Archives for February 2015

Some Links.

1) The late, great Leonard Nimoy talks about his Jewish background (growing up in a neighborhood of Boston much like my late friend Allan Herman’s Bensonhurst, a mix of Italian and Jewish), occasionally breaking into Yiddish; funny and moving. Thanks, Paul!

2- Also via Paul, the Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew Language: a new website, and now free!

3) Xaq Rzetelny’s “Lots of users mean languages gain more words“: “The results don’t explain why smaller populations lose words more quickly while large populations are faster gainers. But the researchers point out that their results are consistent with random drift leading to word loss in the smaller populations and with more word innovations in the larger populations leading to faster word gain.”

4) K. David Harrison’s “Manx’s Surprising Revival“:

In the 1980s, activists who had learned Manx as adults launched a bold social experiment. They raised their children bilingually, speaking exclusively Manx to them in the home, and letting them speak English elsewhere. These children, now grown, are the “new native speakers.”

Today, seventy Manx children, mostly from English-speaking homes, attend Bunscoill Ghaelgagh immersion school. Led by educator Julie Matthews, eager pupils sing Manx songs, skip rope to Manx rhymes, and study science and mathematics in their heritage tongue.

As early adopters of technology, the Manx have created iPhone apps, learning videos and social media sites. They text, podcast, and even translate movies into Manx using the subtitling platform Technology extends Manx’s reach far beyond the island. As Rob Teare notes : “Now there’s no physical restraint on the language. It’s global.”

Thanks to Stephen Johnson for the link!

Rewilding the Language.

Robert Macfarlane has a wonderful Guardian piece on how he came to write his new book Landmarks:

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”. […]

I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. I wanted to answer Norman MacCaig’s entreaty in his Luskentyre poem: “Scholars, I plead with you, / Where are your dictionaries of the wind … ?” […]

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Crucially, he says “I am wary of the dangers of fetishising dialect and archaism – all that mollocking and sukebinding Stella Gibbons spoofed so brilliantly in Cold Comfort Farm“; this saves him from the folly of a Robert Bridges (see this LH post). He doesn’t make exaggerated claims for his collection; he just thinks it would be better if we retained more verbal ties with the landscape around us, and I can’t argue with that. And he ends with the tale of Abdal Hamid Fitzwilliam-Hall, who “decided to begin gathering place words from the Arabic dialects, before they were swept away forever. But his task soon began to grip him with the force of an obsession, and he moved into neighbouring Semitic and African-Eurasian languages, then to the Romance, Celtic, Germanic, Nordic and Slavic language families, and then backwards in time to the first Sumerian cuneiform records of c3100 BCE.” That, I fear, suggests full-blown crackpottery, or Casaubonism; Macfarlane is merely a man who loves words and wants to share them. I intend to remember and use ammil and smeuse myself. (Thanks, Michael!)

What Kind of Spy?

Anatoly Vorobey has a post discussing Freeman Dyson’s NYRB review “Scientist, Spy, Genius: Who Was Bruno Pontecorvo?” and in particular the linguistic analysis foregrounded in Dyson’s opening paragraphs:

“I want to die as a great scientist, not as your fucked spy.” These words were spoken in Russian by Bruno Pontecorvo a year before his death in 1993, in reply to a Russian government official who was trying to arrange for a visiting historian to interview him. They come as close as Pontecorvo ever came to confirming the widespread belief that he had been spying for the Soviet Union when he was working at the Canadian nuclear reactor project in the 1940s.

The words vash jebanyi shpion describe the way he did not wish to be remembered. In Half-Life, his new biography of Pontecorvo, the particle physicist Frank Close translates them as “your fucking spy,” which misses the precise meaning. Pontecorvo was certainly aware of the precise meaning of the word when he used it. It describes his emotional reaction to the way he was treated by the Russians as well as by the Western media. It gives us a glimpse of the inner turmoil that he successfully concealed from his family and friends. He was undoubtedly a great scientist. Whether he was a spy is still open to question.

As Anatoly says, Close is right and Dyson is wrong: though “ваш ебаный шпион” technically “means” ‘your fucked spy,’ the participle ебаный [yobany] being a passive one, translating it that way is incorrect. In this context, “ебаный” has a purely emphatic sense, precisely like English “fucking,” and “your fucking spy” is the correct way to render the phrase in English. Anatoly goes on to write:

Дайсон неправ, и его ошибка тут очень типична для понимания неродного языка, даже такого, который хорошо выучил. Когда нам встречается фраза типа “ебаный шпион”, нам помогает ее понять богатый языковой опыт, накопленный за много лет – в течение которых мы снова и снова слышали “ебаный такой-то, ебаный сякой-то” и усвоили, насколько в этой конструкции нивелирован буквальный смысл.

Dyson is wrong, and his mistake here is quite typical for understanding of a language that is not one’s own, even if one has learned it well. When we [native Russian speakers] encounter a phrase like “ебаный шпион,” we are helped to understand it by a rich linguistic experience accumulated over many years in the course of which we have heard again and again “ебаный this, ебаный that” and have assimilated the extent to which in this construction the literal sense is leveled.

I am happy to say that thanks to my determined immersion over the years in all registers of Russian (and particular credit goes to my unbelievably foul-mouthed ’90s pal Anatoly Lifshits, who included at least one блядь in every sentence) I instinctively knew the force of the word here and would never have dreamed of translating it Dyson’s way. (I hope someone writes a letter of correction and they print it; Russian obscenity is important stuff!)

This problem with a passive participle reminds me of a recent e-mail I sent to Sashura:

My wife gave me the English translation of Annenkov’s «Замечательное десятилетие. 1838–1848» for Christmas, and I’ve been happily reading along. Then I got to this, from chapter VIII:

Thus, Belinsky argued against the critic of the Moscow Observer of 1836 when the latter, in some strange fit of enthusiasm, declared that supposedly for the sake of the single expression “I hear” which burst from the lips of Taras Bulba in answer to the exclamation of his son, his torturer and executioner, “Do you hear this, father?” […]

I immediately said “What?!” and managed to find the Russian original online:

Так, Белинский опровергал критика «Московского наблюдателя» 1836 года, когда тот, в странном энтузиазме, объявил, будто за одно «слышу», вырвавшееся из уст Тараса Бульбы в ответ на восклицание казнимого и мучимого сына: «Слышишь ли ты это, отец мой?» […]

I’m not sure which is worse, the failure to understand the Russian or the fact that poor Irwin Titunik, the translator, clearly had no idea of the plot of Taras Bulba!

Sashura was tickled enough to make a post of it (in Russian); you can read a plot summary of Taras Bulba, and see that the son Ostap was tortured rather than torturing, here.

Palindromes at Bletchley.

Palindromist Magazine editor Mark Saltveit sent me a link to his article “The Palindrome Game of the Enigma Codebreakers,” a must-read for anyone interested in either palindromes or the famous “imitation game” codebreakers of Bletchley Park. A sample:

Few are aware that in their spare time, these same codebreakers held a competition that created several of the finest English-language palindromes, those sentences that read the same backward and forward.

Peter Hilton, the young math student who (in the film, anyway) had a brother on a doomed Royal Navy convoy, won by writing what many consider the best palindrome ever:

      Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

Not only is this masterpiece concise, confident and just odd enough to get a chuckle, it remains excellent dietary advice some 70 years later. It took most people 60 of those years to finally accept the futility of dieting.

Incredibly, the young codebreaker did not use paper or pencil while composing his epic palindrome. He simply lay on his bed, eyes closed, and assembled it in his mind over one long night. It took him five hours.

(Palindromes previously at LH.)

Mumbling as Data Compression.

Julie Sedivy has an interesting post at Nautilus:

Far from being a symptom of linguistic indifference or moral decay, dropping or reducing sounds displays an underlying logic similar to the data-compression schemes that are used to create MP3s and JPEGs. These algorithms trim down the space needed to digitally store sounds and images by throwing out information that is redundant or doesn’t add much to our perceptual experience—for example, tossing out data at sound frequencies we can’t hear, or not bothering to encode slight gradations of color that are hard to see. The idea is to keep only the information that has the greatest impact.

Mumbling—or phonetic reduction, as language scientists prefer to call it—appears to follow a similar strategy. Not all words are equally likely to be reduced. In speech, you’re more likely to reduce common words like fine than uncommon words like tine. You’re also more likely to reduce words if they’re predictable in the context, so that the word fine would be pronounced less distinctly in a sentence like “You’re going to be just fine” than “The last word in this sentence is fine.” This suggests that speakers, at a purely unconscious level, strategically preserve information when it’s needed, but often leave it out when it doesn’t offer much communicative payoff. Speaking is an effortful, cognitively expensive activity, and by streamlining where they can, speakers may ultimately produce better-designed, more fluent sentences. […]

The notion of strategic laziness, in which effort and informational value are judiciously balanced against each other, scales up beyond individual speakers to entire languages, helping to explain why they have certain properties. For example, it offers some insight into why languages tolerate massive amounts of ambiguity in their vocabularies: Speakers can recycle easy-to-pronounce words and phrases to take on multiple meanings, in situations where listeners can easily recover the speaker’s intent. It has also been invoked to explain the fact that across languages, the most common words tend to be short, carrying minimal amounts of phonetic information, and to account for why languages adopt certain word orders.

There are links to papers backing up various points mentioned, and a nice zinger at the end.


Over at the Log, Mark Liberman quotes a spiky and suggestive short story by D. Barthelme, “They Called for More Structure.” He does so in the context of an analogy to syntax in machine translation that is neither comprehensible nor interesting to me; what is interesting to me is the punchline of the story, where the workers “saw the new city spread out beneath us, in the shape of the word FASTIGIUM. Not the name of the city, they told us, simply a set of letters selected for the elegance of the script.” Huh, I thought, I studied Latin and I don’t remember the word fastigium. So I looked it up in my handy paperback dictionary and found this farrago of senses: “gable; pediment; roof, ceiling; slope; height, elevation, top, edge; depth, depression; finish, completion; rank, dignity; main point, heading, highlight (of story, etc.).” This is how you can tell if you really like a language: if I were dealing with a Greek or Russian word, I would be pleased at the complex semantics, but since it’s Latin I just groan and think “Does any language really need a word like that?” (The first i is long, by the way, and apparently there is no clear etymology.)

It’s been borrowed into English (per the OED in an entry first published in 1895 and not updated since) in the senses “The apex or summit; spec. in Archit. the ridge of a house,” “The gable end (of a roof); a pediment,” and “The acme or highest state of intensity (of a disease)”; the last is the only sense given in the AHD.


Russian, like every language, has traditional bits of verbiage brought out to annoy one’s interlocutor, and one of my favorites is the response to an overly inquisitive or insistent “Почему?” ‘Why?’: “По кочану!” ‘[Knock you] on the head!’ ‘A head of cabbage each!’ Semantics are irrelevant; say /pəčə’mu pəkəča’nu/ a few times and you’ll get the idea. Other such are “Откуда?/ От верблюда!” ‘From where?/ From the camel!’ and “Где?/ В Караганде!” ‘Where?/ In Karaganda!’ In English, we respond to a “Why?” we prefer not to answer with “Because!” It occurred to me that similar exchanges must be current in other languages, and I wondered what they might be. Share ’em if you got ’em!

Lurie and Oksman.

I’ve finally finished Samuil Lurie’s “Изломанный аршин: Трактат с примечаниями” [The broken cubit-ruler: An annotated treatise] (see this post), and I’m rather at a loss as to what to say. It’s a brilliant and brilliantly written book (the reaction of many of Anatoly’s readers at his post — “LOL dude can barely write Russian, what’s he talking about, I don’t get it” — makes me despair of post-Soviet literacy), and ordinarily I’d urge you to read it, but 1) it’s heavily allusive and ironized (and thus makes for slow reading, with frequent pauses to look things up or shoot off e-mails asking for elucidation if you don’t happen to be Russian); 2) it’s about a forgotten figure who’s never going to regain even the modest prominence he deserves, so why bother (although it does have a clever detective-story aspect which I won’t spoil); and 3) it’s sad, sad, sad — it’s one thing to read fiction about pathetic characters ground down endlessly by fate, but when it’s a real person with real kids he’s trying to support, it leaves you feeling miserable.

In short: Nikolai Polevoy, an industrious editor, writer, and translator from the merchant class with a desire to improve the Russian Empire (which he loved! no revolutionary he!) according to the best Enlightenment principles, from 1825 to 1834 ran his own journal, Moskovskii telegraf (The Moscow Telegraph), so successfully he was one of the most popular literary figures in Russia. Then his journal was closed down (see the Wikipedia article for boring details) and for the next decade he was relentlessly hounded by the all-powerful reactionary Uvarov, who was so convinced, against all evidence and reason, that he was a dangerous revolutionary that even when Polevoy was dying and desperate he would not allow him to give public lectures on literature, and the all-powerful critic Belinsky, who, thinking that Polevoy had written a vaudeville play in which he was lampooned (a play Polevoy certainly didn’t write and apparently never even saw), spent a decade viciously attacking him and all his works in every available public venue — when a friend suggested after some years that perhaps it was time to let up a bit, that surely the sick and debt-ridden Polevoy had expiated whatever sins Belinsky held against him, responded with a long letter so stupefyingly vindictive and nasty that I think it would make me physically sick to translate it. Only after Polevoy’s death did Belinsky apparently have second thoughts; he wrote a long and laudatory obituary which (because everything of Belinsky’s became sacred writ for the Soviets) is the source of basically whatever little is remembered of this brave fighter for justice (as Belinsky justly called him, though Belinsky had spent years accusing him of being an ignorant hack who had sold himself to the powers of reaction and repression — which is particularly amusing since in the late 1830s Belinsky himself had been stoutly defending said powers of reaction and repression, due to his infamous “reconciliation with reality”).

So now you know the story. There’s lots of fascinating material about Pushkin and whales and the literary life of the 1830s and ’40s (it provides the perfect lead-in to Annenkov’s The Extraordinary Decade, which I’ll be reading next), and if the style appeals to you as it does to me (though clearly it doesn’t to everyone) it’s a pleasure to read, but I can’t recommend it. I want to close by paying tribute to a more recent figure Lurie mentions, Yulian Oksman. Oksman was a brilliant literary scholar who was arrested in 1936 because of a false denunciation (a common fate in those days), spent years at Kolyma, got another five years tacked on for “slandering Soviet justice,” was released in 1946, and resumed his career, eventually receiving the Belinsky Prize for his work on Belinsky. (You see the connection.) You’d think a man with such a past would keep his head down and stay out of trouble, but not Oksman; as soon as he was freed he began a long campaign against everyone in literary-scientific officialdom who had aided Yezhov, Beria, and the other butchers in creating the Terror; he called the denouncers by name at every meeting he could and demanded their expulsion from their posts. Furthermore, he established links with Western Slavicists and sent them the works of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and other Silver Age writers who were non-persons in their native land, as well as his own remembrances of them (he was of their generation, born in 1895). This annoyed the authorities enough that in 1963 a case was built against him; it didn’t wind up going to trial, but he was forcibly retired and thrown out of the Writers’ Union, and when he died in 1970 there was no mention in the Soviet press. I don’t really understand the reckless courage of people like that, but I’m glad they exist and I honor them.

Update (August 2015): Lurie died on Aug. 8; here‘s a touching reminiscence (in Russian) by Gasan Guseinov, and here‘s a picture from 2008.

Kids Today.

While I wait for my grandkids to grow up and start using the latest slang, I have to keep up as best I can via online sources, and Anne Curzan has a nice little piece called “Electronic Innovation >>>.” She’s writing about “the use of ‘>’ or ‘<’ in text as a way to compare an experience or item/mark an experience or item as either BEYOND good, or BEYOND bad”:

For example, Carlina’s friend had just posted a photo of a cheesecake and added the caption: “sugary life >>>>.” Carlina provided the following translation: “sugary life is better than anything else/sugary life is on-point right now.” (For those of you who do not use the slang term on point, its meanings include ‘excellent, gorgeous, sexy, stylish, perfect.’) She also provided the sample text: “people who feed squirrels <.”

It’s all new to Curzan, and all new to me; I’m particularly glad to know about on point, because I would have had a hard time figuring it out from context.

The Ode on Slate.

It’s been too long since we had any Mandelstam around here, so I thank Trevor for sending me Alistair Noon’s translation, with a very interesting introduction, of Mandelstam’s Грифельная ода (Slate Ode; the link is bilingual, and for some reason calls it “Graphite Ode”). This has got to be one of the knottiest poems ever written; Omry Ronen devotes 187 pages to it in his An Approach to Mandelstam, and I can’t imagine its being translated really successfully (God knows I’ve tried); the best I know of is Ilya Bernstein’s (see this LH post), which begins “From star to star — a mighty bond,/ The flinty path from the old ballad.” As I told Trevor about this translation, there are some nice lines but on the whole the rhythm didn’t convince me — I know I’m an idiosyncratic reader, but to me rhythm is as important in poetry as it is in music. But it’s a valiant attempt and well worth reading, and the introduction is full of good stuff, like:

I like poems I can come back to again and again over decades and discover ever more, not ever less in them. I won’t pretend to and I don’t want to have fathomed “The Ode on Slate,” but I am pretty sure that Mandelstam didn’t write the thing as (only) an exercise in exegesis. What you get, you get, what you don’t, you don’t. We aren’t in the exam room here. And there’s plenty else in the poem to ponder and enjoy in any case.

A good way to look at it.