I suddenly realized that I hadn’t gotten around to alerting y’all to the existence of History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences (Hiphilangsci.net), whose About page says:

This blog is devoted to exploring and promoting the great diversity that exists in the study of language, in the past and today. Each blog post seeks to introduce a topic, idea or approach in language study — historical, current or completely new — with an invitation to all readers to engage in discussion in the comments. Everyone is welcome to contribute, regardless of academic standing, although there is an expectation that all contributions will be well informed. Controversial or unconventional views are not discriminated against, but polemical attitudes are discouraged. We want to maintain a scholarly atmosphere marked by reasoned argument, evidence and tolerance, and free of simple opinion-trading.

If you would like to write a post for the blog, please get in touch with a one-paragraph description. All posts are informally reviewed before they are published, but always with the blog’s goal of promoting diversity of opinion and approach in mind. Our guidelines are very minimal: posts should be around 1,000 to 1,500 words and outline their topic without being overly technical or assuming too much background knowledge. Most posts should contain links to web resources and references to printed literature, although more free-ranging, speculative posts unsupported by specific references will also be accepted.

(It also says it in French, Spanish, and German, though sadly not in Welsh.) Thanks, Bathrobe!

The Last Man to Speak Ubykh.

Back in 2017, I posted about Tevfik Esenç (1904 – 1992), the last known speaker of the Ubykh language; John Burnside (see this 2020 post) wrote a poem about him which the LRB published in 2002 and have now put in front of the paywall:

The Last Man to Speak Ubykh

The linguist Ole Stig Andersen was keen to seek out the remaining traces of a West Caucasian language called Ubykh. Having heard that there was one remaining speaker he set out to find the man and arrived in his village on 8 October 1992. The man had died a few hours earlier.

At times, in those last few months,
he would think of a word
and he had to remember the tree, or the species of frog,

the sound denoted:
the tree itself, or the frog, or the state of mind
and not the equivalent word in another language,

the speech that had taken his sons
and the mountain light;
the graves he swept and raked; the wedding songs.

While years of silence gathered in the heat,
he stood in his yard and whispered the name of a bird
in his mother tongue,

while memories of snow and market days,
his father’s hands, the smell of tamarind,
inklings of milk and blood on a sunlit floor

receded in the names no longer used:
the blue of childhood folded like a sheet
and tucked away.

Nothing he said was remembered; nothing he did
was fact or legend
in the village square,

yet later they would memorise the word
he spoke that morning, just before he died:
the word for death, perhaps, or meadow grass,

or swimming to the surface of his mind,
that other word they used, when he was young,
for all they knew that nobody remembered.

Thanks, Trevor!
[Read more…]

Strength and Adoption.

The latest post at Balashon focuses on the odd semantic development of the Hebrew אימוץ imutz ‘adoption’ from the root אמץ, meaning ‘to be strong.’ (The post starts with a purported derivation of Amazon from that root, which I don’t believe for one second.) The discussion of the history is very interesting, and I commend the whole post to your attention, but what I’m bringing here is this section near the end:

Ultimately, the meaning of the verb אמץ is unclear in these verses (and the Daat Mikra, for example on Yeshaya 44:14, offers both “to strengthen” and “to set aside.”) But one thing is clear – these verses weren’t followed up with uses of אמץ to mean the adoption of a child in the remainder of Biblical literature, or any of Talmudic literature. In fact, a search of the Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language shows the first clear example of that usage in an 1873 essay (page 143 and page 144) by the writer Peretz Smolenskin. And even following that, it wasn’t a very popular usage. For example, see the results of this Google Books Ngram Viewer search. I looked for the word אימוץ, which as a gerund wouldn’t be used for much else other than adoption. It only really picks up in the 1950s, growing to a much higher usage in the last twenty years.

So what happened here? I think this is an example of a phenomenon we’ve discussed many times before on Balashon. I don’t know the technical name of the linguistic phenomenon (but I have a feeling a reader will enlighten me in the comments), but what happens frequently in Hebrew when there are two synonyms is that one will become the popular one for common usage and the other will take on a different meaning. This new meaning will generally fill in a semantic gap, becoming the word for a concept previously without a good word as a fit. (This is part of the process called semantic change, but I don’t think it’s exactly semantic narrowing, since the new meaning isn’t necessarily less general than the earlier meaning – just different.) We saw it with etz and ilan, with atar and makom, with tzedek and tzedaka, and now with chizek and imetz. Hebrew today doesn’t really need two words for “strengthen.” So when a writer like Smolenskin borrows from a verse in Tehillim and turns imetz into adopt (a child), then the speakers will, well, adopt the usage with open arms. (Yes, the meaning of imetz has since expanded to mean adopting of any practice or idea.)

So: any thoughts on what this process is or should be called? (Or, of course, on the etymologies involved.)


I recently ran across “wifty” in a review and was so taken aback I assumed it must be a typo; my wife had never heard of it either. But I investigated and discovered that it’s a real word — here’s the OED entry (from September 2016):

wifty, adj.

Etymology: Origin uncertain; apparently < a first element of uncertain identity (perhaps compare wift v., whift adj., whiff v.¹) + -y suffix¹.

colloquial (chiefly North American).

 1. Vague, imprecise; (of thinking, argument, etc.) unclear; muddle-headed, scatterbrained; fuzzy.

1918 G. Frankau One of Them 83 Listless she sat through lunch, and introspective; Heard..Her mother’s wifty social chitter-chatter.
1970 Delaware County (Pa.) Daily Times 30 Nov. 18/1 He didn’t play before because he was mixed up in one of the whifty groups who think football is for sissies.
1991 C. Paglia Sex, Art, & Amer. Culture 226 Spoiled, wifty, middle-class academics who would be the first to shriek for the police if a burglar or rapist came through the window.
2001 S. Orlean Bullfighter checks her Makeup (2002) 5 Sometimes when he talks about this, it sounds as ordinary and hard-boiled as a real estate appraisal; other times it can sound fantastical and wifty and achingly naive.

 2. Light-headed, muzzy, confused.

1973 McCall’s Dec. 108/2 Sometimes she was sharp as a razor, sometimes wifty, sometimes she had to go to the infirmary with a ‘sinking spell’.
2004 K. Michaels This can’t be Love x. 123 He was too numb to feel pain. Wifty. Out of it.

I confess I don’t understand the distinction between the two senses, and I don’t know how they decided which citations to put in which category, but the general sense is reasonably clear. It’s unusual for me to be so completely unfamiliar with a colloquial term that’s “chiefly North American” and that’s been around since before I was born, but there you go: semper aliquid novi. Do you know this word, and if so do you use it? Is it geographically restricted? (It’s not in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, so it’s definitely colloquial rather than slang.)

Russian Free Verse.

I just discovered the site Russian Free Verse; from the About page:

This site is based on the book Contemporary Russian Free Verse: The Anthology. Published in Moscow in 2019, the book is a collection of poetry by the authors who participated in the first 25 Free Verse Festivals held from 1990 to 2018 in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Tver. That is why it does not include poets who wrote free verse, but never took part in our festivals (for example, G. Aygi or O. Sedakova). The English translations were created by an international team of translators from Australia, Great Britain, Russia, United States and other countries.

Contemporary Russian free verse (vers libre) is defined by the festival organizers as a distinct type of Russian versification that abandons, as a matter of principle, traditional secondary characteristics of poetic speech (rhyme, syllabic meter, stanzaic structure, and line equality or arrangement by syllable and stress counts). The foundation of free verse is the primary poetic rhythm that distinguishes it from prose, the rhythm of lines, the author’s placement of line breaks.

I’m generally suspicious of what’s called “free verse” because the term is so often a license to just write down a bunch of crap with random line breaks, but when done right it can be as good as any other poetry — as Ez said, “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” Russian poetry has a great tradition of formal verse, but I’m glad to see this site exploring the free variety, and I was pleased to see my fave Alla Gorbunova there, with four poems translated by Elina Alter (the site admirably provides both originals and translations). Here’s the first:
[Read more…]

Fantastic Statistics.

I first featured Justin B Rye at LH in 2005 (his Primer In SF Xenolinguistics); now, thanks to a comment by January First-of-May, I learn that he’s got a post called Fantastic Statistics in which he analyzes his extensive sf collection:

In the twenty‐first century I decided I didn’t want a paper collection anyway – what I want is a story collection. If I switched to ebooks then apart from a few sentimental‐value volumes of Teach Yourself Sumerian and the like the physical copies could go to the charity shop on the corner. This proved a fortunate idea given the number of times I’ve needed to move house recently, but electronic texts have other advantages too […]. For a start, I always convert my ebooks into a consistent HTML format so they’ll work in any browser (including my throwback of a mobile phone); but the part that got me writing this page is that once I’ve done that I can also carry out all sorts of basic text analysis from the command‐line. And thanks to all the old magazines that are out of copyright, it’s getting easier and easier to end up with a moderately comprehensive collection of the big‐name SF award‐winners of the twentieth century (and even quite a few of the ones I might actually want to re‐read). So here are some interesting facts, or at any rate facts, about my virtual bookshelf.

There are all sorts of tidbits, like Most‐Used Title (“the title that shows up most often is The End”), Famous Titles First Published Together (“the all‐time best value for money still has to be Dangerous Visions” — I still haven’t gotten over my copy, signed by many of the authors, getting lost in the mail years ago), Title Length (shortest is We, longest is the Connie Willis short story “‘The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective”), word frequencies, and the like. I will single out for special mention the section I was gladdest to see there, The Bechdel Test:
[Read more…]

The Prince and the Hatch.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my discovery of Victor Pelevin and my enjoyment of his Затворник и Шестипалый (Hermit and Six-Toes); I’ve now read several more of his pointed and funny satires, including the one I’m about to describe, Принц Госплана (translated by Andrew Bromfield as Prince of Gosplan, available in the good collection of his early work A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories). The interesting thing is that the story I read afterwards, Makanin’s Лаз (translated by Mary Ann Szporluk as Escape Hatch, available along with The Long Road Ahead in this collection), has enough in common with it that the following summary can be applied to both: a member of what we might call the petty intelligentsia, not a creator but a guy who likes to read and think about things, has to accomplish a series of tasks that involve making his way through areas where dangerous enemies unpredictably appear; from time to time he drops down to a lower level to refresh himself and enjoy a bit of thoughtful conversation before returning to his tasks.

In the Pelevin, this guy is engineer Sasha Lapin, whose boss wants him to get some documents signed. The thing is that they’re all in a world of computer games, and while going to another building to meet the higher-up whose signature is needed, Sasha is concurrently making his way to higher levels of the video game Prince of Persia, which was quite new when the story was written. (The higher-up works in Gosplan, the State Planning Committee, hence the title.) But not everyone is playing the same game, so he has to help his boss figure out Abrams Battle Tank, and a tank from that game will later serve him as quick transportation. He makes his way along corridors and up stairs, occasionally confronting turbaned guards armed with swords and defeating them in battle; never having played video games myself, I was greatly aided in visualizing all this by discovering a playthrough video of Prince of Persia (thanks, internet!). At one point one of the guards knocks him out but doesn’t kill him, because he happens to be carrying a copy of The Sufi Orders in Islam, by J. Spencer Trimingham (1971) — a very influential book (available at Archive.org) that Bromfield may have thought was fictional, since he screws up both the author’s name and the title, calling it “John Spencer Trimmingham’s Sufic Orders in Islam.” At any rate, the guard assumes that anyone carrying such a book must be a spiritual man, so he spares his life, introducing himself as Abbas, and they have a conversation about Afghanistan (Abbas addresses him as shuravi, the Perso-Afghan term for ‘Soviet’), among other matters. I’ve just mentioned a few plot points, but the whole thing is so varied and inventive that I think almost everyone would enjoy it, and the translation seems fine (despite the confusion about the book). And to respond to D.O.’s comment in the earlier thread (“I like Pelevin, but I am surprised you care for his characters. For me, he is an ideas author and characters are more of an embodiment of ideas.”): they’re not characters in the high-literary Tolstoyevsky sense, with elaborate backgrounds and psychologies, but they’re characters in the pulp-fiction (sf/detective) sense, essentially blanks for the reader to identify with and share in the adventure. You don’t finish a Pelevin story emotionally drained and filled with deep thoughts about the human condition, but your mind has been turned in unexpected directions that may make you think about life differently and that provide many delights. I’d compare him to an sf writer like the brilliant Ted Chiang. And that’s an excellent thing in itself.
[Read more…]

“We’ll do it in languages you don’t know.”

Bret Devereaux, “a historian of the broader ancient Mediterranean in general and of ancient Rome in particular” and “a lifetime fan of fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction more generally,” runs the excellent blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry (which I don’t seem to have linked here before, oddly); his latest post is called So You Want To Go To Grad School (in the Academic Humanities)?, and I had to stop reading before long because it was bringing up too many bad memories (I think PTSD after four decades is not unusual for the grad-school experience). I did, however, read far enough to pass along this LH-relevant passage:

Years 1-4: Coursework (we’ll talk about course load in a moment). Note that this coursework will mostly be in your specialist field; you are assumed to have all of the generalist knowledge already from your undergraduate degree. If there are primary languages you need to know (like Greek and Latin for ancient history or Russian for Russian history, etc) you will be expected to already have at least several years of instruction before starting graduate coursework (at least in my field). If you are in a discipline that doesn’t require foreign languages, the rest of us are going to make fun of you, but don’t worry, we’ll do it in languages you don’t know.³

The footnote:

3. As an ancient history [student], the general expectation was that I’d have at least a couple of years of Greek and several more of Latin before beginning graduate study. I learned to read (badly) French and German during my graduate career; single semester crash courses ‘for reading knowledge’ so that you can read scholarship (but not your main sources) in other languages are a common fixture in graduate school. That standard Classics-package (often with the admixture of Italian or Spanish) is, to my knowledge, one of the heavier language-learning-loads (reflecting the origin of Classics in language-study (philology)), but there are sub-fields of history where the language demands are also fearsome.

My advice to the titular question is “Don’t,” but I’m a bitter ABD, so pay me no mind.

Pola Oloixarac on Mona.

Nathan Scott McNamara interviews Argentine writer Pola Oloixarac for the LARB about her new novel Mona (translated by Adam Morris):

Where did the story for Mona begin? What was the first piece, and what was the process that followed?

I began writing Mona when I had just moved to San Francisco. Like most immigrants coming in the US, I had this feeling that my life was beginning anew, this time for “real,” so I thought what the hell I’m writing in English now. I’d written articles on politics in English in The New York Times and elsewhere, but never fiction. I was hooked instantly. Writing in English felt very playful, like putting on this fancy dress that is not exactly you, but you love it anyway, you love it even more, and you start acting (writing) in the spirit of the dress. I wrote the first four chapters in a spell. Then I left the English draft marinating for a while, my American baby was born (my anchor baby!), and when I came back to the book, I realized that something was lacking: I needed the force and the delirium of Spanish. So, I translated what I had into Spanish and found a different voice, more restrained than my previous books, with a different humor — a in a way, it was all about the humor — and that voice became my guide. Even if it was in Spanish, it had the controlled aroma and a certain coyness of the English, which felt very inspiring for building the thriller aspects and the thought process of Mona the character. I liked the idea of faking an autofiction, to write as if part of that genre, which to me it’s very American because I’d read first it in English.

[Read more…]

Too Literary.

I can’t resist passing on this AP story from the Santa Cruz [Cal.] Evening News (Mar. 29, 1930):

Joan London Malamuth, daughter of the late Jack London, was sued for divorce here today by Charles Malamuth, Assistant Professor in Slavic Languages at the University of California.

Malamuth’s principal complaint was his wife preferred to follow in her father’s footsteps, writing, to cooking meals.

There’s something odd about the structure of that last sentence (and I don’t mean the omission of “that” after “was,” which is perfectly normal colloquial English). Thanks, Mike!