Patron Saint of Lexicography.

Jonathon Green, the great slangographer I have posted about many times (e.g. here and here), reports on his search for a patron saint of lexicography. After dismissing Saint Nicholas, Bibiana, St. Francis de Sales, and various other candidates (I was struck by “the great Ambrogio Calepino, a lexicographer-monk, and still memorialized in the French calepin: a notebook”), he settles on St. Giles:

After all, doesn’t St Giles Greek itself mean slang, while a St Giles’s bird is a criminal and thus one of St Giles’s breed, while a St Giles buzzman is a pickpocket who specializes in stealing handkerchiefs and a St Giles’s carpet a sprinkling of sand on the street, presumably to mask the puddles of blood and vomit.

St Giles was the 18th and early 19th century’s most notorious criminal slum, found at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. […] By 1750 merely impoverished St Giles had become notoriously criminal St Giles. It was the first, or most celebrated rookery, which meant a criminal slum and plays either on some metaphorical, avian criminality (and perhaps blackness), or on the verb rook, to cheat.

There are lively descriptions of the low life found there (one local entertainment was called the buttock ball), and it ends:

Like Egan’s fictional Tom and Jerry (of Life in London) Dickens – as Boz – visited St Giles but less tolerant than Egan, or more bound to the evangelical moralising of his time, he shuddered at the ‘filth and squalid misery’ but admitted to the excellence of its gin palaces, selling ‘The Cream of the Valley’, ‘The Out-and-Out’, ‘The No Mistake’, ‘The Good for Mixing’, ‘The Real Knock-Me-Down’, ‘The Regular Flare-Up’ and ‘a dozen other, equally inviting and wholesome liqueurs’. But by Dickens’ time St Giles was already suffering architectural assault: New Oxford Street was driven through in 1847, removing as it came the riper alleyways. That Mudie’s, the epitome of Victorian sanctimony, established its first lending library there is suitably ironic. Its reputation is slightly improved by the weekly appearance of the scholar Frederick Furnivall who recruited at the local ABC teashop for the rowing eight of shop-girls whom he coached on the Thames. While thus employed Furnivall did other things, among them founding the Oxford English Dictionary.

Following which there’s a delightful photograph of Furnivall with his rowing eight. Thanks, Yoram!

Distinguishing Language From Dialect.

Søren Wichmann, a Danish linguist, discusses a perennial problem and presents a promising solution; after describing the many ways in which it’s hard to pinpoint the difference between a language and a dialect, he continues:

Recently, two major obstacles in distinguishing language from dialect have been overcome. The first is how to measure differences between speech varieties – finding a value for D. In 2008, a number of linguists came together to form the Automated Similarity Judgment Program (ASJP), of which I am the daily curator and a founder. The ASJP painstakingly assembled a systematic, comparative dataset of languages that now contains 7,655 wordlists from what would be two-thirds of the world’s languages, if we assume for our purposes that languages are defined as in the ISO 639-3 code standard. Since each wordlist contains a fixed set of 40 concepts and are transcribed in a uniform manner, they can easily be compared, and a measure of difference can be obtained. The measure of difference between two words that has become most used is a version of the Levenshtein distance, named after Vladimir Levenshtein, a Soviet computer scientist who in 1965 devised an algorithm to compare two strings of symbols. He defined ‘distance’ as the number of substitutions, insertions and deletions needed to turn one string into the other. The Levenshtein distance can usefully be divided by the length of the longest of the two strings, because this puts all the distances on a scale from 0 to 1. This has become known as the normalised Levenshtein distance, or LDN.

The second obstacle is that perhaps ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ are concepts can that be defined only arbitrarily. Here, there is some more promising news. If we look at all the language families in the ASJP database for which database contributors have included a healthy portion of close varieties, we can begin to look for different behaviours of languages and dialects. An intriguing picture emerges: the distances tend to hover around either a relatively small value or a relatively large one, with a valley in between. As it turns out, the valley tends to lie in a narrow range around a mean of 0.48 LDN. Without losing significant precision, we can say that speech varieties tend to not be halfway similar in their basic vocabulary. Either they will tend to be more similar, in which case they can be defined as different dialects, or less similar, in which case they can be defined as different languages. Herein lies the distinction between language and dialect.

The phenomenon is probably a result of social circumstance. Dialects will drift apart as people settle in new places and shape new identities but, if there is still some contact, convergence can also be present so that speech varieties remain less than halfway similar (and therefore the same language). A small push in the direction of divergence, however, might cause the varieties to drift apart relatively rapidly, raising their Levenshtein distance, thereby qualifying them as distinct languages. Possibly there is a connection between the cut-off for distances between words on the standard list used by ASJP and corresponding distances in other parts of language structure that make for a point of serious loss of mutual intelligibility. In other words, the threshold for mutual intelligibility might correlate with the threshold between languages and dialects. We don’t know that yet, but it’s something to look into. […]

Finally, a technique derived from the datasets, called ASJP chronology, can be applied to establish the amount of time it takes for dialects to drift far enough apart to qualify as separate languages. The answer we have found, ignoring some margin of error, is 1,059 years. These findings can be corroborated by looking at how long it typically takes for an ancestral language of a language family to break up into daughters that subsequently become ancestors of subfamilies. This requires other techniques, but the results are similar: it takes about a millennium for dialects to become languages. We know this because we can now distinguish the two.

Thanks, jack!

Leskov’s Sealed Angel.

Having advanced to the year 1873, I’ve read Nikolai Leskov‘s famous novella Запечатленный ангел (The Sealed Angel), and I have a question and a complaint. The question is a simple one, addressed to my Russian-speaking readers: how do you pronounce the word запечатленный? I had always assumed it was запечатлённый [zapechat-LYON-ny], as in the Wiktionary entry, but when I looked at the Wikipedia articles I linked to the titles above, I saw that they claimed it was запеча́тленный [zape-CHAT-lenny], the Russian one explaining that it was from the verb запеча́тывать, which as far as I can see doesn’t work morphologically (“В названии повести обыгрывается многозначность слова «запечатленный», причем основное значение — производная от «запеча́тывать» — накладывать печать”). Huh, I thought. And then I found this audio version, where the reader says запечатле́нный [zapechat-LEN-ny]. So which is it?

The complaint has to do with the ending. (Warning: spoilers!) Up till then, the story is great: the narrator tells a group of travelers at an inn his tale of a group of Old Believer traveling workmen he belonged to. When their revered icon of an angel was confiscated by officials and sealed with wax while they were building a bridge (apparently in Kiev in the early 1850s), they hatched a plan to replace it with a copy. It’s a gripping account told in a wonderful skaz style, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But then at the end an apparent miracle causes the leader of the group, and then all the rest, to give up their heresy and join the established church. It’s exactly like all those unconvincing endings where criminals go straight or (to use a Soviet example) when former Mensheviks, SRs, or other heretics see the light and join the Bolsheviks. The English Wikipedia article says: “The story’s finale, where the Old Believers’ community all of a sudden return to Orthodoxy, was criticized as being unnatural. Ten years later Leskov conceded that, while the story itself was mostly based on real facts, the end of it was made up.” The problem isn’t in the conversion per se but in the fact that it was so obviously required by both official tsarist censorship and the sensibility of the reading public of the day, and thus wasn’t artistically motivated but tacked on dutifully. I highly recommend the story, with the caveat that the ending is a letdown.

Broca’s Area and Grammar Learning.

A site search shows that Broca’s area has been mentioned a few times around here (e.g., “Unless the child has received damage to Broca’s area, how exactly does a child not know the grammar of her native language?”) but we’ve never discussed it in its own right. Since Trond Engen has sent me a link to “Cortical thickness of Broca’s area and right homologue is related to grammar learning aptitude and pitch discrimination proficiency,” by Mikael Novén, Andrea Schremm, Markus Nilsson, Merle Horne, and Mikae Roll (Brain and Language 188 [2019]: 42-47), this seems like a good occasion for it. Trond says:

Short version: A Swedish group of scientists show that the thickness of the frontal cortex in and asound Broca’s area is associated with grammar learning and that the mirror area in the right hemisphere has to do with pitch perception. Also a training effect: The more grammar you process, the thicker the cortex, which is good for grammar learning but seems to be bad for pitch perception.

Have at it!


I yield to no one in my high regard for Annie Proulx (see this 2005 LH post), so it was a shock to read the following section from Ian Frazier’s appreciative but unawed NYRB review of her novel Barkskins:

So you have the setting, the first of many through which the story moves, all of them drawn with vividness and unexpected similes. The dialogue, though, is another matter. Historical novels present their writers with a challenge, because they never heard their characters’ real-life semblances actually talk. No one really knows how Indians of seventeenth-century Canada talked. Maybe they really did say things like “Bad plant grow where step whitemen people,” as the Mi’kmaw Indian, Mari, who becomes the wife of René Sel, tells him when he points to a stinging nettle. Maybe someone like Mari would have said, “No him child. No-bébé medicine know me,” as she says when reassuring René that she never had a child by Trépagny. But me reader kind of skeptical be.

Sentences spoken by certain characters can be reverse-engineered perhaps from writing of the time, but they sometimes come out clunky, too. At moments of excitement the Frenchmen exclaim “Zut!” and “Sacrebleu!” and “Mon Dieu!”—all plausible enough. But often you bump into distinctly unlively dialogue:

“This meeting is fortuitous. I have wished often to speak with you about the Maine forests.”

“I have wished often to tell you of the opportunities for the timber business in Maine. Have you visited that region?”

And sentences with an informational purpose end up sounding as if pasted in from a history textbook:

England, he knew, badly wanted naval stores as the endless war had disrupted their heavy Baltic trade.

“That’s that fellow Franklin. I knew his brother James. A family distinguished for their seditious bosoms.”

And that fellow Franklin’s inventions: the lightning rods, which had saved hundreds of churches and houses from destruction, and the stove, which encased fire safely. It was an exciting time to live.

I just… how can anyone with Proulx’s feel for English write like that? Frazier is being too kind when he writes “plausible enough”; what he should say is “exactly the kind of tired cliché stage Frenchmen are made to utter, as Irishmen say begorra and Scotsmen hoot mon.” And as soon as I read something like “This meeting is fortuitous. I have wished often to speak with you about the Maine forests” I close the book and move on; life is too short to subject oneself to that sort of thing. (See my remarks on Historical Novelese in this 2006 post.) The past is a foreign country; they speak cardboard sentences there.

He Knocked Them Out.

Anatoly Vorobey has a post, idioms are hard, in which he compares translations of this passage from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:

I read this book once, at the Whooton School, that had this very sophisticated, suave, sexy guy in it. Monsieur Blanchard was his name, I can still remember. It was a lousy book, but this Blanchard guy was pretty good. He had this big chateau and all in the Riviera, in Europe, and all he did in his spare time was beat women off with a club. He was a real rake and all, but he knocked women out.

He quotes the classic Russian translation by Rita Rait-Kovaleva, who misunderstood the idioms “beat X off with a club” and “knock X out” and translated the phrases “лупил палкой каких-то баб” [thrashed some dames with a stick] and “женщин он избивал до потери сознания” [he beat women up until they lost consciousness]. He then checks the newer version by Max Nemtsov (see this 2013 LH post) and finds the same errors: “он баб дубинкой охаживал” [he beat dames up with a club] and “баб с ног сшибал будь здоров” [he knocked dames down a lot]. He says he could have stopped there, muttering the usual remarks about the effects of the Soviet school of translation, but it occurred to him to check versions in other languages, and what do you know, the French translators made the same error with the first idiom! Jean-Baptiste Rossi: “… et tout ce qu’il faisait de son temps, c’était de battre les femmes à coups de canne.” Annie Saumont: “… et là il passait son temps à battre des femmes à coups de club de golf.” I wonder how many translators have failed that test? (Though of course it’s idiotic to take it as a sign that the translator is no good, as some of Anatoly’s commenters do; all translators make mistakes, as do we all. Nobody’s perfect.)

Commenters noted other problems with the cited translations, like “как сейчас помню” [I remember as if it had just happened] for “I can still remember” and “храбрый” [brave] for “rake”; I myself was struck by “распутного типа” [dissolute/debauched guy] for “sexy guy.” But then I’m not sure how you’d render “sexy” in Russian (Google Translate gives “сексуальный парень” for “sexy guy”!).

The Challenges of Editing Proust.

There are great authors I would have loved to help edit, but based on Carol Clark’s description in LitHub (excerpted from the Penguin edition of her translation of La Prisonnière [The Prisoner)], Proust is not one of them:

In the case of Proust, such editorial decisions are much more difficult to make than one might suppose. His composition is very rarely linear or chronological: most of the events described take place in a timeless or repetitive past indicated by the use of the imperfect tense. Only from time to time is an episode narrated in the past historic, indicating that it happened only once. (These alternative past tenses present a real problem to the translator.) In one paragraph the narrator can be years older than in the preceding one or, for that matter, younger. (Evelyn Waugh noticed this and facetiously complained to John Betjeman: “Well, the chap was plain barmy. He never tells you the age of the hero and on one page he is being taken to the W.C. in the Champs-Elysées by his nurse & the next page he is going to a brothel. Such a lot of nonsense” (letter, February 1948).) […]

For most of the time this is deliberate. Proust may be showing the passage of time […], or the complexity of human character […]. At other times the same characters can be seen differently by different people, either because some are more observant than others, or because they have had some particular revelatory experience. […] To eliminate inconsistencies like these would be completely to denature Proust’s work.

[Read more…]

Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth.

Longtime readers of LH will know that I am an acolyte of Helen DeWitt, and to the question with which Lee Konstantinou begins his essay Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth, “Is Helen DeWitt a genius?,” I answer an enthusiastic “Yes!” But as Konstantinou says, “At its worst, all our talk of genius becomes indistinguishable from boosterism and marketing speak,” and it’s not that interesting a question. But he has interesting things to say, like:

Once upon a time, when the mainstream publishing field supported serious experimentalists, we might have called DeWitt a postmodernist. Yet it does not seem right to call her a postmodernist or even an experimentalist in a conventional sense. She isn’t writing the sort of metafiction or magical realism one finds on the pages of novels published by McSweeney’s, isn’t drawn to the sort of autofiction that’s all the rage with our literary Smart Set, and isn’t interested in the slightly askew gritty surrealism of authors such as Nell Zink and Ottessa Moshfegh. Many of these writers wear genius as a badge of distinction, as a social identity or personal brand trumpeted by various—fairly predicable—formal special effects.

DeWitt, by contrast, really does think the novel has something to gain from a substantive encounter with, say, information design or probability theory or Attic Greek. That is, DeWitt is experimental less in how she plays with form and more in terms of the subject matter she imports into contemporary fiction. From this vantage point, if we wanted to call DeWitt a genius, the content of her genius might be found in her rigorous failure to comfortably inhabit her own time. […]

As these examples suggest, the opening question of whether or not DeWitt is a genius has sublated in her fiction into a second, far more interesting question, the question of the mediation of art, the question of how our institutions transform—and damage—the work of the artist. And the initial opposition discussed above, between the ordinary person and the genius, has correspondingly transformed into a different opposition, between those who have settled for the world as it is and those who find the world as it is intolerable. It may well be, DeWitt suggests, that we are all geniuses—wanting only for a good research library and the free time to cultivate our tragically wasted talents.

We are left, at last, with a host of new questions. Is art possible under contemporary capitalism? If so, where can we find fulfilled or fully realized forms of art? If not, what structural and social changes would we need to make to make art possible? What might an artist as talented as DeWitt have written in a world made not for profit but for human flourishing? And how many of the rest of us have been likewise thwarted?

These are not questions for fiction to answer—but for us.

Thanks, jack!

Alter’s Hebrew Bible.

Avi Steinberg reports for the NY Times Magazine on a new Biblical translation by Robert Alter; there’s a lot of interesting stuff, so I’ll quote a couple of chunks and send you to the link for more:

Alter told me about his decision to reject one of the oldest traditions in English translation and remove the word “soul” from the text. That word, which translates the Hebrew word nefesh, has been a favorite in English-language Bibles since the 1611 King James Version. But consider the Book of Jonah 2:6 in which Jonah, caught in the depths of a giant fish’s gut, sings about the terror of near-death by water. According to the King James Version, Jonah says that the Mediterranean waters “compassed me about, even to the soul” — or nefesh. The problem with this “soul,” for Alter, is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body. Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body.

“Well,” Alter said, speaking in the unrushed, amused tone of a veteran footnoter. “That Hebrew word, nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person,’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’ ”

But, I asked Alter, doesn’t “soul” help dramatize the scene’s intense emotion? I mentioned another instance of the word nefesh, the terrifyingly evocative line from the King James’ translation of Psalm 69: “For the waters are come in unto my soul.”

“Oh, yes,” Alter said, with a smile. “That one does have a certain emotional resonance to it. But it’s not what the poet had in mind. And, I would add that the line ‘for the waters have come up to my neck’ … is also rather dramatic.”

Later I looked up the Jonah verse and saw that Alter’s translation was true to the poem’s formal structure. The verse starts with Jonah’s declaring that water had reached his nefesh — his “neck,” as Alter had it — and ends with his exclaiming that his head had been covered with seaweed. Biblical poetry is often made up of line pairings composed of analogous images, and Alter had chosen an anatomical noun, “neck,” that logically matched “head” in the parallel clause. You don’t need to know Hebrew etymology to see that “soul” doesn’t fit the analogy. The poetic structure dictates its own logic. […]

[Read more…]

Stanley Insler, RIP.

I was shocked to see Victor Mair’s post Stanley Insler, 1937-2019 at the Log just now. Mair writes:

Stanley was born on June 23, 1937 in New York City and received his B.A. from Columbia College in 1957. He did postgraduate studies at the University of Tübingen (1960-1962), carried out research at the University of Madras, and received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1963. In the same year he became a member of the faculty at Yale where he remained until his retirement in 2012. Stanley served as Chair of the Department of Linguistics from 1978-1989. […]

Stanley’s translation of the Avestan Gāthās is widely regarded as the modern standard. He made a conspicuous contribution to the study of the Gāthās by contesting the extreme ritualistic interpretation applied to them by earlier scholars. […]

In the Grammatik der Prakrit-Sprachen by Thomas Oberlies and Richard Pischel, Stanley’s insight into the mutual influence of phonological and morphological change in Pali is enshrined as “Insler’s Law” […].

Upon learning of Stanley’s passing, Don Ringe exclaimed, “This is quite a shock; Stanley was planning to attend the East Coast Indo-European Conference here in June. He was a good friend, a good colleague, and a great Sanskritist and Indo-Iranianist.”

Stephanie Jamison adds, “He was an inspiring — and exacting — teacher.”

Stanley taught me Sanskrit back in the early ’70s, and I was in awe of his knowledge of the Indo-Iranian languages and his eagerness to impart it to his students. He was, as Stephanie says, exacting, and we didn’t get along especially well — he was appalled by both my disinclination to learn devanagari (I was an Indo-Europeanist, not a Sanskritist, and I only cared about the linguistic material, not the writing system) and my tendency to show up in class clutching a cup of coffee (hey, it was my first class in the morning and I was barely awake), and I was put off by his sarcasm and occasionally harsh treatment of students (though in that he didn’t differ much from the rest of the grad school faculty). But I respected the hell out of him, and I’m sorry he’s gone. There aren’t many scholars of his caliber.