Kerim Friedman wrote me, “Amitav Ghosh is doing some great posts on the ‘lost languages of the age of sail’ on his blog,” and so it turned out to be. Here‘s the first of eleven (he’s up to number 6 as of today); I’ll give a brief sample:

The crew of the William Stewart was by no means exceptional in its heterogeneity. The Tynemouth, a steamship of 1228 tons that sailed from Hong Kong to Australia in 1858, had a crew of 70, of whom thirty-six were white sailors, all English except for four Germans. The others were lascars of various grades, of whom seven were from Bengal. As for the rest they were from places too various to list severally: Daman, Cochin, Gorakhpur, Mungher, Bencoolen (off Sumatra), Massawah (in East Africa) and so on.
On lists like these the term ‘lascar’ has so wide an application that we might well wonder where the word came from and what it meant. The term would appear to be an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Persian/Urdu lashkar/lashkari, meaning ‘soldier’ or ‘army’.
In passing between languages the word appears to have taken on the connotation of ‘mercenary’ or ‘hired hand’ and was applied in this sense to a certain kind of sailor. The transition seems to have occurred first in Portuguese, in which the words laschar/lasquarim have been in circulation since about 1600 CE: as with many other nautical terms, it was probably through a Lusitanian route that it entered English. The nautical usage of the term is however, distinctively European: in the Indian subcontinent, for example, the word is still generally used to mean ‘army’ or ‘militia’. The extended meaning of ‘sailor’ would appear to have been introduced to the subcontinent by Europeans; when thus used today, it has a touch of both the exotic and the archaic. In sum, the word ‘lascar’ as used on the manifest of the William Stewart, belongs to two kinds of jargon, the nautical and the colonial, and its meaning is specific to those contexts.

If you like this sort of thing, there’s a lot to like at Ghosh’s blog.


People keep sending me links to Joshua Foer’s New Yorker piece “Utopian for Beginners” (“An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented”), and having read it I can certainly understand why. It’s one of the best language-oriented things I’ve read in a mainstream publication; not only is it about an artificial language and the man who created it, John Quijada, but Foer takes the trouble to get the facts right and talks to or references all the people whose names popped into my head as I started reading it (including Arika Okrent—see this LH post). Furthermore, it gets into the murky waters of the real world in ways that I won’t spoil for you but that make it start to read like a thriller. If I didn’t already subscribe to the magazine, this would make me want to (just as that damn Joan Acocella piece made me doubt the wisdom of subscribing). Here’s a tidbit to get you started:

Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”

It wasn’t long after he released his manuscript on the Internet that a small community of language enthusiasts began to recognize what Quijada, a civil servant without an advanced degree, had accomplished. Ithkuil, one Web site declared, “is a monument to human ingenuity and design.” It may be the most complete realization of a quixotic dream that has entranced philosophers for centuries: the creation of a more perfect language.

Thanks, everyone who told me to go read it!


Ilya Perelmuter has a new internet magazine called Four Centuries: Russian Poetry in Translation: I learned about it through his LibraryThing post, where he writes:

Dear friends,
I would like to inform you of a new electronic magazine of Russian poetry translated into different languages, including English. [..] This magazine is absolutely non-commercial and is free for anyone! Three issues have already come out, translations in five languages: English, German, Italian, Bulgarian, and Estonian. Your opinion is extremely important for me as a publisher! Thanks a lot in advance. Ilya Perelmuter, Publisher, Essen, Germany

Check it out; each issue is a separate pdf, and the different languages are on differently colored pages.


Grumbly Stu sent me a link to this website for a company called ReadSpeaker, which calls itself “the worldwide leader in online text to speech.” I have no idea what the competition is like, but their results are impressive; you can listen to a bunch of short samples of languages on that page, or check out the results in English on this page (click “Listen”) and in German on this one (click the easy-to-miss loudspeaker symbol just below the R in BARACKE). Grumbly says “The German sample is much better than the Deutsche Bahn can manage.”
Also, a slight but amusing little story by Max Fisher from the Washington Post: “CIA officially denies that it is trying to erase a letter from the Russian alphabet“; it links to a longer one from the Wall Street Journal, “Yo: In Russia, Two Dots Can Mean a Lot.” We discussed the “yo” controversy back in 2005 (with proponent Chumakov already making an appearance).


Writers No One Reads has a great concept:

Highlighting forgotten, neglected, abandoned, forsaken, unrecognized, unacknowledged, overshadowed, out-of-fashion, under-translated writers. Has no one read your books? You are in good company.
Disclaimer: These writers are famous in some part of the internet or the world. Some may be famous in your own family or in your own mind.

I’ve already found a forgotten poet I like a lot, Carolyn Rodgers (1940-2010): “She was a key member of the Black Arts Movement and a student of Gwendolyn Brooks. As so often happens with women in the arts, she was chastised for what men were celebrated for” (e.g., profanity: “they say,/ that i should not use the word/ muthafucka anymo/ in my poetry or in any speech i give./ they say,/ that i must and can only say it to myself…”).
If you’re thinking George Egerton looks like a woman, it’s because she was (she was born Mary Chavelita Dunne); she “eloped to Norway with a violently alcoholic bigamist, living there until he wisely died two years later. But it was in Scandinavia that her writing began to blossom—she was fascinated by Strindberg and Ibsen, and became both the lover and the first English-language translator of Knut Hamsun.” Alas: “When she settled down as a wife and mother, her prose and popularity collapsed.”


Our Martian friend Siganus Sutor sent me this BBCNews piece by “Dr Mark Turin, Linguist and broadcaster,” a sort of sequel to the Economist article I posted about last year, like it focusing on the Endangered Language Alliance. Turin quotes one of its founders, Daniel Kaufman, as follows:

Several languages have been uttered for the very last time in New York, he says.
“There are these communities that are completely gone in their homeland. One of them, the Gottscheers, is a community of Germanic people who were living in Slovenia, and they were isolated from the rest of the Germanic populations.
“They were surrounded by Slavic speakers for several hundreds of years so they really have their own variety [of language] which is now unintelligible to other German speakers.”
The last speakers of this language have ended up in Queens, he says, and this has happened to many other communities.

You can hear an audio clip of Kaufman with speakers of Chamorro, Mixteco, Livonian, and others. Thanks, Sig!


I’m slowly and painfully making my way through Brodsky’s “Литовский ноктюрн: Томасу Венцлова” [Lithuanian Nocturne: for Tomas Venclova], one of the most difficult poems by that frequently difficult poet, and in the third stanza I hit a couple of particularly difficult words: “Запоздалый еврей/ по брусчатке местечка гремит балаголой,/ вожжи рвет/ и кричит залихватски: ‘Герай!’” In Brodsky’s own translation, this goes: “And a cart-riding Jew,/ late for home, drums the village’s cobblestone, trying to make it,/ yanks the reins hard/ and bellows ‘Gerai!’” By comparison we can guess that балаголой [balagoloi] might have something to do with a cart, but there was no балагола in any of my Russian dictionaries, even Dahl… but when in desperation I checked Vasmer, there it was (in masculine guise): “балагол: ‘еврейский тарантас’, [...] из еврейско-нем. balagole “кучер” [...]. Ср. знач. русск. извозчик: 1. ‘кучер’, 2. ‘повозка, экипаж’.” In other words, it’s a word for a Jewish springless carriage, from Yiddish balagole ‘coachman’ (for the shift in meaning, compare Russian izvozchik 1. ‘coachman,’ 2. ‘unsprung carriage’). This sent me to Weinreich’s Yiddish dictionary, where sure enough, I found בעל-עגלה [balegole] ‘coachman,’ which appears in my Hebrew dictionary as ba’al ‘agalah ‘coachman, wagon driver,’ with the same ba’al ‘owner’ that appears in so many Hebrew and Yiddish compounds, a familiar one in American Jewish circles being baleboste (sometimes “baleboosteh”) “a capable, efficient housewife, especially a traditional Jewish one, devoted to maintaining a well-run home.”
Oh, and that mysterious “Gerai!” the coachman bellows? It’s simply the Lithuanian word geraĩ ‘well’ (the adverb from geras ‘good’). Except it’s not as simple as all that; as “A. G.” says on this page, it seems unlikely that a Jewish coachman in (necessarily prewar) Lithuania, traveling through a shtetl, would be talking to himself in Lithuanian. A. G. suspects “ироническое значение” (an ironic meaning).


LH favorite Arika Okrent has a nice Mental Floss post about “weird things that languages can do with number words,” from Oksapmin, with its base-27 counting system based on body parts (there’s a convenient diagram), to Nimbia, a dialect of the Gwandara language of Nigeria, which uses base 12 (143 is gume kwada ni kwada ‘eleven dozen and eleven,’ 144 is wo). Fun!


Such is the title of Matthew Reynolds’s LRB review of several books by Diego Marani, who “works in the Directorate-General for Interpretation at the European Commission, and he writes fiction full of ideas prompted by his day job.” His novels frankly don’t sound very good, even leaving aside the repellent misogyny, but the ideas are lots of fun to read about, so here are some excerpts from the review:

One strand of Marani’s fiction pursues the dream of a language that’s a mother tongue for everyone. L’Interprete (published in 2004, but not yet put into English) tells the story of a simultaneous interpreter, fluent in 15 languages, who finds emerging uncannily from within him an idiom that seems to unite them all. Marani’s feeling about Tresigallese here expands, beyond Koskela’s nationalist myth of Finnish, into what is frankly the language of Eden and therefore of the universe. As a linguist, Marani knows his dream is a chimera. And so, in this novel, he adopts the modes of fantasy writing. His Interpreter exerts a numinous influence over everyone he meets: women find him irresistible; deaths happen in his wake. These are all ways of sustaining the fiction under the pressure of disbelief, but in the end it cracks. The Interpreter turns out not to have discovered the language of Eden but only that of striped dolphins, one of many, mutually incomprehensible submarine tongues. He ends up leading aquatic acrobatics in a dolphinarium in Tallinn, a lesser, gloomier Dr Dolittle.

[Read more...]


Don Barton Johnson—aka Donald Barton Johnson and D. Barton Johnson—is one of the great Nabokov scholars (you can read the beginning of an appreciation here), and an old pal of mine sent me a link to an article of his on a subject that (as my mother used to say) I never thought would come up: Nabokov and Ayn Rand. The two were, of course, both born in Saint Petersburg, and, as Johnson says, “became bestselling American writers in the late 1950s,” but who would have thought there was more to say on the subject? Johnson discusses them in connection with Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky vs. Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and pop music; I’ll quote a paragraph on perhaps the most recondite link:

There is only one slender justification for mentioning We the Living in connection with Nabokov. One of the motifs of Rand’s dreadful revolutionary epic is the folk quatrain (chastushka) “Yablochko” or “Little Apple” (Johnson). The beginning is always “Oy, yablochko, /Kuda kotishsya,” i.e., “Little apple, where are you rolling?” The closing couplet may be anything, but one popular version was “Na Chrezvychaiku, / Ne vorotishsya,” i.e., “to Cheka HQ, / and you won’t be coming back.” The chastushka was especially popular in the Crimea where the Rozenbaums and the Nabokovs spent the civil war years. Nabokov introduced it into both Bend Sinister and LATH! [Look at the Harlequins!]. In the latter Vadim Vadimovich is fleeing across the Russian border in 1918 when he is challenged by a Red border guard: “And whither may you be rolling (kotishsya), little apple” (yablochko)?” Vadim coolly shoots him dead. One is tempted to link this episode to Nabokov’s March 1918 Crimean encounter with a “bow-legged Bolshevik sentry” who threatened to arrest the young lepidopterist for signalling a British warship with his butterfly net (Speak, Memory 131).

Here‘s a detailed Russian Wikipedia article on the song, here‘s a vocal version from the wonderful film of Bulgakov’s Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog), and here‘s an instrumental/dance version—see, you do know it after all, even if you’re not Russian. (Thanks, Growler!)