to have descriptive grammars of all the world’s languages (and that one might as well survey the location of every blade of grass on MIT’s campus).” But that’s not Greene’s fault; he’s simply repeating what passes for the Story of Linguistics these days, from which the pre-Chomsky tradition is effaced much as the pre-Mao founders of the Chinese Communist Party like Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu were written out of its history once Mao became the Great Helmsman. Other than that, the chapter is well done, and ends with an excellent discussion of diglossia that includes this telling anecdote about Arabic:

In the first full-length Arabic conversation I ever had, with two young Egyptians I met in South Africa who didn’t speak English, I could speak only fusha (not yet having begun learning a modern colloquial Arabic dialect). They tried to respond in kind. But it was a clumsy exchange on both sides. They mixed in not only typically Egyptian pronunciations (such as gadiid for jadiid, “new”) but “wrong” ones in fusha that came from their dialect, such as munazama for munadhama (“organization”). Though I struggled to remember some vocabulary, in other ways my fusha was better than theirs. (On the other hand, a sociolinguist might say my overall performance was much worse; fusha is utterly inappropriate for late-night hotel-bar drinks. I must have sounded something like a professor lecturing to them.)

The fourth chapter, “More Equal than Others: How All Languages Can Express Almost Everything,” starts with a discussion of this hilarious YouTube clip, which was new to me: “I’ve probably watched the video fifty times, and it makes me laugh every time. I’ve quoted the video so often that a friend suggested I call this book Shit Flyin’ in My Mouth.” But he deplores the racist commentary on YouTube and the fact that the video is titled “Ghetto Reporter,” saying that the reporter’s sudden change from standard English to his native (Louisiana) dialect is exactly comparable to what happens to his Danish-born wife, who speaks “incredibly fluent English” but “as soon as she stubs her toe on our bed frame, she always says the same thing: For Satan!, cursing in Danish.” He goes on to discuss the Ebonics controversy, Whorfianism, and other touchy topics with admirable good sense.

[Read more…]


I keep meaning to post about a recent essay of Lameen’s at Jabal al-Lughat, “In search of the missing radical: a piece of Berber historical morphology.” He starts out:

Berber normally has no glottal stops (ء = ʔ) – in fact, Chafik suggested that this was why North Africa favours the Warsh reading of the Qur’an, in which most glottal stops are omitted. However, it turns out* proto-Berber did have glottal stops – and you can still see their footprints on the verbal system.

His explanation of the footprints is fascinating, and as he says, “an interesting small-scale parallel to the story of Saussure’s laryngeals.”


“spat Gavin” of There could be snakes in here has an interview with frequent LH commenter John Emerson, who has provocative things to say about philosophy, economics, and academia, among other things; I will quote this final bit:

I am not working much. I do plan to put out more collections, but my energy flags. Your interest is a positive factor, believe me. The topics would be Lao Tzu and Chinese philosophy, the rise of Genghis Khan, the origins of Chinese shi poetry (the Cao clan), Populism, and the general philosophical stuff you’ve showed interest in.

…and add my plea for the book on Inner Eurasia promised in the preface to his 2007 collection Substantific Marrow (see this LH review). John has accumulated a unique mix of knowledge about this too little studied region, and I would like to see it on my bookshelf, so if reader interest is a positive factor, here’s another dollop of it.