Archives for August 2016

Waking the Sleeping Indigenous Languages.

Helen Davidson reports for the Guardian that “while the vast number of Indigenous languages are considered endangered, there are many that have a good chance of survival if they are nurtured”:

The world of mobile apps and online research tools are making languages, their history and their context more accessible to non-Indigenous Australians who wish to better understand and interact with the oldest continuing culture in the world.

Last year Charles Darwin University launched a searchable online dictionary of Yolngu Matha – the languages spoken across much of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Its success has prompted Garde to begin work on a similar project for Bininj Kunwok. A key concern, he says, is to make sure the language is controlled by the community to ensure they retain ownership over a significant part of their culture. The same concerns are held about language programs in mainstream education, outside the control of community groups and caretakers of traditional knowledge.

In March Canberra’s Australian National University launched the Austkin database of Indigenous kinship terms and skin names, which seeks to preserve those still heard every day in communities, as well as create a database of terms in languages which are essentially extinct except for mentions in historical archives.

There’s lots more good stuff at the link (“Some of the children who learn Gumbaynggirr through the centre are ‘right into it’ but others are more focused on learning swearwords, he says, laughing”), including a nice map of “the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia”; thanks, Trevor!

The Lying Whale.

I ran across a reference in a Russian passage to “Тау Кита,” and immediately recognized it as the nearby star Tau Ceti. I thought with amusement “Hey, Кита [kita] is a lot like Ceti!” and then did a classic double-take: of course it is — both the Russian and Latin words are borrowed from Greek κῆτος ‘whale’! (By the time the Slavs got around to borrowing the Greek word, eta had long since become /i/, hence кит [kit].) The Greek word is an s-stem neuter, so the Greek name of the star is Ταυ Κήτους. And when I checked the Russian etymology in Vasmer, I found this hilarious bit at the end: “Начиная с Иоанна Экзарха встречается также русск.-цслав. лежахъ κῆτος – ложная калька по созвучию ср.-греч. κῆτος с κεῖμαι ‘лежу'”: “Beginning with John the Exarch, we also find the Russian–Church Slavic лежахъ [lezhakhъ] ‘whale,’ an erroneous calque based on the similarity of Middle Greek κῆτος [kitos] with κεῖμαι [kime] ‘I lie (down).’” John the Exarch writes “кѵтьстіи животи еже сѧ рекутъ лежаси”; I don’t know where it was subsequently used, but I’m glad it didn’t survive — that’s the kind of silly mistake it’s embarrassing to have cluttering up one’s language, like English author for what should be autor.

Japanese Ship Names.

Joel of Far Outliers is posting excerpts from Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara (Naval Institute Press, 2013 reprint of a 1961 translation), and I thought this discussion of ship names was interesting enough to repost:

Names of Japanese ships must sound strange to foreign readers. Many Westerners during the Pacific War called a Japanese ship “Maru.” It must be noted, however, that warships or other government ships do not have names ending with Maru. Maru has always been and still is used only for merchant ships or fishing boats.

Maru literally means circle, round or chubby. In medieval Japan, Maru was frequently used for childhood names of boys. For example, in his childhood Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the famed warlord of the 16th century, often considered Japan’s Napoleon, was called Hiyoshi Maru, which may be translated literally as “chubby (or lucky) sunny boy”; and as a youth Yoshitsune Minamoto, the great 12th century general, was called Ushiwaka Maru, meaning “healthy and strong as a calf.”

The Japanese people, by way of personification, came to add Maru to ship names. In the last 100 years Maru has been dropped from the names of all government ships. Japanese warships, like those of other nations, are classified so that all ships of a given type have names of the same category. Hence anyone familiar with the system can tell at once from its name whether a ship is a battleship, cruiser, destroyer, and so on.

Japanese battleships were always named after ancient provinces or mountains. Famed Yamato was christened for the province of Japan’s most ancient capital city, Nara, in Central Honshu. This word was also used in ancient times to mean the whole country of Japan. This may explain the close attachment felt by the Imperial Navy for the greatest battleship ever built. Her sister ship, Musashi, was named after the province immediately north of Tokyo. […]

Heavy cruisers were traditionally named after mountains, and light cruisers were given the names of rivers. Carriers usually bore poetic names having to do with flight. Hosho, the world’s first keel-up carrier, built in 1921, means “Soaring Phoenix.” Hiryu and Sory[u], of the Pearl Harbor attack, may be translated “Flying Dragon” and “Blue Dragon,” respectively.

There’s more at the link; I knew Maru was used for ship names, but I had no idea of the complexities.

Shtisel’s Ghosts.

Shayna Weiss’s “Shtisel’s Ghosts: The Politics of Yiddish in Israeli Popular Culture” (from the Mar. 6 In Geveb) is a fascinating look at the Israeli television drama Shtisel and its groundbreaking use of Yiddish, and at the place of Yiddish in Israel more generally:

Tamar Ben Baruch, an assistant director and producer for the show, spoke with me about how Yiddish made its way onto Shtisel. The show’s creators wanted to include Yiddish on the show in order to reflect the realities of Haredi life in Israel. However, the question of how much Yiddish to use was a constant point of discussion during the writing and editing process. One of the most consistent questions was when characters should speak Yiddish. In other multilingual Israeli television series, it was obvious that characters would speak their minority language (i.e. Russian or Arabic, or even Moroccan-Judeo Arabic slang) amongst their families and in their homes, while speaking Hebrew when interacting with the larger Israeli public. But the uses of Hebrew and Yiddish in the Haredi community are not as clearly delineated. WIth the exception of a very small minority of Haredim who reject modern Hebrew, Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews freely mix Yiddish and Hebrew in their everyday conversations for both work and pleasure. The show’s writers also debated whether age or gender should dictate language choice. For example, both Shulem and his brother Nochem are fluent in Hebrew, but they tend to speak Yiddish to one another, which the writers use to emphasizes both Nochem’s lack of Israeliness now that he has chosen to live abroad, as well as the brothers’ connection to Bubbe Shtisel, who is far less fluent in Hebrew than in her native Yiddish.

The show’s setting in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem indicates that while the characters are fully Haredi, they are more open to secular society than their neighbors in Mea Shearim, which is known for religious extremism. Geula’s moderation is reflected by the characters’ frequent use of Hebrew in daily life. As a general rule, the older the character, the more they speak Yiddish in their daily life. Yet the younger characters clearly understand Yiddish, even if they speak it less frequently, reflecting the increasing integration of Haredim into wider Jewish Israeli society.

[…] Yiddish made periodic appearances on Israeli sketch comedy skits in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently a handful of shows, most notably Merḥak negiah [A Touch Away], featured small amounts of Yiddish dialogue, but nowhere close to the level seen in Shtisel. While exact numbers are not available, Tamar estimates that up to 20 percent of some episodes take place entirely in Yiddish. Furthermore, the show incorporates a significant amount of loshn koydesh, using Hebrew and Aramaic phrases that emerge from the canon of Jewish religious texts such as the Torah or Talmud. Loshn koydesh phrases are pronounced with a Yiddish accent instead of the modified Sephardic accent of Modern Hebrew, to indicate their distinct and elevated status. Several of the characters have their own loshn koydesh catchphrases, including Shulem’s “khosdey hashem” [God’s kindness], a similar analog to borukh hashem [Thank God]. The show’s success gives hope to artists working to promote Yiddish in their own work, and offers visions of how to incorporate the language into works meant to reach beyond the Yiddish-speaking world.

There’s lots more, including the phrase “He went to sell beygelekh” [“He went to sell pretzels,” meaning the person in question has passed away]. My thanks to whoever provided me with the link!

New Etruscan Text Found.

A story says:

Archaeologists translating a very rare inscription on an ancient Etruscan temple stone have discovered the name Uni—an important female goddess.

The discovery indicates that Uni—a divinity of fertility and possibly a mother goddess at this particular place—may have been the titular deity worshipped at the sanctuary of Poggio Colla, a key settlement in Italy for the ancient Etruscan civilization.

The mention is part of a sacred text that is possibly the longest such Etruscan inscription ever discovered on stone, said archaeologist Gregory Warden, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, main sponsor of the archaeological dig.

Warden said it will be easier to speak with more certainty once the archaeologists are able to completely reconstruct the text, which consists of as many as 120 characters or more. While archaeologists understand how Etruscan grammar works, and know some of its words and alphabet, they expect to discover new words never seen before, particularly since this discovery veers from others in that it’s not a funerary text.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Etruscan, and I hope this does provide new material beyond the goddess’s name. Thanks, Trevor!

The Adelphi Project .

The Adelphi Project is Eva K. Barbarossa’s mad plan to… well, as she puts it, “Why I am reading 653 books to follow the path of an Italian publishing house.” As someone pursuing his own mad plan of reading as much as possible of Russian literature in Russian, I heartily approve, and I am pleased to learn about this remarkable publisher:

The Adelphi Edizioni was started in 1962, with the first of Biblioteca Adelphi series published in 1965. These books come from an amazing array of genres including literature, philosophy, science, poetry, science fiction, religious texts, travel literature and mysteries. In 1965 Biblioteca Adelphi’s first release was The Other Side, by an Austrian author, Alfred Kubin. A strange sci-fi novel, at once dystopian and utopian, it is an interesting stake for the first of the ‘good’ and ‘singular’ books. From there 1965 rounds out with three authors: Edmund Gosse (British biography), Jan Potocki (a Polish Count who wrote a surrealist Spanish adventure story, in French) and Antonin Artaud (French diary of a mystical drug trip in Mexico). It is a curious start and it gets even more curious from there.

Calasso discusses the philosophy behind the house in his short collection of essays, The Art of the Publisher, the ideals of Bazlen and Foà and Olivetti, the founders. It was this book that spurred me to ask what I would learn, what it would be like, to go back to the beginning of Adelphi and read all the books in order. One night, I stayed up late and translated the catalog. I pulled all the records in Italian, and added two additional languages: English, and the original language the book was written in. The next day I began haunting the used book stores of New York City to find the books I needed. And thus began The Adelphi Project.

I began to read the books in order and quickly realized I needed additional context. I needed to understand the context of each book — when and where it was written, why, what could have been the ‘singular’ experience that inspired its creation; I needed to understand the history of Italy and how these books were published when they were, starting in the 1960s, a time of upheaval, the country barely 100 years old. I needed the histories of the authors, the places where the books were written, the time periods, the friendships, and the connections.; and I needed to better understand Calasso himself. In order to understand Calasso, I needed to go back to the classic Vedic texts, the Rigveda, and Sanskrit, a language that creates a shape for the languages that follow.

I’m not sure what she means by “a language that creates a shape for the languages that follow,” but who cares? It’s a grand idea, and I wish her the very best with it. (Via MetaFilter, where the first comment, by misteraitch, says: “The Adelphi volumes are so appealing: I always loved the look of them and bought a few during my couple of years in Italy, even though my Italian was never up to the job of actually reading them.”)

From Classical to Modern Arabic.

Kees Versteegh literally wrote the book on Arabic, and he has helpfully uploaded the pdf of his “From Classical Arabic to the Modern Arabic Vernaculars” to; whoever I got the link from (Lameen?) recommended it as a good summary, so I feel confident in posting it for those who might be interested.

Michael Hofmann on Learning Languages.

Translator Michael Hofmann didn’t like the removal of modern languages from the “core curriculum” in the UK, and he wrote about it at the Guardian back in 2010:

On the individual level, think of the loss of possibility, the preordained narrowness of a life encased in one language, as if you were only ever allowed one, as if it were your skin in which you were born. Or your cage. That’s your lot. When the great Australian poet Les Murray said: “We are a language species”, he didn’t mean English. We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where’s the joy and the richness, if you don’t even have two to rub together? If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It’s harder to play.

Although he says “harder to play,” most of his extended gripe sounds a lot like “eat your spinach.” Nobody’s going to learn another language because it’s said to be good for them, or because international relations require it. I like the attitude of the first commenter, HoshinoSakura: “I think the best reason for learning languages is that you have fun!”

The Allusionist.

The Allusionist “is a podcast about language and etymology by Helen Zaltzman for Radiotopia from PRX.” And who is Helen Zaltzman? According to the About page: “Helen Zaltzman has a degree in Old and Middle English, but in 2003 was rejected for her dream job as an etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, so had to become a podcaster instead. She makes shows from her living room in Crystal Palace, London.” So she should know her language and etymology, and if you like podcasts, it’s probably a good one (me, I don’t do podcasts).

Speaking Slavic and Turkic.

A guest post at the Log by Peter B. Golden addresses a fascinating issue: to what extent can speakers of Slavic and Turkic languages understand each other? (Within each family, that is.) He describes mixed E. Slavic regional dialects, then continues:

When I was a student of Ihor Ševčenko, he presumed that those of us who were native-speakers of a Slavic language (both those born abroad and those born in the US) could simply pick up a book in another Slavic language and read it. In fact, in one of my first seminars with him, he assigned me a book in Bulgarian (which I had never really looked at previously) to read and report on at the next meeting. Bulgarian grammar is largely non-Slavic, having been heavily influenced by Romanian / Vlach – it even has post-positioned articles – articles are completely lacking in all the other Slavic languages (except Macedonian, which is closely related to Bulgarian). The occasional post-positioned preposition does surface in Russian, but these are largely frozen forms, somewhat archaic (e.g. Бога ради / Boga radi “for God’s sake // Bog “God” radi “for the sake of” – used to underscore a plea / request for something). Grammatically, then, Bulgarian is strange, but I could figure it out and the vocabulary, built on literary Church Slavonic (just like literary Russian) was not a serious problem. I read the book and gave my report.

When I studied in Turkey, the attitude was the same: if you know one Turkic language, you can manage any of them. One of my professors, Saadet Çağatay (the daughter of a famous Tatar poet) for my first assignment gave me a folklore text in Qarachay (a Qıpchaq / northwestern Turkic language of the N. Caucasus, with considerable vocabulary differences and some grammatical features that are strange at first encounter (but understandable once one knows the history of Qarachay phonology). Her assumption (and I am not a native speaker) was that one could figure it out – and one largely can. My job was to translate it into Turkish. Chuvash (the sole descendant of West Old Turkic / Oğuric/Bulğaric, which split off from “Common Turkic” ca. 1st cent. BCE-1st cent. CE) and has been heavily impacted by Volga Finnic and other non-Turkic influences, is an exception – but even there, once one gets accustomed to certain “peculiarities,” there is a familiar feel to it. Yakut, which broke away later, i.e. much more recently, and has been isolated from other Turkic languages under Tungusic, Mongol and other influences, also presents problems with vocabulary, etc. but again has a certain familiarity to it.

Have any of you had such experiences?