Archives for March 2012


Dennis King wrote me about the Three Monks Project, which is right up my alley, involving as it does Old Irish, humor, and translations into many languages. This page tells the history of the joke, which was printed in English translation in 1892, long before the original Irish turned up, and provides a line-by-line analysis; this one lists all the languages it’s been translated into, and if you click on the link in the fifth (“Ainm an Scéil”) column you’ll be able to read (and, if there’s the appropriate loudspeaker symbol, hear) the translation. Another Good Thing on the Internet! And if you are able to translate the short anecdote into a language they haven’t already got, they’d be pleased as punch about it.


I just read Elizabeth Lowry’s LRB review of One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir by Binyavanga Wainaina, which sounds absolutely wonderful (Alexandra Fuller raved about it in the NY Times last year), and I wanted to quote this section for obvious reasons:

Although Wainaina’s Kenyan father was a Gikuyu, his mother’s family originated in Rwanda and later emigrated to Uganda. The name Binyavanga was given to Wainaina in honour of his maternal grandfather. In Kenya its obvious foreignness sets him apart as being exotic; he confesses that ‘an imaginary Ugandan of some kind resides in me, one who lets me withhold myself from claiming, or being admitted into, without hesitation, an unquestioning Gikuyu belonging.’ Despite having lived most of her adult life in Kenya, Wainaina’s mother, too, is depicted in his memoir as remaining somehow outside her adopted country, able to slip fluidly from one identity to another. The Wainaina family gets by in a mixture of languages: Luganda, Kinyarwanda, Gikuyu, English and Kiswahili, and the children all have English as well as African first names (Binyavanga’s is Kenneth, and to his embarrassment his mother insists on calling him KenKen). …
There are other languages and places, other possible selves, circulating in Wainaina’s childhood. The national catchphrase, exhorting Kenyans to overlook their tribal differences, is harambee or ‘pulling together’, but ‘Ki-may’ is the cheeky name Wainaina invents as a boy for those indigenous languages which are incomprehensible to him: ‘Ki-may is any language that I cannot speak, but I hear every day in Nakuru: Ki-kuyu, Ki-Kamba, Ki-Ganda, Ki-sii, Gujarati, Ki-Nyarwanda, (Ki) Ru-fumbira. Ki-May. There are so many, I get dizzy.’ The young Binyavanga is a fan of Billy Ocean, the Jackson Five and The Six Million Dollar Man, and the early chapters are full of ebullient Americanisms. He even invents a verb, ‘wreng wreng’, to describe the nasal way he speaks when he is in Six Million Dollar Man mode: ‘“Steve. Austin. A me-aan brrely alive,” I wreng wreng Americanly. “Gennlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the tek-nalagee. We can build the world’s frrrrst bi-anic man.”’

His family sends him to South Africa to study business, but: “He spends his days in bed with the door locked and the curtains drawn, eating pilchards from the tin while reading Saul Bellow and Nadine Gordimer, restocking addictively on books at a second-hand bookshop.” I think many of us can identify with that.

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The mail carrier recently delivered an Amazon package containing a gift from jamessal, a copy of The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst. I set it aside till I had finished my latest copyediting slog, as a reward, and now that I’ve started it I can immediately see why Jim called Hollinghurst “a world-class writer” and wanted to share the book with me. Here are the first two paragraphs (virtually the entire first page):

She’d been lying in the hammock reading poetry for over an hour. It wasn’t easy: she was thinking all the while about George coming back with Cecil, and she kept sliding down, in small half-willing surrenders, till she was in a heap, with the book held tiringly above her face. Now the light was going, and the words began to hide among themselves on the page. She wanted to get a look at Cecil, to drink him in for a minute before he saw her, and was introduced, and asked her what she was reading. But he must have missed his train, or at least his connection: she saw him pacing the long platform at Harrow and Wealdstone, and rather regretting he’d come. Five minutes later, as the sunset sky turned pink above the rockery, it began to seem possible that something worse had happened. With sudden grave excitement she pictured the arrival of a telegram, and the news being passed round; imagined weeping pretty wildly; then saw herself describing the occasion to someone, many years later, though still without quite deciding what the news had been.
In the sitting-room the lamps were being lit, and through the open window she could hear her mother talking to Mrs. Kalbeck, who had come to tea, and who tended to stay, having no one to get back for. The glow across the path made the garden suddenly lonelier. Daphne slipped out of the hammock, put on her shoes, and forgot about her books. She started towards the house, but something in the time of day held her, with its hint of a mystery she had so far overlooked: it drew her down the lawn, past the rockery, where the pond that reflected the trees in silhouette had grown as deep as the white sky. It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely, a rose, a begonia, a glossy laurel leaf, seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour.

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Arika Okrent (LH’s favorite invented-language maven) alerted me to the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, whose theme is “Means of Communication.” Not only does it have her own piece, “Body Language” (“From the wave to the shrug to the digitus impudicus, Arika Okrent breaks down the history and the subtleties of the ways we gesture”), which I urge you to read, but there’s plenty more (including Ben Zimmer’s “Word for Word” on Roget’s thesaurus and, alas, the egregious Simon Winchester on the Dictionary of Regional American English); Maria Popova, at her blog Brain Pickings, has excerpted a couple of nice bits from the printed version, How Famous Words Originated, According to the Historical Oxford English Dictionary and Oh, My Hand: Complaints Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Illuminated Manuscripts. Enjoy!


Back in 2004 I posted about the bizarre-looking hatmaking device called a conformateur; most of the links are now dead, and they weren’t that informative anyway, so I am now linking to Oh Joy! My Conformateur, by hatter Tricia Roush, explaining how she got hold of “something that’s been on my ‘fantasy hat making’ list for a long time- a conformateur set. … They’re quite rare to find, and almost never seen with more than one piece of a set together.” She provides all the pictures, diagrams, and explanations you could possibly want, including the all-important formillon, which uses a paper pattern to recreate the customer’s head shape. If only I had a a pattern with my name on it at a hat store!
And if that doesn’t sate your hunger for hat-related links, here’s a Guide to Buying a Top Hat by Charles Henry Wolfenbloode, explaining and illustrating all the main types. (Don’t allow yourself to be suckered into getting a non-collapsible shiny fabric shell hat, “a pale imitation of a collapsible topper” that “should be avoided at all costs.”) There’s an extensive glossary at the end (coodle: a shellac based paste used in the process of making goss; goss: linen, cotton calico or chessecloth that has been soaked in coodle and left to cure for a few months on a frame; used to make the shell of top hats). Thanks, LobsterMitten!


I’m betting few readers under, say, fifty know anything about diagramming sentences, but my generation had to do it a lot in elementary school; it was one of the basic ways we were taught to understand our own language, and compared to a lot of the claptrap people are taught under that rubric, it was surprisingly useful. Perhaps also surprisingly, for me, my wife, and apparently quite a few other people, it was actually fun. This NY Times blog entry by Kitty Burns Florey tells the story of how it was created in 1847, which was new to me:

The curious art of diagramming sentences was invented 165 years ago by S.W. Clark, a schoolmaster in Homer, N.Y. … Stephen Watkins Clark was the principal at the Cortland Academy, where he also taught English. Like many schoolmasters, he was frustrated trying to beat proper grammar into the heads of his students by means of parsing. Mr. Clark was not the first reformer to identify its problems, but he was the first to solve them by arranging the parts of a sentence into diagrams. He didn’t consider the idea particularly radical. As he notes in his preface, making the abstract rules of language into pictures was like using maps in a geography book or graphs in geometry.

Read Florey’s post to discover the horrors of parsing and see the evolution of diagramming from Clark’s awkward bubbles to the simple and pleasing branching lines we codgers came to know and love. (Thanks, Bonnie!)
Update. Mark Liberman has posted on this at the Log; a number of commenters there have fond memories of the practice, and Arika Okrent wrote: “Measuring emotional response to sentence diagramming tasks in children would be a good diagnostic tool for identifying future linguists.” Andrew Dalke said he had learned sentence diagramming in Miami in 1983/4:

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A Boston Globe article by Ben Zimmer traces the word “jazz” back to a Los Angeles Times story from 1912. It starts:

One hundred years ago, a hard-throwing but erratic minor league pitcher named Ben Henderson was getting ready for his opening day start for the Portland Beavers against the Los Angeles Angels. Henderson had pitched well for the Beavers the previous year, but he began the 1912 season with a well-earned reputation as an unreliable drunk.
Henderson gave a Los Angeles Times reporter a preview of what he had planned for the game. “I got a new curve this year,” he explained, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The headline for the item, from April 2, 1912, was simply “Ben’s Jazz Curve.”

Ben goes on to describe how the term spread after that. A nice read in this spring training month.


Several people have sent me links to Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle Review piece on Daniel Everett’s attempt to demolish Noam Chomsky’s hegemonic linguistic theory and the messy academic battle that has ensued. I wrote about Everett here, and anyone who’s been reading LH for a while will know that I root for anyone going up against Chomsky and his minions, but I must confess that my acquaintance with the current state of linguistics is so scanty that I do not have an informed opinion on the details of the argument. I have seen it said that Everett is attacking a long-abandoned form of the theory, that nobody any longer believes what Chomsky used to say about recursion, etc. But I will quote a section that illustrates why I despise what Chomsky has done to a once collegial field:

Critics haven’t just accused Everett of inaccurate analysis. He’s the sole authority on a language that he says changes everything. If he wanted to, they suggest, he could lie about his findings without getting caught. Some were willing to declare him essentially a fraud. That’s what one of the authors of the 2009 paper, Andrew Nevins, now at University College London, seems to believe. When I requested an interview with Nevins, his reply read, “I may be being glib, but it seems you’ve already analyzed this kind of case!” Below his message was a link to an article I had written about a Dutch social psychologist who had admitted to fabricating results, including creating data from studies that were never conducted. In another e-mail, after declining to expand on his apparent accusation, Nevins wrote that the “world does not need another article about Dan Everett.”
In 2007, Everett heard reports of a letter signed by Cilene Rodrigues, who is Brazilian, and who co-wrote the paper with Pesetsky and Nevins, that accuses him of racism. According to Everett, he got a call from a source informing him that Rodrigues, an honorary research fellow at University College London, had sent a letter to the organization in Brazil that grants permission for researchers to visit indigenous groups like the Pirahã. He then discovered that the organization, called FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, would no longer grant him permission to visit the Pirahã, whom he had known for most of his adult life and who remain the focus of his research.
He still hasn’t been able to return.

Chomsky has remained magisterially in the background and refused to comment, but his minions are behaving in a way more appropriate to a down-and-dirty political campaign than to an academic disagreement. In a sense, the facts of the language are irrelevant; the way the dispute is carried on speaks volumes.
Update. See now Geoff Pullum’s excellent summary of the case.


I read and enjoyed Mrs Dalloway many years ago, and started To the Lighthouse, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it—I was too much in thrall to plot, to nineteenth-century narrative, the primitive satisfactions of the story. Here was a boy resenting his father for spoiling his excitement over going to the lighthouse the next day, and his mother trying to comfort him, and a lot of (to me tedious) parsing of how one character felt about another, and I gave up on it. Now (having grown up and read Proust) I’ve finally gotten back to it and finished it, and am very glad I did; it’s the modernist classic it’s cracked up to be, full of formal innovation and brilliant language and an acute vision of how people see the world and each other. I’ll be reading it again. I can’t help but wonder what Nabokov would have said about it; as far as I know he only read Orlando (not one of my favorites), and he called that a “first-class example of poshlost’.” I’d like to think he would have seen what a fine novel it is—after all, he shared Woolf’s hatred of novels that preach and of tyrants and dictators (and of the modernist writers who fell for them and their lurid isms), and like her he despised patriotism in the “my country right or wrong” sense but loved the landscape and customs of his native land—but I fear he, a patriarch himself, would have felt too threatened by her pitiless dissection of the egotism and unwitting repressiveness of the traditional patriarch, and her linkage of that figure with violence and war.

I’m making it sound like a tract, but it’s all done with imagery, with exactly the kind of close vision and use of verbal repetition that Nabokov himself deployed so well. Take one small example, the use of “purple.” Early on in the book, Mrs. Ramsay (we never learn her given name) is reading “The Fisherman and His Wife” to her son (the Russian version is Pushkin’s Сказка о рыбаке и рыбке), a fable of the insatiability of human greed in which the wife keeps sending the fisherman back to ask the flounder (Grass’s Butt) for more and more and every time he goes back the sea is less placid: “And when he came to the sea the water was quite purple and dark blue, and grey and thick, and no longer so green and yellow…” A few pages later, Lily Briscoe (the central character of the novel) is trying to paint the house from outside and another character asks “What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’?” “It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James, she said. She knew his objection—that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness, she said.” Then, much later, in the amazing central section of the novel, “Time Passes,” in which World War I is presented from the vantage point of the abandoned summer house on Skye (“But slumber and sleep though it might there came later in the summer ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt, which, with their repeated shocks still further loosened the shawl and cracked the teacups…”), there is a paragraph starting “At that season those who had gone down to pace the beach and ask of the sea and sky what message they reported or what vision they affirmed…” that includes this sentence: “There was the silent apparition of an ashen-coloured ship for instance, come, gone; there was a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath.” And in the final section, James, who had been a child read to by his mother at the start and is now a resentful teenager out on a boat with his domineering father, is trying to analyze his feelings for the man he both hates and identifies with:

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John Cowan sent me a link to the Sound Change Applier at (which, I see, has a snazzy new front page since last time I visited; if you’re not familiar with Mark Rosenfelder’s multifarious site, you should spend some time there—scroll down for the amazing variety of pages on languages, science, comics, and goodness knows what all). I’m swamped with work and don’t have time to play with it right now, but as John says, it’s “really clever: type in some definitions of character classes, some context-sensitive rules, and a lexicon, and see what happens to the lexicon when the rules are applied.” (If you click the Apply button without changing the sound change rules, it changes the Latin words to Portuguese.)