Archives for October 2007


I’ve just read Adam Gopnik’s typically charming and insightful essay “The Corrections: Of abridgments, commentaries, and art” in the latest (Oct. 22) New Yorker, and I heartily recommend it to you if you have the physical magazine—alas, it is not online. But there is a sentence that is probably yet another sign that I am irrevocably behind the times when it comes to ever-changing English grammar. Here it is:

The tale of how the guy who played Superman on a cheap, forgotten TV series shot himself lacks the grip of tragedy, even pop tragedy, which demands, after all, that the hero once counted.

(He is discussing Hollywoodland, “the intelligent, brilliantly acted… yet unbelievably dull story of how the fifties television Superman, George Reeves, killed himself or was killed in a very minor Hollywood scandal.”) Now, in my dialect, the verb demand requires the pathetic remnant of what was once the English subjunctive: I demand that you go, He demanded that she be executed, or in this case which demands that the hero once have counted. Does Gopnik’s version sound perfectly acceptable and mine stodgy and archaic, or do you share my sense of what demand demands? (If the latter, do you too get regular solicitations from AARP?)


Jeremy Osner of READIN is trying to translate Novalis’ “Hymns to the Night” (see here, here, here, and here) and says “I’m trying to put together a new translation of “Hymns to the Night”, an updated version of MacDonald’s translation, which is more than a hundred years old now and sounds a little stilted to me. I set up an engine for a collaborative translation effort (since I am myself neither a fluent speaker of German nor a student of Romantic literature) here — if you or any of your readers want to make suggestions I would love to hear them.” So if that sounds like fun, head on over and help out.
Something completely different: this blog is devoted to the French equivalent of “asshole,” the sale con; this post invites comments on how to say it in Québec (the suggested equivalent is chien sale).


Jed Hartman used to write “a fortnightly column on words and wordplay” called Words and Stuff (archives). It hasn’t been updated in over four years, but there’s lots of interesting material there, for instance a column using only monosyllables (“This week’s screed is writ in words of just one beat”) and one on names for winds. (Via MetaFilter.)
Jed also has an “online journal,” what the kids today are calling a blog, called Lorem Ipsum, that is still being updated. We all know about “lorem ipsum,” right?


According to flynn999 in this Wordorigins thread:

If you’re just saying someone is ginger-haired or ginger, factually, without any intended insult both g’s are pronounced soft (jin-jer). If you are being insulting it can be pronounced with a hard g and no soft g sound in the middle (ging-er, like singer), but by no means always or even the majority of the time, and its quite new. (I’ve taken to calling my tortoiseshell and white cat Ging Ging (like Sing Sing)). Its almost always more of a joke, though obviously some people can use it to be seriously nasty or bitchy

The learned Dr. Techie says “it sounds rather improbable,” and aldiboronti (a Brit) says “I’ve never heard a hard ‘g’ pronunciation in my life for any sense of the word.” As always, I turn to my readership for enlightenment: are any of you familiar with this alleged ginger-rhymes-with-singer pronunciation?


Actually, the Day itself was the 16th, but I’ve just found out about it, and an excellent perk—free access to Oxford Language Dictionaries Online—is available through this weekend (15-21 October 2007). So if you want to rummage around in the lexicons of French, German, Italian, and Spanish, now’s your opportunity.
And while I was at OUPblog, I found Ben Zimmer’s post Are We Giving Free Rei(g)n to New Spellings?, in which he explains why and how dictionaries add “incorrect” spellings like “vocal chords” and “free reign.” It may surprise you (if you are, like me, American) to learn that “the vocal chords variant has long been accepted in the United Kingdom (along with other anatomical uses like spinal chord)” and that the chords spelling is actually attested two years earlier than the “correct” one. As Ben says, “One generation’s ‘common error’ … can be the next generation’s accepted variant, and this is where we rely on the Oxford English Corpus to give us a snapshot of how usage is shifting.” It’s a good read. Oh, and he has a post on Dictionary Day too, with lots of historical tidbits.


Like having fun with words? Like feeding people (even if on a tiny scale)? Head right over to Free Rice and start playing. They give you a word with four possible definitions; pick the right one and they donate ten grains of rice to a hungry person through an aid agency. (Don’t say “why don’t they just give the rice,” because the rice is funded through ad revenue which they get by hits, and each time you move to the next page of choices they get another hit and can buy more rice. No game, no views, no ad revenue, no rice.) As you get words right, you move up to higher levels; the highest is Level 50, and I’ve managed to stay there for fairly long periods… but then they stump me with a word like nisus (yes, I should have studied harder in Latin class) and I drop back down. I found it at MetaFilter, and as a commenter said there, “I’m sure the people who put this together had fun.. one of the (incorrect) choices for the meaning of ‘cockloft’ was ‘womb’.” I responded “Yeah, I think that’s why this is so much fun: the people who created it really care about words and have a sneaky sense of humor. Most ‘word game’ sites use stupid words and/or definitions and pall quickly.” Give it a try, but don’t blame me if it eats up your morning.


I’ve had a stack of books I want to write about sitting here for weeks—all right, months—glaring at me, peeking from behind my computer and making me feel guilty. Well, I’ve got excuses, what with the moving and the editing and what have you, but it’s time to move on and start whittling away the stack. With no further ado, let me introduce Substantific Marrow, by frequent LH commenter John Emerson, proprietor of the consistently interesting site Idiocentrism.

If you like Idiocentrism (go on over and check it out), you’ll like this book. It puts on display the extraordinarily wide range of John’s interests, from literature (“Madame Bovary as Train Wreck,” “Third-world Joyce,” “Square Ibsen,” Aucassin et Nicolette) to philosophy (Wittgenstein, Descartes, Parmenides, et al) to Americana (“The Muskogee / Waukesha / Bismarck Triangle,” “W. C. Fields and the American Family”) to probably his most enduring passion, the complex network of links between Northern Europe, the Silk Road, and the Far East, involving such things as the putative connection between Turkish qayiq and Inuit qayaq (see this LH post) and the wanderings of Edward Ætheling (who died, probably murdered, before he could take over the throne of England and avert the Norman Conquest).

Don’t be fooled by self-deprecating remarks like “At one time I hoped to work these concepts into a coherent argument, but increasingly it seems that my works will consist mostly of the interesting scraps of citations which I have succeeded in accumulating in the course of my wasted life” (from “Parmenides in Szechuan”). He does find wonderful quotes (“So protracted was [Darwin’s] barnacle study that his children assumed it was the normal occupation of every father: When one of Darwin’s young sons visits a neighbor’s home, he asks his friend there, ‘Where does your father work on his barnacles?'”), but his arguments, conjoining tidbits of history you never knew about or never thought of relating to each other and suggesting contacts and influences standard history knows not of, take side roads that tend to be far more enlivening than the well-trodden highway that bored us in high school. If you’re going to read about Aristotle, would you rather it be in the context of analytics and the five elements or the sex life of molluscs? I thought so.

His credo is “To me studies of concrete particulars (history, geography, philology) are infinitely more interesting than their theoretical explanations, and the fully-theorized studies (marginalist economics, analytic philosophy, ‘literary studies’) are abominations,” and I happily subscribe to it. If you prefer shiny and unusual facts and suggestions to the dull coin of Standard Theories, this is the book for you. And he’s promised more, including one on Inner Eurasian history that I’m very eager to read.

In case you’re wondering about the title, it’s from Rabelais:

Following the dog’s example, you will have to be wise in sniffing, smelling, and estimating these fine and meaty books; swiftness in the chase and boldness in the attack are what is called for; after which, by careful reading and frequent meditation, you should break the bone and suck the substantific marrow.


[The following is another nugget from the stash of decade-old papers where I found the Mandelstam translation I posted yesterday; I originally sent it as an e-mail in late 1995 to my old friend Holt. The context is the argument among linguists over the phonemic system of Kabardian; some people thought it had only one vowel, others that it didn’t have any at all (see discussion here). Yes, the humor is silly and obvious, but it still gives me a chuckle, so I’m posting it.]

Obviously you are not au courant with developments in the Western North Caucasus, which is understandable, since what attention is left over from the Middle East, the Balkans, and Newt Gingrich has gone in recent years to the Southeastern South Caucasus, the Northwestern South Caucasus, the Central South Caucasus, and of course of late the Eastern North Caucasus. Frankly, the Western North Caucasus has not been much in the news the last couple of hundred years. But I digress.

The fact is that for some time now the Sacred Vowel has not been brought out of the temple and shown unto the people, as was strictly required by He Who Loosened the Tongue of Mankind and Taught Them to Curdle Goat’s Milk (in Kabardian, Pshchtskrekhlkhdmkhrt). Instead, an allegedly faithful replica has been exhibited, while the authorities in Nalchik have claimed that the original is being kept in a temperature-controlled vault to avoid further wear and tear on a vowel that is, after all, many millennia old and not easily replaced.

However, the story does not end there—this is the Caucasus, after all. For years the rumor has been circulating in Kabardino-Balkaria (and before that in the Kabardino-Balkarian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and it was not unknown to the Karachaev-Cherkessk Autonomous Region) that the vowel was not in a vault at all (a supposition strengthened by the fact that the nearest temperature-controlled vault not run by Armenians was in Moscow), but was in the personal possession of Samuil Samuilovich Kshkhbzhmeshchkmov, long-time party chairman of the KBASSRCP and now unquestioned boss of Kabardino-Balkaria, granted what amounts to de facto autonomy by Moscow in return for surreptitious support of the South Ossetians (not to mention quite open participation in the Russian contingent aiding the Abkhaz separatist movement; the Kabardians have so far managed to avoid taking sides in the Chechen conflict, citing a proverb to the effect that “The Terek and the Cherek [rivers] are like the goat and the camel” and plying suspicious Russian ethnographic experts with arak until they quit asking for elucidation). Kshkhbzhmeshchkmov, known familiarly to his people as “Smlsk,” is said to bring out the vowel at wild parties, performing antics that leave even his faithful retainers muttering ancient apotropaic formulae. Although the Kabardians are a fairly stolid lot and unlikely to rebel even with such provocation, it should be remembered that the vowel is sacred to the Circassians as well, a fierce people that, even though much reduced in the 19th century by defections to Turkey, is still capable of causing havoc if roused.

It is possible, however, that the potential crisis may soon fade into the realm of the might-have-been. Conservative as they are, the peoples of the Western North Caucasus have not remained unaffected by the onslaught of modernity, and it is beginning to be said among the younger generation that there never was a Sacred Vowel at all, and that the annual exhibition is an embarrassing relic of bygone days that interferes with the transition to capitalism and prosperity. Saparmurad Niyazov has promised the Turkmens “a Mercedes in every yurt,” and the Kabardians feel they deserve no less. It will be ironic if, by the turn of the millennium, cheap replicas of the Sacred Vowel are being hawked to tourists in Zalukokoazhe and Baksan while the precious original is moldering in a cellar, nosed by the occasional stoat and forgotten by mankind.


In the woods are orioles: the length of vowels
in tonic verses is the only measure.
But only once each year does nature lavish out
lagniappe duration, as in Homer’s metrics.
Like a caesura yawns this day; since morning
there have been peace and arduous longueurs,
oxen in pastures, and a golden languor
out of a reed extracts a whole note’s riches.
  —Osip Mandelstam, summer 1914

[Read more…]


Sally Thomason at Language Log has an excellent post taking issue with a confused article by W. Tecumseh Fitch on the history of linguistics, which claimed (in Sally’s summary) that “historical linguistics failed because its main practitioners had nutty ideas, so that it had to be replaced by the truly scientific linguistics of Noam Chomsky and his followers.” This got my hackles up for any number of reasons, and Sally does a superb job of demolishing it; anyone interested in intellectual history should read her post. This paragraph reawakened in me the impact—not just intellectual but emotional (it was almost like falling in love)—of learning about all this as I was in the process of deciding linguistics was what I wanted to do, several decades ago:

In 1879, still a student, Saussure published his famous Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Thesis on the primitive system of vowels in the Indo-European languages). This is the initial proposal of the theory that later came to be known as Laryngeal Theory. The significance of Saussure’s proposal (formulated when he was all of about 20 years old!) is hardly confined to Indo-European (IE) linguistics. It was in fact the first major structural analysis of a language in Western linguistics — the language, in this case, being Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of the many IE languages. Saussure took the extraordinarily messy and numerous patterns of IE vowel alternations, the so-called ablaut alternations, and reconstructed a much neater and simpler system for PIE by hypothesizing the existence of three consonants that had not survived into any of the then-known IE languages, ancient or modern. He could not have done this if he had not started with a profoundly structural notion of the language system; and the structural notion itself, though it was developed in a dramatic way by Saussure, was prefigured by the Neogrammarian breakthrough, the regularity hypothesis of sound change — which also makes sense only if language is viewed as inherently systematic.

This stuff should be as well (if vaguely) known to the public at large as Einstein’s theory of relativity (not to mention Freud’s pseudoscientific ideas); language is, after all, closer to us than the stars, and of more immediate importance in our lives than the speed of light.
Her followup, on Fitch’s misunderstanding of how language change works, is also worth reading. But I find the use of red for cited words annoying, and I imagine color-blind people would find it even more so (and there are probably browsers where it doesn’t show up as intended); why not use italics like everybody else?