Leskov’s Nekuda.

I remember those halcyon days (was it really only a few weeks ago?) when I picked up Leskov’s first novel, Некуда [Nekuda, conventionally translated No Way Out, although the novel itself has never been translated; the Russian word is rather ‘nowhere (to go),’ but you can’t make a good title out of that]. I knew it had been highly controversial when it was published in 1864, and its 700 pages were theoretically somewhat daunting, but I’d liked everything of Leskov’s I’d read, and I was eager to give it a go.

Then I started it, and within a couple of chapters I was bowled over and expecting great things. I had the vague idea it was about radical politics, but Leskov immediately introduces the reader to two young women, Lizaveta (Liza) Bákhareva and Evgenia (Zhenni) Glovátskaya, who have been best friends at boarding school and are now returning to their home town, a provincial city in the Black Earth region, doubtless not all that far from Leskov’s own Oryol Gubernia. Zhenni is a tall, raven-haired beauty of a quiet, peaceable disposition; Liza is shorter and fierier, eager to read, learn, and think for herself. On the way home they stop at the convent where Liza’s aunt is abbess; as Anna Bakhareva she had been a famous beauty who had once danced with Emperor Alexander I, but she had plighted her troth to a young man who was exiled to Siberia (implicitly in connection with the Decembrist revolt) and sent her a note asking her to forget him, upon which she joined the convent and became Mother Agnia. While capable of stern piety and aristocratic hauteur, she is good-hearted and supportive at every turn of Liza’s independence. At night, the girls have a talk with young Sister Feoktista, who tells them how she became a nun: she had made a love match and was happily pregnant when she had a craving for a kind of fish stew and insisted her husband bring her some, whereupon he fell through the ice on the river and drowned, his family (who’d never liked her) threw her out, and she took the veil. When they get to their respective homes, the girls settle into their family lives again, Zhenni easily and Liza unhappily — her family loves her but doesn’t understand her, and her mother uses fainting spells to get her way. Eventually they try to marry her off to an oaf in uniform, whereupon she flees to Zhenni, and after the intervention of Mother Agnia her father agrees to let her be and to order her all the magazines and books she wants.
[Read more…]

Gesar and Fulin.

Victor Mair has a Log post focusing on a trivial example of misspeaking (or misreading) by Xi Jinping, but what interested me was a section on the etymology of the name “Gesar” (quoted from the same Wikipedia article recently mentioned at LH by David Eddyshaw):

It has been proposed on the basis of phonetic similarities that the name Gesar reflects the Roman title Caesar, and that the intermediary for the transmission of this imperial title from Rome to Tibet may have been a Turkic language, since kaiser (emperor) entered Turkish through contact with the Byzantine Empire, where Caesar (Καῖσαρ) was an imperial title. Some think the medium for this transmission may have been via Mongolian Kesar. The Mongols were allied with the Byzantines, whose emperor still used the title. Numismatic evidence and some accounts speak of a Bactrian ruler Phrom-kesar, specifically the Kabul Shahi of Gandhara, which was ruled by a Turkish From Kesar (“Caesar of Rome”), who was father-in-law of the king of the Kingdom of Khotan around the middle of the 8th century CE. In early Bon sources, From Kesar is always a place name, and never refers, as it does later, to a ruler. In some Tibetan versions of the epic, a king named Phrom Ge-sar or Khrom Ge-sar figures as one of the kings of the four directions – the name is attested in the 10th century and this Phrom/Khrom preserves an Iranian form (*frōm-hrōm) for Rūm/Rome. This eastern Iranian word lies behind the Middle Chinese word for (Eastern) Rome (拂菻:Fúlǐn), namely Byzantium (phrōm-from<*phywət-lyəm).

In the comment thread, martin schwartz says (I’ve made minor fixes to spelling and punctuation for readability):

For all it matters, one may be more precise as to “Iranian” Frôm: It starts with West Middle Iranian–Middle Persian and Parthian, where Hrôm represents the Greek (early Byzantine) form for Rome, with the obligatory pre-aspirated initial R- (usually quasi-transcribed as Rh-). Within colloquial Parthian, fr- was frequently pronounced as hr-, e.g. hraman alongside framân ‘command’. By hypercorrection, other Parthian forms in hr- which are not from *fr, such as the hero-namr Hrêdôn, whose Old Iranian antecedent began with theta followed by r, then became fr- (thus Frêdôn, reflected in Classical Persian as Firêdôn). So too Hrôm became Frôm (for both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires), > Sogdian Frôm and eastward.

And Peter Golden adds:

On 拂菻 Fulin (phrōm-from< *phywət-lyəm>), cf. Old Turkic purum (Kül Tegin Inscription East,4, Bilge Qağan Inscription, East, 5) denoting Byzantium/Constantinople and/or Rome. I am sure that others will have more to say on this.

I find all this extremely interesting, and wonder if Hatters have more to say about it.

Why Toty Sa’Med Writes Songs in Kimbundu.

BBC News has a nice piece in which Angolan singer Toty Sa’Med explains why he writes songs in a language he barely knows:

My great-grandmother was the last person I knew personally who spoke only Kimbundu. She died 15 years ago. It’s a local language in Angola, spoken in the area surrounding the capital Luanda. That’s where I was born and brought up but, even so, I can only speak a few words. […]

When I was a teenager my headmaster decided to put Kimbundu in our timetable at school. This was unusual – it wasn’t on the curriculum in Luanda but I went to a private school. As a 13-year-old I didn’t realise that it was important – it was the lesson we used to chat through and disrupt.

I had some prejudices about Kimbundu. We were taught by society that the language wasn’t beautiful or civilised. We dismissed it because we thought it was a language for savages. When the Portuguese colonised Angola, they tried to diminish the value of Kimbundu and other local languages. Suppressing the culture made it easier to colonise us. […]

I decided that I can do my bit to keep the language alive by writing songs in the language. The problem is that I can’t construct a sentence. So I asked my friend to help. I wrote the lyrics in Portuguese and she translated them. […]

The next stage for me is to learn how to construct sentences for myself so I’ve enrolled at Kimbundu school. I’ve already persuaded my girlfriend to go to the classes with me and I want some of my friends to register as well so we can speak the language together. If we start now, maybe 60 years from now we will speak Kimbundu, with a few words of Portuguese, rather than the other way round.

Sure, it may be a quixotic attempt, but it’s a noble one, and I hope he gets others to go along with him. (Thanks, Eric!)

Monument to Cyrillic Alphabet in Antarctica.

J. B. S. Haldane said that “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”; further proof, if needed, is provided by Katie Davies at the Calvert Journal:

Bulgarian scientists have erected a new national monument to the Cyrillic alphabet on a remote island in Antarctica.

The joint Bulgarian-Mongolian project on Livingston Island — close to Bulgaria’s Antarctic base — was unveiled to mark Bulgaria’s Independence Day on 3 March.

Standing at 2.5 metres tall, the sculpture comprises four stacked blocks, each side decorated with Cyrillic lettering. Sealed boxes of soil from the Bulgarian cities of Varna, Pliska, Preslav, Veliko Tarnovo, Sofia were also left at the base of the sculpture, which is attached to the ground using two steel bolts.

The monument will stand alongside Antarctica’s first Orthodox church, the St Ivan Rilski chapel, which was erected close to the base in 2001. The outpost also has its own museum of early scientific instruments, and was named an official branch of the National Museum of History in Sofia in October 2012.

More information is available at this Transitions Online post. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Flawed Approximation.

Elisa Wouk Almino describes a fascinating installation:

In 2015, Asuka Goto began translating her father’s novel, Elizabeth, from Japanese to English. Over the course of three years, Goto annotated the book’s 200-plus pages and translated the words by hand. Rather than complete a separate manuscript, she left her rendition alongside her father’s, revealing the thought and labor that goes into a translation. These pages are now spread from floor to ceiling at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Bushwick, the walls vibrating with so much writing. As a translator myself, I found the project profoundly satisfying and at times anxiety-inducing.

Any translator will likely identify with Goto’s torrent of notes: the repeated question marks next to words; the multiple phrasings to express the same thing (“to reach; to amount to; to befall; to happen to; to extend”); the flying lines across the page. A translator’s annotations are like that of an obsessive, deep reader. That is, after all, what we are doing.

Among literary translators, there are two main camps: those who wish to revise a canonical text and those who want to introduce something entirely new. Goto, however, happens to be the kind of translator I identify with the most: one who translates to gain a deeper understanding of the language spoken at home.

Goto has titled her project lost in translation and calls it a “flawed approximation” of her father’s novel. As we shuttle between the Japanese and English words, connected by asterisks, arrows, and circles, we begin to grasp how bewildered, uncertain, and insecure Goto was while translating. There is this sense she will never be content with her rendition, that there is no exact equivalent to the original Japanese words.

The images are striking, and if I were still in NYC I’d definitely have a look. If you’re in the vicinity, you’ve got a week before it closes. Thanks, Trevor!

(While we’re on the topic of translation, I can’t resist mentioning that Google Translate renders “Почки и сережки дерев” [‘Buds and catkins of trees’] as “Kidneys and earrings of trees.”)


Helen Davidson reports for the Guardian on a new study of Australian languages:

Most Indigenous languages in Australia likely originated from a remote spot in far north Queensland as recently as 4,000 years ago, before slowly spreading across the country, a new study has claimed.

The paper, published in the journal Nature on Tuesday, mapped the origins of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages, which encompasses about 90% of the continent. It traced the dominant family of languages back to an area near an isolated place known today as Burketown.

“All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End,” wrote co-author Claire Bowern, professor of linguistics at Yale University. “Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle.” […]

The researchers used an adapted computer model originally designed to map the spread of viruses, and built a family tree of “cognates” – identical or similar words across multiple languages. Pama-Nyungan is one of 28 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language families. In contrast, Europe had four such families.

The results traced Pama-Nyungan back to a site south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and indicate it emerged in the mid-Holocene period 4,000 to 6,000 years ago and rapidly replacing the existing languages.

It also aligned with archaeological discoveries in the region, including tool technologies which could explain the expansion across the continent, as could changes in ceremonies or marriage customs, the paper said. […]

“We’ve got a clearer picture now of when and where things started expanding, but there remains this question about exactly what drove it,” co-author Prof Quentin Atkinson of Auckland University’s school of psychology told Guardian Australia.

“What could possibly have happened to allow this group – initially one language – to spread across 90% of Australia and replace everyone else?”

Bowern discusses the study here, with a couple of useful maps; the paper itself, “The origin and expansion of Pama–Nyungan languages across Australia,” by Remco R. Bouckaert, Claire Bowern, and Quentin D. Atkinson, is behind a paywall. Thanks, Trevor!


I haven’t rolled my eyes at the very thought of artificial languages since I had the pleasure of reading Arika Okrent on the topic (see this 2009 LH post), but sometimes they’re just too weird for me, and Babm is such a case. To quote the Wikipedia article:

Babm (pronounced [bɔˈɑːbɔmu]) is an international auxiliary language created by the Japanese philosopher Rikichi [Fuishiki] Okamoto (1885–1963). Okamoto first published the language in his 1962 book, The Simplest Universal Auxiliary Language Babm, but the language has not caught on even within the constructed language community, and does not have any known current speakers.The language uses the Latin script as a syllabary, and possesses no articles or auxiliary verbs. Each letter marks an entire syllable rather than a single phoneme. Babm follows a sound-based rule set, which Okamoto outlines in his book. He states “Nouns are coined from three consonants and one vowel, verbs from one or two vowels between two consonants at the beginning and at the end. Adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, numerals, and propositions have respectively their own peculiar form.”

The language has in common with some 17th-century artificial languages an over-riding concern with taxonomy, and providing a universally consistent set of names for chemicals, etc.; the author’s “scientific” preoccupation is a contrast to the socio-political mandate of Esperanto, although the 1962 book is certainly not lacking in statements about world peace. Okamoto hopes this “simple” language would become universally useful.

The Phonology section tells us that “Every consonant in Babm must be followed by a particular short vowel, with the exception of /k/ which can be followed by any vowel. Vowels that are attached to nouns are short vowels by default, and those not attached to nouns are long, but vowel length can be modified.” The “Consonant Inventory” table shows the inherent vowels: [bo], [co], [de], etc. Oh, and c and k are both /k/, for added fun. I’m sympathetic to the desire to create what one imagines is the ideal language, but I simply can’t grasp the mentality that would think this was a plausible language at all, let alone one that “would become universally useful.”

The Language of Wakanda.

Songdog and I saw Black Panther last night, and it was just as spectacular and well-acted as I expected but considerably more ideologically sophisticated (who expects ideological sophistication from a superhero movie?); as I said to Songdog afterwards, the chief bone of contention between the main antagonists could be seen as an update of the Stalin-Trotsky debate, with Stalin’s “socialism in one country” being substituted by “vibranium in one country.” But that’s not relevant to LH; what is is the NY Times article by John Eligon my brother sent me almost a month ago and I’m finally able to read and post, “Wakanda Is a Fake Country, but the African Language in ‘Black Panther’ Is Real”:

The kingdom’s official language, however, is anything but fantasy. isiXhosa, which you will hear at several points throughout the movie, is a language that more than eight million South Africans — about 15 percent of the population — claim as their mother tongue.

“To have our language incorporated in a story that big would be phenomenal,” said Namhla Mbawuli, a musician and native isiXhosa speaker who lives in Johannesburg. “It reinforces the importance of our culture, accepting our language and having pride in being Xhosa.”

Now, you might ask why is a kingdom shown as being somewhere in east central Africa, somewhere in the Great Lakes region, speaking a language from much farther south, in the Eastern Cape? There’s no in-story answer to that (although of course one could come up with a migration theory if needed), but the article provides the real-world answer:

One of the products of the Eastern Cape was the actor John Kani, who plays T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa, in “Black Panther.” Mr. Kani’s character made brief appearances in the 2016 movie “Captain America: Civil War,” and when he was on set for that film, he suggested to the directors that they incorporate some isiXhosa into the dialogue. He spoke a little bit of it, and they were sold, said Nate Moore, an executive producer of “Black Panther.”

So Mr. Kani taught some lines to Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, and they had a brief, intimate interaction speaking isiXhosa in “Civil War.” […]

When they got to work on “Black Panther,” Mr. Moore said, the director, Ryan Coogler, “wanted to make it a priority to use Xhosa as much as possible.”

That was not always easy: It is one of the more difficult South African languages to master. So the crew tried to make sure the cast members had their lines as early as possible to practice. Dialect coaches were provided, including Mr. Kani and his son, Atandwa, who plays a young T’Chaka in the film. Mr. Boseman had another dialect coach, whom he talked to via Skype.

Of course, as Eligon writes, “the success of the use of isiXhosa in the film will best be judged by native speakers”; Mbawuli said “not bad, but could be better.” At any rate, it certainly sounds impressive!

Baffling Language.

I’ve just started Jeffrey Brooks’ Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War, and I thought this passage (about the press in the first decade or so of the Soviet Union) was of LH interest:

Ordinary readers, however, often found the language and concepts of even mass newspapers baffling. […] Literate peasants found much of what was published for them in the 1920s “not for us,” as one reader put it, and written “not in Russian but in political language.” The misunderstandings could be surprising. Grigorii Zinoviev. the Leningrad Party leader who had initially joined Stalin against Trotsky, confused peasant readers with his pamphlet Lenin: Genius, Teacher, Leader, and Man by juxtaposing the names Lenin and Ilich, according to one local observer. “The peasants do not understand this, and if they understood, they think it funny,” he explained. “‘The funeral of Lenin and the Legacy of Ilich.’ How can we understand that? Does it mean that Lenin and Ilich are two different people?” A thirty-five-year-old rural Communist explained to an investigator early in the NEP that among the words in the newspaper he did not know were “element” (used in such phrases as reactionary element) and the abbreviation for the Ukrainian Republic.

Propagandists compiled lists of words that were unfamiliar to common readers at trial readings, often in Moscow, or from letters to the press. The lists hardly overlap, suggesting that the words belong to a larger pool of equally unintelligible expressions and usages. Readers did not understand terms central to the Bolsheviks’ message, such as democracy, imperialism, dialectic, class enemy, and socialism. Listeners were baffled by syndicate, blockade, USSR, budget, deficit, and balance. They were puzzled by scientific words such as nitrogen and microbe and abbreviations for even familiar organizations such as Komsomol and KSM (for Komunisticheskii soiuz molodezhi). The journalists’ determination to use difficult words and constructions despite the havoc this caused seems inexplicable except as an unconscious desire to create an insiders’ language. In this way, Bolsheviks perhaps unwittingly raised the price of entry into the body politic and made a certain level of understanding and accommodation to a new language a condition of membership.

Of course, as the decades rolled on most of those terms became familiar to the point of cliché; whether the average reader could define them, however, is a different matter. (The Russian word for ‘nitrogen,’ azot, is hard for me to remember, because it’s so different from the English; of course, it’s straight from French azote, but that’s hard for me to remember too — I guess I didn’t have many dealings with the table of elements when studying French. And German Stickstoff just sounds silly.)

You’re Ironing My Head!

Jennifer Manoukian’s “You’re Ironing My Head: Shared Western Armenian and Turkish Idioms” discusses a phenomenon that once you learn about it is an obvious result of shared history, but that you don’t hear about for reasons she explains:

While Armenian and Turkish belong to distinct language families, their similarities today should come as no surprise. Western Armenian—the language spoken by Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and their descendants around the world—rubbed shoulders with Turkish for more than four centuries. This enduring contact had varying effects on Armenians in the empire. Some shifted fully to Turkish, speaking it as their mother tongue; others adopted diglossic bilingualism, using Turkish in certain realms of life and Armenian in others; and others still spoke a variety of Western Armenian that was peppered with Turkish loan words and calques (i.e., literal translations). It is this third outcome that survived the fall of the Ottoman Empire and persists—often unbeknownst to Armenians themselves—in Western Armenian today.

As other examples of language contact show, language change within imperial contexts is often largely unidirectional with the language of the conquered changing more radically than the language of the conqueror. This pattern also holds for Turkish and Western Armenian. Beyond words that hint at shared origins (e.g., թոռ [tor] & torun; էշ [esh] & eşek) and the great many direct borrowings from Turkish (e.g., արապա [araba] & araba; պօշ [bosh] & boş; իշտէ [ishdé] & işte), calques—or literal translations—from Turkish abound in both colloquial and standard Western Armenian. At times these instances are obvious to the naked eye (e.g., վազ անցնիլ [vaz antsnil] & vaz geçmek; թաք թուք [tak touk] & tek tük), while others can only be detected by those with a knowledge of the structure of both languages (e.g. նորէն [noren] & yeniden; մնաք բարով [mnak parov] & hoşçakalın; ողջ ըլլաս [voghch ëllas] & sağ ol).

Forms of reduplication can also be seen in the colloquial forms of both languages: echo reduplication (e.g. գիրք միրք [kirk mirk] & kitap mitap), emphatic reduplication (e.g. կաս կարմիր [gas garmir] & kıpkırmızı) and doubling (կամաց-կամաց [gamats-gamats] & yavaş yavaş) all bring smiles to the faces of Armenian students of Turkish and Turkish students of Armenian.

Despite the near inevitability of language change in a case of such long-term contact, the imprint of Turkish on Western Armenian is rarely discussed in Armenian circles and is essentially unknown to Turkish speakers. This reticence on the part of Armenians to acknowledge the lingering traces of their Ottoman past are tied, I have argued elsewhere, to the politics of Armenian Genocide recognition and the comfort many Armenians still take in nurturing prejudice against a people they are set on branding enemies to the exclusion of all else.

She exemplifies the phenomenon with reproductions from a 1962 book by “the celebrated Egyptian Armenian cartoonist Alexander Saroukhan (1898-1977) […] a collection of sketches entitled Տե՛ս խօսքերդ (Look at What You’re Saying!). […] What Saroukhan does not mention is that many of his idioms also exist—often word-for-word—in Turkish.” The examples are convincing and enjoyable. Thanks, Trevor!