The Allusionist.

The Allusionist “is a podcast about language and etymology by Helen Zaltzman for Radiotopia from PRX.” And who is Helen Zaltzman? According to the About page: “Helen Zaltzman has a degree in Old and Middle English, but in 2003 was rejected for her dream job as an etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, so had to become a podcaster instead. She makes shows from her living room in Crystal Palace, London.” So she should know her language and etymology, and if you like podcasts, it’s probably a good one (me, I don’t do podcasts).

Speaking Slavic and Turkic.

A guest post at the Log by Peter B. Golden addresses a fascinating issue: to what extent can speakers of Slavic and Turkic languages understand each other? (Within each family, that is.) He describes mixed E. Slavic regional dialects, then continues:

When I was a student of Ihor Ševčenko, he presumed that those of us who were native-speakers of a Slavic language (both those born abroad and those born in the US) could simply pick up a book in another Slavic language and read it. In fact, in one of my first seminars with him, he assigned me a book in Bulgarian (which I had never really looked at previously) to read and report on at the next meeting. Bulgarian grammar is largely non-Slavic, having been heavily influenced by Romanian / Vlach – it even has post-positioned articles – articles are completely lacking in all the other Slavic languages (except Macedonian, which is closely related to Bulgarian). The occasional post-positioned preposition does surface in Russian, but these are largely frozen forms, somewhat archaic (e.g. Бога ради / Boga radi “for God’s sake // Bog “God” radi “for the sake of” – used to underscore a plea / request for something). Grammatically, then, Bulgarian is strange, but I could figure it out and the vocabulary, built on literary Church Slavonic (just like literary Russian) was not a serious problem. I read the book and gave my report.

When I studied in Turkey, the attitude was the same: if you know one Turkic language, you can manage any of them. One of my professors, Saadet Çağatay (the daughter of a famous Tatar poet) for my first assignment gave me a folklore text in Qarachay (a Qıpchaq / northwestern Turkic language of the N. Caucasus, with considerable vocabulary differences and some grammatical features that are strange at first encounter (but understandable once one knows the history of Qarachay phonology). Her assumption (and I am not a native speaker) was that one could figure it out – and one largely can. My job was to translate it into Turkish. Chuvash (the sole descendant of West Old Turkic / Oğuric/Bulğaric, which split off from “Common Turkic” ca. 1st cent. BCE-1st cent. CE) and has been heavily impacted by Volga Finnic and other non-Turkic influences, is an exception – but even there, once one gets accustomed to certain “peculiarities,” there is a familiar feel to it. Yakut, which broke away later, i.e. much more recently, and has been isolated from other Turkic languages under Tungusic, Mongol and other influences, also presents problems with vocabulary, etc. but again has a certain familiarity to it.

Have any of you had such experiences?

The Weird Case of the Uzbek Language.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri has a compact summary at The Diplomat of a messy historico-linguistic situation:

A case in point is the “Uzbek” language. This language is a modern continuation of the literary and prestige Turkic language of Central Asia, which was known as Turki, or Chagatai. Chagatai was a member of the southeastern, Karluk branch of Turkic languages, which are the original and highly Persianized Turkic languages of the settled, Turkic, oasis populations of the Fergana Valley and Xinjiang. Its ancestor was brought to the region by the first Turkic empire in Central Asia, the Karakhanids, in the 900s.

It later became a literary language after the Mongol conquests, when the Chagatai Khanate was established in Central Asia and became Turkified in language and culture by the time of Timur and his descendant Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire. The Timurids were conquered by the Uzbeks under Muhammad Shaybani in 1500 who founded the Khanate of Bukhara. The Uzbeks were tribes from the Kipchak, a northwesterly branch of Turkic peoples. Most of the other Kipchaks, like the Kazakhs, remained nomads and herded livestock across the Eurasian steppe.

The Uzbek language was quickly lost, and Chagatai, or its colloquial dialects, were reasserted, though the ruling class continued to be descended from the Uzbek conquerors. Yet when Soviet linguists classified Central Asian languages, they declared that everyone living in Uzbekistan was “Uzbek,” a largely extinct linguistic and ethnic group, one that most people in the region were not even descended from. Furthermore, conflating two different languages together, Soviet linguistics renamed the modern Turki dialects Uzbek and the old Chagatai language “Old Uzbek.”

We’ve discussed such things here (Elif Batuman and her Uzbek teacher in Samarkand), here (Nicholas Ostler on Persian-speaking “Tajiks” supplanting Sogdians), and here (Pynchon on language reform in Central Asia), inter alia. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Quashing Qualifiers.

One thing that annoys me in my work as an editor of (primarily academic) books is the propensity of academics to insert qualifiers that have no apparent function but to weaken prose; I assume they arise from a primal “cover your ass” instinct, and I delete them unless they seem justified. I’ve just run across a beautiful example in the latest New Yorker,in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Chase” (called in the online version “The Race for a Zika Vaccine”), which begins with the kind of collar-grabbing anecdote so beloved of journalists: “On a Saturday morning in April of 2014, Nenad Macesic, a thirty-one-year-old doctor-in-training, received an urgent phone call from the emergency room of Austin Hospital, just outside Melbourne, Australia.” (As I side note, I would dearly love to know how to pronounce Macesic; it’s from Serbo-Croatian Maćešić/Маћешић, roughly “MAH-che-sheech,” but that may not have much to do with how an Australian bearing the name would say it; why can’t the New Yorker do what the NY Times does and add a parenthetical pronunciation guide?) Macesic learns that the woman in the emergency room has the then obscure Zika virus and starts paying attention to it:

In mid-July, 2015, there was more disturbing news. Forty-nine cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome—a neurological condition, marked by flaccid paralysis, that can be associated with an aberrant immune response to a virus—were reported in Brazil, echoing a sharp increase in the syndrome which was noticed in Polynesia during the Zika outbreak there. Zika had also begun to move through Cape Verde and Colombia. Macesic recalled tracking it on ProMED—“following Zika around the globe had become my small addiction,” he told me. “But the most devastating complication, the one that virtually no one had really anticipated, was still to come.”

The complication, of course, was microcephaly, which is why people are terrified of mosquitoes now, but what I want to focus on here is the phrase “virtually no one had really anticipated” (objectionable qualifiers highlighted). I find it hard to believe that there were people who did anticipate it, since it seems unprecedented and I have heard no reports of any such prediction; as far as I can see, there is no reason not to say “the one that no one had anticipated” except that Macesic is afraid of a gotcha: “Actually, Pete the Prognosticator anticipated that back in 2012!” But all the qualifiers do is turn the surrounding text to mush. Please, people, I know you like to be accurate, but save the qualifiers for when they do a necessary and useful job.


I can’t believe NativLang has been around since 1998 and this is the first I’ve heard of it, but so it goes. Thanks to Bruce for alerting me, and I will lazily quote his MetaFilter post on it for the links and descriptions:

NativLang, brainchild of linguist Joshua Rudder, has a series of videos dealing with various aspects of language, orthography, and so forth. For example: What Latin Sounded Like and How We Know. Kanji Story – How Japan Overloaded Chinese CharactersThe Tribe That Cursed Too MuchHow Korea crafted a better alphabetIndia’s awesome hybrid alphabet thingSemitic’s vowel-smuggling consonantsThe Hardest Language To Spell

And, taking something of a risk: What will Future English be like?

Bruce adds: Be sure to read the comments.

For: For or Against?

I just ran across a sentence in a year-old NYRB review by Robert O. Paxton of Pierre Birnbaum’s Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist (which sounds like a good book) and was driven to post by a sentence that made me grit my teeth: “It fell to Léon Blum to head the new government, for his Socialist Party had become the largest of the three constituent parties of the Popular Front coalition.” We all have our quirks when it comes to writing, and one of mine is a visceral dislike of “for” used to mean “because.” I’ll let it pass in a context of high-flown rhetoric (“for she was fairer than the dawn,” that kind of thing), but in ordinary prose my instinct is to delete it ruthlessly (and one of the perks of my job as an editor is that I get to indulge my instincts in such matters). English has not only “because” but “as” and “since” to indicate the requisite causal relation, and any of them would work fine in the quoted sentence; why use a twee, pseudo-poetic word whose sell-by date was sometime around the turn of the last century? But I have become curious as to whether this is no more than a personal prejudice or whether my feelings in the matter are more widely shared, so I turn to the assembled multitudes: does “for” = “because” annoy you, or do you consider it perfectly normal English?

The Byzantine Gemistus Plethon.

Poemas del río Wang has a post on an interesting topic: “since when is Byzantium called Byzantium?”

The “Byzantine” Empire in reality never existed under this name, which put roots and is exclusively used in historiography. The term was coined about a century after the fall of the Roman Empire – as it was really called – by a German humanist historian, Hieronymus Wolf.

Wolf learned self-taught Greek. In 1549 he published the first translation of Demosthenes’ speeches. From 1551 he worked the Augsburg Fugger library, where he catalogued the medieval Greek manuscripts brought from Venice. In 1557 he published his main work, the Corpus Historiae Byzantinae, compiled from the Greek sources in the Augsburg library, with which he unintentionally rewrote world history. When in the early 17th century the compilation of a similar summary from the surviving Constantinople sources was encouraged by Louis XIV of France, it obviously had to be based on Wolf’s work, so that Philippe Labbé, the Jesuit scholar leading the project did not even try to find a new title for the 34-volume collection: it was also published as Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. The scholars dealing with the late Roman Empire, centered on Constantinople, all adopted this terminology (e.g. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn 1822-1897). The adjective “Byzantine”, which during the Enlightenment spread worldwide, especially due to the writings of Montesquieu, was impossible to be detached from the (late) Roman Empire. And the adjective was also associated with an explicitly negative connotation, which was deduced from the supposed qualities of state power: courtly intrigues, complicated bureaucracy, incomprehensible and over-decorated ceremoniality and fraudulent diplomacy.

It continues with fascinating historical details and the usual gorgeous images (I spent quite a while staring at the 1422 map of Constantinople: “This is the oldest surviving map of the city, and the only one made before the Turkish conquest”), and points out that the Rimini tomb of “one of the last great Greek Neoplatonic philosophers, Georgios Gemistus Plethon” has an inscription beginning:

[The mortal remains of the Byzantine Gemistus Plethon, the greatest philosopher of his age]

[…] If we assume that the tomb inscription was not made after Wolf’s work of 1557 (and the tombstone-carver did not keep pace with the latest scientific research), then we must also assume that the term “Byzantine” already existed before 1557, as a typical Renaissance hyper-classicism (like Istropolis instead of Posonium), but it was only applied to the city, and not to the state. Wolf was probably aware of this use, and as he tried to draw a caesura between the ancient and medieval Greek literature and sources, he adopted the term “Byzantine”, which was later extended on the basis of his work to the Constantinople-centered Roman Empire.

I would quibble, however, with the post’s final sentence: “Nowadays, if anybody talks about the Roman Empire in connection with the period between the 6th and 15th century, he will shock his listeners just as much as if he used the term of Byzantine Empire in those very centuries.” For a long time now, serious scholars have talked about the Eastern Roman Empire and used the term “Byzantine” with restraint, mainly because it is so familiar; you’d have to have ignored the subject for decades to be shocked by such usage.

Second Best Moments.

A couple of years ago, in this LH thread, Ian recommended Frank Kuppner‘s book Second Best Moments in Chinese History, saying “Everything Kuppner writes is gorgeous. He uses an idiom of surreal wistfulness that might have distant forebears in a few other British writers, but essentially didn’t exist until he invented it”; I recently got a copy for my birthday (thanks, Songdog!), and I’m here to tell you it’s just as good as Ian said. Here‘s a brief review by Darian Leader (“How much lighter life seemed when one could at last acknowledge that ‘Life is a dinner party without a host./ And, frequently, without a dinner party either'”), and here are a few quatrains so you can see what kind of thing it is:

The bureaucrat sighs as he adds up another column.
Who can possibly still be riding so many horses?
He sighs again, and glances down from his low pavilion.
A royal dog is staring at him insolently.

It is said that the great poet often used to fall drunk here,
In this unpleasantly small walled garden.
And, furthermore, that he often used to wake up here,
In this unpleasantly small walled garden.

A marvellous peak – a second marvellous peak –
A foot trembling at the edge of a chasm –
A second foot trembling at the edge of a chasm –
A third foot trembling at the edge of a chasm –

Pensively, the Immortal begins to climb down the lacquer tree.
Hmm. The immediate danger seems to have blown over.
Somehow, he had assumed that this was an uninhabited planet.
He will really need to plan his journeys more carefully in future.

The palace dog is feeling a little confused this morning.
It was fed late, and fed by the wrong person.
The wrong person set it free in the wrong garden.
And still no-one has come to fetch it back.

The bureaucrat sighs as he adds up another column.
Who can possibly still be riding so many horses?
This is just as boring as his previous life was.
Why did he ask to be sent back to what he already knew?

It may not be your thing, but if it is, you’ll be glad to know where you can find 501 of those little gems.

Medieval Language Resources.

This post by ᴚǝǝƶɐʍɐɈ is full of language sites I hadn’t known about, most of which I won’t use enough to put on the sidebar but which some of my readers may be glad to have on hand, so here are the links — you can read more about them at the linked post:

Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, now freely accessible at ΛΟΓΕΙΟΝ (see the About page).

Lexikon zur byzantinischen Gräzität (I did add this one to the sidebar).

Tesoro della Lingua Italiana delle Origini (not yet complete).

Corpus Diacrónico del Español (just citations, no definitions). (“does for medieval Arabic what CORDE does for medieval Spanish”).

Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon.

Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie: Historische woordenboeken op internet.

Chronologisch woordenboek, which gives the date of first attestation of Dutch words, downloadable as a PDF here.

Ten “Lost” Books.

Lucy Scholes’ BBC list of “hidden literary gems” starts with Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, which won my heart immediately; the second entry is by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, of whom I’d never heard and of whom my immediate question was “how do you pronounce that?” Investigation suggests that the last two letters are decorative and it’s /burduks/ [as confirmed by Sashura in the comments], but I hope marie-lucie will be able to explain the odd-looking name. All the books sound interesting; I’ve read none of them and heard of very few (apart, of course, from Teffi, whom I recommend enthusiastically).