Archives for April 2014

Butkov’s Attics II.

Having finished Yakov Butkov’s Петербургския вершины [Petersburg attics] (see this post), I thought I’d report on the second half of the book, which consists of three longish stories, because they are considerably deeper than those in the first half, almost rising in places to the level of tragedy. Butkov wasn’t much of a stylist and certainly couldn’t have held a novel together — and he was resentfully aware of his subordinate place in the Petersburg literary world — but he was intimately familiar with the lives, fears, and compromises of the petty clerks who made up such a substantial part of the population of the capital, and he reported on them in a way that can grip and hold the reader despite the determinedly jocular names and heavily ironic turns of phrase. He might have made a fine writer of detective fiction had such a genre existed in his day. Since hardly anybody has read him since his death in 1856 except Dostoevsky scholars (he died, poor and forgotten, in his mid-thirties of pneumonia, and Dostoevsky, who was appalled by his sordid end, apparently based a number of characters on him), I thought I’d memorialize him by summarizing the three final stories.

The first and longest, “Первое число” [First of the month], follows two roommates, Collegiate Secretaries named Evsei Evteevich and Evtei Evseevich (remember what I said about the jocular names?) both quiet fellows who work as clerks in some government department, as they live through the titular payday. Evtei, who has a university education and considers himself a Deep Thinker, earns ten silver rubles a month for copying documents when what he really wants to do is write them. Evsei, a half-educated parish-school graduate with beautiful handwriting who would like nothing better than to copy documents but is forced by his job to compose them, gets twelve silver rubles a month; by dint of scrupulous saving, denying himself every luxury, he is accumulating a nest egg with which he hopes to make a good marriage and set himself up in life, while his dreamier and more feckless roommate can never resist wandering along Nevsky Prospekt on payday, dropping into the Wolf and Beranger café for some expensive liqueurs and piroshki. On this particular day each announces to the other, shyly but proudly, that he is intending to get married; they congratulate each other and go their separate ways. What they don’t know is that they are planning to marry the same woman, whom one of them knows as Anna Alekseevna and the other as Karolina Ivanovna. The long central section tells her story: once known as Русая головка (the girl with the light brown hair), she worked in a store until her eye was caught by a passing uhlan with jingling spurs and fine mustaches, who took her away and set her up in a fine second-story apartment. Unfortunately, he eventually lost interest in her and stopped paying the rent, after which she had to move to progressively cheaper apartments ever closer to the attic and cultivate gentleman callers who could help with her finances. She is trying to decide which of the petty clerks to accept as her fiancé; alas, the impetuous Evtei barges into her apartment as she is entertaining his roommate, who has just told her he has saved a thousand rubles and can afford to give her the good life she’s been dreaming of. Evtei rushes out, goes home in a frenzy, and shoves a battered old clerk’s uniform he thinks is his into the stove. When Evtei arrives, flushed with romantic success, it turns out that the uniform is his — and he had sewn all his painfully accumulated banknotes into it. Both men’s lives are in ruins, and both go mad.

The second story, “Хорошее место” [A good place/job], tells the story of Terenty Yakimovich Lubkovsky, who leaves the Ukrainian village of Chechevitsin (“Lentiltown”) to seek his fortune in Saint Petersburg. He soon discovers that he is not (as he had expected) going to be made a governor upon arrival; over time he lowers his ambitions to the point that he is grateful to be given a five-ruble-a-month job as the pettiest of clerks. He gradually makes acquaintances who explain to him the mysteries of the capital, such as the fact that people in his situation, unable to make ends meet on their miserable salaries, sometimes take jobs on the side as night watchmen in the vegetable gardens that line the Obvodny Canal, where they get free food and lodging for ten months out of the year. He gets such a job and manages to save enough money to get married, but married life is much more expensive and he is once again in despair until he discovers another of the secrets of Petersburg life, pimping his wife out to a superior official in exchange for a fine apartment in the center of town. He’s OK with leaving the apartment at six every evening and returning after an hour, except that when it’s nasty out, with a cold driving rain, he’d really prefer to stay in his warm office. He forces himself out, nodding to his Милостивец (Benefactor) as their paths cross. When he returns, he is upset for a while, but then he lets his gaze rest on all the nice objects he has accumulated, returns to his usual calm acceptance, and says “Yes, a good place!”

The final story, “Партикулярная пара” [A suit of clothes], is perhaps the best constructed. Its protagonist, born Pyotr Ivanovich Charochkin, decided before the story opens that the many deficiencies in his life were due to his unfortunate surname (based on чарочка ‘little goblet’). After much thought (he almost decided on Vyzhigin, the name of the hero of Faddey Bulgarin’s wildly popular 1829 historical novel Ivan Vyzhigin) he changed it to Shlyapkin (from шляпка ‘woman’s hat’) because of his immense love and respect for women, and sure enough, his fortunes improved immediately. He got a better job and a raise, making 27 assignation rubles and 11 kopecks a month. Now he has discovered a means of augmenting his income so that he can afford occasional luxuries: he takes government paper home with him and makes envelopes out of it, which he sells to businesses for less than they have been paying (since he can cut out the middleman). His best customer, Geldsack & Co., is right on the way between his apartment and his work, so he starts spending time there on a regular basis and gets to know the clerks, who enjoy his jolly company and the tidbits of news he passes on. One day, leaving the theater (one of the luxuries he treats himself to), he saves a couple of women from the unwanted attentions of a boor, walks them home, and discovers they are Mrs. Geldsack and her daughter Maria, who are so taken with him they invite him to visit them any time he likes. He begins dropping by in the late afternoons, enjoying their company and dreaming of somehow marrying the lovely Maria but invariably refusing dinner invitations on the pretext that his martinet of a boss insists on his going back to the office. The truth is that the only outfit he has is his aged, much-mended work uniform (everybody with a government job in tsarist Russia, military or civilian, wore a uniform); it’s okay to wear it when he’s plausibly on his way to or from work, but he can’t possibly show up to dinner in it. What he needs is a партикулярная пара, a black civilian suit, but he’s given up the envelope business as unbefitting a companion of the Geldsack ladies, so he can’t afford one. Finally Maria gives him a pressing invitation to her birthday party, saying his boss can’t possibly keep him from that — she will brook no excuses. He tries to borrow enough money from a friendly supervisor to buy a suit — thirty rubles will do it — but no dice. The night of the party, he walks by the building where it is being held, watches all the well-dressed people getting out of carriages and streaming in, and hears the strains of the mazurka she had especially wanted to dance with him. He goes to the Moika canal to drown himself, but when he shoves his hands in his pockets he discovers a three-ruble bill and a few kopecks, and decides to have dinner instead. He is, after all, a happy fellow by nature.

There are lots of linguistic tidbits in Butkov; one of the most interesting is “перъ-прокура,” the job title of the second-in-command at Geldsack & Co., which comes from the Italian phrase per procura ‘by proxy, by power of attorney’: the bitter Shchetochkin, who used to hold the position, explains to Shlyapkin that Stein, who has it now, couldn’t borrow any money on his own name and credit, but if he presents a bill for a hundred thousand rubles signed “Перъ-прокура Штейнъ,” it will be paid without question. That’s the kind of thing the miserably poor and downtrodden author must have mulled over in his Petersburg attic as he hid from his creditors.

The Return of Culver.

Back in the day, Christopher Culver’s Linguistics Weblog (one of the oldest links in my blogroll) was a dependable pleasure, frequently updated. Then it went pretty much quiet while its author was traveling, and I removed it from the blogroll; when he started posting again I restored it, and now he writes me: “I’m getting back into my studies of esoteric Finno-Ugrian themes as well as blogging on whatever general linguistics topics catch my fancy.” This is excellent news for everyone interested in general linguistics topics, which presumably includes most LH readers, so I encourage you to add him to your bookmarks and/or RSS feeds. Some recent posts to whet your appetite: Doză and badog (“How old is the use of Romanian doză to mean ‘aluminium can’?”), On the etymology of Hungarian srác ‘guy’ (it’s of Yiddish origin), Mari and Chuvash potatoes, and The Steppe of Hunger (what the Russians call Голодная степь is the ‘lord desert’ in Kazakh and Uzbek). Enjoy!

Interactive Algonquian Language Map.

This is very cool:

The goal of the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas is “to make sure that the beautiful Algonquian languages and the cultures they embody will be heard and spoken by many more generations to come.” It isn’t just a repository of words and stories though. It is organized in a way that lets you explore the similarities and differences between the languages, and see how they are distributed by place.

On the upper right of the map are two pulldown menus that let you choose a particular word from a range of categories (family members, days of the week, numbers…) or even whole sentences (“Did your son see that canoe?” “You guys eat those apples now.”) Then you can click a pin on the map to see what that word or phrase is in different Algonquian languages.

For example, here are some words for “one”:

Looking at these words in groups gets you to start asking the kinds of questions linguists like to ask when researching the history of languages. Can these all be traced back to a common proto-word? Why did p become b in Nishnaabemwin? Why is Mi’kmaw so different? The answers are clues to the mixing and movement of people over centuries.

Totally unrelated, but in case any of you were beguiled by the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus that was all the rage recently, it’s a complete fake.

Different Language, Different Self.

In a NY Times column, “Using the Foreign to Grasp the Familiar,” William Grimes talks about writers who publish in languages other than their own. He starts off with Francesca Marciano’s story “The Other Language,” in which “an Italian teenager named Emma falls in love with English”:

Ms. Marciano, who grew up in Rome, acquired English more or less as her heroine Emma did, as a teenager. She lived in New York in her 20s and, while spending 10 years in Kenya, wrote her first novel, “Rules of the Wild,” in English after a failed start in Italian. Today she lives in Rome, but English has become her second skin.

“You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language,” Ms. Marciano said. “I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck.”

Two waves of emigration from the former Soviet Union, the first in the late 1970s, the second after the nation’s collapse, have yielded a bumper crop of Russian writers who have made English their own. Some, like Gary Shteyngart, and Boris Fishman, whose first novel, “A Replacement Life,” is being published by Harper in June, came to the United States as children and absorbed English by osmosis. Others, like Ms. Litman, Lara Vapnyar, Kseniya Melnik, Olga Grushin and Anya Ulinich, left the Soviet Union in their teens or early 20s, late enough in life to make the transition to another language a conscious effort.

“They are all very fluent, but their sense of the language is different,” said Karen Ryan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Stetson University in Florida, who has written extensively on Russian émigré literature. “There’s a sense of play and inventiveness, which is true of all transnational writers.”

Grimes goes on to discuss Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, Yiyun Li, and others who have chosen to write in English, as well as Andrei Makine, a Russian who “dazzled the French with Le Testament Français (published in the United States as Dreams of My Russian Summers), which won the Prix Goncourt and two other literary prizes in 1995.” and Yoko Tawada, “a Japanese émigré who lives in Berlin and writes in German,” who “has won a devoted following for uncanny, dream-shrouded works like Where Europe Begins.”

And Alice Robb’s New Republic piece “Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities” is worth a read (thanks, Dan!); it starts with Noam Scheiber explaining why he stopped speaking only Hebrew to his three-year-old daughter: “My Hebrew self turns out to be much colder, more earnest, and, let’s face it, less articulate. In English, my natural sensibility is patient and understated. My style in Hebrew was hectoring and prosecutorial.” Robb goes on to discuss research on the subject:

Between 2001 and 2003, linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko asked over a thousand bilinguals whether they “feel like a different person” when they speak different langauges. Nearly two-thirds said they did. […]

In 1964, Susan Ervin, a sociolinguist at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to explore the differences in how bilinguals represent the same stories in different languages. She recruited 64 French adults who lived in the U.S. and were fluent in both French and English. On average, they had spent 12 years living in the U.S.; 40 were married to an American. On two separate occasions, six weeks apart, Ervin gave them the “Thematic Apperception Test”: She showed her subjects a series of illustrations and asked them to make up a three-minute story to accompany each scene. In one session, the volunteer and experimenter spoke only French, while the other session was conducted entirely in English.

Ervin then analyzed the stories, looking at the different themes incorporated into the narratives. When she compared the two sets of stories, she identified some significant topical differences. The English stories more often featured female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents, and attempts to escape blame, while the French stories were more likely to include domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression toward peers.

In 1968, Ervin—by this point, “Ervin-Tripp”—designed another experiment to further explore her hypothesis that the content of bilinguals’ speech would change along with the language. […]

In 1998, Michele Koven, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spent a year and a half carrying out ethnographic research with bilingual Parisian adults whose parents had immigrated from Portugal. […]

Like many people capable of such interactions, I feel very different when speaking different languages, so I’m fascinated by this stuff, even if it will probably never be possible to fully explain it.

Poor as Irus.

On the one hand, I am constantly feeling like a latecomer to culture, having to figure out allusions that I would have been aware of had I been educated a century or so earlier. On the other hand, living as I do in the twenty-first century, I have blessedly little trouble figuring them out. I’ve gone back to Karamzin’s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler], to which, as I said here, I return whenever I need a break from my reading schedule, and I’m greatly enjoying his stay in Paris in the spring of 1790 — what a time to be young and traveling in France! (I confess, though, I do skim or skip his lengthy descriptions of paintings, statuary, and the like, written in a sentimental style that was all the rage at the time but is fairly tedious now.) Karamzin describes Bieder, the fellow he hired to show him around (German by birth, though he’s long forgotten the language, he sleeps in the attic above Karamzin’s rooms at the Hotel Britannique on the rue Guénégaud), as “беден, как Ир, а честен, как Сократ”: poor as Ir and honest as Socrates. But who was Ir? A little googling told me he is known in English as Irus; he’s the greedy beggar Odysseus meets and knocks out on his return to Ithaca in Book 18 of the Odyssey: “Arnaeus was the name his mother had honoured him with at birth, but all the young men called him Irus, because he ran errands on demand” (Irus [Ἶρος] is a masculine form of Iris [Ἶρις], the messenger of the gods). Brewer, of course, has an entry:

The beggar of gigantic stature, who kept watch over the suitors of Penel’ope. His real name was Ar’neos, but the suitors nicknamed him Iros because he carried their messages for them. Ulysses, on his return, felled him to the ground with a single blow, and flung him out of doors.
    Poorer than Irus. A Greek proverb, adopted by the Romans (see Ovid), and existing in the French language (“Plus pauvre qu’Irus”), alluding to the beggar referred to above.

And in Russian, “бедный/беден, как Ир”; the Национальный корпус русского языка finds five occurrences, in Karamzin, Lazhechnikov, Herzen (twice), and Saltykov-Shchedrin. There’s a Greek epigram purporting to be an epitaph for Epictetus:

Δοῦλος ᾽Επίκτητος γενόμην, καὶ σώμ’ ανάπηρος,
    καὶ πενίην ῏Ιρος, καὶ φίλος ἀθανάτοις.

The traditional translation is:

Slave, poor as Irus, halting as I trod,
I, Epictetus, was the friend of God.

While I’m on the subject of Karamzin, one pleasure of reading the Letters is occasionally running into the germs of future (and now better known) writings of his. In the section where he describes some of the streets of Paris, he visits the Rue de la Grande-Truanderie because of a sad event that took place there centuries earlier:

Агнесса Геллебик, прекрасная молодая девушка, дочь главного конюшего при дворе Филиппа-Августа, любила и страдала. От Парижа далеко до мыса Левкадского: что же делать? броситься в колодезь на улице Трюандери и концом дней своих прекратить любовную муку.

Agnès Hellebick, a beautiful young woman who was the daughter of the head equerry at the court of Philip Augustus, loved and suffered. From Paris it is a long way to the Leucadian rock [from which Sappho supposedly leaped to her death out of love for Phaon]: what could she do? She threw herself into a well in the Rue de la Truanderie and put an end to the torments of love along with her life.

Surely this is the source of his most famous story, “Poor Liza,” which I discussed briefly at the end of this post. And when he meets Pierre-Charles Levesque, he tells us that although Levesque’s History of Russia is very good, it has serious inadequacies:

Больно, но должно по справедливости сказать, что у нас до сего времени нет хорошей российской истории, то есть писанной с философским умом, с критикою, с благородным красноречием. Тацит, Юм, Робертсон, Гиббон – вот образцы! Говорят, что наша история сама по себе менее других занимательна; не думаю: нужен только ум, вкус, талант. […] Левек как писатель – не без дарования, не без достоинств; соображает довольно хорошо, рассказывает довольно складно, судит довольно справедливо, но кисть его слаба, краски не живы; слог правильный, логический, но не быстрый. К тому же Россия не мать ему; не наша кровь течет в его жилах: может ли он говорить о русских с таким чувством, как русский?

Painful though it is, justice requires me to say that to this day there is no good history of Russia, one written with a philosophic mind, with critical ability, with noble eloquence. Tacitus, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon — those are models! They say that our history is in its own right less entertaining than others, but I disagree: one only needs intellect, taste, talent. […] Levesque as a writer is not without gifts, not without merit; his comparisons are adequate, he tells a story adequately, his judgments are adequate, but his brush is feeble, his paints are not lively; his style is correct and logical, but not rapid. Furthermore, Russia is not his mother; it is not our blood that flows in his veins: can he speak of Russians with as much feeling as a Russian?

A quarter of a century later, Karamzin would begin publishing his own history of Russia, which would not only replace Levesque’s as the standard account but would be considered by Russians as the height of Russian prose style. I wonder if he was already considering trying his hand at a better version when he was setting down those remarks?

Unicode Help.

Some useful sites: Unicode character table (great layout), shapecatcher (draw your own characters), amp-what (type a description). Via MetaFilter (where people will doubtless post other links that are useful and/or fun).


I ran across a piquant footnote on p. 214 of Ancient and Modern Malta, by Louis de Boisgelin (aka Pierre Marie Louis de Boisgelin de Kerdu), Knight of Malta (London, 1805). Boisgelin writes:

Sacchitti, the Maltese ambassador at Rome, wrote to his court that a Russian, Boyard, general of the Muscovite army and ambassador from Peter the First, had expressed a wish to visit Malta… The same dispatches gave an account of the honours paid this Boyard and his suite. His name was Kzeremetz * […]

And the footnote reads:

* Voltaire, in his History of the Empire of Russia under Peter the Great, chap viii. says, that he was originally a Prussian, and spells his name Sheremeto, though by others he is called Sheremetov, Sheramotoff, and Czeremetoff. L’Eveque in his History of Russia, the edition printed in 1800, calls him Cheremeteff; but I have written his name according to the credentials sent by the czar to the grand-master, in which he is termed Kzeremetz. The original of his harangue to the pope is preserved in the Vatican; I have a copy of it; and in that he is called Kremer: but in his discourse to the grand-master, of which I have likewise a copy, he is named Czeremeter; and Szerempsen in the letter of recommendation sent by the emperor Leopold to the grand-master. Sebastian Paolo has printed it in his Codex Diplom. vol. II. page 373. He has also printed his credentials.

An impressive array of variants, of which the author chose the very silliest; I wonder how anyone came up with “Kzeremetz”? The Boyard’s, or boyar‘s, name in a modern version is Boris Sheremetev.

Physics and Lexicography.

This announcement provides an example of science making a difference in the real world (which is to say, that of words):

QUT Senior Lecturer in Physics, Dr Stephen Hughes, sparked controversy over how a humble siphon worked when he noticed an incorrect definition in the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2010, eagle-eyed Dr Hughes spotted the mistake, which went unnoticed for 99 years, which incorrectly described atmospheric pressure, rather than gravity, as the operating force in a siphon.

Dr Hughes demonstrated the science of siphons in a paper published yesterday in Nature Publishing Group journal Scientific Reports. […]

Dr Hughes, whose previous research has taken him to Bhutan to examine how siphoning could prevent inland tsunamis, said siphons had been used since ancient times but how they work was still debated.

“If you think of a car, atmospheric pressure is like the wheels, it enables it to work. But gravity is the engine,” he said.

“It is gravity that moves the fluid in a siphon, with the water in the longer downward arm pulling the water up the shorter arm.”

The Oxford English Dictionary corrected the error and removed the reference to atmospheric pressure after Dr Hughes pointed it out. However, he said the new entry “unfortunately remains ambiguous”.

“This definition still leaves the question open as to how a siphon actually works,” Dr Hughes said.

“But at least the reference to atmospheric pressure has been removed. The vast majority of dictionaries of all languages still incorrectly assert that siphons work through atmospheric pressure and not gravity.

Three cheers for scientists who pay attention to dictionaries, and for the lexicographers who listen to them! I have to point out, however, that the entry linked to is from an Oxford English dictionary, not the Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry is from 1911 and has a small-type section beginning “The way the action of the siphon is explained has varied” and citing explanations dating back to 1675.

Cotton (On) To.

My wife asked me about the colloquial phrase cotton to ‘take a liking to,’ and (as often happens) I had no idea where it came from, so I did some research and discovered nobody else really does either. The OED, in an ancient entry (first published 1893), gives the primary sense of the verb as “To form a down or nap on; to furnish with a nap, to frieze,” adding that it’s obsolete, and various other senses (“To furnish or clothe with cotton”) before getting to branch II, the figurative senses, “To prosper, succeed, ‘get on’ well. Obs.,” ” To ‘get on’ together or with each other; to suit each other; to work harmoniously, harmonize, agree,” “To agree, to fraternize,” and “To ‘take’ to, attach oneself to; to become drawn or attached to,” of which it says “The original notion in branch II is uncertain.”

So I turned to The Phrase Finder, which has an entry Cotton on to that gives a full discussion, beginning with the information that the phrase cotton on to in the sense “To get to know or understand something” “appears to be limited in usage to the UK and other countries that were previously part of the British Empire, notably Australia and New Zealand. In the USA, especially in the southern states, ‘cotton to’ is used, with the slightly modified meaning of ‘take a liking to’.” It then goes into theories of origin:

As early as 1648, in a pamphlet titled Mercurius Elencticus, mocking the English parliament, the royalist soldier and poet Sir George Wharton used ‘cotton’, or as it was spelled then ‘cotten’, as a verb meaning ‘to make friendly advances’. ‘Cotten up to’ and ‘cotten to’ were both used to mean ‘become friendly with’. Whether this was as a reference to the rather annoying predisposition of moist raw cotton to stick to things or whether it alluded to moving of cotton garments closer together during a romantic advance isn’t clear. […] ‘Cottoning on’ as we now use it derives from the meaning of ‘attaching oneself to something’, specifically an attachment to an idea that we haven’t encountered before. It would seem to be a reasonable bet that at least one of the variants of this phrase would have been coined in one of the major English-speaking cotton producing regions of the world, for example India or the USA. Not so; which gives more credibility to the notion that this phrase has little to do with the cotton plant.

So it remains a mystery, but at least we know a little more than we did before.

How the Books Survived.

I’ve long been interested in Mali, and I’ve posted several times about the incredible manuscript collections of Timbuktu (2003, 2006, 2007). Needless to say, I was upset at reports that Islamist rebels were destroying them, and relieved when news started emerging that many or most of them had been saved; you can now read a riveting account by Patrick Symmes of the rescue. A brief snippet, to give you a taste:

In the morning, we went straight to the Ahmed Baba Institute. After seven months, you could still see not merely the sooty starburst left on the floor by the bonfire of books, but the actual shreds and cinders of manuscripts themselves, which were swirling around in a sheltered area by the men’s room. I took a step to investigate and heard the crunching of ancient knowledge under my feet. Had I just crushed the only existing copy of an Ottoman geography or the final verses of a Moorish poet? It smelled like the fire happened yesterday.

The institute was founded in 1973 but only gained real traction in 1984, when Haidara joined, bridging the gap between state researchers and some 65 families with private collections. Like most, he retained physical control of his books, and his own 45,000 items make up by far the largest collection in Timbuktu. These were not just piles of old scraps. Often they were high-quality works with spectacular Arabic calligraphy, illuminated with bright red and blue inks and graced with gold-leaf arabesques that wrapped in infinite loops, reflecting the never-ending nature of God. In 2000, Mali greatly expanded the institute, and this new building opened in 2009 with a staff of 50 Malians trained to protect and digitize the books.

Via this MetaFilter post, which has further links.