Archives for September 2017

Learning Minority Languages.

Alice Bonasio writes for Quartz about an apparent paradox:

Yet at the same time as teens in the UK are turning their back on traditionally valued European languages such as German, French, and Spanish, Britain is experiencing a strong surge of interest in local idioms. There has been an uptake of kids learning languages such as Irish and Scottish Gaelic over the past five years, with 33% more students choosing to studying these languages in 2017 than five years ago.

She says “A recent poll of 15 countries showed a common language is the most important factor in defining a nation’s identity” and talks about the Inuit community of Nunavik, which “has the highest rate of Inuktitut speakers amongst all Inuit groups worldwide,” and the surprising flourishing of Basque:

Only a few decades ago, children caught speaking Basque in northern Spain would have been punished at school. But as of 2017, 54% of the region’s population are Basque speakers (pdf in Spanish), and in 2016 52% of university students opted for being taught in Basque instead of Spanish. […]

“There shouldn’t be a conflict between the local and the global, but I find that children who are not taught other languages struggle to grasp the concept that diversity isn’t a threat,” says Mari Tere Ojanguren, the principal of Lauaxeta ikastola, which is considered one of the best schools in Spain. “A person that only comes in contact with one language cannot truly understand other cultures. By the age of four our children are immersed in three different languages. So they can be in Abu Dhabi or New York, and they can understand that others around them are different, and be at ease.”

Nothing particularly new and surprising, but a nice roundup. (The title ignorantly talks about “a local dialect” instead of a minority language, but that’s on whoever writes titles for Quartz — the writer of a piece is rarely responsible for the title that gets slapped on it.)

Another Troubadour Sale.

I’ve posted about Troubadour Books quite a few times (first almost exactly a decade ago; most recently two weeks ago), and I’m here to report on the results of my latest expedition to take advantage of their sale, which is going on through the weekend, and I urge you to visit if you’re in the area — not only are the books inside very reasonably priced and 35% off, but there are many tables of $1 books outside, and there are so many treasures there I barely made it indoors. Here are some of the items of LH interest:

Catherine the Great: A Short History, by Isabel de Madariaga
Современная русская пунктуация, by Анна Николаевна Наумович
The First Guidebook to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union, by Avraham Shifrin
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi
Tolstoy’s ‘War And Peace’: A Study, by R. F. Christian
Major Lyricists of the Northern Sung: 960-1126 A.D., by James J. Y. Liu
Mandarin Chinese: An Introduction, by Mobo C. F. Gao
All Russia Is Burning!: A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia, by Cathy A. Frierson
Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History, by Rachel Polonsky

I was particularly excited to find the first (1973) edition of Endymion Wilkinson’s The History of Imperial China: A Research Guide (now Chinese History: A New Manual), because just the day before I had read an encomium to him and his work at the Log, and the Wikipedia article intrigued me so much I was on the lookout. As I said in my comment in response, “Way out of date, I know, and I hope to get a more recent version someday, but I’m only an amateur, so for the moment I’m happy with this!”

Zettel’s Bottom.

Mark Herman has a short post yoking together two very different cultural artifacts involving translators, the movie Arrival (see this LH post from last year) and Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Zettels Traum (not “Zettel’s,” as Herman has it); I’m going to reproduce the entirety of his discussion of the latter, which I find fascinating, and ask if any of my readers is familiar with the novel:

Bottom’s Dream, despite a title taken from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the use of Bottom’s Dream as a central metaphor, is about German translators of Edgar Allen Poe, not Shakespeare, and, despite its length, the entire book takes place during a 25-hour period. Here is translator John E. Woods’ explanation of the title:

In the classic Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare, “Bottom, the weaver” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is given the name “Zettel,” which is the warp of a fabric. And it is of course Bottom’s dream which is a central metaphor of the novel. Lost again is a pun, for a Zettel is also a small slip of paper, especially one used to jot something down on; Schmidt used thousands of such slips of notepaper to construct his later novels, by arranging them in large homemade file-boxes. Also lost, at least at first for the English speaker, is the fact that in German your Po is your “bottom,” and after all it is a novel about Edgar Allan Poe. As I [have] said … translation is an impossibility.

In the same interview, Woods discusses translating Arno Schmidt in particular:

Arno Schmidt is in one sense just another case of impossibility. The density of his prose is sui generis, even in German, which can be intimidatingly dense. Then there’s the word play, the dance of literary references, the Rabelaisian humor, all packed into what I like to think of as “fairy tales for adults.” So, what does a translator do? He puts on his fool’s cap and plays and dances and hopes he amuses.

In short, for works like Zettel’s Traum, an unfunny translation is an unsuccessful translation.

Thanks, Trevor!

The Closing of DARE.

I’ve posted a number of times about the Dictionary of American Regional English (e.g., on its completion and on the Fieldwork Recordings); now, sadly, I must write about the shutdown of the entire project, as reported by one of LH’s favorite lexicographers, Jesse Sheidlower, for the New Yorker. After introducing DARE and describing its many excellences (William Safire called it “the most exciting new linguistic project in the twentieth century”), Sheidlower gets to the bad news:

DARE was primarily supported by grants, especially from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation. In recent years, small individual donations played an increasing role in the project’s funding. The institutional donors pretty much felt that they did their job to get the dictionary to “Z.” The publicity from the completion of the main text led to an influx of enough money to finish Volume VI, which included maps and indices, but that was it. In the last few years, the staff applied for additional grants to update and add new entries; these failed to materialize. Squeaking by on royalties and individual gifts, and with several editors working on a volunteer basis, the dictionary was able to publish some quarterly updates, but by the beginning of the coming year, it will be necessary to lay off the staff.

Now the hundreds of boxes of files are going into the University of Wisconsin archives, after some last-minute work to insure that the most important records are indexed properly. Editors will try to keep some visibility—continuing to do radio interviews, for example—but this will also be on a mostly volunteer basis.

DARE will probably prove to be the last major dictionary based on personal fieldwork, as more modern techniques take over. By creating an interesting survey and getting people to complete it online, you can get a lot of data. This was the method of the Harvard Dialect Survey, a set of a hundred and twenty-two questions created by the linguist Bert Vaux, who is now at Cambridge University. When the Times created an interactive quiz based on the data, in 2013, its story “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk” became its highest-traffic piece of the entire year, despite being published on December 21st—demonstrating just how fascinated people remain about their local speech.

And instead of any method of studying the speech of individuals, the most modern thing of all is corpus analysis: taking billions of words of text—from geotagged posts on Twitter, from online regional newspapers—and running them through elaborate statistical processing. The computational linguist Jack Grieve uses this approach to generate maps revealing truths about language that no one had—or, for that matter, could have—noticed before. This is probably the direction that future research will take; it’s relatively inexpensive and yields fascinating results that dramatically add to our understanding of language. But one can’t help feeling that it’s a shame to take the words out of the mouths of their speakers.

A shame indeed. But at least we have the dictionary itself.


Frequent commenter Y sent me a rare book dealer’s catalog (it’s #24, downloadable as a pdf from here if you’re curious — it’s got all sorts of great stuff, including an I.W.W. union shop sign and the 1920 First American Edition of Lenin’s Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii [Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky], “printed in an edition of about 1,000 copies and distributed by Max Maisel … After the death of Maisel the entire stock of his company was sold to a prominent Russian bookdealer Nicholas Martianoff, a former associate and one time secretary of Kerensky. Martianoff considered all radical literature held at Maisel’s shop wothless and sent it to a paper mill in New York”); he thought I’d be interested because it includes a large collection of obscure and very obscure artificial language publications (on pp. 25-32). I very much enjoyed looking through it, and had my curiosity piqued when Y added: “About the artificial languages, I’m sorry that I probably never will see performed Keilty’s ‘Three Short Plays in Prashad’, and nor will anyone else. I looked up him and his language, and it’s a fine oddball San-Francisco-in-the-’70s story.” Naturally, I googled, and I hereby present to you the account of the language, courtesy of the KPFA Pacifica Radio Program Guide for November 1979 (apparently the only source for the story):

On January 27, 1978, James Keilty died. City planner, linguist, author, Utopian, and long-time supporter of KPFA, Mr. Keilty died of cancer a scant ten days after the diagnosis. […]

I first knew James Keilty in the fall of ’49. A friend had given me his address and told me he was someone who really knew San Francisco and would introduce the city to me. He did. He made the city fascinating with his amazing insights. We became fast friends. […] He was a brilliant scholar, spoke several languages fluently, and any number of languages to some degree. In Italian he spoke various dialects. He was writing and translating plays, acting in some, and directing others. […]

He devised a phonetic alphabet with several more sounds represented than the Roman alphabet has, for use in translating Mandarin and Japanese, for example. Then, about 25 years ago, he began to invent a language to go with his alphabet. He translated Rilke into his language, which he called ‘Prashad.’ Then he translated Sophocles. He asked me what classic I felt was the most important in any language. I said, without hesitation, the Tao Teh Ching. He was delighted and immediately decided to translate that into Prashad. He looked at several English versions, but they were so dissimilar that he decided that he must puzzle it out of the Chinese original. First he translated it into English. I hope that can be published someday. One popular version, for example, has a line that goes something like, . . .when the Tao is known, race horses will be used to pull manure carts. In Keilty’s translation, that becomes, “. . .Horses are only used to produce manure.” He assured me that the original said no more nor less than that. Through these translations, the. vocabulary of Prashad had become quite extensive with all the tenses and a sophisticated grammar. So, he began to write the saga of the people who spoke Prashad. It was a consuming, though part-time activity.

When he was about 40, he said he had saved enough and inherited enough to live modestly and do only his own work. I encouraged him to retire and give himself over to his own pursuits on a full time basis. He did, and I’ve no reason to believe that he regretted his act. […] Once in a while he would produce a play. His friends would become actors, and would work very hard to please him. Usually there was only one or two performances. The audiences were often very enthusiastic. Once, he presented three short plays in Prashad using actors who were good linguists and who had actually learned the language in the course of learning their roles.

Prashad has only one word for each thing, not two or more, as in English. In the case of English, two words for the same thing often came about because of combined latin or nordic origins. Gradually, the words took on superlative or pejorative meanings, so that one can say things in English which are either laudatory or insulting without straying from the facts. This lingua-centricity has been central to cultural growth.

But Keilty wanted a language that was naturally honest. The culture he based on his language was Utopian, and his saga of the Prashadsim can be called a Utopian fantasy.

Only one small part of his entire saga has been published, in a science fiction anthology edited by Thomas Disch, The New Improved Sun.

I’ve left out most of the non-language-related stuff, for which you can read the piece in the program (it’s on p. 6). I’m always fascinated by such obsessives, though I’m glad I don’t have to spend time around them!

A Lexicographer’s Memoir.

Adrienne Raphel reviews Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries for the New Yorker; I’ll quote the start to give you an idea:

One morning in 2001, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, arrived at work and was given a single word: “take.” She set to work hunting down examples of where the verb form of the word had been used in the wild, from American Literary History to Us Weekly to Craigslist, and organizing these citations by part of speech and usage. Normally, editors will work on several words in a batch. But smaller, more common words are used so often and in so many different ways that a single one can be an incredible headache to revise. As Stamper explains in her recent book, “Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries,” such words “don’t just have semantically oozy uses that require careful definition, but semantically drippy uses as well. ‘Let’s do dinner’ and ‘let’s do laundry’ are identical syntactically but feature very different semantic meanings of ‘do.’ ” Lexicographers know that when they’ve been assigned a notorious small word—“do,” “run,” “about,” “take”––they’ve arrived.

This was the most ambitious and slippery project Stamper had taken on, and, at times, as she parsed the differences between “take first things first” and “take a shit,” she felt herself “slowly unspooling into idiocy.” It took two weeks to organize the verb form alone into a hundred and seven different senses and sub-senses; after a month, “take” was finally ready for the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. In the world of words, however, spending a month perfecting an entry is nowhere near the extreme. At a conference in 2013, a lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary told Stamper that when he revised “run” it took him nine months. Dictionary editors trade word stories the way élite marathoners collect courses. For Emily Brewster, one of Stamper’s colleagues, a career highlight was discovering a previously unrecorded sense for the indefinite article “a”: “used as a function word before a proper noun to distinguish the condition of the referent from a usual, former, or hypothetical condition.” Stamper gives as an example, “With the Angels dispatched in short order, a rested Schilling, a career pitcher 6-1 in the postseason, could start three times if seven games were necessary against the Yankees”: “a rested Schilling” tells us that, in contrast to his current rested state, he is not usually rested, or he had not been rested previously, but now he is. Each lexicographer has stories like this: epiphanies that reflect the evolution of language.

Isn’t that fun? Sounds like a wonderful book. Thanks, Trevor!


I recently ran across the unusual surname Phethean and having no idea of its etymology or even how to pronounce it, I had to do some research. It turns out it’s /ˈfiːðiən/ (FEE-thee-uhn, as in “[I’ll] fee thee an [apple]), and it’s apparently a (very weird) variant of Vivian; Rybakin, my go-to reference for English surnames, gives the other variants Fiddian, Fidgen, Fidgeon, Fithian, Phythian, Videan, and Vivien, and there is actually a dedicated website, Phethean One-Name study, which has a bunch more:

The Phethean One-Name study was established in 2012. I have been researching the PHETHEAN surname for about 20 years. More recently I have been concentrating on tracing the early origins of the surname, including all variants that I am aware of, rather than establishing a definitive family-tree of my own particular spelling of the surname

The registered variants of the name are Fithyan, Phitheon, Phithian, Phythian. Only Phethean, Phythian and Fithyan appear to be represented in England at the present day.

All the variants that I am researching are: Fethion, Fethyan, Fethyon, Fhithyan, Fithan, Fithean, Fitheion, Fitheon, Fithian, Fithion, Fithyan, Fithyon, Fitton, Fytheone, Fythian, Pheathean, Pheathian, Phethean, Phethein, Phetheon, Phethian, Phethion, Phithean, Phitheon, Phithian, Phithion, Phithyan, Phythean, Phytheon, Phythian, Phythion, Phythyan. […]

There are sparse records dating from 1250 – 1450 in various parts of the UK. The definitive spelling Phethean first appears in Tunstall, Staffordshire in 1459 where it was used as a first-name (Phethean of Tunstall) and then is found as a surname (and many derivative spellings) mainly in two locations in Cheshire – Brereton-cum-Smethwick and Warmingham from about 1500-1750. These sites are only about 15 miles from Tunstall but at present I have been unable to link the two locations.

Read more about the history of the name (“The Industrial Revolution lead to migrations of families who were yeoman farmers from the country to the cities. The Phethean line became established in Bolton, Lancashire from the late 1700s”) and frequency (“The surname is rare!”) at the link; I admire the dedication of Mr Stuart Phethean, who created and updates it.

The 13th-Century Revolution.

Eric Weiskott describes “the 13th-century revolution that made modern poetry possible” — namely, the change from alliterative verse (“the form of poetry used in Beowulf, Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”) to the accentual-syllabic meters that underlie what we think of as traditional English verse, which began around the end of the 12th century. Weiskott gives as an example “the opening lines of the Ormulum, a very long religious tract composed by a monk named Orm”:

Thiss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum
forrthi þatt Orrm itt wrohhte
(‘This book is called Ormulum because Orm wrote it.’)

(Gotta love both the spelling and the impeccable reasoning.) I liked the apposite Pound quote (“To break the pentameter, that was the first heave”) and this interesting paragraph:

So if alliterative metre doesn’t measure stresses, syllables or even alliteration, what does it measure? Scholars have been debating the answer to this question since the 18th century. Current thinking is that alliterative metre measures a more abstract unit termed metrical position. A metrical position might contain one syllable, or it might contain more than one. Specifically, any number of adjacent unstressed syllables count together as a single metrical position. So, for example, the run of three unstressed syllables in the second half of the line from Piers Plowman, –e was the, is formally equivalent to the run of two unstressed syllables at the beginning of the line, in a. That’s right: a metre in which 1 + 1 = 3. In Beowulf, the rule is fairly simple: four metrical positions make a verse. By the time of Piers Plowman, the arrangement of positions had got more complicated.

Thanks, Jack!

Stubbornly Multilingual.

Josephine Stefani, who identifies herself as “Stubbornly multilingual,” responds to the Quora question “What are some good novels that don’t have an English language version?” I love this sort of thing, and you’ve got to be impressed with her wide range of literatures. She starts off with Ana María Matute (who “is someone in the Spanish-speaking community”), Ahmadou Kourouma (“considered a classic in the Ivory Coast” — I actually have his Monnew, though I haven’t read it yet), and Moussa Ould Ebnou (“Considered one of Mauritania’s greatest novelists”); here are her Russian picks:

Evgeniy Vodolazkin (who is, unfortunately, listed as “Volodazkin”) — I love the casual “You may, however, be able to locate some of these books in Romanian or Lithuanian.”

Lidia Charskaya:

Her books about boarding schools (Zapiski Institutki) and Sibirochka: Knyazhna Dzavakha are among her most famous, but they have not seen the kind of popularity they should have had in English because children’s books don’t appear to be a priority for foreign language translation. I mean, where’s the serfdom, the Russian revolution?

I have her Gazavat but (sigh) haven’t read it.

Maks Fray (Svetlana Martynchik and Igor’ Styopin), “a huge name when it comes to contemporary Russian language literature. They’re not very critically-acclaimed, however, aside from a few secondary literary prizes here and there, given the fact that their material isn’t usually considered ‘serious literature’.”

Dina Rubina: “The Russian-Israeli author is not a new name to anyone keeping up with modern Russian literature, but her latest book, Babiy Veter, published just early this year, has not yet been translated.”

Lyudmila Ulitskaya: “One of my new favourite authors, Lyudmila Ulitskaya is well known for her intergenerational family sagas in the backdrop of political turmoil.”

There’s lots more there; check it out. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)

The Split.

Linguist Matthew Scarborough reports on a conference at the University of Copenhagen called The Split: Reconstructing Early Indo-European Language and Culture. He has a paragraph on most of the presentations, and they tempt me to wish I’d stayed in the field: “The Hittite verbal system and the Indo-Hittite Hypothesis,” “The Old Hittite ‘ninth case’ in areal and genetic perspective,” the etymology of Hitt. ḫišša– ‘thill, shaft (of a cart)’ and the feminine gender in Indo-European, “Did the Indo-Europeans have a word for ‘wheat’? Hittite šeppit(t)- revisited and the rise of Post-PIE cereal technology”… this sort of thing gets my blood moving faster. The third and final day of the conference consisted of archaeological papers, and he concludes his discussion with this excited paragraph:

For me, the final paper of the conference with the rather lengthy title After migration: how culture, genetics and language were reshaped by local processes of social integration: The case of Yamnaya and Corded Ware by Kristian Kristiansen was perhaps the most eye-opening contribution. To give some background, from my work with the MPI in Jena I have come to realise that the field of archaeogenetics has exploded in the last few years as the new techniques for extracting and analysing Ancient DNA (aDNA) have improved dramatically. What I hadn’t known is exactly how dramatically they have improved. The impression that I get is that it is a revolution to the field of prehistoric archaeology comparable to that of the introduction of Carbon-14 dating in the 1950s. Rather than butchering the very eloquent and well argued talk through a short summary, I would greatly encourage people check out the project that he has been investigating entitled The Rise: Travels, transmissions and transformations in temperate northern Europe during the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC: the rise of Bronze Age societies. I get the impression that we will see quite a few very paradigm-shattering results for the question of Indo-European origins and the Indo-Europeanisation of Europe based on archaeological syntheses of aDNA evidence very soon within the next few years. Very exciting times lie ahead in the near future, and I wonder if the question of when and where PIE was spoken – something that I previously thought to be an impossible question – might soon be able to get some sort of a concrete answer.

David Marjanović dumps cold water on him in the comments (“o.O We already did, back in 2013 mostly”), but Matthew says “as a pure historical linguist with only a passing knowledge of these things (and mind you, keeping my head down and trying to finish a Ph.D. in the intervening time), this is the first time I’d actually realised how groundbreaking the latest aDNA stuff was,” and I’m with him — it’s pretty exciting! Anyway, if you have any interest in this stuff, check out his post.