Everything You Know Is Wrong.

As I suggested here, I’ve started Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, and I confess that so far I’m underwhelmed; he has interesting things to say, but as I wrote at Tom’s site: “I’m not nearly as interested in the apocalypse as he is — I mean, it’s an interesting concept that has been important to some writers, but he seems to me to be greatly exaggerating its importance to literature in general.” He also is far more interested in Robbe-Grillet than pretty much anybody has been in the last few decades, a peril of trying to deal with contemporary literature. But it’s interesting enough to carry me along, and now that I’ve gotten to chapter 2, I thought I’d quote the epigraphs (every chapter has its set of epigraphs) and make a few comments:

What can be thought must certainly be a fiction.

…the nicer knowledge of
Belief, that what it believes in is not true.
      Wallace Stevens

Who can deny that things to come are not yet?
Yet already there is in the mind an expectation
of things to come.
      St. Augustine

C’est par l’effort et le désir que nous avons fait connaissance avec le temps; nous gardons l’habitude d’estimer le temps selon nos désirs, nos efforts, notre volonté propre.
      Guyau, La genèse de l’idée de temps [My edition has the incorrect “Le genèse”; I don’t know whether the fault is Kermode’s or the publisher’s.]

The idea implied by the first two quotes has long fascinated me; perhaps the canonical expression in my head is the quote from the immortal Firesign Theatre that I have used as my post title. But I have questions. Why is Guyau (Jean-Marie Guyau, who sounds like a very interesting fellow — any friend of Kropotkin’s is a friend of mine — and about whom I am glad to learn) given in the original French, while Nietzsche and Augustine are in translation? (Nietzsche’s original is “was gedacht werden kann, muß sicherlich eine Fiktion sein”; Augustine’s is “quis igitur negat futura nondum esse? sed tamen iam est in animo expectatio futurorum.”) And why is so parsimonious a snippet of Stevens provided that you can’t make out what he’s saying? (It’s from section III of “The Pure Good of Theory”: “Yet to speak of the whole world as metaphor/ Is still to stick to the contents of the mind// And the desire to believe in a metaphor./ It is to stick to the nicer knowledge of/ Belief…”) At any rate, here are a couple of suggestive snippets from the chapter:

Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time, illud tempus as Eliade calls it; fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now, hoc tempus.
. . .

So my suggestion is that literary fictions belong to Vaihinger’s category of ‘the consciously false.’ They are not subject, like hypotheses, to proof or disconfirmation, only, if they come to lose their operational effectiveness, to neglect. They are then thrown, in Stevens’s figure, on to the ‘dump’—’to sit among mattresses of the dead.’ In this they resemble the fictions of science, mathematics, and law, and differ from those of theology only because religious fictions are harder to free from the mythical ‘deposit.’ […]
If we forget that fictions are fictive we regress to myth (as when the Neo-Platonists forgot the fictiveness of Plato’s fictions and Professor Frye forgets the fictiveness of all fictions).

Nice zinger at the end there, though I have no idea what passage of Frye’s is being zinged. Tom’s last two posts, by the way, are here and here; he says “Please come back in early November for more literary criticism, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which will, I hope, be over my head in different ways than The Sense of an Ending.”

Chinook Wawa.

Back in early 2003 I posted about Chinook Jargon, but there were only four comments (two of them by me) and the linked site is dead, so it’s time to revisit the subject. Diane Selkirk of BBC Travel writes about her experience with it:

Like many from British Columbia, I grew up with an easy familiarity with a handful of strange words. They were terms I always thought were common English, but they turned out to be unknown beyond the boundaries of my Pacific Coast home. I later learned that words like potlatch, saltchuck, kanaka, skookum, sticks, muckamuck, tyee and cultus were from a near-forgotten language that was once spoken by more than 100,000 people, from Alaska to the California border, for almost 200 years.

Known as Chinook Jargon or Chinook Wawa (‘wawa’ meaning talk), this was a trade, or pidgin, language that combined simplified words from the First Nations languages of Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Chinook and others, as well as from French and English. It was used so extensively that it was the language of courts and newspapers in the Pacific Northwest from about 1800 to 1905. Some Chinook Wawa still exists in place names and slang, but the meanings are so deeply buried in Pacific Northwest culture that the words come with more of a feeling than a definition, and most residents can’t say which language the terms evolved from. […]

Chinook Wawa was developed to ease trade in a place where there was no common language. On the Pacific Coast at the time, there were dozens of First Nations languages, including Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka’wakw, Salishan and Chinook. After European contact, which included Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, English, French, Spanish, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese were gradually added to the mix.

While pidgin languages usually draw most of their vocabulary from the prestige language, or colonising culture, unusually, in the case of Chinook Wawa, two thirds of the language is Chinook and Nuu-chah-nulth with the rest being made up mostly of English and French.

She mentions various theories about how Chinook Wawa arose, but I expect several of my commenters will be more informed about the matter, so I will leave it up to them to discuss it. At any rate, there’s a lot more about the history of the language, as well as some nice photos. Thanks, Trevor!


Stan Carey investigates the popular catchphrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” (which, as every schoolboy knows, does not occur in the Conan Doyle canon). It seems to have been created and spread by P.G. Wodehouse in his 1915 novel Psmith, Journalist. As Stan says, “if you quote Sherlock Holmes as saying ‘Exactly, my dear Watson’ – which he really does say in Conan Doyle’s stories – there’s a good chance your listener will ‘correct’ you, so entrenched is the elementary version.”

Also (speaking of canons), I realize the intensely allusive, forbiddingly learned style of criticism epitomized by Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (see this LH post) is caviare to the general, but if anyone is interested, Tom of Wuthering Expectations is doing a reading of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (not to be confused with the Julian Barnes novel that borrowed its name), a book I’ve been meaning to read for years and am finally, with the spur of Tom’s example, plunging into; his first post is here. (He just posted on Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, for those who might be interested in that.)

The Fastest-Growing Language in the U.S.

Geoff Pullum has a Lingua Franca post with the hook suggested by the title:

Few would guess correctly if asked which foreign language has the fastest-growing population of speakers in the United States. It is (so Quartz India reported this week) Telugu, a Dravidian language of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states. In 2000, the U.S. had less than 88,000 speakers of Telugu; by last year it was more than 415,000.

He briefly describes the Dravidian languages, then writes:

There’s actually just one other major group of languages with retroflex consonants: many of the Australian Aboriginal languages. You may immediately be thinking, could that be a sign of where the Aborigines came from? Well, yes and no. There does seem to have been an influx of Dravidians into northern Australia, probably Tamils traveling by boat, about 4,000 years ago: About 11 percent of today’s Aborigines seem to have some Dravidian DNA. But four millennia ago is far too recent to account for most of the Australian Aboriginal population. They have been there for more like 50,000 or even 60,000 years, and they would have come ultimately from East Africa, like all the rest of the world’s human population, possibly on foot, via land bridges (that’s controversial). The structure of a stop-consonant system (which can change in a couple of millennia) cannot justify an assumption of kinship. Positing an Australian-Dravidian superfamily would be just fantasy.

I agree with his Afterword: “A slew of Telugu workers in the US has…” is ungrammatical. As he says, “Slew is a typical number-transparent noun, like lot, number, and couple.”

The Last of the Calabrian Greeks.

John Kazaklis reports on a topic that has long fascinated me, the Greek of southern Italy:

There exists today a tiny enclave of Greek-speaking people in the Aspromonte Mountain region of Reggio Calabria that seem to have survived millennia…perhaps since the Ancient Greeks began colonizing Southern Italy in the 8th and 7th Centuries BC. Their language is called Greko. They survived empires, invasions, ecclesial schisms, dictators, nationalistic-inspired assimilation, and much more. Greko is a variety of the Greek language that has been separated from the rest of the Hellenic world for many centuries. There are various population estimates circulating, but after I visited the region in April 2017 and sat down with several community leaders, the clearest estimate of remaining Greko speakers seems to be between 200-300 and numbers continue to decrease.

To help bring more perspective, Greek was the dominant language and ethnic element all throughout what we know today as Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, and Eastern Sicily until the 14th Century. Since then, the spread of Italo-Romance languages, along with geographical isolation from other Greek-speaking regions in Italy, caused the language to evolve on its own in Calabria. This resulted in a separate and unique variety of Greek that is different from what is spoken today in Puglia. […]

There are many theories or schools of thought regarding the origin of the Greko community in Calabria. Are they descendants of the Ancient Greeks who colonized Southern Italy? Are they remnants of the Byzantine presence in Southern Italy? Did their ancestors come in the 15th-16th Centuries from the Greek communities in the Aegean fleeing Ottoman invasion? The best answers to all of those questions are yes, yes, and yes. This means that history has shown a continuous Greek presence in Calabria since antiquity. Even though different empires, governments, and invasions occurred in the region, the Greek language and identity seemed to have never ceased. Once the glorious days of Magna Graecia were over, there is evidence that shows that Greek continued to be spoken in Southern Italy during the Roman Empire. Once the Roman Empire split into East (Byzantine) and West, Calabria saw Byzantine rule begin in the 5th Century. This lasted well into the 11th Century and reinforced the Greek language and identity in the region as well as an affinity to Eastern Christianity.

Today, there is more evidence of a Byzantine legacy rather than an Ancient Greek or Modern Greek footprint.

There’s a great deal more at the link, both history and the current situation, as well as gorgeous photos and a video clip with a brief section in dialect. It ends with an IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: “Greko vs. Griko: Don’t confuse the two. The variation of Greek that is spoken in Calabria (Greko) is different from the variety of Greek spoken in Puglia, known as Griko.”

In Praise of Miss MacIntosh.

I have occasionally come across mentions of Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling as a notoriously long and unreadable novel; this charming essay by Meghan O’Gieblyn makes about as good a case for the defense as is likely to be mounted (first acknowledging the problems the reader faces):

Like the holy books, long novels are more often maligned than read. Critics complain that they’re exasperating or impossible or not worth the time. But in the history of my reading life, I’ve encountered nothing like the caveat lectors surrounding Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. They feel less like user warnings or cautionary tales than being forced to gaze upon the skeletons of those who had previously made the attempt. When it was published in 1965, the critic Peter Prescott gave up after two days, even though his editor offered him four times the normal rate (everyone else had refused). The online reader reviews I found vary between naked revulsion and sheepish endorsement. One Amazon reviewer claims he gave a copy of the twelve-hundred-page novel to each of his friends and promised that if they finished, he would pay for their children’s college education. “I’ve paid for no one’s education!” he writes. Upon Young’s death in 1995, thirty years after the novel was published, the New York Times proclaims it “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.” […]

[Read more…]

Have You Noticed?

A very interesting Quora thread is Have you noticed any change in your native language? The top answer at the moment is from Jose Geraldo Gouvea:

Yes. When I was a kid it was still common to hear ‘standard Brazilian Portuguese’ on radio and television. It was neutral pronunciation, which eschewed the most notable regional features and emphasised on whatever was more widespread or not notably regional. Singers, radio announcers, television hosts, actors, everyone seemed to strive to speak like that. Then, in less than a decade (from 1981–1991) every trace of ‘standard Brazilian Portuguese’ disappeared from mass media. The ‘r’ was not trilled any more (almost like in Spanish), it was softened. People didn’t shy from hissing their final ‘s’ (if they were from Rio) or pronouncing retroflex ‘r’ (if they were from São Paulo). Regional accents ceased to be considered ‘low class’ and suddenly became acceptable, especially Rio and São Paulo dialects (from the cities where most films and television shows are produced). People who still spoke ‘standard’ suddenly sounded ‘funny’. A lot of old pop music became ‘fun’ to hear (it is now considered quaint and ‘bookish’ to hear an old samba sung in standard, because people assume samba, being from Rio, should be sung in carioca dialect). People like me, who didn’t watch much television any more (because I was working 9 to 6 and studying at night) suddenly lost contact with that (because in everyday life we always spoke our dialect, of course) and now sounded ‘funny’ too. Since old habits die hard, people like me, who once strived to forget the dialect and embrace standard are now seen as weirdos. People often comment on my accent that it is ‘good’, which sometimes sounds as an irony, or bewildered praising.

There are a number of answers about Russian, e.g., “a Russian-speaker from Ukraine doensn’t know that there exists a Russian word akimat which is very widely used in Kazakhstan. A Russian speaker from Kazakhstan will not understand the word nardep which is very common in Ukraine.[…] Russian-speakers of Ukraine have invented words like деловодство (делопроизводство in standard Russian) and милозвучность (благозвучие in standard Russian). Those words are never used outside Ukraine” and “With the breakdown of the USSR we also used our last available option of neutral polite address (товарищ).” There are reports about German, Norwegian, Chinese, Turkish, Bengali, Cebuano, and others; it’s fascinating stuff. Thanks, JC!

The Romantic Theory of Language Origin.

I should say up front that I consider Mark Vernon’s Aeon essay “The say of the land” (“Is language produced by the mind? Romantic theory has it otherwise: words emerge from the cosmos, expressing its soul”) an example of what some call “woo,” right up there with reiki and homeopathy (apologies to devotees of those disciplines, but I calls ’em as I sees ’em). But like so much of the vasty and multifarious thought-world of the early nineteenth century, it’s interesting woo, and it’s worth dipping into this stuff even if one has no intention of swallowing it. I note that the author “is a psychotherapist and writer, with a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy and other degrees in theology and in physics,” and he quotes various poets and philosophers, all of whom are sure they have special insight into the Soul of Language by virtue of their complete lack of qualifications other than the ability to speak. With that cynical preface, and without further ado:

In conversation at the Hay Festival in Wales this May, the English poet Simon Armitage made an arresting observation. Discussing the nature of language and why it is so good at capturing the experience of being alive, he said: ‘My feeling is that a lot of the language that we use, and the best language for poetry, comes directly out of the land.’ Armitage was placing himself within the Romantic tradition’s understanding of the origins of language, which argues that words and grammar are not the arbitrary inventions of human brains and minds, but are rather suggested to human beings by nature and the cosmos itself. Language is an excellent way to understand the Universe, because language springs from the things it describes.

The English philosopher Owen Barfield, a member of the Oxford Inklings in the 1930s and ’40s, whose work as a philologist convinced him that the Romantic tradition was broadly right, put it succinctly. Words have soul, he said. They possess a vitality that mirrors the inner life of the world, and this connection is the source of their power. All forms of language implicitly deploy it. Poets are arguably more alert to it because they consciously seek it out.

It’s an insight with radical implications for theories about the origins of language, primarily because the dominant hypotheses in modern science regard words very differently, as soulless signs that act as labels for objects and symbols that facilitate cognitive agility. […]

[Read more…]


I recently heard a nurse use the word troche, which was unfamiliar to me; Merriam-Webster defines it as “a small usually sweetened and flavored medicated material that is designed to be held in the mouth for slow dissolution” and gives the pronunciations “\ˈtrō-kē, British usually ˈtrōsh\.” AHD — which has a fuller etymology: “Back-formation from Middle English trocis, troches (taken as pl.), from Old French trocisse, from Late Latin trochiscus, from Greek trokhiskos, diminutive of trokhos, wheel, from trekhein, to run” — gives only \ˈtrō-kē\ (i.e., TROH-key). But this was an American nurse, and she said \trōsh\. So if you are familiar with this word and use it in speech, where are you from and how do you say it?

Ostrovsky’s Forest.

I hadn’t really been planning to read more Ostrovsky. I’d read and enjoyed several of his early plays and last year read Гроза [The Thunderstorm], which is generally considered his masterpiece; I’m not really a theater person, and I was eager to read more Dostoevsky, but I wanted to take a breather before attacking Бесы [The Devils], so I thought what the hell, I’d give Лес [The Forest] a try. The first act was an enjoyable bit of domestic comedy, with the greedy landowning widow Gurmyzhskaya trying to sell some forest lands to the merchant Vosmibratov while insisting her poor-relation dependent Aksinya (nicknamed Aksyusha) marry the handsome but brainless orphan Aleksei (“Alexis”) Bulanov; Aksyusha and Vosmibratov’s son Pyotr love each other, but Vosmibratov won’t allow Pyotr to marry without a 3,000-ruble dowry, which Gurmyzhskaya is never going to provide — she wants to get the girl off her hands as cheaply as possible. I thought I’d gotten the general idea, and was almost ready to abandon it, but I turned to the second act, and in Scene 2 the play is lifted into another sphere entirely by the appearance of two provincial actors who run into each other while trudging the back roads of Russia looking for work (“Where are you going?” “From Vologda to Kerch, and you?” “From Kerch to Vologda”). Gennady Neshchastlivstev (“Unhappy”) is a tragic actor, Arkady (“Arkasha”) Shchastlivtsev (“Happy”) a comic one; Neshchastlivstev, whose real name turns out to be Gurmyzhsky, is the long-missing nephew of Gurmyzhskaya, who has been talking loudly about her intention to leave him all her wealth.

Neshchastlivstev is one of the great characters of world drama, impulsive, generous, and imperious, without much regard for the feelings of those about him unless they touch his heart. In their first scene together, Shchastlivtsev objects to Neshchastlivstev’s putting his hand on his shoulder, recounting with remembered horror an episode when he was playing the German doctor Fidler in Kukolnik‘s play Князь Михаил Васильевич Скопин-Шуйский [Prince Mikhail Vasilevich Skopin-Shuisky] and the actor playing the hero, Lyapunov, had gotten overexcited and actually thrown him out a window (“I flew three sazhens and broke the door of a women’s dressing room… I could have been a cripple for life!”). Neshchastlivstev enthusiastically says “Эффектно! Надо это запомнить” [Effective! I’ll have to remember that], grabs poor Shchastlivtsev by the collar and pretends he’s about to reenact the scene. Realizing they’re near the estate where he grew up, he insists Shchastlivtsev accompany him so they can both rest up and be well fed for a few days… but Shchastlivtsev will have to pretend to be his servant.

Neshchastlivstev is constantly referring to Shakespeare and quoting Hamlet (he also recites a provocative bit of Schiller’s Robbers at a critical moment), and with his appearance the play becomes Shakespearean and remains so, with a superb mix of comedy and pathos. At one point Aksyusha tries to drown herself, and when Neshchastlivstev rescues her he tells her to forget about her love and become an actress (“They’ll shower you with flowers and gifts… You’ll go onstage a queen and leave as a queen”). He torments the people who need tormenting and helps those who need helping, and the play ends with him telling the old servant Karp (whom he’s been calling by different fish names all along, and who at one point comes out with the marvelous “Живем в лесу, молимся пенью, да и то с ленью” [We live in the forest, we pray to a stump, and that lazily]) “Руку, товарищ!” [Give me your hand, comrade!]. I read with increasing enthusiasm and was sorry when it was over, and I was pleased to see Prince Mirsky’s comment that it “shares with The Thunderstorm the honor of being regarded as his masterpiece.” There’s a terrific performance by the Maly Theater online here, with Aleksandr Yermakov as an unforgettable Neshchastlivstev, and you can read an appreciative review of a Classic Stage performance in English here; there are at least a couple of translations available, though I have no idea how good they are. I’m glad I took a chance on it!