Michael Rosen on Learning Latin.

Michael Rosen writes in the Guardian (archived) in the form of a letter, “Dear Gavin Williamson, if Latin in schools is about levelling up, I have other ideas”:

Just as many of us are thinking ahead to winter and a possible next wave of Covid, worrying about whether schools have proper ventilation and what emergency measures you might have up your sleeve if a major outbreak occurs, you choose to put Latin at the top of your agenda. […] Let me lay out my cards about Latin: where there are the staff who can and want to teach it, I’m 100% in favour of Latin being offered as an option. But that option exists right now. This makes me ask, where are the teachers to teach it?

Then again, though I’m always delighted to hear of young people enthused by reading what and how people in ancient times thought, is there a big demand for it? […] For whatever reason, there doesn’t seem to be a great will among most young people to learn modern languages. Would it not be better to address that problem first? […]

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The Indo-Soviet Cultural Affair.

Ruqaiyah Zarook writes for the Jordan Russian Center:

The Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin once said that for him, Kalidasa, the great classical Sanskrit playwright and dramatist, “is no less important than Homer.” The visionary Russian painter and philosopher Nicholas Roerich chose to live out his days in Naggar, India, leaving a broad and edifying artistic legacy. And perhaps most famously, Leo Tolstoy wrote to various revolutionary and literary Indian figures, from Mahatma Gandhi to Taraknath Das (to whom Tolstoy addressed his 1908 “Letter to a Hindu”) and the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. These anecdotes reveal a deep historical relationship between India and Russia that has not yet received the scholarly attention it deserves.

The historical links between Russia and India are numerous. The two countries have long enjoyed reciprocal artistic and cultural exchanges in literature, theater, and music. Beginning in the 1950s and until the end of the 1980s, the USSR dedicated significant funds to ensuring the availability of Russian texts in India — from children’s classics and philosophical tracts to science textbooks and works of socio-political theory.

During the tense and taxing Cold War years, the USSR and India were able to uphold friendly relations with a distinct focus on artistic and cultural exchange, allowing each to deploy a form of soft power potentially more powerful and diplomatically penetrating than explicit political games. Just as Russian classics by Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Chekhov flooded Indian literary markets, Bollywood movies quickly became popular in Soviet Russia. Well-known actors like Raj Kapoor appeared in Hindi movies dubbed into Russian, enjoying a fascinating popularity among Muscovites (meanwhile, Indian literature and Russian films did not experience the same reciprocal resonance in Russia and India, respectively).

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Three Etymological Oddities.

1) Greek ἄνθρωπος ‘man’ is of uncertain origin; Wiktionary says:

Scholars used to consider it to be a compound from ἀνήρ (anḗr, “man”) and ὤψ (ṓps, “face, appearance, look”): thus, “he who looks like a man”. […] Rosén defends this etymology […] Beekes argues that since no convincing Indo-European etymology has been found, the word is probably of Pre-Greek origin; he connects the word with the word δρώψ (drṓps, “man”) […] Garnier proposes a derivation from Proto-Indo-European *n̥dʰr-eh₃kʷ-ó-s (“that which is below”), hence “earthly, human”.

Now, via Laudator Temporis Acti, I learn of another suggestion: Gregory Nagy (Greek Mythology and Poetics, pp. 151-152, n. 30) connects it with anthrax and says he interprets it as “he who has the look of embers.” Sounds implausible, but Nagy is a respected scholar, and I’d be curious to see more details.

2) I was recently reminded of the word tesseract (when I were a lad I used to try to visualize them), and on looking it up in the OED (entry published 1986) I discover that it was invented by C. H. Hinton (an odd duck) in his 1888 New Era of Thought: “We call the figure it traces a Tessaract.” But wait, it’s got an -a- in that citation! Etymology: “< tessara- comb. form + Greek ἀκτίς ray.” The citations show a mixture of forms eventually settling on the current one with -e-:

1888 C. H. Hinton New Era of Thought ii. iii. 118 We call the figure it [sc. a cube] traces a Tessaract.
1919 R. T. Browne Mystery of Space v. 134 The hyper~cube or tesseract is described by moving the generating cube in the direction in which the fourth dimension extends.
1960 Electronic Engin. 32 347/1 Fig. 8..shows a four-dimensional ‘tessaract’ (the four-dimensional analogue of a cube).
1968 Listener 15 Feb. 201 He likes to see A gulping of tesseracts and Gondals in Our crazed search.
1974 S. Sheldon Other Side of Midnight xviii. 332 For Catherine time had lost its circadian rhythm; she had fallen into a tesseract of time, and day and night blended into one.

(God only knows what Sheldon thought he meant by “a tesseract of time.”) Greek had both τέσσαρα and τέσσερα (neuter plural and combining form of τέσσαρες, τέσσερες ‘four’). So why did tessaract get changed to tesseract?

3) Russian туз ‘ace’ is borrowed from Polish tuz which is “From Middle High German tūs, dūs (‘deuce’) (German Daus), from Old French dous (‘two’).” How did ‘deuce’ give ‘ace’?

The Bookshelf: Journey to Russia.

Last month I mentioned Miroslav Krleža’s Journey to Russia; the publisher, ‎Sandorf Passage (which publishes writers from Europe and has a very interesting-looking list, including From Nowhere to Nowhere by Bekim Sejranović and Tatjana Gromača’s Divine Child, which will be out in October), was kind enough to send me a review copy, which I have now finished. I had mixed feelings, but I can confidently recommend it to anyone interested in foreign reactions to the NEP-era Soviet Union; it’s full of acutely observed details and good stories.

I should say at the outset that in a couple of respects it is not my cup of tea. In the first place, Krleža was a Communist, and his portrait is heavily colored by his beliefs: all capitalists, aristocrats, traders, etc., are slathered with hostile sarcasm, and all cloth-capped working men and Bolsheviks are seen as heroes bravely and selflessly building the future. There are a couple of worshipful chapters on Lenin and Leninism that I just skimmed, since they weren’t part of the travelogue. Of course in 1924-25, just after the death of Lenin, it was impossible to foresee what the country would become once Stalin took over, but it’s equally impossible for me to unknow that, and to pretend that the Soviet Union was ever a shining beacon of human dignity and freedom. And in the second place, Krleža’s style is so florid and laden with rambling personal associations I sometimes had to grit my teeth to get through a paragraph; here’s a brief sample, chosen at random:

There are also desperate, bloodstained, despondent Christs in Moscow’s churches, Nazarenes who have lost all hope for a change of the international political situation and quietly stare into emptiness like those intent on suicide and gamblers who have lost their last chip. One such Calvarian desperado hangs with a care-worn, sooty face in a golden frame and gazes like an Indian hypnotist at a procession of children that passes by, laughing at the sooty specters from the time of Ivan the Terrible — innocent children’s laughter, devilishly sublime. Today, Russian children giggle in churches like in museums of the weird and wonderful, looking at dead saints with the same distance with which we as children eyed African fetishes and idols. It is lovely to stand in a Moscow church and listen to the echoes of children giggling while the priest reads the Passion of Christ […]

That gives a taste of his constant mockery of religion, which also sets my teeth on edge, irreligious though I am. Militant atheism à la Richard Dawkins makes me want to take up the old rugged cross. But those are my personal quirks, which many do not share; I mention them only to explain my mixed reactions to the book. I should add that like many who straddle the border between fiction and travel-writing, Krleža makes a lot of stuff up; for instance, I learn from the notes to the Russian translation (which I found online) that “Admiral Sergei Mikhailovich Vrubel,” the hero of the chapter “The Admiral’s Mask,” is invented from whole cloth, presumably to allow the author to express ideas in a more personalized form. Those who admire the travel writing of (say) Ryszard Kapuściński and Bruce Chatwin will presumably not have a problem with this.

In the credit column are the descriptions of people and places; when he can restrain himself from ladling on the pathetic fallacies, he brings what he sees vividly to life. From the chapter on his arrival to Moscow:
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Polizzotti on Translation.

The MIT Press Reader has an excerpt from Mark Polizzotti’s book about translation Sympathy for the Traitor that doesn’t contain any new revelations (is there anything new left to say on the topic?) but has the kind of anecdotes and examples I always enjoy:

The American anthropologist Laura Bohannan once tried to paraphrase “Hamlet” for a tribe of West African bush people. Convinced that “human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over,” Bohannan chose “Hamlet” as a reliable universal archetype. It sounds good on paper, but at practically every sentence, she found her listeners raising objections and interpolations wholly outside her frame of reference […]

As Bohannan discovered the hard way, even supposedly universal truths get filtered through highly local perspectives, and words resonate differently from one country, one collective, one people, to the next. “A language,” as Noam Chomsky observed, “is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is.” “Dog,” in whichever idiom, signifies Canis familiaris, but associatively the dog does not mean the same thing to someone who is English, French, or Chinese. Gregory Rabassa has remarked that if you ask a New Yorker what kind of bug Gregor Samsa metamorphosed into, “the inevitable answer will be a giant cockroach, the insect of record in his city,” even though Kafka’s term, Ungeziefer, means simply “vermin.” Similarly, the Russian translator Richard Lourie cautioned that the term communal apartment in English “conjures up an image of a Berkeley, California kitchen, where hippies with headbands are cooking brown rice, whereas the Russian term [kommunalka] evokes a series of vast brown rooms with a family living in each, sharing a small kitchen where the atmosphere is dense with everything that cannot be said.” […]

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Lyudochka.

I just finished Viktor Astafyev’s 1989 novella Людочка — it took me twice as long as it should have, because it’s very grim and I kept having to take breaks from it. It’s been translated twice, by David Gillespie in Soviet Literature 8 (1990) and by Andrew Reynolds in The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing (1995). I wrote to Lisa/Lizok (who liked it as much as I did: “Lyudochka is utterly dark and depressing, but it’s also very, very good”) and said I wasn’t sure whether I’d post about it (“my Russ-lit posts aren’t very popular”), but she urged me to, so here I am. Warning: I’m going to thoroughly spoil the plot, so if you care about such things and want to read the story, you might want to do so first and bookmark the post for later.

Astafyev frames the story in traditional manner, as something somebody told him (“Мимоходом рассказанная, мимоходом услышанная история, лет уже пятнадцать назад” [A story told in passing and heard in passing, fifteen years ago now]), but after that the frame is forgotten and the narration plunges you into the tale of how Lyudochka was born in a dying village called Vychugan, didn’t do well in school and felt out of place after her widowed mother hooked up with a strong-and-silent guy (who is never named — he’s just “the stepfather”), and left for the city to try to earn a living. (From the references to Вэпэвэрзэ, i.e. ВПВРЗ = Вологодский паровозовагоноремонтный завод, I assume the city is Vologda.) She wanders into a hairdressing salon run by the aged Gavrilovna, who feels sorry for her (and guesses she won’t be too much trouble) and lets her stay with her while learning the trade (which she never gets very good at). Every day on her way to and from work Lyudochka walks through the VPVRZ Park, where a group of young hoodlums or wannabe hoodlums hang out, led by a guy called Артемка-мыло ‘Soapy Artyom’ for his foamy-looking hair. Once when she was cutting his hair she got tired of his constantly feeling her up and hit his head with the trimmer, drawing blood, after which he told his gang to leave her alone.
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Sanskrit-Welsh Movie Choruses.

Adrian Daub’s “But Who Tells Them What To Sing?” is an investigation of the history of Hollywood film choruses — not obvious LH material, but as it turns out there are some passages of Hattic interest:

As the soprano Catherine Bott said: “You enter a studio and you open the score and off you go. You sing what you’re told, and it’s all about versatility, just being able to adapt to the right approach, whatever that may be for that conductor or that composer.” And part of that, singers told me, was singing the words — whatever they may be. As Donald Greig pointed out to me, a lot of these singers have training in classics; they certainly know their way around a Requiem or a Stabat Mater. And yet often enough when they step into Abbey Road they’re being asked to sing perfectly nonsensical phrases in pseudo-Latin — but the studio is booked, the clock is ticking, and as Bott put it, “that’s not the time to put up your hand and, you know, correct the Latin.” […]

Interestingly enough, early in this long tradition of made-up languages, Hollywood felt the need to pretend that it did mean something. When Lost Horizon was released in 1937, Columbia Pictures claimed in its publicity material that Dimitri Tiomkin’s score “includes authentic folk songs of Tibet.” The same press sheet noted that the Hall Johnson Choir, a popular gospel choir, “will sing the folk song arrangements in the native Tibetan language.”

Film music historians agree that this is hogwash. There is no evidence Tiomkin researched Tibetan folk songs for his score — what the ad men were selling as “authentic folk songs” were almost certainly newly written pieces in a made-up language. Tiomkin had started out as a concert pianist and relied on a small army of orchestrators to turn his melodies into actual playable scores. Someone in that group put a pen to paper and wrote these pieces, and either that same person or someone else seems to have made up some fake Tibetan text to distribute to the singers. […]

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New England on the Black Sea.

Dr. Caitlin Green’s academic blog covers topics including “long-distance trade, migration and contacts; landscape and coastal history; early literature and legends; and the history, archaeology, place-names and legends of Lincolnshire and Cornwall”; her 2015 post “The medieval ‘New England’: a forgotten Anglo-Saxon colony on the north-eastern Black Sea coast” is absolutely fascinating:

Although the name ‘New England’ is now firmly associated with the east coast of America, this is not the first place to be called that. In the medieval period there was another Nova Anglia, ‘New England’, and it lay far to the east of England, rather than to the west, in the area of the Crimean peninsula. The following post examines some of the evidence relating to this colony, which was said to have been established by Anglo-Saxon exiles after the Norman conquest of 1066 and seems to have survived at least as late as the thirteenth century.

She starts by talking about the “significant English element in the Varangian Guard of the medieval Byzantine emperors” (“what seems to have occurred is that, in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a group of English lords who hated William the Conqueror’s rule but had lost all hope of overthrowing it decided to sell up their land and leave England forever”) and continues:
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Books that Changed Me.

This weekend one of my grandsons got married; he and his bride both love books (as a wedding present I gave them my prized near-incunabulum), and they designed their wedding accordingly — there was an arch of books, table assignments were found in a card catalogue, and tables were named after books (the head table was, delightfully, The Fellowship of the Ring). My wife and I bitterly regretted not being there, but we were just too nervous about the delta variant, both of us being aged and one of us being immunocompromised. At any rate, it got me thinking about the role books have played in my life, and I thought I’d make a list of some that have changed its direction.

In childhood:

Young Readers Science Fiction Stories, by Richard M. Elam
This is, in a sense, a ringer, in that I don’t actually remember reading it, in contrast to those that follow. But it was given to me (by my beloved Aunt Bettie, who supported me in so much) when I was six, so I can’t have had much exposure to sf before it, and it’s very clear from the condition of the book (e.g., endpapers covered with pencil drawings of rockets and buildings) that I read it assiduously and with pleasure, so it makes sense to assume it was my introduction to the world of science fiction, which made up the bulk of my reading for pleasure until I went to college and which is surely responsible for a significant part of how I see the world. From an adult point of view, it’s a pretty terrible book, but if you’re curious, it’s available in full at Project Gutenberg.

The Story of Language, by Mario Pei
As Ben Zimmer once said, Pei is “not always the most reliable source when it comes to language-related information,” but he’s a very lively writer and got a lot of young folks interested in language, including me. (It took me years to eradicate some of the errors he wedged into my developing brain.)

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Less Care More Stress.

Tim Whitmarsh’s “Less Care More Stress: A Rhythmic Poem from the Roman Empire” (published last month in the Cambridge Classical Journal; the title is a play on the self-help slogan “Less Stress, More Care”) describes an intriguing little text found all over the eastern Roman empire in the second century:

In this article I consider an anonymous popular text – a poem, I believe, but that identification presumes the discussion below – that was widely circulated across the Empire. My aim is twofold: to collate and publish it; and to reflect on what it can tell us about Greek metrics, poetics and literary value in the Roman period. This brief text, I argue, shines important new light on the emergence of stress-based (as distinct from quantitative) poetry. […]

The text, in its fuller form, reads:

Λέγουσιν
ἃ θέλουσιν
λεγέτωσαν
οὐ μέλι μοι
σὺ φίλι με
συνφέρι σοι

They say
what they like
let them say [it]
I don’t care
you [go ahead and] love me
it does you good

Whitmarsh says:

The diction is unambitious. The verbs belong to the beginner’s Greek lexicon; there are no nouns, adjectives or adverbs. There is no sign of Atticism: in particular, the third-person imperative -έτωσαν ending, which is regular for the koine of the era, is censured by Atticist authorities, who prefer -όντων. […] The spelling συφέρι (in no. 8) also reflects a feature that is ‘not normally found in decrees and documents in which the writing is of a high standard’. In terms of language, then, our text and its inscribers do not lay claim to literary elevation. This is perhaps what one would expect, given the relatively modest value of the gems themselves: agate, onyx and sardonyx, the material on which the majority of texts are inscribed, are all varieties of chalcedony, an abundant mineral in the Mediterranean region.

He goes on to discuss meter (“Our text appears to make use of the stress accent to govern rhythm, in the manner of post-antique Greek poetry”), the use of half-rhymes, and interpretation:
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