Archives for October 2014

He Got the Job.

From Timothy Garton Ash’s NYRB review of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton (incidentally, I find the title odd, seeming to place censorship in an antique past — I would have gone with “Have Shaped” or “Shape”):

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Compare James Murray‘s failure to get a job with the British Museum Library three decades earlier.

Linguistic Family Tree.

We’re all used to the idea of the tree as a model of development through time, whether of species or languages, but rarely is it portrayed so strikingly as in Minna Sundberg’s gorgeous rendering (from the site for her webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent). The only quibble I might have is that it appears (from the connection of the root systems) to support the Indo-Uralic hypothesis, but what the heck, so did my dissertation director Warren Cowgill, so who am I to quibble? A tip of the Languagehat hat to Arika Okrent at Mental Floss.

Modern Languages Open.

The latest XIX век post informs me, and I am informing you, of a wonderful new venture, a free, peer-reviewed, online journal called Modern Languages Open. The inaugural issue has all sorts of interesting-sounding stuff, like “Reading Intermediality: Lorca’s Viaje a la luna (“Journey to the Moon,” 1929) and Un chien andalou (Buñuel/Dalí, 1929)” by Paul Julian Smith, but of course I’m most drawn to the Russian material, “New UK Research in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature” by Katherine Bowers, “Topographic Transmissions and How To Talk About Them: The Case of the Southern Spa in Nineteenth-Century Russian Fiction” by Benjamin Morgan, “Dostoevsky and the Politics of Parturition” by Muireann Maguire, and “The Image of the Jesuit in Russian Literary Culture of the Nineteenth Century” by Elizabeth Harrison; I look forward to exploring them all when the pressure of work eases a bit. As Erik says, “To get the article pdfs, you need to create an account, but it’s quick, doesn’t ask for much, and offers you the chance to sign up as a reader, author, and/or reviewer.”

Afghanistan’s Battlefield Slang.

War slang is always interesting; I’m familiar with the lexicon of Vietnam (being the grandfatherly baby boomer that I am), but I wasn’t up on the equivalent for UK troops in Afghanistan, so I was glad to find this BBC News piece. Soldiers, like mathematicians and jazz musicians, are masters at brilliant repurposing of ordinary words, e.g.:

ALLY Term for a battlefield fashionista – desirables include having a beard, using a different rifle, carrying vast amounts of ammunition, being dusty and having obscene amounts of tattoos and hair. Special forces are automatically Ally.
[N.b.: This does not actually belong under this heading; as ajay explains in the comments, it is not the word ally but an abbreviation for alumin(i)um, and rhymes with “valley.”]

CROW New soldier recently out of training. Hardly a term of endearment.

And abbreviations are always in fashion: HLS Helicopter Landing Site, IDF Indirect fire, TIC Troops in Contact (used to relay over radio when troops come under fire). But they don’t explain the origin of BARMA “Drills and procedures for searching for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), normally using a vallon detector”; anybody know?

Leister and Glutton.

I’m currently editing a book on the prehistory of Scandinavia, and as usually happens with specialized works, I’m picking up some new vocabulary. Both these words looked like they might be typos, but a dip into the dictionary validated them.

A leister (pronounced LEE-ster) is a three-pronged spear used in fishing, and the AHD says it’s “Probably from Old Norse ljōstr, from ljōsta, to strike,” referring the reader to the PIE root *leu- ‘to loosen, divide’ (which gives us loose and lorn, among other words). The last citation in the OED entry (from 1902) is:
1895 Chambers’s Jrnl. 12 753/2 a poacher and as a great hand at the leister in autumn.

Glutton, as used in the book, is (in the words of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary) an “old-fashioned term for wolverine,” and I queried the author suggesting the use of that word instead. The first and last OED citations (entry from 1900):
1674 A. Cremer tr. J. Scheffer Hist. Lapland 134 The Gluttons..have a round head, strong and sharp teeth, like a Wolfs..some compare it to the Otter, but it is far greedier than he, for thence it gets its name.
1869 J. Lubbock Prehist. Times (ed. 2) ix. 295 The glutton, or wolverine..has been found in three of the English bone-caves.

Form and Shape in Maimonides.

Ludwik Kowalski posted the following question at

A theological paper that I am reading contains the following:

“… Thirdly, there are those creations, which have form but no shape. These are angels, which have no bodies, but whose form vary from angel to angel.”

What is the meaning of the words “form” and “shape” in this context?

English is not my native language. But my impression is that these two words are synonyms […]. Am I wrong?

I responded:

You can’t depend on the ordinary/dictionary senses of words when reading theological works; you need to be familiar with the technical vocabulary used in that particular tradition. In this case, it’s more complicated, because if (as I suspect) you are quoting Maimonides then it is a question of how the translator rendered particular terms in the original Arabic and how those original terms are used in the tradition Maimonides was working in and expected his readers to be familiar with.

Kowalski confirmed that he was reading Maimonides, and I was hoping that someone more knowledgeable than I in the vocabulary of Judeo-Arabic medieval philosophy (that is to say, with any knowledge at all) would explain it, but that hasn’t happened so far, so I thought I’d repost the question here and see if anyone knows. (I did, after all, get some very helpful answers to my question about the phrase sub specie aeternitatis a couple of years ago.)

Happy 100th, John Berryman!

Sam Leith at the Guardian (this seems to be Guardian day at LH) has a wonderful appreciation of John Berryman, one of my favorite American poets, who would have turned 100 yesterday; as I told my brother, who sent me the link (thanks, Eric!), I have two copies of The Dream Songs (one of which is a gift from PF when he visited me in Peekskill a decade or so ago — thanks, PF!), and I should take them down a lot more often. Here’s a taste of Leith’s essay:

Berryman is (relatively) unusual among poets because he’s funny. Daniel Swift, who has edited some handsome centenary reissues of Berryman’s work for Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US (Faber, feebly, isn’t marking the occasion in the UK), suggests that his status as a minor major poet – his not quite getting his due – is in part down to this. People still don’t think funny poets are as important as the non-funny kind. But Berryman is the proper sort of funny: the funny that is involved with heartbreak. His friend Lowell called him a “great Pierrot … poignant, abrasive, anguished, humorous” – and that seems to me an unimprovable description of the mix. The Dream Songs is a slapstick Book of Job. Most of what you might call the Greatest Hits – the lines and poem chunks most quoted in isolation – are funny. “Life, friends, is boring …”; “Bats have no bankers and they do not drink / and cannot be arrested and pay no tax / and, in general, bats have it made”; “Bright-eyed & bushy-tailed woke not Henry up”; “If I had to do the whole thing over again / I wouldn’t.”

One of his lines – even though I have no idea to what it refers – makes me laugh every time I think of it.

   – Are you radioactive, pal?
   – Pal, radioactive.
   – Has you the night sweats & the daysweats, pal?
   – Pal, I do.
   – Did your gal leave you?
   – What do you think, pal?
   – Is that thing on the front of your head what it seems to be, pal?
   – Yes, pal.

(That’s the end of Dream Song 51. Incidentally, there’s a typo in the last paragraph — Berryman committed suicide in 1972, not 1977.)

Writings from the Edge of Language.

From the Guardian, Philip Gross’s top 10 writings from the edge of language (2010) is a mixture of things I already know and love (“The Waste Land”), things I know about and have been meaning to investigate (Riddley Walker), and things I’d never heard of but suddenly want to read:

5. Keeping Mum / Llofrudd Iaith by Gwyneth Lewis

These are two books, or the same book written separately in Welsh and in English, by a major bilingual poet whose collections can be multi-layered as a novel. The Welsh title means The Language Murderer; set partly in a psychiatric hospital, it is also a detective story, investigating deep harms done by loss of language, celebrating survival in the end.

6. A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty by Frank Kuppner

Not so much a translation as a witty teasing of the mannerisms of translation… This wry philosophical Glaswegian-Polish poet gives us an imaginary ancient Chinese text whose square bracketed lacunae [something something something] come alive with hints and echoes.

And Gross’s introduction to the list is well worth reading in its own right:

“I’ve just got back from Friesland / Fryslân in the north of Holland, hearing a language spoken that is so close to English that it’s like looking at a face through a rain-drenched window. One good wipe, you feel, and you’d know them. Now I’m about to drive from south to north Wales, where two languages lie alongside each other, oil and water, mixed rather than merged. I don’t speak Welsh or West Frisian – no other language, in fact, well enough to dream or write a poem in it – but that ragged edge of language is familiar to me.

“I grew up with it: on the one hand, English, on the other, my father’s language – he was a wartime refugee from Estonia – which he never spoke. […]

Via the indispensable wood s lot (whose proprietor, Mark Woods, takes wonderful photographs that adorn many of his posts).

Arabic Harder to Read than Hebrew?

Or Kashti of Haaretz reports on a study that suggests that Hebrew speakers can read their native language more quickly than Arabic speakers can read theirs:

The study, conducted over the last three years, examined the speed and efficacy with which Hebrew and Arabic speakers read texts in their native languages. The texts were taken from two standardized tests, the psychometric exam and the international PISA exam.

Arabic, unlike Hebrew, is a diglossic language, meaning the oral language is different from the written (literary) one. The difference between spoken and written Arabic is so great, the researchers wrote, “that acquisition of the written language could be defined as acquiring a second language” – which in turn could influence “the development of linguistic mechanisms necessary for reading.”

Another difference is that Arabic orthography – meaning the shape of the letters and the use of diacritical marks – is more complex than that of Hebrew, making it harder to read. […]

This is one of the first studies to examine differences in reading ability among adults who have already mastered their mother tongue, as opposed to children.

The researchers found that, on average, Arabic speakers need seven seconds longer than Hebrew speakers to read 200 words aloud, while reading a 200-word text silently takes them about 16 seconds longer. And not only do Hebrew speakers read faster, but they also read more accurately, the study found.

These gaps cannot be explained by cognitive differences among the students or by other variables like parental education or socioeconomic status, the researchers said.

“The difference in reading efficiency stems from the differing speed of deciphering words in each language, something that’s apparently directly connected to the orthographic structure of the Arabic language and the fact that it’s a diglossic language,” Ibrahim said. “Reading in Arabic simply doesn’t reach the requisite level of automation, as it does for Hebrew or English readers.”

This raises all sorts of questions and requires various caveats (Prof. Rafiq Ibrahim says they should stop using texts translated from English or Hebrew on the Arabic exam), but it’s interesting enough I thought I’d pass it along and see what people have to say. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Use It or Lose It.

We all know that babies are voracious learners and easily acquire language and that it gets harder to learn as you grow older, but this Guardian article by Nathalia Gjersoe puts it memorably (and doubtless oversimplifies the science) in the course of debunking the myth that the average person only uses 10% of their brain:

But resources are limited and the brain is incredibly hungry. It takes a huge amount of energy just to keep it electrically ticking over. There is an excellent TEDEd animation here that explains this nicely. The human adult brain makes up only 2% of the body’s mass yet uses 20% of energy intake. Babies’ brains use 60%! Evolution would necessarily cull any redundant parts of such an expensive organ.

From studying the development of the brain in babies, scientists know that pruning back connections can be just as important as forming them. Shortly after a baby is born there is an exuberant proliferation of connectivity between the neurons followed by rampant pruning of pathways that are underused. During peak pruning periods, it has been estimated that as many as 100,000 connections may be eliminated per second. This is the second principle of neural connectivity: use it or lose it!

As an example, all babies are able to discriminate any language phoneme (the basic sounds that make up a language) until 6 months of age. After this they become increasingly tuned in to just those phonemes used by their local language. This enables babies to more swiftly learn their native tongue. Japanese does not distinguish between |l| and |r| so adult English-learners struggle to even hear the difference between these two phonemes.

Any unused parts of the brain quickly die off to free up resources needed to strengthen those connections that are most often used. This tunes the brain to be exquisitely well adapted to specifically the environment it finds itself in. In this light, the idea that 90% of the brain is lying dormant, waiting for some product, program or drug to access it, seems ludicrous.

Thanks for the link, Bathrobe!

Addendum: A useful companion piece is this New Scientist review by Alun Anderson of The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct by Vyvyan Evans, which sounds like a good book:

The commonplace view of “language as instinct” is the myth Evans wants to destroy and he attempts the operation with great verve. The myth comes from the way children effortlessly learn languages just by listening to adults around them, without being aware explicitly of the governing grammatical rules.

This “miracle” of spontaneous learning led Chomsky to argue that grammar is stored in a module of the mind, a “language acquisition device”, waiting to be activated, stage-by-stage, when an infant encounters the jumble of language. The rules behind language are built into our genes. […]

They may have been chasing a mirage. Evans marshals impressive empirical evidence to take apart different facets of the “language instinct myth”. A key criticism is that the more languages are studied, the more their diversity becomes apparent and an underlying universal grammar less probable.

And the hat tip for that link goes to John Emerson.