Tuesday, September 03, 2002
Monday, September 02, 2002
The fact is, they are professionals, and from the time professional baseball began, in 1869, with the Red Stockings of Cincinnati, the most accomplished baseball players played for money. That is literally the name of the game.
Now, like most lovers of language, I hate the use of "literally" to mean its opposite ('metaphorically'), but I've grown resigned to hearing it in conversation and reading it in e-mails and the like. But to read it in the New York Times, allegedly a great newspaper, from the pen of Berkow, who's been paid for his writing for many years now, is depressing in the extreme. No, Ira, the name of the game is literally baseball. You could look it up. (Furthermore, the first professional player was probably the great pitcher Jim Creighton, who died at 21 in 1862, but that's not really Languagehat material.)
Having gotten that off my chest, I will quote a delightful exchange that, whether real or invented (sorry, Ira, you get no benefit of the doubt today), perfectly sums up a basic feature of human nature:
I got into a conversation the other day with a guy who sold stationery for a living. He resented the players. Why?
"They make too much money," he said.
"What's too much?" I asked.
"They make more in one time at bat than I do in a week."
"Would you trade places with them?"
"And if someone told you you were making too much money, what would you tell them?"
"I'd tell 'em it was none of their damn business."
Friday, August 23, 2002
Update. I'm making a quick internet check while my brother is off on some errand, and (realizing I probably won't get a chance to blog on Sunday, when I return, very late, to NYC) I wanted to wish my loyal readers a Happy New Year for 7511, as of September 1!
Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Tuesday, August 20, 2002
ROTHSTEIN - Miriam Chilson. Died at age 91, on August 14, 2002. She would've turned 92 on September 21. Miriam was the wife of the late Irwin Chilson, the late Lou Fineberg, the late Phil Rispler and the latest late Moe Rothstein.I submit that Miriam must have been quite a gal to have inspired that bit of affectionate wordplay, and that Irwin, Lou, Phil, and Moe were four lucky guys. I wish I'd known her, and I hereby honor her memory.
What I don't understand is why he didn't go all the way and adopt the Gregorian calendar, which had been around for over a century and was used in the Western countries he wanted to emulate. For over two hundred years Russia remained 10 or 11 days behind, and Peter didn't like being left behind. Strange.
Monday, August 19, 2002
Vicki Goldberg presents the photographer Josef Koudelka, who's led an amazing life, both complicated ("Never married, he has three children by three women of different nationalities. He has helped support all three children, he said, and has remained in touch with them.") and simple ("I have two shirts.... I have one trousers for one year, one shoes for one year, one jacket for two years, two socks, and for travel a good sleeping bag."). He did a series of photographs of Gypsies:
The Gypsy pictures are dark, brooding, disjunctive, tinged with tenderness and sorrow. Years later, he said, he met some Gypsies on a pilgrimage and told them he'd done a book on their people: " 'We know,' they said. `We call you Iconar. We have the book. It's been cut apart and put in a chapel. We pray for the people in them.' "
And Christopher Hall describes working on a project to build a 13th-century castle in a remote area of Burgundy (Treigny, in la Puisaye, for those keeping score at home; the Times, uncharacteristically, doesn't supply a map). They're using medieval tools and techniques and even wearing medieval clothes (barring safety glasses). I don't know about you, but that sounds like a great way to spend my summer vacation, if I still had a summer vacation.
There's also a good piece by Norimitsu Onishi on the use and misuse of statistics, but I posted that on MetaFilter (where it sank without a trace).
Sunday, August 18, 2002
Saturday, August 17, 2002
Within a couple of decades, Verlan has spread from the peripheral housing projects of France's poorest immigrants, heavily populated with Africans and North African Arabs, and gained widespread popularity among young people across France. It has seeped into film dialogue, advertising campaigns, French rap and hip-hop music, the mainstream media. It has even made it into some of the country's leading dictionaries.
A language of alienation that has, paradoxically, also become a means of integration, Verlan expresses France's love-hate relationship with its immigrant community and has begun to attract a number of scholarly studies.
Ah, so it's some newfangled thing, a product of those strange Arab immigrants! Except it's not. As they eventually mention, in a tossed-off sentence in the seventh graf, "The first documented uses of Verlan date to the 19th century, when it was used as a code language among criminals, said the French scholar Louis-Jean Calvet." Then it's back to the immigrants and their entertaining ways, so beloved of reporters the world over.
This is just silly. Verlan is a venerable form of inner-city slang comparable to the Cockney rhyming-slang of London; it is in no way new, not even to "the attention of a wider public" (which they claim discovered it in the 1980s). I knew about it when I was first studying French forty years ago, and it was not considered new then. Of course it's been used by criminals and defiant youth; these are prime users of slang everywhere. And of course immigrants (in this case North African Arabs) are represented in both groups. To make that the focus of the article is ridiculous... and sadly inevitable, given the blinders that come with being a reporter.
Friday, August 16, 2002
If this book doesn't make you angry, it wasn't worth writing....
It attacks no use of language.
It defends all the words and phrases and sentences you have been trying to stamp out: Finalize. Hopefully. Between you and I....
This book defends all those constructions—not on the grounds that anyone can say what they please (though of course they can)—but on the grounds that all those constructions are grammatically correct.
His basic technique is to show that every maligned usage turns up in Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner, etc., and to ask the entirely reasonable question, Whose language sense would you rather trust, a great writer's or Edwin Newman's? He has a great deal of fun with Newman, Safire, John Simon, and the other mandarins of "good English," and shows them tying themselves into knots trying to "correct" sentences there was nothing wrong with in the first place. The book is, alas, long out of print, but it's available from online bookstores, and of course there's your friendly local library (if they haven't put it on the For Sale table, but don't get me started on that). Try it, you'll like it. It's the perfect antidote to David Foster Wallace (see below).
And for an excellent shorthand equivalent (just theory, no examples), try Alan Pagliere's article at, of all places, The Vocabula Review (home of linguistic curmudgeonry).
As a Yale undergraduate, she planned to study comparative linguistics. She studied Latin in high school, picked up French and German from her father's translation of vocal concerts and later her own classical singing and learned Russian in college. But, early in her sophomore year, she was shopping for one course to fill her distribution requirements and was urged by a friend to try physical anthropology.
Dr. [Eleanor] Sterling, who still resembles a graduate student in jangling silver bracelets and a peasant skirt, was riveted by the professor, who studied lemurs in Madagascar. "I was mesmerized by how she spoke." Dr. Sterling said. "I took every class she taught from then on. I'm sure I would have been happy doing something else. But that was the turning point."
Dr. Sterling's gift for language complements her science. "I was lucky to come from a linguistic background to this," she said.
To write a book about the natural history of Vietnam, which will coincide with a museum exhibit next year, she had to read the so-called gray literature — unpublished papers, many in Vietnamese. So she hired a tutor. She is fluent in Swahili, from African fieldwork, hard at work on Spanish and has lately taken up Lao and Burmese, for a total of 11 languages.
Her husband suggested a novel study method when Dr. Sterling set out to polish her Spanish for a speech in Bolivia. A nephew was peppering her with questions about Harry Potter. She had read the books in English but strained for details. So she re-read them in translation. "Killing two birds," Dr. Sterling said, using an unlikely figure of speech given her profession, "with one stone."
An impressive woman, no?
Thursday, August 15, 2002
Wednesday, August 14, 2002
"Language develops, of course, but that doesn't mean I can't have my opinion about the changes."
This expresses a paradox that has plagued me ever since I began studying linguistics. A linguist has, ex officio, no opinion regarding the facts of the language; it would be like a physicist preferring one subatomic particle to another. Yet a linguist with any feel for the language can't help but have such opinions; I, at any rate, can't. I accept certain developments with a cheerful and welcoming heart; "hopefully" as a sentence adverb is an example. Others, like "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," I have come to accept, however grudgingly, as semantic changes that I have to live with (though I personally will never use the new sense). But there are some that fill me with insensate rage, however unseemly it may be in a person with scientific training, and I fear I will never come to terms with them. Such a thing is the growing use of "may have" to mean "might have": "If he had started running earlier, he may have caught the ball." No, no, I cry (soundlessly) every time I see this—he might have caught it! A few years ago, when I began to notice this phenomenon, I started to keep a record of occurrences, but it eventually became futile; it would now make more sense to record instances of the correct usage. And what am I, proud holder of an M.Phil. in linguistics from one of our finer educational bazaars, doing talking about "correct" usage? Correct is whatever native speakers say! Yes, yes, quite correct... eppur si muove lo stomaco. It's probably just as well I went into editing, where this irrational attitude is an asset.
Tuesday, August 13, 2002
Monday, August 12, 2002
Sunday, August 11, 2002
The transition is the meaning (OED's number 3) 'capable of producing a certain effect or result; effective': "So vertuall was the speech of Paul a Prisoner, in the heart of his Judge" (W. Sclater, 1619). Now consider this quote (J. Smith, 1815): "Whatever is the real length of the leg b a [of a siphon], the virtual or acting length when in use, only extends from b to the surface of the fluid." (Note the premodern commas in both quotes.) It's natural to contrast the "virtual or acting" with the "real." From there we get the OED's meaning 4: 'that is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually; admitting of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned': "Every proof a priori proceeds by Causes either real or virtual" (Waterland, 1734). Now the weight of reality has shifted; the "virtual," once the powerful agent, is now opposed to the real, and the way to the modern electronic-ethereal is open.
While I'm on the subject of the Times Magazine, the cover story this week is "The Odds of That" by Lisa Belkin, who for a reporter does a pretty good job of presenting the uncomfortable, unintuitive scientific truth (though she tends to use "we" too much). It's about coincidence, and the tagline "In paranoid times like these, people see connections where there aren't any" pretty much sums it up. Since I recently posted a rant about coincidence, I thought I'd bring it to your attention. You can never have too much balloon-pricking.
Saturday, August 10, 2002
January: Turkmenbashi (in honor of the President; it means 'Head Turkmen')
February: Navruz (the Persian New Year, except it doesn't fall in February; Alex's source says "in honor of the Turkmen flag"—maybe the flag is named "Navruz"??)
April: Gurbansoltan-eje (the President's mother)
May: Makhtum Kuli (a Turkmen poet)
June: Oguz (a Turkmen military leader)
July: Gorkut (an epic hero)
August: Alp Arslan (a medieval commander)
September: Rukhnama (a book by the President)
October: Independence (the source only gives the translation).
The others are apparently unchanged.
Friday, August 09, 2002
Full disclosure: I'm a participant in the discussion.
Remember Sade, "pronounced Shar-day"? I disliked her (quite irrationally) for forcing me to see that idiotic description for months on end (and hear Americans actually pronouncing it that way). There is, of course, no r sound in Sade; the description was created by Brits who don't pronounce the r and wanted to indicate the a sound in "father." Why they didn't make it "Shah-day," which would indicate the same sound and would work for all English-speakers, is beyond me, like the appeal of cricket. But they've taken the same tack for centuries, which has resulted in all sorts of intrusive r's that cause names to be wrongly pronounced. Thai is full of them: the last syllable of Chulalongkorn [University] is actually kawn, and people named Porntip would get a lot less grief from English-speakers if it were written Pawntip or Pohntip. The Korean name Park is actually Pak. And the absurd new name for Burma, "Myanmar," is made more absurd by the fact that not only is the r not pronounced, it's not even used consistently: the country's postal service is called Myanma Posts and Communications, for Pete's sake. Mind you, the r in "Burma" itself is intrusive—the Burmese word is bama—but it's old and established and there's nothing to be done about it; "Burma" is the English name for the country and that's that.
Off-topic, but I can't resist:
Cheer up face
The war is past
The "h" is out
Thursday, August 08, 2002
For a long time I was confused by the terms "Thai language" and "Tai languages": what was up with the h, and what was the relation between the two terms? Eventually (once I got out of the sandbox of Indo-European) I discovered that the Tai family of closely related languages spread from Assam in eastern India (named after invaders who spoke the now extinct Ahom language) to the mountains of northern Vietnam, and from southern China (whence they originated) to the Malay Peninsula. The best-known of them is of course Thai, the official language of Thailand; I'm not sure when and how the h came in (probably the Brit tendency to add it to foreign terms to make them look more exotic, cf. dhal), but it does come in handy to differentiate the terms, which are both from a T(h)ai word meaning 'free' ("Thailand" is half translated from prathet tai 'country of the free'). Eastwards from India we find Shan (in Burma), Northern (or Lanna) Thai (in northern Thailand), Lao (the official language of Laos, but the majority of its speakers are in Thailand, where it is often called Northeastern Thai), and Red Tai, Black Tai, and White Tai (in northern Vietnam—no formal-wear jokes, please). An interesting point is that an alternate ethnic designation is at the base of Assam/Ahom, Shan, and Siam, as well as the Cambodian term Siem (the name of the town Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, means 'defeat of the Thai').
Wednesday, August 07, 2002
This reminded me of something that made me laugh during my first, mirthless days in NYC (no job, no money, no telephone, just been dumped, you know the song). In those days, Don Q rum had an advertising campaign using the tagline "Quality begins with Q." Advertisers were just beginning to realize it might be useful to reach the millions of Spanish-speakers in the city in their own language, so ads were being translated—but not always at the highest level. This one, for instance, became: "Calidad comienza con Q."
Tuesday, August 06, 2002
I, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, had been three times to Daghestan, twice to Tiflis, once in Kislovodsk, once in Persia to stay with my uncle, and I was nearly kept down for another year because I did not know the difference between the Gerundium and the Gerundivium. My father went for advice to the Mullah at the mosque, who declared that all this Latin was just vain delusion. So my father put on all his Turkish, Persian and Russian decorations, went to see the headmaster, donated some chemical equipment or other and I passed. A notice had been put up in the school stating that pupils were strictly forbidden to enter school premises with loaded revolvers, telephones were installed in town, and Nino Kipiani was still the most beautiful girl in the world.
But I'm not here to talk about Essad Bey's romantic prose or complicated life (someone's said to be working on a biography, which I can't wait to read), I'm here to talk about transliteration.
As enthralled as I was by the book, I kept wanting to throw it across the room while cursing the name of Jenia Graman. Yes, she rescued the book from a Berlin bookstall, translated it, and brought it to the attention of the English-speaking world, and for that we owe her. But didn't the woman have any sense? She kept all the Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Russian terms from the novel in their German guises (the book was written in German), which produces an effect in English that is at best barbarous and at worst incomprehensible. Some examples: Dshafar for Ja'far, Nikolaus for Nikolai, Seljam-Alejkum for salaam aleikum (here we have the Russian substitution of lya for la, followed by the German substitution of j for y), Sakavkasnaja Jelesnaja for Zakavkaskaya Zheleznaya (Doroga, the Transcaucasian Railway), Jasid for Yezid, and—my two personal favorites, both from Chapter 11—Dshainabi: Tewarichi Al-Y-Seldjuk for Jainabi: Tavarikh-e Al-e Saljuk and Chajasseddin Keichosrov for Ghiyas-ed-din Kaikhusrow. Some names are rendered ambiguous by the veil of transmission: is "Seyd" Zayd, Sayyid, or Sa'id? And some are just gibberish as far as I can tell, like "Teshachut" in Chapter 24. All right, it would have required some effort on her part to find the proper English renderings of some of the more obscure terms, but surely she could have gotten "salaam aleikum" right! And the book keeps getting reprinted; couldn't some merciful publisher fix these things? I have a fairly complete list I'll be more than happy to supply, free and gratis. Let's rid an otherwise satisfactory translation of these unsightly blemishes, shall we?
Monday, August 05, 2002
With that introduction, I proceed to my latest trip to Brighton Beach. Some time ago I read and enjoyed Boris Akunin's Azazel, the first of his "Fandorin" series of detective novels set in 19th-century Petersburg. I've since moved on to other things, most recently Pushkin's "Poltava" and late-17th-century Russia in general (I highly recommend Lindsey Hughes' Russia in the Age of Peter the Great—Yale very kindly lets you read the first chapter online, if you're interested), but last time I was in BB I noticed a video of a televised version of Azazel, although I was too loaded down to buy it at the time, so today I went back to repair the omission. (I had the day off from work.) While I was in the smaller branch of Sankt-Peterburg (which has lower prices for some reason), I looked up at the detective-fiction shelves, and there was a new work by Akunin: Altyn-Tolobas, a novel set in late-17th-century Russia! I bought it and can't wait to read it. But I don't think it's the work of the gods. It's just those coins coming up heads.
Sunday, August 04, 2002
The Close Reader column on July 14, about the relation between daily life and intellectual life in Israel at present, referred erroneously to protests against the award of the Israel Prize to an Israeli Arab, Emile Habibi. The award, and the protests, occurred in 1992, not ''recently''; the Israel Prize is given for a life of achievement, not any particular accomplishment. The novel ''Arabesques'' was misattributed; it was written not by Habibi but by Anton Shammas, also an Israeli Arab, in Hebrew, not Arabic.
The column misstated the title of a book that discusses political minorities in modern Hebrew literature, and misstated its timing in the author's career. It is ''Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon,'' not ''Constructing the Hebrew Canon,'' published after the writer joined the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, not before. And his preferred transliteration of his name from the Hebrew is Hannan Hever, not Chanan Chever.
The column also attributed an honor erroneously to the novelist A. B. Yehoshua. He has never received the Sapir Prize (often referred to as the Israeli equivalent of Britain's Booker Prize).