Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi Novel.

Alexandra Alter writes for the NY Times (archived) about an unexpected literary success:

When Geetanjali Shree’s novel “Tomb of Sand” was released in India five years ago, many didn’t know what to make of it. The story — about an 80-year-old woman who refuses to get out of bed — shifts perspective without warning, gives voice to birds and inanimate objects and includes invented words and gibberish.

Some declared it an experimental masterpiece. Others found it impenetrable. Sales in India were modest. So Shree was stunned when the book, in an English translation, captivated readers, critics and literary prize committees in the West — a rare, and perhaps unparalleled, feat for a book written in Hindi.

For Shree, who is 65 and lives in Delhi, writing in Hindi isn’t a political or literary statement, but an organic creative choice. “Hindi chose me,” she said. “That’s my mother tongue.” Her decision, however, and her novel’s success, are having an impact in India and beyond, bringing attention to the wealth and diversity of the Indian literary landscape, often overlooked by the West, with its focus on English-language writing.

“Her insistence on holding on to her Hindi and taking it to the next level, it shows a path to other Indian writers who feel like they have to write in English because of the hegemony of English,” Jenny Bhatt, a writer and translator of Gujarati literature, said of Shree.

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Dream Languages.

Sophie Hardach, the author of Languages Are Good For Us and frequently featured here at the Hattery (language loss, machine translation of Sumerian, translating languages that don’t have large written corpora, etc.), has another good BBC Future piece, Why we can dream in more than one language. It begins:

Just after I began work on this article, I had a very fitting dream. I was hosting a party in a hotel suite, with guests from the US, Pakistan, and other countries. Most of the guests were chatting away in English; one or two spoke German, my mother tongue. At one point I couldn’t find my son, and panicked. When I spotted him, I sighed a relieved “Ach, da bist du ja!” – “There you are!”, in German – and gave him a hug.

If you speak more than one language, you may have had similar experiences of them mingling in your sleep. My own dreams often feature English, which I speak in daily life here in London, as well as German, my childhood language. But how and why do our brains come up with these multilingual dreams – and could they have an impact on our real-life language skills?

She goes on to talk about generalities (“instead of randomly replaying linguistic snippets from our day, our brain appears to mash them up with all sorts of daytime worries, memories and problems. It may even create entire dialogues in an unknown, fantasy language”) and gives more examples, like:

There are also linguistic anxiety dreams, in which the speaker struggles to make themselves understood in a foreign language, has to catch a train or plane from one linguistic setting to another, or looks for words in a dream dictionary. A Polish study participant reported dreaming of an English word she couldn’t figure out – “haphazard” – then looking it up when awake. A Croatian participant dreamed of trying and failing to communicate with a stranger in Italian, German and English before realising they both spoke Polish, and laughing with relief.

Then she proceeds to the discoveries of researchers:
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Language Crawler.

I just discovered Language Crawler, “Crawling the Internet for news, books, videos & resources about languages & linguistics for linguaphiles, polyglots, and language lovers.” I see from the Blog Archive that after a brave start of 22 posts in its inaugural year of 2015, there were only one each in the next two years, then one in 2019 and one in 2021, but even if it’s petered out for good the material is there, and what particularly recommends it to me is its Amazon shop, which has collections of books for Thai and Lao (39 items), Catalan and Galician (16), Georgian (13), Pashto and Baluchi (23), Gothic (10), Maltese (9), and, well, lots more. I imagine the items vary in quality, but still, it’s useful to have so many books organized so conveniently.

Country Speech.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a passage from Vita Sackville-West’s Country Notes (1939):

How much one regrets that local turns of speech should be passing away! There was a freshness and realism about them which kept the language alive and can never be replaced. Imported into prose they become fossilised and affected, for, accurately reported though they may be in those novels of rural life of which one grows so tired, the spontaneity and even the accent are lacking; imported into poetry, they instantly sound like the archaisms of a poetic convention. If I read the phrase, ‘The cattle do be biding in the meads’, it gives me no pleasure at all, but if a cowman says it to me (as he once actually did) it fills me with delight. I like also being informed that the rabbits are ‘interrupting’ or ‘interfering with’ the young trees; at least, I do not like the fact, but the way in which it is conveyed does much to mitigate my annoyance. I resent the mud less when I am told that the cows have ‘properly slubbed it up’. Then sometimes comes a proverbial ring: ‘He talks too much, talk and do never did lie down together.’ I do not see where we are to find such refreshing imagery in future, unless, indeed, we look to America where the genius of the vivid phrase still seems to abide.

It’s an acute observation that reminds me of the “kids say the darndest things” phenomenon: when you actually hear a kid say something cute, it’s great, but when you see it written down in a magazine it becomes annoying. (And I’m afraid the genius of the vivid phrase no longer abides in America.)

The Narrow Place.

I was reading Sarah Wildman’s moving NY Times account (archived) of her daughter’s struggle with liver cancer when I was struck by the following passage:

It is not the first time we have been in what rabbis call the meitzar, the biblical narrow place — a place of compression. The meitzar is an expression of all the things that can make life impossibly hard. It appears in Psalm 118: From the narrow place I called to God, the psalm says; I was answered, it continues, from expansiveness. We are constantly seeking moments of that expansiveness, to take a deeper breath.

I thought “From the narrow place I called to God” is powerful and memorable; why don’t I remember it?” Turns out that’s because the major English translations render the line very differently: the King James has “I called upon the LORD in distress,” and most others follow it, either using “distress” or synonyms like “out of trouble” or “out of affliction” (or, in the pathetic-sounding Contemporary English Version, “When I was really hurting”). The Russian Synodal Translation, however, has “Из тесноты” [from narrowness/tightness]. I decided to see if I could find scholarly discussion of the line, and Google Books turned up Harry S. May’s “Psalm 118: The Song of the Citadel,” in Jacob Neusner (ed.), Religions in Antiquity: Essays in Memory of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough (Wipf & Stock, 2004), pp. 97 ff., which says:
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Quondam Hoodoos.

As part of his Facebook series quoting 19th-century press reports of baseball games, Richard Hershberger posted a Baltimore American story from August 19, 1894, that begins:

It was a glorious day at Union Park yesterday. Nearly 7,000 people saw the Orioles wipe up the earth with their quondam hoodoos; saw the birds outplay and outbat their opponents, and win in brilliant style by the jug-handled score of 17 to 2.

Hershberger points out that the “quondam hoodoos” were the Pirates and adds:

We don’t see sports writing like that anymore! Note the out-of-town scoreboard is a chalkboard, not one of those fancy 20th century contraptions like you see at Wrigley Field. Also, calling the Baltimore team the “birds.” I’m not sure when that started, but it had taken hold by this time, at least in the Baltimore press.

I would add that the Orioles became part of the new American League in 1901 before relocating to New York City after two seasons and becoming the New York Yankees; I’ll try not to hold it against them. But my main interest, needless to say, is in the phrase “quondam hoodoos,” which is a fine example of what I called in 2020 “the rumbustious grandiloquence that has always appealed to the American soul.” Happily, the OED updated its hoodoo entry in September 2021; the etymology is “Apparently < Louisiana Creole houdou, variant of voudou, denoting the religion (compare voodoo n. 1), in English subsequently distinguished in meaning, with a shift in emphasis away from the religion, and the development of additional senses not paralleled for voodoo n.” The progression of senses is:
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Reveling in German.

Jude Stewart writes for LitHub about her relationship with German:

Nachträglichkeit (noun): “Afterwardness”

Every time I return to Berlin—and this is now 17 years’ worth of returning—I also return to speaking German. I’m always flooded with thoughts and observations about this return. Speaking German elicits big, inarticulate feelings: It’s good, it’s familiar, it’s awful, it’s tumultuous, it’s suddenly great again. But why?

German is the fourth foreign language I’ve studied, the others being French, Japanese and Spanish in that order. Since childhood I’ve wanted to become fluent in a foreign language—any language—and, before German, had only gotten maddeningly close. […]

Why did I stick with German so long? Why German? All of my answers feel like alibis, and maybe they are. Childhood ambitions don’t often play out precisely as envisioned; you feel lucky if they can play out at all. […]

[Read more…]


Back in 2012, I posted about “fake Arabic,” but that focused on the theory (so to speak); Lynne Rutter’s The Ornamentalist post Pseudo-Kufic: A Secret Ornamental Language shows you images of the thing itself, and gorgeous images they are. She writes:

A great number of paintings of the late Byzantine and Early Renaissance era used a similar design device: arabesque lettering, painted as the embroidered decoration in the hems of garments or edges of carpets. Sometimes it was copied from artifacts, and sometimes it was wholly invented. This script is referred to as Pseudo-Kufic.

Influenced by exotic artifacts brought back from the Middle East through both conflict and trade with the Ottoman Empire, Early Renaissance painters embellished their work with complicated patterns and eastern-style scripts in an effort to create an “oriental” atmosphere, especially with regard to persons or scenes from the Holy Land. Eastern Kufic script was a particularly ornamental style of calligraphy dating from the 11th century, whose design lent itself well to borders.

There’s much more at the post, which I highly recommend.

Languages of the Silk Road.

Hannes A. Fellner has a post on the Junge-Akademie-Blog, Sprachkontakte an der Seidenstraße [Language contact on the Silk Road], that has a good many nice bits, like the section “Gegen Sprachpurismus” [Against language purism], and its whole thrust is against any sort of language essentialism (music to my ears), but I’m bringing it here for a map that even non-German-speakers can appreciate, the map “Sprachvielfalt an der östlichen Seidenstraße” [Language diversity on the eastern Silk Road] (scroll down until you see a map). It shows the amazing variety of languages found by archeologists in the area, including Sogdian, Pahlavi, Tocharian A and B, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Hebrew, Syriac, and Greek. That should be our image of the past (and, if you ask me, our ideal), not the linguistic monocultures too many people idealize these days. (Via a Facebook post from A Comprehensive Edition of Tocharian Manuscripts.)

Cobwebbing, Rizz, etc.

In their Sunday Style section, the NY Times had a Valentine’s Day spread that included a sidebar on the new language of relationships (well, some of it not so new, like “gaslighting” and “ghosting”). I can’t find it on the NYT site, where it seems to have been replaced by a quiz based on it, but it’s been mirrored at the Irish Times; you can either take the quiz (archived) or go straight to the explanations (archived).

The NYT section also featured an interesting piece called “How Multilingual Couples Express Their Love Across Languages” which is worth a read (archived). Sample quotes: “Their first conversations were in English, but as their relationship evolved, French became increasingly important in communicating affection and romance”; “When we got married […] we each said our wedding vows aloud in our native language: I in English and he, in German.”

Oh, and “rizz” is shortened from “charisma,” which I wouldn’t have guessed.