The Understanding Footprint.

My wife and I are about a quarter of the way through Richard Powers’ The Overstory, and we are agreed that it is one of the oddest and most interesting novels we’ve read — we have no idea where it’s going (except that trees will be involved), but we’re eager to get there. My interest at the moment, however, is linguistic. This sentence grabbed my attention for obvious reasons:

She walks in silence, crunching ten thousand invertebrates with every step, watching for tracks in a place where at least one of the native languages uses the same word for footprint and understanding.

Anybody know what Native American language fits that description, and what the word in question is?

On Teaching Useless Grammar.

Geoff Pullum at Lingua Franca describes an appalling situation:

A private English tutor in Japan, whom I’ll call Yuki, wrote to me recently to ask about the underlined relative clauses in sentences like these, which were used in actual examination questions and later published in high-school textbooks [I have replaced underlines by italics — LH]:

1. She said she didn’t like the film, which opinion surprised everyone.
2. The men wore kilts, which clothing I thought very interesting. […]

The examples feature a nonrestrictive relative clause introduced by which plus a head noun. This is extremely unusual — nonexistent in conversation, vanishingly rare in modern sources.

Yuki has to help students with such material but reports that the sentences are rejected by native English speakers, who say that as far as they can remember, they have never heard or seen such sentences before.

Yet Japanese students are not just drilled on such sentences, they are examined on them in crucial university admission tests.

I could understand it better if it involved some obscure language for which it is hard to get contemporary information, but English! Read the newspapers, talk to people, get a clue! I feel bad for all the students who have to put precious time and effort into memorizing this crap, and I shake my cane at the imbeciles who put them through it.

The History of the Appalachian Dialect.

Chi Luu’s JSTOR Daily piece on Appalachia starts with an account of all the nonsense that’s been believed about the local dialect (“pure Elizabethan English”), then continues:

It is true that Appalachian speech can be quite different from standard American English. This is a dialect that famously uses different vocabulary and meanings, some of which may be archaic, such as “britches” (trousers), “poke” (bag), “sallet” (salad, as in a poke-sallet, of pokeweed rather than bags!), “afeared” (afraid), “fixin” (getting ready, as in “I’m fixin to do something”), “allow” (suppose, as in “I’ll allow as how I’ll go over yander for a leetle spell”). […]

Where it gets interesting are the many grammatical changes from the standard dialect. Michael Montgomery and others have used grammatical evidence, which is generally slower to change than pronunciations, to track Appalachian speech back to their origins from the predominantly Scots-Irish immigrants that settled in the area, along with others. For example, most are familiar with the pronoun “y’all” but there are also unusual constructions such as “might could/should” (“we might should tell him”), “done” (“they have done landed in jail again”), a-prefixing (“he come a-running at me”), “like to/liketa” (“I got lost and liked to never found my way out”). […]

It’s important to note that the region is about more than just the Scottish and Irish immigrants who lent their language to the land. Despite the legend that there’s a pure linguistic line from Scots-Irish immigrants to present day white Appalachians, this is just another myth. What linguists like Michael Montgomery and Walt Wolfram have shown is the influx of other immigrant groups have had a profound effect on southern speech.

There’s a discussion of creole influence from AAVE, among other factors. My father’s side of the family is from the Ozarks, whose dialect has many features in common with that of Appalachia, and I’ve been known to say “might could” now and again. Thanks, Trevor! (Appalachia previously on LH: 2007, 2017.)

The Idiot.

I’ve finished Dostoevsky’s Идиот [The Idiot], and I should probably wait and digest it for a while before posting about it, but what the hell, he wrote the novel in haste and sloppily, why shouldn’t I do the same with the review? As you will gather, I have serious problems with it (as have so many before me — Dostoevsky had a special place in his heart for readers who preferred it of all his books, as many artists do for their less-favored works), but I’m certainly not going to call it a bad novel, like The Insulted and Injured — it’s one of his great ones, but it’s the worst of his great ones. Of course, there’s a reason for that: he was desperately scribbling chapters as fast as he could to send them to his publisher for desperately needed money, and he was changing it as he went; his notebooks are full of back-and-forthing over who is related to who and how, and who does what. Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin apparently started out as the same character, for example. I wish it had had the benefit of some serious editing.

Still, it starts off brilliantly; the whole first part (of four) carries the reader along seamlessly from the Prince’s meeting with Rogozhin on the train to the party where Nastasya Filippovna hurls the money into the fire. What characters, what imagination, what energy! And what a letdown when you turn the page to Part Two and discover that six months have passed and the garrulous narrator is babbling about rumors and uncertainty and suddenly we’re plunged into fairly incomprehensible family affairs of uncertain relevance to anything we’ve been concerned with, and everyone goes off to Pavlovsk for increasingly unconvincing interactions.
[Read more…]

Linguistic Eurasianism.

I’ve gotten up to September 2016 in my valiant attempt to work my way through the pile of NYRBs, and I’ve just finished this review essay by Benjamin Nathans about recent books on Putin and Russia (freely available to nonsubscribers). The start of this paragraph struck me:

Eurasianism began as an imaginative—to put it generously—theory of historical linguistics, allegedly showing that Russian tonal patterns had more in common with those of the steppe peoples of Inner Asia (“Eurasia”) than with Europeans’. For Trubetskoy and his collaborator Roman Jakobson, moreover, linguistic structures captured and preserved deep affinities of culture and consciousness, rendering visible, to the trained eye, the true frontiers of a great Eurasian civilization that had amalgamated dozens or even hundreds of tribes in a single “convergence zone.” From here it was a short step to declaring that Russia was neither a Slavic nor a European country, that in fact most of Russia’s problems came from trying to be European when it wasn’t. Better to recognize and embrace one’s inner Mongol.

I’m by no means an expert on Eurasianism, but I’ve read something about it, and I had no idea of the tonal-patterns thing. Anybody know more about it?

Nine Yards Redux.

I last wrote about “the whole nine yards” back in 2012; that post began:

I’ve written about “the whole nine yards” more than once as new evidence has emerged; the last time was back in 2009. Now a startling new development has thrown the number of yards into question and antedated the phrase by decades, to 1912.

Well, hold onto your hats, because the whole issue has been revisited by Dave Wilton of and perhaps resolved for good and all. Here are the first and last paragraphs, which sum up his findings:

Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The phrase doesn’t have one particular origin, nor does it represent one particular metaphor. Instead, it seems to have evolved from a sense of yard meaning a vague quantity of something. Later, the words full or whole were attached to it, and even later it was quantified by the numbers six and nine, with the whole nine yards eventually winning out and becoming the canonical form. Use of the full phrase was for a long time restricted to the American Midwest, in particular to the region around the Kentucky-Indiana border, before breaking out into general American parlance in the middle of the twentieth century.

So regardless of what someone else has told you, the whole nine yards does not refer to the length of a belt of WWII machine-gun ammunition, the amount of material needed to make a Scottish kilt, the number of spars on a sailing ship, the amount of concrete a cement mixer holds, or anything else.

I find his discussion convincing and satisfying. (N.b.: My first post on the subject, in 2007, links to an earlier piece by Dave; unfortunately, the link now redirects to the new version, which will be confusing to anyone running across the old post and clicking through. I’d better add a note there.)

FOXP2 Fail.

From ScienceDaily:

FOXP2, a gene implicated in affecting speech and language, is held up as a textbook example of positive selection on a human-specific trait. But in a paper published August 2 in the journal Cell, researchers challenge this finding. Their analysis of genetic data from a diverse sample of modern people and Neanderthals saw no evidence for recent, human-specific selection of FOXP2 and revises the history of how we think humans acquired language.

The paper is Elizabeth Grace Atkinson, Amanda Jane Audesse, Julia Adela Palacios, Dean Michael Bobo, Ashley Elizabeth Webb, Sohini Ramachandran, Brenna Mariah Henn, “No Evidence for Recent Selection at FOXP2 among Diverse Human Populations.” Thanks, Trond! (Trond’s comment in his e-mail: “First law of science: ‘It’s more complicated than that’.”)

Mandelstam Papers Online.

Steven Lubman alerted me to this treasure of the internet. At first glance Osip Mandelʹshtam Papers looks like a million other archival webpages: Dates (mostly 1914-1937), Size (2.4 linear feet, 6 boxes), Location (Princeton University. Library. Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections), that sort of thing. But then you notice that on the left is a long list of items… and they’re all clickable! You can actually see every page of a 1928 collection, an undated copy of his first book, drafts of poems, printed articles… it’s an incredible treasure trove, and it comes in very handy, since I’m currently reading Oleg Lekmanov’s biography, which I see by googling is available in English if anybody’s interested. Many thanks, Steven! (There’s an essay about the collection by Pavel Nerler for those who read Russian.)

How Basque Has Survived.

I don’t listen to podcasts, and I don’t link to a lot of audio stuff here, because I’m basically a [written-]word guy. But I do listen to the radio, and PRI’s show The World in Words is so exactly up my alley I’ve posted about it more than once (e.g., here). A recent episode (apparently first aired in May, though I heard it yesterday) is described thus:

This week on the podcast we talk about Basque. With more than six dialects, how did Basque develop a language standard? How did this language survive the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco when speaking, writing and reading it were illegal? How has this minority language thrived and even grown in the years since Franco’s dictatorship ended? And what does the future hold?

The main focus, thankfully, is not on the “what does the future hold” stuff but on the fascinating story of how it developed a language standard and the dramatic tale of the guy who translated Shakespeare into Basque and saved his work when a ship was attacked by Germans during WWII. It’s a little over a half-hour long, and at the bottom of the linked page is the “Podcast Contents,” which will tell you what bits occur when. (I haven’t listened to “How soccer became multilingual” yet, but I’ll bet it’s a lot of fun as well.)

The Vauxhall at Pavlovsk.

Vauxhall is an interesting word. It originally referred to a district of London named (according to Wikipedia) for Falkes de Breauté, “the head of King John’s mercenaries, who owned a large house in the area,” and gave its name to the Vauxhall Gardens, “one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London, from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century.” So well known were the Gardens (“References to Vauxhall are, for 150 years, as ubiquitous as references to ‘Broadway’ later would be”) that the word was borrowed into Russian in the 18th century as воксал [voksal], and when the first public railway line in the Russian Empire was built from Saint Petersburg to Pavlovsk in 1836-37 and to attract passengers a music hall with gardens was added at the Pavlovsk station, it was called by that name. (That English Wikipedia article is a mess; it doesn’t distinguish the first station from the Pavlovsk-II station built in 1904, shown in one of the images, and says “The current station building was built 60 meters north of the old building in 1955” when by “the old building” they mean Pavlovsk-II.) Since the concerts at the воксал were very popular and since the music venue was next to the station itself, the name of the former got attached to the latter, and now the Russian word for any main station is вокзал [vokzal] (a lesser station is a станция [stantsiya]).

I first encountered the concerts in Mandelstam’s great memoir The Noise of Time (the first chapter is called “Music in Pavlovsk”), and I’ve just encountered a more detailed description in The Idiot (III:2), in the part where the Epanchins decide to walk from their dacha to take the air and hear the music. But where do they walk to? The воксал, but what is that? As it happens, The Idiot is (according to the Вокзал Wikipedia article) one of the first texts in Russian literature where the word is used for a railway station, and indeed, it is so used from the very first chapter. But in this passage things are not so simple. Dostoevsky writes “Все места около игравшего оркестра были заняты. Наша компания уселась на стульях несколько в стороне, близ самого левого выхода из воксала.” [All the places near the orchestra were taken. Our group sat down on chairs a bit to the side, near the leftmost exit from the voksal.] Now, if you’ll examine the map I hope you can see here (click on the map and use the plus sign to zoom in), you’ll find that the “Rail. Station” is a small structure just north of the “Vauxhall”; the map is from the 1914 Baedeker, which says “Near the station is the large railway restaurant of Vauxhall […]; popular concerts with a good band every evening in summer (adm. free; reserved seats 10-50 cop.).” So the restaurant/music hall is separate from the station, and in this scene it must be its exits that are intended. (You can see images here and here.) But the Carlisles, presumably confused by the multivalent word (and perhaps unfamiliar with the layout of the town), have “not far from the left-hand exit from the railroad station.” I’m pretty sure that’s wrong (I might go with “the leftmost exit from the vauxhall”), but I’m curious to know how other translators render it, so if anyone has access to other versions, please share.