By a Cold Ocean.

Dmitry Pruss sent me this link (in Russian), called Старинные люди у Холодного океана [People from Old Times by a Cold Ocean]; it contains excerpts from the 1914 book of that title by Vladimir Zenzinov, who (as you’ll see if you visit that Wikipedia link) had an extraordinary life. Among his adventures as a member of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party was being arrested and banished to Siberia; after he escaped and was recaptured, he was sent to northern Yakutia “to make escape impossible” and “devoted himself to ethnographic studies,” among which was the book in question, about the villagers of Russkoye Ustye in the delta of the Indigirka River, “settled several centuries ago by ethnic Russians, who mixed to some extent with the indigenous Even people.” The LiveJournal link has remarkable photos; I thought I’d translate the first part of the section on language (IX. Особенности языка):

In the course of centuries, the speech of the Indigirkans was influenced in very complex ways by the language of the Yakuts and the people of the Kolyma region, as well as by the Russians who had long lived in Yakutia, who had also developed distinctive linguistic features thanks to their long separation from Russia in Siberia. Apart from that, the people of Russkoye Ustye preserved words and expressions peculiar to them, for example “Yo, brat!” [an expression of pain or strong feeling] and “kabyt’” [= kak-nibud’ ‘so-so’].

The weakness of the influence of the Yakut language on the speech of the Indigirkans […] is perhaps the most interesting feature of their way of life. Knowledge of Yakut is not widespread; only a few inhabitants can make use of a limited vocabulary of Yakut words, with the help of which they manage to make themselves understood by Yakuts and Yukagirs. In this they differ greatly from the Kolymans and the Ust-Yanskyans, for whom Yakut is as native a language as Russian. The Russians of Ust-Yansk and Kolyma speak only Yakut among themselves; Yakut is the conversational language of the entire North.

Zenzinov goes on to say that the people of Russkoye Ustye are well aware of their unusual ways of speaking, and will often say to visitors “We say it like this; how would you say it?”

AP Hyphen Outrage.

Merrill Perlman of the Columbia Journalism Review writes with her usual sensible approach (see this LH post from April) about the foofaraw that’s sprung up around the internet about recent changes in the Associated Press Stylebook’s hyphenation guidelines:

Even though the guidelines were not sudden, and even though AP explained them thoroughly, people were upset. Among those guidelines was to omit a hyphen in a compound modifier “if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen.” One example—the one that gave many editors fits—was “first quarter touchdown.” Well, angry mob, your voices were heard. AP announced on Twitter that it would reverse its decision […]

But were you satisfied? Of course not […] In fact, even after the Twitter reversal, the myth persisted that AP had laid down “laws” about the use of hyphens […] The apparent problem is that AP refuses to set down “rules.” As the stylebook says, using hyphens “can be a matter of taste, judgment and style sense.” Judging by many of the Twitter reactions to the change to the changes, people want “rules.” “Rules” are easy to follow; “guidelines” require you to stick your neck out and decide based on what the orchid-loving detective Nero Wolfe would call “intelligence guided by experience.” It means you have to believe in your own decision-making abilities. […]

Slate, which called the AP Stylebook “that fusty old guide to grammar and punctuation that most news publications have relied on for decades,” used the occasion to talk about why people react with such vehemence to changes most people wouldn’t even notice. “Grammar and punctuation and diction rules exist to uphold consistency, which in turn helps writing become clearer to the greatest number of possible readers,” Seth Maxon wrote. “As fewer and fewer people seem to agree on not just the truth, but the very meaning of language, it’s a tool that’s more valuable than ever.” The changes “made us question our faith. Institutions and rules are crumbling everywhere we look, and now, this too succumbs to anarchy? The AP Stylebook represents not just a set of laws about right and wrong, but the idea that something, anything, can be trustworthy and endure.” And when it looks like the institution is crumbling, people react as if the world were ending.

She ends with this admirable thought: “Creating our own grammar—and words, and usage—is how language changes. If you want ‘rules,’ make them for yourself, but be prepared to defend them.” And, I would add, try to accept the fact that people are going to break them.


Leah Donnella, of NPR’s Code Switch podcast and blog, has written a nice piece on “Podunk” as slang term and place name (with a murky history):

A common implication of Podunk is that it’s a place so dreary and remote that it’s not even worth situating on a map. One of the most famous people to refer to Podunk was Mark Twain, who in 1869 wrote that a certain fact was known even “in Podunk, wherever that may be.”

But there are a couple of things that people who use the term probably don’t know. First, Podunk is the name of a few real towns. There’s a Podunk in Connecticut, one in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts. The Connecticut Podunk is well-known (OK, not that well-known) for an annual bluegrass festival. […]

The other thing people likely don’t know? Podunk was a place name long before it became a punchline. Podunk is an Algonquian word. Quick explanatory comma: Algonquian languages are a family of indigenous languages spoken from New England to Saskatchewan to the Great Plains. Those languages include Fox, Cree and Ojibwe. There are a bunch of words in English that have Algonquian roots: skunk, moose, caribou. […] But beyond its Algonquian roots, much of the linguistic history of Podunk is kind of murky. “We have no idea what the word means,” says Ives Goddard, senior linguist emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and a leading expert on Algonquian languages. “You’ll be able to find guesses in the sources if you look around. Don’t believe any of it.” (I did, in fact, find some definitions — the most plausible being from the Nipmuc Indian Association of Connecticut’s quarterly newsletter: “Podunk or Pautunke, means ‘where you sink in mire’, a boggy place, in the Nipmuc dialect. But the Podunk called their homeplace Nowashe, ‘between’ rivers.”)

But according to Goddard, when it comes to Native American place names in the Eastern United States, a lot of what we think we know is actually misinformation. He says the standard source for these definitions is a man named William Bright, a linguist who in 2004 wrote a book called Native American Placenames of the United States. “He was a good linguist, a smart guy,” Goddard says of his colleague, who died in 2006. “But when he got to Eastern areas, there wasn’t any information.”

Rather than saying he didn’t know what certain place names meant, Goddard says, Bright cited a man named John C. Huden, who in 1962 published a book called Indian Place Names of New England. But Huden, Goddard adds, didn’t exactly have indisputable definitions himself. Huden “would look through all this amateur literature and find a [place] name, find a translation, and pick the one he liked,” Goddard explains. “And this book was considered authoritative. So if you’re looking at Bright, as I just did, he cites Huden, and then he cites like three or four people after Huden who are just copying Huden, of course, and are equally uninformed.”

That kind of thing drives me nuts. If you don’t know, just say so — don’t pick some amateur guess you happen to like!

Karamazov: Suddenly Halfway.

I’ve reached what is structurally the halfway mark of The Brothers Karamazov, the end of Part Two (Book Six) and of the first volume of my faded yellow 1970 Soviet edition, even though it’s considerably less than half the number of total pages, and I thought I’d post a few thoughts about what I’ve read. I’m not going to go on and on about the Grand Inquisitor and the Life of Zosima (which end the first half) like everyone else does, partly because everyone else does and partly because I just can’t take them as seriously as I did in college now that I’ve read the Writer’s Diary — the first just seems to me like a fictionalized version of the rants from the Diary (Catholicism is going to merge with socialism and become atheist and stamp on the human face forever!) and the second like a barely fictionalized version of the ideals he promotes there (we must all love our neighbor and take on each other’s guilt!). It’s kind of interesting to see how Dostoevsky handles the intractable problem of theodicy (no better than anyone else, because there’s really nothing you can say but “God works in mysterious ways,” no matter how you dress it up), but it does stop the novel dead in its tracks for a while, much as the historical rants do in War and Peace (the difference being that Dostoevsky’s rants are better written). I will, however, quote the bit that resonates most strongly with my personal sense of how to approach the world morally, Alyosha’s response to Lise’s “aren’t we showing contempt for him, analyzing his soul like this?”:

Рассудите, какое уж тут презрение, когда мы сами такие же, как он, когда все такие же, как он. Потому что ведь и мы такие же, не лучше. А если б и лучше были, то были бы все-таки такие же на его месте…

Think about it, how can it be contempt when we ourselves are just like him, when everyone is just like him? Because we too are just like him, no better. And even if we were better, we would have been just the same in his place….

[Read more…]

Tar Chippings And Tunes.

A delightful short episode of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, broadcast on October 2, 1974:

While working on a feature about John B Keane, Frank Hall chances upon some Cork County Council road workers tarring a stretch of road between Kiskeam and Boherbue. […] Frank Hall initially wants to know if the men have seen Eddie Bradley, but the subject soon turns to turns to the difference between fresh tarring and loose chippings. Maurice O’Keeffe explains that loose chippings means there is a dangerous surface and Ned Dennehy adds that they could break the glass in the car.

Maurice O’Keeffe does not have a preference but decides fresh tarring gives a better result. He then asks Frank Hall if he has a fiddle in his car. When Frank Hall cannot provide a fiddle, Maurice O’Keeffe sends him on an errand to collect his own fiddle from his home in Kiskeam so he can play some music while the men take their lunch break.

I’m a sucker for this kind of Irish conversation (some of the men are more immediately comprehensible than others). Thanks, Trevor!

Probing Herculaneum Scrolls.

Nicola Davis writes in the Guardian about gingerly attempts to read what’s written in carbonized scrolls:

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79 it destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, their inhabitants and their prized possessions – among them a fine library of scrolls that were carbonised by the searing heat of ash and gas. But scientists say there may still be hope that the fragile documents can once more be read thanks to an innovative approach involving high-energy x-rays and artificial intelligence.

“Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not any more,” said Prof Brent Seales, chair of computer science at the University of Kentucky, who is leading the research. […] Experts have attempted to unroll about half of the scrolls through various methods over the years, although some have been destroyed in the process and experts say unrolling and exposing the writing to the air results in the ink fading. […]

While ink in some Herculaneum fragments has been found to contain lead, Seales says it is only trace amounts and does not allow the inside of the scrolls to be read using x-ray data alone. Seales says it has also proved impossible to replicate findings that letters within Herculaneum scrolls can be deciphered by the naked eye from scans captured by a slightly different x-ray technique. As a result the team have come up with a new approach that uses high-energy x-rays together with a type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning.

The method uses photographs of scroll fragments with writing visible to the naked eye. These are used to teach machine learning algorithms where ink is expected to be in x-ray scans of the same fragments, collected using a number of techniques. The idea is that the system will pick out and learn subtle differences between inked and blank areas in the x-ray scans, such as differences in the structure of papyrus fibres. Once trained on the fragments, it is hoped the system can be used with data from the intact scrolls to reveal the text within. Seales said the team have just finished collecting the x-ray data and are training their algorithms, adding that they will apply the system on the scrolls in the coming months. […]

Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist and classicist at the University of Oxford who has been involved in training the team’s algorithms, said the project was immensely exciting and agreed it is possible the text might turn out to be Latin. “A new historical work by Seneca the Elder was discovered among the unidentified Herculaneum papyri only last year, thus showing what uncontemplated rarities remain to be discovered there,” he said. But Obbink is hoping the scrolls might even contain lost works, such as poems by Sappho or the treatise Mark Antony wrote on his own drunkenness. “I would very much like to be able to read that one,” he said.

I know there’s no actual news here, and I should probably wait until they actually decipher something, but the idea is so exciting (Sappho!) I couldn’t hold off. Thanks, Trevor!

50 People Show Us Their States’ Accents.

This short video from Condé Nast Traveler is not in any sense scientific, but it’s a lot of fun. The speakers are an engaging bunch, and instead of proceeding grimly through the states one by one, if a speaker from Oklahoma says that people in the northern part of the state sound like Iowans, it will switch to an Iowan talking about her state. You may not learn anything, but I think you’ll enjoy it. (Thanks, Ariel!)

The Schoolmaster.

Another wonderful quote courtesy of the indispensable Michael Gilleland:

        A vagabond, whose trade was living upon other people, once had the idea, although he could not read or write, of becoming a schoolmaster, since that was the only profession in which he could make money by doing nothing. For it is notorious that anyone can be a schoolmaster, although he be completely ignorant of the rules and elementary principles of language. It is only necessary to be cunning enough to make others believe that one is a great grammarian; and that is not difficult, since really great grammarians are usually poor men with narrow, mean and disparaging intellects, impotent and incomplete.

The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, tr. Powys Mathers from the French of J.C. Mardrus, Vol. II (1986; rpt. London: Routledge, 1995), p. 390 (Night 382)

The Uses of Books.

A decade ago I quoted Leah Price on shorthand; now Prospect’s Sameer Rahim interviews her about her new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books:

Sameer Rahim: Towards the end of the book, you quote Marshall McLuhan writing in 1966, who listed books as an example of outdated antiques. People have been declaring the end of the book for a while, haven’t they?

Leah Price: When people talk about the death of the book, they’re often talking about two quite different things. One is the death of a particular kind of object that looks and feels and smells a certain way. And the other is a set of practices or activities, which that object has sometimes prompted. You might think of that as the difference between form and function. Personally, I’m not concerned about the survival of the object; I am very concerned about the survival of those human practices or activities.

SR: There’s this myth of an ideal reader, isn’t there?

LP: In the digital age we think of someone reading a printed book curled up in bed or sprawled under a tree, reading for pleasure, probably some classic work of imaginative literature. But for most of the history of printed books, that kind of reading has been distinctly in the minority. If you asked people in Britain or in the US a generation ago what book they had in their house, the most common answers would have been a Bible and a telephone book. So when we blame the absence of printed books for the distraction and the impatience and superficiality of the digital world, it’s unfair. We’re comparing an ideal scenario of print reading with a more realistic assessment of digital reading. We kid ourselves if we think that the presence of printed books would magically make us more attentive and more focused.

SR: With the rise of audiobooks there’s been a debate over whether listening to a book means you have really read it. Again, though, when literacy rates were much lower, it would have been quite normal for people to listen to books being read aloud.

LP: It could also be a mark of status. If you were an aristocrat whose servant stood behind the chair and read aloud to you while you were having your hair powdered, this would be a form of conspicuous consumption. Although, it could also take the form of a group of semi-literate working-class men having the newspaper read aloud to them in the pub. The resurgence of reading aloud can be explained in large part by the problem of finding time in stolen moments. Since the early 19th century, the commute has been one of the great moments of reading. The great age of the newspaper in the 19th century is also the great age of the railroad. And you can see the audiobook is filling the space occupied earlier by the newspaper on the train.

There’s lots more interesting stuff, about writing in books and the closure of libraries among other things. (I have to say I’m astonished that anyone would question whether listening to a book means you have really read it, but we live in contentious times.) Thanks, Bathrobe!

Nosowitz on Scots.

Dan Nosowitz of Atlas Obscura has been frequently featured at LH, and so has the Scots language, but now I have a chance to offer you Nosowitz’s How the English Failed to Stamp Out the Scots Language, a nice little introduction to the subject:

Scots arrived in what is now Scotland sometime around the sixth century. Before then, Scotland wasn’t called Scotland, and wasn’t unified in any real way, least of all linguistically. It was less a kingdom than an area encompassing several different kingdoms, each of which would have thought itself sovereign—the Picts, the Gaels, the Britons, even some Norsemen. In the northern reaches, including the island chains of the Orkneys and the Shetlands, a version of Norwegian was spoken. In the west, it was a Gaelic language, related to Irish Gaelic. In the southwest, the people spoke a Brythonic language, in the same family as Welsh. The northeasterners spoke Pictish, which is one of the great mysterious extinct languages of Europe; nobody really knows anything about what it was.

The Anglian people, who were Germanic, started moving northward through England from the end of the Roman Empire’s influence in England in the fourth century. By the sixth, they started moving up through the northern reaches of England and into the southern parts of Scotland. Scotland and England always had a pretty firm border, with some forbidding hills and land separating the two parts of the island. But the Anglians came through, and as they had in England, began to spread a version of their own Germanic language throughout southern Scotland.

There was no differentiation between the language spoken in Scotland and England at the time; the Scots called their language “Inglis” for almost a thousand years. But the first major break between what is now Scots and what is now English came with the Norman Conquest in the mid-11th century, when the Norman French invaded England. […] Norman French began to change English in England, altering spellings and pronunciations and tenses. But the Normans never bothered to cross the border and formally invade Scotland, so Scots never incorporated all that Norman stuff. […]

Over the next few centuries, Scots, which was the language of the southern Scottish people, began to creep north while Scottish Gaelic, the language of the north, retreated. By about 1500, Scots was the lingua franca of Scotland. The king spoke Scots. Records were kept in Scots. Some other languages remained, but Scots was by far the most important. […]

At this point it’s probably worth talking about what Scots is, and not just how it got here. Scots is a Germanic language, closely related to English but not really mutually comprehensible. There are several mutually comprehensible dialects of Scots, the same way there are mutually comprehensible dialects of English. Sometimes people will identify as speaking one of those Scots dialects—Doric, Ulster, Shetlandic. Listening to Scots spoken, as a native English speaker, you almost feel like you can get it for a sentence or two, and then you’ll have no idea what’s being said for another few sentences, and then you’ll sort of understand part of it again. Written, it’s a bit easier, as the sentence structure is broadly similar and much of the vocabulary is shared, if usually altered in spelling. The two languages are about as similar as Spanish and Portuguese, or Norwegian and Danish.

There’s a lot more at the link, including a discussion of how Scots got (perhaps inadvertently) suppressed (“The English didn’t police the way the Scottish people spoke; they simply allowed English to be seen as the language of prestige, and offered to help anyone who wanted to better themselves learn how to speak this prestigious, superior language”). Thanks, jack!