Seke in Brooklyn.

Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura writes in the NY Times about “a Brooklyn building that is home to about 50 speakers of Seke, one of the world’s most obscure languages”:

The apartment building, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, is a hive of nationalities. A Pakistani woman entered the elevator on a recent afternoon with a big bag of groceries, flicking a dupatta over her shoulder as a Nepalese nurse and the janitor, a man from Jamaica there to mop up a spill, followed her in.

It was hardly an unusual scene in New York, one of the world’s most diverse cities. But this nondescript, seven-story brick building is also the improbable home to some of the last speakers of a rare, unwritten language from Nepal that linguists worry could disappear within a generation, if not sooner.

The language, Seke, is spoken in just five villages cloistered by craggy cliffs and caves in a part of Nepal called Mustang, a region close to the border with Tibet. There are just 700 or so Seke speakers left in the world, according to a recent study by the Endangered Language Alliance, a New York-based organization dedicated to preserving rare languages in the city. Of those, a little over 100 are in New York, and nearly half of them live in the building in Flatbush. […] The remaining Seke speakers live in another building in Flatbush or are scattered across Queens. […] Seke is one of 637 languages and dialects that the Endangered Language Alliance has identified as being spoken across the five boroughs of New York and in New Jersey, which also has a diverse, global population. […]

Another language, Wakhi, from eastern Iran as well as parts of Pakistan, China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, is believed to be spoken by less than a handful of people in New York, according to the language alliance. One speaker, Husniya Khujamyorova, 31, who works as a linguist at the organization, is writing children’s books in Wakhi in the hopes of passing down the language, which is spoken by about 40,000 people worldwide. “People like me, they move at an early age from their country,” Ms. Khujamyorova said. “There is not enough material to pass their language to the new generation.” […]

In New York, young Nepalese, like Ms. Gurung’s cousins, speak very little Seke. She says she is the most fluent speaker among the diaspora’s younger members and has been helping the Endangered Language Alliance compile a Seke-English dictionary. […] Other factors are also causing Seke’s demise, said Mr. Gurung, the translator. In New York, native speakers tend to work long hours with little time to teach their children — and there are no cultural or language centers. There is also no real demand for Seke. Younger Seke speakers prefer learning far more common languages like Spanish or Mandarin. “They say, ‘What’s the purpose of learning the language when there is no use for it in the future?’” Mr. Gurung said. Instead, a new dialect called Ramaluk is developing among the Nepalese diaspora, Mr. Gurung said, which borrows and mixes words from English, Nepali, Hindi and some Seke. “It’s a new language,” he said.

There are photos and more stories at the link, along with a half-minute audio clip of a conversation in Seke over dinner. (Incidentally, I posted about Mustang back in 2003.) I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, and I particularly enjoyed the reference to Wakhi, with which I was inexplicably fascinated as a grad student in Indo-European (it’s one of the Eastern Iranian languages, spoken in the mountainous, oddly shaped Wakhan District). Thanks, Eric and juha!

Hands-On Hittite Class.

News from Illinois Computer Science:

Daniel Stelzer used a stylus to carefully form symbols in a piece of clay. The University of Illinois student was practicing writing the symbols in a class on Hittite, an ancient language that uses cuneiform, one of the oldest human writing systems. The U. of I. offered the class in Hittite for the first time this fall.

“I’m doing it partly because it’s so impractical. I think there should still be space at the university for studying things that are impractical, simply because they are interesting and open up a new world to your students,” said Ryan Shosted, a linguistics professor who is teaching the class.

Hittite is an extinct language – no one speaks it. It was used in the Bronze Age by people living in what is now Turkey. Hittite is an Indo-European language, from the same family as Russian, English, Irish and Hindi. The students in Shosted’s class study ancient texts and learn basic vocabulary and language structure, how to read and write Hittite in cuneiform as well as in the Roman alphabet, and about Hittite culture. They’ve translated texts about a priest floating a model boat down a river in order to cast away evil and about the ritual sacrifice of a sheep. […]

The class is a mix of 21st-century and Bronze Age technology. Many of the assignments are delivered online, but in class, the students work together on translation and grammatical exercises and they practice how to press cuneiform symbols into clay. They do some assignments in clay, take photos of them and upload them to an open-source learning platform.

“A hallmark feature of the class is giving students the opportunity to write in clay and have the Bronze Age experience to write how the Hittite scribes wrote,” Shosted said. “I think of it as half art class. I want them to make beautiful tablets, and I want it to look right.”

What a great idea! I took Hittite myself (almost half a century ago now), and I wish we’d had a chance to do that; all we did was the usual staring blearily at textbooks. (See this 2015 post for the Chicago Hittite Dictionary Project.) Thanks, Maidhc!

Two Words.

1) I’m slowly making my way through Merezhkovsky’s «Воскресшие боги. Леонардо да Винчи» (The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci; see this LH post), and like most historical novelists he enjoys tossing in lots of archaic terms; one of them, адрагантовая камедь [adragantovaya kamedʹ], looked so bizarre I thought it might have a typo, but no, камедь ‘gum, resin’ is simply a word I wasn’t familiar with, and адрагантовый — not even in my largest dictionary — turned out to be equivalent to English adragant, equally obscure to me. I turned to the OED (entry updated December 2011) and discovered that “gum adragant” was actually a thing:

adragant, n.
Etymology: < French adragant (16th cent. in Middle French; also in gomme adragant), variant or alteration of dragant dragant n. [A gum; = tragacanth n. Also called gum dragon, and formerly adragant n.], probably by association with Middle French diadragum, diadragentum, etc., a medicinal preparation containing tragacanth (probably 13th cent. in Old French: see diatragacanth n. at dia- prefix2 ).

Now historical and rare.

In full gum adragant, adragant gum. A plant gum obtained from various shrubs of the genus Astralagus; = tragacanth n. 1.

1696 tr. S. Barbe French Perfumer 105 Mix Gum of Adragant, of the bigness of a Small-nut, dissolved with Orange-flower-water.
1697 C. K. Art’s Master-piece 126 Dissolve Gum Adragant in Rose-Water, and beat the whole long together.
1775 Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 65 416 It resembles gum adragant much in quality.
1800 T. H. Horne tr. L.-A. F. de Beaujour View Commerce Greece xi. 179 The Frank commerce exports annually five thousand okes of gum adragant.
1904 Board of Trade Jrnl. 21 Jan. 120 (table) Pastry (biscuits, cakes, comfits, buns and gingerbread patties, tarts, adragant gum-balls, &c., made with sugar).
1998 Jrnl. Amer. Inst. Conservation 37 15/2 Gum tragacanth, variously rendered in historic treatises as ‘gum adragant’, ‘gum dragon’, etc., is the exudate of various species of the genus Astralagus.

[Read more…]

Interpreting Mayan Languages.

Rachel Nolan has a New Yorker piece (Jan. 6 issue) about the translation crisis for migrants who speak Mayan languages and the interpreters who are helping them in court; much of it makes for depressing reading, but it handles language unusually well for a general-interest publication, so I’ll quote some of those bits here:

Oswaldo Vidal Martín always wears the same thing to court: a striped overshirt, its wide collar and cuffs woven with geometric patterns and flowers. His pants are cherry red, with white stripes. Martín is Guatemalan and works as a court interpreter, so clerks generally assume that he is there to translate for Spanish speakers. But any Guatemalan who sees his clothing, which is called traje típico, knows that Martín is indigenous. “My Spanish is more conversational,” Martín told me. “I still have some difficulties with it.” He interprets English for migrants who speak his mother tongue, a Mayan language called Mam. […]

One morning in early December, Martín was interpreting for a criminal case in Dublin, east of Oakland. A clerk signed him in—“Buenos días,” she greeted him—and then he met the people he’d be translating for, a Mam husband and wife who had been the victims of an attempted home burglary. […] Martín accompanied the husband to the witness box, while the wife waited in a nearby room. Watching a skilled simultaneous interpreter is a bit like watching someone speaking in tongues. As soon as the judge starts talking, the interpreter mutters along, not waiting for the sentence to be over before beginning to translate. Martín relayed the witness’s answers in a low, steady voice, in American-accented English.

The testimony turned on the layout of the kitchen. There are twenty-two officially recognized Mayan languages in Guatemala; all of them use relational nouns instead of prepositions—Mam uses “head” to say “on top of”—and they have complex grammatical rules to describe bodies in space. The witness pinched his fingers and dropped them down to imitate his wife putting cash in her purse. He worked his eyebrows. He didn’t look up when the prosecutor asked a question. He was telling his story to Martín, the only person in the room who understood. […]

[Read more…]

Max Müller as a Solar Myth.

R.F. Littledale, an Anglo-Irish clergyman, was a staunch supporter of Anglicanism who, like many at the time, didn’t care for Max Müller’s scientific studies of religion, but he didn’t attack his scholarship; in the words of Scott Alexander (Are You a Solar Deity?) he “took a completely different route. He claimed that there was, in fact, no such person as Professor Max Muller, holder of the Taylorian Chair in Modern European Languages. All these stories about ‘Max Muller’ were nothing but a thinly disguised solar myth.” You can read his essay “The Oxford Solar Myth: A Contribution to Comparative Mythology” (from Echoes from Kottabos, ed. R. Y. Tyrrell and Sir Edward Sullivan, London, 1906: 279-290) here, though there’s a better version (where the apostrophes and quote marks aren’t screwed up) here if you have JSTOR access; an excerpt:

The symbolical name by which the hero was deified, even in our own days, is Max Müller. The purely imaginative and typical character of this title appears at the first glance of a philologist. Max is, of course, Maximus, μέγιστος, identical with the Sanskrit maha. Müller, applied in the late High German dialects to the mere grinder of corn, denotes in its root-form a pounder or crusher. It comes from the radical mar, ‘grinding,’ or ‘crushing.’ At once, then, we see that the hero’s name means simply ‘Chief of Grinders.’ There are two explanations of this given. The more popular, but less correct one, identifies grinder and teacher (1)— a metaphor borrowed from the monotonous routine whereby an instructor of the young has to pulverize, as it were, the solid grains of knowledge, that they may be able to assimilate it. The more scientific aspect of the question recognizes here the Sun-God, armed with his hammer or battle-axe of light, pounding and crushing frost and clouds alike into impalpability. We are not left to conjecture in such a matter, for the weapon of Thor or Donar, wherewith he crushes the Frost-giants, in Norse mythology is named Mjölnir, from at mala, ‘to crush’ or ‘mill.’

John Cowan, who sent it to me, says “I think it’s funny as hell”; thanks, JC!

Excellence in Swearing in 2019.

Ben Zimmer of Strong Language (“a sweary blog about swearing”) has his annual Tucker Award post:

With the calendar turning on another year (and another decade), it’s time once again for the annual Strong Language honors for excellence in swearing. For the past half-decade, Strong Language has been on the scene, tracking all the highlights in low language. (Check out our previous roundups from 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.) As always, the awards are named in honor of the patron saint of Strong Language, Malcolm Tucker, the endlessly quotable antihero played by Peter Capaldi in the BBC political satire The Thick of It and the film followup In the Loop.

The top Tucker honors for 2019 go to John Oliver, and it’s a very well deserved win; whenever I watch his show I am in awe at his brilliant use of bad language. A couple more highlights:

Best Fucking Swearing in Academia

In October, Bryant Ashley Hudson of IÉSEG School of Management published an article in the journal M@n@gement with the excellent title, “Fuck, fuck, fuck: Reflexivity and fidelity in reporting swearwords in management research.”

Best Fucking Feminist Swearing

Last but not least, special Tucker recognition must go to Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American social commentator who has elevated swearing into a patriarchy-smashing tool of feminist empowerment. As she introduces herself in a piece published by LitHub in November, “My name is Mona Eltahawy and this is my declaration of faith: Fuck the patriarchy. Whenever I stand at a podium to give a lecture, I begin with that declaration of faith.”

You tell ’em, Mona! Zimmer’s post is full of many more fine examples; go there forthwith and enjoy.

And now for something entirely different: Nina Glibetić has found a rare early Glagolitic manuscript at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. It’s great news, but as Slavomír Čéplö (aka bulbul) says at the FB post where I found the link:

Wonderful, but why make the jump to the “Serbian people”? The article does not mention any other connection to Serbia which would be quite unlikely anyway, most extant Glagolitic manuscripts are either from Croatia or from Bulgaria/Macedonia.

Yes, that reference to “Glagolitic texts of the Serbian people” stuck out like a sore thumb. Fuck nationalism as well as the patriarchy!


Now that we’ve gotten used to Pluto no longer being a planet, here’s another curve ball: Parthenon on the Acropolis most likely has the wrong name.

New research at Utrecht University shows that one of the most famous buildings in the world, the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, was probably not the Parthenon at all. That name originally belonged to a different building. This is the conclusion of Classical archaeologist Janric van Rookhuijzen following a study of historical sources. The study has been published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, the American Journal of Archaeology and the Dutch edition of National Geographic Magazine.

The gigantic Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Athena is known as the Parthenon (Greek for ‘house of virgins’). But it was never quite clear where the name came from. Van Rookhuijzen’s new study shows that the name is based on an incorrect assumption: ‘The ancient Greeks themselves originally called the temple the Hekatompedon, which means ‘the hundred-foot temple’. That name shows they found this very remarkable building as impressive as we do today.’ […]

Professor emeritus of Ancient Cultures Josine Blok (Utrecht University) had the following to say about the findings: ‘Where the scientific community is concerned, Van Rookhuijzen’s insight will cause a minor seismic shift. Not only will the names – which have been in use for these buildings for some two hundred years –need to be adjusted, this changes our image of the cult of the goddess Athena and the Acropolis as a whole. The Acropolis was the sacral heart of Athens, but it had a major political significance as well. As a result, the new identity of the central building will have all manner of as-yet unknown repercussions for our historical knowledge of this city-state.’

For my rant about the Acropolis, see this 2002 post. And although maps aren’t really part of the remit of LH, I love them madly, so I’ll use the feeble hook provided by the geography of Athens to link to two wonderful sites that provide panoramic maps and bird’s-eye views (click to enlarge), the Library of Congress for the US and /r/papertowns for the world. Via MetaFilter, where there are interesting comments like:

I love images of places like Childress, Texas. Completely unremarkable towns, tiny, both then and now. But this magnificent aerial perspective panoramic drawing! I guess it was a form of marketing at the time? A key feature of many Texas maps like this is the lovingly drawn courthouse; 19th century Texas was very proud of its courthouse architecture.

Back in 2011 I posted about Gallica’s putting Baudelaire’s proofs online; now you can see every version after that at the amazing is dedicated to the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) and his poems Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil). The definitive online edition of this masterpiece of French literature, contains every poem of each edition of Les Fleurs du mal, together with multiple English translations.

It’s got the 1857 first edition, the 1861 second edition (“missing censored poems but including new ones”), the 1866 Les Épaves (“scraps” including the poems censored from the first edition), and the 1868 comprehensive edition published after Baudelaire’s death, as well as an Audio section (“Readings of Baudelaire mostly in French”). He’s always been one of my favorite poets, and this is a great resource.

And a very happy new year to all Hatters!

What Words Get Lost?

Nicola Davis and the Guardian community team (whatever that may be) ask: If you speak multiple languages, which words get lost in translation?

A new study has demonstrated that while words for emotions such as “fear”, “love” or “anger” are often directly translated between languages, there can be differences in their true meaning, depending on the family the language belongs to. For example, while the concept of “love” is closely linked to “like” and “want” in Indo-European languages, it is more closely associated with “pity” in Austronesian languages.

The team behind the research say the way particular experiences are interpreted as emotions appears to be shaped by culture. Are there words you know which can be directly translated, yet have subtle differences in meaning? And have you found challenges in translation have ever led you into interesting situations? You can share your stories and experiences with us by filling in the form below. Only the Guardian will see your responses, and leave contact details if you can as one of our journalists may be in touch to discuss further.

As always, I’m dubious about this kind of thing (linking language family to semantic concepts), but hey, it’s for science journalism; if you feel like taking part, it won’t even cost you a postage stamp. Thanks, Kobi!

Alasdair Gray, RIP.

Back in 2013 I posted about Alasdair Gray’s blog, where he was posting his “Very Free New Version” of Dante’s Divina Commedia. I called him a “wonderful Scottish writer and artist,” and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of his, but I haven’t read very much; perhaps the sad news that he has died will impel me to remedy the omission. Richard Lea at the Guardian writes:

Gray came to fiction late, publishing his first novel Lanark at the age of 46 in 1981. A experimental, pornographic fantasy – 1982, Janine – followed three years later, with his rambunctious reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Poor Things, appearing in 1992. As his literary reputation increased, winning both the Guardian fiction prize and the Whitbread novel award in 1992, the elaborate illustrations he created for his books began to draw attention to the pictorial art Gray had been producing all along. The stream of commissions for murals and portraits gradually increased, with writers such as Ali Smith hailing him as “a necessary genius”, and he finished his career as one of Scotland’s most admired and versatile artists.

I love reading about Glasgow (and wish I could visit it), and I can’t believe I’ve never read Lanark.

I won’t make a separate post on this because you have to know Russian to enjoy it, so I’ll tack it on here: Порфирьевич is a neural net (I think? this is all too new for my 20th-century mind) that has swallowed a library of Russian fiction and will provide continuations of anything you put into the box. Avva chose Pushkin’s “Куда? Куда вы удалились?” (from Eugene Onegin) and correctly called the result “especially successful”; he links to seminarist, who provides a whole set of examples, starting with “Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга. Только большая часть этих семей состоит из двух-трех людей, и в ней есть одна такая семья, рядом с которой все остальные представляются мелкими грызунами.” [All happy families resemble one another. Only the greater part of these families consist of two or three people, and includes one such family next to which all the rest seem to be small rodents.] and ending with three entirely different continuations of the start of Crime and Punishment. I myself gave it the first sentence of The Idiot and got “Наконец-то минул тревожный, душный июльский страх утраты родных улиц и дворов, соседствовавших с последними вотчинами Бориса Пастернака.” [At last the troubled, stuffy July fear of losing native streets and courtyards adjoining the last ancestral estates of Boris Pasternak passed.] Fun!