Sortie.

Time for another Languagehat Reader Survey! On the radio news this morning they mentioned a sortie (‘combat mission’) and pronounced it sor-TEE (stress on the last syllable). I had been aware of that pronunciation, since it is given as the second option in dictionaries, but I have always pronounced it SOR-tee (stress on the first syllable), which felt more natural, and that seems to be the only UK pronunciation. Is this sor-TEE version an authentic straight-from-French thing, like herb with no /h/, or a post-hoc Frenchification? Is it used primarily by military folk? What’s the story? Tell me your thoughts (and of course your own usage).

The Nearest Thing to Life.

The publisher was kind enough to send me a review copy of The Nearest Thing to Life, by James Wood; I always turn to Wood’s reviews eagerly (though I often find myself arguing with them) — he’s very well-read, acutely sensitive to the qualities of good writing, and (most important) an excellent writer himself — so I opened it with anticipation, and was not disappointed, even though I had read two of the four essays before, the first in the New Yorker and the last in the London Review of Books. I like Woods better when he’s mingling observations on literature, life, and his own memories, as he does here, rather than when he’s concentrating fiercely on a single book. I love reading the Chekhov stories he discusses and listening to the music he mentions, and he says things whose wording I admire or that plunge me into thought on nearly every page. Here are a couple of passages that will serve as a sampler; from the second essay, evoking his early life in Durham:

The school’s headmaster, the Reverend Canon John Grove, was probably only in his early fifties, but seemed to us a fantastically antique figure. He was a bachelor and a clergyman, and wore the uniform of his calling: a black suit, a black buttonless shirt, a thick white clerical collar. [...] Except for the band of white starch round his neck, Canon Grove was entirely colourless—his ancient Oxford shoes were black, his thick spectacles were black, the pipe he smoked was black. He seemed to have been carbonized centuries ago, turned into ash, and when he lit his pipe, it seemed as if he was lighting himself. Like all children, we were fascinated by the match held over the pipe-bowl, by the flame steadily journeying along the flimsy match, entranced by the sucking noises of the smoker, and the way the flame halted its horizontal passage at these moments and then briefly disappeared vertically into the bowl. And always there was the question: how can he hold the match alight for so long, with such reptilian imperviousness?

And from the final essay, on his hard-to-define longing for what once was home:

In America, I crave the English reality that has disappeared; childhood seems breathingly close. But the sense of masquerade persists: I gorge on nostalgia, on fondnesses that might have embarrassed me when I lived in Britain. Geoff Dyer writes funnily, in Out of Sheer Rage, about how, when he was living in Italy, he developed an obsession with reading the TV listings in English papers, even though he had never watched telly when he lived in England, and didn’t like it. To hear a Geordie voice on an American news program leaves me flushed with longing: the dance of that dialect, with its seasick Scandinavian pitch. And all those fabulous words: segs (the metal plates you’d bang onto your shoe heels, to make sparks on the ground and act like a hard nut); kets (‘sweets’); neb (‘nose’); nowt (‘nothing’); stotty-cake (a kind of flat, doughy bread); claggy (‘sticky’). The way Northerners say eee, as an exclamation: ‘Eee, it’s red-hot today!’ (Any temperature over about seventy-two degrees.) Recently, I heard the old song ‘When the Boat Comes In’ on National Public Radio, and I almost wept​.

Now come here little Jacky
Now I’ve smoked me packy,
Let’s have some cracky
Till the boat comes in.

And you shall have a fishy
On a little dishy,
You shall have a fishy
When the boat comes in.

But I really disliked that song when I was a boy. I never had a very northern accent. My father was born in London. It was important to my Scottish petty-bourgeois mother that I didn’t sound like a Geordie. Friends used to say, with a bit of menace in their voices: ‘You don’t talk like a Durham lad. Where are you from?’ Sometimes it was necessary to mimic the accent, to fit in, to avoid getting beaten up. I could never say, as the man in the song ‘Coming Home Newcastle’ foolishly does: ‘And I’m proud to be a Geordie/And to live in Geordie-land.’

I’ll add, since as a copyeditor I notice these things, that the book is extraordinarily well proofread; the only error I noticed was a running head that had strayed from the essay “Why?” to “Using Everything” (p. 91). Well done, Brandeis University Press!

Bibliophilia.

I like books and I like movies, so it makes sense that I would like a short movie about books in movies, and I thought maybe you would too. I herewith preset Bibliophilia – Books in the Films of Wes Anderson: A video-essay by Luís Azevedo, a five-minute video accompanied by a brief essay explaining what Azevedo was going for. There are books, narrators, images, the map and the territory, and some nice music; my only disappointment was that though the essay talks about Godard, there is no Godard in the film itself. (Yes, I was Waiting for Godard.) And now I want to see more Wes Anderson movies. (Via Arthur Wyatt‘s MetaFilter post.)

Saving N|uu.

David Smith has a story in the Guardian about an effort to save a dying language:

Hanna Koper and her two sisters are thought to be the last remaining speakers of the San language N|uu, rated as critically endangered by Unesco. The San, also known as “bushmen”, were the first hunter-gatherers in southern Africa.

N|uu, which has 112 distinct sounds, was passed on orally down the generations but never written down. Now Koper and her siblings have worked with linguists to design alphabet charts with consonants, vowels and 45 different “clicks” that are typical of San languages, as well as rules of spelling and grammar.

Matthias Brenzinger, director of the Centre for African Language Diversity at the University of Cape Town, who is working on the project with British academic Sheena Shah, said: “It’s the most indigenous language of southern Africa.” [...]

Brezinger has overseen the teaching of N|uu at a local school, where pupils learn basics such as greetings, body parts, animal names and short sentences. One teenage girl in particular is showing huge promise in the language but “at one stage there will be no fluent speaker any more”, he said.

That does not mean N|uu will necessarily be doomed to the archives, however. “With these languages, you never know,” said Brezinger. “Hawaiian was extinct basically, and then there was a movement 35 years ago and you have 2,000 mother tongue speakers of Hawaiian. [...]

Koper, who lives near Upington in Northern Cape province, told South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper that when she was a girl in the days of white minority rule, she and her siblings were told their language was ugly. “We were told not to make noise and the baas [a Dutch word for supervisor] would shout at us if we spoke the language because they believed we were gossiping,” she was quoted as saying.

“This is my language. This is my bread. This is my milk. I didn’t learn it, but I ate it and this is how it is my language.”

I can’t get enough of these stories. Obviously not all languages can be saved, but when a group of speakers manages to fight the process of extinction, I consider it a small victory for humanity. (Thanks, Trevor!)

What Exactly Is Universal Grammar?

What exactly is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it?” (Front. Psychol., 23 June 2015), by Ewa Dąbrowska, Professor of Linguistics at Northumbria University, begins “Universal Grammar (UG) is a suspect concept” and goes on to back that up in a thoroughgoing manner. As a sample, see this devastating paragraph from the Conclusion:

Is it a fruitful approach? (Or perhaps a better question might be: Was it a fruitful approach?) It was certainly fruitful in the sense that it generated a great deal of debate. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have got us any closer to answers to the fundamental questions that it raised. One could regard the existing disagreements about UG as a sign of health. After all, debate is the stuff of scientific inquiry: initial hypotheses are often erroneous; it is by reformulating and refining them that we gradually get closer to the truth. However, the kind of development we see in UG theory is very different from what we see in the natural sciences. In the latter, the successive theories are gradual approximations to the truth. Consider an example discussed by Asimov (1989). People once believed that the earth is flat. Then, ancient Greek astronomers established that it was spherical. In the seventeenth century, Newton argued that it was an oblate spheroid (i.e., slightly squashed at the poles). In the twentieth century, scientists discovered that it is not a perfect oblate spheroid: the equatorial bulge is slightly bigger in the southern hemisphere. Note that although the earlier theories were false, they clearly approximated the truth: the correction in going from “sphere” to “oblate spheroid,” or from “oblate spheroid” to “slightly irregular oblate spheroid” is much smaller than when going from “flat” to “spherical.” And while “slightly irregular oblate spheroid” may not be entirely accurate, we are extremely unlikely to discover tomorrow that the earth is conical or cube-shaped. We do not see this sort of approximation in work in the UG approach: what we see instead is wildly different ideas being constantly proposed and abandoned. After more than half a century of intensive research we are no nearer to understanding what UG is than we were when Chomsky first used the term.

Anyone interested in this influential delusion of Chomskyism should read Dąbrowska’s paper. Thanks, Stan!

Addendum. ‘New mathematical methods’ in linguistics constitute the greatest intellectual fraud in the discipline since Chomsky, by Roger Blench: “For a method or disciplinary procedure to be deemed scientific it seems it should meet some minimum criteria [...] It is relatively easy to show that on present showing none of these conditions are, or possibly can be met. If this is so, then the editor of Science has presumably been bamboozled.” Response by Sean at Replicated Typo, who disagrees with Blench but admits: “Those using mathematical models may have to spend more time justifying and clarifying their work.” Thanks, Yoram!

Shibboleth.

I can’t really say anything about this two-and-a-half-minute video by Reginald Pikedevant except: it’s funny, watch it! (One of my favorite bits is the po-faced spelling pronunciation of wagon-lit.) Thanks, Paul!

Ord for Ord.

I’ve finally reached January 9 as I work through the stack of old issues of the TLS, and the Freelance column by Lydia Davis (probably subscribers-only) was obvious LH material:

These days, I begin my morning happily absorbed in reading a book that would have seemed highly unlikely to me a year ago: it is in Norwegian, a language I did not know before, and was described by some irritated critics in Norway, when it appeared last year, as “tedious” and “unreadable”, though it also received much admiring praise. Dag Solstad’s “novel”, Det Uoppløselige Episke Element i Telemark i Perioden 1691–1896 (428 pages), is entirely factual. Its storyline consists for the most part of detailed accounts of the births, marriages, deaths, and property transactions of his ancestors in Telemark, with little incident, almost no real drama, much authorial speculation, and the occasional memorable character, such as the pipe-smoking widow Torhild, the spendthrift Margit, and the power-hungry Halvor Steinulvson Borgja (b. 1625). [...]

Then, last spring, I was describing to [Davis's Norwegian translator, Johanne Fronth-Nygren] my difficulties with a project of my own involving several generations of my ancestors, one that promised to be long, complex and confusing. She recommended a new book she admired by Dag Solstad (pronounced “Soolstad”), now in his early seventies and considered by many to be Norway’s pre-eminent contemporary novelist. I had already dipped into the two paperbacks of his which I had in English translation. Johanne told me this new one was unusual, and quite controversial: how could it be called a novel? She said that although I would not be able to read it, I could at least look through it and get an idea of what he was doing.

I sent for the book. [...] I was also frustrated: this was a book I wanted to read, and it did not exist in English. So, seeing no alternative, I tried the first sentence: “Les langsomt, ord for ord, hvis man vil forstå hva jeg sier”. With the help of German cognates (lesen and langsam), I understood the first two words right away: “Read slowly”. Although it took me a few minutes to realize that ord had nothing to do with “order” or the German Ort, but meant “word”, I then found I could decipher most of the rest: “Read slowly, word for word, hvis one will understand [G. verstehen] hva jeg sier”. I thought jeg could mean “I” (Fr. je, Dutch jij, etc). The whole turned out to be a surprisingly apt directive: “Read slowly, word for word, if you want to understand what I am saying”. I made up my mind that I would simply keep reading; even if at first I understood almost nothing, I thought, I would in time understand more and more, and perhaps actually learn to read Norwegian.

And that is what has happened. I do read slowly, though no longer always one word at a time. I often reread at least part of a sentence. I don’t use a dictionary, attempting to figure out the words from their contexts with the help of cognates, though that can lead me astray. Norwegian ferd has nothing to do with German Pferd, horse – which in Norwegian is hest; giftet seg means “got married”, though gift by itself does, like the German Gift, mean “poison”. I write down each new word I figure out. Many sentences I can now read without stumbling; more and more rarely do I find myself in a thicket of incomprehensible language. By now I am within eighty pages of the end. [...]

Adding to the suspense, in my case, is of course the adventure of learning the language as I go along, seeing more and more mysterious words become familiar. In the beginning, as I made my way into this partly incomprehensible Telemark of the 1600s and 1700s, I felt, pleasantly, all the farther away from home in both time and culture for not knowing half of what I was reading. Now that the mists are clearing, each page offers another reward: not only the unfolding story, but also a linguistic revelation – not only about Norwegian, but also about the roots it shares with English. When I learn svar, I glimpse the source of our “answer”. I knew “neighbour” was related to “nigh”; now that I know the Norwegian bor means “dwell”, I see “neighbour” for what it is: one who lives nearby. The English words become strange again.

It reminded me strongly of the opening of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (see this post, and if you haven’t read it, go read it); my one cavil: I don’t believe the “I don’t use a dictionary” part. I can believe she avoids using a dictionary as much as possible, but there are words you simply can’t get from context, and it seems to me it would just be too frustrating to move on leaving some crucial word a mental blank.

Update. It turns out people do learn by reading foreign texts without using a dictionary (see comments below); once again, I’ve overgeneralized from my own experience.

Lost in Translation.

Last December, John Cowan said: “I note that there’s no mention of Eva Hoffman anywhere in LH, and I’d urge any interested Hattic to read her book, which is wonderful.” I’ve just finished the book, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (thanks, Sven & Leslie!), and he was absolutely right. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say it’s about life and language, and specifically about moving from Poland to Canada to the US and navigating the many changes involved, so I’ll just quote a few passages and repeat John’s urging to read the book.

Childhood memories from Cracow:

Bramaramaszerymery, rotumotu pulimuli,” I say in a storytelling voice, as if I were starting out a long tale, even though I know perfectly well that what I am making up are nonsense syllables. “What are you talking about,” my mother asks. “Everything,” I say, and then start again: “Bramarama, szerymery . . .” I want to tell A Story, Every Story, everything at once, not anything in particular that might be said through words I know, and I try to roll all sounds into one, to accumulate more and more syllables as if they might make a Möbius strip of language in which everything, everything is contained. There is a hidden rule even in this game, though — that the sounds have to resemble real syllables, that they can’t disintegrate into brüte noise, for then I wouldn’t be talking at all. I want articulation — but articulation that says the whole world at once.
[...]

Like so many children who read a lot, I begin to declare rather early that I want to be a writer. But this is the only way I have of articulating a different desire, a desire that I can’t yet understand. What I really want is to be transported into a space in which everything is as distinct, complete, and intelligible as in the stories I read. And, like most children, I’m a literalist through and through. I want reality to imitate books — and books to capture the essence of reality. I love words insofar as they correspond to the world, insofar as they give it to me in a heightened form. The more words I have, the more distinct, precise my perceptions become — and such lucidity is a form of joy. Sometimes, when I find a new expression, I roll it on the tongue, as if shaping it in my mouth gave birth to a new shape in the world. Nothing fully exists until it is articulated. “She grimaced ironically,” someone says, and an ironic grimace is now delineated in my mind with a sharpness it never had before. I’ve now grasped a new piece of experience; it is mine.

From her first years in Canada:

Every day I learn new words, new expressions. I pick them up from school exercises, from conversations, from the books I take out of Vancouver’s well-lit, cheerful public library. There are some turns of phrase to which I develop strange allergies. “You’re welcome,” for example, strikes me as a gaucherie, and I can hardly bring myself to say it — I suppose because it implies that there’s something to be thanked for, which in Polish would be impolite. The very places where language is at its most conventional, where it should be most taken for granted, are the places where I feel the prick of artifice.

Then there are words to which I take as equally irrational liking: for their sound, or just because I’m pleased to have deduced their meaning. Mainly they’re words I learn from books, like “enigmatic” or “insolent” — words that have only a literary value, that exist only as signs on the page.

But mostly, the problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold — a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke.

The process, alas, works in reverse as well. When I see a river now, it is not shaped, assimilated by the word that accommodated it to the psyche — a word that makes a body of water a river rather than an uncontained element. The river before me remains a thing absolutely other, absolutely unbending to the grasp of my mind.

When my friend Penny tells me that she’s curious, or happy, or disappointed, I try laboriously to translate not from English to Polish but from the word back to its source, to the feeling from which it springs. Already, in that moment of strain, spontaneity of response is lost. And anyway, the translation doesn’t work. I don’t know how Penny feels when she talks about envy. The word hangs in a Platonic stratosphere, a vague prototype of all envy, so large, so all-encompassing that it might crush me — as might disappointment or happiness.

I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyway, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, the radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances — its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.

The worst losses come at night. As I lie down in a strange bed in a strange house — my mother is a sort of housekeeper here to the aging Jewish man who has taken us in in return for her services — I wait for that spontaneous flow of inner language which used to be my nighttime talk with myself, my way of informing the ego where the id had been. Nothing comes. Polish, in a short time, has atrophied, shriveled from sheer uselessness. Its words don’t apply to my new experiences; they’re not coeval with any of the objects, or faces, or the very air I breathe in the daytime. In English, words have not penetrated to those layers of my psyche from which a private conversation could proceed. This interval before sleep used to be the time when my mind became both receptive and alert — when images and words rose up to consciousness, reiterating what had happened during the day, adding the day’s experiences to those already stored there, spinning out the thread of my personal story.

Now, this picture-and-word show is gone; the thread has been snapped.[...]

From her undergraduate years at Rice, in Houston:

I’m sitting in a bracingly uncomfortable chair in the Rice University library, reading slowly, laboriously. The chestnut tree in the [last] stanza summons my private chestnut tree, and the last line moves me all on its own, because that’s what it’s like to play the piano, in those moments when I can no longer tell whether I’m playing the music or the music is playing me. But what does “bole” mean, or “blear-eyed,” or “midnight oil”? I have only the vaguest idea, and by the time I look up these words in a dictionary and accomplish the translation from the sounds to their definition, it’s hard to reinsert them into the flow of the lines, the seamless sequence of musical meaning. I concentrate intensely, too intensely, and the lines come out straight and square, though I intuit a beauty that’s only an inflection away.

After her postgraduate study at Harvard:

I’ve become obsessed with words. I gather them, put them away like a squirrel saving nuts for winter, swallow them and hunger for more. If I take in enough, then maybe I can incorporate the language, make it part of my psyche and my body. I will not leave an image unworded, will not let anything cross my mind till I find the right phrase to pin the shadow down. Each week, as I drive a route of leafy New England roads to teach a class at the University of New Hampshire, my head heats up as if the circuitry were overloaded. “Beveled, chiseled, sculpted, ribbed”, I think as a wooden lampstand I liked flashes through my mind. [...]

The thought that there are parts of the language I’m missing can induce a small panic in me, as if such gaps were missing parts of the world or my mind—as if the totality of the world and mind were coeval with the totality of the language. Or rather, as if language were an enormous, fine net in which reality is contained—and if there are holes in it, then a bit of reality can escape, cease to exist. When I write, I want to use every word in the lexicon, to accumulate a thickness and weight of words so that they yield the specific gravity of things. I want to recreate, from the discrete particles of words, that wholeness of a childhood language that had no words.

I pounce on bits of colloquial idiom, those slivers of Americana in which the cultural sensibility is most vivid, as if they could give me America itself. “Hair of the dog that bit me,” I repeat to myself with relish; “pork-barreling”; “I’m from Missouri, show me”; “He swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.” When I speak, I’m awkward in using such homely familiarities; I still feel the presumption in it. But in writing, I claim territorial prerogative. Perhaps if I cast my net wide enough, it will cover the whole continent.

I’d love to keep on quoting — the section beginning “It’s as important to me to speak well as to play a piece of music without mistakes,” or how she cracks “the last barrier between myself and the language” while reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — but I’ll reluctantly let it go at that. Thanks for nudging me to move the book to the top of the pile, John!

As Had They Their Forebears.

I’m reading Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915, by Francis W. Wcislo, which is irritatingly written (e.g., frequently referring to late-nineteenth-century Russians as “Victorians”), though it presents a great deal of interesting material (e.g., the rich widow Anna Rodionovna Chernyshova, godmother to both Emperor Alexander I and Witte’s grandmother Elena Dolgorukaya-Fadeeva, allowed no men on her rural estate, so that when Dolgorukaya-Fadeeva visited in 1816 she had to leave her husband outside the gates); I just hit a sentence so tortured I thought I’d post it and see if anyone can make more sense of it than I:

[Witte's] emergent sensibilities for the hierarchical order of a world shaped by service and patronage would have pleased both grandparents, but much else in their grandson they would have found inchoate, even incomprehensible, as, in their turn, had they their Muscovite forebears.

Does he mean the grandparents found their Muscovite forebears incomprehensible, or their Muscovite forebears would have found them incomprehensible, or what?

Put the Pumpkin in the Boat.

Leon Neyfakh reports on a new dictionary of prison slang:

Before they set about compiling a dictionary of prison slang, the inmates at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, used words like viking (meaning a prisoner with poor personal hygiene) and Cadillac (meaning a cup of coffee with cream and sugar) without thinking about it too hard. But when a group of inmates put their private language under a microscope, they realized the way they use language reflects years of institutional history and serves as a unique window onto their experiences of prison life.

The dictionary—which I first heard about thanks to St. Louis Public Radio—came about as part of a prison education program operated by Saint Louis University and was conceived by English professor Paul Lynch, who volunteers at the Bonne Terre prison, a medium-/maximum-security facility. Inmates opted into the project by signing up for a class and worked on the dictionary with Lynch during two-hour sessions once a month.

Lynch said he introduced his students to the idea of creating their own dictionary by having them read part of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, a book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The idea, Lynch told me, was to show the inmates that a dictionary is not a book of rules but a description of language as it is used in real life at a particular moment in time. “The goal was to make the students see language as something more fluid and evolving than they’re probably accustomed to,” he said.

Step one was to distribute a bunch of index cards to everyone in the class and ask them to write down any words they used on a regular basis that they thought outsiders wouldn’t understand. Lynch asked that each word be accompanied by a definition and an example of how it might be used in a sentence; at the end of the exercise they had a master list of several hundred words. In order to make their task more manageable, they whittled the list down to about 60 words by identifying the ones that were most specific to life at Bonne Terre. That meant more generic terms like shank or the hole were discarded. “Anything that you learn from watching Shawshank Redemption we threw out,” as Lynch explained.

What happened next was essentially a series of classroom debates among inmates: about proper usage, what certain words really mean, and whether some were too outdated to be included. “Guys would get really worked up about it, in a very friendly and constructive way,” Lynch said.

These impassioned discussions revealed, among other things, the generational fault lines that divided the inmate population. There were certain words, Lynch said, that older guys knew that younger ones didn’t and vice versa. [...]

The completed Bonne Terre dictionary now sits in the prison library. And while Lynch declined to share a copy of it with me, he did offer some of his favorite entries, which you can read below.
[...]

boat, n.: A plastic bed that is used when the prison is overcrowded.

pumpkin, n.: A term used for new arrivals at Bonne Terre because they wear orange jumpsuits instead of the gray and tan ones that inmates get after they’ve been processed. (The area where new inmates are processed is called the pumpkin patch.)

My first thought: What a great idea! My second: It’s too bad you have to go to prison to learn to see language as something fluid and evolving. (Well, that or read Languagehat. Or, you know, take a linguistics course, but who does that?) It’s too bad the dictionary isn’t available outside the prison, but maybe the idea will catch on and eventually a Dictionary of U.S. Prison Dialects will be published. (Thanks, Paul!)