Archives for August 2011


John Emerson, frequent commenter and proprietor of the one and only Idiocentrism (investigating the historical nooks and crannies no one else dares enter), sent me a link to this story at ChinaSmack, pointing out that:

This newspaper is not only interesting in itself, but every story and every letter to the editor is there in English and Chinese. Just hover your mouse arrow and the Chinese will pop up. The translations are idiomatic and very carefully done, as far as I can tell, and are a convenient way to build vocabulary, including slang in the letters. (E.g., 装 B “being a pretentious cunt”).

What a great idea! I hope this sort of thing catches on (though, being a lot of work for little obvious profit, it probably won’t).

WORDS OF 1815.

If you’ve ever wondered how historical novelists deal with the issue of period vocabulary, here‘s one writer’s answer. Mary Robinette Kowal (novelist and professional puppeteer) writes:

Glamour in Glass is set in 1815 and I wanted to have the language fairly clean of anachronisms. The challenge came in trying to figure out what words didn’t exist yet. So I decided to create a Jane Austen word list, from the complete works of Jane Austen, and use that as my spellcheck dictionary. It flagged any word that she didn’t use, which allowed me to look it up to see if it existed.
Sometimes the word did, but meant something different. “Blink” for instance, at the time meant to look through half-lidded eyes, or to open the eyes as if upon waking. The action we mean by it… “nictate.” Yeah… Not so much with the “She nictated at him.”
Once the word was flagged, I looked it up in the OED to double-check the meaning and the earliest citation. If the word didn’t work, then I used the OED’s historical thesaurus to find a period appropriate synonym.

That’s an excellent approach, and I was surprised by some of the results in her word list: who would have guessed that manipulate, condone, meaningful, and inkwell were not part of English vocabulary in 1815, nor for decades after? (For the last, they used inkpot.) I wish more writers followed her example. (Thanks, Derryl!)


In the course of a discussion of Steve Jobs and Norman Foster that does not interest me (but may interest the architecturally inclined among my readers), David Galbraith includes an anecdote that does:

Its a flaw of human nature to assume that revered individuals are authors of everything they touch. When historians argue over whether a Rembrandt is authentic, they miss the point, no Rembrandt was truly authentic, they were painted by a team that included Rembrandt himself to a greater or lesser degree, to maintain the house style. And there is one great anecdote that nails this myth of authorship – the famous Walt Disney signature. Walt Disney had really bad handwriting and someone else in the office created the recognizable version. When stills from Snow White were auctioned those that bore his actual signature fetched less than those with the iconic one. True authorship is a myth and this applies to Jobs.

While (being an unrepentant prepostmodernist) I dislike the simplistic conclusion (it’s silly to try to define too closely who is a true Scotsman, therefore there is no such thing as a Scotsman), I am intrigued by the anecdote and wonder if anyone knows the truth of it: was there an auction with that perverse result? (I realize the mentality that sneers at the very idea of authenticity is also likely to sneer at the very idea of “the truth of it”; so be it.)


A reader sent me a link to this page from the University of Leeds (apparently compiled by Serge Sharoff); it “was originally designed to host comparable English and Russian corpora, but in time we have accumulated a variety of large corpora supported by a uniform search interface,” and it now includes “large representative corpora for for Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Russian.” I’ve relied on the Russian National Corpus for several years now, but the Russian Internet Corpus was new to me (it can be queried, along with corpora for other languages, here), and I’m sure many of you will find useful items here. (Thanks, Rick!)


A reader sent me a link to Martin Haspelmath’s 2008 paper “Framework-free grammatical theory” (pdf), which appeared last year in The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis (a steal at under $300!). Having been out of the field for decades, I have no idea how his ideas fit into what professional linguists are now doing and thinking, but I like them very much; they echo what I’ve been saying since my grad school days:

Most linguists seem to agree that we should approach any language without prejudice and describe it in its own terms, non-aprioristically, overcoming possible biases from our native language, from the model of a prestige language (such as Latin or English), or from an influential research tradition (such as that of Donatus’s Latin grammar, or Chomsky’s generative grammar). I argue that this is absolutely essential if we want to come even close to doing justice to our research object, and that moreover any grammatical framework is precisely such a “prejudice” that we want to avoid. Frameworks set up expectations about what phenomena languages should, can and cannot have, and once a framework has been adopted, it is hard to free oneself from the perspective and the constraints imposed by it. What we need instead is the researcher’s ability to discover completely new, unexpected phenomena, to detect previously unsuspected connections between phenomena, and to be guided solely by the data and one’s own thinking.

I would be most interested in the reactions of any linguists in the crowd (and, of course, in those of others as well).


This is a nice roundup of answers to the question “How do people’s names differ around the world, and what are the implications of those differences on the design of forms, databases, ontologies, etc. for the Web?” Most of it is familiar to me (Icelanders have a given name followed by a patronymic, Chinese have the family name first and often a generational name in the middle, Spanish-speakers have two family names with the father’s first, etc.), but the material on Tamil and Rajasthani names was new to me, as was this:

In Thailand people have a nickname, that is usually not related to their actual name, and will generally use this name to address each other in non-formal situations. (They will also typically introduce themselves to Westerners with this name, since it is usually only one or two syllables and therefore easier to pronounce.) Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has the nickname Maew (แม้ว). Often they will have different nicknames for family and friends.

Thanks, Sven!


Having finished Journey into Russia (see the previous post), I’m now gobbling up a much more enjoyable read, Moscow Summer, by the Yugoslavian writer and dissident Mihajlo Mihajlov (who died last year, largely forgotten; here‘s his brief NY Times obit). Mihajlov met with everybody who was anybody in the Moscow literary-cultural world of 1964 (who wasn’t away at their dacha), some famous (Ehrenburg, Voznesensky), others less so (Vladimir Dudintsev, Yuri Bondarev—for some reason called “Bondaryov” in this translation), some now even more forgotten than the author (Vladimir Turbin, a critic and early supporter of modernism). Mihajlov was unduly optimistic about the future of Soviet culture, expecting a rapid dismantling of censorship (“another 1956”) instead of the expansion that was about to occur under Brezhnev, but that was true of the Russians he spoke to as well. Anyway, anyone who enjoys being plunged into the cultural life of a bygone era as much as I do (and enjoys reading things like “According to [Vladimir] Lakshin [an editor at Novy Mir], Solzhenitsyn is writing a long novel at his house in Ryazan”) might want to locate a copy of this book.
Update (2012). Here is a moving reminiscence of Mihajlov by Aleksa Djilas (Milovan’s son).


I’m currently reading Journey into Russia by Laurens van der Post, a description of a long journey he was able to make in the Soviet Union during the spring and summer of 1963, alternately interesting (good descriptions of landscape and of people he meets) and irritating (too much claptrap about immemorial racial tendencies and ill-informed speculation about Soviet life). In a good chapter about Siberia he has this little anecdote:

Watching the distant summer lightning from the train my friend said they had a special word for it and he would be glad if I could teach him another as expressive. The word was ‘Zarnitsa‘.
‘You win,’ I answered without hesitation, and to my surprise he thanked me by shaking my hand. I think nobody knows, not excluding the Russians, how hungry they are at heart for some recognition of what is positive and creative in their character.

(I include the final sentence as an illustration of the psychobabble with which the book is larded.) I happen to be very fond of the word зарница [zarnítsa] myself, and I mentioned it last time we saw summer lightning; it’s presumably related to заря [zaryá] ‘twilight’ (a Balto-Slavic word—cf. Lithuanian žarà), but since it’s (oddly) not in Vasmer I can’t be sure. Dahl has it under зарево ‘glow,’ with some alternate forms that have presumably gone out of use: “Зарница ж. зарники м. мн. соб. зореница ниж. зорянка олон. отдаленная молния, когда виден свет и блеск ее, а грома не слышно” [zarnítsa f., zarníki, zórenítsa Nizhni Novgorod, zoryáka Olonets, distant lightning when its light is visible but no thunder is to be heard].
I decided to look it up in the Russian National Corpus, and found many references to an “игра «Зарница»” [“Zarnitsa” game], which turns out to have its own Wikipedia entry; it’s a children’s game originally created in 1967 to help prepare children for military service, and involves two teams trying to capture each other’s flag under the supervision of a referee. (It is apparently still played, under the sponsorship of military/patriotic clubs.) I imagine a number of my readers will remember playing it, and I would be interested to hear their recollections.

[Read more…]


The Digital Library of Periodicals at the Scientific Library of the St. Petersburg State University has a bunch of eighteenth-century Russian periodicals online here, from Академическия Известия for 1779-1781 to Утренний свет for 1777-1779, not to mention Karamzin’s Московский журнал for 1791-1802 and the famous Всякая всячина (1769). It’s linked from this post at Liladhar Pendse’s Slavic Studies Librarianship blog, well worth bookmarking in its own right—I’ve just discovered a post called “Mandelshtam Discovery Tool at Princeton University Library” that links to this amazing image library. Thanks go to peacay for sending me the link!


I’m quite fond of demonyms (I have dictionaries of them for Spanish and Russian, and my Petit Larousse gives them for French), so I was pleased to find a list of them for Canadian localites (linked at Most of them are fairly bland (a person from Aylmer is an Aylmerite, one from Baddeck is a Baddecker), but there are pleasing exceptions: someone from Arviat is an Arviarmiut, and an inhabitant of Barkmere is a Bark Laker. (I note without comment that someone from Bolton-Est, Quebec, is said to be an East Boltoner.)