Archives for April 2011


I’ve finally started reading Vasily Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (keeping the Chandler translation Life and Fate by my side to help resolve difficult passages), and I’ve run across an interesting German etymology. Grossman uses the German word Revier (in Cyrillic transliteration) in the military sense ‘sick quarters, sick-bay,’ and of course I was curious about the etymology. I looked it up in my ancient and crumbling Lutz Mackensen, and it turns out it was originally borrowed from French rivière ‘river(bank)’! (The French word is from Latin riparia, an adjective to ripa ‘bank.’) Apparently the basic sense was ‘district, quarter’ (especially ‘hunting ground’), and in a military context revierkrank was used to mean ‘sick enough to be confined to quarters,’ whence in the nineteenth century Revier itself developed the sense ‘sick quarters.’ Etymology can be a twisty business.


Last year I wrote briefly about Victor Serge’s novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev; at that time I said I was very much looking forward to Serge’s World War II novel Unforgiving Years, and I have now finished reading it (in Richard Greeman’s translation from Serge’s Années sans pardon; does anyone know if it has been translated into Russian?). It’s a strange, vivid nightmare of a novel; J. Hoberman, in his NYRB review, says it reminds him of “Max Ernst’s epic canvas Europe After the Rain, painted between 1940 and 1942, when the artist, like Serge, was on the run from France to the New World” (here‘s an image of Europe After the Rain II, not to be confused with the 1933 Europe After the Rain I, painted on plywood previously used by Buñuel for his hilarious and violently controversial movie L’Âge d’Or), and I think that’s a valid comparison. Both novel and painting are strange, somewhat off-putting, and hard to turn away from. The novel’s four sections are set in Paris before the war, in Leningrad during the siege, in Berlin as it was falling in 1945, and in Mexico after the war (where Serge himself wound up after the U.S. refused him entry); the characters are, as in the earlier book, disillusioned revolutionaries, but this novel concentrates on psychology rather than politics, and it’s filled with dream imagery and wild metaphors. It also has a fair amount of poetry, and as a service to readers who know Russian I will identify the Blok poem quoted on page 83 as “Рождённые в года глухие” (the lines translated in the text are “В сердцах, восторженных когда-то,/ Есть роковая пустота”) and the poem quoted on page 115 as Iosif Utkin’s “Слово Есенину” (the quoted lines are “Кому нужны бокалы,/ Бокалы без вина?,” “Есть ужас бездорожья,/ И в нем – конец коню!/ И я тебя, Сережа,/ Ни капли не виню,” and “А кроме права жизни,/ Есть право умереть”); does anyone recognize the lines translated on page 162 as “Keep quiet, dissemble, make secret/ Your feelings and your thoughts” are from Tyutchev [see MV’s comment below]. (There really should be a footnote on page 109 explaining to the non-Russian reader the story of “Lermontov’s classic poem ‘Three Palms'” (Russian text): the palms complain to God that they are growing uselessly in the desert, whereupon a caravan shows up and rests beneath their welcome shade… and the following morning chops them up for firewood before moving on. This imagery is relevant to just about everything Serge ever wrote.)

A passage on page 220 could serve as an epigraph for the novel: “the devastated cities are sisters, Stalingrad, Warsaw, Coventry, London, Lübeck, and this city [Berlin] too: they could all be mistaken for one another in a photograph.” The fact that a Russian communist, immediately after the war, could write sympathetically about Berlin and its suffering inhabitants will give you some idea of Serge’s uniqueness, and of why he was so roundly ignored by pretty much everyone for decades. I’m glad he’s finally getting his due.


I knew Chinese typewriters were big and complicated, but to see them in action is a real eye-opener. See Victor Mair’s post at the Log and the photos and videos thereto appended; here’s his description of the process:

The main tray — which is like a typesetter’s font of lead type — has about two thousand of the most frequent characters. Two thousand characters are not nearly enough for literary and scholarly purposes, so there are also a number of supplementary trays from which less frequent characters may be retrieved when necessary. What is even more intimidating about a Chinese typewriter is that the characters as seen by the typist are backwards and upside down! Add to this challenging orientation the fact that the pieces of type are tiny and all of a single metallic shade, it becomes a maddening task to find the right character.

I’m glad they exist, and I’m glad I never had to learn to use one.


I imagine a lot of you are familiar with a little rhyme that I learned as a child thus:

The other day upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today;
Gee, I wish he’d go away!

I’ve run into slightly different versions from time to time, and when I saw one at Pepys’ Diary (which, incidentally, Cory Doctorow seems to think has been around for ten years) that ended “I do so wish/ He’d go away,” I thought I’d investigate and see if there was a canonical version. It turns out there is, it’s by Hughes Mearns, and it’s called (of all things) “Antigonish” (though it’s usually thought of as “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There”). As you might expect, Wikipedia has the full story; it bears that title because it was “Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia” (which, by the way, is pronounced ant-i-go-NISH, main stress on the last syllable and lighter stress on the first; I am familiar with it from The Antigonish Review), it was written around 1899 but not published until 1922, it became a big hit in 1939 (as “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There”) for Glenn Miller (YouTube), and it “has been used numerous times in popular culture, often with slight variations in the lines” (many examples listed). The things you learn!


Or such is the finding of a group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson, and Russell D. Gray, whose paper “Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals” was published online by Nature a few days ago. (The abstract is here, where there is also a link to a downloadable pdf of the full paper.) Russell Gray has written a nice, clear explanation of the study and its results, and I will quote the conclusion:

These family-specific linkages suggest that language structure is not set by innate features of the cognitive language parser (as suggested by the generativists), or by some over-riding concern to “harmonize” word-order (as suggested by the statistical universalists). Instead language structure evolves by exploring alternative ways to construct coherent language systems. Languages are instead the product of cultural evolution, canalized by the systems that have evolved during diversification, so that future states lie in an evolutionary landscape with channels and basins of attraction that are specific to linguistic lineages.
One of the main implications here is that to really understand how languages have evolved, we need to understand the range of diversity in human languages. With one language on average going extinct every two weeks, the ability to understand this is rapidly being lost.

There is an ongoing discussion on Mark Liberman’s post at the Log; I hope the conclusions of the study hold up, because 1) it shows the importance of studying as many languages as possible, and 2) it’s a poke in the eye for Chomsky and his stupid theory of universals, which implies that there’s no need studying any language but your own because they’re all basically the same anyway.


People keep sending me links to Nicholas Wade’s latest ill-informed NY Times blort about a linguistic topic, in this case based on Quentin Atkinson’s Science paper “Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa,” whose abstract says:

Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.

But I get tired of wading through, and then whaling on, the ever-out-of-his-depth Wade (see, e.g., here, here, and here), so I decided to wait until I could link to a decent analysis, and thanks to marie-lucie, I hereby present Richard Sproat‘s “Science Does It Again,” a thoughtful discussion that pokes at some important holes in the theory. I will quote his summary and let you read his (quite brief) review for the details: “Atkinson’s thesis is striking, but as I said above such striking conclusions require striking support, and I believe that the paper in its current form does not provide enough support.”


The University of Cambridge news service has a story (no author credit given) about an endangered dialect of Pontic Greek called, for some reason, Romeyka (a general Greek term for Modern Greek; the local name for the dialect, according to Wikipedia, is Rumca, ‘the language of Rûm,’ which is also the original meaning of Romeyka). The story, being the product of a publicity department, is overhyped (the lead implies it’s some sort of new discovery, whereas it’s been known for ages, and in fact the researcher, Dr. Ioanna Sitaridou, was told about it by Peter Mackridge, who’d written about it back in 1987) and occasionally misleading (they call the infinitive “the basic, uninflected form of the verb”), but it’s got enough interesting material to be worth a read. An excerpt:

“Although Romeyka can hardly be described as anything but a Modern Greek dialect, it preserves an impressive number of grammatical traits that add an Ancient Greek flavour to the dialect’s structure – traits that have been completely lost from other Modern Greek varieties,” Dr. Sitaridou said. “What these people are speaking is a variety of Greek far more archaic than other forms of Greek spoken today.” …
Despite millennia of change in the surrounding area, people in the isolated region still speak the language. One reason is that Romeyka speakers are devout Muslims, and were therefore exempt from the large-scale population exchange between Greece and Turkey that took place under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

There’s also a brief video where you can hear a few snippets of the dialect (and see some gorgeous scenery).
Addendum. An excellent discussion, with appropriate debunking, at Hellenisteukontos.


Joel of Far Outliers is in Cameroon with his family, and his latest post, after a description of finding themselves at the fanciest restaurant in Ebolowa (“We found out too late that we would have had many more choices had we driven into the city center first”), explains that the signs on the restroom doors, binga and befam, are the plurals of minga ‘woman’ and fam ‘man’ respectively in the Bulu language. He says that this is typical of Bantu noun classes, and finishes with this excellent tidbit:

The most memorable introduction to this phenomenon that I’ve ever read was a passage in African Language Structures (U. California Press, 1974) by William Everett Welmers, who on p. 160 applies Bantu noun class and concord systems to words borrowed from English:
kipilefti ~ vipilefti ’roundabout(s), traffic circle(s)’
digadi ~ madigadi ‘fender(s)’ (< mudguard)
KeRezi (a fictional Bantu language)
mudigadi ~ badigadi ‘bodyguard(s)’
mutenda ~ batenda ‘bartender(s)’
matini ‘martini’ (with ma– marking mass nouns for liquids)

I’m guessing “KeRezi” is a Bantuization of crazy.


The industrious polymath John Cowan, intrigued by the seemingly inevitable drift away from the announced topic here at LH, has done a post about it at his own blog, Recycled Knowledge, saying, “just to show off how drifty the topics can be, I grabbed most of last year’s postings and reduced them to just the first and last sentences (where “last” means “last sentence on the last comment”), and presented them here in chronological order from January to December.” I’m enjoying working my way down the list; my favorites so far:

People keep sending me this BBC story, “Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India,” so I guess I’d better post it. […] He sounded a bit nervous in the interview.
John Emerson sent me a link to a NY Times article by Ellen Barry about the complex relationships among the peoples of Dagestan, one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth. […] How many times can a male cow be castrated?


I’ve just finished Grigory Baklanov’s Pyad’ zemli (‘A span of earth,’ available in Russian here). I wrote about his Iyul’ 41 goda (July 1941) here, and noticed an unexpected borrowing from German here; this is another war story, set on the Dniestr in the summer of 1944, when, as that Wikipedia article says, “German and Romanian forces battled Soviet troops on the western bank of the river.” Our narrator is part of the small group of Soviet forces stationed on the west bank and trying to keep from being pushed into the river by the Germans on the heights to the west, and I will never forget the Russian word плацдарм [platsdarm] ‘bridgehead,’ which occurs in the first sentence (“Жизнь на плацдарме начинается ночью”: ‘Life in the bridgehead begins at night’) and recurs eighty-eight times in the 150 pages of the story. The odd thing about the word is that it’s borrowed from the French place d’armes, ‘parade ground’ (influenced by плац [plats] ‘parade ground,’ itself from German Platz); I’m not sure how you get from ‘parade ground’ to ‘bridgehead,’ but stranger things have happened. At any rate, the book, his first, isn’t as good as Iyul’ 41 goda—there’s too much Boy’s Own sentimentality about comradeship and life in general (in the vein of “And I am two-and-twenty, And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true”), not to mention an implausible and unnecessary love triangle—but on the whole it’s a fine, harrowing description of life on the front line.
I’d just like to get off my chest another complaint about the UK-centricity of bilingual dictionaries; when I looked up штрафник [shtrafnik] in my Oxford Russian-English Dictionary, which I love like a brother (I dread the day when the front cover comes completely off), I found the definition “(coll.) soldier in the ‘glasshouse.'” WTF? I had to utilize other lexicographical resources to discover that “glasshouse” is a British slang term for a military prison. I don’t mind giving a Brit slang equivalent, but for the love of all that’s holy, you need to provide a neutral definition as well, one that we Yanks can make sense of. (Not to mention that a штрафник need not be in prison but can, as here, be in a штрафбат, a punishment battalion.)