Archives for January 2014

Two Links from Bulbul.

Just got an e-mail from the esteemed bulbul offering “two things you and your readership might enjoy”:

1. This is a website of a project investigating the mutual intelligibility of Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages and one of the methods of data collection they use is this nifty little language game. Folks at work had a lot of fun with it, so I thought hatters might too. Plus, it’s all for science!

2. This is the blog of Adam McCollum, the Lead Cataloger of Eastern
Christian Manuscripts a Hill Museum & Manuscript Library where [he] posts the most interesting bits and pieces of Syriac, Arabic, Georgian and other manuscripts he comes across, along with notes on paleography, history (especially of the ecclesiastical bend) and linguistics. All insanely cool stuff.

Cool indeed, so there it is. (I clicked on the blog link, saw “Old Georgian phrases and sentences 19,” and immediately added it to my RSS feed.)

Aztec Voynich?

A couple of people have sent me a link to this HerbalGram article by by Arthur O. Tucker and Rexford H. Talbert or this press release about it (Revolutionary Analysis Unlocking Mysteries of 500-Year-Old Manuscript! Authors Propose Unique New World Origins of Obscure Voynich Manuscript!!); the burden of it, to quote from the article itself, is that the mysterious text is “the work of a 16th century ticitl (Nahuatl for doctor or seer). … The main text … seems to be in an extinct dialect of Nahuatl from central Mexico, possibly Morelos or Puebla.” Now, I’ve never been very interested in the Voynich Manuscript, because my interest is in language, not hoaxes, and it’s always seemed pretty clear to me that the thing is a clever hoax — in fact, the only previous time I’ve posted about it was last year, linking to “Cracking the Voynich Code” by Batya Ungar-Sargon, which still seems to me the only thing one needs to read about it unless one is sucked into the woo vortex. As Matt of No-sword wrote me, “even if all the visual identifications are correct I wonder if ‘non-meaningful gibberish text with illustrations cribbed from books about South America for added exoticness’ wouldn’t still be a more parsimonious explanation.” But I recognize that I am a crusty old cynic, and I’m curious to know what those with more open minds and/or an actual knowledge of Nahuatl and Aztec texts think, so fire away.

No Rage in Outrage.

I spend so much time complaining about the idiotic things non-linguists say about language that I like to give public kudos when they say sensible things, and this footnote on page 727 of How to Read the Bible (see this post) is so full of interesting details it’s worth quoting in extenso (the topic is the passage in Deuteronomy in which the temple is said to be the place where God “caused His name to dwell”):

On the Akkadian roots of this expression see Richter (2002). Richter’s thesis is that the “name theology” attributed to Deuteronomy by modern scholars is the result of a great misunderstanding: the biblical phrase “to cause My name to dwell” is essentially a cognate translation of the Akkadian expression šuma šakānu, which refers to the erection of a “display monument” marking a victory and a claim to the land where the monument is erected. Despite this erudite element […], her critics have rightly countered that Deuteronomy itself offers ample evidence of its far more abstract concept of deity than that of earlier writers. As Richter herself notes of this phrase, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history contain, beside the Hebrew cognate of this phrase, other noncognate expressions, “to build a house for the name” of God, to “offer praise to the name,” and so forth. These would suggest that, whatever the origin of “to cause My name to dwell,” the idea of God’s “name” as a kind of a divine hypostasis is reflected in these other uses; “name” had been freed from its specific meaning in the original Akkadian idiom. Indeed, her overall argument appears to be based on a misconception, that because a word or phrase meant X in its original language, it will also mean X when borrowed by another language. Reality is full of examples of precisely the opposite. Thus, the French loan-word outrage suggests to most speakers of English an element of anger that is quite lacking in French. The reason is that English speakers unconsciously analyze the word as a combination of out + rage, whereas French speakers, having no morphological out, do not isolate the element rage (indeed, most native speakers will correctly perceive -age as the nominalizing suffix of outre, “beyond” [Latin ultra]). The legal phrase corpus delicti originally meant “the body of the offense,” that is, “the actual facts that prove that a crime or offense against the law has been committed.” But many people (including some lawyers) with a poor grasp of Latin understand corpus in the specific sense of a “(dead) body,” corpse. It is true that in a murder trial, the corpse does constitute the corpus delicti, but the phrase of course has much wider applicability — it can mean the stolen bicycle or the broken storefront window as well. Nevertheless, corpus delicti has actually developed in English the secondary meaning of a dead body — even in some dictionaries. Other examples could be given. Thus, the fact that šuma šakānu had the meaning it had in Akkadian does not guarantee that it ever had the same meaning in Hebrew. […] Indeed, it is not hard to imagine the learned Deuteronomist borrowing this foreign idiom with the specific intention of creating an authoritative-sounding equivalent that would support his new theology. That is, he consciously took over šuma šakānu to help legitimate the idea that God had merely caused His “name,” but not Himself, to dwell in the earthly temple devoted to Him.

Extra points for talking about corpus delicti developing “the secondary meaning of a dead body” rather than calling it an error!

Odoevsky’s Russian Nights.

Readers may be wondering what happened to my Russian reading, which I haven’t mentioned for a while now. Well, for one thing, I’ve been absorbed in the Bible material I’ve been posting about recently, but that’s not all there is to it — I read at least some Russian literature every day. The thing is that as I approach the plunge into the familiar nineteenth-century realist literature that might be said to begin in 1846 with the publication of Dostoevsky’s first work, Бедные люди [Poor Folk], I’ve been slowing down and savoring the last of the earlier material (Romantic, I guess you’d call it) I’ve come to enjoy so much. I recently finished Русские ночи [Russian Nights], which I had been looking forward to, since I enjoyed his earlier stuff so much (1, 2, 3, 4), and this was supposed to be his masterpiece. I guess it is, but, well, I have serious reservations about it.

People at the time did, too. It was published too late; ten years earlier, when Odoevsky was one of the most popular writers in Russia, it would have been a hit, but by 1844 he was already considered out of date, and reviewers objected to the fact that the stories it contained had all been published in the previous dozen years. The stories themselves are excellent, among the author’s best; Бригадир [The Brigadier], about a dying man who realizes he has wasted his life, is a worthy precursor of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilich; “Opere del Cavaliere Giambattista Piranesi” is a wonderful character sketch of a madman who thinks he’s the long-dead Piranesi and begs for money to bring his impossible architectural visions to realization; Город без имени [City without a name] is a grim vision of a society that’s taken the ideas of Bentham to extremes; Импровизатор [The improvvisatore] tells the tale of a young man desperate to be able to compose poetry easily so as to woo his Charlotte, but comes to regret his deal with the demonic Segeliel; and there are brilliant little romanticized biographies of Beethoven and Bach, the latter providing a fine ending for the series of stories. But not, alas, for the book.

The stories, you see, are set in a tale-telling framework comparable to those of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin (LH post) and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (LH post). In this one, a group of poorly differentiated young people visit their wise friend Faust (a stand-in for the author) and argue about life, history, and everything. Let me quote Ralph E. Matlaw’s introduction to his 1965 translation, Russian Nights:

The range of problems and questions raised by the discussants and the illustrative stories is enormous: the boundaries of knowledge, the meaning of science and art, the sense of human existence, atheism and belief, education, government rule, the function of individual sciences, madness and sanity, poetic creation, logic, Slavophilism, Europe and Russia, mercantilism, to name some of the important issues. Clearly, this is not merely a collection of stories, or a novel, but an imaginative exposition of human achievement and limitation at a specific time.

The book thus differs from collections like Hoffmann’s Serapionsbrüder and others that intersperse commentary between stories. The primary argument rests in the speeches of the four leading characters, to which the stories are subordinate.

And subordinating stories to philosophical-historical commentary is pretty much always a bad idea as far as I’m concerned. Still, I was going along with it, enjoying the stories greatly and the philosophical filler mildly, until I got to the end of the Bach story, saw that there was still a lot of the book to get through, and realized to my mounting horror that it was a worthy precursor of the dreaded Second Appendix of War and Peace (LH post), and it too could be called “the literary equivalent of an extremely long-winded Hyde Park orator, haranguing passers-by about how the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about.” As a matter of fact, if I were forced at gunpoint to reread one of the two, I don’t know which I’d choose. Perhaps the bullet. At any rate, with that caveat, I recommend the reprint of the Matlaw translation to whose Amazon page I linked above to anyone interested in Russian literature of the period, especially if they’re more interested in Romantic ideas of history and progress (spoiler: the ancients already knew all about our so-called modern discoveries!) than I am. To wash away the bitter taste of my captious complaints, let me quote the concluding passage of Neil Cornwell’s Afterword (1997):

Russian Nights may also appeal more to the “postmodern” age than to earlier epochs. Odoevsky’s mysticism and his Gothicism may be, if anything, better displayed in certain of his other works (see The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales). However, Russian Nights, Odoevsky’s single completed magnum opus, with its mixture of genres and styles, mingles fiction with nonfiction, romanticism with social reality, philosophical dialogue with historical reportage. It will perhaps be in the twenty-first century that Odoevsky’s reputation will finally be made.

Biliteral Roots.

The Commenter Known as Y has sent me some intriguing links, with the following introduction: “The basic idea is that hunter-gatherer-type words in Proto-Semitic are based on biconsonantal stems, and that agricultural-type items are triconsonantal. That fits well with the contested idea that triconsonantal stems are a later development. I think it’s a clever and original idea, though the author seems to go a bit overboard with the conclusions.” The new paper is “Statistics of Language Morphology Change: From Biconsonantal Hunters to Triconsonantal Farmers,” by Noam Agmon and Yigal Bloch (PLoS ONE 8 [2013]); its abstract:

Linguistic evolution mirrors cultural evolution, of which one of the most decisive steps was the “agricultural revolution” that occurred 11,000 years ago in W. Asia. Traditional comparative historical linguistics becomes inaccurate for time depths greater than, say, 10 kyr. Therefore it is difficult to determine whether decisive events in human prehistory have had an observable impact on human language. Here we supplement the traditional methodology with independent statistical measures showing that following the transition to agriculture, languages of W. Asia underwent a transition from biconsonantal (2c) to triconsonantal (3c) morphology. Two independent proofs for this are provided. Firstly the reconstructed Proto-Semitic fire and hunting lexicons are predominantly 2c, whereas the farming lexicon is almost exclusively 3c in structure. Secondly, while Biblical verbs show the usual Zipf exponent of about 1, their 2c subset exhibits a larger exponent. After the 2c > 3c transition, this could arise from a faster decay in the frequency of use of the less common 2c verbs. Using an established frequency-dependent word replacement rate, we calculate that the observed increase in the Zipf exponent has occurred over the 7,500 years predating Biblical Hebrew namely, starting with the transition to agriculture.

An earlier paper by Agmon alone is “Materials and Language: Pre-Semitic Root Structure Change Concomitant with Transition to Agriculture” (Brill’s Annual of Afroasiatic Languages and Linguistics 2 [2010]); it was preceded in the journal by “An Introductory Note to Noam Agmon’s ‘Materials and Language’ with Special Attention to the Issue of Biliteral Roots,” by Jean Lowenstamm, whose abstract begins “Biliteral roots have been, and still are controversial.” (All links are pdf.) I look forward to seeing what my readers who have ideas about Semitic biliteral roots have to say.

Asterix and Language Change.

The Argus-eyed John Cowan sent me a link to ‘Talent borrows, genius steals’: Asterix, translation and the evolution of language, over at Word Jazz, and it’s an enjoyable read, especially if you enjoy Astérix (which we’ve discussed here at LH more than once: 2004, 2013); there’s a fairly detailed discussion of “the latest film adaptation of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix comic books: ‘Astérix et Obélix: Au Service De Sa Majesté’.” There’s also stuff about the Spanish-speaking community of New York City and the Norman French dialect Guernésiais (mentioned here in 2008).

I should warn readers, however, that the final section, about the alleged language-transforming powers of Aleksandr Pushkin, is complete nonsense. I don’t know where the author got the idea that Pushkin created любомудрие [lyubomudrie], a native equivalent of философия [filosofiya] ‘philosophy,’ and детский сад [detskii sad] ‘kindergarten,’ but the former had been used for a century before him (e.g., Archbishop Feofan in 1716: “Ныне же что храбростию, любомудрием…”) and the latter was not created until after his death.

Counting and Telling II.

I’m still reading Schniedewind’s A Social History of Hebrew (see this post), and I just got to a paragraph that makes a nice companion to this discussion:

The influence of Egyptian scribal culture would become quite widespread in early Israel. In addition to learning the practices of accounting (that is, using hieratic numerals) and of writing with ink, the early Israelites borrowed several linguistic terms relating to the scribal profession from Egyptian. To begin with, it is worth noting that the Hebrew word for “scribe” (sōᵽēr) derives from the root spr, which originally meant not “to write” but rather “to count,” reflecting the administrative roots of the scribal profession. We have already mentioned the terms for “ink” and “papyrus,” but other Egyptian (Eg.) loanwords include those for “a scribe’s palette” (Eg. gśty; Heb. qeseṯ), “seal” (Eg. ḫtm; Heb. ḥôṯām), “signet ring” (Eg. ḏbʿt; Heb. ṭaḇaʿaṯ), “ephah” (a certain measurement for grain; Eg. ypt; Heb. ʾêᵽâ), “hin” (a certain liquid measure; Eg. hnw; Heb. hîn), and “zeret” (a span of measurement; Eg. ḏrt; Heb. zereṯ). There are very few Egyptian loanwords in Hebrew, but most are related to the scribal technology and profession, most likely reflecting the continuing work of Egyptian natives or Egyptian-trained locals after the retrenchment following the Twentieth Dynasty.

Schniedewind is annoyingly repetitive and occasionally confusing in his attempts to differentiate between spoken and written language (he’s read the linguists but does not seem to have fully assimilated what they say), but I’m learning enough from him that I’m willing to forgive him his deficiencies. (For a less indulgent response, in Russian, see Anatoly’s review.)

Colon: To Begin With.

Kathryn Schulz has a post “The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature” which is worth a look; the examples are mostly well known (Nabokov, Eliot…), but it’s nice to see them pointed out in this context. I’m curious about the Dickens one, “Marley was dead: to begin with.” I haven’t read enough Dickens, or Victorian literature in general, to know how anomalous that colon is; would it have struck the 1840s reader as oddly as it does us?

Counting and Telling.

I first wrote about the Philologos column of the Forward back in 2004, and once again they’ve come up with a nice bit of language history worth sharing in Recounting a Tale of Counting and Telling. It takes off from the quoted observation that Hebrew “sefer, ‘writing,’ ‘document,’ ‘book,’ and sofer, ‘scribe,’ ‘enumerator,’ ‘secretary,’ derive from one and the same verbal root s-f-r, meaning ‘to count, ‘to number,’ ‘to report,’ and ‘to recount,’” and goes on to “comment on the interesting fact that a verbal relationship between counting and narrating is not limited to Hebrew”:

Such a linkage exists in English, too — and not only in “count” and “recount,” two words mentioned by Labuschagne. We also find it in the verb “to tell,” which has the second, now archaic meaning of “to count,” as in a phrase like “to tell [the beads on] a rosary.”

Nor is English the only language that resembles Hebrew in this respect. German has zahlen, “to count,” and erzahlen, “to tell”; in Dutch this is tellen and vertellen; in Danish, taelle and fortaelle. All these languages belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family — but a “count-tell” relationship is not restricted to it. In the Romance family of Indo-European, we encounter the same thing. In French, for example, compter is “to count,” and conter is “to tell” or “to relate.” In Italian it’s contare and reccontare. In Spanish a single verb, contar, means both “to count” and “to tell,” so that cuenta is a numerical reckoning or a bill, and cuento is a story.

[…] Let’s start with the Hebrew root s-f-r. “He counted” in Hebrew is “hu safar,” while “he told” is “hu sipper,” using the pi’el construction. Both are related to the Akkadian (old Babylonian) verb shaparu, whose original meaning was “to send,” but which in time came to mean “to send a letter,” and eventually, “to tell” or “to relate,” since this is what letters often do. The root has like meanings in other Semitic languages, but only in Hebrew did it take on the additional meaning of “to count,” which was clearly a later development.

In the Romance languages, on the other hand, the process was reversed. In classical Latin, computare — the source of our English “compute” — originally meant only “to count” or “to do sums.” Not until Late Latin, from which the various Romance languages evolved, did it take on the sense of “to relate.” Yet classical Latin had its own “count” — “tell” pair in enumerare, a verb that derived from numerus, “number” but also had the sense of “to narrate.”

And now for our third case: Old English tellan, the ancestor of our modern “to tell.” Its oldest meaning was “to count,” as it was in other Germanic languages, which later added the meaning of “to relate” with the help of prefixes like German –er and Dutch ver-. In addition, however, tellan in Old English also meant “to put [something] in order.” And that, of course, is the link between counting and telling. To count is to put numbers in their proper order, and to tell a story or relate an incident is to put events in their proper order, first things first and last things last. This is why the two things are associated in so many languages, including Hebrew.

Commenters point out that in Slavic, the root chit– means both ‘count’ (cf. Russian число < *chit-slo ‘number’) and ‘read’ (cf. Russian читать ‘to read’); it’s related to Sanskrit cit– ‘perceive, take note of’ (related to ketas ‘thought’). Thanks for the link, Paul!


Andrew Delbanco is a well-known historian and the author of Melville: His World and Work, a book jamessal thought enough of to give me a copy for Christmas. In short, he’s not the kind of writer I expect to find wantonly misusing words, so I was taken aback by what I thought was such a misuse in this sentence from his NY Times review of Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World: “Grandin’s kaleidoscopic technique gives his book a certain pastiche quality (many years and miles are silently traversed in the breaks between chapters), but through a remarkable feat of research he establishes a strong narrative line that gives the book coherence and momentum.” To me, pastiche means (in the words of Merriam-Webster‘s first definition) “something (such as a piece of writing, music, etc.) that imitates the style of someone or something else,” and that didn’t make any sense here. But having looked it up, I found that the word also has the senses “a piece of writing, music, etc., that is made up of selections from different works” and “a mixture of different things,” so I now understand the sentence. But I’m wondering whether I’m alone in my limited understanding of the word, or whether the “mixture” senses are in fact uncommon. How do you understand and/or use pastiche?