Archives for April 2012


My brother pointed me to a letter in last Sunday’s NY Times Book Review, and since it warmed my heart, I’m sharing it here:

What grabbed my attention in John McWhorter’s review of “Language: The Cultural Tool,” by Daniel L. Everett (April 8), wasn’t the continuing argument about genetics versus culture as the main shaper of language. It was the description of “Language” as “that rare thing: a warm linguistics book.”
Really? Who doesn’t love reading about language? McWhorter himself has written many entertaining volumes about creoles, pidgins and language evolution. Another linguist and popular writer is David Crystal. Then there is Steven Pinker, who writes about mind-language connections.
The list goes on. Right- versus left-branching syntax and arguments about recursion might not sound sexy, but linguistics is full of page-turning stuff. Really.
The writer, a linguist and professor at Marymount Manhattan College, is a co-editor of “Language in the Real World: An Introduction to Linguistics.”

As I’ve said a number of times here at LH, we live in a golden age of well-written books by linguists aimed at the general public, and I’m glad to see it publicized.


Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An have published a very intriguing paper in Psychological Science (April 18, 2012); here‘s the abstract:

Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue? It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language. Two additional experiments show that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.

Brandon Keim discusses it at Wired Science; the results make intuitive sense to me, but of course intuition plus whatever they charge for a subway ride these days will get you a ride on the subway, and like the correspondent who sent me the link (thanks, Stuart!), I’m curious to know what the assembled multitudes make of it.


The Japan Times has a nice piece by Roger Pulvers on the great early Soviet writer Boris Pilnyak (I wrote about him here, and I see I promised to write about his masterpiece, The Naked Year, which I still haven’t done). The Pulvers piece focuses on his visit to Japan and the book he wrote about it, Корни японского солнца (Roots of the Japanese sun), which I’ve been wanting to read ever since Sashura told me his Japanese professor had recommended it. I hadn’t realized he made such a splash in Japan:

The impact of Russian literature on Japan in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) had been immense and was still being felt at the time of Pilnyak’s visit. The Japan-Russian Art Society stated in March 1925: “Cultural intimacy between our two peoples, we are profoundly convinced, will bring enormous good not only to both our countries but also to the whole world.” The society dedicated an entire issue of its journal to Pilnyak’s visit.

Anyway, it’s a nice rundown on Pilnyak’s life and career for those who are unfamiliar with him. Thanks, Bathrobe!


Back in 1947, in a letter to Edward Weeks, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, which was publishing a piece he’d written on Hollywood, Raymond Chandler included a message to be passed on to the copy editor (“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split…”). The copy editor in question turned out to be a woman named Margaret Mutch; she apparently wrote him back, inspiring him to produce the very enjoyable “Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive” (“Miss Margaret Mutch she raised her crutch/ With a wild Bostonian cry.// ‘Though you went to Yale, your grammar is frail,’/ She snarled as she jabbed his eye…”). You can read both missives in full at Letters of Note, and I hope you will. (Thanks, Zhoen!)


A Reluctant Babel, by Maxim Edwards, is a somewhat depressing look at the linguistic situation in Russia today. It’s heavy on anecdotes and light on statistics (and given to silly remarks about “languages such as Abaza, Ingush or Kabardian, rightly called some of the most complex in the world,” which “may simply be unteachable except for the most motivated and dedicated of students,” not to mention the even sillier attribution of James Nicoll‘s famous statement that “English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary” to Booker T. Washington, of all people), but it’s still worth a read for bits like “Leysan Khasanova, owner of a Tatar music shop in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan, is confident that ‘Tatar will always be spoken on the streets of Kazan,’ before pointing out that many young Tatars prefer to speak in Russian amongst each other, and that her own children are not proficient in the language,” and insights like this:

[Read more…]


1) Ben Zimmer has tracked down the history of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which is a lot more interesting than you might think (there was a song called “Supercalafajalistickespialadojus” in 1949, and supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus was created—or said to have been created—by Helen Herman a couple of decades earlier); you can read all about it at Visual Thesaurus or the Boston Globe.
2) From an early story by Fazil Iskander (Russian below the cut):

[My crazy uncle] spoke mainly in Abkhaz, but he cursed in two languages, Russian and Turkish. Apparently, combinations of words were engraved in his memory according to their degree of incandescence, and one can conclude that Russians and Turks, in moments of wrath, emit expressions of approximately the same emotional saturation.

3. I was recently listening to Andrew Hill’s infectious tune “Catta” (here from Bobby Hutcherson’s great 1965 record Dialogue), and I discovered that Eric Thacker wrote in Essential Jazz Records, Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism (which I would recommend to any jazz fan): “Commentators have made too much of Hill’s Haitian infancy (in fact he grew up in Chicago and learned his jazz there), but his title Catta – a Port au Prince dialect – is his own acknowledgment of origin.” But I can find no indication that there is any such dialect; of course, Thacker might have meant “dialect word,” but that doesn’t get me anywhere either. So if anyone can provide further information, please do so.

[Read more…]


Still reading Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (see here and here), I’ve come across a word that is vanishingly rare—so rare, indeed, that it’s not in the OED (though it will presumably be added when the third edition reaches V). Hollinghurst’s sentence is “I have forgotten the volume, but will always remember the sentence: ‘Its want of volitary powers led inevitably to its extirpation,’ the subject being, I believe, the Giant Moa.” Needless to say, I looked up the odd word (derived from Latin volito ‘to fly,’ though there is no Latin volitarius), and on not finding it I formulated a tentative hypothesis that he had made it up. But of course I didn’t stop there, and a Google Books search quickly turned up what must be his source, from Joel Samuel Polack‘s 1838 New Zealand; Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures during a Residence in that Country between the Years 1831 and 1837 Vol. I, p. 346: “Many of these petrifactions had been the ossified parts of birds, that are at present (as far as is known) extinct in these islands, whose probable tameness, or want of volitary powers; caused them to be early extirpated by a people, driven by both hunger and superstition (either reason is quite sufficient in its way) to rid themselves of their presence.”
But what really delighted me was finding this further hit for the word in a review of Polack’s book:

We have already commended the vivacity and general truth of Mr. Polack’s volumes. His language is occasionally extremely ambitious, and he coins words with a boldness which will scare not a few of his readers. He talks of hederaceous, oerementous, and tophaceous soils; of volitary birds, subsultive fishes, — nay, he rivals the inimitable Mrs. Malaprop herself; and describes a native chief “who squinted with an obloquy of vision, little short of caricature.” Such faults, however, are easily pardoned in one who has a brisk flow of spirits.

The word is actually attested earlier (e.g., in The Works of Ezekiel Hopkins, Arranged and Revised, with a Life of the Author, by J. Pratt [1809], p. 468: “if a vain thought, that is such a fleeting and volitary thing, breathes a kind of contagion and taint upon the heart…”), but it’s something that anyone with a knowledge of Latin and a brisk flow of spirits might come up with, regardless of prior art.


I wrote about the idiotic prejudice against modal hopefully here, and now I get to link to Geoff Pullum’s ‘Hopefully’: Five Decades of Foolishness, in which he lays out the history of the prejudice. I had no idea it was invented by one man, Wilson Follett, who without any foundation in fact called the use “un-English and eccentric”; the interesting thing is that the peevers leaped hungrily on this new opportunity to lambast ordinary users of the language (E. B. White “altered his revision of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style by adding a paragraph of self-contradictory and absurdly overwritten rant about hopefully“). As Pullum says, the opposition peaked long ago, and frankly I thought it was moribund, but apparently not:

With truly extreme caution, the AP Style Guide nonetheless waited a decent further interval: Its editors let more than a quarter of a century go by before they finally risked accepting what had now been normal Standard English usage for a lifetime. On April 17, 2012, they announced correctly that the modal-adjunct use of hopefully not a grammatical error.
And people acted as if the sky was falling. “The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland,” wrote an overheated (and since then, overquoted) Monica Hesse in The Washington Post on April 18.

Well, no one ever went broke overestimating people’s need to feel superior to other people.
Update. The commenter edricson (at Taceo’s Journal, a Russian LJ blog) has found citations with modal hopefully from 1917 and 1918, striking antedates that hopefully the OED will take note of.


Chrestomathy,” by Anatoly Belilovsky (from the speculative fiction magazine Ideomancer) takes a counterfactual—what if Pushkin had survived that duel?—and runs with it; it’s a clever collection of imaginary writings, prominently featuring “The Reluctant Revolutionist,” by Vladimir Nabokov (St Petersburg, 1937—the city name and the date combine to produce a frisson all by themselves). You needn’t accept the plausibility of his speculations (Dred Scott went the other way! there was no Civil War!) to enjoy the pastiches and the general fun. Of course, Belilovsky is not the first person to have had that idea, and if you visit the MetaFilter thread where I found the link, you will find a comment by me quoting a chunk of Nabokov’s greatest novel, The Gift, in which he takes the conceit to a much higher level.

Incidentally, while investigating something else entirely I happened on an 1828 issue of The Foreign Review, and Continental Miscellany that contained a thirty-page review essay, starting on p. 279, of “Opŭity Kratkoi Istorii Ruskoi Literaturŭi, &c. A Sketch of Russian Literature. By Nicholas Ivanovich Grech. 8vo. St. Petersburg, 1822.” The anonymous but well-informed reviewer [apparently William Henry Leeds—thanks, MMcM!] has taken the opportunity to provide a splendid tour d’horizon, starting out with a plea for the importance of the subject (“At the present day her literature is but imperfectly known to her immediate neighbours, and still less in this country; — yet a language spoken by nearly forty million of people, containing upwards of eighty thousand printed works, may reasonably be supposed to deserve some attention, and to possess some treasures for the reward of the diligent student”) and making a comparison with German (“Had any one, half a century ago, inquired whether the Germans possessed a literature, he would probably have been told, either that ‘High-Dutch’ was the most barbarous and dissonant of modern idioms, utterly incapable of eloquent or elegant expression ; or that their only writers were dull commentators, and insufferable pedants — for the very idea of German poetry was an absurdity”) before going on to discuss the early annalists, Prokopovich, Kantemir, Lomonosov, Sumarokov (“one among the few poets of Russia whose names were known to foreigners”), Kheraskov, Derzhavin (of whom “it is almost impossible to speak too highly”), Karamzin, Krylov, and Batiushkov. Then:

After the foregoing names, we may justly place the author of ‘Ruslan and Liudmila.’ Whilst yet a youth, Pushkin exhibited in that delightful poem, in six cantos, powers of description, and a rapidity and brilliancy of narrative, which have obtained for him the appellation of the Northern Ariosto. In this production he transports us into the fabulous era of Russian history, rife with prodigies and enchantments. [There follows a detailed description of the poem, with a number of translated excerpts.] Such is a brief outline of this romance, which is related with a grace and felicity that would do credit to the author of the ‘Bridal of Triermain.’ We have dwelt upon it at some length, as it is one of the most celebrated productions of the later literature of Russia. Pushkin’s ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus,’ although a sketch, exhibits perhaps still higher powers, and delineates with an energy, which frequently reminds us of Byron in his ‘Corsair,’ the wild scenery and the bandit manners of the robber-hordes of that district, relieved by softer pictures, full of pathos and passion. […] To this succeeded his ‘Fountain of Bakhchisarai,’ which, for eloquent poetry and depth of feeling, is even superior. Among the other points of this poet’s resemblance to Byron may be mentioned his facility of composition, and variety of subjects; his ‘Eugenius Onægin,’ which, like ‘Beppo,’ is designed as a satire on the follies of the fashionable world, is not only curious as a picture of the manners of the higher classes in Russia at the present day, but also attractive for the touches of loftier poetry, and the warmth of feeling which it occasionally displays. Like ‘Don Juan,’ this production has been published piecemeal, and is not, we believe yet completed, so that we cannot judge sufficiently of the plan to express any opinion of its merits.

The reviewer goes on to discuss “The Gypsies” and “Vadim: A Novgorodian Tale,” then applies a touch of the lash: “instead of sending forth so many slight compositions, we should be better pleased to find him applying his talent to some work of varied and sustained interest, worthy his powers, and redeeming the promise of excellence given in his Ruslan and Liudmila.” He discusses many other authors, ending by saying “for the future [Russian literature] is full of hope and promise.” I must say I’m astonished that such an affectionate and comprehensive survey was available to the English reading public in 1828; the reviewer certainly has no reason to feel abashed if he’s sitting on a cloud somewhere looking back at his work sub specie aeternitatis. And there you have Pushkin, with eight years still to live, in which he would apply his talent to works of varied and sustained interest, worthy his powers, and redeem the promise of excellence he had given. I’m glad I found it. (Heck, it was worth it just for “Eugenius Onægin”!)

I also found a 1916 Foreign Book List of the American Library Association, which lists with brief but informative descriptions a great many recent publications in Russian, then finishes up with an astonishing few paragraphs beginning “The names of several widely read writers of modern Russian fiction […] have been omitted as being unsuitable for public library use” and ending “They belongs [sic] to the decadent school, which will probably be short lived, and are entirely unsuitable to put into the hands of immigrant people.” You can read the whole thing here, and I’ll paste in a hotlinked image for those of you who can see it:

Thank goodness that kind of open snobbery and contempt is pretty much gone from the printed page, if not from the human heart.


A correspondent writes: “I’ve been looking into the word ‘gaffle.’ It’s used in the Bay Area to mean to steal, to scam, or to arrest, but it doesn’t look anything like most of our slang. With the aid of Google, I managed to find the world defined in a few dictionaries, but they all attributed it to the North-East…” He quotes a number of books saying things like “Unique to Maine” and “Used chiefly in northern New England”; I looked it up in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and found two definitions: 1. “Esp. Maine. to seize; take hold of, esp. for oneself; (hence) to steal. Also gaffle onto” (first cite 1900), and 2. Und. to take into custody, apprehend” (from 1954). My correspondent says: “I’m really curious about the current distribution of this word (I can’t believe it’s known only in rural New England and urban California) and what definitions other people use and have heard,” so I pass along the query to you, Varied Reader. Do you know this word, and in what part of the country have you heard it?