School for Fools.

A few times in my life I’ve encountered works that stopped me in my tracks and made me say “Wait, you can do that?” I vividly remember my first experiences of Godard, Ezra Pound, Thomas Pynchon; they completely changed my ideas of movies, poetry, and the novel respectively. The last couple of weeks have been like that. I spent a week and a half reading Sasha Sokolov’s first novel, Школа для дураков (1976), translated (not very well) by Carl Proffer the following year as A School for Fools — I personally think it should be just plain School for Fools, but the articulated title has established itself. (The newer, and presumably better, translation by Alexander Boguslawski keeps the same title; according to this review, it has “an expertly researched collection of endnotes,” which convinced me to order it — with a book like this you need all the help you can get, and I like to support New York Review Books, which has a terrific Russian-lit list.) It’s a short novel but a long read. After I finished the book, I started reading up on it and thinking about it, and I’ll set down a few preliminary thoughts here; I expect to keep turning it over in my head for a long time.

I’m not the only one who felt it was something completely new; a lot of the early response included remarks to that effect. Of course it didn’t come out of nowhere; Russian precursors were Gogol, Dostoevsky (The Double, Notes from Underground), Bely (Petersburg), Nabokov (The Defense), late Kataev (the fictionalized memoirs), Aksyonov (Surplussed Barrelware), and Bitov (Life in Windy Weather — Sokolov twice uses the phrase дачная местность ‘dacha district,’ a nod to Bitov’s subtitle), not to mention the great samizdat books of 1970, Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki and Yuz Aleshkovsky’s Nikolai Nikolaevich; obvious foreign parallels are Joyce and Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury). But Sokolov puts the familiar elements of doubling, madness, and sexual obsession together in a way that is entirely his own. I’ll quote a decent description by Ludmilla L. Litus from her “Intertextuality in Škola dlja durakov Revisited: Sokolov, Gogol, and the Others” (Russian Language Journal/Русский язык, Vol. 52, No. 171/173 [Winter-Spring-Fall 1998], pp. 99-140):

To summarize briefly, Škola is a linguistically self-conscious, complex, metafictional text that takes the form of a disjointed pseudo memoir. The narrative does not follow the traditional contiguous linear line of the realistic novel, but, as in verse, it is developed through associations and metaphoric play. […] The one unifying element in this intricate, disconnected narrative is the voice of the narrator and main character who also functions as both the fictional author of the memoir and the student with whom this fictional author discusses life and the writing of the book. […]

Nymphea is the linguistically perceptive, fictional author/student/double narrator who controls and directs the narrative by calling the reader’s attention to specific phrases, passages, and individual words. Words in Škola are important in themselves, as in verse, for their sound quality, rhythm, and even for their visual appearance. To create special effects and to add emphasis, Sokolov manipulates typography; he introduces typographic разрядка [letter spacing] and spells words backward. […]

Škola is a type of sophisticated modern literary pastiche of “other texts” that includes “fragments” from the Bible, poetry and prose, aphorisms, song fragments, tongue-twisters, and examples of children’s counting rhymes – from Russian/Soviet and world literature, history, and culture. Multiple repetitions in the work help set the tone and help create a sense of repeating, often chaotic, reality.

[Read more…]

Chess Pieces in Different Languages.

Ari Luiro has created a classic webpage, Chess Pieces in Different Languages:

This article presents words for chess, six chess pieces and check in 78 languages in the table. This article is originally written in Finnish. If you know more languages to be added to the table, please send me e-mail. […]

The rook has many meanings in different languages. The rook is a tower in many European languages (eg. Spanish and Portuguese torre, Finnish torni, French tour, Dutch toren), sometimes a large farm (Frisian stins), a ship (Russian lad’ja, transcribed also as ladya), a fortress or castle (Indonesian benteng) or a wagon (Chinese ju, Estonian vanker). […]

Words for chess queen in European languages are generally feminine, with a few exception. But outside Europe the chess queens usually don’t have gender or the piece is masculine. The Arabic firz or firzān (counsellor) was never translated into a European language although it was adopted. For example the Italians call the queen as donna (‘woman’) or more common regina (queen in Italian). A Latin manuscript preserved in the Einsiedeln Monastery in Switzerland (997 AD) contains the first recorded mention of the chess queen (regina). In French usage reine ‘queen’ replaced fierce or fierge (from the Arabic fers) during the 14th century; during the next century reine was replaced by the word dame. […] The queen in Estonian (lipp) is a flag. Arabic (wäziir, firzān), Russian (ferz’), Farsi (vazir, farzin), Uzbek (farzin), Hindi (farzī, wazīr) and Turkish (vezir) among others still use the ancient word of no gender firz for today’s chess queen. […]

There are many ways in different languages to call a bishop. The bishop can be a messenger (Finnish lähetti and Polish goniec), a clergyman (English bishop and Irish easpag ‘bishop’ both from Latin episcopus ‘bishop’), a rifleman (Czech střelec), a runner (German läufer, Romansh currider, Latin cursor), an elephant (Indonesian gajah) or a crazy (French fou, also a jester or a fool). Romanian nebun and Greek trelós mean fool or crazy.

That’s just a few tidbits; there’s much more at the link, and if you scroll down you’ll see a magnificent table with everything from Finnish to Tahitian.

Abruzzese, capisci?

Neapolitan Dialect: Can Catalan, French, Spanish, and Latin speakers understand it?
Ecolinguist posted this video to YouTube, writing:

This video features the Neapolitan Dialect spoken in Abruzzo, Italy. Claudio de Domenico is an Abruzzese speaker and we made this video to see if Catalan, French, Spanish, and Latin speakers can understand the Abruzzese dialect?

The Latin speaker is American; even though he’s of Abruzzese descent, he doesn’t know the dialect (and he speaks Latin in a very pleasing classical pronunciation). It’s pure delight for those of us who enjoy Romance dialects, and it even discusses etymologies! (Via Slavomír Čéplö/bulbul at Facebook.)

A Vacancy of Perception.

Rachel Kolb, a graduate student in English, writes for Stanford magazine about how she experiences lipreading; it’s a fascinating read, and I’ll quote some excerpts here:

Lipreading, on which I rely for most social interaction, is an inherently tenuous mode of communication. It’s essentially a skill of trying to grasp with one sense the information that was intended for another. When I watch people’s lips, I am trying to learn something about sound when the eyes were not meant to hear.

Spoken words occur in my blind spot, a vacancy of my perception. But if I watch a certain way, I can bring them into enough focus to guess what they are. The brain, crafty as it is, fills in the missing information from my store of knowledge. […]

Even the most skilled lipreaders in English, I have read, can discern an average of 30 percent of what is being said. I believe this figure to be true. There are people with whom I catch almost every word—people I know well, or who take care to speak at a reasonable rate, or whose faces are just easier on the eyes (for lack of a better phrase). But there are also people whom I cannot understand at all. On average, 30 percent is a reasonable number.

But 30 percent is also rather unreasonable. How does one have a meaningful conversation at 30 percent? […] Often I stick with contained discussion topics because they maximize the number of words I will understand. They make the conversation feel safe. “How are you?” “How’s school?” “Did you have a nice night?” Because I can anticipate that the other person will say “Fine, how are you?” or “Good,” I am at lower risk for communication failure. […]

[Read more…]


Bethan McKernan reports for the Guardian about Turkey’s mission to preserve its fairy tales:

The oral folktales of the Anatolian plateau are a remarkable blend of storytelling motifs and traditions, drawing on the Arabian Nights and Brothers Grimm, as well as Kurdish, Persian, Slavonic, Jewish and Romanian influences. Dr Ignatuis Kunos, a Hungarian Turkologist who was one of the first academics to collect and write some of them down in the 1880s, compared the treasures of Turkish folklore to “precious stones lying neglected in the byways of philology for want of gleaners to gather them in”.

He worried that the steady creep of modernisation – particularly the railway – would erode Anatolia’s cultural heritage. Happily, more than a century later, the oral storytelling tradition has survived, and a mammoth academic project called Masal is collecting and indexing a goal of 10,000 stories to preserve for future generations.

Members of the public and academics from university literature departments around the country can submit a fairytale to Masal’s online portal, where it is then examined by three rounds of researchers and language editors. The project is funded by the Atatürk Cultural Centre in what is the first undertaking of its kind in Turkey.

The stories are indexed according to which of seven regions they are from and which of five different types of stories: animal tales, magical or extraordinary tales, realistic tales and humorous tales. Zincirlemeli tales follow a strict formula, almost like a poem, in which characters and events at the beginning and end form mirror images.

There are often several different variants of one story, requiring painstaking cross-referencing to figure out how a tale can differ over time from one region to another: there are 20 different versions of Tın Tın Kabacık, about two little girls abandoned by their father, in the province of Muğla alone. Many stories and poems over the years have morphed into Turkish from original Kurdish, Laz, Armenian and Circassian versions.

If a submitted tale is approved it becomes part of Masal’s online database, which will eventually be available to the public. More than 3,300 tales have been collected from 77 different areas to date, and the project’s directors hope the corpus will be completed by February 2022.

This is the kind of thing of which I approve. Thanks, Trevor! (Incidentally, Turkish masal ‘fairy tale’ is from Arabic maṯal مثل; cf. Nişanyan.)

Rules Tactically Broken.

I liked the ending of Susan Tallman’s NYRB review (July 18, 2019) of The Self-Portrait: From Schiele to Beckmann, an exhibition at the Neue Galerie, New York City, and the associated catalog edited by Tobias G. Natter:

In the century of the selfie stick, when self-depiction has become a nearly automatic reflex, a show like this is salutary. It focuses our attention on a mode of self-presentation whose requirements—skill, effort, and the strategic deployment of mirrors—result in images that play out slowly. Time spent in front of them unfolds, in many cases, into something eerily like a social connection. This is true, I think, not in spite of their manipulations, quotations, and obfuscations, but because of them. Human society, after all, isn’t built on bald statements of fact and unfiltered emotion, but on rules understood, inverted, and tactically broken. Perhaps we recognize each other best through the games we play.

I really liked Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait at 6th Wedding Anniversary. She died way too young.

And for those of you who know any Russian, a tidbit from Erik McDonald: Is the set of verbs without a я form growing?, which concludes:

In writing защищу seems to be easily holding its expected place way ahead of the prescriptively incorrect alternative защитю and the correct ты form защитишь. But will защищу soon be as strange as ощущу? And what other verbs are doing this?

Malchukov on Grammatical Case.

I hadn’t been familiar with Serious Science, which according to its About page is “an independent, non-profit, non-governmental project whose main mission is to spread knowledge and share the greatest advances in various realms of academia with our readers.” One of the pages on the site is called Grammatical Case: A Deceptively Simple Concept by linguist Andrej Malchukov; the “deceptively simple” of the title presumably means “you might think it’s simple, but it’s not”:

A textbook definition of (morphological) case defines it as marking of a noun (or noun phrase) for its syntactic and/or semantic role. Thus, the use of accusative case on the noun identifies it as a (direct) object of the verb, and instrumental case on the noun (as found for example, in Russian) most commonly marks instruments. While the definition as such is fairly clear, it is more controversial to what extent this definition case be extended to other similar patterns. If, say, agreement on modifiers (adjectives agree in cases with nouns in Russian) is the same phenomenon, as the case on nouns? Or does, the vocative case, as found in Classical Greek and some Slavic languages, represent case, even if it does mark dependency, but is rather means of address? And, indeed, does English have case, if it is only visible in pronouns?

More problems will be found if we extend the discussion beyond European languages. Does Japanese have cases? This is not obvious, as the morphological status of these forms is unclear; traditionally they are called postverbal particles. Moreover, some of them such as the subject (“nominative”) markers ga and wa additionally express discourse meanings (focus vs. topic, that is new vs. given information). Another controversial example comes from Even (a Tungusic language I did fieldwork on), which has a special case called “designative’’. Its use is illustrated by the following example: Bej hin turki-ga-s emun [man your sledge-DES-your brought] ‘The man brought the sledge for you’. The designative case is similar to accusative in that it marks the direct object, but, in addition, reinterprets the possessor as a beneficiary (the meaning of the example above is ‘brought a sledge for you’, not ‘brought your sledge’). Is it OK for a case to mark different roles of different arguments? Does it still qualify as case, or maybe, is a marker of prospective (future) possession? There will be different answers depending on the definitions of case.

There are sections on Case Systems, Short History of (research on) Case, Functions of Case, and Evolution of Case Systems. I’m glad to see this kind of information presented in an accessible manner online.

Inventing the Berbers.

Our old pal Lameen Souag is back to posting at Jabal al-Lughat; his review of Ramzi Rouighi’s Inventing the Berbers is typically interesting and sensible:

The book is primarily the history of a name: how did certain people in North Africa come to be called “Berbers”, and how did the reference and connotations of this label change over time? Viewed as such, it has a good deal of useful material. He argues that, rather than being derived directly from Latin or Greek “barbari”, the label was transferred from East Africa to Northwest Africa as the Arabs moved west; its original associations would be with slavery rather than with barbarism as such. (Traces of the original usage persist: in Nubia, as I first learned on a trip to Aswan, “Berber” is still understood to mean “Nubian”!) In the early medieval period, it was used primarily for rebels and enemies on the fringes; groups with a closer involvement tended to be referred to by more specific terms. Ibn Khaldun’s usage is more complex, reflecting Andalusi practice as it emerged in the context of elite competition between Berber and Arab noble families, but shows clear traces of the older tendency to reserve it for “outsiders” to the ruling elite. The modern European usage of the term comes essentially from Ibn Khaldun as filtered through De Slane’s essentialism (which turned Berbers into a “race”) and subsequent academic and ideological debates, largely in the context of the French colonization of Algeria.

He talks about Rouighi’s “unacceptably simplistic” discussion of the term “Amazigh,” concluding:

Reading as a linguist, I can appreciate the attention given to semantic shifts and to the arbitrariness not only of the sign but of the signified. But as a historical linguist, it feels rather at cross-purposes to the questions of interest to me. Fundamentally, I don’t much care which ethnic label people identify or are identified with: for me, “Berber”, like “Arabic”, is primarily useful as a linguistic category. And its referent has a history starting far earlier than the earliest attestation of “Berber”, “Tamazight”, or any other label one might choose to apply to it. It is necessary and appropriate to historicize such labels – to be aware that Masinissa or Dihya or Fatma n’Soumer were not acting in the name of some kind of Amazigh nationalism, and may not even have been familiar with “Amazigh” as a name, let alone as an identity. But how this relatively close-knit language family spread, and retreated, remains a historical question, of interest to archeologists and population geneticists as well as linguists, which an exclusive focus on ethnic labels erases.

It should, however, help to provoke reflection on the appropriate choice of label for this language family. “Berber”, neutral though it undoubtedly is in English or French, does have a problematic history; the derivation from “barbarian” may be inaccurate, but this book really underscores the extent to which its usage in Arabic has been overwhelmingly negative and “othering” for most of the region’s history. “Amazigh” does not have this problem, but is strongly associated with a projection of shared ethnicity into the past which risks distorting our picture of language spread. In an ideal world, one might prefer a purely geographical label (“Northwest African”?), or, better yet, a purely linguistic one (iles-languages, after the usual word for “tongue”?) In practice, however – here as elsewhere – it seems preferable to live with the occasional misunderstandings caused by the use of a well-known “ethnic” term than to confuse the public with a completely novel one.

Sounds about right.

On Learning Foreign Languages.

Courtesy of Laudator Temporis Acti, a very pleasing piece by an anonymous Basil L. Gildersleeve, “On Learning Foreign Languages,” The Nation 42 (1886), p. 335:

In the last number of the Revue Internationale de l’Enseignement M. Bréal has published a lecture on learning foreign languages, in which he has attacked a practical problem in a practical way, not as a philologian, not as a determined tracker down of etymologies, not as an ingenious restorer of such dilapidated linguistic monuments as the ‘Song of the Arval Brethren,’ but, to use his own expression, as a paterfamilias. Literature, philology he ruthlessly puts aside, and absolutely discards all the cumbrous apparatus of grammar. The object he proposes is the practical acquisition of German, of English, Italian, Spanish. Philological study of these idioms he considers a waste of time for the young. Greek and Latin are the true educational gymnastic. English and German are needed as means of communication, of exchange among the peoples. He denies the familiar assertion that the French have not the bump of languages. The Minister of Public Instruction has recently tried the experiment of sending young Frenchmen abroad to learn English and German, and tbe experiment has had the happiest results. From Germany, from England the students have brought back not only a good knowledge of German, of English, but enlarged views. They have learned to appreciate different methods of thinking, reasoning, living. Of course the state cannot repeat this experiment on a large scale, but the system of exchanges so common between French-Swiss and German-Swiss families is recommended as an admirable and economical method of training young girls in foreign languages. M. Bréal admits that this is somewhat repugnant to French ways, but France has widened her ways so much in the last thirty years that we may look forward to greater latitude in this direction also. To those who can go abroad he gives the eminently sensible advice not to go abroad in order to pick up the language, but in order to study something definite, to work at something definite, whether banking at Frankfort, bookselling at Leipsic, brewing of beer or Aeginetan sculptures at Munich. You will learn banking, bookselling, beer-brewing, you will make yourself an authority on the origin of Greek art, and you will be a capital German scholar to boot.

The trouble that a philologian has to encounter is that he carries with him the sense of his profession. He is too much bent on being grammatical; and M. Bréal tells an amusing story of the efforts of a young French professor [François Gouin –LH] who betook himself to Germany equipped with the orthodox apparatus for the acquisition of the language. Endowed with a good memory and a prodigious power of work, he mastered his grammar, the 248 irregular verbs and all, in the space of a week. Then he put his knowledge to the test by going to a lecture; but he found, to his dismay, that he could not catch even one grammatical form, not even one of those rascally irregular verbs he had acquired with so much pains. His next point of attack was the vocabulary. Grammar is only the skeleton, words the flesh and blood. So he addressed himself to the radicals of the German language first, and finding a book that offered him a complete assortment of German radicals, he devoured it eagerly and digested his 1,000 roots in four days. The result was not a whit better. His next resource was Ollendorff—’German in Ninety Lessons.’ Ninety lessons—that means three months. Why not take three lessons a day? In thirty days Ollendorf is his—but not the German language. Jacotot, Robertson, Ploetz follow—all to no purpose. At last he conceived the heroic purpose of committing the dictionary to memory. 30,000 words cannot be considered a trifle. Still, at the rate of 1,000 words a day, a dictionary can be appropriated in a month. The failure was as absolute as before, and, to crown his humiliation, he met certain French artisans who had crossed the border with him and had learned German while working at their trade. The young professor finally succeeded in learning German, and afterwards published his experiences for the benefit of the world.

Still, with all respect for M. Bréal, the time spent on grammar, roots, Ollendorff, and dictionary was not all wasted. The true way to learn a language is to take it in at every pore, and the philological pore is not to be despised. A mature man cannot become a child again, although it is very true that in order to learn a language well one must get into childlike ways of mimicry. People who are plagued with a profound sense of their personal dignity never learn to speak a foreign language well. Of course M. Bréal is too sensible a man not to emphasize the fact that this infantine knowledge of language goes even more rapidly than it comes. A child learns a language perfectly in a year, and forgets it totally in six months; and those who learn languages as children do unlearn them with corresponding facility.

Much that M. Bréal says on the education of the ear, on the mastery of phrases, is excellent. For English as against German he has much to say. English is much nearer akin to the French than is German, it is the French form of the Germanic mind. It is a beautiful language, “all sinew and muscle, a language that seems to have resolved the problem of packing away the maximum of esprit in the minimum of matter”; and the short monosyllables which the German poet Platen detested, carry to M. Bréal’s mind a sense of plenitude and strength. At the same time, he acknowledges that, owing to a false start, he has never been able himself to do much with it practically, and he unconsciously illustrates the trickiness of our idiom by supposing a child equally at home in English and in French to address his English-speaking mother with the startling phrase, “Let me come on your knees” (Prends-moi sur tes genoux)— which is, being interpreted, “Take me on your lap.”

I love the story of the young French professor and his prodigious power of work, and I am sent into a fit of unseemly hilarity by the way in which the trickiness of our idiom has shifted so as to make the phrase “Let me come on your knees” far more startling than it was in 1886. For Platen, see this 2004 post (“Count Platen might be a poet, if he had lived in another time and if, besides that, he were also somebody other than himself” — and I see that rozele showed up in that thread!); Gildersleeve was mentioned in this 2009 one (“it all came from a 1909 joke by Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve that got taken seriously”).


Nabokov’s NY Times review (April 24, 1949) of Sartre’s Nausea (translated by Lloyd Alexander) is typically supercilious, pointing out some terrible translation flubs and then mocking the novel itself, but the first line contains a mystery:

Sartre’s name, I understand, is associated with a fashionable brand of cafe philosophy and since for every so-called “existentialist” one finds quite a few “suctorialists” (if I may coin a polite term), this made-in-England translation of Sartre’s first novel, “La Nausée” (published in Paris in 1938) should enjoy some success.

The word “suctorialist” apparently occurs only here, and it is presumably based on the adjective suctorial “adapted for sucking, especially : serving to draw up fluid or to adhere by suction” (New Latin suctorius, from Latin sugere), but I have no idea what the Great Man might have meant by it (I can hear Beavis and/or Butthead chortling “Sucks, man!” but that sense — “of people, objects, situations, to be worthless, contemptible, pointless, objectionable” — is dated by Green to 1963 and is thus after Vlad’s time even if it weren’t infra his dig). Any ideas?

By the way, when I was googling “suctorialist” I found this webpage with a section of user-created lists that contain the word “shippon,” including:

only nabokov

shippon, carpilastics, suctorialist, vendective, grimpen, woodwose, rizzom, stang, peba, versipal, nenuphar, kickshaw and 7 more…

Alas, that link throws a 404, so we’ll never know what the 7 more were.

Lagniappe: I just learned the great word mortsafe. Have a care for Burke and Hare!