Archives for October 2013

NEANDERTHAL LANGUAGE?

Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson, from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Radboud University Nijmegen, have published a paper (abstract) arguing that (in the words of this Jul. 9 Sci-News.com story) “essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.” The abstract linked above says:

This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000–100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.

Now, my instinctual reaction is “What a load of poppycock,” but both Dediu and Levinson have been mentioned with respect over at Language Log, and I’m certainly not competent to have an informed opinion. I’m posting this so that those better informed than I can weigh in, and in the hope that it might prompt one of the Loggers to address it.

FREE PALGRAVE PIVOTS.

From the Palgrave Pivot anniversary page:

In October 2012 we launched Palgrave Pivot in response to feedback from the scholarly community that they needed a mid-form publication format for publishing their work. One year later we’ve published over 100 Palgrave Pivot titles across the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business.
To celebrate we are offering access to the first 100 Palgrave Pivot titles FREE for 100 Hours. From 9am on Monday 28th October to 1pm GMT on Friday 1st November you can access all 100+ Palgrave Pivot titles FREE on Palgrave Connect.

Unfortunately, their interface is clunky and maddening to use; fortunately, MetaFilter user Going To Maine has posted a complete list of available titles, with links, at the MetaFilter post where I found out about it. I’ve already noticed “Barbarian Memory: The Legacy of Early Medieval History in Early Modern Literature,” by Nicholas Birns, and “The Moscow Pythagoreans: Mathematics, Mysticism, and Anti-Semitism in Russian Symbolism,” by Ilona Svetlikova, and I’ve barely started looking at it. There’s less than two days to go before it all goes back behind the paywall, so check it out sooner rather than later; I’m pretty sure any LH reader will find something that interests them.
Addendum. Another MetaFilter post of LH interest: It knocks like a swearing finger, featuring posts from Stuff Dutch People Like on linguistic topics, e.g. “lekker” and Swearing with diseases.

A SEDARIS QUIZ.

We here chez Hat are big David Sedaris fans, so we were delighted to see a new piece by him in last week’s New Yorker. It’s a sober one, but sober or funny he’s always a fine read. This piece had two bits that set off my Hat alarm and made me decide to post and ask the Varied Reader for an opinion.
1) “The kitchen table sat twelve, and there was not one but two dishwashers.” This sounded wrong to me; the alternative, “there were not one but two,” doesn’t sound great either—this is one of those places where the joints of a language don’t quite fit snugly—but it’s what I’d say, since to me the basic structure is “there were … two.” What say you?
2) “Now there was organic coffee, and artisanal goat cheese.” This is obviously not specific to Sedaris, artisanal being a major buzzword of today, but I’ll take the occasion to mention that I never use the word myself, not because I hate it but because I can’t pronounce it. Both “ar-TIZ-ə-nəl” and “ar-ti-ZAN-əl” sound awful to me. What say you?

OBSCURUM PER OBSCURIUS.

Lameen Souag of Jabal al-Lughat has a post on “Language policy and Islam” that I cite here for this striking passage:

Regionally, other languages may also come to assume a secondary position in religious education – for example, Urdu in Pakistan, even though most students there have a different first language. A remarkable example of this is to be found in northeastern Nigeria, where advanced religious education requires mastering not just Classical Arabic but also Classical Kanembu, an extremely archaic variety of Kanembu currently used only for explaining Classical Arabic texts (Bondarev & Tijani 2013).

Of course, it’s not really much different than studying Greek through the medium of Latin, which English-speakers did once upon a time.

UPYR/VAMPIR.

Having reached 1841 in my Long March, I’m reading what I believe is A. K. Tolstoy‘s first published piece of prose, the novelette Упырь [The vampire]. The first surprise was finding myself not in some haunted grotto, ruined house, or other Gothic scene but at the most ordinary high-society ball, with young people dancing and older people gossiping. The second surprise was that the first bit of dialogue involved language peevery; the narrator approaches a pale young man observing the proceedings, and the latter first tells him there are upyrs at the ball, then bursts out with this explosion of word rage (Russian below the cut):

“You (God knows why) call them ‘vampires,’ but I can assure you that they have a genuine Russian name, upyr; and since they are of purely Slavic origin, even though they are met with throughout Europe and even in Asia, there is no basis for holding on to a name deformed by Hungarian monks who took it into their heads to turn everything into Latin and out of upyr made ‘vampire.’ Vampir, vampir!,” he repeated contemptuously — “we Russians might just as well say fantom or revenant instead of ‘ghost’ [prividenie ‘ghost, apparition’]!”

So it would appear that at that time вампир was the usual Russian word for ‘vampire’; I wonder what the distribution of вампир and упырь is these days?
Addendum. Another sentence of philological interest occurs later, when our hero is ensconced in a purported vampire’s old house, where a suite of rooms has been locked up for many years and Strange Things Happen: “Но он с нею разговаривал, она ему отвечала; он принуждён был внутренне сознаться, что истолкование его не совсем естественно, и решил, что всё виденное им — один из тех снов, которым на русском языке нет, кажется, приличного слова, но которые французы называют cauchemar” [But he had spoken with her, she had answered him; he was forced to admit that there was no natural explanation, and decided that everything he had seen was one of those dreams for which there is no decent word in Russian, but which the French call cauchemar]. The borrowing кошмар [koshmar] was already in occasional use (from Gogol’s 1835 Портрет [The portrait]: “и уже не мог изъяснять, что это с ним делается: давленье ли кошмара или домового, бред ли горячки или живое виденье” [and he couldn’t explain what was happening to him, stress or nightmare (кошмар) or house-spirit, delirium or fever or living apparition]), but it must have been felt to be a blatant Gallicism.

[Read more…]

Q LEGALIZED IN TURKEY.

Mark Liberman at the Log reports on the legalization of the letters Q, W, and X as part of Tayyip Erdoğan’s “Democratization Package”:

The Turkish Alphabet Law of 11/1/1928 was aimed at shifting Turkish from Arabic-based to Latin-based orthography, and it was quite effective in suppressing the use of the Ottoman script. But it has also been used to suppress Kurdish, historically spoken by 10-25% of the country’s population.

But the post is especially worth reading for the passage from Gravity’s Rainbow Mark cites (“ƣ seems to be a kind of G, a voiced uvular plosive. The distinction between it and your ordinary G is one Tchitcherine will never learn to appreciate…”); if you enjoy that as much as I do, you will want to read the much more extensive series of quotes from Pynchon’s masterpiece in this nine-year-old Log post (and a quote from a different section at this eight-year-old LH post)—and, hopefully, the book itself.

TERMS FROM AN EAR.

Frequent commenter Paul T. sent me a Michael Weiss piece on Andrea Pitzer’s recent The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, which presents what sounds to me like an unconvincing theory about Pale Fire, namely that it is “a sly commentary on the Cold War.” Of course I can’t really judge without reading the book, and the Weiss piece is very enjoyable reading itself; once again, however, I am prompted to post by a lovely typo, one I think Vladimir Vladimirovich himself would have enjoyed:

“I was at Georgetown School of Foreign Service during the last years of the Soviet Union’s existence,” Pitzer told me in a phone interview. “One of the things I studied was nuclear negotiations and treaties. Reading Pale Fire, I recognized the terms from that ear and thought perhaps the book was more of a Cold War novel than I realized. […].”

DUDE!

Allan Metcalf has a Lingua Franca column laying out the history of the word dude, as discovered by Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen and presented in the latest issue of Comments on Etymology:

Thanks to Popik and Cohen’s thorough investigation, it seems almost certain that “dude” derived from “doodle,” as in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The original New England Yankee Doodle, Cohen notes, “was the country bumpkin who stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni; i.e., by sticking a feather in his cap, he imagined himself to be fashionable like the young men of his day known as ‘macaronis.’”
For some reason, early in 1883, this inspired someone to call foppish young men of New York City “doods,” with the alternate spelling “dudes” soon becoming the norm. Exactly what these fashionable fools were like unfolds copiously in the pages of Comments. Here there is room for just a small sample. […]

(He also mentions “dudine,” for which see this LH post.) By all means read the examples, and be grateful for the devoted burrowers in 19th-century newspapers who give us things like this!

LERMONTOV’S NOIR HERO.

I’ve finished the 1840 novel Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time; see this LH post for leaf-rustling imagery in the novel and L’s poems). It is, of course, an amazing performance for an author in his mid-20s, but Hemingway was the same age when he wrote The Sun Also Rises, and of the two the latter is the more adult. Lermontov’s is very much a young man’s novel in its passions, its pretended world-weariness, and its impatience with detail (Nabokov, in his introduction to the novel, points out the heavy reliance on overheard conversations, important events glimpsed through chinks and bushes, and other such convenient coincidences); what makes it irresistible is its headlong storytelling, and what makes it endlessly rereadable (despite what Nabokov calls Lermontov’s “awkward and frequently commonplace style”) is the brilliant construction, starting out with secondhand accounts of Pechorin (the titular hero) by the narrator’s traveling companion Maksim Maksimych, moving on to the narrator’s brief encounter with Pechorin himself, and ending up with three stories presented as journal entries written by Pechorin (who left his writings with Maksim, who passed them on to the narrator). This provides endless material for comparison, not only between Pechorin’s actions in different sections (he treats poor old Maksim exactly as he had treated beautiful Bela) but between the views of Pechorin provided by Maksim, by the narrator, and by the hero himself. Lermontov clearly poured into this book everything he had been thinking and feeling, and it has the power of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, grasping you so that you cannot choose but hear.

But what kind of hero is Pechorin? Lermontov mischievously called him “a hero of our time,” explaining in the preface he added for the second edition that he was made up of “the vices of our entire generation in their full development,” a portrait of “contemporary man.” Besides providing fodder for the unfortunate vice of social-realist fiction which was to preoccupy Russian literature for the next century and a half, this is misleading in that (as Nabokov says) Pechorin is at least as much a copy of previous world-weary protagonists like Goethe’s Werther, Byron’s various Byronic heroes (not to mention the poet himself), and Pushkin’s Onegin as he is a portrait of anything contemporary. But if we are to try to bring him up to date, to make him comprehensible in cultural terms more present in our minds than Goethe and Byron, what can we compare him to? Certainly not to “hipsters,” pace this misguided attempt by Harry Leeds; hipsters (whoever they are) may be bored, but they don’t go around getting people killed. No, I think the closest comparison from post-WWII culture is Harry Lime, the dangerously attractive psychopath at the center of the classic 1949 film noir The Third Man (played unforgettably by Orson Welles). Pechorin, like Lime, doesn’t really give a damn about anybody but himself, and I can very easily picture him delivering Lime’s famous speech from the Ferris wheel (“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”). Such people can be fun to read about, but they are (as Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron) mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

I’ll take the liberty of rendering one of Pechorin’s better bon mots (Russian below the cut) very freely, as part of the film noir script it would fit so well into: “If it’s time to die, well, I’ll die. It won’t be much loss for the world, and me, I’m bored. I’m like a guy at a dance hall who doesn’t go home to sleep just because he can’t get a ride. But here’s a taxi now. See ya, sweetheart…”

[Read more…]

DEPTHLESS.

Brad Leithauser has a mostly useless New Yorker blog post about allegedly unusable words, half yawn-inducing roundup of the usual suspects (niggardly, awesome, inflammable), half desperate word-count-inflating expansions of random thoughts that floated through his brain (two paragraphs on puissant!). But he starts with an interesting point I’m fairly sure has never occurred to me, so I’ll pass it on here:

I was seeking a replacement for “unfathomable.” I thought of “depthless,” but, feeling a bit iffy about it, I consulted my old Webster’s Second. Yes, it was a synonym for “unfathomable” (“Of measureless depth … unsoundable”) but also for “fathomable” (“Having no depth; shallow”). The word was what I think of as an auto-antonym (a term that doesn’t appear in Webster’s Second): it’s its own opposite. Which is to say, it’s a mostly unusable word.
Suppose in a novel you encounter the phrase “Rick stared into Sheila’s beautiful, depthless eyes.” Rick has clearly met a babe—and she is either superficial or profound.

Note his coy suggestion that auto-antonym—a term that has its own Wikipedia entry and (per that entry) was originally coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960—might be his own personal word (“what I think of as”), and his use of the almost eighty-year-old Webster’s Second, which suggests that he might be one of those idiots who bears a grudge against the great Third (see this LH post and this Sentence first post). But maybe he’s just cheap.