Saturday, December 14, 2002


On an empty sarcophagus
   hewn out of alabaster,
A branch of fennel on an
   empty sarcophagus...

Nothing suggests accident
   where the beast
Is finishing her rest...

Smoke of ultramarine and amber
Floats above the fields after
Moonlit rains, from tree unto tree
Distils the radiance of a king...

You might as well see the new branch of Enkidu;
And that is no new thing either...

Christopher Okigbo

Friday, December 13, 2002

SINGULAR "THEIR." I have long been pushing for the acceptance of "they/their" as the gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, and I am delighted to discover (via fabulousness) a site that nails down its credentials so thoroughly it might shake even the ossified beliefs of William Safire:
These files contain a list of over 75 occurrences of the words "they"/"their"/"them"/"themselves" referring to a singular antecedent with indefinite or generic meaning in Jane Austen's writings (mainly in her six novels), as well as further examples of singular "their" etc. from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and elsewhere. While your high-school English teacher may have told you not to use this construction, it actually dates back to at least the 14th century, and was used by the following authors (among others) in addition to Jane Austen: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Spectator, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Frances Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans], Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis.

Singular "their" etc., was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is "good English" and "bad English", based on a kind of pseudo-"logic" deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English. (See the 1975 journal article by Anne Bodine in the bibliography.) And even after the old-line grammarians put it under their ban, this anathematized singular "their" construction never stopped being used by English-speakers, both orally and by serious literary writers. So it's time for anyone who still thinks that singular "their" is so-called "bad grammar" to get rid of their prejudices and pedantry!
Incidentally, this is part of Henry Churchyard's linguistics page, which also contains his dissertation, Topics in Tiberian Biblical Hebrew Metrical Phonology and Prosodics, as well as "The vowel system of a reconstructed 18th-century proto-language ancestral to modern 'standard' English dialects in both England and America," Twain's hilarious "The Awful German Language," and a couple of other things.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

OH, JUST ABSQUATULATE, BILL. It's been a while since I last lambasted William Safire, so let's take a look at his latest bout of lexicoskepsis, "Gifts o' Gab". This week he's doing his annual Xmas-book column, and he begins by recommending the newly issued Volume IV of the Dictionary of American Regional English. Fine with me, I hope he sells people on it (though it's hardly a "bargain at 90 bucks")—but he refers to the dictionary as "the set that no library can afford to absquatulate." Sorry, my lad, but absquatulate is an intransitive verb; to quote the American Heritage Dictionary,
INTRANSITIVE VERB: Midwestern & Western U.S. 1a. To depart in a hurry; abscond: “Your horse has absquatulated!” (Robert M. Bird). b. To die. 2. To argue.
It doesn't mean anything like 'do without,' which is what you were trying, with your usual clumsy jocularity, to convey.

He goes on to recommend several other books, some of which (like the two by Fiske) sound like a rehash of the usual useless maxims (short words are better than long!—well, sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't) and some of which (Metcalf and Bryson) sound interesting. He likes the fact that Bryson corrects his use of "munch" (one of Safire's winning characteristics is his willingness to acknowledge error), but he goes on:
Bryson and I part company on begging the question, which he accurately describes as presenting as proof something that itself needs proving, like the logical fallacy ''parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel.'' He abandons the ramparts with ''I am inclined to think that insisting absolutely on the traditional sense is more a favor to pedantry than to clarity.''....In my book, if you mean ''raise the question'' or ''pose the question,'' say so; but if you mean ''that's a phony argument that turns in on itself,'' say ''beg the question.''
This is one of those issues that is catnip to the adolescent language-lover but which a sensible person grows out of. I too used to enjoy tormenting people with the "truth" about the phrase, but I eventually realized that, whatever its origins in philosophy and petitio principii, I had never seen or heard the phrase used "correctly" except by people making a point of doing so (cf. "hoi polloi"); in current English usage, "beg the question" means 'raise the question,' and that's that. I got over it, and so should Safire. (An anguished appraisal by the earnest Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ends by saying the phrase is "better avoided altogether"; like Fowler's similar recommendation concerning "hoi polloi," this counsel of despair is a sign that the language has sailed on, leaving wistful archaists treading water and clutching at the stern.)
MORE PEOPLE SHOULD DO THIS. Joey deVilla provides a loving description of his Toronto neighborhood (near Queen Street West), with descriptions of businesses, sociological summary, brief history, and lots of pictures that give me a real sense of what the place is like. There should be a web ring of bloggers who do this for their own neighborhoods; I'd happily spend many hours investigating them. I'm easily bored by monuments, but I never tire of street scenes and local quirks. [Via Gideon Strauss.]

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


She stole ma hat
    ma hat . was in the lounge with ma jacket
The jacket she dint take it, but
         ma hat, she tukkit, clean
         outa the place . she liked
ma hat . & went with it to the room & danced,
     DANCED with it, wearin the hat she
danced, and dint expect I'd cum back ferit . ah did .
      Pretended I hadn't figured it out
      talkin with her friend . I'd figured
            she laiked ma hat .
Next mornin, nobuddy up, both of 'em sleepin late .
             "Come in"
                             I did, & there it was,
ma hat
on the bed . She'd bigod
                                  slept with ma hat!

Paul Blackburn

Monday, December 09, 2002

JOURNALISM HAVING NEW SYNTAX. Sunday's "Week in Review" section of the NY Times had an article by Geoffrey Nunberg discussing a phenomenon I have noticed but not seen mentioned before, the proliferation of participles taking the place of verbs in news broadcasting.
...The all-news networks have begun to recite their leads to a new participial rhythm: "In North Dakota, high winds making life difficult; the gusts reaching 60 m.p.h." . . . "A Big Apple accident, two taxicabs plowing into crowds of shoppers" — call the new style ing-lish. Fox News Channel and CNN have adopted it wholesale, and it's increasingly audible on network news programs as well.

The odd thing is that not even the newscasters seem to have a clear idea of what they're doing, or why. A "Newshour With Jim Lehrer" feature described the style as one of "dropping most verbs, putting everything in the present tense."

But cable news reporters don't actually drop any verbs except "to be," and that only in sentences like "President Bush in Moscow." And those participles like "plowing" aren't in the present tense — they don't have any tense at all.

What ing-lish really leaves out is all tenses, past, present or future, and with them any helping verbs they happen to fall on — not just be, but have and will. Newscasters used to say "The Navy has used the island for sixty years but will cease its tests soon." On CNN or Fox, that comes out as "The Navy using the island for sixty years but ceasing its tests soon."

What's the point of this? The NewsHour calls it "an abbreviated language unique to time-pressed television correspondents," and points to the need to shoehorn as many stories as possible into a brief space. But the new syntax doesn't actually save any time — sometimes, in fact, it makes sentences longer. "Bush met with Putin" is one syllable shorter than "Bush meeting with Putin."

Strangely, broadcasters don't seem to realize how bizarre the new style sounds. Fox newscaster Shepherd Smith calls it "people speak" and explains, "It's about how would I tell this story if I were telling it to a friend on a street corner." But that must be a pretty exotic intersection, if Mr. Smith's buddies are saying things like "My car in the shop. The brakes needing relining."
SORBS IN THE NEWS. From BYU News (via Pat) comes this story about one of the least known minority communities of Europe (and Texas!), the Sorbs. Sorbian (also called Wendish and Lusatian) is a Slavic language (a fact oddly unmentioned in the BYU article), closely related to Polish [and Czech—thanks, Mark!]; here is a detailed discussion of its history and place in contemporary Germany, and here are versions of "Silent Night" in both High and Low Sorbian.

Addendum. R.G.A. de Bray, in his still very useful Guide to the Slavonic Languages (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1951, rev. ed. 1969 which I do not have), begins his final chapter, "Lusatian (or Wendish)," as follows:
No book on the modern Slavonic literary languages would be complete without a chapter on the ancient and interesting Lusatian Serb or Wendish tongue.

The Lusatians call themselves "Serbja" (Serbs) and their country "Luzhica"* (Lusatia; in German—Lausitz). Hence the English name Lusatian Serbs. The Germans call them "Wenden" (slightly pejorative) or "Sorben"—hence the English use of "Wends" or "Sorbs". As the name "Serbs" can cause confusion with the Yugoslav Serbs of Serbia, while the term "Wend" or "Sorb" does not readily indicate a nationality to the English mind, we propose using the term "Lusatian" here. This name indicates the native land to which these Slavs are attached so passionately that they will not even hear of being transferred to other areas where there is a higher proportion of Slav inhabitants....

The period of Germanization has been so long that it is really a wonder that any Lusatians at all have preserved their language.... Too small in numbers, in comparison to their neighbours, to make an independent state, the Lusatians have been a pawn in the game for power of strong neighbouring rulers. Nevertheless they have survived, holding fast to their language, their Christian religion and their ancient customs, patiently tilling their land and waiting doggedly for better days. After the two recent world wars they have made claims to autonomy and independence, but the statesmen of the Great Powers have not even mentioned that they have considered their case. So the Lusatian cause has remained on the conscience of the very few who know anything about them (under whatever name). Their case has been passed over and ignored by the majority of the Press, and they have been considered too insignificant to be worthy of any kind of independence. Nevertheless, to the student of Slav languages, literatures and history they form a most interesting, if obscure, group of Slavs. Because of their very survival and ancient character they deserve to be more widely known, even apart from their literature, which is no mean achievement for so small a people.
Now there's a man who liked Sorbs.

*[The L should be barred and the zh should be z with a hacek, but I can't get either to show up.]
NEXT FRIDAY. In a meeting this morning someone referred to something that would happen "next Friday." Someone else corrected him: "You mean this Friday." The first person looked a bit startled and a bit contrite and said quickly "Yeah, this Friday, the thirteenth."

This is something that's always bothered me, and I think it's a structural problem. There is simply no way to know whether "next Friday" is meant to refer to the immediately following Friday or Friday of next week; I understand it as the former (and therefore was as taken aback as the first speaker by the correction), but obviously lots of people assume the latter. (The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for "last Monday.") I had thought it was a problem specific to English, but I see the same thing happens in German (Google translation here), so I guess it's just more evidence that language is irremediably sloppy.

Friday, December 06, 2002

THIRSTY. I woke up last night wanting a drink of water, and it popped into my head to wonder what the Russian word for 'thirsty' was. I drew a blank, which alarmed me. 'Hungry' is golodnyi, 'thirsty' is... ? It wasn't just that the word temporarily escaped me, which happens now and then; it was as if there were empty space where the neurons containing that word should be, which was alarming. I got my drink and headed for the bookshelves. It turns out (as I knew perfectly well, somewhere in there) that there is no Russian word for 'thirsty'; you say you want to drink (which is what came to my mind when I was scrabbling for the adjective: khochetsya pit'). Isn't that an odd asymmetry? 'Hungry' and 'thirsty' seem like such a natural pair; it's like having a word for 'left' but not 'right.' Language is stranger than is dreamt of in Chomsky's philosophy.

Addendum. In the comments section Avva brings up the symmetrical absences of solnechnyi zaichik (meaning 'reflected sunlight (e.g., on the wall)'; the Russian translates to "sun bunny") in English and of "dust bunny" in Russian; for those who read Russian, there is a discussion of the subject in progress at his site.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

EL CASTELLANO EN NUEVA YORK. Today's NY Times has an article by Janny Scott about the researches of Ricardo Otheguy and Ana Celia Zentella into the nature of Spanish in New York City; they are attempting to determine whether the various immigrant dialects are maintaining their identities or merging into a unified "New York Spanish." One focus of research is the use or nonuse of subject pronouns:
The use of subject pronouns in Spanish has long been of interest to linguists. (There is an entire book on so-called subject expression among Spanish speakers in Madrid.) In English, the subject of a sentence is always expressed; in Spanish it can be, and often is, left out.

For example, where an English speaker would say "We sing," a Spanish speaker could say either "Nosotros cantamos" or simply "Cantamos." Linguists say Spanish speakers from the Caribbean tend to use a lot of pronouns; people from Central and South American countries use them less.

"What makes New York City interesting, and why we grabbed this issue, is that New York contains people from areas that differ with respect to this feature," said Ricardo Otheguy, a professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a researcher on the project.

"It's interesting to compare Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans with the Mexicans, who use few pronouns," he said. "And communities are different in their exposure to English. The Mexican community in New York is new; the Puerto Rican community is well settled."
Otheguy is also studying borrowings from English:
For example, he said, early Spanish-speaking settlers in New York were mostly from the Caribbean, so they took "the winter vocabulary of English," creating words for things like steam, coat and boiler — words that are spoken rather than written but that resemble their English counterparts.

"Many times the loan takes place even though there is a word that's usable and perfectly accessible to the people who borrow the English word," he said. "So it isn't simply a matter of filling a gap because the gap ain't there. The person knows a Spanish word and uses both of them."
The Times article will only be available for a week, but here is a good piece (in Spanish) on Otheguy's research.

(Note: I learned my Spanish in Buenos Aires, where they call the language castellano, whence the heading of this entry.)

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

HA! From Dr. Weevil:
Someone once told me that the University of Pennsylvania was reshaping its language departments a few years back and briefly considered putting Hebrew in with Russian, Polish, and German. It wouldn't be easy to come up with a brief and accurate description for such a disparate collection of languages, and someone facetiously suggested that it could be called the Department of Semitic and Anti-Semitic Languages.
And from Alas, a Blog:
Headline from the English edition of Pravda:

"Black to Swallow Planet Earth"

The story (which turns out to be about a black hole about 6,000 light years away, rather than a very hungry person of color) also contains a new definition of "good news": "This is good news, is it not? It’s like learning that there is a blood-thirsty killer living next door to you."
WHAT HAPPENED TO 'THOU'? Mark, in the comments to an earlier entry, brought up an interesting point: why did the "thou/thee" form disappear from English (except for a few dialects)? There is a fascinating discussion of this on LINGUIST List, from which I quote the following, by Larry Trask:
English-speakers began to use 'you' as a respectful singular in the 13th century, probably under French influence. Except in conditions of intimacy, 'you' quickly became established as the ordinary way for an upper-class speaker to address an equal, as well as a superior, and by the 16th century 'thou' was all but non-existent in upper-class speech, except in addressing obvious inferiors. Naturally, this usage began to be copied by the middle class, and by the 16th century 'thou' was likewise rare in middle-class speech, except in addressing obvious inferiors. But 'thou' lingered long among working-class people, especially in rural areas, and it still survives today in parts of the north of England, where it has reportedly become something of a badge of solidarity.

None of this requires any particular explanation, but one point does: why did the non-reciprocal use of 'you' and 'thou' in power-based relationships disappear? Now, as Brown and Gilman argue in their famous paper ["The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity." In Ed. T. A. Sebeok. Style in Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960. 253-277], there has been a steady trend (now mostly gone to completion) in European languages to replace the older non-reciprocal power-based use of T and V pronouns with a newer reciprocal solidarity-based use. Something similar appears to have happened much earlier in English, with the added twist that `thou' was driven out of the standard language altogether. Nobody knows why, but Leith has an interesting suggestion. He proposes that 16th-century England, in comparison with most other European countries, was characterized by a fluid and prosperous middle class, in which rapid rise was possible by entrepreneurial success. England, he argues, therefore lacked the comparatively rigid social structures typical ofother countries, at least as far as the middle class was concerned. Whereas every speaker of French or Spanish knew his own station and knew that of everyone else, so that power-based non-reciprocal usage could be readily maintained, a middle-class English person was by comparison insecure: he could never quite be sure whether a stranger was an inferior, an equal, or a superior. Therefore, Leith concludes, the reciprocal use of 'you' rapidly took hold among the middle class as the safest option, as a safe way of avoiding giving offense to a person one might need to do business with or ask favors of.
Another discussion includes pronoun distinctions in Italy, Belgium, Australia, and Providence (Rhode Island), and an article on the subject by Sara Malton includes a bibliography for those who wish to pursue this intriguing issue further.

Addendum. There is a discussion of this going on at Page of Moss; no Korean yet, but lots of Mongolian and Buryat, as well as a reference to the prerevolutionary honorific use in Russia of the third person plural for a single individual: a housemaid, asked if her master were in, would reply "Yes, sir, they are." Also, Karin has this to say:
In Norwegian it is du - informal and de - formal. I always found it a pain in the neck. De always felt awkward to me, but as a child I was supposed to use it when talking to grownups: teachers, my sister's in-laws, the tramcar conductor, neighbors—you name it. It was such a relief coming to the US and just say you. Easy, comfortable, no (class distinction). Thank you English!
I have also found a discussion of the polite-pronoun issue here; Mark J. Reed is investigating the matter and presumably will put a summary of what he learns online when he learns it; the phenomenon of voseo (use of the singular pronoun vos as a neutral form of address, avoiding the choice between and usted, used in Argentina and Uruguay and less widely elsewhere) is described here (some illustrations here); and Mikhail Epstein discusses the ideology of Soviet forms of address, including Vy/ty, here (scroll down to CHAPTER 9. IDEOLOGICAL SYNTAX: FORMS OF ADDRESS). A sample:
Ideological language, however, most often combines the familiar pronoun with the formal name and patronymic: "ty, Aleksei Nikolaevich." This form of address is the norm between members of the Communist Party, even in the Politburo. Such a combination reflects the two-fold nature of ideological language: in addressing an ideological brother it is impossible to use the vy form, but since this "brother" is not a blood-relation, it is necessary to retain some element of formality when addressing him. The element of formality was strengthened when ideological language became the official language of Soviet society. Ideological language is thus simultaneously brotherly and official, a combination of familiarity and formality.
HIRSEL. It is not often that I (lexicomane that I am) run across an English word with which I am entirely unfamiliar, but I have just encountered "hirsel" for the first time. It is primarily a Scottish and northern word meaning 'the entire stock of sheep on a farm or under the charge of a shepherd'; it is related to "herd" (though borrowed from Old Norse hirzla, from hirtha 'to herd, tend'), which is a help in remembering its meaning. I found it in the following passage (from an interesting article, "The Ecology of Medieval English Monasteries" by Austin Mardon of Greenwich University):
Several of the herds that roam the Yorkshire dales today have existed continuously since the 13th century.  It is worth noting that it is illegal to sell off a complete hirsel from any mountain because it takes several generations of sheep to learn their individual "sheep-walk" and some of the older, experienced sheep must be left to guide the young, who would otherwise starve.
I hope the law is still on the books; I like it a great deal.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

DU REFORM. I have learned from Avva that Swedish, which used to have a formal/informal pronoun distinction Ni/du comparable to French vous/tu or German Sie/du, has virtually lost it, and the change occurred in a remarkably short time. The origins of the change are recounted in a fascinating discussion at soc.culture.nordic; as Jan Böhme explains,
Bror Rexed, when he became General Director [of] the National Board of Social Issues and Medicine (Socialstyrelsen), in 1968(?), issued a formal decree[...] that he wanted to be called by first name and "du", and expected the rest of the staff to do the same.

The development was considerably speeded up when Olof Palme, as new Prime Minister in 1969, let reporters call him "du" on live broadcasts.
One reason the change occurred so quickly is that Swedes traditionally addressed anyone with a title by that title, using the third person: "Would the professor like more tea?" (Jan Böhme's father was called "Mr. Appeals Court Justice" until the late '60s.) Thus the use of "Ni" was slightly derogatory, implying that one's interlocutor had no title or office worth bothering about. With that kind of system, it must have been a relief to start using one pronoun for everybody. The interesting thing is that, according to Jon Kåre in the same discussion,
Norway almost immediately followed Sweden in adopting "du", although our polite form of address was simply "De". That is, the system was like in French or German, and not at all like in Swedish.
If anyone knows anything more about this, please leave a comment.

Avva speculates on the possibility that Russian itself might lose its parallel Vy/ty distinction within a generation, since young people routinely use "ty" with each other, but decides it's unlikely because of the ingrained use of the distinction to reinforce subordination in the workplace: the boss addresses his underlings as "ty" and they must respond with "Vy." Avva despises this (as would I), but since he lives in Israel he doesn't have to put up with it.

Addendum. Avva points me to a discussion by Dmitri Evmenov of the origin and history of Swedish Ni; it was originally I, borrowed from German, and became Ni through reanalysis (ären I > äre ni).

Further addendum. Des says Ni is making a comeback (thanks to SAS)! See comment #4 within.

Monday, December 02, 2002

LEXICOGRAPHY IN A HARD TIME. The most moving dictionary preface that I know of adorns the second volume of the Persidsko-Russkii Slovar' [Persian-Russian Dictionary] by M.A. Gaffarov (Mirza Abdallah ebn-e Abd-ol-Ghaffar Tabrizi). The first volume (alef to zhe), replete with explanations of roots, proverbial usages, and quotations from Hafez and Sa'di, had appeared in 1914; the second was delayed by circumstances that will readily, I am sure, suggest themselves. I will let the editor of the second volume tell the story:
The second volume of M.A. Gaffarov's Persian-Russian Dictionary makes its appearance thirteen years after the publication of the first and twenty years after the author began his work. The editor of the first volume, Academician F.E. Korsch, has since passed away, and almost the entire work of putting together the second volume has gone on without his irreplaceable participation. Between the appearance of the first volume and that of the second—everything has changed, even the generally accepted spelling of the Russian language. The initial pages of the second volume (up to the word saf) still preserve the form in which they were published following the appearance of the first volume, i.e., in the old Russian orthography. After the aforementioned word the spelling, paper, and typeface of the book all change—the pages were printed last year and this year, when it has been necessary to content oneself with whatever paper could be found, and to take such type as the printers now have available.

Naturally, during the preceding years, so rich in events and changes for both Persia and Europe, the languages have changed as well. Both the Persian and Russian languages now include many new words and terms, for the most part pertaining to the social and political spheres, that did not exist when the basic text of the dictionary was being prepared. This unavoidable obsolescence of the material had to be rectified by an extended edition. For the sake of keeping to the plan, it was decided to place all new words and meanings, as well as words added to remedy omissions, in a special section of Addenda. These addenda are quite extensive—the lexicon has undergone too many changes, introduced into the language by life. The not infrequent emendations of the basic text, as well as the not infrequent misprints, are due for the most part to the conditions in which the author was forced to work before and during the war. He worked in the evenings, in the course of long years, after a whole day's labor. The setting of type of various sizes, with lead lining, as well as the lack of skill and experience of the young compositors observable in the beginning, also made matters more difficult and multiplied the deficiencies of the book.

The late F.E. Korsch in his preface to the first volume pointed out the significance of the Dictionary.... The present Dictionary represents the fruit of the living linguistic feeling and extensive erudition of an educated and intelligent Persian. Therein we may see the fundamental significance and fundamental value of this work. The Dictionary presents the entire lexical stock of its author. Thus everything in the Dictionary represents an indisputable fact, existing in a living linguistic consciousness, whereas in the heretofore large Persian dictionaries too much has represented the fruit of the compilers' copying, with varying degrees of critical scrutiny—sometimes greater (Vullers), sometimes lesser (Steingass), and sometimes completely lacking in criticism (Jagiello). In the present Dictionary, perhaps in some respects less material is given, but all of it is unconditionally reliable in the above sense....

For many words in the Dictionary, examples are cited from colloquial, literary and poetic language. On occasion a poetic citation will be encountered even for a word whose meaning would be clear without it. The author thinks that some excess in this respect is no great sin, and hopes that readers and critics will excuse him.

L. Zhirkov.
The author of the preface was Lev Ivanovich Zhirkov, "one of the founders of national literacy for many unwritten languages of the Northern Caucasus and of the Turkic languages of the USSR" (Vsemirnyi biograficheskii entsiklopedicheskii slovar'). I am happy to report that he lived to a ripe old age and died in 1963.

Friday, November 29, 2002

ON RUNNING AFTER ONE'S HAT. G.K. Chesterton's little essay "On Running After One's Hat" is really a perfect languagehat link. Not only is it about (inter alia) hats, not only does it express very well one of my basic attitudes towards life (and one which makes me a much happier camper than many), but within its folds is nestled a very pearl of linguistic change at work. The two paragraphs that give the essay its name begin, wonderfully, "For instance, there is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one's hat. Why should it be unpleasant to the well-ordered and pious mind?" The paragraph continues:
There is an idea that it is humiliating to run after one's hat; and when people say it is humiliating they mean that it is comic. It certainly is comic; but man is a very comic creature, and most of the things he does are comic—eating, for instance. And the most comic things of all are exactly the things that are most worth doing—such as making love.
We are taken aback: the last sentence is true and apposite, but quite startling in so pious and conservative a writer as Chesterton. We begin to revise our opinion of him. Then we read on: "A man running after a hat is not half so ridiculous as a man running after a wife." Of course—back then, "making love" meant "courting"! We cease revising our opinion, and commence savoring the dash of hot pepper that has entered the dish while the chef's back was turned. [Via Chasing Hats, via Gideon Strauss.]

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

TRANSLATION IN AMERICA. I've just gotten around to the November Harper's, and I was struck by the first letter to the editor, which puts into perspective the recent flurry of attention to the Arab Human Development Report commissioned by the UN. Everyone who discusses the report mentions the appalling statistic that "the whole Arab world translates about 330 books annually." I'll let Esther Allen take it from there:
In his reply to Edward Said in the September Letters section, Paul Kennedy alludes to the worrisome news about the cultural stagnation of the Arab world that U.S. pundits have been clucking their tongues over all summer: according to a recent United Nations Development Programme report, the entire Arab world, with a population of 280 million, translates only about 330 books per year.

Gratifying as it has been to see so many of our nation's spokespeople in agreement that the number of translations is a key indicator of a region's cultural vibrancy, I can't help noting, at the same time, a certain grim hilarity. Here in the United States, at the cosmopolitan heart of the universe, with a population of 285 million and a publishing industry that churns out well over 100,000 books per year, we publish—well, what do you know—about 330 books in translation per year. (That figure excludes only technical and scientific treatises.)

The PEN Translation Committee receives about 175 to 225 submissions each year for its PEN Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize, and they actively seek out every translation published in the country. Annotated Books Received, a publication of the American Literary Translators Association, lists about 400 books per year, including a grand total of thirteen books translated from Arabic in the last four years. "Literary" translation, I hasten to add, refers in this context not only to fiction and poetry but to history, journalism, biography, criticism, every category of book written for a general audience, and several categories—e.g., literary theory, philosophy—that are not.

This has been the case for decades; if there ever was a Golden Age of Translation in the United States of America, no one seems to know when it occurred. Yet the trend has never given rise to a UNDP report or any general voicings of dismay in the columns of the national print media. But now that we seem to be reaching such a stirring consensus on the importance of translation as an indicator of cultural well-being, I, for one, am very curious to see what our leaders will do to combat the lamentable isolation and stagnation in which we are foundering.

Esther Allen
New York City

Monday, November 25, 2002

EDITING ON THE IRT. From "Metropolitan Diary" in today's NYT:
As a ninth grader at Hunter College High School who lives in Brooklyn, I have a pretty long trip to and from school, and I try to get some homework done on the train.

One afternoon, I was working on an editing assignment on the downtown No. 6 train, and as I was putting it away the man sitting next to me told me I had missed something. I took the paper out again, and he told me to add a comma in one of the sentences.

Then the woman sitting next to him piped in. She said that it should, in fact, be a semicolon.

I decided to go with the semicolon, but they were still discussing the right choice when I got off the train a few stops later.   Hope I. Reichbach

Sunday, November 24, 2002

CAMPBELL MCGRATH. I just discovered (via the excellent a poet heretofore unknown to me, Campbell McGrath. He has written a book of poems about Florida which I may have to buy; samples can be read here and here. He has interesting things to say in an interview; here's a bit on his poetic development, which is the kind I wish more poets had:
CM: Yes, I think the formal shift was essential. I had been writing sonnets and my diction was more ornate. Pound had been a big influence. All that went out the window. The first 7-11 poems were influenced by William Carlos Williams. A stripping down of syntax and diction. And the form has continued to change, book by book, but it's certainly never gone back to that older formality.

VW: Do you think there is. more validity to your poetic form because you went through that formal background?

CM: I don't think you gain 'validity' that way, but you do gain a lot of craft. I feel like I can access certain formal virtues and turn on them when I want, or turn them around. I love the range of poetry, from the formal to the free, the new, the invented. From tight lines to prose. 'The Bob Hope Poem' was an attempt to explore that formal range, from prose to haiku, and everything in between.
Anybody who can make a fine poem solely out of seashell names ("crenulate nut clams and pointed cingulas,/ dogwinkles, diplodons, donax, dosinia,// emarginate emarginula...") is worth reading as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

LINNAEUS. I have just discovered that "Linnaeus" was not a latinized version of Carl von Linné's last name, as I had always supposed and as Webster's Biographical Dictionary seemed to confirm; his father's name was Nils Linnaeus, and he took the name "von Linné" when he was admitted to the aristocracy; see the biography here. You just never know. (Thanks, Nick!)
DIANE ACKERMAN. After several dense (though hopefully not turgid) ethnohistorical essays, I thought I'd give us all a break and post a poem I liked from the Ninetieth Anniversary issue of Poetry. Here's Diane Ackerman:

After Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Like your face,
a thousand-leafed day,
and I who rejoice
in what's measureless
measure the onset of evening
and the imagined scent
of your eyelashes
shivering like flowers in the wind.

What fate threw us together?
The same chance
that drew airlanes for the bats
swooping like neuroses
from the sky, fluttering
over frail autumn leaves
which cannot harm or save
or be anyone's victim.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

PURITY VS. HISTORY 4. So a certain purist concept of nationalism has had unfortunate effects on the landscape, language, and toponymy of Greece. The worst, though, is its effect on people. The ultimate implication of ethnic nationalism is that only members of the national ethnic group can be allowed to be part of the nation; all others must be eliminated or assimilated. This attitude was part of the Greek War of Independence from the beginning; some quotes from the 1911 Britannica, with colorful but accurate descriptions:
The town itself was destroyed and those of its Mussulman inhabitants who could not escape into the citadel were massacred.... Kolokotrones, a notable brigand once in the service of the lonian government... captured Karytaena and slaughtered its infidel population... [T]he revolt spread rapidly; within three weeks there was not a Mussulman left in the open country..... In the Morea, meanwhile, a few Mussulman fortresses still held out: Coron, Modon, Navarino, Patras, Nauplia, Monemvasia, Tripolitsá. One by one they fell, and everywhere were repeated the same scenes of butchery. The horrors culminated in the capture of Tripolitsá, the capital of the vilayet. In September this was taken by storm; Kolokotrones rode in triumph to the citadel over streets carpeted with the dead; and the crowning triumph of the Cross was celebrated by a cold-blooded massacre of 2000 prisoners of all ages and both sexes.
This sort of thing is not, of course, confined to Greek history; it is a sad feature of similar struggles everywhere. But when the war was over and the Greek state established, the attitude hardened rather than dissipating; the vicious Balkan Wars of 1912–13 featured ethnic cleansing as a modus operandi on all sides (see the first-person accounts here; I highly recommend the Carnegie Endowment's Report, from which the quotes are taken, to anyone interested in the wars), and the equally vicious Greco-Turkish War of 1921–22 resulted in an "exchange of populations" (as this devastating mass ethnic cleansing was politely called) that uprooted "Greeks" who spoke no Greek from their ancestral homes in Turkey and equally assimilated "Turks" from Greece and sent them to alien countries they had never seen and where they had no homes and no occupation.

The Greek government announced that Greece was now ethnically homogeneous, and from then on ethnic minorities (principally Turks, Macedonian Slavs, Albanians, Vlachs, and Romá [Gypsies; note that Romá is the plural of Rom]) were either ignored or repressed, depending on the political situation. The official attitude is that everyone in Greece is Greek; attempts to discuss, say, the Slavic minority will be met with a denial that there is such a thing—people in the villages you mention may speak with a distinct accent, but certainly not in a different language. A classic example of this attitude was brought about by the research of Anastasia Karakasidou into the history of a village in Greek Macedonia, north of Thessalonica; she had originally thought that the village was divided between the "local" Greeks and the "refugees" (from the 1921–22 war), but as she talked to people she learned that many of them had relatives who came from a Slavic background. Unfortunately, just as she was preparing to publish her results (in the excellent book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990) the Balkan wars of the 1990s broke out, and the Greeks became extremely paranoid about ethnic questions; along with blockading the poor and landlocked new Republic of Macedonia (and forcing everyone to call it "FYROM"), they began a campaign of harassment against the author and her book, calling her a "cannibal" and frightening Cambridge University Press into shamefully caving in and canceling publication (fortunately the book was picked up by the gutsier University of Chicago Press).

Again, none of this is unique to Greece; similar nonsense is perpetrated everywhere that ethnic differences are used and exacerbated by evil politicians (Sri Lanka and Rwanda come immediately to mind, but of course examples are legion), and Turkey has done far worse to Armenians and Kurds in the last century than Greece has done to its minorities. I have concentrated on Greece because of its unique status as the "fountainhead of Western civilization" and because the pernicious theories of ethnic and historical purity used to justify the things I have discussed were imported from the supposedly civilized nations of Western Europe. It is the heirs of the Enlightenment who licensed the Greeks to falsify everything around them in the name of a chimerical Hellas that never was, and it is at their feet (and by extension our own, if we wish to claim the inheritance of "progress" and "rationality") that we must lay much of the responsibility for the evils that resulted. When we fulminate against the Rwandans, it is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

Addendum. For further information on the background of the ethnic confusion of Macedonia and the political dispute engendered by it, I urge anyone interested to read Loring M. Danforth's The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World (Princeton, 1995). Like the Karakasidou book mentioned above, it's unusually well written for an academic work, and Danforth has one of the most sensible takes on the problem of ethnicity and nationalism that I've seen. From his first chapter:
According to the logic of nationalism, because nations are equated with states and because states have unambiguous, clearly defined territorial borders, nations must have such borders as well. Complex cultural realities, however, know no such borders. While a particular village must be located on one side or the other of the border separating two sovereign states, the people who live in this village are likely to speak more than one lanugage and participate in more than one culture. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the inhabitants of this village speak the two national languages and participate in the two national cultures of the nation-states whose border the village lies near. The people of this village do not inhabit two homogeneous, bounded national cultures; they inhabit a cultural continuum, a cultural intersystem, in which cultural differences and similarities coexist in complex and constantly changing ways.
Having established his theoretical basis, he goes on to discuss the complex history of Macedonia and the conflicting claims to Macedonian identity. In a particularly moving chapter, he tells us about an Australian he calls Ted Yannas who comes from a village in northern Greece where people spoke Macedonian as well as Greek but identified themselves as Greeks; in Australia, he discovered others from the same village who identified themselves as Macedonians, and he wound up joining them, alienating himself from friends and even his own family. (The first part of the chapter is online here.) Makes me glad to be an American mutt who doesn't worry about such things.

Monday, November 18, 2002

IDIOCY IN RUSSIA. The Russian Duma has outlawed the Roman alphabet. Of course, the law will be roundly ignored, but it reminds me of Indiana House Bill #246, introduced (but happily not passed) in 1897, which tried to legislate a simpler value for pi. [Via polyglut.]

Sunday, November 17, 2002

PURITY VS. HISTORY 3. Another obstacle in reading Makriyannis, if you're trying to follow along on a map, is place names. He'll mention, say, Sálona; you look on your map and find no such place. Eventually, if you're lucky, you discover that it's now called Amphissa. Fortunately, the Great Hellenic Encyclopedia not only gives all former place names in its articles, it cross-references them, and there is a copy in the New York Public Library. In the course of reading about the period, I had occasion to look up many such names, and my reference map of Greece is now liberally sprinkled with them, the old names in penciled parenthesis: Lamia (Zituni), Panetolion (Mustafuli), Evinos (Fidaris), Elatia (Drakhmani). What most of these pairs have in common is that the old name, the traditional name, is Turkish or otherwise foreign in origin; the "new" name is the classical name, imposed after many centuries of desuetude by the new government, indifferent to the virtues of allowing people to call their town, river, lake by the names they'd always used but supremely attentive to the desire of Western Europeans to imagine their beloved Hellas restored. The very name Hellas (Ellas in katharevusa, Ellada in dimotiki) was strange, foreign, to Greeks of the day; they called themselves Roman (Romios) and their language Romaic (romeika), and their dreamed-of capital was Constantinople, "the City" (i Poli, which in the phrase is tin Poli 'to/in the City' was the source of the Turkish name Istanbul). They wanted Emperor Constantine to reappear and reestablish the Roman Empire (what we call "Byzantine") again; to reorient them to Athens and Pericles and this strange name "Hellas" took many decades. But it was accomplished, and in the end people could sit in a cafe in Amfissa rather than sitting in a cafe in Salona, and foreign visitors could travel the country using Thucydides or Pausanias as their guide and see the very same place names outside the windows of their bus. Like the Acropolis, the entire country had been wiped clean of distractions from the important reality, that of 2,500 years past.