UNHAPPY MEDIUM AND LANGUAGE OBSESSION.

I love being able to check referral logs and Technorati, because they introduce me to things I might not otherwise find. The latest is Unhappy Medium, the blog of a woman who had been anonymous but is now using her name, Elizabeth Little, because “I no longer have a real job, which means that I no longer fear for my gainful employment. In fact, as a full-time freelancer, I have come to accept the fact that I will never again have truly gainful employment.” (These words describe my situation as well.) She has a book coming out in November, Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, which sounds like a lot of fun:

Biting the Wax Tadpole is my take on comparative linguistics, a fresh, irreverent look at the languages of the world. …[I]f you’re the sort of person who has always believed yourself to be incapable of learning a new language – or even if you’ve just been bored to tears by all the soul-killing grammar classes you’ve suffered though – then you’re the reason I wrote this book. It’s designed to be as accessible and enjoyable as possible, without resorting to the sort of pandering condescension that you find in so many guides to style. Instead of warning against grammatical errors, I revel in them. The way I see it, there’s far more pleasure to be had in fucking up than in grim perfection.
I also wrote the book because if there’s anything in this world that I truly love, it’s language… Although I’m well aware that you probably don’t want to spend your free time rifling through Yoruba grammars, that’s not enough to keep me from standing outside your window with the equivalent of Peter Gabriel on a boombox, doing my best to convince you that language is far more exciting and entertaining than your teachers ever made it out to be.

You tell ’em! And she got the book contract because the publisher saw this essay, “Ablative, Allative, Adessive, Obsessive,” in the NY Times (which I had missed when it came out because I tend to skip the Travel section); it’s a very enjoyable read:

I don’t exactly have the usual collection of literary classics and popular nonfiction. Instead, I have language books. A lot of language books. Several shelves of them, in fact, and they’re not exactly useful titles like French in 30 Seconds or Spanish on the Go. My books are more along the lines of Beginning Dutch, An Introduction to Sanskrit, Practical Mongolian…
The fact of the matter is that foreign-language primers and grammars are my version of a bodice-ripping pirate romance: a guilty pleasure I’d love to hide but can’t quite make go away. I relish conjugation tables and declension charts. I thrill to morphophonemics, glottochronology, perfectiveness.

It can cause problems on dates (“It was only recently that I was in the company of a rather attractive young man and had the bright idea to pull a hefty comparative grammar out of my bag to illustrate the exciting complexities of Finno-Ugric locatives”), but on the whole, it’s a pretty good obsession to have. (But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I?)

Comments

  1. Hm. Nice hair too.

  2. I understand “gainful employment” to mean working for money — I sincerely hope that you and Elizabeth Little are managing to do that, even if you are not technically “employees”. Working for little, as the poet says, is better nor laiking.
    As for Conrad, he is following his great predecessor by pretending to be a cad.

  3. aldiboronti says:

    Now why couldn’t I have met a girl like that when I was young? (Looks guiltily over shoulder to check wife is not around).

  4. I am a young grad student and I am having the darndest time finding other geeky young women to date. I go out with people working on their Ph.D.’s in the humanities and they beg me not to talk “shop.” What a turn-off.

  5. I would be completely wooed if an attractive young man were to consider the possibilities of Finno-Ugric locatives. I mean, I already have some opinions on them, but it would be great to discuss!

  6. A Shavian, am I? I hadn’t considered it, but now I’m flattered!
    What’s more, I seem to have brought out the geeky beast in everyone. Should Ms. Little ever happen to find herself lonely again, there should be a surfeit of email addresses on offer here. A triumph!

  7. SnowLeopard says:

    I, for one, am glad I brought this up on first dates, because it helped separate the wheat from the chaff. After all, my wife was recently called upon to endure my urgent “need” to listen to Pimsleur Korean CDs 90 minutes a day for a month in anticipation of a business trip. She did it with fortitude and good cheer, but can’t say she wasn’t warned.

  8. I’m having a hard time believing she actually exists. Such belief could reaffirm my faith in the universe’s capacity for Good Things. I guess that’s what I come here for, but this was particularly striking.

  9. For me, one of the saddest things I’ve ever encountered is being among speakers of an endangered minority language, only to be told that my interest in their language–far from being welcome and appreciated–was pretty nerdy and I would do better to get a “real job”.

  10. Richard Hershberger says:

    “I go out with people working on their Ph.D.’s in the humanities and they beg me not to talk “shop.” What a turn-off.
    The more I think about this, the sadder it is. The usual reason for not talking shop is that your day job is what you do to pay the rent, and when you aren’t working you want to talk about your passions. So someone working on a PhD in the humanities considers this “shop”? Umm… Why are you in this program, then? Obviously it isn’t for lucrative future income, or you would be in med or law school.
    I can see how talking about the process of working within the bureaucracy or defending one’s thesis or dealing with professors could qualify as “shop” but if the actual subject matter doesn’t get the juices flowing, perhaps it is time to re-examine one’s career.

  11. Who needs to go all the way to Greek for the dual, when it’s right here in English? Well, OK, maybe it’s not in use right now–temporarily obsolescent, let’s say–I’m sure it’ll revive any day now.

  12. Well, let’s bring it back. Start saying wit for “we two” and yit for “you two,” everybody!

  13. michael farris says:

    “only to be told that my interest in their language–far from being welcome and appreciated–was pretty nerdy and I would do better to get a “real job””
    a few thoughts (which I’m sure you’re already aware of but which might give some context to others here):
    It’s not uncommon for minority groups to be cold or even hostile to interested outsiders. Often this is a temporary state until the outsider can gain some kind of cred with them, sometimes it’s not.
    Some groups are adamant in not wanting outsiders to know anything about their language, even if one consequence of that is to endanger the language more.
    A group that’s started the process of language shift (whether ‘voluntary’ or not) may not welcome an interested outsider who’ll bring to the surface a lot of issues (and second thoughts and regrets) that the group in question would mostly like to not dwell on in its pursuit of the better life promised by the language they’re dumping their old one for (any perceived sarcasm is fully intended).

  14. Michael, it’s not that. Even the nationalists I met thought my studies were lame. It’s part of a general anti-intellectualism present in all societies, plus the thought that I’m somehow setting myself up for a lifetime of poverty (since university staff in their country only makes a few tens of dollars a month).

  15. michael farris says:

    “Even the nationalists I met thought my studies were lame”
    Nationalists? Endangered language? I’m trying hard to get my head around those two concepts and failing without having more specifics (and fully understand and approve if you can’t or just don’t want to supply them at this stage).
    Maybe they were onto something? Sorry, that was too much like a cheap shot (not my intention, really). But what was the nationalist attitude toward the language and the future? Maybe they were more ambitious about things than you were? Or maybe they didn’t perceive the language as endangered? (I’ve come to distrust the ‘endangered’ meme as dangerously self-fulfilling and would go to some lengths to keep that label away from any minority language I was working with). And my thoughts in the face of universal dismissal would probably be to rethink some assumptions and priorities but again without specifics (which you may not be at liberty to disclose) it’s hard to say.
    I do know that working with the remnants of small languages that are no longer being learned by the young is a brutal business and not for the faint of heart. I know I don’t have the fortitude to deal with it. I did a review for a book on ‘endangered languages’ some years ago that was heartbreaking.

  16. 1) Female language geeks like Elizabeth Little really exist!? Oh, be still, my heart!
    2) I agree with Richard Herschberger: for grad students not to wish to discuss their work in informal settings/gatherings (which indeed seems to be the case with the vast majority of them, in my experience at any rate) is indeed very sad. Moreover, the same is true of a huge number of professors, many of whom, one senses, never really cared about their research topics.
    Whenever I am asked by someone whether (s)he should go for a PhD., I always offer the following GEDANKEXPERIMENT: imagine you become a billionaire tomorrow. Would you still want to research your topic (perhaps in a mansion rather than in a University)? Iff the answer is yes, then grad school is for you.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    English retains more of the dual than Standard Average European: either. Then there’s both, the dual of all, which is generally present in SAE but absent in French and in my dialect of German.

    GEDANKEXPERIMENT

    You missed the syllabic [ŋ]: GEDANKENEXPERIMENT.

  18. both is translated in French as tou(te)s les deux (‘all the two’), perfectly parallel to the pattern for higher numbers, but I’ve never encountered tou(te)s (tout court) applied to two of anything. I’ve always wondered whether it happens, but have never succeeded in getting the point of this question across to someone who’d know.

  19. Where’s the syllabic [ŋ] in Gedankenexperiment?

  20. I presume in David’s dialect the -en after Gedank is pronounced that way. Sounds weird to me too.

  21. Lars (the original one) says:

    UnhappyMedium.com is now for sale for $4,888 as a Super Premium domain — I hope (probably in vain) that Elizabeth Little got / will get some of that money if it sells!

  22. Man, I hate clicking on old links and discovering they’ve been vacuumed up by domain peddlers. I know it’s inevitable, but it still pisses me off.

  23. January First-of-May says:

    From the linked NYT article…

    Most recently, I’ve been reading a guide to colloquial Tibetan. It was first published in 1894, so the sample phrases aren’t so much “How do I make a long-distance call?” as they are “Blowing air into this yak skin, we shall have a raft.” I won’t pretend that it is particularly practical; I can’t pretend that it’s remotely cool.

    …I find it hard to see anything not cool in the idea of blowing air into a yak skin to get a raft.
    (Or in the idea of a guide to colloquial Tibetan, for that matter, though there I’m probably in an even smaller minority.)

    And yes, link rot is both quite inevitable and very sad. I actually find it nice when a link over a decade old does resolve to a still-existing page without the use of the Internet Archive – and especially sad when, as occasionally happens, it doesn’t resolve even with its use.

    (I’ve had a particularly sad example last year when I was writing a blog post on YouTube history; it took me several months to get around to finishing it, and one of the ten-year-old forum comments I used as a source for a particular claim ended up disappearing over those months. I didn’t think to save it in Internet Archive – in retrospect, I should have – so to any people reading my post the source is gone forever.)

  24. @January First-of-May: Do you mean the Wayback Machine?

    In spite of having watched some old episodes of Rocky and Bullwinkle, I don’t think I have ever seen a Mr. Peabody and Sherman sketch. For years, I only knew if the “Wayback Machine” as an enigmatic reference that Flynn made in TRON.

  25. Elizabeth Little looks pretty interesting.

    From her new website:

    Elizabeth Little was born and raised in St. Louis and graduated from Harvard University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications, and she has been featured on All Things Considered, The World, and Here and Now. She has written two works of nonfiction: Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (Melville House, 2007) and Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages (Bloomsbury, 2012). Dear Daughter (Viking, 2014), her debut novel, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and has been published worldwide. Dear Daughter was nominated for the Barry and Macavity Awards for Best First Novel, longlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger, and won the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel. Her next novel, Dissolve, will be published in 2019. Elizabeth lives in Los Angeles with her family.

    I will look at “Dear Daughter” – sounds like exact type of thriller I enjoy reading.

  26. Let us know if it’s good — I have an aunt who loves that kind of thing, and I’ll need a Christmas present for her!

  27. Most recently, I’ve been reading a guide to colloquial Tibetan. It was first published in 1894, so the sample phrases aren’t so much “How do I make a long-distance call?” as they are “Blowing air into this yak skin, we shall have a raft.” I won’t pretend that it is particularly practical; I can’t pretend that it’s remotely cool.

    My grandmother’s copy of “Zulu for the Household” (Cape Town, 1909) included all sorts of useful phrases for the British colonial lady wishing to instruct her monoglot Zulu staff. Two that stick in my mind are “Put the remainder of the rice pudding in the refrigerator” and “These shirts are insufficiently starched”.

  28. How does Zulu form the verb meaning “to starch”?

  29. It’s borrowed, as you might expect: tasha. The noun is isitashi, and the verb can be expressed as faka isitashi.

  30. Burmese Self-Taught was written in 1894 for colonial administrators and is pretty rude in tone.

    Apparently the only Burmese the English needed to know consisted of phrases like:

    Make haste! (ah-lyin pyoo-bah)

    Come here! (dee-goh lah-geh)

    Come back! (pyahn lah-geh)

    Be silent! (tayt-tayt nay)

    Get up! (htah-lik, htah-bah)

    Are you not ashamed? (mah shet-hpoo:-lah)

    You are to blame (ah-pyit-tinzah-yah kowng:-thee)

    But in its weird way, the book is very practical for intended readership.

    “Byahndee-ah-yet tah-hkwet pay:-bah! Ah-lyin pyoo-bah!” (Give me a glass of brandy! Make haste!)

  31. January First-of-May says:

    @January First-of-May: Do you mean the Wayback Machine?

    I was, in fact, referring to what is also known as the Wayback Machine. Not being familiar with Peabody & Sherman or with TRON, I always found the name “Internet Archive” (which actually belongs to the overarching site) much more fitting.

  32. ajay: My grandmother’s copy of “Zulu for the Household” (Cape Town, 1909) included… “Put the remainder of the rice pudding in the refrigerator”

    And yet Wiki has the domestic fridge being invented in Indiana in 1913. If it was some kind of ice box, apparently there’s snow about 100 km from Capetown. https://www.capetownetc.com/outdoors/where-to-see-the-snow-this-weekend/

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