English Phrases Used Only By Indians.

The title’s an exaggeration (“do the needful” is not restricted to Indian English, and “first-class” is reasonably common elsewhere), but the piece is funny, and the (unrelated except for linguistic humor) illustrations are hilarious: Rutu Ladage’s “English Phrases Used Only By Indians Which The World Knows Nothing About,” from India Times.

Vaguely related, in the sense that one language is making odd use of another: there is a Latin tag “Lingua latina non penis canina” (“The Latin language is not a dog’s penis”) that appears to exist only in Russian. I have no idea how this came about, but there’s an entire Lurkomore article on it (which starts by claiming it comes from medieval nerds; for Lurkomore, see this LH post).

Comparing Diachronies of Negation.

John Cowan sends me this link (prepublication draft of David Willis, Christopher Lucas and Anne Breitbarth, “Comparing Diachronies of Negation,” from their The History of Negation in the Languages of Europe and the Mediterranean, Vol. 1: Case Studies), adding:

It’s a fairly accessible paper (if you skip the formal-syntax section in pp. 6-7) that talks about how negation elements are replaced over time with new negation elements. In English, “ic ne secge” > “I ne seye not” > “I say not” > “I don’t say”, where the preverbal “ne” gets supplemented by not < ne-wiht ‘nothing’, which then replaces it and moves forward to attach to the new auxiliary, more or less re-creating the original situation. There are discussions of Germanic, Romance, Baltic, Slavic, Uralic, and Semitic languages, with lots of those complicated details we both love.

Definitely LH material; thanks, JC!

Timur’s Language(s).

A correspondent asks:

What language(s) would have been natively spoken by Timur the Lame, and what script would it / they have been written in?

I responded that he apparently spoke Turkish, but I wasn’t sure whether it would have been written in the Uyghur-based script of the Mongols or the Arabic-based script borrowed from Persian, and I thought I’d turn to the Varied Reader for enlightenment. What say you?

Curtius’s Guiding Principles.

I’ve just started Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, recommended by elessorn and others in this thread (why juggle half a dozen books when you can juggle a dozen, is my motto), and the first thing that greeted me was the list of ten Guiding Principles, untranslated quotations from Greek, Latin, German, French (Old and Modern), and Spanish. I was thinking it would cost me a certain amount of research to figure them all out, but a moment’s googling showed me that Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti had saved me the trouble in this post from 2014:

I could find existing translations of only the first three principles, so I tried to translate the others myself. Thanks very much to friends who patiently answered questions and made suggestions—any remaining errors and infelicities are my own fault. I’ve also added a few notes.

Here’s a sample of his very useful work:

4. Proverb:

Ne tu aliis faciendam trade, factam si quam rem cupis.

If you want something done, don’t give it to others to be done.

This proverb isn’t in Hans Walther, Proverbia Sententiaeque Latinitatis Medii Aevi (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963-1969), or Renzo Tosi, Dictionnaire des sentences latines et grecques, tr. Rebecca Lenoir (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2010). W.M. Lindsay quotes it as an old proverb (proverbii veteris) in the Latin preface to his edition of Isidore’s Etymologiae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), p. vi.

Being fundamentally lazy, I love it when people do my work for me (cf. this post on “Culturally Backward Nationalities”), so I offer my hearty thanks to Michael; the only thing I can think to add is a bit of context for the first three, so I will do that. The first, from Herodotus I.8 (πάλαι δὲ τὰ καλὰ ἀνθρώποισι ἐξεύρηται, ἐκ τῶν μανθάνειν δεῖ), is in the famous story of Candaules and Gyges; the former is so proud of his wife’s beauty he tells the latter to look at her naked, and the horrified response includes the remark that (in the Godley translation quoted in the blog post) “Men have long ago made wise rules from which one ought to learn,” or (in the version used in Paul L. MacKendrick and ‎Herbert M. Howe’s Classics in Translation) “Men of old discovered the proprieties, and it is our duty to learn from them.”

The second is from Scipio’s negotiations with the Carthaginians in Polybius 15:

But Scipio, on hearing from the Roman legates that both the senate and the people had readily accepted the treaty he had made with the Carthaginians and were ready to comply with all his requests, was highly gratified by this, and ordered Baebius to treat the Carthaginian envoys with all courtesy and send them home, acting, as I think, very rightly and wisely. For aware as he was of the high value attached by his own nation to keeping faith to ambassadors, he took into consideration not so much the deserts of the Carthaginians as the duty of the Romans. Therefore restraining his own anger and the bitter resentment he felt owing to the late occurrence, he did his best to preserve ‘the glorious record of our sires,’ as the saying is.

(The bit I have bolded is Curtius’s Principle.)

And the third is from Petronius 118:

“Yes, my young friends,” said Eumolpus, “poetry has led many astray. As soon as a man has shaped his verse in feet and woven into it a more delicate meaning with an ingenious circumlocution, he thinks that forthwith he has scaled Helicon. In this fashion people who are tired out with forensic oratory often take refuge in the calm of poetry as in some happier haven, supposing that a poem is easier to construct than a declamation adorned with quivering epigrams. But nobler souls do not love such coxcombry, and the mind cannot conceive or bring forth its fruit unless it is steeped in the vast flood of literature. One must flee away from all diction that is, so to speak, cheap, and choose words divorced from popular use, putting into practice, “I hate the common herd and hold it afar.”

The last quote, “odi profanum vulgus et arceo,” is the start of Horace Odes 3.1.

Addendum. I was a little nervous about the attribution of the Ortega quote (number 10) to “Obras (1932),” so I did a little googling and discovered it’s from a 1927 review of Ramón Menéndez Pidal’s Orígenes del español: Estado lingüístico de la Península Ibérica hasta el siglo XI (Madrid, 1926); the full parenthesis is:

(Es preciso que los hombres de ciencia vuelvan a caer en la cuenta de que escriben libros. Los mismos alemanes, que causaron originariamente el daño, comienzan a arrepentirse. Un libro de ciencia tiene que ser de ciencia; pero también tiene que ser un libro).

My translation (with the Principle bolded):

(Men of science need to realize once again that they are writing books. The same Germans who caused the damage are beginning to regret it. A book of science must be scientific, but it must also be a book.)

The Danger and Allure of the Past.

I am continuing to read Turner’s Philology (see this post), and I was struck by this passage about the reaction of Christians to the literature of the pagan past (p. 18):

Early Christians fretted over the dangers of pagan, secular literature; but few wanted to toss out baby and bathwater. Basil of Caesarea opined that pagan literature actually prepared students for Christianity. Augustine wished to pillage the classics of anything useful to Christian teaching and throw away the rest. (So he turned Roman rhetoric to the task of improving Christian preaching.) And yet all through his life Augustine grappled with Vergil, as Sabine MacCormack has shown, “whether by way of imitation, of adaptation, or of contradiction.” One fifth-century Roman aristocrat in Gaul kept his Christian books at one end of the library, where ladies sat, his pagan classics at the other, ‘male’ end. Cassiodorus, who in the sixth century adopted Augustine’s more severe precept, found room in it for Martianus Capella, whose pagan allegory he baptized for centuries of medieval readers. Cautiously, Christianity made itself more or less at home with pagan philology.

This is exactly the bind the newly triumphant Bolsheviks found themselves in in 1917: should they introduce the deprived proletarian masses to the classics (now stigmatized as bourgeois rather than pagan), or raze the whole edifice and start from scratch? There were loud voices in favor of the latter, but Lenin and Stalin were wedded to the art they’d grown up with, and the former view prevailed.

Red Star Tales.

Erik at XIX век writes:

If you like or are curious about Russian science fiction, you might be interested in supporting this translation project. It’s a collection of stories from the 1890s to the 1980s or 1990s, edited by Yvonne Howell and translated by Howell, Anindita Banerjee, Sibelan Forrester, Muireann Maguire, Kevin Reese, and Liv Bliss.

As a longtime fan of both sf and Russian literature, I hope this project succeeds!

A couple of totally unrelated questions for the Russian-speakers in my audience:

1) In reading Samuil Lurie’s Изломанный аршин, I came across this passage:

Худшее, что можно сказать про любого нежелательного: хочет быть (или: думает, что он) умнее всех. Это — волчий билет. (А комсомольский — на стол! И совету отряда поставить на вид: просмотрели, упустили товарища.)

I knew a волчий билет (literally ‘wolf’s ticket/card’) was (in tsarist times) a passport with a note of the holder’s political unreliability, and metaphorically means someone has a black mark against him or is blacklisted, but I had no idea what “комсомольский — на стол!” meant. Was there some ritual in which a Komsomol member had to stand on a table to be yelled at? Sashura explained to me that when you were expelled from the Komsomol you had to hand in your membership card (комсомольский билет) — ‘put it on the table’ — at a Komsomol group or party meeting, or at a bureau session/meeting, and sent me this clip from the musical Стиляги in which a member does just that. But what I want to know is, is на стол one of those prepositional phrases in which the stress is attracted by the preposition (NA stol)? And is there anywhere a full list of such combinations (which I love, as I love all irregularities and unpredictable phenomena)? Terence Wade’s A Comprehensive Russian Grammar has a partial list on pp. 419ff. which I will pass on here as an aid to others who might want it (the ones in brackets I have added from other sources, and Wade explains that “alternative stress is possible in many literal contexts, while idioms retain prepositional stress”):

до дому, до ночи, до смерти, за борт, за волосы, за год, за голову, за город, за гору, за два/две (три, пять, шесть, семь, восемь, девять, десять, сто), за день, за зиму, за косу, за зиму, за лето, за море, за ногу/ноги, за нос, за ночь, за плечи, за полночь, за реку, за руку/руки, за спину, за стену, за угол, за ухо/уши, за щеку, за городом, за морем, за ухом, из виду, из дому, из лесу, из носу, на берег, на бок, на борт, на воду, на год, на голову, на гору, на два (три, пять, шесть, семь, восемь, девять, десять, сто), на день, на дом, на зиму, на лето, на море, на ногу/ноги, на нос, на ночь, на пол, на реку, на руку/руки, на спину, на стену, на ухо, [на землю, на поле], на море, (бок) о бок, об пол, (рука) об руку, [о землю, о стол], по два/две, по двое, по три, по трое, по сто, по лесу, по морю, по полю, [по льду, по берегу, по лугу, по носу], под воду, под гору, под ноги, под руку/руки, под боком, при смерти, [у моря]

But I wish I had a full list to check, so I’d know whether to say NA stol or na STOL. [Update: Sashura says it's na STOL, with stress on the noun, but I still want to know if there's a general resource.]

2) I recently learned the word пай ‘good’ (from Finnish and Estonian pai), used for children, as in пай-мальчик ‘good boy.’ What I want to know is whether it is also used for pets; can I call Lyuba “пай-кошка”?

Untranslated World Literature.

Alexander Beecroft has a post at the Verso blog listing five “important works of world literature unavailable in the English language.” Right off the bat he cheats by including Ruan Ji’s “Poems which sing my emotions” (詠懷詩), which has in fact been translated: “a translation by Graham Hartill was published in China in 1988 and reprinted there in 2006, but it’s available in only a handful of university libraries, and not for sale at Amazon.” I can understand your desire to see his work more widely available, but when you’ve only got five slots, surely you could use them all for untranslated works that are actually untranslated.

But never mind, I forgive him because the others are so enticingly described; I was particularly taken with 3 and 4:

3. Constanzo Beschi (1680-1747) Thembavani, a Tamil-language epic on St. Joseph.

…The Thembavani is said to draw on two rich, but utterly distinct, strands of epic tradition: the Tamil tradition of devotional epic, which in turn derives from both Sanskrit epic and a rich local lyric tradition; and the Renaissance Italian epic tradition of Ariosto and Tasso. As such, it ranks as one of the earliest works (to my knowledge at least) which attempts to integrate European and non-European aesthetics into a single work of imaginative literature. It’s an unbelievably strange and fascinating prologue to colonial and post-colonial literature, but one not accessible to those who don’t know Tamil. Elijah Hoole, a nineteenth-century Methodist missionary who himself translated parts of the Bible into Tamil, offers a glimpse into this strange text, with some selections from the description of Jerusalem in the second canto:

“There were swarms of contending crocodiles, showing teeth sharp as a sword, and curved like the fair new moon, opening their fleshy mouths, and flashing fire from their eyes, as though the moat had formerly been deepened to hell, and the demons lying there had assumed and wandered about in a terrifying form.”

4. Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil (1866-1945). Aşk-ı Memnu (“Forbidden Love”) 1900.

It’s one of the first novels written in Ottoman Turkish, and one of the most highly acclaimed, a sort of Madame Bovary set in turn-of-the-century Istanbul. … I translated a sentence from the opening of the novel (from the review of the German translation in Der Spiegel):

“They were by now so used to these chance encounters with the mahogany boat, which came close to a collision with them each time, that today they barely seemed to notice when, on their return from Kalender, they came within a hair of colliding with it again.”

This sentence seems to give us what we want from a novel – hints of complex and perhaps illicit social interaction among the well-to-do; a whiff of exoticism; the sense of total immersion in a social world – that it’s frustrating not to be able to read more.

Here‘s a post that links to this “Translate This Book!” list, and here‘s my decade-old lament at the absence of a translation of Abdelrahman Munif’s historical novel Ard Al-Sawad (an absence that, I need hardly say, still continues). Thanks for the link, Trevor!

The OED in Two Minutes.

The OED has created an amazing feature:

Each data point shown here represents the first recorded use of a word in English, positioned according to the language from which the word was borrowed. The size of the data point indicates the frequency of the word: larger bubbles for higher-frequency words, smaller bubbles for lower-frequency words. The progress bar at the bottom tracks the growth of English, subdivided into the major language groups from which words are derived.

There’s plenty more information at the link; here‘s the interactive map itself if you just want to get started. Warning: intensely addictive, and each word shown below each map is linked to the OED entry (they seem to have made them all accessible for this purpose); if I didn’t have to get work done I’d pause it at each new year and investigate every word. (If you click the double arrow it zooms forward so you see the whole thing in two minutes, but I prefer the slower, single-arrow route.)


Yugambeh is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken on the southeast coast of Queensland; according to Wikipedia, “Yugambeh is one of some dozen or two dozen dialects of the Bandjalang language. Among the differences in Yugambeh is that yugambeh (or yugam) is the word for no.” The Yugambeh Museum, Language and Heritage Research Centre “aims to record and promote the traditional knowledge of our region, especially the Yugambeh language, which was spoken throughout south east Queensland.” The State Library of Queensland has a nice page on it with links to various resources, and there’s even a free app (“Includes audio, dictionary and pictionary files”). All this is what I call putting the internet to good use; thanks for the links, Bathrobe!

The Power of Parataxis.

I was a little hard on Erich Auerbach recently, so I thought I’d right the balance by showcasing him at his best. Here he’s discussing a passage from Saint Augustine about a friend of his youth who was dragged to the gladiator shows and became addicted to them, conveniently available online in Latin (scroll down to CAPUT 8: “Non sane relinquens…”) and English; after describing the content (“And such an about-face from one extreme to the very opposite is also characteristically Christian”), he moves to the style, the reminiscences of classical writers like Cicero. He continues:

The rhetorical element makes a more classical impression than in Ammianus or Jerome; yet it is clear—and unmistakably so even at a single glance—that we are not dealing with a classical text. The tone has something urgently impulsive, something human and dramatic, and the form exhibits a predominance of parataxes. Both of these characteristics, either considered individually or in their joint effect, are manifestly unclassical. If, for example, we examine the sentence, nam quodam pugnae casu ["For, upon the fall of one in the fight"], etc., which contains a whole series of hypotactically introduced members, we find that its climax is a movement which is at once dramatic and paratactic: aperuit oculos, et percussus est ["opened his eyes, and was struck"], etc.; and as we try to trace the impression back, we are reminded of certain Biblical passages, which in the mirror of the Vulgate become: Dixitque Deus: fiat lux, et facta est lux; or: ad te clamaverunt, et salvi facti sunt; in te speraverunt, et non sunt confusi (Ps. 22: 6); or Flavit spiritus tuus, et operuit eos mare (Exod. 15: 10); or: aperuit Dominus os asinae, et locuta est (Num. 22: 28). In all of these instances there is, instead of the causal or at least temporal hypotaxis which we should expect in classical Latin (whether with cum or postquam, whether with an ablative absolute or a participial construction) a parataxis with et; and this procedure, far from weakening the interdependence of the two events, brings it out most emphatically; just as in English it is more dramatically effective to say: He opened his eyes and was struck … than: When he opened his eyes, or: Upon opening his eyes, he was struck …

I found that perceptive and convincing, and I’m glad I studied enough Latin in my youth to be able to follow it. (Parataxis, for those unfamiliar with the term, is “a literary technique, in writing or speaking, that favors [...] the use of coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions.”) And if anyone is interested in what those contests were like, a new book, Jerry Toner’s The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games, sounds well worth a look.