Archives for March 2016

Powell’s Map of Native American Languages.

Rebecca Onion posts at Slate about a map so gorgeous and interesting I can’t resist bringing it here:

John Wesley Powell, explorer, geologist, and scientist, produced this map while he was the head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, as part of an 1890 Annual Report. According to Powell’s description of the project, the map plotted “linguistic stocks of American Indians,” as they were situated “at the time when the tribes composing them first became known to the European.”

The map was a culmination of decades of work, Powell wrote in the section of the bureau’s 1891 annual report that described its provenance. “The writer’s interest in linguistic work and the inception of a plan for a linguistic classification of Indian languages date back about 20 years, to a time when he was engaged in explorations in the West,” Powell wrote […]

In his description of the map, Powell exuded scholarly modesty: “[The map] is to be regarded as tentative, setting forth in visible form the results of investigation up to the present time, as a guide and aid to future effort.” But the project was a big deal, writes historian Donald Worster in his biography of Powell: “The classification and map were Powell’s most important achievement as bureau director … and they set the standard for linguists well into the twentieth century.”

Take a look; I’m sure a lot of it is out of date (and I hope marie-lucie will weigh in), but it’s a feast for the eyes. Thanks, Trevor!


David Zvi Kalman’s Forward article “The Strange and Violent History of the Ordinary Grogger” is extraordinarily interesting in its own right, as a history of the ratchet from the church crotalus to the policeman’s rattle (only superseded by the the pea whistle in 1884) and the Purim noisemaker. But I’m bringing it here for a couple of etymologies. The Yiddish word grager or greger, conventionally spelled grogger in American Jewish usage, is said to be from Polish grzegarz ‘rattle’; the problem is that I can find no evidence for such a Polish word. Also, the article mentions “the Triduum — the three days preceding Easter”; the word triduum, which was new to me, looks like it means “three twos,” but the OED (in an entry from 1914) says “< Latin trīduum, prop. neuter of *trīduus adjective (sc. spatium), < tri-, tri- comb. form + diēs day.” How do you get –duus from dies?

The Two Ways to Say “Celtic”.

Stan Carey has a mental_floss post on the word Celtic that says just about everything that needs to be said on the subject. He explains that “The now-dominant pronunciation ‘Keltic’ is a modern innovation”:

We can see the shift by comparing Fowler’s original Dictionary of Modern English Usage with Robert Burchfield’s revised third edition. Here’s Fowler, 1926: “The spelling C-, & the pronunciation s-, are the established ones, & no useful purpose seems to be served by the substitution of k-.” Burchfield, 1996: “Except for the football club Celtic (in Glasgow), which is pronounced /’seltɪk/, both Celt and Celtic are pronounced with initial /k/ in standard English.”

Burchfield doesn’t mention the Boston Celtics, and that’s not his only oversimplification. Celtic may be pronounced either way in standard English—even if this bothers some people. A lot of antagonism over language use stems from misconceptions about correctness, such as the common belief that there can be only one correct form of a word (one meaning, spelling, pronunciation, etc.), and that variants are therefore wrong. […]

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, “the closer you get to circles substantively concerned with Celtic lore and languages, the more likely you are to hear \’kel-tik\”—though “Seltic” may be heard “at times from very well-educated speakers.” The American Heritage Dictionary elaborates:

Although many people pronounce this word with an initial (s) sound, an initial (k) sound is standard in historical, linguistic, and sociological contexts. Interestingly, the introduction of the (k) sound is a linguistic change started by scholars, contravening the historical development of the word.

English borrowed Celtic in the 17th century from French celtique, soft-c, and from Latin Celtae, also soft-c in Britain at the time (unlike Classical Latin, which used a hard c). Centuries later the pronunciation changed, because language, but it didn’t switch from “Seltic” to “Keltic”—it just added the variant, which then spread. So now we have two acceptable forms. (And two spellings: Keltic, though unusual, is a variant that recalls Greek Keltoi, “the Gauls.”)

As both a Celt and a linguist, Stan is in a good position to adjudicate the matter, and his conclusion is unimpeachable:

Claims about correctness in language can’t override the facts of usage, and the important fact here is that both pronunciations are standard and correct. […] Critics are entitled to dislike “Seltic” or “Keltic,” but they have no business saying either pronunciation is wrong. Because they’re both right.

Nursery School in Elfdalian.

BBC’s News from Elsewhere reports:

Elfdalian will be the sole language spoken to children attending the pre-school in the town of Alvdalen, which is the only community that still uses it, Radio Sweden reports. Elfdalian is believed to be the closest descendant of Old Norse, which was spoken by Scandinavians more than 1,000 years ago.

At the moment, only about 2,500 people can speak the language, fewer than 60 of them children, reports The Local website. To help preserve Elfdalian, councillors in Alvdalen on Tuesday voted unanimously to build the new nursery school.

The Local quotes the town’s mayor, Peter Egardt, as saying that officials were aware of their responsibility to “get a new generation to speak our unique language, thus giving the language more of a chance to survive in the long term”.

The new nursery school will be up and running in the autumn, and the site says that pupils will continue to learn the language until they turn 18.

I think I learned about Elfdalian from comments by Stefan Holm and Piotr Gąsiorowski; see those links for more links. Thanks, Trevor!

Dryden’s Nouny Nouns.

As I mentioned here, I’m reading Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid, and I’m struck by a particular stylistic device that can best be demonstrated with a list of occurrences in the first three books:

Book 1: frothy furrows, airy throne, airy kingdoms, briny streams, finny coursers, briny waters, mossy seats, airy brow, beamy stags, tusky boar, milky dams, massy plate, plumy pride

Book 2: weedy lake, briny sweat, bushy brake, plumy crest, airy coursers, thorny brake, forky tongue, snaky buckler, leafy honors, briny floods, leafy greens

Book 3: foamy billows (2x), craggy cliff, shady shelter, ridgy waves, pitchy cloud, massy rocks, misty clouds (2x), woolly care, fenny lake, palmy land

Mind you, I’m ignoring very common adjectives like bloody, shady, dusty, etc., and citing only the ones that particularly stood out as marked collocations. I suppose a couple, like “briny waters” and “craggy cliff,” wouldn’t stand out in other surroundings, but in this company they’re clearly part of a trend. I haven’t read enough seventeenth-century poetry to be sure that it’s a peculiarity of Dryden rather than of the period, but I suspect it is. At any rate, by the time I got to “beamy stags” I was downright chuckling, doubtless not the reaction he was going for.

While I’m at it, I have a bone to pick with Dryden:

We leave the Delian ports, and put to sea;
By Naxos, fam’d for vintage, make our way;
Then green Donysa pass; and sail in sight
Of Paros’ isle, with marble quarries white.

What is this “Donysa”? He’s referring to Donousa (Greek Δονούσα), which Virgil quite properly calls Donusa (“bacchatamque jugis Naxum viridemque Donusam”); if it had been Greek Δονυσα, Virgil would have had Donysa. But it’s not, and he didn’t. Dryden needed a copyeditor.

Assfish, Perjink.

Two words new to me, each funny-sounding in its own way:

1) Liz Langley in National Geographic:

With a name like assfish, you’re probably used to being the butt of jokes, not a top news item.

After seeing a number of stories pop up about a funky little fish newly displayed at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Weird Animal Question of the Week decided to take the author’s prerogative to ask “What in the world is a bony-eared assfish?”

It’s actually a type of cusk-eel, an eel-like fish that resembles a “glorified tadpole, with a bulbous head and a tapering tail,” Gavin Hanke, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, says via email. […]

In 1887, German ichthyologist Albert Günther bestowed the species with its scientific name, Acanthonus armatus, which may offer a clue to how its common name of bony-eared assfish came about.

Armatus, which means “armed” in Latin, was likely chosen because the fish sports spines off the tip of the nose and the gills. This also perhaps accounts for the “bony-eared” bit, according to Hanke.

Akanthos is Greek for “prickly,” and onus could either mean “hake, a relative of cod,” Hanke says, “or a donkey.”

Thanks, Kobi!

2) Stuart Kelly in the TLS (June 12 2015 — yes, I’m that far behind), the “Books for Summer” feature:

I yield to no one in my admiration for the criticism of James Wood, even when I think he is profoundly wrong, so the nearest chance to be in his company with The Nearest Thing to Life (Vintage) is a pleasure I have been deferring. His perjink precision is always incisive, and his ability to wend personal belief and human regret into insistent value and persisting truth has annoyed the heck out of me for years.

Perjink is a fine Scots word, meaning “Exact, precise, extremely accurate”; the OED says it goes back to the eighteenth century (implied in 1775 R. Forbes Let. 21 Jan. in Lyon in Mourning III. 350 “But how came you not to observe the address I gave you literally and perjinkly?”) and its etymology is unknown. Oh, and The Nearest Thing to Life is an excellent little book.


Viktor Shklovsky has long been one of my favorite literary theorists, and this year is the hundredth anniversary of his writing his most famous essay, «Искусство как приём» [Art as Device]. The TLS has published a fine essay by Alexandra Berlina (editor and translator of the forthcoming Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader) to commemorate the occasion:

“What we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the method of art is ostranenie [making strange]”, proclaims Viktor Shklovsky’s best-known essay, “Art as Device” (“Iskusstvo kak priyom”), written one hundred years ago, and published in 1917.

When I say “essay”, I mean a cross between an article and a manifesto. And when I say “published”, I mean that Shklovsky had it printed on what looked like toilet paper, along with articles by other hot-headed students who believed they had found new ways of understanding literature. Following the new fashion for abbreviations, they christened their circle “OPOYAZ”, short for “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”. When others disparagingly called them formalists, they proudly took up the label. There never was a formal beginning to formalism, but the group formed around Shklovsky in 1916. This year, then, celebrates the twinned centenary of both the OPOYAZ and ostranenie – a concept that is often misunderstood as a mere textual game, when it is actually about making life more real, both in its joys and in its horrors.

In English, ostranenie is known as “defamiliarization”, “e(n)strangement”, “making strange” or “foregrounding”, all of which have the potential to confuse. Being estranged from, say, one’s wife is the emotional opposite of the reconnection through wonder that is ostranenie. One might also think of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt; though he was probably inspired by the Russian theorist, the German playwright believed in restraining feelings in order to promote critical thought. Shklovsky, on the other hand, saw thought as inseparable from emotion. (As it happens, contemporary cognitive science agrees.) To avoid such confusions, I will stick to the original term. Not that it is correct: it should have been ostrannenie, from the Russian strannyi, strange. But orthography was not one of Shklovsky’s fortes, and, as he put it decades later, the neologism “went off with one ‘n,’ to roam the world like a dog with an ear cut off”. The word is strange to Russian speakers, too – which is arguably a good thing, considering what it means.

I never realized the word should have been остраннение, with two н’s; it looks strange to me, which is obviously appropriate. Berlina goes on to discuss the backgrounds of the concept as well as of Shklovsky and his circle:

When a scholar claims that “acute experience” of the world is to be found in literature, one might suspect that his real life consists largely of book dust. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Shklovsky. Actually, to call him “a scholar” is misleading: while most of his life was dedicated to literary and film studies, he was also a fiction writer and the protagonist of other people’s novels, instructor of an armoured division and professor at the Art History Institute in Petrograd (both without any formal qualification), revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, the patriarch and enfant terrible of formalism, the chairman and cheerleader of the OPOYAZ.

The OPOYAZniks met in hungry Petrograd (not St Petersburg anymore, not Leningrad yet) and discussed the laws of world literature until dawn coloured the icy room. When this room was filled, knee-deep, with water, they sat on the backs of chairs. They didn’t retain this luxury for long: one member – often Shklovsky – would be responsible for chopping furniture and feeding the stove. Books burned, too, but gave little warmth. Despite the hunger and cold, these young people were exhilarated. They believed they were creating not a new kind of literary scholarship, but literary science. They took their work seriously – but they also had fun. Imagine them singing their jocular hymn, with its punning refrain “Ave Shklovsky, ave Victor, / formalituri te salutant!”, and stanzas such as the following:

“Love, just as any other object,
is known to us with all its vices.
But passion, from a formal viewpoint,
is just convergence of devices.”

They sang, they argued, they published, and in between led rather unscholarly lives. Shklovsky wrote while fighting in the First World War, participating in the February Revolution and trying to stage an anti-Bolshevik coup. He wrote while hiding in a mental ward and while starving in Petrograd; while torn between an unrelenting love-object in Berlin and an imprisoned wife in Russia. He even wrote while convalescing in a hospital: a bomb had gone off as he was trying to defuse it.

She talks about Swift, Twain, Vonnegut, and Martin Amis, among other practitioners, and explains how the idea spread:

It was only in 1965 that “Art as Device” was read in the West, translated into French by Tzvetan Todorov, and into English by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Other languages followed suit, and Shklovsky’s ideas became part of the critical toolkit, spreading by osmosis, usually without mention of his name. While his young self was resurrected in foreign languages he never learned, Shklovsky remained shut off from the world. “I doubt that most of us who were enthusiasts of the handful of essays available in the West were aware that he was not only still alive, but still publishing”, writes one of the early Shklovskians, David Gorman. Having already influenced Jakobson, Mikhail Bakhtin and Yury Lotman, Shklovsky’s work went on to inspire readers who did not speak Russian, such as Umberto Eco with his A Theory of Semiotics. Via Guy Cook, ostranenie entered linguistics and cognitive science as “schema refreshment”. The idea of cognitive renewal is now widespread in psychology, used in approaches such as “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” and “schema-focused therapy”. The twenty-first century has seen a new surge of interest in ostranenie: a special double issue of Poetics Today (2005/2006) connected the concept to thinkers ranging from Hannah Arendt to Michael Holquist, and a collection of essays, Ostrannenie (sic), in 2010, illuminates its importance for film studies. The international conference “A Hundred Years of Ostranenie”, scheduled for this year, has attracted submissions not only from literary and film scholars, but also from anthropologists and philosophers.

Read the whole thing; I’ll close with what is for obvious reasons one of my favorite bits from the Shklovsky essay:

Let me illustrate. I’m walking along the street and I see a man walking ahead of me wearing a hat. Suddenly, he drops a package. I call out to him: “Hey, you with the hat, you dropped a package!” This is an example of a purely prosaic use of an image. A second example. Several men are standing at attention. The platoon leader notices that one of the men is standing awkwardly, against army regulations. So he yells at him: “Hey, clean up your act, you crumpled hat!” This image is a poetic trope. (In one case the word hat serves as a metonymy, while in the other example we’re dealing with a metaphor. And yet I’m really concerned here with something else.)

Поясняю примером. Я иду по улице и вижу, что идущий впереди меня человек в шляпе выронил пакет. Я окликаю его: „эй, шляпа, пакет потерял“. Это пример образа — тропа чисто прозаического. Другой пример. В строю стоят несколько человек. Взводный видя, что один из них стоит плохо, не по-людски, говорит ему: „эй, шляпа, как стоишь“;. Это образ — троп поэтический. (В одном случае слово шляпа была метонимией, в другом метафорой. Но обращаю внимание не на это).

(I wish the translator had rendered по-людски properly as, e.g., “not the way normal human beings do it” rather than blanding it out as “against army regulations” — the ostranenie is lost!)

Fear of Hammered Money.

I’m finally getting around to reading the copy of Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (Heritage Press, 1944) which I got as a perk of working at the Occidental College Library circa 1970 — this must be a new record for length of time between acquisition and perusal — and I was struck by this passage in Dryden’s introduction:

I am also bound to tell your Lordship, in my own defense, that, from the beginning of the First Georgic to the end of the last Æneid, I found the difficulty of translation growing on me in every succeeding book: for Virgil, above all poets, had a stock, which I may call almost inexhaustible, of figurative, elegant, and sounding words: I, who inherit but a small portion of his genius, and write in a language so much inferior to the Latin, have found it very painful to vary phrases, when the same sense returns upon me. Even he himself, whether out of necessity or choice, has often express’d the same thing in the same words, and often repeated two or three whole verses which he had us’d before. Words are not so easily coin’d as money; and yet we see that the credit not only of banks but of exchequers, cracks, when little comes in and much goes out. Virgil call’d upon me in every line for some new word, and I paid so long, that I was almost bankrupt; so that the latter end must needs be more burdensome than the beginning or the middle; and, consequently, the Twelfth Æneid cost me double the time of the First and Second. What had become of me, if Virgil had tax’d me with another book? I had certainly been reduc’d to pay the public in hammer’d money, for want of mill’d; that is, in the same old words which I had us’d before; and the receivers must have been forc’d to have taken anything, where there was so little to be had.

The ritual modesty (“I, who inherit but a small portion of his genius”) is par for the course, but I was taken aback by the description of English as “so much inferior” to Latin in terms of vocabulary — of course Latin was seen as the language par excellence, but Dryden was writing in the seventeenth century, when the English vocabulary was exploding and writers were exuberantly coining words right and left. Even odder to me was the assumption that using words again was inherently wrong, that the more you wrote the more new words you had to find. It’s a frame of mind I find hard to enter into, like the idea that an entire drama had to take place within twenty-four hours (a prejudice, inherited from Aristotle, that Dryden also discusses). At any rate, I will soon be enjoying the poetry that has inspired so many in the past three centuries (including Melville, on whose behalf I am finally undertaking the reading).


Michael Scammell in the NYRB reports on what he correctly calls a “remarkable discovery” by Matthias Weßel while examining the papers of the late Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht — the original German text of Arthur Koestler’s famous novel Darkness at Noon, labeled “Koestler, Arthur. Rubaschow: Roman. Typoskript, März 1940, 326 pages.”

The implications of Weßel’s discovery are considerable, for Darkness at Noon is that rare specimen, a book known to the world only in translation. This peculiar distinction has been little discussed in the vast critical literature about Koestler and his famous novel. In my lengthy 2009 biography of Koestler I barely touch on it, yet the phenomenon is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the novel has been translated into over thirty other languages, every one of them based on the English edition, meaning that they are not just translations, but translations of a translation. This includes the German version, which Koestler himself translated back into German in 1944. […]

American and British critical assessments of Koestler have been very different, of course, but it’s surprising how little attention has been paid to the issue of translation, for Darkness at Noon sounds awfully wooden in its present English form. It is full of Germanisms and awkward formulations, showing that the translator was unfamiliar with the Soviet reality and Soviet terminology that inspired it; but it has not been possible to document this until now. Given the helter-skelter way Koestler conceived and wrote his novel and the chaotic conditions in which it was translated, it’s not surprising that the results were so unsatisfactory. […]

Having acquired and studied a copy of the German manuscript myself, I can confirm the English translation as the source of most of the errors, omissions, and mistranslations that Weßel found in Koestler’s translation back into German. Since it’s virtually certain that most of those errors and omissions have been reproduced and multiplied in the thirty to forty translations made from English into other languages, I’ve been able to form a pretty good idea of what readers of Darkness at Noon have been getting. A spot check of passages from the beginning, middle, and end of the English translation reveals an uncomfortably close adherence to German word order, syntax, and grammar; German cognates are regularly substituted for more apt and accurate English synonyms; and unnecessary inversions of verb form occur on almost every page. There is also an excessive use of the pronoun “one” (in place of “he” or “you”), a symptom of the way the colloquial tone and plainspokenness of the original have been replaced by the stiff language of polite society and by fussy, Germanic circumlocutions that slow the narrative down.

This woodenness is intensified by several other problems. The most glaring is the misleading presentation of Rubashov’s prison regime, which starts on the contents page. Here we learn that Koestler’s novel is divided into four sections: “The First Hearing,” “The Second Hearing,” “The Third Hearing,” and “The Grammatical Fiction.” It’s obvious to anyone with knowledge of the Soviet Union that these are not hearings, but interrogations, and they are carried out not by two “examining magistrates,” as the English would have it, but by two interrogators: Ivanov, acting as the good cop, and Gletkin, the bad cop. Rubashov, at the novel’s opening, is taken to prison not by a “chauffeur,” as in the translation, but by a police driver, and he is watched over not by civilian “warders,” but by secret police guards. Rubashov has been consigned not to the mercies of a civilized and rational system of justice, as the British terminology cozily suggests, but to a militarized secret police apparatus not in the least bound by the niceties of habeas corpus or the rule of law.

There are many examples of the bowdlerization involved. some morbidly hilarious (Rubashov’s “our leadership [is] more grotesque than that jumping jack’s with the little mustache” becomes “more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships”) as well as a riveting account of the origin of the book and the fate of the manuscript; I urge everyone with even a passing interest to read the whole thing, and of course I heartily agree with Scammell’s conclusion: “It’s not only possible, but in my view imperative, that someone undertake a new translation that will communicate the book’s artistic qualities more accurately and offer a richer and more nuanced account of Koestler’s complex narrative.[…] I am speaking of the English, of course, but just imagine the possibilities if translations from the original German into two to three dozen other languages followed suit.” It’s been decades since I read the novel, and I look forward to reading it again in a fresh translation of the original text. (Via MetaFilter.)

Kuki-Chin Speakers Wanted.

Alessia Spahn of OVALmedia sent me an e-mail message in which she said:

I am working for a film production company in Berlin, Germany. ( A few months ago we shot a documentary in Manipur. […] The movie was shot in Zou (also known as Zo/Jou/Kuki Chin/Zau/Zome/Zomi/Zoukamz). For months we have been looking for someone who speaks this language and any other language for translation (preferably English, but not necessarily). […] We are really desperate to find someone, since only 50.000 people in the world speak Zou. Most of them live in more poor areas which makes it difficult to reach out to them. I would be deeply grateful for your help!

I’m glad to be able to spread the word; if you know anyone who might be able to help, please write to alessia AT, and I add my thanks in advance. (See this LH post for Kuki-Chin.)