Words for Porridge in Bantuphone Africa.

Birgit Ricquier’s “The History of Porridge in Bantuphone Africa, with Words as Main Ingredients” (from Afriques 5 [2014], “Manger et boire en Afrique avant le XXe siècle”) is the kind of word-centric historical investigation I love; I’ll quote a few bits to whet your appetite. From the introduction:

Porridge as a mash is mostly prepared in West and Central Africa. The Éotilé of Ivory Coast, for instance, have a mash of boiled plantains and cassava called akoende. The most widespread name for this dish in West Africa is fufu, found in, for example, the Ghanaian language Ewe and in Liberian Grebo. An example from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is a mash made of boiled pieces of sweet cassava and ripe banana, named litúmá in Lokele and mokóké in Songola.

Porridge is not an exclusively ‘African’ dish. Different types of porridge are found all over the world, even where bread is on the menu. McCann mentions the Venetian polenta, Serbian mamalinga, and Alabaman hominy grits, the latter being of Native American origin. And even some Asian types of porridge are reminiscent of this kind of preparation—for example, Himalayan tsampa, made with flour of toasted barley mixed with butter tea to form a sort of dough, and the dense paste called pa ba in Ladakh, made with flour of toasted barley and legumes.

Written documents reveal that porridge has a long-standing tradition in Europe. The ancient Greeks, for instance, prepared mâza and kóllix, ‘mashes’ of barley and wheatmeal; and the Romans prepared porridge both from barley and emmer (a type of wheat, Triticum dicoccum), the first named polenta, the second puls. What about the porridge of sub-Saharan Africa? Is it also several millennia old?

This paper will tell the history of porridge as prepared by Bantu speech communities. The focus on Bantuphone Africa is a consequence of the method of this study, namely historical-comparative linguistics. Few, if any, written documents are available predating the arrival of Europeans in Central and Southern Africa. Moreover, archaeology and archaeobotany mostly provide information on the history of tools and ingredients. As will be demonstrated, to study the history of preparations, historical-comparative linguistics—more specifically the Words-and-Things approach—is a welcome tool.

And from the conclusion:

But not everything could be revealed. The comparative method suffers from several drawbacks. First of all, the available lexical evidence could not indicate if and from whom the technique of stirring porridge was borrowed. Most of the vocabulary referring to new techniques, tools, and products were inherited Bantu words that underwent a semantic shift. Only one word, namely *NP14-gàdɩ̀, could be identified as a loan, and it appeared to be more recent than the change in cooking techniques. A second problem is semantic vagueness. No research could be done on nouns for ‘grinding stones’ since these objects are most often simply referred to as ‘stones’ or ‘stones for grinding’. The same is true for ‘stirring stick’ and ‘pestle’ in several West Bantu languages, both being called ‘stick’. However, the research also benefited from highly specialized vocabulary such as the verbs for ‘stirring flour in boiling water’ and the different ‘pounding’ verbs. Finally, more research is necessary on the historical background. Since many of the extra-linguistic referents discussed in this paper are not found in the archaeological record, the results of the linguistic analysis can be integrated into a historical framework based only on linguistic methods, namely the Bantu Expansion. Many aspects of the Bantu Expansion are still under discussion. Changes in the sub-classification of the Bantu languages and/or its historical interpretation may alter the presented historical narrative substantially.

Deeply satisfying stuff, and I thank infini for posting it at MetaFilter.

Denys Johnson-Davies, RIP.

The name Denys Johnson-Davies sounded vaguely familiar to me, and it turned out he’s translated a number of Arabic novels I own or have read; he died a couple of days ago, and Arabic Literature (in English) has a nice post on eleven books he wrote or translated. The first is his 2006 Memories of a Life in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature, and I like the first paragraph:

“An unlikely set of circumstances set me on the path to studying Arabic,” the memoir opens. He spent his childhood in Cairo, Wadi Halfa in Sudan, and finally in Uganda and Kenya, traveling back to England on a doctor’s orders at the age of twelve. He didn’t thrive there, and when his father asked him at fourteen what he wanted to do, his answer was unequivocal: “I would like to study Arabic.”

Few of us are so clear about our life goals at fourteen! And this is impressive:

Johnson-Davies also introduced Arab women writers to an English reading public long before they were in fashion. His first volume includes stories by Latifa El-Zayyat and Laila Baalbaki; subsequent collections showcase Alifa Rifaat, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Salwa Bakr as well as unestablished writers like Buthayna Al-Nasseri and Alia Mamdouh (from Iraq), Salma Matar Seif (from the United Arab Emirates), Hana Attiya and Amina Zaydan (both from Egypt). Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret and a volume of Salwa Bakr’s stories, The Wiles of Men and Other Stories, are among his best-known works in this context.

Thanks for the link, Trevor!

An Obscure Linguistic Item.

Jeremy Adler reviews (TLS, Oct. 16, 2015) a book by “the writer Schuldt, who never uses his first name” that is obvious LH material:

The reappearance, after more than thirty years, of one of his finest short works, In Togo, dunkel (In Togo, Dark), at long last coming out from a leading publisher, thus provides cause for celebration. The book could perhaps best be described as ethno-fantasy. In style, the title text, for example, veers disconcertingly between a short story, a philological investigation and an anthropological field study. Throughout its several twists and turns, In Togo, dunkel teeters on the edge between factual report and fancy, tricking the reader into believing that its clever concoction is just plain true. An African tribe, so the story goes, uses an obscure linguistic item, both rather like a noun and rather like a verb, mostly at the end of a sentence, and especially after exclamations. The trick lies in the detective work required to explain the etymology of this most puzzling artefact. If this seems unpromising material, Schuldt develops it with wit, artistry and consistent intensity, making this little exercise in style a tour de force of inventiveness.

Though Adler calls him “one of the youngest and most interesting figures in that remarkable group of experimentalists who came to play such a prominent role in the German literature of the last third of the twentieth century,” the internet seems to know nothing about him beyond this book; if anyone knows anything else, feel free to pass it on.

The Ancient Bookshelf.

I’ve discovered another interesting blog, The Ancient Bookshelf, whose motto (with which I cannot disagree) is “Old stuff is exciting!” It’s run by James Hamrick, and lately he seems to be concentrating on Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic), a language that’s always intrigued me but that I’ll probably never do anything about. He has a brief introduction to it here, and here he lists the few colleges that currently offer courses in it: Munich, Toronto, and Washington. Here‘s a Star article by Megan Dolski about the Toronto course that not only shows John 1:1 in Ge’ez but lets you listen to a reading of it, which is the first exposure I’ve had to it as a spoken language; thanks, Jeffry!

Pisemsky’s Bitter Fate.

After reading minor works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I’ve read a major one by Pisemsky, and oh what a difference! The first two were still trying to figure out where they were going; Pisemsky was at the top of his game, and created one of the masterpieces of Russian drama. Горькая судьбина, translated as A Bitter Fate in 1933 by Alice Kagan and George Rapall Noyes (it’s been reprinted in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama, edited by Noyes and published by Dover), is a tragedy in four short acts that achieves its effects with brutal efficiency. It’s about a man whose wife has a child with a lover, an ancient subject hopelessly complicated by the fact that the man and his wife are serfs and the lover is their owner. The central character is Ananii, the husband; he’s been off in Petersburg earning money to pay obrok (much more lucrative than staying on the estate and farming), and while he’s been gone his wife Lizaveta, who apparently resented the marriage from the beginning, has had an affair with Cheglov, the sentimental and ineffectual landowner.

A lesser writer would have set up the situation with an interminable backstory; Pisemsky starts in medias res, with Lizaveta’s mother Matryona and her neighbor Spiridonevna waiting for the long-absent Ananii to arrive. He comes with gifts for everyone, in the company of a resentful drunk, Nikon, who almost immediately spills the beans about the child they’ve been trying to hide. Before he does, though, there’s an amazing conversation that is apparently irrelevant but in fact crucial (as is clear from the fact that it takes place at all in this pared-down drama); I’ll translate it here (for the Russian, search on “Что, батюшко, Ананий Яковлич” at the first link):
[Read more…]


I’ve started reading The Adventures of Augie March (thanks, jamessal!), and have already run across a couple of passages of LH interest. On the Russian front (Grandma Lausch is from those parts; roman is Russian for ‘novel’):

Still the old lady had a heart. I don’t mean to say she didn’t. She was tyrannical and a snob about her Odessa luster and her servants and governesses, but though she had been a success herself she knew what it was to fall through susceptibility. I began to realize this when I afterward read some of the novels she used to send me to the library for. She taught me the Russian alphabet so that I could make out the titles. Once a year she read Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin. Occasionally I got into hot water by bringing a book she didn’t want. “How many times do I have to tell you if it doesn’t say roman I don’t want it? You didn’t look inside. Are your fingers too weak to open the book? Then they should be too weak to play ball or pick your nose. For that you’ve got strength! Bozhe moy! God in Heaven! You haven’t got the brains of a cat, to walk two miles and bring me a book about religion because it says Tolstoi on the cover.”

The old grande dame, I don’t want to be misrepresenting her. She was suspicious of what could have been, given one wrong stitch of heredity, a family vice by which we could have been exploited. She didn’t want to read Tolstoi on religion. She didn’t trust him as a family man because the countess had had such trouble with him.

(On which, my last post is relevant.) And this presents a linguistic mystery:

Grandma Lausch played like Timur, whether chess or klabyasch, with palatal catty harshness and sharp gold in her eyes. Klabyasch she played with Mr. Kreindl, a neighbor of ours who had taught her the game. A powerful stub-handed man with a large belly, he swatted the table with those hard hands of his, flinging down his cards and shouting “Shtoch! Yasch! Menél! Klabyasch!” Grandma looked sardonically at him. She often said, after he left, “If you’ve got a Hungarian friend you don’t need an enemy.”

If anyone knows the background(s) of the shouted terms, by all means share.

Tolstoy’s Family Happiness: A Disappointment.

After finishing Oblomov (post), I read Dostoevsky’s 1859 Дядюшкин сон (Uncle’s Dream), which was silly but fun; as I said here, “the scene between the mother (who is trying to get her daughter Zina to marry the half-dead prince) and Zina (who thinks the whole idea is vile and repulsive) is masterly, and a clear template for the more consequential struggles in later works.” I went from that to Tolstoy’s Семейное счастие (Family Happiness), published a month later. It wasn’t fun at all; in fact, it annoyed me almost as much as the Second Appendix of War and Peace, so here I am to complain.

The first thing I noticed when I started reading was that it was told from a female point of view (in an odd coincidence, the narrator is named Marya Aleksandrovna, just like the domineering mother in the Dostoevsky), and I thought “That’s interesting, I wonder how he’ll handle it.” The second thing I noticed was that the female point of view was utterly unconvincing, unless you’re a male who doesn’t know much about women. And the third was that the story was mind-bogglingly tedious and clichéd. Here’s my summary, eighty pages boiled down to a paragraph:

I’m a pure teenage girl whose mother has just died. I feel sad, and yet somehow my spirit is bursting within me — I am young and crave life and adventure! Oh, my guardian, Sergei Mikhailovich, has come; I always liked him and looked up to him. Now he looks at me in a strange, intense way — I think I love him — I’m sure he’ll propose to me! He did! Now we’re married, and I’m unbelievably happy, all I want to do is settle down with him here in the country and lead a life of service to other people. But wait, I’m strangely dissatisfied; I am drawn to life in Saint Petersburg, even though my beloved Sergei finds it repulsive and says I should avoid it. But he loves me, so he’s taking me there. Whee, this is fun! Balls, music, high-class people telling me how wonderful and pretty I am — Sergei is grumpy about it, but who cares, he wants me to be happy, doesn’t he? What a stick-in-the-mud! Now we’re in Baden for the waters, and there’s a younger Englishwoman who’s suddenly getting all the attention I’m used to getting, the only one who’s still fixated on me is a smarmy Italian guy who looks kind of like my husband only younger and handsomer, and he’s insisting on walking with me in the woods and holding my arm and I feel afraid and yet drawn to him… OMG, he kissed my neck!! Now I see the folly of my ways and am running to my husband to throw myself at his feet and confess and ask forgiveness, but he’s receiving me coldly, he’s not embracing me and weeping like I expected, so the hell with him. Now we’re back in Russia, back at the country estate since we can’t afford Petersburg, and I’m enchanted with my little boys (did I mention I had a couple of little boys?), and I’ve decided to give up on my childish ideas of love and just be a good mother and devoted wife.

(Oddly, the end comes up as a plot point in Philip Roth’s wonderful novel The Counterlife; the whole last section is quoted on p. 186 of my paperback edition.) The first part, up to the move to Petersburg, takes up fifty pages, and the entirety of it should have been cut and replaced by a one-sentence summary to set the scene. The rest contains what actual plot there is, but really, the whole thing reads like a moral sermon (of the kind Tolstoy was so drawn to all his life): “Hey, young women! You have all these crazy ideas about love and happiness, but that’s all nonsense! Listen to me and give up your childish fantasies before it’s too late and you ruin yourselves and your families!” What’s especially amusing/irritating is that Tolstoy at the time was only thirty and had never been married; furthermore, he presents his hero Sergei Mikhailovich as a worn-out old codger who’s had his fill of social life and just wants to sit at home and tend his estate… at thirty-six! But I recovered my faith in Tolstoy when I read in the Russian Wikipedia article on the story that he hated it so much he wanted to give up writing (“оказалась такая постыдная гадость, что я не могу опомниться от сраму, и, кажется, больше никогда писать не буду” [it’s such disgraceful filth that I can’t come to my senses from the shame, and I don’t think I’ll write anything else]). Good man! Just give it a few years and you’ll be writing War and Peace, and all will be forgiven.


I don’t spend much time reading or thinking about philosophy, so when I occasionally run across the name of Emmanuel Levinas I mentally put it in the same “incomprehensible French thinker” bag as Derrida, Deleuze, et hoc genus omne. But when I hit William Rees’s TLS review of three books on Levinas, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder what kind of name that was. Russian Wikipedia explained it, and the explanation is interesting enough I thought I’d post it. He was born in 1906 into a Lithuanian Jewish family in Kovno/Kaunas, then in the Russian Empire, and named Emmanuel Levin (Levin being a common Jewish surname in those parts). When Lithuania became independent after World War I, the name was written according to Lithuanian rules of orthography as Emmanuelis Levinas; when he moved to France for his university education, the first name reverted to the more French-sounding Emmanuel, but the surname remained. Voilà!

I can’t resist pointing out an idiotic statement in the second paragraph of Rees’s review: “Born in 1906 into a family of bourgeois Lithuanian Jews, Levinas left the Russian empire to pursue philosophical studies in France, choosing Strasbourg because it was ‘the city closest to Lithuania’.” Does Rees not realize the empire ended in February 1917?

Coffee & Donatus.

The blog Coffee & Donatus (“Early grammars and related matters of art and design”) had, alas, only five posts during its brief period of activity (early 2014 to early 2015), but the posts that are there are well worth checking out: An Englishman’s Armenian Grammar—Lord Byron at the Monastery of Saint Lazarus; A Learned Spider’s Epitaph; The Art of Grammar: Buno’s Neue Lateinische Grammatica 1651; Adjectives, Doughnuts in Rhyme, and Excellent White Bread; and Excerpts from Grammars No. 1: Charles Peter Mason 1879. A great concept, as Bathrobe (who sent me the link) said, and hey, perhaps the blogger is just taking a break!

Talking Black.

I have to admit I’ve gotten somewhat fed up with John McWhorter in recent years. When he’s on his game, he’s great, but when (as is too often the case) he’s pontificating about matters outside his specialty he’s irritating. I’m happy to report that Vinson Cunningham’s New Yorker review of his latest book, Talking Back, Talking Black, does a good balancing act, appreciating the good stuff while calling him out on the bad (at least that part of it that has to do with culture). I’ll let you read the latter at the link; here I want to quote this passage, which makes some useful points:

In five short essays, McWhorter demonstrates the “legitimacy” of Black English by uncovering its complexity and sophistication, as well as the still unfolding journey that has led to its creation. He also gently chides his fellow-linguists for their inability to present convincing arguments in favor of vernacular language. They have been mistaken, he believes, in emphasizing “systematicity”—the fact that a language’s particularities are “not just random, but based on rules.” An oft-cited instance of systematicity in Black English is the lastingly useful “habitual ‘be,’ ” whereby, Carlson’s quip notwithstanding, the formulation “She be passin’ by” contains much more than an unconjugated verb. That naked “be,” McWhorter explains, “is very specific; it means that something happens on a regular basis, rather than something going on right now.” He adds, “No black person would say ‘She be passin’ by right now,’ because that isn’t what be in that sentence is supposed to mean. Rather, it would be ‘She be passin’ by every Tuesday when I’m about to leave.’ ” A mistake to untrained ears, the habitual “be” is, “of all things, grammar.”

However logical, examples like these have failed to garner respect, because to most Americans grammar does not inhere in linguistic rule-following generally but in a set of specific rules that they have been taught to obey. McWhorter offers a couple of typical directives: “Don’t say less books, say fewer books,” and “Say Billy and I went to the store, not Billy and me went to the store.” This narrow notion of grammar has amounted to a peculiar snobbery: the more obscure and seemingly complex the grammatical rule, the more we tend to assert its importance and to esteem those who have managed to master it. “People respect complexity,” McWhorter writes. His smirking and somewhat subversive accommodation to this Pharisaism is to emphasize the ways in which Black English is more complex than Standard English.

One of these ways—the truest, I should add, to my own experience of the language—is the use of the word “up” in conjunction with a location. Hip-hop fans might recognize this construction from the chorus of the rapper DMX’s hit song “Party Up (Up in Here)”: “Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind / Up in here, up in here / Y’all gon’ make me go all out / Up in here, up in here,” etc. McWhorter, playing the tone poet’s patient exegete, scours several instances of the usage, settling on the idea that in this context “up” conveys the intimacy of the setting it qualifies. The sentence “We was sittin’ up at Tony’s,” according to McWhorter, “means that Tony is a friend of yours.” This is an artful and convincing reading, and McWhorter carries it out in an impishly forensic manner, proving his thesis that, in some respects, Black English has “more going on” than Standard English. The latter lacks such a succinct “intimacy marker” as Black English’s “up,” and someone who studied Black English as a foreign language would have a hard time figuring out when, and how, to deploy it.

And McWhorter, defending features like “uptalk” and “like,” is, sadly, correct in saying “Americans have trouble comprehending that any vernacular way of speaking is legitimate language.”