Translating Armenian Literature.

Garen Torikian writes for Electric Literature about how he came to translate from Armenian:

I had the great privilege of growing up in a house with several floor-to-ceiling shelves bursting with books. So far as I remember, they were largely ornamental, but I have a hard time believing that they went unread: my parents were not the hoarding type. One day, shortly after graduating college, stuck at home and with nothing else to do, I began to really look at the books for the first time. Non-fiction bestsellers like I’m OK—You’re OK sat next to memoirs owned by every Armenian household, like Black Dog of Fate. Tucked between such books, I came across Gostav Zarian’s The Traveller & His Road, published in Armenian in 1926 and translated by Ara Baliozian in 1981.

It has a truly wretched cover—forest green ink on a plain beige backdrop—and I would’ve reshelved it had I not read Baliozian’s introduction:

Next we find [Zarian] in Istanbul, which was then the most important cultural center of the Armenian diaspora, where in 1914, together with Daniel Varoujan, Hagop Oshagan, Kegham Parseghian, and a number of others, he founded the literary periodical Mehian. This constellation of young firebrands became known as the Mehian writers, and like their contemporaries in Europe—the French surrealists, Italian futurists, and German expressionists—they defied the establishment fighting against ossified traditions and preparing the way for the new.

Until that moment, the idea that an Armenian literary tradition existed had never crossed my mind. Students of literature have all but memorized the various networks of influence between different writers and artists, but whoever has not achieved sufficient popularity remains the other on the outside. I became very excited at the idea of Zarian’s literary works running alongside the rest of the 20th-century canon. On top of that, he had learned how to wield the language he had forgotten at the age of 25 while living in Europe. I held in my hands an irrefutable testament that the obstacle of one’s diasporic status could be overcome. […] After reading The Traveller & His Road, I acquired all of Baliozian’s translations; after exhausting the list, I became a literary translator myself. […]

Spoken and written Armenian as used in the country of Armenia is colloquially known as Eastern Armenian, a standard form that developed as Armenians mixed with their neighbors along the country’s eastern border, primarily Russians. Western Armenian is a standard form of Armenian influenced by the myriad of languages which passed through Constantinople. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, what was left of Armenia was wholly absorbed into the Soviet Union, and Eastern Armenian became the de facto standard.

The Armenians fortunate enough to escape the genocide and emigrate brought the older Western form to their new homes. Although the two languages are mostly communicable, there are enough grammatical and orthographic changes to consider each as distinct from the other. As a consequence of this forced bifurcation, one branch of the language thrives while the other wilts: Eastern Armenian continues to grow, evolving through use as its native speakers live life in Armenia. Meanwhile, most of the Armenian diaspora communicates with the stilted, century-old Western language, which UNESCO identifies as endangered and under threat of extinction. It remains frozen in time; like a remora, it only grows by feeding off its larger hosts, incorporating words from the English and French and Arabic communities where Armenians established their new homes. What Western Armenian holds orthodox, Eastern Armenian maintains as old-fashioned; what Eastern Armenian views as obvious, Western Armenian finds unfamiliar. […]

Baliozian primarily translated Armenian authors who challenged the status quo, a dangerous position for any writer no matter the era or language, and self-sufficiency. He translated authors across both standard forms; more accurately, he believed that there was no need to separate them: great literature is great literature, no matter the language. At one end are the Western Armenian authors of the late 19th century who lambasted their subservient status in the Ottoman Empire; at the other end were the Eastern Armenian authors of the mid-20th century that produced barely-disguised rebukes of Soviet authoritarianism and censorship. Between 1880 and 1960, the world was modernizing and identities were reforming; literature across Europe and America evolved in response to these changes. Poe had all but invented the short story format; Balzac and Chekov were conveying the harsh conditions of real life; Woolf and the Brontë sisters heralded larger feminist movements. These were movements that Armenian writers adopted as well: Krikor Zohrab was so skilled in his craft that he was dubbed “the prince of short stories”; Hagop Oshagan pontificated on humanity’s unfulfilled yearnings; Zabel Yeseyan worked towards the liberation of women. And Baliozian translated them all. […]

Hundreds of years of Armenian literature remains untranslated. As Andreea Scridon, the Assistant Editor at Asymptote, wrote in 2018: “[I]t is something of a surprise that a country with such an ancient literary tradition, dating from 400 B.C., has not had more of its corpus translated into English.” The scarcity of the source texts almost certainly hindered the availability of works appearing in translation. To anyone with the passion, interest, or inclination, the opportunities for translation exist, even if it’s just for yourself. If my admittedly biased opinion does not convince you of the worthwhile endeavor to translate from Armenian, then perhaps Lord Byron might. He studied Armenian for several months, working on his own translations, and noted that it’s “a rich language” which would “amply repay any one the trouble of learning it.” […]

We, the minority language speakers, must take the serious responsibility of translation into our own hands. Readers don’t just need more Armenian literature, they need many more stories outside of Europe, more stories from and about post-colonial countries, more stories written in languages that are withering away. This is the only real way to ensure that we are being expressed honestly. Through our translations, we are extending compassion to the majority language readers: our labor brings them the wonderful tales that they will otherwise never be privy to. Baliozian understood this, encouraging readers to judge an author’s work “as human beings and not as Armenians.”

I love remedying my ignorance about “small” literatures, and I agree with his conclusion about people needing “many more stories outside of Europe.” Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Bathrobe says

    This resonates. Mongolian is in a somewhat similar situation. One part absorbed into China; the other made into a Soviet satellite that only managed to regain some kind of independence thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interchange between the two has been minimalised by disdain on the part of the Mongolians and the jealousy of the Chinese state.

    There is literature but not a lot is translated, and not all the translations are of very good quality. I don’t think there are any people who translate from both varieties of Mongolian (those of Inner Mongolia and Mongolia). Buryat and Kalmyk have pretty much withered as languages and cultures. This is the fate of smaller cultures that have been annexed by neighbouring empires and states. Armenia, caught between Russia and Turkey (and the diaspora). Mongolian, caught between Russia and China. Whole traditions that have withered or been fragmented into minor parts because of the fragmentation of their states. It is even worse for peoples whose entire territories have been taken over by settlers (US, Canada, Australia, Russia….)

    So we are mostly left with the languages and literatures of major states, mostly descended from Europe, but with a few that have managed to maintain some kind of vigour despite the depredations of the colonialists (Turkish, Japanese, Chinese…..)

    Like the wholesale loss of languages, the loss of these minor literatures is one of the great tragedies of colonialism.

  2. An interesting comparison, and of course I agree with your conclusion.

  3. “This is the fate of smaller cultures that have been annexed by neighbouring empires and states.”

    USSR/modern Russia and Turkey are arguably worse than Russian and Ottoman empires. Then within the Russian part of USSR Buryat langauge did worse than some smaller langauges of Dagestan.

    Then, Russia is quite destructive for Russian culture as well. Ask a Russian to name a Russian folk song*, she will name you a dozen and all of them will have known authors. Some 19th century aristocrate the poet and some 19th century composer versed in European classical music. The same for villagers:/

    Not unlike a Buryat reading Geser in Russian.

    *I do not mean, of course, that “folk songs” is the quintessence of culture. It is seen this way by official/mass culture, but I use it as a random component. An important one, of course.

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    The interruption of folk culture transmission in Russia was probably more a result of industrialisation and war-related population displacement than any Government educational or cultural policy. Also the peasants themselves sometimes prefer acquired culture, because more prestigious. There is an argument that “Irish dancing” is not really Irish, but a style created and propagated by French dancing masters in the 18th or 19th century….

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Two unrelated points.

    1. One of the more successful “Armenian” writers of my approximate generation is Narine Abgaryan (born 1971). After she finished university in Yerevan in 1993, she moved to Moscow where she eventually parlayed some early prominence as a LiveJournal blogger into bestseller-dom, writing exclusively in Russian (although often about characters in Armenian settings). At least one of her novels has been translated into English. And her choices no doubt made perfect sense for her in her circumstances. I imagine there are others like that – although maybe L2 Russian fluency is no longer a near-universal accomplishment for well-educated and ambitious young people growing up in the former Armenian SSR?

    2. Re the striking opening of the linked piece about lack of wikipedia-suitable evidence of the death of Ara Baliozian,* this may be a somewhat recurrent issue in diaspora communities. Most folks in North America these days end up having their deaths recorded in the newspaper only via “paid” death notices generally written by family, placed via funeral homes, and run by the papers as more or less advertisements – the bar of notability for getting a journalist-written obituary is pretty high. And the families of prominent personalities in diaspora immigrant communities can’t necessarily be bothered to engage in the ritual of placing a paid death notice in the Anglophone media. A few months ago I did some considerable googling which led me to conclude there appeared to be no proper Anglophone-media obit for General Lê Minh Đảo (1933-2020), the hero of Xuân Lộc and a man of some arguable historical significance (compared in one account of the battle by a retired American general to Leonidas at Thermopylae, which is purple-proseish but not entirely wrong). Wikipedia sources his death to a lengthy article on the Vietnamese-language website of the Voice of America. OTOH, his death (and accomplishments while alive) did get noted a few weeks later in the Congressional Record, because the then-Congressman from the 48th District of California (not where the general had personally lived in exile/diaspora after being released from the gulag, but probably the district with more Vietnamese-Americans than any other in the country) was made aware by staff or whatever that this guy had been a name to conjure with among that group of constituents and paying tribute to him would be good politics. I guess the Armenian-Canadian literary community didn’t have that sort of pull with any MP up there?

    *FWIW, wikipedia now accepts that Baliozian is dead, subject I guess to potential future edit wars.

  6. January First-of-May says

    Ask a Russian to name a Russian folk song*, (s)he will name you a dozen and all of them will have known authors. Some 19th century aristocrate the poet and some 19th century composer versed in European classical music.

    …huh. I thought this was ridiculous, but when I checked the first Russian folk song I thought of it turned out to be late 20th century.

    (The second one I checked was apparently a few decades older but still probably 20th century. OTOH, the authors do not appear to be known.
    Number 3 turned out to be an actual folk song – to the extent that it counts as a song in the first place.)

  7. Yeah, and it’s not just Russia — “folk” songs (and other “folk” cultural detritus) everywhere turn out to be surprisingly recent when you dig into the history. And the whole idea of a “folk” somehow collectively composing something is pretty silly in the first place.

  8. January First-of-May says

    And the whole idea of a “folk” somehow collectively composing something is pretty silly in the first place.

    True; of course any text (and especially tune), folk or otherwise, probably has an author (or sometimes several, but not that many). Though I suppose with enough folk-process-based rewriting you can in principle get a text where almost every word was introduced at a separate point by some separate “author”.

    OTOH, in principle there’s nothing preventing very old texts (if not necessarily tunes) from surviving via oral tradition for centuries (…probably not millenia, though it’s hard to tell) in a still-relatively-recognizable version, in a way such that the original author is effectively unknowable.

  9. Sure, it just turns out that isn’t nearly as common as one would have thought. It’s frighteningly easy for some Victorian trinket to become an ancient cultural heritage. (See: A Canticle for Leibowitz.)

  10. January First-of-May says

    It’s frighteningly easy for some Victorian trinket to become an ancient cultural heritage.

    In Russia in particular, the whole thing is complicated by the existence of author songs, which AFAICT fill a niche fairly close to that of historical folk songs. I suspect that quite a few of what people think of as “folk songs” are actually misattributed author songs.

  11. And the whole idea of a “folk” somehow collectively composing something is pretty silly in the first place.

    I disagree. The distuinction is crude but not meaningless. Also “folk” we doesn’t necessary exclude authorship, cf. “became a folk song”.

    – loss of cultural information. A fantasy novel is a good thing, but it is not a fairy tale.

    Different mode of circulation (village culture, medieval manuscript culture, modern authorship culture, modern commercial culture) affects

    – contents (folk songs can systematically look differently) – and indeed they can be authored by many people, consciously (someone added a verse on purpose) and not quite.

    – your mode of interaction with the piece. Are you free to alter it?

  12. Having this said, it is indeed a crude distinction.

  13. David Marjanović says

    I don’t think the idea was collective composition. I think the idea was that every ethnic group innately has its own esprit, so that someone at some point simply had to compose such a song because they were compelled by this Volksgeist. And then the song “evolved organically” over untold centuries in the frame and direction provided by the Volksgeist, so that at some point you can’t attribute it to a single author anymore. That’s just as silly, but it was a halfway reasonable idea in the 18th century.

    The other thing about folk songs is that singing isn’t equally popular everywhere, and never has been. In modern Western culture (jeans, McDonald’s & Coca Cola), listening to music may be more popular than ever before, but basically nobody ever sings. Apart from that, if you get three random Carinthians together, they can supposedly sing in three voices, and the Kärntnerlied is a whole genre, but just across the mountains half the people claim they can’t sing, and possible folk songs are very rare and not widely known.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Hey, within my own lifetime the Coca-Cola marketing people wanted to make it clear that their product was fully compatible with Volksgeist-driven vernacular/folkloric singing (admittedly with a crowd of singers with an un-Voelkischly wide range of skin colors):

  15. That’s just as silly,

    When I see 22 versions of the same folk song side by side, am I supposed to think they ALL are composed by a single author or what? Each particular version may mostly consist of some hypothetical ‘seed’ song (or two:) for there are hybrid texts) that was composed by one person (or two) . And this one person could have used (or not) some formulaic elements.

    And is esprit anyhow different from “culture”?

    A “culture” is 1. cool 2. unique. There is disagreement over evolution vs. conservation, but information loss is usually seen as a bad thing. Or a good thing when you “civilize” them: when “vulgarity” is substituted with Culture. Esprit perhaps was seen as a more static entity, but there were complaints like that the German spirit is becoming more “effeminate”, so maybe not totally static…

    I am not sure that I see much difference between all these words and “culture” in terms of accuracy and precision of analysis. I am not sure that such difference does not exist either.

  16. Folk music is a group of musical genres, but there is also a cultural attitude aspect of it; in fact, what makes genres part of the folk scene is probably that the people who listen to and perform those genres largely subscribe to a certain way of thinking about their music. In folk genres, the music is seen (to a greater or lesser degree) as common cultural property, regardless of how old they are. Of course, there are some folk songs that are as old as the hills, but most of them are of comparatively recent origins. Yet whether the songs are old or new, it is part of the culture of folk musicians that they are free to rework them if necessary, changing as much or as little as they see fit. Some performers like to preserve songs as they were in the past, often in multiple versions, as valued cultural heritage; some performers really like to mine the existing songbook for things they can adapt freely, with new lyrics and other elements; and there is nothing contradictory about doing both.

    Here is a quintessential example from American folk music. “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?” is just old enough (probably dating back about two hundred years, to the Second Great Awakening) to have no known author. The song is largely forgotten today, but it spawned three much better known progeny (as well as many other more obscure variants). In the early days of the Civil War, the tune was reused by Union soldiers for the marching song “John Brown’s Body,” which was heard in November 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the new lyrics that became “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the best known version of the song. As well as being a military marching song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has become part of the standard English-language hymn repertoire; with its particularly American character, it was sung, for example, at the Church of England’s memorial service for the American dead on September 11. Finally, half a century after the Civil War, the labor activist Ralph Chaplin use the well-known tune again, for “Solidarity Forever.” The latter three versions are now all part of the standard American folk song tradition.

    Many great folk musicians have been very free about wanting their own work to be freely available to be performed and built upon by subsequent artists. Probably the two most influential twentieth-century American folk musicians, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, were both strongly committed to this, both as composers and as interpreters of older works. Seeger, in the version of “John Brown’s Body” linked above, adds the first verse of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” before the last chorus; and his version of “Solidarity Forever” updates the line “Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold” for the nuclear age, changing “armies” to “atoms.” Woody Guthrie sometime used versions of this “anti-copyright notice” on his published work:

    This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # [number], for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.

  17. I was reminded this morning of the freedom among folk performers to rework songs—even relatively new songs—in ways that can totally change their meanings. I happened to listen to the Chad Mitchell Trio’s version of what they called “The Great Historical Bum,” which interleaves versus from Woody Guthrie’s “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” with new ones. The new verses add enough length that it is feasible to drop the Guthrie’s last four verses, which have a very different tone from the earlier humorous versus—talking about the actual biggest thing that man has ever done, the Second World War. I find the Chad Mitchell Trio’s purely silly version rather tasteless as a result, but I’m sure Guthrie would not have agreed. He started writing the song as a purely humorous piece, and he composed additional humorous verses that he never recorded himself. Personally, I lean more toward the preservationist side when it comes to folk songs, but I am not a professional musician, merely an avid singer; I am the only person I know of who sings the chorus of Guthrie’s most famous ballad, “This Land is Your Land,” with the syncopated “Gulfstream waters” that he originally wrote. But Woody would just have appreciated would have appreciated that other musicians were building on his own work.

  18. Bathrobe says

    I doubt that Mongolia’s literary tradition is anything compared to the Armenian one. Much of what the Mongolians have is related to Lamaist Buddhism, which was largely wiped out by Stalin and has now become marginal for many Mongolians.

    One result of this is a skewed interest in “the oral tradition” and the related nomadic herding background, which is seen as the bedrock of Mongolness. It’s surprising how popular academic studies are about language of the folk, as embodied in Mongolian folk proverbs (цэцэн үг). These are, to be sure, a rich mine of linguistic material (somewhat reminiscent of Chinese chéngyǔ (成語)), but sometimes the cult-like way that Mongolians cluster around this aspect of their language is disconcerting.

    By contrast, interest in regional language or dialects seems relatively thin. There is almost an attitude of “Why are these people speaking these funny dialects: the standard language is “Mongolian” (i.e., Khalkha dialect). Needless to say there is almost zero interest in the dialects of Inner Mongolia, which are pretty much beyond the pale because they don’t belong to the Mongolian nation-state.

    (The other area of intense interest is, of course, Genghis Khan and the Secret History of the Mongols.)

    On the other hand, in Inner Mongolia there is strong academic interest in the Mongolian literary tradition prior to the modern era. (I will let you imagine for yourself the reason for this, but perhaps it’s safer to write about the past than it is about the present). Quite a bit of this literary tradition, including Inner Mongolian folk traditions, are almost completely ignored in Mongolia if they are felt not to belong to the patrimony of Mongolia (i.e., what was once called Outer Mongolia — a term which, by the way, the Mongolians dislike intensely). One of my Inner Mongolian friends went to a second-hand bookshop in UB that had a good stock of books of a historical or linguistic nature and asked if they had any material related to a specific genre that historically flourished in Inner Mongolia (sorry, I forgot the name). The bookseller had never heard of it.

    There are also vigorous dialect studies in Inner Mongolia because of the diversity of dialects there.

  19. Bathrobe says

    The above comment is, of course, related to comments upthread about “folk songs” and the cult of “the folk” (das Volk).

    Needless to say, I find the way that nationalism has distorted narratives extremely annoying. In the case of the Mongolians, the division of the Mongols among several different polities and the narrow self-images that have resulted from this (and are constantly reinforced by political realities) is wilfully, and aggressively, self-limiting. It’s an attitude of “Well, those territories and people have been taken away from us, so we’re going to ignore them completely from now on”.

    That’s why I was interested in the comments about East and West Armenian, and the way that neither side seems particularly interested in the other. The only variety that is going to survive is the East Armenian (just as the only type of Mongolian that will survive is Khalkha), but the way the (East) Armenians don’t appear to have much interest in West Armenian is only too familiar in Mongolia. It’s a wilful narrowness that essentially jettisons the broadness and richness of the earlier tradition.

  20. In folk genres, the music is seen (to a greater or lesser degree) as common cultural property

    to me, this relation/practice approach is the only kind of definition that makes any sense. “authorlessness” is either volksgeist+handwaving or just refusing to listen to singers, who are always the authors of the versions they sing, and will always tell you whose versions they started with if you ask (and sure, you can’t get further up the isnad than living/recorded memory allows, but so what?).

    in the yiddish song world, where i sing, we’ve been lucky to not have the fantasy of a line between “folk songs” and “songs with authors” play much of a part in our folkloristik – partly because most of the authors involved* have (in practice if not explicitly in theory) rejected the idea that they are Solitary Separable Creators and that their work is Essentially Different from that of young women singing ballads. but that’s one of the benefits of being a minor literature – it’s just harder to put on airs in certain ways (not that some don’t try).

    and “Biggest Thing”/”Great Historical Bum” is one of my favorite song families! i’m partial to doc watson** and pete seeger‘s iterations, but probably mostly because i grew up on them. and there’s the non-musical version by mel brooks and carl reiner, too…

    * including folks with a lot of literary (and musical) prestige, from sholem-aleykhm to an-sky to edelshtat to gebirtig to kazcerginsky.

    ** complete with archbishop-ussher-compliant timetable and title.

  21. @rozele: Thank you; that was well put, and I appreciate your perspective.

    By the way, here is another very nice example from that lineage of songs, by the Golden Gate Quartet.

  22. If the proposal is to make no conclusions at all, e.g. to treat Macpherson’s work and actual medieval literature the same way, because “this all is just poetry, no matter who and when wrote it”, such a position is possible and even interesting. The problem is that, without knowing the context where a piece was composed (that is: not knowing its langauge, because it is a part of “context”, not knowing the musical culture, etc.) you won’t even understand or enjoy it.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    I think it’s quite possible to enjoy a work without understanding the context in which it arose. Most devotees of Jane Austen seem to appreciate her for what (in my literary snobbery) I would myself call the “wrong” reasons, to the degree that they are practically reading a different author from me altogether. But their enjoyment is perfectly real, for all that.

    Thorny questions of authenticity arise with mediaeval Welsh poetry (leaving aside Iolo Morganwg’s outright forgeries.) It’s clear that a lot of poetry only extant in Middle Welsh must have been composed in Old Welsh originally, but it has been reworked by successive copyists with serial updating of the language, and at some point a major change in orthographic conventions, but no interruption of the literary tradition. How much validity there is in the traditional ascriptions to named poets is probably impossible to say any more (though it seems likely enough, for example, that there actually was an Aneurin, and that he did really compose at least some of what we have as Y Gododdin not long after the actual events.

  24. I think it’s quite possible to enjoy a work without understanding the context in which it arose.

    It depends on how you understand “context”. I think its langauge is the part of context. You take it from others. If you work is an answer and a message to your context/culture/readers, then to your langauge as well.

    Butit is possible to enjoy.
    I know what it feels like, reading Persian poetry in Russian translation. It is boring.
    I know what it feels like listening to my (female, and that matters) Iranian friend reciting it. Not necessary medieval poetry, she loves modern poetry as well. I believe poets themselves enjoyed it much less.

    And I do not know Persian.

  25. What is important here is that I can not really remember a musical tradition unaffected by very recent influences that I am able to really enjoy (or consume as “music” the same way its native performers do) without preparations. Cambodian rock’n’roll (if you remember those recordings, I mean Ros Serey Sothea and co.) is “exotic” and often pleasant. Music for Seven Samurai was “European” for the composer but is exotic too for me. Modern Middle Eastern music is “exotic” and pleasant. But it is Europeanized heavily. Recordings from 100 years ago are already much harder to understand and they are likely already Europeanized. And I know what it looks like when a Russian musical theorist, well familiar with African music and enthusiastic about rhythms tries to reproduce an African rhythm (that every child can do elsewhere). It is nothing easy.
    They feel differently.

    I think that if I heard what villagers sing in 19th cnetury Russia I would not recognize it as “music” (that is, something I can enjoy):-)

    I also think that those songs by 19 century composers that are “Russian folk music” were composed from within European classical tradition.

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    I can see what you mean by European orchestration. But the recording is less romanticised and the singing is less elaborate than some recordings. I think you would enjoy this music, although that might not be the primary purpose of a work song.

  27. John Emerson says

    Musorgsky was one of the most folkish if the 19th c. Russian composers, but the gorgeous melody in the coronation scene of Boris Godunov was borrowed from Beethoven’s 5th Razumovsky Quartet.

    Musorgsky had an impish sense of humor and I feel certain that he did this deliberately.

  28. But Beethoven used “Thèmes russes”; couldn’t he and Musorgsky simply used the same Russian tune?

  29. John Emerson says

    Of course, but Musorgsky had hundreds of tunes to chose from, and he chose that one.

  30. @John Emerson: There are only three Razumovsky string quartets (numbers seven to nine in Beethoven’s running total). Which one do you mean?

  31. John Emerson says

    #2. I remembered the story wrong.

    The theme was also used by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky.

  32. January First-of-May says

    I know what it feels like, reading Persian poetry in Russian translation. It is boring.

    “По-русски не выходит ничего, а по-гречески очень жалко.”

    On the subject of authenticity: I wonder if anyone had yet figured out if Peggy is an actual Scottish song – and, of course, if it even matters whether it is or not. It certainly seems to have its own life as a Russian “folk” song (in the sense that approximately anyone can add a new verse; maybe less so today, but in my childhood Peggy verses were almost their own subgenre).

  33. “I wonder if anyone had yet figured out if Peggy is an actual Scottish song”

    I have.
    A half a year ago, when we were discussing Timbuktu. I do not remember what it was (the prototype):-(((((

  34. Oh man, that’s as bad as Fermat (Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet)!

  35. Eureka!

    This one (and lyrics)

  36. January First-of-May says

    A half a year ago, when we were discussing Timbuktu.

    “Half a year ago” would probably make it this thread, in case that jogs your memory.
    (I don’t see anything about Peggy there, though.)

    EDIT: thanks for the link! Yeah, that sounds pretty definite. I wonder why the translator chose “Peggy” in particular.

  37. I listened to the second Razumovsky quartet, and I can see why I had never noticed the similarity to Boris Gudunov. The biggest factor was probably just the difference in modalities. However, there is also the fact that, although the coronation scene from Boris Gudunov in on my regular playlist, I can’t have listened to that particular quartet more than a couple of times in my whole life. I generally think the string quartets are among the weakest parts of the Beethoven repertoire, and when I am interested in listening to a Beethoven quartet, why would I choose one that only has a okay scherzo when this is available?

  38. About Persian poetry.
    Of course it is possible that my Iranian friend could read any gibberish as poetry, I would enjoy it anyway:)

    On the other hand, it is likely that poetry interacts with the recitation tradition: this recitation tradition have always been important and it is still there. I simply haven’t met a female Iranian who does not recite (or write) poetry:)

  39. John Emerson says

    This thread mostly isn’t about translating Armenian literature, but this publisher publishes bilingual translations of Armenian classics. I love the Armenian script, which seems nicely alien and could be used in fantasy fiction.

  40. John Emerson says

    My characteristically unserious review of “History of the Caucasian Albanians” (written in Armenian).

  41. I love the Armenian script

    Me too, but so far I haven’t managed to learn it — too much interference from other scripts.

  42. January First-of-May says

    I love the Armenian script, which seems nicely alien and could be used in fantasy fiction.

    A few years ago there was a discussion on StackExchange about items that could work well as LARP coins; someone proposed that actual coins of some other country would be a good idea. I suggested Armenian coins in particular – the geometric designs on the reverse, the weird beastie on the obverse, and the exotic letters all look nicely alien.

    I learned about 2/3 of the script on my one afternoon outdoors in Yerevan [I was indoors and/or outside big cities for most of my visit to Armenia], comparing the letters on the assorted street and shop signs. Unfortunately I hadn’t been to Armenia since and had probably forgotten most of the letters.
    (I later found out that the script had two very similar letters for very similar sounds that I thought were variants of a single letter, so I would not have figured out the entire alphabet anyway.)

  43. John Emerson says

    [Cue Radio Yerevan joke].

  44. I later found out that the script had two very similar letters for very similar sounds that I thought were variants of a single letter

    I had that experience with Katakana シ and ツ (though they are not similar sounds, si and tu).

  45. January First-of-May says

    two very similar letters for very similar sounds

    At one point when I mentioned this story elsewhere I suggested Russian ш and щ as possible candidates for a similar problem. (The two Armenian letters are vowels, though.)

  46. Funnily, when I read books (scans) with long s (that my brain wants to interpret as f), when the s is not straight, but has a little “hump” on the left side (making it even more similar to f), it helps: apparently my brain recognizes it as a clear long s rather than blurred f.

  47. I like reading Bert Vaux’s papers and presentations on Armenian and Armenian dialectology. It’s a vast field full of interesting tidbits, which I know nothing about except what I read in his papers, e.g. a general fun intro here, and more particularly here and here, and others.
    He also once gave a lecture entitled The Forty Vowels of Musa Dagh, which is tacky, but how could he not. I can’t find the text of it online.

  48. Katakana シ and ツ

    They are written differently, though. See the animations.

  49. Through Vaux, I learned that that the first description of Voice Onset Time was in 1899, devised to explain the pronunciation of stops in different Armenian dialects.

  50. SFReader says

    I wonder if Those Were The Days counts as a folk song.

    It definitely got reworked in the best traditions of the genre, traversing languages and cultures.

  51. He also once gave a lecture entitled The Forty Vowels of Musa Dagh, which is tacky, but how could he not. I can’t find the text of it online.

    Bert just gave a Zoom talk on Musaler (Musa Dagh) group of Armenian dialects last Saturday. It has been uploaded to his YouTube channel:

    He discusses the many vowels and diphthongs of the Vakif dialect, with sound files, beginning around here:

  52. I’m pretty sure I knew Очи чёрные was a 19th century composition. But et tu, Polyushko-polye?

    The music was composed by Lev Knipper, with lyrics by Viktor Gusev in 1933.

    Surely Kalinka must be…

    “Kalinka” (Russian: Калинка) is a Russian song written in 1860 by the composer and folklorist Ivan Larionov …

    The cake song is a lie! Has Bartók bamboozled us this whole time?

  53. David Marjanović says

    The Forty Vowels of Musa Dagh

    Sounds thrilling! I’ll watch the videos ASAP.

  54. Но увольте меня от подробного описания и позвольте спросить: если бы в Московское Благородное Собрание как-нибудь втерся (предполагаю невозможное возможным) гость с бородою, в армяке, в лаптях, и закричал бы зычным голосом: здорово, ребята! Неужели бы стали таким проказником любоваться? Бога ради, позвольте мне старику сказать публике, посредством вашего журнала, чтобы она каждый раз жмурила глаза при появлении подобных странностей. Зачем допускать, чтобы плоские шутки старины снова появлялись между нами! Шутка грубая, не одобряемая вкусом просвещенным, отвратительна, а нимало не смешна и не забавна. Dixi.

  55. In brief: a reviewer of Pushkin’s early poem Ruslan and Lyudmila, inspired by folk tales and actually including some imitations of folk poetry is shocked.

  56. If anyone wants to see the snooty complaint about Pushkin’s vulgarity in its 1820 context, here it is.

  57. “If a guest with a beard, in armyak, in lapti somehow втёрся in the Moscow Assembly of the Nobility (I am assuming the impossible possible), and shouted in a зычный voice: hi boys!”

    втёрся. – lit “in-rubbed himself [into]”, a colloquialism for “infiltrated”.
    зычный – [colloquial?] adjective specifically for describing loud voices. Can be favourable or not.
    ребята – “kids, boys”, in modern Russian “guys”

    Неужели бы стали таким проказником любоваться?
    неужели [people] they-would feast their eyes upon such a mischief-maker?

    неужели – interrogative in surprised disbelief.
    проказник – mischief-maker, in modern Russian is playful.

  58. Further notes:

    зычный – interestingly, its cognate “зыко” only exists in Moscow in the dialect of 1st graders. At least it was still current in 90s.

    Ребза, ай-да в тубзик лампочки кокать: так зыко!!!

    Guys, let’s go to the toilet to crush light bulbs: it is so cool!

  59. My (school) Russian langauge and literature teacher insisted that it is not by chance the Russian word for “child”, реб-ён-ок:

    -ён- neuter diminutuve, -ок diminitive and unit noun, the whole combination reserved for “kids/cubs of…” [animal name], children of Homo sapiens and sometimes used as diminutive

    …is related to раб “slave”. Social position of children, she said, is the same as that of slaves: they are rightless. It is also noteworthy, said she, that in 19th century “ребята” was applied to children of serfs and serfs themselves, but not to children of aristocrates. It is also noteworthy, said she, that mouzhik is diminutive.

    Well, she knows more than me about 19th century literature and her ancestor witnessed Lermontov’s duel.

    I can add that раб- is thought to come from a meaning “orphan” (also in borrowings in Finno-Ugric), but people here know this.

  60. It is actually the kind of scene that I like. I mean, if farmers joined folks in universities more often, I would be happy. Of course, it is unsurprising: university professors also do not visit farmers often. But why put artificial barriers when there are already too many barriers?

    And it also describes precisely a very famous Russian meme, possibly the most famous ever: “Превед!” Originally from Bear Suprise with a misspling of Russian “привет” in the speech bubble: e.g. here

  61. I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned Превед Bear on LH; it’s one of my favorite memes (or it was back in the day — I haven’t thought about it in quite a while).

  62. I undertood her in the sense “slave”>”child” (that is, “orphan” > “worker, > slave > minor” > “child”), but maybe she meant that ” ‘slave’ and ‘children’ are cognates because both are minors”. Children are the niggers of the world. She did have Vasmer that time, but not the Internet to find a detailed article:) Actually, she was a great teacher.

    Anyway, it is possible that “здорово, ребята!” – an absolutely normal informal greeting today – was offensive as a social marker.

  63. drasvi,

    cf. the Slovenian otrok meaning “child” as compared to Western Slavic otrok meaning “slave”. We do have rab as well, but it stylistically marked.

  64. Anyway, it is possible that “здорово, ребята!” – an absolutely normal informal greeting today – was offensive as a social marker.

    I think they would have expected “Bonsoir, messieurs!”

  65. “Bonsoir, messieurs!” – now imagine a man in armyak and lapti with a long beard (or a medved) “rubbing himself into” this noble society to say this.

    Only a thought that it is cross[?]-dressed Pushkin would save them.

    As in “однажды Пушкин переоделся Гоголем” stories popular here some 30 years ago. Usually quoted as “the stories ascribed to Kharms”.

  66. for a few years, i was visiting LA regularly, and always enjoyed the microneighborhood where a lot of the signage is is in either armenian or thai – the scripts seem so happy together!

    реб-ён-ок et seq

    similarly, in yiddish, the misogynist alternate forms for women in a given profession often use diminutive suffixes (בעקערקע vs בעקער “baker”, for example), which underlines/demonstrates the misogyny quite clearly (as does the way these forms are constructed identically to the ones for “wife of a man in X profession” [e.g. פֿישערקע, “fisherman’s wife”], though the forms differ in each case [נײטאָרין “seamstress”; נײטערקע “stitcher’s wife”]). unfortunately, YIVOnik teachers are so far pretty resistant to the very simple solution: accepting the use of different articles for the standard form: די לערער, rather than די לערערין “the teacher”, for example).

  67. @rozele when I grew up, Russian programmistka, programmist (f., m.) were neutral for “programmer”.

    Also kommunistka — kommunist and any other -ist words: budd[h]istka, escapistka, solipsistka.

    Note that most of Soviet programmers likely were female (the vast majority of those I know were).

    Now the most common way for a female programmer to refer to herself is “programmist” I think, and “programmistka” is becoming marked. But is not this change sexist? It became a male profession. This is why the change.

  68. Can’t we end up in a place where “programmist” is a neutral word for a man and a honorary title for a rare woman who can write code despite her sex) – while “programmistka” sounds bad, because it is a feminine form, and nothing feminine can be taken seriously?

  69. I think we can safely let women worry about that. If they prefer a given terminology, they’re far more likely to know what’s good for them than male observers.

  70. I think differently.

    P.S. I indeed think differently. Once you said that you are not going to agree with, say, Arab women about what is better for Arab women. And you gave feet binding as an example. Now you are saying the opposite.

    But it is unrelated. I am not discussing what is better “for women”. For every woman the answer is different. I am discussing language.

  71. David Marjanović says

    In Germany, the strategy is Frauen sichtbar machen – to make women visible by using all the explicitly feminine forms instead of the “generic masculine”.


    Folk etymology of Hungarian hajde?

  72. my subconscious:)

    I am aware of its etymology (I think Turkic:ayda) and of course was thinking about it when my fingers were typing ай-да:)

    It is айда. But since elementary school I hear “ай” and “да” so much more often, that… see above. Unlike:
    – тубзик,
    – зыко
    – ребза/ребзя
    айда is (now rarely) used outside elementary school.

  73. тубзик < тубзалет.

    I remember a time (deeply pre-school) when saying тувалет instead of туалет was more comfortable for me, or at least it appeared more "natural" (I reflected on this:)).

    тубзалет can be expressive derivation from тувалет. it seems [z] and [bz] are popular sounds in this dialect.
    P.S. or maybe тубзик is independent and тубзалет is a merger of both?

  74. January First-of-May says

    It is айда. But since elementary school I hear “ай” and “да” so much more often

    Even the combination, as in ай да Пушкин, might well be more frequent than the single word.

    But yes, definitely айда (final stress, unlike ай да, which is stressed on the first part).

  75. rozele, where does rebtsen ~ rebtsin ‘rabbi’s wife’ fit in with the other two? Is that a productive sufffix?

  76. SFReader says

    It is somewhat strange that we would dress for a social event in a manner not too unsimilar to what the Moscow Noble Assembly guests would wear while armyak and lapti are completely alien to us.

    Russians today despite being descendants of peasants (often even serfs) resemble Russian nobility of 19th century more than their own ancestors.

  77. I still have a beard:-E

    And how I could forget it: холоп > хлопец.

  78. Bathrobe says

    I assume that פֿישערקע doesn’t carry any of the connotations of “fishwife”.

  79. David Marjanović says

    Russians today despite being descendants of peasants (often even serfs) resemble Russian nobility of 19th century more than their own ancestors.

    Not just Russians, of course. During the 19th century, the fashion of the grande-bourgeoisie became the uniform for everyone.

    In 1800, wearing a suit & tie while passing for male meant you belonged to a specific social stratum. In 1950, it meant you were in public. Nowadays, it means you’re at a formal occasion (or going there or just left), but everyday clothes are just as international.

  80. where does rebtsen ~ rebtsin ‘rabbi’s wife’ fit in with the other two? Is that a productive sufffix?

    i don’t know that i’d call any of these suffixes productive in a real way – but i don’t have the actual knowledge of what contemporary hasidic yiddish(es) have done with the names of new professions that it would take to be certain. YIVO-yiddish mainly incorporates new words through outright neologism by lexicographers (as leyzer burko describes and critiques), rather than by recognizing spontaneous new usages, so i’d question whether “productive” really applies to its new deployments of these (and other) structures.

    but “rebitsin” is an interesting one, since (almost uniquely) it’s taken on an autonomous life as a specific occupational title rather than a purely secondary/relational status. it’s also lost its gender-specificity, making it a poster-word for the importance of free use of articles. the great yiddish singer anthony mordechai-tzvi russell isn’t the only person i know who is unquestionably דער רביצין.

    more generally, as i see it, the ־ין/-in terms are less transparently dismissive when they’re gendered alternate professional titles, but are part of the same structural mode of insisting that a woman who does something must be An Exception or a secondary version of the real (men-only) category (all of which is both historically dubious in many cases and socially a problem in all cases).

    i don’t know whether פֿישערקע has parallel connotations to “fishwife” or “poissarde” (i’m not sure i’ve encountered it in the wild). but it easily could – and now i’m wondering about the histories and geographies of the association between fish-market women and loudness, sedition, and illegal economies…

  81. A hypothesis (I do not believe in it):

    there is an intermediate position when:
    – both masculine and feminine forms are in use
    – the feminine form is less common (perhaps because women in the profession are less common) and as such is marked

    – in this situation often the feminine form is taken as “unserious”.


    when you approach this position from “masc. for both”, you see sexism here,
    —- because a form marked for unseriousness and femininity appears while there was not such a form before.

    when you approach this position from “both forms are common”, you see sexism here,
    —- because a from marked for unseriousness and femininity appears while there was not such a form before.

  82. but are part of the same structural mode of insisting that a woman who does something must be An Exception or a secondary version of the real (men-only) category (all of which is both historically dubious in many cases and socially a problem in all cases).

    If “structual mode” is postulated based on presence of an extra suffix it does not work this way in Russian. What I see in Russia is that social reality is associated with names and affects your emotional response.

    I can’t find a trace of grammatical structures affecting the reality. In Russian usage of course, the scheme is present.

  83. PlasticPaddy says

    Is there some kind of proverb in Russian to the effect that “when your hole is deep enough, then stop digging”?????

  84. No:-E

    @PlasticPaddy, I do not want to convince anyone in anything. I want to udnerstand how the whole thing works.

  85. Look, the above post resulted from this: I compiled (in this window) a list of Russian suffix pairs and professions where the scheme (” structural mode”) rozele speaks about is present. I came to the conclusion posted above. Posted the it but not the table (because it would be too large). I am sorry for flooding, of course, but I am an exporer and not scandalist.

    How many times you see “offensive” here: This is my actual motivation to write things. Some of them (not many) I share. Most of them I delete (but remember)

  86. There are a lot of offensive terms for women for the same reason there are a lot of offensive terms for other subordinated groups. If you don’t understand that women are everywhere a subordinated group (though of course the degree of subordination varies), then it’s probably impossible to have a serious discussion about it.

  87. I think the neologism udnerstand sounds like a perfect description of drasvi is trying to do here.

  88. You have two typos in your comment.

  89. P.S. I think I misudnerstood rozele. I thought her proposal is that presence of a suffix (any suffix) means that the feminine form is marked (and potentially misogynist). I think I udnerstood her this way, because the double role of ־קע parallels Slavic usage (where -ka/-ik is 1. diminutive 2. unit noun suffix) and because such a proposal is sometimes made. I think no one would be happy if I posted my table, but I am happy that I compiled it even by mistake, and I think I must say sorry for the confusion.

  90. SFReader says

    Perhaps not everyone following this debate knows, but rules of Russian grammar dictate that endings of adjectives and verb past tense forms MUST reflect grammatical gender.

    A sentence “smart programmer received an award” if the said programmer is female, but the grammatical male form is used for political correctness would then turn into
    “(female) smart (male) programmmer (female) received an award” and everyone would scratch their heads trying to udnerstand what is going on.

    Some words eventually make this transition and people get used to it and no longer find this unusual.

    But obviously most don’t.

  91. SFReader says

    When the backward Russian language will be forced to change its gender rules, we all will be talking like this:

    Dozhdites’ vlazhno-tomnuyu iyul’,
    Elitnuyu kupite alkogol’,
    Dostan’te s polki khrupkuyu khrustal’,
    Zakroyte plotno kruzhevnuyu tyul’,
    Otkroyte nastezh’ beluyu royal’
    I nezhno tron’te chernuyu bemol’…
    V ruch’ye kishit igrivaya losos’,
    Shurshit krylom prozhorlivaya lun’,
    Ya gratsiozna, kak lesnaya los’,
    I sladko pakhnet novaya shampun’.
    Mne b novuyu kupit’ avtomobil’,
    A etu – sdat’ v nenuzhnuyu util’,
    Ona moyu ne otrazhayet stil’,
    V ney, vmesto kozhi, – zhalkaya tekstil’.

    Apteka, noch’ i tusklaya fonar’,
    Ves’ mir ushel v glukhuyu monastyr’,
    S tekh por, kak v zlopoluchnuyu yanvar’
    Kitayets s”yel slepuyu netopyr’.

  92. The word that changs gender this way is псалтирь/псалтырь (ψαλτηριον).
    The book of psalms.

  93. Один кофе и один булочка…

  94. David Eddyshaw says

    Welsh is also prone to requiring distinctive forms for things like names of professions when referring to women, such as ysgrifennydd “male secretary”, ysgrifenyddes “female secretary”, and although a cadeirydd, for example, can equally well be a chairman or a chairwoman, in either case the word is grammatically masculine: Welsh words which can refer to any real-world sex normally have one fixed grammatical gender, so for example cath “cat” is grammatically feminine regardless of the cat’s opinion in the matter.

    A non-binary friend of my daughter’s who’s been learning Welsh is finding this a nuisance; it is at least possible to use nhw “they” to refer to one person in rather the same way as in English, at any rate, but it’s much harder to escape referring to gender in the singular than in English.

    On the other hand, we have at least advanced over the primitive macho Russians to the extent of having no gender in the verb system. And no participles either, come to that. Nobody needs participles. They’re just for showing off.

  95. John Cowan says

    The zero/-ka alternation in Russian is very shallow-rooted; in a pre-revolutionary context there was no word for ‘female general’ because there were no female generals. English had vaguely similar troubles with obstetricians, who were generally known as man-midwives from 1600 to a little after 1800 (though the OED does not explain when the sense changed from a midwife’s male assistant to a midwife’s rival). Note that man- is in no sense a prefix in English, so this is a tatpurusha compound.

  96. ktschwarz says

    cf. the Slovenian otrok meaning “child” as compared to Western Slavic otrok meaning “slave”.

    English has multiple words that have meant both child and servant (often a menial servant, often pejorative) at different times: knight, knave, boy, lad, even child itself. Then there’s Spanish mozo and French garçon (from Medieval Latin, borrowed from Germanic and thus cognate with wretch). Or Norwegian svein (recently mentioned here). Given all these examples, I’m surprised that this colexification doesn’t show up at all in CLICS.

  97. @dravsi:
    you didn’t misunderstand me; i’ve just got no interest in the argument you’re trying to have. for clarity, though: separate gendered forms of the terms for professions and such are misogynist. the history and function of these marked forms’ usage (and in many cases, of their introduction) is very clear, and doesn’t vary meaningfully from language to language. languages can (and most do) deal in other ways with the vanishingly few situations where the gender of a person doing a job matters in any way (for languages with SAE-style gendered noun classes*, differentiated articles & noun-class-based agreement may be part of that). in some cases, in some languages, the misogyny is made very visible by the semantics of the affixes used to construct those forms; in others, it’s not. but the only difference there is the visibility.

    * the status of those (not very common: 84 of 257 languages categorized in WALS**) noun-class structures themselves is a different, only tangentially related, question.

    ** who deserve some credit for having figured out a way to isolate the feature, despite having needlessly muddied the waters by calling all multiple-noun-class systems “gender”***.

    *** which is not only ridiculously inaccurate, but also pure (standard-average-)eurocentrism: even a cursory attempt to make academic linguistics’ categories as applicable to kiswahili, anishinaabemowin, and cantonese as they are to german, english, and french would have wiped that terminology out instantly.

  98. January First-of-May says

    despite having needlessly muddied the waters by calling all multiple-noun-class systems “gender”

    As, IIRC, David Eddyshaw pointed out, West African noun classes are really a lot like European grammatical gender, with two important differences: 1) there’s usually a lot more than three of them, and 2) they almost never distinguish males from females.

    (Note: I don’t recall the exact quote offhand, and might have misunderstood it. I’ll try to look for it during the editing period.)
    [EDIT: found the quote.]

  99. SFReader says

    Mongolian doesn’t have grammatical genders, but it has gendered vowels:

    a, o, and u are male

    e, ö, and ü are female

    i is neutral.

    There is no Mongolian Female Vowels Liberation Front yet, but who knows what future generations will think…

  100. As, IIRC, David Eddyshaw pointed out, West African noun classes are really a lot like European grammatical gender, with two important differences: 1) there’s usually a lot more than three of them, and 2) they almost never distinguish males from females.

    That second point being the exact reason it’s misleading to call them genders. Yes, the word is from Latin genus and thus etymologically has no relation to sex, but as we know, etymology is not destiny, and in most people’s minds “gender” = male/female. So call them noun classes.

  101. “separate gendered forms of the terms for professions and such are misogynist”

    Tell that to Serbian feminists, who are campaining for the use of such forms, with misogynists vehemently arguing against them.

  102. David Eddyshaw says

    the exact reason it’s misleading to call them genders

    In the context of Bantu studies, “noun class” is typically used to express classes which are either singular or plural, because the pairing of singular and plural prefixes is often quite variable; “gender” then gets coopted in a somewhat technical sense to refer to particular common pairings of sg and pl prefixes.

    In Oti-Volta the pairings are more regular (the relatively few exceptions in Kusaal can mostly be plausibly explained on phonological grounds) and it seems more natural to use “noun class” to refer to sg/pl pairings rather than individual suffix classes, not least to avoid confusion wiith Indo-European/Afroasiatic style sex-linked “gender.” However, authors vary in their terminology, partly because of the unfortunate tendency to treat everything through Bantu-style categories – the Bantu tail wagging the Niger-Congo dog.

    I don’t know of any Niger-Congo language where biological sex impacts on noun class assignment.

  103. I’m a little surprised rozele is so categorical on this issue — I myself am happy to let feminists who speak a given language decide for themselves what works for them.

  104. feminists who speak a given language

    Previously it were “women”.

  105. SFReader says

    Tell that to Serbian feminists

    Never suspected I’d become a Serbian feminist.

  106. Not only Serbian feminists – German feminists are fighting for the use of female forms as well. I think it’s somewhat a question of your starting position – in a language like English, where special female forms for professions are a limited class, it may make sense to campaign for eliminating them altogether; in languages like German, where they are formed for all designations of professions, it may make more sense to campaign for always including both forms (except when speaking about concrete individuals), to make sure that female practitioners of the profession are not excluded.

  107. J.W. Brewer says

    But “gender” is the usual word in linguistics scholarship for such systems where none of the categories in the system particularly track male/female at all but reflect e.g. an animacy hierarchy. The traditional use of “noun class” for Bantuesque languages I think rather more has to do with there being a dozen or fifteen such categories rather than the two-to-five usual elsewhere. Or just the scholars working on African languages not comparing notes with those working on languages of the Caucasus or Australia etc.

    Do Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin feminists take the same position as their Serbian sistren on the gender-specific occupational-title issue?

  108. David Eddyshaw says

    I think part of the problem is that “gender” has been coopted by non-linguists as a sort of euphemism for “sex” (or, to be less tendentious, as a deliberately vaguer term, which lends itself better to non-reductionist ideas of human sexual behaviour.) Whether linguists like it or not, I think this introduces a whole lot of associations which interfere with the neutral use of the word in linguistics. It is potentially useful to have more than one term for these sort of things in linguistics itself (as in Bantu) because there is a whole spectrum involving all sorts of systems more or less correlated with real word phenomena, and shading into classifier systems, which in principle differ in being open rather than closed systems and being more prone to multiple class membership. But despite experts like Alexandra Aikhenvald

    (who knows a lot more about this than I do) I think that the term “gender” has effectively been skunked for linguistic use now, and simple clarity would be aided by using “noun class” (appropriately explained for the individual language in question) instead. It’s just confusing for learners of French to be told that tables are feminine (like sentries) and surely nobody starting a grammatical description de novo nowadays would invent such terms. They’re unhelpful historical baggage.

    I must admit that it’s not so easy to put this into practice. In my Kusaal grammar I talk about animate versus inanimate “gender” because “noun class” is already taken, to refer to the still-existing morphological subtypes of nouns, which functioned as agreement-inducing genders in Proto-Western-Oti-Volta but no longer do so in most of the modern languages. I could work around this fairly easily at a pinch, because gender agreement in Kusaal is now entirely confined to pronouns, and there is a case for not talking about “agreement” at all, but just assigning the relevant meaning differences to the pronouns themselves.

  109. I think part of the problem is that “gender” has been coopted by non-linguists as a sort of euphemism for “sex” (or, to be less tendentious, as a deliberately vaguer term, which lends itself better to non-reductionist ideas of human sexual behaviour.) Whether linguists like it or not, I think this introduces a whole lot of associations which interfere with the neutral use of the word in linguistics.


  110. vil-ka, lozh-ka, kruzh-ka, navoloch-ka, podush-ka, korob-ka, sum-ka, may-ka, rubash-ka, lampoch-ka, veshal-ka
    naush-n-ik-i, nos-k-i

    stol, stena, ok-no, dozhd’ < table, wall, window, rain – old words.

    sunduq < Arabic
    Komputer, monitor, mikrofon, lustra < recent loans

    The first row:
    fork, spoon, mug, pillowcase, pillow, box, bag, t-shirt, shirt, light bulb, clothes hanger

    It is some objects from my room, that I can see right now. Actually there are many more nominalizing siffuxes in Russian.

  111. The point is that an unsuffixed noun here is exotic in the context of Russian nominal derivation.

    It is an absolute ocean of suffixes. In Wiktionary’s rhyme dictionary there are 5500 -ka words (the first of them rubaka means a skilled sword fighter, but generally it is a feminine suffix).
    But then there are -ik words, -el’ words, -itsa words…


    Unsuffixed professions are “president”, “minister”, etc. But sometimes it happens to Russian words.

    vrat-ar’ – “goalkeeper” (football). I do not know how female goalkeepers call themselves. Or really weirdly (in the context of morphology):

    -el’ — el’-n-itsa is a masculine and feminine “-er”. Normally applied to persons, sometimes to objects (cf. vyklyuchat-el’ above).

    chitat-el’ — chitat-el’-n-itsa “reader”
    pisat-el’ — pisatel-el’-n-itsa “writer”
    vodit-el’ — ???? “driver”
    pred-vodit-el’ — pred-vodit-el’-n-itsa “leader”

  112. Why did it happen?
    -el’-n-ista — el’
    is regular. Something rather powerful must block it.

    Does it have anything to do with that it used to be a “men’s” occupation (though drivers of some elecrical means of transportation like trolleybus used to be massively female)? Does it have anything to do with jokes about women who can’t drive cars?

  113. rozele, I don’t understand your point. In the gender-heavy language I’m fluent in, Hebrew, gender agreement is absolutely inviolable, and the linkage between the societal gender of animates and grammatical gender is almost as ironclad. Within these grammatical constraints there is no room for not gendering profession names, and so I can’t see how you’d get out of the language alone any evidence for a sexist bias (which unquestionably exists). To be concrete about it, a male mechanic must be called a musaxnik and a female one musaxnikit (we discussed that word before), and a cosmetician kosmetikai and kosmetika’it, respectively, and adjectives and verbs must agree with the gender in turn. Both musaxnikit and kosmetikai are rare words, because of the gender bias in these professions, but there is nothing about the feminine prefix -it to indicate that. What am I missing?

    (The use of feminine -it as a diminutive, e.g. kaf/kapit ‘tablespoon/teaspoon’, unquestionably has sexist roots, but if I am not mistaken that is not what is being addressed.)

  114. “unquestionably has sexist roots”


  115. I think rozele’s point is that any indication at all of gender represents prima facie sexism. But that seems to me a counsel of perfection, and it’s not at all clear to me that linguistic gender translates into real-world behavior in any direct way; it seems more useful to address sexism in behavior and leave word endings to take care of themselves.

  116. David Eddyshaw says

    In principle, the fact that words for female practioners of a trade are derived from those for male practitioners may very well result from sexism, as does the fact the the female form is morphologically “marked” where the male is default; but there may be a confusion of synchronic with diachronic: the fact that a form is historically derived/marked does not of necessity tell you anything about contemporary usage. (Of course, the lack of progress in such matters may well mean that the female term is still misogynistic, but this is a social rather strictly linguistic fact.) The degree to which gender-marking is embedded in the actual grammatical structure of the language simply masks the real issues: I much doubt, for example, whether Turkish professional women experience less misogyny than French because of the admirable Turkish lack of grammatical gender.

  117. male is default;

    Imagine an Arab. What gender is he?

    And did you remember that we in average ahve slightly more than one boob when you said ‘macho Russians’?

  118. I liked “Muslims do not respect women!” (some Russian girl on the interntet).

  119. January First-of-May says

    Yes, the word is from Latin genus and thus etymologically has no relation to sex

    Russian, with its predilection for archaic learned calques, calls grammatical gender род “kind, family” – the same word used for genera in biology, as it happens, but not for sex/gender (that’s пол, apparently related to the word for “half”).

    Maybe we should just use “genus” itself. Grammatical genus. Why not. As far as I know there’s no other major linguistic meaning of “genus” for it to contend with.

    Imagine an Arab. What gender is he?

    I’m reminded of an old joke I’ve heard many years ago… actually, just googled it up, so copying a pre-existing version (with some minor editing, mostly to remove the points I don’t recognize).

    Хорошо известно, что:
    Испанец – человек, а испанка – грипп;
    Индеец – человек, а индейка – птица;
    Кореец – человек, а корейка – еда;
    Болгарин – человек, а болгарка – инструмент;
    Финн – человек, а финка – нож;
    Поляк – человек, а полька – танец;
    Турок – человек, а турка – посуда;
    Голландец – человек, а голландка – печка;
    Чехи и вьетнамцы – люди, а чешки и вьетнамки – обувь;
    Китаец – человек, а китайка – яблоко;
    Молдаванин – человек, а молдаванка – район Одессы.
    И только одно исключение: москвичка – человек, а москвич – ведро с гайками.

    (Of course most of those actually contain the nominalizing suffix, not the feminizing one, and in a few cases they aren’t even the correct feminitives. But, well, it’s a joke.)

  120. Maybe we should just use “genus” itself. Grammatical genus. Why not.

    Why not indeed. Works for me.

  121. Russian, with its predilection for archaic learned calques, calls grammatical gender род “kind, family” – the same word used for genera in biology, as it happens, but not for sex/gender (that’s пол, apparently related to the word for “half”).

    In Serbian both grammatical gender, and the social gender are ‘rod’, whereas sex is ‘pol’ (related to Eng. ‘pole’, ultimately from the Greek pólos).

    I see Russian has adopted гендер for the social gender:

  122. January First-of-May says

    I see Russian has adopted гендер for the social gender

    Indeed, though IIRC it’s a very recent thing, and I’ve actually forgotten about it until you reminded me.

    As far as I can tell, for the most part social gender as something distinct from (apparent) sex just isn’t a very salient subject in Russia; we’re pretty backwards in that sort of thing (and, with help from the flourishing church, backsliding ever further).

  123. I decided not to mention Russian exactly because “gender” in Russian sounds as Latin.

    Since recently it also became the name of that fashionable thing that makes Europeans perverts.*

    I looked up the news. Some say “gender equality” rather than “equality of-sexes”: На занятиях под руководством эдьюкейторов дети в том числе писали эссе на интересующие их темы, записывали видеоролики о своем вкладе в сохранение окружающей среды и обсуждали тему гендерного равенства в спорте.


    * I mean, the people who protect Russian from corrupting influence of so-called Western values like “LGBT” and “gender”. They began using this word like I just did: something bad:-/

    O genera!

  124. January First-of-May says


    …yeah, seriously, why didn’t they just say тьюторов?

  125. David Eddyshaw says

    Imagine an Arab

    Median Man is a Chinese woman.

  126. the people who protect Russian from corrupting influence of so-called Western values

    The same people exist in the West, too. They are called conservatives.

  127. David Eddyshaw says

    To be fair, #notAllConservatives.

    The kind that seek above all to promote the interests of rentier capitalism are often themselves quite chill about sexuality (cf our own David Cameron.) Insofar as they talk about it at all, it’s only as a spurious-culture-war technique for encouraging older bigoted voters to vote against their own real interest. In the UK, it has much less traction with the OBVs than the jingoism and the xenophobia, though this is perhaps not the case in the US, where parachristians are much more significant electorally.

    To be ever fairer, there are still remnants in the UK of an older Conservativism predating the money-worshipping and the Gradgrindism that has usurped its name and destroyed its soul, that would say it is none of our damned business what people get up to in bed anyway, unless we’re invited.

  128. SFReader says


    …yeah, seriously, why didn’t they just say тьюторов?

    “Не будет больше ни мэров, ни перов, ни херов!” (c) general Albert Makashov during shirt-lived Russian Civil War of October 1993.

  129. J.W. Brewer says

    Another substitute for “gender” in the “noun class etc.” sense might be its etymological doublet “genre.” But I remain skeptical about the skunking claim. The technical grammatical meaning of “mood,” for example, is quite different from the more usual meaning(s) of that word, yet people mostly manage to avoid confusion.

    Is the perception of skunking because the now-usual non-linguistic sense of “gender” invites schoolboy (hmm, need an ungendered synonym for that one) titters, or something? That may have been one driver for “gender” replacing “sex” in a number of contexts a few decades back, and I suppose that could have set up a euphemism-treadmill dynamic.

  130. Is the perception of skunking because the now-usual non-linguistic sense of “gender” invites schoolboy (hmm, need an ungendered synonym for that one) titters, or something?

    No, it’s because it causes people to think that gender in nouns involves the male/female distinction. Even I find myself thinking that way, and I have a master’s degree in linguistics. It would be better to have a less distracting term.

  131. J.W. Brewer says

    Thinking gender involves the male/female distinction is a rookie mistake. It instead involves (in some but not all languages) the masculine/feminine distinction, which is a whole nother kettle of fish.

    But at a minimum it seems likely that more of any such confusion is engendered (sic) by using masc./fem./neut. as the specific labels for the categories within the system than by using “gender” as the overall label for such categories or the system they comprise. Not sure what an elegant set of replacements would be there – maybe (as an ugly technical solution) one could just steal something from an existing language — just as we talk about T vs. V pronouns as generic categories by abstracting from the French instances, we could e.g. start with German and just talk about other languages as possessing der-class nouns, die-class nouns, and das-class nouns, sometimes with adjectival agreement. Or would er-class, sie-class, and es-class be easier to follow? In some IE languages the das/es-class has been lost; in others it survives.

  132. Stu Clayton says

    Or perhaps first-, second- and third-class nouns ? What could be more neutral ?

  133. January First-of-May says

    by using masc./fem./neut. as the specific labels for the categories within the system

    The problem is that masc./fem. (unsure about neut.) are very useful specific labels in the case of a SAE language, where typically nouns for male humans/animals are (almost) all in a particular single class, nouns for female humans/animals are (almost) all in a particular different single class, and there is at most one other.

    Meanwhile a non-SAE language would typically not have a masculine/feminine setup like that and its noun classes often just wouldn’t end up called masculine/feminine in the first place, but animate/inanimate or whatever.
    (IIRC studies of Papuan noun classes, which are a comparable mess to SAE ones – a famous popular-linguistics book got its name from a description of one of such classes – end up using terms like “noun class VII” because there’s just no good way to summarize.)

  134. J.W. Brewer says

    J.F-of-M: I’m not personally advocating for any change in the terminological status quo, just questioning hat and David E.’s assumption that “gender” is the term that needs replacement first. Maybe a way to finesse it would be a higher level conceptual distinction we could borrow from some mystical-seeming non-SAE culture like “yin” and “yang.” Not sure what you’d use for the former “neuter,” but you could label the noun class including most-actually-literally-female nouns as “yin” and the one including most-actually-literally-male nouns as “yang,” thus treating the masc/fem distinction as simply one applied facet of a broader distinction rather than the fundamental distinction of which all the other facets were metaphorical extensions. Of course, you’ll still be stuck with the problem that in one SAE language tables are yin and chairs are yang but in another SAE language it’s the other way around.

  135. To clarify, I’m not objecting to masc./fem. labels when they’re useful, I’m objecting to “gender” as the general term.

  136. No, it’s because it causes people to think that gender in nouns involves the male/female distinction. Even I find myself thinking that way, and I have a master’s degree in linguistics
    Thinking gender involves the male/female distinction is a rookie mistake. It instead involves (in some but not all languages) the masculine/feminine distinction, which is a whole nother kettle of fish.

    If you think that a native speaker of a gendered language (or, at least, of Russian) does not feel differently about a he-book of Psalms and she-book of Psalms (псалтирь that лежала on the table and a псалтирь that лежал on the table) you are mistaken.
    I do not think that sailors can keep saying “she” without ever thinking about a ship as a girl.

    It is a question, to which extent this (psycholical) distinction is made. How it is related to the psychological/social gender and biological sex, and what on Earth this latter psychological/social gender is – these are questions too. You can also ask, how come that “dad” is a-declension class (even if mascune agreement), and if this a-declension also forms a psychological cathegory.
    But the presence of this cathegory / perceptual difference is out of question.

    If you do not mean this, then I am not sure what you mean.

    Some Russians apply neuter words to children as pet names. Actually дитя is neuter, -я is old neuter diminutive familiar to everyone from colleen and German -chen. In modern Russian (and not only) it is an abstract gender (words like “understanding”). An obvious neuter word to be used with a baby is чудо, “wonder, miracle” but my grandmother used playfully much longer words with meanings like ‘”phenomenon” (maybe not явление itself, but long and abstract anyway).

  137. As for the African (and not only) languages with noun classes: unfortunately, I only know some abstract things about their grammars. Maybe if I knew such a langauge, it would help. When I think “noun classes”, they are absolutely abstract. When I think “genders like ours, just really many of them”, they are much more intuitive. It helps. Of course I do not think about them as “feminine and masculine”, because they are not.

  138. If LH finds himself thinking this way, then maybe because he knows some gendered langauges, not because he is a rookie.

    If you do not mean this, then I am not sure what you mean.

    When making predictions based on this (sociolinguistic and formal) you can of course make a mistake. Not even because of “exaggerating” the effect, rather because we have no idea how it actually works and we can describe langauges much better than we can predict langauges:) So was it what you meant?

    Strict rules: “if Russians have a masc. and fem. words for ‘dog’, they will use them according to dog’s sex”?

    It is not the case. Dog enthusiasts do use those according to gender and feel offended when you call his/her пёс “собака”. But their language is different. Most Russians say “собака” and have no idea what is her sex, and still say “собака” when they know. And not that dogs are very good at expressing social gender, by the way:)

    Such predictions are likely to be false, because the system is beyond our comprehension. Grammatical gender is not assigned to “kettle” based on its biological sex, because it does not have biological sex. Grammatical gender of the “most common name for” a kettle is not very stable: such objects are genderqueer and Russian and FYLOSC genders do not coincide. Everything is transgender there.

    Are articles used or worn by men and women (like “skirt”) coincide in gender with their owners? I do not know, I need statistics. This sort of (social) gender exists and is expressed with diminutives and children language. Again: “panties”.

    But saying that these cathegories (sex, gender social, gender in Russian) have nothing to do with each other would be idiotic.

  139. David Eddyshaw says

    There must be something about grammatical gender and largely arbitrary noun class systems which appeals to the human mind, difficult though it may be to see why if you grew up with only English or Mandarin or some such language. Within Indo-European, even languages as outright peculiar and atypical as the Insular Celtic languages still have it; within Afroasiatic, it’s alive and kicking in Hausa just as much as in Maltese, despite maybe ten thousand years of divergent development between them. It’s astonishingly persistent through time as a language feature.

    There are Bantu languages which have abandoned noun-class-based grammatical agreement (notably Lingala) but they are few, and often seem to have odd histories involving some sort of semicreolisation or even more radical disruption of normal transmission. All the Oti-Volta languages keep the grammatical agreement system except for most of the Western group, where it seems to have been abandoned relatively recently. Conceivably there was some history involving large-scale imperfect acquisition there too, given that the Western languages are those of the expansionist Mossi-Dagomba kingdoms, but if so the simplifications seem to have been imported back into the heartlands of the languages (Kusaal is actually at the very centre where the tradition places the capital of the original founder of these kingdoms.)

  140. PlasticPaddy says

    I think there are several things here. German also uses diminutives for names, and sometimes those make the word neuter. But I would need to be convinced this occurred or occurs more for girls/women than boys/men. I agree the diminutives Mädchen and Fräulein have no diminutive male equivalent (Büblein/Knäblein are archaic in the standard and Männlein means something else), but I think Fräulein is being replaced by junge Frau. I would say the use of diminutives in German and y in English is often because the item is smaller or the speaker has some positive emotional attachment (including cases where the speaker is precious and has a positive attachment to a wide range of people, plants, animals and household articles) to the item. Regarding masc/fem/neuter when one is not talking about people (including sexless, hence neuter babies), I would need to be convinced that a lot of people think that an object or idea is “female” because the word has “female” gender. Is love more “feminine” for Russians and Germans, and more “masculine” for Italians?

  141. David Eddyshaw says

    I have actually read papers purporting to show that feminine/masculine grammatical gender assignment affects how speakers perceive the referent, though they usually seem to be the “we’ve run some tests on our undergraduates and managed to achieve statistical significance” type. (‘Nuff said.)

    Bantu noun class systems certainly can carry meaning implicatures, though with lots and lots of exceptions (I refuse to believe that there is any deep anthropological significance in the fact that the Swahili word for “God” belongs to a class largely associated with trees, for example, much less that this causes Swahili speakers to be more attuned to God in His arboreal aspect; any more than I believe that French speakers feel that sentry duty is basically women’s work.)

  142. John Cowan says

    first-, second- and third-class nouns

    For me at least that would induce a mental collision with first-, second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-declension nouns (I think five is the maximum number of declensions in IE languages). How about type A (feminine), type O (masculine), and type N (neuter)? Since type O and type N are often syncretic, and less commonly type A and type O, it’s important to keep them together.

  143. David Eddyshaw says

    Bantu noun classes have a standard numbering, the Bleek-Meinhof system. (Personally, I’m all for dropping the Nazi Meinhof and just calling it the Bleek system.)

    Classical Armenian has more than five declensions. though I suppose you could reduce them to five-with-variants with a bit of judicious lumping-together.

  144. I refuse to believe that there is any deep anthropological significance in the fact that

    “Any” or “deep”?
    I am not sure what “deep” means:-/

    P.S., I understand that some conclusions about God and God’s word class would be wrong and you are warning agaisnt wrong conclusions.
    I also can not formulate what you are warning against. But I think it is a problem:-)

  145. David Eddyshaw says

    You may omit “deep” at your pleasure, as I only put it in for comic effect and/or to provide a spurious impression of intellectual profundity.

  146. the Swahili word for “God” belongs to a class largely associated with trees

    Remnants ot Asherah worship?

  147. SFReader says

    “Love” is definitely feminine for Russians since it’s also one of the most popular female first names in Russia.

    Faith, Hope and Love – all girls.

  148. To my undereducated view from a vantage point of Russian steppe, the main problem is not declensions or endings, but pronouns. You must know the sex of the person you are talking about to apply the correct pronoun. Closing your eyes after that and saying that noun “genus” classes sharing the same pronouns are just an accident is impossible.

  149. Pronouns and agreement.

    As about “just an accident”, it is artillery bracketing maybe.

    The first shot was too long: people saw some sort of relationship between gender-1 and gender-2 that they belive is false (I can’t imagine WHICH one though: could anyone think that we name kettles according to their biological sex?:-/)
    The next shot was too short: “these two are entirely different”.

    But the third shot (‘how these are actually related?’) is too hard. Unlike phonemes, it is a connection between two psychological entites. It is in our heads. You eithe find evedence of such a connection in usage (by examining a huge corpus), or in art (it is there!) or in your own head. But you do not trust your intuition if you are not a native speaker.

    This is why I offer to compare it to a ship, who is she.

    At least I practice this fork when I learn phonologies: first I treat the “simpler” sounds as my native and focus on more exotic sounds. But when I can make these sounds, the “simpler” ones become the most difficult.

    The problem wit ships is that it is the ship which is “she”. Meanwhile in Russian
    – шхуна is “she”
    – корабль is “he”
    – судно is “it”
    and all the three refer to the same ship. The genderf the word I use does actually affect perception, but I can use a different word for the same object. Or person sometimes.

  150. SImilarly, I may feel confused by la table and le lit, because I have in mind стол and кровать.*

    But if I think about la table as tabula, it is fine. It is feminine:)

    And I am not confused by the fact that this la table has four legs, like a стол or table (which apparently is стол in my mind even though I never think in RUssian when I think in English).

    *note: I do not speak French. If I were used to sayingla table”, I would have felt differently I hope.

  151. Lars Mathiesen says

    My problem with стол is that stol means ‘chair’ in Danish. The four-legged kind, so there’s a commonality — it seems to be one of those Baltoslavic/Germanic couplings.

  152. David Eddyshaw says

    Welsh tables and beds are, quite properly, masculine; chairs are, of course, feminine. Deviations from this pattern are clearly unnatural.

  153. Thus it is licit to place a chair next to a table or a bed, but putting a bed next to a table is streng verboten.

  154. J.W. Brewer says

    A non-Welsh locus classicus of the chairs-are-feminine trope:

  155. January First-of-May says

    My problem with стол is that stol means ‘chair’ in Danish. The four-legged kind, so there’s a commonality — it seems to be one of those Baltoslavic/Germanic couplings.

    That’s стул in Russian, which is a borrowing from German(ic), I believe (cf. English stool). It would not especially surprise me if the two words are actually related. (Wiktionary says they probably are.)

  156. Yes, stol shifted in the meaning to make room for stul.

  157. I was reminded yesterday of an interesting example of a folk song being rewritten more than once by the original author. In 1965, Tom Paxton wrote “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation.” Those who were there can perhaps correct me, but it is my impression that this was one of the best known early folk song parodies of the Vietnam War. One of its major accusations was that the South Vietnamese government America was supposed to be supporting was actually completely infiltrated, at the local and national level, by the supposedly North Vietnamese enemy. (To get the rhythm and and rhyme right, the lyrics also quote Johnson using the poetic inversion, “I am trying everyone to please,” which isn’t very LBJ.)

    Over time, Paxton, made changes to the song. This version, from the 1980s, changes about half the verses, including toning down the attacks on the South Vietnamese government somewhat. As the total number of troops in country ballooned to over half a million and later, when the immediate political relevance of the song had dissipated, Paxton also seemingly felt it was no longer necessary to tie the number of troops in the song to the number in a particular buildup events. So he increased the number of troops mentioned in the last line with each iteration of the chorus, starting with the original 50,000 and topping out at 100,000—which I feel definitely improved the song. (The increasing number of troops was, I think, the earliest significant change he made to the lyrics, and there are more concert recordings out there from later in the Vietnam era with the increasing troop numbers as the only changes.)

    Another couple of decades later, Paxton rewrote the whole song as “George W. Told the Nation,” to be about the 2007 troop surge in the Iraq War. Once again, he used the same (real) number of troops, 20,000, in each chorus.

  158. As I was tracking down the videos for the previous post, YouTube at one point suggested this version of the standard “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” It’s a good but not especially spectacular Bluegrass rendition. (Compare this signature version by Burl Ives, which is closer to the song’s probably spiritual roots.) However, it stood out to me for being a performance by a Norwegian Bluegrass band, highlighting the international nature of folk forms.

  159. There’s a bunch of Armenian writing in translation here. It hasn’t been updated in a while, and most of the translations are into Russian. I wish I could read a lot of it.

  160. Great find!

  161. komputer says

    What a information of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious experience regarding unpredicted emotions.

    [This showed up in the moderation queue, and I admired the eloquence so much I deleted the spam URL and went for preserveness of precious experience. –LH]

  162. John Cowan says

    Median Man is a Chinese woman.

    Surnamed Li, Lee, or some close variant of that.

    Which reminds me of the results of taking a cube, choosing three non-overlapping pairs of adjacent faces, giving each pair a unique color, and then deforming the cube until it becomes a sphere. Piet Hein (of the grook poems[*]) pointed out that this was a three-dimensional and tripartite analogue of the yin-yang symbol, and proposed calling it the yin-yang-lee symbol. (It is not yet in Unicode.)

    [*] My favorite (in English translation): “One art / there is / no more / no less / To do / all things / with art- / lessness.” TIL that the earliest grooks were subtle Danish resistance propaganda, and that Piet Hein was a direct descendant of the Dutch admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein, the Dutch privateer[***] and later admiral of the Dutch fleet.

    [**] This is is a fan showing the traditional Korean sam taeguk symbol; the yellow region represents the human, as opposed to the non-human heaven (blue) and earth (red).

    [***] In 1628 he captured the entire Spanish treasure fleet for that year: 16 ships loaded with gold, silver, and trade goods worth 11.5 million guilders[****]. No lives were lost on the Spanish side, and all prisoners were released on Cuba with ample supplies and marching directions for Havana. Hein, who had been a Spanish prisoner of war, instructed the Spanish sailors and troops personally in fluent Spanish.

    [****] 60 guilders worth of rather cheaper trade goods had bought the island of Manhattan from the Lenape two years earlier.

  163. January First-of-May says

    EDIT: thanks for the link! Yeah, that sounds pretty definite. I wonder why the translator chose “Peggy” in particular.

    For the benefit of any theoretical readers that might end up here while looking for Peggy’s prototype: the link is now (apparently) dead, so here’s a YouTube version. (There are many others; I chose a version with many added verses, as was common for the Russian song.)

    The original song’s protagonist is named Katie Bairdie, and I’m still not sure why Peggy. Probably it just sounded like a stereotypically Scottish name.

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