Having received a complaint about the style of my last entry, I herewith provide various alternatives in the hope that one or more may be found suitable.



Let e = the energy required to learn language L to degree of fluency x and E = the energy saved by employing L to degree of fluency x. If E – e > 0, there is positive utility to learning L.
Let A be the set of all languages and B the set of languages related historically to language X. Prove that e (as defined) is less for a language in B than for one in A – B.


The two men sat there in the dark. The younger man was a little red in the face. He watched the lights of the cars going by but his mind seemed to be on something else.
“I’m going to learn French,” he said abruptly.
“Never mind why. It’ll come in handy.” He beckoned the waiter over and ordered another brandy.
The older man set his pipe on the table.
“Just as well you’re not learning Japanese.”
The other man thought this over.
“Why’s that?”
“No relation to English. Hell of a lot tougher.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know.”
The younger man looked baffled.
“Ah, none of it’s real anyhow.”
“Sure it is.” He took another puff from the cooling pipe. “Sure it is.”


Finally his remorse and his rage quieted, and his wild rapt angry voice no longer pounded irresistibly upon all who came in contact with him. He walked tirelessly over the countryside, over the ancient hills with their bloodsoaked soil, and when he reached the top of a hill he would look far off in the distance and strain to make out whether if he kept walking in that direction he might reach another land, one where the blood was less or was buried deeper, and he asked himself whether he might start anew, make a new life for himself in another land where people didn’t even speak his language, and wondered whether at his age he could learn another, whether he might accustom himself to the unfathomable difference of a way of talking that had nothing in common with his own, spoken by people who had never had any truck with the inexhaustible grief layered by history over the black earth that swallowed up his footsteps as though they were as unreal as his unfulfilled hopes.

Russian novel:

The two men waiting for the train at the ramshackle station deep in N— province were not unknown to each other, but rarely had occasion to converse. Nikolai Aleksandrovich Passatizhin was a collegiate secretary, the only man of rank within a score of versts of the provincial town; even in Nizhnii Novgorod or Tver, to say nothing of Petersburg itself, he would have been ignored as too low-ranking to be worth even glancing at, but in these backwoods regions he was almost unapproachably respectable. The other man, Sergei Prokhorovich Ploskogubtsev, was a minor landowner whose estate manager robbed him at every opportunity and whose few serfs could never be bothered to gather crops, preferring to lie about drinking and blaspheming. He longed for the civilized conversation he imagined was to be found in the great cities of the Empire; he was only going a few stops himself, to the provincial capital to arrange another mortgage, and envied the collegiate secretary, who was traveling all the way to Petersburg. He took advantage of their momentary status as fellow travelers to open a conversation.
“Tell me, Nikolai Aleksandrovich, what do you make of the, er, I mean to say, the state of things? In general, that is to say?” He felt obscurely that he might have come up with a more promising question, but was too agitated by his own daring to worry further. Fortunately, the collegiate secretary did not seem offended, and immediately turned to him and replied.
“Vous voyez, mon cher Serge, que dans notre pauvre Russie tout est tardif, personne ne sait même de quoi on parle en Varsovie ou Copenhague; Paris ou Londres, c’est une autre planète. Moi, je censure le manque de connaissance de langues de la part de la population; il faut qu’on apprenne l’anglais, l’allemand, et bien entendu le français dans toutes les écoles de la Russie, et—pourquoi pas?—le tatare et le toungouse aussi; bien que ce ne soient pas des langues civilisées, elles diffèrent tellement à l’égard de l’histoire et de la structure qu’elles élevraient nos esprits et nous feraient vraiment capable de n’importe quoi.”
Sergei Prokhorovich nodded glumly and remained silent. He had not understood a single word.


  1. I’m a fan of Bill already. Are there any of his books that you particularly recommend?

  2. I dunno, Jonathan Yardley recommends this

  3. Er, recommends what?

  4. How you remain content editing books and not writing them yourself is beyond me. This is hysterical, and I hope a presage of great things to come at Language Hat.

  5. Sorry, a bit too laconic. Yardley recommends The Reivers, by ole’ Bill. (unless I was way off in whose style you were writing in)
    Apropos to that, Faulkner is cited as the guiding light for an interesting new combi-blog, the American Street

  6. The Faulkner was good, but the Hemingway was bloody brilliant. Cheers.

  7. Not a matter of being laconic — your link didn’t work. Thanks for clearing it up. And I hope to goodness gracious the style was clear; if I can’t do a decent WF imitation I should hang up my culture vulture shoes.
    Jonathon, to my mind The Sound and the Fury is up there with Ulysses.
    PF: Many thanks. I keep thinking about going beyond the somewhat confining bounds of LH, but that would take time, energy, spirit… We’ll see. The encouragement is appreciated. (On preview: same to you, GeoX!)

  8. A most excellent recovery from the depths of parentheticalism! The telegram was short and sweet, but I particularly liked the Russian. Reminded me of slogging through Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, with its long passages in French, while learning Romanian in the Army. Let’s see … I wonder which one was a parody of Chomsky.

  9. Wah! Wah! (Hindi, signifying delighted appreciation)

  10. Here’s another attempt at giving the link
    Strange, I checked the first post on preview and it went to the site and it works this time as well and all of the above three work. We’ll see. Sorry to use your comment section for html experimenting.

  11. So it was the complaint that drove you to it.
    Somewhere sometime I read a paraphrase of a possibly apocryphal Q&A with that author I just can’t bring myself to call “Bill” wherein he was asked, “Why do you drink so much?” And he was purported to have replied, “For the pain.”
    Which about three years later, facing a dull mid-morning emptied of all possible grace, it struck me he might have meant he volunteered.

  12. Blimey, that’s very clever stuff.

  13. I keep thinking about going beyond the somewhat confining bounds of LH
    Enough of languages, give us some hats!

  14. A very funny post — I was laughing throughout though granted, I came here from Alicublog so had my grin-muscles all primed up and ready… Jonathan, a Faulkner (I can’t call him Bill either) book I found very rewarding was “The Hamlet”.

  15. You’re a writer of no small talent, LH (bill and Ernie were both sharp, as was the Unnamed Russian [Fyodor, surely?]). But this does not make me, unlike some of your other readers, ambitious for you.
    Just keep doing what you’re doing. Bloom where you’re planted. Right here on Language Hat (and, obviously, at your day job, too).
    You have dozens of devoted readers every day, which is rather more than many another writer can boast.

  16. the Unnamed Russian [Fyodor, surely?]
    Actually, I think I had Gogol more at the forefront of my mind (though he was of course pre-railroad); the blaspheming serfs and silly family names (read the Pliers thread for explanation) are too overtly funny for Fyodor, whose humor, when it exists, is so dark as to be practically indistinguishable from despair.

  17. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Bloom where you’re planted. Right here on Language Hat (and, obviously, at your day job, too).
    You have dozens of devoted readers every day, which is rather more than many another writer can boast.

    On the other hand, true dat.

  18. Do it all. There’s a complaint just there, behind your turned shoulder. It will be there again next time.
    How much of literate art is technique and style and the ability to synthesize, coupled with that one sand-grain’s worth of push?
    Exorcise what demons you find that need it, surely you can find some.
    Because you have the skill, and you have the tools, and you sure by God have the words to do it, too.

  19. And the tense error (imperfect for conditional) in the French painted the speaker as a yokel with absolute economy. Chapeau!

  20. Ploskogubtsev? 😀
    Brilliant, I love that one…makes me want to read the rest of the book.

  21. marie-lucie says

    We should thank the random spammers for bringing us back to long-lost posts.
    Marco: the tense error (imperfect for conditional) in the French painted the speaker as a yokel with absolute economy
    Marco is the one who painted himself as a yokel: there is an error, but the error is not what he thinks.
    The form ils élevraient is wrong, but it is an attempt at the conditional: the conditional form of élever ‘to raise’ here is ils élèveraient (the imperfect would be ils élevaient).

  22. Thank you! I was a bit irritated with Marco at the time, but since he was complimenting me I thought it would be churlish to correct him.

  23. It’s been a long, long time since I laughed as long and as hard as I did about this: the exercises, the miscorrection, the correction of the miscorrection ….

    De te fabula narratur.

  24. Thank you for reviving this delightful thread!

  25. David Marjanović says

    Delightful indeed. More, please.

  26. I find I have to correct this:

    too overtly funny for Fyodor, whose humor, when it exists, is so dark as to be practically indistinguishable from despair.

    Having read a lot more Dostoevsky, I now realize he’s frequently hilarious.

  27. I never realized before just how much Carmac McCarthy’s style owes to Bill’s. I thought it was just that I found both of them unreadable, but objectively there are other resemblances. Consider this passage from All the Pretty Horses (1992). It helps some, but not that much, to know that “who’s will” is the name of a horse.

    While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.

    As B. R. Myers says after quoting this: “The obscurity of who’s will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author’s mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn’t ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse’s bowels. But it is ridiculous.”

  28. I’ve always found McCarthy’s novels to be nihilistic bullshit dressed up in hypnotic prose. The only one I can stand nowadays is Suttree.

  29. I read The Road to pass the time in a hospital waiting room where I spent some weeks while my wife was getting treatments, finding it more useful distraction than the jigsaw puzzle my sister-in-law preferred; I couldn’t put it down, but have no desire to read any more of his works.

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