Some Links.

1) What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like. James Harbeck’s conceit is “Let’s hop into a time machine and go back to the England of yore!” He makes stops at Shakespeare (a sonnet read by Ben Crystal), Chaucer (read by Diane Jones), a century earlier (a Middle English song performed by the Anonymous 4), and Beowulf; don’t get excited (as I did) when the machine goes back to the time of King Arthur — there’s no reconstructed Old Brythonic. Instead, we get the Breton singer Nolwenn Leroy singing about three young sailors. And the video clips are in the wrong order, which is a bit annoying. But it’s worth it to hear Benjamin Bagby’s stentorian rendition of “Hwæt! We Gardena…”

2) Stan Carey has a nice post about Yeats’s handwriting (which “resembles a mouse’s electrocardiogram” according to Daniel Albright), spelling, and punctuation, featuring a quote from Albright’s preamble to the Everyman Library edition of Yeats’s poems which he edited:

[…] I suppose that Yeats was too ignorant of punctuation to make his deviations from standard practice significant. Although Yeats surely wished to make his canon a text worthy of reverence, he conceived poetry as an experience of the ear, not of the eye. He could not spell even simple English words; he went to his grave using such forms as intreage [‘intrigue’] and proffesrship. His eyesight was so poor that he gave up fiction-writing because the proof-reading was too strenuous. Finally, Yeats himself admitted, ‘I do not understand stops. I write my work so completely for the ear that I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas’.

3) The wilderness library, by P. Sainath: “At 73, P.V. Chinnathambi runs one of the loneliest libraries anywhere. In the middle of the forested wilderness of Kerala’s Idukki district, the library’s 160-books — all classics — are regularly borrowed, read, and returned by poor, Muthavan adivasis.” Great photos. (Thanks, Trevor!)

4) The meaning and origin of the expression: At sixes and sevens. says about all that can be said about this mysterious phrase. (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. Stan Carey has a nice post about Yeats’s handwriting

    We’re to take your word for it, I suppose?

  2. Whoops! Fixed (along with a typo I missed the first time around — I blame this wretched cold).

  3. Stan’s piece about Yeats is an interesting contrast to the recent recollection by Mary Norris on the New Yorker’s rigorous punctuation style. The New Yorker is all about logic and, to my mind, punctuates in a way that is fussy and unpleasing to eye and ear. Morris is quite disdainful of those who punctuate by ear — she clearly regards them as unsophisticated yokels.

  4. The complete article on the village library is here; the copy you linked to leaves out the last three grafs.

    Note that adivasi means ‘member of a tribe’, and panchayat is the village council. Unetymologically, such councils must have at least 7 members but no more than 17.

  5. “village council, or rather the domain of its authority”

  6. The New Yorker is all about logic and, to my mind, punctuates in a way that is fussy and unpleasing to eye and ear. Morris is quite disdainful of those who punctuate by ear — she clearly regards them as unsophisticated yokels.

    Yes, I didn’t much care for that article (though it was, of course, a fascinating look behind the scenes), and I felt Morris is one of those editors who shouldn’t be allowed to work on fiction. Commas have driven her quite batty.

    The Ian Frazier piece that followed it, however, was sheer delight.

  7. Or non-fiction either. Consider the appalling ignorance of this:

    A while later, a reader wrote in objecting to the commas in this opening sentence of a piece by Marc Fisher: “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” The gist of that sentence is that at Horace Mann students enjoyed interacting with their crazy teachers. But if all you see when you read it is the commas, you miss that. Close punctuation is not meant as a guide to stops and starts, like Dickens’s and Melville’s commas. The New Yorker isn’t asking you to pause and gasp for breath at every comma. That’s not what close punctuation is about. The commas are marking a thoughtful subordination of information. I really don’t see how any of them could be done without.

    The reason they can all be done without is that the rule for setting off non-restrictive (aka incidental) clauses with commas applies to clauses, not prepositional phrases. Would she write “I walked into City Hall, on Elm Street, at 11:00 AM?” Surely there is only one City Hall in a city, and we take it for granted that you enter it only once on a given day, unless you are a messenger.

  8. Would she write “I walked into City Hall, on Elm Street, at 11:00 AM?”

    I greatly fear the answer to that is “Yes.”

  9. Norris: “When a writer who is not a poet invokes rhythm, copy editors often exchange looks.”
    Why? Because copy editors know they understand rhythm better than writers who aren’t poets do? Because rhythm is less important than house style? Because prose isn’t supposed to have rhythm in the first place?

  10. Yeah, she’s the kind of editor who makes writers hate editors. Talk about hubris.

  11. Yes, her thoughts on prose style are like music commentary by someone with a tin ear.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Traditional French prose uses lots of commas and distributes prepositional phrases at various possible places in a complex sentence. More recent prose (especially journalistic) follows English style in having a more rigid placement for such phrases and in omitting commas. This does not make the new prose more easily understandable or enjoyable.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reminds me of a story about Yeats which unfortunately I remember a bit imperfectly (my main motive for mentioning it is the hope that someone will have the ipsissima verba):

    On hearing An Actor reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”:

    “I had the devil of a job getting that into verse and he read it just as if it was prose!”

  14. “I’m going to read my poems with great emphasis upon their rhythm,” says Yeats in the first segment, recorded in 1932, “and that may seem strange if you are not used to it. I remember the great English poet William Morris coming in a rage out of some lecture hall, where somebody had recited a passage out of his Sigurd the Volsung. ‘It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble,’ said Morris, ‘to get that thing into verse!’ It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”

    Of course, Yeats may well have said this on more than occasion. (Pedagogical note: Googling for [the devil of a job Yeats Innisfree] found this as the first hit. The term “power user” has been defined as “someone with the wit to type more than one word into a search engine”.)

  15. I quite agree with Morris and Yeats, and I can’t stand the way most actors read poetry.

  16. Henk Metselaar says:

    When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers

    Playing by ear, i’d have retained the comma before everyone. And in hubris-mode might have made a comment on the stacking of prepositional phrases (thank goodness I’m not an editor).

    In Dutch we have an idiom that exactly describes this: ‘kommaneuken’ (comma fucking, fussing about irrelevant details and thereby greatly annoy others). Also ‘mierenneuken’ (ant fucking), because, well, we’re promiscuous speakers.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    @John Cowan:

    Most grateful for your instruction in Googling. More than one word, eh? Would never have thought of it …

  18. David Eddyshaw says:


    I may (from JC’s research) have imagined the Actor as the villain of the piece, no doubt based on my own prejudice in the matter, which you evidently share.

    Actors rarely seem to be much good at reading anything but dramatic verse, on account of being determined to read everything else *as* dramatic verse. Though I suppose that the blame partly lies with the organizers of poetry readings who are under the horrible misapprehension that actors are particularly fitted to read poetry in general.

    I’m sure there must be legions of honourable exceptions who are able to get out of the way and let the verse speak for itself. They probably just don’t get invited to read poetry.

    There’s a recording of TS Eliot himself reading the Waste Land which is positively the opposite of dramatic. He was evidently at one with Yeats and Morris in this.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    On the other hand I read somewhere an account by someone who’d heard John Berryman reciting his own verse; apparently Berryman used very much to get into character (Mr Bones et al) and the writer of the article found this quite illuminating in trying to make sense of his polyphonic poetry.

    I can imagine it …

  20. David E: It was mere generalized snark, not aimed at you in particular. I do grow annoyed with the trope of saying that one has no time to look something up, when it would be as fast or faster to actually look it up than to write so.

  21. Bathrobe says:

    When I was much much younger, I got a kick out of rewriting poetry as prose and finding that yes, it did actually make sense when it wasn’t organised into lines! And when read out that way what it gained in intelligibility it lost in poetry… 🙂

  22. I’ve had surprising success as a copywriter writing first drafts in blank verse. Not always appropriate, and of course you can’t be too precious about it (especially during the editing/feedback phase), but I found it a useful scaffolding for a certain declamatory style that made sense for some projects.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    @John Cowan:

    Thanks. I declare myself mollified.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    Given that everybody here doubtless also reads Language Log, you’ve probably all seen this already, but it seems germane to the discussion

  25. Rodger C says:

    @Matt: Do you mean blank verse or free verse?

  26. I do grow annoyed with the trope of saying that one has no time to look something up, when it would be as fast or faster to actually look it up than to write so.

    But people differ in search skills, and it’s not a matter of laziness or stupidity. An old friend of mine just wrote me saying “We’re going to Leipzig on Friday. … I was thinking it might be fun to visit Brugmann’s grave. Problem is I can’t find it. Can you?” I googled [Karl Brugmann 1919 Friedhof] and found the answer in about two seconds. But that’s because I’m good at searching and he’s not. He’s extremely intelligent (we were in grad school together). He also can’t proofread to save his life, though he knows how to spell. People are different, we all have gaps in our abilities, and it’s an easy pitfall to assume that the ways in which one excels are natural and anyone who fails in them just isn’t trying.

  27. But people differ in search skills

    I don’t deny that, and indeed your example is a tough one to find using English alone; I had to give up on it (there is a Karl Brugmann at, but he’s the wrong one). There is a Pfft.en article on the Südfriedhof Leipzig, but under its German name rather than, say, “South Cemetery”. But it was the trope I was talking about, which always generates the suspicion in me that the author is trying to say “I can’t be bothered to look things up” as a way of communicating that they’re a regular person and no geek.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    I myself often find it quite enjoyable to do a bit of searching to shed some light on an interesting question someone has raised en passant. It can seem a bit dull to deny others this pleasure by simply presenting a link straight off; moreover I find that others frequently turn up things that I would never have found under my own steam because my original concept was too narrow.

    Furthermore, it’s perfectly possible to be a lazy geek. Experto crede …

  29. Trond Engen says:

    When I about twice in a while claim to be too lazy to search it’s not the effort that’s impeding me but the estimated time needed to sift through the results. But when I do have the time I enjoy it.

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    I am palaeolithic enough, I must admit, that I have never totally shaken off the wholly irrational feeling that Googling for answers is in some way cheating. I still have the atavistic notion somewhere that someone will just *know*, or that they will be able to answer my question after a short visit to their extensive library of (largely leather-bound) books …

    I’ve never actually tried asserting that I was a regular person. I just expect that to be obvious, and indeed it must be, because nobody ever seems to feel the need to say it.

  31. Indeed, to directly proclaim yourself a regular person is to advertise your lack of regularness, hence the creation of such tropes. I meant to link “regular person” to the DFW post, but forgot. (The phrase used there is “regular guy”, but I understand this to have a different meaning in Rightpondia — or is this worry obsolete?)

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    Many of us in these Latter Days of the Law have acquired sufficient passive knowledge of Leftpondian to be unfazed by the locution.

    Indeed, as you say, self-proclamation of regularity is somewhere between attempted deceit and self-contradiction.

    I think I did initially rather miss the US nuance of “regular guy”, which I was interpreting as “normal person”, a kindred but quite distinct concept.

  33. @Rodger: Blank. To a first approximation, da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. (The final version shouldn’t be that obvious, of course.)

  34. self-proclamation of regularity

    The sort of thing one presumes is generally shared with one’s gastroenterologist.

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    They’re busy people, gastroenterologists. They would surely feel that regular guys were unworthy of their time.

  36. op tipping says:

    The article has a somewhat trollish headline, intended to entice bemused or furious people wondering what kind of English a non-English speaking fictional character really spoke.
    That kind of thing can backfire. Some people would choose not to read an article whose headline implies a grave error on the author’s part.

  37. fisheyed says:

    Note that adivasi means ‘member of a tribe’,

    Adivasi means ancient (adi) resident (vasi). It can be used as an adjective (adivasi settlement, adivasi paintings), so I don’t think “member” is quite right.

  38. J. W. Brewer says:

    If you want to signal that you genuinely are bad at finding stuff on the internet, not just feigning regular-guyness, it may be helpful for the nature of the thing you can’t figure out by your own googling to undermine any possibility of regular-guyness. Saying, just for example, “I was thinking it might be fun to visit Brugmann’s grave” seems like an excellent way to remove the feigning-regular-guyness hypothesis from further consideration.


  1. […] resist sharing this last gem, on the New Yorker’s relationship with commas – a subject of continuing interest (and occasional vexation) in editing and reading […]

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