Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters.

Melina Moe has a new LARB article “There Is No Point in My Being Other Than Honest with You: On Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters” that makes me like Morrison a great deal:

“I found it extremely honest, forthright, and moving in ways I had not expected it to be,” Toni Morrison wrote to an aspiring novelist in 1977, “but it is a shuddering book and one that offers no escape for any reader whatsoever.” Still, Morrison, then a senior editor at Random House, liked the manuscript so much that, before responding, she passed it around the office to drum up support. The verdict was “intelligent,” but also “very ‘down,’ depressing, spiritually abrasive.” Whatever the merits of the writing, Morrison’s colleagues predicted, the potent mix of dissatisfaction, anger, and mournfulness would limit the book’s commercial appeal—and Morrison reluctantly agreed. “You don’t want to escape and I don’t want to escape,” her letter concludes, “but perhaps the public does and perhaps we are in the business of helping them do that.”

During her 16 years at Random House, Morrison wrote hundreds of rejection letters. Usually typed on pink, yellow, or white carbonless copy paper, and occasionally bearing Random House’s old logo and letterhead, these are now filed among her correspondence in the Random House archives at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. While many of the letters were mailed to New York, Boston, and even Rome, others were sent to writers in more obscure places; some are addressed to “general delivery” in various small towns across the United States.

Regardless of destination, Morrison’s rejections tend to be long, generous in their suggestions, and direct in their criticism. The letters themselves—generally one, two at most, exchanged with a given writer—constitute an asymmetrical archive. On one end of each communiqué is the ghost of a submitted manuscript (absent from the archive after being returned to the sender, although in some cases survived by a cover letter). On the other is a rejection from Morrison, sometimes brusque yet typically offering something more than an expression of disinterest—notes on craft, character development, the need for more (or less) drama. But also: Autopsies of a changing, and in many ways diminishing, publishing industry; frustrations with the tastes of a reading public; and sympathies for poets, short story writers, and other authors drawn to commercially hopeless genres.

[Read more…]

The Pavlova Spectrum.

The Tumbrel Diaries of May 23, 2009 had a post The definitive Pavlova color spectrum that featured:

Complete chronological list of 31 references in the Argus newspaper (Melbourne) to “Pavlova” or “pavlova” as the name for a “new season” color, together with all accompanying named colors or shades, 1926–28

The entries are studded with impressively outré color names, e.g. (from April 26, 1926) “tangerine, amourette, nilesque, veronese, tan, Pavlova, oriflamme, rust, and burnt oak” and (from Sept. 20) “pervenche [periwinkle blue], bois de rose, plum, navy, white, brown, raisin, champagne, wine, mulberry, nattier, vieux rose saxe, rose, beige, chardron, parma, Pavlova, cocoa, and black.” The Conclusion begins:

Of the thirty-one wholly explicit uses in print of Pavlova or pavlova as the name for a color, all occur in advertisements placed by seven Melbourne department stores in the Argus newspaper between April 26, 1926, and October 20, 1928, whereupon the term utterly vanishes from sight.

And a good thing too — there were quite enough colors to keep track of as it was. Thanks, Trevor!
[Read more…]

First Languages of North America from Two Siberian Lineages?

John Emerson sent me a link to Bob Yirka’s piece “First languages of North America traced back to two very different language groups from Siberia,” saying “Looks dodgy to me”; I responded “Well, Johanna Nichols is well respected, so I wouldn’t dismiss anything she says out of hand, but this is surprising. I’ll toss it over the fence at the Hattery and see if it gets torn to shreds.” Yirka’s executive summary:

Nichols’ techniques involve the use of linguistic typology, a field that involves comparing languages and organizing them based on shared criteria. To learn more about early North American languages, she compiled lists of language characteristics and applied them to all known languages. She then scored each of the languages based on the revealed qualities. This allowed her to compare the languages as a way to find resemblances among them and spot patterns.

Nichols found that she could trace the languages spoken in early North America back to just two lineages, both of which originated in Siberia. They came, she notes, with the people who made their way across land bridges during Ice Age glaciation events.

Those two main groups she found evolved into different languages as people moved to different regions—she focused most specifically on 60 of them. She found that many of those languages were also impacted by multiple waves of Siberians arriving in North America. She concludes that some of the characteristics of the original languages have been retained through the years and are now in the current linguistic population.

Nichols’ paper (open source) is here; back in 2012 marie-lucie wrote:
[Read more…]

Of Which It Was Unheard.

I’ve just run across perhaps the worst result of fear-of-ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition (Präpositionbeendigungangst?) that I have ever seen. In a FB post about the movie Cleopatra, we find the following sentence:

When Twentieth Century Fox decided to salvage the production of this movie following the resignation of original director Rouben Mamoulian, the studio gave Elizabeth Taylor another demand in her contract which no other actor or actress had up until that time: director approval, of which it was unheard.

The normal phrasing would be something like “a demand unheard-of until then,” but whoever wrote that got into a syntactical tangle and found themself staring at the prospect of ending the sentence with “unheard of.” The result is what you see before you. Please, English teachers, think before you subject your helpless students to zombie rules!

Whales and Other Aliens.

A few years ago I posted about the CETI project; now Matteo Wong at the Atlantic interviews Ross Andersen about the current situation (archived):

Ross Andersen: Before attempting to translate the sperm whales’ clicks, Project CETI wants to use a model that is analogous to ChatGPT to generate sequences of them that are hopefully like those that the whales use. Putting aside the fraught and contested question as to whether ChatGPT understands human language, we know that it is quite good at predicting how our words unfold into sentences. Presumably a language model for sperm whales could do the same with the clicks.

It’s possible that these generated sequences alone would tell us something about the structure of sperm whale language. But to translate between languages, models currently need some preexisting translation samples to get going. Project CETI is hoping that they might be able to patch together the first of these required translation samples the old-fashioned way. They have been landing drones on the whales to gently suction-cup sensors onto their skin. The time-matched data that they send back helps the team attribute clicks to individual animals. It also tells them important information about what they’re doing.

The hope is that, with enough observation, they might be able to figure out what a few of the click sequences mean. They could then turn over a crude and spotty Rosetta Stone to a language model and have it fill out at least a little bit of the rest. The scientists would then check whatever it came up with against their observations, and repeat the process, iteratively, until they’ve translated the whales’ entire language.

[Read more…]


To quote Wikipedia: “Seediq, also known as Sediq, Taroko, is an Atayalic language spoken in the mountains of Northern Taiwan by the Seediq and Taroko people.” That article is impressively detailed for such a minor language, and the Phonology section hints (“The stressed syllable is usually the penultimate one, and is pronounced with a high pitch. In the Truku dialect stress is on the final syllable resulting in loss of first vowel…”) at why there are such varying pronunciations here ([seˈʔediq], [səˈdiq], [səˈʔəɟiq]). But the reason I bring it up is that I discovered it via a link to Indigenous Cultural Translation: A Thick Description of Seediq Bale:

Indigenous Cultural Translation is about the process that made it possible to film the 2011 Taiwanese blockbuster Seediq Bale in Seediq, an endangered indigenous language. Seediq Bale celebrates the headhunters who rebelled against or collaborated with the Japanese colonizers at or around a hill station called Musha starting on October 27, 1930, while this book celebrates the grandchildren of headhunters, rebels, and collaborators who translated the Mandarin-language screenplay into Seediq in central Taiwan nearly eighty years later.

As a “thick description” of Seediq Bale, this book describes the translation process in detail, showing how the screenwriter included Mandarin translations of Seediq texts recorded during the Japanese era in his screenplay, and then how the Seediq translators backtranslated these texts into Seediq, changing them significantly. It argues that the translators made significant changes to these texts according to the consensus about traditional Seediq culture they have been building in modern Taiwan, and that this same consensus informs the interpretation of the Musha Incident and of Seediq culture that they articulated in their Mandarin-Seediq translation of the screenplay as a whole. The argument more generally is that in building cultural consensus, indigenous peoples like the Seediq are “translating” their traditions into alternative modernities in settler states around the world.

Wow, does that sound interesting! Had I but world enough and time…

Learning Clause-Chain Languages.

Hannah Sarvasy reported back in 2020 on some suggestive research:

Languages like Japanese, Korean, Turkish and the indigenous languages of the Amazon, East Africa, and New Guinea build sentences in a way that lets them grow to enormous length. Our research shows learning one of these languages may help children create complex sentences that express multiple ideas at a younger age.

Try recounting what you did this morning, or telling a story, and chances are you’ll use a series of several sentences: “This morning, I woke early. I dressed and ate breakfast. I gathered my things, said goodbye to my family, and they waved goodbye to me. Then I drove to work.” In English, the simplest sentence, or “clause,” is just a subject plus a verb (“I dressed”). You can also join two clauses into a sentence using words like “and” or “while,” but it’s unnatural to join more than about three clauses into one English sentence.

But in many languages across Central Asia (from Turkish to Tibetan, Mongolian, Japanese, and Korean), and in many indigenous languages of the Amazon, East Africa, and New Guinea, stories can take the form of one long sentence. These sentences look more like this: “Waking up early this morning, dressing, making breakfast, eating, washing the dishes, gathering my things, saying goodbye to my family, they waving goodbye to me, I drove to work.”

These long sentences are known as “clause chains.” Unlike in English, where most of the clauses in a story would make sense if you spoke them outside the story (“I dressed”), all but the very last clause in a “clause chain” are abbreviated—they can only function in a clause chain. “Dressing” or “making breakfast” sounds unfinished on its own, and only the final verb of the clause chain tells you whether the events are happening in the past, present, or future.

[Read more…]

The Royal Rabbit.

It suddenly occurred to me that the Russian word кролик ‘rabbit’ looked sort of like a diminutive of король ‘king’; I chuckled at my homemade folk etymology, and then wondered what the actual history was. Lo and behold, it turns out my jokey guess was substantially correct; Vasmer:

(Л. Толстой, Блок и др.), укр. крíлик. Заимств. из польск. królik – то же, которое является калькой (“маленький король”: król; см. коро́ль) с нов.-в.-нем. диал. Künigl, Königshase, ср.-в.-н. küniklîn из лат. cunīculus; см. Мi. ЕW 131; Бернекер 1, 572; Унбегаун, RЕS 12, 20; Брюкнер 269; Карлович 261. Лит. kralìkis происходит из польск.; см. Брюкнер, FW 96, 175.

In other words, the Russian word is borrowed from Polish królik, literally ‘little king,’ which is a calque of MHG küniklîn, which is borrowed from Latin cuniculus ‘rabbit’ but adapted to look like a German diminutive of künik ‘king.’ Fun with etymology! (Oh, and the Latin word is the source of English con(e)y, as in Coney Island.)

Conversational Medieval Hebrew?

Alex Foreman asks an interesting question at FB:

One thing I’m curious about wrt. Hebrew that I haven’t seen much scholarship about: What evidence is there for conversational use of Hebrew among Jews in the Middle Ages?

There’s fairly extensive evidence that learned people from different countries in Latin Christendom in Medieval and Early Modern Europe could and regularly did coverse in Latin. Tunberg has written a pretty amazing monograph about this.

Everything I know tells me the same ought to have been true among Jews who knew Hebrew, even if Hebrew was not the oral medium of higher instruction for Jews the way Latin was in so many contexts in the Middle Ages. Like, suppose that Jacob ben Meir met the Rambam. They’d have lots to talk about. Their only language in common would be Hebrew. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have spoken it to each other. They’d only have needed a little work to get used to each others’ accents.

Has anyone written about this somewhere? They must have.

Seems like they must have; I thought I’d see if the Hattery can come up with anything.

Saint Monday.

Anthony Grafton’s LRB review (17 November 2022; archived) of The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms that Made Us Who We Are, by David M. Henkin, is full of interesting historical tidbits (we’re passing it on to a postmaster acquaintance for the mail-related stuff: “Meanwhile American culture developed a rich epistolary strain, with distinct rules for the brief, matter-of-fact business letter that should not be written on a Sabbath and the long, personal letter that could”), but its appearance here is due to the mention of “Saint Monday,” a phrase I hadn’t seen. Fortunately, Wikipedia has a decent article:

Saint Monday is the tradition of absenteeism on a Monday. […] The tradition of taking Monday off has been common among craft workers since at least the seventeenth century, when the workweek ran from Monday to Saturday as had been the custom and expectation for centuries.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin refers to the practice, saying of his youthful employment in a London printing house, “My constant attendance (I never making a St. Monday) recommended me to the master”.

Later writers often ascribed Saint Monday to the organisation and improvement of working class life which occurred with industrialisation. Pay day was typically Saturday, and therefore workers often had spare money on Monday. In other industries, business owners had become accustomed to workers not showing up on Mondays and were prepared to put up with it. Food would commonly be left over from the weekend, thus workers did not need to visit the works canteen, and since many workers were taking the day off, there was often company to be had.

The tradition declined during the nineteenth century, but the provision of entertainments, such as railway excursions, was initially common on Saturday and Monday, and it was not until the middle of the century that workers were able to enjoy a weekend. In part, the decline can be attributed to the adoption of half-day working on Saturdays, which legitimated leisure time for workers.

Saint Monday remained in place longest among the better-off workers, including the self-employed who retained some say in their hours and were not economically compelled to work long hours.

I wish I’d known about that back when I worked in an office; it would have been a useful reference. (Also, workers should go back to grabbing as much time for themselves as they can and stop letting bosses treat them as available around the clock. But I digress.)