Archives for July 2016

The World in Words: Ainu.

The World in Words podcast recently featured Patrick Cox investigating the Ainu language, with the help of Russian linguist Anna Bugaeva and others. At this link you can click on the audio and read a description of the various sections (“2:37 Anna Bugaeva knew from an early age she’d be a linguist”). If you like listening to knowledgeable linguists talking about language, as well as snippets of an interesting isolate, you’ll enjoy it.

The Linguistics of My Next Band Name.

Chi Luu has another interesting JSTOR Daily post which starts off from the always enjoyable topic of band names, real and fake:

“My next band name” has become a meme for a kind of tangential joyfulness in identifying the weird and wonderful phrasings in language… that can also double as your next band name. Consider such gems as “French Toast Emergency,” “The Thanksgiving Uncles,” “Librarians in Uproar,” or “Giraffe Aristocracy,” next band name submissions found on Reddit or the obligatory tumblr hosted by sci-fi author John Scalzi. Whether you like them as effective band names or not (some of them seem like they were actually generated by artificial intelligence), most people will get the joke—there’s something unusual, compelling or eye-catching about each of these expressions. They’re unexpected words to find together, they make you sit up and take notice.

There’s something else apart from this—a native speaker’s understanding of this subculture comes with a kind of social sixth sense about why phrases like these might make good band names. Compare the diverse mix of (real) band names like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Apples in Stereo, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, The The, and the almost unpronounceable !!! (Chk Chk Chk). The question is, with such a wide range of styles, how do we even know what makes a good band name?

She proceeds to an even more interesting related topic:

The answer to the question of why certain combinations of words make good band names, surprisingly, is related to the fact that people don’t really know what words mean, according to linguist Mark Aronoff. Rather, we connect words and names—even names that we may never have come across before—that exist in the same semantic space, absorbing their recurring patterns. It tells us a lot about how we might form new members of that class.

The Aronoff citation is “Automobile Semantics,” Linguistic Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1981), pp. 329-347, and it looks like you can read the whole thing from her link, even if you don’t regularly have JSTOR access. Thanks, Trevor!

La Pisana.

I’m now almost finished with the second volume of Ferrante (see this post; my wife has almost finished the third), and I’ve come across a passage that might have been written for Languagehat, so without further ado, here it is. The speaker has been studying in Pisa and has returned to Naples:

Language itself, in fact, had become a mark of alienation. I expressed myself in a way that was too complex for her, although I made an effort to speak in dialect, and when I realized that and simplified the sentences, the simplification made them unnatural and therefore confusing. Besides, the effort I had made to get rid of my Neapolitan accent hadn’t convinced the Pisans but was convincing to her, my father, my siblings, the whole neighborhood. On the street, in the stores, on the landing of our building, people treated me with a mixture of respect and mockery. Behind my back they began to call me the Pisan.

La lingua stessa, infatti, era diventata un segno di estraneità. Mi esprimevo in modo troppo complesso per lei, anche se mi sforzavo di parlare in dialetto, e quando me ne accorgevo e semplificavo le frasi, la semplificazione le rendeva innaturali e perciò confuse. Per di più lo sforzo che avevo fatto per cancellarmi dalla voce l’accento napoletano non aveva convinto i pisani ma stava convincendo lei, mio padre, i miei fratelli, tutto il rione. Per strada, nei negozi, sul pianerottolo di casa, la gente mi trattava con un misto di rispetto e sfottò. Cominciarono a chiamarmi alle spalle la pisana.

I have to say, by the way, that while Ann Goldstein, the translator, seems to do a good job, she has a tic that annoys me: she can’t seem to resist translating invece as “instead.” Obviously she knows as well as I do that it’s used more widely than the English word and that sometimes it’s better to use “but” or “on the other hand” or just not translate it, but habit gets the better of us all. It’s not a big deal, but I have a blog so I’m venting about it. Or, as Canine Cicero would have said: blogeo, ergo ventilo.

Tribunals of Erudition and Taste.

I can go for years without posting about Chinese poetry, and then boom, twice in a few days. I don’t even know which bits to quote from Lucas Klein’s long and thoughtful LARB essay “Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now”; he covers so much ground, and provides so many enlightening and entertaining examples, I’m tempted to just say “Go read it.” But here’s a paragraph about a longstanding academic argument:

Today, around the globe, even the general public now agrees with Arnold: translation, like the understanding of other cultures, should aspire to scholarship, and scholarly judgment is the best judgment for translation. Of course, scholars are often as misled by their own cross-cultural fantasies as they are devoted to hard science. Nor do they necessarily agree about how to represent their erudition in translation, a trait illustrated by an argument between two academic specialists in medieval Chinese poetry almost 40 years ago: when Paul Kroll criticized Stephen Owen’s “imprecision in translation,” including his “tendency to translate hendiadys by a single word,” Owen replied that Kroll’s sense of poetry was “a bizarre and erroneous one in which all Chinese poetry sounds like early Wallace Stevens.” More objectively, Owen continued, “Kroll feels that I am insensitive to Chinese poetic language; I feel that he is; we simply have different views of what Chinese poetry is.” And since “American sinology seems roughly divided” between convictions that “at times seem to approach the religious, and are not susceptible to rational persuasion,” this conflict may never be brokered. (The dispute kept the two most respected scholars of Tang poetry in North America from cooperating or even speaking with each other for decades.) There is much room for disagreement inside the agreement that translation should satisfy scholars.

(And I will take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Stephen Owen for being the only member of the Yale faculty to behave decently to a budding Sinologist I cared a lot about, forty years ago.) And here’s a passage about a change I hadn’t been consciously aware of (although seeing it spelled out, I realize it makes sense based on things I’ve read):

And then something shifted. In the late 1970s, Snyder wrote a poem describing his translation and continuation of a Chinese poetic tradition as shaping the handle of an axe “By checking the handle / Of the axe we cut with […] shaping again, model / And tool, craft of culture, / How we go on.” By the early 1980s, this was replaced with another vision of “China,” such as Bob Perelman’s, which gets no closer to believing in the possibility of representing China than saying, “We live on the third world from the sun. Number three. Nobody tells us what to do.” China in the vanguard of American poetry no longer meant classical poetry, if it even meant anything that could be represented in poetry at all.

Avant-gardists’ turn away from classical China meant a turn toward premodern China by American poets of more conservative aesthetics. Academics continued to translate — most notably Burton Watson — as did poet translators with scholarly training in classical Chinese, such as David Hinton and Red Pine. But after Rexroth and Snyder, premodern Chinese influence dissipated through the work of American poets less interested in creating an avant-garde. Some holdovers continued, with François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing translated from French in 1982 (with translations of Tang dynasty poetry by J. P. Seaton), and Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei appearing in 1987, but even there we can sense the sea change: Weinberger’s narrative stops in 1978, and despite its popularity, it has never been reprinted. As of the 1980s, classical China stopped making it new.

On the axe handles, see this LH post from 2009. And thanks for the link, Trevor!

London Place Names.

The page is pretty self-explanatory: “The origin of London’s place names (districts and boroughs).” Some are less exciting than others (St Pancras: “named after a saint”; Shepherds Bush: “Shepherd’s bushes”), but it’s fun to peruse: who knew that Cockfosters meant “estate of the chief forester”? (If anyone sent me this link, let me know; I’m afraid the provenance of the tab is long forgotten.)

Cunctation for Titivating.

Mark Liberman has a funny post at the Log, quoting “FLM”:

A colleague (who has requested anonymity) and I have developed a fondness for perfectly innocuous words which, to the linguistically unwashed masses, sound sexual. My colleague’s example sentence is

Because her husband was intestate, she sought to dilate her fungible assets; despite cunctation for titivating, she managed to masticate and lucubrate far into the night.

A website of possible interest: Chuck Lorre Productions — words that confuse the CBS censor

There is more amusement in the comment thread (“Not only is my opponent a thespian, but she has actually performed the act on stage in front of paying customers!”).

Is There a Good Way to Translate Chinese Poetry?

The answer is clearly “Yes and no,” but detailed discussions of translation are always interesting, and here‘s one by Xujun Eberlein (you can read an interview with her here). Now, I have to say she lost me in terms of trusting her ear for poetry with this:

I’ve heard some other Chinese poets praising Ezra Pound’s errors in translating ancient Chinese poetry, saying that even the errors were interesting to read. A close look at Pound’s errors, however, demonstrated otherwise for me. Take “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” as an example. The original poem by Li Bai (701-762) makes allusion to the “holding-pillar faith” allegory, which comes from a book by ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. The allegory goes like this: A man is waiting for his date under a bridge. Before the woman arrives, however, the river water unexpectedly rises. To be faithful to his date, the man doesn’t leave; he holds onto a pillar of the bridge until he drowns. The moral of this allegory is that one can place love above his own life. Pound, who did not know the Chinese language at the time, based his “translation” on Ernest Fenollosa’s meticulous unpublished notes. Fenollosa had written a draft translation of the lines that allude to the allegory, “I always had in me the faith of holding to pillars / And why should I think of climbing the husband looking out terrace.” This is quite accurate literally, but it is unclear whether Fenollosa was aware of the allusion. In any case, he did not explain it. At this point, Pound, who had faithfully followed Fenollosa’s notes so far but apparently couldn’t make sense of this part, chose to dodge it completely. He simply translated the corresponding line as “forever and forever and forever.” The meaning of “forever” was indeed implied by Li Bai in the poem, but the great Tang Dynasty poet whose pen was said to “startle the wind and rain” would never have written it so tritely. Translation like that, certainly a big departure from the original style, is uninspiring.

“The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is one of the glories of English poetry, for reasons which have nothing to do with Fenollosa or the details of the Chinese original, and anyone who can call “forever and forever and forever” trite and uninspiring has no business discussing it. (Perhaps Eberlein thinks the same about Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never”? [Thanks for correcting the quote, Michael!]) But she goes on to discuss two translations of a poem by the contemporary Chinese poet Han Dong in satisfying detail, so by all means check it out if you like that sort of thing.

Also involving Chinese: China’s tyranny of characters, by R.K.G. at The Economist; it takes off from Pokémon’s announcement that “the names of the creatures would henceforth be written in characters that adhere to Mandarin pronunciation, not Cantonese,” and discusses the much-discussed issue of Chinese characters. Thanks, Paul!

Screw the Pooch.

Who can resist such a lovely and slightly naughty-sounding expression? It’s well known from The Right Stuff, but where did it originate? Ben Zimmer tells the story (or as much of it as can be found) at Slate:

Searching for clues, I noticed that the entry for the expression on Wiktionary had been anonymously edited a few years ago to give credit to “a Yale graduate named John Rawlings who helped design the astronauts’ space suits.” In turn, the Wiktionary editor claimed, Rawlings got it from a Yale friend, “the radio DJ Jack May (a.k.a. ‘Candied Yam Jackson’),” who had softened “fuck the dog” to be “simultaneously less vulgar and more pleasing to the ear.”

The story sounded somewhat implausible, but a dive into the archives of the Yale Daily News (where I was once a news editor) confirmed that there were indeed undergraduates named John Rawlings and Jack May around 1950. Rawlings was noted for his various artistic pursuits, including a choreographed staging of a book of e.e. cummings poetry, One Times One. And Joseph L. “Jack” May really did go by the name “Candied Yam Jackson” as a DJ on the college radio station WYBC.

In fact, May is still alive, and, as I would soon discover, has many stories to tell. Now 84, he is the retired president of the May Hosiery Mills, a family concern in Nashville established by his grandfather, Jacob May. When I talked to Jack May on the phone, he brought to my attention an epistolary memoir that he published in 2010, titled An Alphabet of Letters, in which he tells the “screw the pooch” story. Here it is in May’s own words:

John Rawlings was one of two roommates who were architecture students. In the spring of 1950 it was time for his project to complete the semester. He procrastinated. Apparently all architecture students do. He was going to be late even starting his charrette. So to be helpful I said the following:

JACK: You’re late, John, you’re fouling up. You are fucking the dog.
JOHN: Really, you are so vulgar and coarse, I just don’t want to hear it.
JACK: You’re still late. Is this better? You are screwing the pooch.
JOHN: (shrill laughter)

Isn’t that delightful? Zimmer provides the necessary caveat that “It’s not impossible […] for various military personnel to have independently transformed ‘fuck the dog’ into ‘screw the pooch’ on separate occasions” and quotes a correspondent who had heard it elsewhere; his conclusion:

Searching for the provenance of a word or phrase, as I’ve noted before, rarely turns up a single “just-so” story. But even when a definitive origin remains elusive, the voyage through rich cultural and personal worlds can make it all worth it. So thank you, “screw the pooch,” for introducing me to Candied Yam Jackson and the Playing Mantis.

Read the whole thing, and thanks, Paul!

Unrelated, but I have to link to Christian Lorentzen’s When Will Helen DeWitt Be Recognized As One of the Great American Novelists? The answer, I hope, is “soon.” Thanks, Greg/slawkenbergius!

English Vocabulary Size.

This is just another of those dumb internet quizzes, and I think I’ve posted a similar one before, but it’s kind of fun for those who like wielding words, so with the caveat that it’s not actually going to tell you how large your vocabulary is, this is the kind of thing you might enjoy if you enjoy this kind of thing: Vocabulary Size Test. (For what it’s worth, it told me “Your English Vocabulary Size is: 30325.”) I should warn you that it switches between asking for synonyms and antonyms (very loosely defined — don’t get hung up on whether something is actually a synonym), and it’s easy if you’re not paying attention to click on one when it’s asking for the other, which I think happened to me once (I could have had a Vocabulary Size of 30326!).

Don’t Say That.

Edwin Battistella has a sensible post for OUPblog on how, as Edward Sapir once wrote, “All grammars leak.” He describes one example:

Many of our most common words have come to serve more than a single grammatical role, so a word serving one part of speech will often have a homonym—a grammatical doppelganger—that serves as a different part of speech. Often this arises from what is called functional shift, when we take a noun and make it into a verb as in to adult or to gym. This shiftiness makes it hard, and perhaps impossible, to think of a word as having just one categorization.

All well and good, and he gives a bunch of examples, but what stopped me in my tracks and made me want to post it was what came next:

Here’s an example. Recently, a friend told me that her daughter’s teacher had told her to never use the word that. She wondered if the advice was legit.

I’ve heard and seen a lot of peevery in my day, but “never use the word that” is a new one, and not only self-evidently idiotic but opaque, to me at least. Anybody know what might be going on here?