Stanley Insler, RIP.

I was shocked to see Victor Mair’s post Stanley Insler, 1937-2019 at the Log just now. Mair writes:

Stanley was born on June 23, 1937 in New York City and received his B.A. from Columbia College in 1957. He did postgraduate studies at the University of Tübingen (1960-1962), carried out research at the University of Madras, and received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1963. In the same year he became a member of the faculty at Yale where he remained until his retirement in 2012. Stanley served as Chair of the Department of Linguistics from 1978-1989. […]

Stanley’s translation of the Avestan Gāthās is widely regarded as the modern standard. He made a conspicuous contribution to the study of the Gāthās by contesting the extreme ritualistic interpretation applied to them by earlier scholars. […]

In the Grammatik der Prakrit-Sprachen by Thomas Oberlies and Richard Pischel, Stanley’s insight into the mutual influence of phonological and morphological change in Pali is enshrined as “Insler’s Law” […].

Upon learning of Stanley’s passing, Don Ringe exclaimed, “This is quite a shock; Stanley was planning to attend the East Coast Indo-European Conference here in June. He was a good friend, a good colleague, and a great Sanskritist and Indo-Iranianist.”

Stephanie Jamison adds, “He was an inspiring — and exacting — teacher.”

Stanley taught me Sanskrit back in the early ’70s, and I was in awe of his knowledge of the Indo-Iranian languages and his eagerness to impart it to his students. He was, as Stephanie says, exacting, and we didn’t get along especially well — he was appalled by both my disinclination to learn devanagari (I was an Indo-Europeanist, not a Sanskritist, and I only cared about the linguistic material, not the writing system) and my tendency to show up in class clutching a cup of coffee (hey, it was my first class in the morning and I was barely awake), and I was put off by his sarcasm and occasionally harsh treatment of students (though in that he didn’t differ much from the rest of the grad school faculty). But I respected the hell out of him, and I’m sorry he’s gone. There aren’t many scholars of his caliber.

Free Rice Again, plus Māori.

Back in 2007, I posted about Free Rice, explaining it thus: “They give you a word with four possible definitions; pick the right one and they donate ten grains of rice to a hungry person through an aid agency.” Well, Lars (the original one) was kind and/or cruel enough to post a comment letting everyone know “This still works, and now has levels up to 60. […] The challenge is on!” I immediately got sucked back in, spending way too much time on it: I got 132 in a row right before guessing wrong on “ragi,” and I managed to get up to level 59 before leaving it alone for long enough it (mercifully) forgot who I was and wanted to start me at level 1 again, at which point I closed the tab. (One nice feature: when you guess wrong, it will give you the same word again soon enough you’ll probably remember the correct definition.) At any rate, give it a try; it’s still fun, and it still feeds people.

And in trying to find out about one of the wildly obscure words, I discovered the online Māori Dictionary, which is wonderful: you can click on a button and hear the words said aloud, and their About page says “In 2009 the sounds of all the native birds were added to the dictionary.” What a great thing to put online!


My wife was listening to the radio and was surprised to hear a piece by Percy Grainger identified as “The Gumsuckers’ March.” Upon investigation, it turned out that gumsucker means ‘an Australian especially from Victoria,’ “probably from the children’s habit of sucking gum exuded by eucalyptus trees.” Is this piquant term still in use?

Ben Hur.

My wife and I were watching the 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston, which is not as bad as I had vaguely remembered (though it is too slow and full of over-the-top pompous music), and it occurred to me to wonder about the name. The Wikipedia article Judah Ben-Hur has an etymology section that reads as follows:

Wallace wrote that he chose the name Ben-Hur “because it was biblical, and easily spelled, printed and pronounced.” The name appears once in the Bible (Hebrew: בן־חור‎), as the name of one of King Solomon’s twelve district governors (1 Kings 4:8). Whether that was a proper name, or the person was being referred to as “the son of Hur” is not clear. The specific meaning of “Hur” is also unclear; among other possibilities, it may mean “something white” or “hollow or depressed ground”.

I imagine they’re right about Wallace’s vague ideas on the subject, but I was wondering if any of my readers might have useful thoughts about Hur, the Hebrew name/word.

Gluten in Russian.

I love Maciej Cegłowski’s writing; his blog Idle Words is well worth keeping an eye on, and his latest post, Gluten Free Antarctica, is part of his hilarious account of a trip to that fabled continent. I knew I’d enjoy it but didn’t expect to be posting about it here; fortunately, there’s a linguistic hook, however feeble, that gives me an excuse:

Far below the Antarctic circle, I watch a woman cry real tears because she can’t get gluten-free toast. […]

Rodney convenes a summit in the ship’s auditorium to address the gluten crisis. Only passengers with dietary restrictions are invited. The rest of us must huddle around the open hatch one deck above, straining to hear. We are deep in the Ross Sea, five hundred miles from the nearest human being, and this is the most exciting thing that has happened on the ship in weeks.

There are tears of laughter on the bridge when I tell the Russian crew about the Great Antarctic Glutiny.

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Bedtime Stories from Kolyma.

Yesterday a package arrived which turned out to be a Christmas present from jamessal, Russian Literature since 1991 (thanks, Jim!), and I’ve already started reading it; rather than a general survey (“chapters with a large number of unknown authors’ names can easily overwhelm the reader”) the authors discuss “twenty-eight prose texts, three plays, and ten poetic oeuvres,” which makes for a meaty read. Evgeny Dobrenko’s chapter “Recycling of the Soviet” includes an account of what sounds like a wild novel, Мифогенная любовь каст [The mythogenous love of castes, pub. 1999-2002] by Pavel Peppershtein and Sergei Anufriev, in which party organizer Vladimir Dunaev, shell-shocked at the beginning of WWII, ends up in a forest where he lives on hallucinogenic mushrooms and participates in the war only in delirium; Dobrenko writes:

The narrative of The Mythogenic Love of Castes unfolds as a reworking of children’s images in a narcotic nightmare in which a war turns into unspeakable violence that nonetheless reads like a child’s game. This veritable hybrid of terror and a game turns out to be a window into reality. As Peppershtein recalled, he “as a child learned how to fall asleep to Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, which were read on the BBC after the View from London broadcast. They worked like a tranquilizer, although – or indeed because? – their content was horrifying.”

What a thing to experience as a child! (I wrote about the Shalamov book here.) Here’s the Russian version of the BBC memory:

Он вспоминает, как в детстве научился засыпать под “Колымские рассказы” Шаламова, которые читались по Би-би-си после передачи “Глядя из Лондона”. Они действовали как транквилизатор, хотя — или именно потому что? — их содержание было ужасным.

Incidentally, Peppershtein’s parents were Viktor and Irina Pivovarov, but neither the English nor Russian Wikipedia article explains when and why he changed his name. The same is true of another Moscow Conceptual artist, Andrei Monastyrski (English, Russian Wikipedia): when and why did he change his name from Sumnin? And where is the stress on the unusual name Sumnin? So many questions!

Bistraynti `Alaykun.

Elie Wardini at Qifa Nabki posted back at the start of 2010 about an interesting Lebanese New Year’s greeting:

In Lebanon, and I am told that it is also the case among Christians in Jordan and Syria, we have a traditional new year’s greeting:

we say: bistraynte @layk/ @layke/ @laykon etc.

What this greeting means is that my *bistrayne* (i.e. new year’s gift) is on you, [so] you have to give me the gift.

He says Anis Frayha derives this from Latin strenae, “the gifts that Romans exchanged on January 1st,” and continues:

Frayha’s explanation seems to be acceptable, but what do we do with the initial *b* in *bistrayne*.

One possibility could be to consider *b* as the English *by God*. cp. to Lebanese (considered to be vulgar nowadays) *balla* meaning *by God* so our term becomes *b-strayne* = by Strenae => becomes lexicalized to gift. It istreated as any feminine noun: => bistraynt- in construct state.

The element *ay* may be concieved of as a deminutive. But could also be a diphthongisation of the *e* in *Strenae* (if Frayha’s explanation holds).

Commenters discuss French étrennes ‘New Year gifts,’ which of course derives from the Latin, but as Wardini says, this does not have the -s- and so cannot be the direct source. I’ll be interested in whatever thoughts people have about this, and I thank Steven for the link; in any case, I wish all my readers a happy new year in 2019!

Ten, Hundred.

Anatoly Liberman is an etymologist whose style I often find confusing and off-putting, and in this OUPBlog post from last year I have a hard time figuring out what he’s saying. He’s discussing the etymology of hundred, and after his usual rambling introduction he gets to the heart of it:

In the remotest past, hund– must have meant “ten” rather than “hundred”; however, the picture is confusing. In Gothic, a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century, the word hunda (a neuter plural noun) means “a hundred” (like Latin centum). Yet taihun-tehund (read the digraph ai as English short e), either “ten-ten” or “tenth-ten,” depending on how we divide this word (not inconceivably, taihunte-hund), also existed and also meant “a hundred.” In Old English, we find similar words, for instance, hund-seofontig “seventy,” and wonder how hund “ten” and –tig, another word for “ten,” coexisted in one language and in one numeral. There can be only one answer. By the time of our recorded monuments (and Gothic predates the texts in Old English by more than three centuries), at least some of those compounds must have become so opaque (“disguised”) that the tautology was no longer heard. Let us keep in mind that Engl. ten goes back to Old Engl. tēn and further to some form like Gothic taihun. Since Germanic h corresponds to non-Germanic k, the pair taihun ~ Latin decem is perfect. With regard to ten, whose distant origin does not interest us at this moment, we have no problems.

The natural question arises whether hund– and ten, the alleged synonyms, can be related, and why have two words for “ten”? [Excursus on ablaut omitted.] Fortified with this information, we may look at hund– ~ cent and ten. In Germanic, the zero grade was usually filled by the vowel u. And this is exactly the vowel we find in hund-. Consequently, the initial stage of hund– was hnd– in an unstressed syllable. Germanic h corresponds to non-Germanic k, just as t corresponds to d (taihun ~ decem). […] Hund– (from hnd-) is a good match for cent(um), except that it has the zero grade, while centum has a so-called full grade. It appears that Indo-European did have two words for “ten.” In Germanic, they were represented by some forms like hnd– and tehn-.

Gothic hunda means ‘hundred.’ Latin centum means ‘hundred.’ Hundred means ‘hundred.’ Where is he getting this “two words for ‘ten’” thing? Can anyone make sense of this?

Dipping into Fallon.

Last year Dick & Garlick had a couple of posts about what sounds like a delightful dictionary. Dipping into Fallon’s Dictionary begins:

S W Fallon’s A New Hindustani-English Dictionary (1879) is regarded as one of the most remarkable works of Indian lexicography. With its illustrations from folklore, proverbs, songs, and literature, it is a lot more than a mere dictionary: like that other great glossary of the colonial era, Hobson-Jobson, it carves up an entire culture and serves it up in tasty, chewable bits. Fallon took up the language of north India in the late 19th century as his field of study, the common colloquial speech which was then being thrust out of sight in official use as well as literature by an artificial written language of ‘stiff pompous words, strange Arabic sounds which have no meaning for the people, and the dull cold clay of Sanskrit forms’. As Ambarish Satwik writes in his column, to open Fallon is to ‘see the invisible stream that flows all around us, full of things we have left unsaid’:

On its pages is found the sap and wit of the north Indian vernacular: the common stock of allusions that once played in the minds and memories of its speakers and disseminators. Language that is both ordinary and heightened, rank and sweet, and lingers in the mind. To borrow from Kenneth Burke, language that brings out the thisness of that or the thatness of this.

In an article in Dawn, Rauf Parekh writes that Fallon knew the value of field research in lexicography. With the help of his native informants, he recorded the words and idioms used by women, and interviewed ordinary people to understand usage and pronunciation. In an aside, Parekh notes that this led Fallon to use lewd or taboo words ‘and he sort of developed a taste for such expressions’.

Fallon’s lack of prudery and his emphasis on descriptive rather than prescriptive lexicography is what sets him apart from most Hindi/Urdu lexicographers. It also makes his dictionary a great read. Satwik recommends a weekly dip into its pages, which I think is a most excellent idea. So here’s a first dubki into Fallon’s ocean of words […]

I’ll leave you to discover the delights of Ardor urinae at the link; the following week’s post was Dipping into Fallon – 2, where he cites the entry for “خايه/ khā’yā, n. m. 1. Membrum virile. […] 2. Testicles.” Lexicography can be a lot of fun.

In Search of Russian Modernism.

This appears to be the season of Leonid Livak for me. I first wrote about him back in 2015 after reading his How It Was Done In Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism, a book I still consult with profit and pleasure; last week I got A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg and wrote about it here, and now Johns Hopkins University Press has sent me a copy of his In Search of Russian Modernism, which I had the good fortune of copyediting a couple of years ago. It’s rare that I reread books I’ve edited, but this is different: its argument was so original, and the discussion so dense, that I can only really appreciate it now that it’s sunk in a bit (and I’ve learned more about the period). I’ll quote some passages from the introduction so you can see what he’s up to (you can also read the JHU Press Blog newsletter post he wrote about it).
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