The British Library’s Asian and African studies blog is always worth a look; a couple of years ago I posted about a unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript, and now Bathrobe sends me a link to Naskhi-divani: a little-recognized sultanate script:

The art of the book in sultanate India, particularly of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, is notable for its eclecticism. Because of the sultanates’ evolving political terrain, the search for a coherent narrative of manuscript patronage and production is a challenge. In comparison to painting, one relatively overlooked feature of sultanate books is calligraphy. Here, we examine a script found in sultanate manuscripts that scholars have started to call naskhī-dīvānī.

Appearing in the late fourteenth century, two styles of writing seldom seen outside of India are bihārī and naskhī-dīvānī. Bihārī is characterized by thick horizontal strokes specifically in terminating letters and thin verticals; diacritical markers are horizontal, rather than at a slant. […] Even less understood than bihārī is naskhī-dīvānī. Naskhī-dīvānī, as the name implies, is a combination of a standard naskh and a dīvānī script often used for chancellery documents.

There are gorgeous illustrations. Bathrobe says the BLAAS blog “actually has quite a few interesting articles… Going from here, I found this … digital copy of the Heike Monogatari printed on the Japanese island of Amakusa by Jesuit missionaries using a movable-type printing press in late 1592/early 1593.”

One of the most important items in the British Library’s Japanese collections is a small, rather ordinary-looking, leather-bound volume, generally known as Feiqe monogatari (BL shelfmark Or.59.aa.1). Despite its appearance, it is, in fact, a remarkable work in a number of ways. Firstly, it was one of the earliest books printed in Japan using movable type rather than the traditional woodblocks, secondly, it is the first non-religious text printed in colloquial Japanese transcribed into the Roman alphabet, offering valuable insights into the phonology of the Japanese language in the 16th century, and thirdly, it is the world’s only extant copy.

Thanks, Bathrobe!

Birthday Loot 2019.

Herewith the traditional posting of the goodies that have been given me to celebrate my (increasingly distant) appearance on the planet; I’ve had biscuits for breakfast and am looking forward to chicken curry and lemon meringue pie for dinner, and it’s a beautiful sunny summer day, so I’m a contented Hat.

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction by Charles Baxter
In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
Understanding Chekhov: A Critical Study Of Chekhov’S Prose And Drama by Donald Rayfield

And an earlier gift I might as well tack on:
Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov by Brian Boeck

I also got several jazz CDs, by Ruby Braff/Ellis Larkins, Terell Stafford, Cedar Walton, and Art Blakey; I’d like to give a fervent and grateful shout-out to whatever LH reader sent me the last — the great John Gilmore (of Sun Ra fame) playing with the Jazz Messengers is a dream come true, and I don’t know why the album isn’t better known.

Paddling About Among Philologers.


I am much inclined towards a life of ease
And should not scorn to spend my dwindling years
In places where my sort of fancy stirs;
Perched up on ladders in old libraries
With several quartos pouring off my knees…
Translating Ariosto into verse…
Paddling about among philologers
And Dictionaries and concordances!

There, on some dark oak table, more and more
Voluminous each day, ye should perceive
My Magnum Opus…that one which untwists
Their bays from poets who shirk metaphor
And make rich words grow obsolete, and leave
Imagination to Psychiatrists.

   — Owen Barfield

From A Barfield Sampler: Poetry and Fiction by Owen Barfield (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), via Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti. You can see another another language-related Barfield poem at this Laudator post.

Snuffing a Candle.

It was recently brought to my attention that I didn’t actually know what the phrase “snuffing (out) a candle” meant; I had assumed it meant “extinguish,” and if you do a Google image search on “candle snuffer” you will see devices clearly meant to extinguish candles, but sometimes that sense seems out of place, and this forum post, started by a question on this very subject, produced enlightening answers:

So I understand that snuffing (out) a candle means to extinguish the fire, but this phrase in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist made me a bit confused, since English is not my first language.

He remained lost in thought for some minutes; and then, with a heavy sigh, snuffed the candle, and, taking up the book which the Jew had left with him, began to read.

Why would he extinguish the flame if he was to read a book? I have searched for other meanings and apparently it also means to inhale, but that also doesn’t make sense, because he let out a heavy sigh just before snuffing the candle! What does that sentence mean?

The response from entangledbank (Senior Member, London) gives the basic answer:

Today, snuffing means snuffing out or extinguishing, but back when they actually used candles all the time, it was usually the action of removing the burnt part of the wick. There’s another example of this confusing use in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey:

The dimness of the light her candle emitted made her turn to it with alarm; but there was no danger of its sudden extinction; it had yet some hours to burn; and that she might not have any greater difficulty in distinguishing the writing than what its ancient date might occasion, she hastily snuffed it. Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one.

And PaulQ (Senior Member, UK) provides a useful OED cite:

I am grateful for your question: I did not know, but the OED tells us both that not only does “to snuff” mean “to extinguish; to put out,” (and probably should be used as a phrasal verb “to snuff out”) but it also means “to trim the burned wick from the candle:

1. a. trans. To free (a candle, wick, etc.) from the snuff, by pinching or cutting this off, or removing it with a special instrument.
1887 T. A. Trollope What I Remember I. i. 26 Two tallow candles, requiring to be snuffed by snuffers lying in a little plated tray.

Here is a picture of pair of candle-snuffers. You will see that they are like scissors, but the idea is that you can cut the burned wick of the candle whilst it is still alight and not leave a mess.

So what Oliver was doing was removing the burned part of the wick and the candle would remain alight.

So all is clear, except that I still can’t picture how exactly it works; my efforts to turn up a video have proved fruitless (e.g., “How to snuff out a candle” simply shows a flame being extinguished). If anyone knows of one, please share.

Chalav and Chelev.

I was excited about Balashon’s latest post at first simply because it’s the first post this year, and then because I love examples of words that are “obviously” related — in this case, Hebrew chalav חָלָב ‘milk’ and chelev חֵלֶב ‘fat’ — but turn out not to be. But what really prompted me to post was the discovery that Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language is available online! Balashon quotes the entries for chalav:

חָלָב m.n. milk. [Related to Aram. חֲלַב, Syr. חַלְבָּא, Ugar. ḥlb, Arab. ḥalab, ḥalib, Ethiop. ḥalīb (= milk). Akka. ḥalābu (= to milk).

And chelev:

חֵֽלֶב m.n. fat, grease. [Related to Phoen. חלב, Syr. חֶלְבָּא, Arab. ḥilb (= midriff). The orig. meaning of these words was perhaps ‘fat of the midriff’.)

What a wonderful world! (But it bothers my copyeditor self that the etymologies have a bracket at the start but none at the end.)

Consilium abeundi.

As a pendant to yesterday’s Latin post, I present a phrase I learned from Laudator Temporis Acti’s Adam to God. It discusses Heine’s “Adam der Erste”, whose fourth stanza reads:

O Gott! wie erbärmlich ist doch dies
Consilium abeundi!
Das nenne ich einen Magnifikus
Der Welt, ein lumen mundi!

Gilleland gives Peter Branscombe’s translation:

O God! How pitiful this Consilium abeundi is! That’s what I call a real Magnificus of the world, a Lumen mundi!

He thoughtfully provides this explanation from Jeffrey L. Sammons’s Heinrich Heine: A Modern Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979):

There the matter seemed to have rested at the end of the year, but in January 1821 Heine received the consilium abeundi, the “advice to leave,” for half a year; Wiebel was also rusticated and given two weeks in the student prison to boot.

The phrase has its own Wiktionary entry and German Wikipedia article; are any Hatters familiar with it?

Requiescat in pace.

It was probably inevitable: Finland’s Yle radio axes Latin news show after 30 years.

Finland’s public broadcaster Yle has ended its weekly Latin language news bulletin, after three decades on the air, the broadcaster announced. Since its debut in 1989, Nuntii Latini has offered a five-minute summary of the week’s national and foreign news in the classical language. In later years the show was also made available online, garnering it around 40,000 listeners around the world, including some from the Vatican.

The last bulletin was broadcast on June 14, and detailed the agreement between the US and Mexico on immigration, talks between the presidents of China and Russia and the end of the Latin programme, which “post ferias aestivas non continuabuntur” (will not resume after the summer holiday). […]

Kaj Farm, head of programmes for Yle Radio 1, said they had decided to cancel the show since the producers were unable to continue. “The same people have been doing it week for week now for 30 years, and they are not that young anymore,” he told AFP. Farm said the show had originally started as somewhat of an “inside joke,” and since it was hard to find suitable replacements for the ageing staff they decided it was time to pull the plug.

In addition to Finnish and Swedish, Yle produces news in English, Russian, Sami, Roma, simplified Finnish, Karelian and sign language.

I first mentioned Nuntii Latini back in 2004; sic (as they say) transit. Thanks, Yoram!

Journalist Your Mom!

Mary Hui reports for Quartz on some linguistic aspects of the recent Hong Kong protests:

[…] One exchange that has since generated a long list of caustic variations (link in Chinese) involved a riot police officer who was caught on video swearing at a reporter (link in Chinese) who called out “Journalist! I’m a journalist!” during a police clearance operation at one of the protests on June 12.

Gei nei lou mou (記你老母)!” came the baton-wielding officer’s aggressive response. The phrase roughly translates as “journalist your mom!” The words nei lou mou (“your mom”) are widely-used as an insult in Hong Kong, and stems from diu nei lou mou, which ensures there is no ambiguity by adding diu, the Cantonese equivalent to “fuck.” […]

If the Umbrella Movement protests were defined by the character 傘 (san), meaning umbrella—but also homophonic with the word for disperse—then the fight against the extradition bill may be remembered for a single composite character combining the words 自由 (zi yau), or freedom, and 閪 (hai), a profanity describing female genitalia. The word comes from another insult used by the police against protesters, and was caught on camera (link in Chinese).

There is more detail about this (as well as images) at Victor Mair’s Log post Hong Kong protest puns; see also his more recent post Alice Mak Addresses the Hong Kong Chief Executive with Vulgar Language. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Ampoules and Vernicles.

From Barbara Newman’s LRB review (17 August 2017, pp. 29-30) of The Medieval Invention of Travel, by Shayne Aaron Legassie (which sounds like an interesting book):

Further down the socioeconomic scale, pilgrims eagerly collected the mass-produced lead badges or ampoules (flasks for holy water) on sale at every shrine. Each saint had his or her own distinctive badge. Those who sought St James in Galicia wore the scallop shell, while the ‘Rome-runner’ could display St Peter’s keys and the vernicle, or Veronica’s veil – a celebrated image of Christ. Well-travelled pilgrims pinned or sewed these badges onto their hats, like the palmer satirised by Langland:

A hundred ampoules sat on his hat,
Signs of Sinai and shells of Galicia,
And many a cross on his cloak, with the keys of Rome
And the vernicle in front, so people would know
And see by his signs which saints he had sought.

But not all badges were pious. Some were even gleefully obscene, depicting winged phalluses or vulvas in the garb of pilgrims – offering their own brand of parody on the institution of pilgrimage.

I was vaguely familiar with the word ampoule, though I couldn’t have told you what it was (you can see images at Wikipedia; M-W just takes it back to Latin ampulla, while AHD tells us the latter is a diminutive of amphora — I refuse to pronounce it /ˈampyo͞ol/, since there is no justification for the /y/); the delightful vernicle was new to me. OED (entry not fully updated since 1917):

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman and Old French vernicle, = Old French veron(n)icle, variants of veronique, < medieval Latin veronica the sudarium of St Veronica: see Veronica n.2 and compare veronicle n., veronique n. On the change of –ique to –icle see the note to chronicle n.

1. The picture or representation of the face of Christ said to be impressed upon the handkerchief or sudarium of St Veronica (see 2); any similar picture of Christ’s face, esp. one engraved, painted, or worked upon a vessel, garment, ornament, etc., used for religious or devotional purposes; an ornament or token bearing this as worn by pilgrims.

1362 Langland Piers Plowman A. vi. 14 Moni Cros on his cloke and keiȝes of Rome, And þe vernicle [C. fernycle] bi-fore for men schulde him knowe.
c1405 (▸c1387–95) Chaucer Canterbury Tales Prol. (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 685 Swiche glarynge eyen hadde he as an hare A vernycle hadde he sowed vp on his cappe.
1901 Athenæum 27 July 131/3 The vernicle, or face of our Lord, appears in the centre of the paten.

2. The cloth or kerchief, alleged to have belonged to St. Veronica, with which, according to legend, the face of Christ was wiped on the way to Calvary, and upon which His features were miraculously impressed.
This cloth is preserved at St. Peter’s, Rome, and is venerated as a relic.

a1400 Stac. Rome 59 Whon þe vernicle schewed is, Gret pardoun forsoþe þer is.
1845 J. Saunders Cabinet Pictures of Eng. Life: Chaucer 14 Thus originated the Sudarium or holy kerchief—the Veronica—and, by corruption, the vernicle.

If I ever get a chance to work it into conversation, I will.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.

This classic David Moser essay has been mentioned here in comments a few times, but I think it deserves its own post; it’s not only thorough and convincing (except, of course, to those who will never be convinced) but brilliantly written. It begins:

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, “Hard for whom?” A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the “terrible twos”, it’s Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by “hard”? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me — and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese. […]

Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

He divides his argument into sections with headings like “Because the writing system is ridiculous” and “Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated”; I’ll quote in extenso from “Then there’s classical Chinese,” because it’s so much fun:
[Read more…]