Archives for September 2011


An interesting article from The Economist:

The five boroughs of New York City are reckoned to be home to speakers of around 800 languages, many of them close to extinction.
New York is also home, of course, to a lot of academic linguists, and three of them have got together to create an organisation called the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), which is ferreting out speakers of unusual tongues from the city’s huddled immigrant masses. The ELA, which was set up last year by Daniel Kaufman, Juliette Blevins and Bob Holman, has worked in detail on 12 languages since its inception. It has codified their grammars, their pronunciations and their word-formation patterns, as well as their songs and legends.

There are some nice examples in the article. Ah, to be young and a linguist in NYC!


A depressing but splendidly written quote from the fine essayist Edward Hoagland:

But the survival of wild places and wild things, like the permanence of noteworthy architecture, or the opera, or a multiplicity of languages, or old shade trees in old neighborhoods, is not a priority for most people.

(From “Small Silences: Listening for the Lessons of Nature“, Harper’s, July 2004, reprinted in his new collection Sex and the River Styx.)


Usually, words are either common enough to be used casually, expecting the reader to understand them, or they’re rare enough that authors feel the need to explain them. I don’t recall seeing another word like catchmark, which is exceedingly rare—so rare that it’s not in any dictionary I can find, not even the OED—but is used (on those rare occasions when it is used) with the nonchalance of someone using a well-known locution, so that it is not clear to the uninitiated reader what it actually means. Note that although it has something to do with manuscripts, it is not catchword, a familiar term for a word placed at the foot of a handwritten or printed page that anticipates the first word of the following page. Some representative uses culled from Google Books: “Here a catchmark in the MS.,” “the scribe has marked some of the pages in his prebound blank European book with Armenian catchmarks,” “Unusually, there is no catch-mark for the number within the text,” “Gatherings 6 through 9 have medieval catchmarks.” I cannot find any glossary of terms that has “Catchmark: a [whatever it is].” Naturally, I would appreciate hearing from anyone who is in possession of this bit of strangely esoteric knowledge.
Update. This post at Ante-Bath Notes has images of what would certainly appear to be catchmarks; if so, they are sort of medieval footnote indicators, except pointing to marginal notes. Many thanks, Catanea/catannea!


I enjoyed Звёздный билет (A Starry Ticket; see this post) so much that I decided Aksyonov’s follow-up novel, Апельсины из Марокко (“Oranges from Morocco”—there seems to be a translation in The Steel Bird and Other Stories), would make a good palate-cleanser after Ivan Denisovich, and so it did; I liked it even better, and I imagine I’ll wind up reading just about everything Aksyonov wrote. His combination of stylish, colloquial writing and knowing, sometimes slily subversive cultural references is intoxicating. The book’s plot is basically silly: several young men variously in love with two women, one of the two married to the boss of one of the men. But it’s just a skeleton on which to hang the important things, the language and the setting, the (imaginary) fishing town Taly on the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia’s Far East and the surrounding territory, with its сопки (hills) and распадки (narrow valleys, in which one of the protagonists is drilling for oil with a survey team). The MacGuffin (to use Hitchcock’s term) is a shipment of oranges that has just come into port, a rare and exotic commodity that has everyone for miles around rushing to Taly to stand in line and/or get into trouble. Aksyonov gives a hint of what he’s up to when he has one of the characters look down on Taly from a hill and say it reminds him of Liss, Zurbagan, or Gel-Gyu, three of the invented towns in which Alexander Grin set his adventure stories; like them, this has a combination of apparent insubstantiality and mysterious power. But he also has a character point out that the town is built on the site of a former Gulag camp, a detail with even more resonance when you know that Aksyonov’s parents spent eighteen years each in the Gulag, and as a teenager he joined his mother, Yevgenia Ginzburg, in Magadan, the entrance port to the hideous Kolyma camps.
At any rate, here’s a linguistically interesting passage; one of the characters calls another Vasilich (short for Vasilievich, ‘son of Vasily’), whereupon we get the following paragraph (Russian after the cut):

That’s how they call him on the Zyuid [a fishing boat; the name, from Dutch zuid, is the nautical word for ‘south’], because of his age. “Comrade Captain” is awkward; Vladimir Vasilievich is too young for it. You can’t call him Volodya because of his rank, but Vasilich is just right, it’s friendly and you can say it with respect.

(Thanks for the translation help, Dmitry!)

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Exciting news (if you’re the type to get excited about lost languages): an archaeological project at Magdalena de Cao Viejo in Peru in 2008 excavated a paper document (remarkably well preserved in the dry climate) with the names of numbers in an unknown language that may be Quingnam or Pescadora (or both, if, as some think, they’re the same). Here‘s the paper by Jeffrey Quilter, Marc Zender, Karen Spalding, Régulo Franco Jordán, César Gálvez Mora, and Juan Castañeda Murga, “Traces of a Lost Language and Number System Discovered on the North Coast of Peru” (American Anthropologist 112:3, September 2010); you can read a brief press release about the paper from Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and watch a three-minute video in which Quilter discusses it.
The paper starts with a description of the document and its discovery (and some theorizing about how the numbers came to be recorded), proceeds to a discussion of what we know about the indigenous languages of the North Coast of Peru, presents the number list itself, and tries to identify the language. The conclusion says, “We do not definitively state that the number list documents previously unrecorded words from the Quingnam–Pescadora language(s), but we believe that it remains a viable possibility. We can definitively state, however, that this language is not Mochica and that its speakers must have had at least some contact with Quechuan speakers (as revealed in the borrowed vocabulary for several numbers)—albeit of a punctuated, symmetrical, and probably remote nature.” Many thanks to Kattullus for his MetaFilter post, which brought the discovery to my attention!


Ben Zimmer sent me a link to this Wall Street Journal article by Kristin M. Jones about a wonderful development for lovers of Russian and Soviet film:

On April 26 Mosfilm announced a partnership with YouTube allowing viewers to watch a substantial number of landmark movies from the studio’s collection in their entirety.
Karen Shakhnazarov, Mosfilm’s general director and also a filmmaker, producer and screenwriter, released a statement saying in part: “For us the project with YouTube is very important and interesting. The aim is to offer users the possibility to view online legal quality video content and prevent illegal use of our films.” Fifty titles were initially made available, and five more are being uploaded each week; by the end of the year, Mosfilm aims to have uploaded more than 200 movies to Mosfilm’s YouTube channel ( Many are subtitled. According to Youri Hazanov, who handles YouTube partnerships for Central and Eastern Europe, the deal followed YouTube’s standard partnership arrangement; YouTube will sell advertising on the channel and share the revenue with Mosfilm. …
The array of movies viewers can explore includes not only masterworks by Tarkovsky, such as his complex, dreamlike meditation on memory, “The Mirror” (1974), but also comedies, live-action and animated fantasy films, musicals, melodramas and action and adventure films.

I can enthusiastically recommend The Mirror myself, and there are a bunch of other movies there that I either love and want to see again or have been wanting to see (like Девять дней одного года, “Nine days of one year”). Here‘s the direct link to the site; enjoy! (I should point out that Karen, in Shakhnazarov’s name, is masculine; it’s an old Armenian name. I believe it’s an Armenianized form of the Arabic name Karim ‘generous.’)


Peacay sent me a link to the page New Digital Collection: Soviet Samizdat Periodicals:

The University of Toronto Libraries have launched a new digital collection, Soviet Samizdat Periodicals.
Soviet Samizdat Periodicals is a database of information about editions of classic Soviet samizdat, 1956-1986. The fully searchable database includes approximately 300 titles, representing all known types of samizdat periodical editions from this late Soviet era, including human rights bulletins, poetry anthologies, rock zines, religious and national editions. Researchers will find detailed bibliographic and archival information. The site also includes information about samizdat and dissidence for the general public. The website is intended to provide a forum for continuing discussion about this outstanding phenomenon of recent history.

Peacay warned me that “it appears right now to be down or throwing up connection errors so maybe it’s just going through some birthing bumps. Persist!” Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get through to the linked database; ordinarily I don’t post stuff I haven’t actually seen, but this is such an exciting development I’m going to put it out there and hope it isn’t a chimera. (If anyone from U Toronto knows something about this, maybe has a link that works, by all means chime in!)
Update. It turns out, now that the site is accessible, that it’s nothing but a catalog of samizdat publications with a few images of covers, not worth posting at all. I apologize; as some slight recompense, here’s The Hat That Talks, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, circa 1908 (click to enlarge photo and examine awning of hat store).


Kerim Friedman sent me a link to Ruth E. Kott’s “Language duel” (The University of Chicago Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 2010), about Yigal Bronner, “the first scholar to seriously study Sanskrit puns and bitextual poems”:

Called slesa, the literary device was used by Sanskrit poets from the sixth century to as late as the 20th. The same text can be read multiple ways simultaneously. Different from an allegory, Bronner writes in Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration (Columbia University Press, 2010), slesa “typically involves a metamorphosis of the entire utterance—nouns, verbs, and prepositions—in a way that creates a new sentence with a new vocabulary.” Slesa can inhabit a word, a phrase, a sentence, or an entire piece. A word like naksatra, Bronner cites as an example in his introduction, which means “planet,” can also be read as two separate words: the “negative particle na and the word ksatra (warrior).” In commentaries printed alongside a slesa poem, single verses are usually discussed as two separate ones….
In Extreme Poetry, Bronner traces slesa’s evolution from its first-known use by sixth-century poet Subandhu. A century later slesa was part of most narrative poems, “often occupying entire sections or chapters and typically appearing at the centermost plot juncture,” Bronner writes. By the early eighth century, poets were merging the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Structural and plot parallels lent the two tales to slesa. When the male protagonists, the Mahabharata’s Arjuna and the Ramayana’s Rama, attract nonhuman females, both men spurn the women; Arjuna refuses and humiliates the “dancing-girl from heaven” Urvaśī, and Rama physically harms demoness Surpanakha. When the two epics were fused, poets came to embrace a new aesthetic ideal, Bronner writes, in which “telling a single story was no longer the highest goal for a work of narrative art.”
The use of slesa continued, with fluctuating popularity, until colonial times, when it “gradually came to be seen as the epitome of everything that was decadent and distasteful about South Asian culture.” The bias against “the clever manipulation of language in literature,” says Bronner, has its roots in the Romantic movement, which valued simple, unembellished literature. Since then, Sanskritists haven’t touched the subject. “Few living scholars have actually read a bitextual poem,” Bronner writes, “and no modern scholar has seriously analyzed one.”

The piece ends with an intriguing comparison:

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David Bellos has an article in The Independent (actually an extract from his book Is That A Fish In Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything), “How Google Translate Works,” that makes some interesting points but also has some problems, which Asya Pereltsvaig has dealt with in a post at her blog Languages of the World. I especially like her conclusion:

If you, like David Bellos, think that human translators store sentences they’ve already translated, try this little experiment. When you are in the middle of a conversation or discussion with someone, stop them and ask them to repeat verbatim the previous sentence they’ve just said. Chances are, they will remember the “pure meaning” of what they said, but not verbatim how they said it. (You might want to wear a wire in order to confirm!). In the off-chance that you get a correct response, as rare as that is, next time ask you interlocutor to repeat verbatim the third sentence back from where you stop them. I’ve tried many times, and always got a negative result (and a stare of incomprehension to go with it!). When you scare all your friends off with your little crazy experiments, try it on yourself — just stop suddenly and think what your sentence three sentences ago was, verbatim.
What this experiment will convince you of, I am sure, is that, contrary to David Bellos’s beliefs, even if we “encounter the same needs, feel the same fears, desires and sensations at every turn”, we do not “say the same things over and over again”, at least not in exactly the same way. Although when I debate the merits of machine translation with its advocates, it does seem to me that we do.


I finally finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, liking it much better than I did at the beginning. It’s not easy to get into, either linguistically or as a story; Solzhenitsyn’s Russian is as barbed as the wire around the camp he writes about, full of nonstandard grammar and lexicon, both the “real Russian” words the author salvaged from the nineteenth-century pages of Dahl and the slang of the Gulag. If I hadn’t had Rossi’s The Gulag Handbook (which now, I see, costs $163.83 used—thanks for convincing me to pay $10 for my copy in Ojai in 2002, Eric!) and Carpovich’s Solzhenitsyn’s Peculiar Vocabulary (which isn’t available at all now—again, I paid $10 for my copy back in 2000)—and the unfailing assistance of frequent commenter mab, who checked with her Gulag-survivor friend when she didn’t know the answer to my recondite questions—I’d never have been able to hack my way through it. But I’m glad I did; once I got into the story (and got used to his sentence structure), it became more and more riveting, and I gobbled up the last twenty pages or so in a rush.
What makes the book work is the fact that it’s not (as one might have expected) a catalog of horrors, in which the protagonist suffers every sling and arrow the Gulag could toss at him. Instead, Shukhov (as the author calls him—he’s called “Ivan Denisovich” only by fellow inmates) has a good day; at the end he gives thanks for his extra bowls of soup, the bit of metal he smuggled into his barracks to use for shoe repair (by which he earns a little money on the side), and the fact that he had escaped punishment and his brigade hadn’t gotten sent to the freezing work they had feared. One man from his barracks, who had mouthed off to a guard, is given ten days in the camp jail, and Shukhov reflects: “Ten days! If you had ten days in the cells here and sat them out to the end, it meant you’d be a wreck for the rest of your life. You got TB and you’d never be out of hospitals long as you lived. And the fellows who did fifteen days were dead and buried.” (I quote the translation by Ronald Bingley and Max Hayward, which is truly excellent; unlike many of the translations I’ve seen lately, they never fake it or just skip the hard parts.) We learn about the worst aspects from stories prisoners tell, but our hero, who has learned the art of survival in his eight years in camps (the story is set at the beginning of the year 1951), makes his way through the obstacle course with aplomb, even wondering as he finally lies down for a night’s sleep whether he’d be any happier outside.
Observations on the mores of the camp occur in mordant asides like “Украинцев западных никак не переучат, они и в лагере по отчеству да выкают” (“They simply couldn’t teach Western Ukrainians to change their ways. Even in camp they were polite to people and addressed them by their full name”) and “Чтоб носилки носить — ума не надо. Вот и ставит бригадир на ту работу бывших начальников.” (“You didn’t need any brains to carry a hod. That was why Tyurin gave this work to people who used to run things before they got to the camp.”) By the end, you’ve learned some survival lessons you hope you will never need, and been thrilled by unexpected adventures involving trying to get bricks laid before the mortar freezes and discovering a bit of sharp metal you’d forgotten about just as your brigade is about to be searched. It’s not a cheerful book (and as usual with Solzhenitsyn, there’s hardly anything you could call humor), but I recommend it to anyone who wants to know what Gulag life was like but doesn’t want the grimness of, say, Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.

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