Archives for December 2015

Creating a Chinese Font.

Nikhil Sonnad takes a look at “The long, incredibly tortuous, and fascinating process of creating a Chinese font” over at Quartz; it presumes you don’t know the first thing about Chinese writing, but if you skim past the historical boilerplate you get some interesting stuff:

As with Latin fonts, a crucial initial decision is to determine which font “style” to use. Chinese has two main styles, called Mingti and Heiti, akin to the serif and sans-serif of Latin. Heiti is a bit like sans-serif: clean, straight lines without extra ornamentation at the ends, common on the web. Mingti is similar to serif, with extra embellishment at the end of strokes that give it a more bookish feel. […]

After deciding whether to go in a Heiti or a Mingti direction, designers hone the typeface design further by looking for inspiration from sources as wide-ranging as calligraphy, ancient lettering, and other Chinese and Latin fonts. For JinXuan, Justfont is attempting to apply the feel of the Latin typeface Optima—which blends the simplicity of sans-serif fonts with the extravagance of serif ones—to the writing style they found on an ancient scroll. (Su, the co-founder, studied Chinese literature in university.)

The calligraphy of the scroll is indeed very nice, and it’s worth visiting the link just for that. Thanks, Nick!

Over Chess, Everybody Speaks Russian.

A nice little story from the NY Times Metropolitan Diary section (for which people send in quirky NYC experiences) earlier this year:

Dear Diary:

New York City is such an ethnic mix that speaking a foreign language is never a guarantee of privacy.

One summer afternoon I sat down to play chess with a stranger at one of the stationary chess tables at the southwest corner of Washington Square Park. I immediately recognized his distinctively Russian accent — soft consonants, elongated vowels, rolled r’s. It was familiar to me because I grew up speaking Russian at home with my parents. He and I chatted, exchanged brief bios and settled down to play.

It was my move at a critical stage in the game. As I was intently studying the position, a family of four — father, mother, teenage son and daughter — sidled up to watch. “He’ll move the bishop,” the father whispered in Russian after a few moments. “No, I think he’ll move the pawn,” said the mother softly, also in Russian. The daughter agreed with the father; the son agreed with the mother. I noticed a faint smile on my opponent’s face, but he didn’t say a word.

I considered both of those options. And then I announced as casually as I could, in Russian, “No, I think I have to move the rook.” The embarrassed looks on the observers’ faces quickly gave way to smiles all around.

By the way, I am about to finally take advantage of the offer of a free upgrade to Windows 10, trusting the assurances of various people who know more than I do about these things that it shouldn’t cause any problems. If it does, I may be offline until I get it sorted out. Pray for me in this hour of my trial!

Pisemsky Reconsidered.

I was disappointed in Pisemsky’s famous first published novel, Tyufyak, which in my post about it I translated “The Lump”; I don’t take back any of the unkind things I said about it, but I now realize that it was a poor introduction to a fine author. The upsetting thing is that I only read his 1851 follow-up, Sergei Petrovich Khozarov i Mari Stupitsyna: Brak po strasti [Sergei Petrovich Khozarov and Marie Stupitsyna: Marriage for passion], because Apollon Grigoryev, the best Russian literary critic of the nineteenth century, ended his survey of 1851 with it and clearly considered it the best novel of the year. I am in hearty agreement with that judgment, but if it weren’t for Grigoryev I would never have heard of it: neither the English nor Russian Wikipedia article mentions it, nor does D. S. Mirsky in the long and laudatory section on Pisemsky in his History of Russian Literature (which first suggested to me that I might want to read him someday). Mirsky says “Throughout the fifties Pisemsky continued producing masterpieces that met with increasing recognition,” and we must presume he considered this one of those masterpieces, but you’d think he’d at least have mentioned their titles. At any rate, I’ll quote him on Pisemsky’s virtues and then go on to discuss the novel. This is from pp. 210-11 of my edition of Mirsky:

Pisemsky is different in many ways from his contemporaries. Most of the essential features I have spoken of as common to the Russian realists are absent from his work. To begin with, he is free from all idealism, and this in two senses — he has no use for ideas and theories, and he does not take an optimistic view of mankind. […] He painted life as he saw it, without breaking it to any preconceived idea. The people who inhabit his stories are not subjective creations, ultimately based on the exteriorization of personal experience, like Gogol’s and like those of most of the realists, but really other people, seen with the eyes and understood by the sense of kind. Another feature of Pisemsky is the predominance in his work of outline over atmosphere. His people do not move about in a mellow autumnal haze like Turgenev’s, but stand out in the fierce glare of sunlight. The discreteness as opposed to the continuity of things is what his vision reveals. Closely connected with this feature is a far greater element of narrative interest than is usual in Russian fiction. All these characteristics, together with his somewhat cynical attitude to life, make Pisemsky unlike the main current of Russian realism and much more like the French naturalists. He has points in common with Balzac and is anticipatory of Zola and of Maupassant. […] Pisemsky, who kept himself uncontaminated by idealism, was in his own time regarded as much more characteristically Russian than his more cultured contemporaries. And this is true, Pisemsky was in much closer touch with Russian life, in particular with the life of the uneducated middle and lower classes, than were the more genteel novelists. He was, together with Ostrovsky, and before Leskov, the first to open that wonderful gallery of Russian characters of non-noble birth which is one of the greatest things in Russian literature yet to be discovered by the West. Pisemsky’s great narrative gift and exceptionally strong grip on reality make him one of the best Russian novelists…

Brak po strasti opens in a Moscow boardinghouse with its owner, Tatyana Zamsheva, giving instructions to her cook about which dishes to serve to which of her boarders. Pisemsky creates as vivid a picture of boardinghouse life as Balzac or Trollope, and Zamsheva is quite comparable to Mrs. Roper, who runs the boardinghouse in Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (which is our current bedtime reading chez Hat, and which I recommend to anyone who loves nineteenth-century novels): both are good-hearted women constantly under stress because of the unwillingness of their boarders to pay up, and both get more involved in the love lives of the young men who board with them than they should. Zamsheva divides her boarders into three groups, the милашки [sweethearts], the так себе [middling], and the гадкие [revolting]. Among the sweethearts is young Sergei Khozarov, who is educated and polite, well above the usual run of boardinghouse inmates, and whom she therefore coddles, giving him the best of the food and not pestering him for the rent as she does the revolting ones.

The other locus of the story is the Stupitsyn household, which consists of the middle-aged Katerina Arkhipovna, her daughters Praskovya (“Pashette”), Anna (“Annette”), and Marya (“Mashette” or “Marie”), and her newly returned husband Anton Fedotych, who is one of the great characters of Russian realist literature. He is a drunk and a dreamer, and therefore a liar, but, as Pisemsky points out, “not one of those indecent liars who babble God only knows what sort of nonsense”: no, he tells people perfectly ordinary and believable things, just things that didn’t happen to him. His wife keeps him on a tight leash, refusing him the vodka and tobacco he loves (though she addresses him politely even while chewing him out: “она всегда относилась к нему во втором лице множественного числа и прибавляла частичку ‘с'”), so he spends much of his time inventing pleasant things that should have happened to him, and when he slips the leash and gets a chance to booze, he tells his drinking companions those stories. His usual crew, of course, know he’s making it all up, so he especially enjoys the opportunity to share his dreamed reality with strangers. It is as a result of his confabulation that Khozarov becomes convinced that Marie, the youngest Stupitsyn girl and the apple of her mother’s eye (and thus the object of the spiteful envy of her older sisters), is going to come into a substantial fortune and decides to woo her. Her family wanted to marry her to the rich and genial Ivan Rozhnov, but Marie considers him old and fat and wants nothing to do with him; she readily falls for the smooth-talking Khozarov, and goes on a hunger strike until her mother, who dislikes Khozarov intensely, gives in. All of this plays out with the economy and wit natural to a successful dramatist, which Pisemsky was, and I’m looking forward to reading his plays as well. In the meantime, I’m glad to have happened on this wonderful short novel, which should be translated and added to the reading lists of Russ. lit. classes.

So why has it been so utterly forgotten? I can think of two reasons (aside from sheer chance): it has nothing to say about serfdom, class struggle, politics, or any of the other obsessions of the critics who created our image of Russian literature (though it has a lot to say about gender relations, and the unhappy wife Varvara Mamilova, who befriends Khozarov and ends up regretting it, is another great creation, up there with Trollope’s Miss Dunstable, the “Ointment of Lebanon” heiress); and it has an awkward and unmemorable title. This simply confirms me in my belief that the notorious canon, though secure at the top (no, Shakespeare isn’t great just because a bunch of dead white males chose him out of a hat), is missing a great deal on the lower levels. I hope for many more such discoveries as I make my way through the nineteenth century.

I forgot to mention that I was moved by Mamilova’s apposite quotation (actually a slight misquotation) of Tatyana’s famous line from the last canto of Eugene Onegin, “Я другому отдана и буду век ему верна” [I have been given to another and will be true to him all my life], and then it occurred to me that that canto had been published only two decades earlier, and that Pushkin had been dead for only thirteen years. It’s as if a new novel quoted a famous line from the mid-1990s by an author who died in 2002; there were lots of readers who had known Pushkin personally or remembered reading that line when it first came out. Time is a strange thing.

Update. Erik of XIX век discusses this post and the prolific Pisemsky.

People Who Curse Have Better Vocabularies.

A new study has found that those who have a healthy repertoire of curse words at their disposal are more likely to have a richer vocabulary than those who don’t. Now, that’s my kind of study. Found via the Facebook feed of Slavomír Čéplö (aka bulbul), who comments: “Aivan niin, perkele!” Which is “Quite so” in Finnish plus the most famous Finnish curse word.

The actual study is Kristin L. Jay and Timothy B. Jay, “Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: Deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth” (Language Sciences 52 [November 2015]: 251–259); the abstract is here. (This being Elsevier, you’ll have to shell out $55.20 for the fucking article.)


Dave Wilton of occasionally writes posts about the history of particularly interesting words and phrases for his Big List, and the latest is on carol. The word originally meant ‘ring dance,’ and began to be associated with Christmas as early as 1502, which mildly surprised me. But what blew my mind was this paragraph:

The early use of the word to mean a ring dance also gives us another modern word, the library carrel. The use of carol to refer to a ring or enclosure also dates to the early fourteenth century. Robert Mannyng, whose Handlyng Synne is quoted above, also used the word in his Chronicle to refer to Stonehenge. And there are numerous medieval glosses of the Latin pluteus with the word carol. In classical Latin a pluteus is a shed or enclosure, particularly one used during a siege to protect the soldiers, but in medieval Latin had also come to refer to a monk’s work cubicle.

After decades of intensive reading of dictionaries, it’s rare for me to be this surprised by an etymology.

Leibniz as Etymologist.

I was amused by this post at Kenny Cargill’s Reading Notes in Russian Intellectual History, quoting Leibniz’s “odd etymology for the Russian word for Wednesday (sreda), as though the word derived from the name of Zarathustra”:

His [Zarathustra’s] great learning caused the Orientals to compare him with the Mercury or Hermes of the Egyptians and Greeks; just as the northern peoples compared their Wodan or Odin to this same Mercury. That is why Mercredi (Wednesday), or the day of Mercury, was called Wodansdag by the northern peoples, but day of Zerdust by the Asiatics, since it is named Zarschamba or Dsearschambe by the Turks and the Persians, Zerda by the Hungarians from the north-east, and Sreda by the Slavs from the heart of Great Russia, as far as the Wends of the Luneburg region, the Slavs having learnt the name also from the Orientals.

Actually, Russian среда [sredá], which also means ‘milieu’ and ‘medium,’ is (like those words) simply a semantic extension of the word for ‘middle’ (which is borrowed from Church Slavic; the native Russian form, also occasionally used, is середа [seredá]), Wednesday being in the middle of the week. I was briefly excited when Cargill checked this against his copy of Terence Wade’s Etymological Dictionary of Russian, with which I was not familiar — I thought it might be a useful alternative source of etymologies — but a bit of googling turned up this StackExchange question, which revealed that the Wade book only covers 1,500 words.

Restoring Bad Rhyme.

I have no idea whether I’d actually like The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of PI, Part 1, by “Eugenes Ostashevsky and Timerman,” but I certainly enjoyed this review by Joe Milutis, from which I extract the middle section:

Ostashevsky is himself an accomplished translator of Russian, but it is his original American poetry that seems ready-made to discuss the the multiple mutating filters of translation, or, to paraphrase Nabokov, the re-Englishing of Russian re-versions of an English re-telling of a Russian memory. His poetry’s battery of English sound effects—which generate surprise even from the most potentially cringe-inducing end rhymes—seem to retain with them a Russian bemusement at unnoted or ignored English assonances, while at the same time perhaps attempting to restore the “bad rhyme” principles of Alexander Vvedensky, a forgotten Russian poet who he’s translated. And the cross-cultural pollination extends to high and low culture, with signifiers of intellectual, philosophical, and mathematical erudition remolded into American vernacular idioms like rap, Dr. Seussisms, borscht-belt comedy and elephant jokes. Appropriately enough, the epigram that heads the collection Iterature, in his poem “Autobiography”—“structaque sunt nostris barbara verba modis”—is a plaint written by Ovid about his attempts (no longer extant) to write in Getic (the language of his place of exile, corresponding with present day Romania, but which may have more generalized affiliations with the “gothic”—a productive engine of translational oddities, as we’ll see in future posts.) The longer quote reads something like “What shame, that I write this little book in a Gothic tongue! What barbarous words have been built into our style!” Metamorphosis, exile, drift . . . the translational gothic creates not merely new texts, but also new beings in process, who are untranslatable, or at least untranslatable back to their origins.

The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi starts with an absurdist syllogism regarding the difference between “pirate” and “parrot,” although we’ll see the two become indistinguishable—especially in Timerman’s images which reconstruct fractured assemblages of parrotness and pirateness. We know that pirate and parrot are already, at least in their most archetypical manifestation, in a kind of symbiotic relation—that parrot, in its mimickry is always becoming-pirate, and that the “pirate” in his contemporary manifestation as “digital copier” is a kind of parrot of peer-to-peer. Both engage in forms of copying that are without or beyond commercial “value” (or pi, or any other numeric or mathematical system. If anything, the pirate’s “ship describes a Markov chain”—a random process). Nevertheless, there is a type of exchange displayed in this chapbook, a commerce between signs that is not explicitly pinnable or parrotable.

Again, while this book is not a “translation” strictly conceived, it is engaging in all manner of translational themes and deformations. Perhaps most interesting is that embedded in Timerman’s images of pirate and parrot—composed of broken, painted, and scanned pieces of glass—are fragments of Russian language, inextricable from the transformation into English. Mirroring these fragments, seemingly random bolded letters in Ostachevsky’s text turn out to be the Roman cognates of their Cyrillic doubles, so that one can make out, but not strictly decode a sense of Russian caught up in the matrix of pirating-parroting. It seems like a visualization of George Steiner’s notion that “We must not trust the translation whose words are entirely ‘unbroken.’”

Weird and wonderful stuff: the “bad rhyme” principles of Alexander Vvedensky, Ovid’s regrets about writing in Getic (oh to have those poems!), the symbiotic relation of pirate and parrot… much to muse on.

Singular ‘They’ OK at WaPo.

Arika Okrent reports on a development I welcome with unalloyed pleasure:

Now, in the most recent update to The Washington Post style guide, singular they has been given official approval. Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Other institutions are sure to follow suit. Professional associations of copy editors have been chafing at the restriction against it for years, and now that a major publication has approved it, it won’t be long before more do the same. The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

Other changes to the style guide are “website” for “Web site,” of which I approve; “mic” for “mike,” to which I am indifferent; and “email” for “e-mail,” which I deprecate (not that my displeasure has any relevance outside my own head). There is ongoing discussion of all this at Mark Liberman’s Log post. (Also, I don’t like Arika’s “update to The Washington Post style guide”; in such a construction, “the” should be treated as part of the sentence, not the name of the paper: “update to the Washington Post style guide.”)

The Earliest Samekh.

An exciting discovery (if the history of the alphabet excites you, of course), courtesy of Ilan Ben Zion at The Times of Israel:

A potsherd slightly larger than a business card found in the ruins of a Late Bronze Age temple at the biblical site of Lachish in southern Israel has yielded a few tantalizing letters from a 12th century BCE alphabet — what one researcher called a “once in a generation” find.

The inscription, three lines containing nine early Semitic letters, was discovered during excavations at the site in 2014 and is believed to date from around 1130 BCE. It’s the first Canaanite inscription found in a Late Bronze Age context in over 30 years, the authors of the paper said. The letters were etched into a clay jar before firing, and are exceptionally clear.

The first line reads pkl, the second spr — the Semitic root for scribe — but the third has two letters of uncertain meaning (one is fragmentary). The text includes the earliest dateable examples of the letters kaf — the precursor to the Latin letter K — samekh — S — and resh — R. Samekh had never before been found in early Canaanite inscriptions.

There’s more at the link about the history of the alphabet and of Lachish. Thanks, Paul!

A Dictionary of Singlish.

A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English is amazingly good; it’s like the OED of Singlish. We’ve discussed Singlish before (most recently here), and I’ve always found it a very interesting variety of English; how did I never know about this site, which has been around since 2004? At any rate, here are the first few entries:

AA adj. [Eng., abbrev. of a(ttract a(ttention] Blatant, conspicuous, showy, unashamed.
2005 Renee Tan The Sunday Times, 27 February, 38 “Never see she show half ball meh.. so A.A.!” What it means: “Can’t you see she’s revealing a lot of cleavage.. so attract-attention!”

abang /ah-bahng, ˈɑbɑŋ/ n. [Mal., elder brother; male cousin or male friend of one’s own generation (Winstedt); Ind. abang older brother or sister; form of reference for older males; form of address by wife to husband regardless of latter’s age (Echols & Shadily, Ind.–Eng.)]
[1955 R.J. Wilkinson A Malay–English Dictionary, vol. 1, 1 abang. .. (Mal., Java) «Elder brother»; .. Also, familiarly, of persons regarded as elder brothers, such as elder cousins and intimate friends; occasionally, a term used by a wife to a husband.. 1963 Richard Winstedt An Unabridged Malay–English Dictionary 1 abang.. elder brother, male cousin or male friend or one’s own generation, wife’s term for husband of any age..]
Mal. slang A familiar term of address for a male relative or close friend who is of one’s generation but older than oneself.

acar, achar /ah-chah, ˈɑtʃɑ/ n. [Mal. < Hind. अचार acār (McGregor) < Pers. اﭼار achár powdered or salted meats, pickles or fruits, preserved in salt, vinegar, honey or syrup, particularly onions preserved in vinegar; also the pickle or liquor in which these meats or fruits are preserved (Johnson); pickles (Palmer)]
[1955 R.J. Wilkinson A Malay–English Dictionary, vol. 1, 3 achar.. Pickle; preserve in acid. .. The acid used is native vinegar (chuka jawa) flavoured with coriander, ginger, red-pepper, etc.]
Vegetables, usu. including cabbage, carrot and cucumber, which are pickled with chillies and vinegar and have crushed peanuts and sesame seeds added to them.
2004 Justin Cheong Today (Festive Special), 10 December, 2 [A] bottle of his mother’s achar (pickled vegetables).. 2005 Alan John The Sunday Times (LifeStyle), 6 February, L12 .. Acar Awak, vinegared vegetables drenched in a garlicky chilli sauce with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds.

That’s so well done I find it hard to imagine how it could be any better, and if I didn’t have to work I’d probably spend the rest of the evening playing around in it. Best lah!