Mitanni Palace Discovered.

A University of Tübingen press release reports on an exciting discovery:

German and Kurdish archaeologists have uncovered a Bronze Age palace on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. As the international research team reports, the site of Kemune can be dated to the time of the Mittani Empire, which dominated large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria from the 15th to the 14th century BCE. The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched kingdoms of the Ancient Near East. The archaeologists now hope to obtain new information about the politics, economy, and history of the empire by studying cuneiform tablets discovered in the palace. […]

The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some seven meters. Two phases of usage are clearly visible, Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time. Inside the palace, the team identified several rooms and partially excavated eight of them. In some areas, they found large fired bricks which were used as floor slabs. Ten Mittani cuneiform clay tablets were discovered and are currently being translated and studied by the philologist Dr. Betina Faist (University of Heidelberg). One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was most probably the ancient city of Zakhiku, which is mentioned in one Ancient Near Eastern source as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC). This indicates the city must have existed for at least 400 years. Future text finds will hopefully show whether this identification is correct.

Oddly, they don’t say what language the tablets are in, but I presume it’s the too-little-known Hurrian. I have to admit I thought the press release was misspelling Mitanni, but the German Wikipedia article is Mittani, so it’s just a different convention (it occurs in cuneiform as both Mi-ta-an-ni and Mi-it-ta-ni).

Romeo and Juliet Don Land for Pidgin.

A couple of years ago I posted about BBC World Service’s then-new Pidgin service for West Africa; now I present a BBC story about a Nigerian production of Shakespeare:

Rukevwe and Julie na di name of di pidgin version of di play as Bernard Ogini write am. For dis video, Bernard wit some students of university of Ibadan south west Nigeria breakdown all di ogbonge english to pidgin so evribodi go fit understand am.

Benard say im want make pidgin become national language for Nigeria because na language wey everybody dey understand even wen dem no go school. “I wan use my talent change how pipo dey see pidgin language, I wan make dem begin teach di language for school for we kontri” na so Bernard tok.

I’m posting it for the sake of the video, which is fun to watch in and of itself (and has Pidgin subtitles to help out) and which contains, at the 0:58 mark (“fit dey our own culture”), a brief shot of our own bulbul, aka Slavomír Čéplö, enjoying the performance!

Feminine Nouns as Insults.

Amanda Montell writes for Medium about the well-known phenomenon of the negative marking of nouns for women:

Nearly every word the English language offers to describe a woman has, at some point during its lifespan, been colored some shade of obscene. The main piece of evidence for this tendency toward women’s linguistic disparagement appears when you examine certain matched pairs of gendered words. Compare, for example, “sir” and “madam”: 300 years ago, both were used as formal terms of address. But with time, madam evolved to mean a conceited or precocious girl, then a kept mistress or prostitute, and then, finally, a woman who manages a brothel. All that excitement while the meaning of sir just stuck where it was.

A similar thing happened with “master” and “mistress”: These terms came to English by way of Old French, and initially, both words indicated a person in a position of authority. Only the feminine term was contaminated over the decades to mean a sexually promiscuous woman with whom a married man, as linguist Muriel Schulz puts it, “habitually fornicates.” […]

In some instances, the process of pejoration rebrands a feminine word as an insult—not for women, but for men. Take the words “buddy” and “sissy”: Today, we might use sissy to describe a weak or overly effeminate man, while buddy is a synonym for a close pal. We don’t think of these words as being related, but in the beginning, buddy and sissy were abbreviations of the words “brother” and “sister.” Over the years, the masculine term ameliorated, while the feminine term went the other way, flushing down the semantic toilet until it plunked onto its current meaning: a man who is weak and pathetic, just like a woman. Linguists have actually determined that the majority of insults for men sprout from references to femininity, either from allusions to women themselves or to stereotypically feminine men: wimp, candy-ass, motherfucker.

She discusses hussy, tart, slut, bitch, and cunt; unfortunately, her attempts at pre-English etymology are misguided (bitch is not “derived from the ancient Sanskrit word bhagas, meaning ‘genitals'” [it can only be traced back to Old English] and cunt is not from “the Proto-Indo-European word sound ‘cu,’ which indicated femininity” [!]), but she has a lively way of describing the within-English developments. Thanks, Trevor!

And I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team for their splendid World Cup victory. To quote the magnificent Megan Rapinoe, “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team — it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there!”


An Etymological Dictionary of Arabic Language and Culture (EtymArab) “is a project for establishing an etymologico-conceptual dictionary of the Arabic language, covering roots and terms of particular significance for the mental and cultural history of the Arabs”:

It is the aim of this project to provide a tool that highlights Arab cultural history through the history of the vocabulary of the Arabic language. The project can build on earlier studies in a large variety of different disciplines. It can also profit from specialists’ expertise. At the same time it is eager to make it accessible for related disciplines. It concentrates on fuṣḥā and on roots and terms of particular significance for the Arabs’ mental and cultural history, such as modes of living, cultural techniques, religion, philosophy, society, politics, etc. from the earliest to our times. But in the beginning it is focusing on vocabulary in present-day use.

Although one of the major languages of the world, Arabic has still not yet its etymological dictionary. It is the aim of the EtymArab project to provide such a tool. However, unlike ‘traditional’ etymological dictionaries, which tend to focus on ‘purely’ linguistic findings, EtymArab is interested not only in the linguistic data, but also in their historical background: it takes the history of Arabic vocabulary as a basis for highlighting Arab cultural history and the history of key concepts.

In this respect, EtymArab is not only a project of Arabic and, of course, Semitic and Afroasian linguistics. It rather combines etymology (in its classical form) with the various disciplines of Arab cultural history (political, social, economic, religious history of the Middle East, history of concepts/ideas, all kinds of culture studies, incl. the history of sciences, esp. botanics, pharmacology, chemistry, astronomy; archaeological and genetic findings may also become relevant).

They say “there exist already a number of etymological dictionaries of other Semitic or Afroasian languages…. It will be one of EtymArab’s major tasks, therefore, on the one hand, to collect and process existing material. On the other hand, however, this process will make a large number of research lacunas apparent.” They link to some sample entries, e.g., ǧamal ‘camel’ and zanǧabīl ‘ginger’; the layout is a bit chaotic, but as they warn: “work in progress!” I have often lamented the lack of an Arabic etymological dictionary, starting back in 2004; I heartily approve of this project and wish it every success. (Thanks, Yoram!)

Not Recommended Reading.

Eliot Weinberger (see this LH post) has a piece so titled in the 7 September 2017 LRB (subscriber-only, but I think non-subscribers can access three articles a month) that begins thus:

The Whirling Eye (1920) by Thomas W. Benson and Charles S. Wolfe
A psychiatrist, visiting an insane asylum, discovers his old friend Professor Mehlman, who declares that he has been unjustly incarcerated merely because he is in love with a Venusian. Mehlman had constructed a giant telescope in the Andes to observe life on Venus. In the course of his studies, he had become smitten by the sight of a beautiful Venusian female, whom he kept watching.

A Weird Appointment
(1901) by Harry S. Tedrow
At the local diner, a waitress tells the narrator that a Martian has moved into town. Going by the name of Miss Dora Wolf, she is part of a team studying human institutions. Miss Wolf’s particular interest is the post office.

The Thought Girl (1920) by Ray Cummings
Guy Bates, since childhood, has been in telepathic rapport with a girl who lives in the Realm of Unthought Things. That world contains all the inventions that have not yet been invented in this world. When they are invented here, they disappear there. Guy enlists the aid of Thomas Edison to travel to the other world and bring the girl back.

There follow twenty more similarly bizarre descriptions; my first thought was that they were invented, but Google Books quickly disabused me of that notion. I’ll quote a few that especially entertained me:
[Read more…]

How the Welsh Fought Back.

The Right Reverend Rowan Williams, who according to Wikipedia speaks three languages, reads at least nine, and was born into a Welsh-speaking family, writes for the New Statesman about the Welsh literary tradition, reviewing The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton:

The earliest poetry in Welsh is a cluster of short epigrammatic verses – englynion – written in the margins of a ninth-century Latin manuscript of the work of Juvencus, a fourth-century Spanish Christian writer. The spelling looks impenetrable to a modern Welsh reader, but read aloud (you can hear them online in a recording made by the National Museum of Wales) these verses are unmistakably recognisable as Welsh in vocabulary and cadence. They would be more easily understood by a contemporary Welsh speaker than an Anglo-Saxon poem of the same vintage would be by a modern English speaker, even if their meaning would not instantly be clear. And the form of the poetry would also be recognisable – englynion are still composed by much the same rules as the Juvencus poet uses, though there is now a greater variety of englyn forms in addition to the simple three-line stanza in the manuscript.

A few years ago at a bilingual poetry reading in Pembrokeshire, a distinguished young Welsh-language poet presented me at the end of dinner with an englyn that he had scribbled on a paper table napkin during the conversation; the conventions of rhyme and assonance, line breaks and syllable counts are comparable to what the anonymous ninth-century writer used. With a bit of help from a Welsh philologist, the two poets could have spent an evening exchanging more or less impromptu verses in a way that is still to be heard at Welsh literary gatherings. The most consistent thread in the long history of Welsh writing is a commitment to exuberantly challenging metrical forms – one aspect of a general relishing of sound patterns and wordplay that has often been carried over into Welsh writing in the English language, as any reader of Dylan Thomas will know. […]

One of the most helpful things in this magisterial collection – the most extensive survey in English of the Welsh tradition and its contemporary expressions – is the way in which the question of bilinguality is handled: it is neither held up as a straightforward goal of peaceful coexistence, nor despised as the thin end of an anglicising wedge. There is due attention to the fact that “Welsh writing in English” (the phrase now preferred to the old designation, “Anglo-Welsh literature”) has a long history that is not entirely bound up with proto-imperial English aggression. So we have a chapter that gives a fascinating account of Welsh writers working in London in the 16th and 17th centuries, and another that offers a challenging and fresh perspective on two 20th-century writers, the poet RS Thomas and the novelist Emyr Humphreys. Both were Welsh-speaking and wrote in English for a public that might not use Welsh or know it well, but both retained some sense of the language’s rhythms – a prominent feature in the work of Dylan Thomas, who has a good and perceptive chapter to himself – and had a feel for the complex social codes and signals that use of the language involved in the mid-20th century. […]

In the case of Wales, it was the paternalistic efforts of Victorian governments to impose what they considered to be uniform standards of education and morality that provoked the most dramatic – and productive – backlash. […] The widespread revival at the end of the 18th century of the medieval poetic competitions known as eisteddfodau had also received a major boost from the activities of the flamboyant radical Edward Williams (known as “Iolo Morganwg”). He was the virtual inventor of what eventually became the National Eisteddfod, still probably the best-supported national cultural festival in Europe. […] Nonconformist suspicion of fiction gave way in the 19th century to an enthusiasm for edifying narratives – including an early Welsh version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. […]

Strangely, even scandalously, given the justifiable stress on the significance of women writers in the last century or so, there is nothing at all (beyond a single mention of her name) about the greatest of medieval Welsh women poets, the 15th-century Gwerful Mechain, author of a delightfully uninhibited celebration of the female pudenda as well as a number of other verses on those primary poetic data, the natural world, eros and God.

We discussed Gwerful ferch Hywel Fychan and her Poem to the Vagina in this recent thread. Thanks, Terry!

Turgenev’s Virgin Soil.

I’ve finally finished Turgenev’s last novel, Новь [Virgin Soil] — I almost gave up after Part I, but then I reflected that Part II was a bit shorter and would only take me a few days — and I’m afraid my response will seem repetitive to those of you who read my previous complaints about Smoke and Torrents of Spring, but there’s nothing I can do about it: it’s Turgenev who got sloppy and predictable, and I’m merely reporting on it. Once again we have the love triangle (virginal revolutionary Marianna is loved by both grim revolutionary Markelov and calm revolutionary Solomin, and aspirationally loved by aspirationally revolutionary Nezhdanov), but now politics comes to the fore: Turgenev takes whacks at silly young radicals who want to “go to the people” without having the faintest conception of what the hell they’re doing, and at bien-pensant aristos who are happy to help out radicals unless it looks like they might cause trouble, and at reactionaries who get upset if you don’t call aristos “Your Excellence,” and at governors and cops and, well, everyone he can think of. The problem (aside from the fact that political novels are inherently boring to me) is that Turgenev had been living outside the country for many years by the mid-1870s, and had no more idea of what young radicals were like than those radicals did of the peasants they wanted to enlighten, and reaction was uniformly negative. The ever-quotable Prince Mirsky wrote: “Virgin Soil is a complete failure, and was immediately recognized as such. Though it contains much that is in the best manner of Turgénev . . . the whole novel is disqualified by an entirely uninformed and necessarily false conception of what he was writing about. His presentation of the revolutionaries of the seventies is like an account of a foreign country by one who had never seen it.”

There are, of course, interesting and amusing things in the novel; I laughed when Turgenev proudly inserted into the text what he took to be the English word shakehands (meaning “handshake”) [N.b.: It turns out that this was perfectly good English in the 19th century; see comment thread below] and shuddered at the accurate premonition when Markelov, frustrated at the pigheadedness and ignorance of the peasants who had turned him over to the authorities, thought to himself that if he got another chance he would use the пуля в лоб [‘bullet to the forehead’] rather than pointless propaganda, and there are reflections on the overuse of French and on switching from polite to intimate pronouns and back. I liked it when one of the characters quoted Gogol (“Редко; но бывают” — “Rarely, but they happen”) and was shocked, shocked I tell you, when Turgenev abbreviated an unprintable (at the time) curse word (“треклятое счастье всех незаконнорожденных детей, всех в[ыблядков]!” ‘the thrice-damned luck of all illegitimate children, all b[astards]!’). But mainly I was depressed by the musty devices, the antiquated storytelling, in an age when the art of the novel was being advanced practically every year by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

As the novel goes on, there are more and more idiotic intrusions like “It is unknown what she said to him” and “He knew it was the time to set a limit, to stop it! And he set a limit, he stopped it!” and “answered the dear Epicurean”; there are frequent double exclamation marks, and I could have sworn there was a triple but can’t find it. Perhaps the most egregious idiocy is the final chapter, in which two minor characters randomly meet in Petersburg and have a pointless conversation; the woman at first says “Io sono contessa Rocca di Santo-Fiume!” and then explains that she’s been traveling all over Russia with a passport in that name “even though she didn’t understand a word of Italian and had a very Russian face.” This was mocked by critics, and Turgenev apologized to a correspondent for it: “As to Mashurina’s Italian passport, you are absolutely right; it was a piece of shalost’ on my part which had no place in a serious work.” That could be said about a number of elements, like the hunchbacked sister named Snandulia and the aged couple named Fomushka and Fimushka. I can only think that Turgenev simply didn’t care about literature any more, but when he felt the need to comment on current events he wrote a novel because that was his trade. I’m glad he didn’t give it another go after that.


The British Library’s Asian and African studies blog is always worth a look; a couple of years ago I posted about a unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript, and now Bathrobe sends me a link to Naskhi-divani: a little-recognized sultanate script:

The art of the book in sultanate India, particularly of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, is notable for its eclecticism. Because of the sultanates’ evolving political terrain, the search for a coherent narrative of manuscript patronage and production is a challenge. In comparison to painting, one relatively overlooked feature of sultanate books is calligraphy. Here, we examine a script found in sultanate manuscripts that scholars have started to call naskhī-dīvānī.

Appearing in the late fourteenth century, two styles of writing seldom seen outside of India are bihārī and naskhī-dīvānī. Bihārī is characterized by thick horizontal strokes specifically in terminating letters and thin verticals; diacritical markers are horizontal, rather than at a slant. […] Even less understood than bihārī is naskhī-dīvānī. Naskhī-dīvānī, as the name implies, is a combination of a standard naskh and a dīvānī script often used for chancellery documents.

There are gorgeous illustrations. Bathrobe says the BLAAS blog “actually has quite a few interesting articles… Going from here, I found this … digital copy of the Heike Monogatari printed on the Japanese island of Amakusa by Jesuit missionaries using a movable-type printing press in late 1592/early 1593.”

One of the most important items in the British Library’s Japanese collections is a small, rather ordinary-looking, leather-bound volume, generally known as Feiqe monogatari (BL shelfmark Or.59.aa.1). Despite its appearance, it is, in fact, a remarkable work in a number of ways. Firstly, it was one of the earliest books printed in Japan using movable type rather than the traditional woodblocks, secondly, it is the first non-religious text printed in colloquial Japanese transcribed into the Roman alphabet, offering valuable insights into the phonology of the Japanese language in the 16th century, and thirdly, it is the world’s only extant copy.

Thanks, Bathrobe!

Birthday Loot 2019.

Herewith the traditional posting of the goodies that have been given me to celebrate my (increasingly distant) appearance on the planet; I’ve had biscuits for breakfast and am looking forward to chicken curry and lemon meringue pie for dinner, and it’s a beautiful sunny summer day, so I’m a contented Hat.

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction by Charles Baxter
In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
Understanding Chekhov: A Critical Study Of Chekhov’S Prose And Drama by Donald Rayfield

And an earlier gift I might as well tack on:
Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov by Brian Boeck

I also got several jazz CDs, by Ruby Braff/Ellis Larkins, Terell Stafford, Cedar Walton, and Art Blakey; I’d like to give a fervent and grateful shout-out to whatever LH reader sent me the last — the great John Gilmore (of Sun Ra fame) playing with the Jazz Messengers is a dream come true, and I don’t know why the album isn’t better known.

Paddling About Among Philologers.


I am much inclined towards a life of ease
And should not scorn to spend my dwindling years
In places where my sort of fancy stirs;
Perched up on ladders in old libraries
With several quartos pouring off my knees…
Translating Ariosto into verse…
Paddling about among philologers
And Dictionaries and concordances!

There, on some dark oak table, more and more
Voluminous each day, ye should perceive
My Magnum Opus…that one which untwists
Their bays from poets who shirk metaphor
And make rich words grow obsolete, and leave
Imagination to Psychiatrists.

   — Owen Barfield

From A Barfield Sampler: Poetry and Fiction by Owen Barfield (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), via Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti. You can see another another language-related Barfield poem at this Laudator post.