Archives for October 2012


I’ve started Gene Wolfe’s Peace (recommended by Christopher Culver in this thread), and on the very first page he used a phrase unfamiliar to me: “I took the cruiser ax and went out…” (It’s not at all unusual to have to look things up when reading Wolfe; he has an extensive vocabulary and is not reluctant to deploy it.) There is definitely such a thing (here‘s one for sale: “2 1/2 lb. Double bit axe head 28″ Hickory handle. Overall length approximately 28″. Weight 3.63 lbs.”), but it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries, and I wanted to know where the name came from. Google Books told me it was sometimes called a cruiser’s ax (“And don’t forget to bring a light ax—a cruiser’s ax. Where you’re going, you could freeze to death without an ax and matches”—John Dalmas, The Reality Matrix, 1986), but that didn’t help much, since no definition of “cruiser” seemed appropriate… until I heaved my ancient and well-used Webster’s Third New International up from its honored place on my dictionary shelf and found definition 4a, “one who estimates the volume and value of marketable timber on a tract of land and maps it out for logging.” I’d still be interested to know exactly why and how that particular job description got matched with that particular ax, but the general idea is clear, and I am satisfied.


Mark Liberman had a post at the Log quoting a correspondent as follows:

I read your article on the alphabet olympics yesterday and followed one of the links, and then one of its links, and so on. I was merrily traipsing thru the internet when I came upon a page that threw me: “The Rules and Misrules of English Spelling“.
The note on “th” (note (f)) gives a list of words with the “this” sound (what I’d call “voiced th” — ð rather than θ) that includes the word “with”. I was surprised — I have always used unvoiced as the pronunciation of that word, and had never noticed anyone doing otherwise. Sure, voicing gets *added* sometimes due to context, but surely unvoiced is the target — right? Apparently wrong. My Pocket Oxford gives only the voiced pronunciation, and my Houghton Mifflin Canadian gives the voiced version first, as does my New Lexicon Websters. The two pronunciation sites I found online also gave voiced pronunciations.
I asked my wife to pronounce the word slowly and carefully, and she likewise gave an unvoiced pronunciation, and was surprised that anyone aimed for the other (tho’ she did point out that Bono has a buzzy version when he sings “with or without you”). (I grew up in Nova Scotia, and my wife grew up in southern Ontario.) OK, so I’ve got a non-standard (or less standard) pronunciation — it’s not the only one I have. I’m interested in what the distribution of this variant is, but I’m having a hard time finding it online.

I thought “Yes, I’ve heard people use a voiceless final in that word”; I checked with my own wife, and what do you know, she had a voiceless final herself. Well, today Mark posted a followup citing John Wells’s phonetic blog to the effect that 84% of Americans use a voiceless final (/wɪθ/), only 16% sharing my voiced /wɪð/. (In the UK, the proportions are reversed: /wɪð/ 85%, /wɪθ/ 15%—though /wɪθ/ is heavily favored in Scotland.) Eighty-four percent! Rarely have I been so astonished to find myself in a small minority (though I’m used to that situation in general).
Incidentally, John Wells is annoyed that people aren’t using his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, but the damn thing costs $42.57. As Mark says, wouldn’t it be nice if Pearson made it available online? But they may feel that not enough people would pay a fee to use it to make it worth the trouble.


1) Google input tools: “These tools enable you to type in the language and keyboard layout you’re accustomed to, making it easy to keep in touch with family, friends and coworkers from any computer. You can even switch between languages with one click.” You just click on the Settings gearwheel at the upper right of the Gmail screen, check the box next to “Enable input tools” under Language, and add however many languages you want. Then when you open a message box you’ll see the Input Tools icon next to the Settings button in your toolbar, and you can turn it on and off from there. When I enable Russian, I just start typing in transliteration and it gives me a dropdown menu of the Russian words I might want. Very nice indeed. (Thanks, Sven!)
2) Hypocrite Reader “is a monthly magazine published exclusively on the internet. A new issue goes up on the fifteenth of each month. Each issue is built around a theme. The Hypocrite Reader neither makes nor disburses money.” Looks well worth checking out. (Thanks, Caroline!)


A reader sent me a link to this remarkable Wikipedia article: “Su Hui … was a Chinese poet of the Middle Sixteen Kingdoms period (304 to 439) during the Six Dynasties period. … She is most famous for her extremely complex ‘palindrome’ (huiren) poem, apparently having innovated the genre, as well as producing the most complex example to date. Apparently, all of her other thousands of literary works have been lost.” I suspect she wouldn’t be happy to know that her elaborate literary stunt would be all that survived of her work, but hey, at least she’s remembered for something. At any rate, gaze at the multicolored reproduction of her magnum opus in the Wikipedia article and marvel: “The poem is in the form of a twenty-nine by twenty-nine character grid, and can be read forward or backwards, horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. This arrangement allows for 2,848 different readings.” I presume it’s no masterpiece as a poem, but I’d be curious to know what my Sinophone readers have to say about it. (Thanks, Trevor!)


Sarah J. Young is a Lecturer in Russian at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies; on her About Me page she writes:

I currently teach an MA course on narratives of imprisonment and exile, and undergraduate courses on Russian thought, Dostoevsky, and Modern Russian Prose Fiction (1917-41). […] My main areas of research are nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature, thought and culture. I am specifically interested in questions of ethics and subjectivity in the development of narrative, including narratives of trauma and imprisonment; the tradition of Russian literature and the arts as the locus of political debate and dissent; the role of religion and spiritual ideas in Russian literature; the significance of silence and what is not said in literary texts; and questions of time and space in Russian literature.

Which all sounds extremely interesting, but the reason I’m posting about her is that course on Russian thought, for which she is putting online a series of lectures intended to provide necessary background. Her introductory post includes this appetizing bit:

Last year, one of my students said that this was the course where everything else made sense – where Solov’ev’s esoteric poetry and the rise of Bolshevism came together. Whatever their flaws (and sometimes within their flaws), one can discover in very different thinkers common ways of approaching specifically Russian questions, which can provide significant insight into Russian culture. I hope that’s what this course enables, and I hope these lectures will help overcome some of the challenges the texts present.

I’m adding her blog to my Google Reader feed and will be educating myself with avidity, and I imagine there are those among my readers who will want to do the same. I discovered her site because her first lecture, “Petr Chaadaev and the Russian Question,” was linked by XIX век, which anyone interested in Russian intellectual and literary history should also bookmark.


An Al-Monitor story by Dudi Goldman focuses on an unexpected phenomenon:

“Yiddish intrigues me with its majesty and its enigmatic, refined musical tone. I have no explanation for the fact that I have always felt a connection to this language.”
Contrary to what you might expect, the speaker of these lines is not a Polish poet or German philosopher. He is Yusuf Alakili, 50, from Kfar Kassem, currently investing much effort in his studies for a Master’s degree in literature at Bar Ilan University’s Hebrew. Alakili studies Yiddish on the side for his own enjoyment.
How did this affair start? “In the 1980s, I worked with a Jew of Polish origin who lived in Bnei Brak, and Yiddish was the main language there. I was captivated by its musical tone and decided to study it in earnest. My dream is to read Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman [the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof] in its original language.” […]
Alakili is not alone. About a quarter of the 400 students studying Yiddish at Bar Ilan are Arabs, says Ber Kotlerman, academic director of Bar Ilan’s Center for Yiddish Studies.

I know it’s not going to solve the problems of the Middle East or anything, but it’s encouraging in its small way, and there are some touching quotes in the piece. (Thanks, Paul!)


I try not to waste too much mental energy or blog space on the silly ways people find to talk about linguistic phenomena, because after all, not having had any education whatever in linguistics (which would provide them with non-silly ways), what are they going to do but fall back on the inaccurate? But this one really baffles me. From “The Great Pasty Debate” by John Willoughby (part of the NY Times Magazine “Food” issue, which has some very nice pieces): “As is so often the case, food is the last tradition left from those glory days, and I returned to Copper Harbor this summer in search of pasties (properly pronounced with a soft “a”).” Now, I happen to know that pasty, as in “Cornish pasty,” is traditionally pronounced with the low front vowel of pat or at, and that’s a useful fact to pass on to the reading public, but why not do it the way I just did? For an American audience, you could simply say it rhymes with nasty (adding “not with hasty” if you wanted to really drive the point home). But what is anyone supposed to get out of “a soft ‘a'”? In what conceivable way is the a of pat softer than any other kind? To make things even worse, when I googled the phrase I found this: “Soft A Sound ɑː (arm, father).” It’s like the very subject of language makes people unable to write sensibly.


The historian-in-training known to the phone book as Greg Afinogenov and to Hatters as slawkenbergius sent me a link to something he’s been working on for quite a while which is finally launching: TakeNote. He says, “It’s a virtual exhibition, tied to a conference happening at Radcliffe next month, of historical notes from all kinds of sources in Harvard libraries, with high-quality images and a tagging/commenting system.” The site itself says:

The contributions to this virtual exhibit exemplify the great range of note-taking that furthers intellectual or artistic activities (excluding commercial or administrative kinds of notes, among others). Most past note-taking does not survive at all, either because the notes were designed to be temporary (like notes on post-its today) or because they were discarded intentionally or unintentionally at some point. When notes survive, institutions such as libraries and archives have typically played a key role in their survival. This exhibit celebrates the role of agents of preservation as well as the role of note-takers themselves in offering us a glimpse into the working (and thinking) methods of past readers and writers.

It’s well worth looking into.


I’m currently reading The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, by the Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko, which I will be reporting on in due time; for now, I’ll just say that I’m impressed enough with it that it’s making me want to study Ukrainian. One thing I’ve learned so far in my dabbling is that the Ukrainian word for ‘thing’ is річ [rich], which is etymologically identical to Russian речь [rech’] ‘speech, way of speaking’; the Russian sense is the original Slavic one, and apparently Ukrainian and Belorussian got the meaning ‘thing’ from Polish rzecz. (This explains how the Polish word rzeczpospolita can be a calque from Latin res publica.) Carl Buck, in his Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, explains the Polish sense development thus: “Hence ‘subject matter’ and further generalization.” Googling for more information, I found in Folia Orientalia Vol. 39 (2003), page 215: “The etymological relation ‘saying, word > thing’ is common in many languages, e.g. Polish rzecz ‘thing’ going back to ‘saying, speech’.” But offhand I’m not coming up with other examples, though I’m sure there are some, so I’m throwing the floor open for suggestions.


I own a number of translations by Michael Henry Heim, who died at the end of September, but his name had somehow not stuck with me, so when I read Margalit Fox’s NY Times obituary I was shocked to learn about “the wide array of languages with which he worked. Conversant with a dozen tongues, he translated from eight of them, spanning Slavic (Russian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian); Germanic (German, Dutch); Romance (French, Romanian); and Hungarian, a non-Indo European language.” How did he do that? His translations include “from Russian, the novel The Island of Crimea, by Vassily Aksyonov; from Serbo-Croatian, a volume of stories, The Encyclopedia of the Dead, by Danilo Kis; from Czech, the novella ‘Too Loud a Solitude,’ by Bohumil Hrabal; and, from Hungarian, the novella ‘Helping Verbs of the Heart,’ by Peter Esterhazy.” I pulled down a couple of his translations and was struck by the elegance of the English; here’s a sentence from the opening of The Encyclopedia of the Dead: “It cannot be denied that he himself contributed to the confusion, answering the most innocent questions about his origins with a wave of the hand broad enough to take in both the neighboring hamlet and half the horizon.” Susan Bernofsky has a nice reminiscence of him at her blog; I can’t help but wish that when the Czech government called him up to ask “what words to use in English to name their new country,” he had told them to go with Czechia rather than the Czech Republic, but that’s water under the bridge. Thanks for the link, Eric!