Dogs and the koryos.

Eric A. Powell, online editor at Archeology, reports on an attempt to combine archaeology and historical linguistics:

Around 4,000 years ago, on the steppes north of the Black Sea, a nomadic people began settling down in small communities. Known today as the Timber Grave Culture, these people left behind more than 1,000 sites. One of them is called Krasnosamarskoe, and Hartwick College archaeologist David Anthony had big expectations for it when he started digging there in the late 1990s. Anthony hoped that by excavating the site he might learn why people in this region first began to establish permanent households. But he and his team have since discovered that Krasnosamarskoe has a much different story to tell. They found that the site held the remains of dozens of butchered dogs and wolves—vastly more than at any comparable site.

Anthony and his wife, archaeologist Dorcas Brown, who are interested in combining linguistic and mythological evidence with archaeological evidence, searched the literature on Indo-European ceremonies, and Brown “found that historical linguists and mythologists have long linked dog sacrifice to an important ancient Indo-European tradition, the roving youthful war band”:
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The Bookshelf: Kolyma Stories.

New York Review Books has sent me a review copy of Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, newly translated by Donald Rayfield. The publisher’s page accurately calls the collection “a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature”; Solzhenitsyn himself famously wrote “Shalamov’s experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own…I respectfully confess that to him and not me it was given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us all,” and if you have any interest in the Gulag, in how people react to the extremes of experience, or simply in great writing, you should try Shalamov, and this is part of the first complete edition in English: “This is the first of two volumes (the second to appear in 2019) that together will constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories and the only one to be based on the authorized Russian text.” In short, this is a must-read.

Having said that, I’ll discuss the translation, comparing it both to the original and to the previous English version translated by John Glad (Penguin 1980, rev. ed. 1994). The first thing to note is that the Penguin has far fewer stories, and the stories are often cut; whether the cuts are the translator’s choice or reflect the then available Russian text, I don’t know, but it’s an unfortunate fact that emphasizes even more the importance of the new version. Furthermore, Glad makes too many errors and poor choices; in Сухим пайком [“Dry Rations” in Glad, “Field Rations” in Rayfield], for instance, he calls Butyrka “Butyr Prison,” has “fruits” for ягоды ‘berries,’ and renders положительному ‘positive’ as “decent.” When the narrator’s coworker Savelev starts fantasizing about a future neither of them believes in, he begins “Помечтаем,” which Rayfield correctly renders “let’s dream a bit”; Glad has “Just imagine,” which simply doesn’t work in this context. I don’t want to overemphasize this — every translation has errors, and I don’t understand Rayfield’s “standard” for заветный in “заветный мешочек,” which Glad renders “a small cherished bag” — but Glad seems to have more than the necessary minimum.
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Losing Your Language.

A very interesting BBC Future piece on language loss by Sophie Hardach:

“The minute you start learning another language, the two systems start to compete with each other,” says Monika Schmid, a linguist at the University of Essex.

Schmid is a leading researcher of language attrition, a growing field of research that looks at what makes us lose our mother tongue. In children, the phenomenon is somewhat easier to explain since their brains are generally more flexible and adaptable. Until the age of about 12, a person’s language skills are relatively vulnerable to change. Studies on international adoptees have found that even nine-year-olds can almost completely forget their first language when they are removed from their country of birth.

But in adults, the first language is unlikely to disappear entirely except in extreme circumstances.

For example, Schmid analysed the German of elderly German-Jewish wartime refugees in the UK and the US. The main factor that influenced their language skills wasn’t how long they had been abroad or how old they were when they left. It was how much trauma they had experienced as victims of Nazi persecution. Those who left Germany in the early days of the regime, before the worst atrocities, tended to speak better German – despite having been abroad the longest. Those who left later, after the 1938 pogrom known as Reichskristallnacht, tended to speak German with difficulty or not at all. […]

Such dramatic loss is an exception. In most migrants, the native language more or less coexists with the new language. How well that first language is maintained has a lot to do with innate talent: people who are generally good at languages tend to be better at preserving their mother tongue, regardless of how long they have been away.

But native fluency is also strongly linked to how we manage the different languages in our brain. “The fundamental difference between a monolingual and bilingual brain is that when you become bilingual, you have to add some kind of control module that allows you to switch,” Schmid says. […]

Mingling with other native speakers actually can make things worse, since there’s little incentive to stick to one language if you know that both will be understood. The result is often a linguistic hybrid.

There’s lots more good stuff there (like Cubans in Miami starting to speak more like Colombians or Mexicans), and I had personal experience with some of it, like losing my early Japanese when we left the country (though fortunately not with traumatic loss). Thanks, Trevor!

Du Fu and the Old Man of Emei.

Anatoly Vorobey posted a poem by Du Fu (aka Tu Fu), 漫成二首, in the original and five translations, one in Russian (excellent, by Alexander Gitovich) and four in English. I love that sort of comparison; here are my two favorites among the English renderings:

On the Spur of the Moment, II

River slopes, already midmonth of spring;
under the blossoms, bright mornings again.
I look up, eager to watch the birds;
turn my head, answering what I took for a call.
Reading books, I skip the hard parts;
faced with wine, I keep my cup filled.
These days I’ve gotten to know the old man of Emei.
He understand this idleness that is my true nature.

(translated by Burton Watson, The Selected Poems of Du Fu, 2002)

Haphazard Compositions, II

On the river floodplain it is already mid-spring,
under the flowers once again a clear morning.
I raise my face, avid to watch the birds,
I turn my head, mistakenly to answer someone.
When I read, I pass over the hard words,
with ale before me, full pots are frequent.
Recently I’ve gotten to know an old fellow from Emei,
he understands that my indolence is my true nature.

(translated by Stephen Owen, The Poetry of Du Fu, 2016)

The last translation, by Edna Worthley Underwood and Chi Hwang Chu, is horrible; for one thing, Emei (aka O Mei) is one of the Four Sacred Mountains of China (and a favorite name for Sichuanese restaurants), not the name of a hermit, for crying out loud.

Alien Linguistics.

Davide Castelvecchi writes for Nature about a subject dear to the heart of this old science fiction fan, what is sometimes called xenolinguistics:

Sheri Wells-Jensen is fascinated by languages no one has ever heard — those that might be spoken by aliens. Last week, the linguist co-hosted a day-long workshop on this field of research, which sits at the boundary of astrobiology and linguistics.

The meeting, at a conference of the US National Space Society in Los Angeles, California, was organized by Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). METI, which is funded by private donors, organizes the transmission of messages to other star systems. The effort is complementary to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which aims to detect messages from alien civilizations.

There follows an interview with Wells-Jensen, which of course touches on the recent movie Arrival (see this LH post), but I want to feature this interesting exchange:

What was discussed at the conference?

The piece that was underpinning everything there, I think, was the extent to which human language is innate. If language has a necessary innate piece, then two civilizations might have a good chance of understanding each other: that was the Chomskian approach represented in some of the papers presented at the conference. Others expressed the sense that third factors — body shape, what your planet is like — would have more to do with language and that little has to be innate. If that is so, then we’d have a better chance of understanding aliens that are similar to us than of understanding those that aren’t.

Needless to say, I am firmly on the anti-Chomsky side. Thanks, Trevor!

The Bookshelf: Origin of Kibosh.

A few years ago I did a post on the slang word kibosh, and Stephen Goranson added the following comment last October:

Published this month:
Origin of Kibosh: Routledge Studies in Etymology
by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little.

Now he has been kind enough to have a copy sent to me, and it’s a wonderful little book — I wish there could be such a volume for every word with an interesting etymology. It starts, admirably, by presenting the basic thesis (it’s from kurbash ‘a long whip made of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide’) and summarizing the evidence; the bulk of the book consists of detailed accounts of the history of the word and of the attempts to provide an etymology. These paragraphs from the Overview will give the basic idea:

The earliest previously noticed attestation of kibosh is from 1836—in Cockney speech—and the new antedatings of ca. 1830–1835, while only a few years older, are highly significant. They bring important evidence in favor of kibosh < kurbash and also confirm the early presence of kibosh in Cockney speech.

The most important antedating, spotted by Goranson, is the ca. 1830 kibosh in the broadside Penal Servitude!, an apparently humorous poem supposedly written by a convict returning from Australia. The writer not only provides the earliest attestation thus far for kibosh, but is likely also responsible for the entrance of kibosh into British speech. If we assume (and this seems reasonable) that his poem had popularity in the lower strata of British society, we would have the explanation for how kibosh was acquired (or at the very least, popularized) there.

Here is the crucial quatrain from the broadside:

There is one little dodge I am thinking,
That would put your profession all to smash,
It would put on the kibosh like winking,
That is if they was to introduce the lash.

The next step in the development is described on p. 3:

So kibosh was evidently introduced to British speech by the poem Penal Servitude!, but it was not yet widely known. Unless something happened to change this situation, kibosh would remain restricted to the lower echelons of British society or fade into oblivion, as so many other slang items did. But something did happen. An unlikely, unheralded, and unwitting lexical hero emerged: a Cockney chimney sweep, hauled into court in 1834 with his companion for violating the 1834 Chimney Sweepers Act, had an outburst of frustration and anger after the trial. That outburst—delivered in an unmistakable Cockney dialect—contained a blast against ‘the Vigs’ (Whigs) and the sweep used the new expression put the kibosh on. The London Standard article reporting on the trial was widely reprinted in England, and now people all over country were reading about putting the kibosh on the ‘Vigs.’ In particular, people engaged in political discourse picked up the expression. Put the kibosh on was of humble origin, but the people doing the kiboshing were politically significant: the Duke of Wellington, MP William Ingilby, and no less a personage than the British King. Put the kibosh on was now taking root in British speech.

There are plenty of illustrations, including one of the broadside itself (of which only a single copy survives). And the primary author of the book is Gerald Cohen, whose journal Comments on Etymology I wrote about here (it’s only on paper, not available on the Internet); you could hardly ask for a more authoritative scholar. The book is pricey (it almost goes without saying), but see if your library has it; it’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in the word.

Crevez, chiens!

I’m on Chapter 3 of Part 3 of Crime and Punishment; Raskolnikov is explaining to his mother that he has given away twenty-five rubles that she and his sister had sent him, because he had encountered a family so poverty-stricken they would have had nothing to eat and would have been thrown out on the street if he hadn’t helped them. He admits that he had no right to squander the money they had scraped together with such effort, and ends his little speech by saying that you shouldn’t help people unless you have a right to — otherwise “Crevez, chiens, si vous n’êtes pas contents!”

Of the two translations I have, Sidney Monas simply repeats the French, while Pevear and Volokhonsky provide a translation in a footnote: “Drop dead, dogs, if you don’t like it!” (My Soviet edition also provides nothing but a translation.) They do not, however, appear to be aware that it is a quote from an extremely famous novel. Google Books tells me that Sarah J. Young’s translation identifies it as such (“A near quotation from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables“), but says no more. Only Oliver Ready’s version (praised highly by Boris Dralyuk; see this LH post) gives important context in its footnote:

Crevez, chiens, si vous n’étes pas contents!: “Drop dead, dogs, if you aren’t satisfied!” (French): an almost exact quotation from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, which Dostoyevsky read on its appearance in 1862. See Book Eight, Chapter Four (“A Rose in Misery’), in which the young student, Marius, receives a visit from the young and appallingly emaciated daughter of his neighbour Jondrette. In the course of their conversation, she tells him: ‘Do you know what it will mean if we get a breakfast today? It will mean that we shall have had our breakfast of the day before yesterday, our breakfast of yesterday, our dinner of to-day, and all that at once, and this morning. Come! Parbleu! if you are not satisfied, dogs, burst!’ (trans. Isabel Hapgood).

But even this omits the vital fact of what follows when Marius realizes how much worse off than he the Jondrettes are:

By dint of searching and ransacking his pockets, Marius had finally collected five francs sixteen sous. This was all he owned in the world for the moment. “At all events,” he thought, “there is my dinner for to-day, and to-morrow we will see.” He kept the sixteen sous, and handed the five francs to the young girl.

This is, of course, an exact parallel to what Raskolnikov has done, and I provide it here for the benefit of readers of the novel, which (I am realizing all over again) is damn good.

I can’t resist pointing out that the egregious P&V, in an earlier footnote, refer to G. H. Lewes’s The Physiology of Common Life as “The Physiology of Everyday Life.” No cookies for you!

The Macabre Maccabees.

If I ever knew this striking etymology, I’d forgotten it:

French, from (danse) macabre dance of death, from Middle French (danse de) Macabré

We trace the origins of macabre to the name of the Book of Maccabees which is included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons of the Old Testament and in the Protestant Apocrypha. Sections of this biblical text address both the deaths of faithful people asked to renounce their religion and the manner in which the dead should be properly commemorated. The latter includes a discussion of praying for the souls of the dead, which was important in the development of the notion of purgatory and a happy afterlife for those persecuted for their religion. In medieval France, representations of these passages were performed as a procession or dance which became known as the “dance of death” or “dance Maccabee,” which was spelled in several different ways, including danse macabre.

In English, macabre was originally used in reference to this “dance of death” and then gradually became used more broadly, referring to anything grim or gruesome. It has come to be used as a synonym of horrible or distressing, always with a connection to the physical aspects of death and suffering.

I think I’ll start a brand-new peeve, insisting that since it’s from Macabré the only correct way to pronounce it is “mac-a-BRAY.”

Bates Questionnaires Online.

More great news from the world of online publication, courtesy of this piece by Nick Thieberger of the University of Melbourne:

In 1904 Daisy Bates, an Irish-Australian journalist and ethnographer, sent out a questionnaire to squatters, police, and other authorities across Western Australia asking them to record examples of the local Aboriginal language. […] Importantly, the responses to her questionnaire, preserved in 21,000 pages of handwritten notes or typescript, are immeasurably valuable; in some cases recording all we have left of many Aboriginal languages, otherwise lost as a result of European invasion.

The papers are important not only for a general understanding of the diversity of languages that have been part of Australia’s heritage for thousands of years, but also for the people associated with those languages. Aboriginal communities can not only reconnect to their languages through the papers, they can in some cases trace their named relatives. Some of the words listed have also been used in Native Title claims, establishing continuity of the language over time. […]

However, until now, they’ve been largely inaccessible. The pages themselves have been spread across three libraries in different states and territories – the Barr Smith Library in Adelaide, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Battye Library in Perth. Some have been published with English translations, but this work has not been linked back to the primary records in a way that is now possible with digital technology.

The Bates Online project has now done this and more, putting all 21,000 pages online in a searchable database, complete with maps showing where the words and phrases come from, as well as images of the original notes and typescript.

There are 4,500 pages of typescript representing languages from the Southern South Australia/Western Australia border all the way up to the Kimberley. At least 123 speakers are named in the vocabularies and, even now, it’s not clear how many languages they represent.

More details at the link; this is the kind of thing that makes the 21st century worthwhile. Thanks, Trevor!


Maxwell King writes for the Atlantic about how Fred Rogers crafted the language used on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, saying his “placidity belied the intense care he took in shaping each episode of his program”:

He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally.

As Arthur Greenwald, a former producer of the show, put it to me, “There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called “Freddish.”

Fundamentally, Freddish anticipated the ways its listeners might misinterpret what was being said. For instance, Greenwald mentioned a scene in a hospital in which a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said “I’m going to blow this up.” Greenwald recalls: “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.” […] And Rogers’s secretary, Elaine Lynch, remembered how, when one script referred to putting a pet “to sleep,” he excised it for fear that children would be worried about the idea of falling asleep themselves.

Rogers was extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go. For instance, in a scene in which he had an eye doctor using an ophthalmoscope to peer into his eyes, he made a point of having the doctor clarify that he wasn’t able to see Rogers’s thoughts. Rogers also wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew that drains were something that, to kids, seemed to exist solely to suck things down.

There’s a list of the “nine steps for translating into Freddish” and a discussion of how Rogers’s philosophy of child development “is actually derived from some of the leading 20th-century scholars of the subject”:
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