Archives for September 2015

The Many Languages of France, 1847.

Arika Okrent highlights a map “made in 1847, before French had truly become the language of the whole of France. The oïl languages are outlined in pink, the oc languages in blue. The rust brown in the northeast is Celtic, the green, Germanic, and the yellow, Basque”; you can explore it in zoomable form at the David Rumsey Map Collection. It makes a fine companion to Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France (see this post). Thanks for the link, Martin (and marie-lucie for the book)!

Royal Language and Wayang.

Normally I don’t bother reposting stuff from the Log because I assume most people who are interested in language blogs frequent both venues, but this post by Victor Mair is so full of goodies I can’t resist. First he quotes General MacArthur’s translator, George Kisaki, on the difficulty of interpreting for the emperor:

The emperor spoke a whole different other kind of Japanese—a royal dialect, something that only the Imperial Family and the court really used. I had to study up on it to understand what he was saying. It was like learning a second language.

After discussing a couple of his own royal encounters, Mair goes on to Javanese shadow plays (wayang):

In all types of wayang, the dalang (performer) employs an extraordinary range of linguistic registers, from low, earthy colloquial to language that is heavily imbued with Sanskritic and Old Javanese forms, while the very highest register is reserved only for royal personages. When I attended performances of wayang by Indonesian dalangs, I could tell when they shifted from one register to another because they had a noticeably different sound and cadence, but I didn’t understand any of it.

Once, however, in the mid-70s, I attended an extraordinary wayang kulit performance in Paine Hall at Harvard University. Everything that the American dalang said and sang was in translated English, and when he delivered his lines in middle register, I could understand everything. However, when he shifted into lower and higher registers, his voice was electronically manipulated and modulated in such a fashion that it became more and more difficult to comprehend the higher and lower he went on the scale of politeness versus vulgarity. The effect was uncanny. I still remember straining to pick out bits and pieces of the lower and higher registers, and could manage with effort when the dalang was using what would have been mid-levels on the politeness scale of Javanese. But when he adopted the highest and lowest levels of speech and song, I could comprehend virtually nothing of what he was saying and singing.

It’s a brilliant idea in its way, but it would infuriate me — I hate being deliberately kept from understanding! Also, I agree with Mair when he says “I much prefer American English, where we don’t have elaborate honorific language.”


Reader, I finished it. Jane Eyre, that is; after reading a chapter or two a day for weeks, I gobbled up the last sixty or seventy pages today, and am still not sure how to think about it. There is a fair amount of Gothic nonsense, and an almost intolerable quantity of Christian sanctimony (I am astonished to learn from Wikipedia that “In 1848 Elizabeth Rigby […], reviewing Jane Eyre in The Quarterly Review, found it ‘pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition'”), but I can see why Dostoevsky was so struck by it when he read a translation in Otechestvennye Zapiski (the same journal that was carrying his Netochka Nezvanova) — it could be called more a Russian novel in feeling than an English one. I’ll be mulling over its characters and conflicts for some time.

Of linguistic interest is an odd word that occurs in the portion I read today: lameter. It means, as I guessed from context, “a lame person; a cripple” (in the words of the OED’s 1901 entry), but the pronunciation was unexpected: /ˈleɪmɪtə(r)/ (three syllables, LAME-iter). For an etymology, the OED says (after the obvious information that it’s from lame) “the formation is obscure”; the DSL (it’s a Scots and dialectal word) is more precise: “Appar. from lamit, lamed, + –er, personal n.suff., in imitation of curator, debitor, servitor, etc.” S. R. Crockett’s Men of Moss-hags (1895) provides a fine quote for both reference works to cite: “A foot … came into the passage, dunt-duntin’ like a lameter hirplin’ on two staves.”


In looking for something else, I happened on the Complete Russian-English Dictionary (NYC, 1919), by A. Aleksandrov, an almost 800-page volume full of obscure words (and with appendices of geographical and personal names) and available for free download from Google Books. It’s not as large as my magnificent 1127-page Dictionnaire russe-français complet (SPb, 1908), by N. P. Makaroff (for which various editions are also available for download, though not, oddly, the 1908), but on the other hand it defines words in English, which is easier for an English-speaker. And the very first word after “А! inter. ah! well!” is not in Makaroff, or any of my more modern dictionaries: “Аангичъ s.m. The winter duck.” (It is in Vasmer, who says to compare Turkish anɣyt ‘black coot,’ while admitting that there are phonetic difficulties.) Anyway, I thought I’d bring it to people’s attention in case there are others who collect fat old dictionaries of Russian.

Zdanevich’s Zaum.

We talked about Ilia Zdanevich back in 2010, but I’ve learned more about him from Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues (see this post), and it’s so interesting I’m going to copy out most of the section here:

The career of Il’ia Mikhailovich Zdanevich [Iliazd] (1894-1975) integrated several languages and the visual arts in a way that enabled him to solve the problem of artistic expression without deliberately abandoning either language. His first published work, in 1913, was a commentary on Larionov and Goncharova (with whom he was closely linked), written in standard Russian under the pseudonym Eganbiury (a bilingual pun [a footnote explains that it is the name Zdanevich in the dative case, Зданевичу, written in longhand, as it would be interpreted by a French letter carrier who knew no Russian]). As a very young man, Zdanevich was involved in the beginnings of Futurism in Russia and himself wrote and published a series of dras (zaum, or “transrational,” dramas with increasingly complex typographical layouts) already actively using visual as well as linguistic elements. With its echoes of regional Russian speech and dialects, and occasionally of Georgian, Zdanevich’s zaum is not entirely arbitrary as was Aleksei Kruchenykh’s. But while it is securely based in “natural language,” it is certainly not simply Russian. One would therefore either have to consider that Zdanevich’s dras are in a new idiolect or to say that he is already a bilingual writer, the two languages he practices being Russian and zaum. One should also note that these two languages are already presented in a form that privileges visual over standard, and therefore quasi-invisible, typographic form.

In Paris in the 1920s, Zdanevich, now definitively become Iliazd (again, the pseudonym is a bilingual pun [Il y a Zd(anevich), ‘There is Zdanevich’]), wrote lectures in French, which he spoke well, his father having been a teacher of French in Tiflis. But he also continued to write novels in Russian — subliminally marked by zaum, but now purified to the point of being easily comprehensible to any native reader of Russian. […] Iliazd’s greatest novel is Voskhishchenie [Rapture], which, despite a rave review from D. S. Mirsky, was more or less ignored when it was published in Paris in 1930. Voskhishchenie, a mountain novel, draws on the Zdanevich’s Georgian roots; it combines sociological accuracy, mythic imagination, and a primitivism subsumed and transformed by modernist techniques. Voskhishchenie stands out almost as a lone peak among Soviet and emigre Russian prose of the late 1920s. […]

By the end of the 1920s, Zdanevich, who did not belong to any of the factions of the fragmented “first” Paris emigration, felt isolated and without a Russian audience. The lack of attention to Voskhishchenie was a particularly severe blow. Still, he did not simply abandon Russian for French. At first, largely for economic reasons, he turned instead toward the visual arts, designing textiles for Chanel and other couturières. He then began to create splendid, but totally unprofitable, livres d’art. […]

For the latter part of his career, designing the interplay of the visual and the verbal became Iliazd’s primary means of expression. This allowed him to continue to balance, with a minimum of psychic strain, his own writing: critical and architectural studies in both French and in Russian; translations from various languages into French; studies on the relationship of the Georgian and Arabic alphabets; some French poems and some Russian ones; parts of novels in both French and Russian; and, perhaps most interesting of all in our context, a final book that encompassed almost all of Iliazd’s artistic interests. This is Boustrophédon au miroir [The mirror of Boustrophedon], produced in 1972, just three years before his death. Boustrophédon is an elegiac musing on Iliazd’s past, on painters he had known (his brother Kiril Zdanevich; Niko Pirosmanashvili [Pirosmani], the Georgian primitive whom he and his brother had discovered; and Mikhail Ledentu) and on the authors of the texts he had “brought to light” [with his typography]. Boustrophédon is written in French, but each line of the French verse is then repeated backward, with the word boundaries placed differently to produce a striking, clever, and touching French zaum.

Quite a guy! Of course, it helps if your father was a teacher of French in Tiflis.

Poplavsky’s Choice.

I’m finally getting around to Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the “First” Emigration, which I was excited about getting and couldn’t wait to read… a decade ago (sigh), and was struck by this passage about the largely forgotten émigré poet Boris Poplavsky (only Russian Wikipedia has an article on him):

It is illuminating to compare briefly Marina Tsvetaeva’s essentially nonlinguistic rejection of French with the choice of another Russian poet of the first emigration who seemed predestined by all objective factors (age, linguistic training, and literary tastes) to become a French writer, but who instead insisted on writing only in Russian. Boris Poplavskii (1903–1935) might have been a major, if not great, French writer in the Surrealist vein. […] Linguistically, Poplavskii was much more than half French and nowhere near half Russian. He had had a German nurse and French governesses, had gone to live abroad with his mother when he was three, and had some schooling in Switzerland and Italy. According to his father, when Poplavskii and his brother returned to Russia they had forgotten Russian to such an extent that their parents enrolled them in the French lycée of Saint Philippe Néri, where Poplavskii remained until the Revolution. After his arrival in Paris in 1921, what further education Poplavskii had was, of course, also in French. His literary tastes inclined him toward French poetry, so that Karlinsky, one of Poplavskii’s strongest supporters, can quite reasonably declare: “I did not know then, as I know now, that Boris Poplavsky was in a sense a very fine French poet who belongs to Russian literature mainly because he wrote in Russian.”

But why did he write in Russian? Aside from the elements mentioned above, all of which would have seemed to incline him to write in French, there are still other factors that should have encouraged Poplavskii to write in French rather than in Russian. His control of Russian appeared to many to be sometimes shaky, and there was really nothing specifically Russian in the content of Poplavskii’s poems and prose that might have demanded or justified their being written in Russian,rather than in French. In fact, although they are written in Russian, his poems frequently have French titles.

That Poplavskii wrote in Russian was the result of a quite deliberately paradoxical choice: how better to be a poète maudit (and be one up on Rimbaud) than to write in the wrong language! This choice also continued the linguistic anomalies of Poplavskii’s earlier life. For as Vladimir Padunov has rightly noted, Poplavskii’s life in Russia took place in French, whereas his intellectual and artistic life in France took place in Russian. The resultant tension is attested to by those passages in Poplavskii’s diaries where identical entries are made first in Russian, then in French. […]

One factor that had surely influenced Poplavskii to choose the apparently least appropriate language is what might be labeled the lycée français syndrome, whose symptoms are seen in adolescents who have been molded into caricatural little Frenchmen: they have French intellectual tastes but cannot fully identify themselves as French emotionally; at the same time, they have lost or have never developed any mental and linguistic fluency in their native cultures. However idiosyncratic Poplavskii’s fate was in some respects, one should not forget that he was also in many ways a quite typical, almost commonplace, product of the colonial lycée system. […] Poplavskii’s life was a curious compound of drugs, various forms of spiritualism, outrageous behavior, poverty, and hard work on his poetry and prose. It is difficult to make any causal judgments, but one might hazard the hypothesis that, in large part, there was no solid psychic ground beneath Poplavskii because he had no dominant language — or, rather, because he did have a (technically) dominant language and did not wish to recognize and capitulate to the fact that it was not Russian but French.

Isn’t that fascinating? (Incidentally, one of the ambiguities of English is revealed in “might have been a major, if not great, French writer in the Surrealist vein”: I have no idea if she means he might or might not have been great.)

Mair Snaw.

A few years ago, I quoted “one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Hugh MacDiarmid,” titling the post with the last line of the poem, “It’s juist mair snaw!” Now, courtesy of BBC News, we learn there’s even mair snaw — 421 words for it, to be precise:

Academics have officially logged 421 terms – including “snaw” (snow), “sneesl” (to begin to rain or snow) and “skelf” (a large snowflake).

The study by the University of Glasgow is part of a project to compile the first Historical Thesaurus of Scots, which is being published online.


Dr Susan Rennie, lecturer in English and Scots language at the university, said: “Weather has been a vital part of people’s lives in Scotland for centuries. The number and variety of words in the language show how important it was for our ancestors to communicate about the weather, which could so easily affect their livelihoods.”

As Mark Liberman says at the Log, “Despite the source being BBC News, the article is only slightly misleading”; you can read about his quest to find the words in the Historical Thesaurus of Scots at that link. Thanks, Eric and Trevor!

At the Synoptic Hotel.

It’s a bit unfair of me to publicize one silly, supremely minor error in a book I’m thoroughly enjoying and highly recommend, Kotkin’s Stalin (as much a history as a biography), but I swear it’s not out of malice — it’s just so funny I have to pass it on. In discussing Trotsky’s unfortunate absence from Moscow at the time of Lenin’s funeral in January 1924, when everyone expected to see him and hear one of his magnificent speeches, Kotkin writes: “[Trotsky and his wife] were put up at a villa, the Sinop (Synoptic), located in the outskirts [of Sukhumi] on a hill enveloped by a botanical park with hundreds of varieties of flora and fauna that the prerevolutionary owner had imported from around the world.” I’m sure he found the idea of a hotel called “synoptic” so piquant he couldn’t resist including the translation; alas, it’s entirely a product of his imagination, since Sinop is just the Russian (and Turkish) name for Sinope, a port just across the Black Sea which would have been a frequent destination for boats from Sukhumi. (And it sounds like it was a good place to stay; Bulgakov, for instance, wrote in a 1936 letter: “The Sinop is a splendid hotel. It’s possible to have a really good rest here.”)

The Below.

This is quick and simple, but it suddenly piqued my curiosity: e-mails announcing editing jobs from a particular provider routinely begin “The below job has been assigned to you…” That sounds weird to me, although “the above” is perfectly normal. Is it a dialect thing, or is it just my personal quirk?

The Tale of Aramaic.

There’s probably nothing in John McWhorter’s Atlantic piece “Where Do Languages Go to Die?” that will surprise any LH reader familiar at all with Aramaic, but McWhorter is always an enjoyable writer, and he opens with the piquant image of “a Middle Eastern man from 2,500 years ago” visiting our world and being amazed by the dominance of Arabic — in his time “an also-ran tongue spoken by obscure nomads” — where he would have expected to find Aramaic. A sample paragraph:

Aramaic, then, is in a splintered and tenuous state. Yet it was the English of its time—a language that united a large number of distinct peoples across a vast region, a key to accessing life beyond one’s village, and a mark of sophistication to many. The Aramaeans—according to Biblical lore named for Noah’s grandson Aram—started as a little-known nomadic group. But they were seekers, and by the 11th century B.C.E. they ruled large swaths of territory in Mesopotamia, encompassing parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, including, for a spell, the city of Babylon itself. On the basis of this expansion alone, however, theirs would likely have become just one of various languages of the area that briefly enjoyed fame and then vanished in the endless game of musical chairs that was ancient Middle Eastern politics. The Aramaeans themselves were in Babylon only temporarily: In 911 B.C.E., the Assyrians, who spoke a language called Akkadian, ousted them. But the Assyrians unwittingly helped the Aramaeans’ language extinguish their own.

If you find that enjoyable, might as well read the whole thing. But I found this a bizarre assertion: “Russian, spoken by countless millions, is so horrifically complex that part of me always wonders whether it is an elaborate hoax.” Dude, try a language from the Caucasus sometime. (Thanks again, Trevor!)