Archives for December 2002


This introduction to Sophocles’ Antigone includes an excellent discussion of the problems of translation. Here’s a paragraph on the opening line (discussed in a previous Languagehat post):

From the first line, the translator confronts the abyss separating Sophocles’ Greek from English. Our translation, “O common one of the same womb, dear head of Ismene” uses eleven words for five of the original. An endearment like “dear heart, Ismene” would be more readily understood than “head of Ismene” but with a false familiarity: the Greeks spoke of the head, not the heart, as the center of love and affection. Richard Jebb’s translation, “Ismene, my sister, mine own dear sister,” forfeits the slight delay in discovering the identity of the addressee and dilutes the hyperbolic expression of kinship.(2) Elizabeth Wyckoff’s “My sister, my Ismene” and Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald’s “Ismene, a dear sister” further diminish the urgency perceptible in the words of kinship. Kinship is emphasized in Andrew Brown’s “Sisters, closest of kindred, Ismene’s self ” and in Richard Emil Braun’s “Ismene? Let me see your face,” although “Ismene’s self ” is no more English idiom than the literal “head of Ismene,” and looking upon Ismene’s face is not in the Greek. Robert Fagles’ “My own flesh and blood–dear sister, dear Ismene” highlights the physicality of the kinship Antigone asserts with Ismene at the price of abandoning the Greek. “Ismene, my dear sister whose father was my father” (Grene) stresses the notion of the sisters’ kinship shared through the father, an emphasis on father that not only is not in the Greek but imports father into words that denote kinship through the womb. Each version of line 1 promises a faithful translation, but they are not the same English, since the translator cannot escape imposing his or her layer of meaning upon Antigone of the written page.


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


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.


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.)


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.]


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


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.”


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.]


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.


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.