I was recently given the link to Dracula, which is a presentation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in blog format. The original novel is an epistolary, with every section dated, and the novel is being posted section-by-section on the appropriate dates. It’s a delightful way to read.

The first post was on May 3, which I just read and experienced the distinct pleasure of being in or very near to the places that the author describes. The first paragraph that caught my mind was this one:

Having had some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a nobleman of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. (emphasis mine)

The city where I’m typing this is in the region of Bucovina (to use the modern spelling), but it’s very near the old border of Moldavia. In fact, people from other parts of the country will usually tell you that we are part of Moldavia, though the locals try to associate with Bucovina since Moldavians are stereotyped as backward hicks. It’s complicated by the fact that there are not now any official political entities with those names, and the historical regions that they represent had very flexible borders.

I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place.

That would be Bistriţa, a city not far from here that I’ve also passed through. This gives me a strange sense of dislocation while reading, because the geography that Stoker presents is meant to seem remote and exotic–but for me Bistriţa is a fairly boring city a few hours away by train.

In the population of Transylvania there are four district nationalities: Saxons in the South, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are descendants of the Dacians; Magyars in the West, and Szekelys in the East and North.

Time for some ethnography! The Saxons are known on Romanian as saşi, and they still exist in Transylvania, though in much reduced numbers. The “Wallachs” are what we would consider the native Romanians, descended from the Romanized inhabitants of ancient Dacia after the Romans conquered the province. The Szekely are a Hungarian-speaking people known to Romanians as secui, who still exist in considerable numbers in the western parts of Romania (which the author refers to as the east, coming as he does from further west).

Linguistic aside: the etymon *walah is a fascinating one, as it has been borrowed from one language to another all over Europe, its meaning changing several times along the way, but always with the meaning “those funny people over there who don’t speak proper”. In English it provides the root for Wales and Welsh, and also Walloon (a name for some dialects of Dutch). In Germany it referred to any Romance-speaking peoples, and I believe provides the word for “Italian” in some dialects. In Slavic languages it usually refers to Romanians, but to Romanians themselves it refers to the Romanian peoples living outside of Romania, the Aromanians, Meglo-Romanians, and Istro-Romanians. Which just goes to show that everyone needs a word for “those funny people over there who don’t speak proper”.

I had for breakfast more paprika, and sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was “mamaliga,” and eggplant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call “implelata.” (Mem., get recipe for this also.)

The maize porridge is properly mămăligă, staple dish throughout Romania. I had some last night, in fact. It’s very similar to polenta as served in the American south. I can’t figure out what Romanian word “implelata” is supposed to refer to, and no one else in the house does, either. It’s not a dish that I’m familiar with, but here’s a Romanian cooking site with a recipe matching the discription. If you want to follow the author’s suggestion and get a recipe, you can probably follow just based on the pictures, and there’s always Google Translate.

At every station there were groups of people, sometimes crowds, and in all sorts of attire. Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through France and Germany, with short jackets and round hats and homemade trousers; but others were very picturesque. The women looked pretty; except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them.

This is actually a pretty good description of traditional Romanian dress. But this being the internet, I can just show you a picture:

Traditional Romanian Dress

This isn’t exactly a common sight on the street these days, but it would be familiar to anyone who’s spent significant time in Romania.

The moral of the story is: if you set your story in a strange, exotic place, people who actually live in that place will not find it as strange and exotic. If you care.


Mark Liberman has a post up at Language Log discussing Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, and in particular his “upper case phoneme”.

I’m a fan of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, but I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that they might be improved in their approach to matters linguistic. As an example, on p. 470 of his recently-released novel Matter, we learn that “Marain, the Culture’s language, had a phoneme to denote upper case”.

Linguists would usually call a unit that denotes something a morpheme (or perhaps a word), not a phoneme, even if it was only one phoneme long. (In fact, we sometimes find meaningful units whose effect on pronunciation is just a single feature.)

In addition, it’s odd to find a morpheme that signals something essentially in the realm of writing, like alphabetic case; and also to find that Marain still uses upper case in (some of) the same ways that English does.

I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that Liberman is being way too nice. The quoted passage from the book makes it pretty clear that what Banks means: the Marain language has the ability to indicate aurally that something is a proper name or otherwise an Important Word. But Banks calling this an “upper-case phoneme” is a basic mistake on two levels. First, he seems to have confused phonemes and morphemes, and second, he has confused a property of written language with spoken language. Liberman suggests a few interpretations of “upper-case phoneme” that would be linguistically defensible, but they’re increasingly implausible. No, what we have here is the linguistic equivalent of making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs: an absurdity brought on by the fact that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, none of this really matters, and my irritation is, I’m sure, tiny compared to the irritation of a physicist trying to watch Star Trek. But it would be nice if people using linguistic vocabulary would at least try to get it right.

Here’s something I never knew:

Galland did more than merely translate: he shaped the text into what became a more or less canonical form; as a result the Nights are as much a part of Western literature as of Arabic. To Western readers, the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad belong to the core of the Nights and are among the best-known tales; but they did not belong to the Arabic text until Galland added them. There is, in fact, no known Arabic text of the Aladdin and Ali Baba stories that predates Galland, and elements in the story of Aladdin suggest that it may have been a European fairy tale rather than an Arabic one.

This is via Language Hat. Click through to the original article for more fascinating tidbits.

I’m currently reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle for the first time. This is considered a YA classic, and for a good reason: it’s awesome. For reasons which could be the subject of their own post I was never able to read it in childhood, which might be just as well because now I get to puzzle over a curious multilingual typo in the book.

I’m reading the 1979 Dell edition, the one with this cover:

A Wrinke In Time Cover
This is the edition that I grew up seeing as a kid; all of the other cover images that the book has sported seem like pretenders to me.

I mention this only because it’s possible that later printings have corrected the errors I’m about to discuss.

There is a character, Mrs. Who, who frequently speaks in quotations. At one point she quotes Euripides in the original Greek. The quotation is printed thus (printed large to make the accents clearer):

“Αεηπου οὐδὲν, πὰντα δ’ εηπἰζειυ χρωετ.

Translation (from the book): Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.

Now anyone with a little Classical Greek (which I minored in) could tell you that this is nonsense. Three of the words are nonexistent, and the diacritics are placed in violation of every rule of Greek accentuation. However, with the help of the translation I was able to guess what went wrong and reconstruct the original.

There are two simple letter mistakes: lambda (λ) has been replaced with eta (η) in every instance, and nu (ν) has been replaced with ypsilon (υ) in two places. The latter mistake is quite easy to make; the former is a bit more puzzling, but we’ll let it go. The final word stumped me until I realized that someone had substituted tau (τ) for iota-with-circumflex (ῖ). Making those substitutions, we arrive at this:

Ἄελπον οὐδὲν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρωεῖ.

(You’ll notice that I’ve corrected all of the accents, too. The errors here are very comprehensible and easy to make–and let us take a moment to pity the poor typesetter who was tasked with setting this line, based on a probably handwritten fragment in a language he didn’t know. He had probably never ever heard of a smooth-breathing-with-acute-accent mark, and so may be forgiven for using a double-quote in its place. Alongside the numerous other errors.)

This matches the translation given, and satisfies me. Only two questions remain:

  1. Why Ἄελπον and not Ἄνελπον?
  2. Whence the omega in χρωεῖ? The word that I know is χρεῖ; but perhaps the long form is a poetic variant that I’m not aware of.

Of course, both of these things could also be typesetting errors, but they don’t seem easy to explain in the way that the other substitutions are.

Update: My erudite friend Brett sent me the following in private correspondence:

The TLG says it’s Euripides Trag., Fragmenta (Nauck) 761.1:

Ἅελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρηῶν

lit. ‘nothing hopeless/unhoped, it’s necessary to hope for everything.’ L’Engle’s source translator took the first clause as “nothing is hopeless” which seems fine. An Italian on the single google result I got (http://spazioinwind.libero.it/gattonero/index5_RCol.htm) apparently takes it as “nothing [can happen] unhoped for” or “[if the thing is] unhoped for [then it doesn’t get achieved].” Ἅελπον doesn’t seem to be a word, and it looks like the last word’s typo may be switching ω and η, and replacing _ν with τ for whatever reason. I wonder in a positive, respectful, evocative sort of way what the draft the typesetter was going off of looked like. Finally, a-elp- rather than *_an-elp-_ is the privativized stem of ‘hope’ because _elp-_ originally started with digamma (http://www.aoidoi.org/articles/epic/digamma.html), indicating (with asterisks now meaning prehistoric rather than incorrect) *_n-welp-to-_ > *_awelpto-_ > _aelpto-_. If you have a different edition of the book see if they’ve corrected any typos

On the way home today I heard the most astounding realization of /h/: a teenage girl, probably 15 years old, who was consistently using [k] where most people in this part of the country would say [h]. I was dumbfounded, but I listened for several minutes and am pretty sure of what I heard. Every “he” was [ki], and every “who” was [ku].

I am baffled by this. My first thought was that the girl wasn’t a native speaker, but she had no other perceptible anomalies of pronunciation. My second thought was a peculiar speech impediment, but what kind of speech defect would result in replacing [h] with [k], rather than dropping it? I considered that I was simply mishearing, but again, in a noisy situation you’re more likely to not hear [h] at all than to consistently mistake it for [k]. My last thought was that it was an affectation, a deliberately non-standard pronunciation adopted to confuse others.

Who knows? Are there any linguists in the audience to shed light?

Via Language Log, I discovered this big news item: Solid evidence for a relationship between Na-Dene and Yeniseic languages.

If you’re a language geek like me, this is really exciting news. First off, it’s not very often that new large language families are established. The high-level language groupings that linguists know of are pretty stable, and attempts to establish new relationships between families are usually done by crackpots using dubious methods to reach absurd conclusions, like asserting that all languages are descended from ancient Sumerian. (Or that guy who claims that the Romance languages all descend from Modern English.)

The other interesting thing is both the distances involved: the Yeneseic languages are spoken in central Siberia, while the Na-Dene languages are spoken across North America, from Alaska in the west to Greenland in the east (oops, that was confusion with a different language family) and Mexico in the south. This makes the Dene-Yeniseic language group one of the most dispersed in the world, with impressively ambitious speakers:

The distance from the Yeniseian range to that the most distant Athabaskan languages is the greatest overland distance covered by any known language spread not using wheeled transport or sails. Archaeologist Prof. Ben Potter of UAF reviewed the postglacial prehistory of Beringia and speculated that the Na-Dene speakers may descend from some of the earliest colonizers of the Americas, who eventually created the successful and long-lived Northern Archaic tool tradition that dominated interior and northern Alaska almost until historical times.

From the Linguist List

There are papers and more information on the pages linked; I’m just beginning to go through the material myself.