Archives for August 2011


A John Sutherland review of Gary Saul Morson’s The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture makes it sound like an interesting book:

We think of our use of language as ‘fluency’. There are, however, congealed lumps floating in it and, if we look beneath the surface, often more lumps than liquidity. Put another way, most language is pre-owned. The previous owners are, as Gary Morson instructs us, often worth knowing about. Take, for example (not one of Morson’s examples), the indisputably most famous and quoted line in English literature, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’.
Most theatregoers would think the sentence spit new. But should they also go to a performance of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus they would hear the following in the hero’s magnificent opening soliloquy, in which he resolves to sell his soul: ‘Bid Oncaymæon farewell, Galen come’. The Greek Oncaymæon transliterates as ‘being and not being’. Where is Faustus a professor of philosophy? The University of Wittenberg. Where is Hamlet a student of philosophy? The University of – you guessed it. ‘To be or not to be’ is not a deeply original thought but a hackneyed sophomoric seminar topic. Hamlet is not thinking, he’s quoting.
Morson’s book is full of surprises on the baggage phraseology carries.[…]

The review itself, however, is quite irritating at times. The idea that ‘whether [the text] must be in the exact words of the respondent or whether it can be paraphrased depends on the precise objectives of the interview’ has, so far as I can see, nothing whatever to do with Johann Hari’s shameless passing off of other journalists’ work as his own, and certainly does not exculpate it. And all that “I don’t give a damn and neither does Gary Morson for such pernicketiness” stuff is faux-populist nonsense. What, either you damn people for misquoting or you damn anyone who cares at all what the real quote was—there’s no in between? (Thanks, Paul!)


A couple of cartoons of linguistic interest:
Wondermark (whence comes the post title)
SMBC (at the Log with a list of relevant Log posts)


A couple more philological/cultural digressions from Svetlana Boym’s Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (see this LH post); first, on the two words for ‘truth’:

In Russian there are two words for truth — pravda and istina — and no word for authenticity. Pravda evokes justice, fairness, and righteousness; istina derives from “is” (est’), and means that it is a kind of truth and faithfulness to being. In the Orthodox saying, “pravda comes from the heaven, istina comes from the earth,” but the two words often sometimes reverse their meaning. By the nineteenth century pravda is the more colloquial term, while istina belongs to the literary language. Russian proverbs and folk sayings, as well as the Soviet anecdotes, are ambiguous when it comes to truth. (They only discuss pravda, never istina, which belongs to a different kind of talk.) On the one hand, there are warnings for truth-seekers: “truth is good but happiness is better,” or “if you tell the truth, you give yourself trouble”; and “every Pavel has his own truth”; or, on the grim side, “there was truth at Peter and Paul’s.” This last “truth” does not refer to the evangelical doctrine but rather to confession under torture in the infamous prison at the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg. On the other hand, pravda is also heroically celebrated: “truth does not burn in fire and does not drown in the water,” or “Varvara is my aunt, but truth is my sister.” Yet this common ambiguity about truth from Russian oral culture is rarely echoed in the writings of the Russian intelligentsia. In this respect Russian writers and intellectuals are unfaithful to the Russian folk tradition; many of them considered truth to be much better than happiness. They searched for the essential istina, the word that does not rhyme easily. [A footnote cites Nabokov’s essay “Leo Tolstoy.”] One feature, however, remains the same — truth has to be “Russian.” In the proverbs found in Dal’s dictionary, “Russian truth” is positively qualified, as opposed to “Gypsy truth” or “Greek truth” (“If a Greek is telling the truth, keep your ears open”). The affirmation of Russian truth and truthful behavior is one of the important cultural obsessions inherent in the intelligentsia’s discourse on Russian identity since the nineteenth century. It is closely linked to the relationship between Russia and the West and the attitudes toward Westernized conventions, rules and laws of behavior, conceptions of legality and the legal system, and boundaries between social and antisocial, lawful and unlawful, private and public. Truthful behavior is frequently seen as sincere behavior, defined in opposition to Western conventional manners.

The “is” etymology is disputed (Vasmer provides various other possibilities), but I’m interested in what readers familiar with Russian culture think about the rest of the quote.

And here’s a short bit about the words for ‘silence’:

Bakhtin distinguished between two Russian words for silence — tishina and molchanie, one referring to the silence of the world, where nothing makes sounds, and the other to the silence of people, where nobody speaks.

Succinct and convincing.


I just finished Bulat Okudzhava’s 1961 novella “Будь здоров, школяр,” ‘Stay well, schoolboy’ or, as Edward J. Brown renders the title in Russian Literature Since the Revolution, “Good Luck, Boy!” Brown describes it well:

It sets forth, from the viewpoint of a young volunteer who entered the army before he had finished school, the ugly, monotonous, and dangerous workdays of a front-line soldier. The focus is narrowed to the frame of a single mind, and a rather simple one. The boy’s needs are modest and very basic. He does not want to be killed and he is afraid he will be killed. … The movement of the boy’s thought and the recorded conversations reflect the state of near mental collapse that is the everyday experience of a soldier in combat. He lives in a kind of trance induced by frequent death, noise, and insuperable fatigue. He never knows what he is doing, where he is going, or what the war is all about.

It’s told in a simple and hallucinatory prose, with lots of repetition and near-repetition; Sashura, who helpfully (as always) explained a difficult word to me, wrote: “I love Okujava’s prose more than his poetry, his poetry has to be sung, but his prose – it sings all on its own.” And so it does.
The word he explained was конопушечка [konopushechka], which turns out to be a diminutive of конопушка ‘freckle,’ a word which for some reason is not in my dictionaries. (It’s a colloquial form of конопатина [konopatina], which is also not in my dictionaries.) But the first unusual lexical item that struck me in the story was the title of the first section, Сено-солома [Seno-soloma], literally ‘hay-straw.’ It turns out to be a jovial reference to a (proverbially slow-witted) peasant soldier, and its derivation is exactly that of English “hay-foot, straw-foot”; as the OED says: “with right and left foot alternately (at the word of command). Also as v. In allusion to the alleged use of hay and straw to enable a rustic recruit to distinguish the right foot from the left.” (For further analysis of that phrase and story, see this Log post.) I wonder what other languages have such a phrase?


Geoff Pullum is not happy with David Starkey’s notorious foray into the horrors that immigration has brought to Britain (“The whites have become black”), and he’s done a good post about the linguistic aspects of the situation over at the Log; herewith an excerpt:

We’re talking about a regular language, the native tongue of probably two or three million people, with a grammar that needs to be mastered. (Its grammar is reasonably well studied now. Fifty years ago Robert B. Le Page, the founder of the department at York where I earned my undergraduate degree, started pushing for the study of Jamaican Creole to be taken seriously, and his controversial efforts did eventually bear fruit.) Very few white people speak JC well. It is somewhat deprecated in Jamaica: middle-class people often refer to it (incorrectly) as bad, ignorant English, and claim (falsely) they do not speak it at all, which makes it hard for a linguist without family connections to get native speakers to provide information about it.
English with a Jamaican accent is not to be confused with JC. There are hundreds of thousands of native speakers of JC in England, but they are mostly older people, and very few of them monolingual the way my mother in law was. They would typically be the sort of middle-aged and Victorianly conservative Jamaicans who were furious at the sight of the rioters and looters, and spoke out angrily against them. I heard many rioters and looters speaking on radio or television reports, and none of them were speaking JC.

His conclusion that Starkey is “pig-ignorant about JC and about language generally” seems to me unassailable. (As always for Geoff’s posts, comments are turned off, so if you have anything to say on the topic, feel free to say it here.)
Update. A nice response to Starkey by Peter Trudgill (Honorary Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich), via Arnold Zwicky at the Log:

During the Newsnight interview in which David Starkey complained about “this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England” (13th August), it was shocking to note that he himself used a form of language which was distressingly alien. I estimate that at least 40%, and quite possibly more, of his vocabulary consisted of utterly foreign words forced on us by a wholly other culture – words which were intruded in England from the language of Norman French immigrants to our country, such as “language” and “false”. And there were many other alienating aspects to his speech. It was unfortunate, for instance, that he chose to use the term “intruded”, employing a word insinuated into our language by sub-cultures in our society who abandoned their true Anglo-Saxon heritage and instead imitated the wholly false language of Roman invaders.


I recently scored a cheap copy of Serapion Sister: The Poetry of Elizaveta Polonskaja, by Leslie Dorfman Davis, and found Polonskaya (née Movshenson) interesting enough to create a pretty substantial Wikipedia article for her. I haven’t read much of her poetry yet, but the bits I’ve read I’ve liked (there’s a selection in Russian here), and she certainly deserves more attention than she’s gotten for having been one of the prominent literary figures of Petrograd/Leningrad in the ’20s; to the extent she’s known at all, it’s solely for being the only female member of the fabled Serapion Brothers (hence the title of Davis’s book). Someone should create an entry for her friend and fellow Serapion Lev Lunts, but for the time being it’s not going to be me.


When I saw Jan Freeman’s latest (and last) language column or the Boston Globe, I feared the worst—that, like the NY Times, the Globe was turning its back on language as a regular topic. But I was quickly reassured; Jan says “I decided … that after 600-plus language columns I was ready to step off the print treadmill. The Word column will continue in these pages, written by my current coauthor, Erin McKean, and others; I’ll stay on the language beat, on a less structured schedule, at my blog, Throw Grammar from the Train” (which I urge everyone to bookmark if they haven’t already). Her final piece consists mainly of a look back at the changes since 1997, when she began the column:

Even if the questions haven’t changed, the resources available to help answer them have expanded vastly. For word sleuths and other researchers, 1997 was still the old days, a time when newspapers were just getting connected to the Internet. Staff members could search the Globe archives and occasionally the Nexis news database (I think it was charging by the minute back then). Google had been named but not launched; the Oxford English Dictionary was available on disk, but wasn’t yet online; today’s huge English corpora — collections of searchable text — were nowhere to be found. …
The Internet also allows everyone to talk back, instantly and publicly, to the usage mavens. The New York Times’s style editor, Philip Corbett, told his blog readers last year that only a disease can be “diagnosed” — you can’t say “I was diagnosed with strep.” An M.D. promptly responded in the comments, advising Corbett to forget the outdated shibboleth. (And I can add, thanks to Google Books, that we’ve been diagnosing people as well as diseases for more than a century.)

I like her conclusion:

And that’s the best part, I’ve discovered, of digging deeper into usage. Whether your source is old books (available online!) or new blogs, it’s far more fun to learn how the language actually works than to revisit the same dreary complaints, year after year, long after popular usage has moved on. There’s probably no hope of teaching the world to conjugate lay and lie, but we can have a wonderful time — I promise — finding out why it’s impossible.

Erin’s still doing the column, Jan’s still doing her blog, life is good (except, of course, at the Times).


The Village Voice has an article on the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA), a public charter school in New York City:

Every bit of written instruction—from the alphabet to science—is explained from left to right in English, and then from right to left in Hebrew.
At this school, kindergartners, only six months after being introduced to the language, are comprehending and speaking Hebrew aloud.

As I think I’ve mentioned, I have a grandson in a similar school around here where half the classes are in Chinese, and I think such schools are a wonderful idea. The article has what seems to me an excessive emphasis on the race of the students (“55 percent of families identify their children as white, 38 percent as black, 6 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as multiracial”), but having spent twenty-three years in New York, I’m not surprised. Anyway, the school is a good thing, and I hope it thrives.


In my long march through Russian history and literature, I’ve reached the early ’60s, and in the last few days I’ve watched a few of the most famous movies from the period of liberalization after Stalin’s death (named for Ehrenburg‘s novel The Thaw, which I don’t feel the need to read, since it’s not considered very good—though I did read Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone, also not very good but an interesting picture of life in the late ’40s and early ’50s). Two of them I’d already seen, many years ago, and it was interesting to revisit them with greater maturity and understanding of context. I enjoyed Ballad of a Soldier, but was more impatient with its longueurs and amateur lead actors than I had been as a beardless youth who identified with the thwarted lovers. This time around I found the opening and closing scenes with the soldier’s mother magnificent and the segment with the bitter cripple Vasya (played by Yevgeni Urbansky, dead at thirty-three a few years later) powerful and well written, but I rolled my eyes at the endless shots of rolling wheels and yearning puppy-love eyes. I guess I’m getting old and cynical. The Cranes Are Flying, however, holds up well; it still feels like a masterpiece on both the human and the purely cinematic levels. From the opening scenes of careless prewar joy to the devastating final sequence, it never lets up, and deserved the prizes it won.

The revelation for me was Seryozha (also known as Splendid Days and A Summer to Remember). Movies about children are usually dumb, drippy, disposable, or all three; there are very few that focus on the children themselves rather than their effects on the adults around them, take their problems and worldview utterly seriously, and are made with the kind of artistry that enables them to withstand comparison to [insert your top-ten movie list here]. For me, the gold standard has been Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home?; I can now add Seryozha to the list. Unfortunately, while Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes are Flying are available in excellent Criterion editions with good subtitles (linked to their titles), Seryozha doesn’t seem to be available on DVD at all; if you know Russian, you can watch it online here (YouTube, 76 min.). The end got me all choked up, and I’m not really much of a sentimental fool.


A while back wood s lot had a translation of this Mandelstam poem that didn’t appeal to me, so I thought I’d try my hand at it. I’m not crazy about my version either, but I think it’s about as baked as it’s going to get, so I’ll post it here for the benefit of those who have enjoyed my previous translations (like these):

A meager ray in a cold measure
sows light in the damp woods.
In my heart I slowly carry
sorrow like a gray bird.
What can I do with a bird so wounded?
The firmament is silent, dead.
From the belfry, fogged-in, blurry,
someone’s taken down the bells,
and the height of it stands orphaned
and the height of it stands mute,
where the fog is filled with silence
like a tower, empty, white.
Morning, bottomless in tenderness,
half reality, half dream,
unalleviated drowsiness—
thoughts’ foggy chime…

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