Archives for March 2013


Kevin Mathews has a story about an interesting linguistic development:

Swedes are shaking up their language with a new gender-neutral pronoun. The pronoun, “hen,” allows speakers and writers to refer to a person without including reference to a person’s gender. This month, the pronoun made a big leap toward mainstream usage when it was added to the country’s National Encyclopedia. […]
“Hen” (pronounced like the English word for chicken) is a modified version of the Swedish words “han” and “hon,” which mean “he” and “she” respectively. The pronoun first emerged as a suggestion from Swedish linguists back to the 1960s. Though it has taken a while for the word to catch on, some Swedish magazines and even a children’s book have now adopted it in their texts. […]
The push to make “hen” mainstream could face challenges. Even for those sympathetic to the plight, after a lifetime of saying “han” and “hon,” switching to “hen” requires breaking a force of habit. Still, even if the majority do not adopt “hen” into their everyday speech, having an accepted alternative available is yet another step toward Swedish gender-neutrality.

What I want to know is, is this just a pie-in-the-sky initiative with no hope of actually succeeding, like the infamous English “ze,” or do people (other than zealots) use it?


From Katherine Arcement’s LRB Diary on reading and writing fanfic: “But by the time I told her I had stopped spending so much time online. I got bored with having to scroll through tens of misspelled summaries to find just one story that sounded appealing.” To me, “tens of misspelled summaries” sounds wrong, like something a non-native-speaker used to words like French dizaines or Russian десятки would come up with, but the author “will graduate from the College of William and Mary in May with a bachelor’s degree in English,” so I think we can rule that out as an explanation; it’s more likely that, as happens increasingly often, I am behind the curve of a changing language. And, as usual, I turn to you, the Varied Reader: does “tens” in place of the traditional “dozens” sound OK? (It’s hard to google for examples because of the prevalence of phrases like “tens of thousands.”)


I have not actually read any books by Mikhail Shishkin yet, but I have his novel Взятие Измаила and am very much looking forward to it—everything I’ve heard about him makes me sound like my kind of writer. And I’m further confirmed in that opinion by this essay (translated by the superb Marian Schwartz) about what it’s like writing in Zurich rather than Moscow, what’s been happening to the Russian language (“When everyone lives by prison camp laws, the mission of language is a cold war between everyone and his neighbour”), and how Russian literature developed (“It was a colony of European culture on the Russian plain – if, by European colonisation, we mean the softening of manners and defending the rights of the weak before the mighty, and not the importation of Prussian gunners”); I’ll quote the last few paragraphs here, but the whole thing should be read:

The language of Russian literature is an ark. A rescue attempt. A hedgehog defense. An island of words where human dignity might be preserved. […]
There is a legend about a prisoner sentenced to a life of solitary confinement. He spent years scratching out the image of a boat on the wall with the handle of a prison spoon. One day, they brought him his water, bread and gruel as usual, but the cell was empty and the wall was blank. He had climbed into the boat on the wall and sailed away.
The novel is a boat. Words must be revived in order for the boat to be genuine, so that I may climb aboard and sail out of this solitary life to a place where they love us and are waiting for us all. Save myself. And take all of my characters with me. And the reader too.

[Read more…]


My wife and I are on the very last of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (which we have been reading since July 2011), Blue at the Mizzen, and I was pleased with this linguistic description (on pp. 42-43 of my paperback):

Stephen bowed: but when they had put on formal clothes he said, ‘Interpret, is it? As I told you before I do not speak – not as who should say speak – Portuguese. Still less do I understand the language when it is spoke. No man born of woman has ever understood spoken Portuguese, without he is a native or brought up to comprehend that strange blurred muffled indistinct utterance from a very early, almost toothless, age. Anyone with a handful of Latin – even Spanish or Catalan – can read it without much difficulty but to comprehend even the drift of the colloquial, the rapidly muttered version. . .’

This has been my experience with Portuguese as well, and it was nice to see it set out so forcefully. (No knock on Portuguese, of course; it sounds very pleasant indeed. It is merely unintelligible and in fact unidentifiable. It is one of the few languages—Armenian is another—I’ve heard spoken on the NYC subway and been unable to name.)


I was flabbergasted when I saw the headline on this Independent story: “School in Essex bans triangle shaped flapjacks after pupil is hurt.” How on earth could you hurt someone with something as soft and floppy as a pancake, thought I? And how would you make triangular pancakes, anyway? Well, it turns out (as you can see from the picture in the linked story) that in the UK, a flapjack is not a pancake at all, it is (to quote the Concise Oxford) “a chewy, thick biscuit made from oats and butter.” Consider this my little contribution to international understanding. (Also, now I want to try a UK-style flapjack.)


I know, I know, another dying-language story, but Lee Romney’s Los Angeles Times piece about Herbert Purnell and his Iu Mien dictionary is well worth reading. It’s full of drama (“For [Purnell], there was the murder of a daughter, a house fire that consumed his nearly finished work and the gentle assistance of collaborators on three continents who helped him pick up the pieces”) and tragic history (“the Mien, like the Hmong, began to be recruited to assist in covert military operations in the Indochinese wars — first for the French and later the CIA”), and the dictionary (“which includes 5,600 entries, 28,000 subentries, 5,000 example sentences, 4,500 notes on usage, register and idiom, and about 2,000 cultural notes”) sounds like a fascinating work:

Purnell included riddles, folk tales and accounts of cultural practices tied to a way of life largely erased by war.
“Use this to talk to your children,” Purnell — lanky and wearing a red necktie adorned with elephants — implored the older Mien gathered at the Sacramento event. “Use it to tell them: This is how we made the baby hats. This is how we dyed the cloth. This is how we made paper.”

Thanks, Stan and Eric!


From the introduction to Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial’s Forgotten Rivals, by Gideon Nisbet:

This, then, is a book about short, funny poems. Classicists have tended to ignore them, which I think is a pity; then again, it is only in recent years that the notorious Martial has begun to attract serious attention. Classicists of an older style are visibly uncomfortable around Martial; they wish he had written something with a little more gravitas, and certainly with much less sex in it. From this point of view it is odd that they have not made more of his Greek models, whose preserved output in Book 11 of the Byzantine-era Palatine Anthology is noticeably less rude (although recently published papyri indicate that their minds were at least as filthy as Martial’s own). This book aims to shed light on a whole corpus of ancient humour which will come as a surprise even to many professional students of antiquity.
I haven’t set out to offer a comprehensive survey, merely an open-ended investigation into what is out there, how it works, how one author’s approach differs from another, and where the form seems to be headed. The foundation of this endeavour is rough and ready: I grabbed a bunch of poems. I offer a translation of each poem to give a broad idea of what its sense might be, along with minimal notes on any textual difficulties…. One thing I do not set out to do is close down signification within texts that (in my view) intentionally resist it. I’m not much of a deconstructionist, but I do take it as fairly evident that language is slippery in use, and anyone who reacts badly to the milder deconstructionist/postmodern ideas will probably not enjoy what follows. Also, some of the moves I make with material culture — in particular, the way I read the cheapness and nastiness of the Nikarkhos book fragments as something significant that we can work with, figuring out a model readership so to speak via the back door and maybe even politicising them — may not strike everybody as a proper way to do classics. Sorry. But I think more classicists should spend more time with zinesters and Webmonkeys before they write this sort of thing off.

Why can’t more academics write like that? I have been known to react badly to deconstructionist/postmodern ideas, but I can deal with them as long as they’re presented as helpful avenues of approach rather than as a revelation from the academic equivalent of Mount Sinai, and reading Nisbet’s prose makes me want to read more of it, even if he’s going to lead me through the Valley of the Shadow of Deconstruction. But maybe most academics prefer to be read only by fellow initiates.


A correspondent wrote (apropos of this post) wondering if I knew about “Logeion, an online Greek & Latin dictionary-searching site put together by the Chicago Classics department (I think mainly Helma Dik). It is more comprehensive in terms of having a lot of words, and less comprehensive in terms of spanning a lot of different resources (relying heavily, for instance, on your ‘outmoded’ Lewis & Short…). It allows its user to compare different dictionary definitions, which I find valuable, and also offers a list of the classical authors who use the word in question most frequently.” I told her I didn’t, and thanked her for the valuable tip, which I now pass on to you; I’ll add that if you type in “logos,” you get a pull-down menu offering λόγος as well as the Latin-alphabet version. (Also, as I wrote her, “I shouldn’t get so snippy about L&S, which is, after all, still a useful book, but it irritates me that people still cite it as if it were the last word in Latin lexicography, completely ignoring the OLD — presumably because it’s expensive and they don’t own a copy, which is perfectly understandable, but still.”)


John McIntyre’s latest column demolishes a reader who insists that decimate must be limited to reduce by a tenth”:

There you have the etymological fallacy at its finest. Because CanSpeccy can cite a handful of examples of the limited use of the word, the loose or rhetorical sense of “to subject to severe loss,” for which the OED has examples dating back to 1663, must be ignorant and anyone who uses it should get fifty of the best.
The giveaway is CanSpeccy’s sneer at “misuse on the basis of common usage.” Common usage is what determines language, which is an arbitrary set of sounds or letters that means only what the users agree they mean. That is why in English we can use decimate in a way that Caesar did not,* why we can appropriate words from Scandinavian languages and alter their pronunciation to suit ourselves. Common usage is why we no longer speak Anglo-Saxon or Norman French.

But that asterisk after “Caesar did not” goes to an interesting question: “Not a Latinist myself. Are we sure, really sure, that no classical writer of Latin ever used decimare in a loose or rhetorical sense?” Jan Freeman wrote me to suggest that “this seems like a question for your erudite band of readers,” and I agree, so: anybody know?


Michael Adams, editor of the excellent collection From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (reviewed in this LH post), has a nice piece in Humanities on the subject, starting out with a long and interesting discussion of John Wallis (“all but forgotten except among historians and mathematicians”) and proceeding to Volapük and Esperanto, Francis Godwin’s 1638 The Man in the Moone, Frédéric Werst (discussed at LH here), and Joyce, among others. I was amused by this bit on Cornish:

Revitalized languages, like Cornish, can cause political strife within the heritage group. As Romaine summarizes in From Elvish to Klingon, “In 2004, the installation of a welcome mat in Cornish at the Camborne county offices in southwest Cornwall sparked a heated dispute over how to spell ‘welcome.’ Although the county government tried to defuse the tension by installing signs using all the different spellings (e.g., dynnargh on the welcome mat outside the county offices, but dynargh on another sign inside the building), this approach did not bring the community to consensus.” Paradoxically, then, inventing language in order to define, enact, and empower a community, can fracture said community in the course of its creation.

Thanks, Paul!