Archives for October 2013


By which I mean frequenters of LH:
1) John Emerson is selling a bunch of Chinese and Buddhist books:

The majority of these books are excellent books which were part of reading projects I’ll never get to. A considerable proportion were bought in Taiwan in 1983, and the rest were bought since then. Some of the English language books are cheap Taiwan pirate editions. […] These books are priced to sell. With a few exceptions I have priced them at 75% or so of the cheapest price I can find on The high-priced books listed are still as cheap as you can get them.

2) Jeremy Osner is selling his own poetry: “I have gone ahead and self-published a chapbook of my poetry […]: the book is on Amazon for a nominal fee if you’d like to drop a Tommy J. and read it on your kindle[…]; if you prefer to read on the computer or print it out (30 pp), you can download the pdf of it for free by clicking Analogies for Time.


I had meant to post this months ago, but it got lost in the shuffle: Lameen’s Reconstructing metaphors? (at Jabal al-Lughat) cites an interesting-sounding paper, Scott Ortman’s “Using cognitive semantics to relate Mesa Verde archaeology to modern Pueblo languages“:

Basically, the idea is that the favourite metaphors of a given culture will be reflected both in its language (notably by compounds, but also in semantic shifts) and in its arts. Thus, to quote one of his examples, in Tewa “roof” is literally “wooden coil-basket”, although modern Tewa roofs do not look much like that, while the roofs of Mesa Grande kivas were built to resemble coil baskets. He takes both to exemplify a metaphor BUILDINGS ARE CONTAINERS, which he takes to be supported not only by this case but by a number of other features, such as the use of pottery design motifs on walls and the polysemy of a word meaning “lake”, “ceremonial bowl”, and “kiva”.

Lameen says “I’m not sure how often this is likely to work in practice. For it to work, your metaphors have to be reflected in the kind of material culture that archeologists can dig up,” but that doesn’t seem that unusual a situation, and anyway it’s certainly stimulating to consider.


Frequent commenter Paul T. sent me a link to this Irish Times column by Frank McNally, which focuses on Irish as an allegedly underacknowledged source of English words. He cites an e-mail from a reader asking about whether the slang verb “to dig,” meaning ‘to understand or appreciate,’ could be related to the Irish verb tuig, which also means ‘to understand.’ Unfortunately, he spends much of the essay pretending that the crackpot ideas of Daniel Cassidy (see this LH post) have any relation to reality, but I’m linking it here for this admirable paragraph:

Many languages have influenced English. Irish is definitely one of them. It’s just that, in every vernacular, you could find phonetic coincidences with words spoken elsewhere. Unless you can also cite examples of where, when, and (ideally) why they jumped the species barrier, you can’t assume the coincidences are more than that.

I wish more newspaper columnists could get that idea through their heads.


Terrence Malick is an amazing director, and his films—though long, often hard to understand, and occasionally seemingly pretentious beyond necessity—are always worth seeing; he focuses on the beauty and mystery of existence more than any other contemporary filmmaker other than perhaps Kiarostami, and I commend to the attention of anyone with access to the LRB Gilberto Perez’s recent review article on him. But this is not a cinema blog, and I will quote a paragraph from the article to point out that the English language can make clarity difficult to achieve (Perez is discussing The Thin Red Line; I could have quoted less of the paragraph, but I like the point about unschooled philosophies and their “eloquent colloquial poetry” so much I wanted to share it):

Fear is as central to Jones’s novel as to Malick’s movie, the fear all soldiers feel and each in his own way tries to deal with. Unlike the novel, however (and like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Absalom, Absalom!), the movie gives the characters not just sentiments and opinions but philosophies of life. These mostly unschooled, regionally accented, often ungrammatical and inconsistent philosophies, which some critics snobbishly belittle, are presented in the movie as an eloquent colloquial poetry we are to take quite seriously: living in the world, facing death in it, surely qualifies a person to express a worldview. In Malick’s introduction to his translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons – Malick taught philosophy at MIT for a year before turning to the movies – he wrote that the world, in Heidegger’s sense, ‘is not the “totality of things” but that in the terms of which we understand them, that which gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes’; and he added that we ‘share certain notions about the measure and purpose and validity of things’ but ‘sometimes we do not, or do not seem to, share such notions.’ In The Thin Red Line the soldiers put forward several such notions, which they may or may not share among themselves and we may or may not share with them. A movie constructs a world, gives the things it depicts measure and purpose and validity in its schemes, but The Thin Red Line offers various worldviews without deciding for us which serves us best to understand things.

What I want to focus on is the first quote from Malick’s introduction to Heidegger. In the first place, it’s a slight misquote (as Google Books tells me); Malick did not write “that in the terms of which we understand them” but “that in terms of which we understand them,” which makes the sense a little easier to grasp. But either way, I think it’s harder than it would ideally be, because of the inherent ambiguity of that. In normal usage, that can be a stressed pronoun (“that’s him”), a stressed adjective (“that tree over there”), or an unstressed conjunction (“he said that he’d do it”). The construction “that which” is bookish but familiar. But once you separate that and which by a preposition, as here (“that in terms of which”), it tends to require rereading. And when you preface it with but, you add in a separate source of confusion, since “but that” brings to mind constructions like the fairly archaic “I do not doubt but that he will recover” and the more common “moral skeptics hold not that no truth is known but that no ethical truth is known.” All this makes “but that in terms of which” a nasty stumbling block; I imagine that in some languages—certainly conlangs built to be logical—one could express the thought in a straightforward way, but English is not such a language.


Amy K. Nelson’s Slate story (with video) about Holly Maniatty, “a self-described Vermont farm girl who holds degrees in both American Sign Language linguistics and brain science” and specializes in being a sign language interpreter for rock and rap concerts, is a fascinating read:

Signing a rap show requires more than just literal translation. Maniatty has to describe events, interpret context, and tell a story. Often, she is speaking two languages simultaneously, one with her hands and one with her mouth, as she’ll sometimes rap along with the artists as well. When a rapper recently described a run-in with Tupac, Maniatty rapped along while making the sign for hologram, so deaf fans would know the reference was to Tupac’s holographic cameo at Coachella, not some figment of the rapper’s imagination.
Maniatty, a first-degree black belt in taekwondo, also conveys meaning with her body, attempting to give her signs the same impact as the rapper’s spoken words.

Watching her work is an amazing experience.


Dr. Lameen Souag, at Jabal al-Lughat, has a post about “an unidentified Indic language in the Genizah collection”:

In 1896, Cambridge bought a huge archive of documents from a synagogue in Cairo, starting as early as the 11th century: the Genizah collection. Most of them are in Arabic in the Hebrew script – or just in Hebrew – but the rest cover a wide variety of languages. One of them should be an interesting puzzle for any readers familiar with South Asian languages: the fragment below is obviously in Devanagari or some derivative, but so far no one has been able to determine what language it is written in or what it says. Given the trade connections revealed by the letters, it would probably have come from Kerala, or maybe later on Bombay, but there are no guarantees…

If you know South Asian languages, see what you can do.


I do love a debunking, and Victor Mair provides a good one at the Log:

If you do a web search for “Hsigo”, you will find thousands of references and hundreds of images. I won’t give specific references, because they’re all complete and utter nonsense, but you can read detailed descriptions of these fake, mythical Chinese monkeys — including pseudo-learned discussions of their name — in works like the following: Erudite Tales, Creepy Hollows Encyclopedia, Mythical Creatures Guide, Encyclo, Societas Magic, Monstropedia, etc., etc. Hsigo are supposedly flying monkeys with bird-like wings, the tail of a dog, and a human face. […] It all started with a typo.

Do read the whole thing; it’s quite entertaining.


I’m reading Erich Auerbach’s article “Figura” (and every time I read Auerbach, I think I should be reading more Auerbach; I still haven’t made my way very far into Mimesis [see this LH post]), and I came across a quote from Varro that I liked so much I have to share it: “fictor cum dicit fingo, figuram imponit,” which Auerbach translates “The image-maker (fictor), when he says fingo (I shape), puts a figura on the thing.” (He has earlier rendered figura “plastic form.”) I’ve always been a sucker for varying verb stems (as a young Latin student, I used to go around muttering “fero ferre tuli latus,” enjoying the knowledge that latus was once tlatus and showed the zero-grade form of the root of tuli), and the conjunction of fic-, fing-, and fig- in one sentence was deeply satisfying to me.
On the next page, Auerbach, still discussing Varro, says:

We have, as he says in De lingua latina (9, 21), taken over new forms of vessels from the Greeks; why do people struggle against new word forms, formae vocabulorum, as though they were poisonous? Et tantum inter duos sensus interesse volunt, ut oculis semper aliquas figuras supellectilis novas conquirant, contra auris expertes velint esse? (“And do they think there is so much difference between the two senses, that they are always looking for new shapes of furniture for their eyes, but yet wish their ears to avoid such things?”).

Needless to say, I liked that as well.


I’m a big Ian Frazier fan (and anyone interested in Russia should get his wonderful Travels in Siberia), so I read his “The Last Days of Stealhead Joe” even though it’s long and I have no interest in fly fishing, and I didn’t regret it a bit. The point of LH interest shows up in this sentence: “It was a red 1995 Chevy Tahoe with a type of fly rod called a spey rod extending from a holder on the hood to another holder on the roof like a long, swept-back antenna.” Naturally, I was curious about “spey rod,” and a bit of quick googling took me to this Wikipedia article, where I discovered that it is so called after the River Spey. But if it is from a proper name, shouldn’t it have a capital letter? Well, not necessarily; it depends how close a connection is felt to its geographical origins. For example, Brussels lace always takes the capital, but the sprouts can be either Brussels or brussels; frankfurter is always lowercase, because its German origins have been forgotten except by the historically minded. How do we decide which to use when we’re writing something for which proper usage matters, or when we’re copyediting? Why, we look in a dictionary, an easy decider for these essentially arbitrary matters.
Except that spey isn’t in the dictionary, not any of them, not even the OED (though it does have speys [< Old French espeisse < espeis ‘thick’] Obs. rare. A thick or dense part of a wood). So all one can do is check Google Books to see what other editors have done, and we discover it seems to be about fifty-fifty; the Outside editor who worked on the Frazier piece went for lowercase spey, and I think I’d do the same, since presumably most fishermen aren’t aware of the origin in a Scottish river. But this is an example of why large dictionaries include so many words most people have never heard of; they may not be used often, but when they are, it helps if there’s an official way to write them.


As an accompaniment to my Long March through early-19th-century Russian prose, I’ve been reading through the collected poetry of Lermontov and increasingly realizing what a great poet he was. I mean, of course he was a Great Poet, we all know that, he’s taught right along with Pushkin, and as soon as beginning students are judged ready for poetry they’re fed the standard anthology pieces like Ангел/The Angel and И скучно и грустно/Bored and sad. But back when I was in Russian class I knew a lot less about Russian, poetry, and life; now, some decades on, I can see his excellences more clearly, and I thought I’d share with you my recent discovery of some suggestive parallels in three poems of 1840-1841 (the year he died—what a stupid, destructive institution dueling was!).

As much as I enjoy running into old friends in the Collected Works, it’s even better to make new ones, and I was hit hard by “Как часто, пестрою толпою окружен” [How often, surrounded by a motley crowd]. It wasn’t the framing section that got to me, a complaint about soulless people and their meaningless talk (the poem, dated January 1, was apparently conceived during a hectic New Year’s Eve masquerade at the Assembly of the Nobility), but the central two and a half stanzas that I will translate here (from “Наружно погружась в их блеск и суету” to “Шумят под робкими шагами”; the Russian text is at the link):

Outwardly immersed in their brilliance and bustle,
I cherish in my soul an ancient dream,
  The sacred sounds of perished years.
And if somehow for a moment I succeed
In sinking into a reverie, I fly in memory to the ancient times
  Of not so long ago, like a free, free bird,
And see myself as a child; and all around
Are my native places: the high manor,
  And the garden with its ruined greenhouse;
The sleeping pond is covered by a green net of grass,
And past the pond, smoke rises from a village—and in the distance
  Mists rise over fields.
I enter a dark avenue; between the bushes
Appears an evening ray, and yellow leaves
  Rustle beneath my shy footsteps.

It sounds like nothing in my half-baked attempt at a hasty translation, but you’ll have to take my word for it that the Russian is magical. The unexpected repetition in “вольной, вольной” [vol’noi, vol’noi, ‘free, free’] slows you down abruptly, like a swiftly applied brake pedal; the assonances chime in Вдали туманы [vdalí tumany, ‘in the distance mists’] and В аллею темную [v alleyu tyómnuyu, ‘into a dark avenue’]; and you can hear the rustling in the final quoted line, Шумят под робкими шагами [shumyát pod róbkimi shagami]. But even in clumsy translation you can sense the emotional force of the passage, the insistent intermingling of ruin, darkness, and foreboding with the superficially joyous return to the lieux d’enfance.

This is distilled in Lermontov’s well-known free translation (or version, if you will) of one of the most perfect lyric poems ever written, Goethe’s Wandrers Nachtlied II (“Über allen Gipfeln/ Ist Ruh”), whose twenty-four words sink instantly into the memory of anyone who knows even a little German and stay for life. Lermontov’s poem has only twenty-two words, but even so manages to seriously distort the original; it says “Mountain tops sleep in nighttime darkness, quiet valleys are full of fresh haze; the road is not dusty, the leaves do not tremble… Wait a little, you too will rest,” and of course Goethe has no quiet valleys, with or without haze, and no roads, with or without dust, whereas he does have birds which Lermontov omits. Never mind, it’s a pretty little thing and is much memorized (or used to be). You can see why Lermontov wanted to write it, but I suspect it did not satisfy him. It was too silent.

The following year (the last of his life), he combined the themes in one of his finest and most mysterious poems (one that meant a lot to Mandelstam, among others), Выхожу один я на дорогу/I go out on the road alone. You have there the road, the night, the sleeping earth, the longing for surcease: “Я б хотел забыться и заснуть!” [I would like to sink into a reverie (literally “forget myself”) and sleep!]. But, and this is crucial, “не тем холодным сном могилы” [not the cold sleep of the grave]; he wants to hear things, voices singing of love and, as the last line says, “Тёмный дуб склонялся и шумел” [A dark oak would lean over (me) and rustle]. It’s Hamlet’s quandary in reverse; Hamlet wanted to die, to sleep, but without dreaming, while Lermontov (or his poetic persona) wants to sleep, to dream, but not to die and leave the sounds of earth behind.

Addendum. Coincidentally, my Long March has brought me to Lermontov’s own great contribution to Russian prose, Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time), and early on I encountered a passage that makes an interesting parallel to those cited above (I’ve lazily used the English translation from here):

Кругом было тихо, так тихо, что по жужжанию комара можно было следить за его полетом. Налево чернело глубокое ущелье; за ним и впереди нас темно-синие вершины гор, изрытые морщинами, покрытые слоями снега, рисовались на бледном небосклоне, еще сохранявшем последний отблеск зари. На темном небе начинали мелькать звезды, и странно, мне показалось, что оно гораздо выше, чем у нас на севере. По обеим сторонам дороги торчали голые, черные камни; кой-где из-под снега выглядывали кустарники, но ни один сухой листок не шевелился, и весело было слышать среди этого мертвого сна природы фырканье усталой почтовой тройки и неровное побрякиванье русского колокольчика.

[It was quiet all around, so quiet that you could trace the flight of a mosquito by its buzz. A deep gorge yawned black to the left. Beyond it and ahead of us the dark blue mountain peaks wrinkled with gorges and gullies and topped by layers of snow loomed against the pale horizon that still retained the last glimmer of twilight. Stars began to twinkle in the dark sky, and, strangely enough, it seemed that they were far higher here than in our northern sky in Russia. On both sides of the road naked black boulders jutted up from the ground, and here and there some shrubs peeped from under the snow. Not a single dead leaf rustled, and it was pleasant to hear in the midst of this lifeless sleepiness of nature the snorting of the tired stage coach horses and the uneven tinkling of the Russian carriage bells.]