Archives for July 2013


This post at XIX век asked about “a book written to help Soviet-era Russian readers figure out the nineteenth-century realia they found in classic literature – things like how many desiatinas are in a hectare, or what counted as a lot of money to a middling noble family.” That rang a bell with me; I was pretty sure I remembered the same book, and eventually I found I had mentioned it in this post back in 2004. It’s Что непонятно у классиков, или Энциклопедия русского быта XIX века [What we don’t understand in the classics, or An encyclopedia of Russian daily life in the nineteenth century], by Yuri Fedosyuk (online here). Here’s an excerpt from a 1959 letter by Fedosyuk proposing what eventually became the book: “Мне, знакомому лишь с метрической системой, неясно, богат или беден помещик, владеющий двумястами десятин земли, сильно ли пьян купец, выпивший „полштофа“ водки, щедр ли чиновник, дающий на чай „синенькую“, „красненькую“ или „семитку“.” [It is unclear to me, who am familiar only with the metric system, whether a landowner who has two hundred desyatinas of land is rich or poor, how drunk a merchant is after drinking a “half-shtof” of vodka, and whether or not an official who gives a tip of a sinenkaya, a krasnenkaya, or a semitka is generous.] It turns out that a desyatina is 2.7 acres, a shtof is about one and a quarter liters, a sinenkaya [‘little blue one’] is a five-ruble note, a krasnenkaya [‘little red one’] is a ten-ruble note, and a semitka is a two-kopeck coin (presumably a terrible tip). The interesting thing to me is the large number of variants of the latter word; Dahl has семичник, семишник, семёшник, семичка, семак, семиток, and семерка. The fact that he includes them in a “nest” of words starting with семи-, the prefix for семь ‘seven,’ suggests that he took them to be related to that number, but how is beyond my understanding.


I’m about halfway through Lazhechnikov‘s Ледяной дом (The ice house; see this post), and I’ve come to a very interesting epigraph (all the chapters, of course, in good nineteenth-century style, have epigraphs):

Часто в пылу сражения царь задумывался о своем царстве, и посреди боя оставался равнодушным его зрителем, и, бывши зрителем, казалось, видел что-то другое.
Опал. И. К.
[Often in the heat of battle the king thought of his kingdom, and in the middle of the fight he remained an indifferent observer, and it seemed that he was seeing something else.
Opal. I. K.]

Before the internet this would have been as mysterious to me as it must have been to its first readers in 1835, but judicious googling revealed to me that it was a distorted quote from Ivan Kireevsky‘s story Опал (The opal), which was written at the end of 1830 but not published until 1861. Rosina Neginsky, in her article on Kireevsky in volume 198 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series (Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose), calls it “a beautiful fairy tale” that “was a seminal creative work for later Russian writers,” adding that Gogol’s “Nevskii prospekt” owes a debt to it. In the story, Nureddin, ruler of Syria, is about to conquer Origell, ruler of China, when a magic opal ring takes him to another world where he is captivated by a mysterious woman who makes him forget his desire for glory, and the sentence there reads “Часто в пылу сражения сирийский царь задумывался о своем перстне, и посреди боя оставался равнодушным его зрителем, и, бывши зрителем, казалось, видел что-то другое” [Often in the heat of battle the Syrian king thought of his ring, and in the middle of the fight he remained an indifferent observer, and it seemed that he was seeing something else]. As you can see, the only difference is that Lazhechnikov eliminated “Syrian” and had him thinking of his kingdom rather than his ring. The interesting thing to me is that only the friends of Lazhechnikov or Kireevsky had any chance of recognizing the quotation; presumably “Opal. I. K.” was a complete mystery to most readers. It just goes to show you that the date of first publication is not always when a piece of writing starts influencing literature.
Another point of interest to me in the novel is the insertion of anachronisms; Lazhechnikov has Trediakovsky carrying around a copy of his Tilemakhida (a rhymed Russian version of Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque; see this post) and quoting from it, to everyone’s amusement (Trediakovsky had become a figure of fun in the 1830s for reasons having nothing to do with his actual merits), [and has the novel’s hero, Artemy Volynsky, making subversive annotations in a copy of Histoire de Jeanne première, Reine de Naples,] even though neither work would be written and published until the 1760s, decades after the period in which the novel is set (1739/40). But it is, after all, a fun read, not a serious work.
Update. It seems I have been unfair to Lazhechnikov on one count: what I took to be a reference to Histoire de Jeanne première, Reine de Naples is apparently in fact a reference to a passage on Joanna of Naples in Justus Lipsius‘s Monita et Exempla Politica (which was a factor in the historical trial of Volynsky). Mea culpa!


The excellent bulbul, a gentleman and a scholar, sent me an e-mail saying:

I thought this might interest you and your readership – the first issue of the Journal of Jewish Languages is out. As was to be expected, there’s some great stuff in it, including a report on the last speakers of Judeo-Malayalam. And if that isn’t reason enough to check it out, here’s one more: the entire first issue is free. I never thought I’d see the day – a publication by Brill, free. But there it is.

I echo his amazement on all counts, and welcome this new publication. The first issue includes “A Maghrebian Sharḥ to the Hafṭara for the Minḥa Service on the Day of Atonement” by Moshe Bar-Asher, “Voices Yet to Be Heard: On Listening to the Last Speakers of Jewish Malayalam” by Ophira Gamliel, reviews of Tatjana Soldat-Jaffe’s Twenty-First Century Yiddishism (by Peltz Rakhmiel) and Kirsten Fudeman’s Vernacular Voices: Language and Identity in Medieval French Communities (by George Jochnowitz), “A New Venue for Research on Jewish Languages” by Sarah Bunin Benor and Ofra Tirosh-Becker, “Reapplying the Language Tree Model to the History of Yiddish” by Alexander Beider, and “Writing More and Less ‘Jewishly’ in Judezmo and Yiddish” by David M. Bunis. Enjoy!


Another sweltering day, and before I head off to South Hadley for beer, pizza, and Tour de France viewing, all I can work up the energy to post is Rob Neyer’s brief report at Baseball Nation announcing that the Arizona Diamondbacks would be broadcasting a game in Navajo, apparently “the first Major League Baseball game to be broadcast in Native American language.” To quote Rob: “Cool, huh?” (I’m too hot to connect that quote with the weather in an even moderately amusing way.)


Ann Morgan decided to read a book from every country in the world in one year; she writes about the results for the BBC:

I created a blog called A Year of Reading the World and put out an appeal for suggestions of titles that I could read in English. The response was amazing. Before I knew it, people all over the planet were getting in touch with ideas and offers of help. Some posted me books from their home countries. Others did hours of research on my behalf. In addition, several writers, like Turkmenistan’s Ak Welsapar and Panama’s Juan David Morgan, sent me unpublished translations of their novels, giving me a rare opportunity to read works otherwise unavailable to the 62% of Brits who only speak English. Even with such an extraordinary team of bibliophiles behind me, however, sourcing books was no easy task. For a start, with translations making up only around 4.5 per cent of literary works published in the UK and Ireland, getting English versions of stories was tricky.
This was particularly true for francophone and lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) African countries. There’s precious little on offer for states such as the Comoros, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique – I had to rely on unpublished manuscripts for several of these. And when it came to the tiny island nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I would have been stuck without a team of volunteers in Europe and the US who translated a book of short stories by Santomean writer Olinda Beja just so that I could have something to read.

She ran into some unexpected problems, like the independence of South Sudan (she had to get a “bespoke short story” from Julia Duany), and she has interesting things to say about the results (“Far from simply armchair travelling, I found I was inhabiting the mental space of the storytellers”). Well worth a read, and of course be sure to check out the blog (she wound up adding Jalal Barzanji’s The Man in Blue Pyjamas from Kurdistan for a last-minute wild-card spot).


A post at Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa quotes a sputtering Linus Torvalds:

There aren’t enough swear-words in the English language, so now I’ll
have to call you perkeleen vittupää just to express my disgust and
frustration with this crap.

…and explicates the Finnish phrase perkeleen vittupää semantically and etymologically. Right up my alley, so I’m pointing you in its direction. Too hot to post more… brain melting…


Nicholas Bakalar has a quite decent NY Times story about Light Warlpiri, a mixed language of Australia that’s developed in the last few decades:

The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue. Dr. O’Shannessy has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, the most recent in the June issue of Language.

“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” said Mary Laughren, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in the studies. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, she said, “is that she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”

Everyone in Lajamanu also speaks “strong” Warlpiri, an aboriginal language unrelated to English and shared with about 4,000 people in several Australian villages. Many also speak Kriol, an English-based creole developed in the late 19th century and widely spoken in northern Australia among aboriginal people of many different native languages.

Lajamanu parents are happy to have their children learn English for use in the wider world, but eager to preserve Warlpiri as the language of their culture.

There’s a brief post about it by Sally Thomason at the Log. (Thanks for the Times link, Bonnie!)


Mark Liberman has a fascinating post at the Log about the fact that “for 450 years or more, miners in Potosí (in what’s now Bolivia) have communicated among themselves in a mixed language spoken only by mine-workers in connection with mining operations.” It was first documented in a dictionary composed by Garcia de Llanos (1609-10), Diccionario y maneras de hablar que se usan en las minas y sus labores de ingenios y beneficios de metales [Dictionary and ways of speaking that are used in the mines and their engineering works and ore dressings]. Pieter Muysken says: “The main source grammatically for the language was undoubtedly Quechua, referred to in the dictionary sources as la lengua general de los indios [the general language of the Indians]. However, not all endings are Quechua. There are some Spanish and many Quechua endings, and some Aymara endings as well.” The post has some details about how it works, and in the comments Barrie England mentions the British mining dialect, Pitmatic (see this 2007 LH post).


A nice piece by Josephine Livingstone about one of my favorite works of lexicography, Hobson-Jobson, which I’ve cited a fair number of times here at LH and which I’ve consulted frequently in my handy Wordsworth Reference edition—a thousand pages in a nice compact paperback that easily fits in the hand. Of course, you don’t need to have a physical book at all now that Digital Dictionaries of South Asia has put it online so conveniently (see above link), but if you do want one (and why wouldn’t you?), I would urge you to get the whole thing and not the edition Livingstone reviews, which is cut down by half (“without cutting any good bits” my foot—it’s all good bits!). At any rate, what I found most interesting about the review is Livingstone’s squeamishness about the very words so entertainingly recorded in the dictionary and the very entertainment to be derived from them:

There is something jolly and old-fashioned about this book which will appeal to the trivia-loving, moustache-twirling, Eats, Shoots and Leaves-owning, tea-dance-attending, Waugh-quoting pedant… I’m not suggesting that there is anything dubious about being interested in the etymology of “shampoo” or “sherbet” … But it is the case that patriotism and the vintage aesthetic feed off one another. If we are lazy about our enthusiasm for the British past, especially when it all starts looking a bit Henry Yule, then we risk forgetting about the nasty, violent bits. … “Hobson-Jobson” is a sweet rhyming term, and, like “pukka,” it means something. But it is also a pretty disrespectful bastardisation of a real religious practice.

Livingstone went to college in the ’90s, and I guess it shows. [She wrote to correct me—she actually got her BA in 2010.] Me, I roll my eyes at the idea that we must use even such harmless artifacts of an earlier era to parade our purportedly greater wisdom and tolerance and rub the nineteenth century’s sins in its insensible face. I really think we can enjoy words like “pukka” without running the risk of turning into pukka sahibs. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


I’ve long been familiar with the Russian palindrome а роза упала на лапу Азора [a roza upala na lapu Azora] ‘and a/the rose fell onto the paw of Azor’—I don’t know if it’s the most famous, but it’s the example given in the first paragraph of the Russian Wikipedia article on palindromes—but I had no idea it had any real-world meaning. Now I learn from yesterday’s gilliland post that there’s a whole backstory, which I am going to share.
When we think of late-eighteenth-century opera, we think of Mozart and maybe Gluck, but the leading composer of comic opera (which I’m guessing was more popular at the time) was André Grétry, and one of his best-known works was Zémire et Azor, which premiered in Paris in 1771 and was staged in Saint Petersburg in 1774. (Berlioz thought highly of it in the 1830s: “ces chants si vrais, si expressifs.”) It was based on the story of Beauty and the Beast, first published in 1740, and Azor was the prince who had been turned into a monstrous beast-like creature by enchantment; Zémire, of course, was the merchant’s youngest daughter who eventually changed him back with her tears of love, and as gilliland points out, the rose falling on his paw is an excellent symbol of that second transformation. He adds all sorts of further material about various rulers of the day and their joint attendance at a performance of the opera, but since he admits to tossing in some ringers (for instance, he says “they had all read Аленький цветочек [The Scarlet Flower],” but he knows as well as I do that Aksakov’s Russian version of the story wasn’t published until 1858), I’ll let people who read Russian go to the link to get his version. Me, I’ll add some interesting information I turned up about the names:

The names Zemire and Azor link Oriental to American slavery in French theatrical history. They derive directly from a 1742 comedy Amour pour Amour, which takes place near Baghdad, featuring Azor as a genie…. But these names, in turn, refer to and invert those of Zamor and Alzire, the heroes of Voltaire’s Alzire, ou les Américains, which appeared six years earlier and is set in Peru.
–Carolyn Vellenga Berman, Creole Crossings: Domestic Fiction And the Reform of Colonial Slavery, pp. 94-95.

I love these hidden threads running back through forgotten history.