Archives for October 2011

Intermission

The Languagehat residence is experiencing a multi-day power failure. Please stretch your legs and purchase something from the snack counter during this brief intermission.

SET UP A REST.

Still reading The Lion and the Throne (see the previous post), I have come to Chapter Seven, which begins with the following epigraph:

      Anthony Bacon to his mother, Lady Bacon

18 July, 1593
Our most honorable and kind friend the Earl of Essex was here yesterday three hours, and hath most friendly and freely promised to set up, as they say, his whole rest of favour and credit for my brother‘s preferment before Mr. Cooke. . . . His Lordship told me likewise that he hath already moved the Queen for my brother.

Bowen then writes: “To set up a rest’ meant to build a platform from which to shoot one’s heavy cannon. (‘The Spaniard hath set up his rest for England,’ Robert Cecil said in Parliament.)” But is this the correct explanation? The OED has, s.v. rest 1 (“repose or relief from daily activity”), 11.a., “A support for a fire-arm, employed in steadying the barrel to ensure accuracy of aim, esp. that used for the old heavy musket, which was forked at the upper end, and provided with a spike to fix it in the ground.” But this says nothing about heavy cannon, and has no quotes involving a phrase “set up one’s rest.”
However, under rest 2 (“”that which remains over; a remainder or remnant”) we find sense 6, “In primero, the stakes kept in reserve, the loss of which terminated the game; the venture of such stakes.” After several citations, there follows the phrase “to set (up) one’s rest, to venture one’s final stake or reserve” (e.g., c. 1597 “The kinge, 55 eldest hand, set up all restes”), and then (as a separate sense of the noun) “7. To set (up) one’s rest, in fig. uses … a. To stake, hazard, or venture one’s all on or upon something; to set one’s final hope or trust upon or in something” (1587 “we set our rest on the hazard”; 1599 “to set upp his rest upon these men”; 1635 “set up her rest in hope of England”). It seems clear that Bowen misunderstood the phrase; let this serve as a reminder to us all not to set our rest on an apparently satisfactory explanation but to make sure it is steadied by a secure rest.

NON LEGO NON CREDO.

I’m finally getting around to another of those books I’ve been wanting to read for decades, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke by Catherine Drinker Bowen. I’ve just started it and already found a Latin tag I have to pass along, at the end of this passage about Coke’s appointment by Elizabeth as Speaker of the Commons in 1593:

The Speaker was responsible for procedure. And none knew better than Coke that in Parliament as in the law courts, procedure was vitally important to the liberties of the electorate. When a bill came to the vote, how were the voices counted? Should the Noes keep their seats during the count, and had the Speaker himself a vote? Small matters, but they could make the difference between freedom and tyranny, between an independent Commons and a Commons controlled by faction or by clique. In the previous Parliament (1589), Coke, sitting as Burgess from Aldeburgh in Suffolk, had noted these things, noted also how the Speaker’s attitude and bearing affected every corner of the House. He had acquired a rare and helpful little book, still in manuscript. Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, it was called; The Manner of Holding Parliaments. It would be convenient to have at hand during sessions. And though Coke considered it more ancient than it later proved to be, its rules were clear and explicit. In such matters men prefer the authority of print. Coke himself confessed to the scholar’s adage of non lego non credo — if I don’t read it I don’t believe it.

Like so many of my favorite books, it tosses out eye-opening nuggets almost as asides: “In pre-Tudor days it had been looked on as a calamity to be sent to Parliament. To leave one’s farm or shop or tavern and ride halfway across England, merely to vote a tax against one’s community — what was gained but tired buttocks and an empty purse? … Two knights from Oxfordshire fled the country on hearing of their election. Torrington in Devon managed to secure by charter perpetual exemption from representation in all Parliaments henceforth.” Quite a leap to “No taxation without representation”! (By the way, in case you didn’t know, Coke is pronounced “cook.”)

BIROBIDZHANER SHTERN.

Back in 2009, when I wrote this post (don’t miss the Vienna/Bratislava anecdote!), I said I was “thunderstruck” that in the Jewish Autonomous Region of Russia, Birobidzhan, Yiddish written in Hebrew script is still used; as I said, I thought the whole “Jewish Birobidzhan” thing was a Stalinist initiative that failed half a century ago. Now I’ve been sent a link to the website of a local publisher whose newspaper Birobidjaner Shtern (“Birobidzhan Star”) publishes mostly in Russian but has quite a fair amount in Yiddish, as you can see using the idish tag. I wish I knew enough Yiddish to actually read the articles, but I was able to make my way through a few headlines, and perhaps some of my Yiddish-speaking readers will enjoy the link. Thanks, Paul!

CHAVACANO.

Commenter and Lojbanist komfo,amonan sent me a link to this article in Spanish on attempts to preserve Chavacano (a/k/a Philippine Creole Spanish), summarizing it as “The language is showing signs of decay, but plenty of under-30s speak it, so it looks like they’re nipping it in the bud.” I knew nothing about Chavacano, but Wikipedia has a long and interesting article on it (with the requisite obtrusive tut-tutting boxes at the top complaining about too few citations and too many quotations). Here’s a bit on the spelling:

Zamboangueños usually, though not always, spell the name of the language as Chavacano to refer to their language or even to themselves as Chavacanos, and they spell the word as chabacano referring to the original Spanish meaning of the word or as Chabacano referring also to the language itself. Thus, Zamboangueños generally spell the name of the language in two different ways. Caviteños, Ternateños, and Ermitaños spell the word as it is spelled originally in the Spanish language – as Chabacano.

Apparently it’s the only Spanish-based creole in Asia, which is a bit surprising.

AMONG THE RUSSIANS.

A very funny and interesting piece by Edward Docx about a visit to Tolstoy’s estate for the awarding of the Yasnaya Polyana literary prizes; I’ll quote the bit where he makes the mistake of mentioning that the chair of the judges for the Man Booker “is Dame Stella Rimington and that she is an ex-head of the security services in Britain”:

And—bam!—that’s it: now everyone is laughing. Oh, the west, they guffaw. Oh, England, they chortle. Oh, hypocrisy. Oh, MI5. Oh, MI6. Even the FSB would not dare! You mean, they splutter, that the winner of your most famous literary prize is judged by the security services? It seems I could not have told them a more perfect Anglo-Russian joke if I tried.
I try to explain that they are mistaken, that Dame Rimington is retired and is a now an author herself. Yes, someone cackles, like Putin is retired from the KGB!

The Yasnaya Polyana prizes are not tied to the year they are awarded; one is for a novel written in the 20th century, and the second is for “the most significant book written after 2000.” An interesting set-up. (Thanks, Paul!)

STARODUB.

In this thread Sashura convinced me to finish Astafyev’s short novel “Стародуб,” which I first rendered “The old oak” (which is what it looks like it means: стародуб [starodub] = старый ‘old’ + дуб ‘oak’) but was informed by MOCKBA that it actually refers to a flower, “an ephemeral spring yellow anemone (wind-flower), Adonis sibirica.” (You can see some nice pictures here.) I’ve now gotten halfway through; it’s a good story, and I’m glad I decided to go ahead with it. But I now realize how impossible it is to translate the flower’s name, and hence the title, in the context of the story; you’ll see why when you read the passage in which it’s introduced (original Russian below the cut; Faefan [a peasant form of the name Feofan = Theophanes] is the hunter who rescued the maimed child at the beginning and raised him as his own, “Stumpy” is my rendition of the name the villagers gave him, Култыш):

Once Faefan took Stumpy by the arm and brought him to a bare-topped hill that had worked itself free, egglike, of the taiga underwood at the mouth of the Izybash. Here the hunter showed the boy a flower with such a shaggy and aromatic stem that it seemed all the forest smells had soaked into it.
Starodub [Oldoak]!” said Faefan with unusual gentleness, and told his adopted son about how, long ago, there appeared in those parts a stern and steadfast people who did not bow their heads before anything. They had come from a place where oaks grew, where there were apple, pear, and cherry trees and no forests of Siberian pine or larch. They gave their own names to everything, and they named the most curative and beautiful flower in honor of their most beloved tree, the oak. In that way, this fragrant yellow flower became a constant, deathless remembrance of their own region, lost forever. The generations came and went, people died, those who had oppressed and been oppressed for their devotion to the old faith disappeared, but each spring, all over Siberia, the staroduby blazed up with their clear fire and dropped their seeds, so that the earth would never stop flowering, so that the heart of man would be filled with its juice and spirit/smell, and the memory of the region that gave birth to him would never decay.

It would be great if this flower were named “oldoak” in English, but since it’s not, there’s no way to render that passage without the kind of footnote or parenthetical explanation one hates to encumber fiction with.

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UNEXPECTED LANGUAGES.

1) Corey Kilgannon has a nice story in today’s NY Times that begins thus:

The jolly trash man was going about his route in the Rockaways, Queens, when he spied a woman in front of her house. “Cé hé bhfuil tú?” he greeted her. Naturally, the woman replied, “Tá mé go maith.” “Ceart go leor,” the trash man shot back.
This exchange — roughly: “How are you?” “I’m fine.” “Ah, grand!” — was in Irish, the Gaelic language that survives only in parts of Ireland — and to a lesser extent, along the garbage route of Ed Shevlin, 51. The route winds through the Belle Harbor section of the Rockaways, where conversations were once commonly conducted “as Gaeilge.”
“I was amazed to find there were people I could speak Irish with, while picking up their garbage,” said Mr. Shevlin, a New York City sanitation man — a “fear bruscar” in Irish — who began studying the language a few years ago.

He studied in Galway, so he speaks the same Connemara dialect I studied myself several decades ago.
2) From the Washington Post, Linda Davidson’s “At French immersion school, a love for Russian“:

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A MAN CALLED SCRABBLE.

Now that baseball is over (I refuse to pay attention to this World Series, since I can’t decide which team I dislike more), it’s time to enjoy retrospectives on classic hot-stove league topics like baseball names, and Ben Zimmer has provided a fine one at Visual Thesaurus. His focus is on “unpronounceable” names like Rzepczynski (nicknamed “Scrabble”) and Mientkiewicz (“Eyechart”). I especially enjoyed this joke:

An immigrant from the old country came through Ellis Island. As part of a physical exam, he was asked to read a line of letters on an eye chart. Pointing to the fourth row (which contained the letters S Z Q W R E K Z I), the doctor asked, “Can you read these letters?” “Read them?!!” The man exclaimed, “I KNOW the man!”

And this video (which teaches you how to say the classic Polish tongue-twister W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie (“In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed”). Also, my wife and I are in full agreement with him on this: “My favorite surname among active baseball players is Saltalamacchia, as in Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.”

DOWN ALONG THE RIVER.

Having read and enjoyed Viktor Astafyev’s 1964 story “Конь с розовой гривой” [Horse with a pink mane] (about a kid who longs for the titular gingerbread horse but gets into trouble with his grandmother, who has promised to buy one in the nearby river town where she sells berries), I decided to read his 1959 story “Перевал” [The passage], about a boy of around ten who flees an impossible living situation in a tiny village and joins a crew of rafters shepherding logs down the Yenisei River. Touchy and standoffish at first, he works hard, is accepted as one of the gang, and earns his first money and true self-respect after helping them get the wood past a difficult set of rapids (this is the “passage” of the title, which I have seen mistranslated “The Pass”); while it clearly fits into what we think of as kid’s lit, it’s very effectively written, taught me a lot of Siberian words and technical logging terms, and made me want to read more Astafyev, so I turned to his 1960 story “Стародуб” [The windflower].

It turned out to be set in a tiny Siberian village on a river, cut off from the rest of the world by dense forests and difficult rapids, a scene almost identical to that of the previous story. This village is inhabited by Old Believers (for whom I learned a new word, кержак) who have chosen the inaccessible spot to avoid contamination from the sinners around them; the plot is kicked off when a raft comes to grief in the rapids and only a young boy survives, cast up on shore with a badly mangled arm and barely conscious. What to do with him? The villagers gather in council and vote to get rid of him, since if they allow him to stay people may come looking for him and spoil their pure existence. They put together a tiny raft and force him onto it despite his wounds, explaining that they are not committing any sin, merely returning him where God put him, and it is God’s decision whether to rescue him or let him drown. At this point I decided that the story was a little grimmer than I felt up to, so I set it aside and moved on to another 1960 story, Vladimir Tendryakov’s “Тройка, семерка, туз” [Three, seven, ace—an allusion to Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades”].

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