Aranese and the Val d’Aran.

Back in 2013 we discussed Aranese pretty much in the abstract, the post being based on Norman Davies’s ill-informed and misleading description of it as “a unique language that mixes Basque and neo-Latin elements”; Richard Collett has a nice piece at BBC Travel that describes both its history and its place in today’s world:

Borders are supposed to be simple in the Pyrenees. On the southern side of the mountain range, you’re in Spain. On the northern side, you’re in France. Visit Val d’Aran, though, and geopolitics takes a more complicated turn. Val d’Aran is on the wrong side of the mountains. Geographically, this small mountain valley with its population of 10,000 people should be in France. But Val d’Aran is the only community within Spain’s contiguous borders that’s located on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees.

Officially, Val d’Aran is within the administrative boundaries of Catalonia, but despite being caught between larger kingdoms and nation-states for centuries, Val d’Aran has never surrendered its local identity. Key to that local identity is the Aranese language, which alongside Catalan and Spanish, is officially recognised as the third language of Catalonia. […]

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Philology Defined.

Tom Shippey is a medievalist, a Tolkienist, and a spectacularly grumpy fellow to judge from the quotes I’ve seen from him at Laudator Temporis Acti. The latest (from The Road to Middle-Earth) proves him to be spectacularly ignorant about dictionaries as well:

Dictionary definitions are, symptomatically, unhelpful. The OED, though conceived and created by philologists and borne along by the subject’s nineteenth-century prestige, has almost nothing useful to offer. ‘Philology’ it suggests, is: ‘I. Love of learning and literature; the study of literature in a wide sense, including grammar, literary criticism and interpretation … polite learning. Now rare in general sense.’ Under 2 it offers ‘love of talk, speech or argument’ (this is an offensive sense in which philology is mere logic-chopping, the opposite of true philosophy); while 3 recovers any ground abandoned in 1 by saying it is ‘The study of the structure and development of language; the science of language; linguistics. (Really one branch of sense 1.)’ So ‘philology’ is ‘lang.’ and ‘lit.’ too, all very charitable but too vague to be any use. The Deutsches Wörterbuch set in motion by Jacob Grimm (himself perhaps the greatest of all philologists and responsible in true philological style for both ‘Grimm’s Law of Consonants’ and Grimms’ Fairy Tales) could do little better, defining philologie with similar inclusiveness as ‘the learned study of the (especially Classical) languages and literatures’. The illustrative quotation from Grimm’s own work is more interesting in its declaration that ‘none among all the sciences is prouder, nobler, more disputatious than philology, or less merciful to error’; this at least indicates the expectations the study had aroused. Still, if you didn’t know what ‘philology’ was already, the Grimm definition would not enlighten you.

Like so many people, he wants the dictionary to define words not as other people (the unwashed masses) use them but as he (the One Who Knows) wishes them to be used. But what shows him to be not merely ignorant but duplicitous as well is that “ … ” in the first OED definition. Here’s the unabridged version:

1. Love of learning and literature; the study of literature, in a wide sense, including grammar, literary criticism and interpretation, the relation of literature and written records to history, etc.; literary or classical scholarship; polite learning. Now rare in gen. sense except in the U.S.

Note that the part he excises — I’ve bolded it — is exactly the part that covers the sense he wants. His grumpiness doesn’t shock me, but that dishonest twisting of the evidence does; I have even less respect for him than I did before.
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Call Me tato.

The wonderful Marian Schwartz (see this 2011 post) has an essay in Literary Hub whose title is nicely descriptive: How the Russian and Ukrainian Languages Intersect in Eugene Vodolazkin’s Brisbane. Here are some noteworthy passages:

Brisbane opens with the central character, Gleb Yanovsky, a world-famous guitarist, noticing a nearly imperceptible flaw in his tremolo during a concert. Soon after, he receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The novel pursues two lines of narrative: one in the present, as Gleb contrives to live his life and even perform despite this diagnosis; and one in the past, starting with Gleb as a boy in Kyiv and moving through his coming-to-be as a musician, through young love, and eventually to fame and the good and bad his fame brings. The two narrative lines alternate like a fugue. […]

Born in Kyiv to a Ukrainian father and a Russian mother, Gleb is educated first in Ukrainian, then in Russian. The bilingual and bicultural nature of Gleb’s world is so deeply embedded in Russians’ and Ukrainians’ reality that the Russian reviews don’t have to point it out. Both Ukrainians and Russians viscerally understand this state of being, and Gleb himself embraces his native cultural duality.

Ukrainian makes a pointed entrance in the book in the very first pages when it appears untranslated, in the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet, in the words of Gleb’s Ukrainian-speaking father, Fyodor. Tolstoy footnoted the French in War and Peace. Junot Díaz footnoted the Spanish in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. For the most part, Vodolazkin felt no such need. He rightly assumes the Russian reader will understand his Ukrainian. Rather, at this first appearance, the author offers a lovely long footnote explaining Ukrainian pronunciation for Russian speakers, by way of emphasizing the language’s musicality.

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Ben Yagoda at his blog Not One-Off Britishisms (aka NOOBS) posts about perhaps the earliest example of a Britishism in American:

In the course of putting together a book based on this blog (you heard it here first!), I found that I am standing on the shoulders of Richard Grant White. White, a nineteenth-century American literary critic (and father of the architect Stanford White), coined the word “Briticism” in 1868, to mean words and usages that had sprung up in Britain (but not America) in the century or so since the countries had been apart. White didn’t look kindly on this phenomenon. Among the instances he cited was a peculiar British use of the word “directly” […] He also complained about a supposed British insistence on saying “ill” instead of “sick” to describe someone who was under the weather. […] Another complaint was “awfully” to mean “very,” instead of its early meaning of “in a manner that inspires awe or terror.” White wrote, “The misuse is a Briticism; but it has been spreading rapidly here during the last few years.” And here he was on the mark. In fact, I put forth this intensifier “awfully” as the very first Not One-Off-Britishism.

The early citations in the OED (which labels it “colloquial”) are all British, starting with one from The Times in 1820: “Let any one..say whether the illustrious defendant [sic]..has not awfully strong grounds for protesting against the tribunal.” I happen to be reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair—published in 1847-48 and set in the 1810s—and came upon a line where Becky Sharp thinks, “I suppose he will be awfully proud, and that I shall be treated most contemptuously.”

Ngram Viewer also confirms White’s impression. It’s an interesting chart, showing significantly more frequent use in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century (White’s era), and American topping Britain in about 1920.

Since then, the two countries’ use of the word have been awfully similar.

Not surprising, of course, but it’s always good to have these things verified.

Knowledge Advances Fitfully.

Dmitri Levitin’s TLS review (December 11, 2020; archived) of The Riddle of the Rosetta: How an English polymath and a French polyglot discovered the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jed Z. Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz gives a good summary of the history of the Rosetta Stone, but I presume that’s familiar to most Hatters; I’m going to quote the last section, which makes some interesting points about Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, the early decipherers, and about how this whole advancement-of-knowledge thing works in general:

A major step forward was made by Young, who adopted the seemingly crude but effective technique of examining the two unknown scripts without any resort to phonetics, but simply by mapping groups of signs, or logograms, onto the lines of Greek. Making use of Young’s notes in the British Library, Buchwald and Josefowicz provide a mesmerising account of the Englishman at work. With them, we can follow Young as he pasted cut-up strips of the hieroglyphs over what he thought to be the corresponding parts of the Demotic, and as he came to conceive of the middle script as a simplified (or degraded) version of the hieroglyphs. For Young, the hieroglyphs functioned as logograms, and so were intrinsically primitive, lacking syntax and the ability to convey tone and emphasis. It was only the representation of foreign names and words that brought limited phonetics into Egyptian writing. Coptic, he believed, was near-useless for elucidating any earlier forms of the language.

Champollion proceeded very differently. He initially agreed with Young that all the Egyptian scripts were non-alphabetic, and suggested that the Egyptian signs could be identified with Coptic words (but not letters). However, he gradually came to admit the existence of a phonetic system, not only for Graeco-Roman names but also – and this was his key discovery – for native Egyptian words. He saw Egyptian writing as heterogeneous: although the majority of characters were not phonetic and never had been, phonetic signs, he suggested, had evolved early out of a need to convey abstract concepts or proper names by means of the so-called “Rebus principle” now beloved of game shows (“Ramses”, for example, can be formed from the hieroglyphs for Horus/Ra (Ra), the child (mes) and the sedge plant (su)).

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A Letter to That Man.

Damon Young, a columnist at the Washington Post, received a passive-aggressive piece of peevery of a sort that is all too common in general, but the particular focus of this one inspired him to write A letter to that man who emailed me to correct my grammar (archived), a coruscating evisceration that I urge you to read in full; I’ll quote part of it here (at the link, the offending e-mail is shown in an image at the top). He starts with the single-paragraph sentence “I’m better at this than you are at everything you do” and proceeds to explain:

In your email, you declared that my use of the word “ain’t” was a “really poor choice,” corrected my use of “them,” and demanded that I don’t try to sound like I’m “still in the street.”

If you were better at this than I am, you would know, as I do, that the rules of grammar are mostly suggestions. Guardrails to help us corral and curate the mess in our heads into something cohesive. And, to quote Jason Reynolds, what happens within that space is a form of alchemy. […]

You would also know — if you were better at this than I am — that sentences are music. And that both sentences and music are math. Equations. Beats separated by pauses. Microbursts of energy clustered and cut and culled to find balance. You would know that sometimes “ain’t” just fits in a way that “isn’t” or “is not” does not. Same with “them” instead of “those.” You would know that even the choice of “does not” at the end of the above sentence instead of “doesn’t” was intentional, because of the repetitious rhythm of “does not” existing immediately after “is not.” You would know that short phrases lead to shorter sentences, which punch in a way that longer ones sometimes can’t. Like this just did. You would know that “ain’t” ain’t a signifier of being “still in the street.” You would know that “still in the street” ain’t do what you think it did. You would know that writing a thing like that just proves you’re a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a streetcar or a Ferris wheel. But like cigarette smoke indoors.

He ends “This was fun to write. But I feel bad for you now. Because I wish you had better sentences.” He must have put in a lot of work filing the rough edges off what I’ll bet started off with bursts of open rage; I don’t think I could have been nearly as restrained. Give that guy a raise!


Stephen Goranson, whose name should be familiar around these parts (cf. this post), sent me an e-mail about his researches into the word madeleine; I have added italics, links, and some material in brackets:

OED (online) madeleine, n. was most recently modified in December, 2021 [but most recently updated in March 2000 — LH]. The Etymology section states “the reason for the designation is unknown” and mentions a proposed source, a cook, Madeleine Paulnier or Paumier (also elsewhere given as Paulmier; refs. in Wartburg, Französisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 2. 20, n. 2), but “whose existence is dubious,” correcting a 1989 OED assessment as “prob. F. name of Madeleine Paulmier, 19th-c. French pastry-cook.”

OED’s earliest bracketed French use is from 1767 [B. Clermont tr. Menon Art Mod. Cookery Displayed II. 410 Gâteaux à la Madeleine. Common small Cakes]. At Hathi Trust and Gallica is a 1755 use, Gâteaux à la Madeleine, in Les soupers de la cour….tome III, p. 282. OED’s earliest English use is from 1829 [L. E. Ude French Cook (ed. 10) xxvii. 406 (heading) Madeleine Cake] (and bracketed French/English, 1827 [A. B. Beauvilliers Art of French Cookery (ed. 3) 231 Cake Madeleine.—gateau a la Madeleine]). At is an 1824 English translation of a French cookbook by Beauvilliers, The Art of French Cookery; in the index, “Madeleine cake,” though perhaps OED would bracket it too.

I am warming up to attempt comment on Elizabeth Schrader and Joan E. Taylor, The Meaning of “Magdalene”: A Review of Literary Evidence, Journal of Biblical Literature, 140.4, December, 2021, 751-773.

I asked him about his thoughts on Schrader and Taylor, and he responded with this post, which begins:
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Corky Arms.

Back in 2000, James Wood reviewed Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language for the Grauniad, and very appreciatively too:

You might say that this is Kermode treading his customary middle way between high theory and unmediated amateurism, but Shakespeare’s Language is a magnificent book, the honey of a lifetime’s visits to the Shakespearean garden, and makes great virtues of reasonable in-betweenness.

But this passage made me raise my eyebrows:

In the speech by Bushy, for instance, is Shakespeare trying to say something about shadows and tears and himself getting “muddled”? Or is he perfectly capable of greater clarity, but deliberately muddling things a little in order to give us the most direct sense possible of a mind struggling to express itself?

This is an inevitable tension in dramatic poetry. For instance, when Cornwall shouts out that his servants should bind fast Gloucester’s “corky arms”, listeners get a characteristically Shakespearean thrill of pleasure at the delicious justice of the word – the old man’s arms, white and crumbly, like cork. But it is hardly likely that a vicious aristocrat would have expressed himself as beautifully as this, and most listeners decide for them selves that this is Shakespeare the poet having his say – inserting into a character’s mouth a line of unlikely but lovely poetry.

I don’t understand how anyone literate, let alone such a fine critic as Wood, can seriously say “it is hardly likely that a vicious aristocrat would have expressed himself as beautifully as this.” It is hardly likely that he would have expressed himself in iambic pentameter, either. This seems to me on a level with complaining that opera is dumb because people don’t sing at each other. Am I missing something?

Burning Bush.

I’ve finished Mikhail Shishkin’s 1999 novel Взятие Измаила [The taking of Izmail] — see this post for previous Shishkin — and I find I don’t have anything coherent to say about it except that it’s long and difficult and I’ll doubtless need to reread it to get anything useful from it (as advised by The Untranslated in this post, which you should consult if you want to get an idea of what the novel is like, not to mention what the title means). Here I’ll just quote a brief passage from the end of the first part with some thoughts on translatability:

The human lifespan is a dot. Nature is fluid. Feelings are dark. The linking of the whole body is corruptible. The soul is a top. Fate is incomprehensible. The teacher is orphaned. The soldier is barefoot. The plowman is naked. The veteran is inconsolable. The sickly person is fierce. Pindar is unwashed. The moaning is musical. The roads are hopeless. The far-off is befouled. Weekdays are humiliating. The festivities are drunken. The neighbor is very bitter. The publican is negligent. The huntsman is venal. Power is stinking. The law is good-for-nothing. The verb is all-powerful. Prison is all-devouring. The cop on duty is selfless. The corpse is unidentified. The war is daily. The Chechen is quick to forgive. The Sami is swaggering. Geography is jumpy. History is whorish. The tsarevitch is murdered. The past is a shame. Love for the paternal graves is captivating. The bush is burning. The sky is snowy. The future is entrancing.

Срок человеческой жизни — точка. Естество текуче. Ощущения темны. Соединение целого тела тленно. Душа юла. Судьба непостижима. Учитель сир. Солдат бос. Пахарь наг. Ветеран безутешен. Немощный лют. Пиндар немыт. Стон музыкален. Дороги безнадежны. Даль загажена. Будни унизительны. Торжества пьяны. Ближний прегорек. Мытарь нерадив. Псарь продажен. Власть смердяща. Закон никчемен. Глагол всевластен. Тюрьма всеядна. Постовой самозабвенен. Труп неопознан. Война ежедневна. Чечен отходчив. Лопарь чванлив. География прыгуча. История блудлива. Царевич умерщвлен. Прошлое срамно. Любовь к отеческим гробам пленяюща. Купина неопалима. Небо снежно. Будущее восхитительно.

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Bad Physics in Tolstoy and Dictionaries.

I have volunteered to serve as a Russian consultant for a reading group that is working its way through War and Peace in translation, and today I got a question that wound up teaching me a bit of specialized Russian and is worth bringing to the attention of the Hattery:

OK, Steve, here’s another translation question, perhaps disguised as a physics question. It concerns a passage in P&V [Book 4 part 3 chapter 2] where partisan warfare is described as contrary to conventional military theory:

Military science says that the bigger the army, the stronger it is. Les gros bataillons ont toujours raison.

In saying that, military science is like a mechanics which, considering forces only in relation to their masses, would say that forces are equal or not equal to each other because their masses are or are not equal.

Force (the quantity of motion) is the product of mass time velocity.

In military action, the force of an army is also a product of mass times something, some unknown x.

I read this (with a lifelong immersion in the physical sciences) and am befuddled. It is momentum, not force, that is the product of mass and velocity, and if you have Force = mass times some unknown x, the x is acceleration, as Newton explained in the 1670s. Is Tolstoy treating us to this analogy to demonstrate willful ignorance of The First Law or is he attempting a re-definition of the terms used? His credentials for pulling off some kind of scientific treatment of the mechanics of history are devalued immediately thereby. Clearly words like energy, force, momentum and mass were in common use prior to Newton (who likely wrote in Latin anyway), and continue to have common usage distinct from their precise technical definitions. Taking offense at a common usage in opposition to their technical meaning may merely be the arrogance of the scientist, and not a reflection on the author or the translator. But when posed as such blatant blasphemy as “Force = mass x velocity,” it is as if I were to misquote several of the Ten Commandments in an argument relating Judaism and psychoanalysis, assuming no one would know or care.

My correspondent went on to quote the Maude translation, “Momentum (quantity of motion) is the product of mass and velocity,” which “makes total sense to me,” and added “Briggs renders this passage similarly to the Maude translation, with the misjudgement of momentum by ignoring velocity set up as the mechanical equivalent to ignoring the spirit of an army. […] But Garnett uses ‘force’ in the same way P&V do.” Here’s my response:
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