Clontarf in a Multilingual World.

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh writes for the British Academy blog about a 12th-century text that reveals “a multilingual medieval world”:

Extensive networks and international communications are often thought of as modern phenomena […] but contacts and connections with a wider world have been a defining aspect of past communities as well. For the Viking period, this is evident in archaeological finds bearing witness to dynamic exchange from Dublin, via Scandinavia, to Baghdad and beyond. Along such extended trade routes, ideas as well as objects were interchanged. Functional multilingualism facilitated such transactions. Widespread use in certain circles of the medieval equivalents of global English – Latin, Greek, Arabic – enabled intense interaction and discussion and transference of knowledge and views.

Traces found along the earlier Silk Road, as part of a Viking hub, or in a medieval monastery, for example, provide the means by which a map of earlier interconnections can be sketched. Intricate layers of interaction are evident when examining early texts. Each source tells its own complex story, its content, language and history revealing influences and moulds. They form microcosmic strands in an overarching complex web, providing concrete evidence for specific contacts in a given time and space.

Research supported by the British Academy allowed me to study one such source, a 12th-century narrative from medieval Ireland. It chronicles Viking attacks on various parts of the country and the resistance to them provided by one southern dynasty under their king, Brian Boru (ancestors to the O’Briens). Presented as a strategic, skilful hero, he is depicted as continually opposing a ferocious Scandinavian foe, ultimately losing his life in a final encounter against them at the battle of Clontarf, a historical event fought in 1014. The title of this lengthy literary account, ‘The War of the Irish (Gael) against Foreigner (Gall)’ (Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh), as well as its bombastic tone sets it out as a stereotypical story of ‘us v. them’. What can such a text then tell us about actual contacts between Norse and Irish at the time of its composition?

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Anatoly Vorobey (Avva) posts (in Russian) about a 300-page book (also in Russian) called Никудену [Nikudenu], ‘Our Niqqud.’ He begins:

Reading this book gave me an odd feeling. On the one hand, it’s written understandably, explains everything well, clears up many complicated questions and exceptions, and is beautifully designed (it’s a pleasure to leaf through). On the other hand — and here the author is not to blame in any way, of course — its subject, vowel pointing in modern Hebrew, is striking in its obscurantism and needless complexity.

У меня странные ощущения от чтения этой книги. С одной стороны, она написана понятным языком, все хорошо объясняет, проясняет много сложных вопросов и исключений, и прекрасно оформлена (просто даже приятно листать). С другой стороны – и тут автор книги ни в чем не виноват, разумеется – предмет, которому она посвящена – огласовки в современном иврите – поражает своим обскурантизмом и никчемной сложностью.

He goes on to explain the problems summarized in the Wikipedia article thus:

One reason for the lesser use of niqqud is that it no longer reflects the current pronunciation. In modern Hebrew, tzere is pronounced the same as segol, although they were distinct in Tiberian Hebrew, and pataḥ the same as qamatz. To the younger generation of native Hebrew speakers, these distinctions seem arbitrary and meaningless; on the other hand, Hebrew language purists have rejected out of hand the idea of changing the basics of niqqud and fitting them to the current pronunciation – with the result that in practice niqqud is increasingly going out of use.

Anatoly ends his post as follows:

In brief, it would be a great deal simpler, better, and easier for everyone simply to start writing modern Hebrew as it is actually pronounced. Only six points would be needed (a e u o i plus schwa) and dagesh for the three letters where it means something; everything else could be tossed out. But this won’t happen for complicated cultural reasons (the aforementioned asininity).

Короче, было бы намного проще, лучше, легче для всех просто начать записывать современный иврит огласовками так, как он реально произносится. Нужно было бы шесть огласовок (А Э У О И плюс шва) и дагеш только для трех букв, где он что-то значит, все остальные можно выбросить. Но это не случится по сложным культурным причинам (вышеупомянутый маразм).

I’m curious what my Hebrew-speaking readers have to say about this; of course my sympathies are with the write-as-you-speak crowd, but I have no skin in the game.

Sharov’s Rehearsals.

I’ve finished Vladimir Sharov’s Репетиции (The Rehearsals; see this post), and I’m having almost as much trouble deciding what I think as I did after reading Kharitonov’s Линии судьбы (Lines of Fate; see this post). I like the Sharov a lot better, and am looking forward to reading more of him, but I’m not clear what he’s doing here or why he’s doing it, or (which is perhaps another way of putting it) what kind of a novel it is. It starts off one way, goes in a different direction, and winds up with something else entirely. In order to explain all that, I’ll have to do a lot of spoiling, so you’ll have to decide if and when to bail out if you’re thinking of reading the novel yourself.

It starts, as I said in that earlier post, with a guy named Kobylin, who disappears immediately, makes a brief reappearance after dozens of pages, and shows up again at the very end, so that in a formal sense the novel is tied together by his story. It doesn’t feel that way, however, because he’s not actually a character, just a plot device (the same is true for many of the others who populate the book’s pages). After that comes the Ilyin section I described in the earlier post; having read the entire novel, I’m not clear on what purpose it serves other than to provide some religious background (Ilyin never reappears either, nor does the narrator’s fiancee Natasha who’s mentioned a few times early on; the “oprichnina” I built the earlier post around also has no further resonance, so I’m OK with Ready’s decision to omit it here). Then comes Professor Kuchmy at the Kuibyshev college he first attends, who talks about the senselessness of human existence and the unique ability of writers to produce genuine progeny through their writing, and Professor Suvorin in Tomsk who is obsessed with women (the narrator is the only male student he ever accepts) and with Old Believer manuscripts, and it is here that the real plot kicks in — the materials the narrator acquires after Suvorin’s death form the basis of his career (which otherwise goes undescribed) and the rest of the novel. I can’t improve on the Russian Dinosaur’s description, so I’ll quote it:

The Rehearsals traces the self-destructive urges in Russian society all the way back to the mid-seventeenth-century Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, when the Patriarch Nikon forced through radical changes in text and ritual against the will of many, including his former mentor Archpriest Avvakum. Sharov develops Nikon as a brooding, complex, deeply religious and profoundly dangerous character, who all but kidnaps a travelling Breton player, De Sertan, commissioning him to direct and produce a religious mystery play at Nikon’s New Jerusalem monastery. But before the “first night” takes place, Nikon is arrested and De Sertan and his Russian players sent into Siberian exile, where they form a unique sectarian community. Not only do they continue rehearsing their mystery play about the birth of Christ for centuries, they live permanently, and pass on to their children and grandchildren, the roles they act – so the community divides into “Christians”, “Jews”, “Romans”, and others. The role of Christ is never cast – Nikon’s hope, and the community’s unspoken conviction, is that the day the rehearsals are finally complete, Christ will appear and the world will end.

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Persianate India.

I’ve long been interested in the Persianate world, and India was for a long time an important part of it (see this 2013 post); I just read Ramachandra Guha’s TLS review (archived) of Richard Eaton’s India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765, which has some good LH material:

The conventional view of Indian history divides it into three periods; ancient or “Hindu”, medieval or “Muslim”, and a modern or “British” period. In India in the Persianate Age, Richard Eaton challenges this interpretation by substituting religion with language. Eaton builds on the work of the Columbia scholar Sheldon Pollock, who coined the term “Sanskrit cosmopolis” to describe the political and cultural world of ancient India. In the first millennium of the Common Era, argues Pollock, it was the language of Sanskrit that brought together kingdoms and territories across a wide swathe of South and Southeast Asia; it was in Sanskrit that manuals of statecraft as well as epic poems and plays were written. Eaton now suggests that from about the eleventh century, a “Persianate” culture emerged in India, which sought sometimes to supplant the world of Sanskrit and sometimes to constructively engage with it. Persian was the new language of rule, and of administration, promoted by the Turk and Mongol warriors who came to control northern India in this period. Further, writes Eaton, “as with the Sanskrit texts, from the eleventh century onwards a large corpus of imaginative literature in Persian began to circulate widely through West, Central and South Asia”. […]

When Eaton does depart from politics and warfare, he turns to architecture and literature. He writes insightfully of how mosques and shrines built by ostensibly Muslim rulers incorporated elements from Buddhist, Jain, and especially Hindu architectural traditions. Mosques, forts and palaces all showed the fusion of Persianate and Sanskritic traditions and styles. This cultural fusion also emerges in Eaton’s treatment of the reign of the fifteenth- century Kashmiri king, Zain al-’Abidin, himself a Muslim, who yet loved listening to poems in praise of the Hindu god Krishna (while sailing a boat in a mountain lake), and who patronized the translation of Sanskrit classics into Persian (and vice versa).

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For what.

John McIntyre, a favorite here at LH (see this post), posts about an important distinction that should be more widely understood:

I see this opening sentence in an article published by CNN: “GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, who was recently indicted for concealing information and lying to the FBI regarding an investigation into illegal campaign contributions, has officially resigned from his committee assignments.”

Anyone care to guess what in that sentence has triggered my boundless scorn?


In the Former Times, when journalism organizations employed copy editors, we were all schooled that that preposition for suggests certainty, established fact. And because people accused of criminal acts receive a presumption of innocence in our legal system, we never allowed indicted for to get into print, substituting indicted on a charge of.

Curious whether standards have shifted during my senescence, I plucked my Associated Press Stylebook from its place of repose and found: “To avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial, do not use phrases such as indicted for killing or indicted for bribery. Instead use indicted on a charge of killing or indicted on a charge of bribery.”

It may be a little thing, but following that guideline observes the fundamental principle that journalists are not to put their fingers on the scales.

He compares it to “the guideline of not using murder as a synonym for homicide or killing until after a verdict,” and quite rightly, too. (Sadly, the first comment on his post is an unrelated bit of peevery, and I expect more will follow.) So I’m helping to spread the word.


Irish-American poet Greg Delanty has a nice Independent piece about his visit to Benares (now officially Varanasi), which includes the following paragraph:

It struck me there that the undulating Hindi reminded me of the sing-song Cork accent, and how we used words in Cork that had Hindi origin and were brought back by Irish soldiers in the British army, words like dekho, which in Hindi means “to look”, or conjun box. Conjun comes from the word Khajana — Hindi for “treasure” — and in Cork it was our word for a child’s piggy bank. I had just broken into my conjun box to bribe the rickshaw driver.

Hindi खजाना khajaana is a real word, but it’s not clear that conjun (a highly localized word that is not in the OED) comes from it; Diarmaid Ó Muirithe writes:

Two female friends of mine from Cork city wrote to ask about the origin of conjun box, a child’s money box, a piggybank. Sean Beecher has the word in A Dictionary of Cork Slang (1983). He says that the word is possibly from Tamil kanji, “a lock-up (military), hence a place to keep money; possibly introduced into Cork by the Munster Fusiliers”.

Kanji doesn’t mean a lock-up. Bernard Share, in Slanguage, is right in saying that the Tamil word means water in which rice has been boiled, a source of vitamins and carbohydrates, and a staple nourishment for prisoners in India. A precious substance, therefore. From kanjee came conjun, a little box for hoarding precious pennies.

I have no doubt whatever that conjun box is what they say north of the Lee; but when I inquired further I was told that conjurin’ box is what is said in other places. Whether this conjurin’ is a mistaken “correction”, I don’t know; all I can say is that it exists in Ovens and in Glasheen, from where Mrs Maureen McAlister wrote to tell me that she often heard girls at her school talk of opening their conjurin’ boxes unknown to their parents if they were stuck for ready cash.

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None Legible.

A reader sent me this three-minute track from an ancient recording, asking “Any ideas on the language here?” Nope, so I turn the question over to the Many-Tongued Reader. It’s scratchy, but if you know the language I’m sure it’s recognizable. Thanks, Mik!


I was reading a New Yorker story about the recent Portland heat wave when I hit the sentence:

Medical staff referred to some of the patients as “obtunded,” meaning they were unable to respond at all.

I wasn’t familiar with the word, though my residual Latinity (thanks, Brother Auger!) gave me a general idea that it meant ‘beaten’ or ‘struck’ (it’s from Latin obtundo), so I looked it up and discovered something of a morass. The OED, s.v. obtund (updated in March 2004), says:

Chiefly Medicine.

 transitive. To blunt, deaden, dull the sensation of; to deprive of sharpness or vigour.

1999 Canad. Jrnl. Anaesthesia 46 368 Fentanyl..helped to obtund the hypertensive response to intubation.

Similarly, Merriam-Webster has “to reduce the edge or violence of.” But those definitions don’t seem to match the sense “unable to respond at all.” Googling turned up the useful page The Difference Between Lethargy, Obtundation, Stupor, and Coma, which says:

There is a spectrum of impaired consciousness that goes from full arousal to complete unresponsiveness. Coma, which is a state of unarousable unresponsiveness is the worst degree of impairment of a patient’s arousal and consciousness.

Words like lethargy, obtunded, and stupor all describe various degrees to which a patient’s arousal is impaired. However, these terms are imprecise. In a clinical setting, it is more useful to describe the patient’s responses to specific stimuli.

They say obtundation “is a state similar to lethargy in which the patient has a lessened interest in the environment,” while stupor means that “only vigorous and repeated stimuli will arouse the patient”; the New Yorker description sounds more like stupor according to that list. I have to agree that “these terms are imprecise.” I trust, however, that in a given setting the medical personnel all agree on what they mean by a term.

Manuscript Traditions.

In the words of their About page:

Based on the work of the DFG-Research Group 963 – “Manuscript Cultures in Asia and Afrika” (2008-2011) the Centre for the Studies of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) is engaged in fundamental research, investigating from both a historical and comparative perspective, based on material artifacts, the empirical diversity of manuscript cultures. It will establish a new paradigm that is distinct from the research on manuscripts undertaken until now, which has been limited in its approach by region and discipline. On one hand, the cultural dependency of what has usually been considered given will particularly be brought into question, and on the other hand, universal categories and characteristics of manuscript cultures will be delineated, as one possible result of the comparative research.

Their manuscript of the month section, as the reader who sent me the link says, is “unfortunately on hiatus, but full of gems.” Thanks, Yoram!

Another manuscript site is Middle Eastern Manuscript Traditions (MEMaT), “a multidisciplinary project which aims at studying various aspects of manuscript production, utilization, and transmission history.” There’s a list of publications in the right margin.


I love it when a book sends me off to visit other books, and Sharov’s Репетиции (The Rehearsals; see this post) has given me that pleasure. A passage about Patriarch Nikon had me returning to my favorite book of Russian history, James Billington’s classic The Icon and the Axe (see this 2006 post), and the discussion there of Nikon’s stint as a monk on the Solovetsky Islands reminded me that I hadn’t gotten around to reading Roy Robson’s Solovki, which I got a couple of years ago. So I dived in.

I’m going to spend most of the post complaining, so let me start by saying it’s well written and Robson has clearly done a lot of research — you can learn a great deal from the book. There are fine black-and-white photographs and other images to illustrate the text. But Robson doesn’t seem very interested in geography, and that’s a significant drawback for someone who is, like me. Those images include a too-small segment of the 1740 Carte de Moscovie dresse par G. de L’Isle that is pretty to look at but should have been supplemented by a more accurate map that would show the places mentioned in the text; the founder of the monastery, Savvatii, started his career at the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, which is below the southern border of the segment, and then moved to Valaam, which is actually shown on the 1740 map but not mentioned in Robson’s caption, so the uninstructed reader will never notice the tiny caption “Valamo Ostrof” towards the north end of “Lac Ladoga.” Then, when even the remote Valaam proves too crowded for him (younger monks kept showing up to get his “wise counsel”), he heads for true isolation, and Robson writes: “Traveling eastward from Valaam toward the White Sea, Savvatii sought a place to settle as a hermit.” But a glance at a map will show that the Solovetsky Islands cannot reasonably described as “eastward from Valaam”; north-northeast, maybe, but “northward” would be the obvious choice.

The worst, however, comes later in the same paragraph: “On his way, Savvatii met his future companion German, who had built a small cabin in the woods, a solitary monastic cell near Soroka on the Vyg River, not far from the village of Belozersk.” I’m pretty sure “Belozersk” is a mistake for Belomorsk, which has now engulfed Soroka (Соро́ка), and it’s a very unfortunate one because he’s already mentioned the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, which is near the actual Belozersk. In any case, the thing that should have been mentioned about Soroka is not that it’s near some village but that it’s directly across the water from the Solovetsky Islands. Sheesh.
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