Boogie-woogie Tramps.

A passage from LIFE magazine of Sept. 14, 1953, courtesy Futility Closet:

Inspired officials of the East German Communist party, ever diligent in setting standards to which party members may conform, issued a list of the terms which are approved for use in vilifying the West. Henceforth Red speakers will know they are on safe ground if they choose any of the following synonyms for Americans: ‘Monkey killers, lice breeders, mass poisoners, chewing-gum spivs, boogie-woogie tramps, gas-chamber ideologists, leprous heroes, breeders of trichinosis, arsenic mixers, delirious lunatics, exploiters of epidemics.’ For the British a different set of terms must be used: ‘paralytic sycophants, effete betrayers of humanity, carrion-eating servile imitators, arch cowards and collaborators, conceited dandies or playboy soldiers.’

One cannot, of course, count on the scholarly bona fides of LIFE magazine, and for all I know the whole thing was a Cold War invention, but it’s certainly lively reading. Thanks, JC!

Earliest Extract of Odyssey?

A frustratingly brief Guardian story (credited to AFP in Athens) reports on an exciting find:

Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient tablet engraved with 13 verses of the Odyssey in the ancient city of Olympia, southern Greece, in what could be the earliest record of the epic poem, the Greek culture ministry said.

The clay slab is believed to date back to the 3rd century AD, during the Roman era.

“If this date is confirmed, the tablet could be the oldest written record of Homer’s work ever discovered in Greece,” the culture ministry said.

The extract, taken from book 14, describes the return of Ulysses to his home island of Ithaca. […]

It was found close to the remains of the Temple of Zeus at the site of the Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese.

In the first place, if it was close to the remains of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, how the devil has it not been discovered in the last couple of millennia? And in the second, what’s the text like?? Ah well, more will be revealed in good time, I’m sure. Thanks, Trevor!

Update. Turns out that press release is full of nonsense; see this link (from Daryl’s comment below).

The Missing Joyce Scholar.

Jack Hitt, in the NYT Magazine, tells the story of John Kidd, “once celebrated as the greatest James Joyce scholar alive”:

Kidd had been the director of the James Joyce Research Center, a suite of offices on the campus of Boston University dedicated to the study of “Ulysses,” arguably the greatest and definitely the most-obsessed-over novel of the 20th century. Armed with generous endowments and cutting-edge technology, he led a team dedicated to a single goal: producing a perfect edition of the text. […]

Among scholars and Joyce freaks, everyone knew “Ulysses” was an odyssey of errors. Over the decades, there were rumors that some great textual fanatic was about to take on the brute task of cleaning it up. In the 1960s, excitement centered on Jack Dalton’s work, but the task seemed to overwhelm him, and he died in 1981 without producing his edition. By the mid-1980s, European scholars took up the charge, culminating in the announcement of a coming version — “Ulysses: The Corrected Text” — that would set straight 5,000 mistakes and give the world “ ‘Ulysses’ as Joyce wrote it.”

This updated edition was the product of years of fine-tooth-combing through manuscripts and copy-sheets, one letter at a time, all done according to a dense new textual theory that almost no one could understand. The entire project felt authoritative and dour, very German and all consuming, right down to the chief editor’s name, Hans Walter Gabler. Right away, Gabler was challenged by a New World scholar no one had ever heard of, his name right out of some early American morality play — John Kidd. It seemed as if the great watchmaker of the universe had handled the casting: German versus American, Old World versus New, credentialed versus self-taught. The face-off managed to draw an audience far outside academe. Try to imagine this today: For almost a year, textual criticism was happening, and red-hot copies of The New York Review of Books flew off the newsstands.

I vividly remember that NYRB piece and the subsequent exchanges of letters; Kidd was so brilliant and so obsessive about details it seemed clear he was going to produce the perfect edition. What a shame it’s apparently never going to happen! I leave you to discover the details at the link. (Thanks, Ran!)


In this post I gave the impression that the Russian word интеллигенция [intelligentsia] was a product of the 1860s; I discover from Gary Hamburg’s chapter on “Russian intelligentsias” in A History of Russian Thought, edited by William Leatherbarrow and Derek Offord (and once again I thank the unknown benefactor who gave it to me last year) that it goes much further back and has undergone considerable change:

The word intelligentsiia appeared in the Russian language in the early eighteenth century, carrying the meaning ‘alliance’, ‘compact’ or ‘agreement’. By the 1730s, however, the poet Trediakovsky had associated the word root with the Latin word intelligentia, a word he translated into Russian as razumnost’ (rationality). According to the linguist Viktor Vinogradov, Trediakovsky helped fix the basic semantic sense of the term intelligentsiia thereafter: that is, the word became associated with ‘reason’, ‘rationality’ and ‘education’. In the mid-eighteenth century the freemason Johann Georg Schwartz often used intelligentsiia to connote the ‘highest capacity of human beings as sentient creatures’. In the early nineteenth century the philosopher Galich incorporated it into his History of Philosophical Systems with the meaning ‘rational spirit’. In 1836 the term appeared in a diary entry by Zhukovsky, as a collective noun connoting members of Russia’s educated Europeanised elite. According to the historian Sigurd Shmidt, Zhukovsky’s concept of the intelligentsia connoted ‘not only belonging to a certain socio-cultural milieu and having a European education, but also a certain moral outlook and behaviour – that is, intelligentnost’ in the later meaning of the term’. Still, so far as we know, uses of intelligentsiia as a collective noun remained infrequent until the 1860s: the first edition of Dal’s comprehensive Russian dictionary (published 1863–8) contained no reference to the word.

In the 1860s the word intelligentsiia established itself firmly in the literary and political lexicon. The liberal novelist Boborykin used it as a synonym of ‘culture’ or ‘intelligence’ in an 1866 essay in The Russian Herald. [Footnote 5: … Boborykin subsequently claimed to have coined the term intelligentsiia, a claim supported by the Granat Entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ and Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia. His purported status as originator of the term caused considerable confusion among western scholars who took the claim at face value since it was legitimated by major Russian reference sources.] Tolstoy employed it as a collective noun in War and Peace (1865–9) to denote the educated, Europeanised portion of Russian high society. The instructional fictional context of his use of the term was the famous opening scene in Anna Scherer’s salon, wherein Pierre Bezukhov, recently returned from France, thrilled to the thought that ‘here was gathered the entire intelligentsia of Petersburg’. Tolstoy’s cultural authority reinforced the term’s currency, such that the second edition of Dal’s dictionary (1880–2) defined it, ‘used in the collective sense’, as ‘rational, educated, the intellectually developed portion of the populace’. Thenceforth, the collective noun intelligentsiia retained that meaning through the turn of the century: in 1902 Mikhelson repeated Dal’s 1881 definition verbatim.

Meanwhile, the word intelligentsiia acquired a political colouration. As Nathaniel Knight has shown, in 1864 the censor Nikitenko compared Polish insurgents to Russian nihilists: ‘Their intelligentsia is the same filth as ours – theirs is worse in fact, with its extra dose of Catholicism.’ In the 1870s the conservative journalist Katkov contrasted the simple, politically healthy Russian narod (people, nation) to the subversive, Europeanised intelligentsiia, a contrast that probably led him to assume in 1879, when the young Aleksandr Solovev tried to kill the tsar, that the assassin was ‘an intelligent in a foreign top hat’. In 1880, in his famous speech at the Pushkin monument in Moscow, Dostoevsky juxtaposed the common Russian narod, their intrinsic beauty and spirit, with the ‘rootless’ intelligentsiia, a purportedly alien and destructive element in national life. He accused the intelligentsia of ‘not believing in the native soil, or in its innate strength, in Russia or in itself’. As sometimes happens in politics when a certain group attaches a label to its opponents, Russian radicals did not initially use the word intelligentsiia as a self-description. Thus, the linguist Iury Sorokin has asserted that the words intelligentsiia and intelligent are not encountered in the works of Chernyshevsky, Dobroliubov and Pisarev. Only in the 1870s did leading Populists such as Mikhailovsky and Tkachev proudly declare their membership in the intelligentsiia.

In the twentieth century the term intelligentsiia continued to have the basic meaning of the educated or cultured part of the populace, but gradually the word was also associated with membership in the professions, with jobs that carried ‘white collar’ status. […] Between 1903 and 1940 the leadership of the Bolshevik party sought to define its relationship to the intelligentsia, with very uncertain results: on the one hand, party leaders happily embraced the intelligentsia to the degree that its members accepted Marxism and Soviet power; on the other hand, the party defined non-Bolshevik intelligenty as ‘enemies of the people’.

There’s considerably more, but that excerpt shows that the history is longer and more complicated than I thought. And the footnote mentioning the confusion caused by Boborykin’s claim being accepted by reference works shows how important it is for lexicographers to do their work diligently and honestly.

Addendum. Hamburg discusses the dispute over when the intelligentsia as a group came into existence, with some (mostly Russians) saying it was in the 18th century (with men like Novikov and Radishchev) and others (mostly Western) saying it was the 1840s or the 1860s; he writes “As Boris Kolonitsky has pointedly observed, ‘participants in the many discussions about the intelligentsia resemble a crowd engaged in a game where each player persists in playing according to his own rules,’ and continues with the following useful paragraph:
[Read more…]

Self-Translating Fairy Tales.

Another highly LH-relevant passage from Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free (see this post); he’s been talking about the young Bulgarian peasant girls hired by his family as maids, and when his parents were out and it got dark, they all huddled together on a divan and the girls told what we now call campfire stories:

Of the fairy tales I heard, only the ones about werewolves and vampires have lodged in my memory. Perhaps no other kinds were told. I can’t pick up a book of Balkan fairy tales without instantly recognizing some of them. Every detail of them is present to my mind, but not in the language I heard them in. I heard them in Bulgarian, but I know them in German; this mysterious translation is perhaps the oddest thing that I have to tell about my youth, and since the language history of most children runs differently, perhaps I ought to say more about it.

To each other, my parents spoke German, which I was not allowed to understand. To us children and to all relatives and friends, they spoke Ladino. That was the true vernacular, albeit an ancient Spanish, I often heard it later on and I’ve never forgotten it. The peasant girls at home knew only Bulgarian, and I must have learned it with them. But since I never went to a Bulgarian school, leaving Ruschuk at six years of age, I very soon forgot Bulgarian completely. All events of those first few years were in Ladino or Bulgarian. It wasn’t until much later that most of them were rendered into German in me. Only especially dramatic events, murder and manslaughter so to speak, and the worst terrors have been retained by me in their Ladino wording, and very precisely and indestructibly at that. Everything else, that is, most things, and especially anything Bulgarian, like the fairy tales, I carry around in German.

I cannot say exactly how this happened. I don’t know at what point in time, on what occasion, this or that translated itself. I never probed into the matter; perhaps I was afraid to destroy my most precious memories with a methodical examination based on rigorous principles. I can say only one thing with certainty: The events of those years are present to my mind in all their strength and freshness (I’ve fed on them for over sixty years), but the vast majority are tied to words that I did not know at the time. It seems natural to me to write them down now, I don’t have the feeling that I am changing or warping anything. It is not like the literary translation of a book from one language to another, it is a translation that happened of its own accord in my unconscious, and since I ordinarily avoid this word like the plague, a word that has become meaningless from overuse, I apologize for employing it in this one and only case.

There must be similar cases, but I’m not aware of them; I wish I could retrieve the Japanese stories our ayahs must have told me in my first years, but they seem to be gone for good.

Academics Share Emoji Research.

Arielle Pardes writes for Wired about a new sort of academic conference:

At Stanford University this week, a collection of linguists, data scientists, computer researchers, and emoji enthusiasts gathered for the International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media, itself a smaller piece of the AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. They brought with them research on how emoji are changing the way we communicate online, how gender and political affiliation are reproduced online through emoji, and the challenges emoji pose for natural-language processing in computers. The assembled academics also debated basic questions about the nature of emoji: Like, if emoji is something akin to a language, why can’t anyone agree on what individual emoji mean?

Emoji, which have grown from an original set of 176 characters to a collection of over 3,000 unique icons, present both opportunities and challenges to the academics who study them. Most agree that the icons are not quite a language—the emoji vocabulary is made up almost entirely of nouns, and there’s no real grammar or syntax to govern their use—but their influence on internet communication is massive. By 2015, half of all comments on Instagram included an emoji. On Messenger, Facebook’s messaging app, over 5 billion emoji are sent and received every day. From an academic point of view, that presents a wealth of data to understand communication, behavior, and language online. […]

Papers presented at the conference highlighted emoji as markers of solidarity during crisis (think: “Je suis Paris 🙏🇫🇷”) or as ways to understand differences across gender or political ideologies (women use emoji more than men, but conservative men use way fewer emoji than liberal men). Others discussed the potential to decode emoji with machine learning, and the difficulties in teaching computers to recognize the multiple meanings of emoji in natural-language processing. A panel discussion raised questions about the way the emoji lexicon is developed, as well as the ways emoji can be misinterpreted across cultures. (The 👌 does not mean the same thing in English as it does in American Sign Language, nor does it mean the same thing to white supremacists.) […]

On Monday, linguist Gretchen Mcculloch presented a theory of emoji as beat gestures—the equivalent of gesticulating to add emphasis—rather than a language in themselves. “Letters let us write words, emoji let us write gestures,” she says. Eric Goldman, a legal scholar at Santa Clara University’s School of Law, discussed a forthcoming paper on emoji and the law, which highlights the potential for emoji to create misunderstanding in legal contexts—including high profile cases, like the Silk Road case.

There are other examples at the link. I’m not a heavy user of emoji, but it’s definitely worth studying; thanks, Kobi!

A Marvelous City.

I’ve started Elias Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free (see this post), and have already fallen in love with it. He was born in what is now Ruse but was then called by the Turkish name Rustchuk or Ruschuk; I was barely aware of its existence, but his description brings it vividly to life and makes me think of Ottoman Selanik/Salonica (see this post and the others linked there) and other multiethnic cities now mostly homogenized by the forces of nationalism and war:

Ruschuk, on the lower Danube, where I came into the world, was a marvelous city for a child, and if I say that Ruschuk is in Bulgaria, then I am giving an inadequate picture of it. For people of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. side from the Bulgarians, who often came from the countryside, there were many Turks, who lived in their own neighborhood, and next to it was the neighborhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews–our neighborhood. There were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. From the opposite side of the Danube came Rumanians; my wetnurse, whom I no longer remember, was Rumanian. There were also Russians here and there.

As a child, I had no real grasp of this variety, but I never stopped feeling its effects. Some people have stuck in my memory only because they belonged to a particular ethnic group and wore a different costume from the others. Among the servants that we had in our home during the course of six years, there was once a Circassian and later on an Armenian. My mother’s best friend was Olga, a Russian woman. Once every week, Gypsies came into our courtyard, so many that they seemed like an entire nation […]

It would be hard to give a full picture of the colorful time of those early years in Ruschuk, the passions and the terrors. Anything I subsequently experienced had already happened in Ruschuk. There, the rest of the world was known as “Europe,” and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna, people said he was going to Europe. Europe began where the Turkish Empire had once ended. Most of the Sephardim were still Turkish subjects.

I know I’m overly romantic about such things, but I’d love to hang out there, or in old Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv/Lvov, or old Alexandria, or any of those premodern cities where you could rub elbows with all sorts of people and hear a dozen languages on a short stroll. (Yes, I realize you can still do that in cosmopolises like New York and Paris, but it’s not the same. The small scale is part of the charm.)


My wife asked me “Does ensconce have anything to do with the noun sconce?” I looked it up in AHD and found it was EN-1 + SCONCE1, which suggested the answer was “yes,” but I noted the superscript 1 with trepidation, and sure enough, it turns out there are two nouns sconce, and the one the verb is based on is the one nobody but military-history buffs has heard of — at least, I hadn’t heard of it; it means “A small defensive earthwork or fort” and is from Dutch schans, from German Schanze, from Middle High German (further etymology apparently unknown). The sconce my wife and I were familiar with, “A decorative wall bracket for holding candles or lights,” is a totally different word, ultimately from Latin abscōnsa, feminine past participle of abscondere ‘to hide away.’ I thought that was interesting, so here it is.

Dead Languages.

A poem by Ursula K. Le Guin (from Late in the Day: Poems 2010–2014):

    Dead Languages

Dreadful, this death, dragging
so many lives and lively minds along
after it into unmeaning,
endless, imbecile silence.

The more ways there are to say Mother
the wiser the world is.
Never are there enough
words for Well done! or Welcome!

A line of verse revives lost Aprils.
In the name for Home lie whole nations.
The unused word may be the useful one.

Old nouns are in no hurry.
Old verbs are very patient.
The water of life is learning.

May elders ever tell the mythic origins
in the almost-lost old language
to children cheated of knowledge
of their own holy inheritance.

May myopic scholars scowl
forever at fragments of inscription,
so that the young may yawn
long over grim grammars, learning

to speak the tongues unspoken
and hear a human music otherwise unheard.

Thanks, JC!

The Languages of India.

The Indian Express reports on the linguistic aspects of a census of India:

More than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues, according to the latest analysis of a census released this week.

There are 121 languages which are spoken by 10,000 or more people in India, which has a population of 121 crore, it said. […]

For assessing the correlation between the mother tongue and designations of the census and for presenting the numerous raw returns in terms of their linguistic affiliation to actual languages and dialects, 19,569 raw returns were subjected to thorough linguistic scrutiny, edit and rationalisation. […]

Of the total population of India, 96.71 percent have one of the scheduled languages as their mother tongue, the remaining 3.29 per cent is accounted for other languages.

There are total 270 identifiable mother tongues which have returned 10,000 or more speakers each at the all-India level, comprising 123 mother tongues grouped under the scheduled languages and 147 mother tongues grouped under the non-scheduled languages.

A crore (from Sanskrit koṭi) denotes ten million (10,000,000); we discussed the New Linguistic Survey of India back in 2013. Thanks, Trevor!