I don’t spend much time reading or thinking about philosophy, so when I occasionally run across the name of Emmanuel Levinas I mentally put it in the same “incomprehensible French thinker” bag as Derrida, Deleuze, et hoc genus omne. But when I hit William Rees’s TLS review of three books on Levinas, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder what kind of name that was. Russian Wikipedia explained it, and the explanation is interesting enough I thought I’d post it. He was born in 1906 into a Lithuanian Jewish family in Kovno/Kaunas, then in the Russian Empire, and named Emmanuel Levin (Levin being a common Jewish surname in those parts). When Lithuania became independent after World War I, the name was written according to Lithuanian rules of orthography as Emmanuelis Levinas; when he moved to France for his university education, the first name reverted to the more French-sounding Emmanuel, but the surname remained. Voilà!

I can’t resist pointing out an idiotic statement in the second paragraph of Rees’s review: “Born in 1906 into a family of bourgeois Lithuanian Jews, Levinas left the Russian empire to pursue philosophical studies in France, choosing Strasbourg because it was ‘the city closest to Lithuania’.” Does Rees not realize the empire ended in February 1917?

Coffee & Donatus.

The blog Coffee & Donatus (“Early grammars and related matters of art and design”) had, alas, only five posts during its brief period of activity (early 2014 to early 2015), but the posts that are there are well worth checking out: An Englishman’s Armenian Grammar—Lord Byron at the Monastery of Saint Lazarus; A Learned Spider’s Epitaph; The Art of Grammar: Buno’s Neue Lateinische Grammatica 1651; Adjectives, Doughnuts in Rhyme, and Excellent White Bread; and Excerpts from Grammars No. 1: Charles Peter Mason 1879. A great concept, as Bathrobe (who sent me the link) said, and hey, perhaps the blogger is just taking a break!

Talking Black.

I have to admit I’ve gotten somewhat fed up with John McWhorter in recent years. When he’s on his game, he’s great, but when (as is too often the case) he’s pontificating about matters outside his specialty he’s irritating. I’m happy to report that Vinson Cunningham’s New Yorker review of his latest book, Talking Back, Talking Black, does a good balancing act, appreciating the good stuff while calling him out on the bad (at least that part of it that has to do with culture). I’ll let you read the latter at the link; here I want to quote this passage, which makes some useful points:

In five short essays, McWhorter demonstrates the “legitimacy” of Black English by uncovering its complexity and sophistication, as well as the still unfolding journey that has led to its creation. He also gently chides his fellow-linguists for their inability to present convincing arguments in favor of vernacular language. They have been mistaken, he believes, in emphasizing “systematicity”—the fact that a language’s particularities are “not just random, but based on rules.” An oft-cited instance of systematicity in Black English is the lastingly useful “habitual ‘be,’ ” whereby, Carlson’s quip notwithstanding, the formulation “She be passin’ by” contains much more than an unconjugated verb. That naked “be,” McWhorter explains, “is very specific; it means that something happens on a regular basis, rather than something going on right now.” He adds, “No black person would say ‘She be passin’ by right now,’ because that isn’t what be in that sentence is supposed to mean. Rather, it would be ‘She be passin’ by every Tuesday when I’m about to leave.’ ” A mistake to untrained ears, the habitual “be” is, “of all things, grammar.”

However logical, examples like these have failed to garner respect, because to most Americans grammar does not inhere in linguistic rule-following generally but in a set of specific rules that they have been taught to obey. McWhorter offers a couple of typical directives: “Don’t say less books, say fewer books,” and “Say Billy and I went to the store, not Billy and me went to the store.” This narrow notion of grammar has amounted to a peculiar snobbery: the more obscure and seemingly complex the grammatical rule, the more we tend to assert its importance and to esteem those who have managed to master it. “People respect complexity,” McWhorter writes. His smirking and somewhat subversive accommodation to this Pharisaism is to emphasize the ways in which Black English is more complex than Standard English.

One of these ways—the truest, I should add, to my own experience of the language—is the use of the word “up” in conjunction with a location. Hip-hop fans might recognize this construction from the chorus of the rapper DMX’s hit song “Party Up (Up in Here)”: “Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind / Up in here, up in here / Y’all gon’ make me go all out / Up in here, up in here,” etc. McWhorter, playing the tone poet’s patient exegete, scours several instances of the usage, settling on the idea that in this context “up” conveys the intimacy of the setting it qualifies. The sentence “We was sittin’ up at Tony’s,” according to McWhorter, “means that Tony is a friend of yours.” This is an artful and convincing reading, and McWhorter carries it out in an impishly forensic manner, proving his thesis that, in some respects, Black English has “more going on” than Standard English. The latter lacks such a succinct “intimacy marker” as Black English’s “up,” and someone who studied Black English as a foreign language would have a hard time figuring out when, and how, to deploy it.

And McWhorter, defending features like “uptalk” and “like,” is, sadly, correct in saying “Americans have trouble comprehending that any vernacular way of speaking is legitimate language.”

New Interest in Italian Dialects.

Silvia Marchetti’s Ozy.com piece on Italian dialects has a silly title but an encouraging message:

All of Italy is seeing a renewed interest in dialects, a revival linked to a national — and greater European — identity crisis. “It’s a matter of territorial belonging,” says Andrea Maniero, a linguistics expert and resident of Nardò, where everyone understands the local lingo even if they don’t speak it. “The ones most lured to learning it are the youth, who are fascinated by the old speech of their grandparents.”

According to national statistics, half of all Italians prefer to speak in a dialect, whether it’s picturesque Napulitano (Neapolitan), Siculo (Sicilian), Francoprovenzale (an ancient Gallo-Romance language spoken in Alpine valleys), Fùrlan (Friulan, typical of the Friuli region in northeastern Italy) or Ladino (an old version of Latin) — just to name a few. In fact, Italy’s Union of Tourist Boards calculates that the country has some 11,000 dialects. The influence of Napulitano and Siculo is so strong that the iPhone offers them as language options.

To feed this demand, there are online courses; DIY books that teach archaic forms of Albanian and Greek that pirates brought to Italy centuries ago; and spontaneous get-togethers in crumbling castles to chat in Zeneize (Genoese, a dialect of the Ligurian language). A few kindergartens and middle schools in Naples have introduced courses on Napulitanamente (”the Neapolitan way”). In Rome, some curricula feature Romanesco, the colorful vernacular of the great 19th-century Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli.

(Of course “Ladino” should be Ladin in English, and god knows what Marchetti means by “an old version of Latin,” but what the heck, it’s journalism, not linguistics.) Folklorist and songwriter Andrea Baccassino says of his native Neretino: “My dialect is real, richer than Italian, which is a fake construction. There are untranslatable words with no Italian equivalent.” Which, yeah, is unscientific, but I’m glad dialect speakers feel that way. Thanks, Trevor!

How the Corded Ware Culture Was Formed.

It’s been a couple of years since we got into the whole Indo-Europeans-and-Corded-Ware thing (e.g., here), so I thought I’d post Re-theorising mobility and the formation of culture and language among the Corded Ware Culture in Europe, by Kristian Kristiansen, Morten E. Allentoft, Karin M. Frei, Rune Iversen, Niels N. Johannsen, Guus Kroonen, Łukasz Pospieszny, T. Douglas Price, Simon Rasmussen, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Martin Sikora, and Eske Willerslev, from Antiquity 91. Here’s the Abstract:

Recent genetic, isotopic and linguistic research has dramatically changed our understanding of how the Corded Ware Culture in Europe was formed. Here the authors explain it in terms of local adaptations and interactions between migrant Yamnaya people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe and indigenous North European Neolithic cultures. The original herding economy of the Yamnaya migrants gradually gave way to new practices of crop cultivation, which led to the adoption of new words for those crops. The result of this hybridisation process was the formation of a new material culture, the Corded Ware Culture, and of a new dialect, Proto-Germanic. Despite a degree of hostility between expanding Corded Ware groups and indigenous Neolithic groups, stable isotope data suggest that exogamy provided a mechanism facilitating their integration. This article should be read in conjunction with that by Heyd (2017, in this issue).

And here’s an intriguing excerpt:

The new data conforms well to the reconstructed lexicon of Proto-Indo-European (Mallory & Adams 2006), which provides important clues that the subsistence strategy of early Indo-European-speaking societies was based on animal husbandry. It includes, for instance, terms related to dairy and wool production, horse breeding and wagon technology. Words for crops and land cultivation, however, have proved to be far more difficult to reconstruct. These results from historical linguistics are supported by similar evidence from archaeology (Andersen 1995; Kristiansen 2007). With the recent study by Kroonen and Iversen (in press), we can now demonstrate how social and economic interaction with existing Neolithic societies also had a corresponding linguistic imprint. This should not surprise us, as similar results are well documented from the interaction of Yamnaya societies with their northern Uralic-speaking neighbours (Parpola & Koskallio 2007).

Thanks, Trevor!


The latest issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine has, as usual, a lively letters section, and I thought the following exchange was worth posting:

Admiral Grace Hopper’s name may replace John C. Calhoun’s on the college where I lived some 70 years ago, but she is not its “namesake.” Your headline has it backwards. The college itself is Admiral Hopper’s namesake, just as the university is Elihu Yale’s. She and he are eponymous.

Dick Mooney ’47
New York, NY

We paused over the headline, for exactly that reason. But our house dictionary, Merriam-Webster, has ruled that a “namesake” can be either party. Interestingly (at least for us word geeks), the quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary also have it both ways.—Eds.

I had the same reaction when I saw the headline in the previous issue, and I’m glad to have it cleared up, with references to two of my favorite dictionaries!


Elon Gilad has another good Haaretz column, this time on an interesting surname:

Many Israelis welcomed the news that the Israel Defense Forces’ new chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, will be the first Israeli of Moroccan descent to attain the senior post. While it is true that both Eisenkot’s parents were born in Morocco, many – including a headline in the cover of Yedioth Ahronoth Sunday – asked how it is that the first Moroccan chief of staff has such an Ashkenazi sounding last name. […] Eisenkot is far from being a common name among European Jews since in German it means “Iron feces.”

On the other hand, Azenkot and other variations on that spelling are quite popular among the Jews of Tunisia and Morocco, and have been so for centuries, much earlier than the small trickle of European Jews to Morocco mentioned by Biton. The name is recorded among Sephardic Jews as early as the 17th, when we have the first record of the name inn the person of Rabbi Saadia Azencot, who lived in the Netherlands at the time, where he was teacher of famous Swiss theologian Johann Heinrich Hottinger. […]

The name Azenkot comes from the Berber languages, where azankad means ‘deer.’ It appears in names of several Berber tribes such as the Aza Izenkad tribe of the Tata oasis and the Old Izenkad tribe, both in south Morocco. Jews with names derived from this Berber word probably had an ancestor who had some kind of relationship with these or other Berber tribes, such as trading with them or living among them.

Apparently, the name turned from Azenkot to Eisenkot, when the new chief of staff’s father immigrated to Israel.

I love stories like that! Kobi, who sent me the link, added:

I know a person with the name Tarabulski, which is even more unlikely. His parents came from Syria and the name was Tarabulsi which means “from Tripoli,” which is from the town of Tripoli in Lebanon. At the time of immigration the Syrians, who didn’t know Hebrew, had to deal with an Ashkenazi immigration officer and the result was “Tarabulski”. In the present phone book there are 28 Tarabulskis. Interestingly, I find 7 people with a similar name in the US. I wonder what else can we find about this name, maybe languagehat readers can tell us more.

So any stories about the name Tarabulski will be welcome.

Tea Caddy.

This is not a profound post, but my curiosity has been aroused and must be satisfied. I looked up the Russian word чайница and found it defined as “tea caddy.” I called to my wife “What’s a tea caddy?” She had no idea. Fortunately, the internet came to our rescue in the form of Wikipedia: “A tea caddy is a box, jar, canister, or other receptacle used to store tea.” (They go on to add that “the word is believed to be derived from catty, the Chinese pound,” which is interesting in itself.) Simple and straightforward, except that I’ve never heard of such a thing; if I had a jar of tea I’d just call it a jar of tea. Is this a UK word, an obsolete word, what? Are you familiar with the term?


I’ve just finished reading Goncharov’s Oblomov in Russian, something I’ve been looking forward to since I read it in English (in Magarshack’s translation) decades ago. It’s a different book than I had remembered — less jolly, more divided. Oblomov the character is one of the great creations of world literature; the novel to which he gives life is something of a mess. I’ll start by quoting Richard Freeborn’s description in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (warning: spoilers from here on out):

[T]he novel as a whole divides into two appreciably different segments, the first being theatrical in form, with Oblomov presented to us scenically in the squalor of his St. Petersburg apartment leading a “dressing-gown existence.” The second is a more conventional novel form of the love-story type which tells of the hero’s relations with Olga, their eventual parting and Oblomov’s return to his former state of near-hibernation in the company of the peasant woman Pshenitsyna who becomes his wife.

Unfortunately, the first segment is by far the best, and it makes up only a quarter of the novel (the first of four parts). Oblomov and his lazy, incompetent, but loyal servant Zakhar (who’s looked after him since childhood, pulling off and putting on his boots and brushing his coat) are magnificent characters, straight out of Gogol (like so much of Russian literature); a couple of minor characters are also Gogolian, like the one introduced here (Magarshack’s translation):

A man of indefinite age and of an indefinite appearance came into the room; he had reached the age when it was difficult to say how old he was; he was neither ugly nor handsome, neither tall nor short, neither fair nor dark; nature had not bestowed on him a single striking or outstanding characteristic, neither good nor bad. Some called him Ivan Ivanich, others Ivan Vassilyevich, and still others Ivan Mikhaylovich. People were also uncertain about his surname: some said it was Ivanov, some called him Vassilyev or Andreyev, and others thought he was Alexeyev. A stranger, meeting him for the first time and being told his name, immediately forgot it, as he forgot his face, and never noticed what he said.

Alexeyev (his conventional name in the novel) is a surprisingly useful character, showing up and providing a sympathetic ear just when one is needed, and of course demanding nothing for himself. Another such is the maid Anisya, whose dominant feature could not be more Gogolesque: “Her eyes had grown even brighter, and her nose, that speaking nose of hers, was thrust forward, glowing with cares, thoughts, and intentions, seeming to speak though her tongue was silent.”

But alas, the main characters apart from Oblomov are his childhood friend Stolz (whose father was German and mother Russian) and his great love Olga, and they are both straight from the prop room. They are of the finest cardboard and lovingly decorated, but still, he is the active Role Model (to set against Oblomov’s passive Bad Example), and she is the Angelic Woman, and as soon as they enter the picture the novel goes dead as a work of art. They take turns sternly telling Oblomov he must pull himself out of his sloth and Do Something (though what exactly is never clear, any more than it is clear what Stolz is up to in all his travels and feverish activities), and eventually give up and marry each other (and live a tediously virtuous and active idyll in Crimea which for some reason Goncharov feels he has to describe in detail). There are wonderful moments and descriptions throughout, but basically the book turns into one of those sad realist works in which the characters illustrate life principles that it hopes to inculcate into the reader and society at large (Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done being the locus classicus). The last section should have been cut altogether, and the previous two should have been much shorter and funnier. But then I always seem to want novels to be shorter (the locus classicus, where I see I quoted a nice passage from Goncharov).

I’m making it sound worse than it is — I should probably have waited until the irritation wore off. Everyone should read at least the first part, and having done so you will want to know what becomes of the characters and will probably read on, and you may very well be more tolerant of the plottiness and the cardboard than this hardened old aesthete. But at least you have been warned to lower your expectations.

More Fool Me.

Matt sent me the following request for information:

I’m writing to ask you about the phrase “more fool me.”
I recently used it in a translation, only to have it changed by the editor to “More the fool me.”
I was going to ask him to change it back, but I did a quick Google search and found that “More the fool me” is completely acceptable (Google actually claims to have more hits for it, although of course those figures aren’t reliable).
Just out of curiosity, which one do you use? Do any of your references have anything to say about which is original etc.?

I responded:

Huh! I don’t recall using it myself, but I think of it as “the more fool me.” I find the version without “the” completely acceptable, and “more the fool me” completely weird — I don’t remember ever encountering it, and it astonishes me that it’s possibly the most used (according to Our Lord Google).

I just checked Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases, but he doesn’t include it (even though it’s exactly the sort of thing the book focuses on). So I turn to the Varied Reader: is it “the more fool me,” “more the fool me,” or just “more fool me”? And does anybody know anything about the history of the expression?