The Shapira Affair.

Yesterday in this comment Y linked to two sources about a Biblical forgery scandal I’d never heard of, the Shapira affair. Jennifer Schuessler’s NY Times story is a lively account that begins:

In 1883, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer named Moses Wilhelm Shapira announced the discovery of a remarkable artifact: 15 manuscript fragments, supposedly discovered in a cave near the Dead Sea. Blackened with a pitchlike substance, their paleo-Hebrew script nearly illegible, they contained what Shapira claimed was the “original” Book of Deuteronomy, perhaps even Moses’ own copy. The discovery drew newspaper headlines around the world, and Shapira offered the treasure to the British Museum for a million pounds. While the museum’s expert evaluated it, two fragments were put on display, attracting throngs of visitors, including Prime Minister William Gladstone.

Then disaster struck. Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau, a swashbuckling French archaeologist and longtime nemesis of Shapira’s, had been granted a few minutes with several of the fragments, after promising to hold his judgment until the museum issued its report. But the next morning, he went to the press and denounced them as forgeries. The museum’s expert agreed, and a distraught Shapira fled London. Six months later, he committed suicide in a hotel room in the Netherlands. The manuscript was auctioned for a pittance in 1885, and soon disappeared altogether.

Since then, the Shapira affair has haunted the edges of respectable biblical scholarship, as a rollicking caper wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a cautionary tale. But now, a young scholar is staking his own credibility by asking, what if this notorious fake was real? In a just-published scholarly article and companion book, Idan Dershowitz, a 38-year-old Israeli-American scholar at the University of Potsdam in Germany, marshals a range of archival, linguistic and literary evidence to argue that the manuscript was an authentic ancient artifact.

But Dershowitz makes an even more dramatic claim. The text, which he has reconstructed from 19th-century transcriptions and drawings, is not a reworking of Deuteronomy, he argues, but a precursor to it, dating to the period of the First Temple, before the Babylonian Exile. That would make it the oldest known biblical manuscript by far, and an unprecedented window into the origins and evolution of the Bible and biblical religion.

It’s a very nice web presentation, with maps and images. The other link Y provided is the pdf of Dershowitz’s book, with his detailed arguments and an Annotated Critical Edition, English Translation, and Paleo-Hebrew Reconstruction of the text he calls V. It’s quite a story, even if we’ll probably never be sure of the truth. Y said “Maybe Hat would want to make a whole posting out of it,” and here it is.

A Khwarizmian Sound.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by Khwarezmian, also known as Khwarizmian, the East Iranian language once spoken in the area of Khwarezm (Chorasmia); I mentioned it in this 2003 post about a movie set in a time and place where it would have been spoken. So I was delighted when Matthew Scarborough, in this recent post about his article “Bactrian χϸονο ‘(calendar) year, (regnal) year’” (behind the paywall of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society), mentioned Adam Benkato’s “very cool” Open Access article “Ibn Sīnā’s Remarks on a Khwarizmian Sound” from the same special issue. Here’s the abstract:

In his study of Arabic phonetics, Asbāb ḥudūṯ al-ḥurūf (The Causes of the Genesis of the Consonants), Ibn Sīnā briefly surveys some speech sounds found in languages other than Arabic, among them one particular to Khwarizmian, an Iranian language attested primarily in glosses to Arabic manuscripts of the 13th century. This study attempts to elucidate the sound Ibn Sīnā describes both through reference to his own system of phonetic terminology and through comparison with extant material in the Khwarizmian language.

Which is interesting enough, but what I love are the quotes about the language. The Khwarizmian al-Bīrūnī said “I was brought up in a language which, were science ever to be immortalized in it, it would be as astounding as a mule in a water-spout or a giraffe among thoroughbreds.” And here’s a nice compendium:

Scholars of the generation just prior to Ibn Sīnā were aware of, or had encountered, a distinct language in the region, though for the most part they did not give it a specific name: the geographer al-Maqdisī (d. 991) simply mentions that the “language of the people of Khwarizm cannot be understood” (lisān ’ahl khuwārizm lā yufhim) while the noted traveller Ibn Faḍlān (d. 960) was somewhat more judgmental, writing in his travelogue that “the Khwarizmians are the most barbarous of people, both in speech and in custom. Their speech sounds like the cries of starlings (kalāmuhum ’ašbaha šay’in bi-ṣiyāḥi z-zarāzīr). There is a village…whose inhabitants are known as Kardaliya, and their speech sounds like the croaking of frogs (kalāmuhum ’ašbahu šay’in bi-naqīqi ḍ-ḍafādi‘)”. Ibn Ḥawqal (d. ca. 978), who was in Khwarizm in 969, was more objective, stating that “[the Khwarizmians’] language is unique to them, no other like it is spoken in Khurāsān (wa-lisān ’ahlihā mufrad bi-luġatihim wa-laysa bi-khurāsān lisān ‘alā luġatihim)”. So well before even al-Bīrūnī wrote about it, scholars of the time seem to have been aware of a particular and seemingly unique language in the region, and this general knowledge is likely to have been available to Ibn Sīnā.

And Ibn Sīnā himself “may also even have been a speaker of a non-Persian Iranian language before learning and mastering both Persian and Arabic.” Great stuff.

Aksyonov’s Search for a Genre.

I’ve just finished Aksyonov’s В поисках жанра [In search of a genre], which Mark Lipovetsky and Eliot Borenstein in Russian Postmodernist Fiction: Dialogue with Chaos call “a kind of sequel to ‘Barrelware'” (see my Surplussed Barrelware post); as they say, though, it’s a sequel in a much darker key: “In the beginning, Durov, who has spent the night at the highway patrol station, intrudes upon the quiet discussion of the ghostly victims of car crashes, and in the end, Durov, who has been killed by an avalanche, awakens in the Valley of Miracles. […] utopian motifs appear only and without exception in relation to death.” It’s neither as cheerful nor as coherent as the earlier book (it reminded me of Leskov’s adventure-on-the-road books like Смех и горе [Laughter and Grief]), but it’s a good read, and has some bits well suited for quoting here:

So Mamanya [an elderly woman who has hitched a ride with Durov] was usually muttering some nonsense to herself […]. Mamanya loved words. She didn’t admit this secret even to herself. In her youth she almost cried thinking of how enormous was the beautiful world of words and how little of this world was given to her. These days she sometimes surprised her relatives by turning on the Spidola and sitting and listening to any old foreign gibberish, looking as if she understood. Naturally Mamanya didn’t understand a damn thing, she was just feeling joy at how enormous the world of words was. My, how they do chatter: esperanza, verboten, multo, opinion… the individual words flew from the radio to Mamanya and joyously astonished her.

Так Маманя обычно бормотала себе под нос какую-нибудь несуразицу […]. Маманя любила слова. В этой тайне она и сама себе не признавалась. В молодости, бывало, чуть ли не плакала, когда думала о том, как огромен красивый мир слов и как мало ей из этого мира дано. В нынешние времена родичи порой удивлялись: включит Маманя «Спидолу», сидит и слушает любую иностранную тарабарщину, и лицо у нее такое, будто понимает. Никакого беса Маманя, конечно, не понимала, ее только радовала огромность мира слов. Экось балакают: эсперанца, ферботен, мульто, опинион… — отдельные слова долетали из радио до Мамани и радостно изумляли ее.

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The journal Polylingualism and Transcultural Practices “focuses on the problems of linguistic and cultural interaction of the peoples of Russia, the CIS and the far abroad”; their About page says:

By polylingualism we mean the quality of modern culture, which does not have a concrete “frozen” form. This is a fluid mutual adaptation of multiple linguistic (and extra-linguistic) pictures of the world, transforming the global semiosphere. […] The mission (super task) of the journal is to integrate the linguistic and extralinguistic experience of specialists from different countries and scientific fields in order to develop a universal strategy for tolerant interaction between representatives of different languages ​​and cultures. The editorial board of the journal is convinced that language (both one’s own and someone else’s) can be not only a barrier, but also a bridge to comprehending another culture, mentality, and ethnic essence. Weakening the confrontational perception of the Other and the proclamation of the intrinsic value of each language and each ethnic group in a multicultural metasociety is the mission of the journal […].

A noble goal, if expressed in a jargon-laden fashion. Y, who sent me the link, singled out Steven G. Kellman’s 2019 article “Literary Translingualism: What and Why?,” whose abstract reads:

The article is devoted to a comprehensive understanding of the theory of translingualism. Its author, Professor Steven Kellman, discusses the essence of the term he proposed in the context of world literature, citing numerous examples of translingual imagination. Based on the work of writers such as Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov and others, Professor Kellman demonstrates how the mechanism of intercultural and translational interaction of linguistic and extralinguistic elements works in each individual case. The theory of translingualism enriched the cycle of the humanities (from linguistics to cultural studies, from literary criticism to philosophy) with a new popular episteme, which the editorial board gladly shares with our readers.

The theoretical stuff doesn’t impress me, but there are some intriguing details. Right off the bat, I was struck by “Germany even established an annual award — named the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, after a nineteenth-century poet who wrote in German, not his native French — to honor writers who write in German as an adopted language.” As it happens, back in 2006 I posted a “provocative rant” by Kemal Kurt complaining about the situation in Germany:
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A Student of Chomsky’s.

I recommended an Ann Patchett story last year, and since then my wife and I have read her novel Commonwealth, which I wholeheartedly recommend, and we’re now on her earlier State of Wonder, which we’re enjoying but are still somewhat perplexed by. It’s about Dr. Marina Singh, who ventures into a remote part of the Amazon jungle to find out what happened to her colleague and friend while visiting a tribe called the Lakashi. I thought this passage was worth posting here:

The Lakashi women were singing now. […] “Do you know what they’re saying?” Marina asked.

Nancy shook her head. “I catch a word every now and then, or I think I do. We had a linguist with us for a while. He had been a student of Noam Chomsky’s. He said the language wasn’t particularly difficult or even interesting, that all the languages in this region of the Amazon came from a single grammatical base with variations in vocabulary which meant at one point the tribes must have been connected and then split apart. It made me wish we had a language that was a little bit more obscure so we might have kept him. He made us some charts with phonetics so we can put together some basic phrases.”

I can’t for the life of me tell whether Patchett has any knowledge of the subject. On the one hand, “the language wasn’t particularly difficult or even interesting” and the “single grammatical base” could be a sly dig at Chomskyan indifference to linguistic variation and the claim that all grammars are basically the same, but “in this region of the Amazon” and “variations in vocabulary which meant at one point the tribes must have been connected” ruin the effect and suggest an interest in local differences and history that isn’t exactly a hallmark of MIT linguistics, although of course a student of Chomsky’s could perfectly well have such an interest. On the whole, I’m guessing Patchett just used Chomsky because he’s the most famous linguist around, but it was a startling thing to encounter in a novel.

Reading Indonesian Scripts.

Kiki Siregar writes for Channel NewsAsia about a guy who loves languages and writing systems:

Diaz Nawaksara grew up during the rise of the Internet and telecommunications. When the 30-year-old went to college, he decided to study information management, focusing on storing information through computational methods. But as modern as his educational qualification sounds, his job nowadays involves something very ancient: Preserving Indonesian scripts that are as old as 500 years. “I started in 2012 by studying the Javanese script first,” Nawaksara recounted, referring to the native language of those from Indonesia’s and the world’s most populated island of Java.

Today, he can read and write over 30 ancient Indonesian scripts. He understands fluently about half of the languages associated with these scripts. […] Once an English tutor and a tour guide, Nawaksara is now a freelance researcher who works to preserve ancient Indonesian scripts as well as history. […]

His attempt to read and write Javanese script came by chance. […] Upon completing his studies, he moved to Yogyakarta in central Java to work as a tour guide and English tutor in the city often dubbed as the cultural capital of Indonesia. One day, he went to a local flea market and discovered an ancient Javanese manuscript. He was intrigued by it and decided to purchase it even though he could not read Javanese script. It turned out to be an ancient legislation manuscript of Yogyakarta’s sultanate during the Dutch colonial times. The manuscript was known as rijksblad. Coincidentally, his girlfriend was Javanese and could read the manuscript. She taught him how to read it. […]

It marked the start of his quest to find other manuscripts and learn different old Indonesian scripts. “Since then, I started collecting more Javanese ancient books. A year later, I stumbled upon an older script named Kawi script,” he told CNA. Kawi is considered the ancestor of Javanese script and is thought to be related to Indian scripts which evolved sometime during the 8th to 16th century. In order to enhance his understanding, Nawaksara visited temples and museums that exhibited the script.

Nawaksara has since travelled all over Indonesia to find ancient manuscripts and study the scripts. He said this led him to a better comprehension of history. There are over 600 ethnicities in Indonesia and knowing some ancient scripts leads to a better understanding of how the various ethnicities in the country are related and even stretching to neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, he said. […] Nawaksara now wants to digitalise the scripts he knows so they will not get lost in time.

Good for him! (Via the Log; at the end, there’s a link to the story in Bahasa Indonesia.)

By the way, if you like exploring the world vicariously, Radio Garden lets you “Explore live radio by rotating the globe.” I’ve currently got it set to Radio Nataan in Dapaong, Togo; I don’t know what language they broadcast in, but the music is great.

A Perfect Typo.

As an editor by profession, I can’t help noticing typos, and of course the local paper is full of them (like all local newspapers, it’s barely hanging on, so I can’t really blame them for not keeping a proofreading staff, but it’s irritating nonetheless). Today, though, there was one that should hang in a museum. In a story about how just a year ago the UMass basketball team had its season called off just as they were looking around the Barclays Center to prepare for their game, the following sentence occurs:

They watched Fordham and George Washington tangle in an opening round game in a largely empty arena, a site that would become commonplace over the next year.

The typo “site” for “sight” is extremely common, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen it directly following a phrase denoting an actual site (“a largely empty arena”). It would be an excellent test of reading ability, either for human or AI.

Hand/Arm across Europe.

I can’t believe I’ve never linked to mapologies before, since they specialize in maps showing the words for things in different languages (the latest is “The names of Donald Duck’s nephews”), but better late than never; what drove me to post was Hand and arm in several languages (“An etymology map with a handful of words”), which shows words for HAND in bold black type and words for ARM beneath them in gray, with language families divided by color. In the box on the upper right explaining the colors, they give proto-forms for each, e.g. “Proto-Nakh *ko.” Very cool. And the only comment so far is “In dagestan in avar language Kwer and Rougk,” which is downright helpful.

Jinx and Jody.

Dave Wilton at has been posting Big List updates pretty much daily (and he’s started a Patreon, if you want to support his good work), and the latest two are so interesting I thought I’d share them here.


A jinx is a person or thing that carries bad luck with it. The origin of the Americanism is not quite certain, but it most likely comes from the name of a character in a very popular play at the turn of the twentieth century. The major dictionaries, however, all give tentative etymologies relating to the bird known as the wryneck or jynx because of its use in magic and casting spells. But the avian etymology has significant problems, and there is a clear trail of lexical evidence leading from the play to the word jinx that has been uncovered by researcher Douglas Wilson.

The play is Little Puck, produced by and starring comic actor Frank Daniels and written by Archibald C. Gunter. It debuted in New York in 1888 and, although today it is all but forgotten, it was tremendously successful, with touring companies and revivals throughout the United States of the next two decades. Among the cast of characters was this role, originally played by actor Harry Mack:

Jinks Hoodoo, esq. a curse to everybody…..Harry Mack

At the turn of the twentieth century, Jinks was commonly used as the name of comical characters in theater and in jokes.

Jinks Hoodoo quickly caught on as a nickname for someone who brought bad luck. […]

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Mary Astell’s Books.

Tom Almeroth-Williams writes for University of Cambridge Stories about “a treasure trove of women’s intellectual history”:

The astonishing collection comprises 47 books and pamphlets owned and annotated by the philosopher Mary Astell (1666–1731), viewed by many as “the first English feminist”. Astell’s hand-written notes reveal, for the first time, that she engaged with complex natural philosophy including the ideas of René Descartes. […]

In the early eighteenth century, only a minority of British women could read in English, let alone in French. But even more unusual is the extent of Astell’s scientific understanding which this precious collection makes clear. Catherine Sutherland, Deputy Librarian at Magdalene, who made the discovery says: “Women’s book collections from this period are so rare but it’s even more amazing to find one being used to advance a woman’s career as a writer. Magdalene’s collection represents the nucleus of Astell’s library, including the books that influenced her most.” […]

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