Archives for February 2016

White and Black Bone.

Alexander Kim of Sarkoboros (see this LH post) has a very interesting post about an idiom I wasn’t familiar with. He starts with Chekhov’s 1894 story “At the Manor” («В усадьбе»), in which noble families are said to have been “strenuously in the course of centuries separating the white bone from the black [белую кость от чёрной],” adding that “white bone” is often rendered “blue blood” in English translations. He then writes:

White bone in opposition to black looks like a direct gloss of the famous Turko-Mongol idiom of noble and common birth, which has reflexes throughout Inner Asia and echoes in the kolp’um “bone rank” system of Silla Korea (C. S. Kim 1971, citing Ryū Imanishi, mentions also the ancient Japanese consanguinity terms kotsumei 骨名 “bone names” and shikotsu 氏骨 “clan bones”) and various Tibeto-Burman lineage and caste configurations (most notably that of the Yi, among whom the “blacks” or “black bones” are, in contrast to the Inner Asian scheme, superior in status to and rigidly averse to intermarriage with the softer-boned “whites”: Schoenhals 2003; Lu Hui 2001).

After a raft of examples, he concludes:

While some of the examples speak to social rank, others are actually cardinal-directional color assignments (the white west, the black north). Not clearly brought out is how qara “black” can also have the senses of great, powerful, terrible or large (e.g., qara mal, large domestic stock like horses and cattle) — but naturally the connotations are often intermingled or tilt from one to another (e.g., Anatolian Turkish Karadeniz ‘Black Sea’, various Kara-prefixed tribal and imperial names).

On an attempted inversion of valence (Vakar 1949:208–209):

One can read of “people of white and black bone” (L. Tolstoy), “black bone students” (Miljukov), and so on. A story prepared by the Soviet officials for use in Berlin schools, and vetoed by American authorities, related the triumph of “the blackboned proletariat over the worthless whiteboned bourgeoisie.” White bone, meaning “free status, noble origin, upper class,” is still a current idiom in Central Asia, presumably the country of its origins. Finally, the expression was given respectability by the Ušakov Dictionary, which defines it in the following terms: “(ironic.) noble, ‘lordly’ breed.”

Some questions:

Is there anything in older East Slavic texts or the rest of Balto-Slavic to injure the idea that “white bone”/”black bone” was a Golden Horde-era transmission?

Vakar asserts (206) that the terms “white” and “black” in connection with present Belorussia did not appear in literature before the fourteenth century. Credible?

What work of Tolstoy was it?

Good questions, and I figure just the sort of thing the multifarious readership of LH will enjoy sinking their collective white-boned teeth into.

Shibboleths in Poland.

Those who found that this post painted too rosy a picture of medieval Europe will be heartened by this further quote from Bartlett’s The Making of Europe:

Although towns often had this character of ethnic islands [in colonized regions like Wales and Eastern Europe], they rarely attained complete racial homogeneity. Native populations lived within the walls, sometimes in the humble position of manual labourers, sometimes as artisans or even merchants. The expanding urban economy of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries seems to have allowed both immigrant and native to prosper. The picture darkens as the recession of the later Middle Ages begins. As the meal shrank, the diners began to eye each other more suspiciously.

One consequence of the dynastic uncertainties in eastern Europe during the later Middle Ages was that the German burgess population had a far more complicated and demanding political course to steer. […] In the early fourteenth century, during the dynastic manoeuvring that culminated in the revival of the Polish kingdom under Wladyslaw Lokietek, the German burgesses of Cracow made a serious miscalculation. They backed first the Luxemburg, then a Silesian aspirant, rather than Lokietek, were abandoned by their allies, and suffered savage reprisals, which took the form of a racial persecution. […]

[…] The Krasiński Annals add the detail that ‘anyone who could not pronounce soczewic [should be soczowica — see comments] (lentil), koło (wheel), miele (grinds) and młyn (mill) was executed. The application of this shibboleth gave events a starkly ethnic-linguistic imprint. This linguistic chauvinism manifested itself in another development of the same year. On 18 November 1312 the official records of the city of Cracow, which until that time had been kept in German, began to be written in Latin. […] The exclusion of the German language clearly reflects the anti-German pogrom of that year. Its replacement by Latin rather than Polish reminds us how undeveloped this vernacular was as a written idiom. (Similarly, when Old English disappeared from documents such as wills and writs after the conquest of England by a French-speaking aristocracy in 1066, it was Latin that replaced it. Eleventh-century French, like fourteenth-century Polish, had not yet won the esteem of a language of official record.) In the century following the rising of 1311-12, Cracow was gradually Polonized. […] [By 1470] Cracow had become a Polish city with a German minority rather than a German city in Poland.

The Rhythm of Translation.

Translator Burton Pike describes what to me is probably the most essential factor in translation:

A witty translator wrote that a translation is your book with someone else’s name on it. When I was teaching translation, I would tell my students that in translating prose fiction the words were the least of their problems. First, I told them, you need to identify the book’s or the story’s rhythm, how the words flow; you do that by reading the text aloud and listening. Then you fit the English words and sentences to the underlying pacing of the German, and you would be in business. For example, in translating Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther I determined that the underlying rhythm was a waterfall of words, and I based my translation on that. The result, I think, sounds like Goethe, but in English. One result of this approach through rhythm is that all my translations of prose fiction differ from each other, because each one is based on a different rhythmic model.

He talks about translating Musil and Rilke, so if those authors interest you go ahead and click the link. Me, I want to know who that witty translator was. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Language in Medieval Europe.

Bartlett’s The Making of Europe (see this post) has an interesting chapter on “Language and Law” (pp. 197-220), which begins:

Conquest and colonization created on the frontiers of Latin Christendom societies in which different ethnic groups live side by side, and everywhere in the frontier zone of Latin Europe race relations were thus a central issue. It is worth stressing at the outset that, while the language of race—gens, natio, “blood,” “stock,” and so on—is biological, its medieval reality was almost entirely cultural. […] In contrast to descent, [custom, language and law] are malleable. They can, indeed, with varying degrees of effect, be transformed not only from one generation to the next, but even within an individual lifetime. New languages can be mastered, new legal regimes adopted, new customs learned. […] If we define, say, ‘German’ and ‘Slav’ by customs, language and law rather than by descent, the grandchildren of Slavs could be Germans, the grandchildren of Germans Slavs. When we study race relations in medieval Europe we are analysing the contact between various linguistic and cultural groups, not between breeding stocks.

The section on language contrasts the regions with “a relatively high degree of linguistic and cultural homogeneity and dominated by more or less standard languages” (English in England, Languedoil north of the Loire, Languedoc south of it, Low German in north Germany, etc.) with “the conquered and colonized peripheries, which were characterized by a ubiquitous mixture and intermingling of language and culture”:

As one travelled from Trier to Vienna or from Béarn to Provence, one would notice the shift from one local variant to another. In complete contrast, the conquered and colonized peripheries of Europe were familiar with languages of completely different language families being spoken in the same settlement or street. […] The streams, hills and settlements of the frontier zones began to show signs of a double identity: ‘the place is called woyces in Slavic and enge water in German’, explains one east Pomeranian document. […]

Bilingualism was not unusual at many social levels. Even in the tenth century Otto I of Germany had command of both German and Slav. In the Frankish Morea successful leaders would know French, Greek and perhaps even Turkish […]. In the fourteenth century the descendants of the Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland were composing poetry in Irish. […]

The variegated linguistic patterns of the frontier regions were reflected in their naming practices. A process of mutual influence meant that by the fourteenth century Slav farmers might be called Bernard and Richard, English settlers in Ireland might have Irish names, and a descendant of Welsh upland princes might be quite unrecognizable as Sir Thomas de Avene. Simultaneous binomialism is an even sharper symptom of the linguistic and cultural pluralism of the frontier zones. In the tenth century Otto II was accompanied after the rout of Cap Colonne by ‘one of his knights, Henry, who was called Zolunta in Slavic.’ […] Przemysl Ottokar II even had two seals, one for his Czech-speaking lands, inscribed with the name Przemysl, one for his German-speaking lands, bearing the name Ottokar. Among the Mozarabs of Toledo, Romance-Arabic binomialism was widespread. ‘In the name of God,’ begins one document of 1115, ‘I, Dominico Petriz, as I am called in Romance (in latinitate) and in Arabic (in algariva) Avelfaçam Avenbaço; also I, Dominiquez, as I am called in Romance, and in Arabic Avelfacam Avencelema…’ […]

A growing strand of linguistic nationalism or politicized linguistic consciousness emerges in the later Middle Ages. A symptom of the identification of language and people is the use of the word for language in contexts where it almost certainly means ‘people’. The West Slav word jazyk denoted both ‘language’ and ‘people’ […]. The German translation […] uses zung, i.e. ‘tongue’, and this has a similar semantic complexity. Iaith, the Welsh word for ‘language’, was likewise ‘charged in contemporary parlance with a far greater range of attributes than the purely linguistic one’. […] In Latin documents lingua enshrines the same ambiguity. […] In all these instances a semantic ambiguity points to a conceptual one — ethnic and linguistic identity tended to blur into one another.

We discussed the flexibility of ethnic identities last year; it is important to keep such things in mind to counteract the simplistic, ahistorical claims of ethnic nationalists.

More on the Spread of the Austronesian Languages.

We’ve discussed the interesting and much-disputed subject of the origins of the Austronesian languages before: in 2009 in connection with “Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement,” by Gray, Drummond, and Greenhill, which came down on the side of Taiwanese origin, and in 2014 in connection with Roger Blench’s paper “Suppose we are wrong about the Austronesian settlement of Taiwan?,” which came to the contrary conclusion that the Formosan languages “represent a continuing flow of pre-Austronesian languages from the mainland.” Now, according to a news story, a team of archaeogenetic researchers led by Martin Richards “proposes a solution based on what has been the most comprehensive analysis so far of DNA from the region”:

The various branches of the Austronesian language can be traced back to a Taiwanese original, and DNA analysis does show that there was some expansion from Taiwan, about 4,000 years ago. But this accounted for a minority of the whole region’s population – no more than 20 per cent. An explanation for the spread of the language was that these Taiwanese migrants came to constitute an elite group, or became associated with a new religion or philosophy, according to Professor Richards.

I’ll be interested to see what those who know more than I do about the topic have to say. (Thanks for the link, Trevor!)

Request for Historical Dialect Information.

A reader writes:

I’m looking for words and phrases used on the colonial American frontier circa 1772 among the working classes and Scots-Irish farmers, say in the western Pennsylvania/Ohio area. Do you have any links for this? I’m reading the Hervey Allen books (written in 1940s) about life in Bedford in 1763 but that’s about as close as I can come to finding a dialect for that time.

I don’t have any links or information about this, but I’m hoping some of my readers do.

Learn Finnish with Kirikou.

Nothing much to say about this except it’s a fun four-minute video in which a Finnish kid teaches you a little Finnish with a lot of attitude. The sentences he doesn’t translate are transcribed and translated in this MetaFilter post, where I got the link.

Thesaurus Linguae Sericae.

From the About TLS section (I’ve collapsed the one-sentence paragraphs because they annoy me):

TLS explores the conceptual schemes of pre-Buddhist Chinese on the basis of a corpus of translated texts interlinked with an analytic dictionary. Text and dictionary are constantly held up against one another. Our understanding of the texts and the Chinese system of meanings can be refined by through this close confrontation. TLS associates Chinese concepts with concepts from the European antiquity, aiming to make the classical Chinese evidence comparable to that of other cultures. TLS seeks to make more precise the criteria used in translating classical Chinese, through a detailed description of the semantic relations that obtain among Chinese words.

TLS is the first synonym dictionary of classical Chinese in any Western language; it attempts to state as clearly as possible the semantic nuances that distinguish words close in meaning. TLS is the first dictionary which systematically organises the Chinese vocabulary in taxonomic and mereonomic hierarchies, thus exploring the topology of the Chinese mental space. TLS is the first dictionary that systematically registers lexical relations like antonym, converse, epithet, etc., thereby aiming to define the Chinese conceptual space as a relational space. TLS is the first dictionary of Chinese which incorporates detailed syntactic analysis, thus enabling the systematic study of basic phenomena as e.g. the history of abstract nouns in China. TLS is the first corpus-based dictionary which records the history of rhetorical devices in texts, making it possible to study crucial matters such as the history of irony in China.

I guess most people who would be interested already know about it, since it’s been around for a while, but you never know. Lukas Zadrapa, in Word-Class Flexibility in Classical Chinese: Verbal and Adverbial Uses of Nouns (Brill, 2011), calls it “the most extensive and definitely the most sophisticated interactive encyclopedia of (primarily ancient and mediaeval) Chinese language and Chinese concepts at hand, which I have had the chance to exploit since the time almost ten years ago when it was not even remotely accessible via the internet” (pp. 12-13). Kudos to General Editor Christoph Harbsmeier, who apparently got it started, and a tip o’ the Languagehat hat to Trevor for the link.


I came across a reference to the island of Iona, looked it up, and in that Wikipedia article discovered some startling information about its name (I’ve bolded the startling part):

The earliest forms of the name enabled place-name scholar William J. Watson to show that the name originally meant something like “yew-place”. The element Ivo-, denoting “yew”, occurs in Ogham inscriptions (Iva-cattos [genitive], Iva-geni [genitive]) and in Gaulish names (Ivo-rix, Ivo-magus) and may form the basis of early Gaelic names like Eogan (ogham: Ivo-genos). It is possible that the name is related to the mythological figure, Fer hÍ mac Eogabail, foster-son of Manannan, the forename meaning “man of the yew”.

Mac an Tàilleir (2003) lists the more recent Gaelic names of Ì, Ì Chaluim Chille and Eilean Idhe noting that the first named is “generally lengthened to avoid confusion” to the second, which means “Calum’s (i.e. in latinised form “Columba’s”) Iona” or “island of Calum’s monastery”. The possible confusion results from “ì”, despite its original etymology, becoming a Gaelic noun (now obsolete) meaning simply “island”. Eilean Idhe means “the isle of Iona”, also known as Ì nam ban bòidheach (“the isle of beautiful women”). The modern English name comes from an 18th-century misreading of yet another variant, Ioua, which was either just Adomnán’s attempt to make the Gaelic name fit Latin grammar or else a genuine derivative from Ivova (“yew place”). Ioua’s change to Iona results from a transcription mistake resulting from the similarity of “n” and “u” in Insular Minuscule.

For some reason (probably having to do with my work as an editor) it irritates me when words get changed in this way, whereas ordinary sound change, even via analogy or folk etymology, doesn’t bother me at all. (See this 2003 post for another example, the verb collimate.)

Lexical Distance Among the Languages of Europe.

Just a map, but a nicely done one, with some interesting discussion (and explanation of obscure abbreviations) in the comments. Thanks, Trevor!