Archives for March 2015

How English Ruined Indian Literature.

The novelist Aatish Taseer had an impassioned piece in the NY Times recently about the effect of India’s linguistic hierarchy on both the job prospects of Indians and the country’s literature; some excerpts:

“English is not a language in India,” a friend once told me. “It is a class.” This friend, an aspiring Bollywood actor, knew firsthand what it meant to be from the wrong class. Absurd as it must sound, he was frequently denied work in the Hindi film industry for not knowing English. “They want you to walk in the door speaking English. Then if you switch to Hindi, they like it. Otherwise they say, ‘the look doesn’t fit.’ ” My friend, who comes from a small town in the Hindi-speaking north, knew very well why his look didn’t fit. He knew, too, from the example of dozens of upper-middle class, English-speaking actors, that the industry would rather teach someone with no Hindi the language from scratch than hire someone like him. […]

Two students I met in Varanasi encapsulated India’s tortured relationship with English. Both attended Benares Hindu University, which was founded in the early 20th century to unite traditional Indian learning with modern education from the West. Both students were symbols of the failure of this enterprise.

One of them, Vishal Singh, was a popular basketball player, devoted to Michael Jordan and Enfield motorbikes. He was two-thirds of the way through a degree in social sciences — some mixture of psychology, sociology and history. All of his classes were in English, but, over the course of a six-week friendship, I discovered to my horror that he couldn’t string together a sentence in the language. He was the first to admit that his education was a sham, but English was power. And if, in three years, he learned no more than a handful of basic sentences in English, he was still in a better position than the other student I came to know.

That student, Sheshamuni Shukla, studied classical grammar in the Sanskrit department. He had spent over a decade mastering rules of grammar set down by the ancient Indian grammarians some 2,000 years before. He spoke pure and beautiful Hindi; in another country, a number of careers might have been open to him. But in India, without English, he was powerless. Despite his grand education, he would be lucky to end up as a teacher or a clerk in a government office. He felt himself a prisoner of language. “Without English, there is no self-confidence,” he said.

In my own world — the world of English writing and publishing in India — the language has wrought neuroses of its own. India, over the past three decades, has produced many excellent writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes. […]

The Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky felt in the 19th century that the slavish imitation of European culture had created “a sort of duality in Russian life, consequently a lack of moral unity.” The Indian situation is worse; the Russians at least had Russian.

In the past, there were many successful Indian writers who were bi- and trilingual. Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in English and Bengali; Premchand, the short story writer and novelist, wrote in Hindi and Urdu; and Allama Iqbal wrote English prose and Persian and Urdu poetry[…]

But around the time of my parents’ generation, a break began to occur. Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone. The Indian languages never recovered.

I don’t know to what extent this bleak picture is exaggerated, but it certainly isn’t made up out of whole cloth, and I don’t know what the solution might be to the difficult reality it reflects. (Thanks, Kobi!)


Sweden adds gender-neutral pronoun to dictionary:

The official dictionary of the Swedish language will introduce a gender-neutral pronoun in April, editors at the Swedish Academy have announced.

“Hen” will be added to “han” (he) and “hon” (she) as one of 13,000 new words in the latest edition of the Swedish Academy’s SAOL. […]

The word “hen” was coined in the 1960s when the ubiquitous use of “han” (he) became politically incorrect, and was aimed at simplifying the language and avoiding the clumsy “han/hon” (s/he) construction.

But the word never really took hold.

It resurfaced around 2000, when the country’s small transgender community latched on to it, and its use has taken off in the past few years.

It can now be found in official texts, court rulings, media texts and books, and has begun to lose some of its feminist-activist connotation.

If the Swedes don’t have an easy and traditional form comparable to “they,” this seems like an excellent idea, and I’m glad it’s catching on. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)

Some Links.

1) What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like. James Harbeck’s conceit is “Let’s hop into a time machine and go back to the England of yore!” He makes stops at Shakespeare (a sonnet read by Ben Crystal), Chaucer (read by Diane Jones), a century earlier (a Middle English song performed by the Anonymous 4), and Beowulf; don’t get excited (as I did) when the machine goes back to the time of King Arthur — there’s no reconstructed Old Brythonic. Instead, we get the Breton singer Nolwenn Leroy singing about three young sailors. And the video clips are in the wrong order, which is a bit annoying. But it’s worth it to hear Benjamin Bagby’s stentorian rendition of “Hwæt! We Gardena…”

2) Stan Carey has a nice post about Yeats’s handwriting (which “resembles a mouse’s electrocardiogram” according to Daniel Albright), spelling, and punctuation, featuring a quote from Albright’s preamble to the Everyman Library edition of Yeats’s poems which he edited:

[…] I suppose that Yeats was too ignorant of punctuation to make his deviations from standard practice significant. Although Yeats surely wished to make his canon a text worthy of reverence, he conceived poetry as an experience of the ear, not of the eye. He could not spell even simple English words; he went to his grave using such forms as intreage [‘intrigue’] and proffesrship. His eyesight was so poor that he gave up fiction-writing because the proof-reading was too strenuous. Finally, Yeats himself admitted, ‘I do not understand stops. I write my work so completely for the ear that I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas’.

3) The wilderness library, by P. Sainath: “At 73, P.V. Chinnathambi runs one of the loneliest libraries anywhere. In the middle of the forested wilderness of Kerala’s Idukki district, the library’s 160-books — all classics — are regularly borrowed, read, and returned by poor, Muthavan adivasis.” Great photos. (Thanks, Trevor!)

4) The meaning and origin of the expression: At sixes and sevens. says about all that can be said about this mysterious phrase. (Thanks, Paul!)

Lit Long: Edinburgh.

A Guardian piece by Nicola Davis describes an enticing project:

From Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s maverick schoolteacher, to Edward Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s alter ego villain, Edinburgh has long provided a backdrop for some of literature’s most enigmatic characters. Now a digital initiative is offering you the chance to explore the city’s streets through the eyes of the authors they inspired.

Launching on Monday, Lit Long: Edinburgh has an online interactive map that pinpoints the locations referred to in narrative extracts. “We wanted to find a way to look at the sedimented literary history of Edinburgh in a new way,” says Professor James Loxley of Edinburgh University, who led the work. By applying filters to the map, it is possible to narrow the extracts – depicted, appropriately enough, with a quill – to works based on keywords, titles or authors.

“Grassmarket, for example, is linked to a host of extracts including a grim description of the gallows from Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian: ‘This ill-omened apparition was of great height, with a scaffold surrounding it, and a double ladder placed against it, for the ascent of the unhappy criminal and executioner’.”

That “Lit Long: Edinburgh” link takes you to the Palimpsest project, “a 15-month programme by the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, and the Edina data centre.” The actual Lit Long: Edinburgh site will launch Monday, and I for one am looking forward to exploring it; this kind of mix of literary history and geography is one of the things the internet was made for. (Thanks, Eric!)

A Gray Wrinkled Vastness.

I’ve finally started Wolf Hall, as various readers have been urging me to do for some years now, and I’m as gripped by it as I expected to be. I’ve come down with a bad cold, so I won’t try to say anything clever about it, I’ll just quote the last paragraph of the first chapter (“Across the Narrow Sea, 1500”). Thomas Cromwell, not yet fifteen, is fleeing his native Putney to escape his terrifyingly brutal father, crossing from Dover to Calais; Kat is his (older, married) sister:

The weather is cold but the sea is flat. Kat has given him a holy medal to wear. He has slung it around his neck with a cord. It makes a chill against the skin of his throat. He unloops it. He touches it with his lips, for luck. He drops it; it whispers into the water. He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.

A passage like that is all it takes to make me happy to follow wherever its author wants to take me.

Incidentally, if anyone’s wondering what I’m reading to my wife these days (I realized on the first page that Wolf Hall was not suitable bedtime reading), it’s Barchester Towers. We’re both enjoying it greatly, so we’ll probably be occupied with Trollope for quite some time to come.

Don’t Try So Hard.

Anne Trafton of the MIT News Office had a report last July on an interesting study:

In a new study, a team of neuroscientists and psychologists led by Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, has found evidence for another factor that contributes to adults’ language difficulties: When learning certain elements of language, adults’ more highly developed cognitive skills actually get in the way. The researchers discovered that the harder adults tried to learn an artificial language, the worse they were at deciphering the language’s morphology — the structure and deployment of linguistic units such as root words, suffixes, and prefixes.

“We found that effort helps you in most situations, for things like figuring out what the units of language that you need to know are, and basic ordering of elements. But when trying to learn morphology, at least in this artificial language we created, it’s actually worse when you try,” Finn says. […]

Linguists have known for decades that children are skilled at absorbing certain tricky elements of language, such as irregular past participles (examples of which, in English, include “gone” and “been”) or complicated verb tenses like the subjunctive.

“Children will ultimately perform better than adults in terms of their command of the grammar and the structural components of language — some of the more idiosyncratic, difficult-to-articulate aspects of language that even most native speakers don’t have conscious awareness of,” Finn says.

In 1990, linguist Elissa Newport hypothesized that adults have trouble learning those nuances because they try to analyze too much information at once. Adults have a much more highly developed prefrontal cortex than children, and they tend to throw all of that brainpower at learning a second language. This high-powered processing may actually interfere with certain elements of learning language.

You can read more about how the study worked at the link; unfortunately, “Still unresolved is the question of whether adults can overcome this language-learning obstacle.”

Chronologicon Hibernicum.

Colm Moriarty’s Irish Archaeology blog has a post on a wonderful project:

Funding of €1.8 million by has been secured from the European Research Council for a project that will date a large number of 7th–10th century Irish texts.

Professor Stifter, Head of Maynooth University Department of Early Irish, will lead a team of five researchers on the project known as Chronologicon Hibernicum. This will develop and use innovative methodologies and sophisticated software to perform linguistic analysis on a large body of early medieval texts. By looking for subtle changes in the language over the centuries and by applying advanced statistical methods, Prof Stifter will be able to profile language variations in texts of that period.

The major result will be a ChronHib database, which will serve as the key reference point for the linguistic dating of Irish texts and will then provide a model for other old languages in Europe and beyond. Prof Stifter said researchers around the world will be able to use these new dating methods in a way similar to how tree-rings serve as chronological indicators in archaeology. […]

Such a database is a great idea in any case, but I find it especially exciting because of my love for Old Irish (incomprehensible to anyone who prefers their languages reasonably regular and comprehensible). Thanks, Trevor!

How To Be Funny In Sanskrit.

Suhas Mahesh has begun what looks like a very interesting column for Swarajya, How To Be Funny In Sanskrit:

[…] But Sanskrit is only one facet of the language tradition of India. There are her daughters and foster daughters too: the vernaculars, who are fulgent with best qualities of the mother. The fiercely independent Tamil is a giant in her own right. Together, they form a wonderful language ecosystem— a diversity of languages from different families, each independent, yet together in orbit around a mother-language from whom they have derived (and continue to derive) vocabulary, grammar and inspiration. […]

This weekly jaunt, starting today, will be my own word-offering— A guided tour through some of the choicest verses from bhāratīya-kāvya-paramparā. While on the road, we shall also divagate a bit into the territories of etymology and historical linguistics, and perhaps make brief halts to pay homage at the altars of two sister tongues, ancient Greek and Latin.

Thanks, Dinesh!

Anton kowolski vicki Chekhov.

This has been posted on the Slavic academic listserv SEELANGS, and I thought it was intriguing enough to repost here:

A few weeks ago I received a draft of a paper from a student who is a native speaker of Mandarin. The first line read: “Anton kowolski vicki Chekhov, as one of the most famous Russian short stories writer in the late nineteenth century Russian society, is valued highly and respectfully by lots of critics, scholars and historians.”

When I googled the phrase “Anton kowolski vicki Chekhov,” I found a Chinese edition that refers to him by this name.

Does anyone have any ideas about why the Chinese might call him by this name? One of my colleagues suggested that “vicki” might be some form of the patronymic ending “-ovich,” but that still leaves “kowolski” unaccounted for. (If I’m not mistaken, “Kowalski” is essentially the Polish equivalent of “Smith” (which in Russian would be Kuznetsov, I guess), but that doesn’t seem to answer my question.)

I also briefly considered the possibility that this was a matronymic of some sort, but I rejected that interpretation when I realized that Chekhov’s mother’s name was Evgeniia Iakovlevna Chekhova (nee Morozova), and not Vicky Kowalski (although I’m pretty sure that I went to high school with a Vicky Kowalski).

Any thoughts?

I join the poster in asking: Any thoughts? (Thanks, Caroline!)

Trilby Before du Maurier.

I’m reading an 1846 story by Elena Kube called “Oksana”; it’s your standard-issue tale of a young aristocrat who falls for and abandons a peasant girl, but it has a lovingly detailed description of hunting in the steppe that is a surprise coming from the pen of a woman (like most women authors of the day, she published under a name that did not reveal her gender, in this case “E. Kube”; in 1850 she married Alexander Veltman, and though her writing enjoyed some success in its day, notably her 1867 novel Priklyucheniya korolevicha Gustava Irikovicha, zhenikha tsarevny Ksenii Godunovoi [The adventures of the king’s son Gustav Eriksson, bridegroom of the tsarevna Xenia Godunova], she became even more thoroughly forgotten than her husband). At any rate, when I hit the phrase “влюбленному Трильби” (‘Trilby in love’) I did a classic double-take. For an instant I thought “Ah yes, Trilby,” with that faint burst of pleasure we get from recognizing an allusion; then I thought “Wait a minute, this is half a century too early for du Maurier’s Trilby — what’s going on?” Furthermore, влюбленному is a masculine adjective, and du Maurier’s Trilby is famously a young woman (with whom all the men are in love).

So I did some research and discovered that there was a much earlier Trilby; I will quote the jovial descripton by the Listener, a columnist for the Boston Evening Transcript (Dec. 1, 1894, quoted in Trilbyana, the Rise and Progress of a Popular Novel, p. 38):

The Listener was asked the other day where du Maurier got the name of Trilby — a sweet and pleasant word, neither English nor French, which seemed to suit so perfectly the adorable young person of his creation. He was able to answer, more by accident certainly than as the result of erudition, that the name was not invented by du Maurier but belongs to the French classics — possibly to Scottish folklore. In the year 1822 there was first published in Paris a nouvelle by Charles Nodier, afterward a member of the French Academy, entitled, “Trilby, or the Fay of Argyle”; it was a sort of fairy story, in which a fay is in love with a mortal woman, and the woman is very far from being indifferent to his sentiment. This ‘Trilby’ attained a considerable degree of popularity; it became, indeed, a French classic; Sainte-Beuve has particularly praised the charm of its style. * * * In his preface to the story, Nodier says: ‘The subject of this story is derived from a preface or a note to one of the romances of Sir Walter Scott, I do not know which one.’ This is a very indefinite acknowledgment. While Nodier may have got his subject from Scott, the Listener doubts if he got the name ‘Trilby’ from him. It is just the sort of name that a French writer would give to a Scotch fay. Nevertheless, Trilby may be a real Scotch elfin. The Listener would hardly claim personal acquaintance with them all.

I should add that Nodier’s novella (Trilby, ou le lutin d’Argail, to give it its original title) provided the inspiration for the ballet La Sylphide (in which Nodier’s male lutin becomes a female sylphide), and of course I would be remiss as a hat man if I did not add the following information about du Maurier’s Trilby from Wikipedia:

The novel has been adapted to the stage several times; one of these featured the lead actress wearing a distinctive short-brimmed hat with a sharp snap to the back of the brim. The hat became known as the trilby and went on to become a popular men’s clothing item in the United Kingdom throughout various parts of the 20th century.

(We discussed the American equivalent, the fedora, here.)