Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Nicholas Evans, Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us, p. 208:

The Kusunda are a little-known group of hunter-gatherers who may help us understand the pre-Hindu civilization in India. This tiny people somehow managed to hold onto their distinctiveness in the remote jungles of Nepal: their language is unrelated to any other. First mentioned in 1848, when a British envoy wrote that “amid the dense forests . . . dwell, in scanty numbers . . . two broken tribes having no apparent affinity with the civilized races . . . and seeming like fragments of an earlier population,” by the late twentieth century the language was being declared extinct, disappearing almost without record. But Nepalese officials recently intensified efforts to locate speakers. In 2000 they discovered a man who could remember some of his parents’ speech, and in 2004 they found a couple more Kusunda and brought them to Kathmandu to give them citizenship papers. One, Kamala (center) is only 30, and still speaks the language with her monolingual mother, who was too old to make the journey to Kathmandu. Her 60-something cousin Gyani Maiya (left) is also fluent, although she had not used the language for 20 years; the two knew of one another but had not met until both came out to Kathmandu. And these speakers know of a couple more, six days’ walk into the jungles. Yogendra Prasad Yadav, David Watters, and Madhav Prasad Pokhrei have now been able to record and analyze a good part of the language. Amazingly for hunter-gatherers, this language has native words for domestic animals (horse, cow, sheep, goat, chicken), for 15 different castes of tribal groups, for king, police, gold, and money. All these words are completely unrelated to those found in other languages of the region. This suggests that the Kusunda, against first expectations, have not always been hunter-gatherers, but were once the bearers of a much more sophisticated civilization, predating the Indo-Aryans of Vedic times, from which they had to retreat into a marginalized hunter-gathering existence once more powerful groups encroached.

There’s more on the language at Wikipedia:

Watters (2005) published a mid-sized grammatical description of the language, plus vocabulary, although there has been further work since. Watters argued that Kusunda is indeed a language isolate, not just genealogically but also lexically, grammatically, and phonologically distinct from its neighbors. This would imply that Kusunda is a remnant of the languages spoken in northern India before the influx of Tibeto-Burman- and Indo-Iranian-speaking peoples; however, it is not classified as a Munda or a Dravidian language. It thus joins Burushaski, Nihali and (potentially) the substrate of the Vedda language in the list of South Asian languages that do not fall into the main categories of Indo-European, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic.

And Wiktionary has a Kusunda word list. In my younger days I would have felt a strong urge to start studying it; there’s something compelling about language isolates.

The Rise of Afrikaans.

Another post swiped from Far Outliers, this time a quote from Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith:

Meanwhile the wave of anger over Britain’s annexation of the Transvaal spread further afield to the Boer communities of the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony, stimulating old grievances. […]

In the Cape, it gave a huge boost to a nascent cultural and political movement led by Boer intellectuals calling themselves Afrikaners. In Paarl, a small market town thirty-five miles from Cape Town, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, Stephanus du Toit, joined several associates in 1875 to found a society named Die Genootskap Van Regte Afrikaners – the Fellowship of True Afrikaners – dedicated to promoting the use of Afrikaans, a colloquial language commonly used in Boer farming communities throughout southern Africa. It had diverged from Dutch over the years, changing vowel sounds, adopting simplified syntax and incorporating loan words from languages that were spoken by slaves in the Cape in the seventeenth century – Malay, Portuguese creole and Khoikhoi. It was the language used between masters and servants and amongst the poorer sections of the Boer community. Upper and middle-class Boers, particularly those living in the western Cape, spoke ‘High Dutch’, the language of the church and the Bible, and regarded the Zuid-Afrikaansche taal with disdain, dismissing it as Hotnotstaal, a ‘Hottentot’ language, or a kombuistaal – a kitchen language. They also used English to a considerable extent, the only official language of the Colony and thus the language of commerce, law, administration and – increasingly – culture.

What Du Toit and his colleagues feared and resented most was the growing cultural domination of the British colonial regime, aided and abetted by Boers themselves. In a lecture given in 1876, the chief justice, Sir Henry de Villiers, described Afrikaans as being ‘poor in the number of its words, weak in its inflections, wanting in accuracy of meaning and incapable of expressing ideas connected with the higher spheres of thought’. The energy of colonists, he said, would be far better spent in appropriating English, ‘that rich and glorious language’, that ultimately would become ‘the language of South Africa’. Du Toit argued that a mother tongue was a person’s most precious possession: ‘The language of a nation expresses the character of that nation. Deprive a nation of the vehicle of its thoughts and you deprive it of the wisdom of its ancestors.’ He wanted to develop Afrikaans as a landstaal – a national language.

To spell out this message, in 1876 Du Toit launched Di Afrikaanse Patriot, the first newspaper to use an early form of Afrikaans. The following year he was the main author of a history entitled Die Geskiedenis van Ons Land in die Taal van Ons Volk – The History of Our Land in the Language of Our People. It was the first book to treat all Afrikaners, dispersed as they were among British colonies and independent republics, as a distinct people, occupying a distinct fatherland; and it linked them to a common destiny endowed by God: to rule over southern Africa and civilise its heathen inhabitants.

The term kombuistaal ‘kitchen language’ led me to look up kombuis, which turns out to be closely related to the source of English caboose, which originally meant (OED) “‘The cook-room or kitchen of merchantmen on deck; a diminutive substitute for the galley of a man-of-war. It is generally furnished with cast-iron apparatus for cooking’ (Smyth Sailor’s Word-bk.).” It didn’t take on the sense “A van or car on a freight train used by workmen or the men in charge” until 1861 (H. Dawson Reminisc. Life Locomotive Engineer 90 Another midnight ride in the ‘Caboose’ of a freight train), and the OED qualifies that sense as “U.S.” The OED (entry from 1888) says “The original language was perhaps Low German; but the history and etymology are altogether obscure”; the much more up-to-date Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands (2003-2009) agrees: “De verdere herkomst is onbekend.” Thanks, Bathrobe!


From Wikipedia:

The pasilalinic-sympathetic compass, also referred to as the snail telegraph, was a contraption built to test the pseudo-scientific hypothesis that snails create a permanent telepathic link when they mate. The device was developed by French occultist Jacques-Toussaint Benoît (de l’Hérault) with the supposed assistance of an American colleague monsieur Biat-Chrétien in the 1850s.

Benoit claimed that when snails mate, a special type of fluid forms a permanent telepathic link between them. This fluid forms an invisible thread that keeps the snails in “sympathetic communication” by using animal magnetism similar to an electric current pulsating along it. They claimed that this method would work instantly, wirelessly, over any distance, and be more reliable than a telegraph. […]

During the 1871 uprising in the Paris Commune, the need to send and receive secured messages prompted a revival of the idea by Marquis Rochefort, president of the barricades commission. However, it proved to be as unreliable then, as it had originally been.

This is one of the greatest ideas humanity has ever come up with; alas, the experiment proved inconclusive. You can read about it at that link, you can read Jules Allix’s lengthy report here (“Ever since I have had the honor of announcing the discovery of Messrs. Jacques Toussaint Benoît[…] and Biat-Chrétien[…], my excitement about their new system for the universal and instantaneous communication of thought has not ceased to increase”), and you can watch a brief video with a visualization here; my concern, however, is linguistic, and since the word pasilalinic is (unaccountably) missing from the OED, I thought I’d render a public service by pointing out that it’s from Greek πᾶς ‘all, every, each’ + λαλέω ‘talk, chat, prattle.’ Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find some snails. I want to believe!

Glaswegians in Tangier.

From The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (via Joel’s Far Outliers):

Tangier in 1956 was an extraordinary place, my first taste of Africa and the world of Islam. Morocco had been, until very recently, a French colony, but Tangier was under tripartite administration between the British (the post office), the French (police and law courts), and the Spanish (general administration). […]

There was a British warship moored in the outer harbor on what is called a “flying the flag” mission. The idea was to spread pro-British goodwill along the African coast. It was in a dockside bar that I came across a group of Marines who were having terrible trouble making themselves plain to the bar staff, who spoke only Moorish Arabic and Spanish.

I tried to help and was promptly press-ganged as unit interpreter by the senior sergeant. They were all from Glasgow, from, I believe, Gallowgate, or the Gorbals: about five feet tall and just as wide. The problem was not between English and Spanish. That was easy. It was between English and Glaswegian. I could not understand a word they said. Eventually a corporal was discovered whom I could decipher and the three-language enigma was solved. We moved from bar to bar as they spent their shore leave and accrued pay on pints of beer and triple-scotch chasers.

Russian Literature Read by Mongolians.

Bathrobe sent me links to two Facebook posts by Christopher Atwood; if you’re on FB you can read all the replies, but you can get the basic idea from the texts of the posts, which I will reproduce here:

1) Russian literature has had a big influence on modern Mongolian literature. In your opinion (and I’m specially interested in those who were educated in Mongolia), what are the three most important works of Russian literature that you need to know in order to understand Mongolian literature? In other words, which three works of Russian literature most influenced Mongolian literature?

2) Based on the great responses to my earlier post about Russian literature [here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/mongolianstudies/permalink/2646748208950447/], I confirmed what I’d suspected, that while both English-speaking and Mongolian-speaking readers and authors read a lot of Russian literature, they read rather different literature.

Tolstoy and Chekhov are shared between the two. Pushkin is also shared, but he seems more significant in the Mongolian canon. I guess this is because as a poet, his work is harder to translate and many more Mongolian writers than English speaking writers are fluent enough in Russian to appreciate Russian poetry.

Mongolian- and English-speaking readers both read Gogol, but it seems Mongolians read “The Inspector-General” most and English-speakers read “Dead Souls” most.

One big difference is that for English-speakers Dostoevsky is up there with Tolstoy as one of two greatest Russian novelists, while very few in Mongolia mention his work as influential.

When it comes to the “Soviet” canon, there’s no almost common ground. As I have seen it, a Soviet canon for English-speaking writers might be Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita,” Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.” That for Mongolian writers’ canon is headed by Sholokhov’s “Tikhii Don,” with Nikolai Ostrovsky’s “How Steel Was Tempered.” Gorky is probably the only shared author. This has to do with politics obviously — the English-speaking canon is pretty much all “dissident literature” while the ones well-known and loved to Mongolians are not.

I’m fascinated by the topic of which authors and books of a given national literature are read by people in other countries, and this is a nice exemplification.

And while we’re on the topic of Russian literature, a thousand thanks to whoever sent me a copy of Elena Kravchenko’s The Prose of Sasha Sokolov; not only is it a book I’m excited about in general (Sokolov published three novels, all of them considered classics, in the decade 1976-1985 and then went silent except for a few essays, and those novels are difficult enough that any and all help understanding them is welcome), but I’m up to 1976 in my reading and will be getting to Школа для дураков (A School for Fools), which Nabokov called “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book,” within the next few weeks, so it’s an exceedingly timely gift!

The Age of Symbols.

Breck Yunits has a nice little webpage:

This is a visualization of my MacBook Air’s keyboard. It has 127 symbols spread across 78 keys. I found an approximate date for every symbol. Most of these symbols are thousands of years old. Play around or read more here. […]

You can click each symbol to see the source where I pulled an approximate year. Pull requests are accepted as some may be off by hundreds of years, but the theme should hold.

If you want an “uppercase” element (e.g., ! or @) click on the upper part of the “key.”
There’s a slider that says:

Hide Symbols Older Than: 1,500 Years | 1,000 Years | 500 Years | 100 Years | 50 Years |

I’m sure there’s debatable stuff there, but it’s fun to play with.

On Translationese.

I’ve long been curious about the idea that certain foreign writers, wittingly or otherwise, produce novels in language that has been slanted toward easy translation into English or excessively influenced by English style, and Masatsugu Ono’s Paris Review essay from last year addresses exactly that issue with some fascinating insights into Japanese literature:

The next time I encountered those books was after I moved to Tokyo for university. I came across a large stack of them right by the entrance of one of the city’s largest bookstores. They were the two parts of Haruki Murakami’s novel Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). I was already familiar with him as a master of short essays. My landlady had the bad (or good?) habit of reading books in the bathroom, and Murakami’s essays were among her favorites. One day, she handed me a collection she had finished. In these essays, he writes about literature and music and even cooking in such a natural way that it feels as though he’s addressing the reader personally. Something delightful and friendly in his style fascinated me (it’s a shame that those early essays of his haven’t been published in English). I couldn’t say how exactly, but I immediately felt that his style was different from other contemporary Japanese writers I had read. Probably because one of my professors (who was from Belgium) had translated it into French, A Wild Sheep Chase was the first of Murakami’s novels I read. And I soon found myself reading through them all.

In 1978, Murakami went to Jingu Baseball Stadium, located near the jazz bar he ran, to watch the opening game of the season. The moment the lead-off hitter slammed the first pitch cleanly into left field, a thought struck him: I think I can write a novel. […] Murakami describes this event—even in Japanese—using the English word epiphany. Late that night, he sat down at the kitchen table and began to write. Several months later, he finished a first draft. But it disappointed him. Murakami placed his Olivetti typewriter on the table and began to write again, this time in English.

The resulting English prose was, unsurprisingly, simple and unadorned. However, as he wrote, Murakami felt a distinctive rhythm begin to take shape:

Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle.

It may seem paradoxical that his mother tongue prevented him from writing. But writing in a foreign language liberated him, and he finished the beginning of his novel in English before translating it into Japanese […] The style Murakami describes as “neutral” was deemed by some critics “translationese.” When Murakami became a success in the global literary market, Kojin Karatani—one of the most influential Japanese critics—attributed this success to the “non-Japaneseness” of Murakami’s style.

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Balkan Literature.

This Hannah Weber rounduup of contemporary Balkan fiction for the Calvert Journal is a few years old now, but as we know, the Balkans are an ageless land of mystery where today is exactly the same as a thousand years ago, so who’s counting? Anyway, it’s an interesting mix of famous writers like Ismail Kadare, reasonably well-known ones like Dubravka Ugresić and Aleksandar Hemon, and ones I’d never heard of, like Ognjen Spahić (from Montenegro) and Gabriela Babnik (Slovenia). Here’s a description of The Russian Window by Dragan Velikić (Serbia):

An omnibus novel in three parts, The Russian Window juxtaposes each character’s missed opportunities with the paths they choose, providing the reader with an understanding of the diverse and countless lives of others. Through careful irony and sparse humour, we begin to discover the aching but inevitable gap between one’s expectations and how one lives. The title of the book lends itself to a beautiful metaphor: a fortochka is a small window inset in a larger one, used for ventilation in cold climates. As Velikić writes, it is “an attempt to inhale the outer world without losing our inner warmth”. His latest novel, Islednik (2015), eagerly awaits translation.

Which raises the question, does Serbian not have its own word for fortochka? (If you’re curious about the title in the last sentence, islednik means ‘investigator.) There are splendid photographs of cities (I particularly like the one of Dubrovnik). Thanks, Trevor!

Two Books.

1) Cathy McAteer’s Translating Great Russian Literature: The Penguin Russian Classics is out, and Routledge is making it freely available as a pdf (while charging $128 for the physical 196-page book, sheesh). I’ve already downloaded it and am looking forward to reading it. (I posted about McAteer and David Magarshack in 2016.)

2) Slavomír Čéplö aka bulbul posted this on Facebook:

This is “Українські говори підкарпатської Руси і сумежних областей” (i.e. “Ukrainian dialects of the Subcarpathian Rus and neighboring areas”) by Ivan Paňkevič (Prague 1938) and it is one of the many books on Ruthenian I bought and read this year. This one is actually a foundational work as it introduces another one of them pesky terminological problems, Ruthenian vs. Ukrainian.

So at least how things stand now, Ruthenian is the modern name used for Western Ukrainian “Lemko” dialects of Ukrainian spoken in North-Eastern Slovakia (roughly around the city of Prešov).

There is also a language called “Ruthenian” that is spoken in today’s Serbia in and around the city of Ruski Krstur which is actually a variety of Eastern Slovak. Horace Lundt proved so, but some people keep insisting that is the same Ruthenian as the Lemko variety.

And then there’s of course the historical term “Ruthenian” which describes anything vaguely Eastern Slavic spoken and even written in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and in whatever became of it. So it could be Russian, it could be Ukrainian, it could be Belarussian, it could even be some form of Eastern Slavic + Church Slavic.

Makes sense? No? Now you got it!

We discussed Ruthenian (the Western Ukrainian kind) back in 2005.

A Memory Called Empire.

As I said here, I got Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire for Christmas, and I have now finished reading it. Since most of what I have to say will be negative, I should start by mentioning what’s good about it. The author has a master’s in classical Armenian studies and a PhD in Byzantine and comparative history, and she puts that academic background to good use; the book’s Teixcalaanli empire is clearly based on Byzantium, and she says the novel is “in many respects a fictional version of her postdoctoral research on Byzantine imperialism on the frontier to Armenia in the 11th century, particularly the annexation of the Kingdom of Ani.” If you know anything about the subject, it’s fun to see the echoes, some of which are linguistic (see below). The central character, Mahit Dzmare, a new ambassador from Lsel who has long been absorbed in Teixcalaanli literature and culture, is very convincingly torn between her Stationer patriotism and her desire to be absorbed completely into the imperial culture — I’m sure many provincial visitors to Constantinople felt the same way. And there are nice science-fictional touches like cloudhooks and infofiches. I can see why sf readers enjoyed it.

I should also, in fairness, point out that I have an inherent bias against space operas that expect you to thrill to the glorious grandeur of empires and emperors (though I enjoyed them as a wee lad); I especially dislike the trope of the Old Wise Emperor who is needed to preserve peace, law, order, and such good things. I’m a pacifist anarchist, which means I don’t actually want emperors blown up, but I don’t want them to exist and I bristle when they’re glorified. I also am sick and tired of trilogies and other series; why can’t people just write a self-contained novel without leaving plot ends dangling for inevitable sequels? On all that, YMMV, and I am not a dispassionate critic. But I stand by what follows.
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