A Hellenistic Jewel Box.

From G.W. Bowersock’s NYRB review of “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

The final galleries in the exhibition deliver us into the new age with an enigmatic bronze portrait bust of Juba II, the Augustan king of Mauretania (today’s Morocco). He is one of the emblematic figures of the newly formed Roman Empire. In his own person he sums up the complexity of the Mediterranean world that followed the Hellenistic kingdoms. He was a North African possessed of a curiosity and erudition that would have embarrassed even Saint Augustine, another North African of three centuries later. Juba presided over a realm at the southwestern corner of Rome’s empire where Greek was read and spoken, and through his marriage to Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s daughter he had acquired strong ties with Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. He was a learned and multilingual scholar who furnished the results of his researches on Arabia to Augustus’s grandson, Gaius Caesar, as he was planning an expedition into the region. Juba’s kingdom was a kind of Hellenistic jewel box that kept Greek learning alive in the West even as the Roman government in Italy was growing increasingly autocratic.

If I knew about Juba and his Hellenophile kingdom, I’d forgotten. (The whole review, which is not behind the paywall, is worth reading as a roundup of the Roman/Hellenistic interface in general and Pergamon in particular.)

Irish of the Burren.

I’m a sucker for lost-dialect stories, and especially for Irish dialects, so this piece by Ciarán Lenoach was meat and drink to me:

Poet and playwright Liam Ó Muirthile, who was buried in Baile Bhuirne in the Cork Gaeltacht yesterday, was also an accomplished broadcaster and worked for many years in RTÉ. While working on the Irish-language programme Súil Thart in 1980, he went to the Burren in northwest Clare to speak to two of the last remaining native Irish speakers in that area.

By that time, there were only a handful of speakers of that particular dialect left and by recording two of them Liam Ó Muirthile preserved for us a little piece of socio-linguistic history. […] In the following video, Tomás talks about his native place and Maggie tells us about her family, her school and her heartburn. She even ticks him off for apparently not understanding her. […]

Prof Ó Curnáin says that although northwest Clare is geographically very close to south and east Galway and the Aran Islands, due to historical socio-political circumstances the Irish dialect there resembled more the Irish of Waterford.

Liam Ó Muirthile had hoped to record more of the Clare Irish speakers but the batteries in television cameras in those days had a short lifespan. Nonetheless, he left us a very valuable snapshot of the linguistic variety and diversity that once existed in Ireland.

Thanks, Trevor!

The Crocodile and the Liars.

After reading a novella by Leskov and dipping into the first version of War and Peace (see this post), I turned to a little-known piece by Dostoevsky, Крокодил [The Crocodile], and enjoyed it thoroughly. I mean, I can see why it’s little-known; it’s not only unfinished but very silly, a throwback to his early days writing feuilletons for the newspapers. It’s about a man who is dragged by his wife to see a crocodile on display in the St. Petersburg Arcade and winds up inside, quite content and expecting to become famous — he wants his wife to start having salons in their apartment and have him wheeled in to give lectures. When I described the plot to my wife, she said “That doesn’t sound like Dostoevsky!” It doesn’t, and yet it is, and it’s a lot of fun. Here’s a passage of philological interest, from the swallowed man’s imaginings of his future salon lectures:

Даже этимология согласна со мною, ибо самое название крокодил означает прожорливость. Крокодил, Crocodillo, — есть слово, очевидно, итальянское, современное, может быть, древним фараонам египетским и, очевидно, происходящее от французского корня: croquer, что означает съесть, скушать и вообще употребить в пищу.

Even etymology supports me, for the very word crocodile means voracity. Crocodile — crocodillo — is evidently an Italian word, dating perhaps from the Egyptian Pharaohs, and evidently derived from the French verb croquer, which means to eat, to devour, in general to absorb nourishment.

(The translation is Garnett’s, from the link above.)

After that, I turned to Pisemsky’s Русские лгуны [Russian liars], a series of eight stories published, like the Dostoevsky, in 1865. The first seven are basically humorous anecdotes; the eighth is longer and more serious: Красавец [The handsome man], in which Marya Nikolaevna, an official’s wife, falls in love with the worthless but handsome Imshin and follows him into exile when he is arrested for murdering a 14-year-old girl. The striking thing about it to me was the similarity of the ending to that of Leskov’s Леди Макбет Мценского уезда [Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District] — both Katerina Izmailova and Marya Nikolaevna accompany the men they passionately love on the long journey to Siberia, though the former is a murderess and in shackles and the latter only an adulteress there by choice. I wonder if both Leskov and Pisemsky were inspired by the famous example of the Decembrists’ wives?

Next I move on to 1866 and Crime and Punishment. Oh, and in case anyone’s wondering what my wife and I are reading at bedtime these days, it’s Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; we’re about three-quarters of the way through.

Indo-European and the Yamnaya.

I’ve been reading David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past with increasing fascination, and I’ve just gotten to the part about the original Indo-European speakers. The whole book is gripping, starting with the history of genome studies (which have exploded in the last few years) and the surprising new things that have been learned about ancient humans and their migrations and minglings, but this is neither Biochemistryhat nor Archeologyhat, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the bit I could post about. It comes in Chapter 5, “The Making of Modern Europe”; Reich has been explaining how people of steppe ancestry arrived in Europe around 5,000 years ago and the various culture waves that entailed, with Yamnaya, Corded Ware, and Bell Beaker culture unexpectedly linked. Then he gets to Indo-European, describing Colin Renfrew’s influential 1987 hypothesis that the origin of the family “could be explained by one and the same event: the spread from Anatolia after nine thousand years ago of peoples bringing agriculture,” and David Anthony’s counterargument, the “steppe hypothesis—the idea that Indo-European languages spread from the steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas.” I’ll quote most of the rest of the chapter:

His key observation is that all extant branches of the Indo-European language family except for the most anciently diverging Anatolian ones that are now extinct (such as ancient Hittite) have an elaborate shared vocabulary for wagons, including words for axle, harness pole, and wheels. Anthony interpreted this sharing as evidence that all Indo-European languages spoken today, from India in the east to the Atlantic fringe in the west, descend from a language spoken by an ancient population that used wagons. This population could not have lived much earlier than about six thousand years ago, since we know from archaeological evidence that it was around then that wheels and wagons spread. This date rules out the Anatolian farming expansion into Europe between nine thousand and eight thousand years ago. The obvious candidate for dispersing most of today’s Indo-European languages is thus the Yamnaya, who depended on the technology of wagons and wheels that became widespread around five thousand years ago. […]

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Verbing and Nouning.

Stan Carey created a quiz for Macmillan Dictionary that “presents 10 words used as both nouns and verbs, and asks which came first. After answering, you’ll learn a little about the history of each usage.” I got to it from his post about it, where you will find more details; I got 7/10 (“Excellent. Well done!”), and would have gotten at least one more right except that (probably under the influence of the recent Slavic quiz) I assumed it was way tricksier than it turned out to be. Don’t make the same mistake; just put down what you think is right, and may you speed well!

Tolstoy’s 1805.

Having finished Doctor Zhivago (see this post), I have returned to the 19th century, first Leskov’s famous 1865 Леди Макбет Мценского уезда (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District — it gets excessively melodramatic in the middle, but the end is brilliant) and now Tolstoy’s 1805, the first version of War and Peace, published in the Jan.-Feb. 1865 and Feb.-April 1866 issues of Русский вестник (The Russian Messenger; you can read the beginning yourself at p. 48 of the Google Books scan). Had I but world enough and time, I’d go through the whole thing and compare it to the final version, but I’m restricting myself to the first few chapters, and the results are what you’d expect — some passages were cut, others added, and it’s quite interesting to see the changes. One addition is the passage at the very end of ch. 2 in which Anna Pavlovna keeps an anxious watch on Pierre; this means that this early appearance of the word интеллигенция [intelligentsia] can’t be backdated from 1869: “тут собрана вся интеллигенция Петербурга” [the whole intelligentsia of Petersburg was gathered here]. (The earliest occurrences in the Национальный корпус русского языка are from Afanasy Fet‘s 1863 Из деревни [From the village], e.g. “При старом порядке город был единственною целию всякой интеллигенции, а деревня не более как гнусным средством” [Under the old order, the city was the only goal of every intelligentsia, and the village was no more than a vile means].)

But what particularly struck me was this passage from ch. 1; Anna Pavlovna is chaffing Prince Vasily on being a bad father, and he responds:

— Je suis votre вѣрный рабъ, et à vous seule je puis l’аvouer. Мои дѣти — сe sont les entraves de mon eхistence. Это мой крестъ. Я такъ себѣ объясняю. Que voulez vous? — Онъ пoмолчалъ, выражая жестомъ свою пoкорность жестокой судьбѣ. — Да, ежелu бы можно было по проuзволу имѣть и неимѣть ихъ… Я увѣренъ, что въ нашъ вѣкъ будетъ сдѣлано это изобрѣтеніе.

“I am your faithful slave and to you alone I can confess it: my children are the bane of my existence. It is my cross. That is how I explain it to myself. Que voulez vous?” He fell silent, expressing his resignation to cruel fate by a gesture. “Yes, if it were possible arbitrarily to have or not have them… I’m sure that will be invented in our century.”

The last part, from Онъ пoмолчалъ [He fell silent] on, is deleted from the later text, and one can see why. The suggestion makes Anna Pavlovna nervous, and I’m sure it made the God-fearing public of the 1860s equally nervous — I’m actually surprised the censors let it through the first time.

By the way, I am now officially retired as a copyeditor (my Social Security deposits have begun arriving), so I’ll have lots more time to gobble up books!

Al-Jallad and Safaitic.

Elias Muhanna has a wonderful New Yorker piece, “A New History of Arabia, Written in Stone,” that hooks you as follows:

A few years ago, Ahmad Al-Jallad, a professor of Arabic and Semitic linguistics at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, opened his e-mail and was excited to see that he had received several photographs of rocks. The images—sent by Al-Jallad’s mentor, Michael Macdonald, a scholar at Oxford who studies ancient inscriptions—were of artifacts from a recent archeological survey in Jordan. Macdonald pointed Al-Jallad’s attention to one in particular: a small rock covered with runelike marks in a style of writing called boustrophedon, named for lines that wrap back and forth, “like an ox turning in a field.” It was Safaitic, an alphabet that flourished in northern Arabia two millennia ago, and Al-Jallad and Macdonald are among a very small number of people who can read it. Al-Jallad began to transcribe the text, and, within a few minutes, he could see that the rock was an essential piece of a historical puzzle that he had been working on for years.

I’ll quote some more bits, and send you to the link for the whole story:
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Subdisciplines of Linguistics.

You don’t have to be a Dungeons & Dragons player to enjoy the Alignment Chart featured in this Mark Liberman post at the Log! (I know so little about D&D that I didn’t realize it was involved before clicking the Alignment Chart Wikipedia link.) Mark called it “unfair but funny”; as I said in my first comment, “The only unfair part is that it omits historical linguistics (the Best Kind of Linguistics™).”

An interesting linguistic sidelight: in another comment, I used the common (I thought) abbreviation FTW. In response, ardj said:

I have consulted two dictionaries of abbreviations / acronyms, and, even after rejecting, e.g. Faith Through Worship and Free the Wales, I am none the wiser as to LH’s use of the ‘term’ (or possibly simply ‘quale’) FTW. Should I be reading it backwards ?

I responded: “Goodness, we live in such fragmented speech communities. In this context, FTW = for the win.”

Test Your Slavic Knowledge.

I’m afraid this will only appeal to a smallish minority of LH readers, since you have to know Russian to read the quiz and a fair amount about other Slavic languages to answer it, but it’s such fun if you have those qualifications that I can’t resist posting it. I was congratulated (“Поздравляем, ваш результат: 5 из 7”), but my good result was mostly luck — those questions are hard. But I did learn some interesting stuff (they dig up some really obscure material), and I recommend it to those who can get in the door. (Via Steven Lubman’s Facebook post.)

Against Foreign Language Education.

Obviously, these are not my views, but Bryan Caplan (in a podcast with Robert Wiblin) makes some points that are worth thinking about:

Out of all my ultra moderate reforms that I suggested, the one that I stand behind more strongly than any other is abolishing foreign language requirements in the United States. Because there, we’ve got a bunch of facts, which are: hardly any jobs use foreign languages, it takes a lot of time to get any good. And furthermore, in this book I’m able to go and snap together a bunch of pieces of data to show that virtually zero Americans claim to… even claim to speak a foreign language very well in school.

So I say, look, even if it did have these big payoffs, the system is just a waste of time, and people spend years doing it for nothing. And even here, I just run against a brick wall and people say, well in that case we should just improve the teaching of the foreign language.

Well, how about you do that and then get back to me, but continuing to fund the thing that we have, this is garbage!

And again, Washington state from what I understand, now allows kids to use a computer language in place of foreign language. Like, why not do that? Then it’s like, “No, no we need to do both.” People don’t have an unlimited amount of time, and shouldn’t teenagers be able to have a frigging childhood! Like how much of their childhood do you want to destroy with jumping through these stupid hoops?

Alex Tabarrok, who quotes the exchange, says “As someone who was educated in Canada I can attest to the waste of much foreign language instruction” and adds: “Don’t make the mistake of arguing that knowing a second language has many benefits. The point is that foreign language instruction in schools doesn’t teach a second language.” Sadly, I can’t argue with that as a general point, though there are honorable exceptions (like my grandsons’ Chinese immersion school). So should we just let people pick up languages if and as they need them, and not try to force-feed them in school? (Thanks, Kobi!)