Archives for May 2012


From n + 1 (see this LH post), an interesting essay by Robert Moor about the history of the e-book (“usually said to have been invented in 1971, when an undergrad at the University of Illinois, Michael S. Hart, decided to upload The Declaration of Independence onto an ARPAnet server”) and an associated concept, electronic literature:

The field of electronic literature began as a hundred loose strands, which briefly appeared to braid into a new art form called hypertext fiction. The influential hyperfictionist Stuart Moulthrop’s “Subjective Chronology of Cybertext, Hypertext, and Electronic Writing” cites as the form’s founding influences a 1945 Atlantic article by Vannevar Bush that envisioned a machine for organizing and linking information; a 1961 computer game called Spacewar!; the writings of Robert Coover, Milorad Pavic, and Thomas Pynchon; the work of hypertext pioneer and theorist Ted Nelson; and Donna Haraway’s 1991 “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Those influences collided in the mid 1980s, when a novelist (and early PC adopter), Michael Joyce, working from his home in Michigan, grew frustrated with the constraints of his word processing software. For decades, experimental writers like Coover had been pushing against the static linearity of the page—a restriction that, Joyce quickly realized, ceased to exist in a digital space. “In my eyes, paragraphs on many different pages could just as well go with paragraphs on many other pages, although with different effects and for different purposes,” Joyce later wrote. “All that kept me from doing so was the fact that, in print at least, one paragraph inevitably follows another.”
When Joyce met a young computer scientist named Jay David Bolter at the Yale Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1984, they began working on such a program. They called it StorySpace, because it allowed readers to navigate a text spatially rather than sequentially, by following hypertextual threads like corridors in a labyrinth. Partly to test out the new software, Joyce wrote afternoon, a story (1987), which is known as the world’s first hypertext novel.

Moor describes some interesting experiments, but I think I’ll stick with boring old sequential text. (Thanks, Paul!)


Back in 2004 I posted about a book (online at that link in both Yiddish and English) by the last editor of Haynt, a pre-WWII Yiddish newspaper in Warsaw that “chronicles the history of Jewish life in Poland between 1908 and 1939.” Now the newspaper itself is online, thanks to the Historical Jewish Press Site, which “contains a collection of Jewish newspapers published in various countries, languages, and time periods. We display digital versions of each newspaper, making it possible to view the papers in their original layout. Full-text search is also available for all content published over the course of each newspaper’s publication.” This Forward article by Shoshana Olidort describes it:

Founded in Warsaw in 1908, Haynt was the most widely read Yiddish newspaper in Eastern Europe, with a readership numbering in the tens of thousands. In addition to news reporting and columns on everything from humor to women’s issues, Haynt featured highbrow literary works by prominent writers like Sholem Aleichem and Hirsch Dovid Nomberg, as well as the more popular serialized shundromanen, or trash novels.
The political turmoil of the era, beginning with the outbreak of World War I, dramatically altered the scope of the paper, which for a time cut back to the bare bones of news reporting. Still, despite heavy censorship, the paper continued to be published (albeit under different names, including Nayer haynt and Der Tog), even after the outbreak of World War II. The final issue appeared on September 22, 1939, just days before Warsaw surrendered.

Olidort finishes by saying that “the next Yiddish paper to be added to the site is Literariche Bletter, which was also published in Warsaw in the 1920s and ’30s,” and adds her hope “that one day this will be true of the Forverts, too.” (Thanks, Paul!)


The Dictionary of Old English offers a “word of the week,” and last week it was hand-saex, with which Warren Clements has some fun in his Globe and Mail column; surprisingly (to me—I wasn’t familiar with him), he doesn’t linger on the cheap laughs but goes on to a useful examination of the history of the word:

Saex comes from a Germanic root (sah or sag) meaning to cut. It survives today only in the narrowly defined word sax, a tool used to trim roofing slates. But before the Norman Conquest of 1066 reshaped the English language and gave us Middle English – a process that took about a century to filter down to ordinary folks – saex was all the rage.

[Read more…]


A report of a nice project:

In September 2011, Google and the Israel Museum launched the ambitious Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, with the aim of eventually making English translations and high-resolution images of all of the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts available online. Within days of the project’s launch, more than a million people from across the world had stopped to browse digital versions of five of the longest and most complete scrolls: the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll, the Habakkuk pesher (or commentary), the Temple Scroll and the War Scroll. In recent months, the project has expanded to allow visitors to view two separate, verse-by-verse English translations of the Isaiah Scroll, one based on the standard translation of the Masoretic text, and the other provided by scroll scholar and regular BAS lecturer Peter Flint. In viewing the two translations side by side, readers can consider the various ways an ancient text can be translated and the slight variations in meaning and interpretation that can result.

Here‘s the project website. (Thanks, Paul!)


When I was studying Indo-European, back in the Jurassic Era, “Sabellian” was considered to mean… well, I’ll quote Webster’s Third International: “one or all of a number of poorly known languages or dialects of ancient central Italy that are presumably closely related to Oscan and Umbrian.” A book I used a lot in my grad school days, W. B. Lockwood’s A Panorama of Indo-European Languages, has one mention of it, on p. 58: “A few early inscriptions characterised as Sabellian show that this dialect was closely akin to Oscan.” Now, having found myself confused by the Memiyawanzi post about Karin Tikkanen’s A Sabellian Case Grammar (Heidelberg, 2011)—how could you write a grammar about a minor dialect of which almost nothing is known?—I did a little googling and discovered that, as Wikipedia says under Osco-Umbrian languages, “Sabellic … was later used by Theodor Mommsen in his Unteritalische Dialekte to describe the pre-Roman dialects of central Italy which were neither Oscan nor Umbrian. Nowadays, it is used to describe the Osco-Umbrian languages as a whole.” I have several questions about this. First, when did it happen? Second, is there free variation between “Sabellic” and “Sabellian”? Third, and most importantly, why the hell? Why take an obscure term like “Sabellian” (or, if one prefers, “Sabellic”) and decide to use it instead of a well-known and transparent term like “Osco-Umbrian”? Since the Wikipedia article is called “Osco-Umbrian languages,” I assume the term isn’t actually obsolete; is it just fuddy-duddies like me who hang onto it, or are there warring camps, Osco-Umbrianists versus Sabellianists (and/or Sabellicians)? It seems pointless to me, as if people were to decide one fine day to replace the term “Balto-Slavic” with “Prussian.” The only thing gained seems to be confusion. But, as always, I welcome enlightenment from those who actually know something about it.
Two amusing bits from the Memiyawanzi post: a photo showing “Grammar” misspelled as “Grammer” on the spine—”ouch,” as the blogger says—and a remark about Jürgen Untermann’s Wörterbuch des Oskisch-Umbrischen (Heidelberg, 2000), “a fabulously exhaustive dictionary famously known for glossing just about everything as Bedeutung unbekannt [meaning unknown].” Borges would have loved that.


An LJ post by glo_ku (in a sort of English after the first paragraph) reveals a wonderfully Joycean sense of wordplay, and would make an excellent test of a student’s mastery of Russian idioms, colloquialisms, and slang. The “Russian” part starts off “Глад бонжурствовать юс апресле лунгаминного абсенствия” [Glad bonzhurstvovat’ yus apresle lungaminnogo absenstviya], which when looked at through multilingual glasses translates as “Glad to greet you after the long absence,” and proceeds to become too multilingual even for me (I have no idea what “взыл мучень бешафнят” means). The “English” part starts “The events I’d like to tell you about took place in a small town of Derry Vushko right after the old fart Party Zahn have thrown away the hooves”; “Derry Vushko” is the Russian word деревушка [derevushka] ‘small town,’ Party Zahn is партизан [partizan] ‘partisan’ (the partisan fighting behind enemy lines is a familiar figure in Russian/Soviet life and literature), and “thrown away the hooves” is отбросил копыта [otbrosil kopyta (thanks, Valera!)], a slang phrase comparable to “kicked the bucket.” Similarly, later on дифирамб [difiramb, ‘dithyramb, eulogy’] becomes “Dee Fee Rumba” and катить бочку [katit’ bochku, ‘to take action to harm someone else’s career’] is literally rendered as “to roll a barrel.” It’s lots of fun if you like that sort of thing. (Via Anatoly.)


As Paul, who sent me the link, wrote, “To me this is asking : which is better eating, poulet de Bresse roasted with herbs or prime New York strip perfectly char-grilled ?” And of course he’s right, and everyone involved in this poll at The Millions agrees, but it’s still an ever-enjoyable question to chew over, and the eight Russian experts asked for their opinions by Kevin Hartnett provide an enjoyable variety of answers. (An irrelevant remark: Duke University has a Professor of the Practice of Russian? I wonder how that odd title came about.) Myself, I will have no opinion until I’ve read more of each writer in the original, and even then I’m pretty sure my answer will be “They’re both great, and which I prefer depends on my mood that day.” I must say, though, that the respondents who come down on Dostoevsky’s side tend to write more entertainingly than the Tolstoyophiles, and the latter occasionally evidence a certain pomposity; when Andrew Kaufman says of Dostoevsky “What he doesn’t do, however, is make you love life in all its manifestations,” my response is “You shouldn’t need a novelist to make you do that, and that’s not what literature is for anyway.” I liked Chris Huntington’s conclusion:

In any case, I realize that the “competition” between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is just an exercise in love. No one really has to choose one or the other. I simply prefer Dostoevsky. For my last argument, I will simply cite an expert far older and wiser than me:
  Just recently I was feeling unwell and read House of the Dead. I had forgotten a good bit, read it over again, and I do not know a better book in all our new literature, including Pushkin. It’s not the tone but the wonderful point of view – genuine, natural, and Christian. A splendid, instructive book. I enjoyed myself the whole day as I have not done for a long time. If you see Dostoevsky, tell him that I love him.
  -Leo Tolstoy in a letter to Strakhov, September 26, 1880


I ran across a Russian proverb I couldn’t interpret, «Не наелся — не налижешься» (literally “[if/since] you didn’t eat your fill, you won’t lick your fill”), so I asked Sashura, who can explain everything, and he explained it. The idea is that if you haven’t taken care of the important stuff, there’s no point worrying about the details, and if you have, there’s no need to, as in this quotation from Dombrovsky in which Maxim watches men he had trained: “Всё, что он вложил в этих людей, они показывали, и нечего суетиться в последнюю минуту. Не наелся, не налижешься. Люди были хорошо одеты, обуты, вооружены.” [These men were showing everything he had put into them, and there was nothing to worry about at the last minute. You didn’t eat your fill, you won’t lick your fill. The men were well dressed, shod, armed.] There are any number of variants: “Чего не съешь, тем не налижешься,” “Чем не наелся, тем не налижешься,” “чего не наелся, того не налижешься,” “коль не наелся, так и не налижешься,” “Если не накушаешься, то и не налижешься,” and the more elaborate “Если ложкой не наелся, языком не налижешься” [‘if you didn’t eat your fill with a spoon, you won’t lick your fill with your tongue’].
The interesting thing, and what leads me to post about it, is that some googling revealed that it’s not just Russian but more widely Eastern European: this message board has the following exchange:

Liliana Boladz: Co sie nie najesz, to sie nie nalizesz.
I am not sure, if this is a Polish proverb.
Dodo Kaipdodo: There sure is the Lithuanian “Ko neprivalgei, neprilaižysi”; the nights before exams, when trying not to fall asleep “catching up”, I used to remember that and go to sleep, finally…

Anybody know of equivalents in other countries?


Nigel McGilchrist’s LRB review of David Abulafia’s “magisterial” The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (I confess I’m a sucker for words like “magisterial”) got me so fired up I went to the Amazon page, noticed that the Kindle price was under ten dollars for this $35 book (Amazon’s selling the hardcover for $21.69, but who needs another hardcover cluttering up the place?), and succumbed to the lure of getting it instantly, even though I won’t get around to it for a while. I suspect it will eventually provide me with a number of posts, but the word that inspired me to write this one doesn’t even occur in the book—it’s from a section of McGilchrist’s review where (in the time-honored tradition of scholarly reviewers) he complains about what the book doesn’t cover:

In his discussion of the prehistoric era, Abulafia mentions obsidian, whose importance to early human communities cannot be overestimated, and points out that the training of tool-makers ‘in what seems a deceptively simple craft was no doubt as long and as complex as that of a sushi chef’. Obsidian is cited a dozen times in the first thirty pages, but never so as to explain or to pursue satisfactorily its immense significance. Obsidian is the oldest widely ‘traded’ commodity in Mediterranean history. It occurs naturally and is easily accessible at only two major sites within the sea – the volcanic islands of Lipari near Sicily, and Milos in the Aegean (that is, if we exclude minor sources such as Nisyros and Gialí) – and yet it is found at the lowest levels in archaeological sites all over the Mediterranean from Malta to Crete, and from Lemnos to Egypt. Thanks to its distinguishing characteristics we can recognise the source of the material in each case, and can deduce that from perhaps as early as 8000 BC, obsidian from Milos was being transported around the Aegean islands, presumably in sail-less coracles.

[Read more…]


Even though I’m deeply skeptical of the idea that automatic translation will ever be more than barely adequate (which is often good enough, as I insisted here), I continue to be interested in discussions of the topic, and Konstantin Kakaes has one at Slate called “Why Computers Still Can’t Translate Languages Automatically.” I like the fact that he emphasizes the difficulties without pooh-poohing the whole idea; in his conclusion, he writes:

Automatic semantic tagging is obviously hard. You have to deal with things like imprecise quantifier scope. Take the sentence “Every man admires some woman.” Now, this has two meanings. The first is that there exists a single woman who is admired by every man. […] The second is that all men admire at least one woman. But how do you say this in Arabic? Ideally, you aim for a phrase that has the same levels of ambiguity. The point of the semantic approach is that rather than attempt to go straight from English to Arabic (or whatever your target language might be), you attempt to encode the ambiguity itself first. Then, the broader context might help your algorithm choose how to render the phrase in the target language.
A team at the University of Colorado, funded by DARPA, has built an open-source semantic tagger called ClearTK. They mention difficulties like dealing with the sentence: “The coach for Manchester United states that his team will win.” In that example, “United States” doesn’t mean what it usually does. Getting a program to recognize this and similar quirks of language is tricky.
The difficulty of knowing if a translation is good is not just a technical one: It’s fundamental. The only durable way to judge the faith of a translation is to decide if meaning was conveyed. If you have an algorithm that can make that judgment, you’ve solved a very hard problem indeed.