The Poltroon Husband.

The fiction in last week’s New Yorker is “The Poltroon Husband,” by Joseph O’Neill. I wasn’t crazy about the story — the narrative voice is annoying (deliberately so, of course, but still annoying) — but I was delighted with the following bits:

I looked up “abode.” It refers to a habitual residence, of course, but it derives from an Old English verb meaning “to wait.” The expression “abide with me” can be traced back to the same source.
A “poltroon,” I read, is an “utter coward,” which I knew; I didn’t know that the word probably descends from the Old Italian poltrire, to laze around in bed, from poltro, bed. Interesting, I guess.

Not only is all that information absolutely correct, but the “probably” warmed the cockles of my heart. Etymology is a specialty, and you can look up the results as decided by specialists rather than guessing or picking up some glittering falsehood on the internet, and not all the results are certain! Joseph O’Neill gets the LH Good Linguistics in Fiction Award for the week (and probably, given the level of competition, for the year).

Vygotsky, Mandelstam, and tainopis.

Mark Willis of Blind Flaneur has an essay called A Word is the Search for It: Vygotsky, Mandelstam, and the Renewal of Motive which sucked me in with its focus on Mandelstam and intrigued me by combining him with the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who I’ve never read (though I have one of his books) but who’s always sounded interesting. The essay begins with the fatal “Stalin Epigram” (see this LH post) and moves on to Vygotsky’s daring use of an epigram from a Mandelstam poem:

The lines come from “The Swallow,” a poem composed in 1920. In it Mandelstam evoked the fluttering of a blind swallow with amputated wings to suggest the restless movement of thoughts that do not become fully realized in words. In Thought and Language Vygotsky tried to elucidate the same process in psychological terms.

Mandelstam turned to the swallow several times in his poems. It represented more than an image of fitful, darting motion. As swallows appeared with the spring in northern Russia, their image in Mandelstam’s poetry also signaled regeneration and return to life. The swallow is a haunting metaphor, too, for the life of the mind shared by poet and psychologist in the shadow of Stalin’s Terror. That life of the mind continues to resonate back and forth in the writing of Osip Mandelstam and Lev Vygotsky. This essay is a search to recover something of that life, to understand how it remains both elusive and resilient.

There’s all sorts of interesting stuff about “inner speech” and other aspects of language development, but let me get to a section on what he calls tainopis (таинопись, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “cryptographic writing”):

By including the words of proscribed writers in his text, Vygotsky employed a literary device known in Russian as tainopis or “secret writing.” More than an allusion, tainopis is an oblique but conscious citation of a writer who cannot be named directly for political reasons. Akhmatova biographer Roberta Reeder described the device as “enforced subtlety” (158). Mandelstam signaled its necessity in The Noise of Time when he hinted at an “interlinear translation” of the 1905 revolution (103). Akhmatova used tainopis extensively in poems written after 1925, including her epic “Poem without a Hero.” In a critical essay written in the 1930s, itself a kind of secret writing, Akhmatova described how Pushkin used tainopis in the nineteenth century (Reeder 226). The long tradition of speaking obliquely about injustice and oppression may be as old as the Russian language itself.

I’ll ask my Russian readers: is this an accurate description of how the word is used in Russian? Then there’s a discussion of one of my favorite Mandelstam essays, “On the Nature of the Word”:

At the heart of Mandelstam’s essay is an expression of Russian nominalism, a belief in the reality of the living word. Gumilev’s poem traces this nominalism to the Bible, but its origin should be understood more accurately as the Greek language into which the Bible was translated. Mandelstam considered Russian to be a Hellenic language in its sense of the word incarnate as flesh and action. The language’s boundless, primal energy could not be proscribed by the state’s or the church’s linguistic forms. “The life of the Russian language in Russian historical reality outweighs all other facts in the abundance of its properties, in the abundance of its being,” Mandelstam wrote. “Such abundance appears to all the other phenomena of Russian life as but an inaccessible outer limit” (75). Throughout the final chapter of Thought and Language, Vygotsky emphasizes the same living, active nature of the word. “It is not merely the content of a word that changes, but the way in which reality is generalized and reflected in a word” (213). “Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them” (218). By quoting Gumilev and Mandelstam, Vygotsky invoked a similar Russian nominalism, although he framed it in psychological rather than Christian or Hellenic terms. “The relation between thought and word is a living process; thought is born through words. A word devoid of thought is a dead thing” (255).

Mandelstam believed that the Russian language “is not merely a door into history, but is history itself” (76). The language preserved a continuity stretching from the oldest Russian folk epics to the Futurist experiments (left) of Velemir Khlebnikov. For Mandelstam, Khlebnikov’s burrowing into the soil of Russian word roots, “into an etymological night,” renewed the life of word and language (75).

I’ve just scratched the surface, so if this sounds intriguing to anyone, I recommend the entire essay. Thanks, Trevor!


Mark Liberman at the Log reports on a phenomenon of spoken French I hadn’t been aware of, the addition of a final nasal syllable to words that end in a consonant — hence “bonjourin” for bonjour. I was, of course, well aware of the addition of an added [ə] (“bonjour-euh”), which was omnipresent when I was in Paris in the ’80s, but I don’t remember noticing the nasal variant. Mark links to a delightful video in which David Castello-Lopes (auteur of the “Depuis Quand” program) gives examples and interviews Anita Berit Hansen, a linguist who has studied the phenomenon (Mark links to several papers by her, e.g., “The Covariation of [ə] with Style in Parisian French: An Empirical Study of ‘E Caduc’ and Pre-Pausal [ə]“). The executive summary is that it’s first attested in 1972 (and presumably existed for some unknown prior period) and nobody knows why it arose or spread (except that presumably it sounded “cool” to a lot of people), but the video’s fun and short enough (three minutes) it might be worth watching even if you don’t know French.

Dr. Seuss In Hebrew.

Translation of children’s books is a subset of translation that has its own demands; Lior Zaltzman discusses a particularly interesting example for Kveller:

How do you translate Green Eggs and Ham into Hebrew? It’s an extremely difficult feat. Dr. Seuss’s wonderful, rhyming children’s books are, in every possible way, an ode to the English language.

Green Eggs and Ham, for example, is the perfect book for beginning language learners. It contains a mere 50 different word — 49 of which have only one or two consonants (i.e., Sam, Am; Box, Fox). It’s the pithiness of language, along with its consistent tone of playful joy, that have made it one of the top-selling English-language children’s books of all time.

Translating that rhyming exuberance into any language other than English is a tough job. But it’s especially challenging for someone who wants to publish the book in Hebrew, for the only Jewish nation in the world. After all, in a country where pork products aren’t readily available, what’s the kosher version of Green Eggs and Ham?

That’s where the incredible Leah Naor comes in. The 83-year-old playwright, songwriter, author, translator, and mom of three is the talent who has translated Seuss’ children’s books to Hebrew. (Her latest translation, of The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories, came out in 2012.)

When the Hebrew version of Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1982, she changed the title to Lo Raev, Lo Ohev — which means, roughly, “Not Hungry, Don’t Love It.” Throughout the entire story, the name of the disliked dish is never mentioned. The book is so fun, and so fantastical, no kid ever stops to wonder, “Wait, what is that meat?” Really, it’s brilliant!

The piece ends with a recording of the Hebrew version being read which is worth the price of admission all by itself. Thanks, Trevor!

Two French Words.

1) These images of a snowy owl caught by a Montreal traffic camera have been making the rounds, and they’re spectacular, but what struck me in my Hattic capacity was the quote from the Quebec Transport Minister, Robert Poetin: “Magnifique harfang des neiges capté par les caméras de surveillance du réseau routier sur l’A-40 dans l’ouest de MTL.” I looked up the word harfang, which was unfamiliar to me, and it was defined in my trusty Collins dictionary as “snowy owl.” Then I decided to check my huge Larousse French-English English-French Dictionary: Unabridged Edition (over a thousant pages, weighs over seven pounds), and it wasn’t there! Oddly, if you look up “snowy owl” in the English-French section, it says “chouette blanche, harfang,” so its omission in the other half must be an error. Anyway, the Trésor de la langue française informatisé has it (“ORNITH. Grande chouette blanche des régions septentrionales, scientifiquement appelée nyctea“) and says it’s borrowed from Swedish harfång ; anybody know the etymology of that?

2) Thomas Meaney’s TLS review of Vanessa Ogle’s The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950 begins:

In the early 1960s, E. P. Thompson started scouring anthropological reports and ­journals for examples of peoples around the world with a less calculating sense of the passage of time. He was looking for temporal measures that were still deeply embedded in human action. In Madagascar, there was a word that designated “the time it takes to cook rice” and another for the moment it took to “roast a locust”. In Burma, there were monks who started the day “when there is light enough to see the veins in the hand”. In the English language, Thompson found linguistic markers closer to home: there were once such things as a “a pater noster wyle”, “a misère whyle”, and there had survived a rarefied measurement known as “a pissing while”.

Interesting stuff, but “a misère whyle” caught my eye: what could it possibly mean, and why would Early Modern Englishmen who wrote “whyle” have been putting an accent grave on “misère”? Then a horrid thought struck me: surely the companion phrase to “a pater noster wyle” should be “a miserere whyle” — the time it takes to say a Miserere. And sure enough, googling “miserere whyle” got me examples like “al the bellys schal be ronge ii peles be first iiii 2 miserere while be secounde on miserere whyle” and ” And after the space a3ene of another miserere whyle” (as well as a bunch of modern books repeating the same set of examples: “here are examples in old English usage: ‘pater noster whyle’ and ‘miserere whyle’ […] and ‘pissing whyle … a somewhat arbitrary measurement”). So somebody, via haplogy, left out one “re” to produce “misere,” and somebody else, with just enough learning to be dangerous, said “Aha, that French word is missing its accent!” and behold, “a misère whyle” was born.

The Psychological Toll of Etymological Research.

Christopher Culver had a recent post that intrigued me enough to share it here; there may not be many actual etymologists in the crowd who can actually answer his question, but the odds are certainly better than at most sites, and in any event his thoughts will probably be of interest to others. He says:

I’m not sure that etymological work is an entirely healthy field to be involved in psychologically. I have repeatedly found myself experiencing the following:

• I will wake up in the morning having dreamed that I solved some puzzle or another, but alas! it fades from memory too quickly for me to grasp exactly, making for a dour start to the day.
• Inversely, I find myself unable to fall asleep at night as my brain works obsessively on some word. After having lost track of certain insights because I fell asleep and then had forgotten them when I woke up, now I either keep a notepad besides the bed or even jump up and run to the computer at some unreasonable hour. (This is also hard on a spouse.)
• When I am searching for cognates of a given Mari item across other languages, and I open a dictionary of some language to search for an expected word form, there is a big risk that I am distracted by some other word on that dictionary page that might relate to another Mari item I am investigating. Ultimately I end up going on tangent after tangent, and I lose sight of whatever word I was originally working on. This might be blamed on the common inability to focus in our modern internet era, but I’m sure I would have suffered the same thing back in the era of when etymologists just kept everything on note cards.

I would be curious to know how many other linguists experience these same frustrations.

The New Language of Mathematics.

As a quondam math major (though quondam was a long damn time ago), I can’t help but take an interest in Daniel S. Silver’s American Scientist account of what’s going on, linguistically, in that field. It starts by discussing a quote from Josiah Willard Gibbs, a 19th-century professor of mathematical physics at Yale: during a meeting about replacing mathematics requirements for a degree with foreign language courses, Gibbs declared: “Gentlemen, mathematics is a language”:

If mathematics is a language, then just as any ordinary language, such as French or Russian, does not rely on another one to be understood, so mathematics should be independent of ordinary languages. The idea does not seem so far-fetched when we consider musical notation, which is readable by trained musicians everywhere. If mathematics is a language, then we should be able to understand its ideas without the use of words.

He turns to Claude Shannon’s choice (prompted by John von Neumann) of the word entropy to describe his 1948 “beautiful and useful algebraic expression for a measure of average uncertainty in an information source”:
[Read more…]

Cornish Ordinalia.

Trevor Joyce, who sent me the link, said it was fascinating but might be “too nerdy” for the blog. As I told him: “Too nerdy for LH? Surely you jest.” So herewith the Bodleian Libraries:

For #StPirans day, here is our fully digitized copy of the Cornish Ordinalia.

These plays, written in Middle Cornish, come with the earliest surviving stage directions in the world and diagrams of circular staging that predate Shakespeare by centuries.

The following tweet says “For some idea of how spectacular these particular plays would have been – and they were truly blockbuster stuff on an epic scale – you can still check out this 2015 episode of @BBCRadio4’s Making History.” Thanks, Trevor!


Derek Attridge has a fascinating post at Public Books called “The Triumph of Afrikaans Fiction”; being only vaguely aware of Afrikaans literature, I was glad to get a crash course. Attridge begins:

I’m reading one of the great novels of our time. I’m doing so slowly because it’s in Afrikaans, and although I learned the language for many years in South African schools, that was a very long time ago. The novel is Agaat, its title both a proper name (Agatha) and the Afrikaans word for “agate”; the author, Marlene van Niekerk, is a leading Afrikaans poet as well as novelist and short-story writer.[footnote: Agaat was originally published, by Tafelberg (South Africa), in 2004. The title is pronounced with the /x/ sound of Bach.] Luckily, I have at hand the superb translation by Michiel Heyns, the version in which I first encountered the novel. A film of Agaat is said to be in preproduction, but however successful it turns out to be, it will be able to convey only a glimmer of Van Niekerk’s achievement.

He describes the history of Afrikaans, and says:

As only one of the contemporary country’s 11 official languages, and no longer bearing any political privileges, Afrikaans is now under threat. The proportion of Afrikaans speakers who read literary fiction is tiny, and writers must rely on translations to reach a wider readership. Despite these conditions, the language has seen a remarkable flourishing since the ending of apartheid in 1994. At that juncture it became easier to challenge the myth of a pure language; “Afrikaans” could be seen more clearly as a spectrum of speech practices, often intermingling with English and indigenous tongues. Van Niekerk’s ambitious first novel, Triomf, published in that year, uses the language spoken by poor white Afrikaners, a far cry from the Afrikaans of the academy, while Agaat draws on the specialized languages of farming and embroidery—two long-standing features of Afrikaner culture—as well as the heritage of Afrikaans popular song.

After descriptions of other works in Afrikaans, he returns to Agaat and gives a fairly detailed description of the plot and its “four interwoven strands, each using a distinctive mode of narration,” including an analysis of how the translator was forced to change a description of trying to create a sound. It certainly makes me curious to give the book a try. Thanks, Jack!

Especially Charming.

Adam Kirsch’s very favorable TLS review of The Poems of T. S. Eliot: The Annotated Text (Vol. 1, Vol. 2) includes the following parenthetical remark:

(The book is intelligently designed, with cross-references at the bottom of each page linking poem to commentary and back again; and the whole is beautifully printed and highly legible, even the small type. The ampersands and ellipses are especially charming.)

I wish more reviews paid attention to such things.

Another parenthetical remark is less charming:

In 2014, Johns Hopkins University Press began issuing the Complete Prose, under the general editorship of Ronald Schuchard. (Maddeningly, this edition is only available online by subscription, which greatly impairs both its readability and its reach; but it is beautifully edited, and may make it into print some day.)

Shame on Johns Hopkins University Press! I don’t care what their rationale is, that’s disgusting elitism and an abdication of the responsibility of an academic publisher.