Archives for May 2014

How Well Can You Spell?

A challenge from the Washington Post (in connection with the recent National Spelling Bee): “We’ve written silly sentences for each letter so you can try your hand at correcting the misspelled words. We’re warning you: It’s tough.” It is indeed tough, considering that this professional editor and lifelong grubber in dictionaries missed one (it’s a very common word that I always get wrong — doesn’t everybody have one of those?), but it’s fair; there are no wildly unusual words of the sort that regularly turn up in spelling bees (they cite “weissnichtwo” and “cabotinage” as examples). There is at least one misspelled word in every sentence, and sometimes only one. Caveat: they mark U.K. spellings as wrong. You have been warned.

Dostoevsky’s Double.

There was a man in the city of Petersburg, whose name was Golyadkin, and that man was blameless and upright, and one that feared the department head and eschewed evil. He had a beloved, Klara, and a servant, Petrushka, and an apartment on Shestilavochnaya Street, and he was a titular councilor. Now there was a day when the men of rank came to present themselves before the department head, and the Double came also among them. And the department head said unto the Double, Have you considered my servant Golyadkin, that there is none like him in the department, one that fears me and eschews evil? And the Double said to him, Does Golyadkin fear you for naught? Have you not given him important work, and honors, and all that he has on every side? But put forth your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face. And the department head said unto the Double, Behold, all that he has is in your power. And the Double vexed Golyadkin, and tormented him, and Golyadkin lost his beloved Klara, and his servant Petrushka, and his apartment on Shestilavochnaya Street, and still he did not curse the department head, but groveled before him…

I do not know whether Dostoevsky had the book of Job in mind when writing Двойник (The Double). I do know that he read it repeatedly as a boy, that it stirred him profoundly, and that it had a great deal of influence on his later writing, and I know that the farther I read in The Double, the more irresistibly I was reminded of Job and his escalating sufferings. I assumed it must be a commonplace in Dostoevsky criticism, but to my astonishment, whether I googled [Двойник Голядкин Иов] or [Double Golyadkin “book of Job”] I got no relevant results. Can this really not have occurred to anyone before? At any rate, I can easily imagine Dostoevsky thinking “I’m going to write about Job, but not a righteous and admirable Job — rather, a miserable worm of an official with no redeeming qualities, someone who merely thinks he’s admirable, and I’m going to make the reader interested in him and his fate anyway.” It may or may not be relevant that Golyadkin repeatedly cries out “Господи бог (or боже) мой!”: Oh my Lord God!

But of course it takes a while to get to the escalating sufferings; at first we get escalating weirdness. Golyadkin wakes up, wonders whether he’s awake or asleep, whether what he experiences is real or a continuation of his dreams, and his furniture and clothes look at him familiarly (Знакомо глянули на него). Then the gray, dirty autumn day looks at him so angrily that “Mr. Golyadkin could no longer doubt in any way that he was not in some fairytale land [в тридесятом царстве, literally ‘in the thirtieth kingdom,’ a traditional site for a Russian fairy tale] but in the city of Petersburg, in the capital, on Shestilavochnaya [‘Six-Shop’] Street.” (The street, by the way, hadn’t been called that in a while, at least not officially; by the 1840s it was Srednii Prospekt [‘Middle Avenue’], in 1852 it became Nadezhdinskaya Street, and in 1936 it got its present name, Mayakovsky Street.) He looks in the mirror, worries about what would happen if anything were amiss, reassures himself that so far everything is going well, counts his hidden wad of bills (seven hundred and fifty rubles!), gets washed and dressed with the help of Petrushka, and goes out to the carriage he has hired for the day. He drives off jubilantly, but soon becomes worried; he sees two young colleagues in the street and tries to hide from them as they point at him, then sees his boss, the department head, in another carriage and doesn’t know whether to greet him or not, and suddenly he decides to stop at the office of Doctor Rutenspitz (whom he’s only met once) and tell him “something very interesting.” I’ve given some account of the conversation with the doctor in this earlier post; it is here that the reader realizes that something is seriously wrong with Golyadkin, the situation, or both.

I won’t go on laying out the plot, such as it is; basically, Golyadkin (or “our hero,” as the narrator frequently calls him) does more and more bizarre things and gets into more and more humiliating situations, to which he responds with a mixture of brief internal defiance and excruciatingly protracted and incoherent self-abasement when he actually confronts someone. At first I thought of Kafka; Golyadkin seemed a cousin of Joseph K. Then, at the start of chapter 4, the narration takes a new turn, to an over-the-top farrago of pompous clichés; I’ll quote Constance Garnett’s translation, since she handles this sort of thing well:

That day the birthday of Klara Olsufyevna, the only daughter of the civil councillor, Berendyev, at one time Mr. Golyadkin’s benefactor and patron, was being celebrated by a brilliant and sumptuous dinner-party, such as had not been seen for many a long day within the walls of the flats in the neighbourhood of Ismailovsky Bridge — a dinner more like some Balthazar’s feast, with a suggestion of something Babylonian in its brilliant luxury and style, with Veuve-Clicquot champagne, with oysters and fruit from Eliseyev’s and Milyutin’s, with all sorts of fatted calves, and all grades of the government service. This festive day was to conclude with a brilliant ball, a small birthday ball, but yet brilliant in its taste, its distinction and its style. Of course, I am willing to admit that similar balls do happen sometimes, though rarely. Such balls, more like family rejoicings than balls, can only be given in such houses as that of the civil councillor, Berendyev.

Here I was reminded of the opening of Bely’s Petersburg (in the McDuff translation: “Your excellencies, eminences, honours, citizens! What is our Russian Empire? Our Russian Empire is a geographical entity, which means: a part of a certain planet. And the Russian Empire comprises: in the first place – Great,Little, White and Red Rus…”) and of the Gerty MacDowell chapter of Ulysses (“The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay…”). Who are these comfortable, bloviating narrators? What is their relation to the characters they describe, and to us? How far can we trust them? This is all, of course, Modernism 101, but here we’re dealing with a text from 1846, not the early twentieth century. Dostoevsky has made a giant leap into unknown waters, and it’s no wonder the critics and readers of the day had a hard time following him; Belinsky’s review was basically favorable, but included a lot of carping, and the circle of writers Dostoevsky was depending on for collegial support started mocking him mercilessly.

Belinsky attacked the novel for prolixity, and it’s easy to see why: it becomes more and more repetitive as it goes on, both in the situations and in the language. But this repetitiveness is essential to the effect Dostoevsky is aiming for (just as Gertrude Stein’s is to hers); Golyadkin’s speech is a farrago of virtually meaningless words and phrases that indicate the disordered paralysis of his brain, and the repetitive actions and situations represent the black hole of madness, which (like addiction) is boring as well as tormenting because nothing new can happen, it is an endless circling of the same inescapable track. But then madness is not easily distinguishable from normal life — Adam Thirlwell puts it nicely in his recent NYRB review of Can’t and Won’t, a collection of stories by Lydia Davis:

Such faulty logic is the sign of an intelligence dreaming, but it is also, after all, the sign of the many problems of waking life. Always we are coming up with falsely convincing propositions. The apparently real and apparently dreamlike share a common, cloudy structure—where imperceptible irregularities and mistaken meanings can occur at any moment. That confusion is the definition of the real as proposed by Davis’s fiction. And it’s the stories where her narrators lose themselves in minute obsessional cadenzas that are Davis’s most comical and most terrible… But the repetition is the proof of the inescapable cosmic joke. They are both glimpsed symptoms of a mind always trying to escape its own small blockages, its dismal letdowns and confusions.

“Obsessional cadenzas” — what a perfect phrase for the desperate tangles Golyadkin gets into! Here’s an example of his manner of speaking; he is confronting his double, also called Yakov Petrovich, who has been tormenting him throughout the novel and whom he has chased down in the street (I provide first Garnett’s version, then the Russian):

“For my part, Yakov Petrovitch,” our hero answered warmly, “for my part, scorning to be roundabout and speaking boldly and openly, using straightforward, honourable language and putting the whole matter on an honourable basis, I tell you I can openly and honourably assert, Yakov Petrovitch, that I am absolutely pure, and that, you know it yourself, Yakov Petrovitch, the error is mutual — it may all be the world’s judgment, the opinion of the slavish crowd. . . . I speak openly, Yakov Petrovitch, everything is possible. I will say, too, Yakov Petrovitch, if you judge it in this way, if you look at the matter from a lofty, noble point of view, then I will boldly say, without false shame I will say, Yakov Petrovitch, it will positively be a pleasure to me to discover that I have been in error, it will positively be a pleasure to me to recognize it. You know yourself you are an intelligent man and, what is more, you are a gentleman. Without shame, without false shame, I am ready to recognize it,” he wound up with dignity and nobility.

— С своей стороны, Яков Петрович, — с одушевлением отвечал наш герой, — с своей стороны, презирая окольным путем и говоря смело и откровенно, говоря языком прямым, благородным и поставив все дело на благородную доску, скажу вам, могу открыто и благородно утверждать, Яков Петрович, что я чист совершенно и что, сами вы знаете, Яков Петрович, обоюдное заблуждение, — все может быть, — суд света, мнение раболепной толпы… Я говорю откровенно, Яков Петрович, все может быть. Еще скажу, Яков Петрович, если так судить, если с благородной и высокой точки зрения на дело смотреть, то смело скажу, без ложного стыда скажу, Яков Петрович, мне даже приятно будет открыть, что я заблуждался, мне даже приятно будет сознаться в том. Сами вы знаете, вы человек умный, а сверх того, благородный. Без стыда, без ложного стыда готов в этом сознаться… — с достоинством и благородством заключил наш герой.

As usual, he starts out wanting to deal his enemy a deadly blow and ends up making a humiliating profession of friendship. (The double is called both his приятель ‘friend’ and his неприятель ‘enemy’ [literally ‘nonfriend’], more or less at random, and sometimes his недостойный приятель ‘unworthy friend,’ лжеприятель ‘pseudo-friend,’ or ложный друг ‘false friend’ [using the more basic word for ‘friend’].) Just in this brief snippet you can see how he repeats words like откровенно ‘openly’ and благородный ‘noble’; they are repeated many, many more times in the full text, as are virtually meaningless expressions like вот оно как or вот оно что (a mix of “Is that so?” and “I see!” and “Upon my word!” and “How about that!”), дескать (a marker of quoted speech) and так и так (to quote Sophia Lubensky’s invaluable Dictionary of Idioms: “used to indicate that what one is about to say repeats or conveys what was said by o.s. or another at an earlier time when used with a verb of speaking, adds colloquial flavor to the verb and reinforces that one is repeating words spoken earlier”). Perhaps his most significant repeated word, however, is ничего ‘nothing,’ which is also an adjective/adverb meaning ‘not (too) bad, pretty good/well.’ It is used 129 times in the book; here is the first use, during that first carriage ride, when he is trying to decide whether to greet his boss (I’ve modified the Garnett version):

“To bow or not? Respond or not? Recognize him or not?” our hero thought in indescribable anguish, “or pretend that I’m not myself, but somebody else strikingly similar to me, and look as though everything were fine. Just not me, not me, and that’s all!” said Mr. Golyadkin, doffing his hat to Andrey Filippovich and not taking his eyes off him. “I’m, I’m all right [ничего],” he whispered with an effort, “I’m quite all right [ничего], it’s not me at all, Andrey Filippovich, it’s not me at all, and that’s all.”

«Поклониться иль нет? Отозваться иль нет? Признаться иль нет? — думал в неописанной тоске наш герой, — или прикинуться, что не я, а кто-нибудь другой, разительно схожий со мною, и смотреть как ни в чем не бывало? Именно не я, не я, да и только! — говорил господин Голядкин, снимая шляпу пред Андреем Филипповичем и не сводя с него глаз. — Я, я ничего, — шептал он через силу, — я совсем ничего, это вовсе не я, Андрей Филиппович, это вовсе не я, не я, да и только».

When he says “I’m all right, I’m quite all right,” he’s literally saying “I’m nothing, I’m absolutely nothing.” The phrase “я ничего” (I’m OK/nothing) is used over a dozen times; in the course of just a few lines in chapter 9, he says “я ничего, Петруша, я ничего…” (I’m OK/nothing, Petrushka, I’m OK/nothing) and “Нет, Петруша, ведь я ничего. Ведь ты видишь, что я ничего…” (No, Petrushka, I’m OK/nothing. You can see that I’m OK/nothing). The actual meaning, “I’m all right,” is of course predominant to the reader, but as the nightmare deepens the literal “nothing” becomes hard to escape.

The mistake the readers and critics of the time were making is that they wanted prose to be a transparent window into social reality, hopefully showing terrible conditions that needed to be corrected; as Hodgson writes (see this post): “The very concept of style gradually faded from the critical perception of Russian readers, as concern for ‘problem content’ took its place. The word seemed to lose its stylistic and semantic associations, and finally, in the prose of the forties, the word was perceived as a flat label, bearing a one-to-one relationship to some ‘real’ concrete referent.” But, to quote Konstantin Mochulsky, “Dostoevsky’s heroes are born out of speech; this is a general law in his creative processes.” You have to read him as you read, say, Faulkner, with as much attention to who’s telling the story and why as to what’s being recounted. I’m very much looking forward to reading Bakhtin’s 1929 Проблемы творчества Достоевского (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics), because as I understand it this is how he approaches Dostoevsky, as a master of polyphonic narration.

Let’s see, I’ve mentioned the Bible, Kafka, Bely, Joyce, Stein, Lydia Davis, and Faulkner; who am I forgetting? Ah yes, Gogol! If you look at criticism of early Dostoevsky, the one name that is bound to come up is that of Gogol. Of course, Dostoevsky encouraged that himself with his famous “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat” [actually, this turns out to be a “well-encrusted overreading of Melchior de Vogüé” — see the Dinosaur’s comment below]; furthermore, it’s entirely accurate, because Gogol was the overwhelming influence on every writer of the time. The Double owes a great deal to him — most notably to Записки сумасшедшего (“Diary of a Madman”), but also to his style and approach in general. To take a trivial example, the narrator’s “герой наш” (our hero) comes straight out of Dead Souls [or such is my guess]. But as I said to Sashura in this thread in regard to “the struggle between the slavophiles and the westernisers,” “I’m bored to tears with the traditional approach. Whatever juice was in that orange was squeezed out over a century ago.” The same goes for Gogol; I’m sure there’s more to be said about his influence on Dostoevsky, just as there is still music to be written in C major, but isn’t it time to find other approaches? I had a hard time sleeping the night after I finished The Double, and it wasn’t because I was counting Gogol references. Dostoevsky is vast and contains multitudes; to take a simplistic approach is to betray him.

How to Name Animals in German.

This is a funny flowchart.

Hodgson IV: Reluctant Naturalism.

I have to return the Hodgson book to the library, so I’ll finish the series (see previous posts: I, II, III) with a series of excerpts that will hopefully give some idea of the main idea of the book, what Hodgson calls reluctant naturalism, and the way he analyzes the literary history it grew out of:

The presence of grotesque in the stories written by Gogol and the young Dostoevsky does not constitute grounds for denying their work a place in the early development of Russian realism. It may place them outside the tradition of Europeanization furthered by Lermontov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy: it indicates that their central concern was not shaping Pushkin’s gallicized literary language into a prose idiom which could easily absorb the techniques of contemporary Western realism. But Gogol and Dostoevsky belong to another and perhaps more important developmental vector in the history of the great Russian novels, one which is closer to native Russian narrative conventions and spiritual values. The locus of their contribution is not the cultural environment where Western techniques and thinking passed easily into the life and art of aristocratic cosmopolites but a more indigenous one. With the collapse of the economic and social framework which had structured Russia’s Europeanization since the middle of the eighteenth century, her literary development was popularized and brought somewhat nearer the pre-Petrine cultural values of the common people. Western realism was introduced amid a babel of literary and sub-literary forms which was further compounded by the undisciplined critical thinking of egalitarian French Romanticism. In the absence of authoritative canons of form and “taste,” the didactic Europeanized tradition of legitimate Russian letters met with energetic resistance from a baroque native current which had previously been suppressed in the subculture. Faced with such unstable conditions, as Tynianov realized, literary historians must think in terms of confrontations rather than cultural borrowing and “influences.”

Gogol and Dostoevsky are the product of a confrontation between two precipitously joined aesthetic currents. The non-mimetic or metaliterary emphasis in their work is important to the history of the Russian novel because it mediates between these antagonistic currents. Mediation, like literary byt, is a primary agent of historical development in transitional periods like the forties, and a metaliterary strategy like stylization, with its attendant grotesquerie, can be studied in this context as a fundamental tool for literary change. It remains, however, to find an immediate literary context for Gogol and Dostoevsky, and the question arises, what mediating factors shaped their own relationships with European realism, with the native subculture, and, in the case of Dostoevsky, with his predecessor? (p. 37)

Belinsky had faltered twice in the course of his thirteen-year career: there was a period of conciliatory resignation to the inequities of society, prompted by an overzealous reading of Hegel; and a burst of optimism and renewed faith in Russian literature as art, precipitated by Dostoevsky’s Bednye ljudi. Except for these brief interruptions, he moved steadily toward an explicitly utilitarian aesthetic. To a degree, naturalism in Russia owes its insensitivity to considerations of craft and its developmental course to this evolution. The influence of Gogol and Dostoevsky in the forties would have been strikingly different were it not for Belinsky’s interpretation of their works, and undoubtedly the fate of many minor figures, including Butkov, was determined largely by the way in which their work accommodated or resisted Belinsky’s sympathies of the moment. Literary history is only now freeing itself from many distorted views of prose fiction in the forties which are attributable to his influence. (p. 48)

Bakhtin provided a way to accommodate both these currents within the forties. He had precisely the forties in mind when he said that “direct auctorial discourse was not possible” in periods which did not command a style. “Such styleless periods either go the way of stylization or revert to extraliterary forms of narration which command a particular manner of observing or depicting the world.” Belinsky and the imitators of the early forties saw the physiological sketch as precisely an extraliterary — in fact, non-aesthetic, scientific — manner of observing reality. Their prose was subject to all kinds of inappropriate influences (including the farce and melodrama) precisely because they thought they were writing what Bakhtin calls “directly intentional discourse,” or straight narrative, and were not on guard against stylistic intrusions. They were imitating, in good faith, the French physiologie, as the preceding generation had imitated the society tale. Most naturalists were innocent of the dangers of pollution from the native farce tradition. Even some of the older writers, like Dal’, seemed to be unaware of their dependence on highly “unscientific” techniques. Consequently most of these attempts to russify the imported sketch failed to come up with a smooth stylistic texture and integrated orientation. (p. 62)

Vinogradov’s extensive work on Pushkin’s prose style provides us with a detailed understanding of the journalistic emphases Butkov was “stylizing.” Pushkin’s language was a balanced, tasteful synthesis of Old Church Slavic elements, French, and the living national vernacular. The features Pushkin found repugnant in the prose styles of Polevoj, Senkovskij, and Dal’ derived from their disproportionate weaknesses for one or another of these elements. Polevoj embodied for Pushkin the bookish, twisted style of the “semi-intelligentsia” [“durnoe obshchestvo“] made up of seminarists, petty bourgeois, merchants, and gentry” …. Senkovskij’s weakness was the “cosmopolitan” glitter of the second rank of Petersburg salons where the Frenchified “idiom of the society lady” purveyed the tasteless excesses of French Romanticism under the July Monarchy. Dal’, the least objectionable of the three, was guilty of the ethnographer’s indiscriminate passion for raw dialect forms. However, as the thirties progressed, the literary sensibility which emerged to dominate journalism and most prose fiction betrayed more serious problems than ingenuousness, or growing pains. It was not simply a matter of exuberant lack of control in the face of mutually antagonistic lexical levels or stylistic postures. Pushkin perceived two deeper, chronic flaws. They lie behind the writing of the forties on a plane which must be considered more remote than Vinogradov’s second plane. …

One of these chronic flaws affected the way the new middle class conceptualized the word, and consequently its understanding of literary style as a component in imaginative literature. … The very concept of style gradually faded from the critical perception of Russian readers, as concern for “problem content” took its place. The word seemed to lose its stylistic and semantic associations, and finally, in the prose of the forties, the word was perceived as a flat label, bearing a one-to-one relationship to some “real” concrete referent. …

Vinogradov treats Pushkin’s second concern under the rubric “Western European thinking” (evropejskoe myshlenie) …. This was the influence of French syntax and lexicon on the literary language, prevalent since the victory of Karamzin’s “new style” in the early part of the century. A by-product of this influence was that Russian prose was committed to a stylistic substructure which derived from the rationalism of the eighteenth century. … Russia’s middle class writers and publicists were caught up in a tradition of humanistic realism they understood at best superficially. When they tried to assimilate it, they produced a prose idiom which was not only officious and tasteless, but informed by a boundless enthusiasm for ratiocinative processes. (pp. 124-5)

It is reasonable to suppose that Dostoevsky would have written “Bednye ljudi” had there been no current of reluctant naturalism, but it is not clear that he would have written “Dvojnik” without the half-decade of stylization which culminates in Butkov’s incipient doubles. Reluctant naturalists exploited the metaliterary emphases in the burlesque of the subculture in order to give expression to the principle of the “double” metaphor which they had perceived in Gogol’s stories. In their stylization of this literary raw material we can see, refracted, the component parts of Dostoevsky’s grotesquerie as well as the specific areas of the naturalistic literary sensibility with which he was concerned. For example, the bread and butter of the vaudeville writer, the pun, is a source of humor. But when it is perceived metaphorically, the pun is an impediment to mathematical clarity, the antithesis of the word-as-label. It undermines the notion that a word bears a one-to-one relationship to some stable referent in non-fictive reality, and thereby discredits the process of allegorization which is essential to perceiving a physiologie, for example, as a daguerreotype. Next, if we consider the glib banter or causerie of the feuilletonist, we discover the raw material which the reluctant naturalists fashioned into the narrative technique called skaz. A skaz narrator is chatty, often semiliterate. His commitments are discredited by his ingenuous pseudosophistication and pseudoscientism, and make a mockery of informative commentary, or serious social satire. He is unaware that his precarious control of his medium is exposing him, and in this he is a personification of the literary subculture. Ultimately, he is a cunningly contrived reflection of his reader. Bakhtin’s analysis of skaz narration as “double-voiced discourse” — whose intonational, syntactic, and other features are to be explained by “the intersecting of two voices and two accents within it” — defines the way this narrative mode functions as a metaphor for the principle of the double. We are dealing with the same intent as that we perceive in the use of empty masks and specious labels, namely, to frustrate allegorization. In this case, the effect is to confound the reader’s attempt to identify the narrative voice with any stable, human referent. (pp. 146-7)

I know that’s a lot of dense text, and at the same time not enough to give any real idea of his argument, but it may inspire someone to track down the book and work through it. I’m not normally a fan of literary theory, but I’m finding this enlightening and helpful as I read Dostoevsky’s Dvoinik (The Double), about which I’ll be posting soon.


Most words as ostentatiously Latinate as superstition have transparent etymologies: election is from e(x)- ‘out of’ + legere ‘to choose,’ conflagration is con– ‘with, together’ + flagrāre ‘to burn,’ and so on. But superstition is different: its formation is equally transparent, super– ‘above’ + stāre ‘to stand,’ but what does that have to do with the meaning “Religious belief or practice considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance; excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural” (to quote the OED)? Today it occurred to me to see if the OED entry had been updated, and indeed it has, less than two years ago (June 2012), so their etymology is presumably the latest word on the subject; it turns out to be an old problem, and the Romans themselves wondered about it:

The semantic motivation for the word is unclear. The classical Latin author Cicero suggested (Natura Deorum 2. 28. 72) that superstitious people (superstitiōsī) were so called because they practised excessive religious devotion in order that their children might survive (superstites essent), but this is probably a folk etymology. A view held in late antiquity is that the use of the words superstitiō ‘superstition’ and superstitiōsus ‘superstitious’ with reference to religion derives from the idea that such practices were superfluous or redundant. Compare Isidore Origines 8. 3. 6 Superstitio dicta eo quod sit superflua aut superinstituta observatio ‘Superstition is so called because it is the name for redundant and superseded (religious) observation’. Classical Latin superstes was used with reference to a soldier standing over the prostrate body of a defeated enemy, and it has also been suggested that from this use, classical Latin superstitiō had the sense ‘superiority’, and hence developed the senses ‘prophecy’ and ‘sorcery’.

The Oxford Latin Dictionary, now several decades old, says “orig. sense perh. ‘state of religious exaltation.'” We’ll never know for sure, but I thought people might be interested in the current educated guesses.

Gopnik’s Word Magic.

The LH family (me and my wife) are longtime fans of Adam Gopnik (see, e.g., this early post), and of course I was especially delighted to see him address the issue of language and translation in the New Yorker in “Word Magic.” Alas, due to my incurable procrastination, by the time I get around to the piece I want to tell you about, the issue (May 26) is no longer on the stands, but maybe you can find a copy; you can read the start at the link above, here’s a typically sensible and well-written bit about Whorfianism:

A spectre haunts this book, however. It is the spectre of Benjamin Lee Whorf and the theory of linguistic relativism to which he gave his name. Whorf was an amateur American linguist in the first half of the twentieth century who became obsessed with the idea that the system of tenses in the Hopi language gave the Hopi a different view of present, past, and future. (His understanding of Hopi grammar turns out to have been rudimentary.) Whorfianism came to refer to a larger idea derived from this notion — the idea that our language forces us to see the world a certain way, and that different languages impose different world views on their speakers. It’s a powerful idea in the pop imagination. It sounds right when you say it.

Yet “Whorfian” relativism, at least in its strong forms, is one of those ideas that disappear under any kind of scrutiny. After all, if we were truly prisoners of our language, we shouldn’t be able to use it to see its limits clearly, or to enumerate the concepts that it can’t conceive. The ghost of Whorf haunts every page of the “Dictionary of Untranslatables”[…]

My only serious cavil is about his discussion of the well-worn problem of poetry translation near the end; while nothing he says is wrong, he ignores what I consider an essential point, that there are very different kinds of poetry. Poems that place a lot of weight on images and ideas, like Szymborska (whom he cites favorably), come across better than those that rely to a large extent on sound and rhythm; his “Poetry contains as much wisdom as it does word magic” flings itself across this gap in a heroic effort to bridge it, but I don’t think it works. Anyway, it’s a wonderful read, and I urge you all to find a copy by hook or crook. (Also, the book he’s reviewing sounds fascinating; alas, it costs an arm and a leg.)

Update. Since Christopher Culver writes in a comment below, “What an unfortunate surname,” it is only fitting that I link to Gopnik’s new BBC Magazine piece “The curse of a ridiculous name“:

I have a funny name. I know it. Don’t say it isn’t or try to make me feel better about it. I have a funny name. My children and social networkers tell me that. And you out there have even been tweeting about it: “@BBC POV, Gopnik: what kind of name is that? #weirdnames” […]

It’s not just a funny name. It has become, in the Russia from which it originally hails, an almost obscenely derogatory expression.

A gopnik in Russian, and in Russia, is now a drunken hooligan, a small-time lout, a criminal without even the sinister glamour of courage. When Russian people hear my last name, they can barely conceal a snigger of distaste and disgusted laughter. Those thugs who clashed with Polish fans at Euro 2012? All gopniks – small G. And I’m told that it derives from an acronym for public housing, rather than from our family’s Jewish roots, but no difference.

Read the whole thing — trust me, you won’t regret it.

Further update: Michele Berdy on gopniks.

The End of Marrism.

A while back we had a long and interesting thread about the crackpot linguistic theories of N. Y. Marr, which were officially imposed by Stalin for a couple of decades before he officially denounced them. (Marr himself had the good sense to die in 1934, avoiding all sorts of unpleasantness.) The denouncing was done in the 1950 article “Concerning Marxism in Linguistics,” which begins with the pleasingly succinct Q&A “QUESTION: Is it true that language is a superstructure on the base? ANSWER: No, it is not true.” (There have long been allegations that the article was written not by Stalin but by Marr’s longtime critic Arnold Chikobava; I doubt we will ever know, but it’s silly to suppose Stalin was incapable of writing it.) The effect of the article was immediate and severe: everyone hastily backtracked from the now deprecated theory, and actual linguistic science was back in fashion. But I have long wondered why the Great Helmsman made this particular intervention, and I’ve just come across a plausible suggestion by Geoffrey Hosking in his excellent Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union (p. 261):

What motivated this abrupt reversal of policy? On this matter no direct evidence exists, but one may hypothesize that the change was a delayed aspect of the move away from a class-based and internationalist approach to the building of socialism toward a Russian cultural and imperial one. Marr’s doctrine had implied that there might ultimately be an international language of the proletariat, generated by cross-fertilization of existing languages but distinct from any of them. Stalin, however, clearly believed by now that the appropriate international proletarian language was and would remain Russian. World socialism was to be an infinitely extended Russian-Soviet empire, at least until the ultimate triumph over imperialism.

Again, we’ll never know, but it makes sense. (And I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the difficult question of what it means to be Russian as opposed to being the citizen of an empire or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; it’s a worthy successor of his Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917, which I quoted almost a decade ago.)

Muturzikin. has “Linguistic maps of Basque Country, Africa, America, Asia, Europe & Oceania.” The About page says:

Who is Muturzikin ?

I wish to stay anonymous online but ”Muturzikiña” is my real nickname. To make it shorter, call me Mutur. […]

About my aim, my language maps display the ethnic and linguistic complexities in some parts of the world. Each language limit or isogloss transcends geographical borders, where appropriate. I am committed to a different, more enlightening approach to cartography and I seek to preserve the integrity of the area in which the language or dialect is spoken, even where this crosses international borders.

I think that the loss of linguistic diversity entails not only the disappearance of a large number of languages — and the cultural and identity loss that accompanies it — it also entails an important reduction of the genetic information which could help us understand the history of languages and the relationships different linguistic communities had in the past.

Linguistic diversity also shows typological information—that is, what is common or different in the structure of languages—and this kind of information helps us understand the nature and functioning of languages. When a language disappears, we also lose information about how different linguistic communities view reality and the most important to me, how their languages shape it.

Yes, that last bit gets a little Sapir-Whorfy, but who cares? Check out those maps! Good for you, Mutur, whoever you are. (And thanks, Paul!)

Bongo Bongo.

An e-mail from a PR guy informed me of a PBS video series of definite LH interest:

“Bongo Bongo” is a new series from PBS Digital Studios that brings to life the dynamic meaning of common words in the English language by examining them through the lenses of history, linguistics, and pop culture. Each week’s episode explores the cultural significance of a new word in an entertaining, fast-paced way to help spread an infectious love of language.

It’s a little too entertaining and fast-paced for this sedate codger, but it is fun, host Ethan Fixell seems to know what he’s talking about, and it may be of interest to lots of you out there; check out the jam episode for a sample.

Completely unrelated, but it’s not worth a post of its own and I have to get it off my chest: I saw a reference to “Trias,” looked it up, and discovered it’s an obsolete (?) equivalent of Triassic; the OED (in a century-old entry) says:

Name for the series of strata lying immediately beneath the Jurassic and above the Permian; so called because divisible, where typically developed (as in Germany), into three groups (Keuper, Muschelkalk, and Bunter Sandstein); represented in Britain by the Upper New Red Sandstone and associated formations.

Which means it’s from Greek τριάς ‘the number three,’ which is a d-stem, which means it should be Triadic, not Triassic! Those damn geologists, all rocks and no classics.

Phrasebooks for the Silk Road.

The International Dunhuang Project has an enjoyable post about phrasebooks “popular with travellers on the Silk Routes in the first millennium AD”:

For example, Pelliot chinois 5538 is a scroll with a series of phrases in Sanskrit and Khotanese, on the general theme of pilgrimage. Some of the phrases form conversations, like the following:

And where are you going now?
I am going to China.
What business do you have in China?
I’m going to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.
When are you coming back?
I’m going to China, then I’ll return.

The conversations also cover practical matters:

Do you have any provisions for the road?
I do not like my provisions.
I’ll go with one or two horses.

There are more examples and a short bibliography if you want to learn more.

And while we’re on the subject, Christopher Culver has a post on “Guides to little-known languages from the French publisher L’Harmattan”; if you read French and have any interest in little-known languages, you’ll want to bookmark it: “If you are interested in the Finno-Ugrian or Turkic world, you can enjoy Yves Avril’s Parlons komi or Saodat Doniyorova’s Parlons karakalpak. The best (well, usually the only) guides to West African languages are written in French, and L’Harmattan covers this part of the world with such titles as Parlons baoulé (Ivory Coast), Parlons éwé (Togo) and Parlons mooré (Burkina Faso).” (Book links at Culver’s post.)