Irina Polyanskaya.

I normally read in chronological order; aside from my Long March from the beginning of Russian literature to now, if I get interested in a particular author I’ll start with the earliest stuff and work my way forward. But it’s a good thing I didn’t do that with the late and little-remembered Irina Polyanskaya (Russian Wikipedia — she doesn’t have an article in any other language), because if I had I might never have read her last and (to my mind) best novel, Горизонт событий [Event horizon]. As it is, when I got up to 2002 in the Long March, I noticed in my Russian Prose Chronology that someone had said of it “History is the thread that links the many heroes and personages of this virtuosically constructed, multifarious, intellectual novel,” so I decided to give it a try — if I didn’t like it, I could turn to something else. As it happened, I got more and more engrossed in it, and then the excellent translator Oliver Ready, who has Englished Dostoevsky, Yuri Buida, and Vladimir Sharov, among others, told me he was working on a translation of Polyanskaya’s earlier novel Прохождение тени [The passing/transit of a/the shadow] and highly recommended it, so I went backwards in time and read that, and I’m here to report on the experience.

It starts with a bravura chapter describing a solar eclipse as experienced by the students at a music school in the Caucasus, providing an obvious hook for the title (though there are lots of subtly deployed uses of тень ‘shadow’ throughout); we then see the (unnamed) heroine’s arrival at the school, her encounter with the four blind young men who will be her main companions in the “present-tense” sections (one a Georgian, two from Ossetia, and one from Taganrog), her reluctant acceptance as a piano student (“Исполнителя из вас не получится” [You’ll never be a performer]), and her being assigned to the same group as the four blind students on the basis of their all having perfect pitch. We then start getting flashback chapters describing her earlier life as the daughter of a nuclear scientist and a woman who defied her family to marry him and then regretted it: her early years in the Gulag camp where her father was allowed to carry on his research after being arrested because he was taken prisoner by the Germans in the war and worked for them, and the time spent with her grandmother in Rostov-on-Don (the former Старопочтовая улица [Old Post Office Street], now Улица Станиславского [Stanislavsky Street], and its now vanished bourgeois inhabitants with their high culture are lovingly described). There are some tremendously effective set pieces in the latter sections (her father as a young suitor arriving at his girlfriend’s home for the first time and gallantly tossing a large bouquet of roses at her mother’s feet, flowers the mother vindictively tosses into the stove as soon as he leaves; the young wife about to end the marriage for good when news arrives that war has begun and her husband leaves for the front; the tragedy that plays out when the Germans take over Rostov and drunken soldiers invade the family’s home), but Polyanskaya’s heart isn’t really in storytelling — what she cares about is what lies behind daily events, some combination of philosophy and esthetics as applied to history and personal fate.
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I just used the word bemused and suddenly asked myself where it had come from. I said to my wife “I wonder if it has anything to do with the Muses?” but was more or less joking — I didn’t see how that would work. But lo and behold, per M-W:

In 1735, British poet Alexander Pope lamented, in rhyme, being besieged by “a parson much bemus’d in beer.” The cleric in question was apparently one of a horde of would-be poets who plagued Pope with requests that he read their verses. Pope meant that the parson had found his muse—his inspiration—in beer. That use of bemused harks back to a 1705 letter in which Pope wrote of “Poets … irrecoverably Be-mus’d.” In both letter and poem, Pope used bemused to allude to being inspired by or devoted to one of the Muses, the Greek sister goddesses of art, music, and literature. The lexicographers who followed him, however, interpreted “bemus’d in beer” as meaning “left confused by beer,” and their confusion gave rise to the first modern sense of bemuse above. The newer (and common) use of bemuse to mean “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement” is a topic of some dispute, as discussed here.

Whodathunkit! And I must say, knowing the origin of the “correct” sense in a misunderstanding makes me a lot more tolerant of the newer use that is “a topic of some dispute”; we discussed that back in 2012, when I quoted the AHD entry. I did not notice a decade ago, but do now, that that AHD entry is missing an etymology, which bemuses (but does not amuse) me.

A Barry White in the Jacks.

Anne Enright’s NYRB essay on reading Ulysses (January 13, 2022) is interesting in general, but I’m posting it for this passage near the end:

For some years now, I have lived close to the Joyce Museum in Sandycove, which is housed in the Martello tower where Joyce once slept and where he later set the first chapter of Ulysses. The sea, I am happy to say, is no more snot-green than Homer’s was wine-dark. But though the water resists Joyce’s famous description, the squat, round stone tower belongs almost completely now to the book. It is populated by shades both fictional and historical, and by living people who are their familiars. I walk through a neighborhood of Joyce tourists and badly behaved Joycean ghosts. There, up the road, is the house where the real playwright J.M. Synge lived and a fictional Dedalus pissed against the hall door—unless, as he says, it was Mulligan. (“—Me! Stephen exclaimed. That was your contribution to literature.”) Another example of Joyce fixing the real to the literary by a transgressive use of waste matter.

Recently, just to get the full experience, I sat on a bench near the Forty Foot, the swimming spot below the Martello tower where Buck Mulligan goes for his dip, and I read a page or two. It was a mild September afternoon. The day was so windless and still, I could hear a man address a quiet friend, one leaving, one arriving, both of them with their towels rolled.

“Hello there, young Thomas,” he said. “Were you aware that a certain gentleman is home this week? Your presence may be required.”

And it seemed to me a continuation of the book I held in my hand.

The dialogue in Ulysses uses tricks of speech that are as real and abiding as the streets of the city that Joyce worked so hard to recreate. This tone is not exactly camp, but it is rakish, mock-heroic; a glittering game that fills the verbal space between men who like each other—but not too much!

“I’ve been in since four,” the man went on, cheerfully. “Went for a walk, took a Barry White in the new jacks they have up there. Lovely.” The local council had recently reopened a nearby public restroom, so this good news was both personal and civic.

Barry White” is rhyming slang for “shite,” and “jacks” is an Irish term for the lavatory (corresponding to English jakes).

The Delights of Old Phrasebooks.

The Economist has a pungent piece (archived) titled “Phrasebooks are dying out” but really about the oddities to be found in them. Some excerpts:

The phrasebook had looked so helpful. When Eric Newby, a writer, set out to walk in the Hindu Kush in 1956, he knew he would be visiting places no Englishman had been since 1891. Nonetheless, he was hopeful of communicating. In his bag he carried “Notes on the Bashgali Language”, a phrasebook published in Calcutta in 1902. Opening it one afternoon in the high Himalayas, his hopes faded. Whereas most guidebooks explain how to order a small glass of red wine or a coffee, this offered phrases of more opaque utility.

Ini ash ptul p’mich e manchi mrisht waria’m” ran one which, it explained, meant: “I saw a corpse in a field this morning.” That was followed by “Tu tott baglo piltia” (“Thy father fell into the river”); “I non angur ai; tu ta duts angur ai” (“I have nine fingers; you have ten”); and “Ia chitt bitto tu jarlom” (“I have an intention to kill you”). Some struck a more conversational tone, such as “Tu chi se biss gur biti?” (“How long have you had a goitre?”). But on the whole the book left him with “a disturbing impression” of Bashgali life. […]

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McWhorter on “You.”

John McWhorter has another linguistics-for-the-common-man piece, this time in the NY Times, called What Ever Happened to ‘You’? (archived). As so often with McWhorter, a good basic point (English is odd in having only one second-person pronoun) is vitiated by errors, overstatements, and just plain weirdness. Take this paragraph:

In creoles such as Jamaican patois and Gullah, which stem from a creole English created by slaves from Africa on plantations in the United States, right away a plural “you” pronoun, “unu,” was borrowed from the Nigerian language Igbo. In Gullah this comes out as “hunnuh.” For example, in the 1990s, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt ran an ad in Essence magazine, presumably in response to the film “Daughters of the Dust,” which featured Gullah dialect, with the Gullah translation for “We think great-great-great-grandma would’ve loved Lawry’s” as “Oona gal tink we’s nana beena lub de Lawry’s Seasnin’.” Why Igbo was used for creating a plural “you” is impossible to know. But the mystery itself seems almost to suggest a kind of urgency, as if the creators wanted to fix a problem so eagerly that they went with the first thing someone happened to seize on.

OK, the Igbo borrowing is fascinating (and Daughters of the Dust is a superb movie, see it if you can). But if hunnuh is a plural “you,” what’s it doing in the sentence “We think great-great-great-grandma would’ve loved Lawry’s”? Sounds like it should be first-person (inclusive “we,” maybe?). And what’s going on in the following passage?
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The Sacred Mystery of Japanese.

Joel at Far Outliers is posting excerpts from Ultra in the Pacific: How Breaking Japanese Codes and Ciphers Affected Naval Operations Against Japan, 1941-45, by John Winton, and I was struck by this passage from his latest post, Sources of (Mis)information After Pearl Harbor:

The most valuable radio intelligence was obtained from the interception and decryption of encoded or encyphered enemy messages. The Japanese themselves regarded their language as a sacred mystery, not to be vouchsafed to outsiders. Japanese hearing for the first time a Westerner speak their language were known to shake their heads disbelievingly. Such a thing was not possible; they must be dreaming.

Learning to speak or read Japanese was in itself a formidable challenge to western minds. To unravel Japanese in code would seem a virtually impossible mental obstacle. In fact, many Allied cryptanalysts found that decyphering Japanese was a matter of persistence, of ‘quantity and time rather than difficulty’. It was, if anything, tedious rather than difficult.

That mentality — that certain languages are a “sacred mystery,” unlearnable by foreigners — is so alien to my mind that I find its very existence amusing. Of course, as an embassy brat who was born in Japan and learned the language natively alongside English (though I forgot it as soon as we moved back to the States), I have a particular perspective on the issue. Still, we’re all human and any of us is capable of learning any language with enough time, work, and exposure. Nationalism carries with it all manner of silly ideas.

For the Nonce.

I wrote about the word nonce back in 2007, but then I was focusing on the term nonce word, which as it turns out was coined by James Murray especially for use in the OED. This post is about the more common expression for the nonce, from which (as January First-of-May pointed out here) I once mistakenly extrapolated a noun meaning ‘current occasion, time being.’ There is, of course, no such noun, and I will quote the OED entry (updated December 2003) to remind myself of the phrase’s tangled origins:

Etymology: Variant (with metanalysis: see N n. [From the beginning of the Middle English period, the coexistence of two forms of the indefinite article (an before vowels and a before consonants) often led to metanalysis]) of early Middle English anes (in the phrases to þan anes, for þen anes), alteration (with adverbial suffix -s: see -s suffix¹ [the frequent coexistence of the two forms of the same adverb, one with and the other without s, led to the addition of s to many adverbs as a sign of their function]) of ane (in e.g. to þan ane) < Old English anum (in e.g. to þam anum for that one thing). Compare:
c1175 (▸OE) Homily: Hist. Holy Rood-tree (Bodl. 343) (1894) 4 He hæfde an fet to ðam anum [OE Kansas Y 103 to þan anon] iwroht.
c1225 (▸?c1200) St. Juliana (Bodl.) 679 Ase wunsum as þah hit were a wlech beað iwlaht for þen anes in for te beaðien.
c1275 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1978) 8637 Comen to þan anes to fæchen þa stanes.
c1275 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1978) l. 10731 Childriche..lette him fusen biforen al þas londes folc..mid spæren and mid græte waȝen to þan ane icoren.
c1300 St. Brendan (Laud) 455 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 232 Þis holie Man þe luddere song for þes ones [a1325 Corpus Cambr. for þe none].
a1400 (▸a1325) Chron. Robert of Gloucester (Trin. Cambr.) (1887) 5795 Þan ones [c1325 Calig. He adde uor þe nones tueye suerdes bi is syde].

The word is thus not a form (with metanalysis) of the genitive of one adj., n., and pron., nor of once adv.: its spelling in the Ormulum [All forr þe naness], for example, corresponds to the form in that text of the genitive of one (which is aness) but not to that of the adverb once (which is æness).

I also wasn’t aware of the earlier meanings “For the particular purpose; on purpose; expressly” (e.g., Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 i. ii. 178 I haue cases of Buckrom for the nonce, to immaske our noted outward garments) and poetic “Verily, indeed” (e.g., J. G. Horne Lan’wart Loon 22 An’, for the nanes, he was a reiver). There were also phrases with the nones, in the nonce, of the nonce, to the nonce, on the nonce, and at the very nonce, all Obsolete. The earliest citation for the linguistic use is:

1913 N.E.D. at Too adv. 6 a Forming a (nonce) sb. phr.

And I particularly like this one:

1993 E. S. Raymond New Hacker’s Dict. (ed. 2) 76 The bogon has become the type case for a whole bestiary of nonce particle names.

AI, Language Learning, and Grammar.

Bathrobe sent me this post at The Conversation by Morten H. Christiansen and Pablo Contreras Kallens; after talking about the Chomskyan insistence on a grammar template wired into our brains, they continue:

But new insights into language learning are coming from an unlikely source: artificial intelligence. A new breed of large AI language models can write newspaper articles, poetry and computer code and answer questions truthfully after being exposed to vast amounts of language input. And even more astonishingly, they all do it without the help of grammar.

Even if their choice of words is sometimes strange, nonsensical or contains racist, sexist and other harmful biases, one thing is very clear: the overwhelming majority of the output of these AI language models is grammatically correct. And yet, there are no grammar templates or rules hardwired into them – they rely on linguistic experience alone, messy as it may be.

GPT-3, arguably the most well-known of these models, is a gigantic deep-learning neural network with 175 billion parameters. It was trained to predict the next word in a sentence given what came before across hundreds of billions of words from the internet, books and Wikipedia. When it made a wrong prediction, its parameters were adjusted using an automatic learning algorithm.

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If I ever knew the word tenrec, I’d forgotten it (and it’s never come up at LH); I found it via this MetaFilter post, which links to this 15-second video of a couple of the creatures clambering around and stridulating. They are extraordinarily cute, but of course what leads me to post is the name (which MeFi commenter lalochezia says is “a classic scrabble word designed to fool your opponent into thinking you played a disallowed word”). Merriam-Webster says it’s “French, from Malagasy tàndraka,” which seems straightforward enough, but the OED (entry from 1911) says “French tanrec, < Malagasy tàndraka, dialect form of tràndraka,” which adds a bit of complication. So I looked it up in my Malagasy-Russian dictionary and found:

tàndraka тенре́к (щетинистый ёж [bristly hedgehog] Tenrecidae).

So far, so good, except if it was a dialect form of tràndraka you’d expect it to say so in the entry. So I looked up tràndraka and found:

tràndraka тра́ндрака (растение Centetes setosus).

Which suggests that the two are not variant forms but two different words with different meanings, the first the tenrec proper and the second the greater hedgehog tenrec (note that they give the scientific name of the latter as Centetes setosus, an outdated term — it’s now called Setifer setosus). But what’s hilarious is that they classify the second as a растение ‘plant’!

Seale’s Nights.

Robyn Creswell’s NYRB review of The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1001 Nights, translated by Yasmine Seale, makes it sound like the one to read. After a discussion of Galland (“tasteful”), Lane (“chaste ethnographies”), and Burton (“fantastical and often racist erotica”), Creswell continues:

The standard contemporary English translation, Husain Haddawy’s 1990 version, is—as if to confirm Borges’s rule of difference—a sober performance with wonderfully few footnotes. Whereas Burton’s translation includes virtually every tale he could find a manuscript for—as well as some that he made up, such as “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind”—Haddawy confined himself to translating the first critical edition of the Nights, published by the scholar Muhsin Mahdi in 1984–1994 and based on Galland’s Syrian text. […] I have taught Haddawy’s version in the classroom and never wished for another. It is readable and reliable, and contains most of the Nights’ best tales in a single volume. Burton supplies a colorful point of comparison, but it is hard not to read his translation now as Orientalist camp.

Yasmine Seale’s new translation of selected tales from the Nights is the first in English by a woman, but at first blush it isn’t a dramatic departure from her immediate precursors—no hostility here. Like Haddawy and [Malcolm] Lyons, she has crafted a contemporary rendition that is sensitive to the Arabic and uninterested in exotic retouches. Reading her version more closely, however, one sees how much can still be done with these endlessly told and retold stories. The difference Seale’s translation makes is subtle but cumulative, and finally profound.

He then provides the kind of head-to-head comparison I love:
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