The Bookshelf: The Grammarians.

My Kindle announced abruptly that it needed recharging, which will happen when you’re doing all your reading on it, so I plugged it in and wondered what dead-tree material I’d replace it with while it was absorbing its e-nourishment. My eye fell on a review copy of The Grammarians, the new novel by Cathleen Schine that the good people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux were kind enough to send me. All I knew about it was that it featured dictionary-obsessed identical twins, but that was certainly enough to intrigue me, so I decided to give it a try. Now, having spent a couple of days voraciously devouring it, I’m here to urge you to do the same.

Each section is prefaced by an entry from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, the twin sisters are constantly playing language games, there are quotes from English As She Is Spoke, and a major role is played by Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition; if that had been all, dayenu! But there’s also copyediting and alternative newspapers; there’s the East Village and Spain Restaurant; there’s subways and coffee shops and the Mets (there’s even a reference to that bitter parody all Mets fans sing in the bad years: “Meet the Mets, beat the Mets”): dayenu, dayenu, dayenu. And the writing is a sheer delight throughout, with clever allusions tickling your funny bone rather than smiting you about the head and shoulders, e.g.:

Whenever the wind blew outside, Laurel and Daphne could hear it whistling — like a phantom looking for its phantom dog, Laurel said. They named the phantom dog Mariah.

All that would certainly have been enough, but then one of the novel’s heroes turned out to be Charles Fries, that great linguist whom David Foster Wallace treated with such ignorant contempt; when I got to that I was like the horse who saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha! And I was utterly won over.

And there’s so much more. To take one example, there’s a reference to a LRB essay by Richard Rorty (I googled and discovered it’s “The Contingency of Selfhood” from the 8 May 1986 issue); Schine mentions it starts with a Larkin poem, and since you may well be as curious about it as I was, here’s the bit Rorty quotes:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is as clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

Isn’t that nice? And here’s the start of what Rorty has to say about it:
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Primum non nocere.

Thomas Morris (“Making you grateful for modern medicine”) discusses the history of the famous aphorism “First, do no harm,” or, in its Latin guise, primum non nocere:

In this form you will often see it referred to as the Hippocratic injunction, and many people assume that it has its origins in the Hippocratic Corpus, the body of early medical texts attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates and his followers. And there is indeed a similar form of words in the Hippocratic Oath, which affirms that ‘I will abstain from all intentional wrongdoing and harm’. Elsewhere in the Hippocratic Corpus (in a work entitled the Epidemics) there is the instruction ‘either help or do not harm the patient’.

But is it really Hippocratic? The attribution is far from clear. Firstly, although the sentiment is very similar, the form of words is rather different. And, more obviously, the Hippocratic Corpus and Oath are both in Greek. Where, then, did the Latin phrase come from?

My gold standard for this sort of thing is Robert K. Merton’s On the Shoulders of Giants (see this ancient post), and Morris’s investigation, though of course shorter and less anfractuous, is worthy of that giant’s vision. I will leave you to discover the delightful details at the link, and just quote the concluding paragraph:

Strangely, we have come full circle. I began by attempting to debunk the old chestnut that primum non nocere is Hippocratic. But the debunker has been debunked, since it seems that the old aphorism is indeed Hippocratic, albeit filtered through the mind of an early Christian writer from North Africa, writing in Latin almost 1700 years ago.

Thanks, hat_eater!

The Desuetude of All.

Jonathan Morse has a post featuring a store display card published in 1888 for the Cotton Bale Medicine Company of Helena, Arkansas; he has various things to say about it, but the point of linguistic interest concerns the phrase “free to all,” which he says is no longer immediately intelligible:

When I teach Ulysses in the years that have followed its day in 1904, I have to bracket a word into the text to make sure the class reads Poldy’s throwaway in “Lestrygonians” as a constative, not an imperative: “All [are] heartily welcome.” All used to be understood to mean everybody, but that sense seems to have gone obsolete. Rhetoric has lost something that sounded somehow grander than everybody: not restricted to the mere body or the mere human but universal.

Is it really obsolete? I would have thought of it as a bit formal, but not something that would require bracketed elucidation. But then I am a fossil of the last century.

The Geography of Draznilkas.

Back in 2003 I posted about the draznilka, “a short, humorous verse used by children to tease, taunt and play pranks on other children.” I linked there to an article by Halina Weiss which I commend to the attention of non-Russian-speakers, because they won’t get anything out of the new article I’m posting about, “Картография и хронология жадин” [The cartography and chronology of greedy people], the belated but superb followup to a poll N + 1 carried out back in February asking readers to send them their versions of the well-known draznilka whose most common form is:

солёный огурец,
по полу катается,
никто его не ест.

Greedy person, beef,
pickled cucumber,
lying on the floor,
nobody eats it.

It uses charts, graphs, maps, and other means to provide the detailed results showing who says what where (and the difference it makes what generation you’re part of). If you read Russian, it’s a real delight. Thanks, Alexey!

Ruminations on Translation.

Bathrobe has a new post at his blog Spicks and Specks that’s full of fascinating reflections on the nitty-gritty of translation work. A couple of excerpts:

It was a point of pride at the time that the press translations produced by the Australian embassy were far superior to those of the U.S. embassy. The U.S. Embassy translations were barely translations at all; they merely transposed words and constructions in a way that closely mimicked the original. But there was a rationale behind the American approach. When reading a translation, an American officer who knew Japanese could gain a fairly accurate idea what the original Japanese said. This is what the U.S. Embassy wanted, not natural-sounding translations that obscured the original. […]

A good portion of modern so-called ‘translation’ means knowing the conventional equivalents for standard vocabulary. A translator working in a major language simply has to plug in ready-made words. For example, the word ‘economy’ or ‘economic’ has routine equivalents in Japanese (経済(的) keizai-teki), Chinese (經濟 / 经济 jīngjì), Mongolian (эдийн засаг ediin zasag in Mongolia, аж ахуй aj akhui in Inner Mongolia), or any other major language.

Just 150 years ago people translating these terms did not have this luxury. Apart from European languages, most languages did not have a single word that corresponded exactly to ‘economy’ or ‘economic’. Translators in the 19th – 20th centuries had to create such vocabulary from scratch as part of Westernisation / modernisation, laying the basis for what we have today. For the translator, this makes the difference between asking “What is the Swahili word for ‘economic’?” and “How should we express the concept of economics in Swahili?” This kind of standardisation now covers vast fields of science, technology, and even sport, making a lot of translation an exercise in memory or dictionary lookup rather than brainstorming.

The Laughter of the Philosophers.

David Bentley Hart, who has featured at LH before (2012, 2018), back in 2005 wrote a review for First Things of Thomas C. Oden’s The Humor of Kierkegaard that is worth reading if perhaps too long (which is basically his judgment on Oden’s book). He writes:

Thomas Oden’s generous anthology, The Humor of Kierkegaard, is a sequel to his deservedly popular collection of 1978, Parables of Kierkegaard. Unlike its predecessor, though, it is—in Oden’s own words—intended “as entertainment with no noble purpose.” But it is also, in a sense, a compilation of evidences, offered in support of a very large claim. In his introduction, Oden throws down a “gauntlet”: He challenges the reader to assemble a collection of passages from any ten major philosophers as funny as those he has compiled from Kierkegaard’s writings; furthermore, he makes bold provisionally—until this challenge is met—to declare Kierkegaard “as, among philosophers, the most amusing.” Now, as I have intimated already, I am prone to regard this as a distinction rather like that of owning “the finest restaurant in South Bend, Indiana”: The quality of the competition renders the achievement somewhat ambiguous. Despite which, I am not entirely convinced that Oden makes an incontrovertible case. […]

Kierkegaard’s writings—taken in themselves—provide Oden with wonderfully rich sources of plunder, especially the early pseudonymous works, with their thickets of prefaces, interludes, interjections, postscripts, appendices, multiple voices, and preposterous names, not to mention their sinuous coils of indirection. […] Either/Or emerges as the most fertile and delightful of Kierkegaard’s literary achievements in this regard, though almost all the early books abound in comic invention. And, as a whole, this collection can be recommended, for light or serious reading alike. That said, while I enjoyed this anthology thoroughly, I nevertheless came away from it still somewhat unconvinced regarding Oden’s high claims for Kierkegaard; and I find myself still inclined to ask whether Kierkegaard was really the nonpareil humorist that Oden makes him out to be.

There follows an excessively detailed discussion of purported examples of Kierkegaard’s humor, which leave this reader, at least, convinced that Hart’s doubts are well founded. But he saves the best, which has nothing to do with the book under review, for the last; the final chunk of the essay, perhaps a third of it, is devoted to the amazing J. G. Hamann (featured at LH a decade ago):
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This week’s New Yorker has a review of Rezdôra, a new Italian restaurant; of course I was curious about the name, which is explained thus: “rezdôra means ‘grandmother’ in Modenese dialect.” OK, great, but it’s an odd-looking word, and I wanted to know more. Googling quickly revealed that every review mentions the meaning, and the restaurant’s website leads with it: “Rezdôra, the Modenese word for grandmother, is a rustic Italian restaurant highlighting the cuisine of Emilia Romagna in New York City’s Flatiron neighborhood.” But I had trouble finding any further discussion of the word. Google Books gave me snippets like “Working alongside the rezdora Lidia Cristoni and applying techniques learned as an apprentice to French chef Georges Coigny,” “He explained how the barnyard and kitchen garden were the family matriarch’s (she is called rezdora in local dialect) domain,” and “Loosely translated, rezdora means ‘housewife,’ but what it really means is queen of the kitchen. It is the word that is used to describe the women, usually older, who are keeping alive the traditions of the recipes of Emilia-Romagna.” Which makes it sound like it doesn’t actually mean ‘grandmother’ after all. And it’s still an odd-looking word, and I still want to know its origin. Any suggestions?

It’s Greek to You and Me.

A decade ago I posted about the ways different languages have of expressing what English-speakers term “Greek to me,” and there was a lively discussion; it seems a good time for a follow-up, and Dan Nosowitz has posted It’s All Greek to You and Me, So What Is It to the Greeks? at Atlas Obscura. It starts with the phrase “It’s Greek to me” and asks “So where did the phrase come from, and why is its sentiment so universal?”

As with far too many linguistic questions like this, there is no definitive answer. One theory ties it to medieval monks. In Western Europe at this time, the predominant written language was Latin, but much of the writing that survived from antiquity was in Greek. The theory holds that these monks, in transcribing and copying their texts, were not necessarily able to read Greek, and would write a phrase next to any Greek text they found: “Graecum est; non legitur.” Translated: “It is Greek; it cannot be read.” […]

Though Greece is nominally part of Europe, its deep ties with the Middle East, North Africa, and the Slavic countries have meant that Greek culture sometimes doesn’t seem fully of a part with Western Europe. The alphabet used there today, called the Euclidean alphabet, was ironed out just after the Peloponnesian War, in around 400 B.C. But there were several versions of the Greek alphabet and language before then, and one of those, it’s generally believed, was used by a Greek colony in southern Italy. That one was adopted by people who inhabited early Rome, and steadily evolved on its own into Latin. By Shakespeare’s time, the Greek alphabet looked like a weird fifth cousin to the Latin alphabet. […]

English is not the only language to rely on Greek as a shorthand for gobbledygook. Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Afrikaans do as well. You’ll notice those are all European languages except for Afrikaans, and Afrikaans is Germanic in origin.

Harry Foundalis, a cognitive scientist who studies Greek linguistics, says many Greek people know that in English and other languages, Greek serves as an indecipherable tongue, and many Greek people, especially young ones, speak English anyway, so they’ve encountered it before. “How do we feel about it? We find it funny,” says Foundalis. “Those of us who know it make jokes with it. For example, I’ve noticed that every time I talk to an English-speaking audience and I use the phrase ‘That’s all Greek to me,’ and the audience knows I’m Greek, I get a thunderous laughter as a response. So, the phrase works well for me.”

There are, however, an awful lot of other languages that have some version of this phrase that doesn’t use Greek. Some of these are weird in their own right. What’s up with the Baltic countries, which think Spanish is so impenetrable? Why do the Danish use Volapük, a short-lived Esperanto-type constructed language created by a German in 1880? When a Bulgarian says “Все едно ми говориш на патагонски,” which uses “Patagonian” instead of Greek, what the hell are they talking about? Do they mean some extinct indigenous Chonan language, or Spanish, which is the dominant language there, or Patagonian Welsh, which also apparently exists?

Nosowitz goes on to talk about Chinese, which “happens to be the most common replacement for Greek in the idiom around the world.” Thanks, Terry!

Don’t Believe a Word.

David Shariatmadari, whose has written well about language for the Guardian and has been featured at LH before (e.g., here), has published a book called Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language that sounds well worth reading, according to Joe Moran’s review:

As a boy, David Shariatmadari would sit in the hallway and listen to his Iranian father speaking Farsi on the phone to his family in Tehran. It was an early introduction to the estranging beauty of unfamiliar language. So began an interest in linguistics that has given birth to this book, a skilful summation of the latest research on how languages emerge, change, convey meaning and influence how we think.

Each chapter explodes a common myth about language. Shariatmadari begins with the most common myth: that standards of English are declining. This is a centuries-old lament for which, he points out, there has never been any evidence. Older people buy into the myth because young people, who are more mobile and have wider social networks, are innovators in language as in other walks of life. Their habit of saying “aks” instead of “ask”, for instance, is a perfectly respectable example of metathesis, a natural linguistic process where the sounds in words swap round. (The word “wasp” used to be “waps” and “horse” used to be “hros”.) Youth is the driver of linguistic change. This means that older people feel linguistic alienation even as they control the institutions – universities, publishers, newspapers, broadcasters – that define standard English.

Another myth Shariatmadari dismantles is that foreign languages are full of untranslatable words. This misconception serves to exoticise other nationalities and cultures, making them sound quaint or bizarre. It amuses us to think that there are 27 words for eyebrow in Albanian. But we only really think this because of our grammar-blindness about Albanian, which can easily form adjectival compounds by joining two words together. […]

[Read more…]

There it’s!

A Linguistic Society of America news release summarizes a forthcoming article in Language, “Syntactic variation and auxiliary contraction: The surprising case of Scots” by Gary Thoms, David Adger, Caroline Heycock, and Jennifer Smith:

Contractions are widespread in English. However, there are certain rules about what can be contracted where–rules that speakers follow without ever having been taught them, and without being consciously aware of them. For example, speakers happily say It’s in the box but not I don’t know where it’s. Such rules seem to apply to every variety of English, whether it be spoken in Philadelphia, London or the Caribbean.

The starting point for the article is the rule that forbids contraction in examples like I don’t know where it’s, which is one of the most exceptionless rules of contraction in English varieties. […] In the article, the authors investigate what looks like a curiously specific exemption from this restriction found in some dialects of Scots: speakers readily allow contraction in examples like Here it’s! or There it’s!, which are used in the context of discoveries or sudden realizations (Where’s my book??? Ah, there it’s!). The authors seek to explain why contraction is possible just in these types of sentences, which they call locative discovery expressions, and only in one specific subpart of the English dialect continuum.

To investigate this, the authors analyzed data from the Scots Syntax Atlas, a new online digital resource for the study of Scots. The atlas provides original data on hundreds of grammatical phenomena from more than 140 locations across Scotland, gathered in face-to-face interviews by community-insider fieldworkers. The authors found out that many varieties of Scots also allow a kind of locative discovery expression where speakers repeat the word there (or here), so they say things like There it’s there!. And it turns out that all speakers who can say There it’s! can also say There it’s there!, but not vice versa.

I’ll spare you the implausible (to me) explanation involving “an unpronounced there after the verb,” but the phenomenon itself is interesting. Thanks, Terry!