I reproduce below a letter from yesterday’s NY Times (“The City” section, p. 11) with which I wholly agree:

To the Editor:
How could your F.Y.I. column give the answer it did to a reader plaintively asking for the proper way to pronounce “Kosciusko,” stipulating “as in the Kosciusko Bridge”?
The column tamely chose the Polish way (“ka-SHUSH-ko”).
I grew up in the Bronx in the 1930’s, have lived in Brooklyn since the 60’s, and have spent hours of my life stuck in traffic over fragrant Newtown Creek: we locals have always called it the “kos-kee-OSS-ko” bridge, even if we knew, as 30’s kids did, the Polish pronunciation from high school history.
So, quaintly, which is “the proper way”? The Thames River is “Tems” in London, “Thaymes” in New London, Conn. If you mean the general, go Polish; the bridge, go local.
Brooklyn Heights

To which I can only add: I’ve lived in NYC over twenty years and never heard anyone pronounce the bridge’s name [properly spelled Kosciuszko] à la polonaise, always either Brodtkorb’s way or koss-ee-USS-ko. Does Mr. F.Y.I. also say HUE-ston Street and BROOK-ner Expressway? Faugh.

Query. The comments inspire me to ask the readership at large: Are there local pronunciations of place names in your area that outsiders are unlikely to get right?


I imagine that those of my readers who are, like me, inveterate buyers of foreign-language dictionaries have run across the products of Hippocrene Books. First off, I would like to inform you that the good people at Hippocrene pronounce the name in the classical fashion, which is to say in four syllables (rhyming with “meanie”). How do I know this? I know because some years ago I was so put out by the poor quality of their concise Georgian dictionary (no longer, thankfully, in print) that I wrote them a scathing letter on the subject. Imagine my surprise when instead of a frigid dismissal (or, more likely, a resounding silence) I received an invitation to do better, and a suggestion to visit the Hippocrene offices if I was interested. I did so, and learned that they will basically publish any dictionary you submit, subject only to your acceptance of their derisory financial arrangements. (This means that the quality ranges from excellent to abysmal; caveat emptor.) As it happens, I had been putting together an English-Georgian word list for my own use (since no such thing was available), and I thought about taking them up on their offer. Eventually I decided against it—not so much because I didn’t actually know Georgian (I knew I could do better than the existing book, and looked forward to creating a practical and compendious system of presenting the basic verb forms) as because it would be too damn much work.
But I digress. The point is that Hippocrene publishes an incredible array of dictionaries, from Afrikaans to Yoeme (a language I had never heard of), and increasing at a manic pace (surely Zulu can’t be far behind), though occasionally retrogressing (apparently my tiny Yoruba dictionary is no longer available). This means that every time I go to a bookstore I risk being presented with an offer I can’t refuse, no matter how fervently I wish to limit further encroachments on my absurdly overstrained bookshelves. Today I found no fewer than four dictionaries of whose existence I had no inkling. I managed to resist the Galician and Highlander Polish (though the latter was so recondite as to be tempting)—they looked a little too slapdash for my taste, and the languages are close enough to Portuguese and Polish respectively that I thought I could do without them. I could not, however, say no to the Kyrgyz and the Sorbian. Yes, Sorbian; my multiple posts on the subject put me in a position where I could hardly pass up a dictionary. And to think that when I was growing up you were lucky to find materials on anything beyond French, Spanish, and German…


I would like to bring to your attention an essay by Timothy Garton Ash, who argues that although witnesses and memory are unreliable and objectivity is impossible, it is still important to respect “the frontier between the literature of fact and the literature of fiction” and to refuse to embellish reporting with telling details that didn’t actually happen. He makes the point that this respect, this determination to stick to what one knows to be real, makes itself felt in the prose itself; he contrasts Paul Theroux’s unconvincing claim that every word in The Great Railway Bazaar was written down at the time exactly as it happened with George Orwell’s more modest, and therefore more believable, insistence in Homage to Catalonia that the reader “beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.” He also contrasts two books published as Holocaust memoirs:

Take a now notorious example: the book published in 1995 as Bruchstücke (in English, Fragments) by Binjamin Wilkomirski, which purported to be the memories of a man who survived the Nazi death camps as a Polish Jewish child. It is now established beyond reasonable doubt that the author was a Swiss musician of troubled past and disturbed mind, originally called Bruno Grosjean, who had never been near a Nazi death camp—but had imagined himself into that past, that other self. Reading Fragments now, one is amazed that it could ever have been hailed as it was. The wooden irony (“Majdanek is no playground”), the hackneyed images[…], the crude, hectoring melodrama […]. Material which, once you know it is fraudulent, is truly obscene. But even before one knew that, all the aesthetic alarms should have sounded. For every page has the authentic ring of falsehood.

Compare this with the great books of true witness. Of course there are large variations in tone and style between these works. Many nonetheless have a certain voice in common: one of pained, sober, yet often ironical or even sarcastic veracity, which speaks from the very first line. Take, for example, and contrast with Wilkomirski, the first line of Levi’s If This Is a Man: “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.” How could we not believe this?

I have to admit that the impulse to make a Languagehat entry of the essay arose from an utterly trivial source, the irritation I experienced as a result of the following passage:

“You who harmed an ordinary man . . .” writes Czeslaw Milosz, in one of his most famous poems, “do not feel safe. The poet remembers./You may kill him—another will be born./Deeds and words shall be recorded.” The poet remembers: Poeta pami, eta !

I was happy to see a bit of what I presumed was the original Polish quoted, but what was that “eta”? Some kind of Polish exclamation parallel to Greek opa? I don’t know the language, so it took a while before I realized that it was not a separate word at all but part of the verb pamieta ‘remembers’—except that the e should have an ogonek (like a right-pointing cedilla) underneath (making it nasal, so that the word is pronounced “pamyenta”), and there appears to be no way to achieve this either in HTML or in the online Guardian. I don’t know how it wound up as a comma followed by an e, but surely someone at the paper might have noticed; of course, what they could have done about it is another question. It is presumably beyond the ambit of a Guardian copyeditor to know the details of Polish orthography and to realize that it would make more sense to print a simple e. I blame Ash, who’s been in the business a long time and should know that asking a newspaper to reproduce a Polish nasal vowel is a losing proposition. [Via You Got Style.]

Incidentally, there is an interesting parallel to Ash’s comparison of Wilkomirski and Levy in Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the new movie The Pianist, which he compares favorably to both Schindler’s List and (especially) Max; he says:

While the director crafts some moments of nearly unbearable suspense and dares to see the humor in Szpilman’s plight, there’s nothing cheap, hustling or fashionable about this movie. It’s done in a rigorously classical style that inattentive Polanski fans might mistakenly deem “conventional.” They shouldn’t. Polanski is a Polish Jew and longtime U.S. exile whose mother was killed at Auschwitz and whose wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family. The Pianist’s precise, even meticulous approach suggests a deep respect for the brutalizing power of violence that can only have come from personal experience.


Avva points out a phenomenon I had no inkling of: there is apparently a trend among young Russian-speaking women to refer to themselves (both in conversation and in blogs) using male verb and adjective forms. He speculates that this may be the beginning of the end of Russian gender, but reassures a concerned reader that even if this is the case it will take at least a couple of centuries.


From Saint-John Perse‘s Exil (Neiges IV):

…voici que j’ai dessein d’errer parmi les plus vieilles couches du langage, parmi les plus hautes tranches phonétiques : jusqu’à des langues très lointaines, jusqu’à des langues très entières et très parcimonieuses,
      comme ces langues dravidiennes qui n’eurent pas de mots distincts pour «hier» et pour «demain». Venez et nous suivez, qui n’avons mots à dire : nous remontons ce pur délice sans graphie où court l’antique phrase humaine; nous nous mouvons parmi de claires élisions, des résidus d’anciens préfixes ayant perdu leur initiale, et devançant les beaux travaux de linguistique, nous nous frayons nos voies nouvelles jusqu’à ces locutions inouïes, où l’aspiration recule au-delà des voyelles et la modulation du souffle se propage, au gré de telles labiales mi-sonores en quête de pures finales vocaliques.


Raphael Carter is looking for poems about hummingbirds. He has found three, one by Lawrence and two by Dickinson, which he reproduces and comments on with enthusiasm, whether he approves (“I would take the stanza beginning ‘He never stops,’ and the line ‘reels in remoter atmospheres,’ over just about anything else in American poetry. This is what astonishes me about Dickinson. She wrote close to two thousand poems, and nearly every one of them is forceful, original, and beautiful.”) or disapproves (“[Lawrence] knows that hummingbirds are small and very fast and often very bright, and yet he writes this ponderous, ungainly poem whose rhythms would be more suitable for describing an elephant”). He says “There must be others—surely Frost wrote about hummingbirds somewhere…”; Elizabeth Bishop leapt to my mind, and she did mention “The tiniest green hummingbird in the world” in “Questions of Travel”, but she doesn’t seem to have written a poem specifically about the bird. I have found online a translation with commentary of a Zinacantán (Maya) hummingbird poem, but that may be a little far afield; anybody know others? [Via Plep.]
Update. Avva and his readers have found further examples, in both English and Russian.


Michael Drout, an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, has discovered the manuscript of a complete translation of Beowulf, with commentary, by J.R.R. Tolkien. It will be published this summer and will presumably sell quite a few copies. [Via Pat.]
Addendum. Having now discovered Drout’s blog (via Mind-Numbing), I must retract the last statement; apparently the translation won’t be published this year, as can be seen from this entry (from an increasingly exasperated series):

First, though the Sunday Times calls it a “discovery,” I’m a little uncomfortable with the term, since the material was right there in the Bodleian the whole time. The Bodleian’s librarians and Christopher Tolkien certainly knew what it was. Second, there is almost no way I can see the Beowulf translations being published in 2003. While I’ve already done a lot of work on the translations (and they are pretty “clean” manuscripts, anyway), I really have to finish the volume of commentaries before I can publish the translations, since the commentaries explain the translations and I need to be clear in my own mind about Tolkien’s intent before I make major editing decisions. I think I unintentionally confused the reporter when I said that I would probably be done with the translations at the end of the summer. That’s true as far as it goes, but being done won’t be enough, unfortunately.
All that said, the Beowulf translation is great and lovers of Tolkien will love it.

Update (July 2014). The translation has been published, and unfortunately, it sounds terrible. Dave Wilton reports:

I’ve finally obtained and read a copy, and I must, sadly, state that this is a book that no one should buy. The translation is stilted and unidiomatic at its best—and at its worst it is incomprehensible. The formatting and editorial choices make it difficult to use as an academic resource. And Tolkien’s commentary on the poem, which is perhaps the most valuable portion, is old, incomplete, and undated—this last a significant problem given that it is taken from lectures he gave across the length of his forty-year career.

The casual reader, a person who would be most attracted by the cachet of Tolkien’s name, who simply wants to read a version of the Beowulf story without learning Old English, will find little of value in this translation.

Read the details at the link.


I was given a DVD of one of my favorite movies, Godard’s Contempt, for Christmas, and I watched it this evening. Among the many striking features of the movie (such as the opening credits being given in voiceover, in Godard’s inimitable rasp, rather than printed on the screen) is its multilingual nature; much of it consists of discussions between an American producer, a German director, and a French screenwriter, with occasional interactions with the Italian crew, and these discussions are made possible by the translator, Francesca, who is constantly rendering what we have just heard in English into French or vice versa (and on at least one occasion translating a remark before it has been made, a neat trick for which translators should get extra pay). It may be annoying to the average moviegoer, but it’s catnip to the polyglot. (And it’s worth the price of admission just to see Fritz Lang play European Culture Besieged By American Vulgarity—which reminds me, there is one glaring error in the newly done subtitles: when the producer says “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my checkbook,” Lang responds “Les Hitlériens disaient: ‘mon révolver’,” which the subtitles render “The Italians used to say ‘my revolver'”!)

Addendum. I suppose I should explain the context of the “culture” reference for those who don’t know it. There is a famous quote, usually given as “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun” and attributed to either Goering or (less often) Goebbels. Whether or not Goering ever said it (he may have been fond of quoting it, or it may have been attracted to the more famous, and thus memorable, source), it originally comes from Act I, Scene I of Hanns Johst’s play Schlageter (first performed for Hitler’s birthday in 1933): “Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!” (‘When I hear “culture,” I release the safety catch on my Browning [revolver pistol — thanks, Anton]!’).


I would like to wish all Languagehat readers a happy new year; may 2003 be a year of peace for each of us individually and for the world at large.

I do not want the peace which passeth understanding, I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
—Helen Keller


I saw The Two Towers yesterday and enjoyed it a lot—partly because the theater kept the sound down to a level where I didn’t have to keep my hands over my ears for half the move; theater owners please take note! (Best Languagehat line: “It takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish.”) However, I had not read the books in decades, so discrepancies were lost on me aside from a little uneasiness around the edges. Now that I’ve read Naomi’s detailed demolishing in Baraita, I like the movie less in retrospect. Renee has a more narrowly focused attack in Glosses.net. Tolkien fans will want to read both.