Archives for July 2014

Twelve Years of Languagehat.

I almost forgot that today marks twelve years since the first LH postMark Woods (speaking of “marks”) often reminds me of the anniversary with a great black-and-white photo of a crowd of men wearing hats, but he’s taking a (well-deserved) break until early August, so I’m on my own. I don’t have much to say besides thanks for all the comments and post ideas over the years, and I hope you’ll all stick around and keep making this habit I’ve fallen into worthwhile. (When I made that first post, I was still living in NYC; I’ve moved three times since then, and changed blog platforms twice. But as a result of the move to WordPress, all twelve years of posts are open for comment, so make yourselves at home in them!)


Barry Mazur’s Berfrois essay “The Authority of the Incomprehensible” has a long middle section on the reprehensible use of mathematics as a rhetorical device to give unearned authority to a text, with a detailed discussion of Malthus; all this can be skipped unless you have a particular interest in it. What attracted me to the essay is apparent in its opening:

You may not know what Abracadabra means, but you very well feel its magical force, and its effect only gains from the obscurity of the incantation. It is true, of course, that ipsa scientia potestas est (“knowledge itself has powers”), but being confronted with something that purports to be wisdom and is Greek to you, is even more powerful.

In a word, we humans are prone to take certain incomprehensible assertions as carrying some kind of evidentiary authority because of their incomprehensibility, and irrespective of the content of whatever messages those assertions were meant to communicate.

Children are constantly showered with words, phrases, usages — that mean both nothing and everything to them — from those beings that tower over them. These are utterances that have presumably potent meaning to the adult world, and — deliciously — can be repeated, in a kind of Bayesian language game, to see what power one derives from proclaiming them.

I remember that the first time in my life I heard the word Chinatown mentioned blithely by some adult, I knew nothing of its referent, and was in awe that a presumably visitable town(?) could miniaturize, distill, and encompass a vast country and language with an inaccessible script: I felt compelled to use that word, Chinatown, repeatedly, in whatever context arose, no matter what it meant, for a full week after I heard it, to possess the sheer power of its incomprehensibility.

I’ve long been fascinated by the attraction of incomprehensibility (which sometimes prompts the exclamation “O altitudo,” about which I wrote here), and Mazur has some good things to say about it:

Here I want to argue that obscurity of a certain sort has a particular, and perhaps essential, role to play in intensifying emotional effect in literature and poetry. Nursery rhymes, of course, are garlanded with delicious meaninglessnesses and metaphors often overstretch their logic, the very tension of this over-stretching being a source of their power. But consider, as an example, the power of Cleopatra’s elegiac cry:

…His delights
Were dolphin-like; they showed his back above
The element he lived in: In his livery
Walked crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pockets.

in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. This conjures, for me, a vivid forceful image, alive with a dazzling froth of motion, even though – or maybe I should say especially because – the idea behind the phrase “they showed his back” is impossible to hold in my head.

Incomprehensibility, itself, is a central character in the fascinating essay Über die Unverständlichkeit (On the Incomprehensible) by Friedrich Schlegel published in 1800, and brilliantly discussed in Michel Chaouli’s book The Laboratory of Poetry. Schlegel crowns incomprehensibility as the touchstone of inspired meaning. Imagine language as a soup, a medium for ideas, and the poet as a cook who brings the whole mixture to a boil and who only is certain that the broth is really cooked only if the ingredients are so transformed so as to have – in some sense – gotten away from him. They are singed with incomprehensibility.

And there’s a nice quote from Mark Strand:

. . . language takes over, and I follow it. It just sounds right. And I trust the implication of what I’m saying, even though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m saying. I’m just willing to let it be. Because if I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and could verify it and check it out and feel, yes, I’ve said what I intended, I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am.

Not to mention the “marvelous piece of encouragement given by the Boston University mathematician Glenn Stevens to one of his students who came to him, swamped by perplexity when thinking about a certain problem in mathematics”: “It is good to be confused!”

On the quote from Anthony and Cleopatra (V.ii.88 ff.), Susan Snyder has a thoughtful discussion in Shakespeare: A Wayward Journey (p. 75):

What meanings attach to flux and superior solidity in this vision of the dolphin’s firm back gleaming above the dancing, shifting sea? For Kittredge, who was later followed by Dover Wilson, Cleopatra means that “as the dolphin shows his back above the water, so Antony always rose superior to the pleasures in which he lived.” This separates Antony’s superiority from his pleasures, opposes them in fact. But “delights” are the agents of his rising: it is they who show his back above the sea. Another gloss, this one from the Riverside Shakespeare, says that Antony “in his pleasures . . . rose above the common as a dolphin rises out of its element, the sea.” Now the pleasures have been dissociated from the sea, which is simply “the common.” But the sea with its unceasing flux is the element in which those uncommon pleasures lived. Antony’s delights are both flux, the succession of moments, and that which ultimately lifts him above flux — because the moment is fully realized. Finally, then, the motion patterns convey not only the essential, tragic incompatibility between stillness and flux but also a hint of transcendence.

I’ll add that “crowns and crownets” is metonymy for “kings and princes” and “plates” here has its oldest English meaning, “A coin, esp. a gold or silver one” (OED).

And if you were wondering about the name of the journal, berfrois is an Old French word (the source of English belfrey, which etymologically has nothing to do with bells) for a movable tower used in sieges; it can also, apparently, be used for “a grandstand, usually built a full story above the level of the lists , housing the ladies and other noble spectators of the gallery for a hastilude or tournament.” Though perhaps I shouldn’t have spoiled your pleasure in its incomprehensibility.


Olga Khazan has an amusing account in The Atlantic of going to Russia and trying to use her very rusty native language. I enjoyed it, of course, but one section requires amendment, since she doesn’t seem to have quite understood what was going on:

We’re sitting in a cafe with my cousin, who has lived in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg her entire life. She is offering Rich more food. He says, “I’m full” in English, and I try to teach him the words for “I’m full” in Russian, because I enjoy feeling smarter than others.

Sut,” I say—full—remembering a word from childhood refusals to eat more buckwheat kasha. There’s no English letter for the “u” sound there, but it resembles the noise you’d make if you experienced a tremendous blow to the stomach.

“Sit,” he says.



I look at my cousin, who is turning red. “Actually,” she tells me in Russian, “that word can mean something else.”

Apparently the word I had been broadcasting to the entire restaurant is prison slang for “pissing from fright.”

Ya nayelsa,” my cousin tells Rich gently. I have eaten enough.

I’m pretty sure there’s no such slang meaning for сытый [sytyi] ‘satisfied, replete, full’ (of which the short form is сыт [syt]); what her cousin was trying to tell her was that she was saying it wrong, leaning on the initial /s/ so that it sounded like ссыт [ssyt], the third person singular of the (very vulgar, but not slang) verb ссать ‘to piss; to be very afraid.’ I’m pretty sure if you pronounce сыт correctly, you don’t have to worry about the people at nearby tables looking askance at you. But of course if I’m getting it wrong, I hope my Russian-speaking readers will correct me. (Thanks for the link, Bathrobe!)


George Walkden has posted “Syntactic Reconstruction and Proto-Germanic: Cinematic Teaser” on Facebook; you can also view it at Mark Liberman’s Log post, and I urge you to take the two minutes needed to watch this brilliant attempt to attract attention to what might seem (and in fact is) a recondite subject. From the Log comments, I have to agree with Yuval, who said “How, HOW, did he miss the (rated) PG pun?” and with Matt‘s complaint about the price (“maybe someone at OUP will decide to ride this towering wave of publicity by offering a pre-order discount?”) — it boggles my mind that someone responded “290 pages at £65 for a hardback academic book seems quite affordable.” O RLY? I guess for those who enjoy Pétrus with their foie gras.

Yei Bohu.

Alexander Anichkin, who comments here as Sashura, has a funny post about some language used by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is both undiplomatic and untranslatable, namely that the EU, in supporting the US, “played the role of the well-known ‘under-officer’s widow,’ who flogged herself” (выступил в роли небезызвестной “унтер-офицерской вдовы”, которая сама себя высекла). For one thing, the word унтер-офицер [unter-ofitser], which I have rendered as the nonexistent “under-officer,” has no good equivalent in English; my Oxford dictionary defines it as “non-commissioned officer,” but as Sashura points out, this does not capture the “униженность и оскорбленность” (humiliating and insulting nature) of the Russian tsarist term and occupation. And the Gogol reference is well known to Russians but opaque to others; it’s from his great comedy The Government Inspector, and Sashura provides the original and three translations:

Городничий. Унтер-офицерша налгала вам, будто бы я ее высек; она врет, ей-богу, врет. Она сама себя высекла.

(The Government Inspector, перевод Arthur A Sykes, 1892)
GOVERNOR. The sergeant’s wife lied when she told you I flogged her—it’s false, yei Bohu, it’s false. Why, she flogged herself !

(The Inspector-General, translated by Thomas Seltzer)
GOVERNOR. The officer’s widow lied to you when she said I flogged her. She lied, upon my word, she lied. She flogged herself.

(Le Révizor, traduction pa Marc Semenoff)
LE GOUVERNEUR. — La femme du sous-officier vous a menti, menti, j’ai ne l’ai pas faire fouetter. Elle s’est fouettée elle-même.

I was deeply impressed by Sykes’s “yei Bohu” for ей-богу [ei-bogu] ‘really and truly! I swear to God!’; I can’t imagine what he thought English playgoers would make of it, and I wonder if cultivated Russians in the 1890s pronounced the -г- of богу as /h/ or if he’d been hanging out with southerners/Ukrainians. It’s interesting, too, that as the phrase has passed into general Russian usage, it’s lost the sarcastic sense it has in the play (the woman was in fact whipped by the governor, who is producing a ridiculous and unbelievable lie to exculpate himself) and become a term for self-abasement.

Sashura also mentions the phrase “кузькина мать,” famously used by Khrushchev, so I will take this opportunity to brag a bit by quoting the relevant entry (“we will bury you”) in Safire’s Political Dictionary, one of the editing jobs of which I am proudest:

One of the Russian leader’s favorite expressions was the picturesque peasant threat “We’ll show you Kuzka’s mother!” (kuzka being a kind of grain beetle, and its “mother” being the deeply buried larva); the hopelessly overmatched interpreters gave up and started translating this as the more familiar and comprehensible “We will bury you.” (For this eye-opener the lexicographer is grateful to editor and researcher Stephen Dodson.)

To clarify the implication, to show someone Kuzka’s mother — an underground larva — is, by implication, to bury them.

And if you’re interested in hard-to-translate idioms, don’t miss Victor Mair’s latest Log post about the Chinese expression 规矩是死的, 人是活的 “Rules are dead, people are living” and the variants and implications thereof.

Confidence Man.

I’m reading July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin, having enjoyed his The Russian Origins of the First World War (see this post) and having read in R.J.W. Evans NYRB review that it was “almost impossible to put down” (and of course being prompted by the centenary aspect); I’m still on the Prologue, but I’ve already run into a linguistic conundrum. In describing the preparations of the Serbian conspirators, he writes “Chabrinovitch, with papers provided by Popovitch, was to cross the border en route for Zvornik, on the Bosnian side; from there another confidence man would drive him to Tuzla, a town connected by railway to Sarajevo.” On the next page we get “Finally, in Tuzla, the three terrorists, having been reunited, turned over their deadly cargo to another confidence man, Mishko Jovanovitch, who, like Chubrilovitch, was both an upstanding local citizen (he owned a bank and a movie theater) and a member of Narodna Odbrana.” Setting aside the fact that I’ve been hit with a Chabrinovitch, a Ciganovitch, and a Chubrilovitch within the space of a few pages, about which it would be churlish for an aficionado of Russian literature to complain (though why he uses those archaic spellings instead of the correct Čabrinović etc. is beyond me), I want to focus on the phrase “confidence man,” which puzzled me. At first I thought “Well, the ‘con man’ sense I’m familiar with must be peculiar to the US, and in the UK it must mean ‘a man in whom confidence is placed,'” but a trawl through dictionaries put the kibosh on that idea (the OED defines it as “a professional swindler of respectable appearance and address,” the Concise [12th ed., 2011] simply as “a confidence trickster”). Furthermore, googling turns up no instances I can find of the phrase used as McMeekin uses it. So is he simply in error about its meaning, or am I missing something?

Addendum. I should add that he spells place names (e.g., Šabac) correctly; it’s just personal names that get the Ruritania treatment. Also, he spells the name of Sarajevo’s river “Miljăcke” rather than the correct Miljacka (note that he adds an incorrect breve as well as changing a to e), so I’m starting to have concerns about accuracy in general.

Further addendum. My concerns have been heightened by his reference to “a token Bosnian Muslim with the wonderfully evocative name of Mehmedbashitch (‘Mehmed’ being a Turkic variant of Mohammad and ‘bashitch’ the Slavicization of the Turkish word for kickback, baksheesh).” Now, that’s just silly; Mehmedbašić (to give the name its proper spelling) has the Serbo-Croatian – ending added to a name formed from the elements Mehmed and (I presume) Turkish baş ‘head.’ Why do people feel the need to make up “colorful” details like that?

Yet another addendum. OK, this is getting bad. At the start of chapter 1, describing the “glorious summer of 1914,” he says: “On Sunday afternoon, 28 June, Zweig … was … sitting on a park bench in the spa town of Baden, reading a Tolstoy novel.” Naturally, I wondered: which Tolstoy novel? What a stupid detail to omit! If it was War and Peace, for instance, it would be pleasantly piquant. Fortunately, Google Books lets me preview The World of Yesterday (cited in the footnote), where I discovered what Zweig actually wrote: “I was sitting at some distance from the crowd in the park, reading a book—I still remember that it was Merejkovsky’s Tolstoy and Dostoievsky—and I read with interest and attention.” It would appear McMeekin was working from vague memories rather than actual notes. If he’s falling down so badly on stuff I can easily check, why should I trust him on the stuff I can’t? And (he asked, futilely, for the umpteenth time) don’t any reviewers ever bother to check up on such things?

The Sex Life of the Nineteenth Century.

John Emerson is, of course, a frequent LH commenter; he also walks the hard path of the independent scholar, hacking his way through untraveled wildernesses of culture and history, asking questions none have asked before him, like “Could Friedrich Nietzsche have married Jane Austen?” Back in 2007 I wrote enthusiastically about his book Substantific Marrow; now he’s come out with a new one, The Sex Life of the Nineteenth Century: An Autobiographical Approach to the History of Western Civilization (you can see its handsome cover, badly photographed by me, at its LibraryThing page). Like its precursor, it has what John calls “interesting scraps of citations”; here are two from pp. 50-51:

“In spite of all this, my father sent me to school when I was ten. “Why”, I would say to myself, “learn Greek and Latin? I don’t know! There’s no need of it, anyway! What does it matter to me if I pass my exams? What’s the use of passing one’s exams? It is of no use at all, is it? Yes it is, though: they say there is no employment without a pass….Then take history: learning the lives of Chinaldon, and Nabopolassar, of Darius, of Cyrus, and of Alexander, and of their cronies, outstanding for their diabolical names (remarquables par leurs noms diaboliques) is a torture. What does it matter to me that Alexander was famous? What does it matter?…..How does anyone know that the Latins ever existed? Perhaps their Latin is some counterfeit language….What evil have I done that they should put me to the torture?”

“Le soleil etait encore chaude….”, Collected Poems, tr. Bernard, written in 1864 when Rimbaud was ten years old.

Sometimes [Rimbaud’s mother] would send them to bed supperless because they had been unable to recite, without a slip, the hundreds of Latin verses she had set them to learn from memory.

Bernard, “Introduction”, p. xxix

There are discussions of everything from Tocqueville to the Swedish Rosicrucians, from krakens and basilisks to oafs and wimps, from “Erik Satie and the sewing machine” to “the czarist regime in two anecdotes.” It’s available here; I urge you to check it out, and I hope he will eventually publish his long-promised book on Inner Eurasian history.

Bad English Shaming.

Feargus O’Sullivan posts for CityLab about an interesting and apparently new phenomenon, summed up by the subhead: “English has become the lingua franca of Europe. And politicians who can’t speak it well are getting roundly mocked by their own citizens.”

Recently, the continent’s political masters have been slapped by a new form of satirical attack—Bad English Shaming. A viral-video sub-trend, Bad English Shaming sees public figures foolhardy enough to let their rusty English be recorded on camera getting mocked and mauled for their poor foreign language skills.

Exhibit A of the trend is an impassioned speech made this month by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Supposedly, it was in English. Renzi’s speech is so halting and garbled it’s hard to understand what he’s actually talking about, though it contains occasional lucid but surreal gems as, “He invent the telephone to speaking about in the theatre.” […] Then there were Madrid Mayor Ana Botella’s attempts last year to sell her city as a contender for the Summer Olympics. Mayor Botella’s stilted, halting English made her a national laughing stock, a reputation she has since solidified through gaffe after gaffe. […]

It has not been ever thus. Francois Mitterrand’s exceedingly brief 1986 foray into English at the Statue of Liberty’s centenary celebrations was widely taken as a badge of skillful statesmanship. […]

Clearly, something radical has changed. It probably isn’t the growth of American or British influence per se, as politically and culturally, these are either no greater than before or slightly on the wane. European English seems in fact to be uncoupling itself from native anglophones, a runaway caboose careering down its own track. The dominance of English as a European lingua franca is so total nowadays that it’s a basic tool for interaction even in countries where Brits and Americans rarely tread, as well as between Europe and other continents. […]

Once the number of English speakers tips over 50 percent, it seems people just get more demanding of each other. It’s one thing for a lazy Brit or American to complain about no one speaking English in Paris (though this happens less and less), but it’s quite another for a Dutch person to complain of the same thing—they’re already making an effort themselves. Like a bachelor’s degree and a clean criminal record, decent English is becoming one of those basic things you need to forge a career in Europe, political or not.

On the one hand, of course I deplore any form of language shaming, and am respectful of anyone trying to speak a foreign language in public. On the other hand, I enjoy seeing politicians shamed. It’s a quandary. (Thanks, Yoram!)

The *Bʰlog.

The *Bʰlog is “a website that hopes to provide an accessible but informed forum for all matters Indo-European”:

The idea for this website arose in the Fall of 2013, when two fables that I recorded for Archaeology Magazine went viral and were heard by hundreds of thousands of people who had never even heard of Proto-Indo-European or the Indo-European language family. The goal of the website is to keep that interest going. If you’re a layperson, feel free to send an e-mail to the *Bʰlog with questions you might have about Indo-European. If you’re a specialist and want to contribute to the site, just let me know and I will set you up an account.

It’s run by University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd and vouched for by Piotr Gąsiorowski (from whose post I learned about it), so I have no hesitation in recommending it and will add it to my blogroll forthwith.

Update. It turns out that “Andrew Byrd … is the administrator of the *Bʰlog but almost all the stuff has been written by his students as a kind of out-of-class exercise, hence its uneven quality.” Caveat lector.

The History of Autocorrect.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus has a Wired article that works a little too hard to be relentlessly amusing but tells an interesting story about how autocorrect came to be and how it works:

The notion of autocorrect was born when Hachamovitch began thinking about a functionality that already existed in Word. Thanks to Charles Simonyi, the longtime Microsoft executive widely recognized as the father of graphical word processing, Word had a “glossary” that could be used as a sort of auto-expander. You could set up a string of words—like insert logo—which, when typed and followed by a press of the F3 button, would get replaced by a JPEG of your company’s logo. Hachamovitch realized that this glossary could be used far more aggressively to correct common mistakes. He drew up a little code that would allow you to press the left arrow and F3 at any time and immediately replace teh with the. His aha moment came when he realized that, because English words are space-delimited, the space bar itself could trigger the replacement, to make correction … automatic! Hachamovitch drew up a list of common errors, and over the next years he and his team went on to solve many of the thorniest. Seperate would automatically change to separate. Accidental cap locks would adjust immediately (making dEAR grEG into Dear Greg). One Microsoft manager dubbed them the Department of Stupid PC Tricks. […]

With these sorts of master lists in place—the corrections, the exceptions, and the to-be-primly-ignored—the joists of autocorrect, then still a subdomain of spell-check, were in place for the early releases of Word. Microsoft’s dominance at the time ensured that autocorrect became globally ubiquitous, along with some of its idiosyncrasies. By the early 2000s, European bureaucrats would begin to notice what came to be called the Cupertino effect, whereby the word cooperation (bizarrely included only in hyphenated form in the standard Word dictionary) would be marked wrong, with a suggested change to Cupertino. There are thus many instances where one parliamentary back-bencher or another longs for increased Cupertino between nations. Since then, linguists have adopted the word cupertino as a term of art for such trapdoors that have been assimilated into the language.

In the two decades since Hachamovitch moved from the manual coding of corrections like judgement to his loftier executive role in the ambit of data science, autocorrect has followed suit. Autocorrection is no longer an overqualified intern drawing up lists of directives; it’s now a vast statistical affair in which petabytes of public words are examined to decide when a usage is popular enough to become a probabilistically savvy replacement. The work of the autocorrect team has been made algorithmic and outsourced to the cloud.

I was temporarily derailed by “He clearly takes a marmish pride in the artifacts,” having never seen the word marmish and not finding it in my dictionaries; Urban Dictionary says “Conservative to the point of being boring, dull or ugly; usually referring to a manner of dress and/or personality,” which doesn’t really make sense here, but I get the general idea. What really took me aback was “As someone who typed the entire first draft of his book on a phone…” Seriously? The twenty-first century is a weird place for those of us who didn’t grow up in it.