Archives for September 2016


A Literature Across Frontiers post announces:

KurdîLit website is now online!

The English version of the website provides a mission statement:

KurdîLit is a website that aims to bring together and digitally archive basic information regarding actors (writers, translators, publishers, and periodic literary publications) operating in the field of Kurdish literature and publishing. The efforts to make this basic information accessible in three languages aim to establish more solid networks of communication between Kurdish literature producers in Turkey and actors operating in the international literary arena. KurdîLit was planned as a result of collaborations that emerged from conversations on the field of Kurdish literature among Diyarbakır Arts Center, Lîs Editions, and Literature Across Frontiers. This project undertakes to catalog current information and knowledge about Kurdish literature, which stands at a critical juncture of debates over cultural rights and freedom of expression in Turkey. In so doing, KurdîLit aims to improve the visibility of contemporary literature in the Kurmanjî and Kurmanjkî dialects of Kurdish, not only in Turkey but also in the wider region and the international arena; and it aims to foster relationships between contemporary Kurdish literature and European languages and literatures.

The Kurds have had a rough century or so, and I hope this initiative brings wider awareness of their culture and languages. Thanks, Trevor!

The American Jewish Accent.

Dan Nosowitz has a wonderful Atlas Obscura post called “Why Linguists are Fascinated by the American Jewish Accent”; here’s a bit of it:

But is really a religious or ethnic thing? Can we call it a “Jewish accent” rather than, say, a “New York accent”?

Scholars say, yes, there is an American Jewish accent, but it’s complicated. “Intonation has kind of been the red-headed stepchild of linguistics, where for a lot of time there was debate about whether or not it’s really part of the linguistic system, or whether it was something else overriding it, essentially,” says Burdin. It’s only been about 15 years since linguists—just a few of them, really—have begun systematically attempting to study the rhythm, timbre, intonations, stresses, and pauses of speech, and the study is still in its infancy. It is particularly murky territory in English, where melody is not as important as it is in other languages. But there are some groups whose speech, long having been described as sing-songy, is suddenly of interest to researchers breaking new ground in the study of prosody. Appalachian English is one of those. And Jewish English is another.

It describes the Mel Brooks-style version, then continues:

The other major American Jewish English accent comes from the more observant communities of Jews, the Orthodox and the Hasidim. This is sometimes known as “Yeshivish,” coming from the word “yeshiva,” generally referring to the schools for the organized study of Jewish holy texts. Yeshivish, like the more secular Jewish English of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, has some ties to New York City, but is much more heavily influenced by Yiddish. Many of its most distinctive elements are actually exceedingly, almost unimaginatively direct translations of Yiddish phrases and intonations.

I love the word “Yeshivish,” and I love the illustrative videos, and the whole thing makes me intensely nostalgic for New York. Go, read, watch, enjoy, you won’t regret it!

In Sara, Mencken, Christ, And Beethoven…

This Harriet post by Kenneth Goldsmith provides one of the most remarkable book-related stories I’ve ever read; the main text is by Keith Waldrop, and begins:

On Wednesday, May 23rd, 1973, Robert Ashley and I went to see John Barton Wolgamot. We met and talked to him in the lobby of the Little Carnegie Cinema, of which he was the manager. I hold on to this date, because so many moments I would like to pin down are imprecise or uncertain.

For instance, I do not know when Wolgamot was born. At the time we met, I got the impression he was in his sixties. Tall and thin, in a black suit with a velvet collar. He was an old-fashioned spiffy dresser, a bit too aristocratic to look right on fifty-seventh street — except, perhaps, down at the end of the block, in Carnegie Hall.

Sometime in the summer of 1957, I had stumbled onto his book, In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. I am given to scratching around in second-hand book stores. My brothers had recently started a used car lot in Danville, Illinois, and a crony of theirs ran a second-hand book store. Naturally, I scratched around in it.

As I went along the shelves, Wolgamot’s book — odd-shaped, wider than tall — caught my eye. The publisher’s name, like the author’s, was John Barton Wolgamot. At a glance, I could make nothing of it. I put it back.

I went away. But it stuck in my mind, the book with the odd shape, and I went back and (actually on my third visit) I bought the book. It was, after all, only fifty cents.

I won’t spoil the story for you by summarizing any more of it, but I would have had a strong suspicion it was all made up except that I found it via this Ask MetaFilter question from somebody who had actually seen the book and was trying to find out what it was. Also, the full text (along with prefaces by Waldrop and Ashley) is here (pdf). As for the odd-looking name Wolgamot, it’s a variant of Wohlgemuth.

Maltese Phrases You Just Can’t Translate.

Our beloved bulbul is having it rough but took time out from his shitty job and PhD woes to call my attention to this wonderful post by Max Dingli; never mind the silly “untranslatable” framing (I wish that meme would dry up and blow away), these are just world-class phrases that make me want to learn Maltese. Sample:

1. “M’hawnx min ibul ma saqajk!”

Literal translation: “There is nobody to urinate against your legs.”

What it means: “You are unparalleled in the field of whatever we are discussing”

Example of use: “Sewwejtlek l-Escort, Fred.” (“I’ve fixed your Escort, Fred.)

“King int, m’hawnx min ibul ma saqajk!” (“You’re a king. There is nobody to urinate against your legs.”

Great gifs, too. Now go forth and conquer, bulbul! Illegitimi non carborundum!


I’m almost halfway through Malaparte’s The Skin (which is the last of the books in my Naples reading project); I was quite enjoying it at first, despite its going overboard with the bitter irony (I figured that having been a journalist on the Eastern Front he was entitled to a good dose of bitter irony), but then I hit a chapter of such virulent homophobia I was set back on my heels. It’s especially depressing after the loving portrait of the gay bar in The Gallery, though of course John Horne Burns had the advantage of being gay. Still, I’m plugging along, and being rewarded with the occasional word hitherto unknown to me, like zazou (the French equivalent of zoot suiters, teddy boys, and stilyagi, the latter discussed at LH here); the most linguistically interesting of them so far is roturier. Malaparte refers to “the noble American roturiers who had invaded the Rive Gauche in 1920,” and this turns out to be an (ironic) oxymoron, because a roturier is “a person not of noble birth.” But the interesting part is the etymology; I quote the OED (entry updated March 2011):

Etymology: < Middle French roturier (French roturier) (adjective) not noble (a1272 in Old French), concerning an estate held by a commoner (1312 as rupturier), (noun) peasant (1306), commoner (1447) < roture roture n. + –ier -ier suffix. Compare post-classical Latin rupturarius (1072).

And the entry for roture (updated at the same time) says:

Etymology: < Middle French, French roture status of an estate held by a commoner (a1454 as rousture; earlier in sense ‘newly cleared land’ (1406 as roupture)), estate held by a commoner (16th cent.), status of a commoner, estate for which rent is paid (both 1549), commoners collectively (1611 in Cotgrave), specific use of Middle French roture breach, act of breaking (c1180) < classical Latin ruptūra (compare especially its post-classical Latin senses ‘reclamation of waste land, rent paid for such land’: see rupture n.).

That’s one I wouldn’t have guessed.


I occasionally post about untranslated works, just to remind people of the ocean of literature out there (and hopefully to goose potential translators a bit), and I’ve just learned about another one:

When it comes to Turkish literature, we are lamentably deprived. The gaping lacuna is what is considered by many to be the greatest 20th-century literary achievement in Turkey: Oğuz Atay’s experimental, linguistically complex novel of ideas Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected). It has been quite a while since it was put up on the UNESCO site as an important literary work in need of English translation, and, just like Germán Espinosa’s masterpiece The Weaver of Crowns, it still remains unavailable for a host of the prospective readers. Granted, the author’s use of different varieties of Turkish such as the heavily arabicised Ottoman Turkish and the purist, reformed Turkish, the so-called Öztürkçe, renders the job of the translator extremely demanding, but not unfeasible. The conclusive proof of that is the Dutch translation of the novel published four years ago. At the moment it is the only translation of Atay’s book into any other language, so, I guess, we should congratulate the Dutch on having the privilege to read the cult classic.

[…] As one of the Dutch translators of the novel Hanneke van der Heijden writes:

The literary form of Atay’s novel was not exactly what readers were used to either: the unbridled stream of consciousness, all kinds of short texts in different genres, that cut across the story, such as a poem of 600 lines plus commentary, a chapter of 70 pages, written without a single comma or full stop – it may remind us, the readers of today, of James Joyce, of Nabokov, Virginia Woolf and other western modernist writers – writers Atay was very familiar with. But, as the critic Ahmet Oktay once remarked, the number of Turkish readers that in the beginnings of the seventies had read Ulysses, was no more than ten.

[…] Hanneke van der Heijden has her own blog dedicated to Turkish literature. Most of it is in Dutch, but the written version of her talk on the translation of Tutunamayanlar is available in English. It’s the best article about Atay’s novel in English you will find on the Web, and I urge you to check it out.

Thanks, Trevor!

Tarlinskaja on Shakespeare.

Marina Tarlinskaja, per Wikipedia, is “a Russian-born American linguist specializing in the statistical analysis of verse,” and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann’s TLS review (from July 31, 2015) of her Shakespeare and the Versification of English Drama, 1561-1642 makes it sound interesting, if not exactly easy reading:

Tarlinskaja’s advocacy of versification as an object of statistical analysis is unswerving if quite briefly stated. She emphasizes how it can help us understand drama: “verse form helps us to understand and interpret dramatis personae . . . Shakespeare’s noble heroes speak in constrained verse, and villains speak in looser verse. Othello gradually changes from a noble hero to a villain, and his syntax and verse form evolve with his character’s evolution”. […]

Linguistic statistical analysis can reveal a fingerprint or style profile in versification, Tarlinskaja suggests, based on features such as strong syntactic breaks after the first hemistich, enclitic phrases, use of pleonastic “do”, and dissylabic “-ion”.

But what impelled me to post about it is this passage:

Tarlinskaja also sheds light on possible historical change. She looks, for instance, at how certain consonant pairs such as “tl”, “bl” and “dr” could create an extra syllable so that “gently”, “doubled” and “children” sometimes had three syllables (as in “For when the west wind courts her gen-tl-y” in The Two Noble Kinsmen).

It reminded me of the extra syllable in rig(a)marole, which we’re currently discussing. Different time period, of course, but a similar development.


Reader Jeff sent me an e-mail to this effect:

I recently wrote the word “rigamarole” on my computer, only to have the machine change it to “rigmarole”. Aghast, I checked, and found the latter is definitely a possible choice. On the other hand, I don’t think I have ever heard it without the a between g and m.

Do we have any info on how this is distributed?

An excellent question! I responded:

Yeah, the official spelling is rigmarole but I think especially in the US an extra syllable gets inserted. It’s had lots of variants; the OED lists:

Forms: 17 riggmonrowle, 17 rig-me-role, 17 rig me roll, 17 rig mi rol, 17 rig-my-role, 17 rig-my-roll, 17– rigmarol, 17– rigmarole, 18 rigmarowl (Irish English (north.)), 18– rigmaroll, 18– rigmorale, 19– rigamarole.

What’s particularly interesting is its etymology; it’s from Ragman roll “The roll used in the game of Ragman.”

The spelling rigamarole is given as an alternative in US dictionaries (e.g., AHD), but I’m pretty sure the associated pronunciation with four syllables is far more common in the US; I certainly say it that way, and so does my wife (I just asked). How do you say it (if you do), and what variety of English do you speak?

Erard on Australian Languages.

My favorite reporter on linguistic issues, Michael Erard, has a fine Science piece about recent studies of Australian languages and the controversies they help address; after surveying some of the problems (the members of the hypothetical Pama-Nyungan family have lots of similarities but few cognates), he writes:

Now, a new generation of researchers is attacking the problem, and a small but growing group is taking its cue from evolutionary biology, which relies on genetic clues to decipher relationships between organisms. They are using computers to sort giant databases of cognates and generate millions of possible family trees based on assumptions about, say, how quickly languages split. The method, called computational Bayesian phylogenetics, forces researchers to explicitly quantify the uncertainty in the models, says linguist Claire Bowern of Yale University, a pioneer of the approach and co-author of the new study. “That’s useful in Pama-Nyungan,” she explains, “because you don’t have good data, and you have to rely on single authors who may not be that familiar with the languages.” Based on a set of parameters, researchers can winnow millions of trees into groups of the most plausible ones.

The first such computational efforts, done by biologists borrowing linguistic data, drew harsh responses from many linguists. “Most look exclusively at words, seen as something like the equivalent of the gene as a unit of analysis in genetics,” says Lyle Campbell, a historical linguist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. But linguists traditionally determined historical relationships through sounds and grammar, which are more stable parts of language.

Bowern counters that the “instability” of words can actually be a boon, serving as a tracer for how languages change over time. In 2012, she and Quentin Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, constructed a family tree for the elusive Pama-Nyungan, using a massive database of 600,000 words to compensate for the low number of cognates. They analyzed 36,000 words from 195 Pama-Nyungan languages and compared the loss and gain of cognate words in 189 meanings through time.

This initial work found that Pama-Nyungan has a deep family tree with four major divisions tied to the southeastern, northern, central, and western regions of the continent. For the study published in Nature, Bowern drew from an expanded database of 800,000 words, which contains 80% of all Australian language data ever published, and looked at cognates from 28 languages across 200 meanings. Then she compared her tree with genomic data from Willerslev’s new survey. […]

To the researchers’ amazement, the genetic pattern mirrored the linguistic one. “It’s incredible that those two trees match. None of us expected that,” says paleoanthropologist Michael Westaway of Griffith University, Nathan, in Australia, a co-author on the Willerslev paper. “But it’s confusing: The [genetic splits] date to 30,000 years ago or more but the linguistic divisions are only maybe 6000 years old.”

He addresses counterarguments (R.M.W. Dixon “says these languages are so unique that new theories of linguistic change must be invented to explain them”; others “argue that the computational models, built for genes that can only be inherited, deal poorly with languages that spread by diffusion”) and finishes by saying that Aboriginal stories describe the birth of languages “much the way Bowern thinks it happened”:

In 2004, Evans recorded an Iwaidja speaker, Brian Yambikbik, explaining how his language might be related to the one spoken on distant islands. “We used to speak the same language as them, but then the sea came up and we drifted apart, and now our languages are different.”

Hokkien Creationism.

Lañitri Kirinputra has a guest post at the Log that is the most interesting thing I’ve read about writing systems in a long time. Back in 2010 I posted about the Pe̍h-ōe-jī system of orthography used to write Taiwanese and Amoy Hokkien; it might be helpful to consult that before plunging into Kirinputra’s discussion of the debate about romanization vs. Hàn-jī (漢字 = Kanji), but it’s certainly not necessary. Here’s a sample:

Anybody who sets out to learn or learn about Hanji-based Hokkien these days will get the impression that pre-ROC Hanji-based Hokkien was, at best:

  1. Utterly unstandardized. To each man his own version. An unholy mess. Internally inconsistent.
  2. Largely made up of sound-only Hanji, or what the Japanese call ateji (当て字): Hanji employed for their sound value, with no regard to their “underlying meaning”.
  3. Well-represented in the experimental mess that was Hanji-based Hokkien in the 1980s and 90s.
  4. Reasonably well-represented in a series of 19th and 20th century dictionaries and rimebooks that allow us to access a cleaned-up version of pre-ROC Hanji Hokkien without having to look at any actual writings.
  5. Reasonably well-accounted for by the scholars of the late 20th century, who used the pre-ROC orthography as a starting point for the Neo-Hokkien they were creating, only replacing the parts that were unworkable.

This is what I used to think too, pretty much, before I found Tō͘ Kiàn-hong’s (杜建坊) essays. From there I looked for and found dozens of pre-ROC Hokkien publications that had been uploaded to the internet. It was a rude awakening. Pre-ROC Hokkien was surprisingly consistent. It spanned 400 years. The later stuff showed a level of orthographic polish and de facto standardization comparable to the Cantonese of today. Most of the late 20th century orthographic mess was not to be found in the pre-ROC publications. (Most of the mess that the Taiwanese Creationist scholars and writers claimed to be cleaning up had in fact been introduced by their own selves!) In turn, the conventions in the pre-ROC publications were only partly represented in the dictionaries and rimebooks of their time. And while scholars of the last 30-some years often cited “popular” (民間 bîn-kan) usage, it turned out what they meant by “popular” most times was in fact select dictionaries and rimebooks instead of popular … usage.

Now I just want to know what kind of a name Lañitri is; Google finds only references to the Log post.