Archives for August 2012


Vasily Zhukovsky is one of the best-known Russian poets before Pushkin (and, as Wikipedia says, introduced the Romantic Movement into Russia—just look at that portrait!); his translation of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is probably the first longish poem I read in Russian, and I still remember it fondly. He is not at all known for prose (there was no mention of it in the Wikipedia article until I added a sentence), and I read his 1809 story “Марьина роща” (“Mary’s grove”) mainly because it was short, but after a diet of the predictably flowing sentences and plots of Karamzin (see here and here) I found it invigorating and refreshing. It’s a poet’s prose, with sentences I enjoyed reading aloud; the plot is banal (Maria loves the musician Uslad but marries the dread warrior Rogdai, who lives on the hill where the Kremlin will one day stand) but there are surprisingly suspenseful Gothic touches, and I found myself actually eager to find out what came next, something that never happened with Karamzin. So I thought I’d commemorate the experience here, and say it’s a pity that Zhukovsky didn’t do more of this sort of thing.
Next up: Vasily Narezhny‘s 1814 novel Российский Жилблаз (A Russian Gil Blas).


1) Jocelyne Allen writes about some of the struggles she went through translating a story by Toh Enjoe (円城 塔, Hepburn romanization Enjō Tō):

Just when you think you’ve figured out what is going on in the Toh Enjoe story “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire,” you trip on another oblique reference to some bit of the outside world. It’s a story that bears up to—and in fact, requires—multiple readings, as EnJoe takes pieces of pop and folk culture and replaces the original subject with his “Galactic Empire.” By the third line of the story, my translator sense was tingling so violently, it threatened to give me a seizure. Every word threatened to have some hidden deeper meaning that I hadn’t noticed on my first read-through. Because the more references to pop and folk culture I noticed, the more I wondered how many others I was missing.
But as near seizure as I was, I was not prepared for part 10: “There is a young Galactic Empire emperor who roams the hyperspace corridors, and will not withdraw until you beat the side of your ship, and hand over a ladle.”
A ladle?

Read on to find out more about ghost ships, bailing ladles, and what the translator makes of it all.
2) Not intended as humor, but definitely funny: The Indo-European myth. D. Carbonell Basset explains why the whole idea of Indo-European is “a myth, a legend that does not have a leg to stand on. There is no written evidence of such a language, so the whole theory is not supported by empirical, scientific knowledge. Sir William Jones was the precursor of this harebrained idea in 1786.” If only I’d known forty years ago, I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort!


Mark Liberman at the Log reports on an eggcorn that had involves a perfectly understandable reanalysis of the word intact. “Reader RP” noticed the expression “so long as Roma culture remains in some kind of tact” on the Guardian comment boards and did some research, coming up with examples like “all welds are in complete tact,” “The binding is in good tact,” “soundboard in perfect tact,” and “all pages are still in excellent tact.” Examples with negative adjectives seem to be mostly variants of “in poor/bad taste” (“What she did may have been in poor tact, but …”), but RP turned up this lovely example:

You see the Chanel woman said you can’t make a judgment on foundation and say ‘oh this foundation is rubbish it doesn’t do anything for my skin when your skin is in bad tact in the first place, you have to get your skin in good tact before you can make a judgment on a product’

I never cease to be impressed by the linguistic ingenuity of native speakers.


An intriguing possibility, if no more than that: “Making Sense of “Nonsense” Inscriptions: Non-Greek Words Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Ancient Greek Vases” (pdf), by Adrienne Mayor (Stanford University), John Colarusso (McMaster University), and David Saunders (J. Paul Getty Museum), asks “whether some nonsense inscriptions and non-Greek words associated with figures of Scythians and Amazons represent meaningful sounds (phonemes) in foreign languages spoken in ‘Scythia’ (Black Sea-Caucasus region)”:

We analyze the linguistic patterns of nonsense inscriptions and non-Greek words on thirteen vases featuring Scythians and Amazons by otherwise literate vase painters (550-450 BC). Our results reveal that for the first time in more than two millennia, some puzzling inscriptions next to Scythians and Amazons can be deciphered as appropriate names and words in ancient forms of Iranian, Abkhazian, Circassian, Ubykh, and Georgian. These examples appear to be the earliest attestations of Caucasian and other “barbarian” tongues. This new linguistic approach to so-called nonsense inscriptions sheds light on Greco-Scythian relations, literacy, bilingualism, iconography, and ethnicity; it also raises questions for further study.

The question is a perfectly reasonable one; the authors push their proposed answers more than seems to me compatible with what I would consider appropriate scholarly reticence, but as long as you pay close attention to words like “can,” “may,” “plausible,” and “possible,” it’s very enjoyable, especially if (like me) you have an affectionate interest in both ancient Greek and the languages of the Caucasus. My verdict: not proven and probably not provable, but fun to think about. Below the cut are some quotes from the paper to give you the general idea; for the nitty-gritty, the actual examples with Colarusso’s analyses (he’s an expert on Caucasian languages; I wrote about his Nart book here), go to the paper itself. (Thanks for the link, Alex!)

The Hellenized term amazones may have had multiple sources from related Eurasian languages. One likely source was a-maz-ah-na, Northwest Caucasian for “Forest (or Moon) Mother.” Amezan (a-mez-a-ne) was the name of a heroic horsewoman-warrior-queen of the Nart sagas, oral traditions that combine ancient Indo-European myths and North Caucasus folklore. The Circassian form is pronounced amazan (last a long), the same as in ancient Greek. The word probably entered the Greek language, along with stories about fighting women of the East, through the Black Sea trading ports where ancient Caucasian, Iranian, and other languages were spoken. … The non-Greek origins of the word amazon and the ethnonyms and toponyms preserved by Herodotus and others raise an intriguing possibility. Did some of the names assigned by Greek writers and artists to individual Amazons also originate in the languages spoken by people of the Caucasus, Black Sea region, and Scythia? Most names assigned to Amazons are etymologically Greek. It is possible, but not provable, that some of these women’s names were originally foreign and translated into Greek. In other cases, non- or pre-Greek names might have been “rationalized,” that is, made to look as if they were derived from Greek roots, as with the folk etymologies of “Aphrodite” and “amazon.” … As noted above, the Hellenized word amazones appears to have a Caucasian source, and in ancient Greek thought, Amazons were understood as related to Scythians. Therefore, it seems reasonable to ask whether any of the strange-sounding “nonsense” inscriptions associated with Amazons and with Scythians on ancient vases could have been intended to represent genuine non-Greek words from the Caucasus and neighboring regions. …

Our methodology: Co-authors Adrienne Mayor and David Saunders selected about twenty vases depicting Scythians and Amazons accompanied by “nonsense” inscriptions. We transmitted the inscriptions in Greek letters to Colarusso and asked him whether the sound patterns matched any known language forms. This was essentially a blind experiment. Colarusso knew only that the project involved strange words inscribed on ancient Greek vases that showed people in Scythian costume, but he was not shown photos of the vases until the end of the project. …

Because we are working with what might be words from unwritten foreign languages that were transliterated into Greek letters by artists who illustrated vases more than two millennia ago, our conclusions cannot yet be verified scientifically. We can only offer plausible interpretations and impressionistic guesses. Given the multiplicity of languages to be considered and the brevity of single or incomplete “nonsense” words, there is always the risk of false positive results. Yet a majority of the so-called meaningless inscriptions that we selected produced suggestive results. …

These preliminary findings suggest that at least some unfamiliar strings of letters on Attic vases may not be meaningless after all. By seeking interpretations of these “nonsense” inscriptions in terms of Circassian, Abkhazian, or Ubykh, with some Iranian (Ossetianlike) and Georgian forms, we show that what appear to be incomprehensible words in Greek can be deciphered as names or descriptions of figures of Scythians and Amazons. …

If these are, as they appear to be, the oldest attested examples of Caucasian languages, the overall picture that emerges from these case studies gives linguists an astonishing glimpse into the evolution of those languages. …

To conclude, our brief study has resulted what we regard as plausible translations of non-Greek languages on Attic vases that were long thought to be meaningless scribbles. Our linguistic analysis recovers several new names of Scythians and Amazons and descriptive words in ancient Scythian languages, words that have remained undeciphered for 2,500 years. If our linguistic impressions and speculations are on the right track, uncovering ancient traces of spoken “barbarian” languages is an exciting and historic discovery. Not only do these vases speak again, showing ancient Greek relations with cultures to the East, but “nonsense” inscriptions might contain the earliest written examples of ancient forms of Northwest Caucasian and other languages spoken by “barbarians.”


I’ve finished Karamzin‘s 1792 «Наталья, боярская дочь» [Natalya, the boyar’s daughter] and am about to plunge into his «Марфа-посадница, или Покорение Новагорода» [Marfa the mayor’s wife, or the subjugation of Novgorod] (1802); the former is pretty standard-issue in content (beautiful, innocent daughter of rich, widowed boyar falls for handsome, mysterious stranger who doesn’t want her to tell her father of their love) but has a couple of nice nods to the fashionable foreign literature of the day (сей таинственный молодой человек или, говоря языком оссианским, сын опасности и мрака [this mysterious young man, or, to use the language of Ossian, son of danger and darkness]; прости мне сие отступление! Не один Стерн был рабом пера своего [forgive me this digression! Sterne wasn’t the only one who was the slave of his pen]) and a footnote that gave me considerable pleasure (the action is set in the period before the fall of Kazan to the Russians, which is to say before the mid-sixteenth century): “Читатель догадается, что старинные любовники говорили не совсем так, как здесь говорят они; но тогдашнего языка мы не могли бы теперь и понимать. Надлежало только некоторым образом подделаться под древний колорит.” [The reader will guess that lovers of olden days did not talk quite as they talk here; but we today would not be able to understand the language of that time. It was necessary simply to imitate in a certain manner the antique style.]
At any rate, I thought I’d quote a paragraph of D.S. Mirsky‘s A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 (still the first book I would recommend to anyone interested in pre-twentieth-century Russian literature) that gave me a greater appreciation of Karamzin’s style:

[Read more…]


Another example of the wonders of the internet: the Metathesis website, whose centerpiece is the Metathesis Database.

What is metathesis? Metathesis is the phenomenon whereby two sounds that appear in a particular order in one form of a word occur in the reverse order in a related form of the word. […] The goal of this research project is two-fold. The first is to provide a more solid empirical basis for the study of metathesis. To achieve this, we are developing a database of reported cases of metathesis. […] (Note that not all reported cases of metathesis are actual cases of metathesis, as noted in some of the language listings.) The second aim of this project is to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of metathesis and, with this knowledge, develop a constrained and predictive theory of metathesis.

What a treasure for linguists! (Hat tip to Paul for the link.)


A few days ago, Geoff Pullum had a post in Lingua Franca in which he quoted a wonderful passage by Herbert Feigl:

The attempt to know, to grasp an order, to adjust ourselves to the world in which we are embedded, is just as genuine as, indeed, is identical with, the attempt to live. Confronted with a totally different universe, we would nonetheless try again and again to generalize from the known to the unknown. Only if extended and strenuous efforts led invariably to complete failure, would we abandon the hope of finding order. And even that would be an induction.

(From “The Logical Character of the Principle of Induction,” Philosophy of Science 1.1 (Jan. 1934): 20-29.) As Geoff says, “the attempt to know the regularities and constraints of sentence structure, to grasp a linguistic order, […] is just as genuine as, indeed, is identical with, the attempt to speak and understand,” and if we were confronted with “a totally different linguistic experience, where no grammatical rules were followed and speech was just a chaotic jumble of words, we would nonetheless try again and again to generalize from the known to the unknown.” We humans are not built to deal with chaos.


Real Latinists will already know about this, but for all us dilettantes hanging around the fringes, Arachne has some good news:

The Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) is a comprehensive collection of ancient Latin inscriptions from all corners of the Roman Empire. Public and personal inscriptions throw light on all aspects of Roman life and history. The Corpus continues to be updated with new editions and supplements by the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften.[…] This digitized version of the CIL will initially comprise of the more than 50 parts (of vols. I-XVI + auctaria and of v. I (edition altera)) published before 1940. Available funding covers the digitization of the volumes with an imperfect OCR searching capability. The goal is to eventually create a keyword searchable database to contain also future volumes of the CIL as they fall outside of copyright restrictions and to eventually do the same for the Inscriptiones Graecae.

The online site is here. Explore and enjoy!
Incidentally, I’ve finished Karamzin’s «Бедная Лиза» (see this post); I don’t have much to say about it except that it’s an enjoyable Russian adaptation of a literary trope that goes back to the ancients (poor but honest peasant girl falls for slumming aristo, suffers; Karamzin set it in the vicinity of the Simonov Monastery, then on the outskirts of Moscow and disused, and the action reminisced about by the narrator takes place towards the end of the Seven Years’ War—in fact, at almost exactly the time Sterne set off for France), and the “sentimental” fripperies with which the narration is adorned make clear how badly Pushkin’s stringent prose style was needed. I’m looking forward to rereading the Tales of Belkin.


I started off this post: “The NY Times has another language story […] and if you’re an aficionado of these things you will have guessed that 1) the story is by the muddled but ever plucky Nicholas Wade…” Well, The NY Times has another language story, “Family Tree of Languages Has Roots in Anatolia, Biologists Say,” and once again it’s by the muddled but ever plucky Nicholas Wade. Fortunately, all you really need to read is the headline. Biologists have no business pronouncing on historical linguistics. And yet they keep doing it!
Caveat. The above grumbling is based on my longstanding annoyance with non-linguists thinking they can do better than linguists at linguistics (and with bad reporting, of course); it has nothing to do with this specific paper, some of whose writers do have linguistic training, and should not be taken as a reflection on the authors. I intend to read the paper, but have not yet done so.
Update. There is a good discussion of this going on at the Log; I agree with the serious doubts expressed by many of the commenters there.


I’m getting close to the end of A Sentimental Journey, and it continues to educate me about English words. In the chapter “The Supper,” his horse loses a couple of shoes in “the ascent of mount Taurira” (anybody have any idea what that might be? there’s a village called Tarare in the general vicinity, but a village isn’t a mountain and Tarare isn’t Taurira) and the narrator decides to go to a nearby farmhouse: “It was about eight in the evening when I got to the house—so I left the postilion to manage his point as he could—and for mine, I walk’d directly into the house.” I didn’t understand the use of “point” here, but the OED soon enlightened me: “7. a. A condition, state, situation, or plight. Freq. with modifying word specifying the type of situation or plight (as good, evil, etc.). Now hist.” A couple of representative quotations: 1733 Pope Ess. Man i. 277 “Know thy own Point..this due degree Of blindness, weakness, Heav’n bestows on thee.” 1896 Dict. National Biogr. at Robert II, “Robert, perhaps really averse to war,..retired to the highlands, ‘because he was not,’ says Froissart, ‘in good point to ride in warfare.’” (I suspect that by 1896 the phrase “in good point” had become fossilized, and nobody but antiquarians would have been able to explain the original sense.)
Addendum. When Sterne writes, a bit later, “The peasants had been all day at work in removing a fragment of this kind between St. Michael and Madane,” the places in question are clearly Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne and Modane. The latter is a particularly annoying error, so I thought I’d share the fruits of my research for fellow geography hounds.
Addendum the Last. I have finished the book, and the only complaint I have about it is the dreadful “wink wink, nudge nudge” approach to everything having to do with what Sterne inevitably refers to as “the fair sex.” I understand that it reflects the state of gender relations in his day, but my, it becomes tiresome. “There was but one point forgot in this treaty, and that was the manner in which the lady and myself should be obliged to undress and get to bed; – there was but one way of doing it, and that I leave to the reader to devise; protesting as I do it, that if it is not the most delicate in nature, ’tis the fault of his own imagination…” Fie, sir. Fie, I say.