Archives for May 2011


You may have seen a story in the press about the Amondawa (known to Wikipedia as the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau), who allegedly have (if you read BBC News) no “abstract idea of time,” or (if you’re foolish enough to read the Daily Mail) “no concept of time” (and, for good measure, “nobody has an age”). I was hoping Language Log would do something on the actual story, but fortunately Stan Carey has filled the breach with this excellent post; core point:

One of the authors, Chris Sinha, Professor of Psychology of Language at the University of Portsmouth, anticipates romantic misinterpretations when he stresses that the researchers are “really not saying these are a ‘people without time’ or ‘outside time’”. … What the authors are saying is that the Amondawa do not map time onto space or motion, the way we do in countless everyday metaphorical phrases like in a while, on Tuesday, behind/ahead of schedule, looking forward to, approaching Christmas, etc. There is, the authors say, a widespread assumption that this “linguistic constructional space-time mapping” is universal.

Read the whole thing. And thanks for doing the legwork, Stan!


Trying to figure out what the Russian term ходовая часть [khodováya chast’], literally ‘running/working part,’ meant in the context of a wheeled vehicle, I naturally googled it (since it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries) and the first hit was a Russian Wikipedia page. “Aha,” thought I, “all I have to do is see what the linked English Wikipedia page is!” Alas, it turned out to be Bogie, which compounded my confusion. Bogie appears to be a technical railway term referring to a chassis or undercarriage, and in the context in which I encountered the Russian phrase (which did not involve a train), either of those latter words would do. Bogie I know only as an alternate spelling of bogey ‘one over par in golf’; however, I suspect this may reflect my status as an American, since the ‘chassis’ sense is labeled “chiefly Brit.” in Merriam-Webster. So I turn to the Varied Reader: do you know this word in this sense? And do you consider it a normal, everyday sort of word or a technical term?


The University of Chicago Magazine has a nice piece on Ben Zimmer, linguist and former “On Language” columnist (Keep “On Language” in the New York Times!); it recounts the history of the Times column along with Ben’s own story (“In the early 1980s, the preteen Zimmer wrote—but didn’t mail—a letter to the legendary On Language columnist Safire”). One quote that struck me:

Discontinuing the column is “like chopping down a tree in an old growth forest,” says former Oxford American Dictionary editor in chief Erin McKean, AB’93, AM’93. “You know, one of those huge monsters with a trunk ten feet across? It would take hundreds of years for that tree to come back.”


I just ran across one of those etymologies that I must have seen before but that is so weird it went right out of my head and surprised me all over again: wiseacre (‘wise guy, smart aleck’) is (to quote M-W) from “Middle Dutch wijssegger soothsayer, modification of Old High German wīzzago; akin to Old English wītega soothsayer, witan to know.” It goes back to at least 1595 (“Shall he run vp and downe the town … accompanied with some such wise-akers as himselfe”), which is surprising as well; the Old English wītega became Middle English witie, whose last citation in the OED is from 1225 (“þen muchele witti witeȝe ysaie”). Now that I’ve written it down here, I may actually remember it.
Also, I just got a box from my favorite Russian bookstore, the St.Petersburg BookStore in Brighton Beach (I used to take the subway there regularly), which always feels like Christmas; this one contained И дольше века длится день…, by Chingiz Aitmatov, which I’ve wanted to read for years; Раковый корпус (Cancer Ward), by Solzhenitsyn, which I’ve wanted to read in Russian for years; Взятие Измаила (The Taking of Izmail), by Mikhail Shishkin, an author recommended by Sashura; and Растратчики; Время, вперед! by Valentin Kataev, a pair of classic works (The Embezzlers [1926] and Time, Forward! [1932]) by a Soviet author I didn’t have a burning desire to read, but it was on sale for three bucks, so how could I resist? (I badly wanted to get Boris Zhitkov‘s Виктор Вавич (Viktor Vavich), which Pasternak called “the best thing that has ever been written about 1905,” but they didn’t have it in stock and their special-order system is being revamped, so I’ll just have to wait. Curses!)


Victor Mair has a Log post about bopomofo, a phonetic system for transcribing Chinese. Mair says, “Chinese characters are supposed to be able to represent speech, so it seems odd that users need to resort to a separate writing system (bopomofo) to clarify how a word should be pronounced,” but goes on “As a learner of Chinese in Taiwan four decades ago, I was deeply grateful for the existence of extensive reading materials at all levels that were phonetically annotated with bopomofo. That saved me endless hours of dictionary drudgery and frustration,” and describes the bookstores in Taiwan that “are stocked with hundreds of premodern texts, both classical and literary, that are not only annotated with bopomofo, but accompanied by translations into Mandarin and extensive commentaries and notes to assist the reader…. Time and again, I have urged the educational and cultural authorities in China to use Pinyin for the same purposes, although they have been very reluctant to do so, partially because of technical difficulties of setting the ruby symbols in an orthographically correct and esthetically pleasing manner.” It’s a good read, and I expect an interesting discussion—and a lively one, especially now that Trimegistus has left a comment asking “if the Chinese themselves can’t even read their writing system, why not quietly abandon it and switch to a phonetic alphabet already in use?”


I hadn’t been aware of Salon’s Trazzler slide shows, which feature “places that our writers have contributed that make us think, laugh and dream about our next adventure,” but I enjoyed their The world’s most inspiring bookstores, and I thought you might too. I have some quibbles (did they really need to include Shakespeare and Co. and City Lights, two of the world’s most-hyped bookstores, in a selection of only fourteen? and far from being unusual, isn’t having books “arranged … not by genre or author, but instead by country” normal for travel bookstores?), but hey, they showcase one of my local favorites, so I’m not complaining:

With its slogan “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find,” the Montague Bookmill has secured its standing among the most delightful places in which to get lost. Grab one of the cafe’s sandwiches (like the brie with apricot jam and marinated apple), take a seat by a sunny window, and get carried away by the rushing Sawmill River. Traverse the creaky wooden floors and browse a selection of titles that marries classic and idiosyncratic (Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf meets Marxist mistrals and old paddling guides). Even before you check out the bathroom, with its quirkily papered walls (news of Norman Mailer’s stabbing his wife in 1960, a poster of Frank Zappa for President, a Hungarian transportation map), you’ve fallen in love with this repurposed New England gristmill clinging to the riverbank. While there’s no better place to read, the bookmill also hosts folk and bluegrass shows, film screenings and other events.

Thanks, Songdog!


Arnold Zwicky has “assembled a huge list of web resources. Far from exhaustive, and focused almost entirely on blogs and reference resources in English, but here it is.” I’ll be adding it to my sidebar, but I wanted to call attention to it in a post; it’s an amazingly comprehensive list.
Mark Liberman has compiled a list of some past Language Log posts that address the frequent allegation that linguists believe “there is no such thing as a ‘wrong’ usage, only nonstandard ones.”
Stan Carey of Sentence first has a post featuring Christine Collins’s “λ♥[love] (Linguistics Love Song),” with video (music only), lyrics, and explanatory links; it’s quite delightful. As John Cowan says in the comments, though: “I was jolted, though, by the singer’s pronunciation of denotation. I have always had FLEECE in the first syllable, and OED2, ODO, and all agree; however, she makes it DRESS. Anybody else say ‘den-otation’ rather than ‘dee-notation’?” I second the question.
Finally, English Language and Usage (Stack Exchange) is “a collaboratively edited question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.” Their About page says, “What’s so special about this? Well, nothing, really. The only unusual thing we do is synthesize aspects of Wikis, Blogs, Forums, and Digg/Reddit in a way that we think is original.” Take a look, and if it’s the kind of thing that appeals to you, well, there it is.

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Frequent commenter marie-lucie gave me a wonderful Christmas present which I am now getting around to reading, Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. I’m sure I’ll be having a lot to say about it as I read, but having just begun, I want to quote a couple of paragraphs from the first chapter (which you can read here) to show why I’m so interested in it. It begins “One summer in the early 1740s, on the last day of his life, a young man from Paris became the first modern cartographer to see the mountain called Le Gerbier de Jonc”; the second and third paragraphs read:

If the traveller had scaled the peak of phonolithic rock — so called because of the xylophonic sound the stones make as they slide away under a climber’s feet — he would have seen a magnificent panorama: to the east, the long white curtain of the Alps, from the Mont Blanc massif to the bulk of Mont Ventoux looking down over the plains of Provence; to the north, the wooded ridges of the Forez and the mists descending from the Jura to the plains beyond Lyon; to the west, the wild Cévennes, the Cantal plateau and the whole volcanic range of the upper Auvergne. It was a geometer’s dream — almost one-thirteenth of the land surface of France spread out like a map.

From the summit, he could take in at a glance several small regions whose inhabitants barely knew of each other’s existence. To walk in any direction for a day was to become incomprehensible, for the Mézenc range to which the mountain belonged was also a watershed of languages. The people who saw the sun set behind the Gerbier de Jonc spoke one group of dialects; the people on the evening side spoke another. Forty miles to the north, the wine growers and silk-weavers of the Lyonnais spoke a different language altogether, which had yet to be identified and named by scholars. Yet another language was spoken in the region the traveller had left the day before, and though his own mother tongue, French, was a dialect of that language, he would have found it hard to understand the peasants who saw him pass.

Just the word phonolithic, and Robb’s explanation of it (“the xylophonic sound the stones make as they slide away under a climber’s feet”), made my day, and I can’t wait to get to Chapter 4, “O Òc Sí Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua” (a collection of words for ‘yes’), which focuses on those many languages. Mille remerciements, m-l!


Just over a year ago I wrote about Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” in the New Yorker; Malcolm has now published the book from which that was excerpted, and the NYRB has a review by Geoffrey O’Brien. It’s a good review of what sounds like a good book, but what I want to focus on here is O’Brien’s mention of a quote by Chekhov that sums up (as Chekhov so often does) my own view of life:

We want the elements to add up to a satisfying and coherent story. But as Anton Chekhov wrote—in a letter quoted by Malcolm in Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001)—responding to a reader who had complained of the writer’s having evaded a proper explanation of his protagonist’s motives: “We shall not play the charlatan, and we will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.”

“A reader” is an unsatisfactory way to describe Ivan Leontiev, who wrote under the pen name Shcheglov (his Dachny muzh [The suburban husband] was a big hit in the 1880s) and was an old friend of Chekhov’s. Leontiev had complained about the ending of Chekhov’s story “Lights” (“Огни“; note that it opens with the barking dog motif), but before responding to him directly, Chekhov discussed it with another friend, the publisher Suvorin, in a letter of May 30, 1888 (I take the English version from the translation available online here, since I don’t feel like retranslating it myself):

What you say about “The Lights” is quite just. […] You say that neither the conversation about pessimism nor Kisotcha’s story in any way help to solve the question of pessimism. It seems to me it is not for writers of fiction to solve such questions as that of God, of pessimism, etc. The writer’s business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God or about pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and of their conversations, but merely an impartial witness. I have heard a desultory conversation of two Russians about pessimism—a conversation which settles nothing—and I must report that conversation as I heard it; it is for the jury, that is, for the readers, to decide on the value of it. My business is merely to be talented—i.e., to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters, and to speak their language. Shtcheglov-Leontyev blames me for finishing the story with the words, “There’s no making out anything in this world.” He thinks a writer who is a good psychologist ought to be able to make it out—that is what he is a psychologist for. But I don’t agree with him. It is time that writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world, as once Socrates recognized it, and Voltaire, too. The mob thinks it knows and understands everything; and the more stupid it is the wider it imagines its outlook to be. And if a writer whom the mob believes in has the courage to say that he does not understand anything of what he sees, that alone will be something gained in the realm of thought and a great step in advance.

Over a week later, on June 9, he wrote back to Leontiev; the response to the complaint takes up only a few lines at the end, and I will quote the translation from Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentaries:

I permit myself not to agree with you about my ‘Lights.’ It is not the psychologist’s job to understand things that he in fact does not understand. Let us not be charlatans and let us state openly that you can’t figure out anything in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.

(The Russian of both letters is after the cut.)
While I have your attention, here‘s a wonderful page (in Russian) about Gorky’s famous line “Глупый пингвин робко прячет тело жирное в утесах” [‘The stupid penguin shyly hides his fat body among the cliffs’), with its very unorthodox initial stress on пингвин ‘penguin’; I particularly recommend the nine-minute YouTube clip of a delightfully animated performance of the awful poem from which it comes, «Песня о буревестнике» (Song of the Stormy Petrel).

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I tend to think of the Perseus Digital Library as a source of Greek and Latin texts, but I haven’t been there for a while, and I hadn’t realized how much they’ve expanded. What caught my attention in particular was seeing that last month they added Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon! I guess they’re serious about making “the full record for humanity as intellectually accessible as possible to every human being.”
While I’m on the subject, another thing I just learned is how to access the very useful “word study tool.” (It came in handy in reminding me that Latin miseris can be a form of the verb mitto ‘send’ as well as of the adjective miser ‘wretched.’) You just select “All Search options” under a search box, and there it is on the right under “How to enter text in Greek.” And besides Greek and Latin, you can search for forms in Arabic and Old Norse. Bravo, Perseus! (Now add more languages!)