Arseny Learns German.

I’m reading Eugene Vodolazkin’s 2012 novel Лавр in Lisa Hayden’s superb translation as Laurus, and I’ve come across a passage that seemed eminently Hatworthy. Our hero Arseny, a 15th-century village healer, has gotten enough renown for his success that his patients in Belozersk are giving him plenty of money (Christofer is the grandfather who raised him and taught him about healing herbs):

Arseny used the money to buy several small books that he chanced upon: they described the healing properties of herbs and stones. One of them was a doctor book from abroad, and Arseny paid the merchant Afanasy Flea, who had visited German lands, for a translation. Flea’s translation was extremely approximate, which limited opportunities for using the book. Arseny employed the book’s prescriptions only when they coincided with what he knew from Christofer.

By following along as the merchant read the unfamiliar symbols and translated the words they composed, Arseny grew interested in the correlations between languages. Thanks to the story of the confusion of tongues, Arseny knew of the existence of seventy-two world languages, but he had yet, in his whole life, to hear a single one of them beyond Russian. His lips moving, he repeated the unaccustomed combinations of sounds and words to himself, after Flea. When he learned their meanings, it surprised him that familiar things could be expressed in such an unusual and—this was the main thing—awkward way. At the same time, the multitude of opportunities for expression entranced and attracted Arseny. He tried to memorize correlations between Russian and German words, along with Flea’s pronunciation, which probably did not correspond to authentic German pronunciation.

The enterprising Flea quickly noticed Arseny’s interest and offered to give him German lessons. Arseny readily agreed. Essentially, these new lessons were nothing like the usual notions of teaching, because Afanasy Flea was unable to say anything intelligible about language in general. He had never thought about its structure and certainly did not know its rules. At first the lessons consisted of nothing more than the merchant reading more of the doctor book aloud and translating it. These language lessons differed from their previous translation sessions only because at the end of each section, Flea asked Arseny:

Got that?

This allowed the merchant to charge Arseny a double fee: for translation and for lessons. Arseny did not begrudge the money so he did not grumble. He valued Afanasy Flea as the only person in Belozersk familiar to any degree with speech from abroad. Understanding that he would achieve little by merely reading the doctor book, Arseny decided to make use of one of his instructor’s undeniable merits: Flea possessed a good ear and a tenacious memory.

During his time spent on lengthy trips in the land of Germany, Flea had mastered phrases to be uttered in various situations and could repeat those words when asked probing questions. Arseny described these situations for Flea and asked what to say in those cases. The merchant (this is so easy!) waved his hands around, surprised, and reported all the versions he had heard. Arseny wrote down what Flea said. When he was alone, he put his notes in order. He extracted the unfamiliar words from the expressions he heard from Flea and registered them in a special little dictionary.

I presume he will make use of this knowledge later in his travels. The novel is delightfully cavalier about historical accuracy (the author calls it «неисторический роман» — “an unhistorical novel”); there are occasional dips into the future (at one point someone quotes the Little Prince: “For what you have tamed, you become responsible forever”), and the language mingles Ye Olde Church Slavic with modern colloquialisms in a pleasing way which Hayden renders with perfect pitch (her equivalents for “бля” are a master class in themselves). She even comes up with a spectacular equivalent of the pun in “Корова (что в вымени тебе моем?)” (an allusion to the Pushkin poem “Что в имени тебе моём” ‘What is in my name for you,’ with в вымени ‘in udder’ substituted for в имени ‘in name’): “The cow (how shall I udder your name?).” Highly recommended!

The Russian original is below the cut:
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I’m reading Alexander M. Martin’s brilliant Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1762-1855 (it’s been on my shelf for several years now, and I’ve been saving it as a treat), and I’ve gotten to this passage on p. 80 (he’s discussing Gerhard Friedrich Müller’s article on Moscow [pp. 182-94] in “Russia’s first geographic dictionary”):

Absent is almost any reference to the people of Moscow. “The people” was no alien topic to Müller. He spoke excellent Russian, and few knew the country as he did. He had traveled vast distances on his decade-long Siberian odyssey, and had written extensively on Siberian ethnography; the very word ethnography originated as a calque of a term, Völker-Beschreibung, that Müller coined in his writings on Siberia.

The etymological claim of course intrigued me, but the OED (entry updated March 2014) just says “after German Ethnographie (1767 or earlier).” Martin references the statement to Han Vermeulen’s “Von der Völker-Beschreibung zur Völkerkunde: ethnologische Ansichten von Gerhard Friedrich Müller und August Friedrich Schlözer,” which is available on, but I refuse to give those people my e-mail address. So if anybody is already signed up with them and wants to check what Vermeulen says on the subject, or happens to already know something about the history of the word, I will be grateful for more information.

The Dispersed Manuscripts of Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

Peter Tarras has started a blog Membra Dispersa Sinaitica whose first post has the usefully descriptive name A Blog Dedicated to the Dispersed Manuscript Heritage of Saint Catherine’s Monastery:

1. “The history of the Sinai library till the second half of the nineteenth century is mostly a history of its despoiling”. The Soviet Byzantinist Vladimir Beneshevich (1874-1938) made this statement as early as 1911. At that point, scholars were only just beginning to get an idea of the extent of this “despoiling”. Moreover, the manuscripts of the Sinai library were still to be traded in Egypt and also in Europe and North America. St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai incontestably holds one of the world’s most important collections of ancient manuscripts. Only a few days ago, the news went through international media that Grigory Kessel (Austrian Academy of Sciences) has discovered a rare fragment (image 1) of one of the oldest Bible translations whose text (not the manuscript itself) dates back to the third century CE. The fragment originated from St Catherine’s Monastery, but is now kept in the Vatican Library. It is only one of the huge, yet elusive number of manuscripts to which Beneshevich drew attention. These are Sinai’s dispersed manuscripts – membra dispersa sinaitica. This blog is dedicated to their history. […]

3. I came across a Sinaitic fragment outside Sinai for the first time in 2016 in the Bavarian State Library, Munich (MS Munich, Bavarian State Library, 1071; image 2). It belongs to a Christian Arabic parchment manuscript, probably written in the 9th century CE and containing biblical and theological texts. I got to see its parent codex at St Catherine’s Monastery in March 2017 (MS Sinai, St Catherine’s Monastery, Ar. 155, image 3). When I started researching its provenance, I soon learned that this manuscript’s “biography” (object-life) was connected to a staggering amount of other Sinaitic manuscripts outside Sinai. I also learned that long before me others, including Grigory Kessel, had already dedicated themselves to the painstaking task of reassembling dispersed Sinaitic manuscripts.

4. This work not only consists in joining fragments, but also in uncovering provenance history. A more recent awareness across philological disciplines of just how inseperable issues of provenance are from the meaning of written artefacts stored in modern western institutions has given rise to new approaches towards the study of manuscripts as bearers of text and material entities. These recent developments in manuscript studies, together with the fact that since 2016 I had collected notes on dispersed Sinaitic manuscripts (primarily Arabic ones), their collectors, and their former and present holding institutions, gave rise to the wish to bring this material together somewhere.

Via a FB post by Slavomír Čéplö (aka bulbul). A valuable project — I hope it continues and thrives.

Kaktovik Numerals on Unicode.

Amory Tillinghast-Raby writes for Scientific American (archived) about an interesting story of numeral creation:

In the remote Arctic almost 30 years ago, a group of Inuit middle school students and their teacher invented the Western Hemisphere’s first new number system in more than a century. The “Kaktovik numerals,” named after the Alaskan village where they were created, looked utterly different from decimal system numerals and functioned differently, too. But they were uniquely suited for quick, visual arithmetic using the traditional Inuit oral counting system, and they swiftly spread throughout the region. Now, with support from Silicon Valley, they will soon be available on smartphones and computers—creating a bridge for the Kaktovik numerals to cross into the digital realm. […]

The Alaskan Inuit language, known as Iñupiaq, uses an oral counting system built around the human body. Quantities are first described in groups of five, 10, and 15 and then in sets of 20. The system “is really the count of your hands and the count of your toes,” says Nuluqutaaq Maggie Pollock, who taught with the Kaktovik numerals in Utqiagvik, a city 300 miles northwest of where the numerals were invented. For example, she says, tallimat—the Iñupiaq word for 5—comes from the word for arm: taliq. “In your one arm, you have tallimat fingers,” Pollock explains. Iñuiññaq, the word for 20, represents a whole person. In traditional practices, the body also serves as a mathematical multitool. “When my mother made me a parka, she used her thumb and her middle finger to measure how many times she would be able to cut the material,” Pollock says. “Before yardsticks or rulers, [Iñupiat people] used their hands and fingers to calculate or measure.” […]

The Kaktovik numerals started as a class project to adapt the counting system to a written form. The numerals, based on tally marks, “look like” the Iñupiaq words they represent. For example, the Iñupiaq word for 18, “akimiaq piŋasut,” meaning “15-3,” is depicted with three horizontal strokes, representing three groups of 5 (15) above three vertical strokes representing 3.

“In the Iñupiaq language, there wasn’t a word for 0,” says William Clark Bartley, the teacher who helped develop the numerals. “The girl who gave us the symbol for 0, she just crossed her arms above her head like there was nothing.” The class added her suggestion—an X-like mark—to their set of unique numerals for 1 through 19 and invented what mathematicians would call a base 20 positional value system. (Technically, it is a two-dimensional positional value system with a primary base of 20 and a sub-base of 5.) […]

Now support from Silicon Valley is helping to reignite the Kaktovik numerals. Thanks to efforts by linguists working with the Script Encoding Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, the numerals were included in the September 2022 update of Unicode, an international information technology standard that enables the digitization of the world’s written languages. The new release, Unicode 15.0, provides a virtual identifier for each Kaktovik numeral so developers can incorporate them into digital displays. “It really is revolutionary for us,” Judkins says. “Right now we either have to use photos of the numerals or write them by hand.”

There are very useful illustrations at the link, as well as much more about history and use. Thanks, Eduardo!


Joel at Far Outliers is posting excerpts from Britain at War with the Asante Nation, 1823–1900: “The White Man’s Grave” by Stephen Manning (Pen & Sword Books, 2021), and the post Foundation of the Asante Nation includes this etymology:

The name Asante seems to have derived from a special red clay the people sent to the dominant tribe, the Denkyira, as a form of payment or tribute of allegiance. The Akans call clay ‘Asan’, therefore the Asantes were differentiated from others with the name ‘Asan-tefo’, or those who dig clay.

Of course this aroused my curiosity, so I googled and discovered there is an alternative version, presented by Wikipedia thus:

The name Asante means “because of war”. The word derives from the Twi words ɔsa meaning “war” and nti meaning “because of”. This name comes from the Asante’s origin as a kingdom created to fight the Denkyira kingdom.

That sounds very much like a folk etymology to me, but of course the same could be true of Manning’s; anybody know more about this? (Wiktionary says “From Twi asànté,” which isn’t much help.)
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Pepperstein’s Prague Night.

During the last few days I’ve gobbled up Pavel Pepperstein’s 2011 novel Пражская ночь, translated by Andrew Bromfield as A Prague Night. It’s short and very readable, like the two previous novels I’ve zipped through — Yuri Buida’s Третье сердце [Third heart], about a Russian obsessed with his role in past killings who meets a psychopathic one-legged girl in 1926 Paris, and Vladimir Sorokin’s Метель [The Blizzard], in which Dr. Garin is so determined to bring zombie-plague vaccine to an affected town that he forces the cheerful Perkhusha and his fifty mini-horses to drive through an increasingly dangerous blizzard — and I’m posting about it because it’s particularly language-oriented as well as very well written. But before I get to that stuff, I have to confess that I fell in love with it because it’s set in, and saturated with, the city of Prague.

I spent a couple of weeks in Prague in the course of two visits, a quarter of a century ago now, and I found it magical, full of both antique ghosts (defenestrations! Kafka!) and modern energy, not to mention good food and superb beer (my favorite hangout was U Pinkasů near the northern end of Václavské náměstí). I walked as many streets as I could in both Old and New Towns, I visited the Castle and Vyšehrad and the Old Jewish Cemetery (where I placed a stone on Rabbi Löw’s grave), I tossed a coin off the Charles Bridge, I did all the tourist things, so I was the perfect audience for Pepperstein’s travelogue (at one point his narrator apologizes for describing yet another colorful part of town, and I mentally said “Don’t apologize, keep it up!”). So discount my enthusiasm a tad unless you are similarly besotted with the city.
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I was reading Nicholas Penny’s LRB review (archived) of the Carlo Crivelli exhibit at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery when I hit a word unfamiliar to me (my bolding):

Gesso relief of this kind was probably first devised and certainly most often used for the representation of haloes, but in the Vatican altarpiece Crivelli superimposed a crown on a halo – relief on relief. He sometimes attempted high relief, giving some of his saints accessories carved in wood (a morse in one case and a pair of keys in another).

I had absolutely no idea what a morse might be, but the OED came to the rescue: it’s “The clasp or fastening of a cope, frequently made of gold or silver, and set with precious stones.” It turns out that there are two nouns morse (ignoring the capitalized code); both entries were updated in December 2002, and both have interesting etymologies. This one says:

Etymology: < Middle French mors (c1160 in Old French in this sense; also in Old French in sense ‘piece, bit’ (1176), and in Anglo-Norman and Old French in sense ‘bite, mouthful’ (c1120 in Old French); compare morsel n.)) < classical Latin morsus bite, catch (of a buckle) < mordēre to bite (see mordant adj.) + -sus, variant of -tus, suffix forming verbal nouns.

It makes sense that a word for ‘clasp, fastening’ would come from a verb ‘to bite,’ but it was still unexpected. The other morse means either ‘walrus’ (“Now rare”) or ‘hippopotamus’ (“Obsolete”):
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The Universe Is the Rule.

This is just a minipostlet, but I have to record one of the best typos I’ve ever seen. I’m reading Christopher Priest’s sf novel Inverted World and have just gotten to a passage about how the world works; I won’t provide context (spoilers!), but in the e-book I’m reading I came across the sentence “Here the universe is the rule.” I was startled and amused, realizing in a split second (thanks to years of copyediting) that it was an error for “Here the inverse is the rule” (which is apparently what is found in other editions). That would make an excellent item for an editing test!

Sin Wenz.

Back in 2010, when I was reading Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 and reporting enthusiastically on it (see the final post and the links therein), I made several posts about the adoption of Latin-based and then Cyrillic-based scripts for the various languages of the realm, and in one of them I mentioned the proposed latinization of Chinese, called Sin Wenz (i.e., 新文字 Xīn Wénzì). Now I’m sharing a more detailed discussion from Jing Tsu’s Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, via Far Outliers (see this post for an earlier quote from that book):

In 1921, twenty-two-year-old Qu Qiubai was dispatched by a Chinese news syndicate from Beijing to the Soviet Union with a mission to report on the post-Bolshevik regime. The journey would become a personal quest as well as a political pilgrimage for this rookie journalist with delicate features and a touch of melancholy. Qu unexpectedly met many compatriots on his way to Moscow, among them Chinese laborers and shopkeepers ensconced in the Far East cities of Irkutsk and Chita.

Qu was sent back to Russia in 1928 with many of his fellow Chinese Marxists to regroup under the tutelage of their Bolshevik brothers. By this time, the language question occupied the forefront of the Soviet Union’s policy toward its own national minorities. The newly unified Soviet Union included swaths of Central Asia that did not speak or read Russian. […]

The Soviets were eager to include the Chinese laborers of the Amur region as a test group in their anti-illiteracy Latinization campaigns, hoping to extend their influence even further into Asia. These were the Chinese laborers whom Qu had met during his first trip to the Soviet Union. Their illiteracy rate was almost 100 percent.

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The origin of the word April is mysterious; Henry Hoenigswald called it “the most obscure of the Latin month names.” This was in his 1941 article “On Etruscan and Latin Month-Names” (American Journal of Philology 62.2: 199-206), which begins with Émile Benveniste:

After rejecting for good reasons the Indo-European etymologies of the word, he recognizes its Etruscan character and ties it up with the proper names Lat. Aprilius Aprius Apronius, Etr. apruntial, the combination of which leads to an Etr. *apru. *apru, for its part, may be identified with the Greek short-name Ἀφρώ “Ἀφροδίτα,” a form which the Etruscans would have taken over, like so many other mythical elements, from central Greece. Under such circumstances it is perhaps not a mere accident if in Thessalic calendars a month Ἂφριος appears, which corresponds to late March and early April.

Hoenigswald then adduces Etruscan Amp(h)iles ‘May’ and says that not only does it share “the well known Etruscan -l-suffix,” but “it can also be shown that its structure is essentially analogous to that of Aprilis.” After much discussion of other Etruscan names, he concludes:

Thus, the mediaeval tradition of Etruscan month-names deserves more credence than it is usually given. It is highly probable that the Etruscans named their months after gods; and it is a lucky accident that just that part of the Etruscan language with which we are most familiar, the proper names, contains enough related elements to let us know or guess the significance of those denominations, and the principles of their formation.

The OED (entry updated December 2008) is dubious, saying Latin Aprīlis is “of uncertain origin; perhaps < Etruscan,” but the derivation is certainly attractive and I’m tentatively adopting it. Anatoly Liberman, in his investigation, says “All things considered, the Etruscan origin of April is hardly more convincing than the others we have examined here,” but he doesn’t reference Hoenigswald, and I rarely agree with him anyway. Thanks for the links, Bruce!

Update. Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti has kindly provided Robert Maltby’s entry on Aprilis from A Lexicon of Ancient Latin Etymologies (Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1991).