Strong Language.

I’m happy to announce the appearance of Strong Language, a new group blog about swearing created by linguist James Harbeck and Stan Carey of Sentence first, one of my favorite language sites. The About page says, “This blog gives a place for professional language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts. It’s a sweary blog about swearing.” If that sounds like your cup of tea, head on over and check it out. And while we’re on the subject of swearing, here‘s a seven-plus-minute video consisting almost entirely of swearing in Hungarian (with English subtitles) so thrilling that it makes me want to resume my study of that fine language; thanks for the clip go to the many-languaged bulbul, who says “The obvious highlight is 2:16, but the rest is eminently watchable as well.” (Serendipitously, I just found this post at Poemas del río Wang, which begins: “The baggage cart advances with a painful squeal in the deep, bottomless mud and drizzling rain. An old blue-shirted soldier drives it, while smoking his pipe. The one sitting next to him, unshaven, in gray uniform, is urging the cart on by cursing in three languages. He’s a Hungarian…”)

Languages of Influence.

Michael Erard, a longtime LH favorite, has a good piece in Science on a paper by Shahar Ronen et al., “Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame“:

The study was spurred by a conversation about an untranslated book, says Shahar Ronen, a Microsoft program manager whose Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) master’s thesis formed the basis of the new work. A bilingual Hebrew-English speaker from Israel, he told his MIT adviser, César Hidalgo (himself a Spanish-English speaker), about a book written in Hebrew whose translation into English he wasn’t yet aware of. “I was able to bridge a certain culture gap because I was multilingual,” Ronen says. He began thinking about how to create worldwide maps of how multilingual people transmit information and ideas.

Ronen and co-authors from MIT, Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Aix-Marseille University tackled the problem by describing three global language networks based on bilingual tweeters, book translations, and multilingual Wikipedia edits. The book translation network maps how many books are translated into other languages. For example, the Hebrew book, translated from Hebrew into English and German, would be represented in lines pointing from a node of Hebrew to nodes of English and German. That network is based on 2.2 million translations of printed books published in more than 1000 languages. As in all of the networks, the thickness of the lines represents the number of connections between nodes. For tweets, the researchers used 550 million tweets by 17 million users in 73 languages. In that network, if a user tweets in, say, Hindi as well as in English, the two languages are connected. To build the Wikipedia network, the researchers tracked edits in up to five languages done by editors, carefully excluding bots.

In all three networks, English has the most transmissions to and from other languages and is the most central hub, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But the maps also reveal “a halo of intermediate hubs,” according to the paper, such as French, German, and Russian, which serve the same function at a different scale.

In contrast, some languages with large populations of speakers, such as Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic, are relatively isolated in these networks. This means that fewer communications in those languages reach speakers of other languages. Meanwhile, a language like Dutch—spoken by 27 million people—can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers. This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online. [...]

There’s lots more good stuff there, and here‘s an interactive visualization. Thanks for the Erard link, Nick!

The Bookshelf: Miscellany VII.

For those casting about for last-minute presents, here are some possibilities:

1) Orin Hargraves (see this LH post) has produced an excellent book on clichés, It’s Been Said Before. He classifies them, gives citations, and briefly discusses their use and degree of perniciousness. In his “Afterthoughts,” he says that “carelessness and ignorance are certainly responsible for a great deal of cliché that is expressed in speech and print,” but he adds:

I will have failed in my mission with any reader who, after perusing this book for minutes, hours, or days, feels at liberty to dismiss me as a usage curmudgeon. I have no agenda to reform English. I embrace the whole mansion of it, from the dankest corner of promotional blurb to the grandest auditorium of epic poetry. It is out of love and respect for it that I write about it. It is a tall order to suggest to speakers and writers that they choose their words more carefully and that they be more circumspect about using words whose presence does not add meaningfully to what they are saying, but I fully own that there is a respect in which this book urges that advice.

2) Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World: Portrait of an Era is gorgeously illustrated and should make any Shakespeare-lover happy.

3) Slavica Publishers (see this LH post) is publishing a series Russia’s Great War & Revolution, “a decade-long multinational scholarly effort that aims to fundamentally transform understanding of Russia’s ‘continuum of crisis’ during the years 1914-1922.” I haven’t seen any of the books yet (and at $44.95, the ones so far published are too pricey for my budget), but I have every confidence that they’re worth reading.

I Mumble in Mandaic.

Josh Tyra’s “I Am the Very Model of a Biblical Philologist” is an absolute delight, illustrations included. Go watch it. (Warning: After it’s over, if you don’t click “Cancel” another video begins. I don’t know why this is the case with so many YouTube videos now, but it is.) Thanks, bulbul! (He also sent a link to “A sitcom (of sorts) in Yiddish,” YidLife Crisis, so for those of you who have been yearning for such a thing, there it is.)

Bringing Back the Pilcrow.

Marcin Wichary discusses the history of the pilcrow and explains why he wants to use it on his site,

So I’ve learned about the pilcrow, but it doesn’t mean I immediately fell in love with it.

Here’s the problem: it’s hard to defend pilcrows for some of the same reasons it’s tough to be a fan of the interrobang; both characters have weirdly hostile names but, more importantly, both are often simply doggone ugly.

Sure, “ampersand” as a word comes across as a rejected electricity unit, but at least some amperands are truly works of art. [...] [¶] Pilcrow, on the other hand… First, it’s named like a villain in an Ian Fleming novel. Second, I can’t help but think that even some of the most wonderful pilcrows from the designers at Hoefler & Co. seem like they never quite belong (let alone those in other fonts). [...]

And yet, I wanted to see pilcrows on Medium.

An enjoyable read; thanks, Paul!

And for lagniappe, here‘s a delightful video of a little girl with a strong Yorkshire accent — thanks, Trevor!

Berger on Translation and Lewis Translating.

I love John Berger’s writing but am often suspicious of his ideas, and so it is with his new essay on translation. He says “true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair”:

The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.

Which sounds great except that I don’t think it makes much sense, certainly not as contrasted with the “worthy, but second-rate” procedure of doing what translators normally do, which is “study the words on one page in one language and then render them into another language on another page.” And he goes on to claim Chomsky as backup for his idea that “a mother tongue is related to (rhymes with?) non-verbal languages – such as the languages of signs, of behaviour, of spatial accommodation.” But never mind, he’s always a good read. (Thanks, Trevor!)

As for actual translation, here‘s a good one, Gwyneth Lewis rendering Dafydd ap Gwilym’s “The Wind” into English:

Skywind, skillful disorder,
Strong tumult walking over there,
Wondrous man, rowdy-sounding,
World hero, with neither foot nor wing.
Yeast in cloud loaves, you were thrown out
Of sky’s pantry, with not one foot,
How swiftly you run, and so well
This moment above the high hill.

That’s the first of six stanzas, and the whole thing is brilliantly done. I don’t know how accurately it renders the Welsh (or “the vision or experience that prompted” it), but it’s good enough poetry in English that I don’t really care. (Via wood s lot.)

God Save the Mark.

In my last post, in a bit of japery I referred to “Pushkin and — God save the mark! — Bulwer-Lytton”; it occurred to me to wonder about the origin of that phrase, and here’s what the OED (s.v. mark, updated 2000) has to say:

 11. (God) bless (also save) the mark and variants: an exclamatory phrase, prob. originally serving as a formula to avert an evil omen, and hence used by way of apology when something horrible, indecent, or profane has been mentioned. Now used chiefly in writing to apologize (freq. ironically) for a preceding or following word or phrase.
  [The phrase was apparently formerly used by midwives at the birth of a child bearing a birthmark (see W. A. Henderson in N. & Q. (1895) 8th Ser. 7 373); and this may possibly be the original use (compare quot. a1625). However, the meaning of mark in the expression may originally have been ‘sign’ or ‘omen’ (compare sense 9a). There is no foundation in the statement of E. C. Brewer Dict. Phr. & Fable (1870) 790/2, copied in some dictionaries, that the phrase was originally used by archers.]

1593 T. Churchyard Challenge 240 Browne and blacke I was God blesse the marke: Who cals me faire dooth scarce know Cheese from chalke.
1598 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 i. iii. 55 To see him..talke so like a waiting gentlewoman, Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God saue the mark.
a1616 Shakespeare Othello (1622) i. i. 32 He in good time, must his Leiutenant be, And I, God blesse the marke, his Worships Ancient.
a1625 J. Fletcher Noble Gentleman iv. iv, in F. Beaumont & J. Fletcher Comedies & Trag. (1647) sig. Ff/2, Indeed he was Just such another coxcomb as your husband, God blesse the mark and every good mans childe!
1761 L. Sterne Life Tristram Shandy III. xxxiii. 151 My father..had no more nose, my dear, saving the mark, than there is upon the back of my hand.
1820 W. Irving Legend Sleepy Hollow in Sketch Bk. vi. 93 The motherly tea-pot sending up its clouds of vapour from the midst—Heaven bless the mark!
1849 G. P. R. James Woodman I. ii. 32 God save the mark that I should give the name of king to one of his kindred.
1902 W. James Varieties Relig. Experience 204 (note) The crisis of apathetic melancholy..from which he emerged by the reading of Marmontel’s Memoirs (Heaven save the mark!) and Wordsworth’s poetry.
1917 W. J. Locke Red Planet x. 113 All their talk was of Hauptmann and Sudermann..and in art—Heaven save the mark—the Cubist school.
1977 Evening Telegram (St. John’s, Newfoundland) 3 Dec. 46 ‘Well gentlemen,’ sez I, ‘God bless the mark, but this is really a chilly day.’
1994 Amer. Scholar Winter 135/1 Today, anyone who reads a daily newspaper or, God save the mark, even watches television news in a state at least bordering on consciousness is inured to..present-day observations.

I guess I’d seen the “God bless the mark” version occasionally, but I didn’t realize it was the original one, and I certainly had no idea about the midwife thing.

Anastasia Marchenko.

As I wrote here, I’ve been reading Anastasia Marchenko’s 1847 collection Путевые заметки (“Travel notes”); having finished the two stories in that first edition, Три варьяции на старую тему (“Three variations on an old [in the 1853 edition, одну 'one'] theme”) and Гувернантка (“The governess”), I’m ready to add her to the ranks of the unjustly forgotten. I am glad to see that Belinsky, who calls it (in his last article, a review of Russian literature for 1847) the most remarkable literary book published separately that year, agrees with me that the first is the prize of the pair. The narrator is a woman recalling the great adventure of her life, an on-again-off-again sort-of-romance with a man whom she met when she was twenty and he fifteen; the first chapter is called “Lyolya” (the diminutive by which he was then known), the second “Alexis” (the Frenchified form he used as a cocky young man with a European education), and the third “Aleksei Petrovich,” his official name (to match his by then official personality), and it’s told with a winning brio that promises well for the author’s career — it’s astonishing that she was a teenager when she wrote and published it (in Odessa). It brought to my mind Lermontov’s lines “Герой известен, и не нов предмет;/ Тем лучше: устарело все, что́ ново!” (“The hero’s known, the subject isn’t new; so much the better — all that’s new’s grown old!” from a poem she quotes several times for chapter epigraphs, along with Pushkin and — God save the mark! — Bulwer-Lytton). The other story, while decently written (if overlong), is basically just another society tale of the sort that had been so popular in the 1830s, full of balls and card tables, confessions and renunciations, flaming cheeks and rosy lips; the novelty was that the narrator was a governess (a profession the author tried briefly). Either would make a good entry in an anthology of women’s writing from tsarist Russia, but it’s the first that makes me want to read more of her. Olga Demidova says of her in Dictionary of Russian Women Writers:

Her main themes were love and marriage. In all of her writings, Marchenko propagated George Sand’s message that a woman should be free to love whomever she chooses and that the first freedom was to be found in an equal relationship and marriage. Thus, Marchenko was addressing the “woman question” as early as the 1840s although, as was later noted, “her experience gave her a broader perspective on work and on the necessity of enjoying life than that expressed by strict followers of the theory of emancipation” [...]

Many of Marchenko’s stories are in the then popular form of a woman’s diary (zapiski), with the narrator-observer always present. As was typical of women’s literature of the period, Marchenko has constant recourse to lyrical digressions, pouring out the complaints, dissatisfactions, and emotions flooding her soul. Consequently, not all of her writings are of equal quality: among her numerous stories and novels “Around and About” (Vokrug da okolo, 1855), “Hills” (Gory, 1856), “The Salamander” (Salamandra, 1859), and Soap Bubbles (Myl’nye puzyri, 1858) are considered her best. [...]

Marchenko remained one of the most popular women writers from 1847 through the mid-1850s, when she married a man named Kiriakov and followed him first to St. Petersburg and then to Kherson, interrupting her literary career.

A man, of course, didn’t have to interrupt his literary career when he got married.


A while back I quoted this passage from MacDiarmid’s On a Raised Beach:

I try them with the old Norn words – hraun,
Duss, rønis, queedaruns, kollyarum;
They hvarf from me in all directions
Over the hurdifell – klett, millya hellya, hellyina bretta,
Hellyina wheeda, hellyina grø, bakka, ayre, –
    And lay my world in kolgref.

If anyone wondered what Norn might be, it’s “an extinct North Germanic language that was spoken in the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) off the north coast of mainland Scotland and in Caithness in the far north of the Scottish mainland,” and you can find all existing texts in the language as well as material on its grammar and pronunciation at this fine site. Thanks, Trond!

Carissa and Karanda.

I was looking up something else in Alan Davidson’s Penguin Companion to Food (see this post) when my eye was caught by an entry “Carissa and Karanda.” Both exotic-sounding words were unknown to me; the entry began:

two closely related fruits of which the former is indigenous to S. Africa and the latter to S. Asia. Carissa is a botanical as well as a common name, referring to the genus of thorny, fruiting shrubs to which both fruits belong.

It went on to say that carissa is also known as Natal plum and amantugula and is native to South Africa, while the karanda is cultivated in India and some parts of Southeast Asia and East Africa. Naturally, I wanted to know where the names came from; I wasn’t too surprised that neither was in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or American Heritage, but I was surprised they weren’t in the Concise Oxford and astonished they weren’t in the OED. Fortunately, both are in the Third New International (score one for Merriam-Webster!); the entry for karanda sends the reader to their main entry, s.v. caraunda, where we learn that it’s Hindi, from Sanskrit karamardaka. Unfortunately, the etymology for carissa simply says NL (New Latin), but Google Books found Umberto Quattrocchi’s CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names, where I found:

In Sanskrit kryshina means dark blue or black, because of the ripe fruits; the shrub is called krishnaphala; in Malayam it is called karimulla, possibly from kari “dark, black” and mullu “thorny, thorns,” referring to the fruits and thorns [...]

It’s not altogether clear what they’re suggesting about about the relation between the Sanskrit and Malayalam words or about how it came into English, but that’s all I’ve got.

Also, I regret to announce that the Forward‘s wonderful language columnist, Philologos, whom I’ve quoted more than once here, is calling it quits:

The person known as Philologos wished to remain anonymous to our readers, and through the years we have respected that request. Now we must respect another request — to retire from writing the column for the Forward.

So it is with sadness and a great deal of gratitude that we bid farewell to a valued member of the Forward family. The column that appears in this week’s edition will be the last. It’s been an epic run.

Pharewell, Phil (and thanks for the link, Paul)!