I’m racing through Blindsight, by Peter Watts (grim and gripping, and recommended to sf fans… but the plural of plexus is plexuses, not “plexii,” for God’s sake — I just had to get that off my chest), and when “Kolmogorov complexity” was mentioned I thought “Surely that should be Kholmogorov?” Because холм [kholm] is the Russian word for ‘hill’ (the Slavic word is borrowed from Germanic, cf. English holm), and гора [gora] is ‘mountain,’ and, well, it just seemed obvious. But I looked it up and sure enough it was named for Andrey Kolmogorov, so of course I had to look Kolmogorov up in Unbegaun’s book about Russian family names, and it turns out it’s the original form, based on a place name, Kolmogory, of Finnish origin, and the form Kholmogorov is a folk etymology. So I’m passing that along as a public service for those interested in Russian surnames.

For the rest of you, here‘s a parrot that spoke with a British accent when it disappeared from its home four years ago and now speaks Spanish, and here‘s a video rendition of John Skelton’s poem about a multilingual parrot, “Speke Parott,” recorded by students at Groningen University (see the Skelton Project website for more info); thanks to Martin Langeveld for all parrot links!

The History of Font Names.

Tobias Frere-Jones, a type designer (creator of the Gotham typeface) who teaches at Yale, has posted on his blog about how the names of typefaces developed:

For centuries, punchcutters would develop their style within a narrow group of genres. There would be only one style of roman or italic, even if that style had been refined and focused over a span of years. The name only needed to pin down the remaining variable, the size. [...]

In Bodoni’s epic Manuale Tipografico of 1818, over one hundred romans and italics are shown with the name of a city as a kind of nickname, though the real name was still a size and a number. Trieste is really Ascendonica (22 point) No. 9, Palermo is Sopracanoncino (28 point) No. 3, and so on.

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, a new market for advertising drove typefounders to expand their inventories. The established vocabulary soon proved inadequate — a predictable result, given novelty was such a conscious goal. Founders needed to coin new terms, to signal the unique aspect of a new design. But customers would need to understand this new jargon, so it behooved the founders to establish and maintain some equivalence in new terms. [...]

By the middle of the nineteenth century, names for the more common designs had settled into a reliable syntax of base words and modifiers, with numbers appended as necessary. The result often seemed more like an ingredient list than a recognizable name. Just as “scrambled eggs and bacon” isn’t really the name of a dish, but a tally of the items involved, “Gothic Condensed No. 7” is a (hopefully unambiguous) report of attributes. [...]

A concocted name, the next stage of evolution, appears in the same specimen with the design “Graphotype”. [...]

There are, obviously, many more details at the link, which I encourage you to visit. (If you’d like to read it on a site with bells, whistles, and ads, here‘s the Slate version.) I found it via MetaFilter, and I can’t resist quoting the comment (from a 2012 thread) that supplied the title of that post:

> “I always thought Garamond sounded like a weapon name.”

In the fourth year of the reign of Emperor Trajan, my legions were attacked by the Calibri in the hills of Helvetica. The canny tribesmen made their assault before we could reach and lay siege to the city of Gentium, thereby rendering useless our trebuchets and high towers.

My couriers soon reported that the Calibri, as was their normal habit, had assembled a force of light cavalry, clad in copperplate gothic and armed with arials, while also bearing short onyx used for close-in fighting. They relied on speed and maneuverability in the rough terrain, using their arials to fire flaming caslons into our midst and then retreating.

A generation ago, this tactic would have wrought grievous damage. But by the grace of the gods, this was a more modern era, and I was able to deploy a force of heavy infantry, armored in stout verdana and armed with the new garamonds. No cavalry, however fleet, can stand long against a trained force armed with garamonds.

So this I say to the fools who have said that our armies have fewer meliors and sylfaens than they have at any time since the war with the Lucida Sans. We have no need of such toys now. Those are the weapons of the old Rome – a century old style.

And these are the Times New Roman.
posted by kyrademon at 2:33 PM on October 23, 2012

Afanasy Nikitin’s Languages.

Intrigued by a mention in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (see this post), I turned to the long extract from “Afanasy Nikitin‘s Journey Across Three Seas” in Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, by Serge A. Zenkovsky, and was struck not only by Nikitin’s audacious and open-minded journey to Persia and India (and return by way of Ethiopia, Arabia, and Armenia — alas, he died in Smolensk in 1472 before he could reach his native Tver) but by his linguistic accomplishments. In his introduction, Zenkovsky discusses the “pious and lyric digressions that sometimes take the form of a prayer or appeal to the Creator, or an evocation to his beloved Russian land”:

Curiously, part of these digressions were written by Nikitin in the language of the Koran, or in the “basic Islamic” business dialect of the Near East in which Arabic, Turkic, and Persian words are interwoven. One may presume that he did this to protect his notes from unwanted readers. It may be added that some intimate and practical observations of Indian women are given in the same dialect.

The presence of Near Eastern linguistic and stylistic elements, together with descriptions of unknown, fairy-tale-like lands, lends Nikitin’s story a particularly exotic touch. The writer obviously enjoyed the profuse use of foreign words and sonorous Oriental names of cities and lands, and played unremittingly with them. [...]

The statement that there is just one and the same God in Islam and Christianity, as well as the use in Christian prayer of the word, “Allah,” [...] are a most unusual and unexpected demonstration of religious tolerance in both medieval Russian and Western writing. [...]

(Nikitin ended his report with a long Christian prayer in Arabic.)

A very interesting-sounding fellow; I’d like to have had a chance to talk with him.

Folkloric Elements in the Russian Chronicles.

I recently got The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, edited by Charles Moser, and it looks like exactly the kind of detailed scholarly history I’ve long wanted; I’m reading the first chapter, “The literature of old Russia, 988–1730″ by Jostein Børtnes, and I found the following passage so intriguing I thought I’d pass it along (he’s discussing the Primary Chronicle — see this LH post):

A very different style prevails in the episodes dealing with the coming of the Varangians and the history of the Varangian rulers in pre-Christian Rus. Told in the form of short, pointed independent anecdotes, often culminating in dramatic dialogues, these episodes reflect an oral epic tradition, and have been associated with the Varangian element in the retinue of the Kievan princes. Some of them are clearly based on motifs also found in old Norse literature.[...] In this part of the chronicle Prince Vladimir is no longer the Christian ruler but a Varangian warrior who ravishes Rogned (Scand. Ragnheidr), the daughter of the Varangian Prince Rogvolod (Scand. Ragnvaldr) of Polotsk. The story of her unsuccessful revenge occurs in another variant in the story of Gudrun, Ironbeard’s daughter, in the Olaf Tryggvasson Saga. [N.b.: I don't know which of the sagas is meant here. -LH]

Correspondences such as these have given rise to the theory that the Varangians brought their own oral epic tradition with them from Scandinavia to Rus. More plausible, however, is the explanation put forward by Adolf Stender-Petersen, who suggests that both the old Russian and the old Norse material reflect a Greek-Byzantine tradition passed on to Varangian merchants and mercenaries in Byzantium and carried back to Kiev and Scandinavia. From this perspective, the tales about Gudrun, Rogned and Sigrid appear as echoes of ancient Greek heroic tales.

One of the most enigmatic heroes of the Primary Chronicle is Prince Vseslav of Polotsk, whose birth is recorded under 1044. Conceived by magic, he was born with a caul which his mother was told by magicians to bind upon the child that he might bear it for the rest of his life. This he did, and so was “merciless in bloodshed,” according to the chronicler. The figure of Vseslav is surrounded by ominous signs: a large star appeared “as if it were made of blood,” the sun was “like the moon,” and these signs “portended bloodshed.” By combining the account of Vseslav given in the Primary Chronicle with the description of him in the Igor Tale and with the figure of Volkh (i.e. wolf) Vseslavevich of the byliny, it is possible to reconstruct an old Russian Vseslav epic about the prince-werewolf, based on an ancient werewolf myth also reflected in Serbo-Croatian epic poetry and deeply rooted in the Indo-European tradition common to both Slavs and Scandinavians (Roman Jakobson and Marc Szeftel).

Vseslav of Polotsk is the hero of an extensive digression in the Igor Tale (Slovo o polku Igoreve), in which the description alternates between his diurnal life as prince and warrior, and his nocturnal adventures as a werewolf:

    Vseslav the prince sat in judgment over men,
    as prince he ruled over cities;
    but at night he coursed as a wolf;
    running from Kiev to the ramparts of Tmutorokan,
    as a wolf he crossed the path of Great Hors.
    For him the bells rang early for matins in Polotsk at St.
    Sophia, but he heard the ringing in Kiev.

The folkloric character of this passage is reinforced by the reference to the Great Hors, an Iranian borrowing designating the radiant sun, another name for Dazhbog (“giver of wealth”), the sun god of the pagan Slavs. In the Igor Tale the old pagan deities have lost their cultic value. Like the werewolf myth, they seem to belong to an oral epic tradition exploited by the author of the Tale for purely poetic purposes.

I have no idea how much of this is generally accepted and how much is controversial; I look forward to seeing what my readers say.

The D.C. Manual of Style and Usage.

As a copyeditor by profession, I love style manuals, especially when they’re not too hidebound and show their own sense of style. Submitted for your consideration, the D.C. Manual of Style and Usage of Washington City Paper; some of my favorite entries:

Respect the periods! However, many organizations and campaigns don’t use the periods. Respect proper nouns!

Gray, Vince
Not Vincent C. Gray, as the Post styles him, because we asked him when he was elected whether he wanted to be known as Vince or Vincent.

jont, junt, jount
Can be substituted for any (nonhuman) noun in the English language. Spelling is interchangeable, but be consistent.

Never all-uppercase. Ugh.

Saint Elizabeths Hospital
Former psychiatric hospital near Congress Heights, the site of which is slated for redevelopment. Its lack of an apostrophe is a result of inconsistent usage in the 17th century, when the tract of land upon which it was built was named; Congress didn’t include an apostrophe when it officially renamed the facility from its original moniker, the Government Hospital for the Insane, in 1916. Copy editors have been confounded ever since.

After a city, use the old AP style abbreviations (e.g. Madison, Wis., and Ocean City, Md.). Ignore the AP’s oafish new policy of spelling out state names. For cities in the immediate D.C. area, states are generally not needed; our readers know that McLean is in Virginia and Potomac is in Maryland, even if they justifiably find both locations a little frightening.

Not theatre, except as part of a proper noun. We don’t know how the obsession with French spelling arose, but we’re not playing along. Studio Theatre, you’re doing it wrong. Howard Theatre, WTF? Signature Theatre, just stop. You’re making our spellcheck misfire and our copy editors gnash their already worn-down teeth. Take a hint from our star pupil, Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater, or we may start calling you thee-AT-ruhs.

This is how the AP does it, though it’s probably the least elegant possible way to write it; we haven’t adopted a better style yet, but we will.

“We haven’t adopted a better style yet, but we will”: style is not set in stone! You go, City Paper! And I am glad to learn new words, like jont/junt/jount (above) and bama. What’s a bama? A mook. What’s a mook?

Farewell to Troubadour.

Seven years ago I sang the praises of Troubadour Books in North Hatfield (across the river from here); in 2010 I added an update saying that the store was moving to Hadley, where it would share a building with Grey Matter Books. (You can see the new bookstore in a 2011 video here: “Two Guys Sitting Around Talking About the Used Book Business,” the two guys being John Riley of Gabriel Books in Northampton and Bob Willig of Troubadour.) And now it is my sad duty to report that after today the collections will be merged and Sam Burton of Grey Matter will be running the store (as he has for some time, actually; Willig is blind and has been in bad health). I went in, sold some books (including a huge and heavy Irish dialect atlas I’d been lugging around for four decades), and confined myself to buying a nice Penguin paperback of Henry Green… but since they say on the store website that during the merger next week “Anyone coming into the store … will be pressed in to service,” I may go in and help. It’s one way to finally figure out what they have and where to find it.

Ring-singing Tsvetaeva.

Via wood s lot, where Tsvetaeva is featured in yesterday’s post, I discovered this superb version of an untitled 1914 poem of hers, translated from the Russian by Ekaterina Rogalsky:

I do not think, or argue, or complain.
Or sleep.
I long for neither sun, nor moon, nor sea.
Nor ship.

I do not feel the heat amidst these walls,
Nor garden’s green,
Nor do I long for your desired gift,

Neither the morning gladdens nor the trolley’s
Ring-singing run.
I live, forgetting date and age
And daylight sun.

I am – a dancer on a tightrope slashed
And hewn.
I am – a shadow’s shadow: lunatic
Of two dark moons.

You can see the original Russian, along with another Tsvetaeva poem (whose translation I don’t think is quite as successful), here, where you’ll also find a description of the poet beginning:

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) is considered to be one of the most original 20th Century Russian poets. Her extremely eccentric personality and difficult character found release in her poetry writing. Tsvetaeva’s perfect control of language is one of the key elements of her poetry, as are the striking images her short, full-throated poems practically overflow with. [...] But it is the rhythm and cadence of Tsvetaeva’s language that makes her poetry truly unique – changing pace and musicality to match her images and her meaning, Tsvetaeva’s fluid, “ring-singing” lines reflect the depth, accuracy and emotional capacity of the Russian language, which presents quite a challenge for translation, as the meaning of her poetry is intertwined with its musicality to form a single organism, which is lost to the reader when one of these components is left out.

It took me much longer to appreciate Tsvetaeva than the other poets of her generation, and I’ve rarely seen a translation that begins to capture her in English — they usually betray either sound or sense — so I wanted to pass along this one and congratulate Rogalsky, who (according to the bio on that page) was born in Moscow and has lived in America since the age of six.


Another bit of humor in Veltman (see this post) involves playing with a Chinese name, and trying to investigate it has taken me through interesting paths to a dead end. Here’s the passage in Veltman:

He found the tea business tempting. He learned that besides the Chinese van-sun-cho-dzi there was the Russian Ivan-sun-cho-dzi, and he began to deal in tea, opening a store for Chinese teas, sugar, and coffee. [...]

Needless to say, selling tea at retail did not satisfy Vasily Ignatov, and he started wholesaling it; he started off for Kyakhta himself, he himself went to Dmitrovsky uyezd to buy the best sort of Ivan-sun-cho-dzi at wholesale.

Его соблазнила чайная торговля. Он узнал, что, кроме китайского ван-сун-чо-дзи, есть русский Иван-сун-чо-дзи и стал торговать чаем, завел магазин китайских чаев, сахару и кофе. [...]

Нужно ли говорить, что мелочная торговля чаем не удовлетворила Василья Игнатова, он пустился в оптовую, пустился сам на Кяхту; сам съездил в Дмитровский уезд, чтоб сделать оптовую закупку самого лучшего сорту Иван-сун-чо-дзи.

The Russian name is a play on Иван-чай [Ivan-chai, literally 'Ivan-tea'] ‘Chamerion Raf. ex Holub, fireweed, willowherb’; what I’m wondering is what the Chinese might mean, and I think I’ve found where Veltman must have come across it, in this paragraph from page 20 of the article “Май-Май-Ченъ” [Maimaicheng, the Chinese border trading town just south of Kyakhta] in Памятник искусств и вспомогательных знаний, Vol. 2 (Saint Petersburg, 1843):

The dialect of the merchants living in Maimaicheng, from Shansi province, differs greatly in pronunciation from that of Peking; for example, the firms pronounced in the Peking dialect Shi-de-tsyuan’-tszi [Shi-de-quan-ji?], Van’-shun’-chan [Wan-shun-chang?], and Mei-yui-gkun [Mei-yu-gong?] are pronounced in the Shansi dialect Shi-ty-choan-dzi [Shi-ty-choang-ji??], Van-sun-cho [Wang-song-chuo??] and My-yu-kon [My-yu-kong??]. This difference is due to the fact that in Shansi they pronounce sounds from the larynx, through the nose, so that voiceless sounds, especially soft ones, cannot be distinctly/intelligibly expressed. In general, dialects all across China are the same, but differ in the pronunciation of certain sounds; this difference extends from north to south and imperceptibly reaches the point that it is difficult for a southern Chinese to understand a northern one.

Нарѣчіе живущихъ въ Май-май-ченѣ купцовъ, губерніи Санъ-си, имѣетъ по произношенію большое различіе съ Пекинскимъ; напримѣръ: Пекинскимъ нарѣчіемъ произносятся фирмы торговыхъ домовъ: Ши-дэ-цюaнь-цзи, Вань-шунь-чанъ, Мэй-юй-гкунъ, а по Сансинскому произношенію — Ши-ты-чоан-дзи, Ван-сун-чо, Мы-ю-конъ. Разность эта происходитъ отъ того, что въ Санъ-си произносятъ звуки изъ гортани, чрезъ носъ, при чемъ, безгласныя, особенно мягкія не могутъ быть внятно выражены. Вообще во всемъ Китаѣ нарѣчія одинаковыя, но отличаются произношеніемъ нѣкоторыхъ звуковъ; это различіе простирается отъ сѣвера на югъ и нечувствительно доходитъ до такой степени, что южный Китаецъ съ трудомъ понимаетъ сѣвернаго.

This is a perfect storm of vague and exoticizing linguistic description (apparently in Russian, too, foreign speech is always “guttural” and “nasal”), Sinocentric totalizing (all Chinese talk the same, just differently), and antique transcription (this was written before the standard Palladius system for transcribing Chinese, so I’ve added question marks to all my Latin transcriptions, which are based on the Palladius system), so I suspect it’s unlikely that anyone can decipher it more accurately, but if anyone has any idea what Wan-shun-chang/Wang-song-chuo might have meant in North China two centuries ago, I’m all ears. (I assume Veltman stuck the -dzi on for effect, taking it from other firm names mentioned.)

Update: It seems the ван-сун-чо-дзи label was well known as representing high-quality tea from Kyakhta, so I withdraw my suggestion that Veltman got it from the article I quote above; see my comment below for details. Also, I have discovered that in the original magazine version of this passage, there is a much more detailed discussion of how Ignatov discovered the immensely profitable potential of the tea trade (after being beaten up for selling fake booze) and learned how to mix the expensive Chinese tea with cheap Russian Ivan-chai; I wonder if Veltman was forced by the censors to delete it for book publication? It’s practically a manual of how to cheat the public for fun and profit.

Further update: Bathrobe has discovered that the Chinese name is 萬順昌 Wànshùnchāng ‘success in everything’: 萬順 Wànshùn means ‘ten thousand things go smoothly’, 昌 chāng means ‘prosper’. He adds that “There is a Hong Kong company called Van Shung Chong Holdings which uses those characters, although it was only established in 1961.”


The word carnival is interesting in its own right; despite appearances — OED: “The explanations ‘farewell flesh, farewell to flesh’ (from Latin vale) found already in Florio, and ‘down with flesh!’ (from French aval), belong to the domain of popular etymology” — it’s from medieval Italian carnelevale, from (again quoting the OED) “Latin *carnem levāre, or Italian *carne levare (with infinitive used subst. as in il levar del sole sunrise), meaning ‘the putting away or removal of flesh (as food)’, the name being originally proper to the eve of Ash Wednesday.” But in lit-crit circles it’s strongly associated with the name of Bakhtin (Wikipedia), and I had never thought about where he picked it up. I just ran across an intriguing footnote from Katerina Clark’s Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (see this post) and thought I’d share it:

The term “carnival” is actually sparingly present in the early chapters of the dissertation, but its use increases from chapter to chapter until it becomes the dominant term for his analysis in chapter 4. Before then, especially in chapter 1, his main term is “Gothic realism.” The final draft of the dissertation was probably begun no earlier than November 1938, but some work on Rabelais may have been begun earlier in the decade. One might therefore speculate that Bakhtin adopted the term “carnival” only at some point after it became central to Soviet official cultural practice in 1935, but this could only be speculation; “Istoriia ‘Rable’: 1930–1950-gody,” in M. M. Bakhtin, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 4 (1), ed. I. L. Popova (Moscow: Iazyki slavianskikh kul’tur, 2008), 841, 846, 858).

Speculation, sure, but what interesting speculation! And the very existence of official Soviet carnivals was new to me as well; there’s a considerable amount about them in Karen Petrone’s Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin, which I should read one of these days.

Genbun Itchi.

Matt’s latest post at No-sword brings to my attention the Japanese equivalent to the attempts to reconcile katharevousa and demotic Greek, genbun itchi:

Written Japanese, fundamentally standardized by the eighth century, had undergone sporadic and incremental change prior to the Meiji period, evolving into a collection of documentary, epistolary, and narrative styles that were firmly bound in the classical language. The spoken language, on the other hand, which had developed considerably over the centuries, reflected the multiple dialects and complex hierarchies of contemporary Japan. The disparity between writing and speech caused great concern for Meiji leaders, both because learning the written language took a great deal of time and effort and because it was a barrier to mass literacy. Although Tokugawa literature contained examples of colloquial dialogue, writers and scholars sought a narrative style that was closer to speech yet flexible enough to be used in formal contexts.

Futabatei Shimei is generally credited with the first successful use of a vernacular style in his novel Ukigumo (1887; tr. The Drifting Clouds, 1967). However, Futabatei gives credit for his model of colloquial narrative to rakugo storyteller San’yutei Encho, whose collaboration with Takusari Koki (inventor of sokki, Japanese shorthand) allowed rakugo stories to be published in newspapers. Other writers quickly joined the so-called genbun itchi (unification of writing and speech) movement, to which there was opposition through the 1910s. Publishing houses adopted the new style in their children’s literary journals, such as Akai Tori, and other massmarketed publications, which led to its widespread adoption. The use of classical written styles continued among some authors, however, for several decades.

With that background, Matt focuses on “the mass of past and/or perfective verb endings”:

That particular part of Japanese reached its peak of complexity during Early Middle Japanese; it’s been a downhill slope of simplification ever since, and today we’re basically down to the -ta ending. But because Early Middle Japanese also served as the model for Classical Japanese, as the centuries rolled on the literary community were expected to master and preserve fine distinctions of a sort that their native language clear-felled and paved over increasingly far back in the mists of history.

He quotes “a marvelous rant on this topic by Ochiai Naofumi 落合直文, from an essay published in 1890 called ‘Shōrai no kokugo’ 将来の国語 (‘The national language/Japanese of the future’),” which I highly recommend. Peevery is ubiquitous and eternal!