Summer plans

Thinking about the summer helps me get through the cold and dark days of winter, bad enough in Cluj and just hellish in Helsinki. Here are some thoughts:

  • Last exams are in the first several days of May. That means I can immediately take off for Mari El. For real this time. I mean it. Really.
  • Then to the twenty-third IFUSCO (International Conference of Finno-Ugrist Students), to be held in Saransk (Mordovia) from the 20th to the 24th of May.
  • Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing. Stop in Ulan Bator for some amount of time.
  • China and Vietnam. This isn’t going to be very fruitful for language practise. In Beijing I have no problem communicating, but as I go further south in China, the locals’ command of Putonghua will surely get more and more out of touch with the standard. In Vietnam, forget it, that language scares me.
  • South Korea and Japan. As funds permit, but feasible enough, I think. I’ve always wanted to learn some Japanese. Though the writing system is difficult enough to cast doubt on learning the language to completion, some limited command of the spoken language seems feasible now that Finnish has innoculated me to the horrors of consonant gradation.
  • Trans-Siberian back to Moscow, then by train through Kyiv and Suceava to Cluj.
  • Several weeks home, and maybe a couple of trips to Szekélyföld to practise Hungarian.
  • A short visit to Budapest to tour the city’s antiquaries for another long list of linguistics and Sandor Weöres books. Finally, returning by plane from Budapest to Helsinki.

If any readers will be in East Asia during that time, send me an e-mail and we’ll meet up.


Alkukoti, a yearly review for students and young people about activities in the Finno-Ugrian world issued by the University of Helsinki student union, can now be read online. I’d rather read it on paper, since it is very stylishly printed, but hopefully this will bring it to an audience that can’t just pick up a copy in Helsinki. It is in Finnish, but even for those with a rudimentary command of the language the photos, tables, and captions already provide a wealth of information about what’s been going on recently.

A puzzle of Hungarian palatalizations solved

As far as I know, there’s no historical grammar of Hungarian available in English. But as I think my Hungarian has improved enough lately to try one produced in Hungary. While stopping in Budapest on my way back to Helsinki, I wanted to get Akadémiai Kiadó’s new history of the Hungarian language, but that being unavailable I settled instead for Magyar nyelvtörténet ed. Jenő Kiss and Ferenc Pusztai (Budapest: Osiris Kiadó, 2003). I’m happy that I finally picked up such a resource, as just on the first opening of the book I learnt the answer to a feature that long puzzled me.

Many Hungarian words end in -ly (now pronounced /j/, formerly /lj/), seemingly without any etymological justification for the palatalization. One example is személy ‘person’. As one learns from the grammar, in the Old Hungarian period this slowly spread by analogy from the plural. As the plural ending ended in a front vowel (Hungarian possessing vowel harmony), palatalization could easily occur there:

  1. személ : személek : személt (original forms of nom. sg., nom. pl., and acc. sg.)
  2. személ : személyek : személt (palatalization appears in nom. pl.)
  3. személy : személyek : személt (palatalization spreads by analogy to nom. sg.)
  4. személy : személyek : személyt (palatalization spreads last to the acc. sg.)

Another curious occurance of palatalization is in hártya ‘map’. As it comes from Latin charta any palatalization clearly appeared sometime after the word was borrowed. Apparently the consonant cluster rt regularly gives rty, a phenomenon visible also in gyertya from Turkish ǰarta.

Slovak dabblings

Leafing through a few Slovak resources in the library yesterday evoked the image of a fractured landscape. The dialects considered Slovak actually differ on those specific phonological developments which usually define other Slavonic languages. In Rodolf Krajcovic’s A Historical Phonology of the Slovak Language (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1975) one reads:

Up to the present day we find roC-, loC-, and š in western and eastern Slovak for the CS oȓC-, ol̑C-, and x’, as well as the preservation of CS dl, tl, whereas in Central Slovak we have raC-, laC- and s respectively, and, with the exception of the verbal forms of the type padla, l for the CS dl, tl.

Nor is the lexicon of the language much standardized. In Beginning Slovak by Oscar E. Swan and Sylvia Gálová-Lorinc (Columbus: Slavica, 1992), the authors write:

A country where asking three different people how to say a “pack” of cigarettes may yield three different responses (škatuľka, krabička, balíček), or where two different informants will disagree vehemently about how to say “watch television,” presents special challenges both for the textbook writer and the student.

Benjamin Franklin and language teaching

It should come as little surprise that in addition to the many other fields in which he showed interest, Benjamin Franklin had some thoughts on the learning of languages as well. In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin he writes:

I had begun in 1733 to study languages; I soon made myself so much a master of the French as to be able to read the books with ease. I then undertook the Italian. An acquaintance, who was also learning it, us’d often to tempt me to play chess with him. Finding this took up too much of the time I had to spare for study, I at length refus’d to play any more, unless on this condition, that the victor in every game should have a right to impose a task, either in parts of the grammar to be got by heart, or in translations, etc., which tasks the vanquish’d was to perform upon honour, before our next meeting. As we play’d pretty equally, we thus beat one another into that language. I afterwards with a little painstaking, acquir’d as much of the Spanish as to read their books also.

I have already mention’d that I had only one year’s instruction in a Latin school, and that when very young, after which I neglected that language entirely. But, when I had attained an acquaintance with the French, Italian, and Spanish, I was surpriz’d to find, on looking over a Latin Testament, that I understood so much more of that language than I had imagined, which encouraged me to apply myself again to the study of it, and I met with more success, as those preceding languages had greatly smooth’d my way.

From these circumstances, I have thought that there is some inconsistency in our common mode of teaching languages. We are told that it is proper to begin first with the Latin, and, having acquir’d that, it will be more easy to attain those modern languages which are deriv’d from it; and yet we do not begin with the Greek, in order more easily to acquire the Latin. It is true that, if you can clamber and get to the top of a staircase without using the steps, you will more easily gain them in descending; but certainly, if you begin with the lowest you will with more ease ascend to the top; and I would therefore offer it to the consideration of those who superintend the education of our youth, whether, since many of those who begin with the Latin quit the same after spending some years without having made any great proficiency, and what they have learnt becomes almost useless, so that their time has been lost, it would not have been better to have begun with the French, proceeding to the Italian, etc.; for, tho’, after spending the same time, they should quit the study of languages and never arrive at the Latin, they would, however, have acquired another tongue or two, that, being in modern use, might be serviceable to them in common life.

Pia Tafdrup

LanguageHat often posts about poetry, and I should get to do so once in a while as well. After all, along with what languages are (grammar and lexicon), and who uses them (their population of speakers), there’s also the matter of what they are good for. Sure, that most often means conversation, but towards a more eternal edifice it means literature, and within it poetry is the very exploitation of a language’s possibilities. That’s why I’m very passionate about the verse of Pia Tafdrup, which showed me that Danish is much more than the seemingly random succession of schwa, /y/, and glottal stop that I first heard it to be.

I was introduced to Tafdrup through Per Nørgård’s choral settings of her poem Mytisk morgen (‘Mythic Morning’). Only a limited number of her poems have been translated into English and made available in book form, outside of obscure journal issues. Dronningeporten, her Nordic Council Literature Prize-winning collection, is available in translation by David McDuff as Queen’s Gate. I haven’t seen it, but Amazon shows it as even available in the United States, rare for a Bloodaxe Books publication.

Though it’s not my favourite of her poems, one in particular is suitable for exposition here, as it is given on her website in both the original Danish and in McDuff’s English translation, and there’s a documentary excerpt of her reciting it.

Min mors hand

Bader mig i en dråbes stille lys
og husker hvordan jeg blev til:
En blyant stukket i hånden,
min mors kølige hånd om min, der var varm.
— Og så skrev vi
ind og ud mellem koralrev,
et undersøisk alfabet af buer og spidser,
af sneglespiral, af søstjernetakker,
af fægtende blækspruttearme,
af grottehvælvinger og klippeformationer.
Bogstaver der fimrede og fandt vej,
svimmelt hen over det hvide.
Ord som flade fisk der flaprede
og gravede sig ned i sandet
eller svajende søanemoner med hundreder af tråde
i stille bevægelse på én gang.
Sætninger som strømme af fisk,
der fik finner og løftede sig,
fik vinger og bevægede sig rytmisk,
dunkende som mit blod, der blindt
slog stjerner mod hjertets nattehimmel,
da jeg så, at hendes hånd havde sluppet min,
at jeg for længst havde skrevet mig ud af hendes greb.

My Mother’s Hand

Bathing in a drop’s quiet light
I remember how I came into being:
A pencil stuck in my hand,
my mother’s cool hand around mine, it was warm.
— And then we wrote
in and out between coral reefs,
an undersea alphabet of arches and apexes
of snail-shell spirals, of starfish points,
of gesticulating octopus arms,
of cave vaults and rock formations.
Letters that vibrated and found their way,
dizzy over the white.
Words like flat fish that flapped
and dug themselves into the sand
or swaying sea anemones with hundreds of threads
in quiet motion at the same time.
Sentences like streams of fish
that grew fins and rose,
grew wings and moved in a rhythm,
throbbing like my blood, that blindly
beat stars against the heart’s night sky,
when I saw that her hand had let mine go,
that I had long ago written myself out of her grasp.

Wonderfully, so much of her poetry is accessible to someone with still just a fairly low level of Swedish and some general experience of historical Nordic grammar; while the march towards a command of Danish goes on, her work is already enjoyable. Well, on paper, that is, obviously the sound is quite different. Luckily, CD recordings of her recitation are available, and she travels extensively giving readings, one of which I hope to one day attend.

In a rather nice turn of events, David McDuff has a weblog, dedicated to the lasting effects of Cold War politics but which occasionally exhibits some of his translations. He’s written several entries on Tafdrup:

The curious dearth of Albanian language resources

EDIT: While there still aren’t a lot of Albanian resources to choose from, the new edition of Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian has filled the gap and is a great way to get started with the language.

Stuck in a Vienna airport waiting for a flight back to Helsinki, with hours to wait, I went to sit in the airport restaurant. It turned out the proprietor is from Albania. As it was four in the morning and things weren’t exactly busy for him, we chatted a bit about differences among Albanian dialects.

In spite of the many years gone by since the fall of Communism, and the existence of Albanian communities in other European countries and in the U.S., from a language-practise standpoint Albania still seems like an isolated little country and the Albanian language remains little known. Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian, written by Isa Zymberi, has been widely criticized for teaching language specific to Kosovo instead of to the Republic of Albania. Cezar Kurti‘s Mesoni Shqip, now in its third edition, has garnered much praise, but good luck finding it in a bookshop.

If print resources in English are so rare, free and quality Internet resources are understandably pretty much nonexistent, as far as I can tell. At least Kurti has put up several lessons from his book at his website Albanian World. There’s also a phrase guide at a gimmicky site that has the benefit of being printable and easily folded. Albanian does look very Balkan Sprachbund-ish and, except for the unfamiliar lexicon, I think I could pick it up fairly easily, were there only resources available.

Ethnic Hungarians protest in Transylvania

(Writing this in Moscow, it turns out that I won’t be going to Mari El after all, but instead for various reasons will be going on immediately to Romania. This is the third time I’ve planned a trip to Mari El without success, and I’m starting to wonder why it’s so difficult to make it there.)

Eurolang reports a protest by ethnic Hungarians in Cluj/Kolozsvár furious at the sacking of two professors who were just doing something that should have been done a long, long time ago. After seeing the admirable bilingualism of Finland, where Finland Swedes have considerable language rights even though they are a miniscule portion of the population, I’m all the more saddened at the sorry state of the Hungarian language in Cluj.

Professional responsibility, continued

On the URA-List Johanna Laakso has posted a passionate call to action, spurred by the recent publication in Hungary of a collection of writings by Angela Marcantonio. I reproduce it here with her permission and make some comments below.

After forwarding the announcement of Angela Marcantonio’s new book in Hungary and discussing the recent “developments” by e-mail with a few colleagues, I have finally decided to break the silence.

What is going on in Hungary — hundreds or thousands of people, ridden by what looks like an ultra-nationalist collective psychosis, attempt to base their national identity and national self-esteem on pseudo-scientific flim-flam and paranoid conspiracy theories — is an internal problem connected with the traumatic history of the Hungarian nation, and we can only offer our sympathy and moral support to those Hungarian colleagues who are still speaking for the voice of reason.

However, we should be concerned about members of the international linguistic community either misled by some pseudo-scientific and politically dubious groups or misusing them. Doesn’t Angela Marcantonio realize that her books are being marketed in Hungary together with works painstakingly “proving” that Jesus was not a Jew (new edition of a work from 1936, issued by the same Magyar Ház publishing house which published Marcantonio’s previous monograph), on homepages proclaiming that the Old Hungarian Runic script was not made by human beings but devised in heaven (Rovásírás)? Or does she know this and yet enjoy being celebrated by those people as a famous foreign “professor of linguistics” — or can she even use her reception in the pseudo-scientific circles of Hungary as an academic merit at her home university and in the international linguistic community?

I am very sorry if this sounds rude and personal. But I am writing this in a city which contributed to the rise of perhaps the most disastrous pseudo-science-promoting ultra-nationalist doctrine of the 20th century, in a European context in which — or so I have believed until now — it is the duty of every honest scholar to distance herself/himself from pseudo-scientific enterprises, especially those with political connections.

The tradition of Finno-Ugric studies has been very tolerant. Individual “alternative” theories (such as the ideas of Finno-Ugric/Native American language affinities) have enriched the programme of some International Finno-Ugrists’ Congresses, and the work of some latter-day “revolutionaries” — since they failed to react in any sensible way to the criticism they provoked — has mostly been passed by in polite silence (to quote a colleague: Ich rezipiere X. einfach nicht mehr). In this case, however, I feel that we are approaching the border of ethical acceptability and that a discussion on the ethics of the popularization of research is urgently needed.

Prof Laakso’s desire for a firmer defence against kookery is attractive. I notice a reluctance from many linguists to counter pseudoscience in the public eye, not only within Uralic linguistics, but also in Indo-European linguistics where the study of Indo-Iranian languages’ appearance in India stirs up much greater nationalist ire. Yet, I can understand how draining putting up a fight can be. Most of my editing of Wikipedia recently is just reverting foolishness, I never seem to have time to actually contribute actual content anymore. For researchers, who already find it difficult concentrating on inquiry, spending one’s energy battling such things might be detrimental to one’s very career, and there’s always the feeling that no matter how hard one tries, there’s no end to the fight.

There’s also the idea that action simply isn’t necessary. One scholar told me that there was no need for any action, for pseudoscience would fade away while legitimate science would stand for the ages. Is that unrealistically optimistic?

Udmurt summer course 2007

I’m happy that next year’s summer courses in Finno-Ugrian languages are finally being announced. Here’s the one for Udmurt:

The Udmurt State University, the Faculty of Udmurt Philology are organizing summer courses of Udmurt under the program “The Udmurt language and the culture of the Udmurts”, which will be held 12.07.–01.08.2007. The courses will provide teaching at the beginners’ and advanced levels. The program of both levels will contain lectures (44h) and practical lessons (58h). Besides classes an entertainment program is being planned. The cost of the courses will make 220€, including expenses for board (3 meals a day) and lodging as well as an entertainment program. Applications to the courses are received till 01.06.2007 to the following address: FudF, Ul. Universitetskaya, 1, Izhevsk 426034, Russia, e-mail: