The Importance of Data.

John Cowan sent me a link to “Methodological Thoughts from the Linguistic Field” by William Davies, whose abstract reads:

Data are the heart and soul of any linguistic research. Regardless of how incisive an analysis might be, or how clever, it can never be any better than the data it is based upon. For the field linguist gathering data, important considerations include the selection of informants, the number of informants selection, and data collection techniques. Different research objectives, be they descriptive, prescriptive or theory-driven, require techniques appropriate to those particular goals and should be evaluated within the context of inquiry. What follows is a consideration of the techniques generally used by field linguists with a general descriptive goal within the framework of generative linguistics.

JC’s comment:

This is a paper about field research into an obscure language, Madurese — by a generativist. Will wonders never cease? I’m particularly impressed that he talks about “acceptability judgments” instead of “grammaticality judgments”, which confirms my view that grammaticality is relative to a specific grammar and cannot be judged by informants; what they can tell you is whether the sentence is acceptable Madurese or not.

Very true!

Translation in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Jonathan Rubin, author of Learning in a Crusader City: Intellectual Activity and Intercultural Exchanges in Frankish Acre, 1191-1291 (2018), summarizes some interesting aspects of his research for Aeon. After quoting Steven Runciman (the society of the Crusader states “consisted almost entirely of soldiers and merchants, [and] was not fitted to create or maintain a high intellectual standard”) and Hans Mayer (“the Franks contributed little or nothing to the advancement of science and learning in the Middle Ages”), he says:

And yet, it now seems that the Kingdom of Jerusalem did, in fact, make its own important cultural contributions. In 1281, a certain John of Antioch gave a beautiful codex to a Hospitaller knight named William of Santo Stefano. At the heart of the precious volume were French translations that John had prepared of two Latin works dating to the days of ancient Rome: Cicero’s De inventione and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium [which we discussed briefly here –LH]. In the production of these translations, John was not only fulfilling the request of an important knight but also making a significant step in the history of the French language: at the time, translations from Latin into French were rare and innovative, and never before had a complete Latin text on rhetoric been translated into French. Furthermore, to these translations John appended one of the earliest vernacular treatises on logic. But the most surprising detail concerning this book is that it was produced thousands of kilometres from the contemporary centres of Western learning, in a port city that then served as the capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: Acre.

An additional text that is particularly useful in order to get a glimpse of the intellectual arena that developed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem is the Notitia de Machometo or ‘Information about Muhammed’. This treatise was composed in 1271, also in Acre, by a Dominican named William of Tripoli. It was dedicated to Teobaldo Visconti, a prominent churchman who arrived at Acre on pilgrimage, and, while in the city, was notified of his election as Pope Gregory X. William writes that his reason for compiling this text was that he understood that Teobaldo was interested in Islam. This led him to produce an impressive survey of Islamic history, custom and theology, which includes numerous Quranic passages in (mostly accurate) Latin translation, as well as considerable information that was very hard to come by at the time in Latin Christendom, for example a precise account of the Muslim prayer. […]

In the Notitia, a set of Western Marian legends was translated from Latin or French into Arabic, and subsequently adopted by the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. At the same time, the fact that the Notitia reveals hardly any evidence for direct contact with Muslims is also crucial in understanding the cultural history of the Kingdom. The Muslims’ encounter with the Latins of the First Crusade might have left such a bitter taste among the former that they possibly tended to refrain from all unnecessary give-and-take with the Franks, even long after the situation stabilised. […]

There are also some general lessons. For one thing, the case of the Kingdom of Jerusalem shows that studying ‘peripheries’ is no less rewarding than studying ‘centres’. Indeed, the social composition of peripheral societies, and the transfer of ideas and people to and from them, make such areas particularly interesting for the study of circulation and the development of ideas. Lacking the dominant intellectual elites which, in some cases, block or slow down certain novel trends, peripheries – with all their limitations – can prove to make significant cultural contributions to their centres. Indeed, it seems that while the natural inclination of scholars interested in intellectual history is to explore the known, central, established centres, we must not forget to also explore the accumulation, development and distribution of ideas and knowledge in more distant and less well-known hubs such as Acre.

I enthusiastically second that last point. Thanks for the link, jack!

Leskov’s Enchanted Wanderer.

I’ve finished another of Leskov‘s most famous works, the novella Очарованный странник (The Enchanted Wanderer), and I’m having confused thoughts about my reactions to his writing that I’ll try to clarify here.

There’s no question that he’s a wonderful writer, and I enjoy his sentences and paragraphs enormously, especially when he’s in his skaz (oral-style narrative) mode. So why do I sometimes get irritated and reluctant to continue? At first I thought maybe he was just not good at telling continuous stories as opposed to strings of anecdotes, as in Смех и горе (Laughter and Grief; see this post), but then I remembered that he had done a fine job of that in Запечатленный ангел (The Sealed Angel; see this post) and in the first part of Некуда (Nekuda, conventionally translated No Way Out; see this post) — the reason I had given up on that was its turn to a tedious plot involving radicals, not a failure of storytelling per se. However, I did recently give up on Соборяне (The Cathedral Folk; see this post) precisely because it began to seem like one damn thing after another, and it was considerably longer than Laughter and Grief. The same is true of The Enchanted Wanderer, but it was shorter, so I was able to finish reading it.

I learn from the relevant Wikipedia article that my complaint is by no means original; in 1895, Mikhailovsky wrote: “In terms of fabula richness it might have been Leskov’s most significant work, but total lack of focus is more than obvious so there is no fabula as such, rather a set of fabulas, strung together, so that any bead could be removed and replaced by another, and any number of other beads could be put onto the same string.” My question is: if he was able to tell a coherent story when he wanted, why did he sometimes settle for the string-of-anecdotes pattern? Maybe that’s what he liked himself, or maybe he was just lazy. In any case, The Enchanted Wanderer has a lot of good stories; just don’t expect any coherence. As with Laughter and Grief, it’s a guy telling some other guys “Here’s how my life has brought me to where I am today.” If you’re looking for shapeliness, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

When Chinese Was a State Secret.

Joel at Far Outliers posts an excerpt from God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996):

In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government’s rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils’ lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company’s senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company’s monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company’s roster as “proficient” enough to receive an annual student’s allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company’s former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners’ restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China’s local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

There’s no end to the political uses and travails of language.

More on Magarshack.

A couple of years ago I posted about Russian Dinosaur’s interview with Cathy McAteer about her research on translator David Magarshack and the Penguin Classics series; now The Bloggers Karamazov has a new interview with her on the same topic, but it covers different material. Here’s an interesting passage:

The Penguin archive consists of 2,300 boxes, 500 metres of Penguin titles, and it grows by a metre of shelf space every month: signed books, correspondence, photos, promotional material. It is vast. The Penguin Classics section represents a small part of the entire archive, and the Russian Classics titles amount to just 23 folders in total, spanning from 1950 to 1970, which vary considerably in size. Some contain no more than a couple of letters confirming a print re-run, others contain tens of pages of detailed discussion about deadlines, royalty payments, corrections, correction costs, copyright, translation queries, suggestions for cover design, readers’ letters, etc. Thick files usually bode well, either because there has been a particular working rapport between editor and translator – good or bad! but always with an eagerness all round to produce the best possible text for publication – or because a text has prompted a high level of reader response: from individuals, theatre troupes requesting stage adaptations, the BBC seeking broadcasting permission, and, in the case of the Dostoevsky files, there are repeated requests by academics for permission to use translation excerpts in their psychology manuals. Inevitably, though, archival work is the domain of one-sided conversations which can often lead to unanswered questions, red-herrings, and dead-ends; these all become a bit of an occupational hazard! Just when you think the next letter will neatly conclude an ongoing discussion, the trail runs dry, which is why I ended up pursuing other collections.

Fortunately for me, Magarshack kept large quantities (27 boxes in total) of his letters, reviews, theatre programmes (his play translations continued to be used for decades), copies of his works, notes on translation, which answered many questions, provided new lines of enquiry, but also led me to Magarshack’s daughter Stella and the opportunity for me to interview her about her father’s translation career. I discovered that aside from his translations (not just for Penguin) and biographies (many of your readers will be aware of Magarshack’s Dostoevsky biography), Magarshack also tried his hand at crime-writing, à la Dostoevsky, but without comparable success. The highlight for me, though, was discovering that he had attempted to quantify his translation strategy towards the end of his career. He set down his thoughts and observations of twenty years or so of literary translation practice in preparation for a book he had been commissioned to produce for Victor Gollancz on the principles of translation. Had Magarshack’s book made it to publication, it would have been ahead of his time; he had hoped to offer his strategies on how best to tackle classic translation challenges such as Russian naming practices (a question which appears repeatedly in the Penguin Russian Classics archive and perplexes even today), vernacular dialogue, idiomatic equivalence, register, syntax. It is a great shame, therefore, that Magarshack died before the book could be completed.

Thanks, Trevor!

Dorothy Richardson.

I recently read about the long-forgotten novelist Dorothy Richardson and her “sequence of 13 semi-autobiographical novels published between 1915 and 1967” (to quote the Wikipedia page), and my wife and I agreed it sounded like something worth trying for our nighttime reading. We’ve gotten well into Pointed Roofs, the first of the novels, and it’s amazing: a brilliantly written exploration of the mental world of a teenage English girl off to Germany to teach. Anyone who enjoys Virginia Woolf should like Richardson (and in fact Woolf was a fan). The problem, of course, was that modernist fiction has always been a hard sell, and the mental world of women even more so. At any rate, here are a couple passages of linguistic interest:

It gratified her to discover that she could, at the end of this one day, understand or at the worst gather the drift of, all she heard, both of German and French. Mademoiselle had exclaimed at her French—les mots si bien choisis—un accent sans faute—it must be ear. She must have a very good ear. And her English was all right—at least, if she chose…. Pater had always been worrying about slang and careless pronunciation. None of them ever said “cut in half” or “very unique” or “ho’sale” or “phodygraff.” She was awfully slangy herself—she and Harriett were, in their thoughts as well as their words—but she had no provincialisms, no Londonisms—she could be the purest Oxford English. There was something at any rate to give her German girls…. She could say, “There are no rules for English pronunciation, but what is usual at the University of Oxford is decisive for cultured people”—“decisive for cultured people.” She must remember that for the class. […]

“Oh, I am haypie,” Emma was saying, with adoring eyes on Miriam and her two arms outflung on the table. Miriam recoiled. This would not do—they must not all talk at once and go on like this. Minna’s whole face was aflame. She sat up stiffly—adjusted her pince-nez—and desperately ordered the reading to begin again—at Minna. They all subsided and Minna’s careful husky voice came from her still blissfully-smiling face. The others sat back and attended. Miriam watched Minna judicially, and hoped she looked like a teacher. She knew her pince-nez disguised her and none of these girls knew she was only seventeen and a half. “Sorrowg,” Minna was saying, hesitating. Miriam had not heard the preceding word. “Once more the whole sentence,” she said, with quiet gravity, and then as Minna reached the word “thorough” she corrected and spent five minutes showing her how to get over the redoubtable “th.” They all experimented and exclaimed. They had never been shown that it was just a matter of getting the tongue between the teeth. Miriam herself had only just discovered it. She speculated as to how long it would take for her to deliver them up to Fräulein Pfaff with this notorious stumbling-block removed. She was astonished herself at the mechanical simplicity of the cure. How stupid people must be not to discover these things.

McWhorter on Initial So.

I have often expressed a combination of irritation and admiration when it comes to John H. McWhorter, and so it is now. For quite some time I have been wondering about the current popularity of starting sentences with “So” and wishing someone would explain it, and he has done so about as well as could be hoped for. But he has done it in a podcast, a format I dislike for its inefficiency, and it takes him over half an hour to make a point that should take a couple of minutes. After nine minutes of blathering about other uses that are clearly not what people have been pestering him about, he gets to the one that matters, the “Terry Gross” one that is not motivated by a change of subject or the like. After sixteen minutes he finally gets to the explanation: it’s a replacement for sentence-initial “well” (which is what has been familiar to me all my life), and that is itself a replacement (after many centuries) for Old English hwæt ‘what,’ used in a similar way. Why the new forms? Because language changes, and you can’t predict how. That’s good enough for me! (We discussed the issue a few years ago here.)

Slavs and Slaves.

Victor Mair at the Log has a very useful roundup of the connection between the words slave and Slav; I’ll quote the section on Proto-Slavic slověninъ, from Wiktionary, and send you to the link for those on English slave and Ancient Greek Σκλάβος:

Roman Jakobson insists on this etymology: from *slovo (“word”); with link to Old East Slavic кличане (kličane, “hunters, who raise game by shout”) : кличь (kličʹ), and also on the opposition *slověne vs. *němьci.

Trubachev (Трубачёв): Jakobson’s etymology is promising, with the verb *slovǫ, *sluti (“to speak (understandably)”).

Vasmer: it has nothing to do with *slava (“glory, fame”) which influenced it in terms of folk etymology later. *slověne can’t be formed from *slovo because *-ěninъ, *-aninъ only occurs in derivations from place names, however local name *Slovy is not attested. Most likely it’s derived from a hydronym.

Compare Old East Slavic Словутичь (Slovutičĭ) ― Dnepr epithet, Russian Слуя (Sluja) ― affluent of Вазуза (Vazuza), Polish river names Sława, Sławica, Serbo-Croatian Славница and others which brings together with Ancient Greek κλύζω (klúzō, “I lave”), κλύζωει (klúzōei) · πλημμυρεῖ (plēmmureî), ῥέει (rhéei), βρύει (brúei), κλύδων (klúdōn, “surf”), Latin cluō (“I clean”), cloāca (“sewer pipe”). Other etymologies are less likely.

Otrębski brings up an interesting parallel ― the Lithuanian village name Šlavė́nai on river Šlavė̃ which is identical to Proto-Slavic slověne.

Бернштейн repeats this etymology: from Proto-Indo-European *slawos (“people, nation, folk”).

Maher agrees with Trubachev’s connection of it to *sluti (“to be known”), on the grounds that *slovo (“word”) is an s-stem, *sloves-, which would have led to an expected form *slovesěni (compare Russian слове́сность (slovésnostʹ)

Messy, but fun.

Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary.

Kifikmi Sigum Qanuq Ilitaavut/Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary (pdf, Google cache) is an impressive document of a bit over a hundred pages. Igor Krupnik, in his introductory essay, says “In the community of Kifigin, also known as Wales, Alaska, over 120 words have been documented for various types of sea ice (sigu) and associated phenomena in the local Kifikmiut dialect of the Inupiaq language,” and the book documents them with both verbal explanations and pictures. It begins with a summary in Inupiaq and continues with “Qanuq Ilitaavut: How We Learned What We Know” by Winton (Utuktaaq) Weyapuk, Jr.; some excerpts:

People often intersperse Inupiaq into their everyday conversations. Exclamations, endearments and teasing in Inupiaq can be heard among young adults. The few Elders still carry on their conversations totally in Inupiaq. The Inupiaq language in Wales has been severely impacted, but it survives. […]

The people of Wales have continued to hunt and use other subsistence resources even as the changes described above have taken place. The animals, plants, invertebrates, and environmental conditions remain the same. Global warming may have changed the timing of sigu, or sea ice arrival, the formation, departure and the thickness of the ice, but basically the environmental conditions are unchanged.

Scientifically there are many words and phrases, in English, to describe sea ice conditions. There are just as many, perhaps more words in Inupiaq for sigu, the sea ice. On St. Lawrence Island, hunters use more than one hundred words in their Yupik language to describe various forms of sea ice in their area. In Wainwright, over eighty words have been documented. The number of Inupiaq words for sea ice in Wales is, perhaps, comparable to that in Wainwright. […]

It is our hope that our Inupiaq words for sea ice and the English translations we collected here can help young hunters supplement what they have learned in English about sea ice in our area. Using the English translations they may begin to understand the changing conditions as they are affected by winds and currents. It is also our hope that they can learn and begin to use some of the Inupiaq words as a way to teach those younger than themselves.

The explanations are in both languages, e.g.:

Ikalitaq – Puktaaq ikaliruaq immami isruvaufituami.
A grounded floe berg that is in a shallow part of the ocean.

I approve of this sort of thing. (Thanks, Yoram!)


Sarah Zhang uses the recent appearance of a mandarin duck in Central Park as a springboard to share an interesting bit of etymology:

Yes, true, mandarin ducks are native to China, where Mandarin is the official language. But the word mandarin has a more roundabout origin. It does not come from Mandarin Chinese, which refers to itself as putonghua (or “common speech”) and China, the country, as zhongguo (or “Middle Kingdom”). It doesn’t come from any other variant of Chinese, either. Its origins are Portuguese.

This one word encapsulates an entire colonial history. In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were among the first Europeans to reach China. Traders and missionaries followed, settling into Macau on land leased from China’s Ming dynasty rulers. The Portuguese called the Ming officials they met mandarim, which comes from menteri in Malay and, before that, mantrī in Sanskrit, both of which mean “minister” or “counselor.” It makes sense that Portuguese would borrow from Malay; they were simultaneously colonizing Malacca on the Malay peninsula. […]

Over time, the Portuguese coinage of “mandarin” took on other meanings. The Ming dynasty officials wore yellow robes, which may be why “mandarin” came to mean a type of citrus. “Mandarin” also lent its names to colorful animals native to Asia but new to Europeans, like wasps and snakes and, of course, ducks. And the language the Chinese officials spoke became “Mandarin,” which is how the English name for the language more than 1 billion people in China speak still comes from Portuguese.

(For more on the history of Mandarin Chinese itself, see the very interesting comment by Bathrobe in this LH thread.) Thanks, Trevor!