Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Joshua T. Katz, “What Linguists Are Good For” (Classical World 100.2 [2007]: 99-112):

To most administrators and to all too many of our own colleagues, linguists are covered in nineteenth-century dust, which is, as we all know, a far dustier dust, being tainted with old methodology, than what classical archaeologists encounter in the Roman Forum. Or, alternatively, we are interested in so-called modern linguistic techniques, but these have the stench of social science, which some of our colleagues think smells less good than the Roman sewers’ humanities. Either way, we linguists are narrowly focused misfits with a humorless eye for grammar and no interest in, much less imagination for, wider cultural questions. Such is our stereotype, but I have never met a good linguist who fit the bill (certainly none of my teachers did), and all of us must do what we can to combat it, in our scholarship and, even more important, in our teaching. Linguistics is a broad, vibrant, and result-driven discipline, not the recherché domain of fuddy-duddies, and it really shouldn’t be very difficult to persuade our students and colleagues that this is so.

It’s heartening to see an important point made so eloquently. (Of course, it applies to real linguists, not the Chomskyan kind who were so prevalent until recently. The phrase “broad, vibrant, and result-driven” is the tell-tale one.)

Small Up.

I was saddened to hear of Roger Angell’s death — though not surprised, since he was 101 years old. He was the greatest baseball writer who ever lived (and he only got into the Hall of Fame by the skin of his teeth, since the sportswriters who do the voting didn’t have time for a magazine guy who wasn’t there day in, day out like they were); an annual highlight of my life as a fan was buying the copy of the New Yorker with his essay on the season just past, and I’ll never forget the palindromic title of the 1986 installment that culminated in the long-drawn-out, agonizing defeat of the seemingly eternally cursed Red Sox by my long-hapless, suddenly triumphant Mets: NOT SO, BOSTON. I am smuggling him into the hallowed halls of the Hattery by quoting a paragraph with an unusual verb usage, from his brilliant 1980 piece on Bob Gibson (the article link should work at the moment even for nonsubscribers, and anyone who loves the game should read the whole thing):

On another day, Omaha slowly came to a broil under a glazy white sun while Gibson and I ran some early-morning errands in his car—a visit to his bank, a stop at the drive-in window of another bank, where he picked up the payroll checks for Gibby’s—and wound up at the restaurant, where the daytime help greeted the boss cheerfully. Gibson seemed in an easy frame of mind, and he looked younger than ever. I recalled that many of his teammates had told me what good company he was in the dugout and on road trips—on days when he wasn’t pitching. He was a comical, shrill-voiced bench jockey, and a grouchy but lighthearted clubhouse agitator, who was sometimes known to bang a bat repeatedly and horribly on the metal locker of a teammate who was seen to be suffering the aftereffects of too many ice-cream sodas the previous evening. While he drove, Gibson, with a little urging, recalled how he had pitched to some of the prime hitters of his day—inside fastballs to Willie Mays (who feasted on breaking pitches), belt-high inside deliveries to Eddie Mathews, low and away to Roberto Clemente, and so on. He said that Frank Robinson used to deceive pitchers with his plate-crowding (Robinson was a right-handed slugger of fearsome power, whose customary stance at the plate was that of an impatient subway traveller leaning over the edge of the platform and peering down the tracks for the D train), because they took it to mean that he was eager for an inside pitch. “Besides,” he said, “they’d be afraid of hitting him and putting him on base. So they’d work him outside, and he’d hit the shit out of the ball. I always tried him inside, and I got him out there—sometimes. He was like Willie Mays—if you got the ball outside to Willie at all, he’d just kill you. The same with Clemente. I could throw him a fastball knee-high on the outside corner seventeen times in a row, but if I ever got it two inches up, he’d hit it out of sight. That’s the mark of a good hitter—the tiniest mistake and he’ll punish you. Other batters—well, somebody like Joe Adcock was just a guess hitter. You’d pitch him up and in, and he’d swing and miss every time. He just didn’t give a damn. I don’t know what’s the matter with so many hitters—it’s like their brains small up.” He shook his head and laughed softly. “Me, too. I got beat by Tommy Davis twice the same way. In one game, I’d struck him out three times on sliders away. But I saw that he’d been inching up and inching up toward that part of the plate, so I decided to fool him and come inside, and he hit a homer and beat me, one-oh. And then, in another game, I did exactly the same thing. I tried to outthink him, and he hit the inside pitch for a homer, and it was one-oh all over again. So I could get dumb, too.”

(I read aloud much of that paragraph, like so much else in the essay, to my wife, lingering with especial delight on “whose customary stance at the plate was that of an impatient subway traveller leaning over the edge of the platform and peering down the tracks for the D train.”) I was struck by Gibson’s “it’s like their brains small up”; the OED has an entry for the unusual verb to small (1. transitive. To make thin or small; to lessen, reduce. Also with down. […] 2. intransitive. To become thin or small; to diminish, grow less. Also with down, off), but no examples of it with up. Here are a couple of recent citations:

1999 National Geographic Dec. 47/2 The deer adapted to their environment by smalling down and enjoying having Big Pine to themselves.
2002 S. Burke Deadwater viii. 75 Her voice smalled off so pathetically that he might have hugged her but that she was responding too well.

Maybe now Gibby will make it in to the OED on Angell’s wings.
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A State of Chronic Abstraction.

Gavin Francis has a review of two books on switching languages (NYRB, May 26, 2022 issue; sorry, no archived link available yet, but I can read the whole thing without being a subscriber, so perhaps you can too):

A few weeks ago I was invited to the book festival in Trieste, in northeast Italy, a city of divided loyalties and complicated history. […] For my trip to Trieste I had packed perhaps the most appropriate reading material possible for someone living and moving between two languages—Memory Speaks by the academic psycholinguist Julie Sedivy and Alfabet/Alphabet by the poet Sadiqa de Meijer. Both writers moved to Canada as children, and though their books are very different, both examine their complicated relationship with their adopted language: the gifts of bilingualism, but also the visceral sense of unmooring they experienced as each lost touch with what Ghita El Khayat called the “milk language”—the language of lullabies and nursery rhymes.

I’ve written about Sedivy a number of times, most recently in 2018 (with a discussion of the Czech original of her surname, Šedivá, and a link in a comment to a “thorough and enticing review” of her new book at Sentence first), so I’ll confine myself here to quoting sections on the other book under review:

For de Meijer, to speak English every day is to live in a state of chronic abstraction—though she is fluent in the language, Dutch has remained much more dominant in her thought and speech. She agrees with the Polish Canadian writer Jowita Bydlowska that her second language is an “exoskeleton”—a tough hide of words that shield her from feeling. The poet in her is shocked by the incongruity between the associations her two languages evoke. One of her poems, written originally in English, contains the word harbour, which “conjures a generic image; there are ships, docks, and gulls, but it is nowhere that I can name.” Translating the poem herself, she substitutes the Dutch haven, and effects a magical transformation:

I saw our former river harbour, a charmless place of silos and concrete piers…a bicycle ride on an overcast afternoon, during which my youngest brother sat in a seat on my father’s handlebars. I was being somewhat reckless, biking in a slalom between the moorings, near the sheer drop to the water.

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Eid Mar.

I saw a news story recently about the sale of a rare Eid Mar aureus; you can read all about such coins here:

Marcus Brutus had declared to Cassius that “On the Ides of March I gave my own life to my country, and since then, for her sake, I have lived another life of liberty and glory” (Plutarch, Life of Brutus, XL.8). Fittingly, therefore, on the reverse of the denarius above is the embossed legend EID MAR (Eidibus Martiis), which abbreviates the Ides of March, the day that Caesar had been assassinated in 44 BC. […]

My question, of course, was “Why Eid rather than Id?” Fortunately, that question was asked on Quora and answered by Will Scathlocke:

Eidus is just an older way of spelling idus. A living language evolves, and what had initially been the diphthong /ei/, by the first century B.C. had been monophthongised to /i/ and most people had updated their spelling accordingly. When Brutus struck his coin, eidibus martiis, “on the Ides of March”, was just old-fashioned spelling. After all, there are still a few people left today, who write “cocoanut” while you no doubt, who have moved with the times, spell it “coconut”. As for me, who am behind the times, I still write “cocoanut” because that is how my teachers, who themselves were behind the times, taught me to spell it. As to the abbreviation itself, the Romans seem to have abbreviated words in slightly arbitrary fashion instead of by inflexible rule. (E)id was just how they abbreviated the word.

The OED updated its entry in November 2010:

Etymology: < classical Latin Īdūs, feminine plural noun ( < the same Italic base as Oscan eiduis (dative/ablative plural), further etymology unknown (perhaps an Etruscan loanword)); subsequently reinforced by its reflex Anglo-Norman and Middle French ides, Middle French ydes (French ides) (c1119 in Anglo-Norman; in Anglo-Norman and Old French also in singular ide). Compare Italian idi, plural noun (14th cent.).


A correspondent and occasional commenter writes:

I was catching up on some back issues of the TLS this morning and in the issue of March 4 I found the following sentence in a review by Blair Worden, Emeritus Fellow of St. Edmunds Hall at Oxford, of a book on the English civil war: “Keay (a former curator of Historic Royal Palaces and English Heritage, and now Director of the Landmark Trust) afforces her graphic and shrewdly observed characterizations with a range of expertise in the physical texture of the past.”

What caught me eye, as you can probably guess, is the verb “afforce.” Like you, I have worked as a copyeditor for many years, and I read a lot in general, and although it’s possible that I’ve encountered this word before, I can’t remember doing so. The meaning is obvious from the context, but I (and I suspect most people) would probably have written “reinforces” instead. So I looked up afforce in the OED, and it has a curious history. The basic sense (apply force to) is clear from the roots, and from the 14th to the 16th century it was used with a variety of now obsolete meanings: to exert oneself, to compel, to rape. The meaning in the sentence above, to strengthen or reinforce (sense 3 in the OED) is illustrated by examples from the 15th and 16th centuries, but then there is a gap until the end of the 19th century, and the OED editors have added a note: “Apparently unattested between the mid 16th and late 19th centuries. Later examples should probably be regarded as extended uses of sense 4.” That sense 4 is a technical legal sense, “to reinforce or strengthen a deliberative body; esp. to add a member or members to a jury when the original jurors cannot agree on a majority verdict.” In this sense, it is apparently a borrowing from Anglo-Norman and unattested in English until the late 18th century, when it begins to show up in the works of historians writing about legal practice in late mediaeval Britain.

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Nsibidi and Other Nigerian Writing Systems.

Njideka Agbo and Oreoritse Tariemi write about some unusual writing systems of Nigeria, starting with Nsibidi (which I posted briefly about here):

Conceived by the Ekoi (Ejagham) people of Cross River state in Nigeria, and used by exclusive societies for men of power and authority including the Ekpe Leopard Secret Society, before extending to other regions of Eastern Nigeria, Nsibidi’s ideograms share similarities with the hieroglyphs.

This exclusive form of writing fascinated the colonialists such that Author P.A Talbot described it as “a kind of primitive secret writing” which was communicated on “cut or painted on split palm stems”.

Despite its popularity, Nsibidi began to dwindle from 1900 until the final adoption of the Onwu Alphabet in 1961.

They go on to talk about Ajami (see this LH post) and Ńdébé (see this post), and then a new one:

[Chief Tolúlàṣẹ] Ògúntósìn has designed what he calls the Odùduwà alphabet (the talking alphabet). Speaking to Global Voices, he said that he was inspired to write the 25 alphabet script after he visited his ancestral shrine in Badagry, a historic town in Lagos, Nigeria. Soon after this journey, he began to have constant dreams where he visited the sun and was “shown the alphabet in the form of lightning.”

They end with this utopian suggestion:

[Kọ́lá] Túbọ̀sún is of the opinion that only a pan-african script that can transcend all Nigerian languages will effectively work.

“The biggest problem I see with most of the scripts including Ńdébé is that they are dealing with the tone…because Yoruba, Igbo and some of these languages are tonal, every script will fail if it doesn’t find a way to deal with the tonal properties of these languages. If you are thinking of a pan-Nigerian language, then we have to make sure it is a language that can be adopted all round the country.”

There are a number of interesting illustrations. Thanks, Trevor!

Translator’s Dilemma.

Recently Stan Carey wrote me: “This thread by Emily Wilson is a treat, if you haven’t seen it.” When I said I wished there were a threadreader version, he kindly provided me with one, and here it is; it starts:

A classic translator’s dilemma, which presumably applies for any language pair: what to do about the fact that languages individuate the world differently. One language makes a distinction where another makes none.

One area where this often happens is family relationships. Many languages distinguish between different types of cousin (father’s side/ mother’s side) or different types of in-law (a sister’s husband, versus a wife’s brother). Others, like English, don’t.

Often, these distinctions matter, in the context of the original culture or text — but there is no way to convey both register or degree of marked-ness (“this is the normal term”) as well as referent (“husband’s brother’s wife” is generally not idiomatic English).

A small instance of this vast area that I wrestle with all the time in the Iliad is the clear, common distinction between striking an enemy with a projectile missile (βάλλω) or striking with weapon still held in the attacker’s hand (τύπτω). Homer frequently uses phrases that express both distinct possibilities, as alternatives: these are the two ways you can kill or be killed in battle. But there is no pair of English verbs (let alone, two syllable English verbs) that expresses precisely this distinction.

She goes on to describe various ways of trying to handle the distinction; this is the kind of thing I love to read. Thanks, Stan!

Ein Döner bitte.

Fabian, an Australian living in Berlin, writes about the difficulties of not knowing the culinary code in a foreign land:

Ordering a bagel in NYC is like cracking a code. What kinds of bagel are there? Do you call it a bagel or a sandwich? Is it wrong to put egg and cheese on a Cinnamon-Raisin bagel (I hope so)? You’re somehow expected to just know, and if you don’t, then you’re clearly new to the city. And that’s not a terrible thing – people are mostly tolerant – but it’s a little embarrassing, so you’re motivated to overcome it pretty quickly.

I remember experiencing this when I moved to Berlin, and was completely unsure of how Döner worked, but now it just kinda mumbles out of my mouth automatically and it has such a rhythm and inertia to it that I don’t think I could change the order even if I wanted to:

“Ein Döner bitte, Soße Scharf Kräuter, Salat komplett mit allem“

(One Döner please, sauce spicy / herbs, salad complete / with everything)

There’s a Döner shop in the DeKalb food court in Brooklyn, and aside from the obvious heresy that a Döner is $12.75 (plus tax!!), I think if I tried ordering like this I’d just get a lot of confused looks. I don’t even know what they call their sauces; I’m sure it’s not a literal translation from the German.

Back home, in Berlin, tourists turn up at Döner stalls and get everyone confused because they don’t know the system. The Dönermann asks “Sauce?” and the tourists don’t know the Three Blessèd Options (Chili / Garlic / Herb Yoghurt), and the people running the Döner shops are often first-generation Turkish migrants who haven’t always learned enough English to make it work. Nor should they; they all paid their penance when they arrived by learning German.

The whole thing is excellent (and don’t skip the footnotes); I love the guy who says sympathetically “Ich hasse Englisch.” I think the “Bagel code” angst is overblown (there are labels right next to the different kinds of bagels, you don’t have to guess, and in what context would you call it a sandwich?), but as a New Yorker (in spirit if no longer in body), I would, wouldn’t I?

The Doomed City.

Having finished Tatyana Tolstaya’s Кысь (The Slynx; see this post) and been underwhelmed, I thought I’d take a break from chronology and read a Strugatsky novel I’d been saving, Град обреченный (translated by Andrew Bromfield as The Doomed City). Sadly, I was again underwhelmed, and as I wrote to Lisa Hayden, it didn’t even seem like that much of a change: “It has remarkable similarities to Кысь — a thoroughly nasty, stupid, amoral protagonist rises from (literally) the muck to become chief assistant to a fascist dictator after a coup.” In this case, the action is set in what Dmitry Glukhovsky, who wrote the introduction to the translation (and says it’s his favorite Strugatsky novel), calls “a hermetic world that is located outside time and space” — though Glukhovsky also thinks the city of the novel is basically a warped-mirror version of Leningrad, where the authors were from. Marat Grinberg, in his LARB review of the translation, provides a useful summary:

The plot takes place in a city with “infinite Void to the West and infinite Solidity to the east,” where the sun is extinguished and reignited at will. Some unknown power is conducting an experiment, importing people from all over the post–World War II globe. The city constitutes a matrix, an explicit parallel mirror dimension to the Soviet Union. It also functions as a Tower of Babel: Russians, Germans, Chinese, Americans, and others labor there together, each speaking their own language yet somehow understanding each other. This linguistic miracle, however, does not at all translate into other spheres of the city’s life, which is gray, restrictive, secretive, and operating under empty slogans. This speculative setting allows the Strugatskys to condense different Soviet epochs — the Stalinist period, the liberal Thaw period, and the stagnation period of the 1970s — into one place and time. Throughout the novel these periods do not follow each other chronologically but are jumbled up and interwoven, symbolizing the unchanging vicious circle of Soviet history.

The city’s residents are assigned jobs and professions, which they must change on a regular basis. One resident, Andrei Voronin, acts as the protagonist of the novel, a young astronomer (like Boris Strugatsky) plucked from Leningrad in 1951, six years after the end of the war and two years before Stalin’s death. A janitor in the first part, he moves up the social ladder throughout the text: from a prosecutor, to chief editor of the city newspaper, to senior counselor in the new regime, installed by Nazi Officer Fritz Heiger. In his memoirs, Boris Strugatsky masterfully sums up the essence of Andrei’s journey as “a Komsomol Leninist-Stalinist, a thoroughgoing communist true believer, a champion of the happiness of the common people, who evolves with such spontaneous ease into a top-ranking bureaucrat, a smooth, lordly, self-indulgent, petty chieftain and arbiter of human destiny” as well as “the comrade-in-arms of an inveterate Hitlerite Nazi,” indicating “how much these apparent ideological antagonists turn out to have in common.”

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Einen feinen Pinsel.

From Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich. LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, tr. Martin Brady (via Laudator Temporis Acti):

The variations in speech dependent on class are by no means merely of aesthetic significance. Rather, I am convinced that the unfortunate mistrust between intellectuals and proletarians is largely a result of their different linguistic habits. There were so many occasions during these years when I said to myself: how on earth shall I put it? Workers like to use fruity expressions relating to digestion in every sentence. If I did the same he would notice it didn’t come naturally and regard me as a hypocrite trying to ingratiate myself; however, if I talk naturally, or as I was taught in the nursery and at school, he will think me arrogant or a jumped-up so-and-so.

Die Verschiedenartigkeit des Sprechens je nach der Sozialschicht ist ja keineswegs nur von ästhetischer Bedeutsamkeit. Vielmehr bin ich überzeugt davon, daß das unselige Mißtrauen zwischen den Gebildeten und den Proletariern zu einem sehr großen Teil gerade auf den Unterschieden der Sprachgewohnheit beruht. Wie oft in diesen Jahren habe ich mir gesagt : Wie soll ich’s nur anstellen? Der Arbeiter liebt es, in jedem Satz die saftigen Ausdrücke der Verdauung zu verwenden. Tu ich desgleichen, so merkt er, daß mir das nicht vom Herzen kommt, und hält mich für einen Heuchler, der sich anschmieren will; red’ ich aber, wie mir der Schnabel gewachsen oder in Kinderstube und Schule geformt worden ist, dann hält er mich für hochmütig, für einen feinen Pinsel.

Pinsel is ‘(paint)brush,’ but it has a slang sense ‘simpleton, dope.’ I would never have guessed that Verdauung means ‘digestion’; apparently it’s from an obsolete verb dauen, of unclear etymology. It is, of course, notable that the common folk of Germany use “expressions relating to digestion” (I presume that’s his delicate way of suggesting shit); in English and Russian, similar expressions involve, uh, reproduction.