Archives for July 2017

The Boarding-School Girl.

I just finished reading Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya‘s 1861 novella Пансионерка, which (amazingly for a largely forgotten nineteenth-century writer) has been translated (by Karen Rosneck) into English, as The Boarding-School Girl. It was kind of a pain to read, since to have it on my Kindle I had to download the entire issue of Otechesvennye zapiski as a pdf file and squint at the resultant smudges through the already somewhat smudgy screen. But I persevered, because it’s important to me to read as much literature by women as possible, and it was worth it.

It starts off unexcitingly, with a conversation between two youngish men who had become friends elsewhere and now meet again in a provincial town: Ibraev has been sent there as an important official as a stepping-stone in his career, Veretitsyn as a political exile who will have to cool his heels as an ill-paid, overworked scribe until the authorities allow him to depart. Ibraev is condescending and self-absorbed, Veretitsyn sarcastic and self-pitying; after they’ve talked for a while, they notice children playing next door, and a fifteen-year-old girl in a boarding-school uniform studying a book. She will turn out to be our heroine, Elena (“Lyolenka”) Gosteva. Ibraev leaves, discomfited at having unwittingly compromised himself by associating with a man under police surveillance; Veretitsyn chats for a bit with the girl, making fun of her book and her studies, and gets into the habit of talking with her over the fence from time to time, laughing sarcastically at everything she says.

These conversations mean nothing to Veretitsyn, who is obsessed with his situation and his love for the beautiful Sofya Khmelevskaya. But they overturn Lyolenka’s life; from a diligent student and obedient daughter, she becomes a rebellious girl who half-deliberately fails her exams and is increasingly frustrated by her home life. The thing is, though, that she is not a conscious rebel; she does not understand what is happening to her, does not even realize that she is falling in love with her ironic neighbor. The middle chapters of the book are an acute psychological investigation of the development of an adolescent girl that reminded me of both Avdotya Panaeva‘s Семейство Тальниковых [The Talnikov family] (see this post) and Pasternak’s Детство Люверс [The Childhood of Luvers, also translated Zhenia Luvers’ Childhood and The Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers]. Ironically, she was chastised at the time by people like Saltykov-Shchedrin for excessive attention to psychology (he complained about the same thing in George Eliot) — they wanted plot and politics, not girls trying to figure out who they are and why they do the things they do. But she got great reviews in general; in 1880 Pyotr Boborykin wrote that she had no equal in Europe except for George Eliot. After her death in 1889 she was forgotten, like all her female contemporaries (Elena Gan, Elena Kube/Veltman, Sophie Engelhardt — whose “Не сошлись” Erik at XIX век is now translating as “It Didn’t Come Off”: introduction here, first installment here).

The book takes a sudden turn towards the end which I won’t spoil for you; I’ll just say that it gets more and more satisfying as it goes along, is never dogmatic, and has penetrating and acerbic things to say about female education, family life, and art. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the life of women in nineteenth-century Russia, or indeed anywhere, and I hope more such works get translated.

Why So Many Languages?

Michael Gavin of Colorado State University has a fascinating piece at The Conversation that asks: “Why is it that humans speak so many languages? And why are they so unevenly spread across the planet?”

The questions also seem like they should be fundamental to many academic disciplines – linguistics, anthropology, human geography. But, starting in 2010, when our diverse team of researchers from six different disciplines and eight different countries began to review what was known, we were shocked that only a dozen previous studies had been done, including one we ourselves completed on language diversity in the Pacific.

These prior efforts all examined the degree to which different environmental, social and geographic variables correlated with the number of languages found in a given location. The results varied a lot from one study to another, and no clear patterns emerged. The studies also ran up against many methodological challenges, the biggest of which centered on the old statistical adage – correlation does not equal causation. […]

A better way to identify the causes of particular patterns is to simulate the processes we think might be creating them. The closer the model’s products are to the reality we know exists, the greater the chances are that we understand the actual processes at work.

Two members of our group, ecologists Thiago Rangel and Robert Colwell, had developed this simulation modeling technique for their studies of species diversity patterns. But no one had ever used this approach to study the diversity of human populations.

We decided to explore its potential by first building a simple model to test the degree to which a few basic processes might explain language diversity patterns in just one part of the globe, the continent of Australia.

The success of the model for Australia is truly astonishing; as they say, different patterns will be at work elsewhere, and I certainly join them in their concluding wish: “We hope other scientists will become as fascinated by the geography of language diversity as our research group is and join us in the search for understanding why humans speak so many languages.” Thanks, Trevor!

The Language of the Hert.

Some kind LH reader sent me a copy of Sydney Goodsir Smith’s Collected Poems, which I had added to my wishlist only recently after waxing enthusiastic about Smith here — thank you, kind reader! Being the kind of person who reads the Foreword first, I did, and since it’s entirely about the problem of spelling Scots, I’m going to quote a chunk of it here:

By the time the other European vernaculars had broken away from their Teutonic and Romance beginnings and more or less settled down to national norms based on their own particular vernacular translations of the Bible, the Scots (for various reasons, some political) had adopted the English version instead of producing one of their own — though such in part did exist. The language and spelling of this English version (generally the Eycliff), because it was the only general book available to everyone, gradually became the accepted pattern for all formal literary purposes — legal documents, royal proclamations, burgh records and suchlike. Had a Scots version of the Bible been published widely at this time there would have been a different tale to tell in all probability. [..]

He then talks about people spelling as they spoke and “provincialising matters still further with a very plethora of apostrophes to approximate it, as it were, to the accepted standard English”; he continues:

In 1947 or thereabouts a group of poets in Edinburgh, the Makars Club, decided to rationalise this spelling business if they could manage to. We agreed on some rules and agreed to abide by these and by these means hoped to remove the ‘dialect’ stigma (as we thought of it) so often levelled at the often widely different usages of this ancient and respectable literary language. Our problem was to agree upon a standard spelling so that an Aberdonian and a Borderer would spell a word in the same way while pronouncing it sui generis, just as a Lewisman will pronounce a word differently from a Cornishman yet both spell it the same in print. […]

It is difficult to find the middle way. (Take a simple example: say, the word ‘heart’, pronounced anglice ‘hart’ — or ‘haht’, if you like; scottice ‘hairt’. It was decided it should be spelled ‘heart’, as in German ‘Herz’, or French ‘cherche’, and such Scots words as ‘wersh’: but, alas, one found English or American or anglicised Scots reading it by eye as ‘hurt’ — as in English ‘Bert’ or ‘certain’. Quite apart from the sound values, simple meaning may sometimes be distorted.) It is the difficulty of unfamiliarity with the printed word. The same poem spoken would be perfectly understandable to all.

I have been as inconsistent as any. I now spell ‘heart’ as ‘hairt’, for instance. What then of the present collection ? Should I re-spell the whole lot in accord with my present probably only temporary convention or leave them as they were writ at the time, as a kind of historical record of the vagaries of fashion, one man’s fashion? I dillied and I dallied and at last laziness won and I decided, more or less, on the latter alternative. Explicatus est.

I’m not sure whether the misprint at a crucial point of the penultimate paragraph has more of sadness or of humor; in the sentence “It was decided it should be spelled ‘heart’, as in German ‘Herz’ […],” “heart” should read “hert.” Correctus est.


Another quote from Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds:

The koukou, the Morepork owl, hoots koukou.
It lives by night, it belongs to the Underworld,
its frightening eyes a sign of evil.
A thin film covers its unblinking eyes,
a thin film made from the fingernails of corpses.

I was, of course, intrigued by “Morepork,” so I looked it up; it’s in the Australian Oxford Dictionary and the (old) OED under “mopoke,” but in Wikipedia under Morepork, so perhaps that’s the more accepted form these days. The Australian dictionary defines it as “boobook” (another great word!), which it says is from Dharuk bug bug. I will be glad of any further information (if someone with access to the online OED can provide the current etymology, I’d be glad); I will note that the last line of the Weinberger quote reminded me of Naglfar (see this 2005 post).

Blessed Are teh Copy Editors.

I’m taking shameless advantage of my bully pulpit to post a plug for my profession, that of copyediting (or, if you or your style guides prefer, copy-editing or copy editing). Ben Yagoda at Lingua Franca writes about the lamentable decision by the New York Times to cut their copyediting staff in half and get rid of the so-called backfielders (“who come up with or approve the idea for an article, work with the reporter as the piece develops, then perform a big-picture edit”) and about the importance of copyediting in general. It begins:

In a recent Lingua Franca post, I had reason to mention Rogue Riderhood, a character from Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend. Even though I had just perused the relevant passages, I wrote the name as “Rough Riderhood.” The mistake did not appear in the published post. That’s because a copy editor, Heidi Landecker, caught it and fixed it.

It wasn’t a rare occurrence. Heidi and her colleagues Mitch Gerber, Sarah Henderson, Charles Huckabee, Andrew Mytelka, and Don Troop regularly find and correct dumb and/or thoughtless errors like that, and in general allow me and other Lingua Franca and Chronicle of Higher Education writers to seem at least moderately knowledgeable and competent.

I have complained about this stuff before (e.g., at the end of this 2012 post, which features an appearance by a defensive representative of the publisher concluding with the immor(t)al lines “Books always contain a few errors. No book I’ve read produced by any publisher is perfect”), and it just keeps getting worse. I have before me a headline from my local paper (the Hampshire Gazette, or as they might print it, the Hmapshire Gzette) that reads “Los Angles a likely host in ’24 or ’28” [sic]. Go read Yagoda’s piece, and if you feel like complaining to the Times, I won’t try to stop you.

Two Etymologies.

1) Posted by aldiboronti at, quoting the OED (“This took me by surprise, I had no idea of the connection”):

chance, n., adj. and adv.

Etymology: Middle English chea(u)nce, < Old French cheance (= Provençal cazensa, Italian cadenza) < late Latin cadentia falling, < cadent– falling, present participle of cadĕre to fall: compare cadence n.

As I responded in that thread: I must have seen that before, probably more than once, but I’d forgotten it.

2) And while I was looking up chance in AHD, it fell to my lot to notice another interesting connection:

A conglomerate of businesses, usually owned by a single family, especially in Korea.
[Korean chaebeol (formed on the model of Japanese zaibatsu, zaibatsu, by using the Korean pronunciation of the two Chinese characters with which the Japanese word is written) : chae, wealth (from Early Middle Chinese, dzəj; see ZAIBATSU) + beol, powerful family (from Early Middle Chinese buat; see ZAIBATSU).]

Again, if I knew chaebol was etymologically identical to zaibatsu, I’d forgotten. (The Mandarin equivalent would be cáifá; I don’t know if that’s used for both or if they’ve been borrowed back in other forms.)


Helen DeWitt at paperpools posts a quote from Pharaoh’s Land and Beyond, ed. Pearce Paul Creasman and Richard H. Wilkinson (Oxford University Press, 2017) posted in turn by Rolf Degen (@DegenRolf) on Twitter (where he “performed various arcane manipulations to come up with a quotation that blithely bypasses the 140-character limit”). I can’t copy and paste from the image at her site, so I’ll post as much as I can be bothered to get by trawling Google Books and hope you’re intrigued enough to click the link for more:

The high iconicity of the hieroglyphic script again played a key role on the stage of intellectual history at another crossroad of Egyptian and Levantine cultures. […] Unlike the case of the Minoan and Anatolian scripts, the invention of the alphabet was not born in the environment of erudite scribes, but was apparently created as a non-institutional cultural product by illiterate Canaanite miners. Though they were experts in their professional field of mining, the inventors of the alphabet were far removed from the circles of professional writing in cuneiform and Egyptian. It is precisely this naïveté that allowed them to invent something completely new, as they were unencumbered by the scripts of their day. […] Like the inventors of the Cretan and Anatolian hieroglyphs, the Canaanites borrowed the Egyptian idea of turning pictures into script. Yet, not being professional scribes and not working in the service of any official ideology or institution, they did not bother to invent a whole set of new icons. They adopted roughly two dozen icons from the hieroglyphs around them […]

I like the emphasis on non-institutional and non-professional inventors. (DeWitt says: “If you are not following @Rolfdegen on Twitter, you should, and if you are not on Twitter you could do worse than sign up and follow only the incomparable @DegenRolf.”)

Graphing the Distribution of English Letters.

David Taylor at (“data hacking and sundry curiosities”) posted back in 2014 a very nice graph titled “Distribution of English letters toward beginning, middle and end of words.” He adds:

I’ve had many “oh, yeah” moments looking over the graphs. For example, words almost never begin with “x”, but it’s quite common as the second letter. There’s a little hump near the beginning of “u” that’s caused by its proximity to “q”, which is most common at the beginning of a word. When you remove “q” from the dataset, the hump disappears. “F” occurs toward the extremes, especially in prepositions (“for”, “from”, “of”, “off”) but rarely just before the middle.

A final thought: the most common word in the English language is “the”, which makes up about 6% of most corpuses (sorry, corpora). But according to these graphs, the most representative word is “toe”.

What fun!

Rivers and Stones.

Still reading Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds; I’m on the essay “A Calendar of Stones,” section 14 of which begins:

Pseudo-Plutarch is the author of works attributed to Plutarch that are not by Plutarch; he may be one or more writers. His essay “On Rivers” is a minimalist compendium of nomenclature, violence, illicit sex, botany, and geology. In it, he cites works by Agatharchides, Archelaus, Aristobulus, Dercyllus, Dorotheus the Chaldean, Heracleitus, and Nicias of Mallus, all titled “On Stones.” Doubt has been cast as to whether these texts, all lost, actually existed.

Needless to say, I was intrigued, and googling turned up the English translation at Perseus, which begins here, and a parallel Greek/Roman text, which begins here. Sure enough, these river chapters are obsessed with stones with weird histories and qualities; I leave you to explore them, and provide the very last paragraph (from XXV. INDUS) without comment:

Γεννᾶται δὲ ἐν αὐτῷ λίθος κλειτορὶς ὀνομαζόμενος· ἔστι δὲ λίαν μελάγχρους· ὃν κόσμου χάριν οἱ ἐγχώριοι φοροῦσιν ἐν τοῖς ὠταρίοις, καθὼς ἱστορεῖ Ἀριστοτέλης ἐν δʹ περὶ Ποταμῶν.

Nascitur in eo lapis clitoris dictus, qui est nigerrimus et ornatus gratia ab indigenis gestari solet in auriculis, ut docet Aristoteles libro quarto De fluviis.

In this mountain a stone is found which is called clitoris, of a very black color, which the natives wear for ornament’s sake in their ears;—as Aristotle witnesses in his Fourth Book of Rivers.

Agop Dilaçar.

Uzay Bulut has an interesting account of a surprising participant in Turkey’s language reform (for which see this 2012 post):

Hagop Martayan, or Agop Dilaçar, was the first Secretary General and head specialist of the state-funded Turkish Language Institution (Türk Dil Kurumu, TDK) founded in 1932 in Ankara. He worked as a professor of Turkish at Ankara University between 1936 and 1951. He also was the head adviser of the Turkish Encyclopedia between 1942 and 1960. He wrote books and articles on the Turkish language. Beside his mother tongue, Armenian, he knew English, Ottoman, Azeri, Uighur, Latin, Greek, German, Russian, and Bulgarian. […]

In an article about Martayan’s life (“The Good Child of the Republic: Hagop Martayan or A. Dilaçar”), Levent Özata, a journalist with the newspaper Agos, writes that Martayan was sent to the Caucasian front to fight as an Ottoman soldier during WWI. After the war, Martayan held various positions, including principal of an Armenian school in Beirut, Lebanon, and then a lecturer of Turkish and Uighur in Sofia, Bulgaria. But when the newly formed Turkish state decided to invent a new language in the 1930s, Martayan’s life changed course.

With his articles on the Turkish language, Martayan had attracted the attention of the authorities. But he had been denationalized, stripped of citizenship; he was wandering around with a certificate documenting his statelessness. He was allowed to enter Turkey as “a special guest of Mustafa Kemal, the first president of Turkey, to develop the Turkish language. […] And it was Mustafa Kemal who suggested Martayan’s surname, Dilaçar [literally, “one who opens up the tongue (or language)”; perhaps better translated as “language-giver”] because of his contributions to Turkish after the promulgation of the Law of Family Names.

Thanks, Trevor!