Archives for March 2013


Sashura sent me a link to Dmitry Sukhodolsky’s piece in Russia Beyond the Headlines (an offshoot of Rossiyskaya Gazeta) about the many languages of Russia and the difficulty many are having in surviving. There’s an interesting discussion of Karelian (“Karelians living in the more distant areas of Tver Region and other spaces have kept their language alive until the present, even though they live closer to Moscow than Valdai”) and a sad reference to “the Kerek of Chukhotka, of whom there are just four people,” but what prompted me to post it was the last section, on Dagestan. Apparently “speakers of unwritten languages are treated with flagrant scorn” there:

Those who speak the non-written languages – who might amount to everyone in a village, or at least half a village – are traditionally calculated as being members of one of the more numerous linguistic groups (the Avars being the most numerous). Thus, they do not benefit from the slightest relief from taxes, cultural-fund or other social benefits. […]
One example is that of the Botlikhs. There have been countless meetings and endless petitions in the Botlikh village to recognize the cultural autonomy of Botlikhs and their language belonging to the Andi group of Avar-Andi-Tsez languages of the Nakh-Dagestanian family.
Yet they continue to be classified as Avar speakers, just as they were under Stalin, the Soviet Union’s Commissar for Nationality Issues, in the 1920s. The result is that only 200 Botlikhs, out of a population of 6,000, know their own language.

Yes, I realize there are more pressing issues in Russia in general and Dagestan in particular, but I wish the languages of small groups of powerless people wouldn’t get swept quite so brutally into the dustbin of history. (By the way, the comment thread on that article is amazingly civilized and full of useful information.)


I’ve finished Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which I wrote about here, and I guess I’m glad that there’s a severe falling-off in quality in the last couple of stories, because that enables me to move on to something else—Bestuzhev-Marlinsky‘s «Испытание» [The Test] as it happens—without too much gritting of teeth, but still it’s hard. Bestuzhev-Marlinsky is a very enjoyable writer in the European tradition, the “I say, old chap, let me tell you a story…” style I mentioned in the previous post; I laughed out loud when his narrator described the tobacco habit as spreading “от мыса Доброй Надежды до залива Отчаяния, от Китайской стены до Нового моста в Париже и от моего до Чукотского носа” (from the Cape of Good Hope to the Bay of Despair, from the Wall of China to the Pont Neuf in Paris and from my [nose] to the Chukotka Promontory [literally ‘nose’]), but the play on the word “nose” took me right back to Gogol and his infinitely greater comic genius.

But Gogol’s comedy would not be as powerful as it is without the flip side, and one thing that kept calling itself to my attention as I was reading these stories is that every one, even the most apparently silly or jolly, ended in a minor key. The first story, “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” is about as fluffy a story as you could ask for, focusing on the plot hatched by a young man to get the father of the girl he loves to let him marry her. The Wikipedia summary says it ends with their wedding, and so it does in a plot sense, but here are the last two paragraphs, the image the story leaves you with (Russian below the cut):

The noise, laughter, and songs became quieter and quieter. The [violin’s] bow died away, weakening and losing the vague sounds in the emptiness of the air. Somewhere you could still hear the stamping of feet, something like the murmur of a far-off sea, and soon everything became empty and indistinct.

Isn’t that the way joy, that beautiful and inconstant guest, flies from us, and a lonesome sound thinks in vain to express merriment? In its own echo it already hears sorrow and wilderness and heeds it in fright. Isn’t that the way the playful friends of our wild and free youth, one by one, one after the next, disappear to the ends of the earth and in the end leave in solitude their brother of old? It’s depressing to be left behind! And the heart is heavy and sad, and there’s no help for it.

Ho ho ho, right? “May Night, or the Drowned Maiden” has a very similar plot—the young Cossack Levko’s father won’t let him marry the woman he loves, but winds up agreeing—and ends in a similarly downbeat way: “The earth was just as lovely, in the marvelous silver gleam [of the moon], but nobody was intoxicated by it any more: everything was plunged into sleep. The silence was interrupted only by the rare barking of dogs, and for a long time yet the drunken Kalenik staggered through the sleeping streets, looking for his house.”

Of course Gogol would intensify both the humor and the sadness in his later, greater stories—”The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” Dead Souls—but there’s no call for Nabokov to have been as dismissive of these first stories as he was (“operatic romance and stale farce”); they are written with superb brio and a deeply felt sense of lacrimae rerum, and frankly I suspect Vladimir Vladimirovich’s aristocratic tastes made him turn up his nose at good honest Russian skaz.

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A correspondent has sent me the sad news that Calvert Watkins passed away in his sleep last night. I met him only once, forty years ago or so, on a memorable evening when the Harvard Indo-Europeanists (of whom he was the fearless leader) came to New Haven to visit the Yale Indo-Europeanist contingent (of which I was an aspiring acolyte); he was so much fun to hang out with that I envied my Cambridge counterparts. The general dictionary-reading public knows him for his appendix of Indo-European roots for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (an abridged version of the introduction is available here); his more specialized work is described briefly in the Wikipedia article I linked to his name, and hopefully an appropriate obituary will be provided by one of those who knew and worked with him. Meanwhile, I doff my hat to the memory of a fine scholar.


Last year I posted a quote from Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 about language in what’s now Lithuania; now I want to quote a section about Ukraine which is equally interesting and enlightening (I went back to the book to get some background for Gogol’s “Страшная месть” [“A Terrible Revenge/Vengeance”], which I’ve begun reading):

As Reform raised religious disputation in Poland to a very high level, Orthodoxy in Ukraine continued its long intellectual decline. Its limitations inhered in the language created to spread eastern-rite Christianity among the Slavs. Old Church Slavonic, the remarkable creation of Cyril/Constantine, had allowed the spread of the Gospel throughout East and South Slavic lands. Although Old Church Slavonic served the medieval purposes of conversion from paganism to Christianity very well, it was insufficient for the early modern challenge of Reform. It provided no link to classical models. As centuries passed, it was ever less able to provide Orthodox churchmen with a means of communication among themselves — or with their flock, when this idea arose. As the various Slavic languages emerged (or diverged), Church Slavonic lost both its original proximity to the vernacular and its universal appeal. By the early modern period it had declined into local recensions which neither matched local speech nor represented a general means of communication among Orthodox churchmen.

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Hearty congratulations to Beth of The Cassandra Pages, who has been blogging for ten years as of today. I know it’s not easy to keep blogging for that long, even though I sometimes just toss up a link to a news story when I don’t have anything of interest to say (or don’t have the time to do it justice); Beth keeps putting up thoughtful posts full of art and life, and as she says in her latest post, it is “the body of artistic work accomplished in my lifetime which most closely represents me”:

For as much as I sometimes have wished to be otherwise, I am not first and foremost a novelist or a painter, a writer of non-fiction books or a photographer or printmaker. I’m a reader, and observer, and an integrator, whose chosen form is the informal essay, illustrated with my own photographs or artwork, and whose perfect medium of expression is the blog. Being a blogger became an intrinsic part of my identity: like someone who works in watercolors or oils, I see the world and my daily life through an intimacy with this medium. It used to feel a bit weird, like constant translating; now it’s so normal I don’t even think about it, even though I’ve become a lot more choosy about what to base my posts upon.

I wish her and her blog many more years!


Last year I wrote about Sarah Ogilvie’s Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary on the basis of a (sloppy, as it turns out) newspaper story; now that Cambridge UP has sent me a review copy, I can report on it firsthand, and I am happy to say that it is an excellent book, well represented by its subtitle and very poorly by the reviews that stressed a trumped-up controversy about Burchfield (one of the editors).
Ogilvie begins by describing how she came to work at the OED in 2001; I found her account charming and convincing, and it’s a good example of personal reporting at its best—it gives you a real sense of the place and its traditions. Then she proceeds to the history of the dictionary that takes up the first, and more important, half of the book (the second half goes into perhaps excessive detail about a couple of controversies and the “case of the missing tramlines”); I’ve read a number of books about the OED, and this is the one I would give to someone curious about the subject. Not only is it well told, but it’s told by a lexicographer, which makes all the difference; she’s not looking in from the outside, and she is able to convey what lexicography in general is about and what is particular to the OED. Her portrait of James Murray, the great early editor, and the obstacles he confronted is superb; I will quote a longish passage that made me want to stand up and cheer:

Murray had stressed that the English language was dynamic, and that no one person’s English was all of English:

The ‘English language’ is constantly spoken of, and written of, as if it were a definite number of words and constructions; and the question, whether a particular word or construction is ‘English’, is constantly settled by each man according to his own feeling and usage, as if his English were all of English. Then we find absurd statements in books, such as that the English language is calculated to contain 100,000 words (when 50,000 or 200,000 would be just as true), followed sometimes by a calculation as to how many of these are of native English origin, and this without definition of what is included either under ‘word’ or ‘English word’ […]

This was a common theme present in his lectures and writings throughout his life. A few years before he died, he said in a lecture at Oxford, ‘How often have I heard from a man or seen a newspaper confidently assert that such a word or phrase was not English, or perhaps that it was a vile Americanism, when the fact was merely that they were not acquainted with it, it was no part of their English, and in their ignorance they assumed that their English was all English.’ When asked by correspondents for advice on standard usage, Murray always replied that a speaker’s individual free choice gave life and variety to language. He wrote:

Language is mobile and liable to change, and . . . a very large number of words have two or more pronunciations current . . . and giving life and variety to language . . . it is a free country, and a man may well call a vase a vawse, a vahse, a vaze, or a vase, as he pleases. And why should he not? We do not all think alike, walk alike, dress alike, write alike, or dine alike; why should not we use our liberty in speech also, so long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with?

That’s a rare enough attitude today, and to encounter it so forcefully stated over a century ago boggles my mind. There’s not a word I would change.

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Ben Zimmer sent me this YouTube clip of Tolstoy (recorded October 31st, 1909) reading from his book For Every Day in four languages, English, German, French, and Russian! Each language gets a segment of different length, and unfortunately the Russian is so scratchy I can’t make out enough to google and find the original text, but it’s absolutely amazing to hear his voice. Here’s the English text:

That the object of life is self-perfection, the perfection of all immortal souls, that this is the only object of my life, is seen to be correct by the fact alone that every other object is essentially a new object. Therefore, the question whether thou hast done what thou shouldst have done is of immense importance, for the only meaning of thy life is in doing in this short term allowed thee, that which is desired of thee by He or That which has sent thee into life. Art thou doing the right thing?

If anyone can find the Russian, I’ll be grateful.


An interesting piece by Jennifer Howard from the Chronicle of Higher Education: “In the Digital Era, Our Dictionaries Read Us.” It deals with dictionaries tracking what words readers search for, the third edition of the OED (“it’s far too early to say whether there will or won’t be a print incarnation”—Howard points out that Macmillan Education “announced in November that it would no longer make print dictionaries at all”) and the OED’s integrating its historical thesaurus (“That ‘puts all of the enormous content of the OED into a taxonomic structure… So if you wanted to see all the terms for, say, a loose woman that were used in the 19th century, with a couple of clicks you could get all that information'”—I wrote about it here), crowdsourcing, and other topics; towards the end, it includes this important admonition:

Dictionaries are not created equal, though, and the most readily found definition will not always be the most robust or up-to-date. Who’s behind the definition that turns up on a quick Google search or embedded in your digital device? Online it can be very hard to tell how reliable a source is. Berglund serves as the executive secretary of the Dictionary Society of North America, and she thinks it’s more vital than ever to equip students with the literacy skills to be able to distinguish a good source from a mediocre one. Whatever form future dictionaries take, she wants professors as well as their students to take them seriously. “We tend to forget that the dictionary is one of the most valuable tools for humanistic study,” she says.

I hope I don’t sound too much like a fuddy-duddy when I say that it bothers me to think of students treating, say, Urban Dictionary as equivalent to Merriam-Webster or the OED. (Thanks, Paul!)


The Financial Times has a “Lunch with the FT” series, and in a recent one, John Thornhill interviews one of Russia’s most interesting contemporary writers, Boris Akunin (real name Grigory Chkhartishvili; the pen-name is a play on Bakunin, among other things). The piece has a good brief description of his writing—”he started to write the kind of novels that he and his wife would like to read: wry, fast-paced, intricately plotted detective stories that toy with the conventions of classical Russian literature, yet resonate with our own times”—and some good quotes, like “There is a place close to the Yauza river where I walk where the air is thick with culture and energy. Moscow is wonderful for energy. But when it comes to writing the text it needs discipline and order and that is awful there. St Malo is rainy and windy. It is perfect.” And of course there’s lots about Russian politics (Akunin is not fond of Putin). But towards the end it says he ordered “a gin and a tonic to complete his meal”: separately? Is that a Russian thing? (Thanks go to Bruce for the link and to Paul for a copy of the physical article, on the FT’s famous orange paper.)


An Ask MetaFilter question that I’m hoping some LH reader can help with:

I found some stone tablets written in a strange alphabet amongst a bunch of graves from different eras at the city museum of Tire, Turkey. The guy working the desk at the museum didn’t know what they were. […] The museum had gravestones from many different eras of the city’s history — Roman, Selçuk, the Beylik period, Byzantine and Ottoman graves, and also some Armenian writing and some Jewish gravestones (seen in the first picture). As far as I can tell, it’s none of these. It seems that all the stones there were collected from around the area. 2 of the stones had this strange alphabet; here are some pictures:
The first
The second stone
Does anyone have any idea what they might be?

There are various guesses in the comment thread—an archaic Semitic language, Khutsuri, and Nomyte’s suggestion, Armenian (cf. this image); so far, I’d say that’s the most plausible, but everybody’s just guessing, and I’m hoping somebody who actually recognizes it will weigh in. (Just ignore the stones with Hebrew lettering in the first image; there’s no reason to think they’re relevant.)