Archives for July 2017

Paths in the Rainforests.

It’s been over four years since I bought Jan Vansina’s Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa; I was excited about it at the time, but then (you know how it is) it sank to the bottom of the stack and I never got around to reading it. Well, now that I’m editing a book on Africa and seeing it in the reference lists, I’ve hauled it out and started it, and it’s absolutely terrific. I haven’t even gotten to the meat of it, the history of Western Bantu expansion, but I’m so struck by the preliminary methodological sections that I’m just going to quote some passages I’ve marked in the margin:

A living cell testifies to its ancestors of long ago. And so, too, language and specifically words carry an imprint from the past in the present, an imprint that can be put in its proper time perspective.

To achieve that goal much of the recovery of the past in equatorial Africa must be based on the evidence of language and especially words. […] The techniques involved in such a study are not novel. Linguists have used them to reconstruct the history of languages themselves. But the methodology is new in the sense that the conclusions drawn from the technical analysis are different. The goal for which the techniques are to be used is different. Here one wants to reconstruct the past of a society and culture, not language itself. The methodological approach, then, is new. If the methodology is valid, all will be fine. The story to be told in later chapters will be credible “fact.” But if the methodology is wrong, the tale is fiction and heavy-fisted fiction at that.

[. . .]

A convention of the ethnographic genre was that peoples constituted territorial groups called “tribes,” which were the given units of observation. Tribes were of almost indeterminate age. Within a tribe everyone held the same beliefs and practices, and observations made in any part of the tribal territory were valid for any other part. Moreover, by definition, every tribe differed from its neighbors. […]

Actually, ethnic identities change over time. They are not givens and they do not necessarily correspond to homogeneous units of social institutions or culture. The study of ethnic identity over time belongs to the history of ideas. In practice many modern ethnonyms were of colonial vintage. The Bondjo ethnic group on the shores of the Ubangi River seems to have existed only in the minds of French administrators. In the 1920s Belgian administrators argued for years about the status of “the Ngando”: Should they be included in the Mongo ethnic group or kept separate? They concluded that Ngando were Mongo. As a result, by the 1950s the Ngando of Equateur province felt themselves to be Mongo. They had adapted their vision of ethnic identity to colonial reality.

[. . .]

Observers often left out of their accounts anything that referred to an obvious colonial practice. This applied even to photographs: no bicycles, no kerosene lamps, no office buildings, no policemen, etc. And, naturally, “traditional” clothing and housing was a must. The authors seem to have believed that they had thus expunged any influence of the colonial conquest. They did not realize that the foundations of every local community had been drastically altered by the colonial conquest or that substantive culture was no longer a “pristine” precolonial culture.

[. . .]

Language competence is also fundamental. How well did the outsider really know the local vernacular or the lingua franca that was being used? Did he or she in fact use the vernacular, a lingua franca, a European language, or did he or she employ an interpreter? Many writers do not tell you. The prefatory statements of those who do are often empty boasts or leave unclear what level of competence they had achieved. Most residents had only a rudimentary knowledge of African languages, except for missionaries who had to preach in the vernacular. And even they were not always fluent. Transients were not very proficient. They used interpreters, as did most anthropologists, at least for the first year or so of their stay. Often the text of the report reveals more about language competence than any statement does. The transcriptions of items, even proper names in the local or regional language, are often dead giveaways. The writer reveals even more when indulging in etymological reasoning or in general statements about the language. In such ways one can often infer some information in this matter. […]

One usually thinks that the academic specialist, especially the anthropologist, is infinitely better qualified and hence more reliable than others. An article about the X by an anthropologist must rank higher than even a short book about the X by the local missionary or administrator. Such reasoning fails to take into consideration that academics too have their biases and fads, their preferred topics, and their taboos. One scholar may be a devotee of kinship systems and will see ambiance only in local music or dance, another is enthralled by cosmologies and does not care for kinship terminology. Anthropologists, moreover, are not the only trained observers. It is easy to forget that others, such as physicians or students of law, or indeed Pecile, the farmer servant of P. de Brazza, were also trained to observe, albeit to observe different things. As a result the rarity of writings by professional anthropologists is not nearly as great a handicap as one would think. Just like any other text their reports must be confronted whenever possible with the whole available record, whether emanating from specialists or not.

Last but not least, gender is given for every named writer. There are very few female authors and hence the corpus shows an obvious lack of data about women, their lives, and their points of view. Not a single text about women’s associations in Cameroon, Gabon, or Congo comes from a woman, and, in consequence, very little is known about them, since men were prevented by their gender from learning about them.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This guy seems to have thought about every conceivable source of error, to have done his best to compensate for them where possible, and otherwise to at least remain aware of the inevitable blind spots. An admirable scholar; I’m sorry he died in February.


This is one of the more simpleminded questions I’ve posted, but I can’t find an answer to it, so I turn to the Varied Reader. Wikipedia sez:

The Lozi people are an ethnic group primarily of western Zambia, inhabiting the region of Barotseland. […] The Lozi are also known as the Malozi, Silozi, Kololo, Barotose, Rotse, Rozi, Rutse, or Tozvi. The Lozi speak Silozi, a central Bantu language.

The word Lozi means ‘plain’ in the Makololo language, in reference to the Barotse Floodplain of the Zambezi on and around which most Lozi live. It may also be spelt Lotse or Rotse, the spelling Lozi having originated with German missionaries in what is now Namibia. Mu- and Ba- are corresponding singular and plural prefixes for certain nouns in the Silozi language, so Murotse means ‘person of the plain’ while Barotse means ‘people of the plain.’

OK, so if “the spelling Lozi […] originated with German missionaries” and the forms referring to the people are Murotse and Barotse, then it stands to reason that “Lozi” = Lotsi (or Lotse?). And indeed, “The Lozi are also known as the […] Rotse.” But both Oxford and Collins give the pronunciation as /ˈləʊzi/, with a -z-. Now, you can say that’s just anglicization, but that doesn’t happen with other German-origin words, like Nazi (/ˈnɑːtsi/). So how is it pronounced by those who actually deal with the language? And if it’s /ts/, why do most of the “also known as” forms have -z-? Is there a dialect difference (as presumably with the l/r variation)? What’s going on here?

Update. I’ve just found an extended discussion in Paul S. Landau’s Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400-1948, pp. 54-56. He’s talking about the Rozvi:

We do not know much about the next few generations on the highveld; but much later, at the end of the nineteenth century north of the Molopo and Limpopo, a Rozvi elite still claimed the right to install new chiefs over a wide area. A presiding official proclaimed, “I am the Rozvi who stands here today.” This sounds very like the ceremonial stature recognized for the “BaHurutshe” of the highveld. Often called “the senior Tswana tribe” in the ethnic CP model, their history also extends at least back to the 1600s. South of the Limpopo, the first part of the Rozvi’s statement, above, would most likely be “Ke morotzi,” or perhaps (if far enough south) “ke mogarotse” (cf. mohu-rutshe), “I am he (or they are they) of the place of Roz[v]i.” Words differed in their pronunciation across speech communities, even nearly adjacent ones. Thus “the place of Roz[v]i” appeared as Ga-rotse (alt. Ha-rotse) and Fhoo-Rotshe or Khoo-Rotshe, the latter two signifying distance (foo and koo). One finds Harootsi, Kurutse, and Fhurutshe recorded on the highveld before the synthesized and standardized name of the twentieth century, “Hurutshe” or “BaHurutshe,” emerged as the “correct” spelling and became known as the parent tribe of the others.

In a list of thirty highveld “tribes” provided by Thomas Hodgson in 1823, the number 10 is “Bamarotsi.” Is this the same as “Hurutshe”? Yes, it is. Burchell in 1812 offered Mõrútzies, and Chief Mothibe, in 1813, told Campbell of the Marootze. Later, Andrew Smith in 1839 offered “Baarootzie,” and elsewhere Smith says he heard “that all the Bechuanas were [once] govered by the Barootzi king” (ba-rootzi) and that circumcision began with the “Barootzie” [sic]. Rotse spoken in one place is Rootzi in another. Lichtenstein, a naturalist who prided himself on precise representation, wrote “Muchuruhzi” on his map, probably a rendition of mo (person) goo rozi. He located these people to the far north and they, with hardly more specificity possible, said their forebears came from north of that.

On the highveld, ga– or ha-rotse (rotse-place) people instantiated the centralizing trend of the 1600s. [There follows a table with the Shona form varozvi and a whole variety of Sechuana forms, including barotse and marotse as well as some of the ones mentioned above.]

Most likely Rozvi (rozvi) is the initial template for this rutzi, ruhzi, rotse, and so on, on the highveld. There may also, however, be a loan-term behind all three that we do not know. Folk etymology on the highveld points to the melons of the first fruits ceremonies, marotse. In some areas rotse is a verb in the perfect form meaning to have unloaded a burden or a present. In Shona, “Rozvi” may have an early connotation as “defrauder” (conjugated from the verb, roza). Perhaps the stimulation of Indian Ocean commerce early on bequeathed a spoken morpheme to Africans; perhaps the source was even “Shirazi,” a word heard along inland routes from the Swahili coast and so appropriatable like any other — but this cannot be considered likely.

Whew! That’s more than you ever wanted to know about this obscure term, but at least I’ve collected a bunch of data and speculation in one place.

Laptot, Signare.

I’m editing a book on language in Africa, and a chapter on Senegal has introduced me to two obscure French terms:

Signare “was the name for the Mulatto French-African women of the island of Gorée in French Senegal during the 18th and 19th centuries”; according to Wikipédia, it’s from Portuguese senhora, which makes sense but which I wouldn’t have guessed.

Laptots “were African colonial troops in the service of France between 1750 and the early 1900s. The term laptot probably derives from the word lappato bi in the Wolof language, referring to interpreters, intermediaries or brokers.” If anyone can explain how lappato bi works in Wolof, I will of course be grateful; I don’t have a Wolof dictionary.

DARE Fieldwork Recordings.

Another amazing resource available online:

From 1965–1970, Fieldworkers for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) conducted interviews with nearly 3,000 “Informants” in 1,002 communities across America. They visited native residents in all fifty states and D.C., collecting local words, phrases, and pronunciations. In addition to answering more than 1,600 questions from the DARE Questionnaire, many of the Informants, along with auxiliary speakers, agreed to be recorded by the Fieldworkers. These recordings consisted of conversational interviews as well as readings of “The Story of Arthur the Rat” (devised to elicit the essential differences in pronunciation across the country). This fieldwork data provided invaluable regional information for the Dictionary of American Regional English Volumes I–VI (1985–2013) and Digital DARE.

The Fieldwork Recordings are finally available online approximately fifty years after the recordings were first made. The recordings contain American regional speech samples from all fifty states, but their value is not linguistic alone. The full interviews contain an abundance of oral history from the 1960s, with topics ranging from the making of moonshine to the moon landing; from light-hearted jokes, recipes, and songs to serious discussions about race relations, politics, and the Vietnam War. It is truly a time capsule of American voices.

Via MetaFilter, where commenters are being taken back to their childhoods:

There are two recordings from my small, rural, midwestern town from 1968. Listening to it, I am freaking out. The vowel sounds that I left behind, the vowel sounds I beat out of myself, are all there. Plus, I heard slang that that rang me like a bell; stuff I hadn’t heard since I was a little child.

I look forward to exploring it. (DARE previously on LH.)

Update (Aug. 2017). Sadly, DARE is apparently coming to an end as an ongoing project.

Team-Translating Ulysses.

The Paris Review posts a translated selection from the Ulysses “logbook” of “the indefatigable Bernard Hœpffner, who translated many English masterpieces into French [and] drowned off the northern coast of Wales this past May”; he was part of an eight-person team that retranslated Joyce’s Ulysses into French (quite properly, he felt “disappointment upon learning this would be a team effort” — it was a terrible idea, I don’t care how good the results may have been), and his entries make fascinating reading. A few excerpts:

October 9, 2001 – Which of the many different editions should we use? We settle on the 1922 edition with Gaskell and Hart’s alterations, with the occasional glance at Gabler’s edition. Pointed discussions over how much to Gallicize proper names (last names, geographical locations): a matter of understanding how Joyce had undone English, and how we might in turn undo French. Joyce has pulled us into a double bind: even though the unique style of each episode grants each team member a great deal of liberty, the immense number of echoes forces us to make decisions we have to agree upon. Patrick Drevet almost convinces us that the place names ought to be translated, but his absence from the next meeting allows us to renege, as it would be impossible to be fully consistent; Patrick very graciously accepts our decision. […]

December 3, 2001 – We’re having more and more trouble working with global decisions when they deviate far enough from Joyce’s original. Jacques explains how Ulysses’s literary stakes are not only varied but at times contradictory. As such, it’s hard for us to all read the book the same way and create a homogeneous translation.

March 4, 2002 – Long back-and-forths result in our replacing “Mrs” and “Mr” with “Mme” and “M.” We also decide to translate urban nomenclature: bridge, street, et cetera. (We will, much later, reverse course, without any exceptions). […]

January 16, 2003 – Gallimard consents to a communal “postface” written by the team. Tiphaine wants to try her hand at translating Oxen of the Sun, the episode that, from the start, we had agreed we would keep in Morel’s translation; she will abandon it several months later; we then decide, together, a posteriori and in bad faith, that, since this episode is a history of the English language, integrating Morel’s translation makes it a history of Ulysses’s translations—but it is still true that the echoes don’t reverberate here. We go back and forth while sending the typescript back to Gallimard, going through edits, and production.

Then the work on the innumerable echoes throughout the book starts in earnest. Each of us tries to convince the others to accept particular exceptions to the rules we’d agreed on; invariably due to puns, or neologisms. Numerous emails follow:

“So you think ‘chiasse’ is too strong. What do you say to ‘merdasse’?”

There’s much, much more (“I suggest hiring someone who doesn’t know French to proofread the translation in keeping with the spirit of the original, which had been given to compositors unfamiliar with English”), including various examples of what an unpleasant person Stephen Joyce is; read the whole thing. (Thanks, Trevor!)

The Hamburg Score.

The mail brought an Amazon package containing an item I only recently added to my wishlist (because it’s only just been published), Shushan Avagyan’s translation of Viktor Shklovsky’s Гамбургский счет, The Hamburg Score (with a very touching note from the generous reader who ordered it for me — thanks from the bottom of my heart, Clay). I have been unreasonably fond of Shklovsky’s writing ever since I read A Sentimental Journey, his memoir of “the travels of a bewildered intellectual through Russia, Persia, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus during the period of the Russian Revolution,” to quote the Dalkey Archive description (Dalkey Archive Press has been issuing all of Shklovsky’s work as fast as they can get it translated, just one of the outstanding services they provide the world of literature — go buy books from them!). I don’t know what it is; those quirky sentences arranged into tiny paragraphs that constantly leap in unexpected directions are like catnip to me. I don’t even care if he’s right or wrong (and I’m quite sure he’s wrong about Velimir Khlebnikov being “the champion” of early-20th-century Russian literature — the Formalist critics had a passion for the Futurist poets in general and Khlebnikov in particular that mystifies me), I could listen to him deliver obiter dicta and crack obscure jokes for hours.

I haven’t had time to do more than glance at this beautiful, compact paperback yet (work! work!), but I’ve already learned something. I ran across the expression «гамбургский счёт» [Hamburg calculation/reckoning/score] years ago, learned that it meant ‘objective measurement of who’s better than who,’ and assumed it had been around since, say, the early 19th century (when Russians habitually went to Germany for education and culture). But it turns out Shklovsky was the one who publicized it, after hearing an anecdote at the Herzen House restaurant in Moscow (and got in trouble for it after World War II, when he was accused of unpatriotic leanings for favoring a German city); his preface to this book begins:

The Hamburg score is a very important concept.

All wrestlers cheat in matches and fall on their shoulder blades at the behest of the entrepreneurs.

But once a year wrestlers gather at a pub in Hamburg.

They wrestle behind closed doors and curtained windows.

It is a long, hard, and ugly fight. But this is the only way to determine their true worth — to prevent them from getting corrupted.

We need a Hamburg score in literature.

As I say, he calls Khlebnikov the champion, but I say Shklovsky is the champion of Formalist critics and Dalkey Archive Press is the champion of literary publishers.

The Creation of the Manchu Script.

I’m almost finished with Part One of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, by Peter C. Perdue; I’m enjoying it greatly, and I thought I’d share this passage from pp. 126-7:

The greatest gift of the Mongols to the Manchus, of course, was the Mongolian script. In 1599 Nurhaci ordered Erdeni Baksi and G’ag’ai to create a script for the Manchu “national language” (guoyu). They objected that the Manchus had long used the Mongolian script and language, and they could not create a new one. Nurhaci then said, “When the Chinese read out their writing, people understand it, whether or not they can read Chinese; likewise for Mongols; but our words must first be translated into Mongolian; then [the Manchus] don’t understand it.” He then ordered them to create a new alphabetic script, using the Mongolian script as a model:

Taizu [Nurhaci] asked, “Why is it difficult to write down our language, but easy to learn the languages of other countries?” G’ag’ai and Erdeni replied: “It would be best to create a script for our country’s language, but we do not know how to transcribe the sounds.” Taizu said: “If you put a letter for ‘ma’ after a letter for ‘a,’ is this not ‘ama’ [father]? If you put a letter ‘me’ after a letter for ‘e,’ is this not ‘eme’ [mother]? My mind is made up; you just try it out.” Thereupon they took the Mongolian script and wrote the Manchu language. The creation of the Manchu script began with Taizu.

So Erdeni and G’ag’ai, following Nurhaci’s orders, created the new writing system, and soon began to translate Chinese texts into Manchu, as well as using Manchu in imperial proclamations. Dahai, in 1632, added the diacritical marks to distinguish different Manchu vowels, along with extra symbols for particular Chinese consonants; this “pointed” script became the standard Manchu writing system for the rest of the dynasty.

Nurhaci was, of course, wrong to assume that classical literary Chinese could be understood when read out loud. His advisers, well acquainted with Mongolian imperial language, resisted the introduction of Manchu writing probably in order to maintain ties to the Mongolian institutional tradition. To judge from his discussion, Nurhaci had in mind a syllabic script (like Japanese hiragana and katakana), not the actual Mongolian or Manchu scripts, which were alphabetic. Nurhaci’s motives were political, not linguistic. What he stressed was oral communication of written commands by the ruler to the entire Manchu population, literate and nonliterate. He needed a scriptural apparatus to bolster his new state because he, like all previous Central Eurasian rulers, needed to communicate his personal will beyond the boundaries of person-to-person contact. His edicts could now be read out in their own language to all his Manchu subjects, and texts could be translated into their native language for their own education. In effect, by creating a distinctive script, Nurhaci broadened the cultural horizons of his people, allowing them to adapt non-Manchu ideas but maintain their distinct identity. The new technology of writing made possible the expansion of the state to cover all the Manchu people. But it also allowed the introduction of large quantities of Chinese classical literature through translation into the Manchu literate world, which had formerly been much more closely tied to Mongolia and the Buddhist world of Central Eurasia.

(Suggestions for the etymology of the name Manchu in this 2009 post.)

Hemingway’s Cuban English.

I didn’t think I could be surprised by news about Hemingway, but Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera managed to do it with this piece at Lingua Franca:

In Cuba, Hemingway gave public speeches and interviews in Spanish, and spoke it around the house. It was also his routine language while vacationing off the island. In Africa in 1954, Spanish was regarded as his “tribal language” and he recalls a conversation with a lion: “All the time I was stroking him and talking to him in Spanish.” […]

Hemingway’s wife Mary Welsh said he talked in his sleep in Spanish – and the photographer Raúl Corrales noted, “He used to speak to himself out loud when he was alone. I heard him a few times and it drew my attention that he spoke to himself in Spanish and not in English.” […]

[Discussing The Old Man and the Sea:] As Santiago contemplates the sky, Hemingway unpacks a translingual pun: He “saw the white cumulus built like friendly piles of ice cream” and says “Light brisa.” Brisa translates as “breeze” but in Cuba it also means hunger.

The Old Man and the Sea is written in an English-ized Cuban Spanish. Gayle Rogers, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, says the language interplay can appear “illogical,” making the crosslingual depths “apparent only to readers who know both English and Spanish … and can see the colliding linguistic planes.”

In this sense, the way we read Hemingway’s Cuban writings should be less English-centric, taking his Cuban linguistic environment more closely into account.

“Spanish [is] the only language I really know,” wrote Hemingway in 1954, playing with Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Kamba: ”As it is I must write in English, a bastard tongue but fairly manoeverable. Spanish is a language Tu.”

It stands to reason that he’d learn Spanish living in Cuba for twenty years, but apparently it went pretty deep (even making allowances for Hem’s inevitable quota of self-aggrandizing bullshit).

Scots Threip.

In investigating various matters connected with this post, I ran into John M. Tait’s site Scots Threip:

Scots Threip consists of writings of my own on the Scots Language. It started as a place to put them so that I could refer to them in forum discussions. Many of the articles are in Scots as they were written either for Scots forums or Lallans magazine.

The Site Guide is on the left margin; it’s quite a rabbit hole. I particularly recommend Wanchancies if you want a glimpse into the arguments surrounding the proper rendition of “Scots as a functioning language with its own characteristics”; as an outsider, I wouldn’t dream of taking a position myself.

And for lagniappe, here’s the first couple of stanzas of Sydney Goodsir Smith’s “Epistle to John Guthrie”:

We’ve come intil a gey queer time
Whan scrievin Scots is near a crime,
“There’s no one speaks like that”, they fleer,
–But wha the deil spoke like King Lear?

And onyways doon Canongate
I’ll tak ye slorpin pints till late,
Ye’ll hear Scots there as raff an slee–
Its no the point, sae that’ll dae.

Up to Snuff.

I wondered about the phrase “up to snuff,” so I looked it up. Turns out it didn’t always mean “meeting the required standard,” as it does now; Gary Martin tells us:

In 1811, the English playwright John Poole wrote Hamlet Travestie, a parody of Shakespeare, in the style of Doctor Johnson and George Steevens, which included the expression.

“He knows well enough The game we’re after: Zooks, he’s up to snuff.” &

“He is up to snuff, that is, he is the knowing one.”

A slightly later citation of the phrase, in Grose’s Dictionary, 1823, lists it as ‘up to snuff and a pinch above it’, and defines the term as ‘flash’. This clearly shows the derivation to be from ‘snuff’, the powdered tobacco that had become fashionable to inhale in the late 17th century. The phrase derives from the stimulating effect of taking snuff. The association of the phrase with sharpness of mind was enhanced by the fashionability and high cost of snuff and by the elaborate decorative boxes that it was kept in.

The later meaning of ‘up to standard’, in the same sense as ‘up to scratch’ (see also: ‘start from scratch’) began to be used around the turn of the 20th century.

Lots of idioms don’t make sense, but some do if you can trace them back far enough.