Tranquille Yard.

There was a very famous restaurant Яр [Yar] in Moscow, founded in 1826 in the central city (on Kuznetsky Most) but best known in its later incarnation in Petrovsky Park, just outside of the (nineteenth-century) city on what is now Leningradsky Prospekt (and if anyone knows exactly where, please tell me — I like being able to place things on the map). I had thought it was named for the Russian word яр ‘steep bank, ravine’ (borrowed from Turkic), but in the fantastic new Poemas del río Wang post by frequent LH commenter Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA) on the tango “Ojos negros que fascinan” (“I spent years trying to solve the riddles and mysteries surrounding Dark Eyes, a song about fatal love and perdition which almost prophetically touched most of the talents who ever touched it, making them vanish from history”), which I urge anyone interested in music, history, or the untangling of tangled tales to go read at once, Dmitry writes “the famous suburban restaurant, the ‘Yard,’” and sure enough, the accompanying image of a postcard has “Restaurant ‘Yard.'” Why “Yard”?

Well, the Russian Wikipedia article says it was founded by a Frenchman named Tranquille Yard, and this information is also purveyed in a couple of books (e.g., Max Fram’s The Motherland of Elephants: “The original restaurant in central Moscow was founded and owned by the Frenchman Tranquille Yard”). But I don’t believe it. “Yard” is not, so far as I know, a French surname, and Tranquille is only a (rare) surname, not (so far as I can tell) a given name. Of course if irrefutable evidence exists of such a person with such a name, I’ll accept it, but for the moment it seems far more likely to me that something has gotten garbled in the nearly two centuries since the founding of the restaurant. A similar mystification is noted in Dmitry’s post about one of the creators of the song, Florian (or Feodor) Hermann:

Most often, we are told that Hermann was French, and came to Russia with Napoleon’s Grand Army. Sometimes we hear that his Valse Hommage started as a march of the advancing French troops in 1812. But sometimes, that it mourns the French army losses as it forded the icy Berezina river on retreat from Moscow. We even hear that Florian Hermann visited the home estate of Evgeny Grebenka, the author of the lyrics of the future song, during the Napoleonic Wars! But sometimes Florian Hermann turns out to be a German rather than Frenchman. We are even told that the lived in Strasbourg. One has to note that Valse Hommage is always titled in French in the international score catalogs, while some of the other Hermann’s compositions are titled in German. However, my research shows that Florian Hermann was a Russian patriot from the Wilno strip area of Poland / Lithuania, and that he composed some of his most popular pieces in 1870s through 1890s. And very recently, I was able to find out a few details about his youth and his family in Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania).

As always, I welcome all thoughts from the Varied Reader.

Popularity, Grammar, and Vocabulary.

Veronique Greenwood writes for the Atlantic on an ever-interesting topic, A Language’s Popularity Could Influence Its Grammar and Vocabulary:

It’s a peculiar observation that the more people speak a language, the simpler its grammar tends to be. English and Mandarin, for instance, have notably straightforward structures. On the other hand, languages spoken in just a single mountain valley or village can have gorgeously intricate grammars, full of gender and cases and declensions. They also tend to have rather small vocabularies. Meanwhile, the vocabularies of widely spoken languages are enormous.

What is going on here? What connection might there be between how many people speak a language and what it is like?

There are many things that could be at play, from the level of historical trends all the way down to how parents speak to their children. It also isn’t exactly clear which comes first: lots of speakers, or simple grammar? Still, the researchers behind one recent paper wondered whether the fact that grammar is relatively hard to learn and new words relatively easy might be enough to explain this trend, at least in broad strokes. They built a mathematical model in which individuals in small and large social networks have conversations and occasionally learn new words or ways of saying something from each other. What the team found was that even in this simple, stick-figure version of the world, the same patterns emerge. The results suggest that these general rules, along with the number of speakers, can influence how a language grows and changes.

Read further for details and suggested explanations; if you want to dig deeper, here‘s the actual paper, “Simpler grammar, larger vocabulary: How population size affects language” by Florencia Reali, Nick Chater, and Morten H. Christiansen (Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285, issue 1871). Thanks, Bonnie and Martin!

Languages of Persia, 500 B.C.

Via Joel at Far Outliers, this quote from A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy:

Although Darius established a standard gold coinage, and some payments were made in silver, much of the system operated by payments in kind. These were assessed, allocated, and receipted from the center. […] Couriers were given tablets to produce at post stations along the royal highways, so they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BC. There are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than fifteen thousand different people in more than one hundred different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. We know from other sources that the main language of administration in the empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of the Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that histories were recorded, that poems were written down, and that all sorts of other literature once existed and have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there, either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated writing with inferior peoples—or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth—but not to write it.

That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian empires, either. It is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BC, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks an anomaly.

(Lots of Wikipedia links at Joel’s site, which I haven’t bothered to copy here.)

Two Words.

I’m reading On Beauty, by the wonderful Zadie Smith — I get to read her books after my wife finishes them — and I’m struck, as always, by her love of words, everyday, slang, dialect, recondite, whatever, she loves them all. I learned one of the latter variety in this passage:

The fate of the young man in his earphones, who faced a jail cell that very night, did not seem such a world away from his own predicament: an anniversary party full of academics.

Walking up Redwood Avenue with its tunnel of cernuous willows, Levi found he had lost the will even to nod his head, usually an involuntary habit with him when music was playing.

Cernuous! I knew I liked it even before I knew what it meant, which I learned the modern way, online, via the Merriam-Webster definition: “inclining or nodding : pendulous, drooping” (etymology: “Latin cernuus with the face turned toward the earth; akin to Latin cerebrum brain”). Note its placement between the preceding “academics” and the following “nod his head”; what fun!

But before I looked it up the modern way, I tried the old-fashioned way, with a physical dictionary, to wit the Concise Oxford (see this post); it wasn’t there, but right after its hypothetical location I found:

ceroc /sɪˈrɒk/ ► n. a type of modern dance having elements of rock and roll,jive, and salsa.
ORIGIN 1990s: invented word, apparently coined in English from Fr. ce (as in c’est ‘this is’) + roc ‘rock’.

An interesting etymology, and I was taken aback to discover a word for a cultural phenomenon about whose existence I had no clue, though it’s apparently been around for at least two decades. Maybe a UK thing?

Penang Lawyer.

This e-mail from Bathrobe is self-explanatory, and he’s given me permission to quote it verbatim, so I will:

I started reading the Hound of the Baskervilles (which you no doubt know was written by Arthur Conan Doyle) and came across a curious expression in the very first paragraph:

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry–dignified, solid, and reassuring.

The expression that caught my eye was “Penang lawyer”. I had no idea of the origin of this name: colonial as it appeared to be, I could not think of any way that lawyers from Penang would be particularly noteworthy within the Empire. When I looked it up the answer was quite straightforward:

(From Websters 1913)

Pe*nang″ law″yer (?). [Prob. fr. Malay pīnang līar.] A kind of walking stick made from the stem of an East Asiatic palm (Licuala acutifida).

This suggests a fanciful misinterpretation of the Malay pronunciation. But Wikipedia at its article on Licuala also offers an alternative explanation:

Licuala acutifida is the source of cane for the walking stick nicknamed the Penang-lawyer by colonials, probably from the Malay phrase pinang liyar for a wild areca, although the term may also refer to the use of these canes as deadly knobkerries to assassinate litigious enemies.

That is the end of the story. It’s not a very complicated one, but what piqued my interest was how translators have dealt with this strange name. The first paragraph of a Russian translation available online goes:

Мистер Шерлок Холмс сидел за столом и завтракал. Обычно он вста- вал довольно поздно, если не считать тех нередких случаев, когда ему во- все не приходилось ложиться. Я стоял на коврике у камина и вертел в руках палку, забытую нашим вчерашним посетителем. Это была хорошая толстая трость с набалдашником – из тех, что именуются «веским аргументом». Чуть ниже набалдашника было врезано серебряное кольцо шириной около дюй- ма, на котором было начертано: «Джеймсу Мортимеру, Ч.К.X.О.*, от его друзей по Ч.К.Л.» и дата: «1884». В прежние времена с такими тростями – солидными, увесистыми, надёжными – ходили почтенные домашние врачи.

Lo and behold, “Penang lawyer” is translated as веским аргументом [‘weighty argument’ — LH]! The translator seems to have adopted an interpretation closer to the second one in Wikipedia.

I checked the Mongolian translation (which is from the Russian, not the English), and found myself in a game of Chinese whispers. In Mongolian it is translated as ноцтой баримт, meaning something like “serious facts”. The only other translation I have got hold of is an online Chinese version, which translates the offending phrase in a pedestrian way as:


This kind of wood is produced in Penang; its name is Penang wood (or perhaps ‘Areca wood’, since 槟榔 means Areca).

This may not be totally worthy of an LH post, but apart from being interesting in itself, I’m intrigued at the possibilities for straying from the original meaning in other languages.

I love everything about this: the phrase itself, the dueling explanations, and the “Chinese whispers” translations. And I was a huge Holmes fan in my childhood; I still have my two-volume Collected Stories from back then.

Lost Books.

Lorraine Berry has a Guardian review of what sounds like an interesting book, In Search of Lost Books by Giorgio van Straten:

Among these lost works are those by Nikolai Gogol (Parts II and III of Dead Souls, which he burned); Sylvia Plath (a novel called Double Exposure which disappeared after her death); Lord Byron (his personal memoir, which his family had burned to protect his reputation) and Ernest Hemingway (an entire suitcase of early work, stolen from a train at Gare du Lyon).

For bibliophiles like me, the knowledge that these works once existed and are now gone evokes something akin to pain. Van Straten writes: “There is a quotation from Proust: ‘To release that fount of sorrow, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way of love there must be … the risk of an impossibility’. I think that passion for a lost book, often like love for a person, arises from the impossibility of reading it.”

In his book, Van Straten distinguishes between missing and lost works. If a manuscript is missing, there remains the hope that it was misplaced in an archive, waiting to be discovered. But with lost works – such as the novel Malcolm Lowry spent nine years working on, which went up in flames when his cabin burned to the ground – no hope is still possible. Yet it’s also clear that Van Straten still searches for lost books, even as he recognises the futility of it. He likens the search to his childhood notions of the quest, to his longing to be “the hero who will be able to solve the mystery”. […]

As painful as it is to contemplate what became of them, I find myself returning to Van Straten’s argument that lost books are like lost loves. Just as Tennyson wrote in In Memoriam (“Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”), knowing that these works once existed is oddly comforting, even if they’re never found or restored. The space for that knowledge is not empty – it is a void. As Van Straten writes, “By the end of the voyage I had realised that lost books possess something that others do not: they bequeath to those who have not read them the possibility of imagining them, of telling stories about them, of reinventing them.”

Good food for thought, though I for one don’t miss the last parts of Dead Souls — I’m pretty sure they would have been a sad comedown. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Pasternak’s Noir Spring.

Pasternak’s middle period, between the flashy, often incomprehensible genius of the first books and the classic simplicity of the Zhivago poems, tends to be somewhat overlooked, and the 1941 “Peredelkino” group in particular doesn’t get much respect. But there’s some wonderful poetry in it, and I’m especially struck by Опять весна [Spring again], which begins as a noir mystery (suddenly I heard a strange sound…) and continues as a philosophical meditation on the familiar phenomenon of spring being both new and infinitely repeated (Pasternak, of course, studied philosophy as a young man) without ever ceasing to be a splendidly musical poem (it gets muddled and hard to understand for a brief bit in the middle — what the heck is that jacket? — but that’s the Pasternak trademark). I had read it quite a few times, and in fact memorized it, before I realized that the opening three lines are a mutated equivalent of the opening three lines of Dante’s Inferno. At any rate, I thought I’d provide my own literal prose translation, followed by two published poetic ones after the jump.

The train’s gone, the embankment’s black. How am I going to find the road in the dark? I don’t recognize this place at all, even though I was here just a day ago. The clang of iron has died away from the ties. Suddenly — really, what’s this new weirdness? Commotion, gossips’ babbling: what devil’s gotten into them?

Where did I hear these snatches of speech before, maybe sometime last year? Ah, it must have been today, all over again, the stream came out of the grove at night. Just like those times before, the pond swelled up and moved chunks of ice. Truly, this is a new wonder: just as before, again it’s spring.

It’s her, it’s her, it’s her sorcery and wonder, it’s her jacket beyond the willow, shoulders, kerchief, figure and back. It’s the Snow Maiden at the edge of the precipice, it’s for her that the half-mad chatterbox is pouring ceaseless ravings from the bottom of the ravine.

It’s in front of her that the rapids, pouring over obstacles, are sinking in a watery haze, nailed to the slope with hissing by the lamp of the hanging waterfall. Teeth chattering from the cold, it’s the icy stream pouring across the edge into a pond and from the pond into another vessel. The speech of the floodwater is the raving of existence.

I am preempted from even trying a poetic version by the dazzle of the penultimate line: В пруд и из пруда в другую посуду [v prud i iz pruda v druguyu posudu]. But you can see what the professionals have done with it below.
[Read more…]

Singing in Nonsense.

Vittoria Traverso has yet another great Atlas Obscura post:

Before children learn how to speak properly, they go through a period of imitating the sounds they hear, with occasionally hilarious results, at least for their parents. Baby talk evolves into proto-words, so that “octopus” might come out as “appah-duece,” or “strawberry” as “store-belly.” But it’s not just children who ape the sounds of spoken language. There’s a long tradition of songs that “sound” like another language without actually meaning anything. In Italy, for example, beginning in the 1950s, American songs, films, and jingles inspired a diverse range of “American sounding” cultural products.

The most famous is probably “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a 1972 song composed by legendary Italian entertainer Adriano Celentano and performed by him and his wife, Claudia Mori. The song’s lyrics sound phonetically like American English—or at least what many Italians hear when an American speaks—but are clearly total, utter, delightful nonsense. You really have to hear it to appreciate it. […]

By the time Celentano’s song came out, the sound of American English had been “contaminating” Italian culture for decades. Linguist Giuseppe Antonelli analyzed Italian pop songs produced between 1958 and 2007, and revealed the ways in which Italian singers have incorporated American sounds into their music.

One way was to use intermittent English words, with preference for trendy terms. The most notable example of this is “Tu vuo’ fa l’americano” (“You Want to Be American”), a 1956 song by Renato Carosone about a young Neapolitan who is trying to impress a girl. […]

Similarly, in the 1960s there was a trend of bands in England singing in Italian—with strong English accents. Both phenomena resulted in a similar hybrid sound, one that Italians responded to. According to Francesco Ciabattoni, who teaches Italian culture and literature at Georgetown University, this Anglo-Italian pop genre grew from Italy’s collective interest in America, as well as the British Invasion of the 1960s. “I am not sure how much thinking they put in it, but producers must have realized that imitating English and American sounds would sell more,” he says. Linguistics may have played a role, too. “The phonetic structure of English makes it more suited to rock or pop songs compared with Italian,” he adds.

She goes on to discuss the Divine Comedy (“Nimrod … approaches Dante and Virgil, and says ‘Raphèl maí amècche zabí almi,’ a series of words that has no meaning but, according to some scholars, can sound a little like Old Hebrew”), Charlie Chaplin (“The otherwise silent 1936 film Modern Times sees the comedian performing a song that sounds like a mix of Italian and French, but means absolutely nothing”), and Grammelot, “a system of languages popularized by Commedia dell’arte”:

Grammelot was used by itinerant performers to “sound” like they were performing in a local language by a using macaronic and onomatopoeic elements together with mimicry and mime. Dario Fo, an Italian playwright and actor who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, featured Grammelot in his 1996 show Mistero Buffo (Comic Mystery Play).

There are, of course, illustrative video clips at the link. (N.b.: “Prisencolinensinainciusol” was discussed at the Log in 2011.) Thanks, Trevor!


Victor Mair recently had a Log post about a Tangut Workshop at Yale which is full of striking tidbits:

The Tangut were a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people whose name first appears in the Old Turkic Orkhon inscriptions of 735. Sometime before the 10th century, the Tangut moved to Northwest China where they founded the Western Xia / Xixia or Tangut Empire (1038–1227).

I have long been interested in the Tangut because of their complicated Siniform script. It looks sort of like Chinese characters (square shaped logographs, similar brush strokes, etc.), but even more complicated. Many people who encounter Tangut script for the first time joke that the Tangut, while seeming to borrow the basic structural principles of Chinese characters, tried to outdo the Chinese by making their characters more dense and complex.

As the renowned Turkologist, Gerard Clauson, put it:

The [Tangut] language is remarkable for being written in one of the most inconvenient of all scripts, a collection of nearly 5,800 characters of the same kind as Chinese characters but rather more complicated; very few are made up of as few as four strokes and most are made up of a good many more, in some cases nearly twenty. It is extremely difficult to remember them, since there are few recognizable indications of sound and meaning in the constituent parts of a character, and in some cases characters which differ from one another only in minor details of shape or by one or two strokes have completely different sounds and meanings.

[…] Beside the script, another aspect of Tangut language that has intrigued me is the fact that it exists in two registers. These are lhwe and mi. Nikita Kuzmin, a budding Tangut specialist who was present at the Yale workshop, states:

The majority of Tangut texts (dictionaries, sutras, translations) were written in mi register (which has more or less been researched). Only Tangut odes were written in lhwe register, therefore it is sometimes called “odic language”. Despite the fact that these two registers were expressed in the same Tangutgraphs, the syntax, grammar, and lexicon are different, which creates problems in translation. A leading Chinese scholar in Tangut studies, Nie Hongyin 聂鸿音, points out that lhwe is a different type of language, hence a Russian scholar Ksenia Kepping (Ксения Кеппинг) supposes that it is Tangut ritual language (probably the dichotomy lhwemi can be compared to wenyan [literary] – baihua [vernacular] in Sinitic).

There are a bunch of links for both people and language. I thought I’d studied some difficult languages, but I’m glad I never had to master Tangut.

Aramaic in New Jersey.

Matthew Petti writes for America about an interesting community:

A strip mall 15 minutes down the highway from Manhattan is the last place I expected to hear the language spoken by Jesus Christ. But northern New Jersey is one of the places where Syriac Christians, driven from the Middle East by violence and persecution, have come to call home over the past few decades. If Jacob Hanikhe has his way, it will also remain one of the few places where Aramaic, an ancient tongue found throughout the Talmud and Gospels, is a living language.

Syriac, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians—their chosen name varies by denomination, but most recognize themselves as part of the same ethnic group—originally hail from the Middle East, where their Aramaic dialects were once the dominant language. Forced into diaspora by both ethnic and religious conflicts, the Syriac Christians in New Jersey, who number about 2,000 families and are mostly members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, have created Syriac establishments ranging from language schools to restaurants. They are now attempting to balance the American Dream with preserving their faith and reviving their ancient culture.

Petti describes the sad history of the Syriac community in the Middle East and the history of the language itself (“It spread across the Fertile Crescent … during the Assyrian Empire and attained the status of a world language under the Persian Empire and remained dominant well into the Islamic era”), then turns to local history:

Deacon Yildiz fled Turkey with his family in 1979. One of his Syriac friends in America knew Mor Yeshue Samuel, who was the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem before leaving for the United States during the 1948 war and becoming the first Syriac archbishop of the United States and Canada. (He was also famous for helping discover the Dead Sea scrolls.) Archbishop Samuel hired Deacon Yildiz as a deacon and Aramaic instructor for a congregation in New Jersey.

The official history of the Syriac Archdiocese for the Eastern United States says that a deacon from Mosul named Micha al-Nakkar “probably settled in or around Boston” in the 1840s. Larger groups of Syriacs came over in later decades, as silk weavers from Tur Abdin moved to Rhode Island to work in the silk mills there. The archdiocese’s history says that their children often went into highly educated fields like law and engineering.

Deacon Yildiz says there has been a Syriac community in New Jersey dating back to the mid-19th century, and it has made some enduring contributions. Taw Mim Semkath, an Assyrian school in Beirut, Lebanon, established by immigrants to New Jersey, is “the oldest known Syriac Orthodox organization that is still functioning,” according to the archdiocese. Naum Faiq, a major neo-Aramaic literary figure and Assyrian nationalist thinker, came to New Jersey in 1912, where he wrote for and founded a variety of Aramaic publications. One of them, called Huyodo, is still printed by the diaspora in Sweden as Hujådå. […]

Nationality quotas imposed in the 1920s all but ended Syriac immigration to America until such quotas were banned by the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. During that period many Syriacs fell out of touch with their homeland and culture, but some family ties remained strong—even across long distances.

It turns out “the head of the entire Syriac Orthodox Church, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, started his career in New Jersey,” and there’s promising news about the younger generation: “many who had been disconnected from their Aramaic heritage are rediscovering it.” I hope the community flourishes and keeps the language alive. (Thanks, Trevor!)