Publishing Tzotzil.

Jessica Vincent writes for Atlas Obscura about the kind of development that warms my heart:

Taller Leñateros is Mexico’s first and only Tzotzil Maya book- and papermaking collective. Founded in 1975 by the Mexican-American poet Ambar Past, the workshop is dedicated to documenting and disseminating the endangered Tzotzil language, culture, and oral history. And it does so environmentally, using only recycled materials (leñateros alludes to those who get their firewood from deadwood, rather than felled trees).

The project began when Past, escaping an unhappy marriage, traveled to the rural highlands of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. She wound up staying, and for the next 30 years lived among the indigenous women of San Cristobal’s surrounding villages. As she learned their language, she noticed that they spoke in couplets similar to those found in the Popul Vuh—the most famous and informative ancient Maya book yet discovered.

But none of these women could actually read or write Tzotzil. They used the historic, metaphor-riddled tongue in everyday conversation, but had never put their own words on paper. Inspired, Past got to work recording and translating their ancient Tzotzil poetry. Her hope was that, one day, they would publish the world’s first modern Maya book by the female indigenous community of Chiapas—and, in the process, grant us insight into both an ancient language and an ancient way of looking at the world.

Once 150 women agreed to let her record their poetry, Past bought property in San Cristobal. She set up a modest workshop there so that she and the women could collaborate. Past would transcribe and translate the recordings, and the women would produce the book using ancient Maya bookbinding techniques. […]

As Petra spoke, she turned the thick, grainy pages of Incantations: Songs, Spells, and Images by Mayan Women—the first book in over 400 years to be written, produced, and published by indigenous Mayas.

I’m guessing the “first in over 400 years” thing is an exaggeration, but still: great stuff. Thanks, Jack!


Today’s NY Times has a story about the tailors of Savile Row; my wife was reading it when she called me over and showed me this bit:

Both the tuxedo and the bowler hat were invented here, and when the suit emerged as the uniform of capitalism, the street set the gold standard for craft and durability. Its history and reputation are stellar enough that the name has found its way into at least one language. The Japanese word for “business suit” is sebiro. (Say it out loud.)

I raised my eyebrows and headed for the internet, where I found the Wiktionary entry for 背広 [sèbíró] ‘business suit’; the etymology says “Unknown, but thought to be related to English civil clothes, Savile Row, or Cheviot.” Sigh. I’ve long since stopped expecting, or even hoping, that newspapers will learn to double-check these enticing origin stories, but I still call them out when I get the chance.

Unrelated: I just learned that diathesis, which I knew only as an imposing word for grammatical voice (from Greek διάθεσις ‘disposition, arrangement’), is also a medical term meaning “a hereditary or constitutional predisposition to a group of diseases, an allergy, or other disorder.” I’m sure a great many Hatters knew that already; is it in common use?

Addendum. I just ran across a bizarre usage in the latest New Yorker; Evan Osnos is writing about the change brought by the telegraph: “By the end of the century, readers were wading through a flood of cheap errata from afar—mostly of war, crime, fires, and floods.” As far as I know, errata can mean only ‘errors in writing or printing’; can anyone think how it might have come to be used for (presumably) ‘newspaper stories’? (Insert boilerplate rant on decline of copyediting standards at major publications.)

Further Addendum. Another from the latest New Yorker: in Merve Emre’s “Tricked Out” (retitled online as Our Love-Hate Relationship with Gimmicks), she says “The word ‘gimmick’ is believed to come from ‘gimac,’ an anagram of ‘magic.’” No it fucking isn’t; OED, AHD, and M-W all concur in the judgment “Origin unknown.” The OED has a 1936 citation from Words (Nov. 12/2):

The word gimac means ‘a gadget’. It is an anagram of the word magic, and is used by magicians the same way as others use the word ‘thing-a-ma-bob’.

That’s certainly suggestive, but it’s not an etymology. Stop it with the cute word-origin stories, people! They’re all lies, lies!

…And then Emre says this:

In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Invitation to a Beheading,” from 1935, a mother distracts her imprisoned son from counting the hours to his execution by describing the “marvelous gimmicks” of her childhood.

Argh, what a mess! Invitation to a Beheading (the New Yorker quirkily insists on putting the titles of novels in quotes) is a 1959 translation of Приглашение на казнь, which was published in the Paris journal Sovremennye zapiski in 1935-36 and as a book in 1938; “marvelous gimmicks” is, of course, quoted from the translation, and the original has “удивительные уловки” [astonishing/wonderful tricks]. Emre goes on to chew on these “gimmicks” at length:

The most shocking, she explains, was a trick mirror. When “shapeless, mottled, pockmarked, knobby things” were placed in front of the mirror, it would reflect perfectly sensible forms: flowers, fields, ships, people. When confronted with a human face or hand, the mirror would reflect a jumble of broken images. As the son listens to his mother describe her gimmick, he sees her eyes spark with terror and pity, “as if something real, unquestionable (in this world, where everything was subject to question), had passed through, as if a corner of this horrible life had curled up, and there was a glimpse of the lining.” Behind the mirror lurks something monstrous—an idea of art as device, an object whose representational powers can distort and devalue just as easily as they can estrange and enchant.

Trick mirrors are gimmicks, but they are also metaphors for how gimmicks work, eliciting both charm and suspicion.

But all of this is bullshit, because it’s based on a translation; the original passage is in Russian and has nothing to do with the word “gimmick”! That’s not some esoteric quibble, and it’s perfectly evident if you give it a moment’s thought. But of course you’d have to know that Invitation to a Beheading is a translation, and I guess we can’t assume that knowledge on the part of the magazine’s authors or editors. We live in a fallen world.

…But wait, there’s more! She goes on to say:

Yet its single-use success—no other writer could get away with repeating her trick—reminds us that the literary marketplace, as Theodor Adorno once observed of the art world, favors “work with a ‘personal touch,’ or more bluntly, a gimmick.”

Adorno observed no such thing! She’s quoting from Aesthetic Theory, a 1995 English translation by Robert Hullot-Kentor of Adorno’s Ästhetische Theorie. I don’t have an easy way of finding out what Adorno actually wrote, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “a gimmick.” So again, Adorno is irrelevant if you want to talk about gimmicks. And surely Emre is aware Adorno didn’t write in English.

Potato Pie.

I’m reading Yuri Trifonov’s third “Moscow novel,” Долгое прощание [The Long Goodbye], and I was brought up short by this passage (“he” is Grisha Rebrov, the rather pathetic boyfriend of the actress protagonist; the action is taking place in 1952):

Потом пошел в кафе «Националь» ужинать. Угнездившись за любимым столиком у окна, он пил кофе, жевал весь вечер один остывший шницель с сухим картофельным «паем», который умели по-настоящему делать только здесь, в «Национале», и выпил раза два по рюмке коньяку: подходили знакомые и угощали.

Then he went to the National cafe to have dinner. Nestled at his favorite table by the window, he drank coffee, spent the whole evening gnawing on a cold schnitzel with dry potato “pai,” which they only knew how to make properly here at the National, and drank a couple of glasses of brandy when acquaintances came by and treated him.

I was baffled by the “potato pai“; the only пай I knew was the standard noun meaning ‘share’ (as in shareholder), which made no sense here. Of course it could be a borrowing of English pie, but that made no sense either: when I googled [картофельный пай] I got a bunch of pages like this, and you can see from that image it’s nothing like a pie — in fact, it looks like a heap of thin French fries. I asked my endlessly patient pal Alexander Anichkin; he wasn’t familiar with it, but asked a friend who said “картофельными паем называют хрустящую тонкую картофельную соломку, термин, как я понимаю, существует в России с дореволюционных времен” [it’s what they call thin crispy potato straws, a term that I believe has existed in Russia since before the Revolution]. So does anybody have any thoughts on what this pai might be?

Probably not of interest to many people, but I’m leaving the link here in case I want to find it again: Alexey Vdovin, who teaches at the School of Philology of HSE University, Moscow, wrote a two-part essay (1, 2) for the Jordan Center about a problem in Russian literary studies:
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I è ìe i àe?

Mark Liberman’s recent Log post reports on the remarkable Bergamasco dialect of Italian:

According to “10 scioglilingua bergamaschi (con tanto di guida all’ascolto)“, Prima Bergamo 8/162018, the standard-Italian phrase sequence

Andate a vedere le api? Sono vive le api?
Go see the bees? Are the bees alive?

come out in Bergamasco as

“Ì a èt i àe?” “I è ìe i àe?”
For another example, Standard Italian

“Voi, dove andate?” “Io vado all’uva (alla vite). E voi?” “Io vado a vino.”

corresponds to Bergamasco:

“Ù, u if?” “A ó a öa. E ù?” “A ó a ì”

You can hear the sentences spoken by using the audio clips at the Log post.

Not worth its own post but too much fun to ignore: I recently noticed the odd Russian word леи [lei] ‘leather pads on riding breeches’ and wondered where it came from; turns out it’s from French ‘width, strip (e.g., of cloth),’ which is from Latin latus ‘wide.’ That was unexpected.

The Fate of Books.

The early 2000s were the heyday of the blog; back in those days all the cool kids were starting one, and I often had the pleasure of saying “welcome to the blogosphere!” Those days are long gone — the cool kids are, for reasons that escape your humble servant, flocking to Facebook and Twitter and whatever the latest and greatest is — but knowledge lovers with good taste are still occasionally starting blogs, and I have been alerted to the existence of a terrific one, The Fate of Books (“Notes on Book Collecting, Bibliomania, and Libricide”). It opened its doors only last month, with the post Father Marko Pohlin Warns Against Bibliomania, which opens with definitions of bibliomania and a useful history:

Wikipedia attributes the word to the physician John Ferriar, who is supposed to have coined it in 1809. This is misleading; Ferriar might have introduced the present spelling into English, but the word itself had been around for some time. It had been used in French at least since 1734 as bibliomanie, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage in English, with the French spelling, in 1750. At the same time, the word was used in Latin as bibliomania already in the 18th century, so Ferriar wouldn’t even have to modify the spelling.

It goes on to discuss the Augustinian monk Marko Pohlin and his bibliography of Slovenian writings (the blog is based in Slovenia):

[…] Pohlin not only lists the numerous Slovenian authors and their books, but indeed proceeds to construct an entire library. The “bibliotheca” in the title is literal, as books are ordered not by letters but by imaginary bookcases, with the first one named Alphitheca, followed by Bethitheca and so on, with the Quitheca and Ypsilontheca unfortunately remaining empty due to lack of Q- and Y-initialled writers. It is hard for a collector to leaf through the pages and not fantasize about assembling the collection in reality.

And he quotes Pohlin’s warnings against the disease of bibliomania: “He goes on to chafe at collectors who prioritize rarity over content and who praise curious old volumes that nobody would ever want to actually read. […] For Pohlin, the verdict is clear: a library where most books are seldom or never used is a worthless library.” He then writes:

Now that I’ve summed them up, how do I answer the good father’s warnings? With my enthusiasm for old and rare editions, uncut and signed copies, and curious works that have been forgotten by history, I appear almost a spitting image of Pohlin’s undesirable bibliomaniac. To this reproach, I suggest two answers. First, Pohlin lived at the dawn of the great age of paper, and in his day, books were still fairly expensive commodities. As a consequence, amassing books and not reading them felt uncharitable, equivalent to taking education from those who need it and hoarding it away. In the meantime, however, the world has been flooded with books. Nowadays there are more than enough books in existence for everyone to own a large and quality library, and since fewer and fewer people desire one, warehouses of second-hand sellers tend to be filled to the brim and tons of books end up recycled daily. In such a world, owning more books than one can hope to read feels like a venial sin at worst.

Hear, hear! And his latest post, Miran Ivan Knez, the Bukvarna, and the Quest to Ban Destruction of Books, is so well written and so fascinating I won’t try to summarize it, I’ll just urge you to read it, and when you think you’ve reached the end, scroll past the bibliography (yes, he includes bibliographies) to find a mystery solved in a splendid little footnote. May this new resident of the blogosphere live long and prosper!

Habsburg Languages.

Joel at Far Outliers has been posting excerpts from The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), and a couple of them have passages of obvious LH relevance. From Habsburg Landsturm: Alien Officers and ‘Army Slavic’:

The regional divide between III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18’s officers and other ranks raised practical problems of language. All the battalion’s officers, with the exception of the two from Galicia, had as their mother tongue Czech or German. Their men, by contrast, spoke Polish or Ukrainian. Occasionally, one came across a Yiddish-speaking Jew. Theoretically, this posed no great difficulty, for the Habsburg army had long experience of managing polyglot units. The army recognized three different types of languages. The “language of service,” which was German in most of the army, and Hungarian in Honvéd and Hungarian Landsturm units, was used for all communication above the company level. (The Magyar term for Landsturm was Népfelkelő.) More important for interaction between the officers and the men was the “language of command,” which was a list of eighty basic military words and phrases in either German or Hungarian, such as “March!,” “At Ease!,” and “Fire!” To cultivate deeper relations between ranks, all units also had one or more “regimental languages.” Any tongue spoken by at least one-fifth of the regiment’s personnel was so designated, and officers were obligated to learn every one of them in order to engage with their subordinates, bond with them, and exert influence over them.

In III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18, as in most wartime formations, such intricate arrangements were pipe dreams. For officers, a decent grasp of the German language was essential, as it was the medium for communication with the various levels of the Fortress Command and with other units. Within the battalion’s mess, German was also widely spoken, although, to annoy Major Zipser, the Czech officers made a special point of speaking their mother tongue to each other. Communication with the men was, kindly put, a challenge. Some officers may have gotten by with “Army Slavic,” a most peculiar military Esperanto blending Slavic grammar with German military terminology. Thus, for example, the battalion’s Poles could be ordered to antretować (from the German antreten—to form up) on parade, and would then narugować (nachrücken—to move up) to the front, before forming a szwarmlinia (Schwarmlinie—firing line). Others who spoke only German relied on the battalion’s few Jews to act as intermediaries. Still, even with goodwill, careful listening, and much imagination on all sides, frontline command of Landsturm troops was difficult.

And from Multiethnic Przemyśl in 1914:
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Timbuktu Manuscripts.

I’ve made several posts about the manuscripts and libraries of Timbuktu (put “Timbuktu” into the search box to find them), but I found some details in this story particularly interesting:

Just about 250,000 old manuscripts from the libraries of Timbuktu still survive in present-day Ethiopia. Also, thousands of documents from the medieval Sudanese empire of Makuria, written in at least eight different languages were dug out at the southern Egyptian site of Qasr Ibrim. Thousands of more old manuscripts have equally survived in the West African cities of Chinguetti, Walata, Oudane, Kano, and Agadez.

Upon the real and present dangers posed by fires, insects, and plundering, some one million manuscripts have since survived from the northern edges of Guinea and Ghana to the shores of the Mediterranean. National Geographic even estimates that 700,000 manuscripts have survived in the city of Timbuktu alone.

Ethiopia — that’s quite a journey! If I ever knew about Makuria (Greek Μακουρια, Arabic al-Muqurra), I’d forgotten. And how was “Chinguetti” derived from the Arabic name شنقيط‎ Šinqīṭ? (Thanks, Trevor!)

Oh, Whistle…

I finally, on a whim, read one of the most famous ghost stories in English, M. R. James’s “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad,” and was surprised to find two words new to me in the first few paragraphs:

‘I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography, soon after they had sat down next to each other at a feast in the hospitable hall of St. James’s College.

The Professor was young, neat, and precise in speech.

‘Yes,’ he said; ‘my friends have been making me take up golf this term, and I mean to go to the East Coast—in point of fact to Burnstow—(I dare say you know it) for a week or ten days, to improve my game. I hope to get off to-morrow.’

‘Oh, Parkins,’ said his neighbour on the other side, ‘if you are going to Burnstow, I wish you would look at the site of the Templars’ preceptory, and let me know if you think it would be any good to have a dig there in the summer.’

A preceptory is (per the OED, revised 2007) “A subordinate community of the Knights Templars; the provincial estate or manor supporting such a community; the buildings in which such a community was housed”; it’s from post-classical Latin praeceptoria, perhaps short for praeceptoria domus ‘preceptory house.’ And ontography, to my astonishment (I just assumed James had made the word up to provide an amusing fake scholarly specialty), is “A description of, or the branch of knowledge which deals with, the human response to the natural environment”; it is first attested in 1902, just two years before the story was published, and doesn’t seem to have been much used (“Chiefly with reference to the work of W. M. Davies”). The expresson “full term” was also new to me; it means “The full period of a term or session of a court, or the main part of a university term during which lectures are given (esp. with reference to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge)” (1886 Oxf. Univ. Cal. 51 “Full Term begins on the Sunday after the first Congregation, that is on the Sunday after the first day of Term”). And the story’s “Burnstow” represents the seaside town of Felixstowe, whose Felixstowe Ferry Golf Club “is amongst the oldest in the UK.” (Mild spoiler for the story below the cut.)
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Not So, Catlos.

As I said back in 2013, if you’re going to write an error-riddled book on Middle Eastern history, Robert Irwin is the last person you want reviewing it; Brian A. Catlos’s Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain doesn’t sound like a bad book in general, but Irwin has to school him on some literary history in his review (NYRB, March 21, 2019):

As the caliphate fell apart, what was left of Muslim Spain was divided among overlords who were known collectively as taifa kings, or party kings. Even in their own time they did not enjoy a good reputation. According to one contemporary poet, they were “like pussycats, who puffing themselves up, / Imagine they can roar like lions.” Catlos’s no less damning verdict is that the kings were “strongmen who were not even strong.” Yet the eleventh and twelfth centuries were a great age for philosophy, theology, and literature, and the political and military decline of the taifa principalities did not entail a cultural decline. Catlos’s account of Andalusian literary culture in this period is brisk and less surefooted than his coverage of politics and society. About the increasing influence of Arabic literature on the development of European literature from the thirteenth century onward, he writes:

Now Arabo-Islamic epics, romances and folktales—many of South Asian or Persian origin—were translated, adapted, or otherwise made their way into popular literature. These included the Kalila wa-dimna, a collection of fables; Sindibad, or Sendebar, the tales of Sinbad the Sailor; the epic of Alexander the Great; and tales from The Thousand and One Nights. Popular and didactic literature of the era, such as Ramon Llull’s Book of the Beasts (1280s) and The Tales of Count Lucanor, written in 1335 by Don Juan Manuel, a nephew of Alfonso X, were strongly influenced by these texts. In fact, Arabic literature transformed European fiction, both through the borrowing of narratives and through the appropriation of the literary device of the maqamat, or frame tale, the story-within-a-story—the same device used by Boccaccio in his Decameron and by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

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A Light Breather.


The spirit moves,
Yet stays:
Stirs as a blossom stirs,
Still wet from its bud-sheath,
Slowly unfolding,
Turning in the light with its tendrils;
Plays as a minnow plays,
Tethered to a limp weed, swinging,
Tail around, nosing in and out of the current,
Its shadows loose, a watery finger;
Moves, like the snail,
Still inward,
Taking and embracing its surroundings,
Never wishing itself away,
Unafraid of what it is,
A music in a hood,
A small thing,

Theodore Roethke, from The Waking (1953; first in The Kenyon Review, Summer 1950).