Her Italian Resembled the Iliad.

The world-conquering Elena Ferrante has invaded our household as well; my wife is on the second novel in the Neapolitan series and has passed the first, My Brilliant Friend style=, on to me. I’m enjoying it greatly — it’s one of those unputdownable books — but I was stopped by an expression in chapter 2 of the second section. A teacher is said to speak “Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad,” and since the Iliad is not in Italian, I was puzzled. I checked the original, L’amica geniale, in Google Books, and sure enough: “il suo italiano che assomigliava un poco a quello dell’Iliade.” Of course there are translations (here’s one), but why would the Iliad be taken as a measuring-rod for Italian?

Update. Biscia provides the answer in the comment thread:

I asked my Italian partner what the phrase made him think of (without giving any other context) and he instantly said, “Monti’s translation of the Iliad, i.e., solemn, pompous language.”

Addendum. I just ran into another bit of text that badly needs added information. The narrator’s father takes her to the center of Naples, where she’s never been, and shows her the sights: Piazza Carlo III, Via Foria, Piazza Dante, etc. Then he takes her to Piazza Municipio, where he works, tells her everything has changed, and adds “the only old thing left is the Maschio Angioino, but it’s beautiful, little one, there are two real males in Naples, your father and that fellow there.” I asked my wife what she had made of that when she read it, and she had guessed the same thing I had, that it must be a masculine-looking statue. But no; Google tells me it’s the popular nickname for the Castel Nuovo. Now, how the hell is the English-speaking reader supposed to know that? Again, if you don’t want to footnote it, shoehorn the information into the text somehow.


The paper “Excellence R Us: University Research and the Fetishisation of Excellence,” by Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel O’Donnell, and Damian Pattinson, is not about language as such, but it’s on an important topic I’ve been mulling over myself, so I’m shoehorning it into LH based on the discussion of what the word “excellence” means, as well as the paragraph about literature I quote from Joe Carmichael’s Inverse.com post about it:

In fiction, as well as many other fields, it’s impossible to quantify excellence. We can recognize excellent writing — somewhere halfway between our gut and our noggin, normally — but there’s no numerical value that explains a novel’s greatness. “Could you imagine if there were a bar that you had to cross as a fiction writer, where you had to show — you had to show — that you were measurably more excellent than Faulkner or Joyce?” O’Donnell asks. “How would you do that? There’s no way it would be good for fiction writing.” The fact that objective criticism is much harder in literature cushions writers from some of the blows scientists routinely take. Good experiments don’t always lead to world-changing results, and world-changing results are quantifiable. It’s possible to be a good scientist while remaining inconsequential.

I have been thinking about this because as I read my way through Russian literature I realize ever more strongly that it is ludicrous to restrict oneself only to the “greatest” works; I love War and Peace, but I also love The Sebastopol Sketches, and I understand the former better for having read the latter. One can love Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without having to look down on his mandolin music. Celebrate the good, and the excellent will take care of itself. (Via MetaFilter.)

Seeking the Sirens’ Song.

That’s the title of a piece Armand D’Angour posted a couple of years ago, describing research into ancient Greek music. It starts with a terrifying anecdote about his viva at Oxford (we called them “orals” at Yale, and I used to have nightmares about them), then goes on to the discoveries made by Martin West and others:

Thanks to these publications, any classicist with a basic musical training can now attempt with (relative) ease and confidence to hear how dozens of ancient Greek songs might have sounded. The fascination of this material is enhanced by the astonishing musical notation invented by Greeks in the mid-fifth century BC, details of which are preserved for us by the late antique author Alypius. Consisting of letter-forms placed over the vowels of words to indicate their relative pitch – a letter A, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than an N – the vocal notation preserves a faithful record of ancient melodies. Absolute pitch, by the way, can be approximated from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes, supplemented by measurements taken on ancient instruments.

Texts using this notation have been known of since the late 16th century, when some pieces of Greek music on papyrus were published by the musician Vincenzo Galilei, father of the more famous Galileo. Since then, around 50 documents have been discovered on papyrus or stone inscriptions, providing a small but precious corpus that allows us to understand something of how ancient Greek melodies were heard and rhythms realised. […]

Yet little attention is paid even to the rhythms so carefully inscribed into the words of these songs, which have long been known and studied under the forbidding aegis of Greek metre. Even less attention is paid to melodic structures, which thanks to the surviving fragments – as well voluminous writings by ancient authors and musical theorists (admirably translated and compiled by Andrew Barker in Greek Musical Writings) – is something on which we are now in a position to exercise an informed scholarly imagination. By neglecting the aural dimension, readers of ancient texts are bound to be missing something of the original aesthetic impact of these songs.

What difference to the appreciation of the poetry might the original melodies have made, in conjunction with their complex and often offbeat rhythms, and the sounds of lyres and reed-pipes? In October 2013 I embarked on a two-year project, supported by a British Academy Fellowship and sabbatical leave from Jesus College, to recover the sounds of Greek music and to try to answer this question. In pursuit of my inquiry I shall be visiting Greece, Sardinia, and Turkey, on the trail of surviving ancient musical traditions, and collaborating with experts from many countries on instruments, dance, and ancient musical texts.

I’ve got work to do, so I’m not going to go down what no doubt will be a time-consuming rabbit hole of investigating what has been learned since then, but of course I’ll be glad to hear from anyone who knows. Thanks to Lars for the link!

Joyce in the OED.

John Simpson (the OED’s Chief Editor from 1993 until his retirement in 2013) had an OUPblog post yesterday (June 16th, or Bloomsday: “Joyce wanted to commemorate the day in 1904 when he first walked out in Dublin with his future wife, Nora Barnacle”) about the history of the celebration of the day and about Joyce as a source of OED citations:

The first Bloomsday was celebrated publicly in Ireland in 1954, its 50th anniversary, when writers Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien visited the Martello Tower at Sandycove, Davy Byrne’s pub, and Bloom’s “home” at 7 Eccles Street, reading parts of Ulysses and drinking generously along the way (pictured in the featured image). The Times Literary Supplement has little to say about Bloomsday until the late 1950s. This date profile is supported by a Google ngrams word profile.

The OED’s reception of Joyce follows a similar pattern. Ulysses was published six years before the completion of the First Edition of the dictionary in 1928. But although the OED was full of references to the literary heroes of the past, it was entirely silent about Joyce. It could have cited him: Dubliners, for example, was published in 1914.

Joyce was still absent from the first Supplement to the OED in 1933. But the situation changed with the second Supplement (1972-86). Here it was hard to avoid Joyce, who leapt onto the leader board of most-cited authors. The vast majority of his 1,709 quotations derived were provided by a single OED contributor, Roland Auty, a retired English master from Faversham, Kent, and author of Nesfield’s Errors in English Composition (Madras: 1961). OED Editor Bob Burchfield wanted to see modern writers better represented in the dictionary: ‘like a medieval scribe,’ he recalled, ‘[Auty] copied in his own handwriting many thousands of 6×4 inch slips on which he entered illustrative examples for any word or meaning that occurred in Joyce and was not already entered in the Dictionary.’


When the Second Edition of the OED was published in 1989, it contained 548 terms first attributed to Joyce. With the revision almost 40% complete, exactly one hundred of those usages have been replaced by other, earlier examples: eyeslit rockets back from Ulysses in 1922 to Noble’s Geodaesia Hibernica (1768); prurition plummets to Claude Lancelot’s Primitives of the Greek Tongue (1748); rib steak migrates to Charles Elmé Francatelli’s Modern Cook (1846). None of this reduces Joyce as a writer, but allows us to refine the areas in which his true creativity lies.

High Tea.

Syntinen Laulu posted this question at Wordorigins.org:

I can’t find that this has been discussed here before: in what sense is high tea ‘high’? This puzzled me when I was a child, and I’ve never heard it convincingly explained.

Dave Wilton, who runs the site, gave what is apparently the best answer that can be given:

The OED provides no clue, simply listing high tea with other high phrases.

My guess is that it would fall into the OED’s sense at high, adj. and n.2, 16: “Of a time of day or season (esp. summer): well advanced; fully come, complete. Cf. HIGH DAY n.1 2, HIGH NOON n. 1, high season n.” There is also the high Renaissance and the high Middle Ages.

High tea itself is technically not a time or period, but it’s closely associated with a particular time of day.

There followed a discussion of what exactly “high tea” is that surprised and enlightened me; it’s “sometimes known as meat tea,” and:

[…] anyone in the Southeast [of England] who:

(a) calls their midday meal ‘dinner’,
(b) expects to eat their evening meal fairly soon after returning home from work or school,
(c) drinks no beer or wine with it,

– generally calls their evening meal their ‘tea’; even though as often or not they don’t drink any tea with it.

You can have tea without tea! Furthermore, “I have been told that many Leftpondians understand ‘high tea’ to mean ‘olde Englishe posh afternoon tea à la Downton Abbey’, and that overpriced hotels and tea shops courting the tourist trade accordingly advertise their afternoon teas as ‘high tea’.” Absolutely true, and that was how I had understood it.

Any further information or anecdotes welcome, as always.

Giving The Wake a Failing Grade.

I’ve been vaguely interested in reading Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake because, as its Author’s note says:

This novel is not written in Old English — that would be unreadable to anyone except scholars. It is written instead in what might be called a shadow tongue — a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today.

Sounds enticing, right? Fortunately, I’ve been warned off by Two Linguists Explain Pseudo Old English in The Wake, an excellent demolition job in which linguists Gretchen McCulloch and Kate Wiles explain exactly why it would enrage me to the point of throwing it against the wall if I ever tried to read it. Some excerpts:

Gretchen: The Wake uses fuck quite a bit, with the spelling fucc or fuccan because it’s avoiding k. Here’s an example sentence from page 99: “go fucc thyself i saes and let thy frenc freonds do the same”. It’s set in 1066, so is fuck old enough? Should Kingsnorth have been using swive or something else instead?


He’s fallen into the most basic of heffalump traps. Everyone calls it an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word but it’s really not. In fact, none of the Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words were Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words. Most of them aren’t even Anglo-Saxon. There’s no denying they had a filthy sense of humour so there’s plenty of smut. But they were a pragmatic bunch and their taboo words, certainly as we have them recorded, were pretty literal: shit had all the scandalous effect of ‘defecation’; words for sex were no ruder than ‘intercourse’ in the contexts that we find them used and ‘bastard’ just meant illegitimate.

And this is super weird as he went to such pains to stress he’d only used vocabulary which existed in Old English and has survived to today. But I suppose ‘fuck’ really works to confirm our stereotypes of this period as nasty, brutish and short and its people as crude and bodily. Why bother trying to conjure up a nuanced and balanced world and take the reader ‘back to what it was like without anachronism’ when you can use the language as a tool to bludgeon the reader with the stereotype they’re expecting.


Gretchen: […] From my perspective, if one of the major selling features of your book (and reasons it got nominated for a Man Booker Prize) is that you’ve written a hybrid language that evokes the linguistic spirit of a particular era, it’s an important service that someone analyze this language for how well it does that, so your readers know what’s being evoked in them. And unfortunately, I have to give it a failing grade.


Kate: Well said. The reduced vocabulary, simplified syntax, and avoided punctuation/capitalization also take readers in a particular direction, making the Anglo-Saxons seem less capable of complex thought. As an artistic decision, I’ll defend to the end of the world an author’s right to muck about with language however they like; but as a decision that’s explicitly meant to put readers into the Anglo-Saxon “worldview”, I need to point out that the world we’re viewing is through glass that’s more cracked and warped than it needed to be.

Gretchen: Yeah, and instead, he’s actively choosing to perpetuate a certain mindset associated with Anglo-Saxons, that they had the same taboos as a modern reader, which is just so many kinds of false. But it’s the type of false that most people aren’t going to catch, and therefore highly misleading. Throwing around Ren Faire thees and thous might not be completely accurate either, but adding an extra letter to a pronoun isn’t wholesale cultural revisionism the way altering their entire taboo system is.

Kate: Exactly. All of this feels like cherry-picking the best olde bits that most match his preconceptions of Anglo-Saxon England, rather than building the world from the roots up. Which is fine, but by using the language in this way it gives such a message of ‘authenticity’ that everything that’s expressed in his shadow tongue is represented as ‘historical truth’.

Oh, these writers who have brilliant ideas that they’re too lazy to do a good job of realizing! The whole discussion is well worth reading even if you have no interest in the novel, because it’s lively, funny, and informative. (Via Mark Liberman’s Log post.)

The Garip Manifesto.

Daniel Evans Pritchard writes:

The Critical Flame is thrilled to present the first English publication of Melih Cevdet Anday, Oktay Rifat, and Orhan Veli’s revolutionary poetry manifesto, Garip, which appeared in Turkish in 1941. The manifesto outlines a radical break from the traditional prosody of the Turkish-Ottoman tradition, and also—perhaps because its authors were part of the second generation of global modernists—offers a reflexive meta-commentary on manifestos themselves. We are extremely grateful to Sidney Wade and Efe Murad for their translation from the Turkish and for their thoughtful introduction.

Here’s an excerpt from the Translator’s Introduction:

The classical tradition had relied heavily on the lavish use of language as well as high forms of Ottoman poetry such as aruz (an historically Arabic meter that depends on the arrangement of open and closed syllables) and the traditional Persian literary forms of the ghazal, the beyit (a couplet form), and the mesnevi (an epic form in couplets, used most often to recite romantic and panegyric tales).

In rejecting the elitism of court poetry, the Garip poets wrote simple poems in the vernacular about the ordinary details of the lives of common people, subjects not considered of interest in the classical tradition. With their use of simple imagery and pared-down language, taking as their subjects the objects and events of daily life, and eschewing meter and formal rhyme schemes, the Garip Movement poets directly opposed the unities of traditional Ottoman couplets in bringing everyday lightness and randomness into their verse.

And here’s the end of the manifesto itself:

The idea that the line should be taken as the basis of a poem makes us pay attention to each word and analyze it as the unit of a line. This practice encourages us to think of words as abstract entities in a poem and to assign beauty or ugliness to the words. However, words, like bricks in a building, are never beautiful. Plaster is never beautiful. It is only an architecture composed of these elements that is beautiful. If we beheld a building made of agate, heliotrope, and silver but which had no overarching aesthetic beauty, it could not be considered a work of art. If the words of a poem simply sound good but do not add anything of beauty to the poem itself, the poem is not a work of art.

Certain words, by long usage and convention, are considered “poetic” (şairane). We are engaged in a struggle to bring a new vocabulary to poetry and hope to rise above the old conventional use of “poetical” words. We do not confine ourselves to the old order but hope to bring fresh meaning and energy to poetry. If the reader cannot accept the use of words such as “corns,” or “Süleyman Efendi,” he or she is only interested in the passé and should confine his reading to poetry that abides by old and stale conventions. We will work against everything that belongs to the past and all outdated notions of “poeticality” in poetry.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing; even though I don’t know Turkish and have no grounding in Turkish poetry, I recognize the voice of poets who know their business and understand what modern poetry is (was?) about. Thanks, Trevor!


Catherine Soanes asks: Is ‘themself’ a real word? She says, “Judging by the debate on the Net, themself stirs up much passion, with several pundits confidently declaring that ‘themself is not a word’. Well, much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, themself is a word and it has a long history to boot.” That history is quite interesting:

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records themself from the 14th century. It doesn’t have a separate entry of its own, but a note at the entry for themselves informs us:

in standard English themself was the normal form to c1540, but disappeared c1570. Themselfs, themselves appears c1500, and became the standard form c1540.

So for around 150 years, themself (though ending with the singular suffix –self) was considered to be correct when used to refer to a plural subject. A little more OED-delving shows that a similar situation existed when it came to first person plural reflexive pronouns. The form ourself is first recorded in the 14th century, when it was an accepted usage. There must have been a move towards pluralizing the singular suffix –self to –selfs or –selves for plural reflexive pronouns in the early to mid 16th century, when the forms ourselves and themselves first appeared.

Returning to the OED note, themselfs (with only 26 examples on the OEC) is no longer acceptable and has largely dropped out of use, meaning that for almost 500 years the main standard reflexive pronoun which corresponds to the plural forms they and them is the plural form themselves […].

She winds up with this sensible recommendation:

Given that it’s now largely acceptable to use they, them, or their instead of the more long-winded ‘he or she’, ‘him or her’, or ‘his or her’ (especially in conjunction with indefinite pronouns such as anyone or somebody) it might be argued that, logically, it should also be OK to use themself, it being viewed as the corresponding singular form of themselves. However, this isn’t yet the case, so beware of themself for now!

I myself occasionally use themself; it sounds a little strange, but I feel I’m helping advance the shining future.

So Happy He Gurns.

I’m reading Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone, which jamessal gave me for Christmas, and enjoying it greatly — it’s one of those books whose language is so lively and irrepressible you want to read whole chunks aloud (which I do, to my wife, the cats, or failing an audience myself). It’s about John Lennon (though he is referred to only as “John”), and the passage I’m now reading describes his life in the Dakota in the late ’70s:

The yeast and warmth of the kitchen on a cold winter day with the city under its heaps of dirty snow outside — he’s cosy as a bastard in the womb. He is that happy he gurns and sings.

Naturally, I looked up the unfamiliar verb “gurn,” only to discover its sense isn’t as easy to pin down as I might have hoped. The OED (entry from 1899) says “To show the teeth in rage, pain, disappointment, etc.; to snarl as a dog; to complain persistently; to be fretful or peevish. Also to girn at. Now only north. and Sc.” (The etymology says it’s a variant of grin.) My Concise Oxford (12th ed., 2011) says: “1 Brit. pull a grotesque face. 2 (usu girn) chiefly Scottish & Irish complain peevishly.” M-W and AHD don’t have it, since it’s not American. So I turn to the Varied Reader: are you familiar with this word, and if so, how do you understand it in this passage? Is he making a face, complaining peevishly, or what? It’s reasonably clear that “that happy he gurns” is ironic, especially since later we get “He is that happy he wants to Scream.”

Mapping Meat.

Frank Jacobs has a Big Think post called The Many Ways to Map Your Meat; most of it is taken from a 2013 post by Daniel Brownstein called How Do You Map Your Meat?, and if you’re interested in the subject you should definitely visit that one as well, but I’m linking first to Jacobs because he has the paragraph:

“Pride of place in the complexity of meatcuts may go to the Austrians, whose division of the carcass into 65 pieces suggests the survival of local ingenuity and refined taste, even if it is also informed by a unique whole-animal ethos”, writes Brownstein. This map shows less than half of that total, but it already distinguishes between your Hüferscherzel and your Hüferschwanzel, not to mention the Kruspelspitz and the Kavalierspitz.

There are French, Spanish, and Austrian meat maps, and (in Brownstein’s post) a Greek meat map, so even if you’re not a carnivore you can enjoy the linguistic aspect. Thanks, Y!