Many Names and None.

Alex Ross’s New Yorker pieces on music are always worth reading, and I particularly enjoyed his latest, on Josquin Desprez — I remember enjoying Josquin’s music in my college music-history class and have heard it with pleasure on the radio over the years, but I never really knew how to listen to it. Renaissance music is very different from classical and later, so it takes significant immersion in it to figure out what’s going on, and I never got that immersion. (Of course, in this age of YouTube it’s easy to get whatever you want; here’s a nice clip of Josquin’s “Ave Maria,” one of the pieces Ross discusses, with an animated graphical score that lets you follow the music easily.) What brings it to LH are the opening and a passage near the end. Here’s the first paragraph:

The singer and composer Josquin Desprez traversed his time like a diffident ghost, glimpsed here and there amid the splendor of the Renaissance. He is thought to have been born around 1450 in what is now western Belgium, the son of a policeman who was once jailed for using excessive force. In 1466, a boy named Gossequin completed a stint as a choirboy in the city of Cambrai. A decade later, the singer Jusquinus de Pratis turned up at the court of René of Anjou, in Aix. In the fourteen-eighties, in Milan, Judocus Despres was in the service of the House of Sforza, which also employed Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of the decade, Judo. de Prez joined the musical staff at the Vatican, remaining there into the reign of Alexander VI, of the House of Borgia. The name Josquin can be seen carved on a wall of the Sistine Chapel. In 1503, the maestro Juschino took a post in Ferrara, singing in the presence of Lucrezia Borgia. Not long afterward, Josse des Prez retired to Condé-sur-l’Escaut, near his presumed birthplace, serving as the provost of the local church. There he died, on August 27, 1521. His tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Gossequin, Jusquinus, Judocus, Judo., Josquin, Juschino, and Josse — that’s what I call variety! And here’s a thought-provoking passage on the perils of not leaving a name behind; it comes after an account of how an analysis suggests that the motet “O virgo virginum” is not actually by Josquin:
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From Bruno Roy, “L’Humour érotique au XVᵉ siècle,” via Michael Gilleland’s Laudator Temporis Acti:

Dans la circonstance, je ne connais pas de meilleur euphémisme que le radicalisme; j’aurai donc recours à trois «radicaux» trilittères: vit pour le pénis, con pour le vagin et cul pour le derrière⁹. Nous pouvons dès maintenant apprécier l’humour d’une première devinette:

    Quel est le mot le plus poilu du psautier?

9. Ce sont les mots employés par le traducteur de la Chirurgia d’HENRI de MONDEVILLE (éd. A. BOS, 1897), bien qu’à la même époque (déb. du XIVᵉ siècle) le vocabulaire médical ait déjà commencé à se dissocier du langage commun; cf. Placides et Timeo, ms. Paris, B. N. fr. 212, f. 60v («…laquelle verge comme dit est se nomme preape, et en commun laigaige franchois l’en dit vit»).

In summary, the old French word vit ‘penis,’ added to con and cul (which you probably already know), can produce the innocent-seeming Latin word conculcavit ‘trampled under foot.’ Gilleland adds the relevant biblical quote: “miserere mei Deus quoniam conculcavit me homo” (Psalms 55.2). A fine example of scholarly and teenage humor combined.

The Tearing of the Red Sea.

Balashon discusses an interesting development in Hebrew:

I recently came across an early draft of the speech my son prepared for his bar mitzva, ten years ago this month. It was rather nostalgic to see it again. And while I enjoyed hearing his points, I was actually more fascinated with the typos and misspellings in this first draft. On the one hand, they prove that he actually wrote the speech himself, which was impressive for a 13 year old. But it also was cute to enter the mind of a kid who grew up in Israel, spoke English at home, and tried to straddle both worlds when writing his speech.

One of the most curious phrases he used was “the tearing of the Red Sea.” Normally, in English we say “the splitting of the Red Sea.” But he directly translated the Hebrew phrase kriyat yam suf קריעת ים סוף. The verb kriya, from the root קרע, means “to tear” and so in the literal sense, his translation to English was logical.

But this actually brings us to a more substantial question. Why do we call it kriyat yam suf? In the Bible, the verbs used to describe the splitting of the sea are baka בקע (as in Shemot 14:16, 21, Tehillim 78:13 and Nechemiah 9:11), or less frequently, gazar גזר (as in Tehillim 136:13). Both roots mean to split, with various nuances. So why did Rabbinic Hebrew (like in the Dayenu song found in the Haggadah) prefer a different Biblical root: kara?

I found a detailed discussion of the question in this article […] The author, Tzion Okashi, focuses primarily on the distinction between baka and kara, and suggests two possible reasons for the later use of kara. One might be from Aramaic influence, as is frequently found in words adopted in Rabbinic Hebrew. He point out that the Aramaic translations of the Bible use the root בזע to translate both בקע and קרע, which may have led to the shift of one usage to the other.

The other answer I found more interesting. He says this is due to a change in the perception of the nature of the event. While the Torah uses the word baka, that is generally applied to the splitting of a solid, hard object, like a rock or a block of wood. That type of splitting can not be repaired or restored. The action of kriya, however, is associated with the tearing of softer items like garments (as is practiced, for example, in Jewish mourning.) According to this theory, those who preferred to refer to kriyat yam suf visualized the sea closing up on itself after the split. The split was not permanent, just as clothing can be repaired, or a zipper can close the opening in a garment. Okashi writes that the Tanach chose to focus on the force of the miracle, which split the sea as one would break open a block of wood, while the Sages preferred the image of the water letting Israel pass through, only to close upon the pursuing Egyptians.

I’m curious about “the splitting of the Red Sea”; it seems to me “the parting of the Red Sea” is much more common in English. Is “splitting” common in Jewish usage?

Reading Unprofessionally.

Daisy Hildyard’s TLS review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, by Leah Price, is mainly about countering the familiar story of “the demise of the printed book: […] the digital medium is killing print and destroying our capacity to read long books”; what I’m posting here, however, is a digression that was of more interest to me:

Elsewhere, when Price steps outside the academy, she expands the sense of what books can be. She attends an event organized by The Reader, a Liverpool-based charity which runs community reading groups. Price describes the experience of reading gratuitously after years of training herself to focus on the formal aspects of texts. In her university seminars, it would be unusual for class members to discuss, for example, how much they like the characters in a novel. Reading aloud, without a syllabus, was eye-opening. “I expected the group to feel cosy. Instead the room felt raw, exposed.” There is a sense that she is somehow chastened by the reminder that books have many extracurricular lives.

This is something I have felt, too. Last year, while teaching at a university, I also took over the running of a reading group in a retirement community and care home. In the seminar room, I would guide undergraduates away from general pronouncements on moral behaviour or on their personal experiences, and towards the words in the text. In the Over-60s reading group, however, I found that we would tend to approach a story by considering how it resonated with our own experiences, and that these discussions could feel raw and exposing, as Price describes. At other times, the readers would ask heretical (to me) questions – discussing, for example, whether they believed the author to be a good person – and when they joked around, as they often did, I couldn’t discipline them. While these discussions could involve misreadings or a drift away from the text, the sessions also felt more urgent and more joyful tha[n] the careful, within-the-parameters approach to literature deployed in educational institutions.

This is yet another example of déformation professionnelle. It is entirely understandable that professional historians and critics of literature have to wean themselves off normal ways of reading — they have other goals than the average reader and need to take part in the current discourse of their profession, whether that revolves around structures, politics, reception, colonial history, or whatever is in vogue at the moment — but it’s sad in a way that a surgeon having to get used to the sight of blood isn’t. It divorces the professional from what everyone else takes to be the value and importance of literature and turns it into a more or less abstract object of study like quarks or mitochondria. Vera Dunham read shelves full of dreadful exemplars of Stalinist “socialist realism” to write her classic book In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (which taught me a great deal — see this 2018 post), but she knew how dreadful they were, writing in her preface “I have avoided the freedom and prophecy of true literature and have turned to establishmentarian chronicles because it is only here that inadvertent testimony to the accommodation between private and public spheres in a large segment of Soviet society can be found.” I am afraid, though, that lots of literary scholars obliterate the difference altogether, pretending that the crap they shovel into their Big Data sets is just as valid as Shakespeare — it’s all grist for the mill of scholarship, which is what matters. And ever since the 1970s the woods have been full of critics who claim that criticism is as important as any other kind of writing, and perhaps more so — after all, if a critic can tell you what Shakespeare was up to, where he got his language and stories from and where he got wrong, surely he’s on a level above Shakespeare.

This is all pernicious nonsense. Ordinary readers are right to ignore the formal aspects of texts and focus on how much they like the characters and how a novel resonates with their personal experiences; that’s an important part of what literature is for, and to the extent that writers lose interest in it and appeal exclusively to professional reader-analysts, their writing withers on the vine. The older I get, the more grateful I am that I never got sucked into academia, where I would have had to at least pretend to care more about theory than books; I can read whatever I want and respond to it with disgust or enthusiasm based on its appeal to me personally, though of course my reactions have been greatly informed and altered by my extensive reading of good critics and historians. No offense to my academic readers — I have the greatest respect for what you do, I’m just glad I don’t have to do it myself!


Carl H. Kraeling, in “The Episode of the Roman Standards at Jerusalem” (Harvard Theological Review 35.4 [Oct. 1942] 263-289, via Laudator Temporis Acti), provides just the sort of detailed philological analysis that I revel in:

The word σημαία used by Josephus in his account of the episode of the standards is, like its Latin equivalent signum, a generic term and may apply to any or all of the standards borne by military units, though it is used also in a narrower sense for one particular type. Among the Roman standards the first to be mentioned are the aquila, a golden eagle mounted on a pole, and the imago or imagines, representations of animals or busts of the Emperor similarly mounted.[13] Both types are essentially symbolic and religious in their significance. The aquila borne by the aquilifer is the palladium exclusively of the legion. Legions also have imagines borne by imaginiferi, but they share this type of standard with other troops, the urbaniciani, the vigiles, the alae and the auxiliarii. The theriomorphic imagines, comprising mainly zodiacal animals, have something to do with the dies natalis of the unit. The images of the Emperor, what ever else they may denote, have a religious and cultic significance also. While every established military unit could, and perhaps did, have its own theriomorphic imago, it is clear that some units did not have separate representations of the Emperor. What the criterion for the distribution of the imperial likenesses may be, is not yet entirely evident.

The next type of standard to be mentioned is that to which the word signum is applied in the narrower sense.[14] More familiar than the others if for no other reason than because of representations in the school texts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the signum consists of a spear decorated just below the spear-head with a cross-bar and fillets, and adorned along the shaft with a series of discs, or wreaths and discs, or wreaths and discs and mural crowns. So far as the discs (phalerae) are concerned the signa can be divided into two types, those that are aniconic and have smooth, polished surface, and those that are iconic, being embossed with a likeness of an emperor (or an image of a deity?). The signa, while also of religious significance, are basically the instruments of tactical procedure and hence essential to all troops engaged in tactical manoeuvres. Each military unit has as many signa as it has tactical elements, though in the case of a cohort the signum of the triarii maniple is simultaneously also the signum of the cohort as a whole.

The last type of standard to be mentioned is the vexillum, a cloth flag attached to a cross-bar hanging from the top of a pole or spear. It is used by temporary detachments from established military units, which are therefore known as vexillationes, and in cavalry alae. Under what conditions it served as an identifying medium and as a tactical instrument respectively, is not entirely clear.

It’s useful to be reminded that in Greek texts dealing with Roman topics a Greek word (like σημαία here) can be simply an equivalent of a Latin one, so that there’s no point trying to apply its usual range of Greek senses. For the footnotes, see the Laudator post. And if you’re wondering about maniple, it’s (OED) “A subdivision of the Roman legion made up of two centuries, numbering 120 or (for some purposes) 60 men”:

Etymology: < Middle French maniple […], Middle French, French manipule […] < classical Latin manipulus handful, bundle, sheaf, unit of infantry < mani- mani- comb. form + a second element < the base of plēre to fill, plēnus full (see pleni- comb. form).

Goodies from Labirint.

A week ago I was corresponding with José Vergara about an impenetrable word in Sasha Sokolov’s «Между собакой и волком» (Between Dog and Wolf), which I started reading last year but then set aside, when he mentioned “the Ostanin slovar’” as something he would check when he got a chance. I googled and was thunderstruck to discover there was a published set of annotations to the novel by the writer and translator Boris Ostanin. I love such books (I have them for Lolita, The Brothers Karamazov, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Moskva-Petushki, and probably others I’m forgetting), so I immediately felt the need to have my own copy. Alas, it was sold out at Ozon (see this post), and I despaired… but then I discovered they still had a few copies at Labirint, and now that I had gotten used to ordering from Russia, I was determined to have one. The interface was completely different from Ozon’s, but fortunately Lizok had used them before and was willing to help me through the process. Besides the Ostanin, I ordered two books unavailable at Ozon, Sorokin’s Метель (The Blizzard), which I’ve been wanting for ages, and Pepperstein’s Пражская ночь [Prague night], which I learned about from Lizok’s site; just now the package was delivered, and I am a happy man. As I wrote Lizok:

I’ve been reading Russian for half a century, and at first I got my books from the college bookstore as they were assigned, then I got some at the huge Akateeminen Kirjakauppa in Helsinki on my 1971 visit to the USSR (needless to say, there were no interesting books for sale in the Socialist Motherland itself), when I moved to NYC I got them at Viktor Kamkin and then at the bookstores in Brighton Beach, then when we left the city in the mid-2000s I started ordering by mail from (the online version of the Sankt-Peterburg bookstore I’d frequented in Brighton), then I discovered I could get cheap ex-library books from Abebooks, and all of it was good, but selection was limited and I was still frustrated — somehow it never occurred to me that I could order from Russia. When José mentioned getting books from Ozon, I was thunderstruck; he walked me through the sign-up process (map and all), and now I feel like I’m in Wonderland. “You mean I can get that… and that… and even THAT??” Fortunately my wife is tolerant, and it’s cheaper and less destructive than a gambling or drug habit…

Oh, and that word I was wondering about? It’s матату [matatu] in “Он, во-первых, изведал семейную матату, но супруга поладила с волкобоем и сжила Угодника долой со двора, во-вторых”; Google searches are hopelessly swamped by Hakuna Matata, and it turns out it’s not in the Ostanin book, so any suggestions will be gratefully received.


Rory O’Connor writes for Google’s The Keyword about “a new tool for exploring indigenous languages”:

“Our dictionary doesn’t have a word for shoe” my Uncle Allan Lena said, so when kids ask him what to call it in Yugambeh, he’ll say “jinung gulli” – a foot thing. Uncle Allan Lena is a frontline worker in the battle to reteach the Yugambeh Aboriginal language to the children of southeast Queensland, Australia, where it hasn’t been spoken fluently for decades and thus is – like many other languages around the world – in danger of disappearing.

For the younger generation, even general language can be a challenge to understand, but it can be especially difficult to try to describe modern items using Indigenous languages like Yugambeh. For example in the Australian outdoors, it’s easy to teach children the words for trees and animals, but around the house it becomes harder. Traditional language didn’t have a word for a fridge – so we say waring bin – a cold place. The same with a telephone – we call it a gulgun biral – voice thrower.

However, today’s technology can help provide an educational and interactive way to promote language learning and preservation. I’m particularly proud for Yugambeh to be the first Australian Aboriginal language to be featured on Woolaroo, a new Google Arts & Culture experiment using the Google Cloud Vision API. […]

Woolaroo is open source and allows language communities like ours to preserve and expand their language word lists and add audio recordings to help with pronunciation. Today it supports 10 global languages including Louisiana Creole, Calabrian Greek, Māori, Nawat, Tamazight, Sicilian, Yang Zhuang, Rapa Nui, Yiddish and Yugambeh. Any of these languages are an important aspect of a community’s cultural heritage.

Google will doubtless get bored and drop it as they have so many other exciting/useful projects (why yes, I’m still bitter about Google Reader), but in the meantime it seems like a Good Thing. Thanks, Kobi!

Russian-Belarusian, Variable and Fabricated.

Jaroslaw Anders has an NYRB review of what sounds like an interesting novel, Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič, translated from the Belarusian by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid:

[…] The newest addition to this literature in English is Alindarka’s Children, a dark fantasy by one of Belarus’s most original contemporary writers, Alhierd Bacharevič. It opens with a scene that is simultaneously idyllic and menacing. Two children, a sister and brother, are frolicking in the woods and gorging themselves on bilberries. But a voice in the brother’s head, or coming from “the smooth swaying of pine trees,” or maybe from something in those tasty berries, warns him of danger. The girl’s name is Losya and the boy’s is Lochchik, which sounds almost like “aviator” in Belarusian. They have just been rescued by their father and his lover, Katsya, from a prison-like institution called the Camp, in which the obsessive Doctor tries to cure children of what he considers a speech defect called Mova that prevents them from properly pronouncing the sounds of the official language, Yazyk. Since yazyk and mova mean “language” in Russian and Belarusian, respectively, we can guess that Yazyk stands for Russian and Mova for Belarusian, and the task of the Camp is to brainwash young Belarusians into forgetting their native tongue and their national identity. […]

Losya and Lochchik’s reluctance to embrace their regained freedom may also have something to do with the fact that the father had been conducting a linguistic-pedagogical experiment of his own. Religiously devoted to Mova, he seems to be trying to raise Losya as the first true native speaker. Since her infancy, he had forbidden her to utter a word in Yazyk, and everyone at school thought she was mute. For the father’s nosy neighbors and for a young, attractive school psychologist, this amounted to mistreatment. The psychologist had seen Losya’s scribblings in Mova and was sure the girl feared and despised her father. […]

The children’s predicament brings us to the core of what can be called the Belarusian dilemma. The country, in a constant drift between cultures, languages, and identities, suffers from a case of invisibility. Its peculiar history makes it particularly hard for outsiders—and a good many Belarusians—to decipher. Its territory, initially home to a constellation of East Slavic tribes, had by the thirteenth century been absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1385 united with the Roman Catholic Kingdom of Poland. After the dual Polish–Lithuanian state was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the former Grand Duchy fell to Moscow. Between the two world wars part of the Belarusian lands fell under Polish control, with the rest eventually becoming the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. After both parts were “liberated” from the Germans during World War II, the formerly Polish-controlled lands were incorporated into Soviet Belarus; the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 led to the creation of the Republic of Belarus. […]

Alindarka’s Children was published in Belarus in 2014. Alindarka is not a character in Bacharevič’s novel but the protagonist of a nineteenth-century poem, “Things Will Be Bad” by Frańcišak Bahuševič, considered the father of Belarusian literature. In the poem—which Bacharevič weaves through his book—Alindarka is a poor, illiterate Belarusian peasant whose non-name (alindarka is a corruption of z kalindarka, “from the calendar”) and unclear legal status (he is an “undocumented” orphan) are the cause of endless troubles and eventually land him in a Russian jail. The characters in Bacharevič’s novel, it seems, and perhaps all Belarusians, are his symbolic descendants.

But what leads me to post is this discussion of the translation:
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Jonathan Morse sent me a TLS review by Ellen Jones of Ää: Manifiestos sobre la diversidad lingüística by Yásnaya Elena A. Gil. It begins:

Ää is a collection of essays in defence of indigenous languages, multilingualism and cultural plurality, written by a member of the Mixe community of the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, Mexico. Yásnaya Elena A. Gil is a linguist and indigenous activist known for forging dialogues between communities, for excavating layers of racial and gender oppression and critiquing the effects of neoliberalism in Mexico. Here she writes in her second language, Spanish, which she began to learn aged about six, having until that point spoken only Mixe (known to speakers as Ayuujk). Hers is an unlaboured Spanish, suitable for recounting conversations with her monolingual, Mixe-speaking grandmother, as well as for doling out practical advice on how to stem the tide of linguicide (stay informed and spread the word, she insists: make sure you know, for instance, the difference between a language and a dialect, and which indigenous nations’ territory is split between multiple states).

Jones spends almost half the review complaining that the author doesn’t “interrogate the concepts ‘mother tongue’ and ‘native language,’” which seems churlish considering this may be the only English-language review the book will get. She does not, however, explain what most concerned me: what the devil does “ää” mean? I will spare you the trail I took through the Google Labyrinth, but I finally came out with the answer, courtesy of Rodrigo Romero-Méndez’s dissertation A Reference Grammar of Ayutla Mixe (Tukyo’m Ayuujk), whose Acknowledgements include: “Special thanks go to Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, a dear friend and colleague, who convinced me to work on a Mixe language (instead of a Zoque language) and particularly in her own community, Ayutla Mixes.” On page 242 we find this example of the adposition mëët ‘associative’:

ës tsuj ää ayuujk mëët
and beautiful mouth word with
‘with good speech’

So there we have it: ää is ‘mouth’ (and ä, according to §2.3, Table 2, p. 27, is a low back vowel). For more about the Mixe languages, see Wikipedia; you can see a three-minute clip of René González Pizarro speaking his dialect of Mixe here (make sure to turn on the closed captioning). That page includes a discussion of his rhetorical style, beginning:

What the English translation doesn’t capture, however, are the poetic qualities of René’s speech. Take the second line, for example: ja’ tu’uk aa mäjtsk aa nkajpxa’any nyaka’any translated as ‘I’m going to share a few words.’ This sentence demonstrates nicely two features that typify eloquent Mixe. (Both of these features are also characteristic of skillful speech across Mesoamerica.)

Note that there the word for ‘mouth’ is written aa, not ää; dialect difference? (Thanks, Jonathan!)

More Chinese Poems.

Back in 2003, I posted about a site (still extant) called Chinese Poems. I was perhaps more enthusiastic than was strictly called for (“I won’t say it’s impossible to imagine a better Chinese poetry site, because the human imagination is limitless”); for one thing, it’s all images, so you can’t copy-and-paste anything, and for another, the selection is quite limited. I’ve now discovered a much more comprehensive site, Китайская поэзия, which has lots and lots of poems in characters and Russian translation; obviously it’s not much help if you don’t read Russian, but if you do, it’s a treasure.

Unrelated, but I recently had occasion to look up the Russian word марафет ‘the outer appearance of orderliness’ (also slang for cocaine), and I was struck by the etymology:

From Ottoman Turkish معرفت‎ (maʼrifet, “knowledge; connaissance, adroitness; skill, trick; method, means”), from Arabic مَعْرِفَة‎ (maʿrifa, “knowledge”). The central phrase for the meaning development is навести́ (navestí) / наводи́ть (navodítʹ) марафе́т, which was first applied by criminals to mean distancing oneself from the crime scene or putting forward an alibi, so as not to appear responsible. The sense “cocaine” comes from the effects of the drug when satisfying an addiction.

And if you go back to Arabic مَعْرِفَة‎ you find a list of descendants with such varied meanings as ‘trick, ruse, device, artifice’ and (in Greek) ‘widget, doodad, thingummy, thingy; gizmo, contraption.’ Наука умеет много гитик!