Tsvetaeva’s Aspro Stil Nuovo.

Reading my collected Tsvetaeva along with her biography hasn’t provided the immediate rewards Pasternak’s did; with him I was blown away from the beginning, but with her the early verse was well made, sometimes vigorous, but not thrilling. But that all changed with the end of the year 1915 and the collapse of her mad romance with the poet Sophia Parnok; the first poem in her next book, «Вёрсты» [Mileposts, 1922], written in January 1916, plunges the reader at once into a drastically new style, condensed, full of savagery and mystery, ripped out of the light-filled drawing rooms of the earlier books and thrown in rags onto the dark, storm-tossed heath, like mad Lear. There’s no equivalent in English for the folk-lament style of this poem, «Отмыкала ларец железный…», and there’s no way I can convey the black magic of it, but I’ll do my best to provide some sort of Englishing so you can get an idea of what she’s up to:

I unlocked the iron casket
and took out the tearful gift —
a little ring with a large pearl,
a large pearl.

I stole out onto the porch like a cat,
and exposed my face to the wind.
The winds blew, the birds flew,
swans to the left, to the right ravens…
Our roads go in different directions.

You’ll depart with the first storm-clouds;
your path will lie through dense woods,
through burning sands.

You’ll shout out your soul,
you’ll cry out your eyes.

But over me shall the owl call,
but over me shall the grass hiss.

I’m suddenly excited about the hundreds of pages of poems that lie before me.

Reviving Myaamia.

I’ve had fond feelings for PRI’s The World ever since they interviewed me back in 2008; it seems like every time I listen to the show there’s something interesting, and today it was very much of LH relevance: How the Miami Tribe got its language back, reported by Carol Zall. You can listen to the show at that link, or read the transcript; here’s a snippet:

“I remember very specifically stumbling across these language materials, several pages of what I believed to be was Myaamia language,” Baldwin tells our podcast, The World in Words.

The pages had belonged to his late grandfather, and while Baldwin had no idea where they’d come from, he was intrigued. He wanted to find out more about his ancestral language, but there was a lot happening in his life at the time: After 10 years working in construction, Baldwin had gone back to school to get a college degree. And he and his wife Karen were expecting their first child.

Despite all that, Baldwin made time to travel to Indiana and Oklahoma to see if there were any remaining speakers of the Myaamia language. He couldn’t find anyone, but his curiosity had been piqued, and he decided to try to learn the language anyway.

Baldwin embarked on the challenge together with his wife, Karen. There was no dictionary or “Teach Yourself Myaamia” book, and there weren’t even sound recordings of the language. But somehow, they made a start.

They began with words — household items, animals, the names of birds — taped to their walls and kitchen counters, or carried on pieces of paper in their pockets to be consulted throughout the day.

The Baldwins’ efforts might have stalled without outside help, but in the early 1990s, Daryl Baldwin crossed paths with a graduate student from the University of California, Berkeley, who was doing research on Myaamia. The student, David Costa, was delving into archives and had uncovered a vast store of documents about the language, including dictionaries compiled by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to Costa’s research, linguists had believed that there weren’t many records of the language.

After his unexpected finds in the archives, Costa went looking for native speakers.

Needless to say, I love that stuff. Thanks go to Bonnie for calling me in to listen!

Fiction Versus Nonfiction.

Richard Lea has a piece for the Guardian exploring how different cultures deal with a distinction that seems natural to the English-speaking world:

[…] But according to the writer Aleksandar Hemon, this strange chasm doesn’t even exist in the language of his birth. In Bosnian, says Hemon, “there are no words for fiction and nonfiction, or the distinction thereof”.

“This is not to say that there is no truth or untruth,” he continues. “It’s just that a literary text is not defined by its relation to truth or imagination.” When Bosnian speakers try to articulate this distinction they have to reach for awkward constructions or terms from other languages, he explains. “Some literary people have bastardised fiction into ‘fikcija’, which makes me cringe, while ‘ne-fikcija’ is even more atrocious. I would never use those words. Your average taxi driver would not understand them.”

Even someone as skilled in matters of language as Hemon’s Bosnian translator, Irena Žlof, can find themselves stumped. When Žlof was working on the Bosnian edition of The Book of My Lives – Hemon’s “first book of nonfiction”, according to his US publisher – she “did not know” how to translate the terms fiction and nonfiction, Hemon recalls. Since they “only appeared in the acknowledgments, we just cut them. When I have to describe the pieces in my book, I call them ‘true stories’ or ‘personal essays’.” […]

The split between fiction and nonfiction is equally mysterious in languages as different from Bosnian as Arabic and Gĩkuyu. According to the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the “key word” in Gĩkuyu is rũgano – “story” or “narrative”. Rũgano is the nearest thing to fiction, Ngũgĩ explains, but it could also mean or suggest a historical narrative. “Kũgana rũgano – ‘to tell a story’ – can mean either of those, but specifically means retelling of well-known stories such as fables. The art is in the telling, not the fact of the story. The best storyteller is the one who recreates the anxiety of expectation and fulfils it.” […]

The division is just as blurred in Arabic, says the novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan, where fiction is either hekaya (الحكاية), kessah (قِصَّة) or sard (سَرْد).

“The first two words mean ‘story’.” Alwan says. “The third word, sard, means ‘storytelling’. However, I don’t think there is any consensus on an Arabic synonym of ‘nonfiction’. I salute the English language for its ability to create simple and definitive words just by adding ‘non-’. Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter followers if they could suggest a word. The suggestions were wake’y (وَاقِعيّ), which means ‘realistic’ and nathary (نَظري), which means ‘theoretical’. I am not satisfied with either one of those.” […]

According to the translator Nicky Harman, the English-speaking world is not entirely on its own, with the division between fiction and nonfiction mapping straightforwardly on to the Chinese xu gou (虚构) and fei [not or non-] xu gou (非虚构). But things become a little murkier as you move closer to home. German bestsellers are also divided into two categories, says the translator Katy Derbyshire, with Der Spiegel publishing lists split into Sachbücher (“fact-books”) and Belletristik – another borrowing of the French term belles lettres. But the boundary is drawn “in a different place than in the anglophone world”.

Alongside the novels listed under Belletristik, Derbyshire explains, you find autobiography, such as Joachim Meyerhoff’s Ach, diese Lücke, diese entsetzliche Lücke, or Anne Weber’s exploration of her family history, Ahnen. “There was some confusion over Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk – I’ve seen it called a novel but the German publisher calls it an ‘erzählendes Sachbuch’ – a piece of narrative nonfiction. German Amazon lists it under zoology and memoir.”

In Germany “the difference is more in the style of writing,” she says. “If it’s literary it tends to be classed as belles lettres; if its purpose is primarily to convey information it’ll be called a factual book.”

There’s lots more at the link; good for the Graun for going into an interesting topic in a fair amount of depth, and in particular for using original-language forms, including Arabic script!

Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online.

John Cowan writes in a new comment to this 2010 thread:

The Internet works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform, and some news is good news.

After They Who Shall Not Be Named reneged on their promise to make GDoS searchable with a “We won’t do it: sue us if you dare”, Green was left with the digital database rights but nothing to do with them. Academia and industry alike turned him down with “What’s in it for me?” He tried hiring programmers, but the ask (“megabucks”) was beyond his means. Finally, David Kendall offered to do the work gratis, just because it needed to be done (dpk is a student of historical linguistics as well as a programmer) and today https://greensdictofslang.com is online. Headword search, definitions, and etymologies are free; advanced search and supporting quotations are available to individuals by subscription at £49/year (currently about US$60). Institutional subscriptions are also possible: rates on request.

I have a subscription (it would be a solecism to assert that this has any connection with my occasional IRC conversations with dpk over the years) and will be pleased to look up anything that other Hattics can’t get for themselves.

This Is Good, as they say. Thanks, JC (and of course JG)!

Brothers, Buddies, and Bros.

A good OUPBlog post by Katherine Connor Martin from a few months back describes the history of derivatives of the word brother:

The English lexicon expands in innumerable ways. For instance, new words can be borrowed from other languages (café), arise through imitation of a sound (like oink or boom), and be formed from existing English words by combining two words (cupcake), blending parts of two words together (as in brunch), adding prefixes or suffixes (nationalize or unfriend), or through various types of alteration (like the respelling of phat). One way in which existing words are altered is by spelling them to represent a particular pronunciation. This might be an exaggerated pronunciation (as in puh-leeze), or a regional or colloquial one (like pardner); when these become entrenched, they sometimes cease to be the equivalents of the words they derived from, and begin to take on new meanings.

The word brother has generated a whole passel of such derivations. The OED now records at least ten distinct words based wholly or in part on regional or colloquial pronunciations of brother: bra (often spelled brah in the United States), bredda, Brer, bro, bruh, bruv, bruvver, bud, buddy, and Buh. Although they share little in common besides their first letter, all of these spellings are in some way attempts to reflect the way brother was pronounced in a particular type of speech. (Bro and buddy have slightly more complex stories, in that the former was used as a straightforward graphical abbreviation before it came to represent a regional pronunciation, and the latter may be influenced by other dialect words and by the suffix –y.) These ten words all have a connection to brother but they have developed in different ways, not all of which overlap with the meanings of the word brother itself.

Go to the link for lots of interesting details; both bro and buddy are considerably older than I would have guessed (first attested in 1533 and 1788, respectively), and “although ‘male sibling’ is the most common and familiar use of brother in contemporary English, it doesn’t occur earliest or most often among these derivatives.” And note the sly way she slips in the word passel, itself an alteration of parcel.


I forget why I looked up bock, as in bock beer ‘strong dark German beer,’ but I was startled to see in the Wikipedia article this origin story:

The style known now as bock was a dark, malty, lightly hopped ale first brewed in the 14th century by German brewers in the Hanseatic town of Einbeck. The style from Einbeck was later adopted by Munich brewers in the 17th century and adapted to the new lager style of brewing. Due to their Bavarian accent, citizens of Munich pronounced “Einbeck” as “ein Bock” (“a billy goat”), and thus the beer became known as “bock”. To this day, as a visual pun, a goat often appears on bock labels.

Is that true? I mean, the OED says it’s “< Einbeck, Eimbeck, a town in Lower Saxony, Germany,” so I guess the ultimate origin is correct, but is it true about the Munich accent?

Tsvetaeva on Death.

As I wrote here, I’ve taken a break from Pasternak to read Marina Tsvetaeva, and I’ve run across an amazing poem from 1936 (she had only another five years to live) that shows off her late style at its most impressive. It’s only two stanzas; here‘s the Russian:

В мыслях об ином, инаком,
И ненайденном, как клад,
Шаг за шагом, мак за маком —
Обезглавила весь сад.

Так, когда-нибудь, в сухое
Лето, поля на краю,
Смерть рассеянной рукою
Снимет голову — мою.

Most of the vocabulary is fairly basic, with the startling exception of the fifth word, инаком, a declined form of инакий, which is so rare it’s not in any of my Russian-English dictionaries. It is, however, in Dahl (s.v. иной) and Vasmer; it’s an archaic synonym of иной ‘other,’ and here is found directly after it, serving as a mysterious almost-repetition. I’m going to render it as the Scots “ither” in the rough-and-ready translation below, just to convey the almost-repetition and synonymy:

Thinking of something other, ither,
And undiscovered, like a treasure,
Step by step, poppy by poppy,
I beheaded the entire garden.

Thus, at some future time, in a dry
Summer, on a field’s edge,
Death, with an absent-minded hand
Will take off a head — mine.

That gives you the general idea, anyway. The basic idea is a cliche: humans are like unto the flowers of the field; golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust. But see how a great poet can make it new! It opens with a magic triplet, complete with a magic obscure word: “ином, инаком, И ненайденном” [inóm, inákom, i nenáidennom]. Notice how the three terms grow from the cell of inóm, using the i-n-m matrix to build longer words? Then we get the thudding, ominous “Шаг за шагом, мак за маком” [Shag za shagom, mak za makom], again using near-repetition, capped by the killer: “I beheaded the entire garden.”

The second stanza opens with the basic poetic hinge так ‘thus, in the same way,’ followed by another ingeniously constructed triplet: “когда-нибудь, в сухое Лето, поля на краю” [kogdá-nibud’, v sukhoe leto, polya na krayú], this time varied rhythmically: da-DA-dada, da-DA-da-DA-da, DA-dadada-DA; with the last phrase (as Viktoria Schweitzer, whose biography of Tsvetaeva I’m reading, points out), she’s alluding to the Russian proverb “Жизнь прожить — не поле перейти” ‘to live life is not the same as to cross a field’ (and this, as Schweitzer neglects to mention, was famously used by Pasternak as the last line of Гамлет [Hamlet]). And then the kicker: death will behead me as I beheaded the flowers.

What occurred to me as I was rereading it was that it reminded me strongly of Emily Dickinson, who even used dashes similarly, and I wished Tsvetaeva could have translated Dickinson. It wouldn’t have been faithful, but it sure would have been worth reading.

Meddling with English.

A Guardian piece by Nancy Groves focuses on Caroline Bergvall’s multilingual performance Raga Dawn, a part of Estuary, “a 16-day festival celebrating the distinct character of the Essex ‘edgelands’ between Tilbury and Southend”:

Not only is Bergvall duetting her poetry with classical singer Peyee Chen, to a score by Gavin Bryars, the pair are accompanied by the recorded voices of the Punjabi-speaking community of Southend and a group of Romansh speakers from Switzerland. […]

Blame the polyphony of Raga Dawn on Bergvall’s “bilingual brain” – her description, incidentally, though “multilingual” might be more accurate. Born in Germany to French and Norwegian parents, she moved to London in 1989, drawn by art and love (namely, her then girlfriend), and became energised by the queer arts scene of the Vauxhall underground.

As interesting as all that is, what prompted me to post was this passage:

Bergvall’s thoughts on these issues are set out in a thought-provoking 2010 essay, Middling English, in which she attempts to break down the development of modern English into four elements: midden, middle, middling and meddle. As she puts it, the “midden” is the soils of the English language, originated in multiple cultures. The “middle” is the historical Middle English period where the language settled into the one we recognise today. “Middling” is any attempt to standardise English, too often in prejudicial ways. This is something we see playing out in current political and social debate. Should new immigrants learn English as standard? And if so, what English do we mean? As Bergvall says, every new generation brings their own words to the mix: “Pop music and rap and even slam poetry all disturb the language.”

So what about the “meddle”? “The meddle is the artist or writer who messes things up and shows up the language’s complexity and richness,” says Bergvall. “The meddle is wanting to tackle issues, to bring other areas of awareness to the work you make.” Audiences can meddle, too, she adds. “We’re simply jumping in and activating it.”

Good for her: more meddling, less middling! (Thanks go to Trevor for the link.)

Italy’s Many Dialects.

A NY Times “What in the World” piece by Gaia Pianigiani describes the results of Italy’s complex linguistic situation:

Say you’re shopping at a farmer’s market in Rome, and you’d like to pick up some nice, ripe watermelon. The signs at some stands call it “anguria”; others say “cocomero” or “melone d’acqua.”

Why so many different words for the same fruit? Because in their daily lives, many Italians don’t speak Italian.

That is, they don’t shop or chat or argue in standard Italian, the kind that is studied in school and heard on the news. They use one of the country’s hundreds of local dialects, each with its own quirks of pronunciation, inflection and vocabulary.

“You call it watermelon in New York, and that would be ‘anguria’ in Italian,” said Tino Mattiussi, a third-generation owner of a fruit and vegetable stand in the colorful Campo de’ Fiori market in central Rome. “But here, everyone knows it as ‘cocomero,’ so I wrote what people understand better.”

A few stands away, Mauro Ranucci had a different approach. “We advertise it as ‘anguria,’ as that is Italian,” he said firmly. “At least, that’s how people call it in the north.” When a southerner once asked him for a “melone d’acqua,” Mr. Ranucci said, it took him a minute to realize what he meant.

“We all speak Italian with strong regional connotations, even if the discrepancies are minor,” said Giovanni Ronco, vice director of the Italian Linguistic Atlas. “No other country has so many linguistic differences in such a limited space.”

There follows a brief discussion of relevant history. Oh, and if you were wondering, cocomero has antepenultimate stress: co-CO-mero. Thanks, Eric!

Peevers Aren’t Nice.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Julie Boland and Robin Queen reported here by MJ Franklin:

A study published in March suggests what we’ve all long suspected: People who are obsessed with grammar aren’t as nice as the rest of us.

For the study, scientists Julie Boland and Robin Queen from the University of Michigan asked 83 participants to read email responses to an ad for a roommate, and then evaluate the writer on both social and academic criteria.

There were three types of emails shown in the study: emails without errors, emails with grammatical errors only and emails with typos only. […]

According to Boland and Queen’s research, more agreeable participants (as determined by the results of the Big Five Personality index) tended to rate grammar errors less harshly than less agreeable participants, who showed more sensitivity to “grammos” — homophonous grammar errors like to/too, it’s/its.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, then speculates that the difference between the two groups may be “perhaps because less agreeable people are less tolerant of deviations from convention.”

Mind you, I wouldn’t put money on the accuracy of the results, but if it makes even a few people think twice about “correcting” other people’s spelling and grammar, I’m all for it.