Archives for September 2013


Anatoly reproduces a poem by Sergei Grakhovsky (Russian Сергей Иванович Граховский, Belarusian Сяргей Іванавіч Грахоўскi) written to demonstrate once and for all that Belarusian is not just a dialect of Russian, as is often claimed or lazily assumed (and I speak as one who has lazily assumed it, even though I knew intellectually that it was a separate language). It’s called «Ветразь» and the opening stanza reads:

У выраі ветразь знікае
За хваляй, нібы на спачын,
І змора яго не злякае,
Не спыніць тугой далячынь.

It definitely does its job, because I have not the faintest idea what that, or any of the rest of the poem, means. I know ветразь [vetraz’] means ‘(the) wind’ because I looked it up on Google Translate. (Amusingly, the first comment in Anatoly’s thread is “Damn, it’s not even a Ukrainian dialect :)))—although some of the words are understandable, if you know Ukrainian, but only some.”)


MIT Technology Review has a brief but intriguing article called “How Google Converted Language Translation Into a Problem of Vector Space Mathematics.” If I could only have read it (or rather, the paper it’s based on) when I was a math major, forty-plus years ago!

The new trick is to represent an entire language using the relationship between its words. The set of all the relationships, the so-called “language space”, can be thought of as a set of vectors that each point from one word to another. And in recent years, linguists have discovered that it is possible to handle these vectors mathematically. For example, the operation ‘king’ – ‘man’ + ‘woman’ results in a vector that is similar to ‘queen’.
It turns out that different languages share many similarities in this vector space. That means the process of converting one language into another is equivalent to finding the transformation that converts one vector space into the other.
This turns the problem of translation from one of linguistics into one of mathematics. […]
The method can be used to extend and refine existing dictionaries, and even to spot mistakes in them. Indeed, the Google team do exactly that with an English-Czech dictionary, finding numerous mistakes.

That would have been right up my alley. Alas, having forgotten all the math I once knew, I can only gape and wonder if it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Thanks, Nick!)


A Financial Times essay by Harry Eyres describes clearing out his parents’ home, saying “It may sound trite, but the house, and our lives in it, would not have been the same without books…. The rooms suddenly look diminished, denuded, uncomfortably bare”:

Books Do Furnish a Room is the oddly memorable title of one of the volumes in Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, a sequence of novels about the goings-on among a group of toffs, literati and others before and after the second world war. The statement (made in the novel by a character called Bagshaw, the editor of a post-war literary journal) has an undertone of surprise: how can books furnish a room, when they have no obviously practical value, in the way that chairs and tables and sofas and curtains do?

I always rather took it for granted that books furnished a room. The only rooms in our house without books were the dining-room and the bathrooms. Otherwise there were books everywhere: in all the bedrooms (and one of the pleasures of sleeping in different bedrooms was finding books I hadn’t seen for decades, like old friends), in the drawing-room – where the books seemed more formal and unapproachable – and in the piano room-cum-office which became my parents’ comfortable winter snuggery.

I confess I raised my eyebrows when I got to “The only rooms in our house without books were the dining-room and the bathrooms”: can you really call yourself a book lover if there are any rooms without books? (I’ll never forget the day my younger grandson, exploring the bathroom, opened the bottom drawer to find, yes, a little stack of books—he let out a delighted “Ah!”) Thanks, Paul!


I’m reading Большой свет [High society, Le grand monde], an 1840 novella by Vladimir Sollogub, yet another fine writer who doesn’t deserve the obscurity into which he has fallen, and I was detained by a couple of items in this passage (Russian below the cut): he says he would like to write about grand passions and thwarted villains…

But alas! I must choose the personages of my story not from an invented world, not from among imaginary people, but among you, my friends, whom I meet every day, today in the Mikhailovsky Theater, tomorrow on the railroad, and always on the Nevsky Prospect.
You, fine young people, my friends, you are good companions, but you are not knights of ancient sensitivity, you are not heroes of today’s novels. You dine at Дюмё, you call for Taglioni, you dance with the dowry of young women or with the importance of young coquettes.

(I’m not at all sure about “the importance of young coquettes” and I wonder if значение ‘meaning, importance’ had some particular sense in the early nineteenth century that I’m not aware of.)
The first thing that struck me was the railroad: the formal opening of the Tsarskoe Selo Railway was October 30, 1837, so this must be one of the earliest references in Russian literature, and it’s interesting to see it mentioned so offhandedly. But what drove me to post was the name of the restaurant. You will note that I’ve left it in Russian; this is because it’s the name of a French restaurant, but it’s not clear what the French name is. This edition of Sollogub renders it Дюмё [Dyumyo], with a ё [yo], but that’s pretty clearly an error—it should be Дюме [Dyume]. This suggests Dumais, and indeed the French Wikipedia article on d’Anthès, the foppish French officer who killed Pushkin in a duel and became the great villain of Russian literary history, says “d’Anthès fut présenté en 1834 au poète par des relations communes, au Dumais, célèbre restaurant français de saint Pétersbourg, dirigé (1820-1840) par un ancien soldat de Napoléon.” All very well, but there’s no citation, and I am unable to find any other mention of it under that name. Google Books tells me that Madame Pouchkine, a 2008 book by Laurence Catinot-Crost, spells it Dumé (“restaurant français, célèbre, sis rue Malaïa Morskaïa à Saint-Pétersbourg”), but I can’t find any support for that either. If it’s so célèbre, why can’t I pin down its name?

[Read more…]


Victor Mair’s Log posts are always enjoyable, and The languages on Chinese banknotes is particularly meaty. A reader sent in a photograph of a one jiao banknote and asked him to explain the languages printed on it, those being Han (Chinese), Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Zhuang; of the last, he says “after Han, China’s largest minority, but one that few people outside of China have ever heard of (it is closely related to Thai).” There is detailed discussion of each language and how well it is represented by the text on the banknote; for Zhuang, the answer is not at all well: “This is what one scholar of the region has referred to as ‘the whole fake / improved ethnic language phenomenon. Whatever is written there may have only a limited relationship to the way Zhuang is spoken in real life. It’s the same with Yi.'”
There is a great deal of interesting material in the comments, including this one by Mair:

There is something that has been in the back of my mind since I began to write this post, but it has only now come to the surface. Namely, the whole idea of five main ethnic groups as constituting the most important parts of the Chinese empire goes back to the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. Moreover, there is a distinctly linguistic representation of this manifestation of a multiethnic empire, viz., the polyglot dictionaries sponsored by the Manchu rulers. Of these polyglot dictionaries, the largest and I believe the best known was the pentaglot behemoth known (in Manchu) as the Han-i araha sunja hacin-i hergen kamciha Manju gisun-i buleku bithe. It also has titles in the four other languages that it contains (i.e., Tibetan, Mongol, Turki, and Chinese), but I don’t have time to type all of them out this morning before rushing off to a dissertation defense. You can find them, and other detailed information about this huge pentaglot, in item #126 of Bibliographies of Mongolian, Manchu-Tungus, and Tibetan Dictionaries, compiled by Larry V. Clark, John R. Krueger, Manfred Taube, Hartmut Walravens, and edited by Hartmut Walravens (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), pp. 198-199. It is available online in Google Books… Now, isn’t that interesting?! These are the same exact groups as are found on the PRC banknote discussed in this post, with one exception: the Zhuang have replaced the Manchus.

Sometimes I wish I’d followed my old friend Susan into Sinology—there’s so much to learn and think about you’d never get bored even if you had several lifetimes.


Almost a decade ago I did a post about language in movies; now I’ll use Stan Carey’s “Films of linguistic interest” as the springboard for another. Stan mentions the experimental French film Themroc, the Canadian film Pontypool, the Greek film Dogtooth (Kynodontas), Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the ’40s screwball comedy Ball of Fire (which I’ve seen and can recommend), My Fair Lady, The Princess Bride, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China, and The Grammar of Happiness, and concludes: “If you have any more suggestions, or thoughts on the films I’ve mentioned, please add them in a comment, with spoiler warnings if necessary. I’ll update if I think of more.” Feel free to discuss here and/or there, where there are already many suggestions in the comments (someone mentioned the first movie I thought of, Avatar).


I recently finished Odoevsky‘s novella Княжна Зизи [Princess Zizi], to be distinguished from his earlier Княжна Мими [Princess Mimi] (see this LH post); written in 1836 (just in time for Pushkin to be enthusiastic about it) but not published until 1839, it’s a complex story in which the narrator’s friend tells him about the sensitive, intelligent Zizi, who was hopelessly in love with her foolish sister’s husband and ended up fighting both a villain and social disapproval. Though its structure is perhaps overcomplicated and the villain is on the mustache-twirling melodramatic side, it’s well written and gripping, and as close as nineteenth-century Russian literature got to feminism—Zizi’s struggles with the paternalistic legal and social order are devastatingly portrayed.

But I’m going to focus here on a minor section of linguistic interest. Towards the end, a new character is introduced who has just returned from Paris and tends to express himself in French; this gives rise to the following reflection (Russian below the cut):

A friend of mine made a profound observation, namely that there are people who are very clever when they speak French but become indescribably trite and foolish as soon as they begin speaking Russian. This is somewhat strange, but true and understandable. We don’t learn a language, we only memorize a few thousand sentences said in the language by clever people; speaking French well means repeating these few thousand prepared sentences; these sentences both impede thinking and spare one from having to come up with one’s own; you listen and it seems that someone’s mind is emerging from the chatter, but you are deceived: it seems like sense, but when you translate it into Russian it’s vacuous, neither here nor there.

That’s exaggerated, of course, but there’s something to it; it’s easy to give the impression of having something to say by repeating well-chosen quotes. I confess, though, that what drove me to post is an example of the character’s conversation: “Comment donc! nous lui ferons rendre, gorge mordicus!” That’s the way it’s punctuated in every edition Google Books shows me, and the Russian annotation renders it “И как еще! мы у него все вырвем обратно, чорт побери!” [Indeed! we’ll get everything back from him, dammit!] Both the editorial staff and the annotator are clearly ignorant of both the French idiom rendre gorge ‘to restitute ill-gotten gains’ (the English word disgorge is helpful for the semantics here) and the Latin adverb mordicus ‘by biting, with the teeth; doggedly’ (from the verb mordere ‘to bite’), which has been taken into French (Trésor de la langue française informatisé: “Obstinément, avec entêtement. Maintenir mordicus son point de vue; nier qqc. mordicus. Elle lui dit qu’il lui a changé son Watteau. Le Hon nie, la femme soutient mordicus [GONCOURT, Journal, 1856, p.297]”). Oh foolish translator, thinking you could just slip an incomprehensible phrase under the rug and nobody would notice! I must say, though, “gorge mordicus!” does have the air of a Rabelaisian curse.

I will also take the occasion to point out the early-nineteenth-century use of пошлый [poshlyi] to mean ‘common, banal, trivial,’ without the implication of philistinism that became attached to it later; see this LH post for the history of the word. Earlier in the story, one of the narrators says “я, как пошлый любовник, бродил под окнами моей красавицы” [I, like a poshlyi lover, roamed around beneath the windows of my beautiful beloved], and when reading Veltman’s Сердце и думка [Heart and head] (see this LH post) I jotted down a couple of uses: “Всё стало в глазах её обыкновенно, недостойно внимания; все люди, казалось, поглупели в ее понятиях: слова их стали для нее пошлы” [Everything became in her eyes ordinary, unworthy of attention; she thought of everyone, it seemed, as stupid: their words had become poshlyi for her]; Когда научились ловко двигаться, классические танцы стали пошлы [When they had learned to move adroitly/cleverly, classical dances became poshlyi].

The original Russian:

Один мой приятель сделал очень глубокомысленное замечание, а именно: что есть люди, которые очень умны, когда говорят по-французски, и делаются невыразимо пошлы и глупы, как скоро заговорят по-русски. Это довольно странно, но справедливо и понятно. Мы учимся не языку, но только заучиваем тысячи фраз, сказанных на этом языке умными людьми; говорить хорошо по-французски — значит повторять эти тысячи готовых фраз; эти фразы и мешают мыслям и избавляют от своих собственных; вы слушаете, чужой ум выглядывает из болтовни, обманывает вас: кажется — дело, переведите по-русски — пустошь, ни к селу ни к городу.


Claire Bowern of Anggarrgoon has a post at Crikey’s very own language blog describing an archival find she made some time back, and a very lively read it is; here’s a sample paragraph:

The recordings had been made outside, and there was a lot of wind noise. I was feeling a bit seasick at this point; the tapes were stereo and the microphone hadn’t been held too steadily, so there was a lot of rocking back and forth. Stick a pair of headphones on and slide the balance meter back and forth to get a sense of what this feels like. I’d been listening to tapes for many hours, including some German drinking songs, and was just about ready to call it quits for the day. One more tape, I thought. I stuck the reel* on the machine and cued it up. I heard Peile ask “What’s the name of that language? Nindi nindi?” The speaker replied, “Nyindinyindi.” Hmmm, I thought. That’s a new name on me. So I did what all good academics do when they come across something new – googled it. Nothing.** Then the speaker started telling a story in the language, and I could understand most of it. It was close to Bardi, the language I did my PhD on (and can speak pretty well). I went back to the audition sheets for that tape, and I saw it had been listed as recorded at “Tinder Bay.” There’s no Tinder Bay in the right area, but there is “Pender Bay.” A few years later I was able to play the tape to Bardi speakers. No one knew the name “Nyindinyindi,” but they confirmed that the language on the tape was similar to Bardi.

Go to her post for the footnotes, and for the rest of the story. Makes me want to go get my hands dusty!


Ralph Keyes has a fine survey of English word coinage in The American Scholar; he starts off with Thomas Jefferson (“‘Necessity,’ he concluded, ‘obliges us to neologize.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Jefferson is the first person known to have used the term neologize, in an 1813 letter”) and the reaction to his innovations in the motherland:

Once they caught wind of all the new words being coined across the Atlantic, self-appointed guardians of the King’s English were rather cross. When Jefferson used the new word belittle in his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia, a British critic exclaimed, “It may be an elegant [word] in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” Undaunted, the third president proceeded to coin Anglophobia.

He goes on to Elbridge Gerry (he of the very first gerrymander), Gelett Burgess (coiner of blurb and goop), would-be innovator Thomas Friedman (“Friedman has succeeded only with flat world, and even that success proved fleeting”), and Maury Maverick (who added gobbledygook to the language), among others. One paragraph traces global warming back to 1952, another describes Fred Hoyle’s dismay that his term big bang caught on. I got a kick out of the section on meritocracy:

In 1958 British sociologist Michael Young published a dystopian novel called The Rise of the Meritocracy. His intent was to satirize the assessment of “merit” by credentials rather than by performance. In his book’s initial edition the author wrote of meritocracy, “The origin of this unpleasant term … is still obscure. It seems to have been first generally used in the sixties of the last century in small-circulation journals attached to the Labour Party, and gained wide currency much later on.” But in his introduction to a 1994 reprint, Young admitted that he’d coined meritocracy himself. Why had he been so cagey originally? Because when he was coming up with his book’s title, a classicist had warned him that mixing Greek and Latin roots would break the rules of good usage and subject him to ridicule. As it turned out, even though the book itself was controversial, its title wasn’t (“rather the opposite I would say”). Therefore Young now felt free to step forward and claim authorship of meritocracy. “The twentieth century had room for the word,” he realized, even one its coiner meant to be pejorative.

There’s plenty more where that came from. Thanks, Paul!


Frequent commenter Paul sent me this quote from Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, a book he recommends at least as heartily as Rob Nixon in the Times (“lively, luminous… gorgeous”):

It’s true that once you being to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways—shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular.
Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets—say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite—holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

It’s hard to resist an author with that kind of feel for words.