Archives for May 2011


Having studied and to varying degrees learned a number of languages, I’m always interested in studies about multilingualism (I most recently blogged about it here); now Claudia Dreifus of the NY Times has an interview with cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok about “how bilingualism sharpens the mind”:

As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language.
But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important. …

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WORDS OF 1912.

The next installment in Dave Wilton’s series of words culled from the OED, this includes terms created or attested surprisingly late, like ambivalence, hometown, and punch-drunk, the medical terms autism and schizophrenia, the basic musical terms blues and jazz, the trademarks Oreo and Pimm’s, and all sorts of other goodies (frumpiness! grognard! vitamin!). A great idea well carried out.


I’ve always been fascinated by legends of drowned cities, notably Kitezh, so I particularly enjoyed the poem by that name in a group newly published in Cardinal Points (Стороны света) by Irina Mashinski (whom I can’t help but think of as Irina Mashinskaya, since that’s her name in Russian: Ирина Машинская). I’ll quote the last few stanzas here; for the rest, go to the “group” link above and scroll down:

We haven’t started it but we’ve got to see
how mermaids swim by rusty snapped off doors
of an express stuck in abyssal mud —
and sit on cliffs of rhymes and sing.
As for the meter — as for the pure honey
  of rhythm,
     for iamb of littoral, for anapest of depths,
lighthouses of metaphors, drill towers above shelf waters —
       we know that tar at night does look mysterious.
From space that glides so low,
    oil spills look like an unknown

Totally unrelated: Owen Hatherley has a nice report on early Soviet cinema at the Grauniad.


A Wall Street Journal piece by Vauhini Vara features slang expert Tom Dalzell, who “is now in the process of updating the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.” Embarrassingly, it opens with the fact that he just discovered the verb “rickroll” last month—come on, Tom, I’ve known about rickrolling since 2008, and I’m not even a slang expert! But the general point about its being hard to keep up with slang is a good one. It is, of course, nothing new; in fact, it’s a major plot point in the delightful 1941 comedy Ball of Fire, in which Gary Cooper, as Professor Bertram Potts, is studying modern American slang, and upon discovering his knowledge is out of date, goes to a nightclub to do research, where he meets gun moll-cum-chanteuse “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). Hijinks ensue.


Sashura just sent me an amazing piece of news: Kenneth Branagh will be playing the central role of Viktor Shtrum in Radio 4’s forthcoming (in September) adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Alison Hindell writes:

Producing the Radio 4 dramatisation of Life and Fate has been something of a revelation to me. The brainchild of Mark Damazer, former Controller of Radio 4, for whom it is the greatest novel of the twentieth century, it was for me entirely unknown.
Most listeners are in the same boat as me although, as a Russian speaker, I was surprised I didn’t even know the title. So I read it. And felt fairly convinced it was an impossible challenge. Fabulous prose, complex characters, beautifully translated but too long, too many characters to follow, what slot could possibly accommodate it?

Her explanation of how they decided to handle it is interesting and plausible. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the greatest novel of the twentieth century, having gotten halfway through I’m quite sure it’s the greatest novel of WWII and should be far better known than it is. I’ll be writing more about it in due course; meanwhile I look forward to hearing this (assuming we Yanks will be vouchsafed the privilege).


In case anybody’s wondering what kind of a poet Dmitry Bobyshev (the guy who stole Brodsky’s girlfriend) is, I’ll pass along a translation I dashed off some time back of one of his poems; I started it because I so loved the line “Птичий почти: полу-свист, полу-щелк” [ptichi pochti: polu-svist, polu-shcholk], which seemed to represent the chirp of a chipmunk with uncanny fidelity, and wanted to see if I could render it plausibly in English. (Russian below the cut.)

Just think, there are places where beasts can live life
simply, without any forethought or strife.
The squirrel, if it can escape the raccoon,
has heaven, with walnuts and pears for its boon.
Listen: like bird-peep, half-whistle, half-click,
the chipmunklet chatters and runs away quick.
There are so many things that the vixen finds nice:
slippery frogs and mouthwatering mice!
I know there’s a stash that’s been stowed safe away
by special blue magpies for some future day.
As for the two of us, walking here now—
we’ll get through everything, sort of, somehow.

(Many thanks to Sashura for his help!)

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Keith Gessen has a “Critic at Large” piece in last week’s New Yorker (May 23), “The Gift,” about Joseph Brodsky, and it’s fine popularized biography-cum-criticism. Gessen starts off with the dramatic break between the youthful Brodsky and his fellow poet Dmitry Bobyshev, hitherto the best of friends, after Bobyshev stole his girlfriend, the beautiful artist Marina Basmanova; the failure of his love affair was so devastating for Brodsky that he later said to Lyudmila Shtern, about the famous trial for parasitism that sent him into internal exile, “that was so much less important to me than the business with Marina” («Это было настолько менее важно, чем история с Мариной»), and he dedicated much of his best poetry over the coming years to Basmanova. Even before the exile, his greatness was apparent, as his friend and biographer Lev Loseff said:

Loseff describes the first time he heard Brodsky read. It was 1961. Some time before, a friend had given him a sheaf of Brodsky’s poems, but the type was faint (samizdat manuscripts were often typed three or four sheets at a time), and Loseff didn’t like the look of the lines, which, especially in Brodsky’s early poetry, stretched on and on. “I managed to get out of reading them somehow,” Loseff recalls. But now a group of friends had gathered in the communal apartment where Loseff and his wife lived, and there was no getting away from Brodsky. He started reading his long ballad “Hills,” and Loseff was amazed: “I realized that here at last were the poems I had always dreamed of, without even knowing it. . . . It was as if a door had opened into a wide-open space that we hadn’t known about or heard of. We simply had no idea that Russian poetry, that the Russian language, that Russian consciousness, could contain these spaces.”

But while Gessen treats Brodsky with appropriate seriousness, he also finds appropriate humor in the aging poet-in-exile’s imperious attitude, insisting on translating his own poetry (“Inevitably, Brodsky tried, and he wasn’t shy about it…. The results were not so much bad as badly uneven”) and becoming “more visible in his last years as an essayist and a propagandist for poetry than as an actual poet”:

His ideas about the moral importance of poetry—inherited from the poets of the Silver Age, including Mandelstam, who had died for his poetry—eventually hardened into dogma; his Nobel Prize address stressed that “aesthetics is the mother of ethics,” and so on.

I love that “and so on,” which reminded me of Pound-as-Propertius’s sly deflation of magniloquence in “Homage To Sextus Propertius – V:

Oh august Pierides! Now for a large-mouthed product.
“The Euphrates denies its protection to the Parthian and apologizes for Crassus,”
And “It is, I think, India which now gives necks to your triumph,”
And so forth, Augustus. “Virgin Arabia shakes in her inmost dwelling.”

Gessen’s essay, like Loseff’s book, “ends with Bobyshev, now in America, calling Brodsky in New York.” It was neither an angry confrontation nor a joyous reunion; it was just a businesslike chat in America, that “interesting place.”


Stan Carey has another excellent post at Sentence first, about J.R.R. Tolkien’s “deep interest in language”; I urge you to read it and savor Tolkien’s anecdote about “a little man… in a dirty wet marquee,” a fellow soldier during WWI (which Stan takes from Arika Okrent’s wonderful book), but what I will quote here is a bit from a letter from Tolkien to his son Christopher:

Nobody believes me when I say that my long book [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true. An enquirer (among many) asked what the L.R. was all about, and whether it was an allegory. And I said it was an effort to create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen si-’la lu-’menn omentielmo [‘A star shines on the hour of our meeting’], and that the phrase long antedated the book.

No wonder I loved the trilogy as a teenager!

WORDS OF 1911.

Dave Wilton of is starting a new series of posts. From the first one:

In each one I’ll compile a list of words first used in English for a particular year, starting with one hundred years ago, 1911, and working my way to the present year. The words are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, based on that dictionary’s earliest citation for that word. Of course, that does not necessarily mean the word was coined in the given year; it only means that is the earliest date the big dictionary has for the word. In many cases, these words can and have been antedated.
I tried to select twenty-six words, one for each letter of the alphabet. But in some cases I’ve got more than one for a particular letter, in others none.

It’s quite an interesting read; among the food-and-drink names first attested a century ago are Chardonnay, mozzarella, and Waldorf salad, among the general cultural terms are airmail, brassiere, and joblessness, and slang words are floozy, hoosegow, and hophead. Most surprising entry: photocopier. Most educational:

lettergram, n. A lettergram was a telegram that upon arrival at the local telegraph office, was placed in the mail for ordinary postal delivery, instead of being delivered immediately by courier. A nice bit of nostalgia for those that remember them. (I don’t.)

Who knew? I look forward to future posts in the series.


John Cowan has alerted me to the existence of a blog that is going straight to the blogroll, Asya Pereltsvaig’s Languages of the World. The Welcome post from March of last year says “This site is intended to be a resource and place for discussion for those interested in languages, their histories and their interactions,” and for anyone interested in such things, it’s a lot of fun. She started off in Ukraine, moved on to Malta and Scotland, and has continued with admirable catholicity since (she’s just finished a series on Hebrew). Thanks, John!