Archive for the ‘language’ Category

Goodbye, Naughts

January 2, 2010

I’ve enjoyed the little spate of articles about what to call the decade that’s just ended now that it has, well, ended. I’m also impressed that apparently we mostly haven’t needed to call it much of anything at all (although a reliable expat friend assures me that in England they really do call it “the noughties.”)

Insofar as I called it anything myself, it was “the aughts.” I think that’s mostly because of fond but dim memories of Jethro Bodine as a double-aught spy. Very dim, as it turns out. Jethro was actually a double-naught spy.

For higher culture, here’s a Language Log piece on how we might pronounce the coming year. I think I had planned to alternate between “twenty-ten” and “two thousand ten.” It would not have occurred to me that anyone would have thought there was and Official Way. So thank you for setting us straight, National Association of Good Grammar!

Jesus the Palestinian?

October 13, 2008

From Bill Poser at Language Log:

Reports that the textbook The World: Social Studies asserts that: “Christianity was started by a young Palestinian named Jesus.” have triggered considerable controversy. Some maintain that this is a gross inaccuracy reflecting the intrusion of anti-Semitism, to which others respond that it is correct and so unexceptionable. The former are correct: the description of Jesus as a Palestinian is both inaccurate and offensive.

And of course Professor Poser is right. Saying that “Jesus was a Palestinian because he live in Palestine” is akin to one of Jesse Jackson’s attempts to weasel out of his “Hymietown” troubles: that he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic, because he was on such good terms with Semitic Arabs. “Palestinian” in modern usage never means “one who lives in Palestine,” just as “anti-Semitic” never means “hatred of speakers of Semitic languages.” It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise, whatever the superficial etymology.1 Humpty Dumpty may say, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,” but those of us not in Wonderland shouldn’t expect to get away with that.

Having said that, I should mention that I haven’t seen the textbook in question, and I don’t really trust any of the commentary I’ve googled (other than Professor Poser’s, and he doesn’t claim to have seen the textbook, only the secondary commentary). The commentators strike me as social conservatives with axes to grind, but really I don’t know. Maybe there is context in the textbook that matters. My guess is not, but still. My further guess is that the textbook authors are more sloppy than biased, and certainly not overtly anti-Semitic. Gosh knows there are plenty of sloppy textbooks.

One more point, illustrative of the dangers of textbooks trying to talk about religion: one could easily argue that Christianity was not started by Jesus, but rather by Paul and/or others of Jesus’s followers. I’d happily take either side of that debate, just for fun.


1 Not to mention that, as Poser points out, in the case of “Palestinian” even the etymological pseudo-definition is iffy: Jesus would have called himself a Galilean, and he lived a century before the term “Palestine” was applied to the region.

Semi-colons, then and now

May 6, 2008

Via Language Log, here’s a blog post/article by Helen DeWitt about the horrors of copy-editing, or rather of having one’s work copy-edited. The experience sounds hellish, and makes me glad I’m not an actual writer who might some day have to endure that indignity. It’s also makes for entertaining reading, so by all means check it out it right now.

I write about that here because of the hook, and indeed the title, Cormac McCarthy & The Semi-Colon:

[McCarthy] said at one point he had a job, he was working for someone who was writing a book that included excerpts from 18th-century writers, and he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation. So he read the texts. The writing was wonderful, he said, but the punctuation, there were semi-colons cluttering up the sentences, so he started on an essay, a piece by, it might be, Swift, and he went through and fixed the punctuation, and he gave it back to the professor who said that’s just right. So he realised that punctuation was very important. He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things

Is that shocking, or what? Well, it shocked me. From what (very little, admittedly) I’ve seen of his writing, McCarthy does not strike me as someone who would take kindly to having his own punctuation “corrected.”

Like Ms. DeWitt, l like 18th-century punctuation, in 18th century texts. Punctuation is part of the language1, and changing it changes the style and character of the writing. The exact interpretations of commas and semi-colons have clearly changed a little since Swift’s time, but any confusion and distraction they cause us moderns is (to me) very minor compared to the violence wrought by removing them altogether. And at least in my experience it takes about a minute of reading to get past the distraction.

I freely admit that this line of thought of thing pretty quickly gets into murky areas. What about modernizing spelling, for example? Is that as important to the style as punctuation? And how abut typography? Are those long S‘s2 important to the gestalt of the day, or just annoying? How about the general equivalence of u’s and v’s in older typography? The abbreviation of “the” as “ye 3?” Capitalization and italicization practices? 18th-century orthography and typographical conventions are probably close enough to our own that those are minor points, but how about Shakespeare? The older the writing, the closer reading (or editing) it becomes to reading/translating a foreign language—by the time you get to Chaucer’s Middle English it is a foreign language—and I don’t pretend to have a line to draw

Anyway, I recently ran into an actual example of de-styling 18th-century prose. Inspired by an article in The New Yorker, I’ve started reading things by Royall Tyler. It’s great stuff, about which I hope to write much more later. For now I’ll say that I started with The Bay Boy, an uncompleted semi-autobiographical novel. I thought when I read it that it seemed awfully un-18th-century—the average sentence length was too short, and there just weren’t enough commas and semi-colons. I also worried that it might have been a bit bowdlerized—having also read the “shockingly blasphemous” (Jill Lepore’s words, from that New Yorker aritcle) poem The Origin of Evil, I knew what Tyler was capable of.

And indeed I now have confirmation! The Bay Boy was a reworking of the first part of The Algerine Captive, of which I found a facsimile edition. A couple of chapters are virtually identical between the two, and so provide a comparison. Here are a couple of passages, illustrating both stylistic dumbing-down and omission of classical references so as not to confuse us benighted moderns. (Caveat: I don’t know what changes Tyler himself might have made, but I strongly suspect nothing in these examples). First, a few passages from the modernized Bay Boy:

The same afternoon a tall, raw-boned man called me to the door, immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart whip over my head with the other. With fury in his face he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again. Aye, he would do it that moment if he was not afraid I would take the law on him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern and mixed with some of the young men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish, as the subject was race horses. I thought of famous horses in Greek history, but they had never heard of them…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me that I should wait on Miss Mina home. I declined. Rumors were spread about me throughout the town…

And the far more robust original:

The same afternoon, a tall raw-boned man called me to the door: immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart-whip over my head with the other, with fury in his face, he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again: ay, he would do it that very moment, if he was not afraid I would take the law of him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern, and mixed with some of the younger men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish; mine they could not comprehend. The subject of racehorses being introduced, I ventured to descant upon Xanthus, the immortal courser of Achilles. They had never heard of ’squire Achilles or his horse; but they offered to bet two to one that Bajazet, the Old Roan, or the deacon’s mare, Pumpkin and Milk, would beat him, and challenged me to appoint time and place…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me, that I might wait miss Mima home; but as I could recollect no word in the Greek which would construe into bundling, or any of Homer’s heroes who got the bag, I declined. In the Latin, it is true, that Æneas and Dido, in the cave, seem something like a precedent. It was reported all over town the next day, that master was a papish, as he had talked French two hours.

I am giving serous thought to seeing if I can spend a day at the Vermont Historical Society perusing Tyler’s original manuscripts.

1 Of the written language, that is, but we’re talking about writing here. Written and spoken languages are obviously different—in interesting ways—but I’m not competent to say much about that.

2 Long s looks like the letter f, but doesn’t have a whole crossbar, just a nub on the left side, or nothing at all: ſ.

3 That “y” was originally a thorn (þ).

Ring of Words

April 27, 2008

All nerds idolize J. R. R. Tolkien, and many of us realize that Tolkien’s greatness was due in part to the depth and detail of his language, both in English and in his many invented languages. Ring of Words, by OED editors Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner, details just how complex are the roots of Tolkien’s wordcraft.

Tolkien himself worked on the OED early in his career—something I for one did not know. Part I of Ring of Words details Tolkien’s life as a lexicographer, working in the minutiae of the W’s. I confess that even I found this section too esoterically detailed to read all the way through. If, however, you are interested in the etymology of “walnut” and “waistcoat” and “wallop,” by all means check it out—“walnut” is more complicated than you can possibly imagine.

Parts II and III are more generally interesting. Part II, “Tolkien as Wordwright,” concerns Tolkien’s work as a writer and as a philologist. It begins with a discussion of what “philology” means. The authors (and, they say, Tolkien) prefer a sense of the word more general than “simple” linguistics, an older and more general one.

The study of texts, whether ‘literary’ or not, leads naturally both ‘out’ to the study of the society and culture to which the texts belong, and ‘in’ to the study of the language in which the text is written. Tolkien and Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, may seem specialized to those unfamiliar with such scholarly texts, but in fact it is multidisciplinary in its scope: it includes an an analysis of the 14th-century dialect in which the poem is written, the verse techniques, the characteristics of characterization and narrative, the historical, fictional, and mythological sources, and the ideology and customs of the text’s contemporary audience. A philologist has to be able to handle all these areas…

…The modern term linguistics is a poor substitute, implying as it does a sole rather than a primary focus on language.

[I don’t know whether linguists would agree with that characterization of their discipline.]

From this RoW goes on to discuss Tolkien’s love for the raw sounds of words (reflected in customs of the Elves in his “legendarium”); his propensity for “compulsive fascination” with individual words, allowing them to “put down roots” and lead to great flights of creative imagination (most spectacularly in the case of the Ents, from the obscure Old English word ent); and then his use of creative archaism. Tolkien was an admirer of William Morris, who following in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott filled his historical romances and fantasies with mock-archaic language. Much 19th century (and come to think of it, 20th and 21st century) pseudo-archaism is fairly dreadful. Tolkien, with his deep knowledge of actual archaism, was able to make a much better job of it than Scott and Morris and their lesser imitators.

Tolkien, writing pure fantasy, was not exactly faking ‘period’ idioms; rather, he used Old English and Middle English language and literature as sources for his invented language and idiom. This is actually a rather subtle business. Tolkien tended not to use archaic Old English words directly, but rather extrapolated how they might have evolved had they survived into modern English. He also shaded his language to fit specific contexts, both in narrative and in dialog. He writes of the Shire in ordinary modern English, but of the Elves and the men of Rohan and Gondor in “higher” language. Even individual characters—particularly sensitive Frodo and well-traveled Aragorn—change their diction to suit the circumstances.

Part III, “Word Studies,” is simply a list of interesting words used by Tolkien, where he got them, and how he adapted them. Some words I would have thought he simply invented himself—“bee-hunter” as applied to Beorn, “elf-friend,” “sister-son”—turn out to have fairly deep linguistic and cultural roots. Some—“Arkenstone,” “mathom,” “smial”—are modernized versions of Old English words. Some, especially Rohirric words such as “éored” and “Mearas,” are delibarately un-modernized Old English words. Fun fact: the word “dumbledore” actually means “bumblebee,” appears in (some versions of) Tolkien’s poem “Errantry.” In reading the word studies I was repeatedly struck not only by how much I didn’t know, but by how much there was to know.

[Several of the word studies—Elf, Fairy, Faërie, Dwarf, Gnome, Goblin—remark on Tolkien’s annoyance at the light and sentimental popular conception of those mythical beings. I have to assume he would be heartened by the modern reinterpretations of such by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke. If you have somehow not yet read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for goodness’s sake do so at once.]

To close, two pretentious typographical notes:

  • I was greatly pleased by the books free and casual use of the archaic letters þ, ȝ, ð, and æ.
  • The body text of the book is set Minion, a typeface heavily inspired by typefaces of the late Renaissance. It is not however in any way an actual revival of those old fonts, even a creative one (as are, say, Bembo and the various Garamonds), but a modern creation. In that it is a sort of typographical analog of Tolkien’s reinterpretations and modernizations of ancient words. Was that intended, or am I merely being pompous?

Why study grammar?

April 1, 2008

A couple of posts at the always-excellent Language Log ridicule an article by James Kilpatrick entitled, “Why do we study grammar?” Now I agree with everything the language-loggers say—Kilpatrick earns their scorn—but I think that he does have a point in there somewhere. Admittedly it’s hard to tell, as rather than actually make it he provides a couple of silly and patronizing analogies, and then veers off into Just-Plain-Wrongness.

Quoth Kilpatrick:

Grammar is what she wears in a world beyond her living room. Kathryn is not going to drive to Portland dressed in a polka-dot bikini. She might complete her mission, but people would talk. And at a certain level they would not say pleasant things.

Is good grammar a false value? At one level of human relations, it is certainly a lesser value — even a minimal value. The boy who drops out of school can live a happy life as a hod carrier, and if he don’t speak no good English he pays the rent and, you know, it’s like he treats his wife real good. He probably makes a greater contribution to society than some public officials one could mention.

What I take him to mean here, perhaps stretching a bit, is that “good grammar” (really “standard American grammar”) is a calling card, a bona fide, a shibboleth. Using standard grammar (and spelling, and punctuation) shows that you have taken the trouble to observe the norms of society. It is evidence that you have put at least some thought into whatever it is you’re writing.

As a possibly poor example, in my time-wasting perusal of the vastness of the internet, I ignore without much thought anything that deviates wildly from standard grammar (or containing too many misspellings, or too little punctuation, or TOO MANY CAPS, or too few). Sufficiently slapdash grammar (and spelling and so on) in blog posts and comments is, in my experience, almost invariably a sign that whatever content they may have is worthless, even for time-wasting purposes. (Not that worthless content can’t be couched in flawless standard grammar, of course). For the internet my standards are pretty loose. I have similar but higher standards for printed material—and for job applications I happen to review.

Very interestingly—and I doubt Kilpatrick would agree here—NON-standard grammar makes an excellent shibboleth. My tweenage daughter’s crowd would be quick to pick up on minor deviations from their tween syntax and vocabulary. And such has it always been: language provides an easy and fun way to sort out the cool from the uncool (the uncool including, of course, parents: parents have never been able to imitate their children’s argot correctly, and have always been soundly and rightly mocked for it when they try).

Other examples might include, oh, I don’t know, hip-hop culture; the Lolcats (I don’t know whether it’s clear to anyone what lolspeak’s rules are, but you can sure tell when people get it wrong); professional jargon of many sorts, and so on.

Another point I’d make, possibly vaguely related to what Kilpatrick says, is that formal rules of grammar and spelling and punctuation uniformitize the style of a piece of writing, helping its form “disappear” in favor of its content. That is, if you, dear reader, see only the syntax you’re expecting to see, then you don’t notice it. You are left free to focus on the content, which is presumably what the author wanted. Grammatical clunkers–to Kilpatrick a split infinitive or deviant usage of “that” and “which,” to me a run-on sentence–distract the reader from the business of reading.

I assume that’s one reason why the big “middlebrow” magazines—The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s—have such strict editing standards. They impose a level of aesthetically pleasing and distraction-free uniformity of tone across their articles. The style guides differ from place to place, giving each a certain amount of subtle individuality: I’m particularly fond of the diaereses The New Yorker puts in “coöperate” and “reëlected.”