The Deep Roots of Writing.

Michael Erard, a longtime LH favorite (2016, 2003), has an Aeon piece that’s structured as a counter to the simplistic idea put forward by James Scott and others that “writing was invented so that early states could track people, land and economic production, and elites could sustain their power,” but it presents a nice summary of the present state of understanding of how writing developed:

I like to think of writing as a layered invention. First there’s the graphic invention: the notion of making a durable mark on a surface. Humans have been doing this for at least 100,000 years – the bureaucracy didn’t give humans that power. Then the symbolic invention: let’s make this mark different from all other marks and assign it a meaning that we can all agree on. Humans have been doing this for a long time, too. Then there’s the linguistic one: let’s realise that a sound, a syllable and a word are all things in the world that can be assigned a graphic symbol. This invention depends on the previous ones, and itself is made of innovations, realisations, solutions and hacks. Then comes the functional invention: let’s use this set of symbols to write a list of captives’ names, or a contract about feeding workers, or a letter to a distant garrison commander. […]

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Time No Longer.

I’m about a third of the way through Dostoevsky’s Идиот [The Idiot], and I’ve gotten to the bit in II:5 where Prince Myshkin is wandering around Petersburg and — shortly after the striking sentence “Что же в самом деле делать с действительностью?” [Really, what can you do with reality?] — he remembers what he had once said to Rogozhin about the moment just preceding his epileptic fits (which he hasn’t had since he left Switzerland): “в этот момент мне как-то становится понятно необычайное слово о том, что времени больше не будет” [“at that moment somehow the extraordinary words ‘there shall be time no longer‘ become understandable to me” — I quote the Carlisles’ translation]. That really is one of the more extraordinary quotes from the book of Revelation, and it’s caught the imaginations of many people, including me. But it turns out it may be one of those pesky mistranslations.

The Carlisles use the King James Version, which is probably still the most familiar (the exact words of the KJV, citing the seventh angel, are “there should be time no longer”), and this is equivalent to the modern Russian version Dostoevsky quotes and the Latin “quia tempus amplius non erit.” But the original Greek is ὅτι χρόνος οὐκέτι ἔσται, and apparently χρόνος has a special meaning here, because the New English Bible has “There shall be no more delay” — similarly, the New World Translation has “There will be no delay any longer,” and I assume this is the standard modern interpretation. Anybody know the story here? Frankly, the “delay” version is obvious and boring, so I’m going to stick with the mysterious and unforgettable “time no longer” no matter what the scholars say.

Also, when I checked the Church Slavonic Bible, I found that it has “лѣта уже не будетъ,” using лѣто (modern лето [leto]) not in what I thought was its usual OCS sense ‘year’ (in modern Russian it’s ‘summer’) but apparently in a more general sense of ‘time’ (which I thought was врѣмѧ, часъ, or годъ); I’m curious about the Slavic stuff as well as the New Testament Greek stuff, and will appreciate anything anybody can tell me.

Linguistics Clickbait.

Matthew Scarborough of Consulting Philologist says “An idea for a tweet came to me in a dream, and that tweet ended up going a little bit viral”:

There really needs to be a linguistics clickbaity website that publishes articles like “We’ve found the 10 best usages of the subjunctive in Old Phrygian. Number 7 will blow your mind!!!”. I’d write for that website.
11:42 AM – Jul 24, 2018

He got a lot of responses:

Doctors hate this one future optative.

He Found One Simple Trick to Trace Word Origins. Now Proto-Indo-Europeanists Hate Him!

We’ll tell you how synthetic or analytic a language you are based on which Disney princesses you identify with!

See the link for more, and thanks for a good laugh, Matthew!

Pathos II.

A couple of years ago I wagged my finger at a translator who used “revolutionary pathos” to translate Russian “революционный пафос,” and now I’m going to exercise that finger all over again, this time at the authors of Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Last week I chastised them for using the ridiculously lumbering terms “unfinalizability” and “heteroglossia,” and now I’ve run into another pair of infuriating choices. Here, let me quote a passage from p. 355:

The Discourse of Pathos

The first stylistic line of the novel developed what Bakhtin calls “the discourse of pathos” (or “the pathetic word”). It is important to note at the outset that the Russian words pafos and pateticheskoe, although routinely translated into their English equivalents from the same Greek roots, differ in meaning from English pathos and pathetic. Whereas the English terms carry overtones of sadness and suggest a quality that arouses pity, sorrow, or compassion, common translations of Russian pafos include “enthusiasm,” “inspiration,” “animation,” “passionate ardor or fervor.” Soviet dictionaries offer as sample phrases “revolutionary pathos,” “to speak with pathos,” and “the pathos of creative labor.”

Characteristically for this essay, Bakhtin distinguishes “prosaic pathos” or “novelistic pathos” (terms he uses interchangeably) from “poetic” or “authentic” pathos. [etc. etc.]

Reading that, I was both astounded and enraged. (I penciled in “by idiots” after “routinely translated.”) It’s bad enough when people mistranslate out of ignorance or thoughtlessness, but what kind of person deliberately mistranslates, saying “here, this is a bad translation I’m going to use, so please bear in mind that it doesn’t mean what you think it means”? It’s just… why would you do that?? (Also, “spirit” would be a more appropriate English rendering in this context than any of the alternatives they provide.)
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Writing, Translation, and Morality.

Arundhati Roy’s “What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?” is very long (I confess to skipping some of the bits that go into detail about her novels, which I haven’t read), but makes a lot of interesting points. Here’s a good passage on her second novel:

Twenty years after the publication of The God of Small Things, I finished writing my second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but if a novel can have an enemy, then the enemy of this novel is the idea of “One nation, one religion, one language.” As I composed the cover page of my manuscript, in place of the author’s name, I was tempted to write: “Translated from the original(s) by Arundhati Roy.” The Ministry is a novel written in English but imagined in several languages. Translation as a primary form of creation was central to the writing of it (and here I don’t mean the translation of the inchoate and the prelingual into words). Regardless of which language (and in whose mother tongue) The Ministry was written in, this particular narrative about these particular people in this particular universe would had to be imagined in several languages. It is a story that emerges out of an ocean of languages, in which a teeming ecosystem of living creatures—official-language fish, unofficial-dialect mollusks, and flashing shoals of word-fish—swim around, some friendly with each other, some openly hostile, and some outright carnivorous. But they are all nourished by what the ocean provides. And all of them, like the people in The Ministry, have no choice but to coexist, to survive, and to try to understand each other.

For them, translation is not only a high-end literary art performed by sophisticated polyglots. Translation is daily life, it is street activity, and it’s increasingly a necessary part of ordinary folks’ survival kit. And so, in this novel of many languages, it is not only the author, but the characters themselves who swim around in an ocean of exquisite imperfection, who constantly translate for and to each other, who constantly speak across languages, and who constantly realize that people who speak the same language are not necessarily the ones who understand each other best.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been—is being—translated into 48 languages. Each of those translators has to grapple with a language that is infused with many languages including, if I may coin a word, many kinds of Englishes (sociolects is perhaps the correct word, but I’ll stay with Englishes because it is deliciously worse) and translate it into another language that is infused with many languages. I use the word infused advisedly, because I am not speaking merely of a text that contains a smattering of quotations or words in other languages as a gimmick or a trope, or one that plays the Peter Sellers game of mocking Indian English, but of an attempt to actually create a companionship of languages.

Of the 48 translations, two are Urdu and Hindi. As we will soon see, the very fact of having to name Hindi and Urdu as separate languages, and publish them as separate books with separate scripts, contains a history that is folded into the story of The Ministry. Given the setting of the novel, the Hindi and Urdu translations are, in part, a sort of homecoming. I soon learned that this did nothing to ease the task of the translators. To give you an example: The human body and its organs play an important part in The Ministry. We found that Urdu, that most exquisite of languages, which has more words for love than perhaps any other language in the world, has no word for vagina. There are words like the Arabic furj, which is considered to be archaic and more or less obsolete, and there are euphemisms that range in meaning from “hidden part,” “breathing hole,” “vent,” and “path to the uterus.” The most commonly used one is aurat ki sharamgah. A woman’s place of shame. As you can see, we had trouble on our hands. Before we rush to judgment, we must remember that pudenda in Latin means “that whereof one should feel shame.” In Danish, I was told by my translator, the phrase is “lips of shame.” So, Adam and Eve are alive and well, their fig leaves firmly in place.

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Sixteen Years of Languagehat.

Amazingly, it’s sixteen years since the beginnings of LH. I didn’t expect it to last six months, but here we all are, and it’s the “we” part that keeps it going — the dialogue, the back-and-forth, the heteroglossia, if you will. I never understand what the fun is in simply broadcasting one’s opinions and not caring what anyone has to say about them. How would I have learned so much without all you Hatters to set me straight when I shoot off my mouth? I guess there’s an egregore around here, if my glimmerings of incipient understanding of that esoteric expression are correct. Anyway, thanks for your support over the years; I miss those who are gone, and I welcome those who show up for the first time and have something to contribute, whether that be thoughts, jokes, questions, or a well-turned phrase. Let’s keep the conversation going as long as we can!


I ran across “egregore” in my reading and assumed it was a typo, but no, it’s a thing! Wikipedia:

Egregore (also egregor) is an occult concept representing a “thoughtform” or “collective group mind”, an autonomous psychic entity made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of a group of people. The symbiotic relationship between an egregore and its group has been compared to the more recent, non-occult concepts of the corporation (as a legal entity) and the meme.

The first author to adapt “egregore” in a modern language seems to be the French poet Victor Hugo, in La Légende des siècles (“The Legend of the Ages”), First Series, 1859, where he uses the word “égrégore” first as an adjective, then as a noun, while leaving the meaning obscure. The author seems to have needed a word rhyming with words ending in the sound “or”. It would not be the only example of word creation by Victor Hugo. However, the word is the normal form that the Greek word ἑγρήγορος (Watcher) would take in French. This was the term used in the Book of Enoch for great angel-like spirits.

Eliphas Lévi, in Le Grand Arcane (“The Great Mystery”, 1868) identifies “egregors” with the tradition concerning the “Watchers”, the fathers of the nephilim, describing them as “terrible beings” that “crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence.”

The concept of the egregore as a group thoughtform was developed in works of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucians and has been referenced by writers such as Valentin Tomberg, notably in his anonymously-penned book, Meditations on the Tarot.

A well known concept of the egregore is the GOTOS of the Fraternitas Saturni. […]

The notion of “egregor” also appears in Daniil Andreyev’s Roza Mira, where it represents the shining cloud-like spirit associated with the Church.

Egregore is also used in relation to the Montreal Surrealists, best known as Les Automatistes, in Ray Ellenwood’s Egregore: a history of the Montréal automatist movement.

My mouth was literally hanging open as I read all that, which is the densest concentration of what I think is technically called horseshit I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t even know how to pronounce it; Wiktionary says /əˈɡɹɛɡɚ/ (i.e., “a Gregor”), but that makes no sense to me given the French origin and the spelling — I would have expected /ˈɛɡɹəɡɔr/. Anybody know anything about this? (My apologies to anyone who takes occult concepts seriously; I calls ’em as I sees ’em.)

A Light Bulb Went Off.

Ben Yagoda writes in Lingua Franca about some of his recent linguistic investigations, beginning with an enthusiastic paragraph to which I nodded enthusiastic assent:

When William Wordsworth wrote, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he was referring to his youthful experiencing of the French Revolution, albeit from afar. Today doesn’t seem like a particularly blissful time, but if you research language usage as a job, pastime, or somewhere in between, this is a Golden Age. Proprietary resources like the online Oxford English Dictionary, Green’s Dictionary of Slang,, and The New York Times and New Yorker archives, and free ones like Twitter, Wikipedia, and Wiktionary, the BYU Corpora, Urban Dictionary, the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database of historic newspapers, and Google’s quartet — its search engine, Google Books, Google News, and Ngram Viewer — make it possible to almost instantaneously learn more about current and historical language trends than would have even been thought possible 25 years ago, all while sitting on your butt.

(BYU Corpora looks great!) He goes on to discuss the phrase “the suits” (referring to executives) and the many terms for “the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street” (e.g., “tree lawn”; I have a feeling the subject has come up before at LH), but what I want to focus on here is a tweet he cites complaining about the phrase “a light bulb went off,” saying it should be “went ON.” Yagoda writes:

Makes sense, yet “light bulb went off” somehow seemed natural to me. The first use I could find was in the Times in 1971: “Then one day, the light bulb went off over Mrs. Smith’s head.” Google Ngram Viewer suggested that the phrase originated in the late 1960s and has been increasing in popularity since then […] So the expression is relatively new, but is it “mangled”? I don’t think so. To me, light bulb went off isn’t a corruption of light bulb went on (which doesn’t sound quite right in any case), but a variant of a bomb, fireworks, or — most to the point — a photographic flashbulb going “off,” with the drama and suddenness that preposition suggests. I can see why it has caught on.

As is so often the case, I can’t depend on my own intuition; I can’t even tell which I would have preferred if I hadn’t read Yagoda’s piece. So: any thoughts?

More Untranslatable Words.

We’ve had some good discussions about “untranslatable words” (e.g., 2004, 2005, 2017), even though, as I wrote in the latter post,

I generally find lists of “untranslatable” words irritating; they tend to consist of variations on “comfortable” and “longing” plus a few implausible items alleged to mean, say, “the sensation of dipping your pinky finger into a pond freshly dappled by rain.”

Still, they can be more irritating or less, and this one from the Guardian is better than most, partly because it gives plenty of space for each word, so you can grasp some of the nuances. Of course it includes some of the tiresome usual suspects, like Finnish sisu and Russian toska (why doesn’t anyone ever mention, say, Russian плюсна [plyusná] ‘the part of the foot between the toes and ankle’?), but there are some goodies, like the first one, Spanish sobremesa:

Lunch – and it is more usually lunch than dinner – will long since have yielded to the important act of the sobremesa, that languid time when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. Coffee and digestivos will have been taken, or perhaps the large gin and tonic that follows a meal rather than precedes it here.

The sobremesa is a digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food, gossip, ideas and conversations. It is also a sybaritic time; a recognition that there is more to life than working long hours and that few pleasures are greater than sharing a table and then chatting nonsense for a hefty portion of what remains of the day.

A delightful word for a delightful practice! German Feierabend is similar, but post-work rather than post-lunch:

Dating back to the 16th century, the term Feierabend, or “celebration evening”, used to denote the evening before a public holiday, but has come to refer to the free time between leaving the office and bedtime on any working day.

The key to understanding Feierabend is that it isn’t time for going to the cinema or gym, but time for doing nothing. In 1880, the cultural historian Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl described the concept as “an atmosphere of carefree wellbeing, of deep inner reconciliation, of the pure and clear quiet of the evening”.

The description of Iranian ta’arof ‘politeness ritual’ is wonderful. And for once the comments are worth reading; people add their own candidates, like:

I always liked the Indonesian phrase on Bali of jam karat – which translates roughly as rubber time. A concept that refers to a sense of flexible meeting, the example I had was waiting for about 90 minutes for a sunrise fishing trip. When the fisherman arrived, 90 minutes late he shrugged and said “jam karat!”

Thanks, AJP and Eric!

The Dominance of English.

Jacob Mikanowski’s long article “Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet” makes lots of points, some purely rhetorical (“There is no reason for any particular language to be worshipped around the world like a golden idol”) and some of more particularity, like Anna Wierzbicka’s description of English’s subconscious system of values. It’s well worth reading for its enjoyable combination of simmering outrage and interesting information; I’m going to single out this passage, which both surprised and shocked me:

Yet the influence of English now goes beyond simple lexical borrowing or literary influence. Researchers at the IULM University in Milan have noticed that, in the past 50 years, Italian syntax has shifted towards patterns that mimic English models, for instance in the use of possessives instead of reflexives to indicate body parts and the frequency with which adjectives are placed before nouns. German is also increasingly adopting English grammatical forms, while in Swedish its influence has been changing the rules governing word formation and phonology.

It’s bad enough that languages are dying right and left, but the ones that are left shouldn’t be deformed to resemble the hegemonic language that Mikanowski compares to a supermassive black hole! (Thanks, Trevor and Eric.)