Archives for December 2011


Yesterday wood s lot featured the poetry of Helen Mort, hitherto unknown to me, and I liked it a lot; just from the line “the small, white knuckle of a distant farm” you can tell she’s a real poet. (Great name, too.) The first excerpt was “Hermaness,” the start of her sequence “North of Everywhere“:

Last night, my body was a compass needle
drawing me past every place I’d once called North:
past Sheffield’s border lands, the sleeping giant
of Manchester, grey towns en route to Aberdeen
then silently across the waterway to Lerwick
where my bearings ferried me past Baltasound,
the sloughed down moors, past Norwick bay
where waves worry at rock all day.
By nightfall, I’d approached the edge of Unst,
the land curtseying to meet the sea,
a lighthouse with no keeper but a resting gull,
the tide, dragged from a North
I couldn’t even dream. I stopped
and let my heart go on ahead of me.

And I realized that aside from the fine rhythm of the lines, what especially attracted me was the sequence of names: Sheffield, Manchester, Aberdeen, Lerwick, Baltasound… There’s a basic appeal (at least to me) in the unpredictable and often opaque blocks of letters that interrupt the sequence of ideas and images, naming places I’ve never been and can only dimly imagine; that’s one of the pleasures of the oft-maligned Catalog of Ships in Homer. And it reminded me of a poem I liked enough back four decades ago to copy, all forty-four lines of it, into the commonplace book I kept at the time and have managed to hang on to since; I’ll quote the first stanza of Richard Eberhart’s “Will,” from the Saturday Review of March 28, 1970:

[Read more…]


Via Sentence First comes news of a brand-new blog by lexicographer Kory Stamper, harm·less drudg·ery. So far there’s only one post, An Introduction to Harmless Drudgery, but it’s lively enough I’m looking forward to future ones:

I almost literally fell into lexicography: I tripped over a book and landed on the newspaper which held the “Editorial Assistant” want-ad I eventually answered. I had a (fun and tremendously useless) degree in Medieval Studies and worked a menial job that was slowly and steadily killing my will to live. Publishing was a field that held some appeal—not because it was high-paying, glamorous, or easy to get into. It is none of those things.
You see, I love words. I love all of them, even the nasty bastardized ones—yes, I even have a love/hate thing for “irregardless.” Their histories, who they’ve been with, where they came from, where they are going. Reading is not just an escape or a hobby; it is a compulsion. I am that person you see on the subway who, upon finishing her newspaper or magazine, begins carefully reading all the ads and graffiti on the train and then moves on to the receipts in her pockets. If I run out of reading material, I start fidgeting like a coke fiend needing a line or ten. Do not come between me and my words.

I suspect many of us can relate to that.


I recently got a message from a fellow member of MetaFilter saying “Don’t know what you think about Douglas Hofstadter but his address to Stanford [“Analogy as the Core of Cognition”] just came up on my radar…. Wondered what you thought about his insights on language/cognition in that address.” That set me off, and I thought I’d repeat my answer here to see what the assembled multitudes think:

I’ve liked Hofstadter ever since I read GEB many moons ago, and I continue to like him and respect his very interesting mind and ability to present unusual ideas in readily graspable (and enjoyable) ways. However, I’ve gotten increasingly irritated with him over the years as he’s gotten more and more involved with subjects about which he simply doesn’t know enough: linguistics and poetry. Here, I like his thesis that “thinking (at least when isolated from external influences) is a series of leaps involving high-level perception, activation of concepts in long-term memory, transfer to short-term memory, partial and context-dependent unpacking of chunks, and then further high-level perception, and so forth.” That’s the kind of thing he knows about.
But when he writes “the standard model of language that has been built up this century by linguists is hugely impoverished,” he’s simply talking through his hat (just as Wittgenstein is when he attempts to do linguistics without knowing what he’s talking about), and it pisses me off. And I’m getting tired of people recommending Le Ton beau de Marot to me; as far as I’m concerned, it’s an enthusiastic but wrong-headed amateur’s approach to poetry and translation, and the sample of his approach he gives in this article (the stanza of Pushkin) demonstrates his failure. I’ve tried to write about Pushkin’s greatness and untranslatability at LH, e.g. here and here. Obviously people should and will continue to attempt the impossible, with varying degrees of success, but Hofstadter’s version is one of the worst. Of his dreadful “And saw in books no cause for dread;/ Instead, because he never read,” he says: “the internal rhyme of ‘instead’ with ‘dread’ preceding it and with ‘read’ following it somehow carried the day in my mind”; in other words, he’s especially proud of exactly the feature that makes it so terrible. He simply has a tin ear for poetry. No harm in that, many excellent people do, but I wish he’d stop writing about it!
Anyway, as long as he sticks to cognitive science, I have no problem with him, and I thank you for the thought-provoking link…

I will repeat (because I know there are a lot of Hofstadter fans out there) that I am very fond of his writing; he’s a brilliant and funny guy, and I’m glad he exists. And I am happy to agree that he, or anyone, could respond with “Oh yeah? Who says your ear for poetry is better than his? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there’s no accounting for taste, and so’s your old man!” All of which is irrefutable. But being the self-confident fellow I am, I nevertheless stand by my unprovable take on the matter. As always, I welcome all commentary.


A while back, Michele Berdy, who comments here as mab, sent me a copy of her book The Russian Word’s Worth: A Humorous and Informative Guide to Russian Language, Culture, and Translation, thinking I would probably enjoy it—a pretty safe bet, considering that it’s a collection of her Moscow Times columns, which I’ve been plugging here since 2003. I haven’t finished it yet (each column sends me running to the dictionary and the internet), but I thought I’d better post about it in case anyone was looking for a last-minute present for a lover of Russian; I can’t think of a better one. It’s divided into sections called “Life Maintenance,” “Politics as Usual,” “Higher Matters,” “Slang,” etc., and is chock-full of useful information presented stylishly and with a sense of humor. Her modus operandi is to start off with a topic (like goofing off) or a question about how to express a certain idea (like frustration), and then give a bunch of possibilities and examples. Here’s the start of one column:

Time for a pop quiz. For ten points in the category, “Fun Facts About Language,” what do the words complain, pity, grant, salary, pathetic, and welcome have in common? In English—not much. But look at them in Russian: жаловаться, жалость, жаловать, жалование, жалкий, добро пожаловать. Don’t worry if you missed that one—the next question is worth 25 points: how are love and pity related? Answer: in old Russian, and one must presume in old Russia (на старой Руси), they were one and the same.

She goes on to give a history of the word cluster and its associations. On just about every page, I learn something new, even though I’ve been splashing around in the language for quite a while now. I think I can safely say satisfaction is guaranteed.


Via Dave Wilton at Wordorigins comes Is the Print Dictionary Doomed?, the inaugural podcast in Slate’s new “The Afterword” series, in which June Thomas interviews Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, about the new fifth edition. It’s under twenty minutes long (18:43, to be exact) and has all sorts of interesting stuff: new inclusions like asshat, eggcorn, and presenteeism; entries omitted to make room for them, like cassette memory; a paean to etymology, with enticing remarks like “Some of the etymologies are truly expansive”; and the fact that there is a doctor on staff to make the call about which new words for medical procedures should go into the book.
In other dictionary words, I was pleased to learn that the OHD has added the entry bibimbap; not only is it a tasty dish, the word is a joy to utter.


Still reading Hodgson (see this post), I came across a discussion of “the ‘âlam al mithâl, the ‘realm of images’, defined by Suhravardî…. it was placed, metaphysically, between the ordinary material realm of sense perception and the realm of intellectual abstractions found in Aristotelianism…. (Some said the objects in this realm were like reflections in a mirror — extended, like matter, but not material in the ordinary sense.)” This intrigued me, and I was more intrigued a few pages later when he brought in “the transmaterial symbolic land of Hûrqalyâ.” I wondered what the relations between the two were, and some googling quickly told me that a lot of people consider them two names for the same thing; furthermore, they are both identified with barzakh, an Arabic word meaning ‘interval, gap, partition; isthmus’ that is used in Islamic thought for the interval between death and the Day of Resurrection and in a more mystical sense for various liminal states—Julian Baldick, in Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism, talks about the “Perfect Man” who “unites God with the world, not as a bridge but as an interface (barzakh), the imperceptible border between the shadow and the light,” and the blurb for Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Barzakh: The Concept of the Limit and the Relationship between God and the World calls it “the activity or actor that differentiates between things and that, paradoxically, then provides the context of their unity,” and there’s further discussion here. Well, Denis MacEoin, in The Messiah of Shiraz: Studies in Early and Middle Babism, writes:

The barzakh between the spiritual and physical realms is generally referred to in Shaikhī literature as hūrqalyā. The term played an important role in the works of Ahsā’ī, who claimed to have borrowed it from a Syriac word used by the Sabeans (Mandeans) of Iraq…. Mohammad Mo’in, however, has suggested … that it was derived from the Hebrew phrase habal qarnaīm (doppelgänger) and that its correct pronunciation is hawarqalyā.

I don’t have anything useful to say about all of this except that it interests me; rationalist though I am, I can’t help being fascinated by the elaborate structures of thought people have developed to explain the world. And as Hodgson so well says, “We have learned to be very cautious before labelling as absurd any great body of work which intelligent and sensitive human beings have agreed in finding supremely important.”
Needless to say, if anyone has any information or speculation about this stuff, I’ll be glad to hear it, but I realize it’s both esoteric and pretty far removed from standard LH material.


I just tried the Merriam-Webster Vocabulary Quiz (via Anatoly) and found it diverting enough, but one thing vexed me. They told me I was wrong when I chose “lie” rather than “chat” for confabulate, and I was taken aback, because while “lie” is pretty imprecise for what I think of as the meaning of the word (‘create material to fill in gaps in one’s memory’), I have never, to my knowledge, seen or heard anyone use it to mean ‘chat.’ I realize that is the etymological and original meaning (Henry More, “this body and the Stars confabulating together”), but I would have thought it was not part of current usage. I turn therefore to the Varied Reader. Do you talk about confabulating with your friends?


Back in 2005, I welcomed Lameen Souag’s blog Jabal al-Lughat (still going strong!) to the internet, and I singled out for praise his first post, N’Ko, about the alphabet invented by Soulemayne Kante in 1949 for the Manding languages Malinke, Bambara, Dyula, and their dialects. Now there’s a New York Times Magazine article by Tina Rosenberg describing how the digital revolution has affected it:

N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …
Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.

[Read more…]


I was reading about the Hoxne Hoard and of course I wondered how “Hoxne” was pronounced, so I looked it up in my trusty BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names and found it was pronounced as if written “Hoxen.” This surprised but did not shock me, and it’s understandable when you learn that the oldest form of the name is Hoxana (from 1086), though why that perverse -ne spelling (which is very old) was chosen is beyond me.
But while I was looking it up my eye fell on another entry: “Hogsflesh, f.n. [‘hoʊ fleɪ] (hōflay); [‘hɒgzfleʃ] (hogzflesh).” I guess if my family name were Hogsflesh, I’d insist on its being pronounced Hoflay. (See this 2008 thread for people named Death, pronounced De-ATH.)


Deb Roy, Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, gives a talk on how he’s wired his house for video and recorded everything said around his infant son for three years, giving him the ability to analyze (for instance) exactly what enabled him to learn the word water. Then he explains how he used similar techniques to analyze the relationship between everything available on TV and what people say in social media. It’s pretty mind-boggling stuff, and if you have twenty minutes to spare it’s well worth your while. (Thanks, Sven!)