Archives for August 2017

The Stoop.

The Stoop (to quote their website) “is a podcast about blackness, race, and identity in America, hosted by Leila Day and Hana Baba.” I’m not much of a podcast person, but I was listening to my local NPR station, WFCR, and heard a snippet of what sounded like a really interesting episode, “The problem with sounding white”: “We explore voice and unpack what it means linguistically, socially, and professionally when you’re black but supposedly ‘sound white.'” It caught my attention right away by repeating, with gusto, the phrase “interdental fricative,” and went on to discuss code-switching, linguistic profiling, and other related matters. It ends with a talk with poet Chinaka Hodge, who studied linguistics with Renée Blake; she says when she’s told she sounds white, she says: “Do I sound white like a Scottish person? Do I sound white like a Brahmin?” She mentions Blake’s concept of “r-fulness” and gives examples. All in all, it’s a great way to spend 18 minutes, and I highly recommend it.

The World at One.

I love discovering new poets who give me the same kind of thrill as my old favorites, and the latest is Kate Bingham, whose “The World at One” was published in the New Statesman last year:

I lie in bed until The World at One,
why should my heart go off with an alarm?
The body’s woman’s work is never done,

the blood gets up to exercise the lungs.
The kettle sings, I count my lucky charms –
a chain connects and separates each one

and when I shake my wrist it shakes the sun
that scatters off the wall and scalds my arm.
It’s only skin and coffee, no harm done.

War continues, voting has begun;
my left-hand thumb elects my right-hand palm.
We couldn’t all go on to be someone.

I have a little silver house to run,
a silver Scottie dog to keep me calm.
I don’t remember everything I’ve done

but bring me pencil, paper, chewing gum
and I will stay at home and do no harm,
imagining myself a world for one
where what I did was what I should have done.

The easy mastery of iambic pentameter, the simple lines that sink instantly into the memory (“the blood gets up to exercise the lungs”; “and when I shake my wrist it shakes the sun”), the lovely use of repetition and variation — that’s real poetry, folks. Her latest collection, Infragreen, was published by Seren in 2015. It has a beautiful cover and I’ll bet the poems are just as good as this one.

A Novel of Cosmopolitan Alexandria.

Yitzhak Gormezano Goren writes about his 1978 novel Alexandrian Summer, described at the time as “An achievement and innovation in Hebrew Literature,” and its belated translation into English; I thought the last couple of paragraphs were particularly interesting:

During the process of working with Yardenne Greenspan, the translator, I realized to my surprise that Alexandrian Summer is very difficult to render in another language and another mentality, mainly because of its use of multiple languages (English, French, Judeo-Spanish, Turkish, Greek, Italian and Arabic) that were typical to cosmopolitan Alexandria. As simple and naturalistic as its style seemed, on the surface, it was extremely important not to lose the poetic and mythical undertone. The translation and its editing helped in capturing the soul and essence of the book—that elusive and magical Mediterranean ambiance. But more than that—bestowing the work, in another language, with the right PACE! As a man of the theater, I recognize the importance of pace.

I must confess that when I wrote the novel back in the 1970s, I was very pleased with the simplicity of my Hebrew, devoid of flowery mannerism. But my editor at Am Oved publishing house insisted on “elevating” my style. I tried my best to simplify his changes, but living abroad meant every communication went through mail (no email in those good old days), and since it was my first novel, there was a limit to what I could accomplish. So the Hebrew version still has a few archaic elements I was forced to put up with—after all, as a young writer, I had to be thankful they’d even accepted my novel. Now, nearly forty years later, this fresh English version is a kind of vindication, closer to my initial intention, and has inspired me to republish the novel in Hebrew with some of those alterations. It may be that this extinct novel about a vanished Alexandria is coming back to life as a true “achievement and innovation in Hebrew literature.”

I’m glad he was finally able to get his style de-elevated!

Google Noto.

This report by Patrick Burgoyne is a year old now, but has only recently come to my attention, and I thought I’d see what you people think (I’m sure those of you who know about typefaces have long been familiar with it):

In what is being billed as one of the largest typeface projects in human history, Google and Monotype have collaborated to create a unifying system that spans more than 100 writing systems, 800 languages, and hundreds of thousands of characters. Some of the languages featured have never been digitised before and have only previously existed as inscriptions on stone or on ancient documents.

The name, Noto, comes from Google’s initial brief to Monotype which was ‘no more tofu’. ‘Tofu’ is the nickname used for the blank boxes that appear when a computer or website is unable to display a particular character because there is no font support for that language. Google’s challenge was to create fonts for all of the 800 languages included in the Unicode Consortium standard for software internationalisation, which includes many little-spoken or so-called ‘dead’ languages, thus eradicating ‘tofu’ from our screens. For each language, Noto includes letters in multiple serif and sans serif styles across up to eight weights, as well as numbers, emoji, symbols and musical notation.

The project involved hundreds of researchers, designers, linguists, cultural experts and project managers around the world. To create the Tibetan characters, Monotype worked with Tibetan monks and Buddhist scholars. Fulani speakers from West Africa have been provided with the first digital alphabet in their language, while there is even a version in Ogham, the Old Irish script used between the first and sixth centuries.

Seems like a good idea, and I like the fact that they handle Fulani and Ogham, but I’m sure there are problems with it, because there are problems with everything.


My wife asked me what the name “Pasadena” meant, so of course I looked it up in Gudde’s California Place Names (a wonderful book — see this 2004 post), and the etymology was so interesting I thought I’d pass it along here:

Pasadena (pas ə dē’ nə) [Los Angeles Co.]. The community was founded in 1874 and called Indiana Colony because the original promoters came from Indiana. When the post office was established in 1875, another name had to be chosen, and rarely have pioneer settlers gone to more trouble to select a name for their town than the good people of Indiana Colony. Hiram Reid’s account of the naming (pp. 338 ff.) sounds more convincing than various other stories: Judge B. S. Eaton, in discussing with another stockholder, Calvin Fletcher, the possibility of finding a suitable Spanish name for the proposed post office, recalled a conversation he had had with Manuel Garfias, the patentee of Rancho San Pascual, on part of which the town was situated. When asked why he had chosen so impractical a place for his house, Garfias replied, “Porque es la llave del Rancho.” Fletcher was disappointed, because “yavvey,” the only word he caught, would never do for a place name. Judge Eaton then translated Garfias’s reply as ‘key of the rancho.’ This was at least a cue to a suitable name. Dr. T. B. Elliott, the president of the Indiana Colony, then took up the idea. He wrote to a friend who was a missionary among the Chippewa Indians in the Mississippi Valley for an Indian version of ‘Key of the Ranch,’ or ‘Entrance to the Upper Part of the Valley’, and received in due course these suggestions: Weoquân Pâ sâ de ná ‘Crown of the Valley’; Gish kâ de ná Pâ sâ de ná ‘Peak of the Valley’; Tape Dâegun Pâ sâ de ná ‘Key of the Valley’; Pe quâ de na Pâ sâ de ná ‘Hill of the Valley’. Since Dr. Elliott could not very well propose the name Tapedaegunpasadena or Weoquanpasadena, he quietly dropped the specific part and submitted to the townspeople the pleasing and euphonious name Pasadena. The interpretation that Pasadena alone means ‘crown of the valley’ has persisted until the present day. As for the original Chippewa word, it can be identified with passadina ‘there is a valley’ (Frederick Baraga, Dictionary of the Otchipwe language [Montreal, 1878]).

The Pasadena in Texas is named after the one in California. Don’t ask me why Dr. Elliott wrote to a missionary in the Mississippi Valley for a suitable name for a place in California, because I have no answer for you.

The Browning Easter Egg.

I was looking through my ancient (corrected edition 1961, Third Printing) copy of Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol when my eye hit upon something that must have puzzled me when I first read the book in college, but of course pretty much everything puzzled me then (ah, youth!), so I moved on and forgot it. Now I thought “I’ll bet the internet will solve this for me,” and sure enough it did. From Alex Beam’s The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship:

The final chapter, 6, re-creates an exchange between the author and his publisher, Laughlin, “in Utah, sitting in the lounge of an Alpine hotel.” Laughlin is badgering Nabokov to tell the reader what Gogol’s books are about: “I have gone through it carefully, and so has my wife, and we have not found the plots.” Nabokov tells the reader that he tacked on a seven-page chronology, with plot summaries, to placate Laughlin. Clearly he thought Laughlin wouldn’t read the addendum, because he inserted this random sentence into the recitation of Gogol’s life: “Browning’s door is preserved in the library of Wellesley College.” [It is.] The Robert Browning “Easter egg”—computer lingo for a hidden joke—survived the 1959 and 1961 reeditions of Nikolai Gogol, but later vanished from the text.

And an excellent joke it is, though hard on the poor puzzled student. (The diligent ctrl-F’er will find it used in sly homage on this критика page.)

World Density of Languages.

Benjamin Hennig at Geographical posts about a very nice visualization:

The Glottolog database was used in this month’s cartogram to highlight the geographic distribution of language diversity around the world. The main locations of each entry from the database were used to calculate the density (and diversity) of languages in their spatial distribution. The cartogram therefore shows larger areas where there is a relatively higher diversity of languages. This is also reflected in the differently shaded colours overlaid.

The highest language diversity in the world can be found in Africa and Asia, both with more than 2,000 living tongues. At the other end of the geographic spectrum lies Europe with only around 250 living languages and dialects spoken.

Note that the first map has no labels; scroll down for the one with labels (which you can, as they say, click to embiggen).


Working my way through my stack of TLSs, I’ve reached Dec. 11, 2015, and the letters section included this, which naturally caught my attention:

Sir, — Rachel Bowlby, reviewing Bernard Harrison’s What Is Fiction For? (December 4), says it “feels like a bit of critical bungaloo (that’s 1980s Brighton lingo for the assortment of filler materials used by cowboy builders)”.

The word more correctly is bungaroosh, and it predates the 1980s cowboy builders, being a kind of rubble concrete, made out of lime, gravel, sand, flint and brick fragments, that was used in many of Brighton and Hove’s Regency terraces, with subsequent problems for their modern owners.

“Bungaroosh became synonymous with shoddy workmanship”, says Nigel Richardson in Breakfast in Brighton (1998), calling it “a very Brightonian concept. The word sounded dashing but bogus. By reputation it looked the part but fell to bits.”

Strangely, I don’t find it in the Oxford English Dictionary.

35 The Albemarle, Marine Parade,

You can read more about it at the Wikipedia article (which says “The etymology of the word is unknown, but the first part may derive from the colloquial verb ‘to bung’, meaning to put something somewhere hastily or carelessly”) and in this London Damp Company post (“Bungaroosh is almost exclusively found in Brighton, which is something you should be glad of if you live in London or other parts of Britain”).

Molotov: The Summing Up.

In my earlier post about Pomyalovsky’s novel Молотов [Molotov], I wrote that I wanted to post about it before it went off the rails; now that I’ve finished it, I’m happy to report that my fears were groundless and that it never did fall apart as his first one did. It’s not a masterpiece, mind you; that would be a lot to ask from an author in his mid-twenties who had only published one other (short) novel. But it’s a huge leap forward, and had he not died (basically of drink) in 1863, who knows how far he might have gone? Carol Flath, in her perceptive piece on Pomyalovsky in Russian Novelists in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, calls him “a serious, talented, and original writer,” and I agree. Flath says “Molotov represents a new kind of hero in Russian literature, the raznochinets (a nongentry intellectual), who rises from poverty to take his place among the increasing numbers of white-collar workers in mid-nineteenth century Russia,” and among the many jobs he held in his checkered career (at one point he lists them all) is proofreader, which of course endeared him to me. As a matter of fact, his experiences and outlook on life in general endear him to me; he’s the closest thing to me I think I’ve yet encountered in Russian literature.

The defects of the novel are primarily of construction: Pomyalovsky lurches from the Dorogov family to Molotov and back with no clear motive, and he relies too much on coincidence and eavesdropping (a common problem in fiction of that or any era, of course). But the characters are original and well-drawn, the writing is lively if occasionally repetitive (see the excerpts I translated in the previous post for examples), and he toys so cleverly with the conventions of melodrama (and one’s expectations of how a Russian novel will develop) that he made me laugh out loud at one culminating plot point. This novel definitely deserves translation (I don’t usually recommend translators trim the original, but in this case it might be advisable in places where the author gets carried away with his rhetoric), and I hope it gets one; it sheds light on corners of Russian society you don’t get many chances to see, and it has a clever, likeable, and brave heroine.

One question for my Russian readers: he repeatedly uses the adjective зачаделый (“зачаделое, темнообразное лицо,” “она с отвращением и негодованием оттолкнула от себя зачаделый лик,” etc., always modifying лицо or лик), and not only is it not in any dictionaries (even the Словарь русских народных говоров), it doesn’t seem ever to have been used by any other Russian author. I presume it’s derived from чад ‘fumes,’ but it’s not clear to me what he means by it: ‘smoky-looking,’ maybe? All suggestions will be welcome.

BBC Pidgin Language Service.

Monica Mark reports:

On Monday, BBC World Service launched a Pidgin service, unveiling a website and radio bulletins that will run entirely in the lingua franca spoken across West Africa.

It’s the BBC’s biggest expansion in 40 years, and means the broadcaster will join the ranks of local stations that already reach audiences of millions through speaking Pidgin — a mashup of English, Portuguese, and a bunch of local languages.

“Pidgin is the language spoken among so many people across West and Central Africa and for the first time we will be connecting with the next generation of speakers. Pidgin is the common thread in the region,” BBC editor Bilkisu Labaran said.

There’s a nice little video featuring the presenters talking about how excited they are (“We don land gidigba!” = We’ve finally arrived!) and a selection of pleased tweets (“Una welcome @BBCAfrica , noting better pass dan say person hear tory for him own language. May your town crier reach every village square!”). Here‘s a related BBC story about Pidgin, with some examples, and here‘s the Pidgin news website (lead story at the moment: “Nigeria: Rats chase President Buhari from office/ After over 100 days of medical vacation, President Muhammadu Buhari still dey work from home because dem say rats don spoil im office”). Good for them!