Archives for September 2012


I find it hard to believe I’ve never mentioned Neal Ascherson here before; had LH existed in the late ’90s, when I was reading his amazing Black Sea, it would have provided plenty of post material, and when I reread it one day, as I intend to, it will doubtless do so. At the moment I want to share the very first paragraph in the book, the start of the acknowledgments, which I happened to glance at in the course of looking something up and thought represented my own intellectual aims quite well:

Many people, living and dead, have helped me to write this book. The germ of the idea, as I now realise, came to me when I was sixteen years old, as I read Mikhail Rostovtzeff’s classic work about the Black Sea past, Iranians and Greeks in South Russia. At the time, I was being taught Latin and Greek literature, and I felt it was important not to be stereotyped as a ‘classicist’. I tried to find some private niche from which I could understand the classical world not as a Graeco-Roman — or as a forced into some post-Victorian version of a Graeco-Roman mind-set — but as a knowing outsider. I wanted to be a monk who wrote Latin in rhyme, or a dangerous Scythian who travelled light and put down no roots. In any case, the result of opening Rostovtzeff was an imaginative invasion and occupation which I have never since thrown off. Most of a lifetime passed before I could carry out the invader’s command, before I could stand on the burial mound of a nomad king above the outfall of the Dnieper or the Don. But it was Rostovtzeff who issued the original order.

I urge everyone with even a vague interest in that part of the world to read the book; it’s an ideal combination of scholarly and reportorial virtues (according to his Wikipedia article, Eric Hobsbawm called him “perhaps the most brilliant student I ever had,” but after graduating “he declined offers to pursue an academic career” and “chose a career in journalism”), and damn well written to boot.


Nice news for enthusiasts of ancient languages: the final entries have been added to The Demotic Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (CDD). Furthermore, to quote Memiyawanzi: “Best of all, as it is the case with all publications of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the dictionary is freely available to use online from their website.” (Don’t miss the infographic reproduced by Memiyawanzi showing the evolution of the Egyptian words that gave us ebony and adobe.) John Noble Wilford has a pretty good write-up at the NY Times:

Demotic was one of the three scripts inscribed on the Rosetta stone, along with Greek and hieroglyphs, enabling European scholars to decipher the royal language in the early 19th century and thus read the top-down version of a great civilization’s long history.
Now, scholars at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago have completed almost 40 years of research and published online the final entries of a 2,000-page dictionary that more than doubles the thousands of known Demotic words. Egyptologists expect that the dictionary’s definitions and examples of how words were used in ancient texts will expedite translations of Demotic documents, more of which are unpublished than any other stage of early Egyptian writing.
A workshop for specialists in Demotic research was held at the university last month as the dictionary section for the letter S, the last of 25 chapters to be finished, is being posted on the Oriental Institute’s Web site, where the dictionary is available free. Eventually a printed edition will be produced, mainly for research libraries, the university said.
Janet H. Johnson, an Egyptologist at the university’s Oriental Institute who has devoted much of her career to editing the Chicago Demotic Dictionary, called it “an indispensable tool for reconstructing the social, political and cultural life of ancient Egypt during a fascinating period,” when the land was usually dominated by foreigners — first Persians, then Greeks and finally Romans.
“It’s really huge what a dictionary does for understanding an ancient society,” said Gil Stein, director of the institute. “This will lead to mastering texts from the Egyptians themselves, not their rulers, at a time the country was becoming absorbed increasingly into the Greco-Roman world.”

Unfortunately, Wilford goes on to make the silly statement that “Egyptians abandoned Demotic more than 1,500 years ago, taking up Coptic and eventually Arabic,” which is like saying the English abandoned Old English to take up Middle English—Coptic is just a later form of the language represented by Demotic (the term technically refers to the script, though it is convenient to use it for the language as well). But all newspaper reporting on language must contain at least one inaccuracy, or they wouldn’t let it go to print. [John Cowan says “I take that to mean that Egyptians abandoned Demotic script, replacing it with Coptic script and then (with a change of language) Arabic script,” which is generous and may well be true. If so, my apologies, JNW!] Anyway, check out the website, and if you’re truly interested you’ll want to tackle Johnson’s Thus Wrote ‘Onchsheshonqy – An Introductory Grammar of Demotic, also freely available online (pdf); all praise to the internet and the Oriental Institute. (Thanks, Eric!)


This is one of those occasions when I spend so much time and energy correcting an annoying error that I am compelled to post about it here. I ran across a reference to the Kashmir Smast caves and, being me, wanted to know what that odd-looking “Smast” was from. After far too much work, I learned that it was supposedly the Pashto word for ‘cave.’ Well, as it happens, I have a Pashto-Russian dictionary, but I couldn’t find such an entry; looking around, though, I found سمڅ смəц (i.e., sməts). Aha, someone had mistranscribed the Pashto word at some point! So I added the following footnote (with three references, just for full assurance):

“Smast” is a mistranscription of the Pashto word for ‘cave,’ which is actually smats (Pashto: سمڅ). See Pashto – English Larg Dictionary; M.G. Aslanov, Pushtu-russkii slovar (Moscow: “Russkii yazyk”, 1985), p. 522 (سمڅ смəц); and, e.g., Edward George G. Hastings, Report of the Regular Settlement of the Peshawar District of the Punjab (Central Jail Press, 1878), p. 16: “Smats is the Pashto word for cave.”

Not only is it annoying that the mistake was made in the first place, but some blockhead is quoted in the Wikipedia article as writing “‘Smast’, or ‘Smats’ as it was referred to by colonial sources, is the Pushtu word for ‘cave’.” Yeah, it was referred to by colonial sources that way because that’s the Pashto word, doofus. And furthermore, the Wikipedia article is obviously a vanity production, or started that way, and needs serious editing, but it’s not going to be by me. I’ve done my bit.


I continue to be astonished by the variety of my own language. All my life I’ve enjoyed (though probably never used) the rather jocular cliché “tickling the ivories” for playing the piano, and now I learn, via David Crystal’s DCblog, that lots of people use the similar but (to me) odd-sounding “tinkling the ivories”:

A Northern Irish correspondent writes to say that he had recently been to the USA to visit a friend from his home country, and heard him use the phrase tickle the ivories [i.e. informally play the piano]; my correspondent had only ever heard tinkle the ivories. They found both on the Internet but no explanation of why there is a difference. Is there a British / American factor here, for instance?

Crystal writes “there’s no suggestion of any transatlantic difference in the citations. On the contrary, both usages have solid histories in the UK,” but I think he’s expressing himself carelessly; both usages may coexist in the UK, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard the “tinkle” version from an American. I may, however, be wrong, so I’ll ask the Varied Reader: do you use the “tinkle” variant, and if so, where are you from?


An interesting project, described by Torie Bosch at Slate:

Inspired by the still-in-development Project Glass—Google’s foray into augmented-reality eyewear—British DIYer Will Powell created a pair of specs that can display a rough translation during a conversation. Below, Powell and his sister speak in English and Spanish over a chess game. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s a beautiful way to show how technology could break down language barriers.

Here‘s a direct link to the YouTube video. Thanks, Eric!


I’ve long been aware that the Irish use feck a lot, and I had the vague idea that it was just a Hibernian equivalent of fuck. Not so! Stan Carey explains:

Feck is a popular minced oath in Ireland, occupying ground between the ultra-mild expletive flip and the often taboo (but also popular) fuck. … The most familiar modern use of feck is as a euphemistic substitute for fuck, as in the phrases Feck!, Feck off!, feck it, feck-all, fecker, feck(ed) up, fair fecks (kudos), (for) feck(‘s) sake, fecked (exhausted, ruined, in a bad situation), and the intensifier feckin’ or fecking, which often collocates with hell, eejit, gobshite or some such insult. …
Feck is family-friendly, even according to advertising standards authorities (though not always). As expletives go, it has a playful, unserious feel.

There are lots of quotes and lots of history, and a great Father Ted clip. Feck, er, check it out.


In general, I feel like a latecomer to literature; whenever I mention that I’m reading Proust or Patrick O’Brian or Alan Hollinghurst, I know that many of my readers will have been there before me, and I suspect that some of them are thinking “What, you’ve never read that?” But with Vasily Narezhny‘s Российский Жилблаз (A Russian Gil Blas), I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I’m the only one of the group here assembled that has read it—it’s never been translated into English, and it’s pretty much been forgotten by Russian literature except to be mentioned now and again as an inferior precursor of Gogol. In fact, I can’t help but wonder darkly if some of the critics and historians who have condescended to it have actually read it, since their descriptions are so at variance with the novel I am reading. Prince Mirsky, normally a reliable source, says Narezhny’s “books, owing to their heavy style and their diffuseness, are difficult reading.” Did he dip into one or two when he was in a bad mood, or is Narezhny just too far removed from his taste as it was formed at the turn of the twentieth century? At any rate, the novel is very far from “difficult reading”; in fact, I had to force myself to stop, having finished the second of the six surviving parts, and make a preliminary report.

To make one obvious point, it’s not very much like the original Gil Blas at all. (I can’t help but wonder if it might have had more success if Narezhny had called it, say, “The Stolen Son” instead of trying to capitalize on the popularity of the French book.) Lesage’s L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane is a straightforward narrative in which the protagonist, telling his own story, describes how he was brought up and educated by his uncle and sent to Salamanca to the university; on the way his adventures begin, and his ups and downs are presented in order until he comes to a happy end. Narezhny’s novel is nothing like this. It begins with a third-person description of the aging Ivan Efremovich Prostakov, his wife Maremyana, and his daughters Elizaveta and Katerina, who live in a village on the border between Oryol and Kursk guberniyas. One evening a visitor arrives; he is announced as a prince but looks like a beggar, dressed in rags, covered in mud, and shivering from the cold. He introduces himself as Prince Gavrilo Simonovich Chistyakov; Maremyana wants to turn him away, but Prostakov takes to him immediately and invites him to have dinner with them and stay the night. He winds up staying as an indefinite guest, and begins telling them his life story, which takes up most of the first part (twenty chapters) of the novel: adolescent foolishness in a little village in southern Kursk guberniya, marriage, a son Nikandr. But after several chapters it is interrupted by the arrival of a Prince Svetlozarov, and subsequent events take up several more chapters until Chistyakov’s story can be resumed. The second part opens with “An Explanation by the Author,” in which the author in propria persona says “People keep wanting explanations from me: How could Prostakov have so easily been reconciled to his wife and daughters after their bad behavior? And how did Chistyakov manage to keep so much money after twenty years of wandering? It’s a good question, but I don’t have the energy to answer it right at the moment; I will, however, tell a story from a foreign land.” Whereupon he tells a story about a Great Mogul of India who was having trouble with resentful fakirs. The second chapter resumes the original Prostakov story, and the third begins another autobiographical narration, this one by a young man named Nikandr (who may or may not be Chistyakov’s son of that name); this takes up most of the rest of the second part, which ends on a magnificent cliffhanger.

I provide that much detail so you can see how elaborate the construction of the book is; Narezhny interweaves the stories in such a way as to gradually reveal how they fit together and builds up suspense that would not be possible in a linear narration. Furthermore, Lesage is an Enlightenment triumphalist, showing his hero’s inexorable rise to wealth and power; Narezhny is far more, well, Russian, and he emphasizes the downs more than the ups. In the last chapter of the first part he writes: “In a word, into whatever someone puts that dreamlike feeling, happiness, he will always be deceived. Everything passes: vanity of vanities.” [Словом, кто в чем ни положи это мечтательное чувство, это счастие, всегда обманется. Все выйдет: суета сует.] Not that it’s in any way a gloomy read; the narration is confident and jovial. But every once in a while he points the moral.

One thing that astonished me was the portrait of “the Jew Yanka.” He first appears offstage as the moneylender and tavernkeeper to whom a hapless girl’s father takes all their valuables to pawn so he can drink, and we’re primed for yet another nasty, avaricious stereotype. But when the destitute narrator wants to get married, Yanka not only gives his possessions back but adds five rubles and two bottles of vodka for the wedding feast; he becomes a good friend, and when the narrator leaves town, he bequeaths all his possessions to Yanka as the only person he can trust. This must be one of the most favorable portrayals of a Jew in nineteenth-century Russian literature, and in fact Leonid Livak, in his The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature, says it’s one of the main causes of the novel’s fate (the first three parts were banned by the censors immediately after publication, and the remaining three were not allowed to be published—they only saw the light in 1938): “Although circulating in manuscript, this novel is barred from print as immoral, because ‘the jews’ ‘cannot and should not be [depicted] as people of virtue’—this being how Faddei Bulgarin sums up in 1826 the reasons for the novel’s proscription.” Contrast that to the “hideous figure of ‘Zhyd Yankel,’ a mercenary, soulless, dastardly creature” in Gogol’s Taras Bulba and the antisemitism of writers like Dostoevsky and you begin to see that more than a picaresque adventure story was lost.

I’ll quote a couple of bits from the second part that pleased me as a connoisseur and lover of language. In chapter 9, Trismegalos, a philologist obsessed with Church Slavonic, greets the narrator with “Чего ищеши зде, чадо?” [“What dost thou seek here, O progeny?”—though that doesn’t begin to convey the archaic ring of the Slavic], and the two have a delightful exchange in that musty medium. (I can’t help but wonder if that sentence is a deliberate echo of “Чего ищеши чадо безразсудное?”—What dost thou seek, O foolhardy progeny?—which Radishchev’s narrator hears from the heavens in the Bronnitsy chapter of Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow; see this post.) And in chapter 15, Narezhny makes fun of Katerina, who is expecting to marry a rich man and suddenly starts acting all posh: “Instead of saying, as she would have before, ‘Mom, isn’t it time to lay the table? Dad’s already back from the threshing floor,’ she said ‘Ma chère maman! I dare think that it is already time to place covers for five persons on the table; mon cher papa has deigned to return from a voyage during which he deigned to observe the household arrangements involving tillage'” [Вместо того чтобы сказать, как и было прежде: «Матушка, не пора ли накрывать на стол? уже батюшка пришел с гумна», — она говорила: «Ma chère maman! Я смею думать, что уже время ставить на стол куверты на пять персон; mon cher papa изволил возвратиться из вояжа, во время которого изволил он осмотреть хозяйственные заведения касательно хлебопашества»]. A bit later the father goes on an extended and very funny rant beginning “So what if they hadn’t learned how to speak foreign languages [if he had kept them at home]; it does them no good” [Пусть они не умели бы говорить иностранными языками; им и не для чего]; it’s too long to translate here, but it ends up with a peroration against French novels and their corrupting influence.

Just when I was starting to think I was the only person to appreciate Narezhny, I found John Mersereau Jr.’s review (Slavic Review 47 (1988): 165-166) of The Russianization of Gil Blas: A Study in Literary Appropriation, by Ronald D. LeBlanc: “the author focuses primarily upon the two major examples, Vasilii Narezhnyi’s Rossiiskii Zhilblaz and Faddei Bulgarin’s Russkii Zhilblaz [i.e., Ivan Vyzhigin; Bulgarin’s novel was originally called “Ivan Vyzhigin, or the Russian Gil Blas”]. Both works are described in sufficient detail that the reader is not required to consult the original, although in Narezhnyi’s case this would be a pleasure. … The sad fate of Rossiiskii Zhilblaz … is contrasted with the excessive success of Bulgarin’s Ivan Vyzhigin (1829), the first Russian best-seller.” Investigating further, I found LeBlanc’s “Making ‘Gil Blas’ Russian” (The Slavic and East European Journal 30 (1986): 340-354), which is full of satisfying observations; I’ll quote several passages that give an idea of his take on Narezhny and Bulgarin:

What works to make the content of Narežnyj’s novels so new and originally Russian is his appreciation of the peculiarly non-European features of Russian cultural history. The author of Rossijskij Žilblaz saw the backward, medieval features of his culture not as shortcomings that had to be overlooked, but rather as the foundations upon which to build a sense of national identity. …

One of the most noteworthy achievements of this Russian adaptation of Lesage’s model is that it provided a hero who, as a result of the quest he undertakes and of the fate he comes to suffer, can only in a highly ironic sense be considered a “Gil Blas.” Narežnyj, in other words, Russianized not only Gil Blas the novel but also Gil Blas the hero, creating in Prince Čistjakov a distinctively Russian version of Lesage’s protagonist. …
Narežnyj, with his Flemish style and Baroque artistic sensibilities, seems to have been attracted more to the Spanish picaresque tradition, which he did not know, than to the Lesagean model, with which he was familiar. Indeed, his Rossijskij Žilblaz provides us with a curious instance which seems to validate Baxtin’s notion that a historical “memory” remains alive within a genre—that “genre lives in the present but always remembers its past, its origins” (Baxtin, 122). …

Thanks to the tsarist censors, who withheld publication of Narežnyj’s socially critical Rossijskij Žilblaz for well over one hundred years, it was Bulgarin’s artistically mediocre but politically loyal Ivan Vyžigin that was allowed to be published and that was fated to have an impact, as a historical instance, upon the rise of the novel in Russia. …

By subverting, through the use of parody and irony, the bourgeois hero’s quest for personal happiness and his pursuit of secular success, this pioneering Russian novelist succeeded in restoring to Lesage’s model a religious dimension that had been removed from picaresque fiction during the course of the eighteenth century. It is largely through the restoration of this religious dimension to the picaresque genre that Narežnyj succeeded in making Gil Blas Russian. He helped to show that the European novel and the European hero, if they were adapted in an innovative way and made to fit Russia’s peculiar cultural realities and overriding spiritual concerns, could be not only transplanted on Russian soil but also, to borrow Walter Reed’s expression, “renovated” within works of Russian literature. In this sense, Narežnyj not only recalls Alemán and von Grimmelshausen; he also anticipates Dostoevskij and Leskov.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say later on. I had originally intended to read only the first three parts, because that’s all that could have influenced Gogol and later writers, but now I’m pretty sure I’ll wind up reading the whole thing, because I’ll want to know what happens next.


1) Free access to (some) linguistics journals at De Gruyter Mouton: “we are pleased to offer you a free taste of our newest titles in linguistics – all articles published in 2011 and 2012 are now available for free!” (Thanks, Paul!)
2) How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?: an hour-long BBC documentary on Nabokov and Lolita written and narrated by Stephen Smith. (Thanks, Rick!)
3) A complete transcription and translation of Linlin’s Hybrid Chinese-English monologue; if you haven’t seen the remarkable Miss Lin’s tour de force of language mixing, it’s here. (Thanks, Victor!)

1 TO 100 IN DUTCH.

A nice idea for a video:

IIn October 2011 I started documenting people in the city of Amsterdam, approaching them in the street and asking them to say their age in front of the camera. My aim was to ‘collect’ a group of 100 people, from age 0 to 100. At first my collection grew fast but slowed down when it got down to the very young and very old. The young because of sensi[ti]vity around filming or photographing children and the very old because they don’t get out of the house much. I found my very old ‘models’ in care homes and it was a privilege to document these -often vulnerable- people for this project. I had particular problems finding a 99 year-old. (Apparently 100 year-olds enjoy notoriety, but a 99 year-old is a rare species…) And when I finally did find one, she refused to state her age. She simply denied being 99 years old! But finally, some 4 months after I recorded my first ‘age’, I was able to capture the ‘missing link’ and conclude this project. Enjoy.

It’s very interesting hearing the different ways people say numbers—and of course seeing the change in the Amsterdam population as you go back in time. (Via MetaFilter.)


Ofer Aderet reviews “The Ben Yehuda Strasse Dictionary: A Dictionary of Spoken Yekkish in the Land of Israel” (Yedioth Ahronoth Books) at Haaretz; here‘s a regular link and here‘s a link to the print version in case the first sends you to a subscription page (I’ve had both results). Yekke is a term used to describe Jews of German-speaking origin, and Yekkish is basically German, though with incursions from Yiddish. The book is not really a dictionary so much as a collection of words and phrases lumped under various categories:

The first part is called “Foreigners would never understand this” and it presents “the basic elements of Yekke DNA.” It includes basic words and expressions such as unglaublich (unbelievable), ach so (precisely), ach wirklich (come on, you must be kidding), genau (exactly), gratuliere (sincere congratulations), Weg damit (get out), Quatsch mit Sosse (nonsense – literally, with sauce added), Kleinigkeit (a petty matter) and schrecklich (absolutely horrible).
The second part is called “Life according to the rules” and it contains everything from curses and praises to expressions related to order, cleanliness, precision, diligence and sloth. … The sixth and final part, “Blending into the Asiatic region,” includes expressions that only a Yekke living in Israel could possibly understand: for instance, “zum Tijul gehen” (going off on an outing), Schmerian Dorf (Kfar Shmaryahu), Telawif (Tel Aviv), and Tozsores Haaretz (a combination of totzeret haaretz, Israeli made, and tsuris (trouble, aggravation).

There is, of course, the requisite quote demonstrating complete linguistic ignorance; Reuven Merhav, president of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, says Yekkish “has neither grammar nor syntax. It has no roots and no orderly morphology.” If you can access it, there are more goodies at the link. Thanks, Paul!