Archives for December 2013

Top Minority Languages of Europe.

This map is worth a few minutes of your attention. As was immediately pointed out on the related Reddit thread, the top minority language in Belarus is Belarusian (or “Belarussian,” as the map has it), and in Ireland it’s Irish. Pleasingly, in Finland it’s Swedish and in Sweden it’s Finnish. In Germany it’s Polish and in Austria Turkish; in Czechia (I’m tired of writing “Czech Republic”) it’s Slovak and in Slovakia Hungarian. And in Portugal it’s Mirandese, which I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of (at least I’ve never mentioned it on LH, which is my first-order approximation of my mental history).


I’ve barely begun Thomas Laqueur’s very long LRB review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, and I already have a nit to pick. Laqueur says “Clark, however, begins with an earlier terrorist act, the grotesque murder in 1903 of the Serbian King Alexander and his wife, Draga, by a small group of officers acting as part of a larger conspiracy. … One of the plotters – Dragutin Dimitrijević, ‘Apis’ (the Serbian word for ‘bull’) as he was known – would in 1911 become a founding member of the secret, ultra-nationalist organisation Union or Death, a.k.a. the Black Hand.” To get the nit out of the way immediately, the Serbian word for ‘bull’ is not apis, it is bik (cognate with Russian бык). Apis is not a Serbian word at all.

A couple of decades ago I would have found this annoying but forgivable; after all, not many English-speakers know South Slavic languages, and while it wouldn’t have been all that hard to check on a Serbian word, I can see how it might have seemed too much trouble. Now, however, it’s ridiculously easy. Not only is the internet full of translation sites, if you go to the Wikipedia article for Dimitrijević, just about the first thing you see is “also known as Apis (Апис),” and that link takes you to an article on “Apis or Hapis (alternatively spelled Hapi-ankh),” “a bull-deity that was worshipped in the Memphis region” of ancient Egypt. I can’t say I’m shocked, but I am disappointed that neither Laqueur, a historian who presumably has to deal with foreign languages now and again, nor anyone at the LRB bothered to check on this. Come on, people, you can and should do better.

(That said, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the review, because like so many people I have an insatiable appetite for material about World War I.)

Compare Translations.

Via XIX век, what looks like it could be a fantastically useful resource: the website Compare Translations. When it works, as for Proust, Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), or Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes), the effect is magical; you see the original, and below it all available translations, which you can compare to your heart’s content. Of course, it’s frustrating when you click on an author or title and there’s nothing there, or only the original text, but presumably that will be remedied in due course. Bookmark it and wish it well!

The Bookshelf: Miscellany VI.

It’s a week before Christmas, so I figured I’d clear out the pile of review books as an aid to those casting about for last-minute presents:

1) Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, edited by Gyles Brandreth, “writer, broadcaster, and wit.” Does what it says on the tin; if you want humorous quotations, this has a whole lot of ’em. Fifth edition of an old standby.

2) The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English is a collection of material from On Language columns by Nathan Bierma, an old LH favorite. He quotes Anatoly Liberman on etymology, David Crystal on pedantry, and in general has a splendidly sensible approach to matters linguistic.

3) Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices by Peter Aleshkovsky, translated by Nina Shevchuk-Murray: this is a double collection of stories, the first group (which I’ve long enjoyed dipping into in Russian) from the early ’90s and set in 1990, the second new and set in 2010, all of them loving snapshots of a Russian provincial town.

4) The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas by Dmitry Chen, translated from Russian by Liv Bliss, is a historical adventure novel set in Iran and Central Asia in the year 749, just as the Abbasid Revolution was getting under way. I’ve long been fascinated by that time and place, and this is the first of a trilogy; I’m looking forward to it!

The Prolific Galen.

I have only just started James Romm’s LRB review of The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire by Susan Mattern, and I found the first two paragraphs so amazing that I have to share them:

How fortunate you would have been, as a Roman patient of the second century AD, to be attended by Galen, the greatest Greek physician of the age. Galen would have paid housecalls, several times a day if needed, and brought you food. He would have questioned you with earnest concern about the onset and progress of your symptoms. He would have supplied medicines mixed from as many as 64 ingredients. And for all this personal attention, you would not have been charged a fee.

If you were cured – which, to judge by Galen’s own accounts, would have been extremely likely – your recovery might well have been recorded for posterity. Galen loved to discuss successful case histories in his writings, and he was fantastically prolific. A modern tally of his known titles comes to 441, and though most of these works have been lost, the ones that survive still amount to a vast and variegated bibliography. In the prologue to The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire Susan Mattern includes this astounding sentence: ‘The most modern edition of his corpus runs to 22 volumes, including about 150 titles, making up one-eighth of all the classical Greek literature that survives.’ Galen’s productivity was such that some of his works – On My Own Books and On the Order of My Own Books, for example – were written simply to keep track.

One-eighth of all the classical Greek literature that survives. The mind boggles.

The Tailor.

A six-minute YouTube clip examines the use of language to resolve a difference of opinion. Eh, it’s maybe a little naughty, don’t play it around small children, but trust me, it’s funny. Thanks, Paul!

Addendum. Another good use of language(s) to make a point, “Impossible to Tell,” by Robert Pinsky: funny and moving. “Our languages don’t touch you…” (You can listen to him read it — just click the triangle under his name.)

Epoch and Epoche.

I’m still reading George Sand’s Spiridion (see this post), and a while back it became clear to me that it was that rarity among novels, one centered on intellectual striving and drama (there’s no love interest, not even a female character so far). The focus is the struggle between blind faith (of the Catholic variety) and a confrontation with pagan philosophy, Reformed Christianity, and even atheism; it takes place in an Italian monastery, mainly in the 18th century, and Sand makes the agony of the struggle convincing even to someone as far removed from it as most of us are in the 21st century. The title character, the late-17th-century monk who founded the monastery, was baptized by Bossuet himself, but found himself assailed by doubts, and the main narrator, a century later, says “Quelle situation terrible était donc la mienne! Au dix-huitième siècle j’avais été élevé dans le catholicisme du moyen âge; à vingt-cinq ans j’étais presque aussi ignorant de l’antiquité qu’un moine mendiant du onzième siècle. C’est du sein de ces ténèbres que j’avais voulu tout à coup embrasser d’un coup d’œil et l’avenir et le passé.” [What a terrible situation I was in! In the eighteenth century I had been brought up in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages; at twenty-five I was almost as ignorant of antiquity as a mendicant monk of the eleventh century. It is from the midst of those shadows that I had wanted to take in at a single glance both the future and the past.]

This was on my mind when I glanced over to the sideboard to my left (piled high with books that don’t fit on the shelves and that I am seriously intending to read in the foreseeable future) and noticed a book some generous soul had sent me for my birthday last July (thank you, whoever you are!), one I had still not gotten around to: The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715, by Paul Hazard. It occurred to me that it bore directly on the themes of the novel, and when I opened it and saw on the first page of the preface “One day, the French people, almost to a man, were thinking like Bossuet. The day after, they were thinking like Voltaire,” I knew I had to read it, which I am now doing. (I’m always reading at least three books at any given time.)

Early on in the book, Hazard mentions “the word Pyrrhonism, which had created such a commotion in Pascal’s bosom,” so of course I had to look up Pyrrhonism, and that Wikipedia article told me that “Pyrrhonian skeptics … inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things.” I clicked on the latter link and found that “Epoché (ἐποχή, epokhē “suspension”) is an ancient Greek term which, in its philosophical usage, describes the theoretical moment where all judgments about the existence of the external world, and consequently all action in the world, is suspended.” A nice word, I thought, but I wasn’t clear on how it came to mean that; a glance at my pocket Greek dictionary reminded me that ἐπέχω (epekhō), the verb it’s based on, is one of those confusingly multivalent words (reminiscent of Irish cur): the pocket dictionary says “to have or hold upon; to place upon; to hold out, present, offer; to have opposite oneself; to keep shut; to hold fast, retain, hinder; to delay, retard; to reach to, extend; to have in one’s power.” It’s that “delay, retard” sense that’s involved here–“hold up” would be a helpful way to render it. So much for epochē, but what about epoch, which was obviously another derivative of the same Greek word? The OED explains:

Etymology: < late Latin epocha, < Greek ἐποχή stoppage, station, position (of a planet), fixed point of time, < ἐπέχειν to arrest, stop, take up a position, < ἐπί + ἔχειν to hold. Compare French époque, Italian epoca.

I. A fixed point in the reckoning of time.

1. Chronol. The initial point assumed in a system of chronology; e.g. the date of the birth of Christ, of the Hegira, of the foundation of Rome, etc.; an era n. Also, in wider sense, any date from which succeeding years are numbered. Now rare.

2. a. The beginning of a ‘new era’ or distinctive period in the history of mankind, a country, an individual, a science, etc. Phr., to make an epoch.

b. The date of origin of a state of things, an institution, fashion, etc.; occasionally, an event marking such a date. Obs.

3. In wider sense: A fixed point of time.

a. The date, or assigned position in chronological sequence, of a historical event.

b. [= French époque.] A precise date; the exact time at which an event takes place or is appointed to take place. Formerly gen.; now only with reference to natural phenomena (cf. 4).

c. A point of time defined by the occurrence of particular events or the existence of a particular state of things; a ‘moment’ in the history of anything.

4. Astron. The point of time at which any phenomenon takes place; an arbitrarily fixed date (often the first day of a century or half-century) for which the elements necessary for computing the place of a heavenly body are tabulated. Also, the heliocentric longitude of a planet at such a date (more fully, the longitude of the epoch).

II. A period of time. (Cf. similar use of era, term).

5. a. In early use, a chronological period dated from an ‘epoch’ in sense 1. In later use, a period of history defined by the prevalence of some particular state of things, by a connected series of events, or by the influence of some eminent person or group of persons.

b. A period in an individual’s life, or in the history of any continuous process.

c. Geol. A period or division of the history of the formation of the earth’s crust.

A complicated word!

The Bookshelf: Wordsmiths and Warriors.

Oxford University Press has sent me a review copy of David Crystal’s new book, Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain, of which the publishers say “David and Hilary Crystal take us on a journey through Britain to discover the people who gave our language its colour and character; Saxon invaders, medieval scholars, poets, reformers, dictionary writers. Part travelogue, part history, this beautifully illustrated book is full of unexpected delights.” They’re not kidding about “beautifully illustrated” — David’s wife Hilary took the color photographs that illustrate every chapter (there are also lots of black-and-white historical ones), and just opening the book randomly gives your eyes something to delight in (and makes you want to visit the place forthwith). It’s informed, of course, by Crystal’s deep knowledge of English and its history, but there’s plenty of random tidbits and surprising sidelights (for instance, the chapter on Hampton Court Palace includes a box with a long quote from Jerome K. Jerome). If you’re currently looking for a Christmas present for someone with an interest in English and its history, you might want to consider this gorgeous book.


Lameen, at Jabal al-Lughat, has a post about an amazing situation:

Tadaksahak, a heavily Berber-influenced Northern Songhay language spoken in northern Mali and Niger and closely related to Korandjé, is a remarkable example of how far language mixture can go. While the core grammar remains Songhay, causatives and passives can only be formed using Berber morphology attached to Berber stems, so every non-Berber verb in the language has a suppletive causative and passive (there are only a couple of hundred of those left, though, so it’s not that impossible to learn.) I recently finally finished a review of Regula Christiansen-Bolli’s Grammar of Tadaksahak (you can read the review here). For various reasons, I ended up taking the opportunity to write an overview of the general problem of how the language came into being. I don’t have a final answer, but I did find that it was even more complicated than it looks.

You see, Tadaksahak speakers are currently mostly bilingual in Tuareg, and well integrated into Tuareg culture. Most of the Berber loanwords in Tadaksahak are from one or another Tuareg variety. But quite a few — including some of those irregular causatives and most numerals up to 20 — are demonstrably not from Tuareg, but from some other Berber language, closely related to Tetserrét (Niger). Today, Tetserrét is nearly extinct, and nobody speaks it as a second language; obviously things must have been different in the past. It looks like most Tadaksahak speakers are visibly of Berber descent, so probably they shifted from Tetserrét to Northern Songhay and then came under Tuareg influence. But why would anyone want to adopt Northern Songhay, currently barely hanging on in one or two remote towns of northern Niger, as a first language? Again, obviously things must have been different, but it’s not easy to see how. My best guess for the moment is that they did so in order to reinforce their identity as religious specialists (ineslemen, “marabouts”), since Songhay was the language of the urban centres where advanced religious studies could be pursued, but there are a lot of question marks over that. To confuse matters further, their neighbours like to claim that Tadaksahak speakers are of Jewish descent – probably just to undermine their religious specialist status, but possibly reflecting some more complex history. […]

Imagine having to use a suppletive verb, borrowed from another language, every time you wanted to use a passive form! And that messy history, obscurely visible from the present situation, is just the kind of thing I love historical linguistics for.

Taras Bulba.

The two most famous Russian novels that I had not read either in Russian or in English were Gogol’s Taras Bulba and Sholokhov’s Tikhii Don [Quiet Don] (both, oddly, about the Cossacks). I have now remedied the first of these omissions, and I’m here to tell you about it. I will not spare the plot details, so if you are in my previous state of innocence and wish to preserve it, don’t read much farther!

What I knew about the novel was that it was a tale of adventure, that it was not in the high-literary style of Dead Souls and the “Petersburg stories,” and that Nabokov dismissed it as juvenilia (“a melodramatic account of the adventures of quite fictitious cossacks”), so I was not expecting much — I just wanted to experience this basic element of Russian culture, gobbled up by generations of students and the source of many well-known quotes (starting with the first line: “А поворотись-ка, сын! Экой ты смешной какой!” [Turn around, son! Aren’t you a funny sight!]. I was actually pleased to encounter a few shards of the genuine Gogol style (my favorite being, in a list of leading Cossacks, “Дегтяренко, Сыдоренко, Пысаренко, потом другой Пысаренко, потом еще Пысаренко…” [Degtyarenko, Sydorenko, Pysarenko, then another Pysarenko, then still another Pysarenko…]). And I was rather enjoying the boy’s-own silliness of it, the grandiloquent speeches and absurd gallopings-off-for-derring-do. But eventually the smile was wiped from my face. Here is how I would sum up the plot [SPOILERS!]:

Taras Bulba, a brutal old man, welcomes his sons Ostap and Andriy back from a Kiev religious academy, picks a fight with Ostap (the elder), and announces that in a week he’ll send them off to the Sech, where they’ll forget their book learning and become real Cossacks. When his weeping wife complains that she’ll hardly have time to look at them after their long absence, he tells her to shut up: Cossacks don’t need women. Then, during a drunken supper, he changes his mind and announces they’ll go off the very next day, and he’ll go with them. Off they go. At the Sech he complains that the Cossacks are getting soft, they need to go off and kill some Turks; the hetman says they can’t do that because they’ve signed a peace treaty, so he has the hetman replaced. Then a rider arrives to say the Poles are wreaking havoc farther west in the Ukraine, so they decide to go fight Poles instead of Turks — it doesn’t matter who you’re killing as long as you’re killing lots of people. They burn and slaughter their way to the Polish fortress town of Dubno, which they besiege; this is the central episode of the book. One night when everyone else is asleep, Andriy is visited by a serving woman who tells him that her mistress, a Polish woman he had fallen for in Kiev (violating the iron rule of Cossack life: Cossacks don’t need women), is starving in the city along with her family and begs for some bread. He immediately forgets his Cossack duties, grabs a bunch of bread, and follows the woman through secret tunnels into Dubno, where he is reunited with his old love and swears to fight for her and her people and forget his family and previous allegiances. There is much fighting; when Andriy leads a regiment of Poles out of the gates of the city, the furious Taras shoots him himself (another famous line: “Я тебя породил, я тебя и убью!” [I begat you and I’ll kill you!]). After that, however, things go badly for the Cossacks, and Taras is bopped on the head and passes out. When he awakes, he’s being taken back to the Sech and learns that his remaining son, the valiant Ostap, has been captured along with many other Cossacks. Eventually he bribes the Jew Yankel to smuggle him into Warsaw, where he witnesses Ostap’s torture and execution. He calls out to him from the crowd at the final moment, but manages to get away, and when he returns to the Cossacks, now completely insane with blood-lust, he leads his troops on a genocidal march, killing every Pole and Jew they find (the greedy Jews being the ancient oppressors of the Cossacks), burning women alive in churches and tossing their babies onto the fire. Eventually he is caught and burned alive by the Poles, but tied to his burning tree (crucified!) he sees many of his Cossacks escaping across the river and exults in the thought of the vengeance they will take.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that a very edifying story. The glorifying of violence for its own sake, the contempt for women, the anti-Semitism, and the bloody nationalism make for about as repellent a stew as I can imagine. For a while I thought “Surely Gogol doesn’t mean us to identify with this maniac, surely he’ll introduce some distancing irony or something,” but no, as far as I can see he’s presenting Taras as a tragic/Homeric hero. (I should mention there’s a lot of imitation of the Iliad in the Dubno sequence, with warriors sallying out accompanied by brief biographies and picturesque descriptions of how they fall in combat, the difference being that Homer does not have each dying hero shout “Long live the Russian earth and the Russian faith!”) So I ask my Russian readers: is my reading of it completely alien? Do Russians by and large take it as Gogol seems to have intended it, as a tragic/heroic portrait of martial glory in the service of Mother Russia? (The idea that Cossacks are pure representatives of Russia and the Russian soul is of course nonsense, and I presume that’s part of what Nabokov meant by “quite fictitious cossacks.”) I know that the novel has an important place in the culture and curriculum, but I don’t know any details of its reception, and now I’m curious.