Some of you may have wondered what my wife and I are reading in the evenings now that we’ve finished Life: A User’s Manual. We felt the need for something shorter and lighter, a sort of palate cleanser, so we decided to read Nabokov’s Pnin, about the travails of a bumbling but good-hearted Russian émigré teaching his native language at “Waindell College” (a stand-in for Cornell, where Nabokov himself taught). I last read it around four decades ago, so it’s practically new to me, and I get much more of a kick out of the Russian material than I could possibly have back then (I immediately recognized the pastiche of Akhmatova in the poem by Pnin’s appalling ex-wife, for example). I was vastly amused by the unfair but hilarious portrayal of linguistics in the book’s fifth paragraph, which I will pass on to you:

…nor did Pnin, as a teacher, ever presume to approach the lofty halls of modern scientific linguistics, that ascetic fraternity of phonemes, that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method; which method, like a waterfall splashing from rock to rock, ceases to be a medium of rational navigation but perhaps in some fabulous future may become instrumental in evolving esoteric dialects—Basic Basque and so forth—spoken only by certain elaborate machines.


  1. I read that book about 40 years ago and perhaps that colored my view of linguistics, now that you mentioned. After teaching Korean and Japanese for six years in university, I went to work for the government as a reanslator and analyst and was oft dismayed to bear the title of “linguist.” I have never taken a linguistics course, I guess I’m not political enough. I remember when I was teaching at Indiana University in the 1970’s they had to bring in someone from the psych department to chair linguistics due to the internecine warfare between the Chomskyites and the non-Chomskyites such as the structuralists, etc. Medieval poetry was much more my cuppa. But I love reading the Hat!

  2. Obviously typing is another of my weak spots.

  3. Enjoy Pnin! I adore that novel. And pay close attention to the squirrels (she says mysteriously…)
    My college Russian dept was headed by the president of the college because the professors weren’t talking to each other. To my astonishment, 30 years later I learned that the situation hadn’t changed.

  4. I’ve never read Pnin, but I did enjoy reading Nabokov’s Lolita.

  5. Are any of the comments on this blog from real people any more?

  6. Cut it out, Mollymoooly. We know that’s you.

  7. Mollymooly’s Homeopathic Gas Relief and Flatulence Cure?
    Has the world gone mad?

  8. that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method
    As much as these words resonate with me, I can’t help thinking that spam might be less of an issue if Hat’s blog were in Proto-Basque/Etruscan/Dravidian

  9. marie-lucie says

    that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method
    Since Nabokov was at Cornell, he may have participated (and any TA’s of his would have) in the pedagogical orientation required of all new language teachers, and thought that this was the main subject of linguistics. Russian language courses were indeed teaching Russian, not teaching methodology, which was addressed to the teachers, present and future.

  10. Nice one thanks in deed.
    seo oxford

  11. Nice one thanks in deed.
    There’s something ever so slightly wonky with this new spam, but I shouldn’t be too critical. It’s very clever and I couldn’t invent a spambot in a million years.

  12. We’re fighting off the spam version of The Night of the Living Dead and Crunk is admiring their cleverness. That’s really decadent. I guess I should have guessed when I saw the fey goats.

  13. Admiring your enemy is the British way, Pete.
    There’s nothing fey about being butted by one of our goats. There may be something petit bougeois about goatshit, but that’s not special to our goats.

  14. There’s an R in bourgeois, isn’t there. Kleinbürgerlich is probably what I mean.

  15. I’d like to applaud Cronk’s new blog, BTW. Lots of interesting stuff, mostly fauna. I just wish that he had a real name.

  16. Ought I to put my real name?
    I’ve just added some more of Siganus Sutor’s Martian fauna.

  17. I’ve rarely seen somebody take to blogging as enthusiastically and successfully as our good Kron. Bless all of you who nagged him into it!
    Ought I to put my real name?
    That’s a decision every blogger must make for him- or herself. I kept mine religiously separate from the blog for years, but then decided it couldn’t do any harm (a decision motivated primarily be having the curses book published). I’m sure you wouldn’t mind being associated with those delightful goats; the question is, would the goats mind being outed, and perhaps be the object of worshipful visits?

  18. No, I meant here, Kruunu. You keep being called by all these weird names. I wish you’d just quit that.

  19. SnowLeopard says

    Whether you decide to publish your real name will probably depend a great deal on the effect the publicity might have on your employment and professional life. I can’t speak to Norwegian employment laws, but it is now fairly common for prospective employers, clients, or business partners to google one’s name and see what comes up. In the US, and advising US employers is how I pay the bills, it is usually legal for a non-governmental employer to fire (or not to hire) someone based on what they say online, unless the decision is motivated by something you learned about their religious affiliation, national origin (including off-duty language use), union sentiments, or some other legally protected category. New York’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Act is actually rather limited in scope, and really only applies to things like political campaigning and consumption of alcohol — not to blogging. Nor does New York recognize a general right to privacy that would apply to a private company – though some states, such as California, do. Needless to say, none of this is intended as practical legal advice, and is definitely not an advertisement of legal services. But my point is that there are often good reasons not to advertise your real name.

  20. Wait, wait. It was a joke. I have no opinion whatsoever on whether Crown should use his name on his blog.

  21. No, thanks for the advice. In my case employers and clients aren’t so much of an issue, but I hadn’t thought of it from the goats’ p.o.v. I’d better keep it quiet for now. And, anyway, I like Kruunu.
    Thank you very much for the praise. I’ll have to put it up on the blog wall, like they do in the window of so-so restaurants.

  22. “My family and I have eaten at Kron’s a number of times and never gone away unsatisfied. The service is excellent, and the goats who bring the dishes are so well trained!”

  23. It’s because they’re herbivores.

  24. Bless all of you who nagged him into it!
    I see Hat is hoping everyone will forget his own role in the caper, which was not inconsequential.
    Expressing political opinions on the job is an ethical issue for my employment, as it could be interpreted as speaking for the organization. Not sure what the reaction would be to online behavior, but I can’t say I want to find out. There are good reasons and there are real reasons.
    I have to admit though that I have never posted comments on someone’s website without knowing their real name. Maybe accidental, but that’s how it’s happened. Maybe it’s part of the critical mass equation needed for being interested enough to go from lurking to engaging.
    There are also some real idiots, and even some scary people out there. I had a bad experience just last week when a demo goat website I showed Kron got discovered. So no, I don’t think Kron should post his own name. The constantly changing names was a bit confusing at first, but since Kron is the only one who does it, and mousing over the name shows you who made the comment, it’s probably more fun than a real name would be.

  25. a demo goat website I showed Kron got discovered.
    Why, what happened?

  26. But back to Pnin.
    It contains (among other pleasures) one of the most delicious evocations of Northern Renaissance painting I’ve ever encountered in fiction, to wit: “ample-jowled, fluff-haloed Canon van der Paele, seized by a fit of abstraction in the presence of the puzzled Virgin to whom a super, rigged up as St. George, is directing the good Canon’s attention.”
    Meh. Works better in context.
    Wonderful book.

  27. Why, what happened?
    Tee, hee, go back and look. If you remember, I scrubbed my photo pretty quickly after they discovered it, leaving the goat in the photo alone. One of the regular writers over there then posted a picture of another “Nijma” in full belly dancing regalia, wondering if it was me, and my readership skyrocketed. Our two goat blogs had to be the two fastest growing blogs in the WordPress domain that week.
    A low level flame war ensued, but in the end the admin of the other blog was decent and scrubbed my nickname from his website–some 106 mentions. I still have a loyal following on the ex-goat blog, though, more than when I first started the camel one. Eventually I hope they will forget about the camel blog and I can go back to posting for my own amusement.
    I put the post with the bedouin photos in the URL.

  28. Brendan Byrne says

    Pnin is perhaps my favorite novel ever. I used to re-read it once a year, in the fall. Always felt like a fall book for some reason. Probably Nabokov’s kindest book too, though that’s not saying much.

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