Archives for May 2016

No Pushkin without Yat.

I’ve finally started reading The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-Garde Visual Experiments, 1900-1930 by Gerald Janecek, which Noetica gave me a few years ago, and I’ve come across an instance of mass peevery that made me wriggle with delight. Janecek is discussing the history of orthographic reform in Russia in the period leading up to the October Revolution (the Bolsheviks implemented the reform, but it had already been passed by the Provisional Government); the basics — mainly replacing the letters ѣ (yat’), ѳ (fita), and і (dotted i) by the homophonous е, ф, and и and eliminating ъ (the hard sign) at the end of words — had been decided on by 1904, but war, revolution, and more war held up the process. In the meantime, debate was vigorous:

On one side stood most of the teachers and linguists, and on the other stood the traditionalists, some of whom claimed that the orthographic reforms would drive a wedge between the people and their heritage. Among the opponents of the reform stood some major literary figures, such as the Symbolists Vyacheslav Ivanov, Bryusov, and Blok. Their objections are particularly relevant to our study as they focus on the look of words. The opinion of Vyacheslav Ivanov (1905): “The danger that threatens on this path is graphic amorphousness or formlessness which not only, as a consequence of the weakening of the hieroglyphic [emphasis added] element, is aesthetically unpleasant and psychologically unnatural, but also can facilitate general apathy toward language” (Eskova 1966, 87). Bryusov: “However, both ѣ and ъ play one important role that is ordinarily forgotten about: an aesthetic role. By means of some sort of ‘natural selection’ Russian words have acquired in their shapes the most beautiful of attainable forms. The word весть printed with a simple е (instead of вѣсть) loses its beauty of shape, as will be the case with words printed without ъ” (Eskova 1966, 87). This despite the fact that the letters ѣ and е were no longer distinguished phonetically, and ъ, indicating the hardness of the preceding consonant, was in most cases entirely superfluous.

[…] Yet it is striking that three of the leading Symbolists—Russia’s first group of avant-garde Modernists—should oppose modernization of the orthography; it is even more striking that they, as sonically oriented writers, should do so because it would change nothing but the way a word looks. Among them only Bely had shown any Interest in the graphic side of literature beyond a certain aestheticism, and he was among the first to accept the orthographic reforms when they were finally implemented. John Malmstad notes: “Unlike Blok, who remained loyal to the old orthography to the end of his life, Bely showed no preference for the old. He began almost immediately to publish his verse in the new orthography and in his own personal writing after the changes employed the new orthography” […].

Lev Tolstoy was against the reform because, although it might simplify writing, it would “lengthen the process of reading: after all we only write by letters, but we read . . . by the general look of words. We take in a word all at once with a glance, not breaking it into syllables; . . . every word had its special physiognomy . . .” […]

Other voices in opposition were more extreme. Apollo, the Acmeist journal, published an article by Valerian Chudovsky, “In Favor of the Letter ѣ,” in which the author made the threatened letter a “symbol of mortally wounded philological tradition, of linguistic heritage.” The reform, a product of “rotten politics,” threatened to undermine Russian culture and children’s faith in their elders: “Language is a religion: orthography is its sacred liturgy. Like the heavens above the earth, there must be given to children in their education a feeling of spiritual expanses not created by us.” He went so far as to say that “there is no path to Pushkin without ѣ, for he lives on the Olympus of the accumulation through the ages, of the unbrokenness of heritage whose symbol and key is the letter ѣ” (Chudovsky 1917, v-viii).

(Dmitrii Bykov’s novel Orfografiya features this reform; I wrote about it here, here, and here.)

Addendum. I can’t resist adding this delicious paragraph:

Another upshot of the reforms was somewhat amusing. Evidently some overly zealous revolutionary sailors went into various printing offices and destroyed the supplies of the now obsolete letters, including all the ъs, not having noticed that they were still needed in some words as separators […]. As a result, for more than a decade until the ъs could be resupplied, many printers were obliged to substitute apostrophes for them […]. When the ъs were reintroduced, there was a brief outcry of “counterrevolution” because that letter had become a symbol of the old regime.


I was thinking about using this Log post by Victor Mair for LH because of the video with its wonderful rapid-fire exchange in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), Wuhan topolect, and Dongbei (Northeastern) topolect and the explication of the various varieties used, but one of the insults involved (gè bānmǎ ‘this zebra’) prompted a second post which is even better, explaining exactly why and how “zebra” became a term of abuse. I will quote the conclusion and urge you to go read the whole thing:

The denizens of Wuhan have a reputation for being rude and foul-mouthed. I’m sure that there must be plenty of polite, elegant, well-spoken individuals in Wuhan, but people from other parts of China — even where swearing is prevalent — are often stunned by the ubiquitousness and creativity of Wuhan profanity.

On the Trail of Nabokov.

Landon Jones’s NY Times article “On the Trail of Nabokov in the American West” is in the travel section, and it is in fact much more about travel than literature, but hey, it’s Nabokov, and I can’t resist passing it along. It’s got evocative photos and some piquant bits about Vlad and Vera:

And what would Nabokov have made of this sign: IF YOU DIE TONIGHT HEAVEN OR HELL? Followed by this one: GARY’S GUN SHOP.

As it happens, Véra Nabokov once packed a Browning .38 revolver in her purse. When she applied for her license to carry one, she explained primly that it was “for protection in traveling in isolated parts of the country in the course of entomological research.” She wasn’t kidding. Nabokov killed a large rattlesnake during their 1953 trip to Portal, Ariz.

So I pass it along for those who may enjoy it, but I would advise against taking anything it says on trust, since it makes the idiotic statement that Lolita “was first published in 1955 in England,” easily refuted by a cursory glance at Wikipedia, which explains (as I would have thought every schoolboy knew) that it was first published in France by Olympia Press, and by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in London only in 1959. I realize it’s only the travel section, but still, someone at the Times should have caught that.

Preserving the Languages of the Arctic.

Lorraine Boissoneault writes in Jstor Daily about the 2008 Arctic Indigenous Languages Symposium and the link between linguistic preservation and biological diversity in the Arctic; here’s the conclusion:

The Saami aren’t the only indigenous people collaborating with scientists to better document the effects of climate change. A number of hunters in Alaskan native communities along the northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea provided information about changing sea ice patterns and polar bear behavior. The scientists concluded: “The hunters also provided information about local abundance that is complementary to research on larger scales, but which could not have been gained in any other way.” Basically, because of their connection to the environment, the hunters saw and knew things that scientists did not.

“It’s not that things are untranslatable,” said Holton, the documentary linguist, on the topic of lost languages. He works with Alaskan native communities to record local place names and samples of their languages in hopes that they won’t die out or be forgotten. “You just lose a subtlety for how you view the world. You can’t recover that sense of intimacy, that ability to express things in a certain way that can’t be captured by other languages.”

And this might be exactly why the six permanent members of the Arctic Council chose to focus their efforts on language revitalization. In doing so, they might be able to protect their homes and ways of life–or, at the least, show resilience in the face of enormous change.

“Neither nature nor language can be permanently conserved; there would be only a record of that time. Living language and living environment will always change,” Retter said. “Our challenge now is how fast things are changing. When you don’t use things your vocabulary goes to sleep. When nature is changing, you might have vocabulary for it that goes to sleep.”

Thanks, Paul!

Canonizing the Party-State Voice.

I’ve just gotten to Chapter 6, “Canonization of the Party-State Voice,” of Michael S. Gorham’s 2003 Speaking in Soviet Tongues (see this post), in which, after describing the competing ideals of Russian language use that appeared after 1917 (the make-everything-new revolutionary, the peasant-oriented popular, and the imitate-the-classics national), Gorham focuses on the turn to the “party-state voice” that triumphed under Stalin in the mid-1930s, which began with Gorky’s review of Fyodor Panfyorov’s novel of collectivization Bruski, of which three volumes had so far appeared to near-universal acclaim:

His comments, appearing in The Literary Gazette (Literaturnaya gazeta) in January 1934, admonished Panferov for his verbiage and carelessness, citing in particular his overuse (and misuse) of dialect and his graphic distortion of words in an attempt to capture nonstandard pronunciations. Gorky questioned the author’s apparent belief that “Dal′’s dictionary still hangs over the Russian literary language” […]

Gorky’s critique set off a yearlong debate in the writing community that quickly assumed an even more politically and socially charged tone. One of Panferov’s more prominent allies, the writer Aleksandr Serafimovich, countered Gorky’s remarks by defending Bruski for its authentic depiction of everyday life in the countryside and its raw portrait of muzhik strength. Gorky responded in kind, criticizing the book again for littering the Russian language with words that did not exist and chiding the reviewer for glorifying the “strength of the muzhik.” “Permit me to remind you,” he wrote, that the strength of the muzhik is a socially unhealthy force and that the consistent cultural and political work of the party of Lenin and Stalin is aimed precisely at exterminating from the consciousness of the muzhik that ‘strength’ that you are praising.” As in earlier writings on the topic, Gorky’s critical frame directly linked style and politics — authority in language with the authority of the state. […] Invoking the antirural discourse of Marx and Lenin to complement his own vocabulary of “extermination,” Gorky went on to wonder how it could be possible “to express the heroism and romanticism of the reality created in the Union of Socialist Soviets” using an “idiotic language”? […]

With the exception of some of Panferov’s allies from the disbanded Association of Proletarian Writers, participants in the debate generally sided with Gorky, including writers such as Mikhail Sholokhov and Lidiia Seifullina, renowned for their own heavy use of dialect and vulgarisms in fiction. Seifullina justified her earlier narratives by arguing that the “primitive” state of the village at that time left no other option […].

Less out of Gorky’s culturist concerns for a basic level of literacy than in an effort to solidify the stature of the party-state, lower-level critics writing on cultural policy eagerly latched on to the patriarch’s arguments and used his rhetoric about national authority and identity. In the process, all three of the models discussed earlier — the revolutionary, the popular, and the national — underwent considerable refinement, if not total transformation.

(This development was discussed a few years ago in this post.) Gorham goes on to describe the 1935 Interpretive Dictionary of the Russian Language as “the linguist Dmitrii Ushakov’s realization of Lenin’s wish to replace Dal′’s nineteenth-century lexicon with a ‘real’ dictionary of the Russian language”:

Echoing the discourse of party-state purism inspired by Gorky and his followers, Ushakov’s introduction dismissed Dal′’s work for its focus on “bourgeois vernacular and peasant language,” praised the new lexicon’s inclusion of postrevolutionary “innovations” to Russian, and finally invoked the authority of both Lenin and Gorky in staking its claim as “a weapon in the struggle ‘for the quality of the language spoken every day by literature, the press, and millions of laborers,’ ‘for the purification of a language that is good, clean, accessible to millions, [and] truly of the people [narodnyi].”

Such interpretations defused once and for all the hopes of those who advocated that the spoken language of the people be raised to the status of a language of power, advocating instead a return to the already established Russian literary language, newly refined with ideological grounding in Bolshevik authority.

Purification! When I hear talk of purity, I release the safety catch on my Browning.

The Great Fututiones Debate.

This is one of the best letter exchanges I’ve seen. Here’s the intro:

“It is not easy to write a Life of Catullus”, Helen Morales observes in the TLS of April 22. Nor, apparently, is it a straightforward matter to translate him. Professor Morales was reviewing two books, Daisy Dunn’s Catullus’ Bedspread: The life of Rome’s most erotic poet and Dunn’s accompanying edition of Catullus’ poems. The second book gave our reviewer cause for concern. Morales wrote:

The translations themselves show little sensitivity to the Latin language. For example, in Poem 32 the poet addresses his lover, the “sweet Ipsitilla”, and urges her to invite him round. Dunn translates:

Let no one bolt the door
And don’t be tempted to go out,
But stay home and make ready for us
And nine consecutive fucks.

The Latin word fututiones, which Dunn translates as “fucks”, is no ordinary one. It is a word invented by Catullus and only appears in Latin literature in Catullus and Martial. It conveys an exaggerated amount, and needs translating in way that captures the originality of the term, the excess implied, and the humour in the poet’s urgency. In their translations Jane Wilson Joyce has “Fornifuckations”, Guy Lee “fuctions”, and Peter Green “fuckfests”. Dunn’s commonplace “fucks” misses the point. She is also inconsistent in handling metre. The elegiac poems are rendered with an economy similar to the Latin, whereas the hexameters of Poem 64, the exquisite mythological poem whose description of a wedding coverlet gives Dunn’s book its title, are translated into free verse . . .

I’ll let you read the reader responses for yourselves; I particularly like Peter Green’s letter and wishes-he’d-thought-of-it-at-the-time solution. (Via


I’ve run across another example of the “echelon” problem, and this time I’m going to wag my finger at Michael Gorham a bit more vigorously (see this post). He uses “revolutionary pathos” to translate “революционный пафос,” but “pathos” cannot be used that way in English. The Russian пафос [pafos], like эшелон [eshelon] ‘special train,’ is a classic faux ami: while it can mean ‘pathos,’ it is much more commonly used in a wide range of senses that can, according to context, be translated “spirit” (пафос романа ‘the spirit of the novel’), “bombast,” or, as here, “zeal” or “enthusiasm.” Translators beware! Keep your sense of English free of the contamination of translationese!

A Distorted Etymology.

This is a very minor issue, but it amused me, so I’m passing it along: in chapter 4 of Gorham’s Speaking in Soviet Tongues (see this post), he is discussing the difficulty of writers (and beginning writers, in the shape of workers’ and village correspondents) in dealing with the confusing variety of forms of speech available in the early 1920s, specifically the juicy but restricted peasant speech, which had trouble with abstraction and logical sequence, and the high-flown language of Bolshevik officials and propagandists, which was full of abstraction and was basically unintelligible to the average Russian. After providing amusing examples from Zoshchenko, who derived half his material from this confusion, he says, “‘True’ authority remains outside the margins of the perverted text with the implied author,” and his footnote reads:

The Russian term iskazhenie, which I translate in this discussion as “distortion” or “perversion,” nicely reflects the degree to which the act is rooted in language or narration (as suggested by the root -SKAZ-). The term was commonly employed by contemporary critics who complained of the postrevolutionary mangling of the Russian language, Soviet ideology, or both. […]

Alas, there is no root -SKAZ- here (the root of skazat’ ‘say,’ skazka ‘tale, story,’ etc.); iskazhenie is a nominalized form of the verb iskazit’ ‘distort, pervert, twist,’ which is simply a prefixed equivalent of the semantically identical but obsolete kazit’, which as Vasmer says is either a causative of -чезать or a cognate of Lithuanian kežė́ti, kežù ‘acquire a sour taste.’ No relation to -SKAZ- whatever; that’s just a tale, or story, as it were. This should not be taken as a slap at Gorham, who is a fine scholar; anyone can make a mistake, and it’s in a footnote most people won’t even read. But it should serve as a reminder not to neglect the dusty facts of philology even when one is brewing the heady nectar of analysis.

Edmond Edmont.

Cara Giaimo writes in Atlas Obscura about a man I knew nothing about, as well as others in his line of work:

Long before we had viral quizzes to gather our peculiarities, there was only [Edmond] Edmont—a linguistic assistant who spent the end of the 19th century bicycling around France, speaking to locals, and cataloguing their unique words and phrases. Over four years, Edmont journeyed to over 600 towns, gathering material for what would become the Atlas Linguistique de la France: the world’s first great linguistic atlas.

A century later—after technological revolutions and scholarly schisms wholly reshaped the field—Edmont remains, in the words of one linguist, “a mythical figure in the history of dialect surveys.” Whether you’re the kind of surveyor who spends hours speaking to farmers in Georgia, or the kind who dreams up the Buzzfeed Accent Challenge, his work remains both vital and informative.

There follows a riveting history of dialect studies, including a PhD student named Georg Wenker who “drew up 42 sentences that, in his estimation, covered the most changeable aspects of the German language” (“In the wintertime dried leaves fly about in the air”; “I will slap your ears with the cooking spoon, you monkey!”) and Jules Gilliéron, with “his own set of 2,000 common words and phrases, similarly designed to cover a broad swath of French.” Edmont worked for Gilliéron, and their Atlas Linguistique inspired “dialectologists from Switzerland to Japan.” There’s much more at the link, which I urge you to click on.

Five Lost Languages Rediscovered in Massachusetts.

Jackson Landers of the Smithsonian reports on an exciting discovery:

American history has just been slightly rewritten. Previously, experts had believed that the Native Americans of central Massachusetts spoke a single language, Loup (pronounced “Lou,” literally meaning “wolf”). But new research shows that they spoke at least five different languages.

“It’s like some European families where you can have three different languages at the dinner table,” says Ives Goddard, curator emeritus and senior linguist in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “There was probably a lot of bilingualism. A question that is raised by there being so many languages is ‘how did that work?’ How did they manage to maintain five different languages in such a small area?”

The lost languages were re-discovered by taking another look at several manuscripts written by French missionaries who were also working as linguists in the mid 1700s. While working on her master’s thesis at the University of Manitoba, Holly Gustafson compiled lists of verb forms found in one of the manuscripts. Goddard noticed some contradictions in the compilation. […]

“This gives us a picture of the aboriginal situation in New England being fragmented into different groups,” says Goddard. “This tells us something about the social and political situation.”

Goddard believes that the situation may have been similar to that of the Sui people of the Guizhou Province of China. Women from a particular band of villages would always marry into a different band of villages in which a different language was spoken. The woman would continue to speak her original dialect, her husband would speak another, while their children would grow up understanding both but primarily speaking the father’s dialect outside of the home. Family and cultural ties are maintained between the different groups of villages while maintaining an independent sense of identity.

Goddard’s research begs the question of how many other native American languages may have been missed. The cultural diversity of pre-colonial America may have been underestimated. Rediscovering those languages can help to explain where the lines were drawn between different cultures.

Fascinating stuff — thanks, Trevor!