Archives for October 2015

History of the Maltese Language.

Bruce Ware Allen (whose book The Great Siege of Malta is coming out next week!) found and passed on to me this lengthy webpage about Maltese at Joe Arevalo’s Wunderkammer (“an assortment of compelling old and new items I have discovered and find interesting”); like Bruce, I don’t know enough about Maltese to judge its accuracy, but I know some of my readers do.

Update. Alex Fink points out in a comment:

This is just a translation of large parts of the French Wikipedia article on Maltese, and quite possibly one that has at best been lightly touched up by human hands (compare Google’s current rendering).


A Linguistlist posting by Stefan Müller, “Glossa: a journal of general linguistics is the new Lingua” :

Today I have heard of a quite dramatic change for our field: all 6 editors of Lingua resigned and all 31 members of the editorial board resigned as well.

They will start a new journal called: Glossa: a journal of general linguistics.

The new journal will work under the conditions of fair OA:

– The editorial board owns the title of the journals.
– The author owns the copyright of his articles, and a CC-BY license applies.
– All articles are published in Full Open Access (no subscriptions, no ‘double dipping’).
– Article processing charges (APCs) are low (around 400 euros), transparent, and in proportion to the work carried out by the publisher.

As for the new journal, APCs are covered by the Dutch government and later by Open Lib Humanities.

I think transferring the journal to Fair OA is a very good move into the right direction towards scholarly owned journals and book outlets.

I think so too; long live open access, down with predatory publishers!

Update. See now Scott Jaschik’s story for Inside Higher Ed, with further details and quotes. (Thanks, Nick!)

Green’s Languages.

Another interesting passage from Alien Tongues (see this post), this time on Julien Green:

The choice of a language in which to write obviously depends much less on the constraints of the external context than does the choice of a language for any given utilitarian speech utterance. […] Or consider Julien Green, who wrote novels drawn from his American experience in French, whereas he wrote a book about his French childhood in English. It is true that he had begun what was to become Memories of Happy Days in French and then switched to English after about twenty pages because, living in America during World War II, he despaired of finding a French publisher and felt it would be more “natural” to write in English in an American context, even though the subject was French. But what is curious about Green’s experience with Memories is that when he compared the beginnings written in French and in English, he saw that they were significantly different, not because the subject was different or because his intended audience was not the same, but because the languages were different:

So I laid aside what I had written and decided to begin the book again, this time in English, my intention being to use practically the same words, or, if you wish, to translate my own sentences into English.

At this point something quite unexpected happened. With a very definite idea as to what I wanted to say, I began my book, wrote about a page and a half and, on rereading what I had written, realized that I was writing another book, a book so different in tone from the French that a whole aspect of the subject must of necessity be altered. It was as if, writing in English, I had become another person. I went on. New trains of thought were started in my mind, new associations of ideas were formed. There was so little resemblance between what I wrote in English and what I had already written in French that it might almost be doubted that the same person was the author of these two pieces of work. This puzzled me considerably and still does.

Clearly, it is not so much that Green’s personality changes when he changes languages as that the language he has chosen changes the persona embodied in the work: “In reading the proofs of my book, I was struck by all that I had left unsaid and that I should most certainly have said in that book, had I written it in French. For instance, all that had to do with the development of religious feeling. I was even tempted to suppress the little I had said on that subject in the second half of the book. Why? I cannot say. Probably because I had written the book in English. It was as if the language itself had opposed certain disclosures in a book of that type (MFBIE, 232).

(I find, by the way, that I don’t make as clear a mental distinction as I should between Julien Green and Henry Green, probably because I still haven’t read anything by either. Recommendations will be welcome.)

Modernism and Cliques.

I’m always on the lookout for people who write about literature sensibly, using their own judgment but not attacking received wisdom just to be different, and taking useful insights from various theoretical approaches without tying themselves to any particular one. I’ve found another such in Leonid Livak, a professor of Russian literature at the University of Toronto whose How It Was Done In Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject (and ends with a tour de force comparison of Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift] to Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] that made me wonder why Gide is not even mentioned in the Garland Companion to Nabokov or Boyd’s biography). I’m now reading his chapter “Russian Modernism and the Novel” from A History of the Modernist Novel, and I thought I’d share this passage, which demonstrates why it’s not a good idea to insist sternly on ignoring all extratextual factors when talking about literature:

Students of Russian modernism find themselves in a bind. Striving to overcome Soviet bias, they rely on the resonance of texts in their interpretive communities; but by doing so they internalize the factional fault lines of contemporary artistic life, uncritically elevating them to the status of classification standards. Do modernist accolades to [Sologub’s] The Petty Demon reflect its qualitative superiority to the vilified [Artsybashev’s] Sanin and [Verbitskaya’s] Keys to Happiness, or Sologub’s privileged place in the literary field? An argument could be made that Sologub’s dramatization of modernist philosophical commonplaces is as vulgarizing as Artsybashev’s: witness their concurrent marketplace success, echoed by Verbitskaia’s bestseller, subtitled “a modern novel” and equipped with not one but two epigraphs from Nietzsche. Factionalism is as germane to modernism as ideological bias to Marxism. Both shape the classification of texts. Take Mikhail Kuzmin’s Wings (1906), a novel that, today, flanks The Petty Demon by virtue of expressing the “new sensibility” through an aesthetic and philosophical apologia of sexual deviance more daring than in Gide’s The Immoralist (1902). Gide’s elliptical linkage of pederasty to a hero’s spiritual renascence bursts into the open in Wings, which frames a young man’s homosexual epiphany as an initiation into modernist values. We understand why a Marxist would treat Sanin, The Petty Demon, and Wings as homologous texts; but it takes the knowledge of Kuzmin’s place in a rival clique to explain why Belyi tossed Wings in the same trash bin with Andreev and Artsybashev, while citing The Petty Demon as a counterexample.

Incidentally, Livak studied with Omry Ronen (see this post), lucky fellow.

Addendum. In this comment, John Cowan began a very interesting side discussion about “the use of lie to mean any untruth, whether or not said by someone who knows they are speaking an untruth and intends to do so.” I adduced the Russian verbs врать and лгать, saying “The former is venial and runs the gamut from ‘lie (harmlessly)’ to ‘bullshit’ to ‘talk nonsense,’ whereas лжёт is ‘He lies, and he knows he lies’; Anatoly responded that “врать covers a much wider spectrum than лгать, but the way I see it, the worst of врать is semantically equivalent to лгать, and in particular врать can certainly mean ‘lies and knows that he lies’.” He has now canvassed his readers on the topic, and those who read Russian will find it a useful thread. Summary: they’re about evenly split between those who see the difference as semantic (with лгать being more serious) and those who see it as one of level (with лгать being more highfalutin’).

Camara- , ɴbri.

The entry on the Facebook feed of Patrick Taylor (the LH house etymologist) was “I just read a little paper of the kind that make life worth living,” and of course I clicked through to Guillaume Jacques, “Sanskrit camara– ‘yak’ et tibétain ɴbri ‘yak femelle’“; it’s just three pages, and even if you don’t have any particular interest in Tibetan it’s a fun read and to my mind makes a convincing case (but what do I know?). As I commented on FB: “Worth it just for the phrase ‘les langues rgyalronguiques.'”

Canetti’s Languages.

I’m still reading Alien Tongues (see this post), and I’ve come across a really interesting footnote (yes, I always read the footnotes):

Sometimes, of course, the idea of the “mother tongue” is crucial. In Lettres parisiennes, Nancy Huston remarks, I can make books and children only in an un-mother tongue” [Les livres, les enfants, je ne peux les faire que dans une langue non-maternelle]. See my discussion of Marina Tsvetaeva in Chapter 5; and consider the case of Elias Canetti, who writes in German. German is Canetti’s fourth language, as English was Conrad’s fourth language, but Canetti’s situation is much more complicated than that of Conrad. Canetti’s first languages were Ladino, Bulgarian (soon more or less forgotten), and English. German was a secret language between his mother and father which he was not allowed to learn: “Among the many intense wishes of this period, the most intense was my desire to understand their secret language. I cannot explain why I didn’t really hold it against my father. I did nurture a deep resentment toward my mother, and it vanished only years later, after his death, when she herself began teaching me German” (The Tongue Set Free [New York, Seabury Press, 1979], 24). The actual lessons seem to have been anguishing: “It was only later that I realized that it hadn’t just been for my sake when she instructed me in German with derision and torment. She herself had a profound need to use German with me, it was the language of her intimacy. . . . So, in a very short time, she forced me to achieve something beyond the strength of any child, and the fact that she succeeded determined the deeper nature of my German; it was a belated mother tongue, implanted in true pain. The pain was not all, it was promptly followed by a period of happiness, and that tied me indissolubly to that language” (p. 70).

I’ll have to read The Tongue Set Free one of these years; of course, I’ve had Crowds and Power sitting around for over a decade, so I may be some time. (My previous Canetti post has also been sitting around for over a decade with no attention paid, poor thing.)

Chinese-Yiddish Song.

Talya Zax writes in the Forward about someone as intriguing as the Russian who learned Scottish Gaelic for Lermontov’s sake:

While writing her Ph.D. dissertation on Jewish Exile in Shanghai resulting from the Shoah, Yang Meng decided she needed to learn both Yiddish and Hebrew for the sake of her research. A Chinese national already fluent in English and German, once she took on the new languages she found herself fascinated by Yiddish, which she wrote to the Forward “is an indispensible key to understand[ing] Jewish culture.”

As part of her studies she participated in the 2015 Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer Program at Tel Aviv University. For that program’s closing ceremony she performed a song that was entirely unique: a Yiddish rewriting of a classic Chinese song, which she had translated into Yiddish with the assistance of Yuri Vedenyapin, a Yiddish language instructor based at Harvard.

The lyrics of the Chinese song, Liang Hongzi’s 1983 “Wishing We Last Forever,” is a musical setting of a poem by Su Shi, famed Chinese poet and essayist, written in 1076. “This song ‘Chinese Moon Over Tel Aviv’ is the first Chinese-Yiddish song in human history,” Meng wrote. “I am very attracted to the mamaloshen”—Yiddish for ‘the mother tongue—“and I hope I can bring Yiddish language and culture to my beloved China.”

You can hear the song and see a translation of the lyrics at the link, but as I wrote Paul Ogden, who sent it to me, I’ll bet people were singing Chinese-Yiddish songs in Shanghai nightclubs in the 1930s.

The Birth of the Ellipsis.

Alison Flood reports in the Guardian about an exciting discovery (for those of us who find punctuation exciting):

Dr Anne Toner believes she has identified the earliest use of the ellipsis in English drama, pinning it down to a 1588 edition of the Roman dramatist Terence’s play, Andria, which had been translated into English by Maurice Kyffin and printed by Thomas East, and in which hyphens, rather than dots, mark incomplete utterances by the play’s characters.

Although there are instances of ellipses occurring in letters around the same time, this is the earliest printed version found by Toner following her chronological research into the earliest dramas in print.

“This was a brilliant innovation,” she writes in Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission, a history of the use of dots, dashes and asterisks to mark a silence of some kind, which has just been published by Cambridge University Press. […]

“It’s interesting to think about whose idea it was to use what turned out to be a very useful resource … was it the translator of the Terence play, or the printer? Who the agent was behind the mark is very unclear,” Toner said. “But you then start to see it being used relatively quickly in dramatic works … in Ben Jonson plays, for example.”

It also appears in Shakespeare. Toner writes of Henry IV, Part I, that “Hotspur dies on a dash”, with his last words cut short: “no, Percy, thou art dust / And food for–”

By the 18th century, said Toner, it “becomes very common in print, and blanking starts to be used as a means of avoiding libel laws”, with series of dots starting to be seen in English works, as well as hyphens and dashes, to mark an ellipsis.

There are some nice images of the books in question at the link.

Also, congratulations to Arika Okrent, winner of the LSA Linguistics Journalism Award!

Today’s Baseball 1908 Style.

I normally spare LH readers my sports enthusiasms, but how can I resist the New York Times‘ pastiche of sportswriting style from 1908, the last year the Chicago Cubs (just beaten by my Mets) won the World Series? The layout of the physical newspaper (complete with black-and-white photographs); the story itself. Apologies to long-suffering Cubs fans and to readers for whom terms like “ducats,” “second-sacker,” and “base-ball” with a hyphen have no particular resonance, but regular service will return tomorrow. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)

Translating Indigenous Mexican Writers.

Ryan Mihaly interviews translator David Shook about Like a New Sun, a collection of contemporary indigenous Mexican poetry which Shook coedited with Víctor Terán; it’s full of interesting observations about discrimination (“often more the result of ignorance than any ill intention”), the oral tradition, a grandmother’s prayers (“It’s not until she curses in her native Zoque—jukis’tyt and patsoke—that anything happens”), the saint Santiago Negro (Black James), and syncretism. I’m particularly interested, of course, in the linguistic aspect:

Like a New Sun is bilingual, which allows the untrained eye to make connections between languages. What is particularly noticeable in this book is the different sizes and shapes some of the English translations take from the originals. Of course, there are six languages represented in the book, all unique. But what were some of the difficulties in the poems you translated?

For Víctor’s work, replicating the sonic texture of a tonal language like Isthmus Zapotec (which employs the frequent alliteration of glottal stops) is impossible. I benefited from a reading tour we did for the Poetry Translation Centre, an early champion of his work in English. We spent three weeks on the road in the United Kingdom, and I listened to him read his poems every night.

Depending on the pairing, many of our translators used Spanish intermediaries, proceeding in collaboration with the poets themselves, who translate their own work into Spanish by necessity. So as an editor I’m on the lookout for poems that cling too tightly to their intermediaries, especially in regards, for example, to the nesting of prepositions, which doesn’t happen in an agglutinative language.

In my own experience as a translator, Juan Herández Ramírez’ poems were a challenge. He writes in Nahuatl, but a different dialect from the one I studied. Still, he writes his poems in Spanish, almost concurrently. He says that the two languages work like mirrors of each other. I collaborated with Adam W. Coon, an incredibly talented Nahuatl translator, to do those translations. They’re all based on traditional Nahuatl corn myths.

One of the things Juan told Adam, in an almost lamenting tone, was that he doubted that English had enough corn-specific language to do the poems justice. So that was our challenge. […]

Speaking of linguistics: the book clearly serves as both a book of poetry on its own right, but also as a learning tool. Each introduction features a brief introduction to the language, including its linguistic qualities; there is even an online study guide for the book. Phoneme Media itself, of course, borrows a linguistic term for its title.

Though most readers won’t be able to engage much with the original languages, we wanted to pay them their due as a symbol of respect and admiration. Víctor has done a lot to promote the book’s publication in Juchitán. For him, it’s a part of his language activism.

He has campaigned to revitalize the Isthmus Zapotec language by encouraging and inspiring the youth to use it in everyday life as well as in the arts. To him, it’s an important sign of prestige for the community, to show that their language is appreciated outside of their own region. And that the everyday linguistic oppression they might feel from the Spanish language can be circumvented and challenged.

I suspect many casual bookstore readers might not know how many languages are still spoken in Mexico. The sheer diversity is astounding.

I like Shook’s statement “I think we can all say just about anything in any language. The challenge and the fun of it is to do so as poetically as possible.” You can read a piece by Eliot Weinberger about the anthology here, along with poems in Isthmus Zapotec and Yucatec Maya, with translations.