Archives for June 2012


From the Wise Guys, a song (in German; they’re from Cologne) about the glories of being good at Latin. The lyrics are below the image on the YouTube page; here’s the first version of the chorus:

Er war der Beste in Latein,
der Allerbeste in Latein
Wie er die Verben konjugierte
Substantive deklinierte –
das konnt’ nur er allein …

(Thanks, Nick!)


I’m still reading Russia’s Steppe Frontier (see yesterday’s post), and I’ve developed the habit of looking up the peoples he mentions in my well-thumbed copy of Wixman’s The Peoples of the USSR: An Ethnographic Handbook. So when he mentioned the Kumyks, who “were organized into the largest principality in the North Caucasus under their ruler, the shamkhal (shevkal),” who “had a residence in the town of Tarki,” I went to Wixman and found:

The Kumyk are Turkified (Kypchak) Caucasic peoples of northern Dagestan. They were formed by the assimilation of these Caucasians by the Kypchaks. This process of assimilation was strong well into the mid-20th cent., and many Dagestani peoples (Dargins and Avars in particular), Chechens, and Nogai have shifted over to the Kumyk language. The Kumyk language and culture became very influential among the eastern North Caucasians (Chechen, Avar, Andi-Dido people, Dargin, Kaitak, Kubachi, and Nogai) because the Kumyk controlled the lowland winter pasture areas used by these mountaineers and the main cities in which they found winter employment [Khasavyurt, Buinaksk, and Makhachkala (Temir Khan Shura)] were in Kumyk territory. Even though numerically small their cultural, linguistic, political, and economic influence was great. Kumyk also served as a lingua franca for all eastern North Caucasians.

Who knew? I just got finished learning about the similar status of Polish in early modern Eastern Europe in The Reconstruction of Nations; I guess every corner of the world has had its lingua franca. (Wixman goes on to describe the language, religion, and location of the Kumyks in similarly compendious manner; his book is really extraordinarily useful and has a nice section of maps that shows where all the various peoples live.)


Having finished The Reconstruction of Nations (see this post; the whole book is superb and will certainly feature strongly in my year-end wrap-up for The Millions), I’ve started another book that covers wide areas and a long span of time, Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800, by Michael Khodarkovsky (to be carefully distinguished from Khodorkovsky). Again, I’ve barely started and I’m already hooked; besides good maps and photos, it’s got a new and valuable approach to the history of Muscovy/Russia’s interactions with the steppe peoples to the south and east, taking those peoples and their histories as seriously as it does the Russians. (Can you believe that “William McNeill’s celebrated book Europe’s Steppe Frontier … does not contain a single reference to any of the numerous steppe peoples”? That was as recently as 1964!) I want to quote a section from page 10, on the history of the Nogays, that demonstrates one of the things that gives me pleasure in such accounts, the proliferation of unusual words (mainly titles). The author has just pointed out that “the Nogay rulers, unlike their more noble brethren in the Crimea, Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia, were ineligible to claim the heritage of the Golden Horde”:

This difference was clearly reflected in political nomenclature. A careful observer of early-sixteenth-century Muscovy, Baron Sigismund Herberstein, noted that the Nogays had no tsar (i.e., a khan), but only a princely chief (i.e., a beg). The beg (referred to in Russian as a grand prince, bol’shoi kniaz’) was the ruler of the Nogays. The next in line of succession was the nureddin (a personal name of Edige‘s eldest son which evolved into a title), an heir apparent and the second highest title, followed by the keikuvat (a title derived from the name of Edige’s younger son) and the toibuga. […]
The candidates for the four princely titles had to be confirmed in the Nogay Grand Council, known as the körünüsh (korniush in Russian transliteration), which consisted of the members of the ruling house (mirzas), tribal aristocracy (karachis), distinguished warriors (bahadurs), the beg’s retinue (imeldeshes), and Muslim clergy (mullahs). The beg had his own administration (a treasurer, a secretary, scribes, tax collectors) and a council comprising the best and most trusted people. Yet his authority as projected through this rudimentary official apparatus was greatly circumscribed by the powerful and independent mirzas and karachis.

I might note that as a result of the long and at times heated discussion in this thread, I was forced to acknowledge that even I would have a hard time calling keikuvat and toibuga English words, even though Khodarkovsky drops the itals after first mention and talks about “the keikuvat” just as though he were talking about “the vice president.” I still think such use is a good rough-and-ready criterion, but each case has to be examined on its own; if a lot of people started writing about nureddins and keikuvats in English, these sentences would be early attestations for OED citations, but by themselves they do not create new English words.


Here (to quote BoingBoing) is an incredibly useful verb for you: to Knoll. Knolling is “the process of arranging like objects in parallel or 90 degree angles as a method of organization.” It was coined by Andrew Kromelow, a janitor who worked for Frank Gehry:

At the time, Gehry was designing chairs for Knoll, a company famously known for Florence Knoll’s angular furniture. Kromelow would arrange any displaced tools at right angles on all surfaces, and called this routine knolling, in that the tools were arranged in right angles—similar to Knoll furniture. The result was an organized surface that allowed the user to see all objects at once.

You can see an illustration and a How to Knoll set of instructions at the link.


My wife and I visited Montreal in 2004 (I reported briefly on it here), and ever since then I’ve had even more of an interest in the linguistic situation there. I was glad to find (via MetaFilter) a link to a discussion by Nicholas Little of the (now thankfully obsolete) phrase “Speak white!” that used to be directed at Francophone Québécois: “While the phrase itself is thought to have been borrowed from the southern United States, it was apparently used almost as a catch-all rebuke against anything not Anglo, not white, not born-and-bred. … The earliest recorded use of the phrase was supposedly in the Canadian Parliament of 1899 as Henri Bourassa was booed by English-speaking Members of Parliament while attempting to address the legislature in French against the engagement of the Dominion in the Second Boer War.” The MeFi post also has a link to a video (about four and a half minutes) of a 1970 recitation by Michèle Lalonde of her impassioned poem “Speak White” (Wikipedia); you will find the text at the end of the previous link. From it I learned a couple of new words (contremaître ‘foreman’; cambouis ‘dirty oil, dirty grease, sludge’); I might also point out that it is a macaronic poem, and thus fits well with yesterday’s post.
By a pleasing coincidence, Julie Sedivy has a post at the Log today about the current situation in Montreal, specifically the fashion among shopkeepers of greeting their customers with “Bonjour, Hi,” “often used as an advertisement that the customer can expect to be served in the language of his choice.” The pushback from the Office Québécois de la langue française causes a certain amount of drearily predictable arguing (“Linguistic fascism!” “Linguistic survival!”); while I can understand the emotions on both sides, as an outsider it looks to me like the situation is on the whole pretty healthy. And I very much liked Julie’s personal reminiscences at the end of her post:

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From the Wombat list (thanks, John and Paul!), a fine piece of macaronic verse (see this old LH post):

A favorite Christian warning against book theft from a library is this extraordinary and bilingual example, in which the curse is enlivened with “detail, sound effects and justification… for each line begins in Latin and ends in German.” This example is from Marc Drogin. “Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses.” Totowa, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun & Co. 1983. Page 71, and is a curse found written inside a book in a Medieval monastery against the theft of the book:
Hic liber est mein (This book belongs to none but me)
Ideo nomen scripsi drein. (For there’s my name inside to see,)
Si vis hunc liberum stehlen, (To steal this book, if you should try,)
Pendebis an der kehlen. (It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.)
Tunc veniunt die raben (And ravens then will gather ’bout)
Et volunt tibi oculos ausgraben. (To find your eyes and pull them out.)
Tunc clamabis ach ach ach, (And when you’re screaming “oh, oh, oh!”)
Ubique tibi recte geschach. (Remember, you deserved this woe.)
Lee Hadden

I’ve bolded the poem itself to make it stand out more from the translation; I think we can all understand the sentiment.


I posted briefly about the many languages of the Caucasus here; I was very pleased to discover that GeoCurrents has been creating a more accurate map of them than has been available, as described in this post at their site:

Drawing on previously available ethnic and linguistic maps, supplemented by demographic data from other sources, we were able to create two linguistic maps: one representing the whole Caucasus area and the other zooming in on the particularly linguistically diverse region of Dagestan. Our first task was an accurate representation of the spatial distribution of various groups, unlike what is found in previously available maps, which often over-represent or under-represent the extent of linguistic groups. We have used the most recent census data available to capture the wholesale migrations, episodes of ethnic cleansing, and population exchanges that have changed the situation on the ground. Careful mapping of smaller linguistic groups, especially in Dagestan, has proved particularly instructive, as it allowed us to represent visually the correlation of language and topography, something that has not been done before. …. Finally, a careful use of the color scheme allowed us to demonstrate the family relatedness of the various languages spoken in this region, known justifiably as “the mountain of tongues”.

They welcome “comments and corrections from informed readers, especially those who live in the Caucasus or have done fieldwork there.”


Mark Liberman has an amusing post at the Log about the emergence of a brand-new peeve:

If you don’t hang out with millennial hipsters, you might not have noticed that the cool kids are listening to music on turntables playing old-fashioned vinyl records, with many of these records being newly released rather than rescued from thrift shops. And you might also have missed a fascinating case of peeve emergence: the “rule” that one of these objects is called a “vinyl”, while (say) three of them should be called “three vinyl”, never “three vinyls”. So instead of “many of these records”, I could have written “many of these vinyl”, but not “many of these vinyls”. This is an issue that some people feel very strongly about.

He quotes many examples of those strong feelings: “Man, I hate to be the school marm but… ‘Vinyls’ is not a word”; “just so you know there is no such word as ‘vinyls.’ The plural of vinyl happens to be vinyl”; etc. etc. He goes into some detail about the silliness of the rule, concluding: “This is an unusually pure case of peevological emergence, without either tradition or logic on its side, and also (as far as i can tell) without any single authoritative figure behind the idea.” People’s need for rules, however arbitrary, both impresses and depresses me.


Every once in a while I check my referrer logs to see if there’s anything interesting, and just now I discovered XIX век [19th century], “Notes on nineteenth-century Russian poetry and prose” (recent posts are on the verb пестовать ”bring up, take care of, support, nurse,” an old translation of Pushkin’s “Prorok,” and Leskov’s story “The Toupee Artist: A Graveyard Story”). From its blogroll I got to The Faculty Of Useless Knowledge (“This Blog is about the love of books and the lack of time to read them all. The title is a homage to the Russian writer Yury Dombrovsky’s novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, a novel that shows the immortal value of art and creativity”) and Snail on the Slope, “A collaborative blog on Russian, Soviet, and Eastern European sci-fi.” As it happens, I’m almost finished reading the Strugatskys’ Улитка на склоне, translated as The Snail on the Slope, so the last seemed particularly serendipitous. I’ve added them all to my RSS feed, and I thought some of you might be interested, so here they are.


A reference in Perry Anderson’s LRB review (which I recommend to anyone interested in “microhistory”) of Carlo Ginzburg’s new collection of essays, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, sent me off to The Historian’s Craft, by Marc Bloch, and its discussion of the importance for historians of knowing how to deal with the language they encounter in documents from the past. After a passage on “hierarchic bilingualism” (“Two languages are side by side, the one popular, the other learned”), he continues:

At any rate, this opposition of two necessarily different languages actually typifies only an extreme instance of contrasts common to all societies. Even within the most unified nations, such as ours, each little professional community, each group distinguished by its culture or wealth, has its own characteristic form of expression. Now, not all groups write, or write as much or have as much chance of passing their writings down to posterity. Everyone knows that the official reports of a judicial examination seldom reproduce the words just as they were spoken; almost spontaneously, the clerk of the court orders, clarifies, restores the syntax, and weeds out the words which he has judged too vulgar. The civilizations of the past have also had their clerks; it is the voice of chroniclers and, especially, jurists which has come through to us before all others. We must beware of forgetting that the words which they used, and the classifications which they suggested by these words, were the result of a learned elaboration often unduly influenced by tradition. What a shock it might be if instead of poring laboriously over the jumbled—and probably artificial—terminology of the Carolingian manorial scrolls and capitularies, we were able to take a walk through a village of that time, overhearing the peasants discussing their status amongst themselves, or the seigneurs describing that of their dependents. Doubtless this description of daily usage would fail of itself to give us a total picture of life, for the attempts at expression and, hence, at interpretation by scholars and men of the law also embody really effective forces; but it would at least give us the underlying feeling. What an education it would be—whether as to the God of yesterday or today—were we able to hear the true prayers on the lips of the humble! Assuming, of course, that they themselves knew how to express the impulses of their hearts without mutilating them.

I like very much his way of bringing the issue to life with a bit of imaginative time travel, and I should get around to reading the book one day. (Looking through it, I noticed a fine passage on coincidence, which, as Bloch says, historical linguists are at pains to rule out: “Quand on n’a pas soi-même pratiqué les érudits, on se rend mal compte combien ils répugnent, d’ordinaire, à accepter l’innocence d’une coïncidence. … Lorsque le hasard joue librement, la probabilité d’une rencontre unique ou d’un petit nombre de rencontres est rarement de l’ordre de l’impossible. Peu importe qu’elles nous paraissent étonnantes; les surprises du sens commun sont rarement des impressions de beaucoup de valeur.”)
But I must confess that what gave me the impulse to post about it was a simple misprint: on page 136 of the English translation, in the discussion of “hierarchic bilingualism,” we find the sentence “Thus, from the eleventh to the seventeenth century the Abyssinians wrote Gueze, but spoke Aramaic.” (The French: “Ainsi, l’Abyssinie, du XIe au XVIIe siècle, écrivit le guèze, parla l’amharique.”) “Aramaic” for “Amharic” is not only an easy slip, it was made almost inevitable by the next sentence, where the word is properly used: “Thus, the Evangelists reported in Greek, which was then the great language of Eastern culture, conversations which we must assume to have been originally exchanged in Aramaic.” One can picture a harried proofreader who had never heard of Amharic clucking his tongue and substituting the clearly correct word. Just as Bloch said, “almost spontaneously, the clerk of the court orders, clarifies, restores the syntax, and weeds out the words….”

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