Dothraki and Valyrian.

I haven’t watched any of the HBO series Game of Thrones (though jamessal tells me it’s a must-see), but I found this Boston Globe piece by Britt Peterson, about the guy who invents its languages, quite interesting:

In the past, the people writing [languages for Hollywood] have been mostly academic linguists. But David Peterson, the inventor of Dothraki and Valyrian, is something of a new breed. The creator of 12 languages before he wrote Dothraki in 2010, Peterson is not just the first major language creator in Hollywood to identify primarily as a “conlanger,” or maker of constructed languages. He’s also probably the only professional language creator ever. [...]

Peterson [...] began inventing languages when he was an undergrad at Berkeley before going on to a master’s in linguistics at UC San Diego. In 2007, he helped form the Language Creation Society, a conlangers group. When the producers of “Game of Thrones” needed someone to write a language for the warlike, horse-loving Dothraki tribe in season one, Arika Okrent, a linguist and author of the book “In the Land of Invented Languages,” suggested they ask the LCS. Peterson rose to the occasion, and his Dothraki, with Russian, Turkish, Estonian, and other influences and a lot of words about horses, was the result. “It’s a native conlang conlang,” Okrent said.

Peterson argues that there are crucial differences in having a conlanger write your language, as opposed to an academic linguist. Conlangers are more aware of the history of other created languages, he says, a study that improves their artistry and tends to create languages that are less evocative of natural languages: “If you’re hiring a conlanger specifically as opposed to a linguist, what you’ll see is sources that can’t be as easily defined.”

If I ever get around to watching it, I’ll definitely keep my ears alert for those hints of Estonian!

The Cranes of Ibycus.

One of the benefits of reading nineteenth-century literature is that I keep running across cultural tropes that were then common but that have fallen into comparative desuetude since. (By “comparative desuetude,” I mean that although some of my readers are doubtless familiar with them, I myself am not.) One such is the cranes of Ibycus. About halfway through Poor Folk (which I am enjoying more and more), the aging and reclusive Makar Dedushkin thanks Varvara, the younger woman with whom he appears to be engaged in a competition as to who can most imperiously coddle whom, for the loan of a copy of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin (see this post) in the following words:

Спрашиваю я теперь себя, маточка, как же это я жил до сих пор таким олухом, прости господи? Что делал? Из каких я лесов? Ведь ничего-то я не знаю, маточка, ровно ничего не знаю! совсем ничего не знаю! Я вам, Варенька, спроста скажу, — я человек неученый; читал я до сей поры мало, очень мало читал, да почти ничего: «Картину человека», умное сочинение, читал; «Мальчика, наигрывающего разные штучки па колокольчиках» читал, да «Ивиковы журавли», — вот только и всего, а больше ничего никогда не читал. Теперь я «Станционного смотрителя» здесь в вашей книжке прочел; ведь вот скажу я вам, маточка, случается же так, что живешь, а не знаешь, что под боком там у тебя книжка есть, где вся-то жизнь твоя как по пальцам разложена.

I ask you now, dear woman, how have I lived until now as such a blockhead, God forgive me? What have I done? What forest have I emerged from? You see, I don’t know anything at all, dear woman, I don’t know a single thing! I’ll tell you plainly, Varenka, I’m not a learned man; up until now I’ve read very little, hardly anything: I’ve read Picture of Man [a work of philosophy by Alexander Galich], a clever work; I’ve read The Little Chimer [Le petit carillonneur, an 1809 novel by François Guillaume Ducray-Duminil], and “The Cranes of Ibycus” — that’s all, I never read anything else. Now I’ve read “The Station Master” here in your little book; well, I’m telling you, dear woman, it can happen that you’re living your life and you don’t even realize that right next to you there’s a little book where your whole life is laid out in detail.

It’s obvious that the Pushkin story, about the mysterious fate of a young woman the narrator finds himself attracted to, is going to be relevant to the novel, but I had no idea what those cranes were doing there. It turns out the reference is to the Zhukovsky translation of Schiller’s 1797 poem “Die Kraniche des Ibykus,” which tells a story succinctly summarized by Samuel Burder in Oriental Literature Applied to the Illustration of the Sacred Scripture, Vol. 2 (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1822), p. 77:

Greeks and Romans, as, for instance, Plato, Plutarch, Strabo, Cicero, Pliny, and others, say, that the poet Ibycus of Regium, (Reggio,) when he was murdered by robbers, called upon the cranes, which were fluttering about to give witness of his death. When the murderers were once at the theatre, and saw a flock of cranes, they whispered to each other, “Behold the avengers of Ibycus!” And the cranes became so in fact; for some persons who were near, and understood this whispering, gave information of it to the magistrates, who seized the murderers, and had them executed. Hence the proverb, “The cranes of Ibycus,” which is used when secret crimes come to light by a wonderful dispensation of Providence.

Rina Lapidus, on p. 176 (fn. 21) of Jewish Women Writers in the Soviet Union (Routledge, 2013), says “The cranes of Ibycus became a symbol of revealing the truth. Many twentieth century Russian poets alluded to the cranes of Ibycus.” One of those poets was Brodsky, who in “Два часа в резервуаре” (“Two Hours in a Container”), an amazing and sometimes hilarious mixture of Russian, German, and various other bits of languages, writes:

Унд ивиковы злые журавли,
из веймарского выпорхнув тумана,
ключ выхватили прямо из кармана.

Und Ibycus’s wicked/spiteful cranes,
darting out of the fog of Weimar,
snatched the key right out of the pocket.

I can’t resist mentioning one of those hilarious bits, the line “Он съел дер дог в Ибн-Сине и в Галене”: “He ate der mastiff in Avicenna and in Galen.” Here “дер дог” (with дог borrowed from French dogue [thanks, JC!]) replaces собака ‘dog’ in the very weird Russian idiom собаку съесть ‘to know (something) inside out, to be an expert in (something)’ — literally, ‘to eat the dog.’ And as the president and sole member of the North American Veltman Appreciation Society, I can’t resist pointing out that the first occurrence of the phrase in Russian literature appears to be from Veltman’s 1848 novel Саломея [Salomeya]:

Римский Лукулл был умен и учен, съел собаку в познаниях, образовался у известнейших док красноречия и философии, имел огромную библиотеку, которою пользовался Цицерон, бывши еще мальчиком; а русский Лукулл, хоть и любил собак, но не съел ни одной по части отягощающей голову, а не желудок.

The Roman Lucullus was clever and learned, knew things inside out [literally 'ate the dog in knowledge'], studied with the most famous authorities of rhetoric and philosophy, had a huge library used by Cicero when still a boy; but the Russian Lucullus, even though he loved dogs, didn’t eat any that would burden his head rather than his stomach.

I’m not a bit surprised that Veltman, that lover of oddity, would have seized on this odd expression and done a little baring of the device, as Shklovsky would call it. (I have no idea what to do with пивши and отягощающей in that quote, and welcome all suggestions.) [Text and translation corrected; thanks, uwe and other helpful commenters!]

Pronounce Wisconsin.

Pronounce Wisconsin “is an online pronouncing gazetteer of place names in Wisconsin, including counties, cities, villages, and unincorporated communities. Over 1720 place names in Wisconsin can be accessed by simply mousing over the map.” Now that’s what I call a public service! And for a hipper take on the same theme, with audio clips right there by each name, visit, where you can scroll down and find out instantly that Metomen is me-TOE-men, Mukwonago is muk-WAHN-ago, and Stettin is ste-TEEN (which surprised me — I would have expected it to be Americanized to STET-in). This kind of thing should be available for every political entity everywhere!

Gazdanov’s Languages.

I find it hard to believe I’ve never mentioned Gaito Gazdanov on this blog, but the site search tells me it is so. I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of him before I wandered into the late lamented Donnell Library (see this post), shortly after my arrival in NYC in 1981, and stood, mouth agape, in the midst of its magnificent foreign language collection; for some reason — probably the strikingly odd name of the author (Ossetian, as it turned out) — I plucked Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire) off the shelf, read the first sentence (“Клэр была больна; я просиживал у нее целые вечера и, уходя, всякий раз неизменно опаздывал к последнему поезду метрополитена и шел потом пешком с улицы Raynouard на площадь St. Michel, возле которой я жил”), and checked it out, intrigued by the Parisian place names plunked into the Russian text. Despite the fact that my Russian was very rusty and the sentences were often long, I read the whole thing, enchanted by his style and gripped by the flashbacks to the Russian Civil War. Ever since, he’s been high on my list of writers I want to delve into now that my Russian is up to the task, and one of the works I’m most looking forward to is his later novel Призрак Александра Вольфа, now translated by Bryan Karetnyk as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. My appetite is even more whetted by Sophie Pinkham’s review in the LRB; I’ll quote here several paragraphs about Gazdanov’s knowledge and use of various languages:

Gazdanov’s preoccupation with doubles isn’t hard to understand. In Paris, he lived two lives: one in the Parisian demi-monde, the other in the Russian émigré world of art and ideas. And he knew something about having two identities before he emigrated; he never learned Ossetian, though his parents spoke it, and he needed an interpreter to speak to his grandmother. Exile made language fraught for everyone, but especially for writers, who had to choose between the mother tongue, part of a world that more and more seemed to have been lost, and the language of the host country, which offered the hope of a wide readership, financial success and a lasting legacy. Nabokov went for the second, and became one of the few younger émigrés to achieve real fame. Others became successful writers with French names: Elsa Triolet, born Ella Kagan; and Henri Troyat, born Lev Tarasov. Troyat adopted the pseudonym at the suggestion of his editor, and went on to become the first Russian to be elected to the Académie Française. But many more writers were unwilling, or unable, to abandon their original language, or play down their Russian identity.

Gazdanov’s French was impeccable, but he felt unable to write fiction in anything other than his native language. His novels are distinctly bilingual even so: his magnum opus, Night Roads, contains passages of French street slang that he translated only at the insistence of his editor. His novels are often set in Paris, with characters speaking French to each other, sometimes without translation and without an accent, and yet they’re written (mostly) in Russian.

In The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, the narrator speaks perfect French; Wolf’s English prose is so fluent that he can be mistaken for a native writer. Yelena, too, appears to be fluent in both French and English. She is married to an American, and introduces herself by her last name, Armstrong. At first she and the narrator speak French; he can’t place her accent until she tells him she’s Russian, having spotted the Russian newspaper in his pocket. They switch to Russian, and he remarks on a stylistic error she makes (Gazdanov was sometimes criticised for such mistakes). Voznesensky, Wolf’s old friend, speaks French but not a word of English, and longs in vain to read Wolf’s book about the world they fled together. Voznesensky tried to write his memoirs in order to remember his great love, Marina, who was stolen by Wolf, but he found that he had no gift for writing. Now his last hopes lie with Wolf; but Wolf writes in English, because the money’s better, and he hasn’t written about Marina, because he didn’t love her like Voznesensky did. Still, Voznesensky says: ‘Perhaps we’ll be remembered if he mentions us in his writing; in fifty years’ time, pupils in English will read about us, and so everything that has happened won’t have been in vain … everything will live on.’

If you’re intrigued, you might want to read Justin Doherty’s guest post at Russian Dinosaur about translating Night Roads. It’s a blessing that so much Russian literature is becoming available in English; Jodi Daynard’s translation of An Evening with Claire was published by Ardis in 1988 and is apparently being reissued by Overlook Press next month.

Update. While I was linking to Russian Dinosaur, I should certainly have remembered this post from last October, which not only reviews the recent translation of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, with the kind of sentence-by-sentence detail I love, but appends a “Selected bibliography of Gazdanov’s major works in translation” from which we learn that the novel was previously translated by Nicholas Wreden in 1950. I thank the Dinosaur for reminding me to remedy the omission!

Mashinski at Mount Holyoke.

I made it to the reading at Mount Holyoke College last night (see this post), and I’m very glad I did: Irina Mashinski is not only a wonderful poet but a wonderful reader of her own poetry, and there’s little I like as well as hearing good poetry read well (by which I mean musically, not dramatically — I can rarely bear to hear actors read poems, because they tend to make them sound like soliloquies). It was a cozy setup, a dozen people sitting on comfortable armchairs and sofas arranged in a rectangle with the lectern by the wall (at one end of a long library room), and almost all were Russian speakers or at least Russian students. I suffered, as I knew I would, the embarrassment of not being able to converse in Russian — it’s just been too long since I had anyone to talk with — but I understood what people were saying, and anyway the poetry was the important thing.

She read mainly from her latest collection, «Офелия и мастерок» [Ophelia and the trowel] (there’s a link on that page from which you can download the text as a pdf, which I did, and read it on my Kindle before the event — what a world we live in!), but she also read some earlier ones, like “То, что было со мной…” (the first poem on this page). As always, I was enchanted by her use of repetition (“голубой, голубой антрацит”), near-repetition (“смелее, смелей”), and all the devices of rhyme and assonance that make Russian poetry, when well done, so uniquely satisfying. If I’m remembering correctly, she finished the reading with the last poem in the new collection, “Giornata” (which she said she used in the sense ‘day’s work’); the first two lines are a good illustration of what I’m talking about:

Небо, в оба края растворимо,
облако, что Рим, неоспоримо
[Nebo, v oba kraya rastvorimo,
óblako, chto Rim, neosporimo]

It means something like “The sky, open at both edges [i.e., a window with both panes open to the sky -- thanks, Irina!],/ a cloud, like Rome, indisputable,” but meaning is not the issue here. Listen to nebo/oba/oblako, rastvorimo/Rim/neosporimo! I can never get enough of that kind of verbal magic.

I’m also a bit embarrassed because after the reading she insisted not only on giving me copies of «Офелия и мастерок», her 2009 collection «Волк: Избранные стихотворения» [Wolf: Selected poems], and her grandmother’s family biography «Моя семья: XX век» [My family: 20th century] with its cornucopia of old photographs, but on driving me home, absolutely refusing to let me take the bus — she was spending the night in Amherst, just a few minutes away from Hadley, and she was proud of her GPS. Fortunately, I was already accustomed to the fact that Russians will go far out of their way for you, and on the drive we had a most enjoyable conversation about Tyutchev and Pushkin (their simplicity makes them hard to translate), Nabokov (he kept his love of wordplay under control in Russian but let it get out of hand in English), Brodsky (his translations don’t do him justice), Boris Dralyuk (a wonderful translator and a great guy in general), and who knows what all; I also got a chance to tell her how I had discovered her early collection «После эпиграфа» [After the epigraph] in NYC in the late ’90s (I was especially smitten with her poem in memory of Brodsky: “С деревьев пускай твое имя слетает, но только не с губ./ Еще поглазеет хвоя, что тебе до того? Вот, на звездах/ ближайших уже различима твоя нетяжелая тень.” “Let your name fall off from the trees, but not from lips./ The pine branches will still stare, but what is that to you? Look, in the nearest stars/ your unheavy shade can already be discerned.”) and how impressed I was by the quality of the poems she writes in English (she read “The Border,” with its concatenation “broke free,/ flew away, saw fiords —/ lost fear,” and in another poem she delightfully rhymes verbatim with Art Tatum)… Well, I just hope she had as good a time as I did, and I’m very glad I dragged myself out of the house for a change.

Markevich’s Linguistic Heroes.

I was looking through the entry on Boleslav Markevich in Russian Novelists in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (Vol. 238 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series — see this post) when I hit on this description of “probably the best known of all his works, Marina iz Alogo Roga (Marina from Alyi Rog)”: “the positive heroes of the novel discuss almost exclusively linguistic themes, presenting Sanskrit and ancient Hebrew derivations, while those characters who are not particularly positive speak about Darwinism and lucidly explain the way financial intrigues work.” I found an online text (in the old orthography!), and a search on “санскрит” quickly turned up this passage:

ляги будутъ у насъ на скрыпкѣ играть.
Ляга — лягушка? такъ и встрепенулся Пужбольскій.
— Ну да, продолжала она хохотать,– здѣсь другаго слова нѣтъ.
— Самый корень, прямо отъ санскрита, молвилъ онъ, преисполненный филологическаго удовольствія,– лягатъ, leg — нога по-англійски…

“…lyagi will be playing the violin at our place.
“A lyaga — is that a frog [lyagushka]?” Puzhbolsky gave a start.
“Why, yes,” she continued laughing, “no other word will do here.”
“The very root is straight from Sanskrit,” he said, filled with philological pleasure, “lyagat, English leg…”

Russian lyagushka ‘frog’ is in fact from lyaga (now always in the diminutive lyazhka) ‘thigh,’ which is in fact related to (though not “from”) Sanskrit langhati ‘leaps’ (and Old Irish lingid ‘leaps’), but English leg (borrowed from Old Norse leggr) is probably unrelated. At any rate, I’ve added the novel to my tottering stack of books to be read in the dim future.


This Log post by Victor Mair has one of the most impenetrable bits of alleged English it’s ever been my pleasure to see. The central four lines of the “circa 1880 advertisement” read:

              WASHING WIH

The letters are perfectly clear; the sense (except for WASHING) perfectly opaque. There are plenty of theories at the Log thread, but I suspect we’ll never know exactly what services Zeng Shing of 26 East Kashing Road, Hongkew, Shanghai was offering.

The Importance of Profanity.

Jesse Sheidlower has a superb op-ed piece in yesterday’s NY Times taking the US media in general, and the Times in particular, to task for its prudish avoidance of “bad words”:

Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory. Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples. [...]

There have been numerous cases in recent years when the use of offensive language has been the news story itself. [...] These stories were covered widely, but in most cases, the details were obscured. The relevant words were described variously as “an obscenity,” “a vulgarity,” “an antigay epithet”; replaced with rhyming substitutions; printed with some letters omitted; and, most absurdly, in The Washington Times (whose editor confessed this was “an attempt at a little humor”), alluded to as “a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture.” We learn from these stories that something important happened, but that it can’t actually be reported. [...]

When language can play such a hot-button role in our society, what we need is more reporting, not less.

I hope the Times takes appropriate action, but I won’t hold my breath.

Somewhat related: Jonathon Green has published an autobiography, Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer; you can read lively reviews by Nicholas Shakespeare in the Telegraph (thanks, Paul!) and by Stan Carey at his blog.

Poor Folk I.

Last year I wrote about the experience of coming upon Pushkin via the back door of his own past rather than the usual front door opening onto the future; now I’m having the same experience with Dostoevsky. I’m pretty sure if I read his first work, Бедные люди [Poor Folk], after having read, say, the Brothers K, I’d be impatient with it, alert to all the ways it falls short of mature greatness. I’m very glad I’m not doing it that way, because that would be unfair both to the author and to my own reading pleasure. As it is, coming at it after a thorough immersion in the literature of the 1830s and early ’40s, I can see exactly why its first readers were so excited, why Grigorovich and Nekrasov shed tears over it and rushed to Dostoevsky’s apartment at four in the morning to congratulate him, and the next day brought it to Belinsky, who was equally thriled — as he told Annenkov, “You see this manuscript? I haven’t been able to tear myself away from it for almost two days now.”

The first startling thing about it is that it’s an epistolary novel. That has no bearing on quality, of course, but it’s attention-getting, because the epistolary novel, so wildly popular in Western Europe during the 18th century that parodies like Fielding’s Shamela (1741) had made it pretty much impossible to take seriously by the end of the century, never really caught on in Russia. The examples I’m aware of are Nikolai Emin’s Roza, poluspravedlivaya i original’naya povest [Rose, a half-true and original novel] (1786) and Igra sud’by [The game of fate] (1789); Aleksandr Druzhinin’s Polinka Saks (1847); Evgenia Tur’s Zakoldovanny krug [The enchanted circle] (1854); Ekaterina Letkova’s Oborvannaya perepiska [An interrupted correspondence] (1902); and Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo, ili pisma ne o lyubvi [Zoo, or Letters Not about Love] (1923). Toss in Pushkin’s “Roman v pis’makh” [A novel in letters] (a few pages he worked on in the autumn of 1829 and never finished or published) and a few short stories by Turgenev (“Perepiska” [A Correspondence], 1856), Kuprin (“Sentimental’ny roman” [A sentimental novel/romance], 1901), and Bunin (“Neizvestny drug” [An unknown friend], 1923), and you still don’t have much of a tradition. (Of course, I’m sure there are examples I’m unaware of, and will appreciate any that are pointed out in the comments.)

But in the usual epistolary novel, the letters are a vehicle for conveying plot in a particular way (“Dear X, My father has forbidden me to see Y! What shall I do?”); here, the letters actively frustrate the reader’s desire to know what’s going on. The aging Makar Devushkin is corresponding with the considerably younger Varvara Dobrosyolova; we know that he can see her window across the courtyard from his, we know that they are fond of each other, and we know that she keeps asking him to come visit and he keeps ignoring the requests and telling her to take better care of herself. But who are these people, why are they corresponding like this, what are their backstories? For a long time we have no idea; we have only their words, their endless, repetitive, subtly varied words, reminiscent of the unstoppable verbalizing of Beckett characters buried up to their necks and holding our attention like so many Ancient Mariners. Eventually Dostoevsky gives in and provides a connected text Varvara gives Makar to fill in her background, and I’m guessing the novel will settle into a more predictable groove (I will report further when I finish it, if not before), but for the moment let me provide a brief snippet from Varvara’s text that gives a hint of the mastery to come:

Я целый день надрывалась от раскаяния. Мысль о том, что мы, дети, своими жестокостями довели его до слез, была для меня нестерпима. Мы, стало быть, ждали его слез. Нам, стало быть, их хотелось; стало быть, мы успели его из последнего терпения вывесть; стало быть, мы насильно заставили его, несчастного, бедного, о своем лютом жребии вспомнить! Я всю ночь не спала от досады, от грусти, от раскаянья.

I tore myself up all day from repentance. The thought of how we children through our cruelties had brought him to tears was intolerable to me. We, therefore, had awaited his tears. We, therefore, had wanted them; therefore, we had managed to exhaust his last reserve of patience; therefore, we had compelled him forcibly, the poor unhappy man, to remember his cruel lot! All night I couldn’t sleep from vexation, from sorrow, from repentance.

The nesting of the four-times-repeated стало быть ‘consequently, therefore’ between the two occurrences of раскаянья ‘(from) repentance’ is beautiful — and I can’t find any translations that reproduce it. What is this dread of repetition? At any rate, it’s a product of the same literary mind that came up with the unforgettable opening to Записки из подполья (Notes from Underground): “Я человек больной… Я злой человек. Непривлекательный я человек.” [I am a sick man... I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man.] It is impossible in English to reproduce the way in which the pronoun я ‘I,’ the noun человек ‘person, man,’ and the three adjectives are shifted around to form a kaleidoscopic array of sentence patterns, but in the original it is immensely satisfying. I like this fellow Dostoevsky, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next!

Why Some Languages Sound More Beautiful.

This piece by Bernd Brunner may not have any particular conclusion to offer (“In the end, beauty in language is just one of those things”), but it’s always enjoyable to think about ineffabilities like “why do so many people think German sounds awful?” — and the fact that the author is German (it’s translated by Lori Lantz) makes it interesting for those of us who are used to hearing it talked about from an English-language perspective, and this is a thoughtful paragraph:

Until three years ago, before I started to learn Turkish, I didn’t really feel strongly about the language one way or another. It certainly didn’t sound particularly beautiful to me. But then I began to distinguish sounds as words or components. What’s more, I understood that the ways Turkish combines these components to produce meaning are radically different from the ways Indo-European languages function. As speaking and understanding Turkish required me to perform some mental acrobatics, my perspective on the language shifted dramatically. My deeper appreciation of Turkish not only went along with a deeper understanding of the country’s culture and people, but I also began to realize why Turks who learn German speak the way they do. And, of course, pride in mastering a language, only if to a certain extent, colored my emotional attitude towards it. Simply by learning Turkish, I was inclined to find it more beautiful.

Thanks, Paul!