Dictionnaire de la langue verte.

Alfred Delvau (1825-1867) packed a lot of writing into his 42 years, including his compilation of French slang, the Dictionnaire de la langue verte (1866), whose second (1883) edition, revised by Gustave Fustier, is available at Project Gutenberg. It is, of course, a lot of fun to look through the lively vocabulary, but I am going to cite here an eloquent passage from the preface:

Puisque j’en suis au chapitre des étonnements, je dois prémunir mes lecteurs contre celui qu’ils éprouveront certainement à rencontrer çà et là, dans ce Dictionnaire de la Langue verte, des mots auxquels le Dictionnaire de l’Académie a donné asile, — comme on donne asile aux gueux et aux vagabonds. Ces mots sont considérés par lui comme bas et populaciers, et il en défend l’usage aux gens du bel air, aussi bégueules que lui: à cause de cela, ils me revenaient de droit, puisque je fais le Glossaire de la langue du peuple parisien, le Compendium du slang. La langue verte, au rebours de la langue académique, se compose précisément des mots qui ne s’écrivent pas, mais qui se parlent à certains étages de la société.

Or, je suis de ceux qui prétendent que «toutes paroles se laissent dire et tout pain mangier», — avec d’autant plus de raison que les expressions proscrites comme indignes, condamnées comme shocking par le Dictionnaire de l’Académie, sont du meilleur français que je connaisse, d’un français plus étymologique, plus rationnel, plus expressif, plus éloquent que celles auxquelles ladite Académie a accordé droit de cité, — le français de Jean de Meung et de Guillaume de Lorris, de François Villon et de François Rabelais, de Philippe Desportes et de Bonaventure Des Périers, d’Henri Estienne et de Clément Marot, de Michel Montaigne et de Mathurin Régnier, d’Agrippa d’Aubigné et de Brantôme, de Froissart et d’Amyot, etc. Il paraît qu’il est de bon goût, dans les hautes régions, de renier ses ancêtres et de mentir à ses origines; les gens distingués se croiraient déshonorés, — savants et gandins, — en parlant la langue des petites gens, qui, cependant, sont les plus fidèles gardiens et les plus rigoureux observateurs de la tradition. Oui, il faut que les gens distingués en prennent leur parti: le peuple est le Conservatoire du vrai langage.

Google Translate does a good enough job that I don’t feel like taking the trouble to translate the whole passage, but I especially love these bits: “the expressions proscribed as unworthy, condemned as ‘shocking,’ by the Academy’s dictionary are the best French that I know, a French more etymological, more rational, more expressive, more eloquent than those the Academy has given the keys of the city” and “the people are the Conservatory of the real language.” You tell ’em, M. Delvau!

Repetition in Tolstoy II.

Back in 2008 I wrote what is still one of my favorite LH posts, Repetition in Tolstoy; now, thanks to the latest Russian Dinosaur post, we can revisit the issue. The Dinosaur writes about the competing translations of Anna Karenina that appeared in 2014, Rosamund Bartlett’s (Oxford UP) and Marian Schwartz’s (Yale UP), mentioning the problems with which Tolstoy’s “unhelpful syntax” confronts the translator (“adjectival traffic jams; awkward, unmanageable, and not always even conventionally grammatical gerunds”) and points out the translators’ differing approaches:

Schwartz firmly believes that the ‘unconventional and unsettling’ effect of Tolstoy’s style, the occasional ‘roughness’, the use of apparent “mistakes” and of course the repetitions, are all intended to “convey meaning, to express his spiritual and moral concerns’ (Translator’s Note, xxiii). An obvious example of repetition that both translators cite is the adjective veselyi (jolly) and its cognates such as veselost’ (jolliness, good cheer), which Bartlett claims occurs 318 times in Anna (and she should know). Schwartz chooses to translate this word wherever it occurs by a single English equivalent – cheerful – and its cognates (e.g. cheer, cheery). She suggests that by constantly referring to ‘cheer’, Tolstoy meant to provoke ‘ominous associations’ (xxv) in his readers’ minds – a suspicion that the characters were in fact very far from cheerful. Because Russian is an inflected language with multiple derivations and affixations possible from a single stem, in the original, this repetitive technique creates a rich web of inferences and implications. In English, it causes most readers to wonder at the apparent poverty of the translator’s vocabulary. Surely Tolstoy couldn’t have been such a limited writer, constantly re-using the same word?

Bartlett resorts to a richer vocabulary, including ‘merry’, ‘livelier’, and ‘light-hearted’, in order – as her introductory essay explains – to convey the ‘richness of meaning implied in the original’. She asserts that Russian is simply more concise than English, and that therefore multiple meanings may be implicit in a single word; thus to fix on a single English equivalent for that word, as Schwartz does with veselyi, would be unduly confining for the translator (and repetitive for the reader). […] There is a lot of good sense in this approach, and it certainly makes for a richer text for the Anglophone reader. And yet we must remember Tolstoy uses repetition for several reasons, including for emphasis; for the psychologically jarring sensation which Shklovsky would christen ‘defamiliarization’; and for the ‘Hansel’s breadcrumb’ effect, that is, using a chain of similar words to clarify the narrative’s symbolic underpinnings. The style is meant to convey meaning; to provoke discomfort; and to convey meaning by provoking discomfort, rather like a parallel process in cinema, Eisenstein’s notion of intellectual montage, where contrasting or shocking images initiate an emotional or cognitive process in the viewer’s mind. Unwise translators, by gobbling up the repeated words and substituting unrecognizable synonyms, may erase Tolstoy’s subtly laid ‘pathway’ through the plot – and forestall the thought processes that the author had intended to unlock.

She provides a good example from Part Five of the novel in which Schwartz comes out ahead, and in general I am completely on Schwartz’s side here: authors choose to repeat words for a reason, and barring strong contrary reasons translators should respect that choice. But it’s great to see the opposing points of view laid out so eloquently, and it should make each side more aware of the pluses and minuses.

Dino goes on to recount the debate that erupted when Janet Malcolm wrote her review of various Tolstoy translations in The New York Review of Books; the centerpiece was an evisceration of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, of which I thoroughly approved, but it also included an unfair attack on Schwartz for choosing to translate Tolstoy’s “образуется” with the odd “shapify” — however much you may disagree with that choice, it’s absurd to use it to judge an entire book by one of the great translators of our day.

Origins of the Japanese Language.

Matt of No-sword sent me a link to Alexander Vovin’s Oxford Research Encyclopedias article Origins of the Japanese Language, saying:

It doesn’t present any new findings, but it’s a reasonable (I think) summary of current thinking among Anglophone linguists working on the history of Japanese specifically. The most interesting point of serious disagreement (it seems to me as an interested non-academic) is the nature of the relationship to Korean — genetic, sprachbund, regular old contact? Vovin does not accept a genetic relationship and I tend to agree with him, as hashed out previously in the LH comments section, but he gives plenty of space to those arguments here. On the other hand, he has little time for any attempt to establish a connection to Altaic; Austronesian is mentioned only in a list that also includes Basque; and the word “Ainu” doesn’t appear in the article at all.

I’ll be curious to know what those who know about these things think of the article, and of course I’ll be glad if people find it useful. Thanks, Matt!

Yi Saek’s Chinese.

I had meant to write about Krista Ryu’s Imperial miscommunication Log post ages ago, but it got lost among the tabs. The centerpiece is this great anecdote from The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, which she describes as “The story of failed communication between a Goryo Dynasty diplomat and the Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398; r. 1328-1398) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)”:

Yi Saek (이색, 李穡), a great Confucian scholar from the Goryo Dynasty of Korea, was an expert in “Chinese” language and culture. [KR: I have put “Chinese” inside quotation marks because there was no standard Chinese during this time (end of the 1300s).] He had studied “Chinese” during the Yuan Dynasty since he was 10 years old because of his father who had a position in the Yuan Dynasty government. At the age of 20, he went to Beijing and studied at Guozijian (the imperial college at the time), and even worked at the Hanlinyuan (Hanlin Academy) of the Yuan government. Based on his credentials and knowledge of “Chinese”, he was considered the best expert of “China” in Goryo.

So, when the [Mongol] Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) fell and the Ming Dynasty was established, King Chang of Goryo decided to send Yi Saek as envoy to meet the new Ming Emperor and establish diplomatic relations. When Yi Saek went to address Emperor Hongwu of the Ming, Hongwu said, “I hear that you studied in Guozijian, and were working in Hanlinyuan. So you must know ‘Chinese’.”

Then Yi spoke to the Emperor in “Chinese,” which was clearly his forte.

Unfortunately, the Emperor couldn’t understand Yi’s Beijing topolect! The Emperor was from Central China (around Anhui province now).

The Emperor was confused and then said, “Your pronunciation of Chinese is like that of Naghachu (納哈出– Yuan Dynasty general, a Mongol; d. 1388).”

According to records, Yi Saek was greatly embarrassed and was made fun of for many, many years when he came back to Goryo for what happened.

Krista adds: “So already in the late 1300s, topolects were a real problem, even for foreign diplomats who were speaking Pekingese!! Also, when the Dynasty changed, the new elites probably spoke a different topolect from that of the previous Dynasty’s elites. This change would have meant all the diplomats of China’s tributary states had to learn a new language.” There are references in the post, and a surprise appearance by the (apparently legendary) Endymion Wilkinson in the comment thread.

The Solitary Cyclist.

Courtesy of JC, this Sherlock Holmes puzzler from the Futility Closet (quoted from Andrew J. Peck, “The Solitary Man-uscript,” Baker Street Journal, June 1972):

In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” Arthur Conan Doyle created an inadvertent grammatical puzzle: Who does the term “solitary cyclist” refer to?

As I wrote John, “A curious conundrum, but I find it hard to believe it exercised the minds of so many people for so long, given that the reading that turned out (ta-da!) to be correct was the obvious one, at least to me. Of course, I’m very used to the serial comma, but I don’t believe it was so unknown back in the day.” In his response, John linked to Arika Okrent’s The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars, which has a lot of good quotes and ends by linking to yours truly (this 2003 post). Enjoy, and feel free to comment on the Sherlock Holmes thing if you have thoughts on the matter.

My Sammelband Has Frisket-Bite.

Jer Thorp (“currently the Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress”) presents “A Short Glossary of Delightful Library Terms.” Some of them are pretty basic (incunabula, verso/recto, gloss), but there are enough truly delightful ones I thought it was worth passing along, e.g. Wimmelbilderbuch “A kind of large-format picture book,” respect des fonds “A principle in archival theory that proposes to group collections of archival records according to their fonds — that is to say, according to the administration, organization, individual, or entity by which they were created or from which they were received,” and of course inherent vice “The tendency in physical objects to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of the components of which they are made.” Note that we discussed volvelle here a couple of years ago and manicule back in 2008.

The Georgian Sea.

I’m still reading Dmitry Bykov’s biography of Pasternak (see this post; it’s been less than two years, and I’m already over halfway through!), and when he got to Pasternak’s translations from Georgian he quoted the first stanza of his version of Valerian Gaprindashvili‘s poem “The Sea,” and I was impressed enough to memorize it:

Море мечтает о чем-нибудь махоньком,
Вроде как сделаться птичкой колибри
Или звездою на небе заяхонтить,
Только бы как-нибудь сжаться в калибре.

The sea dreams of something tiny,
like turning itself into a little hummingbird
or a star to jacinth in the sky,
if only it could somehow shrink in caliber.

Bykov says it’s wonderful poetry but sounds more like Mayakovsky than Pasternak, who doesn’t reveal himself fully in translation. If you’re wondering about “jacinth,” it’s my attempt to render заяхонтить [zayákhontit’], which is not a Russian verb, nor is яхонтить a word if you get rid of the за- prefix — it’s a nonce form based on the obsolete noun яхонт [yákhont], which could mean either ‘ruby’ or ‘sapphire.’ The noun is from Middle High German jachant, which is from Latin hyacinthus, and as it happens there’s an obsolete English jewel word jacinth which derives from the same Latin source, so I figured it was as close as I could get.
[Read more…]

Punt.

There are a number of punts in English; I’m concerned here not with the flat-bottomed boat (from Latin pontō, from pons ‘bridge’) nor with the drop kick (perhaps a dialectal variant of bunt) nor yet the Irish pound, but rather with the betting term meaning ‘to stake against the bank’ (hence UK punter ‘gambler,’ slang ‘customer’). Older etymologies (1st ed. OED, M-W) derive this from Latin punctum ‘point,’ but AHD says “French ponter, from obsolete pont, past participle of pondre, to put (obsolete), lay an egg, from Old French, to lay an egg, from Latin pōnere,” and the Trésor de la langue française informatisé agrees:

Étymol. et Hist. 1718 jeux «miser contre le banquier» intrans. (Ac.); 1831 trans. (Balzac, loc. cit.). Dér. (à l’aide de la dés. –er) de pont, forme anc. du part. passé masc. de pondre* (v. ponte1), propr. «poser, mettre»; cf. l’a. prov. ponher «poser» 1344 […]. Le lat. class. ponere connaît l’accept. «déposer (un enjeu)».

I was looking it up because of this passage in Alexander Veltman’s last novel, Счастье – несчастье [Good luck is bad luck] (1863):

Это былъ дѣйствительный статскій совѣтникъ и ордена Св. Анны кавалеръ, Андрей Павловичь, извѣстный только подъ именемъ и отечествомъ своимъ, всему нѣмецкому клубу, куда ежедневно являлся онъ въ извѣстный часъ, игралъ въ карты вплоть до штрафнаго часа, украшалъ рѣчь свою латинскими пословицами, требовалъ по окончаніи игры рюмку водки, котлету, стаканъ вина, и потомъ понтировалъ или ѣхалъ на ванькѣ обратно на квартиру.

It was Active State Councillor and holder of the Order of Saint Anna Andrei Pavlovich, known only by his given name and patronymic to the entire German club where he appeared every day at a certain hour, played cards up until the fine/penalty hour, embellished his speech with Latin proverbs, at the end of the game called for a glass of vodka, a cutlet, and a glass of wine, and then either punted or took a cab back to his apartment.

I was wondering what “punted” meant, and now I’m wondering how you can go on betting against the bank after the card game is over. I’m also wondering what the штрафной час ‘fine/penalty hour’ is (the time when players pay up, or when it’s illegal to keep playing?). If anyone can shed light on these matters, I will of course be grateful.

GTAGE: The Tsipras Edition.

A few months ago I reported on the return of Nick Nicholas to blogging; he’s been doing great stuff ever since, and it’s high time I posted about some of it. I’ll start with his delightful posts titled “GTAGE: The Tsipras Edition”: Part #1, Part #2. He takes “comically literal translations of Greek into English” and explains how they work, beginning with a Facebook meme: “Years and Zamania i have to come to America. Last time i was here i saw the Christ soldier…” Nick goes into detail about each element:

Greek has plenty of loans from Turkish […] zaman is also such a word. In Turkish it means “time, period”, and it derives from Persian zamān. If you google, you’ll see that it used to be used somewhat more widely; e.g. μια φορά κι ένα ζαμάνι “at one time and one zaman” = “once upon a time” (the only expression now is μια φορά κι έναν καιρό “at one time and one season”); or the Cretan folk song ζαμάνια το ’χα να σε δω “it’s been zamans since I’ve seen you.” (2:06 of the recording by Nikos Xilouris .) Even when it was used more widely, it would be paired with a Greek word: μια φορά κι ένα ζαμάνι, where ζαμάνι has been replaced by καιρός; and in Xilouris’ folk song, it’s paired with καιρός itself […] Now zaman survives in only one fixed expression, which again pairs it with an equivalent Greek word: χρόνια και ζαμάνια έχω να Χ, “I have years and zamans to X” = “it’s been ages since I’ve X.” The object years and zamans has been fronted before the verb, for emphasis; it adds to the emphasis already provided by the repetition in “years and zamans”.

I love this kind of thing, and if you too like seeing idioms taken apart, you should enjoy the posts even if you don’t know modern Greek.

And as lagniappe: Did Tzetzes write the first attested instance of μουνί?. I’ve long been a fan of the erudite and touchy Tzetzes; see this 2003 post and this 2010 one (both featuring Nick, as a matter of fact).

Wars on Language, 1917.

Dong Hyun Kang (a senior at Seoul International School with “a keen interest in historical and comparative linguistics”) writes (pdf) for Babel: The Language Magazine about the anti-German campaign in America and the anti-French campaign in German-ruled Alsace during WWI; it’s a sad tale full of linguistic interest, and I recommend the whole thing (four pages), but I’ll excerpt the same bit of patriotic peevery Trevor tempted me with when he sent me the link:

The Chicago Woman’s Club, whose prominent members included Jane Addams and Lucy Flower, suggested that public education in America make it mandatory for children to recite the Watch Your Speech pledge, which actually became a reality in 1918. Schoolchildren found themselves saying “I love my country’s language. I promise: (1) that I will not dishonor my country’s speech by leaving off the last syllables of words; (2) that I will say a good American ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in place of a foreign ‘ya’ or ‘yeh’ and ‘nope’; (3) that I will do my best to improve American speech by avoiding loud harsh tones, by enunciating distinctly and speaking pleasantly, clearly and sincerely.”

Nice work, Dong Hyun Kang, and thanks, Trevor!