Belarusian Is Like a Clump of Soil.

Helen Brown writes about endangered languages; there are the usual laments, but I thought this section was interesting:

As part of the Endangered Poetry Project and to raise awareness of the European languages that are falling between the cracks, [librarian Chris] McCabe has commissioned the artist Mary Kuper to illustrate a series of poems in languages that include Irish Gaelic, Alsatian, Sardinian, Shetlandic, Belarusian and Duval’s beloved Breton for an exhibition called Language Shift.

The daughter of two anthropologists, born in South Africa, educated in Los Angeles and based in London, Kuper has worked for publishers such as The Folio Society and has always been fascinated by words and culture.

“My mother – a white, Jewish Zimbabwean – spoke Swazi,” she says. “As a child I listened to her switch between languages and realised how important language is to identity. I understood what a loss there would be if we lived in an entirely Anglophone world.”

After studying linguistics at university, Kuper worked for a typesetter in LA in the Seventies. “My Jewish boss had learned his trade at 13, when the Nazis had begun excluding Jews from school,” she says. “He fled Poland with his typesetting equipment before the war… he had the Hebrew alphabet in his bag.”

Her haunting illustrations are displayed alongside the poems in the original and in translation. “But I became obsessed with the texture and the integrity of the originals,” points out Kuper. “Each language has its own visual identity. There’s Duval’s spiky Breton, which mirrors her isolation and anger. And then I became fixated on the colours. Each language has different ideas of colour and how it relates to emotion. In Gaelic there’s one word for blue/grey/green so that what we think of as the Emerald Isle is really the blue/grey/green isle, which makes more sense, doesn’t it?” […]

Some of the poets are living and others are dead. Kuper used a vintage German Adler typewriter – “a real Cold War artefact” – to punch the poems over her images “because I felt they deserved something crunchy, definite and organic…”

Valzhyna Mort, an American-based poet whose Belarusian poem has been illustrated for the exhibition, says her language is “like feeling a clump of soil in your hand: there are rocks of different sizes there, a few worms and bugs, soft earth, hard clay. The English of Seamus Heaney has that kind of texture to it.” But she refuses to summarise its complexities for me.

I realize this kind of thing is not actually going to preserve the languages, but not everything in life is about maximum utility. Thanks, Trevor!

A History of Russian Literature.

I don’t usually buy new hardcovers, especially new hardcovers that cost almost a hundred bucks, but a generous aunt had given me a birthday check I hadn’t figured out how to spend yet, and I was so excited by the brand new A History of Russian Literature, by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler (that “Send a free sample” on the Amazon Kindle page did its seductive work!), that I decided to blow the check on it. The book came today, and I’m excited enough to post about it even though I’ve barely begun reading it. One of the first things I did was look at the bibliography, and I was pleased to see that at least half the items are in Russian — no catering to monoglots here! I then looked up my man Veltman, and was thrilled to see him given his due at last:

Aleksandr Vel′tman (1800–70), one of the most popular writers of his time (although forgotten soon after his death), published historical novels of striking originality, such as Koshchei the Immortal (Koshchei bessmertnyi, 1833) and Sviatoslavich, the Enemy’s Fosterling (Sviatoslavich vrazhii pitomets, 1835). Rather than trying to reconstruct the historical past, Vel′tman’s historical novels freely combine the worlds of the chronicle, folk epic, fairy tale, and Bova and Eruslan Lazarevich, chivalric romances that had come to medieval Russia from the West and eventually converged with original Russian magical tales. The effect of his technique was not to produce any sense of historical authenticity, but rather that of a runaway—and clearly ironic—fantasy. It seems that Vel′tman in fact mocked and parodied the very genre of historical fiction in existence in contemporaneous Russia.

Take that, Mirsky! Then I went to the section on Old Church Slavonic, muttering to myself “They’d better cite Simon Franklin,” and of course they did:
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Rabbi Voice.

Rich Cohen discusses a mystery in today’s NY Times, “Where Does Rabbi Voice Come From?“:

The characteristic Rabbi Voice is a comforting singsong that’s wound like a river through my life. It’s the tone you hear during sermons and in consultations; if you’re an observant Jew, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it in the next several days, at High Holy Day services. It was parodied on “Seinfeld” and is all over Woody Allen, full of rhetorical questions, sentences that meander and end on a rise. It’s my esteemed childhood rabbi beginning a high holiday sermon with a description of his own breakfast: “While eating a cherry Danish this morning, I was reminded of King David. …”

Where does that voice come from? Last spring, while sitting through my son’s bar mitzvah, I suddenly wanted to know. […] So I made phone calls, spoke to rabbis, scholars, linguists. One of them asked me to imitate the voice. When I did — “While eating a cherry Danish this morning. … ” — she laughed and said: “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. And yeah, it’s absolutely a real thing.” (The voice is without gender, by the way; you hear it from women and men.)

Each expert offered a slightly different explanation, but there was overlap, agreement. A pattern emerged. As far as I can tell, there are three basic explanations. The voice is the intricate product of a multipronged historical process.

The three explanations are Torah and Talmud (“the voice is a side effect of a life of intense religious study”), Yiddish (“The cadence comes from the dialect of the shtetl and the Pale of Settlement”), and Influence (“The voice originated from the Talmud and Yiddish, but spread via imitation […] Why do even Reform rabbis talk like that? Because it makes them seem Jewish and because it’s what their congregants want”). It’s a good discussion, but what drove me to post is one of the greatest sentences I have ever read: “I thought Izzy dropped a dish, but, when I came out, I saw that what Izzy had dropped was dead.”

Documenting Ende.

Alex Kekauoha reports for Stanford News on the kind of thing linguists should, in my opinion, be doing instead of sitting around their offices theorizing:

Three years ago, linguistics PhD student Kate Lindsey was looking for new research projects when an advisor told her about a small tribe in Papua New Guinea that was seeking help preserving their language, called Ende. The tribe invited Lindsey to stay with them and create a dictionary and grammar, as well as translate various texts from English. Deciding that this field research could be developed for her dissertation, Lindsey set out a year ago for the tiny village, called Limol, 7,000 miles away. […]

Ende (pronounced EN-day) is a Papuan language spoken by about 800 people living in Limol and a neighboring village. Although endangerment is often a concern for speakers of such indigenous languages, Lindsey said Ende is thriving among the small tribe, including its children. Still, English remains the primary language taught in Limol’s two schools, so the villagers enlisted Lindsey to create children’s schoolbooks in Ende. She was also tasked with creating a dictionary and grammar so that the Bible could eventually be translated to Ende.

As a phonologist, Lindsey studies the sound structures of language, and her primary interest is how sound patterns are used to share information. Her process for translating Ende was meticulous.

“One of the first things we did when I arrived was to write down words and count all the different sounds that occurred,” Lindsey said. “Once we had an inventory of the different sounds, we made an orthography and picked one letter for each sound.” […]

Lindsey’s dissertation comprises three chapters, each focused on a different sound pattern in Ende not found in other languages. Each chapter describes the pattern, and then outlines how linguistic theory must change in order to accommodate this new data.

In addition to translating Ende, Lindsey taught an eight-week technology class for villagers so they could learn to use cameras and computers and to type. The villagers were particularly enthusiastic about movies and had the idea of making one of their own. Lindsey chose to let the community direct, narrate and film the resulting movie themselves without her outside bias.

At the link you can watch a video clip (5:47) of Wagiba Geser, speaking in Ende, talking about language and life in her village of Limol. (Wikipedia and Ethnologue seem to consider Ende a dialect of Agob.) Thanks, Trevor!


I was reading Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years (which I’m afraid is disappointing me in its later chapters) when I ran across a passage describing Massachusetts sumptuary legislation in 1651 which forbade “weomen of the same rancke to weare silke or tiffany hoodes or scarfes.” I asked my wife if she knew of a fabric called “tiffany,” but she didn’t, so I looked it up and found (AHD):

tif·fa·ny (tĭf′ə-nē)
n. pl. tif·fa·nies
    A thin, transparent gauze of silk or cotton muslin.
[Probably from obsolete French tiphanie, Epiphany, from Old French, from Late Latin theophania; see THEOPHANY.]

A great etymology, which it shares with the name Tiffany, which I posted about back in 2003.

A Crisis In British Swearing.

As I am not a Brit, I can only have an outsider’s uninformed opinion on Tom Nicholson’s Esquire jeremiad, but I do have one, and it is that he is correct:

There’s a growing crisis in swearing in this country. After centuries during which everyone was happy to call each other bastards, pricks and wankers, there’s a renewed enthusiasm for faux-archaic compound insults. ‘Cockwomble’ is the breakout star, but jump into any Brexit-adjacent Twitter thread and you’ll see them. ‘Wankpuffin’. ‘Nobsocket’. ‘Shitflute’. ‘Spunktrumpet’. […]

Despite the apparent coarseness, this ‘inventive’ swearing is on the same continuum as swing dancing and having Live Laugh Love wall decals in your kitchen, suitable only for New European readers who really, really, really like Blackadder and call each other ‘sir’ on Twitter.

It’s not clear where the urge to formulate swearwords which sound like surnames of minor Harry Potter characters came from, but it’s been leapt on as a really easy way to make yourself sound a bit witty. Pick a swear word, add a slightly unexpected noun, launch it at Dominic Raab and hey – you’re a Radio 4 quiz show panellist. […]

The idea that this kind of linguistic cut-and-shut job automatically puts whoever uses it in the same literary lineage as Dickens, Carroll and Wodehouse is a fallacy. Crucially, it’s also a case of reinventing the wheel. A solid, agricultural English insult has an implicit poetry of its own, and they do their jobs perfectly. To take one example: a prick is a prick. Drop it at the right time and the insult lands like a hand grenade, and that’s because you know what it means without necessarily being able to fully articulate it. It means you’re a prick, mate – end of. […]

If you use these words, you’re turning your back on the rich history of earthy, brutish, egalitarian British swearing to evoke some bizarre Thorpe Park fantasy Britain set somewhere between 1928 and 1954. It’s not that there’s no room for innovation in swearing, but the forsaking our national inheritance – your everyday fucks, shits and bastards – for smug, self-consciously quirksome insults is a travesty which must be stopped.

Hear, hear! (From Wordshore’s MetaFilter post, where you will find more sweary links; warning: in “10 Old English swear words,” the phrase “Old English” means “English before my time,” as is distressingly common. Yours, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.)

Preserving Languages Through Song.

Chaka V. Grier reports on “how musicians are keeping endangered languages alive”:

“I struggle to talk about languages as dying,” says Jeremy Dutcher, the singer/songwriter whose 2018 Polaris Prize–nominated debut Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa has garnered widespread acclaim since it was released in April. “That [dying language term] often gets put on this project because there are so few speakers [of Wolastoqey, the language of the album].

“But as one of my elders, Maggie Paul, says, ‘Our languages are in our songs. They never died. They had to go away for a while for safekeeping. Now is the time to bring them back.’ I let those words guide the work I do.” […]

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Rillons, Rillettes.

Since this delightful Richard Wilbur poem focuses on fine lexical distinctions, I figure it’s LH material; it’s from his 1966 collection The Mind-Reader (I reproduce the text in my Collected Poems 1943-2004):

Rillons, Rillettes

RILLETTES: Hors d’oeuvre made up of a mash of pigmeat, usually highly seasoned. Also used for making sandwiches. The Rillettes enjoying the greatest popularity are the Rillettes and Rillons de Tours, but there are Rillettes made in many other parts of France.

RILLONS: Another name for the Rillettes, a pigmeat hors d’oeuvre. The most popular Rillons are those of Blois.

      — A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy, edited by Andre L. Simon

Rillons, Rillettes, they taste the same,
And would by any other name,
And are, if I may risk a joke,
Alike as two pigs in a poke.

The dishes are the same, and yet
While Tours provides the best Rillettes,
The best Rillons are made in Blois.
There must be some solution.

Does Blois provide, do you suppose,
The best Rillettes de Tours, while those
Now offered by the chefs of Tours
Are, by their ancient standards, poor?

Clever, but there remains a doubt.
It is a thing to brood about,
Like non-non-A, infinity,
Or the doctrine of the Trinity.

Me, I am very fond of rillettes; I have no opinion on rillons.

The Good Year.

For as long as I’ve studied Russian I’ve been bothered by the cognates год ‘year’ and годиться ‘to suit; to be fit (for), to be of use.’ I knew they were related, but I could never remember how the semantics worked. The first is from Proto-Slavic *godъ ‘suitable/right time; holiday, feast; time, term; year’ and the second from Proto-Slavic *godìti ‘to please,’ which suggests the basic idea, but I’m going to quote the extended discussion on pp. 142-43 of Louis Jay Herman’s Dictionary of Slavic Word Families (incidentally, Herman was one of those hyperpolyglots we’ve been hearing so much about — see this 2010 post):

From a semantic standpoint, the derivatives [of *god ‘good, suitable’] can be divided into three broad groups:

(1) The basic meaning is apparent in a wide variety of words expressing such notions as suitability, worthiness, convenience, advantage, pleasure and agreement (the last of these giving rise to the meanings “to hire,” “to negotiate” and “to decide”) or, with the addition of a negative prefix, such ideas as misfortune, displeasure and disagreement.

(2) The widespread secondary meaning “time” reflects a semantic shift from the notion of “suitable time” (still apparent in “festival, holiday,” “feast,” “opportunity”) to that of “time in general” (> “time, era,” “year,” “hour,” “occasion,” “to wait,” “to postpone,” “until”); it is implicit in the meanings “to happen,” “event” and “chance, accident.” (A similar progression in meaning is discussed in the note on Pol.-Cz.-S-C doba.)

(3) The verbal derivatives. in a reversal of the normal process of semantic development from the concrete to the abstract, have undergone successive changes in meaning from “to be suitable, pleasing” to “to aim,” “to throw” and, finally, “to hit” (whence, further, “to get (into)” and “to guess”).

Non-Slavic cognates include Eng. good and (reflecting the original Indo-European meaning of the root, “fitting, belonging together”) gather, together.

(I’ve replaced his underlines by italics, which he presumably would have used if the typography hadn’t been so primitive.) Among the words with a negative prefix he mentions is Russian негодование [negodovania] ‘indignation,’ which is extremely common in 19th-century literature and which, as it happens, was the spark that inspired this post.)

Maltese for Beginners.

As I wrote in 2015, “We seem to discuss hyperpolyglots every couple of years (2009, 2011, 2013), so it’s time for another installment”; I’m a year late, but herewith a piece from the latest New Yorker, Judith Thurman’s “Maltese for Beginners” (that’s the title in the actual magazine — online they’ve chosen the more boring “The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages”). Much of it will be familiar to anyone who has read about such people before (the usual suspects are here: Mithridates, Cleopatra, Mezzofanti, et al.), but there’s more than enough new material to make it well worth reading. Thurman accompanies Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia to Malta for a week to watch him learn the basics of Maltese:

His father is a Peruvian businessman, and the family lives comfortably in Lima. His mother is a shop manager of Italian origin, and his maternal grandmother, who cared for him as a boy, taught him Piedmontese. He learned English in preschool and speaks it impeccably, with the same slight Latin inflection—a trill of otherness, rather than an accent—that he has in every language I can vouch for. Maltese had been on his wish list for a while, along with Uighur and Sanskrit. “What happens is this,” he said, over dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Nijmegen, where he was chatting in Mandarin with the owner and in Dutch with a server, while alternating between French and Spanish with a fellow-student at the institute. “I’m an amoureux de langues. And, when I fall in love with a language, I have to learn it. There’s no practical motive—it’s a form of play.” An amoureux, one might note, covets his beloved, body and soul. […]

People who live at a crossroads of cultures—Melanesians, South Asians, Latin-Americans, Central Europeans, sub-Saharan Africans, plus millions of others, including the Maltese and the Shawi—acquire languages without considering it a noteworthy achievement. Leaving New York, on the way to the Netherlands, I overheard a Ghanaian taxi-driver chatting on his cell phone in a tonal language that I didn’t recognize. “It’s Hausa,” he told me. “I speak it with my father, whose family comes from Nigeria. But I speak Twi with my mom, Ga with my friends, some Ewe, and English is our lingua franca. If people in Chelsea spoke one thing and people in SoHo another, New Yorkers would be multilingual, too.” […]

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