Such an imaginative construct to describe a jagged script!  I had fun looking for an image of a cabbage-looking butterfly flitting around a spiky plant.  And in case you aren’t sure what ‘Japhetic’ means, I have copied the wikipedia definition below. Bear in mind that Mandelstam was writing in the 1930s, which accounts for his using what is now considered an obsolete term.


‘The Japhetic books with their spiky script, like a Russian cabbage butterfly in a library of cactuses.’


Japhetite (also Japhethitic, Japhetic) in Abrahamic religions is an historical obsolete term for the peoples supposedly descended from Japheth, one of the three sons of Noah in the Bible. The other two sons of Noah, Shem and Ham, are the eponymous ancestors of the Semites and the Hamites, respectively.

In medieval ethnography, the world was believed to have been divided into three large-scale racial groupings, corresponding to the three classical continents: the Japhetic peoples of Europe, the Semitic peoples of Asia and the Hamitic peoples of Africa.

The term has been used in modern times as a designation in physical anthropology, ethnography and comparative linguistics. In anthropology, it was used in a racial sense for “white people” (the Caucasian race). In linguistics it was used as a term for the Indo-European languages. These uses are now mostly obsolete. In a linguistic sense, only the Semitic peoples form a well-defined family. The Indo-European group is no longer known as “Japhetite”, and the Hamitic group is now recognized as paraphyletic within the Afro-Asiatic family.


Source: Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia, trans. Sidney Monas, London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011, p. 54, and wikipedia for the Japhetic definition.

Photo credit: Makamuki0,


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