The People of Santiago.

I was stopped in my tracks at the very beginning of Jon Lee Anderson’s New Yorker article on Chile’s new president:

February in Santiago, the capital of Chile, is like August in Paris: the end of summer, when everyone who can afford a vacation escapes for a last gasp of freedom. Many santiaguinos go to the nearby Pacific beaches, or to the chilly lakes in the south.

I was struck by santiaguinos, so I turned to my trusty Diccionario de gentilicios y topónimos (see this LH post) and found that, sure enough, that’s the name for people from Santiago de Chile. The reason it sounded odd to me is that people from Santiago del Estero in Argentina (the country where I went to high school) are called santiagueños, as are those from the Santiagos in Ecuador and Panama. But someone from Santiago in Cuba or the Dominican Republic is a santiaguero, while an inhabitant of Santiago de Compostela in Spain is santiagués. Just to mix things up, someone from Santiago de Cacem in Portugal is mirobrigense, while a person from Santiago Millas in Spain is a maragato. Gentilicios are complicated, but I love ’em!

A side note: people mock the New Yorker’s fossilized diereses in words like coöperation and their Anglophilic preference for got as the past participle of get, but I shrug those off as charming quirks; the article’s “biographies of Chilean Presidents,” however, seriously bothers me. President, like other titles, should be capitalized before a name (President Joe Biden) but not otherwise. I deprecate this folderol!

Belter Creole.

My pal Nick wrote me recommending a show called The Expanse, adding: “In particular, the Belter pidgin is delightful, even leaving aside the wonderful characters, acting, and surprisingly good VFX.” As I told him, “it sounds interesting but it’s on one of the many, many platforms (is that what the kids are calling them? we used to have channels) we don’t get.” But the language does look like fun, so herewith for your delectation, Belter Creole grammar:

This page deals with the grammar of Belter Creole, also known as lang Belta.

Typologically, Belter is an analytic language. Rather than inflections, it primarily uses separate words to build grammatical constructions, such as prepositions and auxiliary verbs, and the meaning of a sentence depends strongly on word order. However, it does use compounding and some suffixes for deriving new words. For example, the -lowda suffix is used to form plural pronouns (see below).


The Perception of Rhythm.

The linguist Anne Cutler recently died, and presumably for that reason her paper “The perception of rhythm in language” (Cognition 50 [1994]: 79-81) has been making the rounds; in fact, mollymooly linked to it here a couple of days ago. But all the links I’ve seen go to this site, where it appears (at least in my browser) in a format too huge to read more than a few words of at once — the link I provided above with the title should be more readable. At any rate, do read it; it’s only three pages, and it makes interesting points. It also has a feature which you will want to discover for yourself, so do yourself a favor and read the article before the comments to this thread, where the feature will doubtless be mentioned.

Fedin’s Cities and Years.

Having finished Bulgakov’s The White Guard (see this post), I decided to stay with the year 1924 and read Konstantin Fedin’s Города и годы (Cities and Years), which I got for a buck last year; like the Bulgakov, it’s not a very good novel, but it’s got interesting bits and relates oddly to official Soviet fiction, so I’m posting about it. Happily, has a chapter-by-chapter plot description that will save me some trouble: I’ll refer you to that for the details of how Fedin plays with chronology and confine myself to more general points.

The novel consists of several more or less incompatible genres (or, if you’re feeling Bakhtinian, chronotopes) mashed together, which is one reason it isn’t a success. The first the reader encounters is the mystery: why is this guy yelling out his window, what is this rambling letter about, and whoa, why does he get shot? Yes, the protagonist’s death is revealed in the opening chapter: modernism! But we won’t find out why for a long time.

The second is the literary novel. Fedin was a Serapion Brother and thus addicted to literary analysis of an academic nature; like his fellow Brother Yury Tynyanov he felt compelled to ditch boring, traditional elements that kept the reader engaged on a primitive level and make something New to match the new world of Soviet Russia, and unfortunately, as with Tynyanov’s Смерть Вазир-Мухтара (The Death of the Vazir-mukhtar), “the result is … lacking in inner truth, smacking of ‘literature.’” Since he doesn’t bother to make the characters “real” in the boring old Tolstoyan way, the reader doesn’t much care about them and their entanglements.

The third is melodrama. The plot, reduced to its most basic elements, is that Andrei and Max (Margrave von zur Mühlen-Schönau) are both in love with Marie, but neither knows about the other; meanwhile Andrei’s best friend, the German painter Kurt Wahn, hates Max because Max, a rich and possessive lover of art, is subsidizing Kurt but insisting on not only buying up everything he paints but keeping it stashed away in his crumbling Bavarian castle. When World War One breaks out, Andrei is interned as an enemy alien (as was Fedin himself) and spends a couple of years canoodling with Marie before trying to escape and being caught by Max, who could turn him in and let him be executed but takes a liking to him and spares him. Kurt goes off to fight on the Eastern Front, becomes a Bolshevik, and is captured but freed by the Bolshevik Revolution. Max, also sent to fight, is also captured and interned in the invented town Semidol somewhere in Mordovia, where he joins a group of Germans who are trying to start a revolt among the Mordvins and somehow fight their way back to Germany. Kurt and Andrei somehow also wind up there as part of the local Bolshevik leadership, and Andrei somehow winds up getting involved with a local woman named Rita; when the revolt is discovered, Andrei is supposed to kill Max but instead helps him escape and take a letter to his love Marie in Germany. Max, having discovered that Andrei is his rival, delivers the letter but tells Marie about Rita — “If you don’t believe me, go to Russia and see for yourself.” She does, she discovers it’s true, and flees; the appalled Andrei flees Rita and their baby, goes mad, and is eventually killed by Kurt for failing in his Bolshevik duty. All of that might make for a great opera, but it feels a little silly in a novel.
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I had occasion to look up the Russian word чапан (chapan), which turns out to be a kind of outer garment worn in Central Asia (there’s an English Wikipedia article as well, although the OED has it only in a citation for “colourful”: “The chapan, a colorful ankle-length cape, usually in striped silk fabric”). That would have been the end of it, except that I checked Wiktionary and discovered that its etymon, Arabic جبة ‘jubbah,’ is the source of an astonishing variety of words: Italian giubba (as in “Vesti la giubba”), French jupe ‘skirt’ (which gives Spanish chupa ‘leather jacket’ and English jumper), Russian ю́бка (júbka) ‘skirt,’ Japanese 襦袢 (juban) ‘a type of lightweight under-robe worn under a kimono,’ жупан/župan/żupan in a bunch of Slavic languages, Chagatai Turkish چپان‎ (çapan; presumably the source of the Russian word, though its Wiktionary article gives no etymology), Greek ζιπούνι ‘short jacket or waistcoat’ (which gives yet another Russian word, зипун ‘medieval Russian type of peasant upper garment’), Tibetan ཕྱུ་པ (phyu pa; this gives English chuba ‘long sheepskin coat,’ a word entirely unknown to the OED), Ottoman Turkish جبه‎ (cübbe; this has descendants all over the Balkans), and a bunch of others. Another of those well-traveled words!

As lagniappe (via Trevor Joyce’s Facebook post): ‘Book of Leinster’ pages to be restored and digitised. That’s excellent news, of course, but I’m a little surprised they’re only getting around to it now.

Afrikaans Test Outrage.

Sorry for the clickbaity title, but it’s that kind of story; BBC News reports:

South Africans have condemned Irish airline Ryanair for making them take a test in the Afrikaans language on UK flights, calling it discriminatory. The country has 11 official languages, and many say they cannot understand Afrikaans – a language which was imposed during white-minority rule. The quiz contains questions on South African general knowledge. Ryanair defended the test, saying it weeds out those travelling on fraudulent South African passports. […]

A South African man who was flying from Lanzarote to London in May said he was “shocked” when Ryanair took away his passport and boarding pass before presenting him with the Afrikaans test. When Dinesh Joseph protested, Ryanair staff told him: “This is your language,” he said. […]

Only around 13% of South Africans speak Afrikaans as a first language, according to a 2011 census – making it the country’s third-most spoken mother tongue, after Zulu and IsiXhosa. The BBC asked Ryanair why they required the test to be taken in Afrikaans rather than any other South African language, but the company did not answer.

Apparently the quiz “is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors”; you can see it at this Metro story (here’s an archived version if, like me, you’re using an ad blocker). This does seem like a truly idiotic thing for an airline to do. Thanks, Craig!

Bunin’s Music.

In working through my massive Bunin collection Иван Бунин: Полное собрание рассказов в одном томе (over 1,100 pages, and it doesn’t include the longer works!), and once again I’ve come to a story that wouldn’t let go of me, that was so mysteriously powerful I had to translate it. It’s very short, one of a series of tiny stories he wrote in 1924 (back in 2009 I posted another one, Book), but I sweated as much over it as if it had been ten times as long. Bunin is so precise, so simple, and so carefully weighed (you get the feeling he read every sentence out loud many times until he was satisfied with it) that it’s a nightmare trying to even approximate the effect in English. You can read the Russian here.


I took hold of the door handle, pulled it toward myself – and at once an orchestra began playing. Outside the open window, moonlit fields went backward – the house had become a moving train. I pulled now tightly, now slackly – and conforming to my desire with unusual ease, now quieter, now louder, now solemnly spreading out, now charmingly dying down, sounded music before which the music of all the Beethovens in the world was nothing. I already understood that it was a dream, I was already frightened by its extraordinary resemblance to life, and I made a desperate effort to wake up and, waking up, threw my legs off the bed and lit the fire, but I realized at once that it was all a diabolical dream game again, that I was lying down, that I was in the dark, and that it was necessary at all costs to free myself from this hallucination, in which without any doubt some otherworldly force made itself felt, alien and yet at the same time my own, a force powerful in an inhuman way, because the human imagination of ordinary, everyday life, be it the imagination of all Tolstoys and Shakespeares together, can still only imagine, fantasize, that is, think, not make. But I had made, truly made, something completely incomprehensible: I had made music, a moving train, a room in which I apparently woke up and apparently lit a fire, I created them as easily, as wondrously, and with as much corporeality as only God can create, and saw my creations no less clearly and tangibly than I see now, in real life, in the light of day, this very table on which I am writing, this very inkpot into which I have just dipped my pen…

What is this? Who is the creator? Is it I, writing these lines at this moment, thinking and conscious of myself? Or is it someone existing in me apart from me, a secret even to myself, and incomparably more powerful than me, self-aware in this ordinary life? And what is corporeal and what is incorporeal?

As you can see, it’s something of a precursor of the 1929 “Penguins,” which is also about dreaming while dreaming; the later story is longer and very different in mood, and I’m glad to have both of them.
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Language and the Grand Tour.

John Gallagher reviews Arturo Tosi’s Language and the Grand Tour: Linguistic experiences of travelling in early modern Europe for the TLS (January 22, 2021):

“For God’s sake learn Italian as fast as you can, if it be only to read Ariosto.” Charles James Fox wrote to a friend in 1767 that only an understanding of Italian language and literature would make him “fit to talk to Christians”. For Fox, as for the thousands of travellers before and after him who embarked on the continental pilgrimage known as the Grand Tour, crossing the channel meant encountering other languages. Some, like John Milton or Robert Boyle, returned accomplished polyglots, while the idleness and incomprehension of others helped build the modern image of the monoglot English tourist.

Arturo Tosi’s Language and the Grand Tour is a welcome study of the role of language in elite European travel from the late sixteenth century to the dawn of the nineteenth. Drawing on printed travel accounts and tourists’ letters, he explores how travellers learnt languages on the Continent, and how their linguistic skill (or lack thereof) shaped their interactions with everyone from border guards to courtesans. Lorenzo da Ponte, later Mozart’s librettist, wrote a romantic account of his first steps in German with a female innkeeper. The only payment she demanded for hours of German conversation and grammar study each day was that their lessons finished with an “Ich liebe Sie”: I love you.

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Foreman’s Horace.

Alex Foreman, whom I have linked to with some frequency (e.g., 2020, 2021), specializes in reading texts in reconstructed pronunciations (as with the passage of Deuteronomy he did in six stages of Hebrew here), and in a new Facebook post (friends-only, but I’ll quote the whole text) he does it for anglicized Latin, something that has always fascinated me:

This is the first Latin poem I wrote a translation of as a kid. Also the first poem of Horace’s that I was able to actually make it through. I remember feeling so very excited.

I read this one first in a reconstruction of 1st century Roman Latin, then in my translation, then in a reconstruction of “Cromwellian” or mid-17th century English Latin pronunciation, followed by an English translation from the same period.

People are always obsessing over reading Latin in reconstructed Roman pronunciation from the 1st centuries BC and AD. I’m like: dude there are a whole lot of other reconstructible pronunciations for Latin you could use.

This type of Anglo-Latin is basically that attested by Robinson in 1619, only filtered through a form of English that had gone through some sound changes that his English hadn’t, in order to arrive at something more plausible for the 1650s. Robinson’s Latin pronunciation was of the newer mode and had been put through at least some of the reforms initiated by John Cheke and Sir Thomas Smith, and thus distinctions of vowel-length in inflectional endings are respected, chiefly in open syllables.

Thus in this type of Anglo-Latin pronunciation, final etymologically short /ĭ/ takes the KIT vowel (as in “ubi” [ɪʊ̯bɪ]) whereas final etymological /ī/ takes the PRICE diphthong (as in “superī” [sɪʊ̯pɪrǝi]). Final etymological /ĕ/ merges with short /ĭ/ in the KIT vowel (as in “ducere” [dɪʊ̯sɪɾɪ]) whereas long ē like æ is rendered with the MEAT vowel (as in “comae” [koːmeː]). The ablative of the first declension singular -â happens not to occur here, but it would take the MATE vowel. There would be a distinction between the final vowels of “modŏ” which would end on the STRUT vowel, and “modō” which would end in the GOAT vowel. And yes that pronunciation of “Theseus” /ʃ/ is an attested thing. Robinson actually transcribes <þēšius>.

Here’s the Patreon post with the reading; I hope everyone can access it, because it’s fascinating stuff. And “Diffugere nives” is a really nice poem.

The Pleasure of Not Understanding.

Keith Kahn-Harris, featured here in The Languages of Kinder Surprise earlier this year, writes for Psyche about the pleasure to be had in not understanding a language:

[…] I haven’t lost this heady, even mystical, faith in the possibilities of meeting and talking with the other. But more recently I’ve sought to understand how similarly transcendent possibilities can arise from not talking with the other, or even being able to understand their voice. Philosophically and theologically, I’ve subscribed to Martin Buber’s ideal of working towards ‘I-Thou’ encounters, in which we each meet the other mutually as authentic individuals, without objectification or qualification.

Here we come back to the Kinder Surprise. I love to peruse scripts I cannot understand, signs I cannot parse: Czech diacritics, the loops and curves of Georgian, the intricacies of Chinese characters, the elegant fluency of Arabic. In my book The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language (2021), I went further, commissioning dozens more translations of the Kinder egg message into tongues as out of the way as ancient Egyptian and Klingon. My passion for not understanding language releases me from the effort of comprehension, freeing me to revel in the manifold sounds the human mouth can make, the tiny nuances the pen produces on paper. It made me wonder if Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ encounter might not require any dialogue at all? What if his concept of ‘dialogue’ – which he contrasts with the ‘I-It’ instrumentalism and objectification of ‘monologue’ – could be taken non-literally? […]

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