Archive for April, 2012


April 23, 2012

Today is World Book Day. It was initiated by UNESCO to honor (alongside with a few other men of letters) William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes for whom April 23 is their death anniversary. It’s also considered to be William Shakespeare’s birthday, but only because his day of baptism is April 26 – there’s no documented evidence when exactly Shakespeare was born.

On this day the book is celebrated as one of the most important tools for human development. A “readathon” is organized in Spain: Don Quixote is being read for two days and Miguel de Cervantes Prize is presented by the King. In Britain people may leave a book on a park bench with a note saying “Happy Book Day!” Others send old books to schools and libraries in countries facing a post-disaster situations. Famous guests are encouraged to participate in local reading events. Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, is this year’s World Book Capital City. Reykjavik, a city with the population of about 200,000 inhabitants, boasts an outstanding literary history with its medieval literature, the Sagas, the Edda and the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders). It’s been designated by UNESCO as a City of Literature. Besides Reykjavik there four of such cities: Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City and Dublin.

In Ukraine a secondary school program in foreign literature has been “modernized” and it’s going to be adopted on April 26.  The draft of the amended program does not include Goethe’s Faust, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince (they were a part of the old program). Instead Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho have become mandatory for reading. If to bridge this decision with the replacement of a 12-year secondary school by 11-year schooling, which was introduced in 2010, one may say that the Age of Endarkenment (as opposed to Enlightenment) is coming over Ukraine. Immediately there cropped up teachers who are favoring the innovation. “My pupils started reading only when they took Harry Potter in their hands. Before they read nothing”, one of such teachers says.

In the picture posted by my daughter on Facebook (see above) a teenager, standing on a pile of books, is reading himself out of the filthy “here” into the fascinating “there.” What books will the Ukrainian teenager be boosted by? Will he be able to peep over the wall?


April 18, 2012

Just a couple of linguistic jokes:

1)      The village blacksmith finally found an apprentice willing to work hard for long hours. The blacksmith immediately began his instructions to the lad, “When I take the shoe out of the fire, I’ll lay it on the anvil; and when I nod my head, you hit it with this hammer.”
The apprentice did just as he told. Now he’s the village blacksmith.

2)      A linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room retorted, “Yeah, right.”

3)      “I’ve just had the most awful time,” said a boy to his friends. “First I got angina pectoris, then arteriosclerosis. Just as I was recovering, I got psoriasis. They gave me hypodermics, and to top it all, tonsillitis was followed by appendectomy.””Wow! How did you pull through?” sympathized his friends. “I don’t know,” the boy replied. “Toughest spelling test I ever had.”

4)      If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn’t it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed and dry cleaners depressed? Laundry workers could decrease, eventually becoming depressed and depleted! Even more, bedmakers will be debunked, baseball players will be debased, landscapers will be deflowered, bulldozer operators will be degraded, software engineers will be detested, and even musical composers will eventually decompose.


April 17, 2012


Swedish hens and singular “they”

Apr 16th 2012, 16:25 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK

SLATE’s Nathalie Rothschild wrote last week about gender in Sweden. Among Swedish efforts to minimise gender stereotyping is a small movement to replace the pronouns hanand hon, “he” and “she”, with a single pronoun, hen.

This is not unique to Sweden. Such pronouns have been proposed for English, too. And last year my colleague wrote about v as a pronoun for transgender people.

On Friday, Geoff Pullum was sceptical about both pillars of the Swedish enterprise:

I don’t know which I would say is likely to be more difficult: eliminating gender stereotypes and inequalities from society or getting a neologism established by fiat in the set of pronouns in a language. 

A few parts of speech admit new members readily: verbs and nouns and adjectives are successfully coined all time. But the bits of grammatical plumbing like conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns don’t admit much innovation. (A bit, but not much.)  And what they really don’t admit is top-down imposition.

Mr Pullum notes an irony:

our pronoun they was originally borrowed into English from the Scandinavian language family (the Danish spoken by the invaders of northern England about a thousand years ago) and since then has been doing useful service in English as the morphosyntactically plural but singular-antecedent-permitting gender-neutral pronoun known to linguists as singular they.

Yes, singular they has been used for quite a long time in impeccable English sources. It has three gender-neutral uses,when the gender of an antecedent is

plural and mixed:  Everyone has their own opinion.

unknownSomeone left their book here.

unimportant: Anyone who works here should know they’ll have to work hard.

Traditional usage proscribes “his” in these situations. But it rubs modern sensibilities raw. Would you advise a new female trainee with “Anyone who works here should know he’ll have to work hard”?  The other options all have downsides, too. Most people agree that “he or she” is ugly, especially when repeated. Some writers simply rotate “he” and “she”.  But many point out that English has already solved this problem. It’s odd, but not mind-blowingly so, that they, though “morphosyntactically” plural as Mr Pullum puts it technically, fills in when gender is mixed, uknown or unimportant.  Singular they is used by almost everyone in casual speech, despite centuries of attempts to ban it.

But what’s new in Sweden is not analogous to they.  Hen was originally intended to behave like singular they, when gender was unknown. But a children’s-book author has recently adopted the radical feminist position of using it to replace han and hon entirely.  This would be a little bit like saying

Steve left their jacket here. They’re going to really be cold outside without it

Mary is getting bored in their marriage and is considering leaving their husband

Mr Pullum has actually understated how hard entrenching this use of hen would be.  “Getting a neologism established by fiat in the set of pronouns” would be quite a feat. Eliminating two ancient pronouns in the service of a social-political agenda would be far harder still. Feminism is deeply mainstream in Sweden. But if we could check back in a hundred years’ time, I’d take even money today that han and hon will be in service.

Addendum: Based on the Slate article, I posted too soon without poking around a bit. Jesper Lundqvist, the children’s author mentioned above, was interviewed about his use of hen in his children’s book. He doesn’t want to replace han and hon but simply to addhen. A quick translation:

And he has seen himself how kids react to his book. “When I read the book to older children who can repeat the story, then the boys call Kivi “him” and the girls called Kivi “her”, says Jesper Lundqvist.

Do you use the word [hen] yourself on a daily basis?

– Yes, more and more. I hadn’t done it before I wrote the book; it was an experiment. When I thought about it a bit it adds something in a certain context. If someone was at the doctor’s, for example, and tells about it and says “he” or “she” for the doctor, it paints a certain picture. It’s interesting what it does to the picture when someone calls the doctor “hen”. 

But Jesper Lundqvist points out that the use of “hen” won’t automatically lead to equality in the world. Moreover, he thinks that some people have misunderstood the debate.

– Certain people think that it’s about removing “hon” and “han”, but it’s not. It’s more about having an extra tool in the toolbox and being able to choose. 

I’m afraid Slate, as is too often the case, overplayed the story in the subheadline “A country tries to banish gender.”  “A few radicals try to banish gender while the rest of the country grapples with it in new ways” would have been the more boring, but accurate, headline.


April 16, 2012

A few days ago President Yanukovych declared more than UAH16 million ($2m) which he received  in royalties from a printing house in Donetsk for his published and not-yet-published books. The President’s entourage insists that the amount is quite realistic and that no printing house would have offered royalties at a loss. Regarding the “realistic amount” of $2m, it’s 5 times more than the royalties of President Obama, 100 times more than J.K.Rowling had for her first two books about Harry Porter and thousands of times more than what any Ukrainian writer might have received for his books. Not to lose the money already paid to the President, the printing house would have to sell two copies of Yanukovych’s books to every Ukrainian – including babies and the blind. It’s crystal clear that this kind of royalty is nothing but corruption. Even the President’s assurance that the total sum will be handed as charities to the needy (to orphanages, hospitals, etc) does not help. The fact remains: how can an illiterate person write books on his own – the books that would sell as hot cakes? I also noticed a phrase mentioned by Yanukovych in his interview: “This year I’ll spend the funds that I received from the publication of some of my books…” How about “next year”?

However, I know a way to make President Yanukovych’s works more popular than they are. He should be made to write a book really by himself. A theme suggested for writing may be “Me in Prison: Reminiscences of a Former Criminal.” If written, that sort of book shall be listed in the category “BLACK HUMOUR.”


April 15, 2012

Andrey Lipatov… Until three days ago I had known nothing about him. It was another discovery I made in MY city –the discovery I’m happy about and proud of.

He was born in Kolomna (Russia), some 100 km southeast of Moscow, in1960. His father, a military officer, moved to Ukraine 6 years later. Here Andrey went to school and received his degree in engineering at the local Institute of Agricultural  Machine-Building. His hobby of cartoon-drawing developed into a full-time occupation when he took one of his pictures to the City Art Studio and sold it at the price which was higher than his monthly salary at the plant where he was working (to tell the truth, even that salary wasn’t paid to him – as to many others – in the 1990s in Ukraine).

Within 15 years Andrey Lipatov rocketed from a provincial self-taught cartoonist to an artist famous in many parts of the world. Besides Ukraine, his pictures were exhibited at art exhibitions in Russia, Japan, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Argentina. In the last years of his life he was not for “home consumption” – being exhibited only abroad.

When I look at his pictures I can’t help being amazed at the strength of this terrain that transformed an ethnic Russian into a Ukrainian artist. The thick richness of colours, the themes of his pictures, their humour, tonality and message are purely Ukrainian. For me, Andrey Lipatov is similar to Gogol in literature – what with the combination of folk motives and the provincial town culture. The difference may be that Gogol, while describing the provincial town is bitingly satirical. Lipatov is good-humoured and kind. For more of his pictures see

One finishing touch: being widely known across the world, Andrey Lipatov was hardly recognized in Ukraine. He wasn’t a member of the National Union of Artists (NUA), which would have given him an official status and more opportunities to have his works exhibited. He was only a member of the Association of Folk Art, which is of a lower calibre and includes also carvers, potters, ceramists, etc. When he died on January 12, 2010, the local branch of the NUA was celebrating its anniversary, and when it was suggested that the function should be postponed because of Lipatov’s death, the head of the branch refused to do it saying that Lipatov wasn’t a union member.  

More than a hundred years ago a brainy inventor in Yelisavetgrad (the name of my city at that time) submitted a petition to the municipal council asking for permission to set up a big “lit-up clock” in the central square at his own expense. When asked why the deuce he wanted that headache, the inventor answered: “For the inhabitants to be oriented in time and space at the dark time of the day.” Besides their aesthetic value, Andrey Lipatov’s pictures also perform this function: they help us find our bearings nowadays, when the times are not particularly bright.


April 8, 2012

When in 2009 the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) Kirill visited Ukraine, the journalists snapped his picture with a Breguet watch on his wrist. By the unanimous estimation the watch was worth about 30,000 Euros. Ironically, at that time the patriarch was giving a televised interview on the importance of asceticism. The news created a buzz but, as any other news, was soon forgotten. Moreover, the patriarch denied that he wore the watch (though he didn’t deny that he was in possession of the watch, which somebody “might have given him as a gift”). The story received its continuation when the patriarch met a high ranking Russian official and the ROC site published a photo of the meeting. The same watch was on Patriarch Kirill’s hand again! After some time the watch miraculously disappeared from the patriarch’s wrist in the picture, but its reflection was preserved on the shiny surface of the table. After gleeful ridiculing on the Internet, the photo disappeared altogether, and then re-appeared in its original form – with the Breguet watch and its reflection. For all that, Russian bloggers were uploading their own doctored pictures to the Internet – one photo portraying the watch without the patriarch at that end of the table.

Interestingly, during his meeting with the Russian Minister of Communications Igor Shchegolev last February Patriarch Kirill said that Russian society must be protected from the “immoral”  content of the Internet. Patriarch Kirill said that currently on the Internet “God fights  with the devil.” Patriarch expressed his worries about the contents of online media and its impact on the human soul.

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