Archives for October 2016

Anti-language.

I just learned a useful term from Wikipedia: “An anti-language or cant is the language of a social group which develops as a means of preventing people from outside the group understanding it. […] Examples of anti-languages include cockney rhyming slang, CB slang, the grypsera of Polish prisons, thieves’ cant, Polari, and possibly Bangime. The concept was studied by the linguist M. A. K. Halliday who used the term for the lingua franca of an anti-society which is set up within another society, as a conscious alternative to it, and which indicates linguistic accomplishments of the users in action.” My problem is that I’m not sure how it’s supposed to differ from a cryptolect. Is anyone familiar enough with this stuff to clarify (if indeed there is a significant difference)?

(By the way, we discussed Polari back in 2003.)

That/Which.

I’ve excavated my pile of old journals up to the Aug. 14, 2015, TLS, where I was taken aback by a couple of (what struck me as) very odd relative clauses in Margreta De Grazia’s “Is there a Higgs boson in the house?” (a review of Graham Holderness’s Tales From Shakespeare: Creative Collisions). Though the article is not available from the TLS site, it has happily been excerpted here, if you want to see the passages in context. Here they are, with the offending clauses bolded:

The encounter between Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare in each critical chapter sparks a fictive spin-off – a fantasy travelogue, a comedy skit, a spy thriller – with the exception of the last, that remains grounded in the hard fact of terrorism.

As in the Essex rebellion, the play, by enacting a king’s deposition, incites insurrection. It introduces the native spectators to the possibility of overthrowing a ruler that in turn clears the way for a successor more hospitable to the British.

My sense of English forbids both these usages; they are not stylistic variants, they are unambiguously wrong, with “which” required rather than “that” in each case. But of course my sense of English is increasingly out of date (I am still not resigned to seeing “may have” instead of “might have” in counterfactuals, for example), so I want to canvass the Varied Reader: do those thats seem OK to you, dubious, or outright wrong?

How English Is Changing.

Michael Erard has an Audible Range piece on how English is developing:

You might think of English, which is spoken by the largest number of people on the planet, as a mighty, never-ending river, full of life and always churning and changing. If you speak the language, it’s natural to wonder where this river is headed. And who will shape the sounds that bubble out of it in the future — 20, 50, or even 100 years from now?

Feeding the river are two tributaries that determine its direction. One of these carries the influence of the estimated two billion people who speak English as a non-native language. They are influential not just because of their number but also because the majority of interactions in English in the world occur between non-native speakers — as many as 80 percent, according to linguists. This is English playing its role as a global lingua franca, helping speakers of other languages connect with each other.

The other tributary carries the changes that English has been undergoing for hundreds of years. Between the 12th and 16th centuries, for example, English underwent the “great vowel shift,” which shortened some vowels, like “ee” to “aye,” and pushed others up and to the front of the mouth, so that the Middle English vowel pronounced “oh” is now pronounced “oo,” as in “boot.”

In the mid-20th century, linguist and English historian at the University of Michigan Albert Marckwardt argued that English wasn’t done changing and that the momentum of the past would carry on into the future.

There’s discussion of how non-native speakers change vowels, consonants, and intonation patterns, and audio links to the start of A Tale of Two Cities read in Old English, modern British-English, and “what English might sound like in 100 years.”

Translating the Odyssey.

Anthony Verity, who has recently translated Homer’s Odyssey, has some things to say about it at OUPBlog:

The toughest challenge for the 21st century translator is undoubtedly that of register. As we all know, no one ever spoke Homeric Greek. It is an amalgam of different dialects, predominantly Ionic, whose effect is to set the story apart from the everyday, and to lend it a dignity appropriate to a tale of long ago heroic deeds. That said, Homer does often go remarkably well into current English. ‘Tell me, Muse, of the man of many turns, who was driven/far and wide after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy’ is a near-literal rendering of the Odyssey’s first two lines. Compare the task of producing an acceptable version of ‘His sweet spirit surpasses the perforated labour of bees’ (Pindar, Pythian 6.52-4).

Still, there are times when one yearns for a modern epic poetic, to capture something of Homer’s heroic loftiness, at the same time as satisfying the two classes of notional classics readers: staying close to the Greek and offering a good read to the casual bookshop/internet buyer. It can’t be done consistently, of course. We can no longer draw on the poetic diction available to English writers in the 300-odd years from Shakespeare to the Georgians. T.S. Eliot saw to that, and in any case no one these days – with the possible exception of Derek Walcott – writes epic.

Nothing earth-shattering, but I always enjoy reading translators on their craft.

Attorneys and Brigadiers.

I reproduce in its entirety this letter to the NYRB and the bracing response:

To the Editors:

I am ridiculously late in reading the NYR of November 19, 2015. In Judge Rakoff’s review of Professor John C. Coffee Jr.’s Entrepreneurial Litigation there are several references to the plural of “attorney general,” rendered there as “attorney generals.” I always have understood the plural to be “attorneys general.” Is this yet another of many instances in which the NYR knows something I do not know? Or is this (gasp!) an error in the NYR?

Florence Wagman Roisman
Rober H. McKinney School of Law
Indiana University
Indianapolis, Indiana

Jed S. Rakoff replies:

Sorry, Professor Roisman, there was no error. Your nice letter, however, gives me a chance to vent one of my pet peeves: against the use of the term “attorneys general” when the preferable plural is “attorney generals.” To be sure, Webster’s and most other dictionaries say either form is correct and do not express a preference. See, e.g., the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary, both available online. But although the term “attorney general,” in its first reported use in 1398, was a synonym for an attorney with a general practice (which might justify “attorneys general”—if you were living in the fourteenth century), the capitalized version has, in American parlance, always referred to the two-word title given to the government legal officer who has command of all the other government attorneys. No one would refer to two “brigadiers general,” so why say “attorneys general”? Or, in the words of James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine and now director of Harvard Law School’s Attorney General Clinic, “‘Attorneys general’ is stupid, silly, and not the way we talk in [everyday places].” I agree, although, in fairness, Tierney was previously director of Columbia Law School’s “Attorneys General Program”!

Music to my ears, and I thank jamessal for passing it along! (Also, I am pleased to see there is someone who is almost as behind in their journal reading as I am.)

Hence.

Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca writes about a phenomenon I’ve noticed but not really thought about: the distinction between the traditional use of hence meaning ‘as a result, for this reason’ as an introduction to full clauses (her example: “Hence, vaccines with enhanced serotype coverage … might be needed to prevent IPD in this age group in the near future”) and its modern use to introduce a noun phrase (“Hence the value of strengthening skills now”). Curzan says:

It will probably come as no surprise to readers that hence is one of the conjunctive adverbs that strongly prefer academic prose over other registers. […] Hence is more comparable in frequency with nevertheless in academic writing (74.50 pmw).

The frequency of hence in spoken language, in comparison, is low. It puts hence in the range of words like validity and contemplate in the spoken section of this database. […]

Despite the formal feel of hence, it seems more colloquial when it introduces a noun phrase rather than a clause. […]

The frequency of hence overall seems to be declining in written American English (it is holding steadier in British English).

I agree that hence “seems more colloquial when it introduces a noun phrase rather than a clause,” and in fact if I use it that way I feel like I do when I use fun as an adjective (“a fun time”). But I’m happy if people use it at all, since it’s a useful little word (with a fun etymology: it’s the obsolete adverb hen plus the adverbial genitive suffix -(e)s, as in –wards). Do you use it, and if so do you use it to introduce a noun phrase or only a clause?

Tolstoy’s Youth.

I’ve finally finished Tolstoy’s Юность [Youth]; it took me twice as long as it should have, because for a couple of weeks I only read one short chapter a day. This wasn’t just indolence — it usually takes me a while to get into a long work, but here I felt like I was slogging through molasses. There were some fine character sketches and nature descriptions (always a Tolstoy specialty), but the viewpoint character, sixteen-year-old Nikolai Irtenev, is a smug, preening little aristocrat whose main goal in life is to be comme il faut and to look down on anyone who isn’t, and while Tolstoy has fun with the disasters this leads him into, it gets boring having a succession of episodes that can be boiled down to “although I liked X, I treated him/her contemptuously because they weren’t comme il faut, and then I was surprised they didn’t like me!”

Part of the problem is that Tolstoy himself wasn’t old enough to have a fully adult detachment from the character, so there’s an element of “And I am two-and-twenty, And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true” about it. Although the story is not autobiographical in detail, the general arc is true to his experience: he himself flunked out of the Department of Arabo-Turkic Languages at the University of Kazan in 1844, having spent the year in drinking, gambling, and visiting brothels. (He then enrolled in the Department of Jurisprudence, dropped out when he inherited Yasnaya Polyana, tried to devote himself to estate management and self-improvement, but got bored and returned to dissipation, this time in Moscow.) Still, I was glad I persevered, because whenever the narrator turns his attention outward there are fine vignettes, including descriptions of the university examination system and the Yar restaurant, a Moscow favorite for generations. And of course I was immensely gratified by the following passage, from Chapter XLIII, about the fellow students he is trying to study with (despite not having paid attention to either the reading or the lectures):

Это чувство возбуждали во мне […] в особенности их манера говорить, употреблять и интонировать некоторые слова. Например, они употребляли слова: глупец вместо дурак, словно вместо точно, великолепно вместо прекрасно, движучи и т. п., что мне казалось книжно и отвратительно непорядочно. Но еще более возбуждали во мне эту комильфотную ненависть интонации, которые они делали на некоторые русские и в особенности иностранные слова: они говорили ма́шина вместо маши́на, дея́тельность вместо де́ятельность, на́рочно вместо наро́чно, в камине́ вместо в ками́не, Ше́кспир вместо Шекспи́р, и т. д., и т. д.

This feeling [of dislike for them] was aroused in me […] especially by their way of speaking, of using and pronouncing certain words. For instance, they used the words glupets instead of durak [‘fool’], slovno instead of tochno [‘as if’], velikolepno [‘splendidly’] instead of prekrasno [‘excellently’], dvizhuchi [i.e., instead of dvizhushchii ‘driving (force)’], and the like, which seemed to me bookish and repellently uncouth. But what aroused even more strongly in me this comme-il-faut loathing was their improper accenting of certain Russian and especially foreign words: they said máshina instead of mashína [‘machine’], deyátelnost’ instead of déyatelnost’ [‘activity’], nárochno instead of naróchno [‘on purpose’], v kaminé instead of v kamíne [‘in the fireplace’], Shékspir instead of Shekspír [‘Shakespeare’], etc. etc.

The last is especially amusing: the English stress is vulgar, only the French will do!

The OED’s Surf Consultant.

A nice squib by Nick Paumgarten from the New Yorker about Matt Warshaw, “the world’s leading surfing scholar”:

Warshaw is the world’s leading surfing scholar, the Linnaeus of the lineup. Over the years, he has assembled a research library, in his home, of hundreds of books, thousands of periodicals, and some three hundred and fifty movies, and created a database: logged, indexed, searchable. From all this, and from his own experience as a California beach rat, middling pro surfer, and surfing writer, he composed the idiosyncratic yet authoritative “Encyclopedia of Surfing,” which was published, to wide acclaim, in 2003. “I decided to rule this domain that no one gives a shit about,” he said the other day. In the past half-dozen years, he’s been transferring the encyclopedia’s fifteen hundred-odd entries to the Web, and adding many new ones, along with a wealth of photographs and videos. He has likened this migration to Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.

Within a day of the request from Oxford, Warshaw came across, in his stacks, a mention of “tandem surfing” from 1935. You can now find, in the O.E.D.’s Web edition, the following citation: “T. Blake Hawaiian Surfboard (front material, verso of fifth leaf) (caption): ‘A tourist, without surfboard experience, can enjoy . . . tandem surfing. The boy in most cases does most of the work, his partner enjoys the rides.’ ”

The O.E.D. sent Warshaw a few more terms, and before long hired him to be its first-ever Surf Consultant (total pay: four hundred pounds). The O.E.D. has some three hundred consultants, who provide an extra layer of expert scrutiny in such areas of arcana as falconry and wine. It has always tried to keep up with American slang; noted recent additions are “Masshole” and “vape.” “Clearly, they felt they needed to up their surf game,” Warshaw said. He speculated that there was a closet surfer on staff.

It turns out there was indeed a closet surfer, senior editor David Martin, who says: “A surf word that we are currently tracking is the verb ‘chandelier.’ It seems to be used with reference to the lip at the opening of a barrelling wave closing in on or falling on top of a surfer.” Vivid stuff, surfing vocabulary.

Katexic Clippings.

From the About page:

Founded during the high heat of the 2014 Alaskan summer, Katexic Clippings is a (now) weekly email newsletter for bookworms, word nerds and the incurably curious. In each issue:

WORK: a concise, compelling work or excerpt
WORD(S): a wonderful word or fascinating phrase
WEB: a bijou suite of links
WATCH/WITNESS: a video, map, painting, picture, animation or other visual
WHAT!?: an unclassifiable curiosity

After two years and more than 300 email issues, yr humble editor gave in to readers’ demands for this companion website. He still thinks subscribing to the newsletter is a lot more fun.

Here‘s the main page; I discovered it via a trackback. I figure anything aimed at bookworms, word nerds and the incurably curious is likely to intrigue LH readers. Oh, and if you’re wondering, I’m afraid “katexic” is a David Foster Wallace-ism, apparently a deliberate misspelling of cachectic. But I won’t hold that against the clippings.

Rewarded with Oppugnancy.

I finally reached the back page of the TLS from August 7 of last year (I just resubscribed to the NYRB so I’ll have something to read in 2018), and there was a brief mention of what sounds like a dreadful book about the Bard, prefaced with the following paragraph cobbled together from “words said to have been coined by Shakespeare”:

Attaskt with bringing obscure words back into use, we begnawed the matter, scratching our bubukles as we did so. Fellow researchers congreed that the conspectuity was immoment. Incorpsing our plantage in a mistempered account book, we were rewarded with oppugnancy, against which we offered no propugnation. Reprobance has seldom made us so rubious.

Now, that’s what I call fun with words. (Bubukle, if you’re curious, is Fluellen’s conflation of bubo and carbuncle; I leave the rest to research and/or imagination.)