The Perception of Indo-European in Greece.

Matthew Scarborough posts on a paper by K. Sampanis and Karantzola, “The perception of historical and Indo-European linguistics in the instruction of Greek,” which he says “contains an interesting discussion of the perception of Indo-European linguistics in modern-day Greece, and how better education in historical linguistics in Greece might help combat linguistic pseudo-science.” He quotes this paragraph (which I presume is the abstract):

Indo-European linguistics has a long tradition which is manifested by an extensive bibliography and findings that are integrated into other domains such as lexicography or comparative philology. Still, one may observe a certain degree of scepticism towards the Indo-European studies, which is largely attributed to the fact that Historical Linguistics’ and Archaeology’s methodologies do not easily comply with each other, so the results of one may question findings of the other. What is more, within the language discourse in Greece, Indo-European linguistics is confronted with an intensive denial of its theories which is based on a ‘hellenocentric’ paralinguistic pseudo-science. The article traces the roots of this anti-Indo-European rhetoric in Greece and indicates the deficient incorporation of IE theory into the language instruction of (Ancient) Greek at primary and secondary education with respect to the way the findings of comparative linguistics are presented in relevant handbooks.

Another sad illustration of the toxic effects of nationalism on one’s sense of reality.

Pasternak on Poshlost.

I’ve long been fascinated with the Russian concept of пошлость [poshlost’] — something like ‘vulgarity,’ or, according to Nabokov, “smug philistinism” — and have posted twice about it (2007, 2011). Needless to say, I was intrigued by this paragraph from the second chapter of Doctor Zhivago (my translation; Yuri Zhivago’s uncle Nikolai is thinking about the inseparable trio of adolescents Yuri, Misha Gordon, and Tonya Gromeko):

They’re horribly eccentric and childish. The sensual realm which so agitates them they for some reason call poshlost’ and use that expression whether it fits or not. A very unfortunate choice of a word! Poshlost’, for them, is the voice of instinct, and pornographic literature, and the exploitation of women, and just about the entire physical world. They blush and turn pale when they say that word!

Они страшные чудаки и дети. Область чувственного, которая их так волнует, они почему-то называют «пошлостью» и употребляют это выражение кстати и некстати. Очень неудачный выбор слова! «Пошлость» — это у них и голос инстинкта, и порнографическая литература, и эксплуатация женщины, и чуть ли не весь мир физического. Они краснеют и бледнеют, когда произносят это слово!

You can see the changing sense of the word, which is reflected in Nabokov’s “poshlust” and Svetlana Boym’s “peculiar conjunction of the sexual and the spiritual.” I’m guessing Nabokov, a decade younger than Pasternak, grew up with the newer sense of the word.

I’ve finished the first two chapters of Zhivago, and I’m here to tell you it’s not easy reading. The very first sentence contains an expression, по залаженному, that is not in any dictionary and that (I discovered, after a half hour of poring over books and googling) Pasternak seems to have created by combining the colloquial заладить ‘keep repeating the same thing’ and лад ‘harmony, concord’ (в лад ‘in tune’), so that the legs, horses, and wind keep up the mourners’ harmony after they stop singing. And he’s very stingy with details; in the first chapter he tells you the funeral is on the eve of the Feast of the Intercession (which is October 1/14, though you’re just supposed to know that), and the fourth chapter starts by saying it’s the summer of 1903, so presumably the opening is set in September 1902. I had to correct the Wikipedia article to reflect that, because whoever wrote it thought the novel opened in 1903 (and I had to find a printed source saying it was actually 1902 — no original research!).
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Meroitic Inscriptions Found.

Charles Q. Choi reports for Live Science on an exciting discovery:

A huge cache of stone inscriptions from one of Africa’s oldest written languages have been unearthed in a vast “city of the dead” in Sudan.

The inscriptions are written in the obscure ‘Meroitic’ language, the oldest known written language south of the Sahara, which has been only partly deciphered.

The discovery includes temple art of Maat, the Egyptian goddess of order, equity and peace, that was, for the first time, depicted with African features. […]

“The Meroitic writing system, the oldest of the sub-Saharan region, still mostly resists our understanding,” Vincent Francigny, an archaeologist at the French Archaeological Unit Sudan Antiquities Service, and co-director of the Sedeinga excavation, told Live Science. “While funerary texts, with very few variations, are quite well-known and can be almost completely translated, other categories of texts often remain obscure. In this context, every new text matters, as they can shed light on something new.”

There’s lots of background on Nubia and and Meroe, and some nice images. Thanks, Trevor!

Pasternak’s Heavenly Arson.

In early 1947, Pasternak wrote one of his best poems, Рождественская звезда [Star of the Nativity]. Here’s a bit of what Dmitry Bykov says about it in his great biography of Pasternak (which has been translated into French but not, so far, into English):

There was another reason he didn’t choose to take these events [the persecutions of writers in that year] seriously. In February 1947 “Star of the Nativity” was written, and a person who has written such verses no longer has anything to worry about.

[…] when “Star” appeared, everyone was stunned: both those who worshiped Pasternak […] and those who didn’t accept his work at all. Pasternak didn’t see these verses published in his own country: they were printed only in foreign editions of Doctor Zhivago […]. “Star of the Nativity” circulated in handwritten copies. […]

Maria Yudina wrote Pasternak that even if he’d never created anything besides “Star of the Nativity,” his immortality would be assured on earth and in heaven.

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No Sweeter Thing.

From the Vologda chapter of Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History (an exhilarating mix of cities, history, and literature, just the kind of book I love), a passage on Varlam Shalamov (who was from Vologda):

Shalamov and his father came into conflict over books. Unlike his unruly brother (who caused Tikhon Shalamov another kind of paternal agony), Varlam was a prodigious reader. The speed of his reading unnerved his father, who kept the keys to the family bookcase, a massive glass-fronted piece of furniture with a deep bottom section in which nothing could be seen. Shalamov remembers with precision, as bookish children do, the sequence of books on the shelves: the gospels; the poetry of Heinrich Heine without a binding; Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg; works of contemporary Russian religious philosophy (some of the same writers that Molotov read in Vologda); and the journals Family and School and Nature and People. Marx stood on the shelves beside Tolstoy. There was nothing, though, that Shalamov considered real treasure: no Shakespeare, no Dostoevsky. His father wanted him to read German philosophy by the light of the kerosene lamp, but Shalamov preferred adventure fiction: Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It was only in the house of a schoolfriend, one of the illustrious Veselovsky family (in which, Shalamov remarked, there was a distinct literary-critical gene), that he encountered a real library: ‘endless bookshelves, boxes, parcels of books, a kingdom of books that I could touch’. Throughout his childhood, his father’s cry resonated: ‘Stop reading!’ ‘Put down that book!’ ‘Turn out the light!’ After decades of absolute hunger for books in the Gulag, he perceived the hunger for books as the condition of his childhood, the condition of his whole life. His primal hunger was such that no number of books could ever slake it. There is no sweeter thing, he said, than the sight of an unread book.

I suspect many Hatters will be able to identify with that feeling. (I can still remember how the shelves were arranged in decades’ worth of bookstores and libraries, many of them long vanished from the face of the earth.)

Shalamov’s father, by the way, after parting ways with the official church (he had been, among other things, a missionary in Alaska), had gotten hired by “an anarchist millionairess named Baroness Des-Fonteines” who had been exiled to Vologda; I tried to look her up assuming her name in Russian would be Дефонтен, but eventually I discovered it was Дес-Фонтейнес. Very odd.


My brother sent me this fascinating article about remnants of “a long-lost planet as large as Mars — a 4.5 billion-year-old relic that was destroyed during the earliest days of the solar system,” and I was gobbling it up until I came to this sentence and was pulled up short: “Almahata Sitta belongs to a class of rocks known as ureilites.” It didn’t bother me that the word was unfamiliar to me; the meaning was clear enough from the context. No, it bothered me that I had no idea how to pronounce it: you-RAIL-ite? YOU-ree-il-ite? So I looked it up and it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries — too specialized, I guess, because it’s not a new word; Wikipedia says “This dark grey or brownish meteorite type is named after the village Novy Urey (Cyrillic: Новый Урей), Mordovia Republic of Russia, where a meteorite of this type fell on 4 September 1886.” But that just adds to the confusion, since now there’s also the possibility of oo-RAIL-ite, or even OO-railite. I can’t even find out how the Russian word Урей is pronounced — the Russian Wikipedia articles Урей 3-й and Урей don’t indicate stress (and the word isn’t in any of my Russian reference books either). So: if you happen to know how the English word is said by the people who deal with the thing itself, please share, and the same goes for anyone who might know the Russian stress (though that’s probably much less likely).

The Podlipnayans.

Russian literature is constantly surprising me. Sometimes I start a novel I’ve been looking forward to and give up in disgust after a hundred pages; sometimes I think I’ll just cast an eye at something because it was famous or controversial in its day and wind up getting hooked and reading the whole thing. Such is the case with Fyodor Reshetnikov‘s only well-known work, the 1864 Подлиповцы (The Podlipnayans). Reshetnikov was a provincial with a decidedly unliterary background: his father was a drunk who ran off shortly after his birth; his mother died shortly after taking him to Perm when he was less than a year old; he was left in the care of an uncle who worked for the post office and expected him to follow the same career, flogging him when he was playful or distracted and unable to concentrate on lessons; he went to a seminary where he was beaten so badly he almost died; he ran away, lived with workers and beggars, and began to read whatever materials he found lying around. He eventually found employment as a clerk in Perm and started trying to write; he got an article published in a local paper, moved to Petersburg, and wrote The Podlipnayans.

It’s one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. It’s said to be a realistic novel about barge-haulers (бурлаки), and that’s not untrue, but no barges are encountered until two-thirds of the way through and nobody hauls one until nearly the end (when the boats are going upstream from Perm). It’s actually a detailed and occasionally surrealistic account of the miserable lives of Pila and Sysoiko (the nicknames by which they are univerally known — at one point when they get arrested and the police ask their full names, they are unable to provide them). They are an inseparable pair of friends who have roles rather than personalities; they reminded me of of Vladimir and Estragon. The story begins in the tiny, wretched village Podlipnaya, north of Cherdyn in Perm province; it has half a dozen huts in a state of collapse, the soil can barely produce crops, the people and animals are constantly on the verge of starvation, and no one has any initiative or apparent desire to keep living except Pila. When he gets fed up with the misery and deaths he persuades his best friend Sysoiko to try life as bargemen, and off they go, joining a stream of similarly desperate villagers converging on the Chusovaya River, where they hear men are being hired.
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Evergreen Standards.

A TLS back-page roundup (from March 18, 2016) mentions Philip Furia and Laurie J. Patterson’s The American Song Book: The Tin Pan Alley Era and says:

“We call them ‘standards’”, say the American authors, while “the British, who love them as much as we do, call them ‘evergreens’”. Do they? We love them too, but never have we heard a standard called an evergreen.

Since there are a fair number of UK Hatters (or Hattics, as you prefer), I thought I’d check: do you?


I ran into a mention of the writer Geoffrey Kabaservice, and of course my first thought was “what kind of name is Kabaservice?” I did the requisite googling and came up empty (this site, for instance, says “We don’t have any information on the history of the Kabaservice name… We don’t have any information on the origins of the Kabaservice name…”). The only thing I can think of is that it could be an Anglicized form of some South Slavic name like Kojašević or Kovačević, but that’s not very convincing. As always, any nuggets of information, thoughts, or hypotheses are welcome.

The Rhodes Boysons Hour.

I was complaining bitterly about the hideous corporate-speak of an article I was editing, written by someone who had obviously had the rule of three pounded into them at an early age (and by “pounded” I mean “inculcated, instilled, and infused”), and a friend pointed me in the direction of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s brief skit “The Rhodes Boysons Hour“; it improved my lot (careful!), so I am passing it along in the hope that it will improve yours.