The Primordial Gound.

Yes, you read it right, that’s “gound.” Justin E. H. Smith’s unsettling… essay? … for The Public Domain Review will explain it. Eventually. It begins (after a brief bit of throat-clearing):

Benno Guerrier von Klopp (1816–1903) was a Baltic German philologist, of French Huguenot origin, who studied at the University of Saint Petersburg and made most of his career as an academician ordinarius, while also spending a good portion of his later career at Jena. Klopp is remembered principally for his contributions to the study of Baltic and Slavic linguistics, not least his 1836 dissertation on the disappearance of the neuter gender in Middle Latvian, and his groundbreaking 1868 study of the morphosyntax of the Old Church Slavonic verbal prefix, vz-.

Significantly less well known is Klopp’s work on the development of the mature philosophical system of Immanuel Kant, a fellow Baltic German who may have been more familiar with the languages and customs of that region than other scholars have detected. In fact, if Klopp is correct, Kant’s first-hand ethnolinguistic researches extend well beyond the Baltic. While Klopp’s 1873 book, Die geheime Sumatrareise Immanuel Kants, is not found in the Library of Congress, or even in the supposedly comprehensive online WorldCat, I have been able to locate a copy of it in at least one place: the library of the faculty of Baltistik at the University of Greifswald in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Don’t miss the footnotes, which include tidbits like “Yakov Brius (also known as Jacob Bruce, 1669-1735), was a Russian statesman and scientist. Like Kant, he was of Scottish ancestry. He conducted astronomical observations from the Sukharev Tower in Moscow. It was rumoured among Muscovites that Brius practiced black magic in the tower.” And hang on to your hat!

India’s “Mother Tongues.”

There’s all sorts of interesting stuff in Parvathy Raveendran’s report for on a recent translation-centred literary festival in Bangalore, from what is meant by “mother tongue” to invented scripts (“as in the case of Santali in eastern India: the Ol Chiki script was invented in 1925 by Pandit Raghunath Murmu to approximate an alphabet which more adequately represented the sounds of the language than the Roman or Devanagari scripts”); I’ll quote a couple of passages that particularly intrigued me and let you discover the rest at the link. The first:

For sociologist, writer and translator Chandan Gowda, the mother tongue is not perforce linked to biological ancestry; rather, it is the language in which you find “the greatest existential ease and pleasure in encountering meaning”. Gowda spoke of the advantages of having been able to learn his native Kannada at the English medium school he went to, not least because he believes reading history, journalism and critical nonfiction in the vernacular gives one a richer sense of immediate contexts and specific pasts, and the literatures (poetry, in particular) one encounters growing up, form the core of one’s ethical and affective self.

Gowda’s formulation of the mother tongue primarily as a source of intellectual pleasure and a multi-pronged way of knowing (inclusive of aesthetic, emotional and moral sense-making) had direct bearing on the discussions that followed, around language and education.

I like that formulation: “the greatest existential ease and pleasure in encountering meaning.” And this, on Tamil:

Dalit scholar and intellectual Stalin Rajangam pointed out there is a similar encoding of the Dalit voice in “classical” Tamil literature. It is a little-known fact that Thiruvalluvar, the philosopher-poet who composed Thirukkural, the monumental Tamil treatise on ethics, was a weaver by profession and a Dalit. So were Avvaiyar, the great woman poet of the Sangam period, and Sekkizhar, the Shaiva saint-poet. Rajangam delved into a fascinating history of subaltern Tamil which goes by the poetic epithet of mozhikkullu mozhi (“language within language”).

It is a history inscribed in the age-old differentiation of spoken and literary Tamil – seri thamizh and senthamizh. The distinction is casteist, rooted in etymologies of purity and pollution: “seri” refers to the slums where Dalit communities live (another early adjective for Dalit speech, kotun, meant “bent, crooked, or twisted”), while the suffix “sen” comes from “cemmai” denoting proportion, elegance and excellence (in other words, a tongue that is straight, clean and beautiful). Rajangam recounted how this binary of the colloquial and the classical was cast in iron by colonial lexicographers in the context of the emergent print culture of Tamil Nadu in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A decisive battle in this regard was the dictionary debate between two missionaries, the Jesuit scholar Joseph Beschi and Lutheran linguist Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, in the 1700s. With Beschi’s victory, the “High” Tamil he championed became the standard and the Dalit idiom, along with its distinctive lexemes, orthography, rhythms and aesthetic, was excluded from print. The binary persists to this day, Rajangam avers, in forms both obvious and subtle.

I also like the thought of “language within language” very much. Thanks, Trevor!

Luwian Hieroglyphic Inscription Deciphered?

Another of those intriguing-if-true reports, this one by Natasha Frost for Atlas Obscura:

A limestone slab, 31 yards long, may have related the story of the end of the Bronze Age. An interdisciplinary team of Swiss and Dutch archaeologists have now deciphered the symbols thought to have adorned the frieze, almost 150 years after it was discovered and summarily destroyed. In 1878, villagers in Beyköy, a tiny hamlet in western Turkey, found the large, mysterious artifact in pieces in the ground, and saw that it was engraved with seemingly illegible pictograms and scribbles. It would be 70 years before that language, now known to be millennia-old Luwian, could be read by scholars.

According to Eberhard Zangger, the president of a nonprofit foundation called Luwian Studies, the symbols tell stories of wars, invasions, and battles waged by a great prince, Muksus. Muksus hailed from the kingdom of Mira, which controlled Troy 3,200 years ago. The inscription describes his military advance all the way through the Levant to the borders of Egypt, and how his armies invaded cities and built fortresses as they went. Such invasions from the east are thought to be among the causes of the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. […]

The work has sparked concerns from scholars not involved in the research, who suggest that the frieze and, in turn, stories it is thought to have contained, could be a forgery, reports Live Science. Until records of the inscription are found outside of Mellaart’s notes, some say, it will be hard to confirm the age and authenticity of its contents. That said, an inscription that length (31 yards!) would be near-impossible to forge, say Zangger and Woudhuizen, especially given that Mellaart could neither read nor write the ancient script. In the meantime, this poorly understood corner of ancient history is finally getting a moment in the sun.

Anybody know anything about this?

Richard Wilbur, RIP.

The man whom I called “perhaps my favorite living poet” is, alas, no longer living. Richard Wilbur is dead at 96. I refer you to that fine NY Times obituary by Daniel Lewis for details of his life and career (as well as some poetry); I’ll quote a couple of poems here (for more, see the first link as well as this post from 2008). First, “Praise In Summer,” from his first book, The Beautiful Changes (1947):

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur took his own suggestion and spent his life playing a tune upon the blue guitar of things exactly as they are. And here is the last stanza of “Mayflies,” from his 2000 collection of the same name (you can read the whole thing, and hear him reading it, here):

Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
        In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they —
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
        Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.

On Hindustani.

Karthik Venkatesh writes about languages and dialects; most of it is standard stuff that’s old hat at the Hattery (the Weinreich quote; the history of standard English, French, and Turkish), but I thought this section was interesting enough to bring to LH:

In similar fashion, in the subcontinent, a Sanskritized Hindi and a Persianized Urdu were “created” from the Hindustani base that was the foundation for both languages. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “Hindi” was willed into existence by Hindu zealots keen on a language purged of Muslim influences. The Hindustani that was spoken in the bazaars of north India was the vehicle chosen for this dream and was purged of its Arabo-Persian words, which were replaced with Sanskrit equivalents. This new creation was held up as standard Hindi.

Other allied languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Braj and many others, many of which were centuries old and had extensive bodies of literature, were then cast as “dialects” of Hindi. The fantastic claim that such a Sanskritized Hindi is likely to have existed in the past before the Muslim invasions was made and the language thus endowed with a history that was nothing more than a purloining of the histories of its “dialects” and more than a dollop of imagination.

Parallely, Urdu was purged of “polluting” Hindu influences. Turkic, Arabic and Persian words were preferred to words from Indian languages and an acceptable Urdu was willed into existence much in the same fashion as an acceptable Hindi was. Both languages jostled for acceptance and legitimacy among their target audience and aspired for “purity” even as the common man continued—and continues to this day—to use what in effect must be rightly termed “Hindustani” (known as Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan). In effect, Sanskritized Hindi claims a history that isn’t really its own while Persianized Urdu, on the other hand, chooses not to dwell on that history much, choosing instead to look to Persian and Arabic as its forerunners.

Anyone interested in learning more should get hold of a copy of A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi-Urdu by Amrit Rai, which I bought at a Strand table by Central Park for $4 on a beautiful June day in 1992 — they seem to want $279.99 for it now, but hopefully you can get it from a library. Thanks, Bathrobe!

From Boiling Lead and Black Art.

Even if you have no particular interest in the history of mathematical typography (I don’t, even though I once wanted to be a mathematician), if you have any interest at all in typography, especially the old-fashioned hot-type kind, you will enjoy Eddie Smith’s From boiling lead and black art: An essay on the history of mathematical typography. Smith writes “To fully appreciate mathematical typography, we have to first appreciate the general history of typography, which is also a history of human civilization,” and he follows through; I’ve never read a compact presentation of that history that was as understandable and enjoyable. It’s worth it just for the image labeled “The complex arrangement of characters and spaces required to compose mathematics with metal type,” which is mind-boggling, and for the anecdotes, like this one:

At Chicago in the 1960’s and 1970’s we had a technical typist who got to the point that he, knowing no mathematics, could and did catch mathematical mistakes just from the look of things. He also considered himself an artist, and it was a real battle to get things the way you and not he wanted them.

And for me it was worth it just for this footnote: “TeX is pronounced ‘tek’ and is an English representation of the Greek letters τεχ, which is an abbreviation of τέχνη (or technē).” All these years I’ve been saying “tex” (and “latex” for LaTeX) like a doofus!

English Usage Myths.

Since we’re on the topic of myths, here’s Stan Carey’s delightful A to Z of English usage myths:

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. […] Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

It starts with

A is for ALTERNATIVE. Peevers say you can’t have more than two alternatives, because Latin. This is the etymological fallacy.

… and goes all the way to

Z is for ZOOM. Theodore Bernstein said that this term, being from aviation, should only mean ‘upward mobility’. English went ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

He says “A few readers were happily on board until they reached a particular bugbear”; I’m happy to say I was happily on board throughout (though a few items raised a nostalgic smile for my own long-ago peever past, when I complained about things like the “misuse” of transpire). I’m also happy to report that there’s no actual peevery in his comment section, though there are a few cavils. And I agree with John that “learning to say ‘I personally object to what that person is doing, but I accept there’s nothing objectively wrong with it, and no, nobody Ought To Make A Law Against It’ would for many people be a useful and necessary lesson in tolerance outside of the matter of linguistics.”

The ‘Myth’ of Language History.

This story reports on a finding that’s surprising if true:

The ‘myth’ of language history: languages do not share a single history but different components evolve along different trajectories and at different rates. A large-scale study of Pacific languages reveals that forces driving grammatical change are different to those driving lexical change. Grammar changes more rapidly and is especially influenced by contact with unrelated languages, while words are more resistant to change.

An international team of researchers, led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, have discovered that a language’s grammatical structures change more quickly over time than vocabulary, overturning a long-held assumption in the field. The study, published October 2 in PNAS, analyzed 81 Austronesian languages based on a detailed database of grammatical structures and lexicon. By analyzing these languages, all from a single family and geographic region, using sophisticated modelling the researchers were able to determine how quickly different aspects of the languages had changed. Strikingly different processes seemed to be shaping the lexicon and the grammar – the lexicon changed more when new languages were created, while the grammatical structures were more affected by contact with other languages.

The paper is Simon J. Greenhill el al., “Evolutionary dynamics of language systems,” PNAS (2017). As always, I welcome all thoughts on the topic. (Thanks, Trevor!)


Back in 1985, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a review for the LRB (which sent me the link in celebration of Ishiguro’s Nobel) of Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan by John David Morley (a book I have owned for many years but have not gotten around to reading), and since the central portion of the review is language-related, I thought I’d quote it here:

Early on in the book, Morley notes the way the Japanese use the word uchi. This word means ‘house’. But Morley observes how the word is often used as a pronoun in place of ‘I’, whenever a speaker is referring to himself in the context of his household. Indeed, uchi can also be used for ‘we’, ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ whenever the subject is being referred to in relation to the speaker’s household. If two mothers are discussing their children, each will refer to her own children as uchi rather than ‘they’. If they then begin discussing their husbands, each will refer to her husband as uchi rather than ‘he’. Furthermore, Morley notices this word for ‘house’ being used in respect not only of families but of any strongly bonded grouping – colleagues in a firm, for instance, referring to themselves as uchi. The Japanese mind, Morley argues, is dominated by the concept of uchi, giving it an unusual predisposition to see the world in terms of insiders and outsiders. This observation comes to be the cornerstone of Morley’s thinking about the Japanese, and throughout the book he applies his uchi-analysis to various phenomena he wishes to understand better.

At one stage, for instance, Morley embarks on a fascinating discussion of aimai, the well-known – and, to many Westerners, quite baffling – Japanese manner of communicating in an elegantly elliptical, non-committal way. Not only does aimai tend to characterise any conversation between Japanese whatever their relationship, it manifests itself as a central aesthetic principle in much Japanese art and literature. How did aimai come to ingrain itself so? Morley is unimpressed by the theory offered by those Japanese he consults: that centuries under the Tokugawa dictatorships during which free speech was dangerous obliged the Japanese to develop aimai. (His scepticism is no doubt correct. Japan under the Tokugawas never featured the sophisticated control of everyday life witnessed in modern totalitarian states. Directly subversive political talk would certainly have been dangerous, but ordinary people would otherwise have been free to talk much as they wished. It is unconvincing that a few taboo subjects could cause aimai to infect the whole language.) Instead, Morley attempts his own theory: it is the strength of the uchi concept within Japanese minds which underlies aimai. A heightened sense of the world as being comprised of insiders and outsiders acts against plain-speaking on two fronts. First, there is a keen awareness of the potential for conflict with anyone from an uchi other than one’s own: thus, all outsiders must be addressed in an excessively polite, careful way – above all, taking care not to express any opinion unequivocally, so as to leave plenty of room for retreat in case of offence. Second, amongst members of the same uchi, the need would arise to develop cryptic ways of talking precisely in order to be obscure to outsiders. Morley goes on to suggest – rather fancifully – that the acoustics within a Japanese house, with its literally paper-thin walls, would have facilitated this process, the frequent omissions of the subject from a Japanese clause deriving from a constant fear of eavesdroppers. Morley concludes that the uchi mentality has caused the Japanese to develop their language in such a way as to suppress meaning.

Ishiguro says “There is no doubt that at times Morley goes too far in applying his uchi-theory,” but he seems to find it stimulating; I’m curious to know what my Japanese-speaking readers think of it all.

The Japanese Bridge.

Back in the early days of LH we had a long thread based on the local pronunciation of New York’s Kosciuszko Bridge; I now present a delightful followup (by John Moy) from the Metropolitan Diary section of the NY Times:

Dear Diary:

The construction of a new Kosciuszko Bridge, the demolition of the old one and coverage of how to pronounce the bridge’s name is of particular interest to certain New Yorkers of Chinese heritage.

Whether it is pronounced “ko-SHCH-OO-SH-ko,” “Kos-kee-OOS-ko” or “Kos-kee-OSS-ko,” the name Kosciuszko, despite being Polish in origin, sounds Japanese to Cantonese-Americans.

Every driver in New York who speaks Cantonese and listens to the radio station WZRC-AM is used to hearing about traffic being backed up from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway “all the way to the Japanese Bridge.”

Ask a driver in New York who speaks Cantonese where the Kosciuszko Bridge is. They won’t know.

Perhaps the traffic reporters should consider calling it the Polish Bridge instead.

Thanks, Eric!