Resistance to Changes in Grammar Is Futile!

Nicola Davis writes in the Guardian about “Detecting evolutionary forces in language change,” by Mitchell G. Newberry, Christopher A. Ahern, Robin Clark & Joshua B. Plotkin (Nature 551: 223–226):

The authors of the study say that the work adds to our understanding of how language changes over centuries.

“Whether it is by random chance or selection, one of the things that is true about English – and indeed other languages – is that the language changes,” said Joshua Plotkin, co-author of the research from the University of Pennsylvania. “The grammarians might [win the battle] for a decade, but certainly over a century they are going to be on the losing side.”

Writing in the journal Nature, Plotkin and colleagues describe how they tracked different types of grammatical changes across the ages.

Among them, the team looked at changes in American English across more than one hundred thousand texts from 1810 onwards, focusing on the use of “ed” in the past tense of verbs compared with irregular forms – for example, “spilled” versus “spilt”.

The hunt threw up 36 verbs which had at least two different forms of past tense, including quit/quitted and leaped/leapt. However for the majority, including spilled v spilt, the team said that which form was waxing or waning was not clearly down to selection – meaning it is probably down to chance over which word individuals heard and copied.

“Chance can play an important role even in language evolution – as we know it does in biological evolution,” said Plotkin, adding that the impact of random chance on language had not been fully appreciated before. […]

The study also explores the use of negation in sentences, such as “I say not”, across English texts dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries, revealing that the placement of the negative word has changed more than once due to selection, possibly because of a desire for emphasis.

“There a was period of time where double negation … was the way to negate things, just as it is in French today,” said Plotkin.

Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org complains:

They have artificially selected verbs that have both a regular and irregular past tense forms in modern English and examined those. In those, they found no overarching selective force over the last eight centuries. They’ve artificially picked out anomalous verbs and found there was no explanation for the anomaly. To really determine what is going on, you have to look at all the verbs (or a representative sample). If they had done that, I think the results would have said that, yes, there is a powerful selective force toward regularization. What they’ve done is cherry pick the odd ones and confirm that they’re odd.

I’ll be interested in the thoughts of my commenters, but of course I agree with the general point summarized by the title I swiped from Davis. Thanks, Trevor and Eric!

Tolstoy’s Cossacks.

I just finished Tolstoy’s Казаки [The Cossacks]; as with Dostoevsky’s Скверный анекдот [A Nasty Story] (see this post), the plot is easy to summarize: the spoiled, self-absorbed young aristocrat Dmitry Olenin goes to the Caucasus as an officer and falls in love with the Cossack girl Maryana, who has been promised to the Cossack Lukashka, and it doesn’t go well for him. It starts beautifully (“Все затихло в Москве. Редко, редко где слышится визг колес по зимней улице” [Everything has quieted down in Moscow. Only rarely, very rarely can the squeal of wheels be heard somewhere on the winter street]) and ends powerfully. The problem is what comes in between.

Back in May, I complained bitterly about Tolstoy’s Семейное счастие [Family Happiness], and one of my complaints was that it was too long. The Cossacks is a much better work (Edward Vasiolek called it “the masterpiece of Tolstoy’s pre–Voina i mir [War and Peace] period,” which is at least plausible), but it too is too damn long at 150 pages. Tolstoy gets his hero out of Moscow at the end of the first chapter (fleeing boredom and his mounting debts), but once he gets to the Caucasus and the stanitsa where he will live among the Cossacks, he has nothing to do but envy and try to share their lifestyle (boozing, hunting, and killing Chechens) and admire their strong, shapely women (often wearing only a long shirt through which you can glimpse their shapely forms). Oh, and think long adolescent thoughts about love and happiness and how true happiness is only possible through self-sacrifice. All of this is repeated over and over, chapter after chapter: boozing and/or hunting with old Yeroshka, watching village life and the strong, shapely Maryana through his window, and thinking long adolescent thoughts. After about thirty chapters I would have been delighted to have the Chechens come through and massacre him. As I say, eventually Tolstoy pulls it together and comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it amazes me that in just a few years he will have learned how to tell a story so efficiently that even the 1,200 pages of War and Peace won’t feel too long. (Well, except for that Second Appendix.) But at this point in their careers, I would have to say that Dostoevsky is way ahead of him.

Dragam, Kedvesem, Aranyoskam, Edesem.

From Translation as Transhumance by French translator Mireille Gansel, translated from Traduire comme Transhumer by Ros Schwartz, partly quoted in this blog post by Stuart of Winstonsdad (“the home of translated fiction”):

To my delight, the section of the letter my father was reading was about me. He initially translated a word used by his brother or one of his sisters as “beloved,” stumbled over the next word and repeated this — actually rather ordinary — adjective once, stumbled again, and then repeated it a second time. That triggered something in me. I dared to interrupt him. I asked: “But in Hungarian, is it the same word?” He replied evasively: “It means the same thing!” Undeterred, I pressed him: “But what are the words in Hungarian?” Then, one by one, he enumerated, almost with embarrassment, or at least with a certain reticence, as though there were something immodest about it, the four magic words which I have never forgotten: drágám, kedvesem, aranyoskám, édesem. Fascinated, I relentlessly pestered him, begging him to translate for me what each word meant. Drágám, my darling; kedvesem, my beloved; and two other words whose sensual literalness I would never forget: aranyoskám, my little golden girl; édesem, my sweet. That evening I discovered that words, like trees, had roots whose magic my father had revealed to me […]

Thanks, Trevor!

What’s a Lyska?

I ran across the Russian word лыска [lyska] on this page, where one of the photos shows a станок (machine-tool) for producing flat surfaces, including lyski (“Обработка плоскостей, лысок, уступов”). Naturally, I wanted to know how to translate it, but it turned out to be missing from all my bilingual dictionaries, including the three-volume one that usually has even the most obscure technical terms. Mind you, I know what it is; Wiktionary defines it as “flat section on cylindrical, conical or spherical parts of a component, usually parallel to the axis” [плоский срез на цилиндрических, конических или сферических участках детали, как правило, параллельный оси], which is clear enough. You can see an image in the third section of this illustrated glossary. But I want to know what you call it in English. Having exposed the limitations of my effete bourgeois education in the humanities, I’m hoping one of my readers will be able to help me in my quest.

Dostoevsky’s Nasty Story.

The plot of Dostoevsky’s Скверный анекдот (translated as “A Nasty Anecdote,” “A Nasty Story,” and “An Unpleasant Predicament”; Garnett translation here) is easily stated: the high-ranking Ivan Ilich Pralinsky drunkenly decides to drop in on his subordinate Pseldonimov’s wedding celebration to demonstrate his “humanitarian” ideas and ruins it, getting even drunker and making incoherent speeches and spending the night in what was supposed to be the marriage bed. It’s brilliant and Buñuelesque; indeed, it could well be called “The Discreet Charm of the Bureaucracy.” However, as I discovered when I wanted to read what people have had to say about it, there is essentially no discussion of it in English; even Joseph Frank, in his magisterial five-volume critical biography of Dostoevsky, merely mentions it in passing. In Russian it is largely overlooked as well, but there’s a paragraph in Bakhtin and a superb essay in Remizov, which I will share here.

First, a brief analysis by Mikhail Bakhtin (Проблемы поэтики Достоевского [Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics]), from the point of view of his theory of the carnivalesque:

This deeply carnivalized story is also close to the menippea (but of the Varronian type). Serving as plot-center for the ideas is an argument among three generals at a name-day party. […] Everything is built on the extreme inappropriateness and scandalous nature of all that occurs. Everything is full of sharp carnivalistic contrasts, mésalliances, ambivalence, debasing, and decrownings. There is also an element here of rather cruel moral experimentation. We are not, of course, concerned here with the profound social and philosophical idea present in this work, which even today is not adequately appreciated. The tone of the story is deliberately unsteady, ambiguous and mocking, permeated with elements of hidden socio-political and literary polemic.

Этот глубоко карнавализованный рассказ тоже близок к мениппее (но к мениппее варроновского типа). Идейной завязкой служит спор трех генералов на именинном вечере. […] Все здесь построено на крайней неуместности и скандальности всего происходящего. Все здесь полно резких карнавальных контрастов, мезальянсов, амбивалентности, снижений и развенчаний. Есть здесь и элемент довольно жестокого морального экспериментирования. Мы не касаемся здесь, конечно, той глубокой социально-философской идеи, которая есть в этом произведении и которая до сих пор еще недостаточно оценена. Тон рассказа нарочито зыбкий, двусмысленный и издевательский, пронизанный элементами скрытой социально-политической и литературной полемики.

Aleksei Remizov has a much more thorough discussion in the essay “Потайная мысль” [Secret thought]; I’ll translate a few salient bits here for those who can’t read the original (and add in brackets the start of each passage for those who can; they can search for it in the linked text). Remizov starts by complaining that there hasn’t been any significant discussion of the story. He then says that Dostoevsky is an author who is especially hidden; with him everything is thought and what is under and behind thought, and he has a perpetually grieving heart. He continues [Достоевский вне театра…]:
[Read more…]

Polytropos.

Pretty much everybody I know has been sending me links to this Wyatt Mason profile for the NY Times Magazine of the classicist Emily Wilson and her new translation of the Odyssey, and I thank them all: it’s perfect LH material, and the only reason I haven’t posted it until today is that I’m an old-fashioned sort who likes to read the physical paper, so I’m reading the Sunday Times and its attendant magazine on Sunday. The rather silly title is “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English”; I don’t see how they can so confidently claim it’s “the first English rendering of the poem by a woman” (how could anyone possibly know?), but never mind, it sounds wonderful and she seems to be a very interesting person. Mason starts off with a crux in the very first line of the text, and so will I:

Late in August, as a shadow 70 miles wide was traveling across the United States, turning day briefly to night and millions of Americans into watchers of the skies, the British classicist Emily Wilson, a woman of 45 prone to energetic explanations and un-self-conscious laughter, was leading me through a line of Ancient Greek. “Polytropos,” Wilson said, in her deep, buoyant voice, pointing to the fifth word — πολuτροπον — of the 12,110-line epic poem that I had come to her office at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss. On the wall hung pictures of Wilson’s three young daughters; the windows behind her framed a gray sky that, as I arrived, was just beginning to dim. The poem lying open before us was Homer’s “Odyssey,” the second-oldest text, after his earlier poem, the “Iliad,” in a Western tradition impossible to imagine without them. […]
[Read more…]

Philip Pullman’s Swearwords.

Remember A Child’s Garden of Curses? Here‘s a nice followup in the Guardian by Emma Byrne, an artificial intelligence researcher and the author of Swearing Is Good for You:

“Philip Pullman Litters New Children’s Book With Swear Words.” So ran the Daily Mail’s headline introducing pearl-clutching coverage of his bad language in the newly published La Belle Sauvage. Its 500 words of faux outrage (fauxtrage?) over a novel containing the words “bollocks”, “bastards” and “fuck” began with the stunning news that: “By his own admission, some of [his] fans are as young as seven”, seemingly inviting us to imagine some poor, innocent cherub asking: “Mummy, what is bollocks?”

What’s bollocks is the idea that a seven-year-old doesn’t have a firm grip on at least the rudiments of bad language. This degree of manufactured ire is comical to anyone familiar with the latest research about children and their swearing habits. The vast majority of kids know (and use) taboo language fluently by the time they leave nursery.

In the fantastically named paper A Child’s Garden of Curses, cognitive neuroscientist Kristin Jay and professor of psychology Timothy Jay studied children from one to 12 years old. They found that, aged one to two, boys know six swearwords on average, while girls know eight. Among three- to four-year-olds, girls still outstrip boys, cursing on average 140 times while they were being observed, while boys recorded a mere 99 rude words. By the time they are on the verge of their teens, though, boys outstrip girls: 335 recorded incidents of swearing, to girls’ 112.

So Pullman’s audience is definitely familiar with swearing, and it’s doing them no harm. On the contrary, learning to curse is an essential part of development. Children learn which words best express which emotions in exactly the same way that they learn everything: by watching us. Repeatedly attaching the “F-word” to the experience of someone’s poor driving is probably teaching my daughter a lot about both the acceptable expression of one’s emotional state (only with the car windows up) and what constitutes bad road skills. (I am slightly worried that she will grow up believing that the correct terminology for a turn signal is “fucking indicate”, but that should make driving lessons fun).

Children also learn, from a surprisingly early age, that swearing isn’t all negative. Research shows that swearing is linked with all kinds of emotional states, including joy, surprise and fear. By learning to swear, children learn to understand other people’s feelings in a more nuanced way. “Children learn that curse words intensify emotions in a manner that non-curse words cannot achieve,” says Professor Jay. But the biggest advantage, from my perspective as a parent, comes from studies dating back as far as the 1930s, which show that swearing quickly replaces biting, hitting, and screaming as children develop. To which I must say, thank fuck for that.

Thanks, Trevor!

Cyrillic Mongolian.

Muireann Maguire, on Facebook, pointed me to this post at European languages across borders:

Cyrillic became the chief alphabet of the Mongolian language in Mongolia in the 1940s and has remained so to this day. “Mongolia” here refers to the independent country, an area also known as Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia, within Chinese borders, still uses the classic Mongolian alphabet – which, rather mind-bendingly, derives from a Semitic script. The transition to Cyrillic in Soviet Mongolia from the traditional alphabet took in Latin on the way, in the 1930s. In 1932, the famous linguist Nikolai Poppe published a text book on the Mongolian language in which he employed both the classic (here shown horizontally but normally written vertically) and Latin alphabets […]

The UL holds 250-odd books in Mongolian, published chiefly in Mongolia, China, and Russia. Mongolian publications continue to be found in the shrinking Soviet-era exchange backlog mentioned in a blog post earlier this year about Georgian. One example, now catalogued, is a 1969 examination of Mongolian laudatory poetry and salutations by Pureviin Khorloo (Mongol ardyn erȯȯl; 9009.c.2846). On its title page we can see examples of the two characters which are additional to the standard Cyrillic alphabet – the straight “y” which features twice towards the end of the first line below (transliterated as a “u” with a dot above) and the theta-style letter which features twice towards the end of the second line (transliterated as “o” with a dot above). The Library of Congress provides a transliteration guide for extra Cyrillic letters employed for non-Slavic languages; this can be found here.

There are some very nice illustrations. Thanks, Muireann!

Pasternak’s Untranslatable Feast.

I’m not crazy about Pasternak’s 1930 poem Лето [Summer], one of a group he wrote for his new love, Zinaida Neigauz, the wife of his friend the pianist Genrikh Neigauz, even as he was packing his own wife off to Europe and sending her loving letters and poems (Akhmatova said acerbically “Он там уговаривает жену не слишком огорчаться насчет своего ухода… Утешил одну, вставил бутоньерку и — к другой” [He tells his wife not to be too distressed about going away… He comforted one woman, put a flower in his buttonhole, and — off to another woman]). He’s trying to write more simply and understandably, but he hasn’t got the hang of it yet (as he will in the Zhivago poems). But one stanza is brilliant and sends chills down my spine, and is utterly untranslatable for reasons I will explain. Here it is:

И осень, дотоле вопившая выпью,
Прочистила горло; и поняли мы,
Что мы на пиру в вековом прототипе —
На пире Платона во время чумы.

And here’s a literal translation:

And autumn, till now crying out like a bittern,
has cleared out its throat, and we now understand
that we’re at a feast in an age-old prototype —
at Plato’s feast in a time of plague.

The sound pattern is classic Pasternak, with a complex play of stressed vowels (o – o – i – i/i – o – o – i/i – u – o – i/i – o – e – i) and a clever rhyme (výp’yu/prototípe), but the punch of the stanza is in the last line, which can’t be reproduced in English effectively, for two reasons. The first is that the final allusion is to Pushkin’s Пир во время чумы [A Feast in Time of Plague], which is extremely famous in Russia but utterly unknown to English-speakers. The second, and most crucial, is that Pasternak is mingling Pushkin’s feast with Plato’s civilized discussion of love… except that in English we call that dialogue Symposium, not Feast. There’s no way to remedy that in translation; all you can do is provide an apparatus of notes that will enable a diligent reader to go “Huh, interesting.” But in Russian it sends chills down your spine.

One reason it does so is because it was written at the exact moment the autumn of the 1920s was giving way to the winter of the 1930s, and the plague of full Stalinism was descending on Russia, with collectivization and show trials (his friend Vladimir Sillov had recently been shot as part of the campaign against Trotskyists; Dmitry Bykov says “Идет кампания, хватают всех поголовно, убивают самого непричастного — просто потому, что он чист, что за него некому просить или плохо просят” [There’s a campaign, they grab everyone and kill the one who was least involved — simply because he’s pure, because there’s no one to plead for him or they plead badly]). Of course, Pasternak alludes to it so vaguely that it could pass censorship; single-minded clarity was always alien to him — not for him the openly anti-Stalinist poem that got Mandelstam killed. His slow disillusionment with the Soviet system was comparable to his withdrawal from his first wife, with plenty of affectionate reassurances. But he finally said the hell with it and published Zhivago.

The Bocce Dialect of Cornale.

Marco Ferrarese writes for BBC Travel about visiting Cornale, a village in Lombardy near his hometown of Voghera, and his struggle to understand the local dialect in a particular context:

Now 69 years old, my father has played bocce all his life; he learned to love the game from my grandfather, and when I was a child, he tried to pass the love down to me. When I was about 12, I would follow my father to the bocciodromo ‒ the bar with playing fields found in every Italian town ‒ to meet his friends, middle-aged men with whom I felt I had nothing in common. I would watch the games for a while and then I would make my way to the video game corner. Needless to say, I didn’t inherit my father’s love of bocce, and because this was the only place where I ever came in contact with the Voghera dialect, I never learned to speak it.

He talks with Battista Valenti, a friend of his father’s:

To Valenti, local dialects are a crucial aspect of life in Italy’s small towns. “The dialect, like the game of bocce, was a way to establish our identity,” he said.

For the past five years, the retired English teacher has been helping to create a dictionary of local vocabulary as part of the Alimentiamo la Memoria (Let’s Feed the Memory) research project, funded by the village’s Tre Fiumi (Three Rivers) Library. Yet Valenti also knows very well that because of globalisation and the influence of mass media, local dialects have been curtailed to places like the bocciodromo, where the generations that grew up without television have gathered for decades.

And he tries to understand the players:

“A gh’era no d’andà su! A gh’era da bucià o mat na bucia in fond. Paragia su ciapa al balai u po fa partìa!” one man yelled angrily at his partner, gesticulating wildly with his hands. I got the gist ‒ they were about to lose the game ‒ but I couldn’t understand the details.

“What are they saying?” Desperate, I asked the man next to me for help.

“You don’t understand the dialect?” His expression let on that he knew he was asking a rhetorical question. He went on to explain, in Italian: “That man there complained that his companion didn’t hit the boccino. If he had, they could have won the game.”

In the margin, there’s an “Essential bocce dictionary” with terms like balâi, “the small ball (‘pallino’) in the game of bocce.” An enjoyable look at a small corner of the linguistic world; thanks, Trevor!