An astonishing book has fallen into my hands and into my life: Michael Cooperson’s Impostures by al-Ḥarĩrĩ: Fifty Rogue’s Tales Translated Fifty Ways. It’s worth recording how that ‘fallen’ transpired: first, a blog post by Victor Mair at Language Log (which often delights, often mystifies), which pointed to a Wall Street Journal review by Sam Sacks (June 27) and provoked an Amazon order. One of the key hooks in Sacks’ review was reference to maqamat, glossed as ‘improvization’ and so directly parallel to a musical form I’m well acquainted with and always seeking broader understanding of. There’s also a clear link to my explorations of Oulipo (and OuXpos of various sorts) that are themselves a bit more remotely tied to my wanderings in Benjaminia, thus linking several threads of the last 6+ months of reading and thinking. Just what the resulting tissu or macramé amounts to, or might lead to next, is less than clear at the moment, but it surely harks back to Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language, and to the grand problems of translation /übersetzung, ‘over-setting’/, and thence to ruminations on Culture and the deep complexities of understanding and en- and de-coding. I’m a wanderer in these forests, always open to new delights. And rogue threads are forever finding their way into the macramé, viz. Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan “I contain multitudes”. These are all two-bit epiphanies, bits of insight rather than pointers to grand revelations. And mostly probably intransitive, for my own amusement and edification and pleasure. Reason enough.
A double dose:
I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get to If on a winter’s night a traveler, but here we are. Calvino has my number, for sure:
This morning, while waiting in the barn for today’s Zoom yoga session to start, I gathered up a few word books in the general realm of American English and one fell open to a map of isoglosses, which immediately called to mind a song written Donkey’s Years ago by my dear friend Ken Stallcup, who said that he got one good song out of every career. I quarried the mind for all that I could remember of the text as I lay on the mat, and here it is (there might be verses I haven’t remembered, indeed I hope there are…):
Little peasant upon the land
what’s that implement in your hand?
How many years have you been here?
What do you call your mother’s brother?
Tell me what you shouldn’t do and what you oughta,
Now that I’ve got my data I’m on my way
Anthropologist pen in hand
Now you’re standing here on my land
You to me are but a passing breeze
Kroeber, Lowie, Leach and Levi-Strauss
and even Malinowski have stayed in my house,
Now that you’ve got your data, where’s my pay?
Dialects run along isogloss bundles
Leaving little wavy lines across the Earth
With money from Ford and it’s all very interesting
But other than that, tell me what is it worth?
Other than that, tell me what is it worth?
I’m contemplating a heap of books on American English and on dialects thereof and trying to figure out how to make an efficient and interesting summary of their whats and whys, via comparisons and tasty extracts. How is one to make sense of these riches, thousands of pages of words and analysis and commentary, difficult of access and best consumed in sporadic tastings, not in epic bouts of reading? The collection or more exactly collocation would be perfect for bit-by-bit consumption in the Locale of Easement, but for the unwieldy format of the Large Book. A cleverly designed hinged or rolling desk might be the solution, but would perhaps not meet with universal enthusiasm if constructed and installed as a fixture in the Smallest Room. Perhaps a Dictionary Alcove built onto the side of the house…
At work upon several future posts in these realms.
I’m working in the direction of a posting on books about American English, but along the way I encounter all manner of things that divert and inform and goad and send me haring off into wanton serendipities. The Language Log blog is dependable that way, and today’s post on Ancient Chinese mottos is a case in point. It has to do with a text from ca. 700 BCE, and ends with this deliciousness:
To do this kind of high level translation requires hard work going through old annotations and commentaries. To make the English felicitous demands inspired creativity and a high level of Sprachgefühl.
Yeah, I know that word, but was hazier than I might have been:
intuitive feeling for the natural idiom of a language.
“it’s not genes or culture but Sprachgefühl that sets the French apart from the Finns, and the Russians from the Romanians”
the essential character of a language.
“each language has its own personality, or Sprachgefühl, which limits its speakers to a certain mode of thought”
And, just because I can, I looked it up in the German Wikipedia:
Als Sprachgefühl bezeichnet man das intuitive, unreflektierte und unbewusste Erkennen dessen, was sprachlich als korrekt (in Wortwahl und Grammatik) bzw. als (situativ und kontextuell) angemessen oder aber als falsch bzw. unangemessen empfunden wird. Geprägt wird es insbesondere im Zuge des Erwerbs der Muttersprache, wobei Herkunft, soziales Umfeld und Bildung und die entsprechenden sprachlichen Erfahrungen des Kindes eine maßgebliche Rolle spielen. Durch intensive sprachliche Erfahrungen in der alltäglichen (auch medialen) Kommunikation, wozu auch literarische und andere Leseerfahrungen gehören, kann das Sprachgefühl aber auch in späteren Jahren trainiert und modifiziert werden.
The problem with the American English books is that there are so many, and they are so various: descriptive, evaluative, jocular, narrow, broad, thick, thin… each has something to add, and I’m still wrestling with a typology. And I’m so damned Sprachgefühl re: American English. So I’ll be back to that subject.
Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) is famous for several things, the most immediately relevant here being his Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time. The Amazon blurb:
A snakeful of critical venom aimed at the composers and the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. Who wrote advanced cat music? What commonplace theme is very much like Yankee Doodle? Which composer is a scoundrel and a giftless bastard? What opera would His Satanic Majesty turn out? Whose name suggests fierce whiskers stained with vodka? And finally, what third movement begins with a dog howling at midnight, then imitates the regurgitations of the less-refined or lower-middle-class type of water-closet cistern, and ends with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow? For the answers to these and other questions, readers need only consult the “Invecticon” at the back of this inspired book and then turn to the full passage, in all its vituperation.
The Invecticon lists 30+ pages of calumnies and disparagements:
and examples of Critical Response: Stravinsky, Webern and Varèse
There’s a lovely Nicolas Slonimsky Documentary- A Touch of Genius (56 min)
and an interview with Slonimsky about his friendship with Frank Zappa:
Another example of Slonimsky’s genius is his Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns, known to Jazz and Classical musicians alike.
Quarrying the books in the Auxiliary Library (i.e., upstairs in the barn) produces some treasures, legacy of past projects and enthusiasms. Stephen Gramley & Kurt-Michael Pätzold’s
A Survey of Modern English (1992) was acquired when Betsy was working on Speech Works: the accent reduction tool. Since 1992 there’s a second edition of Gramley & Pätzold, and Amazon says that a “fully revised and updated” third edition is in the works.
Gramley & Pätzold were senior lecturers at the Faculty of Linguistics and Literature at the University of Bielefeld, and the original version of the book (Das moderne Englische) was designed to meet the needs and interests of their German students. A quick look at the Contents makes it clear that a native speaker of English can find elegant explanations of niceties of English that might not appear in native-English sources, in which much about the language is taken for granted:
Chapters 1, 2, 5 and 6 are especially relevant to my exploration of ‘word books’, but anybody curious about languages will find other sections that look fascinating. A few especially choice examples from the text:
Gramley & Pätzold is one of those books I can open to any page and find an engaging 15-minute diversion that provokes searches and ponderings and more slips of paper with stuff written down for later exploration. I’ve done it a thousand times, such that it’s become a modus operandi. Good thing that I now have a place to put all that stuff…
This adventure into the word books on my shelves began on March 21 and has gathered steam on its downhill run, but snowman-like it has also swept lots of nearby materials into its gravitoid mass.
gravitoid appeared out of nowhere, as a nonce word [or occasionalism]: “a word coined for one single occasion only…”, “a lexeme created for a single occasion to solve an immediate problem of communication” (Wikipedia) “…term coined by James Murray],” but also, as Google tells us, “…A jumping puzzle game in space! Use gravity to your advantage and travel through the stars/galaxies/cosmos…” ” …truly settling matter in coastal waters [vs. colloids]…” “…an upcoming physics puzzler set in space, and developed by the folks over at Endless Tea Studios. It sees you, as an astronaut, trying to survive amongst the stars as you hop from planet to planet using gravity to help you…”
Well, so it goes, as Vonnegut says. I see no obvious end to this Project, since more and more relatable books keep leaping out at me and snuggling up to one another, demanding my attention and reminding me that I’ve been word-smitten all my life. I can certainly claim this linguistic territory as a realm tangent to anthropology, and even as a legit branch of Nacirema and Naidanac studies.
Insofar as there is method in this madness, it seems to involve some combination of early-morning thoughts (scrawled on bits of paper before forgotten or superceded), serendipitous bibliology, pilings-up of candidates, and results of googlings. Today’s bit of paper has these entries:
bunny boiler [a newly-encountered catchphrase]
and that’s more than enough inspiration for today’s blog post.
I’m guessing that ‘bunny boiler’ is as novel/incomprehensible to most of whatever readership this post may have as it was to me. I found it as the result of a search for ‘catchphrase’, which I was impelled to by looking at Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, of which I have the 1977 edition (Amazon offers the 1992 edition), and reflecting that such dictionaries have shelf life [the OED dates the first example of that phrase to 1927: “Manufacturing Confectioner Jan. 12 (heading) What is the shelf life of your hard candy?”]… and then looking for some more contemporary resources, and so finding a list of English (well, American) idioms that included ‘bunny boiler’, which I’d never encountered. And so: bunny boiler: An obsessive and dangerous female, in pursuit of a lover who has spurned her. Ew. Almost sorry I asked, but its derivation is from the 1987 film Fatal Attraction (which I’ve never seen) …
The phrase comes from the plot device whereby Forrest, in a fit of frenzied jealousy, boils her erstwhile lover’s daughter’s pet rabbit… At the time that the phrase first came into general use it referred to someone unable to remain rational at the end of a romantic relationship. Very quickly that usage became moderated and it came to be used, often with some degree of irony, in much less extreme situations. Any needy, possessive or even just mildly annoying woman is now liable to be described as a ‘bunny boiler’.
And there we have it, the whole /ball of wax/ of linguistic invention, complete with misogyny and irony and humo[u]r and Grand Guignol rolled into one. And I missed it, by being not particularly well-connected to Popular Culture. And so reflect that I miss a lot of Pop Culch references by being a non-participant in the lexico-fertile social media of the Facebook and the Twitter. Some Nacirema ethnographer I am, to ignore the Media which are the Message…
Here’s a page from Partridge 1977, reflecting the [notably British] linguistic world of 40+ years ago:
Here we skate perilously close to the field of slang, which needs its own separate treatment in future posts. For the moment, let’s go back to today’s slip of paper and follow Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) in distinguishing langue and parole: “language: Saussure intended the term to mean internal arrangement and relationship of rules understood by a social group, however, rarely thought of in everyday life…” (Wikipedia), and parole: language as she is spoke by folk. The latter encompasses idioms, jargon, memes, dialect and so on, where the real fun is, in the scum on the top levels of the roiling cauldron. The sober realms of etymology and *PIE and OED definition surely have their charms, but the rubber meets the road in the pragmatics of metaphors and allusions and in-jokes and synecdoche.
To finish off today’s post, let’s take a look at Mark Forsyth (The Inky Fool) The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (Amazon blurb: “a completely unauthorized guide to the strange underpinnings of the English language”)
Nowadays many old reference works are, as they say, on line, either as downloadable page images (pdf, kindle, etc.) or in their own Web presentations (OED, etc.). Using them often requires some juggling, but that’s of course also true of the hard-copy paper, too. I’m not sure how best to set up a workflow for easy access to the just-discovered electronic form of A dictionary of English etymology (by Wedgwood, Hensleigh, 1803-1891; Atkinson, J. C. (John Christopher), 1814-1900), now that I’ve downloaded its 75 MB pdf form, but here’s an example of the richness:
…and compare with the much briefer entries in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology:
…and, for the sheer fun of it, compare with the entry for *PIE beu; bhel, bhleu in Shipley:
…and, for full measure, the OED entry:
and a part of the detail of the first sense in the OED:
Each is its own sort of fun.
I realize that I’ve blithely assumed that “everybody” knows the Proto-Indo-European backstory but just in case not: it’s conventional to begin with William Jones, a judge in British India in the latter part of the 18th century, who saw similarities between Sanskrit and European languages (the Wikipedia article on *PIE corrects the simple version of the story). In any case, in the 19th century European philologists became obsessed with figuring out the details, and speculatively reconstructing the totally-vanished (because unwritten) *PIE by positing regularities in sound- and grammatical/syntax-shifts (the ‘Laws’ mentioned below). See indo-european.info for much more.
Rooting around on the shelves of word books, I turned up two that I’d missed a few days ago, both strange enough to be worth pondering further. I bought N.E. Collinge’s The Laws of Indo-European because I was sure I’d never see it again (a silly reason to buy something, but one to which I’ve returned again and again…) and because it was one of the most recondite I’d ever encountered. The Amazon blurb: “This book collects all the named laws of Indo-European, presents each in its original form and rationale and then provides an evaluation of all major attacks, revisions and exploitations, along with a full bibliography and index. Complete – thorough – exhaustive.” One reviewer puts it thus:
sets out all the important rules of sound change that any student of comparative Indo-European linguistics should acquaint themselves with. Grimm’s law, Grassman’s law, the law of the palatals, they’re all here. Besides the general laws affecting the major Indo-European languages (Germanic, Sanskrit, and Greek), Collinge also addresses the laws of the Baltic and Slavonic accents. This field is a mess, and it seems that most of the laws covered in the book somehow relate to the accent. An appendix covers minor laws (although some, such as Watkin’s Law, have become major in their ramifications) and major tendencies.
One major downside to Collinge’s presentation is that he fails to give a simple algebraic form of each law suitable for making flashcards. Another complaint, somewhat frequent in the academy, is that Collinge is so attentive in presenting seeming exceptions that he makes certain well-fixed laws appear as if they are undependable when in fact few would dispute them.
Here’s the Table of Contents, which should strike fear into just about any heart:
The Introduction will provide a mild corrective to any overinflation of the reader’s idea of own erudition:
Joseph Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots is much more approachable (Amazon says: “Anecdotal, eclectic, and always enthusiastic, The Origins of English Words is a diverting expedition beyond linguistics into literature, history, folklore, anthropology, philosophy, and science.”), and one reviewer says
This book is a must own if you have international friends or live in a multi lingual house hold. I satisfy both criteria and at dinners we will always talk etymology and meanings. The internet has nothing on the Red Book, as I call it. I invariably pop it out to settle a linguistic dispute. Very entertaining. I keep it in the kitchen with the cookbooks.
My kind of folk. The Red Book has 180-odd pages of “Index of English Words” which provides entrée to 450 pages of Indo-European roots, each with (as promised) a fascinating discursive entry. Consider the entries for abel and kerd: