Changes in the Graphosphere.

A few years ago I read Simon Franklin’s Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c.950-1300 and found it very enlightening (see this post), so when Jonathan Morse alerted me to his new book, The Russian Graphosphere, 1450-1850, I went to the Amazon page, saw (with sadness but no surprise) that the price was outrageous (for shame, Cambridge University Press!), and had the free Kindle sample sent to me forthwith (thanks, Amazon!). Much of the introduction is laying out of concepts and intentions, but I thought the section about the chronological benchmarks was interesting enough to share. He says the range 1450-1850 will seem banal to historians of Western Europe but will probably surprise Russianists, ignoring as it does the supposedly fundamental shift brought about by Peter the Great, and goes on to explain the start and end points:

The ‘graphospheric’ excuse for beginning from the second half of the fifteenth century is derived from a cluster of disparate phenomena, few (or none) of which may be regarded as particularly dramatic or decisive in themselves, but which together reflect initial stages in the emergence of the early modern graphosphere. A continuous practice of public inscription in Muscovy can be traced to the late fifteenth century. In the second half of the fifteenth century, after decades of coexistence, paper replaced parchment as the almost exclusive material for the production of manuscripts. The same period also saw the end of the continuous or regular tradition of using birch bark as a material for inscription. Wax replaced metal as the normal material for seals. With regard to the linguistic landscape, in the late fifteenth century coinage ceased to be bi-scriptal in Cyrillic and Arabic, becoming monolingually Slavonic. Towards the end of the century Muscovites could also see the first prominent public lapidary inscriptions in Latin. With regard to technologies of the visible word: the craft of casting cannons in bronze was brought to Moscow in the late 1480s, and cannons (and bronze-cast bells) became regular bearers of monumental inscriptions. Or, with respect to a more familiar technology: although Muscovite printing did not start until the middle of the sixteenth century, active engagement with products of the printing press (via imported books) can also be dated to the final decade of the fifteenth century. Finally, with regard to institutions of production: the emergence of regular specialised administrative personnel is normally traced to the second half of the fifteenth century, an initial phase in the emergence of a state bureaucracy.

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Back in 1910, the OED called talionic (“Of or pertaining to the law of talion, or to the rendering of like for like,” from lex talionis) “rare” and had only one citation (where it seems oddly misused):

1886   G. MacDonald What’s Mine’s Mine v   The growing talionic regard of human relations—that, namely, the conditions of a bargain fulfilled on both sides, all is fulfilled between the bargaining parties.

Now it seems to be… well, not everywhere exactly, but used in a lot of places as if its meaning is self-evident; a Google Books search gives “The Talionic Impulse originates from Biblical Principles,” “Judge Walter Williams of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is especially good at the art of talionic restitution,” “The obscenities of talionic conduct – if one can indeed dignify it with such a phrase – are as much in evidence in the British tabloid newspaper front pages screaming for vengeance […],” “If a nuclear talionic reprisal terminates nuclear violence, the process may be considered a kind of nuclear peacekeeping,” “Early in the evolution of humankind, the talionic impulse emerged […],” etc. It’s always interesting to me to see an obscure word climbing up the charts for no apparent reason.

Thesaurus Followup.

We discussed the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae a few years ago, but the NY Times has a nice piece by Annalisa Quinn that provides a useful update and has some great illustrations:

The first entry, for the letter A, was published in 1900. The T.L.L. is expected to reach its final word — “zythum,” an Egyptian beer — by 2050. A scholarly project of painstaking exactness and glacial speed, it has so far produced 18 volumes of huge pages with tiny text, the collective work of nearly 400 scholars, many of them long since dead. The letters Q and N were set aside, because they begin too many difficult words, so researchers will have to go back and work on those, too. […]

The poet and classicist A.E. Housman, who died in 1936, once referred to “the chaingangs working at the dictionary in the ergastulum [dungeon] at Munich,” but the T.L.L. is now housed in two sunny floors of a former palace. Sixteen full-time staffers and some visiting lexicographers work in offices and a library, which contains editions of all the surviving Latin texts from before A.D. 600, and about 10 million yellowing paper slips, arranged in stacks of boxes reaching to the ceiling.

These slips form the heart of the project. There is a piece of paper for every surviving piece of writing from the classical period. The words, arranged chronologically, are given in context: they come from poems, prose, recipes, medical texts, receipts, dirty jokes, graffiti, inscriptions, and anything else that survived the vicissitudes of the last two thousand years.

Most Latin students read from the same rarefied canon without much contact with how the language was used in everyday life. But the T.L.L. insists that the anonymous person who insulted an enemy with graffiti on a wall in Pompeii is as valuable a witness to the meaning of a Latin word as a poet or emperor. (“Phileros spado,” reads one barb, or “Phileros is a eunuch.”) […]

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A Year in Reading 2019.

Once again it’s time for the Year in Reading feature at The Millions, in which people write about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year, and once again my contribution is the first in the series (“starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson” is the way they put it). This year I talk about Dorothy Richardson’s autobiographical novels (see this post, in which I introduced her, and this one, which quotes some of her ruminations about language and links to others); I also mention a couple of up-and-coming writers named Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and if you aren’t familiar with them you’ve got some treats waiting for you! There are briefer mentions of novels by Joseph Conrad and Cathleen Schine, as well as a passel of excellent scholarly histories, some of which I’ve discussed here and some not. My thanks to The Millions for giving me the podium, and to those who support them so they can keep doing so.

The Harmony of Languages.

Yet another long, dense essay of which I can only quote a few appetizing bits; this one, The Harmony of Languages, is by old LH favorite Justin Erik Halldór Smith (see this post). It starts with the “so-called Muscovy duck,” which “is so called not in view of its homeland in the vicinity of Moscow –for in fact it is native to Central and South America– but rather in mistranslation of its Latin designation, Anas moschata, the ‘musky duck'”:

We may wonder, then, what led Daniel Gottlieb Messerchmidt, in his Forschungreise durch Sibirien [Research Voyage through Siberia], to suppose that he had seen such a bird, or that such birds could be seen, on his arrival in the far eastern region of the Siberian Governorate known as “Yakutia”. In his list of vocabulary items recorded in the Yakut or Sakha language of on February 4, 1724 –thus, following the Dutch traveller Nicolaes Witsen’s Noord en Oost Tartarye [Northern and Eastern Tartary] of 1692, the second oldest attempt in the history of Sakha to record the spoken language in writing–, the German explorer gives the word Turpàn as the equivalent of “the Moscowy duck Willughbeji”, referring, as contemporary readers would have known, to Francis Willughby and John Ray’s 1676 Ornithologia. But turpan is not a Sakha word; it is a Russian word, and it designates not the Anas moschata, but rather the Melanitta fusca, commonly known in English as a “velvet duck” or “velvet scoter”, whose habitat centers around the Yenisey River basin in Siberia, and whose feathers are an iridescent black.

Messerschmidt’s mistake is noteworthy, as it is the largest one in a list of forty-two Sakha vocabulary items, which includes forty-one names of different sorts of animal, plus the word for snow (Chár in Messerchmidt’s orthography, хаар in modern Sakha). Fifteen mammals are identified, seven species of fish, and nineteen of birds. Most of Messerschmidt’s mistakes make at least some sense. He correctly gives the name of the domesticated reindeer (Taba/таба), but wrongly infers that the generic term for any wild beast (Kýll/кыыл) is the specific term for the wild reindeer, as he presumable heard the term being used adjectivally (Kýll Taba/кыыл таба) but failed to notice that the noun it was modifying was the same as the name for domestic deer. For the Canis marinus or Seehund, which is presumably the name he uses for the so-called ringed seal or Phoca hispida common in Kamchatka and the far north of the Pacific Rim, Messerschmidt again gives the Russian name (Nérpa/нерпа), evidently unaware that the Sakha people of the Lena River basin with whom he was in contact had no native words for marine or littoral fauna.

Messerschmidt gives signs of only a cursory familiarity with the phonology of the languages he records. Thus he combines vowels that cannot occur together in Sakha according to the strict laws, common to all Turkic languages, governing vowel harmony. For example, he writes the word for “red” as Kysil rather than kyhyl/кыһыл: the s where we today write an h is comprehensible within the rules of Sakha phonetics and dialectal variation; the i where there should be a y is simply a result of imperfect hearing. One might be tempted to say that Messerchmidt is not searching for harmonies, and so does not detect them.

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Elborg Forster on Translation.

Bathrobe is delving into translation studies, and he’s found another good link to send me: The Art and Craft of Translation, by Elborg Forster (from Johns Hopkins Magazine, way back in February 2001). As with the Johanna Hanink piece I posted recently, it’s full of good things, so I’ll just quote a few bits to pique your interest:

First, a few words by way of characterizing myself: although my first language was German, I am now a translator with many years of experience translating texts in such fields as history, anthropology, sociology, and history of science and medicine from French and German into English. Having stopped using German in my daily life 45 years ago, I now find it rather difficult to translate into German. This has to do with lack of practice, of course, but also with the fact that there are many areas of life and letters with which I was not familiar as a 20-year-old. Indeed I sometimes feel–no doubt erroneously–that I learned everything I know in the medium of English: politics, French history, child-rearing, cooking, life and death, gardening, healthcare, automobiles …. In any case, whenever these days I translate something into German, I send it to my verbally highly gifted sister in Germany, who usually finds a few anglicisms and some expressions “that we don’t use any more,” for of course the German language itself has evolved over the last 45 years. […]

My greatest adventure as a translator was a collection of letters of Liselotte von der Pfalz, the 17th-century German princess living at the court of Louis XIV. It did not take me long to realize that her very lively and expressive German had become somewhat archaic after she had spoken mostly French for many years (a situation I intimately understand!). I therefore chose a somewhat old-fashioned American idiom, often using expressions marked ant. or F. in the dictionaries. I also realized that “Madame,” as she was called at the French court, varied the level of her style depending on the subject of the letter, her level of familiarity with the recipient, and especially that person’s position in the hierarchy of court society.

Even in letters to close relatives, Madame used the address “Your Grace” (Ew. Liebden) as a matter of course; it was obligatory for persons of a certain rank and gives modern readers a feel for the distance that separates us from 17th-century court society. It seemed necessary to make a point of this distance, for much of Liselotte’s writing calls for such colloquial translation that we might take her for our contemporary. Yet that would be unfortunate, for it would prevent the reader from realizing that in many respects this woman was way ahead of her time.

Translating Liselotte thus sometimes called for a simple vocabulary (“rumors flying,” “go after,” “do away with,” “a lot of useless information”) and a straightforward sentence structure (essentially run-on sentences) to convey easy familiarity. But at other times I had to search out inflated terms to render the painfully constrained formality of a letter, so that I used such expressions as “favor me with a letter or any word,” “filial trust,” “pay my respects in person,” “bestow,” “hard put to give credence,” “at length…” and a host of others. And I certainly had no right to cut up the endless sentences.

Sometimes authors are not consistent in their level of style, and then the translator gets into trouble with copy editors. In one rather formal German study of Weimar Germany published in the 1970s, the author suddenly–and effectively, I thought–used the word “aufgehübscht,” which I literally translated as “prettified,” but the copy editor felt that this kind of expression “did not belong into serious academic discourse.” Unable to persuade him that it might, I dropped it, to my regret.[…]

To begin with, linguistic communities have different historical memories, which are rendered in a kind of shorthand but must be spelled out in another language. Thus I once gave a word-for-word rendition of “a portrait of the King of Rome,” whereupon my copy editor suggested that for simplicity’s sake I make it “the pope.” Seeing that even this educated person had missed a cultural allusion that would be obvious to every French reader, I therefore wrote: “Napoleon’s son, who bore the title King of Rome.” A translator from American English, of course, would have to add similar glosses to “crossing the Delaware” or “the man from Independence”–and these examples only refer to historical allusions. Every language is full of cultural concepts that require paraphrasing and sometimes a complete transposition.

Thanks, Bathrobe!

Solving Linear A.

Andrew Trounson writes for Pursuit about the ongoing quest to decipher Linear A:

How do you go about deciphering the script of a wholly different language that was lost more than 3,000 years ago? Linguist and archaeologist Dr Brent Davis says it’s like walking out on a tightrope anchored at just one end and supported by nothing but thin air, hoping you find something to stop you from falling. […]

Dr Davis, a lecturer in Archaeology and Ancient Egyptian at the University of Melbourne, is one of only a handful of people around the world to have made any significant headway on solving Linear A in the last 50 years. He established for the first time the word order of the language as being Verb-Subject-Object, like ancient Egyptian. So rather than ‘Minos has a minotaur’, a Minos would write ‘has Minos a minotaur’. […]

It was while he was doing his PhD at University of Melbourne that Dr Davis began to make real headway on solving Linear A. By establishing the word order of the language, linguists can identify the function of a word in a sentence just from its position. It’s like finding a key word in a massive crossword puzzle.

“The definite word order in English is Subject (S)-Verb (V)-Object (O), as in the phrase John likes cats. And we know that about 97 per cent of human languages are either in this form or S-O-V (John cats likes) or V-S-O (Likes John cats).” But when Dr Davis looked at other Bronze Age languages of this period in the region, none were like English. They were either S-O-V (like early Greek and Sumerian), or V-S-O (like ancient Egyptian). He guessed Linear A was likely to have one of these two word orders.

He then applied this framework to a series of inscriptions that appear on Minoan offering bowls. To put it simply, he found that the words on the bowls tended to recur in what was obviously a formula, except for the second word in the inscription, which was always different from bowl to bowl. His guess was that this word was probably the name of the person (the subject) making the offering. If correct then Linear A was likely a V-S-O language. That was confirmed when he found the Linear B sign for ‘olives’ (which had been borrowed from Linear A), occurring after the name as the object of the phrase. The repeated start of the phrase was therefore a verb, like “gives”, yielding the phrase gives Yasumatu olives, or in English [order] Yasumatu gives olives.

Davis points out that to actually decipher the language, more signs are needed:

“Discoveries are still being made, so I’m optimistic, but what we really need to find is a palace archive, which is where we are likely to find enough Linear A to finally decipher it.”

Thanks, Trevor!

Lost Old English Words.

Courtesy of JC, this enjoyable Wikipedia page features Old English words that did not survive into Modern English (although they really mean Standard Modern English, since a number survive in dialects, e.g. Old English āðexe ‘lizard’ survives as “rare/dialectal ask“). It’s divided into sections (Animals, Body parts, Colours, Other words); herewith one entry from each:

dūfedoppa: ‘pelican’.
earsgang: ‘anus’ (literally arse-exit).
weolucbasu: ‘purple’. Literally ‘whelk-purple’.
hæmed, liger: ‘sex’.

(Cf. “we’ll get ’em all back.”) Thanks, John!

Classics’ Relationship With Translation.

Johanna Hanink, an associate professor of Classics at Brown University, has a fascinating discussion of classicists and translation at Eidolon; it’s so full of good things I’m going to have a hard time extracting representative samples, so if you like the bits I quote, go read the whole thing:

Yet our pedagogical reliance on translation habituates us to thinking about language learning in strange ways. In a brief overview of the history of translation, Juliane House observes that “At the end of the eighteenth century the teaching of Latin had turned into a highly formalized ritual, the idea being to instil discipline into students’ minds.” Two and a half centuries later, not much seems to have changed. I remember sitting in high school Latin class with a copy of Mandelbaum’s Aeneid under my desk, feeling like a kid in the outfield praying the ball never flies her way. For me, the “ritual” of in-class translation became linked early on with fear of humiliation.

This kind of pedagogy also hinders the development of real comprehension, since, among other things, it encourages students to translate Greek and Latin into their native languages even when they read on their own. We know that’s not how you learn a language; it’s also a hard habit to break. […]

In 2015, I met a journalist named Konstantinos Poulis in Greece. Poulis is also a talented fiction writer who had published a well-received collection of short stories called Thermostat the previous year. When I read the first story, “The Leonardo DiCaprio of Exarcheia,” I was so compelled by the narrative that I wanted more people to be able to read it too. Over the next couple of years, Poulis and I spoke often about finding an English-language translator for his work. When that proved difficult, I decided to try for myself.

As much as I had loved reading “Leonardo,” translating it was another story. This was the first time I had ever attempted a literary translation, a translation stripped of quotation marks. Before, when I had “translated” Greek and Latin passages as part of my scholarly work, I had mostly been concerned with showing readers how — and even simply that — I understood the texts. But with Poulis and Thermostat, something more was at stake. I wanted to do justice to my friend’s writing and help him to build his reputation in the Anglophone literary world. Euripides and Plato had never needed anything like that from me. […]

Soon after “The Leonardo DiCaprio of Exarcheia” appeared in English, I met Rob Tempio, an executive editor at Princeton University Press, and he suggested to me that something from Thucydides could work well for the Press’s “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” series. I was heartened to hear him agree that he, too, was puzzled by the exalted position that Thucydides’ Athenians enjoy in American political discourse. The prospect of retranslating and reintroducing Pericles’ funeral oration and the Melian Dialogue — and of gently subverting the “ancient wisdom for modern readers” concept —did seem like a productive and creative way of encouraging people to revisit their assumptions about the text.

She gets accepted to a workshop at Princeton in literary translation and wound up “on an unforgiving daily schedule of translating Thucydides after breakfast and Poulis after lunch”:
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A clever initiative from Australia — indigemoji. From the About page:

This project began with a tweet. A tweet featuring a list of emojis with Arrernte words next to them. A tweet the internet couldn’t get enough of.

A few of us had recently been discussing why there weren’t any Indigenous Australian emojis out there. We didn’t have a good answer, except perhaps for the obvious – that no-one had made any yet. And then we saw the tweet and we knew it was time, so we rang Joel. Soon we had a team of emoji bosses in place – Joel Liddle Perrule, Veronica Dobson Perrurle and Kathleen Wallace Kemarre and together we began dreaming of what a set of emojis from Central Australia could look like. […]

Indigemoji is now a sticker set of 90 emojis representing life, culture and language of Arrernte Country in Central Australia, closely considered and guided by our emoji bosses. Each has an Arrente name, the traditional language of Mparntwe/Alice Springs, words we hope you’ll learn. We’ve also developed emojis for special totemic species, either endangered or extinct. A simple emoji of a bilby or a bandicoot promotes their memory, their name, their places in the landscape where they sprang into existence in the Altyerre and where they moved about on their epic journeys. This way they remain in our landscape.

There are links to Apmere angkentye-kenhe, a site about Central/Eastern Arrernte, and a Māori emoji site. (Arrernte previously at LH: tongue twister, Dreaming.) Thanks, Bathrobe!