I’m still reading Grossman’s Life and Fate (see here and here), and I’m here to report on another lexical item that required some interesting research. I was proud of myself for correctly analyzing начканц [nachkants] as начальник канцелярии [nachal’nik kantselyarii, ‘chief clerk’] without assistance, but on the very next page I hit матчасть [matchast’] and was lost at sea. The sentence was “Вот уже месяц, как полк вышел из боев, пополнял матчасть, принимал взамен выбывшего летный состав” [‘It had already been a month since the regiment had withdrawn from combat to replenish/restock its matchast’ and replace its missing flight personnel’]; it was clearly part of the makeup of a military unit, but what? It turns out it’s short for материальная часть [material’naya chast’], which means ‘equipment, matériel,’ which makes sense. And in the course of googling it, I found it’s commonly used in the phrase Учи(те) матчасть ‘Learn your equipment,’ and that led me to the wonderful site Луркоморье, “русский lurkmore”—i.e., a Russian version/equivalent of the English-language site, which apparently deals with memes among other things. What’s wonderful about the Russian site is not just the full explanation of things like the phrase I was researching, but the name, which is a beautiful pun on “lurkmore” and лукоморье [lukomor’e] ‘cove, creek,’ one of the best-known rare words in Russian because of its strategic presence in one of the best-known lines of Russian poetry, the beginning of Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila: У лукоморья дуб зеленый ‘By a cove a green oak’ (see the first paragraph of this LH post for some context). This is further proof of the difference between America and Russia: even young Russian snarkmeisters of the type who create and classify internet memes are steeped in their poetic tradition in a way few Americans have been for a couple of generations now.

At any rate, the Луркоморье entry for the phrase not only helpfully equates it (in the appropriate context) to the English RTFM, it mentions that it entered popular culture in part from a 1973 movie «В бой идут одни „старики“» [No rookies in this battle!] and it provides a “bearded joke” from WWII: The Germans carry out a raid on an airfield and capture a technician. The Gestapo torture him: “Give us the specifications of the Il-2!” He says “I don’t know, leave me alone!” This goes on for a day or two, until the technician manages to escape. When he gets back to his unit, they, of course, start asking him about his experiences. He says, “Guys, learn your equipment! Over there, they just keep beating the shit out of you about it.”

Update (July 2023). The Lurkomore site is down, but archives are available here.


  1. A good recommendation, although the site sometimes comes across as bleeding-edge meme-builders rather than mere meme-scholars.
    But wrt
    1973 movie «В бой идут одни „старики“» [Only old men go into battle]
    – is this Old Men really a proper English-language meme?? The title is supposed to be a command yelled across the airfield, kind of like “No rookies in the air for this fight!”.

  2. PS: Guys, learn your equipment! Over there, they just don’t stop bitching about it
    lolz that a oh so typical furriner’s mistake. The expletive word you translated as “bitching” would be translated correctly if its SECOND syllable was stressed. In this case though, the stress falls of the first syllable, and it becomes “beating the shit out of people”, “torturing”.
    How do we even know which syllable is stressed, if both *could* be, and if stress marks are habitually omitted? Heh. Учите матчасть, Language.

  3. Hmmm-hmmm. That’s one of the reasons I gave up on Russian. They beat the shit out of you when you make mistakes.

  4. Mockba is right, п—ть in that joke context means beat up, first syl stressed. As with all swear words (matershina) the twat-derived verb takes quite a few different meanings, including ‘bitching’, chitchat, idle talk (second syl. stress). Another common meaning is to steal, to nick, in Perfect Aspect with prefix ‘s’ – сп—–ть (first syl. stress).
    Mockba is also right about старики. The one corresponding English word I’ve come across is ‘battlewise’, but it doesn’t fit in this context.
    It had already been a month since the division had withdrawn from combat
    I don’t know if it’s you, LH, or Chandler, but the Russian text says полк – regiment, not division (дивизия).
    Lurkomorye is a wonderful pun. Using English in teen slang has long been popular. At school we used to change lukomorye to ‘look more’ and there was a macaronic chastushka about parents busting a teen party:
    Парентса тут приезжают,
    тихо лукают на нас…

  5. With respect to learning stress – in all senses of the expression – English and Russian are the front runners. They are also the languages of the most kulturimperialistische nations. The correlation can perhaps be explained in this way: these nations have to force themselves on other people, otherwise nobody would bother to acquire their distressed languages.

  6. stress marks = striae gravidarum are unsightly, so people prefer to hide them.

  7. Bathrobe says

    Hat, I can understand your reverence for the Russians loving their poetry, but is it really so bad in English? Surely expressions like ‘the world is too much with us’ would not be considered too exotic in English. Or Eliot’s ‘after such knowledge what forgiveness?’ used as the title of a book about the Kurds. ‘Water water everywhere nor any drop to drink’ also comes to mind. ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ is another. Perhaps a few half-remembered lines is no counterargument to your pessimism, but I simply don’t feel that it’s quite as bleak as you make out.

  8. O/T Mr Hat, but can you point me to a downloadable version of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Humiliated and Offended’, in English, Spanish or French? Many thanks.

  9. O/T Mr Hat, but can you point me to a downloadable version of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Humiliated and Offended’, in English, Spanish or French? Many thanks
    I’m not Hat, but “LMGTFY” (to use the snarky acronym I just learned by taking the RTFM link above): Garnett’s translation of Униженные и оскорбленные into English

  10. Let’s try that link again: Garnett translation

  11. Decreasing the resolution of laowai’s link, we find a whole slew of downloadable PDFs on the Penn State University’s Electronic Classics Series Sites provided by Jim Manis, faculty member.

  12. Век живи — век учись (матчасть)! Thanks very much for the corrections, everybody; learning Russian is a lifelong task/pleasure. I’ll make the fixes in the post.
    Hat, I can understand your reverence for the Russians loving their poetry, but is it really so bad in English? Surely expressions like ‘the world is too much with us’ would not be considered too exotic in English.
    I didn’t say nobody knew poetry, I said meme-soaked youth didn’t. Go see how many hackers, anime fans, and other “all your base” types are familiar with, let alone quote, “the world is too much with us” or “after such knowledge what forgiveness” (!). Literary poetry (to distinguish it from rap and “poetry slams”), like “classical” music, will always be loved by a certain group, but that group is now a small minority in the English-speaking world.

  13. @Iaowai and Grumbly Stu
    Many thanks!
    BTW- ‘Decreasing the resolution of the link…’ That’s a phrase I’ll be using from now on. I wonder if they’ve heard it over at Language Log.

  14. That’s a phrase I’ll be using from now on.
    I just now made it up.

  15. Memes (not just the Internet kind): when I saw “Il-2” I read it as “IL-2”, i.e. interleukin-2, and thought, “What, they want to torture POWs by making them itch?” But of course, WW2 is too early for that….

  16. Hah, I didn’t anticipate it would be John Cowan who would make that conflation! But I spent teenage years obsessing about aeroplanes, I suppose it was never going to be me. (What *I* was wondering was what particular curiosity the Germans would have had about the IL-2, given its ubiquity and the lack of any astonishing innovations in its design.)

  17. It was only a momentary lapsus cerebri

  18. @ Languagehat Век живи — век учись
    зачот! I also thought to add this proverb, albeit in its long Russian version which is roughly equivalent to English “life to learn, and then you die a fool”? But it sounds just a touch mean, and I know that sometimes, in an online discussion, I may pick a nice line w/o realizing that it truly offends the readers. So I opted not to cite this proverb, and then … you did!
    Re: Il-2, of course the whole line was just a silly joke. Anyway – couldn’t resist mentioning Mark Gallai’s aviation memoirs where he insists, among other things, that the only Soviet-issue WWII airplane which technically impressed the Germans was La-5? Since good books about the period are always on topic on these pages…

  19. I watched “В бой идут одни старики” yesterday – ‘study the equipment’ phrase is there, but not the full joke, unsurprisingly. May be it was in the original, but then cut out by censors.
    At around 30 min into the film:

  20. @Bathrobe: Of your four quotations, the only one I recognize is “Water water everywhere nor any drop to drink”. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I haven’t read it, but I know that line.) Googling the other three, I find that I haven’t heard of any of those poems. I’m very clueless and ignorant when it comes to poetry — but not, I think, any more so than most Americans of my generation.

  21. Oh, but that said — I think most Americans would recognize certain lines of poetry: Frost’s “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and Lazarus’s “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, for example. (In the latter case, I doubt most could name the poem or the poet — I’m rather surprised that I can! — but I think they would recognize it as relating to the Statue of Liberty.)

  22. One of the poets whose lines are still remembered is Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam, who’s been out of fashion for over a century. “Came out by the same door where in I went” just came up the other day.

  23. I recognize “nature red in tooth and claw” only because it was used by C. S. Lewis in an essay on the history of senses of the word nature. He used the phrase as if his readers would know it, but I did not know it and was sure that most readers of my generation would not. I still don’t know where the quotation is from.
    They used to make kids memorize poetry in school, right? It may have been tedious at times, but it was good brain exercise, and good for meme survival, too.

  24. They used to make kids memorize poetry in school, right?
    Yes, they did. I can still recite chunks of Paul Revere’s Ride and The Village Blacksmith.

  25. Wodehouse had obviously memorized a lot in school. Bertie Wooster had a lot of stuff stored in memory, but he missed some stuff. He thought that “the lark’s on the thorn/the snail’s on the wing” (or rather the other way around) was Jeeves’ own work.

  26. I knew of WWE, but the rest mean nothing to me either.
    On the other hand, “In Flanders field”, “We are the hollow men”, “April is the cruellest month”, “This is the way the world ends; not with a bang but with a whisper” do resonate with me, even if I don’t know the poems.
    (And of course “Some say the world will end in ice”.)

  27. I suspect Pete Seger is scathing about Paul Revere in ‘Garbage’ for the same reason as Lurkomore guys pun on Pushkin – overfed by patriotic verse.

  28. Bathrobe says

    Nature red in tooth and claw is from Tennyson. In Memoriam, I think. I see it as a groping Victorian response to the body blows that the harsh objectivity of science was starting to deliver to those who believed in a world centred on human values. (Something like that). As I’ve said before, Tennyson may not have been a great thinker, but he has some memorable lines.
    How about “Truth is Beauty and Beauty is truth and that’s all ye need to know” (Keats). Or “The old order changeth” (Tennyson again). Or “That is no country for old men” (Yeats — perhaps a bit obscure)?
    Of course, some of these expressions have passed into the language as ordinary sayings, quite divorced from the poetry that gave them birth. In which case, I guess I’m just proving Hat right. People just don’t know their poetry any more.

  29. Bathrobe says

    “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”, used as the name of a mystery novel, The Blood-dimmed Tide.
    “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity”. Some writer and bookseller in the Ozarks knew this one well enough to use it as the heading of a posting on Obama. Admittedly he looks rather old…
    Both from “The Second Coming” by Yeats.

  30. Tennyson may not have been a great thinker, but he has some memorable lines.
    Great writers tend not to be great thinkers, though they often think they are (Goethe with his colors, Yeats with his gyres, Pound with his economics). Writing memorable lines is a poet’s job; if they’re good at that, you’d think they’d be satisfied, but no, they want to save/enlighten the world as well.

  31. I strongly disagree. “Jack and Jill went down the hill” is a memorable line, but it’s not worth reading twice or memorizing. It remains in the mind for the same reasons that doggerel sticks to your shoes when you step in it.
    A poet or writer who gives you nothing to think about is not worth reading even once, to my mind. If flashy effects are what you want, you can go to a Madonna concert. As to Pound with his money rants and Goethe with his color-schemes: well, they were only human. You shouldn’t judge a writer by what he does on the pot.

  32. @Bathrobe: Oddly, I recognized your second example from “The Second Coming”, but not your first. (I’ve read the poem, but only a small number of times.)
    That something is the title of a book doesn’t mean that most people will recognize it, let alone its source. My sister works in a bookstore, and one day she discovered that her coworkers thought “For whom the bell tolls” was Hemingway’s. She couldn’t convince them otherwise. (Apparently she didn’t think to open a copy of the novel and show them the epigraph; or perhaps no copy was at hand.)

  33. Sashura: Seeger is scathing about American education, not Paul Revere. I suspect Revere is only in the lyric because his name rhymes with “ear”.

  34. bruessel says

    “This is the way the world ends; not with a bang but with a whisper.”
    That’s a typo: it’s not whisper, it’s whimper.
    There’s a whole Wiki article about T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men:

  35. Bathrobe says

    Of course, “This is the way the world ends; not with a bang but with a whimper” is based on an even older piece of poetry.

  36. cyrillic–sort of like ebonics greek.
    once you figure out the wretched alphabet and translate a few words, you realize they’re mostly discussing beet farms, murders, tractors, toothless hags, etc.
    We’re better off with Aeschylus, Aristotle, Cicero, Caesar, et al (and latinate tongues in general)

  37. Eh, that’s pretty much what the ancients discussed as well (swapping out tractors for slaves). And you do realize Aeschylus and Aristotle weren’t “Latinate,” right?

  38. do you?
    In terms of history you may be correct tho’ were no Russian Caesars …the Ivans, etc did not write long eloquent accounts of their marches, did they, and no Iliads. I was being somewhat facetious either way–but my reading of Russian (very limited) leads me to believe it’s a colloquial, peasant sort of dialect–only later (18-19th cent.) does it become sort of modern tongue
    Latin took much from greek either way, obviously, as did the romance languages. The point being some there are who don’t agree to the Chomskyan-Rousseauian propaganda that all languages are equal, or interchangable–greek’s superior to …swahili. And really to cyrillic as well. Wow, dissent on L-hat! holy sapir-whorf hypothesis day, ratman

  39. Are you kiddin’? I love dissent!

  40. Bathrobe says

    What’s a “colloquial, peasant sort of dialect”? And if Russian is colloquial and peasant, what was Greek? High-flown and hoity-toity? Literate and effete?
    The trouble with all this is that any language starts out as a ‘dialect’ and is only built into something ‘respectable’ by tradition. Greek was nothing more than a colloquial peasant set of dialects at one stage in history. The literature and language of Classical Greece didn’t suddenly emerge full-blown; it was only gradually built up into what it was. Pretty much the same can probably be said for any language that is regarded as major, civilised, or cultivated.

  41. And if Russian is colloquial and peasant, what was Greek? High-flown and hoity-toity?
    Yeah, something like that– Ezra Pound suggested as much. Start with Athenians, then to Rome, Europe–not Gogols or whoever’s diary of a murderer…. Not a real PC view, but …. Der WeltGeist doesn’t exactly work democratically, however much that offends the Rousseauians who run LinguisticsCo, or Lit-Co for that matter (as EP also realized).

  42. Bathrobe says

    You’re not talking about language in general; you’re talking about a certain style of language: literary language. You’re also making value judgements about the value of different kinds of literature, which is then used to judge the value of the languages they were written in.
    From a linguistic aspect all languages are equal, in ways that the untutored literate couldn’t even begin to suspect, because the literate, in addition to having cultivated a certain style of language, has in most cases also deeply imbibed the prejudices of the literate class.

  43. Bathrobe says

    When linguists claim that all languages are equal, they are not claiming anything startling. It is similar to the claim that all people have serviceable bodies — with a head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, arms, hands, trunk, legs, feet, etc. So are all languages, each with its own syntax, semantics, phonology, etc.
    If you were focussed on that sort of thing, you might claim that a peasant girl was inferior to a girl of good family because her upbringing, clothing, deportment, behaviour, thinking, wealth, etc. are all inferior to that of a woman from a wealthy, cultured background. If you were choosing a bride, that might be a very important value judgement. But to the physician treating a patient for breast cancer (for instance), the two bodies have equal validity. However the woman of high status might like to deny it, when it comes to possession of a physical body she and the peasant woman are equals. Of course, the physician might vary his treatment depending on whether he expected to get paid or not, but that is not a property of the bodies of the two women.
    If you prized skill or ability, you might regard a master gymnast or athlete, or a dextrous worker as superior to someone without those abilities. This is again a value judgement. I am sure there are times when two value judgements conflict with each other — a poor Ethiopian peasant might be nothing socially, but turn out to be a great Olympic athlete.
    The problem with your pronouncements on language is that you are making precisely this kind of value judgement. Since you have such high regard for high literary languages, you treat anything else as below your contempt. You are entitled to your opinion, but you should beware of the tendency to regard the lowly peasant as intrinsically and inherently inferior to the person of good background, i.e., a kind of nobility of the blood. If the body and intellect are both there, there is nothing inherent in a peasant that could prevent him or his descendants from rising to that social and cultural status that you so admire.
    Since your pronouncements are shaped by your own peculiar value judgements, they say nothing about the linguistic validity of different languages. It is entirely possible, for instance, that ancient Greek lost some important phonological or semantic distinctions found in proto-Indo-European (I leave it to those versed in historical linguistics to say whether this is true or not), but this is a linguistic aspect of language that is totally irrelevant to your arguments because you’re not actually looking at language per se. And if the linguistic aspects of language are irrelevant to you, then it’s hard to understand what basis you might have for claiming that one language is ‘superior’ to another.
    Your adoration of the Western canon is also your own opinion. There are other traditions than the Western one, which some people hold in high regard. History has shown that plenty of literary traditions find themselves dipping into the pool of illiterate, peasant, or lower-class culture from time to time. If these low-class cultures were so lacking in value as you seem to be saying, I can’t imagine why they would even bother.

  44. You’re not talking about language in general; you’re talking about a certain style of language: literary language.
    Not only the literature, but history, science, mathematics, and philosophy, etc: ie, the claim being that language of the Greeks (athenians in particular)–syntax, morphology, lexicon– is measurably superior to the dozens or hundreds of native dialects. Archimedes was “better” than, well, Montezuma. The written syntax itself represents something quite beyond the oral tradition, or the merely pictographic (perhaps one could view that as evolutionary. perhaps not)–ie, the vedas are not just marks in clay.
    In other words, Im objecting to the anthropological view of linguistics which views language merely as a type of biological phenomena, AND to the Chomskyan sentimentalists –Roussseauians, IMHE–who think since they can find nominal heads in eskimo orwhatever, and in greek/latin, the languages are effectively equal. And yes, I make value judgments, whether Darwinists approve or not.

  45. Bathrobe says

    The written syntax itself represents something quite beyond…the merely pictographic
    Er… you’ve lost me there. If this is your argument against the possibility of finding nominal heads in Eskimo, then I’m afraid I have to hand it to the ‘Roussseauians’.

  46. Non sequitur.
    No–first, syntax cannot be reduced to mere phenomena. Anthro. linguists continually mash up merely oral traditions with the written/syntactical languages–so in effect for the Rousseauians, eskimo is equivalent to latin, etc (or nearly). It may not be impossible to formulate something like syntax (grammar, lexicon,etc) from a pre-written, native language, but nearly, for all practical purposes, impossible. It’s a complexity thing.
    The same thing may be noted on the other thread, where the regs seem to assume that Castilian and quichua are like, equivalent. Hardly. One has tens of thousands of words, long-established greek/latin/arabic roots, noun/verb forms, written grammar, history, literature etc, and the other maybe a few hundred sounds that anthro. people made some guestimates about.

  47. Bathrobe says

    It may not be impossible to formulate something like syntax (grammar, lexicon,etc) from a pre-written, native language, but nearly, for all practical purposes, impossible
    So essentially you’re saying that written and unwritten languages are two different, and incomparable things? Is that what it’s all about?
    And I do wish that you would stop writing as you speak, because it sounds horribly close to garbage. Perhaps you should take a page out of the ancient Greeks that you profess to admire so much.

  48. Funny I was thinking the same of your responses, B–google “Pathos”. And one shouldn’t expect TS Eliot like prose in comboxes, lo siento.
    The distinction between written/oral language is quite traditional, though now often overlooked. In fact even Rousseau wrote on it, though incorrectly (as have many language/philosophy/anthro. types). Maybe they overlooked that in yr Linguistics for Marxist bimbos course, or whatever.

  49. Bathrobe says

    And one shouldn’t expect TS Eliot like prose in comboxes, lo siento
    On the contrary, I do expect some attempt at clarity using standard English prose (sorry, I don’t speak Spanish). We don’t always succeed, but you’re not even trying. As for “Linguistics for Marxist bimbos”, I can’t even begin to guess what you’re talking about. Aside from which, it’s presumptuous because you haven’t got the faintest idea whether I attended such courses, and whether they were directed at “Marxist bimbos” or not. Everything I’ve said to you so far is based solely on your professed admiration for Greek syntax, etc., and the fact that your own prose is incoherent and garbled. You’re going to have to try harder if you want to convince us that throwaway comments on ‘language/philosophy/anthro. types’ conceal the workings of a intelligent mind and not the ravings of a lunatic.

  50. What part don’t you understand? The quoted sentence is fine–grammatical, to the point, unambiguous.
    The problem seems to be your lack of reading comprehension skills, not to say poor analytical skills–also evidenced on the other thread, where a simple class membership…ie Argentina, AND SA confused you. It’s you that’s having problems here. I raised a fairly obvious point (echoing Quine to some degree) regarding “oral” tradition—moving from a few sounds to worked out definitions/”meanings” poses many difficulties which the anthro/field linguist tends to ignore. Then you fly off into non sequiturs. And nowhere did I say this is just about greek syntax/tradition. But it does concern the difference between long established, written languages/syntax and indigenous tongues.

  51. Bathrobe says

    No, my friend, it’s not my analytical skills that are at fault. I just can’t figure out where you’re coming from.
    You wrote: “The written syntax itself represents something quite beyond the oral tradition, or the merely pictographic (perhaps one could view that as evolutionary. perhaps not)–ie, the vedas are not just marks in clay.”
    I can understand that written syntax represents something beyond the oral tradition, but I was having trouble with the pictographic part, because it’s so removed from anything that relates to syntax, spoken or written, as I understand it. You see to have a bee in your bonnet about something, but since I don’t wear the same bonnet as you, I really strain to figure out where this is all coming from. Gavagai indeed!

  52. With Vedic sanskrit, we have no Gavagai issue, really–or at least the definitions (and the grammar) have been established over centuries. It’s not a matter of guessing at what a few sounds mean, but for the non-native speaker, doing a bit of research into the translations of the texts—tho’ learning sanskrit a rather daunting task— definitions, other writers’ comments. So that’s a qualitative difference, IMHE. I don’t really have an axe to grind, B, but do object to the naive multiculturalism of some in the Chomskyan school, and anthro. people in general–and you note that in some fairly trivial issue like translation of children games (ie, I don’t think there is the commonality that l-hat suggested).

  53. Bathrobe says

    Are you opposed to the elicitation methods of the anthropologists/linguists? Or to the very notion that there is any ‘grammar’ or ‘lexicon’ in pre-written languages? (I read Indeterminacy of Translation at Wikipedia, which deals with Gavagai and got more than a little confused because the elicitability of meaning and the existence of meaning seem to be conflated. But that is probably the fault of the editors who wrote the article, combined with my own poor analytical skills.)
    At any rate, I can see that trying to analyse Eskimo the same way we analyse Latin might be tantamount to projecting a system that has been worked out for a written language back onto an unwritten one, which might be felt to be invalid. A bit like some Marxist interpretations of history 🙂 On the other hand, it seems to me that using the tools of written language to go back and analyse unwritten ones might actually be a fruitful and illuminating thing to do.
    You seem quite dismissive of oral traditions and unwritten languages, in a very emotional way, as though unwritten languages consist of nothing more than grunts. I’m not sure why the vehemence. Obviously unwritten cultures haven’t developed the same resources as written ones, especially the ability to accumulate knowledge and pore over it in an analytical way. If your point is that the chasm between the two is so wide and deep that it is nonsense to even think of bridging it, I can only repeat my view that bringing analytical skills to bear on anything is better than dismissing it out of hand.

  54. Bathrobe (Miss) says

    My comment “Gavagai indeed!” wasn’t related to the Vedas. It was more about the process of eliciting where you were coming from. I couldn’t figure out whether you were talking about an undetached rabbit part, the whole rabbit, the rabbit at this instant, but not the rabbit as it was in the past or as it will be in the future, the rabbit as food, or the possibility of a storm tonight. I think it is a commonplace that in order to understand what someone is talking about, you have to understand what they are arguing against.

  55. Language Hat, home of the unreconstructed Chomskyites. *giggle*
    And be advised, when Hat welcomes dissent, he means people with their own opinions, not people with their own facts.

  56. Bathrobe (Miss) says

    With Vedic sanskrit, we have no Gavagai issue, really–or at least the definitions (and the grammar) have been established over centuries. It’s not a matter of guessing at what a few sounds mean
    There is something very peculiar about this way of thinking. It seems to betray an attitude of abject worship for what has been done in the past, combined with sublime contempt for what people might do in the present. It denies the possibility that things can ever change or be changed.
    The fact that an unknown and unwritten language exists presents an opportunity to do what no one has done before. Of course, creating dictionaries, grammars, and writing systems is the first step on the road to a radical change, a change that will possibly transform that language and its speakers forever. I’m not sure why it should be regarded so negatively, unless one feels that there is something more ‘virtuous’ or ‘genuine’ about being an unwritten language, which on the face of it doesn’t seem to be Motorhead’s attitude.
    As an oral tradition segues into a written tradition, many things happen. One of the first is the fixing and writing down of old oral traditions, and if I remember correctly, The Iliad is one such example. It seems to me that this interface between unwritten and written is an interesting one, and poopooing people who go in with an open mind because you don’t feel anything can ever measure up to existing traditions doesn’t seem to show a very constructive attitude.
    Actually, one reason that your ‘language/anthro.’ types try to treat all languages equally is to eliminate biases of the kind that you are bringing to the table, where you contemptuously describe attempts to make sense of unwritten languages as “a matter of guessing at what a few sounds mean”. Another reason is to try and avoid arbitrarily imposing existing Latin or Greek type categories on other languages, which requires keeping an open mind. I think the key word is ‘respect’ — something that you lack since you are in the thrall of excessive adulation of the glories of the past and a consequent rejection of anything new that threatens that order. Perhaps that is where your constant harping on Marxism comes from.

  57. Man, I hate to drag out this stale staple of online discourse, but I’m afraid this is one of those occasions when it’s truly called for: Do Not Feed the Troll.

  58. harping on Marxism comes from.
    I thought Hat was a closet marxist, innit?

  59. Surely you jest. (Unless you mean Groucho Marx, via a side glance at Harpo, in which case I plead guilty.)

  60. sure, in the Brechtian staging of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? Yuri Lyubimov of Taganka theatre had a chorus in the background chanting ‘Buffonit!’ (he’s buffooning!) every time there was a politically risque remarque or an ad lib.
    I myself still find istmat (historical materialism) a very useful tool in any historical study, though of course the theory of probability and the narrative approach give a fuller picture of what happened and what might have happened. Look at matchast – and avoid mistakes.
    on Bathrobe’s point, I’ve always had an impression that this blog has a very high interest in small languages and their interaction with global ones. I find it difficult to see anything arrogant or patronising in this.

  61. Tennyson may not have been a great thinker, but he has some memorable lines.
    Tennyson gave Russia one of her best loved inspirational lines (from Ulysses):
    Бороться и искать, найти и не сдаваться.
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
    It’s the leitmotif of Kaverin’s popular novel (navy-aviation) The Two Captains.

  62. Sashura:
    Is there a well known translation of the whole poem, or is it just that one line that everyone knows?
    Certainly a fine poem, if not quite as good as its model in Inferno XXVI.

  63. it’s the line that everybody knows, thanks to Kaverin and Captain Scott whose story is well-known in Russia (but not of Shackleton’s).
    I think Balmont’s translation is best known, it’s in many of his collections, but the line as quoted by Kaverin is from a different version by Ilya Mandel (Илья Мандель), it’s the third version there. I was looking for a profile of him a few days ago, but couldn’t find anything.
    Искать, найти, дерзать, не уступать.

  64. Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho — Paris, May 1968

  65. I once read that Harpo, Chico, and Groucho make their comedy out of distorted phonology, syntax, and semantics respectively.

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