Archives for November 2015

Swearing: US vs. UK.

This piece by Erin Moore is an extract from her new book That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms and What Our English Says About Us; both it and a thread suggest that the book is largely ignorant tosh, like most books on language by non-linguists, but I’m posting about it for the following delightful paragraph:

Celia Walden, an English woman who moved to Los Angeles, described for the Telegraph her realisation that Americans “don’t use expletives as much as we do.” She found it refreshing (“I haven’t been cursed at in nearly a year”) and noted that her “new sensitivity” to swearing might be related to having become a mother to a child whom she’d rather “didn’t end up like the tiny mite I once saw fall out of his pushchair in Shepherd’s Bush, look accusingly up at his mother, and calmly enunciate the words: ‘Bloody hell’. I still wonder whether those were that poor child’s first words.”

After that she quotes a wonderful Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie sketch “based on the idea that if the BBC wouldn’t let them swear on the air, they’d simply make up their own curse words”; I recommend it as well. (Thanks, Eric!)

Linguistic Self-hatred.

Karina Picó Català writes about “Why I’m ashamed of speaking my mother tongue”; after describing being in a restaurant and hearing two obvious Catalans speaking Spanish for the waitress’ benefit, she says:

The concept of self-hatred was first used by the North American psychologist, Gordon W. Allport, to refer to the feeling of shame a person feels for possessing certain individual characteristics that she despises in her own community. However, it was the Spanish sociologist, Rafael Ninyoles, who pioneered its application to linguistics, which then evoked interest well beyond Spain. What does self-hatred mean in linguistics?

In a situation of self-hatred, the speaker feels ashamed of speaking his own language, which he considers to be inferior, and he substitutes it for another, usually the dominant language, which possesses greater social prestige. Far from being a phenomenon exclusive to Catalan, it is present in various linguistic settings around the world. It is found in languages like Breton (against French in France) and Quechua (against Spanish in Peru). Displaying a complete rejection of his mother tongue, the speaker not only attempts to switch to the dominant language, but also modifies his accent and his name (e.g. if the speaker is named Josep, he introduces himself as José); hiding, ultimately, any indication of his origin.

Even if it initially begins as only an individual linguistic behaviour, it often ends up rippling through an entire community. On the one hand, you have the speaker who decides to abandon her language, and feels a sense of disdain towards those who decide to remain loyal to it. On the other, there is the speaker who accuses the former of being unfaithful to her community and wanting to assimilate into the dominant culture. […]

Where does one look for the causes of this phenomenon? Perhaps in the apathy of a people who no longer care about their language? Perhaps in the 40 years of the tortuous Franco regime, which took it upon itself to “unify” Spain, rapaciously fighting against regional culture, destroying linguistic diversity and making great strides towards the eradication of Galician, Basque, and Catalan? The roots of the phenomenon are no doubt deep; but that is another story altogether.

“How do I explain it? Catalan is…like the slippers you wear at home: comfortable, but old and ugly,” my grandmother once explained to me when I asked her why she had not brought my father up in Catalan, despite it being her mother tongue. “Spanish, on the other hand, is like the shoes one wears on Sundays. Leather shoes, elegant, and flawless. Nobody goes out into the street exposing oneself to the world in ragged and dirty shoes, don’t you see, dear?”

When a language becomes nothing grander than those slippers you walk around indoors in, when it has lost all prestige, it is only a matter of time before the speaker no longer feels comfortable using it—and abandons it entirely.

Sad but illuminating. (Via the Facebook feed of Slavomír Čéplö, aka bulbul.)

Incidentally, she ends: “‘Vaja bé,’⁴ I blurt out, somewhat sad. I gather my change and leave the restaurant,” and the footnote says “A common Catalan expression to bid farewell.” I first thought the verb must be a Castilianism for vagi, but this discussion showed me it’s authentic, if archaic/regional.

Three String Books.

The latest newsletter from Slavica Publishers (see this LH post) brings news that should please anyone interested in the literature of Russia and Eastern Europe:

Slavica is pleased to announce the establishment of a new imprint, Three String Books, devoted to translations of literary works and belles-lettres from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the other successor states of the former Soviet Union. The name has been selected to underscore the indispensable roles played by all three parties to literary translation: author, translator, and reader. And our new logo builds upon the prevalence of three-stringed folk instruments throughout these lands.

We will be delighted to discuss proposals for translation projects, which should be addressed to the managing editor of both Slavica Publishers and Three String Books, Dr. Vicki Polansky ( Keep an eye on this newsletter for announcements of upcoming publications!

The inaugural publication under the Three String Books imprint is Apollon Bezobrazov, a modernist novel by “recovered Surrealist” Boris Poplavsky, originally published in the early 1930s and now translated by John Kopper. Making an uncharacteristic detour into prose in the 1920s, the Russian émigré poet Poplavsky presents a novel that reveals the Surrealist influence of prominent Parisian contemporaries like André Breton and Louis Aragon and rebels against it. The hero, and the novel’s namesake, embodies the figure of the urban hippie—the flâneur of French literature—while the narrator, a young Russian, falls under his spell. The story describes in colorful, poetic detail the hand-to-mouth existence of a small band of displaced Russians in Paris and Italy. It chronicles their poverty, their diversions, their intensely played out love affairs, and Bezobrazov’s gradual transformation in the eyes of his admiring followers. The novel abounds in allusions to Eastern religion, Western philosophy, and 19th-century Russian literature. In its experimental mixing of genres, the work echoes Joyce’s Ulysses, while in its use of extended metaphors it reveals the stylistic impact of Marcel Proust. Not published in complete form in Russian until 1993, Apollon Bezobrazov significantly broadens our understanding of Russian prose produced in the interwar emigration.

Poplavsky is a fascinating character; I wrote about him here, and there’s a great chapter on him in The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972 which you may or may to be able to read some of at Google Books. At any rate, now I know who to contact if I decide to translate a novel myself.

The Earliest Known Abecedary.

I had meant to post this a while back, but it got lost in the shuffle:

A flake of limestone (ostracon) inscribed with an ancient Egyptian word list of the fifteenth century BC turns out to be the world’s oldest known abecedary. The words have been arranged according to their initial sounds, and the order followed here is one that is still known today. This discovery by Ben Haring (Leiden University) with funding from Free Competition Humanities has been published in the October issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

The order is not the ABC of modern western alphabets, but Halaḥam (HLḤM), the order known from the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Arabian and Classical Ethiopian scripts. ABC and HLḤM were both used in Syria in the thirteenth century BC: cuneiform tablets found at site of ancient Ugarit show both sequences. Back then, ABC was still ‘-b-g (‘aleph-beth-gimel). This sequence was favored by the Phoenicians who passed it on to the Greeks, together with the alphabet itself. Thus a-b-g found its way to the later alphabets inspired by the Greek and Latin ones.

The ostracon was found over twenty years ago by the British Egyptologist Nigel Strudwick in an Ancient Egyptian tomb near Luxor. The text has never been understood, however, until it was deciphered by Ben Haring, a Dutch Egyptologist working at Leiden University. […] The text is an incomplete list of words written in hieratic, the cursive script used in Ancient Egypt for some 3,000 years. To the left is a column of individual signs that appear to be abbreviations of the words. Very possibly they even render the initial consonants of the words, which would make them alphabetic signs.

Thanks, Paul!

Crowdsourcing Scholarship.

I was quite excited to see this Jordan Center post by Eliot Borenstein, in which he discusses blogging his new book:

I started my academic career planning a dissertation and book about my favorite Russian author, Yuri Olesha. Depending on whom you ask, Olesha was either a talented novelist and playwright driven by Stalinism to abandon prolific writing for prodigious drinking, or he was an unprincipled hack who spent most of the 30s and 40s producing embarrassing Soviet drivel for the central newspapers. Olesha’s last book had to be assembled postmortem by his surviving frenemies, but he had already chosen its title long ago: No Day without a Line.

As a title, “No Day Without a Line” is almost heartwarming in its optimism, given how much difficulty Olesha had putting pen to paper. When working on my dissertation, it struck me as a much more encouraging motto than the song that kept playing in my head: Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book.” One hinted at discipline and possibility, while the other suggested waking each morning to an impossible task.

As I write my third book, I have decided to put my money where Olesha’s dead mouth is. More to the point, I want to take the opportunity afforded me by modern technology, the safe entrenchment of a tenured position, and the ongoing crisis in scholarly publishing to try something different.

I’m going to write my book on a blog. […] I see several benefits in giving this a try. First, it will impose short, regular deadlines (I want to post at least once a week). Second, it will allow me to crowdsource some of the minor points that always come up during the writing process (suggestions for sources and footnotes, for instance). Third, it will provide an informal peer-review process before the manuscript is even seen by the press’s reviewers. And, finally, I hope to prompt further reflections on just how it is that we share our research with our colleagues and the world around us.

I think this is a wonderful idea, and the book, Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism (“a study of the role of paranoid fantasy in contemporary Russian political discourse and culture”) sounds quite interesting. If you go to the blog page, you can sign up to be notified by email when new posts go live; needless to say, I have done so. (Also, I love Olesha’s writing and am looking forward to reading the book mentioned in the first paragraph.)

Bananals in Bristol.

Back in 2009 I posted excerpts from the Wikipedia article on West Country dialects, including this:

In the Bristol area, a terminal “a” (realised as [aw], c.f. Albert as “Awbert”, cinema as “cinemaw”) is often perceived to be followed by an intrusive “l”. Hence the old joke about the three Bristolian sisters Evil, Idle and Normal — i.e., Eva, Ida, and Norma. Also the name “Bristol” itself (originally Bridgestowe, variously spelt).

I wrote then, “Unfortunately, as the Masters of Wiki say in a box at the top of the page, ‘This does not cite its references or sources,’ and I imagine it is not devoid of misstatements”; now, thanks to Paul (thanks, Paul!), I can present an essay by the linguist Chi Luu that opens with the same joke about “Evil,” “Idle,” and “Normal” and proceeds to discuss the topic with actual references (and links to audio clips):

The local Bristolian accent is notorious for a linguistic quirk known as intrusive-l, where some speakers seem unable to help themselves from adding a so-called dark “l” to syllables and words ending in certain neutral vowels—even going so far as to change the historical name of their city. It’s been suggested that appending an “l” at the end of a syllable was seen as more “correct” and thus started appearing in all sorts of places as speakers overcompensated, hypercorrecting words that never had an “l” to begin with.

Words like “areal” (area), “ideal” (idea), “pianol” (piano), “drawling” (drawing) and even the odd “bananal” (banana) have been noted. “Mango” becomes a homophone of “mangle” and “tango” sounds just like “tangle”. Check out this recording from the British Library Sounds collection for a few examples […]

To many, this might seem ever so slightly weird. Why add an “l” so randomly? […] Though it may be a little difficult to detect consistently, on the whole, there’s a well-documented sound change happening here. Once as a humble research assistant, I spent a summer cooped up in a dark room listening to countless strangers repeat words containing a syllable-final “l”, such as “milk” (which can sound more like “miwk”), “palm” (“paam”), “children” (“chiwdren”), “bottle” (“bottu”) and “cool” (“coo”). These words all contain just the right environment for the “l” to be replaced by some pod-person in the form of a vowelish sound that most people might still hear as an “l”. You may even be doing it yourself. Surprisingly, it’s found virtually everywhere…and it’s spreading. Sociolinguistic studies have shown that this emerging sound change, called l-vocalization, is widespread in dialects of English, from regions across the UK, Australia, New Zealand and yes, even the US, where it’s been observed all over, from California to Appalachia to Pennsylvania.

[…] But increasingly, l-vocalization is moving unnoticed into standard dialects of English, including British Received Pronunciation (RP), such that John Wells, an expert on accents of English, predicts that “it seems likely that it will become entirely standard in English over the course of the next century.”

She goes on to do an equally good job with intrusive-r; I recommend the whole thing.

Lyrics and Language Preservation.

A fascinating Jabal al-Lughat post by Dr. Lameen Souag starts off with lyrics from the Berber-speaking oasis of Siwa in western Egypt, which turn out to have been “passed on orally for more than 120 years, with only minor changes”; it continues:

There are many ways in which Siwa is different from Tabelbala, the Algerian oasis where I did the other half of my doctoral fieldwork. Linguistically, one that struck me early on was the variability of Tabelbala’s language, Korandje, compared to Siwi. In Siwa, there was some interesting variation even within the speech of single individuals (1st sg. -ɣ- vs. -ʕ-, negative copula qačči/’ačči/ɣačči), but it hardly seemed possible to speak of dialects. In Tabelbala, not only did different villages take pains to distinguish themselves by different ways of speaking, but neighbours and cousins often showed substantial differences in pronunciation and even sometimes vocabulary. And whereas Siwis rarely seemed at a loss for words, in Tabelbala even the oldest speakers routinely had trouble finding a word, or disagreed on its meaning once they had remembered it.

Another striking difference is the low profile of Korandje poetry, if it exists at all. Whereas in Siwa I could hardly stop people from telling me lyrics, in Tabelbala my utmost efforts barely dredged up a few ditties which the speakers themselves considered absurdly simple. The poetry that men cared about and appreciated was in dialectal Arabic, and even that was far less prominent than in Siwa. (Some older women reportedly sing Korandje poetry in honour of the Prophet at regular Sufi gatherings, but I was unable to hear any of that; given its subject matter, I suspect the language used would be heavily influenced by Arabic.)

One possibility I’m tempted to consider is that these two facts are causally linked. In Siwa, songs are heard and sung in groups, and the best lyrics are widely circulated and – apparently – remembered for many decades; their rhythm and rhyme makes major rewording impractical. Logically, this should keep less frequently used vocabulary in circulation in much the same way as a written literary tradition, or a national broadcasting service. Without songs, for instance, would Siwi have kept a Berber word for “gazelle” (izem), an animal rarely if ever seen in the oasis today, but to which the beloved is constantly compared? In Korandje, on the other hand, the standardising force of songs and poetry is practically absent, and it’s not obvious that anything else in their verbal arts (already sadly atrophied by television) compensates for it.

Does this reflect your experience, or contradict it? How do poetic traditions (or lack of them) in societies you’re familiar with seem to affect the prospects for their languages?

I absolutely love this kind of thing; there’s some good discussion in the comments there, and of course your thoughts are welcome below.

Online Resources: Beowulf and Hittite.

Today I have come across two wondrous sites that I hasten to pass on to my readers:

1) Electronic Beowulf:

The fourth edition of Electronic Beowulf 4.0 is a free, online version of Electronic Beowulf that supersedes all previous editions. The online edition is designed to meet the needs of general readers, who require a full, line by line, translation; of students, who want to understand the grammar and the meter and still have time in a semester to study and appreciate other important aspects of the poem; and of scholars, who want immediate access to a critical apparatus identifying the nearly 2000 eighteenth-century restorations, editorial emendations, and manuscript-based conjectural restorations.

Via No-Sword.

2) The Electronic Chicago Hittite Dictionary (eCHD):

The Chicago Hittite Dictionary Project began in 1975 in answer to a recognized need for a Hittite-English lexical tool—a concordance for lexicographical research for all parts of the corpus of Hittite texts. Several volumes of the multivolume dictionary have now been published and many more are in preparation. The “Electronic Chicago Hittite Dictionary” (eCHD) is a vehicle for disseminating the contents of the dictionary in an electronic form suitable for advanced philological research.

The eCHD makes use of the Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment (OCHRE), an innovative, integrative approach to cultural, scientific, and historical information management. Launch the eCHD using the following link: eCHD in OCHRE.

Thanks, Trevor!

The Tary-Bary of the Birds.

According to this piece, during restoration work in the Assumption Cathedral of Zvenigorod, archaeologists found centuries’ worth of birds’ nests under the decayed roof:

Researchers were surprised when during the decomposition of the nests they started finding paper documents from different periods in the addition to birds’ bones and eggshells. In particular, they found XVIII century manuscripts and notes from early XIX century.

Generations of birds were carefully bringing papers to create comfort in their homes. Sometimes they were obtained by the theft: jackdaws and swifts were not only taking people’s litter but also securities – promissory notes, bills of sale, banknotes.

There are even pieces of banknotes for 1000 rubles – a fortune at the time. Various printed materials are preserved the best in these old nests: scraps of pre-revolutionary newspapers, candy wrappers, recipes, tickets, packaging, etc.

The pictures are great; I particularly like the last one, a cigarette packet with an image of people having a lively discussion and the brand name Тары-Бары [Tary-Bary], a lovely Russian term meaning ‘chitchat’ or (in Oxford’s quaint rendition) ‘tittle-tattle.’ It’s related to тарабар ‘chatterer,’ тарабарить ‘to chatter,’ тарабарская грамота ‘secret writing,’ and тарабарское наречие ‘secret language of Jewish merchants’ according to Vasmer, who compares the dialectal verb таракать ‘to chatter,’ which he classifies as onomatopoeic. But enough chatter; go enjoy the photos!

Brooklyn Beard.

I’m trying to catch up with last week’s New Yorker before the new one arrives, and in the middle of Nick Paumgarten’s “Life Is Rescues” (a fascinating piece that I recommend, especially if you’re into tales of icy peril) I hit this sentence: “The youngest was twenty-three: Halli, a gentle bear of a man with a big Brooklyn beard, who’d joined up because of the cars.” Now, I’m familiar with both Brooklyn and beards, but the phrase meant nothing to me. So I googled, and got nothing relevant except — aha! — “The Brooklyn Beard Goes Mainstream,” a New York Times piece from January 2014 that — alas — turns out to reference beards as a Brooklyn phenomenon (“Beards, as common as ever on the streets of Brooklyn, have shed their underground connotations”) but not a particular Brooklyn style. An image search shows a wild variety of beards, from barely visible fuzz to some truly striking specimens. So what I want to know is, does the phrase “Brooklyn beard” mean anything specific to you? For extra credit: if it turns out not to mean anything in particular, what has happened to editing standards at the New Yorker?