Saving Jewish Iraqi.

Almost a decade ago I posted about “Jewish Arabic” and “Muslim Arabic” in Iraq; now Jacky Hugi (translated by Aviva Arad) reports on an effort to preserve the former:

On Friday mornings in a class on the heritage of Babylonian Jewry, Oded Amit has taught a small group of Israelis to speak Jewish Iraqi, the language of his ancestors. Amit, 70, was born and raised in Baghdad, and Jewish Iraqi was the language in which his mother raised him.

“It’s a beautiful language, rich, full of wisdom and wit, but it is disappearing,” Amit told Al-Monitor. “What I’m doing is an attempt, perhaps desperate, to save something of it — to keep it alive a little longer. The younger generation doesn’t speak it anymore. They heard their aunt or grandma speaking it, but for them it’s not a mother tongue, it’s a curiosity.” […] Before Amit began teaching, he spent long hours extracting the rules of grammar from his mother’s language.

“I conjugated the verb ‘to write’ and derived the rules from that,” he said. “The problem is that there are many exceptions.” His work is important for historical documentation, because literature on the Babylonian dialect is relatively scant. It includes a dictionary published by Gila Yona and Rahamim Rajouan in 1995, a dictionary by Yitzhak Avishur published in 2008 and the updatable online collection of researcher Yehuda Katz from Herzliya. The Center for Babylonian Jewish Heritage has a collection of many items, including vocal and visual documentation of the language. It is clear to all that, within a decade at the most, the living language will no longer be heard. […]

One of the well-known aspects of the dialect of Babylonian Jewry is its juicy curses. Yona and Rajouan included an appendix dedicated to curses in their dictionary. Especially entertaining are those that wish death by certain means on others. Someone you wish to see hanged is called “maqtua al-raqba,” that is, “decapitated neck.” For someone you wish would die in agony, you say, “Nfaqsit eino,” that is, “May his eye burst.” For wishing a simple death, there’s the moniker “zawaj a-almana,” meaning “the widow’s husband.” If the death wish applies to several people, you say “wahad thakal lakh,” meaning “that each would mourn the other.” Many curses are surprisingly also forms of praise. For instance, the word “naghl,” meaning “bastard,” is a curse that suggests spitting at a father’s crotch, since thanks to it, the child came into the world. It is usually meant as an expression of admiration.

Thanks, Trevor!


The language blog linʛuischtick has been around for almost five years, but I was unaware of it until a reader alerted me to it (thanks, Yoram!). The About page says:

I’m a linguist working in Canada. I use this blog to write about linguistics and language analysis, focusing on problems with traditional (prescriptive) grammar. I also have a series on the International Phonetic Alphabet. My preference is to write long-form posts that consider an issue in detail. Currently, my schedule allows me to update this blog about once per month. I still regularly update my Twitter @LinguaDiem, where I post about as many languages as I can (now past 600!).

The blogger also has a Twitter account called LinguaDiem, where the goal is to post about as many languages as possible; it is discussed at this post from last year:

One thing that has surprised me about LinguaDiem is how easy it has been. I always hear about how little documentation exists for languages, but finding at least one source for 500 languages was not hard. I’m really wondering when this is going to slow down. On the other hand, I’m only looking for one paper to read, and I don’t care about the topic. If you’re a linguist who wants to do research on a specific language, or investigate a particular phenomenon, then things would be much harder.

I have only once had a request for a language. And that was the only time that I couldn’t dig up any information, damn it. If there’s someone reading who knows about Kono, please leave a comment, or contact me on Twitter.

One of the things that I struggle with is how to write the name of a language. Languages have an enormous array of consonants and vowels, and the English alphabet is not well-suited to writing all of them. For this reason, there are often disagreements about how to transcribe names. For instance, there is a language spoken in China that can be spelled Akeu, Akheu, Akui, or Aki. The group that speaks this language is variously known as the Akha, the Aini, or the Kha Kaw.

I’ve just started investigating the archives; looks like a lot of interesting stuff there. Oh, and the “funny G” in the blog name represents a voiced uvular implosive.


A MetaFilter post included a video on “how to wear a shemagh,” and I left a comment saying:

In case anybody else is ignorant/curious, like me, it turns out a shemagh is what I knew as a keffiyeh; Wiktionary says it’s “British military use, from Arabic شْمَاغ (šmāḡ).” Which would explain why Yanks like me don’t know it.

Another commenter wrote:

languagehat: I think the “shemagh” term is gaining heavy use in the US – at least among military and wannabees – thanks to US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which means that various edc/prep/etc places sell them but with zombie skulls on them and such.

So of course now I want to know: do you, Varied Reader, know this term, and if so where do you know it from?

Novy Mir Online.

Novy Mir, the famous Russian (ex-Soviet) monthly literary magazine that published so many works that are now classics, has been putting its archives online; I got the news via XIX век, where Erik says “as of now they have most of 1925-30, everything since mid-1993, and isolated issues in between.” I have a treasured collection of old issues with their faded blue covers, and anyone who studied Russian, as I did, in the latter decades of the existence of the USSR will presumably be as pleased as I am at this news.

Das Empire.

I’m only on the first chapter of Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of those books I’ll recommend to people for years to come — I have to pause after just about every paragraph to think about what he just said and integrate it with what I already (thought I) knew. At any rate, one of his footnotes said “On the background to all the issues discussed in this paragraph, see A. Rose, Zwischen Empire und Kontinent: Britische Aussenpolitik vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg (Munich, 2011), esp. pp. 279–99 on Anglo-American relations,” and I was waylaid by the word Empire, which I didn’t recall seeing in a German context (the normal word for ’empire’ being Reich). The burning question was, how is it pronounced? It wasn’t in my pocket Bantam dictionary, so I went to the big gun, the Harper-Collins Unabridged (900 pages, weighs enough to stun a small bear with), and found it. I found it twice, in fact:

Empire 1 [ãˈpiːɐ] nt -(s), no pl (Hist) Empire; (~stil) Empire style.

Empire 2 [ˈɛmpaɪə] nt -(s), no pl (British) Empire.

So I guess since the referenced title appears to be about the British Empire, it would take the second pronunciation, which is essentially the English one (as opposed to the first, which is French). But this is an odd situation; can my German-speaking readers confirm for me that there are two (rare) words Empire with different pronunciations depending on whether the empire in question is British or not?

The Goethe Dictionary.

Gero Schliess reports on what the title accurately calls a “mammoth task”:

Precisely 70 years ago, the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin initiated the huge project of the Goethe dictionary – a lexicon precisely listing, describing and explaining every single word used by Goethe in his poems, dramas, letters, official writings and scientific essays.

In his speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the initiative, project manager Michael Niedermeier of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW) said that back then, the time was ripe for this project.

Following the Nazi era, people were yearning for the imperturbable values epitomized by Goethe and his era. At the time, nobody could have imagined that the project would go on over several generations, including the reunification of Germany.

Goethe commanded the biggest ever documented individual lexicon of 93,000 words. The researchers have collected everything, ranging from verbs and nouns to prepositions and articles. Martin Luther, by comparison, “only” commanded 23,000 words.

It took more than 20 years just to list and evaluate these 93,000 words. But now, an end is in sight. In terms of lexical evaluation, the present team consisting of 17 academics has reached the letters S and T. It is hoped that the project will be completed in 2025. Originally, the researchers had the year 2040 in mind. However, the patience and the budget of the BBAW and of the academies in Heidelberg and Göttingen cooperating with it turned out to be limited after all.

Michael Niedermeier says the dictionary, whose website is here, is a “central instrument of exploring Classicism, and it will take decades and centuries until its full effect will be realized.” Hyperbolic, perhaps, but surely one is permitted a bit of proud hyperbole when discussing a project like this. Thanks, Trevor!


Your enraging tidbit for the day, courtesy of Tristan Bridges:

Knowledge production is a collective endeavor. Individuals get named as authors of studies and on the covers of books and journal articles. But little knowledge is produced in such a vacuum that it can actually be attributed to only those whose names are associated with the final product. Bruce Holsinger, a literary scholar at the University of Virginia, came up with an interesting way of calling attention to some of women’s invisible labor in this process–typing their husbands’ manuscripts.

Holsinger noted a collection of notes written by husbands to their wives thanking them for typing the entirety of their manuscripts (dissertations, books, articles, etc.), but not actually explicitly naming them in the acknowledgement. It started with five tweets and a hashtag: #ThanksForTyping.

The most mind-boggling one: “my wife typed my manuscript drafts as soon as I gave them to her, even though she was caring for our first child, born in June 1946, and was also teaching part time in the chemistry department.” There are many more examples at the first link, as well as an interesting Google Ngram; I got there via MetaFilter, where appropriate indignation is expressed (and further tales of women’s contributions being given a dismissive head-pat are provided).

Old English Dictionaries.

Via Dave Wilton at, I present this useful introduction to three OE dictionaries. I’ll let Dave describe it:

Peter Buchanan, who teaches at New Mexico Highlands University, has assembled an excellent introduction to the three major Old English dictionaries: John Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (a.k.a., Clark Hall), Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Bosworth Toller), and Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE). Buchanan’s discussion can be found on his blog, Phenomenal Anglo-Saxons. Buchanan’s description is framed as a reference for students at NMHU, but it’s useful for anyone who wants an introduction to the dictionaries.

I have a hard copy (i.e., actual book) of Clark Hall, which is sufficient for my limited OE needs, but if I got into the language more deeply, I’d be grateful for the detailed and helpful descriptions at the link, and I imagine some of my readers will be as well.

A Justly Forgotten Poet.

Emily Bernhard Jackson begins her 2015 review of Emily Harrington’s Second Person Singular: Late Victorian Poets and the Bonds of Verse and Elizabeth Ludlow’s Christina Rossetti and the Bible with the refreshing sentence “There is, it should be admitted, such a thing as a justly forgotten poet.” I applaud the desire to rescue good writers who have fallen into obscurity, but that generous impulse can easily go too far; I like very much this paragraph in which Jackson explains the kind of problem it can cause:

One queries Harrington’s decision to include a chapter on Dollie Radford, for example. Several times in the course of her discussion, she herself confesses that Radford at least appears to be a minor poet, and the verse she includes does nothing to suggest otherwise. There seems no reason to anticipate a renaissance in Radford studies, and one cannot help feeling that this chapter might have been removed with little lost overall. Perhaps, in fact, the space opened up by removing the Radford chapter might have been used to lengthen the others, for the book’s other flaw is the brevity of its study of each poet. Granting only a chapter each to a group of smaller poets results in their continuing to seem small; these women might gain greater weight in the canon if each had been the subject of a longer, individually focused study.

Incidentally, on the next page of that issue of the TLS Claire Lowdon reviews James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life (which I wrote about here) and complains about his “fatal tidying instinct … the desire to gather up several disparate concepts into a single neat theory”; she says “Wood seems to feel the need to defend literature against charges of slightness. The result is obfuscation.” That seemed to shed some light on something that startled me in an interview with Wood I heard this morning, in which he confessed (or boasted, depending on how you take it) that he never reads genre literature, even though he’s happy to watch junk TV and read car magazines (so it’s not just a matter of not wanting to waste precious time). I suspect it’s the need, perhaps based somehow on his intensely religious upbringing, to have literature be Serious. That’s not a good basis for criticism, though it’s not incompatible with good criticism (obviously, since we’re talking about Wood); it’s all too reminiscent of the pomposity that infected the generation that came to prominence in the 1950s, Lionel Trilling et al. Literature — worthwhile literature, at least — is not made by high-minded creatures with ichor in their veins, and it’s a bad idea to approach it that way.

The Greatest Book Deal Ever.

OK, that’s a little hyperbolic maybe, but the subject lends itself to hyperbole. Nina Martyris at the Paris Review writes about “of one of the riskiest—and shrewdest—deals in publishing history,” the one that brought us Les Misérables:

In a new book, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’, the professor and translator David Bellos condenses tranches of research into a gripping tale about Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

The deal, Bellos points out, was pathbreaking on several levels. First, Hugo earned an unprecedented sum: 300,000 francs (roughly $3.8 million in today’s money) for an eight-year license. “It was a tremendous amount of money, and since it entitled the publisher to own the work for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature,” Bellos writes: “In terms of gold it would have weighed around ninety-seven kilos [213 pounds]. It was enough money to build a small railway or endow a chair at the Sorbonne.”

Second, the neophyte Belgian publisher Albert Lacroix was the antithesis of a Penguin Random House. At the time, the twenty-eight-year-old Lacroix had cut his teeth at his uncle’s printing press, and he didn’t have so much as a sou to his name. Determined to sign Hugo on, he set up his own firm—Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Co—and borrowed the entire amount for Hugo’s advance from the Oppenheim bank in Brussels, where he had contacts. Bellos marks it as “probably the first loan ever made by a bank to finance a book,” which means “Les Misérables stands at the vanguard of the use of venture capital to fund the arts.”

There’s much, much more, including such piquant details as “The text was as fiercely embargoed as a Harry Potter novel” and “Gustave Flaubert privately mocked it as a ‘book written for catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack'” (and then had to delay publishing his own Salammbô by six months: “the catholico-socialist shithead novel was monopolizing sales”). Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys tales of literary dealmaking.