Little Bustard.

I love English, really I do. It’s one of the best languages I know, almost infinitely flexible and expressive. But sometimes it lets me down, and this is one of those times, and I’m going to complain about it.

Mandelstam’s Грифельная ода (Slate Ode; see this post) is one of the most difficult poems I know. Mandelstam wrote a lot of difficult poems, but unlike, say, “The Finder of a Horseshoe” (see this post), where each line is perfectly understandable and the difficulty is in figuring out what to make of them as a group, here half the lines produce an initial reaction of “Huh? Wha?” Take the first line, Звезда с звездой – могучий стык ‘Star with star – (a) mighty styk.’ What’s a styk? Well, it can mean ‘joint, junction’ or ‘butt’ (in a technical sense) or various kinds of meeting-point (e.g., of flanks of adjacent military units) or, in Formalist poetics, a particular kind of sound repetition from the end of one line to the beginning of the next; we can probably leave the last couple out of consideration (though poetics were definitely important to Mandelstam and he’d certainly read Osip Brik’s essay introducing the term), and we can fudge the distinctions and say something like “Star with star: a mighty joining” (or, in Alistair Noon’s version, “The mighty joins of star upon star,” or, in this one, “A powerful junction, a star with a star”)… but what does that mean? Sure, it’s useful to know he’s quoting Lermontov’s famous Выхожу один я на дорогу/I go out on the road alone (see this post), whose fourth line is И звезда с звездою говорит ‘And star talks with star,’ and for that matter the next line quotes another line of the Lermontov poem, Сквозь туман кремнистый путь блестит ‘Through the mist a flinty path shines,’ but what does it mean? We proceed to the next two lines — ‘The language of flint and air,/ Flint with water, a ring with a horseshoe’ — and ask the same plaintive question. We enter a momentary realm of clarity at the start of the second stanza — ‘We sleep on our feet in the thick night/ Under a warm sheepskin hat’ — but after that it’s back to “Huh?” It’s a poem you need to break your teeth over for a long time before it starts to begin to sort of make sense, and I expect to spend the rest of my life chewing at it and trying to extract more from it.

But none of that is what I’m here to complain about; that’s just poetry being poetry. No, I’m here because of the last line of the sixth stanza (in the 1937 revision): Меняю строй на стрепет гневный ‘I exchange (a) stroi for an angry strepet.’ The first word I’ve left in transliteration, stroi, is problematic in the same way as styk above: it can mean ‘system, order; regime; (linguistic) structure; (musical) key, pitch; (fig.) mood; harmony; (military/aeronautical) formation; line, row; (mil.) unit in formation; (mil. and fig.) service, commission,’ and doubtless other things — cf. a dustman’s dumpling. I have no idea what specifically he meant by it here, but again, the translator can fudge. My problem is with the second word, which has one and only one translation: a strepet is a little bustard. I’m sorry, but that’s a stupid and unusable word (or expression). I wouldn’t even look at one flying and making its distinctive sounds and say “that’s a little bustard”; I’d contemplate it in silence. To use it in poetry is unthinkable (unless it’s a very jocular kind of poem). Noon has “I swap […]/ harmony for the bustard’s anger”; in the first place, it’s not a bustard, which is a different bird (Russian дрофа [drofá]), and in the second place, “bustard” is just as bad except for being a little shorter and thus getting out of the way quicker. The other version has “Exchange order for an angry vulture,” which, no, it’s not a vulture, which has entirely the wrong connotations (and doesn’t sound much better anyway). Why isn’t the bird called a “strippet” in English? That would have the same pleasing onomatopoeic sound as the Russian and could be placed with pride in a poem. But no, it is only and always the little bustard, and I declare the poem eternally untranslatable. WTF, English?!

Update. Alex K. (3:57 pm comment) astutely points out:

If strepet is animate, why isn’t its accusative strepeta? It’s most likely inanimate, so not a bird – the first meaning listed by Dahl (whom Mandelstam revered) and Vasmer is a sound: a sharp, whistling noise.

He is, of course, quite right, although all bilingual dictionaries have only the bird sense (which presumably misled the translators I quote above), so I reverse my judgment and declare the poem provisionally translatable.

Further update, resolving the whole thing. D.O. (in a comment from 6:15 pm) quotes an edition of Mandelstam as follows:

Стрепет (было «трепет») — опечатка машинистки, очень понравившаяся Тихонову, из-за чего автор ее сохранил (помета на экз-ре С из собр. М. С. Лесмана).
Strepet (originally trepet [trembling]) is a typo made by a copyist, which Tikhonov liked very much and because of that the author kept it.

You couldn’t make something like that up!


Anne Curzan has a short but extraordinarily interesting Lingua Franca post on one of the many vexing problems of English: how to think about the “nonstandard” pronunciation of mischievous as “mischievious” (four syllables, mis-CHEEV-i-us) in the context of “standard English.” Some excerpts:

What language is considered standard and nonstandard is, of course, socially constructed and changes over time. But the categorization can become so naturalized that its artificiality can be hard to see when we talk about features like double or multiple negation or the construction needs washed. As a result, it can be hard to genuinely grapple with critical questions such as: How do language features become standard? And who decides?

I wondered whether “mischievious” would ground our discussion of these questions in an effective way. Here was a pronunciation that Merriam-Webster labeled nonstandard, even though my informal polling suggested that it was more widespread among highly educated speakers than I had realized. And while some speakers I polled had strong reactions about the pronunciation’s nonstandardness, that status seemed readily challengeable (i.e., the pronunciation seemed not (yet?) to be ideologically naturalized as nonstandard).

I started the class discussion by polling the class on their pronunciation of mischievous. More than half of the 34 students had the pronunciation “mischievious” — whether as their only pronunciation or as one of two available pronunciations. I then put students in pairs, gave them the blog post to read, and asked them to work through two questions:

1. Let’s imagine that you are consulting with Merriam-Webster about whether to remove the label nonstandard from the pronunciation “mischievious.” What are two things you feel like you need to know to make a recommendation?
2. Given the information you currently have in hand, should Anne have left the “nonstandard” pronunciation “mischievious” in the podcast or had it deleted so as not to distract listeners?

The ensuing discussion is fascinating; here’s her conclusion:

In the end, the students voted 27-7 that I should have left the pronunciation “mischievious” in the podcast rather than subscribe (or at least potentially be seen as subscribing) to the notion that the pronunciation is in some way nonstandard, and I think they are right.

I guess I do too, though I have to struggle against my irrational but longstanding prejudice against “mischievious.”

Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries.

I realize this post will be of interest to a limited portion of my readership, but I have to be true to my roots, and even though my days as an Indo-European scholar are four decades behind me now, Matthew Scarborough’s Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries: A Guide for the Perplexed gets my blood racing and I have to share it. He begins:

Over the last three years I have worked more-or-less intensively and widely on Indo-European etymological problems […] Because I have been working on this over the last three years, have come into contact with all manner of etymological resources I had never used before, and (most importantly) because I’m the perverse sort of individual who delights in making lists and bibliographies, I thought I ought to compile a working bibliography of Indo-European etymology as a kind of where-to-go list if you need to make etymological enquiries – something that could be of interest to laypeople who are etymology hobbyists who want to know the relative reliability of different sources and so forth, or maybe you just want a quick resource to know where to go to fact-check dodgy etymology memes floating around the internet.

I will be doing this series in a piecemeal form, first with the general handbooks covering cross-branch cognacy for all of the older Indo-European languages, then the main handbooks that exist branch by branch. […] So, I’ll now begin this series in this post starting with an overview of the general Indo-European etymological dictionaries that are commonly in use today.

He starts with Pokorny’s venerable and still necessary Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959–1969), and continues with the Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben (2001), Nomina im Indogermanischen Lexikon (2008), and Lexikon der indogermanischen Partikeln und Pronominalstämme (2014), with some appetizing images of entries, and for lagniappe adds Cal Watkins’ American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (3rd ed., 2011). I can’t wait for the promised coverage of handbooks for individual languages/branches!

Update: Scarborough has added an “Appendix to Part I“:

Somehow, up until now (and having discovered this work only today through a random Google search trying to find information about a somewhat obscure etymological glossary of Old Cornish I feel fairly sheepish to admit it) it has largely escaped my notice until today that in 2005 Frank Heidermanns published a massive three volume work Bibliographie zur indogermanischen Wortforschung. Wortbildung, Etymologie, Onomasiologie und Lehnwortschichten der alten und modernen indogermanischen Sprachen in systematischen Publikationen ab 1800 [Bibliography for Indo-European Lexical Research. Word-formation, Etymology, Onomasiology, and Loanword Strata in the Ancient and Modern Indo-European languages in systematic publications from 1800] (Tübingen, 2005), which contains 28000 references for the various subject categories. If you have access to a university library that subscribes to De Gruyter Online, you can also read the full thing here. There’s also a limited preview in the Google books page in that first hyperlink.

The existence of this bibliography probably renders some of my efforts here to be a little bit pointless, but I suppose there is still probably a certain audience for an annotated bibliography of Indo-European etymological resources, and in any case much has appeared since 2005 besides. I just now feel remiss for not knowing about this and including some discussion of it in my initial post.

I will only add that the book costs $699, so thank god for the preview function.

The Rudeness of Metafictional Irony.

I’ve had occasion once again to consult Joe Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (see my posts Shalost and Shalost II), and in the chapter on Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila I found the following passage (pp. 112-13) so illuminating I thought I’d share it here:

The lyrical digressions of RL, again, are a good example. The accepted view has long been that the digressions serve a narratological purpose: to create an ironic bifurcation of the lyrical subject. This idea is worth pausing on because irony is what makes RL possible. There is near universal agreement that RL is a metafictional work — a poema, first and foremost, about poetry. Metafictional texts invariably both “systematically flaunt [their] own condition of artifice” and “criticize previous literary conventions.” […] Postulating a now standard argument, Tomashevskii says that the subjectivity introduced and maintained in the lyrical digressions “infects” the entire poem. Moreover, he says, this was a major innovation. “That is why … the entire poem in all its parts is, in a sense, a chat between the author and the reader, the very opposite of the old epic poema, in which the author did not reveal himself as an individual in the poema‘s verse, and the word was dislocated from its speaker, becoming abstract and monosemantic.” […] Pushkin’s claim to the reader’s attention — his ethos — rubbed many readers the wrong way, and the omnipresence of Pushkin’s lyrical subject(s) displeased a number of his critics. […] The Nevskii zritel’ reviewer, for example, wrote, “The poet likes to talk about himself quite a lot and [always seems to be] addressing himself to pretty girls, to preceptors, to actors, and the like — that is what holds up the progress of the action and hinders unity. I would like to be charmed, to forget myself — but, instead, the poet brings my delight to a halt, and instead of Ancient Rus’, I see today’s world around me: the incongruity becomes plain, and, what’s more, all this distracts the reader’s attention and belittles the importance of the [poet’s] subject.”

The expectations that this reviewer has of poets are extremely telling. He wants to “be charmed, to forget himself.” In other words, he wants to be entertained and delighted. And the poet should not hinder this with a lot of asides and jokes; paradoxically enough, the poet should keep out of the way and let the reader enjoy himself. The poet here is a kind of a servant to the reader, one who, as Voeikov says, “should not for a moment lose sight of his readers, before whom he is obliged to conduct himself politely and respectfully.” Pushkin’s lack of respect for his reader, as evinced by the intrusiveness of his narrator, was one of the central themes in the critical polemic of 1820-21. Clearly, he asserted himself more than was customary and, in Goffman’s terms, took a “line” that was not in keeping with the expectations of the readership. His lyrical subject, like the obnoxious young men Bulgarin describes, “does not respect his elders, is familiar with his superiors, and arrogant with his equals.” As such, we have here an ineluctable intertwining of two sets of conventions: literary and behavioral. Not only did the lyrical digressions that lie at the heart of the poem’s pragmatic structure run against literary convention, they were fundamentally rude. It is impossible to separate the two.

We are so used to accepting whatever an author dishes out as appropriate — not in the sense that we like it, but in the sense that it’s to be considered as literature, not as a personal insult — that it’s very hard indeed to put oneself back in the mindset of people for whom there were norms of literature and norms of conduct, and those norms should not be violated. This is the first time I think I’ve really gotten a grip on it, thanks to that image of the poet as “a kind of a servant to the reader”: I see him summoned to declaim a poem as a juggler might be summoned to perform for the entertainment of a noble audience. The poet starts by talking about far-off times and lands, allowing the audience to drift into a pleasant reverie about knights and fair maids, and when he suddenly says something on the order of “But hey, we’ve all been there, you know what I’m talking about!” (to transpose the idiom a couple of centuries forward), it throws the audience right out of the reverie and pisses them off. The poet is supposed to be a tasteful hireling, not a rude ironist.

What Tech Does to the Reading Brain.

This is exactly the sort of pop-psych piece beloved of op-ed pages and their online equivalents, but what the hell, it’s interesting: Angela Chen interviews Maryanne Wolf about her book Reader, Come Home (subtitle: “the reading brain in a digital world”). Chen starts with a question about the idea of “circuits” in the brain; Wolf responds:

When we have any function, whether it’s language or vision or cognitive functions like memory, we aren’t dealing with a straight line to the brain that says “This is what I do.” The brain builds a network of connections, a network of neurons that have a particular role in that function. So when we have a new cognitive function, like literacy, it doesn’t have a preset network. Rather, it makes new connections among older networks, and that whole collection of networks becomes a circuit. It’s a connected scaffolding of parts.

The beauty of the circuit for functions like literacy is its plasticity. You can have one for each different language, like English or Chinese or Hebrew. And then something miraculous happens: the circuit builds upon itself. The first circuits are very basic — for decoding letters as we’re learning to read — but everything we read builds upon itself.

So what’s changing now with technology? How is that affecting our circuits?

The fact that a circuit is plastic is both its beautiful strength and its Achilles’ heel. Reading reflects our medium. And to the extent that a digital medium is going to require us to process large amounts of information very quickly, it will diminish from the time we have for slower processing work.

And these slower processes are deep learning, the ones that are more cognitively challenging. They’re the basis for going beyond that initial short circuit of decoding the information and understanding it at a very basic level. The digital medium affordance rewards and advantages fast processing at the cost of the slower processes that build our very important critical, analytical, and empathetic processes.

Wolf proposes we aim for a “bi-literate brain.” I leave it to my readers to decide the relative proportions of sense and woo in all this. Thanks, Jack!


On “Tweet of the day” on Radio 4 (two-minute clip), the actor Sam West talks about the line in Hamlet “I can tell a hawk from a handsaw,” which he had assumed was intended as nonsense. He discovered from a Norfolk bird-watching friend that “hanser” is Norfolk dialect for a Grey Heron, whose appearance in flight could be mistaken for a hawk. My thanks to Alastair for this bit of Shakespeariana, and for the glossary of Norfolk dialect words with which he accompanied it.

Dead as the Moa.

Priscilla Wehi, Hēmi Whaanga, and Murray Cox at The Conversation (“Academic rigor, journalistic flair”) discuss Māori oral traditions:

Tracing extinctions that happened centuries ago is difficult, but our collaborative analysis of ancestral sayings, or whakataukī, found that early Māori paid attention to their local fauna and environment and recognised the extinction of these giant, flightless birds that were an important food resource.

After Europeans arrived, some whakataukī used moa as a metaphor for the feared extinction of the indigenous Māori people themselves, which emphasises the powerful cultural impact the extinction of moa had. […]

Sometimes, what is missing from a body of knowledge reveals more than what is actually there. We searched the whakataukī for bird species that became extinct in the first few centuries after Māori arrived in New Zealand. There were none, apart from moa, and the giant eagle, or pouakai, that preyed on moa. Pouakai tracked moa on the highway to extinction. […]

Many whakataukī highlight the disappearance of the moa, a sign that moa represented more than just another extinction. They were a poster species. A hashtag. Many sayings lament the loss of the moa, using different words and different phrasing, but with an echo that repeats over and over.

Huna i te huna a te moa
Hidden as the moa hid

Thanks, Dmitry!

Everything You Know Is Wrong.

As I suggested here, I’ve started Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, and I confess that so far I’m underwhelmed; he has interesting things to say, but as I wrote at Tom’s site: “I’m not nearly as interested in the apocalypse as he is — I mean, it’s an interesting concept that has been important to some writers, but he seems to me to be greatly exaggerating its importance to literature in general.” He also is far more interested in Robbe-Grillet than pretty much anybody has been in the last few decades, a peril of trying to deal with contemporary literature. But it’s interesting enough to carry me along, and now that I’ve gotten to chapter 2, I thought I’d quote the epigraphs (every chapter has its set of epigraphs) and make a few comments:

What can be thought must certainly be a fiction.

…the nicer knowledge of
Belief, that what it believes in is not true.
      Wallace Stevens

Who can deny that things to come are not yet?
Yet already there is in the mind an expectation
of things to come.
      St. Augustine

C’est par l’effort et le désir que nous avons fait connaissance avec le temps; nous gardons l’habitude d’estimer le temps selon nos désirs, nos efforts, notre volonté propre.
      Guyau, La genèse de l’idée de temps [My edition has the incorrect “Le genèse”; I don’t know whether the fault is Kermode’s or the publisher’s.]

The idea implied by the first two quotes has long fascinated me; perhaps the canonical expression in my head is the quote from the immortal Firesign Theatre that I have used as my post title. But I have questions. Why is Guyau (Jean-Marie Guyau, who sounds like a very interesting fellow — any friend of Kropotkin’s is a friend of mine — and about whom I am glad to learn) given in the original French, while Nietzsche and Augustine are in translation? (Nietzsche’s original is “was gedacht werden kann, muß sicherlich eine Fiktion sein”; Augustine’s is “quis igitur negat futura nondum esse? sed tamen iam est in animo expectatio futurorum.”) And why is so parsimonious a snippet of Stevens provided that you can’t make out what he’s saying? (It’s from section III of “The Pure Good of Theory”: “Yet to speak of the whole world as metaphor/ Is still to stick to the contents of the mind// And the desire to believe in a metaphor./ It is to stick to the nicer knowledge of/ Belief…”) At any rate, here are a couple of suggestive snippets from the chapter:

Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time, illud tempus as Eliade calls it; fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now, hoc tempus.
. . .

So my suggestion is that literary fictions belong to Vaihinger’s category of ‘the consciously false.’ They are not subject, like hypotheses, to proof or disconfirmation, only, if they come to lose their operational effectiveness, to neglect. They are then thrown, in Stevens’s figure, on to the ‘dump’—’to sit among mattresses of the dead.’ In this they resemble the fictions of science, mathematics, and law, and differ from those of theology only because religious fictions are harder to free from the mythical ‘deposit.’ […]
If we forget that fictions are fictive we regress to myth (as when the Neo-Platonists forgot the fictiveness of Plato’s fictions and Professor Frye forgets the fictiveness of all fictions).

Nice zinger at the end there, though I have no idea what passage of Frye’s is being zinged. Tom’s last two posts, by the way, are here and here; he says “Please come back in early November for more literary criticism, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which will, I hope, be over my head in different ways than The Sense of an Ending.”

Chinook Wawa.

Back in early 2003 I posted about Chinook Jargon, but there were only four comments (two of them by me) and the linked site is dead, so it’s time to revisit the subject. Diane Selkirk of BBC Travel writes about her experience with it:

Like many from British Columbia, I grew up with an easy familiarity with a handful of strange words. They were terms I always thought were common English, but they turned out to be unknown beyond the boundaries of my Pacific Coast home. I later learned that words like potlatch, saltchuck, kanaka, skookum, sticks, muckamuck, tyee and cultus were from a near-forgotten language that was once spoken by more than 100,000 people, from Alaska to the California border, for almost 200 years.

Known as Chinook Jargon or Chinook Wawa (‘wawa’ meaning talk), this was a trade, or pidgin, language that combined simplified words from the First Nations languages of Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Chinook and others, as well as from French and English. It was used so extensively that it was the language of courts and newspapers in the Pacific Northwest from about 1800 to 1905. Some Chinook Wawa still exists in place names and slang, but the meanings are so deeply buried in Pacific Northwest culture that the words come with more of a feeling than a definition, and most residents can’t say which language the terms evolved from. […]

Chinook Wawa was developed to ease trade in a place where there was no common language. On the Pacific Coast at the time, there were dozens of First Nations languages, including Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka’wakw, Salishan and Chinook. After European contact, which included Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, English, French, Spanish, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese were gradually added to the mix.

While pidgin languages usually draw most of their vocabulary from the prestige language, or colonising culture, unusually, in the case of Chinook Wawa, two thirds of the language is Chinook and Nuu-chah-nulth with the rest being made up mostly of English and French.

She mentions various theories about how Chinook Wawa arose, but I expect several of my commenters will be more informed about the matter, so I will leave it up to them to discuss it. At any rate, there’s a lot more about the history of the language, as well as some nice photos. Thanks, Trevor!


Stan Carey investigates the popular catchphrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” (which, as every schoolboy knows, does not occur in the Conan Doyle canon). It seems to have been created and spread by P.G. Wodehouse in his 1915 novel Psmith, Journalist. As Stan says, “if you quote Sherlock Holmes as saying ‘Exactly, my dear Watson’ – which he really does say in Conan Doyle’s stories – there’s a good chance your listener will ‘correct’ you, so entrenched is the elementary version.”

Also (speaking of canons), I realize the intensely allusive, forbiddingly learned style of criticism epitomized by Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (see this LH post) is caviare to the general, but if anyone is interested, Tom of Wuthering Expectations is doing a reading of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (not to be confused with the Julian Barnes novel that borrowed its name), a book I’ve been meaning to read for years and am finally, with the spur of Tom’s example, plunging into; his first post is here. (He just posted on Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, for those who might be interested in that.)