Archives for May 2013


I’ve been reading Osip Senkovsky’s “The fantastic journeys of Baron Brambeus” all month (see here and here), and I have to admit that since that last enthusiastic report it’s been something of a slog. The problem is that in the second section he goes to Siberia, joins a scientific expedition to the mouth of the Lena, and winds up exploring the nearby Медвежий остров [Medvezhii ostrov], ‘Bear Island,’ which is presumably invented—it certainly has nothing to do with the Norwegian Bear Island, and probably nothing to do with the Medvezhyi Islands, which are much further east. There he and his companion find a cave with what appears to be a long hieroglyphic inscription covering all four walls; fired with enthusiasm, they spend a week laboriously translating it using the “Champollion method”: “every hieroglyph is either a letter, or a metaphorical figure, or neither a letter nor a figure but a simple flourish of the handwriting” [всякий иероглиф есть или буква, или метафорическая фигура, или ни фигура, ни буква, а простое украшение почерка]. So far, so funny, but the problem is that Senkovsky then provides the complete “translation,” a very long novella about the last days before the meteor strike that caused the Flood and ended the antediluvian civilization from which hieroglyphics were passed down to the Egyptians, featuring a tiresome account of a jealous husband and his flirtatious, society-loving wife whose arguments and reconciliations are occasionally interrupted by catastrophic events and the comic relief of the astronomer Shimshik, who keeps running in to bore everyone with disquisitions on how this comet proves that he is right and his archrival is wrong. (The account is purportedly written by the husband with his last energy as he starves to death after eating his wife; the line Я съел кокетку! “I ate the coquette!” didn’t redeem the story, but it did make me laugh.) But now that section is over, the baron has gone to Sicily to view Etna, and the book is back on track, a soufflé again rather than a fruitcake, and I’d like to share a passage in which the baron is trying to convince the lovely Giulietta, whose current boyfriend is a Swede from Finland, that she shouldn’t be so impressed with him (Russian below the cut):

“But surely at least you’ll agree,” she went on, “that the Swedish language is very nice and pleasant to listen to?”
“And do you, signora, believe,” I answered heatedly, “that there is such a thing as the Swedish language? The Swedes are exceedingly proud, and they’re afraid that Europeans will call them Finns, so they employ every means to convince other peoples that they are of a completely different origin and even have their own special language. But I, having lived a long time in Petersburg, have satisfied myself that the so-called Swedish language is nothing but a hoax. When foreigners are around, Swedes deliberately pronounce random sounds in a sing-song fashion, accompanying them with gestures, to make people think that they are conversing among themselves in their native tongue, and that their language is sweet and melodious; but after babbling a while in that way, they are forced to leave you, go over by the window, and explain in Finnish whatever they wanted to tell each other.

Giulietta is convinced that the Swedes are deceivers, and resolves never to believe a thing they say.

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James Harbeck (of the word blog Sesquiotica, where you can read about such things as escovitch fish, whose name turns out to be a Jamaican variant on Spanish escabeche) has a delightful piece at The Week, A linguistic dissection of 7 annoying teenage sounds (e.g., “Breathy-voiced long low back unrounded vowel with advanced tongue root: This is usually spelled something like auuggghhh. It’s the classic teenage sound of utter exasperation…”), illustrated in a brief video by Harbeck himself. I don’t actually know any teenagers, so I can’t speak to its accuracy, but it’s very enjoyable.


Via Dave Wilton at, an interesting project, VerbCorner:

Dictionaries have existed for centuries, but scientists still haven’t worked out the exact meanings for most words. At VerbCorner, we are trying to work out what verbs mean. Rather than try to work out the definition of a word all at once, we have broken the problem into a series of tasks. Each task has a fanciful backstory — which we hope you enjoy! — but at its heart, each task is asking about a specific component of meaning that scientists suspect makes up one of the building blocks of verb meaning.
Ultimately, we hope to probe dozens of aspects of the meaning of thousands of verbs. This is a massive project, which is why we need your help! We will be sharing the results of this project freely with scientists and the public alike, and we expect it to make a valuable contribution to linguistics, psychology, and computer science.

Give it a try!

Update (Dec. 2013): The results are now in; a brief summary:

As predicted, there is a great deal of systematicity in the relationship between meaning and grammar …. These results suggest that the relationship between grammar and meaning may indeed be very systematic, helping to explain how language is learnable at all. It also gives us some confidence in the broad project of using language as a window into how the brain thinks and reasons about the world.

See the link for further details.


From a letter (6 III 1909) of Innokenty Annensky (classicist, poet, and much-loved teacher) to Max Voloshin:

But do many understand what the word is among us? […] You know, recently, even among us, oh! how many there are who fuss over the word and are even prepared to speak about its cult. But they do not understand that the most frightening and powerful word — the most enigmatic — is perhaps just the everyday word.

(Russian below the cut, from here.) On December 13, 1909, Annensky died from a heart attack at the Tsarskoe Selo railway station on his way home from work; Natalia Murray writes (The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde: The Life and Times of Nikolay Punin, p. 14): “It was almost certainly triggered by discovering the non-inclusion of his poems in the first issue of one of the most fashionable journals of the time, Apollon.” You can care too much about the word.

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Hugh MacDiarmid is one of my oldest poetic lodestones; he was one of the first poets I quoted at LH, back in 2002, and I did so again a couple of years ago, but those were both examples of his early short poems in Scots, the poems almost everyone prefers (“We enjoy your films! Particularly the early, funny ones”). Today I feel moved to quote from a couple of his later, longer, less immediately lovable poems in standard English mixed with quotes from all over. I’ll begin with his “In Memoriam James Joyce, from A Vision of World Language,” a very long poem with a difficult publishing history (he wrote to Eliot in 1941 “You will remember the huge poem of mine you read a year or thereby ago. It was to have been published by the Obelisk Press, Place Vendôme, Paris; but the Fall of France quashed that project”; Eliot loved it but said “in this time when we are really being starved for paper it is works like this which must suffer,” later calling it “a magnificent tribute to language”). It begins with a roll-call of those who have practiced epeolatry (OED: “The worship of words”):

We who are concerned with ‘the living whole
Of all the poetry that has ever been written,’
And the sodaliciis adstricti consortiis
Of all the authors who have been, are, or will be,
We remember Jacint Verdaguer whose Atlàntida and Canigó
Did for Catalonia what Mistral’s Mirèio did for Provence,
And the Italian, Marco Girolamo Vida,
Who duly figured in Chalmers’ collection of British Poets
(Trust the English to appropriate all they can !)
Rolfe with his tyrianthine style, diaphotick verse,
Orchidaceous vocabulary, and his archellenisms,
Argute, deaurate, investite, lucktifick, excandescence,
Galbanate, effrenate, dicaculous, pavonine, torose,
Hybristick, gingilism — Rolfe whose mantelpiece held
A card inscribed Verro precipitevolissimevolmente,
Hardy with words like lewth, leazes, dumble-dores,
Spuds, cit, wanzing […]

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Piotr Gąsiorowski has produced the perfect rejoinder to the Pagel nonsense—in this Language Evolution post he proves, using the same allegedly rigorous techniques the proto-Eurasiatic crew rely on, that “the Quechua people are a lost Nostratic tribe. Note that the semantic matches are impeccable and the similarity of the words is quite obvious to any open-minded observer. Indeed, the matches are much better than many of those in the LWED.” This reductio ad absurdum should convince any sensible observer that the Pagel results are garbage, and Jacob Shelton in the comment thread says “You should totally turn this into a real paper”… but I fear that the kind of people (by which I mean credulous journalists) who swallowed the serious paper would take this as further confirmation rather than refutation.
Update. See now the entertaining and educational comment thread to Mark Liberman’s Log post about Gąsiorowski’s work.


This is another in my occasional series of posts bringing to light unjustly forgotten inhabitants of the byways of history (see, for instance, Sofya Engelgardt). Reading Catriona Kelly’s excellent A History of Russian Women’s Writing 1820-1992, I got to her discussion (pp. 152-3) of the disjunction a century ago between the Russian feminist movement (supported by writers in the realist tradition) and the Symbolist/Acmeist modernist crew (“not one Russian woman author of modernist prose or poetry manifested any interest in, or sympathy for, the debates around female emancipation in the feminist movement itself”); in a footnote she says “The critic and writer Zinaida Vengerova, one of those most instrumental in introducing Western modernist ideas to Russia, was another example of how the supporters of ‘new arts’ also had little interest in feminism.” I was intrigued, and did a little digging; my main source of information is the invaluable Dictionary of Russian Women Writers (thanks to Look Inside, since I can’t afford $234.60 even with FREE Shipping).
Zinaida Afanasievna Vengerova (Russian Wikipedia) was born in 1867 in Helsinki (then, of course, part of the Russian Empire). She attended the Bestuzhev Courses in St. Petersburg and studied French literature at the Sorbonne; she also took courses in Vienna, England, and Italy, and met many of the leading lights of European literature. One of her first publications was the article “Poety-simvolisty vo Frantsii” [The symbolist poets in France]; Bryusov said it was a “revelation” that sent him to the bookstore to buy Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Maeterlinck. She lived in London from 1908 to 1912, lecturing on Russian literature (and again in 1914, when her nephew, the director Alexander Tairov, stayed with her); she wrote articles in French («Lettres russes») for the Mercure de France (1897—99) and the Revue des revues and in English for the Saturday Review (1902—1903), introductions to the collected works of Schiller and Shakespeare, and a number of entries for Brockhaus and Efron (available at; her collected critical articles appeared in three volumes (titled Literaturnye kharakteristiki [Literary characteristics]) from 1897 to 1910, covering the pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde, Ruskin, Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, Emile Verhaeren, and of course the French symbolists, among others. And back in Petersburg she was an intimate part of the GippiusMerezhkovsky circle; it was presumably around this time that she visited the Nabokov household on an occasion commemorated by VVN in the Paris Review interview:

H. G. Wells, a great artist, was my favorite writer when I was a boy. The Passionate Friends, Ann Veronica, The Time Machine, The Country of the Blind, all these stories are far better than anything Bennett, or Conrad or, in fact, any of Wells’s contemporaries could produce. His sociological cogitations can be safely ignored, of course, but his romances and fantasias are superb. There was an awful moment at dinner in our St. Petersburg house one night when Zinaïda Vengerov, his translator, informed Wells, with a toss of her head: “You know, my favorite work of yours is The Lost World.” “She means the war the Martians lost,” said my father quickly.

(Note his characteristic refusal to use the feminine ending on Russian names.) Via Gippius and Merezhkovsky she knew the terrorist/novelist Boris Savinkov, and her translation of his 1909 novel Конь бледный appeared in 1917 as The Pale Horse. I’ll let the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers take it from there:

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Etymological Wordnet looks promising, even if I don’t understand quite how it works; their website says:

The Etymological Wordnet project provides information about how words in different languages are etymologically related. The information is for the most part mined from Wiktionary. The semi-structured data is turned into a machine-readable etymological database that also incorporates some additional manually added etymological relationships.
A very basic interface to the data is provided at A more advanced browsing interface will be available later.

But when I click on the link, I get “Unable to connect: Firefox can’t establish a connection to the server at” At any rate, I thought I’d toss it out there for adventurous lovers of etymology.
And speaking of etymology: “Two new antedatings of hot dog!” Fred Shapiro has taken it back to November 14, 1886, and the source (from the Nashville Tennessean) is quite striking: “‘Hot stuff,’ ‘hot pup,’ ‘hot dog,’ sings out the fiend who carries in one hand a tin cooking arrangement, and on the other arm a basket. He is the wiener wurst fiend. It is his cries that greet you as you enter the theater and regreet you as you come out. He is the creature whose rolls make the night hideous, and whose wares make dreams that poison sleep…”


Ben Yagoda has a Lingua Franca post celebrating great sentences, which he collects “the way some people collect beach glass, small statues of turtles, or perceived insults.” He provides a nice selection, including some of everyone’s favorites (“‘Shut up,’ he explained.”—Ring Lardner) and some idiosyncratic choices (“Asked his last name, Tom said, ‘Why?'”). But what I want to quote in extenso is this:

Currently my favorite sentence is from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Horace de Vere Cole, a “practical joker” (that is the DNB‘s summary phrase) who died in 1936. My friend Wes Davis alerted me to the sentence several years ago, and I return to it whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth. Actually, there are several contenders in the Cole entry, which was written by Richard Davenport-Hynes. The final line is a classic of over-the-top understatement: “His widow married Mortimer Wheeler (1939) and shot Lord Vivian (1954).” Still, nothing can top the one Wes told me about, which describes the aging practical joker in the winter of his years:
“His advanced deafness prevented him from realizing that his carefully timed coughing was inadequate to cover his explosive breaking of wind.”


A nice NY Times story by Margalit Fox on an unsung hero of historical linguistics (even though she wasn’t a linguist):

Alice Elizabeth Kober was born in Manhattan on Dec. 23, 1906, the daughter of recent immigrants from Hungary. A brilliant student, she earned a bachelor’s degree in classics from Hunter College, and it was there, in a course on early Greek life, that she appears to have encountered Linear B.
Enthralled — and already confident of her own blazing intellect — she announced on her graduation that she would one day decipher the script. She came within a hair’s breadth of doing so before her own untimely death, at 43, just two years before Mr. Ventris cracked the code. […]
It was Dr. Kober who cataloged every word and every character of Linear B on homemade index cards, cut painstakingly by hand from whatever she could find. (During World War II and afterward, paper was scarce, and she scissored her ersatz cards — 180,000 of them — from old greeting cards, church circulars and checkout slips she discreetly pinched from the Brooklyn College library.)
On her cards, she noted statistics about every character of the script — its frequency at the beginnings and ends of words, and its relation to every other character — with the meticulousness of a cryptographer. Sorting the cards night after night, Dr. Kober homed in on patterns of symbols that illuminated the structure of the words on the tablets. For as she, more than any other investigator, understood, it was internal evidence — the repeated configurations of characters that lay hidden within the inscriptions themselves — that would furnish the key to decipherment.

A life well spent, if you ask me.