Bilinguals Experience Time Differently.

Anne Rothwell, Press Officer at Lancaster University, reports on a new study by linguists Panos Athanasopoulos and Emanuel Bylund, who “have discovered that people who speak two languages fluently think about time differently depending on the language context in which they are estimating the duration of events.” The paper is “The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration Through the Language Hourglass,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Apr 27, 2017; unfortunately, it’s beyond a paywall, but the abstract is available here. The crucial bit:

Contrary to the universalist account, we found language-specific interference in a duration reproduction task, where stimulus duration conflicted with its physical growth. When reproducing duration, Swedish speakers were misled by stimulus length, and Spanish speakers were misled by stimulus size/quantity. These patterns conform to preferred expressions of duration magnitude in these languages (Swedish: long/short time; Spanish: much/small time). Critically, Spanish-Swedish bilinguals performing the task in both languages showed different interference depending on language context.

Very interesting, if it holds up; thanks, Ariel!

My Job.

This was posted on Facebook, and I thought I might as well put it here, since I often complain about bad proofreading/editing in books and since non-editors tend not to know these distinctions:

Different communities of editors use different terms for similar concepts. I’m in Canada — and Canadian editors tend to use the terminology in Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards, which spell out what is included in each type of editing:

1. Structural Editing (also called substantive editing, developmental editing, and content editing): reworking the content of a document to get rid of repetitions and gaps, put the ideas into a logical progression, make sure the narrative flows smoothly, and so on. It’s the big-picture stuff.
2. Stylistic editing tries to make the document a better read. For example, a stylistic editor reworks educational materials so that the reading level match the students’ reading ability, or edits humor to make it funnier.
3. Copy editing fixes problems with spelling, grammar and consistency of language use. (Line editing is a vague term that can mean many things, but usually means stylistic editing and copy editing combined.)
4. Proofreading is checking the formatted document. The proofreader carefully reviews the work of the formatter and also checks the editing that has been done on the document. Proofreading is not editing — it is checking the work of editors.

Greg Ioannou, Freelance editor since 1977. Honorary life member of Editors’ Ass’n of Canada

I started out as a proofreader in the early ’80s and was eventually promoted to copyeditor (though I resisted the promotion for a bit, because I wasn’t sure I wanted the added responsibility — I’m fundamentally lazy and unambitious); as a freelancer, I guess I would call what I do line editing according to the above classification, except that I would never say that because nobody would know what it meant, so I always say “copyediting.” I take care of all the basic copyediting stuff (spelling, grammar, following the appropriate style manual), but I also point out problems in logic, errors in fact, misquotes, and the like. And if you noticed the inconsistency above (Greg writes “copy editing,” I write “copyediting”), yep, that’s one of those things (like the serial comma, or “Oxford comma”) that can go either way; I like it closed up. Also, if you noticed that — and if you don’t care greatly about money — you may have a future in editing!

Words for Porridge in Bantuphone Africa.

Birgit Ricquier’s “The History of Porridge in Bantuphone Africa, with Words as Main Ingredients” (from Afriques 5 [2014], “Manger et boire en Afrique avant le XXe siècle”) is the kind of word-centric historical investigation I love; I’ll quote a few bits to whet your appetite. From the introduction:

Porridge as a mash is mostly prepared in West and Central Africa. The Éotilé of Ivory Coast, for instance, have a mash of boiled plantains and cassava called akoende. The most widespread name for this dish in West Africa is fufu, found in, for example, the Ghanaian language Ewe and in Liberian Grebo. An example from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is a mash made of boiled pieces of sweet cassava and ripe banana, named litúmá in Lokele and mokóké in Songola.

Porridge is not an exclusively ‘African’ dish. Different types of porridge are found all over the world, even where bread is on the menu. McCann mentions the Venetian polenta, Serbian mamalinga, and Alabaman hominy grits, the latter being of Native American origin. And even some Asian types of porridge are reminiscent of this kind of preparation—for example, Himalayan tsampa, made with flour of toasted barley mixed with butter tea to form a sort of dough, and the dense paste called pa ba in Ladakh, made with flour of toasted barley and legumes.

Written documents reveal that porridge has a long-standing tradition in Europe. The ancient Greeks, for instance, prepared mâza and kóllix, ‘mashes’ of barley and wheatmeal; and the Romans prepared porridge both from barley and emmer (a type of wheat, Triticum dicoccum), the first named polenta, the second puls. What about the porridge of sub-Saharan Africa? Is it also several millennia old?

This paper will tell the history of porridge as prepared by Bantu speech communities. The focus on Bantuphone Africa is a consequence of the method of this study, namely historical-comparative linguistics. Few, if any, written documents are available predating the arrival of Europeans in Central and Southern Africa. Moreover, archaeology and archaeobotany mostly provide information on the history of tools and ingredients. As will be demonstrated, to study the history of preparations, historical-comparative linguistics—more specifically the Words-and-Things approach—is a welcome tool.

And from the conclusion:

But not everything could be revealed. The comparative method suffers from several drawbacks. First of all, the available lexical evidence could not indicate if and from whom the technique of stirring porridge was borrowed. Most of the vocabulary referring to new techniques, tools, and products were inherited Bantu words that underwent a semantic shift. Only one word, namely *NP14-gàdɩ̀, could be identified as a loan, and it appeared to be more recent than the change in cooking techniques. A second problem is semantic vagueness. No research could be done on nouns for ‘grinding stones’ since these objects are most often simply referred to as ‘stones’ or ‘stones for grinding’. The same is true for ‘stirring stick’ and ‘pestle’ in several West Bantu languages, both being called ‘stick’. However, the research also benefited from highly specialized vocabulary such as the verbs for ‘stirring flour in boiling water’ and the different ‘pounding’ verbs. Finally, more research is necessary on the historical background. Since many of the extra-linguistic referents discussed in this paper are not found in the archaeological record, the results of the linguistic analysis can be integrated into a historical framework based only on linguistic methods, namely the Bantu Expansion. Many aspects of the Bantu Expansion are still under discussion. Changes in the sub-classification of the Bantu languages and/or its historical interpretation may alter the presented historical narrative substantially.

Deeply satisfying stuff, and I thank infini for posting it at MetaFilter.

Denys Johnson-Davies, RIP.

The name Denys Johnson-Davies sounded vaguely familiar to me, and it turned out he’s translated a number of Arabic novels I own or have read; he died a couple of days ago, and Arabic Literature (in English) has a nice post on eleven books he wrote or translated. The first is his 2006 Memories of a Life in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature, and I like the first paragraph:

“An unlikely set of circumstances set me on the path to studying Arabic,” the memoir opens. He spent his childhood in Cairo, Wadi Halfa in Sudan, and finally in Uganda and Kenya, traveling back to England on a doctor’s orders at the age of twelve. He didn’t thrive there, and when his father asked him at fourteen what he wanted to do, his answer was unequivocal: “I would like to study Arabic.”

Few of us are so clear about our life goals at fourteen! And this is impressive:

Johnson-Davies also introduced Arab women writers to an English reading public long before they were in fashion. His first volume includes stories by Latifa El-Zayyat and Laila Baalbaki; subsequent collections showcase Alifa Rifaat, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Salwa Bakr as well as unestablished writers like Buthayna Al-Nasseri and Alia Mamdouh (from Iraq), Salma Matar Seif (from the United Arab Emirates), Hana Attiya and Amina Zaydan (both from Egypt). Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret and a volume of Salwa Bakr’s stories, The Wiles of Men and Other Stories, are among his best-known works in this context.

Thanks for the link, Trevor!

An Obscure Linguistic Item.

Jeremy Adler reviews (TLS, Oct. 16, 2015) a book by “the writer Schuldt, who never uses his first name” that is obvious LH material:

The reappearance, after more than thirty years, of one of his finest short works, In Togo, dunkel (In Togo, Dark), at long last coming out from a leading publisher, thus provides cause for celebration. The book could perhaps best be described as ethno-fantasy. In style, the title text, for example, veers disconcertingly between a short story, a philological investigation and an anthropological field study. Throughout its several twists and turns, In Togo, dunkel teeters on the edge between factual report and fancy, tricking the reader into believing that its clever concoction is just plain true. An African tribe, so the story goes, uses an obscure linguistic item, both rather like a noun and rather like a verb, mostly at the end of a sentence, and especially after exclamations. The trick lies in the detective work required to explain the etymology of this most puzzling artefact. If this seems unpromising material, Schuldt develops it with wit, artistry and consistent intensity, making this little exercise in style a tour de force of inventiveness.

Though Adler calls him “one of the youngest and most interesting figures in that remarkable group of experimentalists who came to play such a prominent role in the German literature of the last third of the twentieth century,” the internet seems to know nothing about him beyond this book; if anyone knows anything else, feel free to pass it on.

The Ancient Bookshelf.

I’ve discovered another interesting blog, The Ancient Bookshelf, whose motto (with which I cannot disagree) is “Old stuff is exciting!” It’s run by James Hamrick, and lately he seems to be concentrating on Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic), a language that’s always intrigued me but that I’ll probably never do anything about. He has a brief introduction to it here, and here he lists the few colleges that currently offer courses in it: Munich, Toronto, and Washington. Here‘s a Star article by Megan Dolski about the Toronto course that not only shows John 1:1 in Ge’ez but lets you listen to a reading of it, which is the first exposure I’ve had to it as a spoken language; thanks, Jeffry!

Pisemsky’s Bitter Fate.

After reading minor works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I’ve read a major one by Pisemsky, and oh what a difference! The first two were still trying to figure out where they were going; Pisemsky was at the top of his game, and created one of the masterpieces of Russian drama. Горькая судьбина, translated as A Bitter Fate in 1933 by Alice Kagan and George Rapall Noyes (it’s been reprinted in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama, edited by Noyes and published by Dover), is a tragedy in four short acts that achieves its effects with brutal efficiency. It’s about a man whose wife has a child with a lover, an ancient subject hopelessly complicated by the fact that the man and his wife are serfs and the lover is their owner. The central character is Ananii, the husband; he’s been off in Petersburg earning money to pay obrok (much more lucrative than staying on the estate and farming), and while he’s been gone his wife Lizaveta, who apparently resented the marriage from the beginning, has had an affair with Cheglov, the sentimental and ineffectual landowner.

A lesser writer would have set up the situation with an interminable backstory; Pisemsky starts in medias res, with Lizaveta’s mother Matryona and her neighbor Spiridonevna waiting for the long-absent Ananii to arrive. He comes with gifts for everyone, in the company of a resentful drunk, Nikon, who almost immediately spills the beans about the child they’ve been trying to hide. Before he does, though, there’s an amazing conversation that is apparently irrelevant but in fact crucial (as is clear from the fact that it takes place at all in this pared-down drama); I’ll translate it here (for the Russian, search on “Что, батюшко, Ананий Яковлич” at the first link):
[Read more…]


I’ve started reading The Adventures of Augie March (thanks, jamessal!), and have already run across a couple of passages of LH interest. On the Russian front (Grandma Lausch is from those parts; roman is Russian for ‘novel’):

Still the old lady had a heart. I don’t mean to say she didn’t. She was tyrannical and a snob about her Odessa luster and her servants and governesses, but though she had been a success herself she knew what it was to fall through susceptibility. I began to realize this when I afterward read some of the novels she used to send me to the library for. She taught me the Russian alphabet so that I could make out the titles. Once a year she read Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin. Occasionally I got into hot water by bringing a book she didn’t want. “How many times do I have to tell you if it doesn’t say roman I don’t want it? You didn’t look inside. Are your fingers too weak to open the book? Then they should be too weak to play ball or pick your nose. For that you’ve got strength! Bozhe moy! God in Heaven! You haven’t got the brains of a cat, to walk two miles and bring me a book about religion because it says Tolstoi on the cover.”

The old grande dame, I don’t want to be misrepresenting her. She was suspicious of what could have been, given one wrong stitch of heredity, a family vice by which we could have been exploited. She didn’t want to read Tolstoi on religion. She didn’t trust him as a family man because the countess had had such trouble with him.

(On which, my last post is relevant.) And this presents a linguistic mystery:

Grandma Lausch played like Timur, whether chess or klabyasch, with palatal catty harshness and sharp gold in her eyes. Klabyasch she played with Mr. Kreindl, a neighbor of ours who had taught her the game. A powerful stub-handed man with a large belly, he swatted the table with those hard hands of his, flinging down his cards and shouting “Shtoch! Yasch! Menél! Klabyasch!” Grandma looked sardonically at him. She often said, after he left, “If you’ve got a Hungarian friend you don’t need an enemy.”

If anyone knows the background(s) of the shouted terms, by all means share.

Tolstoy’s Family Happiness: A Disappointment.

After finishing Oblomov (post), I read Dostoevsky’s 1859 Дядюшкин сон (Uncle’s Dream), which was silly but fun; as I said here, “the scene between the mother (who is trying to get her daughter Zina to marry the half-dead prince) and Zina (who thinks the whole idea is vile and repulsive) is masterly, and a clear template for the more consequential struggles in later works.” I went from that to Tolstoy’s Семейное счастие (Family Happiness), published a month later. It wasn’t fun at all; in fact, it annoyed me almost as much as the Second Appendix of War and Peace, so here I am to complain.

The first thing I noticed when I started reading was that it was told from a female point of view (in an odd coincidence, the narrator is named Marya Aleksandrovna, just like the domineering mother in the Dostoevsky), and I thought “That’s interesting, I wonder how he’ll handle it.” The second thing I noticed was that the female point of view was utterly unconvincing, unless you’re a male who doesn’t know much about women. And the third was that the story was mind-bogglingly tedious and clichéd. Here’s my summary, eighty pages boiled down to a paragraph:

I’m a pure teenage girl whose mother has just died. I feel sad, and yet somehow my spirit is bursting within me — I am young and crave life and adventure! Oh, my guardian, Sergei Mikhailovich, has come; I always liked him and looked up to him. Now he looks at me in a strange, intense way — I think I love him — I’m sure he’ll propose to me! He did! Now we’re married, and I’m unbelievably happy, all I want to do is settle down with him here in the country and lead a life of service to other people. But wait, I’m strangely dissatisfied; I am drawn to life in Saint Petersburg, even though my beloved Sergei finds it repulsive and says I should avoid it. But he loves me, so he’s taking me there. Whee, this is fun! Balls, music, high-class people telling me how wonderful and pretty I am — Sergei is grumpy about it, but who cares, he wants me to be happy, doesn’t he? What a stick-in-the-mud! Now we’re in Baden for the waters, and there’s a younger Englishwoman who’s suddenly getting all the attention I’m used to getting, the only one who’s still fixated on me is a smarmy Italian guy who looks kind of like my husband only younger and handsomer, and he’s insisting on walking with me in the woods and holding my arm and I feel afraid and yet drawn to him… OMG, he kissed my neck!! Now I see the folly of my ways and am running to my husband to throw myself at his feet and confess and ask forgiveness, but he’s receiving me coldly, he’s not embracing me and weeping like I expected, so the hell with him. Now we’re back in Russia, back at the country estate since we can’t afford Petersburg, and I’m enchanted with my little boys (did I mention I had a couple of little boys?), and I’ve decided to give up on my childish ideas of love and just be a good mother and devoted wife.

(Oddly, the end comes up as a plot point in Philip Roth’s wonderful novel The Counterlife; the whole last section is quoted on p. 186 of my paperback edition.) The first part, up to the move to Petersburg, takes up fifty pages, and the entirety of it should have been cut and replaced by a one-sentence summary to set the scene. The rest contains what actual plot there is, but really, the whole thing reads like a moral sermon (of the kind Tolstoy was so drawn to all his life): “Hey, young women! You have all these crazy ideas about love and happiness, but that’s all nonsense! Listen to me and give up your childish fantasies before it’s too late and you ruin yourselves and your families!” What’s especially amusing/irritating is that Tolstoy at the time was only thirty and had never been married; furthermore, he presents his hero Sergei Mikhailovich as a worn-out old codger who’s had his fill of social life and just wants to sit at home and tend his estate… at thirty-six! But I recovered my faith in Tolstoy when I read in the Russian Wikipedia article on the story that he hated it so much he wanted to give up writing (“оказалась такая постыдная гадость, что я не могу опомниться от сраму, и, кажется, больше никогда писать не буду” [it’s such disgraceful filth that I can’t come to my senses from the shame, and I don’t think I’ll write anything else]). Good man! Just give it a few years and you’ll be writing War and Peace, and all will be forgiven.


I don’t spend much time reading or thinking about philosophy, so when I occasionally run across the name of Emmanuel Levinas I mentally put it in the same “incomprehensible French thinker” bag as Derrida, Deleuze, et hoc genus omne. But when I hit William Rees’s TLS review of three books on Levinas, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder what kind of name that was. Russian Wikipedia explained it, and the explanation is interesting enough I thought I’d post it. He was born in 1906 into a Lithuanian Jewish family in Kovno/Kaunas, then in the Russian Empire, and named Emmanuel Levin (Levin being a common Jewish surname in those parts). When Lithuania became independent after World War I, the name was written according to Lithuanian rules of orthography as Emmanuelis Levinas; when he moved to France for his university education, the first name reverted to the more French-sounding Emmanuel, but the surname remained. Voilà!

I can’t resist pointing out an idiotic statement in the second paragraph of Rees’s review: “Born in 1906 into a family of bourgeois Lithuanian Jews, Levinas left the Russian empire to pursue philosophical studies in France, choosing Strasbourg because it was ‘the city closest to Lithuania’.” Does Rees not realize the empire ended in February 1917?