Archives for December 2015

The Slavonic Tongue Is One.

I’ve been reading Simon Franklin’s Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c.950-1300, and I found the following passage so sensible and interesting I thought I’d quote it here (it’s near the start of chapter 2, “Scripts and Languages”):

For the present purposes the relevant variants are East Slavonic and Church Slavonic. In Rus, East Slavonic and Church Slavonic were both written and spoken, though in the relationships between written and spoken they are like mirror images of each other. In origin East Slavonic was the spoken vernacular of the East Slavs of the lands of the Rus, while Church Slavonic was the written medium which was developed in the process of translating Scripture for West and (eventually, mainly) South Slavs. In usage, spoken Church Slavonic was a means to disseminate the written forms (e.g. through liturgy, through sermons, through recitation and reading aloud), while written East Slavonic derives from (which is not to say that it is identical to) speech. Initially distinct both geographically and culturally, East Slavonic and Church Slavonic form the outer parameters of most discussion about language in Rus. Like Common Slavonic, they are abstractions, and hence contentious: should they, for example, be regarded as distinct languages, or as variants of the same language? If viewed separately, is either of them in fact an entity, or do they, too, dissolve into their own subvariants? If viewed together, what is their interrelationship?

Pristine Church Slavonic (the Cyrillo-Methodian translations) and pristine East Slavonic (the speech of the East Slavs) are irrecoverable from direct contemporary evidence. ‘Old’ Church Slavonic is normally deduced from a more or less agreed ‘canon’ of somewhat later manuscripts (mostly from the eleventh century) which are deemed to reflect it most accurately. In practice, however, virtually all Church Slavonic manuscripts already contain hints of their own linguistic milieu, and over time Church Slavonic divides into increasingly pronounced regional variants, or dialects, dubbed ‘Russian Church Slavonic’, ‘Bulgarian Church Slavonic’ (or ‘Middle Bulgarian’), and so on. Nevertheless, the differences in written convention are too trivial to be interpreted as disintegration, and throughout the Middle Ages, Church Slavonic – in the legitimately capacious sense of the term – continued to serve as a written lingua franca for Orthodox Slavs. Spoken forms of East Slavonic (aka. ‘Old Russian’, ‘Old Ukrainian’, or the ingenious coinage ‘Rusian’) are of course unrecorded, because our only evidence is filtered through the selective and more or less conventionalised medium of writing. We see spoken East Slavonic as if through occasional gauze-covered holes in a screen. There is no way in which we can reconstruct, for example, the rhythms and nuances of an authentic domestic conversation. Nevertheless, the glimpses are sufficient to reveal certain general features, as well as certain distinctive regional features. Accidents of survival mean that we are particularly well informed about the Novgorodian version.

How different from one another were Church Slavonic and East Slavonic? Linguistic comparisons cover four main categories: sounds (phonology), word-forms (morphology), sentence structures (syntax), and vocabulary and meaning (lexis and semantics). The sounds of pristine Church Slavonic, reflecting South Slav pronunciation, would have been somewhat strange to the ear of an untutored East Slav at the time of the official Conversion of the Rus; and stranger still by the late twelfth or early thirteenth century as the loss of reduced vowels brought about major changes in the sound structures (and word-forms) of East Slavonic. However, this is to some extent a false contrast, since the sounds of pristine Church Slavonic are unlikely to have been imported intact together with the writing system. Church Slavonic is a written language, but this does not mean that the conventions of writing ‘are’ the language. For readers and their listeners in Rus, Church Slavonic probably had a strong local accent. Our notional untutored East Slav might have been even less struck by the morphological contrasts between his spoken vernacular and Church Slavonic. Inflected word-endings, for example, were broadly similar, and one could quite easily get used to the consistent alternatives in word-formation. More exotic was the way in which words were strung together in clauses and sentences. Devised for the purpose of translating from Greek, Church Slavonic was apt to mirror Greek rhetorical structures unfamiliar to spoken East Slavonic: complex structures of subordination, or the widespread use of participles. But perhaps most alien of all were many of the words themselves, and their meanings. Although Church Slavonic and East Slavonic shared a common core of vocabulary, Church Slavonic brought a mass of concepts which were wholly new to the East Slavs. It was saturated with words and expressions which had no precise precedent in any pre-literate variety of spoken Slavonic: words borrowed or calqued from Greek, or familiar Slavonic words imbued with unfamiliar connotations.

What, then, does our East Slav make of Church Slavonic? If he listens to a catalogue of his debts read from a piece of birch-bark, and then to the Lord’s Prayer, is he experiencing two languages, or one? Compare the following assertions by modern linguists: (i) ‘all the evidence says that Old Church Slavonic and Rusian belong to a single language’; (ii) ‘the most striking feature of East Slav writing is the juxtaposition of two languages’; (iii) ‘[the language reflected in early Novgorodian sources is] simply a dialect of the Late Common Slavonic language’; (iv) ‘we must accept that there were . . . two types of Early Russian literary language’. Some of these assertions relate to language in general, others specifically to written language, but the underlying question is the same.

Linguistic argument alone cannot produce an adequate answer. There is no purely quantitative measure – a particular number of distinct phonological, or morphological, or syntactic, or lexicographic features – which determines whether the Rus version of Church Slavonic and the written derivatives of East Slavonic should be regarded as separate languages. Linguists can plausibly assert that substantial elements of Church Slavonic might have been incomprehensible to an audience of ordinary East Slavs, but comprehensibility is not the paramount criterion. I find great difficulty in comprehending some varieties of writing and speaking in English (such as computer manuals, or specialist discourses on literary theory, or the Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge, or the dialogue in a Newcastle pub), but I have no difficulty accepting that the language is English. What matters is perception: the perception of those who see themselves as within – or outside – the linguistic community.To put it crudely: language does not define community; community defines language. The wider community of early Rus – the silent majority – cannot tell us what it thought, but for the community of articulate Christians there was no doubt: the whole point of Church Slavonic lay in its affinity with the native tongue, in the fact that it was not Latin or Greek or Hebrew, in the fact that it was therefore, in principle at least, accessible. No source ever suggests that there might be two written languages, or even that there might be different languages for writing and speaking: ‘The Slavonic tongue is one.’

I wish all my readers a happy new year — удачи всем и здоровья!


Elon Gilad at Haaretz discusses a surprising Hebrew etymology, that of the word chakalaka “(cha-ka-LA-ka) – the Hebrew word for emergency vehicle lighting, those rotating lights atop police cars and ambulances”:

The Aztecs had a verb, chachalani, which meant to raise an uproar, and a noun, chachalacani, which meant gossiper, was derived from that. The Spanish adopted this word even as they decimated Aztec civilization during the 16th century.

In Spanish the word came to mean “babbler,” and became the name of a particularly loud bird, the Chachalaca, an American bird from the genus Ortalis.

At this point in the story, the etymology of the word becomes somewhat fuzzy; it is not at all clear how a Spanish word for “babbler” made its way into Hebrew, especially since the word entered Spanish after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492. In other words, it wouldn’t have made it into Ladino, a Jewish Spanish dialect that has (barely) survived to this day, but has contributed some words to Hebrew.

At any rate, written evidence of the use of the word chakalaka can be found in novels only after the year 2,000, but the word was in use earlier. For example, in Israeli author Dudu Busi’s Perre Atzil (“Noble Savage”), from 2003, he writes, “The blue chakalaka light entered through the shutters.”

Whenever the word did enter Hebrew, it pushed out the popular term for rotating lights that preceded it — kojak — which had been in use since the 1970s, influenced by the popular American television series “Kojak,” starring Telly Savalas. This word was in use at least until 1985.

In 2012, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, in conjunction with the Transportation Ministry, put out a dictionary of transportation terms that included a Hebrew replacement for the word chakalakatzafiror (tza-fi-ROR), a portmanteau of the words tzofar (tzo-FAR), meaning “siren” and or, meaning “light.” But that word doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like chakalaka, which is way more fun to say and appears to be here to stay.

A word must have great power to dislodge Kojak. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Free Books from Springer.

Just got the following e-mail:

News has been spreading on Facebook today that all books at
Springerlink from before 2005 are now freely downloadable as searchable pdf files. […] You can do various kinds of searches — there are relevant ones in psycholinguistics, language acquisition, natural language processing, as well as philosophy, semantics, syntax, morphology, … Try starting here, then change the search as you wish. No one knows how long this opportunity will continue. […] But it’s a great opportunity while it lasts.


Update (Dec. 30): The promo/mistake seems to be over, but it was fun while it lasted.

Ebalus the Mamzer.

I knew the Hebrew/Yiddish word mamzer ‘bastard’ was widespread, but this still surprised me:

Ebalus or Ebles Manzer or Manser (c. 870 – 935) was Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitaine on two occasions: from 890 to 892; and then from 902 until his death in 935 (Poitou) and from 928 until 932 (Aquitaine).

Ebles was an illegitimate son of Ranulf II of Aquitaine. “Manzer” or “Mamzer” is a Hebrew word that means bastard, son of a gentile man and Jewish woman. It appears that Ebles did not mind his name, and his “illegitimacy became a part of his style.”

I guess if you’ve got a problematic nickname, that’s the way to deal with it.

Early Pasternak.

I’ve been reading Pasternak in chronological order, and it’s quite a culture shock: after steeping myself for so long in the classical elegance of Mandelstam, with his high-culture references and carefully balanced lines, suddenly I’m buffeted by the barbaric yawp and knotty imagery of an utterly different poet. Of course, that fits with the clichéd images of aristocratic Petersburg and low-class Moscow, but there it is. It’s like going from, say, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony to Ives’s Second; both are great, but the switch will knock the breath out of you.

Let me give some examples of the way Pasternak goes at language like a dog at a bone. One of his favorite devices is repetition. He does it with variation in Метель [The blizzard] (1914/1928), which begins:

В посаде, куда ни одна нога
Не ступала, лишь ворожеи да вьюги
Ступала нога

In a suburb where not a single foot
was set, only sorceresses and snowstorms
set foot

The next stanza starts:

Постой, в посаде, куда ни одна
Нога не ступала, лишь ворожеи
Да вьюги ступала нога

Stop! in a suburb where not a single
foot was set, only sorceresses
and snowstorms set foot

And the fourth stanza begins:

Послушай, в посаде, куда ни одна
Нога не ступала, одни душегубы

Listen! in a suburb where not a single
foot was set, only murderers

The fifth stanza introduces the wonderful line “Не тот это город, и полночь не та” [It’s not the right city, and not the right midnight], and the same line is used to end the whole poem. Who knows how it fits with the rest of the poem, or what it means, but who cares? It’s irresistible!

He goes completely nuts with the repetition at the start of «Я понял жизни цель и чту» (1915):

Я понял жизни цель и чту
Ту цель, как цель, и эта цель –
Признать, что мне невмоготу
Мириться с тем, что есть апрель,

I understand the aim of life, and I honor
that aim as aim, and this aim
is to admit that I can’t bear
to accept that April exists,

It’s over the top, but again, who could resist? (He expresses a similar sentiment in a later poem: “Им, как и мне, невмочь с весною свыкнуться” [They, like me, can’t get used to spring].) I suspect he wanted a rhyme for апрель, цель came to him, and then he started muttering “цель цель цель…” and built a couple of lines around it. The last stanza includes the striking lines

Что в берковец церковный зык,
Что взят звонарь в весовщики,

That the bellowing in the church weighs ten poods [360 lbs],
That the bell-ringer has been taken as a weigher,

Those two lines have four words I had to look up (берковец ‘ten poods’ [apparently from Björkö], зык ‘loud voice or cry,’ звонарь ‘bell-ringer,’ and весовщик ‘weigher; checkweighman’), and he’s clearly working as much with sound as with meaning: “Chto v bérkovets tservkovny zyk, Chto vzyat zvonár’ v vesovshchikí.”

A good example of knotty imagery is from «Двор» [The courtyard] (1916/1928):

Мздой облагает зима, как баскак,
Окна и печи, но стужа в их книгах —
Ханский указ на вощеных брусках
О наложении зимнего ига.

Winter assesses a tribute, like a baskak [Mongol khan’s representative],
on windows and stoves, but the freezing cold in their books
is the khan’s decree [inscribed] on waxed ingots
on the imposition of winter’s yoke.

I get the general idea, but I don’t understand “the freezing cold in their books” (whose books? it’s repeated from an earlier stanza, but I don’t understand it there either).

Rather than leave you with that clotted stanza, I’ll quote one from «Венеция» [Venice] (1913/1928):

Туда, голодные, противясь,
Шли волны, шлёндая с тоски,
И го́ндолы рубили привязь,
Точа о пристань тесаки.

Thither, hungry, resisting,
went the waves, roaming in melancholy,
and the gondolas have cut their painters,
whetting their hatchets on the pier.

It sounds awkward as hell in my literal version, but in the original it’s a miracle of rhythm and alliteration (he has a footnote explaining that he’s using the Italian antepenultimate stress for гондолы rather than the normal Russian penultimate), and in particular “Шли волны, шлёндая с тоски” [shli volny, shlyóndaya s toskí], using the unusual verb шлёндать ‘roam, wander aimlessly, hang around,’ is one of those perfect lines that sinks immediately into your memory and justifies the whole idea of poetry.


I recently ran across the extremely obscure word aprakos (so obscure it’s not in the OED); here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Aprakos is a kind of Gospel or Acts of the Apostles book, otherwise known as weekly or service Gospel (Acts). In aprakoses, the text is organized not in the natural order of books, but along with the weekly church readings starting from the Holy (Easter) Week as used in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In particular, the text of Aprakos-Gospels begins with the first chapter of Gospel according to John (In the beginning was the Word…), whereas regular Gospels (Tetra-Gospels) begin with the Gospel according to Matthew (The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David…). Many of the oldest Slavic manuscripts are aprakoses, like Codex Assemanius or Ostromir Gospels.

It gives me a combination of heartburn and a warm, fuzzy feeling to see the phrases “Codex Assemanius” and “Ostromir Gospels” (grad school memories), but never mind that: what kind of word is it? It looks Greek, and if we go to Russian Wikipedia we find that it’s from Greek ἄπρακτος ‘not doing/acting, idle’; Vasmer tells us it’s from the phrase ἄπρακτοι ἡμέραι ‘idle days, holidays.’ All well and good, but where did the -t- go? This isn’t a popular word, where all sorts of things can happen in oral transmission, but a learned word that presumably got copied straight from Byzantine manuscripts into Slavic ones; did some copyist omit the tau and nobody noticed? If it had been borrowed normally as apraktos I might be tempted to complain about the plural in –es in Wikipedia, but since aprakos isn’t Greek, it would be silly to coin a pseudo-Greek plural aprakoi. I don’t know why I’m bothering you with this trivia, except that you’re presumably taking the week off like sensible people, and hardly a soul will be affronted by it.

Xmas Loot 2015.

It’s been a long couple of days, good but tiring, so I’ll just list the books I got:

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

The Philosophy of Beards by Thomas S. Gowing

What Every Russian Knows (and You Don’t) by Olga Fedina

The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

The Martian by Andy Weir

A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev by Vladislav M. Zubok

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Collected Short Stories: Volume 3 by W. Somerset Maugham

Map: Exploring the World by Victoria Clarke

Cloud Atlas: A Novel by David Mitchell

The Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War by Alfred J. Rieber

My thanks to all the generous givers, and I hope that all my readers who celebrate Christmas had as good a one as I did!

Addendum. A couple more entries:

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Le langage et son double by Julien Green

Hwæt, Hrodulf!

An Old English poem by Philip Chapman-Bell

incipit gestis Rudolphi rangifer tarandus

Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor—
Næfde þæt nieten unsciende næsðyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.
Ða hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehefigodon;
Nolden þa geneatas Hrodulf næftig Sutton Hoo deer
To gomene hraniscum geador ætsomne.
Þa in Cristesmæsseæfne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus þæt gemunde to him maðelode:
‘Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hrædwæn gelæd ðu, Hrodulf!’
Ða gelufodon hira laddeor þa lyftflogan —
Wæs glædnes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode
‘Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springð þin blæd: breme eart þu!’

Here begin the deeds of Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer

Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer —
That beast didn’t have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.
The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn’t allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.
Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
‘Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!’
Then the sky-flyers praised their lead deer —
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
‘Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!’

Addendum. From Paul Ogden: Yiddish Rudolph!

The New Spanish.

For years one of the items sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read was The Lord of the Last Days: Visions of the Year 1000, a novel [set in northern Spain] by the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, and since I’d been reading about the period in Wickham I thought I might as well give it a go. After a couple of chapters, I’m about ready to give up on it; it may be a fine novel, but it doesn’t suit my mood at the moment — too, well, poetic or something. But the business about Spanish doesn’t help.

Chapter 2 — excuse me, Vision II — opens thus:

“Eye, hand, foot, house, horse.” A man was teaching his son words in the new Spanish, as both sat beside the beggar’s gate on the ground outside the monastery. “Knife, dove, chest.”

“The new Spanish?” I thought. “That’s odd. But I guess Spanish could be considered a relatively new language around 1000, and the author is remarking on that. Fair enough!” And I continued on. Then, a page or so later, I hit this:

“Could he but talk, he’d be a jester and singer of songs in the new tongue that is aborning; he’d go from castle to castle, to markets and public squares, rejoicing the plain people,” said she who was called Oro María.

I didn’t like the Historical Novelese (“Could he but talk”; “that is aborning”; “she who was called”), but what really bothered me was this business about “the new tongue.” Could the author possibly think that people in Spain in the year 1000, or at any time in any place, see themselves as speaking a new language when that language is just a further evolution in a linguistic history going back millennia? Just because we moderns have decided that after a certain point we’ll call it “Spanish” rather than “Latin” doesn’t mean that people at the time woke up saying “Hey, we’re speaking Spanish now!” That’s blithering idiocy. I gritted my teeth and moved on, but on the very next page I hit “Why were you teaching an infant who cannot speak words in the new vernacular?” And I cursed in my own vernacular, and after finishing the chapter — excuse me, Vision — I set the book aside, never, perhaps, to pick it up again except to put it on the To Sell pile. (If any reader knows any reason why I should give it another try when I’ve recovered, say so; I’m a fair man and try not to be ruled by the aggravations of the passing moment.)

Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the odd-looking (for a Mexican poet) name Homero Aridjis, his father was Greek, so it’s a Hispanized version of Ὅμηρος Ἀριτζής. I wondered how the surname would be pronounced in Spanish, and it turns out (according to this video) that it’s just as you’d expect a Spanish speaker to say it, /aˈriðχis/.

Remaking Waterstones.

Stephen Heyman has a giddily enthusiastic puff piece at Slate about James Daunt, who has actually made Waterstones profitable while its US equivalent, Barnes & Noble, is (according to Heyman) in serious peril. One way he’s done this is the traditional new-broom staple of firing a bunch of people (boo!), but this stuff is interesting:

Once at Waterstones, Daunt tore up the business plan. His first target was the so-called planogram, a kind of map that tells chain booksellers which new books go where, ensuring that each store assigns exactly the same prominence to exactly the same titles. The very best locations in the store are actually sold to publishers. This includes the so-called best-seller list, whose rankings are determined not by the popularity of a given book but by how much a publisher is willing to invest to promote it. (A similar policy of “bookstore baksheesh,” as one editor dubbed it, seems to exist at B&N.) In 2011, Waterstones earned around £30 million just for this kind of advertising, Daunt said. Considering that the company was hemorrhaging money when Daunt took it over, forfeiting this revenue stream seemed crazy, and it also offended many publishers. “By giving control back to the booksellers, we were telling the publishers, ‘We know what sells better than you.’ That’s never a pleasant message,” said Daunt. “There was extreme nervousness. But we had the advantage of being bankrupt. Crucially for us, Penguin said, ‘Sounds mad. But what are the options? So we’ll support you.’ ”

By freeing up the placement of books, Daunt was able to optimize the selection for each store based on the type of customers coming in. What sold in working-class Gateshead wasn’t the same thing that sold in affluent Kensington. In some stores, he would discount. In others, he wouldn’t. […] He gave those booksellers who remained almost complete autonomy over how to arrange their stores—from the windows to the signage to the display tables—but controlled the stock with a dictatorial zeal. Out went books you wouldn’t want to browse: reference, technical guides, legal textbooks. That—along with the real estate freed up by eliminating publisher-sponsored placements—allowed Daunt to grow the total number of titles in stores by about a quarter. With more books to browse, sales increased. The number of unsold books that were returned to publishers fell from about 20 percent before Daunt took over to just 4 percent today.

I rolled my eyes at “A leaner staff and more autonomy resulted in everyone working harder, but Daunt says the staff is curiously happier as a result” (you betcha, boss!), but the survival of bookstores is a Good Thing, no question about it. Thanks, Paul!