Archives for September 2011


Back in May, I posted about, a website that tracks speakers of indigenous or minority languages on Twitter; now its proprietor, Kevin Scannell, has “added an exciting new feature to the site that tracks blogs written in 50 indigenous and minority languages”:

You can find this new feature at (I also registered but it should just redirect you to the other address).
For now, I’m only tracking blogs hosted at Blogspot, which hosts more than 90% of the blogs written in the languages I’m interested in. That said, I hope to add other popular services like WordPress, Tumblr, MovableType, etc. going forward.
The site is laid out just like Indigenous Tweets: there is a main page with a table of the supported languages, and then if you click on a language in the table you’ll be taken to a new page that shows all of the blogs in the language along with some statistics for each: number of posts, percentage of posts in the language, total number of words, date and title of last post.

There are feeds on each language page; “these will contain every post in every blog written in the language.” You can, of course, subscribe to individual blogs, and he urges you to submit new ones. An excellent project, and I thank Stan for alerting me to it.


Cherokee artist Roy Boney Jr., who grew up speaking the Cherokee language, has created a graphic story for Indian Country Today showing the history of the Cherokee syllabary over the last two centuries, from the “curvilinear, free-flowing” handwritten version it started with to today’s Unicode and digital media. It’s as good a brief presentation as I can imagine, and I thank overeducated_alligator for creating the MetaFilter post that brought it to my attention.


As I wrote here (and Sashura writes at more length here), the BBC’s Radio 4 is doing a dramatization of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, one of the great novels of the twentieth century and almost certainly the greatest novel of WWII; it began Sunday, but all the episodes are available for download—see the schedule page for links to individual episodes (as well as a pdf of the family and other relationships, very useful for this sprawling epic). I meant to write about it Sunday but forgot, and then our cable got cut; thank goodness for downloadable episodes, because I haven’t been able to start listening myself. I’m very much looking forward to it.


Kári Tulinius (aka Kattullus) e-mailed me this link, calling a couple of the posts by saxophonist Josh Rutner “one of the finest portrayals I have read of the joy of hunting down elusive quotes.” And so they are. The first, after an encomium to Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave and a quote from it about words as living organisms, continues:

I remember a funny instance of being misled by those living word-organisms: I was reading Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, an intensely beautiful vision of Gustave Flaubert, revolving around a fight for authenticity between two stuffed parrots. Towards the end of the book, I found a phrase which Barnes takes from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which struck me as particularly poignant:
“Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

[Read more…]


Oxford is good enough to send me copies of many of their language-related books, and here are a couple of major new additions to their list.
1) The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (which I mentioned here) is the twelfth, and centennial, edition of this handy distillation of the sprawling magnificence of the OED. For a book that’s almost 1,700 pages long, it’s amazingly light and easy to hold, and it’s impressively comprehensive, including (for example) protonotary ‘a chief clerk in some law courts, originally in the Byzantine court,’ ‘pump and dump ‘the fraudulent practice of encouraging investors to buy shares in a company in order to inflate the price artificially, and then selling one’s own shares while the price is high,’ and punani (also punany) ‘the female genitals,’ none of which is in the comparably long Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (though, to be fair, the latter has words not in the Concise Oxford, like pung ‘a sleigh with a box-shaped body’). It has usage notes (“prove has two past participles, proved and proven. Both are correct and can be used more or less interchangeably…”) and “1911-2011” boxes (“Punk is perhaps the last word you would expect to find in the first edition of the Concise, but it has a long history…”), and in the center are a set of useful lists of countries, kings and queens, chemical elements, and the like (it’s a shock to see the list of planets missing Pluto; they explain its demotion in a footnote). It’s already become the first dictionary I consult after the M-W Collegiate, and I’m very glad to own it.
2) James W. Pennebaker‘s The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is a very interesting look at, well, pretty much what the title implies; I’m not really competent to review it, but fortunately Ben Zimmer has done a fine job at the NY Times, and there’s an interview with the author at Scientific American. (Mark Liberman discussed some of his findings earlier this year at the Log.)


An intriguing post at Central Station describes “the recent spate of mysterious paper sculptures appearing around” Edinburgh:

One day in March, staff at the Scottish Poetry Library came across a wonderful creation, left anonymously on a table in the library. Carved from paper, mounted on a book and with a tag addressed to @byleaveswelive – the library’s Twitter account – reading:

It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.…
… We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.…
This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)

Next to the ‘poetree’ sat a paper egg lined with gold and a scatter of words which, when put together, make “A Trace of Wings” by Edwin Morgan.

Other similar gifts began appearing at other libraries with amazingly elaborate paper sculptures, all illustrated on the webpage. One of them includes a copy of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner so exactly like mine I had to check my shelf to make sure nobody’d absconded with it for their art project. At any rate, I recommend both the webpage (for which I thank Paul) and the Hogg novel (for which I thank my old friend Tony, who pressed it on me when I was visiting him at East Village Books).


This Log post is very heartening to me. Sometimes I feel that ignorance about language is invincible, that it doesn’t matter how often and how clearly the truth is pointed out, people prefer their unthinking prejudices. But after Tom Chivers of the Telegraph complained about what he considered an incorrect use of “fulsome,” he was taken to task and responded thus:

The magnificent Language Log has taken a look at my post yesterday about Nadine Dorries and the word “fulsome”, and pointed out – as quite a few of you did in the comments – that I was, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong:

[Read more…]


David Crystal is a linguist with a wide variety of interests, including Shakespeare—his website Shakespeare’s Words is “the online version of the best-selling glossary and language companion.” He has also devoted himself to the practice of “original pronunciation,” the attempt to perform works written in older forms of English more or less as they originally sounded, and as his blog recently announced, he has launched an Original Pronunciation website:

This site is devoted to the production or performance of works from earlier periods of English spoken in original pronunciation (OP) – that is, in an accent that would have been in use at the time.
The present-day movement to perform works in OP began in 2004, when David Crystal collaborated with Shakespeare’s Globe in an OP production of Romeo and Juliet. This was so successful that the following year the Globe mounted a production of Troilus and Cressida in OP. Subsequent interest from American enthusiasts led to OP Shakespeare events in New York, Virginia, and Kansas, ranging from evenings of extracts to full productions. As only a handful of works have so far been performed in OP, interest is growing worldwide to explore the insights that the approach can provide.
I’m sure there must be other OP initiatives around the world, and until now there has been no place where they can be brought together. The time thus seems right to provide a website where people can find out about OP, archive their events, announce plans, and share their experiences of working with it and listening to it.

I approve, and would love to see such a performance. (To head off a possible objection: no, I don’t think all, or even very many, productions should attempt this—it would have to be done well to work, and there’s not that much expertise available. Besides, performances in modern pronunciation are perfectly fine, and doubtless communicate better to most audiences. But I’m glad the alternative is out there.)


I’ve mentioned the birch-bark letters of Novgorod a couple times (Birch-bark Mat, Birch Bark Books Online), but I’ve never given a full explanation of their origin and linguistic peculiarities. Now I don’t have to bother, because Asya Pereltsvaig of Languages of the World is doing it for me: Birch Bark Letters, part 1, part 2, part 3, and Birch Bark Letters and the Second Slavic Palatalization, part 1 (with a “part 2” on the Second Slavic Palatalization to come). It’s fascinating stuff; the letters “are scratched into the birch bark by using a sharp instrument, a stylos; typically, no ink is used and therefore there is no risk that the ink would fade during the long time since these documents have been written. And it is a long time indeed, since most Novgorod birch bark letters date from the period between late 11th and early 15th century.” And there’s a valuable lesson here:

In the early years since the first birch bark letter discovery, scholars thought they many of them were written by people who were not highly literate and therefore made many spelling errors. However, further careful study showed that there is a certain convention of writing birch bark documents that is simply different in minor ways from the system used to write other documents (books and the similar) around the same time. Essentially, this vernacular writing system is different in only three minor ways [which she explains]. No other “spelling errors” have ever been found in birch bark documents, indicating that these are not really errors at all!

If you look at language, or the world, with a view simply toward affirming your own experiences and prejudices and write off anything different as ignorant mistakes, you feel good and learn nothing. If you put aside your prejudices and examine the differences objectively, you learn things. Anyway, read the whole series; it’s enjoyably written and informative (and you’ll learn about medieval Russian cursing).


I’ve finally finished Alexei Yurchak’s Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (see previous post)—”finally” because it was beginning to feel like a real slog—and now I want to vent a little. Mind you, I’m not in the least sorry I read it; it had enough good bits that I would recommend it, with appropriate reservations, to anyone interested in the period. But it disappointed and irritated me on at least two separate counts. Since the second involves my own ideological orientation, I’ll save it for last and start with the more objective complaint: the book is way too full of self-important repetitions of its main thesis, and thus way too long (I’d estimate it could be cut by two-thirds with no loss whatever).

His main point is a valuable one: foreigners (and some Russians) tend to have a simplistic, and in his view fundamentally mistaken, view of late Soviet society as divided between a smallish group of brutal overlords together with their lackeys and enforcers and a much larger group of Suffering Millions, who used irony and indifference to disguise the hatred they could not afford to express. In fact, the vast majority of Soviet citizens were neither (in Yurchak’s terms) dissidents nor activists but “normal people,” who used the structures provided by the state (e.g., Komsomol meetings) to accomplish their own aims, which had nothing to do with official ideology. Furthermore, the same people were capable, at one and the same time, of believing in Communism (the ideal, not the version they were living in) and loving things the official ideology deplored, like Western rock music. These are important points, and he includes striking quotations and examples to illustrate them.

But those quotations and examples are like bits of apple included in a large and tasteless muffin made up mostly of endless restatements of his (not all that complicated) theoretical point. By comparison, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok (see this post), is an apple pie, full of delicious fruit with just enough pastry to make it cohere. And Zubok’s point is basically the same one—it’s just that he’s content to make it and then provide endless illustrations of how it worked, with a new insight or striking quote on just about every page. The difference, I believe, is that Zubok’s main interest is in having you understand late Soviet life and society, whereas Yurchak’s is in having you fully assimilate his thesis (and perhaps be able to recite it in your sleep).

In my earlier post on the book, I wrote “Once past the first chapter, you’re pretty much out of the woods in terms of postmodern obeisances,” but that turns out not to be true: the final chapter is increasingly studded with Žižek, Sloterdijk, & Co. Furthermore, the theoretical discourse gets disturbingly out of control; he can’t mention a few parodies of the sort all intelligent young people everywhere have composed from time out of mind without saying solemnly, “The striking parallel in their stiob engagements with authoritative discourse constitutes an important ethnographic fact about the discursive shifts of the late Soviet period.” In fact, so thick and fast do phrases like “formulas of authoritative discourse” and “performative shift” and “ritualized social discourse” come that the eye begins glazing over and it becomes difficult to focus on what he’s ostensibly trying to say. And the horrible suspicion grows that what he is actually doing is reproducing the effect of “formulas of authoritative discourse” in his own text—making his own references and catchphrases as ubiquitous and ultimately meaningless through repetition as Marx, Lenin, “communist construction,” and “social consciousness of toilers” were in late Soviet texts, so that the reader is forced to “deterritorialize” them (another of his favorite terms) or go mad. While that might be an amusing experiment to foist on (say) a classroom full of graduate students, it doesn’t seem fair to try it on the public at large, which just wants to learn something about Soviet culture. And the Conclusion is almost entirely a ponderous restatement of the contents of each of the previous chapters; if he’s trying to make it possible for harried students to absorb what he has to say without actually reading the preceding 281 pages, again, that seems unfair to the general reader, who probably won’t have the savvy to skip to page 282.

My second problem with the book is that Yurchak seems to share, rather than simply reporting on, the viewpoint of the “normal people” he quotes: that the dissidents were just as boring and annoying as the activists, and that the sensible person ignored the lot of them and concentrated on fun stuff like rock music or staging public fights to épater les camarades. (He clearly is friends with many of the people he quotes, and managed one of the rock groups he writes about.) While I would never condemn anyone for withdrawing from public affairs to cultivate their gardens, especially in a context in which being a dissident could bring very severe penalties, to (by inference) mock people who had the courage to protest publicly seems to me, to use a good Russian term of abuse, подло. But as I say, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

Addendum (Jan. 2016). Sashura was good enough to send me a link to an excellent review article by political sociologist Maria Turovets and anthropologist Artyom Kosmarsky about Yurchak’s book, which has been translated into Russian and has won an award as the best popular science book of 2015. Turovets and Kosmarsky are not impressed, and conclude that Yurchak, like many Russian intellectuals, is not able or willing to fulfill one of the main functions of an intellectual, to interpret and describe the past [осмыслять и описывать прошлое]. They sum up one of their avenues of attack with the damning question “If all orders having an influence on the life, death, and welfare of citizens are carried out, and even take the form of decisions of the ‘collective,’ what does it matter to the wielders of power if those who carry them out do so ironically?” [Если почти любые распоряжения, влияющие на жизнь, смерть и благосостояние граждан, исполняются, да еще и принимают форму решений «коллектива», какое дело носителям власти до иронии исполнителей?] This is in response to Yurchak’s thesis that the USSR collapsed because young people were thinking about Led Zeppelin rather than Lenin when they voted at Komsomol meetings. (I summarize jocularly, of course, but not unfairly.) And they point out (as have many critics) that Yurchak focuses almost exclusively on his own set of Leningrad artsy types, ignoring the rest of the Soviet Union; the only passage in which he mentions other parts of the country does so in terms of love for Georgian cooking, Riga beaches, the alleys of Odessa and Tallinn, the markets of Samarkand, and the like — “as a set of favorite dishes and tourist itineraries for consumers from the center” [как набор любимых блюд и туристических маршрутов для потребителя из центра]. The only thing I would quarrel with them about is their praise of him for his “important and valuable” [важно и ценно] description of the period under discussion as “late socialism”; that term has been in use at least since the 1990s. At any rate, it’s an excellent piece and I recommend it to anyone who reads Russian.