Smorgon Student.

Reading Veltman’s last novel, I got to the unintelligible phrase сморгонский студент ‘smorgonskii student.’ I guessed it was a student from someplace called “Smorgon” (or Smorgona?), and that turned out to be sort of true, except that the students involved were bears: the Lithuanian/Russian/Polish/Belarusian town of Smorgon (Сморгонь/Smurgainys/Smorgonie/סמאָרגאָן‎) once housed a school for training bears, and so in the nineteenth century “Smorgon student” was a clever way to refer to a mammal of the ursine persuasion (Dahl adds the parallel phrase сергачский барин ‘nobleman from Sergach,” which apparently also had such an academy). This is just one example of the sort of odd fact the internet is a great help in unearthing.

A Dialectal Squirrel.

I ran across a reference to Mandelstam’s 1922 essay Конец романа [The end of the novel] and wound up rereading it; it’s a short and fairly boring analysis of how the novel, which flourished in the 19th century with its focus on individual psychology, was now passé because individual psychology was no longer important. In the first place, that’s a silly way to look at literature; in the second place, most of the essay is written in a formulaic style barely recognizable as Mandelstam’s prose; and in the third place, the novel never died, so the whole idea is moot. (He says the swan song of the classic European novel was Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, which was wildly popular a century ago; anybody know if it’s still worth reading?) However, it comes alive at the very end:

Очевидно, силою вещей современный прозаик становится летописцем, и роман возвращается к своим истокам, к “Слову о полку Игореве”, к летописи, к агиографии, к “Четьи Минеи”. Снова мысль прозаика векшей растекается по древу истории, и не нам заманить эту векшу в ручную клетку.

Clearly, by the force of circumstance the contemporary prose writer has become a chronicler, and the novel is returning to its sources, to the Lay of Igor’s Campaign, to chronicles, to hagiography, to the Chet’i Minei. Once more the thought of the prose writer hastens like a squirrel over the tree of history, and it is not for us to lure this squirrel into a cage.

The last line refers to a very famous passage from the opening of the Lay of Igor’s Campaign:

Боянъ бо вѣщій, аще кому
хотяше пѣснь творити,
то растекашется мыслію по древу,
сѣрымъ волкомъ по земли,
шизымъ орломъ подъ облакы

For the vatic Boyan, when he wished to make a song for anyone, hastened in his thought over the trees, like a grey wolf over the earth, like a dusky eagle beneath the clouds.

We discussed this passage back in 2011, and there is much back-and-forth in the comment thread about a common but unfounded suggestion that мыслію ‘in thought’ is an error for мысью ‘like a squirrel,’ and Mandelstam is clearly working from that reading — except that he replaces мыс(л)ью with векшей, where векша [veksha] is a dialect word for ‘squirrel.’ He must have liked that word, because he also uses it in the last stanza of a 1937 poem:

И век бы падал векши легче,
И легче векши к мягкой речке —
Полнеба в валенках, в ногах…

The age could fall lighter than a squirrel,
lighter than a squirrel to the soft stream.
Half of the sky is wearing winter boots.
  (Translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane.)

So my question for Russian-speakers is: how does the word векша sound to you (if it’s familiar at all)? Is it rustic, amusing, quaint, what? And my question for English-speakers is: are there any English dialect words for ‘squirrel’? You’d think there would be, but I haven’t turned up any. (We discussed the older word aquerne, from Old English acweorna, here.)


OK, this is just a silly little squib, but it amuses me and I’m sharing it:

“Oachkatzl” (Eichhörnchen=squirrel) and “Schwoaf” (Schweif=tail) are words that are used to test whether you qualify as a native speaker of Bavarian/Austrian dialect. They were a hugely popular way of testing and teasing the US occupation forces after the Second World War.

In Bavaria anyone failing the test, regardless of where they actually come from, is classified somewhat pityingly as a “Preiß” (Prussian).

Other catch phrases include: “Du múasst an bám gíassn sunst dadirdada” which means “you have to water a tree or it will wither away”.
Or even better: “Mit dem Bam då iss total wuascht wost’hn histeyst. Dådadirdada, dådadirdadaraa und dådadaraadadian” (It doesn’t matter where you plant your tree: It’ll wither here, it’ll wither there, wherever you plant it, it will still wither away).

(If anyone knows where the stress falls on “dadirdada,” and how it works morphologically, you have my complete attention.)

Translating Nabati Poetry.

Arabic Literature (in English) recently featured Marcel Kurpershoek on Translating 18th-century Nabati Poetry That Still ‘Smells Like Fresh Bread’ — M. Lynx Qualey interviews the editor-translator of Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd. I was holding off on posting it because at the end it says “Part two of this interview will appear next week, on December 13,” but it’s now a week later and I’m officially giving up on part two. Kurpershoek was a diplomat in Riyadh in the 1980s:

I got interested in this kind of poetry because I was looking for ways to reach beyond the normal diplomatic life, which is a bit superficial. You only have formal contacts with society, and most of the expats stick together. I was an Arabist, and I wanted to know more about the Bedouin and their life in the desert. I knew classical poetry, but not what they had there, and I didn’t understand it at all.

I saw some Nabati poems published in newspapers, and as an Arabist diplomat I had to read the newspapers for the embassy.

These poems were tantalizing. I felt I should be able to understand them, but I didn’t, not quite, and why not?

Many of the words, I discovered, are very old. You have to go back to pre-Islamic poetry and early Islamic poetry. There you find a lot of the vocabulary, and after that, you have to take Najdi seriously as a language. The meter and rhyme is very much like ancient poetry, but it works a bit differently.

He says Hmedan’s work is known “basically in the Najd, in Central Arabia,” and he got a chance to study it with Saad Sowayan, “who is the greatest authority on Nabati poetry, and with Abdalah al-Fawzan who had just published his PhD and an edition of Hmedan’s poetry: he is from the same town as Hmedan, al-Qasab. Of course I asked Fawzan a lot of questions about Hmedan’s diwan, but even he doesn’t know everything. You cannot rely on an authority like this alone. I had to rely on manuscripts, and go into the chronicles of that period.” He discusses the Library of Arabic Literature, which is publishing it:

LAL has so far only published works that are in classical Arabic, and not this kind of poetry—you cannot really say it’s dialect, but it’s a mixture of Najdi colloquial and very old Arabic. So let’s call it Nabati. They have not done any translations from that heritage. The idea came up that we should choose two poets to translate.

Hmedan was an obvious choice, because he’s always been regarded as one of the foremost, and the other one I’m preparing now, for executive review, is a nineteenth century poet, Ibn Sbayyil.

It’s a big step for the Library of Arabic Literature to move beyond the classical canon into this kind of field, and I think it pays off. It’s not only the first work published outside the literature in classical Arabic, but it’s also the only source we have for what people thought in that part of the world before the Wahhabi reform movement.

And he says “I sent it to some friends in Holland, who are interested in literature, and one of them told me, ‘It still smells like fresh bread.'” The description of the poetry, and Hmedan’s life, is fascinating; thanks, Trevor!

The Untranslated.

The Untranslated has been around since 2013; how am I just learning about it now? The About page says “The purpose of this blog is to bring to a wider attention significant literary works not yet translated into English,” and that’s so far up my alley it might as well be living in my house. Muireann Maguire linked, on Facebook, to the recent post The Virtuosi: Five Translators Whose Names are Hallmarks of Quality, which of course intrigued me, and I was stunned by the opening passage:

I have to confess that I don’t read works in English translation that often. The main reason is neither my language purism nor snobbishness but the prosaic lack of time: in order to maintain seven reading languages besides my native Russian and near-native English, I have to devote the bulk of my reading time to works of literature written in or translated into those languages, which is often a logistical, managerial and mental torment. The very nature of my blog presupposes a tangential role for English-language translators: they are rather the intended audience of The Untranslated, than its subject matter. Ideally, I would love them to read a review of some humongous, linguistically dazzling, arcana-laden novel (and there are quite a few reviewed here) and say: “Yes, I wanna do it!” Of course, you might wonder skeptically:”Is there still anyone left who can pull it off?” Are there human beings capable of translating such bemusing behemoths as Los Sorias and El Troiacord? such a paragon of untranslatable wordsmithery as Remember Famagusta? such unjustly underappreciated, uncomfortable, mesmerising masterworks as The Absolute Marshal and Corporal? The answer is yes.

And then when I clicked on the Remember Famagusta link I discovered there was an important Russian writer I’d never even heard of:

The English-speaking audience might have heard first the name of Alexander Goldstein from one of the most important contemporary Russian writers Mikhail Shishkin. During his talk at the Harriman Institute, Columbia, he actually said the following:

For me now the top of Russian literature is Alexander Goldstein. […] I’m sure in fifty years here at Columbia University and other American universities all professors will consider our time, our epoch, the epoch of Alexander Goldstein. And we, writers, will be just contemporaries of Alexander Goldstein. We just shared with him the epoch. […] And if you asked me, “What Russian writers are important and genius nowadays?” I would say: “Read Alexander Goldstein”.

[…] I’m not sure that Goldstein is really the genius Shishkin would like him to be, but upon reading his first novel Remember Famagusta, I was totally sold on the idea that there had not been a better stylist writing in Russian in the past century, except maybe Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Sasha Sokolov.

Wow! I now want to read Goldstein (or Goldshtein, to better represent the Russian Гольдштейн), and of course I’m subscribing to the blog’s RSS feed. The five translators The Virtuosi focuses on are Adrian Nathan West, Charlotte Mandell, Brendan Riley, Isabel Fargo Cole, and Oliver Ready; see the post for extended samples of the work of each. And don’t miss the section on The Great Untranslated.

Barn Burner.

I’ve always liked the phrase barn burner, which I probably first heard from sports announcers as a kid: “Boy, that was a real barn burner!” Merriam-Webster has a good explanation of the history behind it:

Today barn burner is often used to describe a sporting event or some other contest, such as a political race, which occasions a good deal of excitement.

But before this 20th century use, barn burner had a very specific meaning in US politics. The Barnburners were one of two competing factions in the New York State Democratic Party in the middle of the 19th century. John Russell Bartlett, in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, provided a lengthy quote from the New York Tribune, which explained that the name was “in allusion to the story of an old Dutchman who relieved himself of rats by burning his barns which they infested.” In this case, the Barnburners were so determined to get rid of systemic abuses that they were willing to destroy the system itself.

The Barnburners were the more radical of the two political groups; the more conservative party was referred to as the Hunkers (possibly on the grounds that they were interested in a hunk of the political spoils, or because they hankered after elective office). […] It has long been thought that the New York Barnburners were the originators of that term (aside from the occasional person who literally burned down a barn), but recent findings have indicated that the term began its life describing radicals in a neighboring state, Pennsylvania, slightly earlier.

Also, totally unrelated, but anyone interested in Indic languages will be as glad as I was to know that Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India by Andrew Ollett, thirty bucks in paperback, is currently available free for Kindle at Amazon — hearty thanks go to bulbul for the tip!

Decoding the Khipus.

An exciting piece by Katherine Davis-Young for Atlas Obscura:

There are many ways a college student might spend spring break. Making an archaeological breakthrough is not usually one of them. In his first year at Harvard, Manny Medrano did just that. […]

With the help of his professor, Gary Urton, a scholar of Pre-Columbian studies, Medrano interpreted a set of six khipus, knotted cords used for record keeping in the Inca Empire. By matching the khipus to a colonial-era Spanish census document, Medrano and Urton uncovered the meaning of the cords in greater detail than ever before. Their findings could contribute to a better understanding of daily life in the Andean civilization. […]

Urton says he and other researchers in the field have always had a general sense of what the khipus represented. Many, they could tell, had to do with census data. Others appeared to be registers of goods or calendar systems. But, until recently, none of the khipus Urton studied could be understood on a very detailed level. If the khipus held messages or cultural information beyond just numbers, the meanings were opaque to modern scholars.

A turning point came when Urton began looking into a set of six khipus from the 17th-century Santa River Valley region of Northwest Peru. One day, Urton picked up a book and happened to spot a Spanish census document from the same region and time period. […]

It was an exciting enough coincidence that Urton mentioned it to his undergraduate students at the end of class in the spring of 2016. For Medrano, who was sitting in the lecture hall that day, it was too enticing of a lead to ignore.

“I walked up to him and said, ‘hey, spring break is coming up, if you need someone to put a few hours into this, I’d be happy to take a look,’” Medrano recalls. […]

Medrano noticed that the way each cord was tied onto the khipu seemed to correspond to the social status of the 132 people recorded in the census document. The colors of the strings also appeared to be related to the people’s first names. The correlations seemed too strong to be a coincidence. After spring break, Medrano told his professor about his theories. […]

Medrano worked with Urton over the next several months and the two compiled their findings into a paper which will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Ethnohistory in January. Medrano is the first author on the paper, indicating he contributed the bulk of the research, something Urton notes is extremely rare for an undergraduate student.

Sabine Hyland researches Andean anthropology at the University of St. Andrews. She has read Medrano and Urton’s forthcoming paper and describes their discoveries as “thrilling.”

“Manny has proven that the way in which pendant cords are tied to the top cord indicates which social group an individual belonged to. This is the first time anyone has shown that and it’s a big deal,” Hyland says.

Urton is now optimistic that the six khipus examined in the research could serve as a key to decode the hundreds of others he has in his database.

This is why we can’t decide in advance who’s allowed to work on what, and I very much look forward to seeing what further discoveries are made! (Khipus, or quipus, previously on LH.)

The Secret Sign Language of the Ottoman Court.

Amelia Soth describes an interesting phenomenon of Ottoman court life:

In the 1600s, the court of the Ottoman Empire employed some 40 deaf servants. They were chosen not in spite of their deafness, but because of it. The deaf servants were favored companions of the sultan, and their facility in nonverbal communication made them indispensable to the court, where decorum restricted speech in the sultan’s presence. As Sir Paul Rycaut, an English traveler to the Ottoman court, wrote:

[T]his language of the Mutes is so much in fashion in the Ottoman Court, that none almost but can deliver his sense in it, and is of much use to those who attend the Presence of the Grand Signior, before whom it is not reverent or seemly so much as to whisper.

The deaf attendants taught pages in training to communicate by means of signs. It isn’t certain whether theirs was a fully fledged sign language, though Rycaut suggested that the attendants “can discourse and fully express themselves; not only to signifie their sense in familiar questions, but to recount Stories, understand the Fables of their own Religion, the Laws and Precepts of the Alchoran, the name of Mahomet, and what else may be capable of being expressed by the Tongue.”

Another European observer, Ottaviano Bon, wrote that “both the Grand Signor, and divers that are about him, can reason, and discourse with the Mutes of any thing: as well and as distinctly, alla Mutescha, by nods and signes, as they can with words.”

She has much more to say about the rule of seclusion and its history (it goes back to the Abbasid Caliphate) and the various courts of the Topkapi Palace. Another good post from JSTOR Daily!

Foreign Elements in Proto-Indo-European.

Rasmus Bjørn has created the webpage Prehistoric loan relations: Foreign elements in the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary; the introductory text is self-explanatory:

This page allows historical linguists to compare and scrutinize proposed prehistoric lexical borrowings from the perspective of Proto-Indo-European. The first entries are all (135 in total) extracted from my master’s thesis “Foreign elements in the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary” (Bjørn 2017). Comments are encouraged at the bottom of each entry. New entries will be added, also on request.

Take this not as the conclusion, but an invitation to join the conversation.

The thesis is available for download here (PDF).

Via this LH comment by David Marjanović; thanks, DM!

Dictionnaire de la langue verte.

Alfred Delvau (1825-1867) packed a lot of writing into his 42 years, including his compilation of French slang, the Dictionnaire de la langue verte (1866), whose second (1883) edition, revised by Gustave Fustier, is available at Project Gutenberg. It is, of course, a lot of fun to look through the lively vocabulary, but I am going to cite here an eloquent passage from the preface:

Puisque j’en suis au chapitre des étonnements, je dois prémunir mes lecteurs contre celui qu’ils éprouveront certainement à rencontrer çà et là, dans ce Dictionnaire de la Langue verte, des mots auxquels le Dictionnaire de l’Académie a donné asile, — comme on donne asile aux gueux et aux vagabonds. Ces mots sont considérés par lui comme bas et populaciers, et il en défend l’usage aux gens du bel air, aussi bégueules que lui: à cause de cela, ils me revenaient de droit, puisque je fais le Glossaire de la langue du peuple parisien, le Compendium du slang. La langue verte, au rebours de la langue académique, se compose précisément des mots qui ne s’écrivent pas, mais qui se parlent à certains étages de la société.

Or, je suis de ceux qui prétendent que «toutes paroles se laissent dire et tout pain mangier», — avec d’autant plus de raison que les expressions proscrites comme indignes, condamnées comme shocking par le Dictionnaire de l’Académie, sont du meilleur français que je connaisse, d’un français plus étymologique, plus rationnel, plus expressif, plus éloquent que celles auxquelles ladite Académie a accordé droit de cité, — le français de Jean de Meung et de Guillaume de Lorris, de François Villon et de François Rabelais, de Philippe Desportes et de Bonaventure Des Périers, d’Henri Estienne et de Clément Marot, de Michel Montaigne et de Mathurin Régnier, d’Agrippa d’Aubigné et de Brantôme, de Froissart et d’Amyot, etc. Il paraît qu’il est de bon goût, dans les hautes régions, de renier ses ancêtres et de mentir à ses origines; les gens distingués se croiraient déshonorés, — savants et gandins, — en parlant la langue des petites gens, qui, cependant, sont les plus fidèles gardiens et les plus rigoureux observateurs de la tradition. Oui, il faut que les gens distingués en prennent leur parti: le peuple est le Conservatoire du vrai langage.

Google Translate does a good enough job that I don’t feel like taking the trouble to translate the whole passage, but I especially love these bits: “the expressions proscribed as unworthy, condemned as ‘shocking,’ by the Academy’s dictionary are the best French that I know, a French more etymological, more rational, more expressive, more eloquent than those the Academy has given the keys of the city” and “the people are the Conservatory of the real language.” You tell ’em, M. Delvau!