‘Fog’, where ‘Fog’ means Fog.

Via the Facebook feed of Squiffy-Marie von Bladet, I bring you Michael Frayn’s “Fog-like Sensations.” It begins:

(According to some sympathisers, the reason why drivers on the motorways failed to slow down in thick fog recently, and so crashed into each other in multiple collisions of up to thirty vehicles, was simply because the authorities had failed to provide illuminated signs explaining that the fog was fog. This is a situation on which Wittgenstein made one or two helpful remarks in a previously unpublished section of Philosophical Investigations.)

694. Someone says, with every sign of bewilderment (wrinkled forehead, widened eyes, an anxious set to the mouth): “I do not know there is fog on the road unless it is accompanied by an illuminated sign saying ‘fog’.”

When we hear this, we feel dizzy. We experience the sort of sensations that go with meeting an old friend one believed was dead. I want to say: “But this is the man philosophers are always telling us about! This is the man who does not understand—the man who goes on asking for explanations after everything has been explained!”

(A sort of Socratic Oliver Twist. Compare the feelings one would have on meeting Oliver Twist in the flesh. “And now I want you to meet Oliver Twist.”—“But…!”)

695. Now I feel a different sort of excitement. I see in a flash a thought forming as it were before my mind’s eye—“This is at last the sort of situation which philosophers have always waited for—the sort of situation in which one as a philosopher can offer practical help!”

It becomes ever more baroque and funny. At the end, Steve Petersen (who posted it at his site) says “Also see Jerry Fodor’s spoof, inspired by Frayn.” The word “spoof” ordinarily suggests humor, but Fodor did not get even a smile out of me. That’s the difference between a writer and a philosopher, I guess.

The Mystery of Fillers.

Back in 2009 we had a lengthy discussion of “Filler words in different languages”; now Dan Nosowitz reports for Atlas Obscura on the linguistics of the subject:

Until about 20 years ago, few linguists paid filled pauses much attention. They were seen as not very interesting, a mere expulsion of sound to take up space while the speaker figures out what to say next. (In Russian, filled pauses are called “parasite sounds,” which is kind of rude.) But since then, interest in filled pauses has exploded. There are conferences about them. Researchers around the globe, in dozens of different languages, dedicate themselves to studying them. And yet they still remain poorly understood, especially as new forms of discourse begin popping up. […]

Though some researchers have insisted that filled pauses are individual words in their own right, with distinct meanings, many believe that there’s something more fundamental about them. With a few exceptions, filled pauses exist in every language, and are weirdly similar. In English, it’s “uh” or “um,” in Mandarin it’s “en,” in French it’s “euh,” in Hindi it’s “hoonm,” in Swedish “ohm.”

These are all very similar; essentially, they’re a centered vowel which may or may not be followed by a nasal consonant. […]

There are very few elements of language that are consistent amongst English, Mandarin, French, Hindi, and Swedish. And yet this one is pretty much the same.

We don’t really know where filled pauses came from, partly because, Twitter aside for the moment, they are oral sounds, and very unlikely to be found in historical written records. (Scholars have the same problem with swear words.) “Despite the lack of records about historical filler usage, it’s probably safe to assume that fillers have always been a part of human language,” says Katharine Hilton, a linguist at Stanford University who studies (among other things) filled pauses. “The reason for this is because they’re very useful words and communicate a lot of information to the listener.” The very earliest recordings of the human voice show that Thomas Edison was an avid user of “uh” and “um.” That’s about as far back as our data goes, but it seems fair to assume they go back further than that. These non-words, these mistakes, these errors: these are basic building blocks of language.

There’s interesting stuff about Japanese (where the most common fillers are ano and eto) and about second-language learning (Ralph Rose, a professor at Waseda University, “believes that filled pauses should be a significant part of language classes”). Thanks, Trevor!

Patricia Crampton, RIP.

Julia Eccleshare’s Guardian obit for the translator Patricia Crampton makes an interesting companion piece to my recent post on Leon Dostert, since both were involved with the Nuremberg trial:

Patricia Crampton, who has died aged 90, was an award-winning translator with an exceptional talent for making some of the best of European children’s literature come alive for English readers. Describing herself and the role of her work as “a performing rather than a creative artist”, she was also a vigorous campaigner for greater recognition for translators – specifically, their right to receive a share of Public Lending Right (PLR) money when books they had translated were borrowed from public libraries.

Having been born in India, she was fluent in Hindi as well as English, and later rapidly picked up nine European languages: French, which she learnt as a child, German and Russian, which she studied as a student, and Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Norwegian and Dutch, all of which she taught herself as her professional life developed.

She translated more than 200 books for children and 50 for adults, and was widely acclaimed in both fields for the exceptional quality of her work. […]

Her career began far from children’s books – as a translator at the Nuremberg trials in 1947. Daughter of Vera (nee Kells) and Leslie Cardew-Wood, Patricia was born in Bombay, where her father, an engineer, installed refrigeration units. […] The family settled in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in 1930, when Patricia was five. She began learning French and translated poetry as a hobby.

At 16 she won a place to read modern languages at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she principally studied French and German, with Russian as a subsidiary. She was always keen to use her languages as a translator, but at the time translation was viewed as a cottage industry, which meant she received little encouragement in that direction, even from her college principal, who once asked her: “Is there such a profession?”

On graduating in 1946, she hoped to travel to Germany and France, but her father was unwilling to let her go. Instead she went to Sweden, where she taught English and fell in love with the Swedish language. She returned to London in 1947, landing the job at Nuremberg. […]

Crampton spent two years in Nuremberg before returning to London, where she worked as a translator for several international companies and for Nato, until a chance meeting led her to the publisher Jonathan Cape, who asked if she could translate Danish. Although she had never done so before, she was sure she could. And so began a lifetime of literary translations for adults and children.

Thanks, Trevor!


I was reading Victoria Lomasko’s “In Tbilisi,” an excerpt from her new book Other Russias (out March 7 from n+1), which I’m very much looking forward to, and was struck by this passage:

In the Caucasus, there is a term for correct behavior on the part of the individual in society: namus, in Azerbaijani and Armenian, and namusi in Georgian. For men, namus means honor and conscience. For women, namus is bound up only with their sexual behavior, with their availability to men.

I assumed it was originally Arabic, and so it is, but of course it was transmitted to the Caucasus via Persian, and Platts (A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English) has the following entry:

ناموس nāmūs (v.n. fr. نمس ‘to conceal (a secret),’ &c.), s.f. Reputation, fame, renown; esteem, honour, grace, dignity;—disgrace, reproach, shame;—the female part of a family:—nāmus-ě-akbar, ‘The great secretary,’ the angel Gabriel.

Both ‘esteem, honour’ and ‘disgrace, shame’: a classic antonym!

Language and Identity II.

Adam Taylor reports for the Washington Post on an interesting study:

On Wednesday afternoon, Pew Research Center released a study that looked at how national identity is defined across 14 different countries using survey data taken at the start of last year. In light of the ongoing debate about immigration in pretty much every part of the world, it makes for illustrative reading.

It turns out, for example, that most Americans don’t believe that where someone is born really defines whether they can be American or not. In fact, only a handful of the countries Pew surveyed thought this was important. And while America is a country well-known for its talk of values and God, most Americans don’t think that customs and religion are really important to being an American — and neither do most other countries.

Instead, Pew’s study found that in every country its researchers looked at, language was what really bound its national identity. The highest result was found in the Netherlands, where more than 84 percent of the population believes it is vital to speak Dutch if you want to truly be Dutch. But in all countries, a majority said it was “very important” to speak the national language.

This is not, of course, shocking news; as Taylor points out, Eric Hobsbawm wrote about it a long time ago. But the details are worth looking at, and I urge you to check out the table presented at the link. It ends with what is to me a heartening conclusion:

But things may change. For one thing, immigration also influences language: Germany has developed a colloquial language, “Kiezdeutsch,” which is primarily used by German speakers whose native tongue is Turkish or Arabic. Additionally, Pew’s data suggests that there is a big generational divide on whether language is very important for identity in most countries. In America, that shift is especially pronounced: While 81 percent of those age 50 or older say language is very important to national identity, only 58 percent of those age 18 to 34 agree.

Thanks, Eric! [N.b.: Retitled because I discovered I already had a post called Language and Identity.]


Philocothonista, or, The drunkard, opened, dissected, and anatomized, by Thomas Heywood, includes a chapter with the following splendid list of approved synonyms:

I come now to the penall Statutes enacted for diverse forfeitures, upon most grave and mature deliberation, No man must call a Good-fellow Drunkard, for that’s a name of reproach and indignity, as quite extermin’d out of their learned Society: But if at any time they spy that defect one in another, they may without any forfeit or iust exceptions taken, say; He is Foxt, Hee is Flaw’d, Hee is Flusterd, Hee is Suttle, Cupshot, Cut in the Leg or Backe, Hee hath seene the French King, He hath swallowed an Haire or a Taverne-Token, Hee hath hipt the Cat, He hath been at the Scriveners and learn’d to make Indentures, Hee hath bit his Grannam, or is bit by a Barne-Weesell, with an hundred such like adages and sentences, extracte out of the most Authentick Authors in their Liberary.

Philocothonista is presumably from κώθων ‘Laconian drinking-vessel.’ (Many thanks to Trevor for the link!)

Pisemsky’s Thousand Souls II.

I’ve finished Alexei Pisemsky’s Тысяча душ [One Thousand Souls] (see this post), so I thought I’d provide a few final thoughts. The novel is in four parts; he started writing it in 1854, under the heavy censorship of that period, and finished it under the much freer conditions that prevailed after the Crimean War. Even so, the fourth and most controversial part was published (in June 1858) only through the forceful intervention of Ivan Goncharov, who was a censor at the time; Pisemsky remained grateful to him all his life. He had originally planned to call the book Умный человек [A clever man], a phrase that occurs several times in it, but changed it to foreground the riches that are the object of Kalinovich’s striving — or rather, the necessary means to his ultimate goal, which is to use his intelligence and energy to help reform his slothful, corrupt country.

In order to achieve that goal, he finds himself taking actions that hurt people he loves, make enemies, and (as he himself says) kill the best part of his soul. He who had wanted to be a writer becomes a cold, callous official — but one who is doing his best to clean out the Augean stable, no matter how many feathers are ruffled in the process. It’s an interesting narrative arc; the problem is that (as usual) the early parts, involving sinning and character interaction, are more engaging than the last bit, when he is trying to put his ideas into practice. Lots of novels (and movies, for that matter) fall off towards the end, and this is nowhere near as dire a falling-off as that in War and Peace (see this 2009 post); I kept reading with undiminished interest until the end, and I warmly recommend the book.

And now for a few random things that struck me. There are a couple of mentions of Nikolai Polevoy, a forgotten hero of the early 19th century who I wrote about here, which gave me pleasure; in fact, in Part III, chap. 5 a chunk of his translation of Hamlet is quoted. In Part III, chap. 4 there’s a reference to a Лёв Николаевич, which is interesting in that it shows there was a pronunciation of the name Лев [Lev] as “Lyov” but it wasn’t standard (or Pisemsky wouldn’t have felt it necessary to mark the ё). There’s a mention of confiscation of Polish estates for private gain that I’m astonished made it past the censor. And the most piquant bit of literary detritus is in in Part II, chap. 8, when Nastenka’s uncle “вдруг проговорил известный риторический пример: «Се тот, кто как и он, ввысь быстро, как птиц царь, порх вверх на Геликон!» Эка чепуха, заключил он.” [suddenly uttered the well-known rhetorical example: “Behold the one who, like him, quickly upward, like the king of birds, flitted up onto Helicon!” What nonsense, he concluded.] It took me a while, but I finally determined that this is a distorted quote of a parody of Count Khvostov published by members of the Arzamas Society, a clashing crunch of short words which originally read in full:

Се Росска Флакка зракъ! Се тотъ, кто какъ и онъ,
Выспрь быстро, какъ птицъ Царь, несъ звукъ на Геликонъ!
Се ликъ одъ, притчъ творца, Музъ чтителя, Свистова,
Кой поле испестрилъ Россійска красна слова!

(Hopefully, you can see it here.) The Soviet annotators of my edition, who scrupulously translated every bit of French (Adieu!, merci, etc.), passed over this in silence.

The Trials and Triumphs of Leon Dostert.

I’ve been wanting to post this article from the Occidental Magazine since I got the physical copy a year and a half ago (I’m an alumnus), but it takes the good people at Oxy a long, long time to put issues online. At any rate, here it is; it starts with Dostert’s creation of the simultaneous translation system that made the Nuremberg trial possible, then goes back to his scrappy beginnings:

Dostert was born on May 14, 1904, in Longwy, France, a fortress town near the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg. His father disappeared early on, and his mother died when he was very young, leaving his aunt and grandmother responsible for his upbringing. He later cited his humble beginnings as the driving force behind his ambition.

In late August 1914, during the opening battles of World War I, the Germans marched into Longwy after a devastating bombardment that left the fortress and parts of the town in ruins. Ten-year-old Dostert was forced to attend German schools for the next four years, ­effectively beginning his education in foreign languages. He proved so adept at German that when he was put to work after finishing elementary school, he was relieved of his duties loading cargo and given a cushier job as secretary to a German officer and translator between the Germans and the French. He remembered translating the Germans’ request for a light bulb and feeling such a thrill when the lights came on that he decided then and there to study languages.

When American soldiers arrived in 1918, Dostert quickly picked up English and became a “mascot” for an Army regiment stationed in Longwy. Among the soldiers was Henri St. Pierre ’21, who was so impressed with the French teenager that he arranged for him to emigrate to California in the spring of 1921. […]

In fall 1963, he joined the Occidental faculty as professor of French and chairman of the foreign languages department:

As he did wherever he went, Dostert changed the status quo during his six years at Oxy. At his suggestion, the department was renamed the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics. He initiated a master’s program in 1964, established a special program for teaching English to Spanish-speaking students, and pushed his younger colleagues to launch Oxy’s modern-day study-abroad program—which today is a vital component of the undergraduate experience. […]

In November 1967, Dostert was the subject of a collection of essays and articles ­titled Papers in Linguistics in Honor of Léon Dostert, prepared by fellow linguists as a tribute to his many achievements in the field. In his dedication, Professor William M. Austin of the Illinois Institute of Technology wrote of his longtime Georgetown colleague: “There is hardly a major linguist today in this country or Europe who does not know him personally, hardly a segment of linguistic endeavor that has not been touched by his thought, guidance, or initiated programs.”

Unfortunately, he retired in ’69, while I was there but still a math major; the next year I transferred to the department he essentially created, but (being distracted by life and the Vietnam War) I never learned anything about him at the time. Now, all these years later, I’m very glad to learn his story, and I encourage you to read the linked piece and do the same.


I’m on the fourth and last part of Pisemsky’s Тысяча душ [One Thousand Souls] (see this post), and in chapter 5 I ran across a phrase that baffled me: “затевает с ним шутки вроде жены Пентефрия” [played tricks with him like those of Pentefrii’s wife]. I finally remembered to look it up, and it turns out Пентефрий is an old Russian (or Church Slavic) equivalent of Potiphar; the modern Russian form is Потифар, exactly like the English. I suspected that the older form was from Greek, but it turns out the Greek is Πετεφρής — close, but no cigar. Where did the -n- come from? The Greek gave rise to a Latin form Petefre, of which Jerome says “non Petefre, ut in latino scriptum est, sed Phutiphar eunucho.” According to Wikipedia, “Potiphar (Hebrew: פוטיפר‎‎) is the shortened form of the Egyptian name ‘Potiphera’ meaning ‘he whom Ra gave.’ This is analogous to the name ‘Theodore’=’God’s gift’ in the Western world.” A confusing mess, which I sum up here for the benefit of those who might encounter one of these forms and wonder what’s going on.

Incidentally, as I say on the Talk page for the Wikipedia article:

I tried to add ru:Жена Потифара (“Potiphar’s wife”) and got: “The link ruwiki:Жена Потифара is already used by item Q15732436. You may remove it from Q15732436 if it does not belong there or merge the items if they are about the exact same topic.” I don’t know enough to know what the deal is with Q15732436, but it’s not a Wikipedia article, and it’s ridiculous that there’s a Russian Wikipedia article on this exact topic that cannot be linked to it. I hope someone more knowledgeable than I will fix this.

So if you know what’s going on there and how to remedy the situation, be my guest.

Update. It turns out the Wikipedia system is basically working as designed; see January First-of-May’s comment below. This Wikiworld is too complex for me.

Stephen Owen Translates Du Fu.

Stephen Owen has translated all of Du Fu. Big deal, you say, people are always translating other people? Well, what if I tell you that (to quote Jon, who sent the link to me) “It’s a remarkable piece of work! The translations are beautifully lucid and can be read as poetry, but it’s a critical edition and so has a big, unobstrusive, very satisfying apparatus. Oh, and it’s 3,000 pages long.” Sounds great, you say, I wish I could afford things like that? Well, what if I tell you De Gruyter has put the whole thing online to download for free? Just click the “Table of Contents” link and you’ll get a page from which you can download pdfs of as many sections as you want. Here’s their Aims and Scope statement:

The Complete Poetry of Du Fu presents a complete scholarly translation of Chinese literature alongside the original text in a critical edition. The English translation is more scholarly than vernacular Chinese translations, and it is compelled to address problems that even the best traditional commentaries overlook.

The main body of the text is a facing page translation and critical edition of the earliest Song editions and other sources. For convenience the translations are arranged following the sequence in Qiu Zhao’an’s Du shi xiangzhu (although Qiu’s text is not followed). Basic footnotes are included when the translation needs clarification or supplement. Endnotes provide sources, textual notes, and a limited discussion of problem passages. A supplement references commonly used allusions, their sources, and where they can be found in the translation.

Scholars know that there is scarcely a Du Fu poem whose interpretation is uncontested. The scholar may use this as a baseline to agree or disagree. Other readers can feel confident that this is a credible reading of the text within the tradition. A reader with a basic understanding of the language of Chinese poetry can use this to facilitate reading Du Fu, which can present problems for even the most learned reader.

This is an amazing gift to the world from De Gruyter, and I offer them my heartfelt appreciation. Also, Owen is a good guy and an enjoyable writer; from the “Du Fu Lore and Translation Conventions” section, here’s a sample:

Who’s Hu? Non-Han

By and large people doing Tang studies have fortunately abandoned the blanket term “barbarian” for the non-Han peoples with whom the Tang was engaged. I restrict “barbarian” to the word lu 虜, a contemptuous, pejorative term for non-Han without ethnic distinction. There are archaic terms, there are vague regional terms, and precise designations of peoples and polities. After long brooding I have decided to use the Romanization for Hu 胡. Hu refers primarily to the Indo-European inhabitants of Central Asia, such as the Sogdians, but it was applied more loosely to all non-Han peoples of the north and northwest. In Du Fu it is also used for northeasterners and on rare occasions, for the Tibetans. Du Fu often describes the rebels as Hu, so when he refers to the Uighurs, who were Tang allies, he often does so with ethnic precision, Huihu 回鶻. The northeastern peoples were most commonly referred to as Yi 夷, though sometimes Du Fu uses the more precise ethnic designations “Blond-heads,” huangtou 黃頭, and Xi 奚. Toward the west were the Qiang 羌, between the Tibetans, the Uighurs, and the Chinese. The Tibetans were China’s major adversary in the eighth century. They are often referred to anachronistically as the Rong 戎 or the Dog Rong, Quanrong 犬戎, the ancient adversaries of the Zhou dynasty. The equally anachronistic term for northern peoples was Di 狄. This is similar to the Magyars becoming Hun-garians, or the Germans in World War I being referred to as “Huns.”

(I should note that there is only one “Allusions” section, even though it is listed for each volume, so you only have to download it once.) Thanks, Jon!