Friday, December 31, 2010


The latest issue of Massorot (contents and abstracts in English, PDF) includes, among other cool stuff, a paper by Moshe Bar-Asher on Maghribi Judeo-Arabic šarḥ of Ecclesiastes. Šarḥ of Qohelet assumes a special place among all the translations of Tanakh, Talmud and targumim made by and for the Arabic-speaking Jews of North Africa. First, it is one of the five Megillot which, as Bar-Asher notes in the introduction to the paper, were traditionally not translated. Secondly and more importantly, even if exceptions were made for the other four since they were to be publicly read at various points throughout the year,

קהלת לא תורגמה לפי שלא נכללה מעולם בסדרי הקריאה של הציבור הרחב. למדנים שנדרשו לה יכלו להבין בעצמם פירושים שלה שנכתבו עברית, ולא נזקקו לשרח בערבית

Qohelet was not translated because it was never included in the readings for the general public. Scholars who studied it could understand its meaning even it if was written in Hebrew and they did not need a translation into Arabic.

Nevertheless, continues professor Bar-Asher, translations of Qohelet were done as scholarly exercises where teachers would assign to their students the task of translating the book into Arabic. If I'm not altogether mistaken, Bar-Asher lists the following such instances:
- in Marrakech at the beginning of the 20th century on at least two occasions;
- in Sefrou in 1920's or 30's;
- and from a village near Tefilalt some time between 1924 and 1926, created by Moshe Bar-Asher's late father and recorded by professor Bar-Asher in 1983-84, the subject of the paper.

I'm more than happy to add one more to the list, earlier than any of the above and not a manuscript, but rather a printed version dated 5657 / 1896-1897 from the famous press of Solomon Belforte & Co. in Livorno. This one is not a part of my humble collection of late Judeo-Arabic prints, but it can be found in the British Library under the shelfmark 1906.a.42. The booklet contains:
- Song of Songs with its targum and Judeo-Arabic šarḥ of the latter which is quite similar, but not entirely identical to the one in my collection (Livorno 5615 / 1854-55, henceforth ŠM1). The first part also contains commentary on the targum explaining "difficult words and concepts in the Targum" (המלות הקשות והענין שבתרגום);
- prayers for Pesakh (תפלת המחה של פסח);
- and finally, Qohelet with šarḥ.

The title page as well as the introduction on the following page identify the author as Chaim Ha-Kohen The Younger (הצעיר חיים הכהן) and indicate that the work was compiled in Tripoli, Libya (טראבלס המערב). Who the author actually was is still unclear to me. With the reference to Tripoli, the first name that springs to mind is that of Mordechai Ha-Kohen (1856-1929), the author of The Book of Mordechai, a study of the history and customs of the Jewish population of Libya. The other possible candidate is Joseph Chaim Ha-Kohen (1851-1921) who, so his Wiki page tells me, was born in Morocco, moved to Jerusalem at an early age, but then often returned to Maghrib. However, a quick search among the seforim would seem to indicate that either of the two used their full name and neither is identified with one of at least three seforim signed by הצעיר חיים הכהן.

The identity of the author remains a mystery for now, but one detail deserves mentioning: this is the first šarḥ from Libya I am aware of. Whether its language reflects the Libyan dialect still remains to be seen, but I offer here some preliminary remarks, old-school style, based on the first two chapters which you can find here.
(Abbreviations: QL - the British Library Livorno print; QM - Bar-Asher 2010)

- The non-assimilated definite article is transcribed without the aleph: לִכְּלָאמָאת "deeds (lit. words)" (1:8), לְכַּל "everything" (1:14). One notable exception is אַלְכַּל in 1:2.
- The assimilation of the definite article is indicated throughout, sometimes also by means of a dagesh (אַגָֹּאהַל in 2:15,16; אַצְּלָאם in 2:13; אַרִּיח in 1:6), but usually without it: אַסִמְס "the sun" (throughout); אַצְנָאיַע "works" (2:17).
- The loss of [h] found in many dialects of North Africa (and in Malta), which results in a number of hypercorrections: הָאנָא "I", הָאש "what" (throughout).

Side note: The coolest such hypercorrection resulting from the loss of [h] has got to be the date on ŠM1. As with many Jewish books (but also everyday items) all over the world, the year is given as passage from the Tanakh with some of the letters highlighted, either through size or in some other way. Add up their numerical values (hint: final forms count as regular ones) and you get the short form year (לפ''ק = לפרט קטן), i.e. without the thousands. This is what it looks like on the title page of ŠM1:

This time the letters to be counted are highlighted using a little crown of dots above them, so השירה נא ליד left to right ads up to 4+10+30+1+50+5+200+10+300+5 = 615, which is the year 5615, i.e. 1854-55 CE. Except if you were to look for these three words in any copy of Tanakh, you wouldn't find them. The actual verse is אָשִׁירָה נָּא לִידִידִי ("Let me sing for my beloved"), from Isaiah 5:1. The author, compiler or printer knew that where they came from, ה was not pronounced and thought - or had been taught - it applied to the text of Tanakh as well. A wonderful example, indeed, but can we rely on the date being correct?

- Assimilation and dissimilation of [s] [z] and [ʃ] [ʒ] (sifflant / chuintant alternation [1]), so typical for Maghribi Judeo-Arabic writing: אַסִמְס "the sun" throughout, לִיס "is not" (1:11 and beyond), but לִיש in the first 8 verses, צַזַר "trees" (2:5, see below), וְיִזְרֶק "and rises" (1:5, see modern Maghribi Arabic šṛəq).
- Much more detailed analysis will be required to fully understand the system (if any) behind the transcription of the vowels using niqqudot. It would appear, however, that both patah and schva stand for [ə] (כְּבַרְתְ וְזַדְתְ "grew and added" 1:16), while qamats stands for [a]. To underscore the point, qamats is usually followed by aleph: מָאשִׁי "goes" (1:6), וַלְנסָאן "human" (2:21). There are exceptions to this, such as צָלְטָאן "the king" (1:1, 2:12) or עָלְמָא "wisdom" (1:16-17). Whether there's a method to this and just what it means (as you will note, in both cases qamats follows an pharyngealized consonant) will remain to be seen.

- Typical Neo-Arabic tafḵīm (pharyngealization): צָלְטָאן "king" (1:1).
- A particularly neat example of both sifflant / chuintant transformation and AND tafḵīm can be found in 2:5:

צְנַאעְת לִי ג'נָאנָת וסְוָאנִי . וַגְרַסְתְ פִיהוֹם צַזַר גְ'מִיע תְמָאר

The highlighted word is a translation of hebrew עֵץ = "tree" and traces back to Arabic شجر. Except in Maghribi Judeo-Arabic, it underwent double chuintant > sifflant transformation to first סז'ר (thus for example in ŠM1 1:16 כַסַזְ'רָא) and then to סזר. Subsequently, the whole word was pharyngealized to something along the lines of ṣəẓəṛ. The translator, however, only had צ at their disposal to indicate pharyngealization, hence צַזַר.

- Much more literal than QM, QL often employs participles where the Hebrew original does, even if fluent native Arabic wouldn't. Thus for example in 1:5, Hebrew סֹובֵב סֹבֵב "turns and turns" is translated as דָאיֶיר דָאיֶיר, whereas QM has more idiomatic יצייר תצוויר, i.e. imperfect followed by the verbal noun, a construction which indicates intensity.
- QL shows preference for the preposition לְ to translate the Hebrew אֶל, whereas QM prefers אילא.
- Like QM, QL uses לִיס for both "is not" and the negative particle.

Word choice:
In most word choices, QL is much more conservative (i.e. less dialectal) than QM. Thus for example:
- QL adopts the Hebrew הֲבֵל (as הְבֵיל), whereas QM uses the Arabic חתוף (with some exceptions).
- QL uses אַלִנְסָאן for "human", while QM uses the typical Maghribi בנאדם.
- QL has יְרוּשָלָיִם for "Jerusalem", while QM uses מדינת אסלאם.
In one instance, it's QM that is extremely literal: in 1:6, QM uses the Hebrew דארום and צאפון for "south" and "north", respectively. Interestingly, QL has here קַבְלִי and בַחְרִי, both terms I would describe as very Egyptian.
- For the relative pronoun, QL uses אַלְדִי with some exceptions, like אֵלִּי in 2:9. QM, predictably, uses the typically Moroccan דדי.
- QL uses אַלְכַּל "everything" substantively, but - like QM - גְ'מִיע as a determiner.
- QM occasionally uses the Neo-Arabic רא for "to see" (e.g. 2:12) while QL sticks with the Classical נְצַֹר throughout.
- QL translates the Hebrew כִּי "because" as לָאייַן.

The rest is forthcoming in the form of a paper, hopefully soon. Ah well, at least I don't have to go far for my new year's resolutions. Boldog új évet, everybody!

[1] Sumikazu Yoda, "'Sifflant' and 'chuintant' in the Arabic dialect of the Jews of Gabes (south Tunisia)",
Zeitschrift für Arabische Linguistik 46 (2006): 7-25

Friday, November 19, 2010


I just returned from London where I spent most of the last four days at the British Library. In between the usual hectic mix of manuscripts, manuscript catalogues and journal articles, I considered it my duty to squeeze in a tour through BL's exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. It truly is what it's advertised to be - a tour through the whole length and breadth of English with everything from Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and medieval English-French phrasebooks through audio recordings of legendary speeches and outlier dialects to recipes in Tok Pisin ("Katim tamato liklik, putim long sosipan..."), all of it right there at your fingertips.
But the absolute highlight of the whole exhibition were the short video vignettes starring David Crystal reading from various historical documents in their original language. With enthusiasm, passion and delivery worthy of a Shakespearean actor, Crystal really made the texts come alive. I was especially delighted to hear him recount the egges/eyren anecdote from Caxton's Eneydos: "...certaynly it is harde to playse euery man / by cause of dyuersite & chauge of langage". Try this video for a taste, or better yet, go see for yourself, it's definitely worth it.
And while your in the building, be sure to check out the British Library bookshop for all things exhibition-related, other cool stuff including most of David Crystal's recent books and, considering recent history (see here and here for background), this wonderful piece of irony:

Friday, September 24, 2010


... that make me go 'OH FUCK YOU':
I'm sure by now all of you have heard about eggcorn being added to the OED (and hurray for the LanguageLoggers!), but have you also seen the new words they added to the New Oxford American Dictionary? This is a list of the some of the more interesting ones and to be quite frank, some of the definitions are a little fishy. For example, I'd always thought BFF is an abbreviation of "best friends forever" (often written over yearbook pictures), hockey mom refers to a mother who devotes a great deal of time and effort to supporting her children’s participation in any type of extra-curricular activity, not just hockey and to be a hater, you have to be at least a little obssessive or very consistent in your hate for the person or thing in question. But the one that pissed me off to no end is this:

waterboarding n. an interrogation technique simulating the experience of drowning, in which a person is strapped, face up, to a board that slopes downward at the head, while large quantities of water are poured over the face into the breathing passages.

Lovely. First, 'interrogation technique' is a bullshit definition on its own - isn't an 'interrogation technique' technically what we used to call a 'question'? Second, waterboarding something that causes pain for the purpose of extracting information and is thus undeniably TORTURE and only a real evil fuck would deny that. Always was, always will be, no matter who does it to whom in the name of what, end of story - unless you want to describe racking (vbl. n. 3 b) as an 'interrogation technique', too, you fucking cunts. And third, thanks so much for giving ammunition to all the right-wing bedwetting fucktard evil pieces of shit who can now say (and you bet they will): "But it's not torture, see, even the New Oxford American Dictionary says so!"
For all of this, I award you, the formerly good people of OUP USA, a heartfelt FUCK YOU!

... that make me go 'WHAT THE FUCK?':
So you may have heard that we here in Slovakia now have a new government. First time ever led by a woman, which is a good thing and what's even better is that noone seems to care. But other than that, they're even bigger assholes than anyone could have expected (and I voted for them). Defense Secretary who doesn't speak English, hard-core free-market activists who see nothing wrong with conspiring with leftists to defraud the public, PMs who ran on the platform of 'restoring transparency to government' and then refuse to disclose the names of those who tried to bribe them ... You know what, scratch that - it's pretty much business as usual. Unfortunately, this also applies to one of the more notorious achievements of the previous government, the Official Language Act 357/2009. Now you know that my position is that while it's not as bad as some have described it (in fact, several investigations have been launched, but noone has yet paid any fines), it must go. Like with the previous incarnation (OLA 270/1995), one would expect that the new right-wing coalition government (which includes a Hungarian party) will immediately repeal if not the whole damn thing, then at least those provisions mandating fines. Right? Wrong. It took the fuckers almost three months to move on this and when they finally came to an agreement earlier today, nearly all they did was introduce a few cosmetic changes. For example:

- In section 3, which covers the use of the official language by state agencies, they merely moved the requirement for all state employees to speak and use the official language from subsection 2 to subsection 1.

- In section 3, subsection 3 (formerly subsection 4), they replaced "Orgány a právnické osoby podľa odseku 1 sú povinné používať štátny jazyk..." ("All agencies and legal persons as set forth in subsection 1 are obliged to use the official language...") by "Orgány a právnické osoby podľa odseku 1 používajú štátny jazyk..." which not only doesn't change squat because the same verb (používajú = use-3PL.PRES) is used in subsection 1, but also introduces a dilemma for any poor schmuck who would endeavor to translate this piece of shit into English. Normally, the aforesaid poor schmuck would go with "shall use", but this introduces an element of obligation which the legislators apparently tried to remove. Or so one would think, because while the present tense is used in Slovak legislation to mandate, prescribe or proscribe, any distinction between "sú povinné používať" and "používajú" is then lost. One would then guess that the present tense is used here descriptively, but then again, this type of usage in Slovak legislation usually includes an adverb, like "obyčajne" ("usually"). Color me perplexed, especially since the same thing was done to section 6 which covers the use of the official language by members of armed forces, police, intelligence services and fire brigades: "... sa v služobnom styku povinne používa štátny jazyk" ("the use of the official language is mandatory during the execution of their duties") is replace by simple "... sa v služobnom styku používa štátny jazyk" ("... the official language shall be used ..."). So what does the change mean? Are the police officers and firefighters no longer required to only use Slovak? If so, why the fuck do we need a law for that if we have a constitution which says that all that is not prohibited is allowed?

- In section 5, which governs the use of the official language in media and such, only two provisions were changed: One concerns readings from literary works in their original language and the other now mandates that any printed materials, catalogs and programmes accompanying artistic performances and alike issued in a language other than the official one now no longer have to contain the exact translation of the original text, but only have to provide the basic information in Slovak. This is undoubtedly due to a well-publicised incident with the Hungarian amateur theater troupe Új Hajtás and their four-page programme where three pages were written in Hungarian and only the last one in Slovak. Thanks to the change, the good people of Új Hajtás can now probably return to rehearsals without fear of government sanctions, but boy if this doesn't have the stink of a lazy bureaucrat. Spirit vs. letter and all that, but I also doubt that those who protested these particular provisions were concerned with the volume of the content rather than the stupid requirement.

- And the final example, the contentious and oft misinterpreted subsection 5.7 which governs inscriptions on memorials, monuments and memorial tablets and mandates that all those (like many in my hometown Košice) which are written in a language other than the official one must also include an exact translation into the official language. Well guess what? They still do. Only now the order of the texts doesn't matter, so while the previous OLA mandated that the Slovak text come first, now it doesn't have to. Gee, thanks so much, guys.

Now true, next to these cosmetic changes, there has also been one really important one: According to section 9a.1, self-employed natural persons and legal persons can no longer be fined for violating the provisions of OLA. Only government agencies can be fined and only if the information in question is intended for public use and concerns threats to life, limb, safety or property.

Yay, hooray, etc., state agencies will now fine themselves, but nevermind. So now instead of a really bad and fucking stupid piece of legislation we're stuck with a bad and still pretty fucking stupid piece of legislation. How fucking stupid, you ask? Well, this is what they left in:

§ 2
(4) Akýkoľvek zásah do kodifikovanej podoby štátneho
jazyka v rozpore s jeho zákonitosťami je neprípustný.

§ 2
(4) Any interference with the codified form of the official
language contrary to its principles is unacceptable.

WHAT THE FUCK? Let's ignore the legislative aspect, namely that this provision is not mentioned in sections 9 and 9a in the context of sanctions and what use is a provision like this without sanctions, and just concentrate on the words. Does this mean that non-standard Slovak is now outlawed? Does everyone who uses slang words, non-standard conjugation or even - oh the horror! - wrong spelling violate the law? If so, some people are in deep trouble. Like a ľudák asshole by the name of Pavol Dinka. The fucker wrote a book titled Zápasy o slovenčinu. Novela jazykového zákona: pravda a lži (The Struggle for Slovak: The new Language Act - Truth and Lies). While the title may sound like something that would describe my last post on the subject, the whole volume is nothing but a long litany of perceived wrongs and a detailed description of extinction campaigns waged against our poor opressed language by the Czechs, the Hungarians, the EU and God knows who else. You get the picture. What persuaded me to buy the book, however, is the monumental ironic awesomeness of the cover. Take a good look:

The pensive dude is naturally Ľudovít Štúr, but notice the big writing underneath. With Štúr's picture, you would expect the next most visible thing to be the cover or the title page of his Nárečja slovenskuo (which is actually right there above Ľudovít), but by God, someone fucked up big time. What you got here displayed so prominently is the title page of Hlasz pobosnoho spéványa, a psalter in one of the Eastern Slovak dialects printed in Debrecen in 1752 (note the date). This is the full title page taken from Péter Király's magnificent A keletszlovák nyelvjárás nyomtatott emlékei:

Now it's bad enough that the cover of Mr. Dinka's screed contains text in a variety that doesn't even come close to standard Slovak (which the language of Nárečja slovenskuo would have been, despite its quirky orthography). Even enlightened Slovak linguists are very uncomfortable with the idea of non-Central Slovak being used in writing - if you're lucky, I will come back to that some time in the future. But the real shocking thing about this particular book is that the language of the Eastern Slovak protestants who translated this and other religious works well before Anton Bernolák was even born is written in HUNGARIAN ORTHOGRAPHY. That's right folks - hlasz for hlas, pésnye for pešňe, kresztzanszke for krescanske and so on and so forth. Oh how I wish I, a faithful son of the East and a true hater of all Slovak nationalists and fascists who worship their own dialect as the Golden Calf, could describe to you the splendid irony and the sheer awesomeness of this cover. But alas, no time. I gotta go rat the dipshit and the publishing house out while the old OLA is still in force. The fuckers are so busted...

... that make me go 'YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING':
My buddy E is a fucking idiot. He's also a brilliant historian of the Israel-Palestine kerfuffle, especially the largely ignored early years, and, incidentally, a perfect definition of the word 'vyčuranec' (cf). But mostly he's a fucking idiot. You see, he is actually interested in the opinion of the august institutions that are tasked with regulating the Slovak language and has even sought their advice on a number of issues. Chief among them is the proper way to spell the terms "západný breh" (The West Bank, الضفة الغربية) and "pásmo Gazy" (The Gaza Strip, قطاع غزة). Currently, the usage is as above, i.e. non-capitalized. Now since these two terms refer to unique geographical areas, one would think that the rules of Pravidlá slovenského pravopisu 3rd edition (section VI, subsection 1.1, item 1.) would apply, namely that all proper names, which includes any general term (consisting of one or more words) used to designate a specific object, are to be capitalized. This unquestionably includes names of geographical areas and - and this is important for political as well as linguistic reasons - it doesn't matter whether the area in question is a recognized political or administrative entity. It is also of note that it does not matter if the adjective(s) name in question are derived from proper names or not. One thus writes "Blízky východ" for "Near East" or "Svätá zem" for "Holy Land" - both geographical areas with a murky definition and no administrative or legal status whatsoever. So E naturally assumed that the proper way to refer to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be "Západný breh (Jordánu)" and "Pásmo Gazy", respectively. But being the fucking idiot he is, he wanted to consult the proper authorities and confirm. And so he wrote to the Institute of Linguistics of the Academy of Sciences who, after some back and forth, referred him to Dr. K, the head of - and I am not making this shit up - the Department of Geographic Nomenclature of the Institute of Geodesy and Cartography. Yesterday, Dr. K replied:

Dobrý deň,
názvoslovná komisia rokovala o vašich návrhoch a na objasnenie si
vyžiadala stanovisko palestínskeho veľvyslanectva k týmto názvom.
Podľa ich stanoviska názvy západný breh a pásmo Gazy nie sú názvami
administratívnych celkov, ale len ľudovými názvami. Preto komisia
tieto názvy zatiaľ neodporučila štandardizovať.

s pozdravom

Dr. K

Dear Sir,

the Naming Committee has discussed your proposal and requested a clarification from the Palestinian embassy regarding these names. Their position is that west bank and Gaza strip are not names of administrative units, but only folk names. For this reason, the Committee has recommended not to standardize these names.

Best regards,

Dr. K

Behold, my friends, standardization in action. I don't even have to whip out the George Carlin scale of stupid for this one, although for 'folk names', I think I could. But let's just consider the momunental cluelessness of Dr. K and the august Committee who probably don't realize that "Blízky východ" or "Ďaleký východ" ("Far East") are not names of administrative units and thus spit at PSP and the Institute of Linguistics. Against that sort of cluelessness, the colossal stupidity of the idea of consulting the embassy of another nation while deciding how to spell their shit in our language and then actually taking it into account is a mere afterthought. YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING. Thank God these people weren't around when we decided to call the capital of France "Paríž" or Germany "Nemecko".

Goddam there's a lot of stupid bastards walking around. And some of y'all wonder why I walk around cussing all the time. This is why. Fuck this shit, I'm gonna go kill me some zergs. Anybody wants to join me, add me - bulbul[at]

Friday, August 13, 2010


As it usually happens with these hip cool geeky things, I got a bunch of emails from different people telling me to check out Unsuck It. And so I did and being the corporate drone I am, I quite liked it the idea of a business-speak (or - in their words - "terrible business jargon") to English translator. Having tried a few terms randomly culled from my Outlook inbox, I found the tool not only informative (action item = Goal or to do), but also funny (rock star = adequate programmer) and I literally lolled at the idea of e-mailing the douchebag who used it (too bad they're all on holiday this month). But then I tried the "I'm feeling douchey" button and got this:

Drink the Kool-Aid
Unsucked: Follow blindly.

Really? 'Drink the kool-aid' is a standard US English idiom and is used by all kinds of people, not just pointy-haired bosses. Same applies to 'dog and pony show', 'in spades', 'low-hanging fruit' or 'on the same page' and even phrasal verbs like 'drill down'. I'm all for desucking managerialese, but painting everyday idioms like 'win-win' (which, in case you didn't know, means 'good for everyone') with the same brush as buzzwords like 'holistic' or 'synergy' smells a lot like something you would find in Strunk and White: "Don't use adjectives, adverbs and idioms." Well, they would probably called them 'clichés', but it would be just as stupid.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Last night's episode of NBC's Last Comic Standing (a reality show where aspiring stand-up comedians compete for a money prize and the eponymous title) featured the following bit by a contestant by the name of Felipe Esparza (UPDATED: added video below):

My brother came out of the closet, he told everyone he was gay. My dad thought he'd (1) choke on a turkey - "Que dijó <grunts> oy Dios (1) <grunts> que dijóóóó...!" I ran behind him on a Heimlich maneuver (2). He said: "Not you too, [ka]<bleep>!"

(1) Doubtful.
(2) Accompanied by thrusting motions of the pelvic region.

Before the bleep, only a [k] can be clearly heard, perhaps followed by a short [a] thus combining in the syllable [ka]. Now try as I might, I can't think of an English curse word starting in [ka]. The vowel in cunt is different ([ɐ], perhaps, though it would be difficult to tell with Mr. Esparza's accent), plus the beep was longer than would be required for [nt] and in any case, this particular word is a heavy caliber and not very likely to appear on network tv. So after careful consideration and taking into account Mr. Esparza's ethnic background and his use of Spanish in the very same routine, I'm inclined to believe that the good people at NBC actually bleeped out the Spanish word cabrón [kaˈβɾon] (n. m.) = 1. goat; 2. asshole, motherfucker. I have no way to confirm that (if you do, please speak up), but if it is indeed so, then this is a great stride forward for the Latino community in the United States. Having FCC (and all the TV executives who shit their pants at the mere mention of this august institution's name) cater to the sensibilities of uptight speakers of Spanish is surely a sign of recognition that Spanish is here to stay. I can't wait to hear the "English only" crowd's take on that.

Friday, July 02, 2010


As I have mentioned elsewhere, some time ago, John Emerson and I were engaged in a little project. It was the aim of this noble endeavor to translate into English one of the best, yet sadly neglected, works of Jaroslav Hašek, his "Political and Social History of the Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of Law". We didn't get very far - of the 80 chapters, we only managed to translate 5 and review 3 before, well, life happened and I suddenly had neither the time, nor the frame of mind to continue. Which is a crying shame, because the "Political and Social History of the Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of Law" is funny as hell and as poignant a satire on politics, literature, arts and people who engage in those pursuits now as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Don't let yourself be fooled by the bombastic title - the "History" would be best described as a collection of short stories with Hašek's drinking buddies and other crème de la crème of contemporary Czech society in starring roles, their various faults and misadventures the main target of Hašek's wit and settling scores the chief purpose of the whole enterprise. Written in Hašek's disorganized and rambling style in sometimes colloquial and then suddenly formal Czech, the "History" is a true challenge for any translator and I'll leave it to you to judge how well we did. If by chance you find the translation, well, good, I'm quite certain it should be ascribed to Mr. Emerson's editorial efforts. Any and all errors of whatever type are purely my fault. Enjoy and let me know if we should continue.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Remember this post from about three years back on Sabaean minuscule script and Robert Kerr's (Universiteit Leiden) dissertation on Latino-Punic inscriptions? Well some moments ago, a kind blogger user named RMK (perhaps even Robert M. Kerr himself) dropped by to let us know that the dissertation has been published by Mohr Siebeck under the title Latino-Punic Epigraphy (full bibliographic record below). Thanks for sharing and congratulations!

KERR, Robert M.: Latino-Punic Epigraphy. A Descriptive Study of the Inscriptions - Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010, xvi + 253 p. (ISBN 978-3-16-150271-2, €64)

Monday, May 24, 2010


Via The Bratislava Theatre Institute has launched a website titled Slovak Drama in Translation which aims to introduce those few unfortunate souls who haven't managed to learn Slovak yet to, you guessed it, Slovak playwrights and their work. To be quite honest, most of the names included don't ring a bell, but I'm happy to report that it includes the true greats, such as Milan Lasica. To be precise, he and his long-time partner in crime Július Satinský (collectively known as Lasica a Satinský or L&S) fall somewhere between cabaret, stand up (Dialogues) and theatre - absurd - proper (Deň radosti, in French), but whatever the genre, their work undoubtedly belongs to the best our small literary scene has to offer. My only worry is that in addition to what is lost in the transfer from one medium to another, a lot of the punch the original packs (including the best wordplay ever) cannot be adequately translated.
All of the above is true, even more so, of Stanislav Štepka and his more or less amateur troupe "Radošinské naivné divadlo" (aka Radošinci). While Štepka's later work may be somewhat formulaic, his two most famous plays Jááánošíííík (1970, a drop dead funny and spot on deconstruction of a popular myth rivalled only by a 1976 movie Pacho hybský zbojník where, as chance would have it, Lasica a Satinský served as screenwriters) and Človečina (1973, roughly: "Human Condition", equally funny, but even more tragic and hard hitting look an average Slovak family) have become a firm part of Slovak popular culture to such extent that some (including yours truly) are able to recite large portions by heart. Neither play is, however, currently available in translation and I am not surprised. In most his plays, Štepka mixes his own Western Slovak dialect with standard Slovak and does so many wonderful things to both that I feel truly sorry for all of you who will never hear or see it the way we do. So enjoy the rest, such as it is. And learn Slovak.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Memiyawanzi (with some help from Thomas Lambdin) makes an excellent point about Bible translations and its usefulness for comparative syntactic analysis which boils down to this: in many instances, Bible translators, regardless of language, quite often slavishly imitate the syntax of the original.

This is true of nearly all translations of sacred texts made before the rise of linguistics in general and translation studies in particular, but even here, there are more extreme cases. One of those is šarḥ, the translation of sacred texts of Judaism into Judeo-Arabic. Ironically enough, the original meaning of the root šrḥ is "to explain, to interpret", but the šarḥ translations are anything but that. Quite the contrary - their language emulates the syntax of the original as closely as possible. In order to do so, the translators - šarḥanim - have gone so far as to introduce new grammatical features to their target language.

One example of such feature is the use of the preposition الي [ilā] to translate the Hebrew direct object marker את or the Aramaic direct object marker ית. Old Arabic (including Quranic Arabic and Classical Arabic) marks the direct object by means of the suffix -a, while Neo-Arabic (which includes the modern colloquial varieties, but also varieties employed by the Arabic-speaking Jewish population of Middle East and North Africa) normally marks the direct object by position. There are exceptions to this, such as Maltese, Cypriot Maronite Arabic and some Syro-Palestinian dialects [1], which use some variant of the preposition l-. In šarḥ Arabic, however, the direct object is marked using the preposition אלא [ilā], which is identical in function to Hebrew את or Aramaic ית. Consider the following example from the Targum to Canticles 3:5:

Targumic Aramaic:

כד שמעו שבעת עממיא דבני ישראל עתידין למחסן ית ארעהון קמו כחדא וקציצו ית אילניא וסתימו ית מבועי מיא וצדיאו קרויהון וערקו

English translation by Jay C. Treat:

When the seven nations heard that the Children of Israel were about to take possession of their land, they rose at once and cut the trees, stopped up the water springs, laid waste their towns and fled.

Judeo-Arabic translation (Iraq, 19th century):

לָמִּן סַמְעוּ סַבִע אֶל אוּמָם אַן בִנִין יִסְרָאִיל מִתְּוּובִדִין ליִוּורְתֹוֹן אֶלָא בִלַדְהוֹם קָאמוּ גִֹמִיעָא וּקַצוּ אֶלא אֶל סִגַֹר וּסַדּוּ אֶלָא מִנָאבִע אֶל מָאיי וכַֹרִבוּ אֶלָא קִרְיָיאתְּהוֹם ואִנְהַזְמוּ

Or to highlight the phrases in question:

Targumic Aramaic



למחסן ית ארעהו

ליִוּורְתֹוֹן אֶלָא בִלַדְהוֹם

take possession of their land

וקציצו ית אילניא

וּקַצוּ אֶלא אֶל סִגַֹר

cut the trees

וסתימו ית מבועי מיא

וּסַדּוּ אֶלָא מִנָאבִע אֶל

stopped up the water springs

וצדיאו קרויהון

וכַֹרִבוּ אֶלָא קִרְיָיאתְּהוֹם

laid waste their towns

And so while in most varieties of colloquial Iraqi Arabic, one would normally render these structures - V + OBJ.M + N - as Verb + Noun, in šarḥ Arabic, the translator feels compelled to produce a verbatim translation and thus translates the semantically empty direct object marker by repurposing the directional preposition אֶלָא [elā].

There are many examples of this in translations from Hebrew and Aramaic, not only in Judeo-Arabic, but also in other Jewish languages, such as Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Spanish [2] or Judeo-Persian:

Ruth 4:11 Hebrew:
... יתן יהוה את־האשה הבאה אל־ביתך כרחל ׀ וכלאה אשר בנו שתיהם את־בית ישראל ...

Ruth 4:11 English (NASB):

... May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel; ...

Ruth 4:11 Judeo-Persian [3]:

... בי דהד כודא מר אן זן אנקי אייא בכאנה תו קון רחל וקון לאה אנקי אודאן כרדנד הר דואן אישאן מר כאנדאן ישראל ...

But unlike in those languages, where the new direct object marker either expanded previous usage (as in Judeo-Spanish אה [a]) or redefined its role both historically and sociolinguistically (as in Judeo-Persian מר [mar] which is normally only found in classical Persian poetry), the Judeo-Arabic repurposing of אלא is a completely different game. Not only did the šarḥanim take a completely innocent preposition and turned it into something completely different, but consider the fourth example from Targum Canticles 3:5:

Targumic Aramaic



וצדיאו קרויהון

וכַֹרִבוּ אֶלָא קִרְיָיאתְּהוֹם

laid waste their towns

So while the Aramaic original does not require the direct object marker, its use has become obligatory in written Judeo-Arabic. As Benjamin Hary notes in his Translating Religion: "... šarḥ created its own Judeo-Arabic grammar and structure" [4].

And I'm thinking: isn't that true, at least in terms of syntax, for every Bible translation and, by extension, of all languages that have been fundamentally influenced by translations of sacred scriptures? How different, I wonder, were real spoken Syriac or Coptic from their varieties recorded in Christian translations and writings?

[1] Borg 2004:46
[2] Hary 1991:605-606
[3] Mainz 1976:21
[4] Hary 2009:165


BORG, Alexander: A Comparative Glossary of Cypriot Maronite Arabic (Arabic-English). With an Introductory Essay. - Ledein: Brill, 2004, xxviii + 486 p.
HARY, Benjamin: On the use of 'ila and li in Judeo-Arabic texts. Pages 595-608 in: KAYE, Alan S.: Semitic studies in honor of Wolf LESLAU on the ocassion of his 85th birthday, November 14th, 1991. Volume I. - Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1991, lxviii + 889 p.
HARY, Benjamin: Translating Religion. Linguistic Analysis of Judeo-Arabic Sacred Texts from Egypt. - Leiden: Brill, 2009, 360 p.
MAINZ, Ernest: Ruth et le Cantique des Cantiques en judéo-persan. Journal Asiatique, 264/1-2, 1976, pp. 9-34
Sefer šir ha-širim ʿim targum ve-šarḥ arvi. Baġdād, 1936/37

Friday, March 19, 2010


Comedy Central's The Daily Show March 17th edition, in a report on what seem to be the last stages of the US health care reform broohaha, offered a video of Republican representative Steve King. In this video, the gentleman from Iowa compares the opposition to the current version of the HCR bill to the crowds on the squares of Prague during the Velvet (or as we call it here in Slovakia, the Tender) Revolution. As ridiculous as this comparison is, it wasn't the most prominent whiskey-tango-foxtrot moment in that particular segment. Take a look below, see if you can spot what caught my attention:

Checkoslovakia, really?
The screengrab shows that the video credit goes to or their Youtube channel (UPDATE: and ultimately, CNN), but the font is unmistakeably that used by the editors at TDS and so it is to them I direct this question:
Seriously? Checkoslovakia. Seriously?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Jazykovedný ústav Ľudovíta Štúra Slovenskej Akadémie Vied, the main body in charge of studying and regulating the Slovak language, has recently gone through the trouble of digitizing Anton Bernolák's post-humously published magnum opus, the six-volume Slowár Slowenskí Češko-Laťinsko-Ňemecko-Uherskí (Lexicon Slavicum Bohemico-Latino-Germanico-Ungaricum), and putting it online. Get it while it's hot / still there. In what I think is a lovely touch, the text on this particular part of the JÚĽŠ website is in Bernolák's Slovak (essentially Western Slovak koine, as opposed to Štúr and Hodža's Central-dialect-based standard which eventually prevailed) and Bernolák's orthography. You will notice the German-like capitalization of nouns, 'g' for the glide [j] (ge = copula.3SG) and 'ǧ' for the voiced velar plosive [g] (Pluǧin = 'plugin'). And just in case you want a break from looking for the naughty words (like the one above), here's two more of Bernolák's linguistic writings from my personal collection: Orthographia (which is just what the title suggests) and Etymologia (which is actually an awesome treatise on derivational morphology and compounding followed by a Latin-Slovak glossary of linguistic terms, a list of Slovak proverbs with translations in Latin and a brief Slovak-Latin-Hungarian-German dictionary organized by semantic fields). Enjoy.

Monday, February 15, 2010


... let's start one:

hurkil (ḫurkil) (n.), nom.-acc. sg. hur-ki-el (KUB XIII 30, 3 and 7), hu-u-ur-ki-el, hu-ur-ki-il, hu-u-ur-ki-il in Code 2:87-91, 95-96, denoting severe sexual offences such as bestiality and incest... (1)

And while we're at it, I'm sure the following bit from KUB 17.27 iii (2) will come in handy, too:

(12) ... ANŠE-aš še!-ḫur-ri-eš-ke-ed-du
(13) [n=a-at]=kán GU4-uš kam-mar-ši-eš-ke-ed-du

"... Let the donkey piss on it, let the cow shit [on it]!"

1. PUUHVEL, Jan: Hittite Etymological Dictionary. Volume 3. Words beginning with H. Berlin; New York: Mouton De Gruyter, 1991, p. 401
Etymological Dictionary of the Hittite Inherited Lexicon. Leiden: Brill, 2008, p. 403. One more cite on p. 743 with slightly different transcription.