Congratulations to Lizok and Vodolazkin.

Lisa Hayden Espenschade’s latest post at her blog Lizok’s Bookshelf reports on Yevgeny Vodolazkin’s winning the 2019 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Literature Prize “for organically combining Russian traditions for spiritual and psychological prose with an outstanding knowledge and mind for language arts, as well as for his inspired writing style.” I haven’t read Vodolazkin yet, but thanks to Lisa’s raves for his writing he’s high on my list to investigate; she’s translated his The Aviator and Laurus (which won a Read Russia Prize in 2016), and her translation of Solovyov and Larionov has already been released in the UK and will be out in the US in May. It’s great to see a translator doing so much for contemporary literature! (And it’s via her blog that I mainly keep up with modern Russian literature.)


I’m editing an anthropological text on early forms of humanity and am thus having my nose rubbed in a change I had vaguely noticed in recent years but tried to ignore: nobody talks about hominids any more, it’s all “hominins,” a word I find ugly (because it’s new to me). Wikipedia:

By convention, the adjectival term “hominin” (or nominalized “hominins”) refers to the tribe Hominini, while the members of the Hominina subtribe (and thus all archaic human species) are referred to as “hominan” (“hominans”). This follows the proposal by Mann and Weiss (1996), which presents tribe Hominini as including both Pan and Homo, placed in separate subtribes. The genus Pan is referred to subtribe Panina, and genus Homo is included in the subtribe Hominina (see above). However, there is an alternative convention which uses “hominin” to exclude members of Panina, i.e. either just for Homo or for both human and australopithecine species. This alternative convention is referenced in e.g. Coyne (2009) and in Dunbar (2014). Potts (2010) in addition uses Hominini in a different sense, as excluding Pan, and uses “hominins” for this, while a separate tribe (rather than subtribe) for chimpanzees is introduced, under the name Panini. In this recent convention, contra Gray, the term hominin is applied to all species of genus Homo, as well as to species of the ancestral genera Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, and others that arose after the split from the line that led to chimpanzees (see cladogram below); that is, they distinguish fossil members on the human side of the split, as hominins, from those on the chimpanzee side, as not hominins.

This is all very confusing: the alternative conventions, the inconsistent italics (“subtribe Hominina” and “subtribe Panina” but “the Hominina subtribe” and “members of Panina“), the very name Panini — to me, these are panini). But the main question I have is, why the change in terminology? Obviously classifications are changing all the time with the discovery of new varieties of early humans and what used to be called “missing links,” but what was so bad about “hominid” that it had to be remade, causing such a mess?


Joel of Far Outliers is posting excerpts from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), and the post he titles Bengal’s New Bourgeoisie contains an interesting example of a loan word confronting the Indian original:

I met a friend who had found such a position [a modern job, writing content or doing design] in an American firm at Sector Five. As she was showing me around her glass temple, she took me to a room full of rolled-up mats. They reminded me of the mats that some of the Muslim waiters used to spread out during prayer times at the Statesman canteen.

‘Are the mats for namaz?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said, ‘they are for yoga.’

It was the first time I had heard anyone in Calcutta utter the word. She didn’t say joge, which is the Bengali term for the breathing exercises and body contortions that we had all been forced to practise as kids, exercises that were the realm of old geezers, much like consulting astrological charts, performing exorcisms or taking snuff. Joge to us was some grandpa forcing you to sit still for fifteen minutes and pretend to ‘meditate’. This avatar of grandpa’s joge as yuppie yoga was part of a prepackaged global lifestyle imported from America.

It’s as if Brazilian futebol (soccer/football) had developed into a significantly different game, which was then imported into the English-speaking world and called “foochiball” or the like. There must be other actual examples of this sort of thing, but I’m not coming up with them.

Language in a Time of Climate Change.

Rob Nixon’s Aeon piece has an obvious premise — glaciers are moving faster, so we shouldn’t use them as a symbol of slowness — and runs it into the ground, but I can’t resist posting it because of the first paragraph:

Language bends and buckles under pressure of climate change. Take the adjective ‘glacial.’ I recently came across an old draft of my PhD dissertation on which my advisor had scrawled the rebuke: ‘You’re proceeding at a glacial pace. You’re skating on thin ice.’ That was in 1988, the year that the climatologist James Hansen testified before the United States Senate that runaway greenhouse gases posed a planetary threat.

Just a decade earlier, my own advisor was reproaching me on similar grounds, though he never used that metaphor as far as I recall. At any rate, people are going to go on using the phrase “glacial pace” in its old sense; glaciers still move pretty darn slowly, and more importantly, language doesn’t work that way: metaphors don’t keep up with the news. (Thanks, jack!)

Gennady Barabtarlo, RIP.

Brian Boyd posts on the Vladimir Nabokov Forum about the death of the great Nabokov scholar Gennady Barabtarlo:

Nabokov scholar Gennady Alexandrovich (“Gene”) Barabtarlo died on February 24, aged 70.

Even before the publication of his book Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov’s Pnin (Ardis, 1989)—still the go-to source for what for many is their favorite Nabokov novel, Nabokovians knew him as early as 1982 for his contributions to The Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter (before it became The Nabokovian). He contributed to The Nabokovian in many ways, through notes, through the indexes he volunteered to prepare for the first 30 and then the first 50 issues, and as editor of the Annotations and Queries section from 1994 to 2001. […]

[Read more…]

Studying Emerging Sign Languages.

Michael Erard, the journalist with a linguistics background who has often been linked to here at LH, has a typically knowledgeable and thoughtful essay for Mosaic about the quandaries involved in studying emerging sign languages:

Connie de Vos was sitting on her hands. It was 2006, her first stay in the Balinese village of Bengkala, and visitors had come every night to her house, sitting on the floor of the front patio, eating fruit- or durian-flavoured candies and drinking tea. About eight to ten people were there now, hands flitting in the shadows, chatting away in Kata Kolok, the local sign language: Where is the next ceremony? When is the next funeral? Who just died?

Kata Kolok was created in Bengkala about 120 years ago and has some special features, such as sticking out your tongue to add ‘no’ or ‘not’ to a verb. And unlike American Sign Language (ASL), in which people move their mouths silently as they sign, you also smack your lips gently, which creates a faint popping sound, to indicate that an action has finished.

“If you walk through the village at six, people start to take their baths, getting ready for dinner,” De Vos recalls. “You can hear this sound – pah pah pah – all through the village.”

A graduate student at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at the time, De Vos had come to Bengkala to be the first linguist to map Kata Kolok’s grammar and list all of its signs. At that time, she says, it was “kind of untouched”, having emerged in an isolated community with a relatively high number of deaf people. Like similar ‘village sign languages’ that were starting to be identified in the 2000s, it was rich research material. She knew that being first to describe it would be a feather in her cap.

But studying any phenomenon risks changing it.

I’m not going to try summarizing it; it is almost bound to make you rethink the subject. Erard has already gotten an LSA award, and he deserves another.


I was briefly derailed while reading Korsha Wilson’s excellent piece on restaurant criticism by an unfamiliar word: “The servers outfitted in white suit jackets designed by Tom Ford wheeling around silver gueridons and tableside flambe stations…” What was a gueridon? Turns out it’s “a small usually ornately carved and embellished stand or table”; the word is from French guéridon, “Gueridon, character in 17th century farces and popular songs.” (According to French Wikipedia, where you can see a number of images of gueridons, the farce character was “un jeune esclave noir” [a young black slave], which is certainly ironic in this context.) I love learning new words, and thought I’d pass this one along (though doubtless many readers are already familiar with it — everybody’s wordhoard is different).

Donald Keene, RIP.

Ben Dooley has an excellent NY Times obit of one of the most prominent translators of our time, Donald Keene; here’s an excerpt focused on how he acquired Japanese:

Born on June 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, Dr. Keene was a child prodigy. Entering Columbia on scholarship in 1938 at 16, he studied the classics of Western literature and honed his talent for languages on French and Greek. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the university.

Two years later, at a midtown bookshop, he first encountered the literature that would define his life, purchasing a 49-cent translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th-century story of courtly love affairs and other intrigues, often described as the world’s first novel.

The translation “was magical, evoking a beautiful and distant world,” he wrote of the encounter in a 2008 memoir of his relationship with Japan. […] Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Dr. Keene enlisted in the Navy, where he volunteered to study Japanese and began his formal education in the language at the University of California at Berkeley.

His first experience as a translator came in Hawaii, where he worked on routine military reports captured from Japanese units in the Pacific theater. A box of bloodstained diaries from enemy soldiers gave him an initial insight into the emotional lives of the country’s people, he wrote in his memoir, musing that they were “the first Japanese I ever really knew.” […]

Over his career, he translated many of the most important works of Japanese literature into lively and eminently readable English. […] All told, he published around 25 books in English and many more in Japanese and other languages — ranging from academic studies to personal reminisces. Taken together they display a level of erudition and scholarship that made him a giant in his field not just abroad but also in Japan. In 1985, he became the first non-Japanese to receive the Yomiuri Prize for Literature for literary criticism for his historical survey of Japanese diaries, later published in English as “Travelers of the Ages,” a book inspired by the bloody wartime journals he encountered while serving in the Navy.

I’ve now got three translations of The Tale of Genji; I really have to get around to reading it. Thanks, Eric!


David Robson (linked before at LH, most recently here) writes for Aeon about the linguistic phenomenon known as ideophones; he starts with a quiz about Japanese (e.g., does nurunuru mean ‘dry’ or ‘slimy’?) and continues:

One of the founding axioms of linguistic theory, articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 19th century, is that any particular linguistic sign – a sound, a mark on the page, a gesture – is arbitrary, and dictated solely by social convention. Save those rare exceptions such as onomatopoeias, where a word mimics a noise – eg, ‘cuckoo’, ‘achoo’ or ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ – there should be no inherent link between the way a word sounds and the concept it represents; unless we have been socialised to think so, nurunuru shouldn’t feel more ‘slimy’ any more than it feels ‘dry’.

Yet many world languages contain a separate set of words that defies this principle. Known as ideophones, they are considered to be especially vivid and evocative of sensual experiences. Crucially, you do not need to know the language to grasp a hint of their meaning. Studies show that participants lacking any prior knowledge of Japanese, for example, often guess the meanings of the above words better than chance alone would allow. For many people, nurunuru really does feel ‘slimy’; wakuwaku evokes excitement, and kurukuru conjures visions of circular rather than vertical motion. That should simply not be possible, if the sound-meaning relationship was indeed arbitrary. (The experiment is best performed using real audio clips of native speakers.)

How and why do ideophones do this? Despite their prevalence in many languages, ideophones were once considered linguistic oddities of marginal interest. As a consequence, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently started to unlock their secrets.

Being a journalist, Robson can’t resist the occasional overstatement (“Their results pose a profound challenge to the foundations of Saussurean linguistics”), but that’s a venial sin, and he provides lots of good examples. He also quotes Mark Dingemanse at Radboud University in the Netherlands, who turned up at LH back in 2008 when he was still a PhD student — I’m glad to see his blog, The Ideophone (“Sounding out ideas on language, vivid sensory words, and iconicity”), is still around. There’s some interesting discussion of Japanese ideophones in this LH thread from a few years ago; e.g., minus273 said “Words like pikapika, cognate to non-ideophonic hikar– seem to imply that ideophones escaped the p > f > h sound changes. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Multilingual Parallel Bible Corpus.

This is excellent:

Here you can find a multilingual parallel corpus created from translations of the Bible. This an effort to create a parallel corpus containing as many languages as possible that could be used for a number of NLP tasks. Using the Book, Chapter and Verse indices the corpus is aligned (almost) at a sentence level. (There are cases where two verses in one language are translated as one in another)

Following a similar effort by Philip Resnik and Mari Broman Olsen at the University of Maryland (website) I have encoded the text of each language in XML files using the Corpus Encoding Standard

The following table contains the XML Bibles in 100 languages (all the languages that an electronic version was freely available online) along with information about each language from Ethnologue.

Another gem from bulbul’s Facebook feed!