Relics of the Old Regime.

I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to learn what I’ve been reading since I finished The Brothers Karamazov (see this post: “And now I have finished my Long March through 19th-century Russian literature…”). First I reread the Strugatskys’ Улитка на склоне (Snail on the Slope), enjoying its grim brio (how did they get away with alluding to so much of the repressed underside of Soviet life in the late ’60s?), and now I’ve started Valentin Kataev’s 1926 novella Растратчики (The Embezzlers), since it’s short and funny (I’ve got a nasty cold and am not up to anything Dostoevskian). I haven’t even finished the first page, but I had to post, because I ran across a letter of the alphabet that startled me more than perhaps any single letter ever has. The novel opens with a “citizen,” very proper-looking and no longer young, approaching a cigarette vendor on the steps of a Moscow telegraph office; the vendor takes one look at him and hands him a package of “Ira” cigarettes. This in itself is a nice touch; that brand was well known in tsarist times, and Mayakovsky wrote a famous couplet for a 1923 ad:

        оставленное от старого мира —
папиросы «Ира».

The only thing
        left from the old world
is Ira cigarettes.

(You can see the ad, designed by Rodchenko, here.) If you’re thinking “Ad? Tsarist cigarette brand? What kind of Soviet Union is this??” the answer is that this was the heyday of NEP, the New Economic Policy that brought a watered-down version of capitalism to Russia for a few years and saved the economy from collapse. So our vendor has identified the citizen as the kind of fellow in the market for a classy holdover from the old days rather than a crude proletarian competitor.

But that’s not what startled me. Here’s the first bit of dialogue in the novel, with the translation by Charles Rougle (Ardis, 1975):

– А не будут они мокрые? – спросил гражданин, нюхая довольно длинным носом нечистый воздух, насыщенный запахом городского дождя и светильного газа.
– Будьте спокойны, из-под самого низу. Погодка-с!

“They’re not wet, are they?” the citizen asked, and he sniffed the dirty air, saturated with the smell of rain in the city and lamp gas, with his rather long nose.
“Don’t worry, I took ’em off the bottom. Boy, what weather we’re having!”

It’s not a bad translation, except that it ignores the letter that shocked me, that final -с [-s]. As I said in this 2004 post, it’s “a contracted form of sudar’ ‘sir,’ omnipresent in prerevolutionary literature as an indication of politeness or servility, depending on the situation.” In the Addendum to that post I quoted the third edition (1903-1909) of Dahl, who calls it “a mark of special politeness of former times,” and of course I assumed that if it was “former” in the first decade of the century it had surely died out entirely by Soviet times. But here it is being casually used by a vendor to a citizen on a Soviet street, for anyone to hear! I’m not sure whether it’s taken from actual city life, with holdovers from the old days (less than a decade after the Bolshevik Revolution) using the old forms out of habit, or whether it’s a bit of hyperbole by Kataev to show how NEP was turning the clock back, but in any case the translator should have thrown in at least a “sir,” if not “your honor,” to render the effect.

The Birth of the Semicolon.

Cecelia Watson, a historian and philosopher of science who teaches at Bard College, writes for the Paris Review about one of the many lasting products of the Renaissance:

The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks. It was born into a time period of writerly experimentation and invention, a time when there were no punctuation rules, and readers created and discarded novel punctuation marks regularly. Texts (both handwritten and printed) record the testing-out and tinkering-with of punctuation by the fifteenth-century literati known as the Italian humanists. The humanists put a premium on eloquence and excellence in writing, and they called for the study and retranscription of Greek and Roman classical texts as a way to effect a “cultural rebirth” after the gloomy Middle Ages. In the service of these two goals, humanists published new writing and revised, repunctuated, and reprinted classical texts.

One of these humanists, Aldus Manutius, was the matchmaker who paired up comma and colon to create the semicolon. Manutius was a printer and publisher, and the first literary Latin text he issued was De Aetna, by his contemporary Pietro Bembo. De Aetna was an essay, written in dialogue form, about climbing volcanic Mount Etna in Italy. On its pages lay a new hybrid mark, specially cut for this text by the Bolognese type designer Francesco Griffo: the semicolon (and Griffo dreamed up a nice plump version) is sprinkled here and there throughout the text, conspiring with colons, commas, and parentheses to aid readers. […]

Nearly as soon as the ink was dry on those first semicolons, they began to proliferate, and newly cut font families began to include them as a matter of course. The Bembo typeface’s tall semicolon was the original that appeared in De Aetna, with its comma-half tensely coiled, tail thorn-sharp beneath the perfect orb thrown high above it. The semicolon in Poliphilus, relaxed and fuzzy, looks casual in comparison, like a Keith Haring character taking a break from buzzing. Garamond’s semicolon is watchful, aggressive, and elegant, its lower half a cobra’s head arced back to strike. Jenson’s is a simple shooting star. We moderns have accumulated a host of characterful semicolons to choose from: Palatino’s is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party. Gill Sans MT’s semicolon has perfect posture, while Didot’s puffs its chest out pridefully. (For the postmodernist writer Donald Barthelme, none of these punch-cut disguises could ever conceal the semicolon’s innate hideousness: to him it was “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.”)

There are images, including a side-by-side comparison of the various early varieties, and a discussion of “hand-wringing sages [who] forecast a literary apocalypse precipitated by too-casual attitudes about punctuation”; Watson warns against mistaking the –que abbreviation for a semicolon, something that is rarely a problem in these days of fallen Latinity. (Semicolons previously on LH: 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2012 — inter, haud dubie, alia.)

Why Classics Were Lost.

The British Library’s Medieval manuscripts blog has a nice post about why “the number of classical writings that have actually survived is surprisingly low”; there are no new revelations, but it’s useful reading for those who aren’t au courant:

Traditionally, barbarian invasions and Christian monks have been blamed for intentionally destroying works of the classical past. The image of burning books and libraries is often evoked in scholarship, fiction and films alike. While this may have occasionally occurred, the biggest deciding factor for the survival or disappearance of classical texts is actually likely to be their use in medieval school education.

The reason for this is that works that made it onto school curricula tended to be copied more, so medieval scribes preserved them in large numbers. Texts that proved to be too difficult or unsuitable for use in schools were more prone to being lost. For example, of the 142 books of Livy’s exceptionally long work, The History of Rome from its Foundation, from the 1st century BC, only 35 books have survived intact, with the rest preserved only in extracts abridged for school use.

School curricula also explain why ancient grammatical literature was transmitted in surprising quantities across medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, including educational material for the study not only of Latin but also of ancient Greek. Popular texts, such as Priscian’s 5th-century Institutes of Latin Grammar, survive in large numbers, sometimes annotated with glosses or notes added in classrooms, as in this example from 11th-century France.

Although schools filtered the classical tradition rather heavily, omitting a number of texts that we would now be eager to read, the ancient schoolmasters had a surprisingly broad literary grasp. We have works on ancient mythology such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and encyclopaedic works such as Pliny’s Natural History. The works of Homer in the Eastern Mediterranean and Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid in the West all survived thanks to their inclusion in late antique and medieval secondary education.

This key role of schools in the transmission of the classical past sheds a special light on other surviving texts, too. Ancient Roman plays, for example, have come down to us not as scripts for theatrical performances but rather as school manuals. […]

There are some wonderful images. For Priscian, see this 2013 post.


I normally try to avoid posting stuff relating to politics, especially emotion-laden politics, but this is so funny I can’t resist. Kate Connolly reports for the Guardian:

Germany’s Social Democratic party has backed down after becoming locked in a blame game with a florist and a printer over who was responsible for misspelling “fascism” on a war memorial wreath so that it resembled the word “fuckup”.

The error was only spotted once the wreath had been laid on Memorial Sunday, 17 November, when Germany traditionally commemorates the victims of war and fascism. Instead of the word “Faschismus” (fascism) the word “Verschissmuss” had been used. Although the word doesn’t exist, it closely resembles the word “verschissen” – a vulgar term for seriously messing up, close to “fucking up” in English. […]

“It has now emerged that the error on the ribbon of our wreath was not a sabotage attempt but down to human error,” the local party wrote. “There was an unfortunate chain of unlucky events where, despite several people handling it, nobody noticed the mistake … […] Heinz-Jürgen Jahnke, who specialises in ribbon printing, told the newspaper Bild: “We received the order by fax on 12 November. Everything was clearly written and perfectly legible. I print whatever the customer wants,” he said. As to why he didn’t notice the odd spelling and alert the customer, he said: “We sometimes print Arabic, Italian and Polish texts. How can I check if they are correct?” The only reason for calling back a customer, he said, would be “if something is illegible”.

Neither, apparently, did the florist notice anything when she picked up the wreath and delivered it, as requested by the SPD, to the memorial site. SPD members only noticed the highly embarrassing faux pas once the ceremony was under way.

I feel bad for the florist and for anyone who was upset by seeing it, but damn, “Verschissmuss” is hilarious. Thanks, Trond!


Kasia of Polish Language Blog had a post on Mar 6, 2012, called Przekleństwa – curse words that’s just what it sounds like:

When it comes to Polish translation, in certain contexts, the swear words (curse words), przekleństwa, have their both prominent and well-deserved role to play. True, English is not completely toothless in this respect, but still there is no comparison. The Poles lead by far.

Sex related swear words are most useful and most common. Let’s see, the so called four letter word, or to be explicit, “f***” – no need to be prudish here – after all it is a linguistic exercise we are involved in corresponds rather well to its Polish counterpart, although, already from the beginning Polish has an advantage here – with a whole nine letter-word.

I am, of course, amused by “f*** – no need to be prudish,” but it’s a fun list. Thanks, Kobi!


A reader writes: “At a concert yesterday, Verdi’s Brindisi from La Traviata playing, I thought, that’s a funny name for a toast! According to Wikipedia, from German, but mangled to sound like the Italian town, to which it is completely unrelated.” That of course caught my attention, and sure enough, Wikipedia says:

The word is Italian, but it derives from an old German phrase, (ich) bringe dir’s – “(I) offer it to you”, which at one time was used to introduce a toast.[1] The transformation of that phrase into the current Italian word may have been influenced by similar-sounding name of the Italian city of Brindisi, but otherwise the city and the term are etymologically unrelated.

That footnote says: “O. Pianigiani, Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana, s.v. brindisi. See also OED, s.v. brendice.” And yes, Pianigiani says “dal ted. BRING DIR’S,” and the OED (entry unrevised since 1888) says “< Italian bríndesi, bríndisi, ‘a drinking or health to one’ (Florio); according to Diez perverted (by popular etymology) from German bring dir’s , i.e. ich bringe dir’s zu ; whence also French brinde”… but I don’t believe it. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it sure sounds like something that Diez thought up and that has stuck because it’s a clever idea and nobody’s had a better one. Anybody know anything more? (Thanks, Adrian!)

Do Babies Cry in Different Languages?

Sophie Hardach reports for the NY Times:

[…] In 2009, Dr. [Kathleen] Wermke’s and her colleagues made headlines with a study showing that French and German newborns produce distinctly different “cry melodies,” reflecting the languages they heard in utero: German newborns produce more cries that fall from a higher to a lower pitch, mimicking the falling intonation of the German language, while French infants tend to cry with the rising intonation of French. At this age, babies experiment with a wide variety of sounds, and can learn any language. But they are already influenced by their mother tongue.

Today, Dr. Wermke’s lab houses an archive of around a half-million recordings of babies from as far afield as Cameroon and China, where a team of graduate students armed with recording equipment paced the corridors of a Beijing hospital around the clock. […] Quantitative acoustic analysis of these recordings has produced further insights into the factors that shape a baby’s first sounds. Newborns whose mothers speak tonal languages, such as Mandarin, tend to produce more complex cry melodies. Swedish newborns, whose native language has what linguists call a “pitch accent,” produce more sing-songy cries.

These studies underpin the lab’s broader effort to map the typical development of a baby’s cries, as well as vocalizations like cooing and babbling. Knowing what typical development looks like, and what factors can influence it, helps doctors address potential problems early on. […]

“Imagine you’re thrown into a new language environment, which is what happens with the newborn,” said Judit Gervain, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris who studies early speech perception. “There’s just so much going on: There are all the words, there’s all the meaning, all the grammar, all the sounds, all of it. You can’t do it all, it’s just too much. One way prosody helps is it gives them nice little chunks that are the right size.”

In English, for example, a stressed syllable is often a cue for the start of a word, as in: English language. In French, a lengthened syllable signals the end of a sentence, as in: “Bonjour Madame!” Long before they can speak, babies begin to recognize patterns like these. “A lot has to happen before that first word is produced,” said Janet Werker, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia who studies early language acquisition.

There’s lots more good stuff, including the soothing effect of maternal howling on infants. Thanks, Eric! (Incidentally, we discussed newborns and language in 2007 and 2011, and I note that the researchers featured in those posts were named Weikum and Werker; together with today’s Wermke, they constitute a cluster at least as impressive as the monosyllabic Indo-Europeanists — Rask, Bopp, et al. — we’ve discussed on occasion.)


Albireo is a double star designated Beta Cygni (β Cygni), or (per the International Astronomical Union) specifically the brightest star in the system. Name’s gotta be Arabic, like Alcor and Aldebaran, right? Wrong! Per that Wikipedia article:

The system’s traditional name Albireo is a result of misunderstanding and mistranslation. It is thought that it originated in the Greek name ornis for the constellation of Cygnus, which became urnis in Arabic. When translated into Latin, this name was thought to refer to the Greek name Erysimon for the plant called Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale, which in Latin is ireo), and so was described in Latin in the Arabo-Latin Almagest of 1515 as “Eurisim: et est volans; et jam vocatur gallina. et dicitur eurisim quasi redolens ut lilium ab ireo” (“Eurisim: and it is the flyer, and now it is called the hen, and it is called Eurisim, as if redolent like the lily from the ‘ireo'”), via a confusion between ireo and the scented flower Iris florentina. This was variously miscopied, until “ab ireo” was treated as a miscopy of an Arabic term and changed into al-bireo.

Isn’t that great? (It reminds me of the spurious dogs of Canes Venatici.) Thanks, Adrian!

The Pushkin Mob.

Another quote from Marcus C. Levitt’s Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880 (see the Cachucha post); he’s been talking about the government’s nervousness about the approaching anniversary of Pushkin’s death and their attempts to prevent celebrations (which they feared would be a pretext for expressions of liberal opinion):

The actual anniversary day, January 29, 1887, passed very quietly. Prayers for Pushkin were conducted in many churches and in most academic institutions, and universities and scholarly societies held their own special commemorative sessions. On the next day, however, when the fifty-year copyright on Pushkin’s works expired, there was pandemonium at the bookstores. It suddenly became quite clear just how popular Pushkin had become. At Suvorin’s Novoe Vremia bookstore on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, which had advertised its own, inexpensive new edition of Pushkin, riots actually broke out. Despite extra sales help, prepackaged books, and other precautions, when the doors opened, reported Suvorin’s paper, the store could not handle the mob:

The salespeople and cashiers were run off their feet; some members of the public climbed up onto the tables and over the counters, and grabbed their change themselves. By 11 [A.M.] the store presented a picture of havoc: there were mounds of ripped apart, soiled books that had been trampled heaped up in disorder in the corners and on the counters, books that they hadn’t managed to clear away in time; there was smashed furniture that had been thrown onto the floor; and the cashier’s booth was knocked over, and the financial record books all crumpled and stamped upon. Attempts to reason [with the crowd] had had no effect.

By noon, with the help of the police, the entire stock of six thousand books was sold out and the store was closed. It was a half-day unparalleled in history of the Russian book trade.

He goes on to say that in the half-century since Pushkin’s death no more than 60,000 copies of his works had been sold; more books than that were sold in the single day described above, and “During the next two to three days, five new editions came out, each of about 40,000 copies; the next ones were published in even larger numbers.” In the next year, well over a million (and possibly more than two million) copies of Pushkin works were published: “Spearheaded by the surging demand for Pushkin’s works, Russian publishing by absolute or relative standards expanded at a rate fantastic for any country. By the eve of World War I, the Russian publishing industry, second only to that of Germany, was outpublishing Great Britain, France, and the United States combined.”

Spain, Land of Rabbits?

Balashon has a post on various Spain-related place names; unfortunately, the basis for it is a video called “The Names of Iberia Explained” which is full of folk etymologies and is not worth spending time on (it ends with a theory that the word gibberish derives from Gibraltar!), but the proposed etymology for Hispania is at least plausible, and it’s of enough interest to post here, namely that it’s derived from Phoenician tsepan “rabbit or hyrax (in Hebrew shafan שפן).” He quotes that bit from an earlier Balashon post, then says:

I should have been more careful, and pointed out, as Rabbi Natan Slifkin famously does here, that in ancient Hebrew the shafan is only a hyrax, not a rabbit. (In fact, according to Slifkin in his book, The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax, there were no rabbits in biblical Israel. The word commonly used today for rabbit – arnav ארנב, which in the Bible only appears in the female, arnevet ארנבת – refers to a hare, which is distinct from a rabbit.)

I am not competent to discuss the geographical spread of Lagomorpha and Hyracoidea a couple of millennia ago, but some of my readers probably are.