Marcia Lynx Qualey on Arabic Literature.

Henry Ace Knight interviews Marcia Lynx Qualey, “a household name among students and aficionados of Arabic and Middle Eastern literature, many of whom avidly read her blog” There’s lots of interesting stuff there, for instance:

You wrote about the false claim of the emerging Arabic novel, and the distinction of “first Arabic novel” given to Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab, in a recent post for Arab Lit. Could you talk a little more about that? Why is Zaynab frequently considered the first Arabic novel, and why is that problematic?

The idea of the “emergence of the Arabic novel” irks me, as if Arabs started writing in a meaningful way when they started writing European-style novels. Instead, I like to view aspects of the European novel as being folded—incorporated, absorbed—into a very long Arabic narrative tradition. I find the “first-novelling” [of Zaynab] problematic because this—like other “first” tropes—is posited as a point of arrival (“first woman —,” “first Black —”). In this case, it’s as though in order to be real modernites, Arabs have to write in a form pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Except DeFoe was probably influenced by Ibn Tufail (twelfth century). So. Also descriptively, I just think it works better to view the Arabic literary tradition not as having a death and rebirth-as-novel, but as having a continuous tradition wherein elements of the European novel are enthusiastically incorporated, toyed with, reimagined.

And this depressing passage was highlighted by Helen DeWitt at Paperpools, where I got the link; Qualey has been asked about “the movement towards writing in a regional dialect, rather than in Modern Standard Arabic”:

[Children’s literature] is a thorny issue. Some authors want to write picture books in spoken dialect—and some have, like Sonia Nimr—but publishers tend to be very opposed, as they want to be able to sell into multiple markets and submit to prizes. Unfortunately, this even goes for dialogue. I loved Rania Amin’s Screams Behind Doors, which won the Etisalat Prize for best YA novel last November, but it felt weird to have these girls speaking to each other in Modern Standard Arabic. Rania told me she’d written the dialogue in Egyptian, but the publisher “fixed” it, worried they couldn’t otherwise submit to prizes and suchlike. A bit galling.

Some Hebrew Links.

1) Balashon investigates the word charoset חרסת, “a condiment made of fruits and spices with wine and sugar, used to sweeten the bitter herbs eaten on Passover night.” He begins with the seemingly “obvious and convincing” etymology given by Klein, “Probably formed from חרס cheres (=clay), in allusion to its claylike color,” and comes up with some interesting material:

Ronnie Haffner, of the site Safa Ivrit, suggested to me that perhaps the suffix –et ת- at the end of some Hebrew words means “leftovers after production”, so pesolet פסולת – “chips, stone dust” is what is leftover after carving פסל, and nesoret נסורת – “sawdust” is what remains after sawing נסר. So if this pattern holds, charoset could be the potsherds, which are left after breaking pottery.

A parallel approach is mentioned by Jastrow, who in his entry for charoset suggests we also look at his definition of the Aramaic הרסנא harsana – “fish hash.” He quotes Jacob Levy, who in his dictionary, like Kohut, says that charoset is of Arabic origin. Harsana, according to this theory, derives from the Arabic root harasa – which Klein says is cognate with the Hebrew haras הרס (“throw down, tear down”) and means “he crushed, squashed, pounded.” This Arabic root is the source of the spice paste “harissa”, due to the crushing of the peppers in a mortar. This is an interesting theory, for if charoset is cognate with haras, then it has no connection with clay at all (since we saw that the Biblical Hebrew form of cheres is חרש, which is not connected to הרס.) Kohut’s theory, on the other hand, still maintains a connection between broken pottery and charoset.

2) Alan Millard responds to Douglas Petrovich’s claim that “some of the thirty or so inscriptions engraved on stone monuments around the Egyptian turquoise mines at Serâbîṭ el-Khâdim in western Sinai mention biblical figures” and that Hebrew is the language “behind the proto-consonantal script”; he concludes: “Petrovitch’s blog does not offer any grounds for accepting his ideas. Many scholars have written about the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, some examining the originals themselves, none agreeing completely on their decipherment, for anyone to present such astonishing claims for his research to the general public in a book as Petrovitch has done, seems irresponsible.” Ouch! (Thanks, Paul.)

3) Elon Gilad discusses the history of the word Jew; the subhead provides a nice summary: “The word ‘Jew’ originates with the ancient Israelite kingdom of Judah, but what its name means is a matter of great controversy. It could even mean ‘Thank God’.” (Thanks, Kobi.)

The Finer Points of Singular they.

This post at the Log makes me very happy (the narrator is Bean):

My eight-year-old daughter in conversation with me last night:

Scene: I am giving her a sock, which she had brought home, only to find she already had both of her socks. So it logically must belong to some other girl (it’s obviously a girl’s sock).

Me: So, bring this lost sock back to school, and put it in the lost and found. Do you remember who was wearing it? Well, anyway if the other girl is looking for it she can find it. I’m assuming it was a girl so I’m going with “she”.

Daughter [scornfully]: You mean “they”.

I think this clearly illustrates the way the kids use “they”. We know it’s a girl, but since we’re not sure which girl, it becomes “they”. And it was such a firm rule in her mind she felt the need to sneer at me. 🙂

The girls (and, I think, us parents) also use this consistently in their all-girls’ hockey league, and in Brownies – both all-female pursuits. For example, I heard something along the lines of: Q. “Is the other goalie any good?” A. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play before.” Whereas if we were talking about our goalie, whose name and face we know, it would have been along the lines of “I don’t know, she hasn’t played much lately.”

Peevers, you might as well give up the hopeless struggle; singular they is not only of ancient and unimpeachable lineage, it is developing its own fine points of grammatical usage that are being enforced not by the futile injunctions of schoolteachers but by the young wielders of the language. They know what they mean when they say “they”!

The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations.

Ben Yagoda reviews Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, which sounds like a lot of fun; I’ll quote the ending, which I especially enjoyed:

And so it goes with that wonderful tale about Hemingway being challenged to write a short story in six words, and coming up with, “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” O’Toole traces more than a dozen iterations and variations going back to 1906, including an item in a 1921 newspaper column attributed to a reader named Jerry:

There was an ad in the Brooklyn ‘Home Talk’ which read, ‘Baby carriage for sale, never used.’ Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?

The above item, which O’Toole harvested from NewspaperArchive, is a good example of his research chops in action. It wouldn’t pop up in a search for the supposed Hemingway quote (in quotation marks or not) because it refers to a carriage, not shoes, that was never used, not worn. I’m still not exactly sure how he got it.

The Hemingway connection, he goes on to explain, stems from a play produced in 1989 where “Hemingway,” the character, used the baby shoes line. There is no evidence that the real Hemingway ever did.

There is one darling O’Toole doesn’t murder. It’s perhaps my favorite quote of all time: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” O’Toole finds that it has been misattributed to John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Woodrow Wilson, but confirms that it was written in 1657 by Blaise Pascal. If he hadn’t, I might just have had to murder him.

I’m not surprised the “quote” is not actually from Hemingway; I am surprised, and pleased, to learn the misattribution only dates to 1989! How quickly we adopt an attractive error…

Reef and Skerry.

I ran across the French word écueil, which was unfamiliar to me, and of course I looked it up. The English equivalent was allegedly reef, but I thought ‘reef’ was récif. Further investigation revealed that an écueil is actually a skerry, a small rocky island which may or may not be a reef. At any rate, it has an interesting etymology:

Empr. à l’a. prov. escueyll, attesté début XIVe s. au sens propre et au sens fig. […] qui, comme l’ital. scoglio (d’orig. ligure) et le cat. escull, remontent à un lat. vulg. *scŏclu, altération du class. scŏpŭlus « écueil » (du gr. σκόπελος), due, soit à une assimilation régressive du p au c, soit à une substitution du suff. –culus à la finale –pulus, moins fréquente […]. La forme fr. isolée scoigle […] est une adaptation de l’ital. scoglio (v. FEW, loc. cit.).

In other words, it’s from Provencal escueyll, which like Italian scoglio and Catalan escull are from a Vulgar Latin *scŏclu, from Latin scopulus, from Greek σκόπελος. (The Italian word scoglio always brings to my mind the great soprano aria from Così fan tutte [aria starts at 1:40].)

Celtic Identity.

I’m making my way through the Oct. 9, 2015 TLS, and have just read Patrick Sims-Williams’ review (available here to subscribers) of a British Museum exhibition on the Celts; I thought the last couple of paragraphs worth reproducing:

The Director of the British Museum introduces Celts: Art and identity as “not so much a show about a people as a show about a label”. An exhibition may not be the best way to explore the “Celtic” label because the clearest evidence for long-term Celtic identity is linguistic, not visual. Language is the basis for modern pan-Celticism. Buchanan (1582), Leibniz (1699) and Lhuyd (1707), who first applied the “Celtic” label to Gaelic, Welsh and Breton, did so not because Celtic was a prestigious term to appropriate but because they saw that these languages are related to the language of the Gauls who called themselves “Celtae” according to Caesar. Already in the ninth century the element dunum in Augustidunum (modern Autun) had been correctly identified as “hill” in Celtica lingua. The obvious next step was to link it with Gaelic dùn (“fort”) and start to map Celtic place names across Europe. Thus Celts as Celtic-speaking peoples were in place long before any notion of Celtic art. That only arrived from 1851 onwards with Daniel Wilson, J. O. Westwood and J. M. Kemble. Tipped off by Kemble, Ferdinand Keller finally attached the Celtic label to the La Tène art of Lake Neuchâtel in 1866, the year in which Matthew Arnold could still take the ancient Celts’ “inaptitude for the plastic arts” as a given.

In view of the primacy of language, it is a shame that the exhibition is so reticent about it. It is said that the Celts “left almost no written records”, and “Celtic-speaking communities” are hardly mentioned before the medieval sections. Just one inscription is included, the sixth-century Irish “Maccutreni Saliciduni” inscription from Powys (note dunum again). It would have been good to show a Celtiberian bronze inscription and a pre-Herodotean Celtic inscription from the Italian lakes. Both would come from areas devoid of “Celtic art” as understood here and would enhance the exploration of the label Celtic. The fact is that while most ancient Celts spoke what we call Celtic languages (so far as we know), only some Celtic-speakers went in for “Celtic art”. Conversely, “Celtic art” probably appealed to many who were not in any sense Celts, as it still does today.

An earlier paragraph doesn’t have to do with language, but puzzles me:

Reaching the Roman period, the focus narrows to Britain and Ireland. When the Roman army left Britain, “new pagan leaders gradually established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms”, reads the caption. Perhaps it would have been helpful to let on that these pagans had crossed the North Sea? But “migration” and “invasion” have been taboo words in British archaeology for decades, and are avoided throughout this exhibition. The curators are even partial to the groundless speculation that the Celtic languages originated c.2000 BC on Atlantic shores and were never carried there from anywhere else.

Anybody know why “migration” and “invasion” are taboo words in British archaeology? Surely nobody is claiming the Angles, Saxons, et al. were native to the isles!

Dipping into Fallon.

Everybody knows (I hope) about the great Hobson-Jobson; R Devraj has posted at Dick & Garlick about another “great glossary of the colonial era,” S. W. Fallon’s A New Hindustani-English Dictionary (1879):

Fallon took up the language of north India in the late 19th century as his field of study, the common colloquial speech which was then being thrust out of sight in official use as well as literature by an artificial written language of ‘stiff pompous words, strange Arabic sounds which have no meaning for the people, and the dull cold clay of Sanskrit forms’. As Ambarish Satwik writes in his column, to open Fallon is to ‘see the invisible stream that flows all around us, full of things we have left unsaid’ […]

In an article in Dawn, Rauf Parekh writes that Fallon knew the value of field research in lexicography. With the help of his native informants, he recorded the words and idioms used by women, and interviewed ordinary people to understand usage and pronunciation. In an aside, Parekh notes that this led Fallon to use lewd or taboo words ‘and he sort of developed a taste for such expressions’.

Fallon’s lack of prudery and his emphasis on descriptive rather than prescriptive lexicography is what sets him apart from most Hindi/Urdu lexicographers. It also makes his dictionary a great read.

There’s an excellent example at the link, and more at his follow-up post. I’m so glad he’s posting again!


Mark Liberman’s latest Log post features an amazing aspect of Google Translate; watch the brief video and enjoy the comments exploring it. As commenter كتشف said, “I think this rabbit hole goes on forever.”

Kerry Accent Again.

I know we just recently enjoyed the distinctive Kerry accent, but I can’t resist bringing you this RTE News story about farmer Mikey Joe O’Shea, who is upset about the theft of some of his sheep. (Don’t bother making “Ewe-ro” jokes; Twitter is way ahead of you.) Thanks, Trevor!

Small Homelands.

I’m reading Vera Tolz’s Russia’s Own Orient: The Politics of Identity and Oriental Studies in the Late Imperial and Early Soviet Periods (you can read a review by Denis V. Volkov here [pdf]), and I found this passage (on p. 37) of interest from a linguistic point of view:

In the 1870s, Russia’s size and underdeveloped systems of communication began to be depicted in the Russian press as an obstacle to the consolidation of the Russian national core. Russia, it was argued, was far too large and diverse for people to be able easily to identify with the state (otechestvo) as a whole. The proposed solution was to start national integration by fostering people’s particular affinity to their so-called ‘small native homeland’ (malaia rodina)—the region and the immediate locality where they lived.

The footnote says “In the discussion of the relationship between local and national identities, authors constantly use the expressions ‘rodina’ or ‘malaia rodina’ to refer to a particular locality and the word ‘otechestvo’ to describe Russia in its entirety.” I confess I had thought of otechestvo and rodina as pretty much synonymous, with the latter having more emotional force (“Родина-мать зовет!”); this use to mean ‘small homeland’ reminds me of French pays. A little later Tolz refers to the comparable German Heimat movement of that period; we don’t really have a comparable word in America — being more urbanized, we talk about one’s hometown. At any rate, I was wondering if the Russian use she describes still seems valid to my Russian-speaking readers.