Archives for June 2011


The Arak-29 website is a fine resource for all things Armenian, grouping its links under the headings Language, Literature (starting with Armenian Shakespeare), Culture, Law, Economy, History, Church, Insight, and Environment. Needless to say, it’s the first that interests me most immediately, and among its offerings are an etymology page, where you can look up (say) ագռաւ ‘crow’ and be taken to the PIE root *gerə-, which also gives կռունկ ‘crane’; it helpfully mentions English words from that root (CRACK, CROON, CRANE, PEDIGREE) and provides a PIE-to-Armenian sound change [*g > կ]. I’m adding it to the blogroll in the hopes that it will give me an incentive to dabble in Armenian, which I haven’t done since grad school. (Via Memiyawanzi.)


An amusing post by Isaac Chotiner at the New Republic blog mercilessly mocks the public editor of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane, for his recent column deploring the newspaper’s apparently unstoppable slide into vulgarity, his culminating examples (note that I tastefully avoided the word “climax”) being an article that “rather creatively addressed a distinctly feminine obscenity… without ever using the word or resorting to asterisks or other such substitutes” and a review of a book about a man who “wears women’s clothes” and—horror!—”rejects a legal career.” Since I myself am prone to mock the Times for its prissiness (most recently here), I enjoyed the takedown immensely, and I am happy to subscribe to Chotiner’s parting shot: “The real question is why Brisbane continues to write for the paper when he could be monitoring playground language at his local public school.”


James Campbell has a piece in last Sunday’s NY Times Book Review on his experiences with French novels, first (as an adolescent) in English translation and more recently in the original, and his surprise at the differences he discovers: “[Stuart] Gilbert, a friend of James Joyce in Paris in the 1920s, adds phrases and changes the meaning of others…. How Gilbert knew that Meursault smoked in bed is a mystery, since Camus doesn’t say so.” His final paragraph makes me want to read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the many famous books that I’ve somehow missed out on.
Christopher Ricks has a review (subscribers only, I’m afraid) in the June 9 NYRB of what sounds like a good book, The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto; it has the Old English originals on facing pages and what seem to be on the whole lively modern translations:

Alive I was—I didn’t speak a bit; even so, I die.
Once I was, I came again: everyone ravages me,
holds me tight and shears my head,
tears into my bare body, breaks my neck.
I wouldn’t bite a man unless he bit me;
so many of them bite me.

(Phillis Levin, translating a riddle whose answer is “onion.”) I like Ricks’s suggestion of a companion volume that would set old and new translations of the same poems together for comparison: “The revelation would be reciprocal were Pound’s ‘The Seafarer’ to enjoy comparison with Mary Jo Salter’s… Or Tennyson’s ‘Battle of Brunanburh’ (1880) confronting Robert Hass’s.”
And Old English brings me to the new Translation Issue of Poetry, which I picked up on Jamie Olson’s recommendation and which I’m greatly enjoying (not least the little essays each translator provides). I was set back on my heels by Ange Mlinko‘s versions of classical Arabic poetry, Abid ibn al-Abras’s “Last Simile” and Labid’s “Lament.” They’re both in a similar style; here’s the start of the latter:

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ScriptSource “is a dynamic, collaborative reference to the writing systems of the world, with detailed information on scripts, characters, languages – and the remaining needs for supporting them in the computing realm. It currently contains only a skeleton of information, and so depends on your participation in order to grow and assist others.” Today’s featured script is Tai Viet, “used for writing the Tai Dam, Tai Dón, Tai Daeng, Thai Song and Tày Tac languages spoken in Vietnam, Laos, China and Thailand,” and there’s a little essay about the nature and history of the script (“Traditionally, tone was only partially marked in the orthography…. However, around the 1970s, two different tone marking systems developed simultaneously in Vietnam and the United States; the concurrent use of both these systems is seen to be disadvantageous but, for the time being, unavoidable…”).
Via Joe Clark‘s MetaFilter post, and a hat-tip to Songdog for alerting me to it!


Ben Zimmer’s Visual Thesaurus piece “Happy 50th, Webster’s Third!” has some interesting discussion with Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski about the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the “single-statement rule” for definitions pioneered by Philip Gove, editor of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (see this LH post from 2009), which produced such thickets of carefully arranged verbiage as this definition of door:

a movable piece of firm material or a structure supported usually along one side and swinging on pivots or hinges, sliding along a groove, rolling up and down, revolving as one of four leaves, or folding like an accordion by means of which an opening may be closed or kept open for passage into or out of a building, room, or other covered enclosure or a car, airplane, elevator, or other vehicle

But what really caught my eye was this parenthetical aside: “W3 has been enriched with addenda over the years, but work on a brand-new edition only began in earnest in 2008, with no definite publication date yet set for the much-anticipated W4.” I would have been much-anticipating it myself if I’d known it was coming; I just assumed the age of the Big Dictionary was over as far as the world of paper and ink was concerned. If they eliminate the defects mentioned in my earlier post, it could be the high point of American lexicography, and I eagerly await further developments.


Tim Parks has a piece on NYRblog suggesting that since the days of “the experimental writing of the 1960s and 1970s,” when there was “a mining of linguistic richness … that tended to exclude, or simply wasn’t concerned about, the question of having the text travel the world,” there has been a change:

It was when I was invited to review in the same article a translation of Hugo Claus’s Wonder (1962) alongside Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (2003), and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (2006) that it occurred to me that over the forty years between Claus and the others an important change had occurred. These more recent novels had, yes, been translated, from Norwegian and Dutch into English, but it was nothing like the far more arduous task of translating Claus and many of his peers. Rather, it seemed that the contemporary writers had already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things. Naturally, there was an impoverishment. Neither of these authors have the mad fertility of Claus; but there was also a huge gain in communicability, particularly in translation where the rhythm of delivery and the immediacy of expression were free from any sense of obstacle.
Was it possible, I asked myself, that there was now a skeleton lingua franca beneath the flesh of these vernaculars, and that it was basically an English skeleton?

I have no idea whether he’s right or it’s just confirmation bias, but it’s an interesting (and dispiriting) idea.


In the course of a recent Language Log thread, a comment by John Lawler linked to an extremely interesting term paper (pdf) written some years ago by a student of his named Melissa Demyanovich called “‘Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me This Before?’: Language Science in K-12 Education.” It starts kids off with a subject dear to my heart: “The first class, in first grade, would be a basic introductory course called Languages of the World, which touches on lightly on some topics within Language Science, without concentrating too heavily on any one.” The proposals for subsequent grades are well thought out (though of course I bridle at saddling helpless kids with things like “components of deep structure and theories of movement”), and I wish I thought there were any chance of such a program being adopted. To give you an idea of the level of detail with which the author has thought this through, here’s a proposal for second grade:

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Michael Erard is still working on Babel No More (website, and see this LH post), and he wrote me to ask, “Do you have examples of the prescriptive linguistic genre (Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Elements of Style, etc.) in languages other than English?” He’s dealing with “arguments about who/what sort of linguistic behavior constitutes nativeness.” I figured (being the lazy person I am) that rather than try to google up such examples, I’d ask you all, since you’re a polylingual and helpful bunch of folks. I know, for instance, that the prescriptivist strain in Russian linguistic culture is even stronger than in English, but I don’t know what the canonical texts are (if there are such).


I’m now on the third (and final) part of Grossman’s Life and Fate (Russian text), and I’ve finally hit a mystery even Sashura can’t unravel, so I turn to the wider world for possible elucidation. A former Cheka officer named Katzenellenbogen is making conversation in his Lubyanka cell; after the very funny line “два еврея, оба пожилые, проводят совместно вечера на хуторе близ Лубянки и молчат” (“two Jews, both elderly, share evenings on a farm near Lubyanka”—a parody of Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka—”and are silent”), he says “Почему он не хочет со мной говорить? Страшная месть, или убийство священника в ночь под Лакбоймелах?” [“Why doesn’t he want to talk to me? A terrible vengeance, or the murder of a priest on the eve of Lakboimelakh?”] This word Лакбоймелах doesn’t look in the least Russian, nor does it look like anything else in particular, although it occurs to me that the last part, boimelakh, has a Yiddish ring to it, not that that’s much help. There appears to be absolutely nothing about it online, either in Russian or English (and Chandler simply omits it from his translation, as he does both references to Gogol). So: anybody have any ideas?


I’m still making my way slowly through Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, and I’ve gotten to a very interesting section on Pali (pp. 146ff.). He starts off with an anecdote about how some monks proposed to the Buddha that his words be translated into Sanskrit so that people all over India could understand them; the Buddha refused, adding anujānāmi bhikkhave sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanam pariyāpunitum. Ostler says:

The proper interpretation of this fairly simple sentence has never been agreed and will never be because of the heartrending dilemma just considered. The Buddha had clearly picked up the phrase used by the monks to mean “in their own dialects”—sakāya niruttiyā—and stated, “I authorize the monks to learn the Buddha-words sakāya niruttiyā.” But does this mean “each in their own dialect”? Or rather “in my own dialect”? Clearly the Buddha was rejecting the Sanskrit option, probably because of its then association with the Brahmanical religion from which he was attempting to distance his teaching, or (just possibly) because it might have been less accessible to the uneducated. But was he saying that monks could learn (and hence propagate) his teaching in any language they spoke? Or was he rather hinting that a language good enough for the Buddha should be good enough for them?”

Ostler quotes the fifth-century commentator Buddhaghosa as saying “Here, ‘own dialect’ means Magadhi speech as spoken by the Buddha.” But what was that? He goes on:

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