Archives for December 2013

Blame Chomsky!

I was just wondering what to post when this link showed up in my inbox (thanks, Maureen!): Harry Ritchie of The Guardian saying “It’s time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English”:

Did you see that great documentary on linguistics the other night? What about that terrific series on Radio 4 about the Indo-European language family tree? Or that news report on language extinction? It is strange that none of those programmes happened, or has ever happened: it’s not as if language is an arcane subject. …

There is, of course, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct – a bestseller that seems to have ticked the box for publishers and public alike as the book on linguistics. But The Language Instinct has a very specific agenda – to support Noam Chomsky’s theories about our language skills being innate; other areas of linguistics are glimpsed, if at all, fuzzily in the background.

I’m not blaming Pinker. He ultimately failed to justify his title, but he did reach a keen, large audience with a well-written book fizzing with ideas and examples. I’m blaming someone else, the person who, inexplicably, doesn’t exist – who should have written the book revealing how Pinker was so wrong and had a ding-dong with him on Newsnight; the ambitious, good-looking academic, who possibly had a spell in an indie band, with his or her own 13-part series about language on BBC2.

Of course, he’s plugging his own book, but it’s music to my ears, and when he goes on to blame my own favorite whipping boy, Chomsky… well, my heart swelled two sizes. There’s nothing new in the piece (and he gets a little carried away at times, talking about “the Proto-Indo-Europeans, that mysterious tribe whose homeland was recently located north of the Caspian Sea in about 3,300 BC”), but it’s an enjoyable read, and it’s my end-of-year present to the Varied Reader. A happy 2014 to you all!


In my reading of The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin, I’ve gotten to Chapter 5 (“The Russians and Gallipoli”), which starts with the following epigraph:

All solutions [to the Straits question] must remain precarious and incomplete, unless Constantinople, the western bank of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles, along with the Thracian plain as far as the Enos-Median lines, are not permanently incorporated into the Russian Empire.

—Ambassador Maurice Paléologue, March 1915, passing on the views of [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazonov and Tsar Nicholas II.

Now, that makes no sense, and the obvious solution is to remove the word “not.” Sure enough, the original French says:

Toute solution serait insuffisante et précaire si la ville de Constantinople, la rive occidentale du Bosphore, de la mer de Marmara et des Dardanelles ainsi que la Thrace méridionale jusqu’à la ligne Enos-Midia n’étaient désormais incorporées à l’Empire de Russie.

French si … ne “unless” (like Russian если не) incorporates a negative that must be discarded in English unless you want to render it “if … not.” Here, the translator has fallen between two stools and reversed the sense. (There are other problems with this version as well: in the French, unlike the translation, it is clear that “the western bank” applies to the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles as well as to the Bosphorus, and “the Enos-Median lines” should be “the Enos-Midia line,” Midia [Turkish Midye] being the older name of modern Kıyıköy on the Black Sea. Quite a sloppy job.)

Update: I just found this similar example later in the chapter: “Sazonov told the generals it would be ‘undesirable that the historic task of banishing the Turks from Tsargrad not occur without our participation.'” The footnote references this to a document in a Russian archive, so I think we have to assume the superfluous and confusing “not” was retained in translation here (and presumptively in the epigraph as well) by McMeekin himself. Bad dog!

True-Blue Singaporean Slangs.

I’ve written about the wonderful linguistic stew they cook up in Singapore here and here, and now (courtesy of John Emerson’s Facebook feed) I bring you Joshua Goh’s TSL Magazine post “20 Slangs Only A True Blue Singaporean Will Know.” It’s a lot of fun (if probably not safe for work); I just have one question: why is 5. 几点了 (What Time Already) not transliterated like all the rest? (If you happen to know how it’s said in Hokkienese/Singaporean, I’m all ears.)


A reader who lives in the UK and is trying to learn Dutch sent me a link to Mokums: Typisch Amsterdam, explaining that “Mokum is the Dutch / Yiddish nickname for Amsterdam.” Sure enough, there’s a Wikipedia article about it, where you can find out more:

Mokum (מקום) is the Yiddish word for “place” or “safe haven”. It is similar to the Hebrew word makom (מקום, “place”), from which it is derived. In Yiddish the names of some cities in the Netherlands and Germany were shortened to Mokum and had the first letter of the name of the city, transliterated into the Hebrew alphabet, added to them. Cities named this way were Amsterdam, Berlin, Delft, and Rotterdam. Mokum, without Aleph, is still used as a nickname for Amsterdam.

One of those cultural tidbits I love to know about, and those who read Dutch will find the site of interest. Thanks, Richard!

Ambrose Bierce.

Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard has a good piece about the writer I called “the great Bierce” in this LH post from a few years ago; the occasion is the centennial of Bierce’s departure for a fate that is still unknown, and it’s a useful introduction for those unfamiliar with the writer. What surprises me is how widespread such unfamiliarity appears to be:

“We have produced but one genuine wit,” H. L. Mencken wrote, in a survey of American letters: “Ambrose Bierce. And save to a small circle he is unknown today.” Mencken was writing decades after Bierce had gone off to Mexico, by which time his life was best remembered for the way he had left it. And the circle of those who read him is even smaller now, needless to say. When the Library of America finally got around to issuing a canonical selection of his writing, in 2011, the single volume (Philip Roth got nine!) was relatively slender; it was the 219th in the library’s series of great American writers. …

The problem with “writers’ writers”—as many readers have discovered—is that they are seldom “readers’ writers.” It depends on the readers as much as the writers, of course, and today’s readers might find they have caught up to Bierce’s jaded view of war, politics, romantic love, religion, family life, and nearly everything else. When he is remembered these days it is usually for the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which, until recently, was one of a handful of short stories—along with “The Lottery,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” “To Build a Fire,” and a few others—that no student could escape an American high school without having pretended to read.

“Until recently”? Do students really no longer have to read those classic stories? (Insert laudator temporis acti rant here.) Another passage that gave me a start of — not surprise exactly, but recognition of a previously unassimilated fact:

As the best of his biographers, Roy Morris Jr., has pointed out, he was the only American writer of any consequence to fight in the war. The future men of letters of his generation managed somehow to be elsewhere when the bodies began piling up. William Dean Howells spent the 1860s in Venice. Twain, after a fortnight with the Confederate Army, went as far west as he could get. And the two Henrys, James and Adams, watched the carnage from afar, Adams from London, and James from the killing fields of Harvard Yard.

The whole thing is worth reading. Thanks, Paul!

How You Guys Talk.

A surprisingly well done NY Times dialect quiz:

Most of the questions used in this quiz are based on those in the Harvard Dialect Survey, a linguistics project begun in 2002 by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. The original questions and results for that survey can be found on Dr. Vaux’s current website.

The data for the quiz and maps shown here come from over 350,000 survey responses collected from August to October 2013 by Josh Katz, a graphics editor for the New York Times who developed this quiz. The colors on the large heat map correspond to the probability that a randomly selected person in that location would respond to a randomly selected survey question the same way that you did. The three smaller maps show which answer most contributed to those cities being named the most (or least) similar to you.

Pretty much everybody who’s tried it (and is from the U.S.) is struck by how accurate it is; I expected to bamboozle it, since I’m from nowhere in particular, but it pegged me as from the Los Angeles area, and since that’s where my father’s side of the family (originally from the Ozarks) moved to before I was born and thus where I spent a lot of time on home leave as a kid, as well as where I went to college, it’s probably the biggest single formative element in my way of speaking. Thanks to Bill, Paul, and anyone else who may have sent me the link!

Xmas Loot 2013.

Once again we had the family over, and once again I’m pretty beat, so without further ado, the presents of LH interest (there was also some nice scotch):

Melville: His World and Work, by Andrew Delbanco
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard
A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period, by William M. Schniedewind
The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin
We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity, by Anindita Banerjee
And for you movie fans:
Early Fassbinder (Criterion Collection)

I’m looking forward to all of them; my hearty thanks to the generous givers.  And to all my readers, in the words of Trond Engen at AJP’s place: God jul til folk og fe [Merry Christmas to people and animals]!

The Cat’s Mother.

A couple of years ago, Grammarphobia had a post on an intriguing usage with which I was unfamiliar:

There was a time when a child could get a scolding for using the word “she” instead of a name, especially if the “she” (often an older person, like one’s mother) was present.

And the scolding might have consisted of “Who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother?”

They provide the OED citations:

“Don’t call your mamma ‘she.’ ‘She’ is a cat” (from The Beth Book, by Frances Macfall, writing as Sarah Grand, 1897).

“ ‘Who’s She?’ demanded Nurse. ‘She’s the cat’s mother’ ” (from Compton Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street, 1913).

“ ‘She said so.’ Jane looked superior. ‘She, my boy, is the cat’s mother’ ” (from The Painted Garden, by Noel Streatfeild, 1949).

“To one who keeps saying ‘she’ in an impolite manner the reproof is: ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’ ” (from The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, by Iona and Peter Opie, 1959).

“Who’s she? The cat’s grandmother?” (from Nanny Says, by Sir Hugh Casson and Joyce Grenfell, 1972).

And they end with the question, which I second: “Is all this merely quaint nostalgia by now, or do parents still reprimand their children for using ‘she’ impolitely?” Are you familiar with this time-honored reproof?

Peer Pressure.

David Marsh has an entertaining column in The Guardian about house style with regard to the peerage, beginning with the question: “Which of these (hypothetical, I emphasise) sentences do you think works better? Baron Hall of Birkenhead has invited The Lord Lloyd-Webber, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho and Baron Foster of Thames Bank to star in a Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special. Tony Hall has invited Andrew Lloyd Webber, Martha Lane Fox and Norman Foster to star in a Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special.” He hopes we will agree that “while the first does have a kind of absurdist entertainment value, the second is more effective in communicating who and what we are actually talking about, which in a newspaper is quite important.” But it’s not easy. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

Our policy for several years has been that when referring to peers we call them simply Lord Emsworth, say, at first mention, and thereafter simply Emsworth. But the policy is impossible to apply consistently and credibly. Lord Hall, for example, the BBC director general, is known by one and all (except, perhaps, for a few anti-BBC headbangers on rightwing newspapers) as Tony. Referring to Lloyd Webber as Lord Lloyd-Webber (yes, he gained a hyphen along with his peerage) sounds silly, if not as silly as calling the This is Spinal Tap, writer and star Christopher Guest, by his title,”5th Baron Haden-Guest”.

A further problem is that, since the explosion in the number of life peers when Tony Blair lost his nerve halfway through reforming the House of Lords, there are so many of them – about 700. So “Lord Smith” could be any one of four people: Baron Smith of Finsbury, Baron Smith of Leigh, Baron Smith of Kelvin, or Baron Smith of Clifton.

He quotes GK Chesterton to good effect (“Journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive”) and comes to a sensible conclusion. I look forward to seeing what AJP (aka Lord Caper of Noreg) has to say about all this.

Cavafy in Turkish.

Orhan Pamuk has an appreciation of C. P. Cavafy in today’s NY Times Book Review focusing on his best-known poem, “The City” (a sidebar gives the Keeley/Sherrard translation, which I am not happy with, but then there are no really good translations of Cavafy; see this ancient LH post for my attempt at one). Pamuk has nice things to say about the poet, his poem, and his city, Alexandria, but what leads me to post is this bit towards the end: “A longtime friend once published a selection in Turkish, working from Edmund Keeley’s translations…” That made me sad. Theoretically, you would think any Turk interested in foreign literature, and especially Cavafy, would learn Greek as a matter of course; the countries are right next to each other and their histories and cultures are inextricably intertwined. In fact, of course, the longstanding mutual fear and loathing makes that a utopian thought. How I dislike nationalism! (I also dislike ignoring the strict rhyme and meter of Cavafy’s great poem when you’re translating it, but that’s a separate issue.)

While I’m on the Times Book Review, I might as well quote the most educational correction I’ve seen in a while:

A review on Dec. 1 about “Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion,” by Anne Somerset , misstated the successional status of Queen Anne’s father before he became King James II. He was the heir presumptive of Charles II , not the heir apparent. (Generally, in the British system of royal primogeniture, the heir apparent, in contrast to an heir presumptive, is one whose claim to the throne cannot be superseded by the birth of a closer heir.) As the brother of Charles, who had no legitimate offspring, James was heir presumptive, but could have been displaced by the birth of a legitimate child to Charles.

I did not know that!