Archives for August 2015

Charles Tomlinson, RIP.

I was shocked to learn from wood s lot that the wonderful poet Charles Tomlinson has died. As Michael Yong’s Bristol Post obituary says:

He was one of the first English men of letters to appreciate the great achievements of the American poets of the mid-20th century, particularly the work of William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Yvor Winters, Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen – all of whom he came to know personally – and his poetry showed from the start, particularly in its versification, a strong American influence.

That’s doubtless why Yanks like me responded so readily to his work (Wallace Stevens was another early influence). Go to the wood s lot link for Michael Schmidt’s Guardian obit and a beautiful pairing of Tomlinson’s short poem “Reeds” with a color photo by Mark Woods (the proprietor of the s lot); he also quotes a majestic longer poem which I will reproduce here as an appropriate read for this late-summer day:

        IV. The Fireflies

I have climbed blind the way down through the trees
(How faint the phosphorescence of the stones)
On nights when not a light showed on the bay
And nothing marked the line of sky and sea—
Only the beating of the heart defined
A space of being in the faceless dark,
The foot that found and won the path from blindness,
The hand, outstretched, that touched on branch and bark.
The soundless revolution of the stars
Brings back the fireflies and each constellation,
And we are here half-shielded from that height
Whose star-points feed the white lactation, far
Incandescence where the single star
Is lost to sight. This is a waiting time.
Those thirty, lived-out years were slow to rhyme
With consonances unforeseen, and, gone,
Were brief beneath the seasons and the sun.
We wait now on the absence of our dead,
Sharing the middle world of moving lights
Where fireflies taking torches to the rose
Hover at those clustered, half-lit porches,
Eyelid on closed eyelid in their glow
Flushed into flesh, then darkening as they go.
The adagio of lights is gathering
Across the sway and counter-lines as bay
And sky, contrary in motion, swerve
Against each other’s patternings, while these
Tiny, travelling fires gainsay them both,
Trusting to neither empty space nor seas
The burden of their weightless circlings. We,
Knowing no more of death than other men
Who make the last submission and return,
Savour the good wine of a summer’s night
Fronting the islands and the harbour bar,
Uncounted in the sum of our unknowings
How sweet the fireflies’ span to those who live it,
Equal, in their arrivals and their goings,
With the order and the beauty of star on star.

(I strongly suspect there should be a period after “unknowings,” but the Poetry Foundation text doesn’t have one, and since I no longer seem to have my copy of the Selected Poems I can’t check it against a printed copy.)

The Micheal Breathnach Club.

I read Dan Barry’s long NY Times story on hurling because of my interest in Ireland, and I was pleased by “The Connemara team, from the Micheal Breathnach club in Inverin (named after an early-20th-century Irish writer, in keeping with this country’s celebration of the word)…” I’d enjoy rooting for the Mets even more if they were the New York Walt Whitmans.

One thing puzzled me:

On the Connemara side, players sat with hurleys in hand as their wiry manager, a school psychologist named Rory O Bearra, encouraged them in the language of Irish.

Mark your men, lads! Catch the ball — ball to hand! Move the ball quickly. Short grip on the hurley. Hit the man or hit the space with the ball. Let’s go, lads, let’s go!

I presume “the language of Irish” refers to the Irish language, and the passage in italics is translated therefrom, but it’s possible that is intended to mean “the quaint English dialect of the local Irish people”; it’s an odd locution, so it is.


Nupepa is:

Another place to talk about Hawaiian-Language Newspapers! Please note that these are not translations, but if anything they are just works in progress. Hopefully the English gets across the overall intent of the articles. Please comment if you come across misreads or anything else you think is important!

It’s lots of fun if you enjoy Hawaiian and/or old newspapers, and the comments are interesting too; this marriage announcement from 1913 got a response “Thank you for putting this up. Oscar Opiopio Apana was my grandfather’s (Frank L. Apana) brother.”

Harvard Sentences.

The Harvard Sentences are a set of phonetically balanced sentences used for testing audio circuits. If you’ve ever wanted to hear them spoken aloud, the Open Speech Repository has you covered: American English, British English. They also have files in Mandarin, French, and Hindi. (Thanks, Trevor!)


My wife asks interesting questions about words, and the most recent was “Why do we say ‘bedridden’?” I opened my mouth, realized I didn’t have anything useful to say, and turned to the dictionary. The answer is simple but unpredictable, and since others may well be interested, I’m sharing it here. The Online Etymology Dictionary has a good summary:

bedridden (adj.)
also bed-ridden, mid-14c., from adjectival use of late Old English bæddrædæn “bedridden (man),” from bedrid, from Old English bedreda, literally “bedrider, bedridden (man),” from bed + rida “rider” (see ride (v.)). Originally a noun, it became an adjective in Middle English and acquired an –en on the analogy of past participle adjectives from strong verbs such as ride.

So it was originally ‘bed-rider,’ which makes sense, and due to the sort of morphological scrambling languages are subject to, it looks like it means ‘ridden by a bed,’ which doesn’t.

The Barbarian Beard.

Victor Mair has a post at the Log full of the kind of detailed historical/philological investigation I love. A correspondent wrote that “in Chinese the word for beard (胡子) has an archaic root meaning ‘foreign,'” and Mair, who had long “wondered if all of these expressions [húshuō(bādào) 胡说(八道) ‘nonsense; ridiculous; bullshit,’ húrén 胡人 ‘barbarian,’ húzi 胡子 ‘beard,’ húnào 胡闹 ‘act wild; be mischievous,’ etc.] … had something to do with wild, bearded barbarians from the west,” decided to look into it. He says:

… it begins to get really tricky, because it is possible that certain non-Sinitic peoples to the north and northwest were thought of as hú 胡 because they had hú 胡 (“beards”) and that these hú 胡 folk behaved in a very hú 胡 (“wild; uncontrolled; unruly”) fashion. But this is a semantic and etymological minefield upon which we must tread cautiously.

Some points to consider:

1. The earliest meaning of hú 胡 is generally considered to be “tissue drooping down under the chin of an animal (e.g., dewlap)” — note that the character has a “flesh” radical.

2. By extension, it came to mean “part of a weapon that hangs down”, and this is probably also how the meaning “beard” arose (“the pendulous mass of hair under a man’s chin”).

3. Hú 胡 also developed the meaning of “neck” (the part of an animal behind the thing hanging down) and “broad; large”, which I’ve written about extensively in Victor H. Mair, “Was There a Xià Dynasty?“, Sino-Platonic Papers, 238 (May, 2013), 1-39. See esp. p. 9 where the Old Sinitic reconstruction of hú 胡/鬍 (“beard; bearded person”) is given as *’ga (in Jerry Norman’s spelling system according to David Branner), together with cognates in Tibetan.

There are a bunch more points, some speculation, and an image of “a band of musicians with a dancer on top of a camel’s back.” Check it out.

Jabotinsky’s Hebrew.

I’ve started Halkin’s Jabotinsky: A Life, which is excellent (thanks, Paul!), and I thought this passage on language was worth posting:

Jabotinsky also covered the congress for Odesskaya Novosti, in which he published four long dispatches. The first two dealt with caucuses he attended. One was held by the Mizrachi, the religiously Orthodox Zionist party; struck by its moderateness, he deemed it capable of collaborating with secular Zionists. The other was convened by a Hebraist faction that demanded Hebrew’s adoption as the official language of the Zionist movement and of a future Jewish state. (The congress itself was conducted in German, with delegates free to use Yiddish, Russian, or Hebrew if they wished.) While confessing that he did not understand spoken Hebrew well enough to follow the proceedings, Jabotinsky was impressed by the speakers’ fluency and predicted that their goal would be accomplished in Palestine because Hebrew alone could serve as a lingua franca there; he was also struck by the Sephardic diction used by some of them, which he judged more exact and pleasing than the Ashkenazi pronunciation he was familiar with. The experience spurred him to take up the study of Hebrew again.

A quibble: while the book is in general very well proofread and copyedited, it consistently uses “Odesskaya Novosti” (‘Odessa News’) for what should either be Odesskiya Novosti (representing the prerevolutionary spelling) or Odesskiye Novosti (the modern version); as it is, it matches a feminine singular adjective with a plural noun. Tsk, I say, tsk.

Icelandic: On the Brink?

Patrick Cox has a “World in Words” segment called “Will Icelanders one day ditch their language for English?” Needless to say, Betteridge’s law of headlines applies, but it’s a fun read:

“When I was growing up, very few people spoke English,” says Gnarr. “With my generation, through TV and music it became necessary to understand English.”

Gnarr’s children speak much better English than he does. They have friends all over the world who they converse with on social media.

“But they don’t speak as good Icelandic as I do,” says Gnarr. “It’s a drastic change in a very short time.”

The conclusion is clear: Icelandic, like everything else, is going to hell in a handbasket. And of course there are the purists who “believe that the best chance for survival would be to resist importing words from English, and to hang on to the language’s archaic and complicated grammar.” Good plan, purists! (Hat tip for the link goes to Trevor.)

The Indo-European Controversy: An Interview.

George Walkden at New Books in Language:

Who were the Indo-Europeans? Were they all-conquering heroes? Aggressive patriarchal Kurgan horsemen, sweeping aside the peaceful civilizations of Old Europe? Weed-smoking drug dealers rolling across Eurasia in a cannabis-induced haze? Or slow-moving but inexorable farmers from Anatolia?

These are just some of the many possibilities discussed in the scholarly literature. But in 2012, a New York Times article announced that the problem had been solved, by a team of innovative biologists applying computational tools to language change. In an article published in Science, they claimed to have found decisive support for the Anatolian hypothesis.

In their book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Asya Pereltsvaig and Martin Lewis make the case that this conclusion is premature, and based on unwarranted assumptions. In this interview, Asya and Martin talk to me about the history of the Indo-European homeland question, the problems they see in the Science article, and the form that a good theory of Indo-European origins needs to take.

At the site you can hear the hour-long interview. Thanks, Trevor!

Update. Discussion of some of the issues raised in the (very long) thread below continues at Eli’s Indo-European Etymology Blog.


Back in 2007 I posted about an old Russian epithet for Greeks, пиндос [pindós], that has come to be directed at Americans; in reading Serafimovich (see this post) I’ve run across another one, грекос [grekós], which is obviously straight from Greek γραικός [γrekós]. The ragged elements of the Red Army (with associated sailors, families, and livestock) are making their hungry way south along the Black Sea coast, and when they run across potential supplies they’re not shy about availing themselves of them. They happen on a colony of Greeks: “За то, что это не свои, а грекосы, позабрали всех коз, как ни кричали черноглазые гречанки [Since they weren’t their own kind but grekósy, they grabbed all the goats, however much the dark-eyed Greek women hollered].” The kicker comes a couple of paragraphs later, when they enter a Russian village: “и хоть и жалко было, ну, да ведь свои – и позабрали всех кур, гусей, уток под вой и причитанье баб [and even though they felt sorry for them – after all, they were their own kind – they grabbed all the chickens, geese, and ducks amid the howling and lamentation of the women].” Serafimovich knew humankind pretty well.

He also had my attitude toward landscape. A couple of pages earlier he mentions that the straggling column was passing the remnants of old Circassian villages, and says:

Лет семьдесят назад царское правительство выгнало черкесов в Турцию. С тех пор дремуче заросли тропинки, одичали черкесские сады, на сотни верст распростерлась голодная горная пустыня, жилье зверя.

Seventy years earlier the tsarist government had expelled the Circassians to Turkey. Since then, the backwoods paths had been overgrown, the Circassian gardens had gone wild, for hundreds of versts there spread a hungry mountain wilderness, the abode of beasts.

But when the column relaxes by the shore:

И взрывы такого же солнечно-искрящегося смеха, визг, крики, восклицания, живой человеческий гомон, – берег осмыслился.

And the bursts of such sunny-sparkling laughter, yelping, shouts, exclamations, living human hubbub — the shore was given meaning.

I like scenery as much as the next person, but it is indeed humanity that gives it meaning as far as I’m concerned.