My wife and I have discovered another divergence in our understanding of an English word (cf. sleet); this time it’s woozy. It turns out she understands this to mean a slight feeling of nausea (for her, it’s synonymous with queasy); for me, it means ‘dizzy.’ I turned to AHD to see what lexicography had to say, and discovered, to my horror, the following:

1. Dazed or confused.
2. Dizzy or queasy.

“Dizzy or queasy”? What the hell kind of definition is that? You might as well define a word as “Cat or bedspread.” When I’m dizzy, I’m not queasy, and vice versa; I can imagine having both conditions at once, just as a cat can on occasion serve as a sort of bedspread, but come on. So I tried M-W:

1 : mentally unclear or hazy // seems a little woozy, not quite knowing what to say— J. A. Lukacs
2 : affected with dizziness, mild nausea, or weakness
3 : having a soft, indistinct, or unfocused quality : vague, fuzzy

That’s even worse: “dizziness, mild nausea, or weakness” (“a cat, a bedspread, or a napkin”). Finally, the OED (not fully updated since 1928) has:

1. Dizzy or unsteady as when fuddled with drink; muzzy; ‘dotty’.
1897 Voice (N.Y.) 22 Apr. 3/2 In the woozy lexicon of the voting church there is no such word as power. […]
2. Representing or marked by muddled thinking or unclear expression; lacking rigour or discipline; sloppy.
1941 W. H. Auden New Year Let. ii. 37 All vague idealistic art..Is up his alley, and his pigeon The woozier species of religion. […]

I don’t often say this sort of thing, but woozy seems like a completely useless word, since it’s impossible to know what it means. At any rate, I turn to the assembled Hatters: what does woozy mean to you?

Kushites in Egypt.

Earlier this month I posted about Libyans in Egypt and their effect on the language (“As a result, official inscriptions of the Libyan Period show a marked preference for spoken forms, workaday grammar, and simple vocabulary, in contrast to the more refined formulations of the ruling class”); now I’ve reached the point in Wilkinson’s book where he talks about the later Kushite rulers, who had the opposite effect:

In another important respect, too, the Kushite monarchy represented a return to the past. With piety to Amun a central tenet of their claim to legitimacy, Piankhi and his successors set out to champion other indigenous Egyptian traditions that had been neglected or overturned by the country’s recent Libyan rulers. The Kushites saw it as their holy mission to restore Egypt’s cultural purity, just as they had saved the cult of Amun from foreign contamination. With active royal encouragement, therefore, priests and artists looked to earlier periods for inspiration, reviving and reinventing models from the classic periods of pharaonic history. An obsession with the past soon influenced every sphere of cultural endeavor.

Shabaqo gave a lead by adopting the throne name of Pepi II, to recall the glories of the Pyramid Age. His successor went one better, dusting off the titulary last used by the Fifth Dynasty king Isesi more than sixteen centuries earlier. High-ranking officials followed suit, adopting long-obsolete and often meaningless titles, just for the sake of their antiquity. The written language was deliberately “purified,” taking it back to the archaic form of the Old Kingdom, and scribes were trained to compose new texts in an antiquated idiom. A fine example was the Memphite Theology, a theological treatise on the role of the Memphite god Ptah. Commissioned by Shabaqo himself, the treatise was said to have been copied from an ancient worm-eaten papyrus, preserved in the temple archives for millennia. The authentically archaic language certainly fooled most scholars when the piece was first discovered. But, like much of the Kushite renaissance, the Memphite Theology was a product of the seventh century, cunningly designed to look like a relic of the past—an imagined past of cultural purity that existed only in the minds of the Kushite zealots.

I love stories like that, of artificially primitive writings that fooled later scholars.

St. Marx.

I ran across a reference to “St. Marx Cemetery” in Vienna and assumed it must be a typo, but googling soon showed that that’s its name (Sankt Marxer Friedhof in German). So I thought “Was there a St. Marx?”… but no, Wikipedia says it “was named after a nearby almshouse whose chapel had been consecrated to St Mark.” So how the devil do you get Marx as an official spelling of (what I assume should be) Marks? (I note that Russian Wikipedia calls it Кладбище Святого Марка, ‘Cemetery of Saint Mark.’)

Between Worlds.

Miranda France discusses literary translation for Prospect:

Here’s a translator’s tale: it’s early morning and I’m working on a scene from an Argentinian thriller. A woman has discovered her husband’s infidelity and leaves him a chilling message on the mirror written in rouge. In rouge. That doesn’t sound right. Although I’ve never tried it, I think it would be hard to write on glass with a cream rouge and impossible with a powdered one. Surely you’d use lipstick? I turn to WordReference, the online oracle for linguists, and ask the other forum users if rouge can ever mean lipstick in Latin America. Someone from Spain immediately says no. Lipstick would be pintalabios. Another poster from Mexico agrees, although he says that lipstick there is lápiz labial. Then the southern hemisphere starts waking up. A commenter says that rouge does indeed mean lipstick in Chile. And finally someone from Argentina agrees. Her mother always uses this word.

While writing is famously solitary, translating thrives on connection and collaboration. If I’m writing a book I tend to secrecy, but when I’m translating one I’ll rope in anyone useful. My plumber provided diagrams when I was working on a short story about a piece of jewellery lost in an S-bend. An architect friend explained how the foundations are laid for a tower block, for a novel in which a body is buried in wet cement. Various lawyers have helped unpick the workings of different judiciaries. The book club at the Argentine Embassy has been helping me with some Lunfardo, a language derived from Lombardy, honed in the prisons of Buenos Aires and as unique to that city as Cockney rhyming slang is to London. Sometimes translating feels like detective work and sometimes it’s like solving puzzles. So it was gratifying to learn that the renowned translator Anthea Bell, who died in October, and worked on the Asterix stories among other works, was also daughter of the first compiler of the Times’s cryptic crossword.

I love the Argentine references (I lived in Buenos Aires for some years), and of course I like anecdotes of translation in general. But this puzzled me:

Alberto Manguel and I argued once in my kitchen about a novel in which he appeared as a character himself. I had translated one line as “Alberto Manguel is an arsehole.” “But I would definitely call myself ‘an asshole!’” he protested. It seemed rude to disagree.

Is there any difference between an arsehole and an asshole? Surely one’s UK and one’s US, and which you use depends on the general dialect choice of the translation?

How Did Reading and Writing Evolve?

Derek Hodgson writes for The Conversation about his theories on the development of writing:

The part of the brain that processes visual information, the visual cortex, evolved over the course of millions of years in a world where reading and writing didn’t exist. So it’s long been a mystery how these skills could appear some 5,000 years ago, with our brains suddenly acquiring the specific ability to make sense of letters. Some researchers believe that the key to understanding this transition is determining how and why humans first began to make repetitive marks.

Recent extensive brain imaging of the visual cortex as people read text has provided important insights into how the brain perceives simple patterns. In my new paper, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, I analyse such research to argue that the earliest human-made patterns were aesthetic rather than symbolic, and describe what that means for the evolution of reading and writing. […]

In 2000 I first suggested that the way the “early visual cortex” – the location where visual information from the eye first impacts the cortex – processes information gave rise to the ability to engrave simple patterns. We know that this area has neurons coding for edges, lines and “T” junctions. As distilled forms, these shapes preferentially activate the visual cortex. […]

At some point from around 700,000 years ago, this sensitivity to geometry and pattern perception enabled humans to start making refined “Acheulean tools”, which exhibit a certain symmetry. […] The tool making then further promoted an enhanced sensitivity and bias towards patterns in the natural environment, which our ancestors projected onto materials other than the actual tools. For example, they started accidentally making marks on rocks, shells and materials such as ochre. At some point, these unintentional patterns were intentionally copied on such materials – developing into engraved designs and later on into writing.

But how was this possible? Neuroscientific research has shown that writing text involves the premotor cortex of the brain, which drives manual skills. My theory therefore suggests that reading and writing evolved when our passive perception for discerning things started to interact with manual dexterity.

It’s interesting stuff, but I have no way of judging its plausibility, and I invite your thoughts on the matter.

Analyse string.

Bathrobe sent me this link with the information that if you paste in a string of symbols it will tell you what each letter is in Unicode. It also gives you other information, and if you click on “Show character notes” it will tell you, among other things, which languages use the symbol. Very cool!

Mettouchi on Berber Languages.

Sabrina A. of Inside North Africa publishes an interview with a scholar of Berber linguistics:

Professor Amina Mettouchi, who holds the Berber Linguistics chair at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, grew up in Azazga, Kabylia until the age of 11 where she left Algeria for France and continued her studies there. She found herself specializing in Berber linguistics, but the path there wasn’t always linear. She started off with math and physics in efforts to become a businesswoman or engineer to please her parent’s wishes, but her true love was for the humanities, so once she graduated from high school she started studying subjects like literature, philosophy, and history. She explains, “My interests then gradually focused on linguistics, and when I started preparing for a Ph.D., my supervisor suggested I work on Berber. I hadn’t thought it was possible at the time, although there were a few doctoral theses on Berber, and some teaching going on. I embraced this opportunity as a way to reconnect with my roots in a way that also allowed me to work on the intricate and mindblowing complexities of the human mind thanks to linguistics. And I haven’t stopped since.” […]

The whole population has to take part in the documentation and preservation of their languages, with linguists acting as consultants and experts on methods and tools. This is why I have started going online, first with the pages on endangered Berber languages on my professional website, then with the Facebook Page Endangered Berber Languages and the Twitter account Langues Berberes en Danger. My aim is first to raise awareness concerning the need to document the Berber languages that are the most threatened, and then to provide methodological help to language activists willing to undertake that mission for their language. My purpose is also to disseminate oral documents where one can hear and see people speaking threatened Berber languages.” Pr. Mettouchi adds that “Unfortunately, such videos are extremely rare,” and the way they are uploaded (without keywords or name of the language or the region in the title for example), “makes it very difficult to trace them online.”

She discusses aspect (“In Kabyle for instance, the same form (e.g. tturarent) can mean ‘they were singing and dancing festively’ (in the past) or ‘they are singing and dancing festively’ now”), language names (“Berber is the term used in the scientific literature on those languages, internationally. Amazigh is fine too as a scientific term but involves a more political perspective. I personally use both, depending on the medium used, and the topic broached”), the diversity of Berber (“This is not only a question of scientific truth, but it is also a trap for Berber languages, to talk about Amazigh as one language because then individual languages die in silence since as long as some speakers of major varieties still speak those varieties, one believes that ‘the language’ is alive and does not involve themselves in documentation and preservation”), and other topics; she has interesting things to say about writing:

For Pr. Mettouchi, the importance of writing is overrated. “It is good to be able to write one’s language, but putting all one’s energies into that, thinking that it is the only way a language can exist and prosper is an illusion, especially in a world that is now more and more digital, and involves images and sounds, more and more. Therefore, I think people should engage more in oral transmission. For instance, whenever it is possible, create kindergartens where children, especially those whose parents do not speak the language anymore, can learn it in a natural way. Not in a Westernized way, with picture books, but naturally, with elders, playing traditional games, including verbal games such as riddles, and listening to folktales, practicing traditional activities etc. Elders should be involved as main teachers for children under the age of 7. After that, children can and will learn how to read in write, in as many alphabets and writing systems as they want, including the various Amazigh scripts. But before reading and writing the language, one needs to speak it and to learn all the wisdom and the values that it conveys, not only through everyday language but also through riddles, folktales, poetry. I think that it is urgent that all over Tamazgha, activists, especially women, create oral tradition kindergartens, where elders, especially women, can pass on the wealth of knowledge they have to young children, in the way transmission used to get done in the old days, through practice. Learning to weave, to make pottery, to cook, to plow, to grow vegetables or palm-trees, to make a fire in the desert, to gather wild herbs, for boys and girls alike, is a wonderful experience through which they can learn their culture and their language together. People often talk about de-colonizing, minds, and cultures, but too often, they don’t realize that the way to decolonization is also through responsible concrete actions like those. They are easy to implement, even in diaspora contexts at a smaller scale, but they are only possible if we think about it in a radically new way, by empowering women, especially older women who still are skilled in traditional activities and language, and by being confident in the value and importance of oral transmission.”

And she says, quite correctly, “Children can learn and speak several languages, it is easy for them, and it is good for them.”

Digital Georgian.

Monica Ellena reported for Eurasianet (a couple years ago, but I just saw it) on the problems faced by minor alphabets in the digital age:

Dato Dolidze’s fingers move slowly on the old handset as he writes a text message to his son. “My phone only has the Latin alphabet, so every time I text I need to translate the Georgian letters into the Latin. It’s a pain,” says the 50-something orange vendor at a Tbilisi vegetable market. While newer smartphones enable the use of the Georgian alphabet, many in Georgia – where the average wage is $333 a month – are, like Dolidze, stuck with cheaper, older phones.

Georgia’s unique alphabet is one of the unintended casualties of such digital compromises. […] “Minor languages are particularly vulnerable today thus need protection,” says Nino Doborjginidze, who heads the Institute of Linguistic Studies at Tbilisi’s Ilia Chavchavadze State University. “A lack of technology development for such languages, including Georgian, in turn, impedes international dissemination of valuable Georgian-language data surviving in different media, oral, manuscript and printed.” […]

Private initiatives have emerged to bolster Georgia’s web presence. In 2015, industrial designer Zviad Tsikolia teamed up with Georgia’s largest lender, TBC Bank, and launched the contest #WriteinGeorgian, calling on volunteers’ creativity to create new styles for the alphabetic characters. Georgians responded enthusiastically, with 160 new fonts submitted in five weeks. […]

Neighboring Armenia faces similar challenges, as it also has a unique language with an alphabet used solely for Armenian. “Transliteration is common, especially among the vast diaspora, but not only,” explains Gegham Vardanyan, editor-in-chief of the media discussion platform media.am. “It is not only the Latin script, Armenians in Russia will communicate in Armenian using the Cyrillic script. The result is just bizarre, often you just cannot understand it.”

The sample font from the #WriteinGeorgian contest shown at the top of the page is gorgeous, if perhaps impractical.

Yolngu Sign Language.

Matt Garrick reports for ABC News of Australia:

It has been used for thousands of years as a way to hunt without scaring your prey, or to recognise cultural silences during mourning or to conduct secret conversations. Now the ancient art of Yolngu sign language is being documented for a landmark resource, to help prevent this rare form of communication from disappearing altogether. The “beautiful volume to give back to the children” is being created by anthropology and linguistics expert Dr Bentley James, in concert with senior Yolngu figures and academics. […]

For the past 25 years, Dr James has been studying sign language on Yolngu country in remote East Arnhem Land. “I found I was drawn to attempting to do something to save Indigenous languages,” he said. His work has entailed living on isolated outstations and in Indigenous communities, learning to speak and sign off patient elders, who have allowed Dr James to write down and document the different words and phrases.

Now, more than two decades since first embarking on his mission, this extensive volume to hand down to future generations is coming to fruition. “We have collected over 10,000 photographs, of that we have managed to get it down to about 2,500, and those will then express the signs. There’s 1,800 signs all up, and we’ve collected about 1,000. But in the book we’re only using 500 of those signs, so those 2,500 photographs [will be] in full colour, sequential photographs showing the hand shapes, and the movement of the arc and the hand signal itself, and the conventions and how it works.” The volume will also contain a learner’s guide and a history of the language, to help people who do not speak Yolngu hand signs to learn how the language works.

Of the 8,000 or so speakers of Yolngu languages in northeast Arnhem Land, Dr James estimated most were still fluent in sign language. But, he said, due to the decline of Yolngu people living on homelands and outstations and instead moving into crowded communities, “they’re not carrying on their behaviours that they did managing country”. “So they’re unable to have opportunity to use sign, there’s not much of the hunting that used to go on going on.” Young people being glued to their phones and indulging in excess screen time was also playing a part in the erosion of sign language, he said.

“Yolngu” can be a confusing term; as Claire Bowern said back in 2005: “Yolngu is used in Armhem Land both for Yolngu people (ie speakers of Pama-Nyungan Yolngu languages) and for Aboriginal people in general.” Thanks, Trevor!

Who “Wrote” Aladdin?

Arafat A. Razzaque writes for the Ajam Media Collective about the history of the Aladdin tale, familiar from the Thousand and One Nights but not originally a part of it. He begins with “arguably the Middle East’s greatest modern adaptation of the 1001 Nights“:

Written by the poet Tahir Abu Fasha (who also wrote songs for Umm Kulthum), the series lasted 26 years on the airwaves, with 820 episodes total. As a child, the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh would sit “glued to the radio” waiting to hear the captivating Zouzou Nabil, who voiced Shahrazad.

I love that kind of local detail, which you’re unlikely to learn from Western accounts. He continues with a history of the Nights:

The 1001 Nights has a pretty remarkable genealogy. Our oldest documentation of it is an Arabic papyrus from Egypt, reused as scrap with inscriptions dated 879 CE. There was an earlier Persian book called Hazār afsāna (A Thousand Stories) that did not survive. But key elements of the frame story of Shahriyar and Shahrazad were already common in Pali and Sanskrit texts from ancient India, while another Arabic book called One Hundred and One Nights has an alternate version also found in a third-century Chinese Buddhist text of the Tripiṭaka.

The event that sparked the Nights into a modern European phenomenon was its translation by Antoine Galland from a fifteenth-century Arabic manuscript that still remains our principal source. First published in 1704, Galland’s Les Mille et une nuit: Contes Arabes (“1001 Nights: Arabian tales”) was an instant bestseller, mainly because it coincided with the rise of French fairy tales. […]

In Arabic, Alf layla was first printed in India. Known as the “Calcutta I” edition of 1814–18, it was prepared by Shaykh Aḥmad al-Shīrwānī, a teacher of Arabic at the Fort William College in Bengal, where East India Company officials were trained in South Asian languages, especially Persian. Subsequent Arabic editions were published in Breslau, in today’s Poland (by Habicht, 1824–43), in Bulaq, Cairo (1835) and again in India (“Calcutta II,” 1839-42). By the late-nineteenth century, the book was appearing everywhere—a fascinating example being the Judaeo-Arabic edition of 1888 printed in Bombay by Aharon Yaacov Shmuel Divekar, a native Jewish-Indian (“Bene Israel”) who also published prayer books for the city’s Baghdadi Jewish community.

Then he gets to the meat of his piece, the origin of the Aladdin tale:

After nearly a century of speculation, in 1887 the Prussian scholar Hermann Zotenberg who worked as a manuscript curator at the French national library, came across Galland’s archived diaries. There it was revealed that Galland had an oral source, “the Maronite Hanna of Aleppo.” Meeting Hanna Diyab in 1709 through a colleague in Paris was great luck for Galland, since he ran out of stories to translate from available manuscripts. […]

Galland wrote in his journal that he received “the Story of the Lamp” from Hanna Diyab on May 5, 1709. Every few days for the next month or so, Diyab told him fifteen more tales. Ten of these, including Ali Baba, were later published as the last four volumes of Galland’s Nights (1712–17). […] In 1993, a previously unknown autobiography/travelogue by Hanna Diyab was discovered at the Vatican Library. It has now been published in French as of 2015, and though of much broader historical interest, it also offers tantalizing glimpses into how Aladdin and Ali Baba came to be imagined.

I’ll let you discover the rest at the link; there’s all kinds of good stuff, like “A major classic of the Danish Golden Age happens to be an adaptation of Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger (1805), set in Isfahan rather than China because Persia was imagined to be the modern, cosmopolitan France of the East.” And I’d never heard of the One Hundred and One Nights; don’t miss the Bruce Fudge interview linked to it above. (We discussed a new, “complete” edition of the Arabian Nights back in 2009.)