Archives for February 2013


I’ve long been a fan of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series (Wikipedia, publisher’s site), now up to Volume 366 (Orientalist Writers), but I’ve had to consult them in libraries, since the damn things cost over $300 each. New, that is; a while back it occurred to me to add the ones for Russian writers to my private Amazon wishlist, and sure enough, they occasionally show up used for only a few bucks. So far I’ve accumulated volumes 198 (Russian literature in the age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose), 238 (Russian novelists in the age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), 272 (Russian prose writers between the world wars), and the most recently acquired, Early Modern Russian Writers (Volume 150, covering the late 17th and 18th centuries). It may seem odd to spend one’s time reading biographical articles on obscure writers no one’s given a thought to in a couple hundred years, but I find that in some ways reading about minor writers is more interesting and revealing than reading about major ones. You read about Tolstoy’s life to understand Tolstoy, but you read about Andrey Bolotov or Vasily Kapnist to understand their times. These were people struggling to get by, most of them, who used literature as a means of getting a little money and renown at a time when that was just becoming possible. Irwin Titunik’s introductory paragraph on Vasily Ruban (Russian Wikipedia) will give an idea of how these articles expand one’s idea of Russian literature:

[Read more…]


Man, the internet keeps providing me with new goodies. Check this out: The parallel corpus of “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” translations “is an electronic philological tool designed to compare different translation versions of that monument of ancient Russian literature.” You enter a numbers from 1 to 218 in the fragment number field, and you get dozens and dozens of versions of that fragment: first the various Old Russian editions (Jakobson’s critical edition, the first edition, the copy made by order of Catherine II, and various reconstructions), then a whole bunch of translations into Russian, then a whole bunch of translations into Slavic languages (about half into Ukrainian, but quite a few into Polish and Czech and several into the South Slavic languages), and finally a whole bunch of translations into other languages, starting with English (the first being Nabokov’s) and ending with Ossetian (translation by G. Pliev). On their About page they go into a lot of detail about the project and how it fits into corpus linguistics; me, I could spend days just splashing around in the various languages, seeing how different people have dealt with the text. And there’s all kinds of ancillary material at the site, like Zaliznyak’s 355-page book on the Slovo (pdf). Gloriosky!, as Little Annie Rooney used to say. (Incidentally, one of the translations into modern Russian is by Yu. Kosirati; does anybody know what kind of name Kosirati is?)


The wonderful Mary Beard is always worth reading; her recent TLS column “Man ist was man isst?” is about “the great horsemeat scandal,” but in the course of it she mentions parenthetically “a friend who recently reminded me that Elizabeth David referred to a celebratory dish of roast cat in Sardinia.” This caught my eye, as it did that of some of the commenters—”Gigi Santow said… Please, please, could someone provide corroborating chapter and verse for Elizabeth David’s cat feast in Sardinia?”—and Mary Beard provided the relevant quote: “An Italian friend of mine once told me that in Sardinia a peasant woman had said to her, ‘Christmas without a roast cat wouldn’t be Christmas’ (Elizabeth David’s Christmas, 2003: 133, under ‘Bread Sauce’).” In response, commenter Caroline said “Cat in Italian is ‘gatto’ but this spelling and pronunciation is used for ‘gateau’, cake in French. I believe that the cat for Christmas in Sardinia is a crunchy almond biscuit!” and Michael Bulley followed up:

Well, nearly. It isn’t to do with cats. Elizabeth David should have brought along a translator or her publishers should have used a proper proofreader. Here’s an extract from “The Sardinian Art of Pastry”:
“The most famous perhaps is the gatto. Prepared every year during the festival that honours a town’s local saint, it is basically a nougat made with sugar and almonds, and sometimes orange peel. What makes the gatto special is that it is painstakingly made to resemble in cake form the town church or religious structure in a miniature replica. During the celebrations, the gatto made especially for the occasion is made the centerpiece.”
In Sicily, however, the gatto is a cheese and potato pie.

There is further discussion of Sardinian gattò and the various ways of preparing it, which you can read at the link, but I wanted to provide the public service of reassuring everyone that Sardinians do not, in fact, eat cats for Christmas. (A tip o’ the Languagehat hat to AJP for the very entertaining link.)


I’ve always had an inexplicable fascination with Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the Near East for a long time, and when I was studying linguistics I envied the linguists who did field work documenting little-known languages and dialects, so Ariel Sabar’s Smithsonian magazine piece on Geoffrey Khan and his quest to document as many dialects of Aramaic as he can was right up my alley:

Chicago’s northern suburbs are home to tens of thousands of Assyrians, Aramaic-speaking Christians driven from their Middle Eastern homelands by persecution and war. The Windy City is a heady place for one of the world’s foremost scholars of modern Aramaic, a man bent on documenting all of its dialects before the language—once the tongue of empires—follows its last speakers to the grave.
The tax preparer, Elias Bet-shmuel, a thickset man with a shiny pate, was a local Assyrian who had offered to be our sherpa. When he burst into the lobby of Khan’s hotel that morning, he announced the stops on our two-day trek in the confidential tone of a smuggler inventorying the contents of a shipment.
“I got Shaqlanaye, I have Bebednaye.” He was listing immigrant families by the names of the northern Iraqi villages whose dialects they spoke. Several of the families, it turned out, were Bet-shmuel’s clients.
As Bet-shmuel threaded his Infiniti sedan toward the nearby town of Niles, Illinois, Khan, a rangy 55-year-old, said he was on safari for speakers of “pure” dialects: Aramaic as preserved in villages, before speakers left for big, polyglot cities or, worse, new countries. This usually meant elderly folk who had lived the better part of their lives in mountain enclaves in Iraq, Syria, Iran or Turkey. “The less education the better,” Khan said. “When people come together in towns, even in Chicago, the dialects get mixed. When people get married, the husband’s and wife’s dialects converge.”

I liked Khan’s description of how he got started on his quest; worn out from studying the Cairo Geniza, “he asked a local organization of Kurdish Jews for referrals to actual native speakers of Aramaic. No sooner had Khan sat down with a Jew from Erbil, a northern Iraqi city whose Aramaic dialect was undescribed, than he felt he had found his calling. ‘It completely blew my mind,’ he told me. ‘To discover a living language through the lips of a living person, it was just incredibly exhilarating.'” And the piece ends with a touching anecdote about a visit to Tbilisi (where I wouldn’t have thought to look for Aramaic-speakers). Thanks, Paul!


Jim Quinn’s 1997 “Phillyspeak” is an amusing “guide to Philadelphia English” by the author of the immortal American Tongue and Cheek: A Populist Guide to Our Language, which is such a powerful and irrefutable blast at prescriptivist poppycock I once bought a bunch of copies for $1 each and handed them out to people who I felt might benefit (it actually turned jamessal into the doughty descriptivist he is today!). I was given the link by a proud Philadelphian who gave it her cautious stamp of approval. Here’s the start:

For some reason WHYY’s Morning Edition keeps changing the people who read the traffic tie-up reports on Shadow Traffic. And for some reason, none are native Philadelphians anymore. So I have to start my day without the hero who used to warn usabout gaper delays “caused by an overturned tractor trailer on the Wall Women Bridge.”
“Wall Women” — what a superb and bizarre way to pronounce the name of America’s greatest male poet of the 19th century, Walt Whitman! Nobody else says it that way, and no true Philadelphian can say it any other way.
No wonder I love, and proudly speak, Philly’s dialect. Where else can you tell somebody “I hate our winners,” and know they’ll understand you mean, not “I hate the Flyers” (the closest we come to a championship team), but “I hate the weather in January”? Where else — this is one of my favorites — can a man named Ian and a woman named Ann go through life hearing their names pronounced exactly the same way?

I like dialect pride, especially when expressed with such pungency. (Thanks, des!)


Another of those sky-is-falling horrors-of-SMS stories, this time about Polish, “Language experts launch campaign to save the diacritical marcs of Polish, threatened by IT” [sic; I wonder how long that “marcs” will stay up?]:

Polish language experts launched a campaign Thursday to preserve the challenging system of its diacritical marks, saying the tails, dots and strokes are becoming obsolete under the pressure of IT and speed.
The drive, initiated by the state-run Council of the Polish Language, is part of the UNESCO International Mother Language Day. The campaign’s Polish name is complicated for a non-Polish keyboard: “Je,zyk polski jest a,-e,.”
That’s a pun meaning that Polish language needs its tails and is top class. Part of the meaning is lost and the pronunciation sounds wrong if the marks aren’t there.
Computer and phone keyboards require users to punch additional keys for Polish alphabet. To save time, Poles skip the nuances, and sometimes need to guess the meaning of the message that they have received. This is also true for IT equipment users of other languages with diacritical marks, like Russian or Romanian.

Setting aside the odd inclusion of Russian (whose only “diacritical marks,” as far as I know, are those over й and ё, and while the latter is famously under threat, it’s not because of IT), the amusing thing about this story is the unintelligibility of the campaign’s name using a “non-Polish keyboard”—you’re putting the story up on the internet, you can use Unicode! Anybody know what the actual name is? (Thanks, Kobi!)


Via Matt Treyvaud’s No-sword, I learn that Imre Galambos has put his entire 2006 book Orthography of Early Chinese Writing online. Matt says: “the basic hook is ‘the principle of looking at uninterpreted character forms […] without assuming the existence of a correct form.’ In other words, by ‘examin[ing] pre-Qin writing on its own terms,’ Galambos hopes to shed new light on its actual nature, including the ‘specific patterns behind [its] variability,’ and thereby on the development of the Chinese writing system in general.” I can think of several LH commenters who will be interested in this if they don’t already know about it.


In his wonderful book Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier quotes George Kennan (the nineteenth-century explorer, not the twentieth-century diplomat) thus: “In a letter from St. Petersburg to his parents, he wrote of the city’s sights, ‘You can imagine what an effect they produced upon me coming from the desolate steppes of Siberia.'” Kennan goes on to add: “And therein resides a truth: St. Petersburg looks most like itself not when you come to it from the West, an approach that might lead you to think St. Petersburg is merely the West’s imitation; to be affected properly by St. Petersburg you must arrive from the vast East…” I had a similar revelation with regard to Pushkin. I started reading The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin in college (I think “The Stationmaster” was the one assigned in Russian class), and over the years since I’ve read them all, some more than once. Of course I didn’t think of them as in any way “merely the West’s imitation”; I recognized that they were superb short stories, wonderfully told. But they did not stand out to me the way they did just now, coming to them after months of working my way through late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Russian prose: Chulkov, Karamzin, Zhukovsky, Narezhny, Perovsky, and Zagoskin. All of them are good in their different fashions, some sentimental, some satirical, some with a quite sophisticated way of telling a story—but they are all essentially storytellers, aiming to get the reader involved with the characters and care about what happens to them, while perhaps imparting a little moral instruction along the way. Pushkin is playing an entirely different game; he’s immediately recognizable as modern in a way that only Lermontov would match for decades to come, and his stories should be compared to those of writers like Nabokov and Alice Munro rather than those of his contemporaries.

The Belkin stories do not turn on character or on event but on… narrative focus? You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not a literary critic and don’t have a developed system for discussing these things. William Carlos Williams called a poem “a machine made out of words,” and of course that could apply to all of literature; in Pushkin’s case, as in that of any modern writer, the machinery is not hidden, it’s whirring away in plain sight and you’re supposed to admire it, not look past it to the plot and characters. In most of these stories, the plot is fairly ludicrous and the characters cardboard—that’s not what Pushkin is interested in. But each of them pulls a narrative knot tight and makes you wonder how it’s going to get untied; in fact, in a sense they’re comparable to locked-room mysteries. In the first one, “The Shot,” the mysterious Silvio is admired by all and known to be a crack shot, but when insulted he defies everyone’s expectations and the demands of his society by not challenging the man who insulted him; the narrator avoids him because he finds this behavior too painful to confront, but before leaving town Silvio, who has become fond of him, gives him an explanation. Years later a chance encounter fills in the story in a satisfying way; we’re left shaking our heads in rueful amusement. “The Snowstorm” presents a banal subject, a young noblewoman in love with an unsuitably poor army officer, but conjures up the titular blizzard, which like one of Shakespeare’s tempests or magical woods throws everything out of kilter and produces strange results, which are not revealed until the very end of the story (again separated from the first half by a break of some years). The third story, “The Undertaker,” is the slightest (and was the first written), but it’s a lot of fun, and was fun for me in particular because I recognized its jumping-off point as a story by Perovsky, “Lafertovskaya makovnitsa” [The Lefortovo poppy-seed seller], which Pushkin enjoyed so much he wrote his brother that he strode around imitating the proud walk of the black cat/bridegroom who features prominently in it (and was clearly a source of Bulgakov’s Begemot). In fact, I now recognize all the writers Pushkin alludes to or has his characters mention, which is deeply satisfying. Next stop, Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, and then on to more writers new to me, Aleksandr Veltman (Strannik [The wanderer; 1831-32]) and Ivan Lazhechnikov (Poslednii novik, ili Zavoevanie Liflyandii v tsarstvovanie Petra Velikago [The last page, or The conquest of Livonia during the reign of Peter the Great; 1831-33]). This chronological progress through Russian literature may be an odd thing to undertake, but I’m very much enjoying it.


Another example of what an amazing world we’re living in and how great the internet is, via Slavic Studies Librarianship:

RUNIVERSE portal now allows its reader to download and read the full-text of Russian historical journal “Russkii Arkhiv.” This journal was published from 1863 until 1917. The issues of this journal can be read as these are in either PDF or DejaVu formats. The journal’s bibliographic record can be accessed here.

Thanks, peacay!
Addendum. Anatoly has followed up on this and noted that the site also has the third edition of Dahl, edited and expanded by Baudouin de Courtenay and infinitely better than the previous editions (alas, the Soviets refused to reprint it because it included obscene words). He also discovered in the course of his investigations that the dictionary site is once again freely available. What a wonderful world!


Jan Freeman has a post about this baffling passage from a Wall Street Journal piece on anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon:

The Yanomamö, like anthropology subjects everywhere, regarded the note-scribbling scholar as a choice target for practical jokes. Only after months of effort did Mr. Chagnon learn that his informants had been deliberately feeding him bogus names. Naturally, he found out in the most humiliating way possible: Telling a group of men something about a headman’s wife, he unknowingly referred to her by a capillo-vaginal epithet.

To find out what that epithet was, you’ll have to visit the linked post; I’ll bet you won’t be able to guess. And sheesh, I thought the NY Times was bad. (Thanks, Paul!)