June 23, 2014

There is a certain similarity between the decolonization of Africa in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and the breakup of the USSR in 1991. In both cases, new sovereign states were formed on the precise territories of existing political divisions — the colonies in one case and the Soviet Socialist Republics in the other — with no adjustment of borders to account for ethnic imbalances.

The Western European powers that colonized Africa, of course, did not really care about “tribal” identities, except when it was convenient for them, as when the Belgians preferred to have the native administrators in Rwanda and Burundi (I’m using the present-day forms of the names, for simplicity’s sake) be Tutsi rather than Hutu. Traditionally Somali districts that had been previously incorporated in Ethiopia or Kenya, for political or administrative reasons, remained that way. In what is now Nigeria, existing political entities with vastly different cultures and histories were merged, at first (in 1900), into the two colonies of Northern and Southern Nigeria, and then (in 1914), into one Nigeria. Many of the bloody civil wars and other conflicts that have raged in Africa ever since can be attributed to this colonial disregard of ethnic identities.

In the Soviet Union it wasn’t quite like that, at first. Each of the SSRs was formed as the homeland of its leading ethnic nation, with provisions for minority nationalities, so that, in principle, the borders between them were reasonably representative of ethnic divisions. But the central role played by the Russian nation in the government of the Union made it desirable for the Kremlin to introduce Russians into the non-Russian republics, both as members the ruling elites (nomenklatura) and as settlers in large numbers (continuing a trend begun under the tsars). The current situation in Ukraine, where a large swath of territory inhabited mainly by ethnic Russians (and not merely Russian-speakers, many of whom are ethnic Ukrainians) was absorbed into the sovereign state replacing the Ukrainian SSR, is the direct outgrowth of this stubborn clinging to already-existing borders.


June 15, 2014

It’s Bloomsday again (well, not quite yet in California, but certainly in Dublin), and I want to add my personal little contribution to the tributes being paid to James Joyce and his Ulysses all over the media.

I read Ulysses in one sitting, on a flight from Los Angeles to New York on a DC-6 in the 1950s (the flight took about nine hours then). I laughed all the way across the continent — I found it to be the second-funniest long book I had ever read, after Don Quixote. What made me laugh was, above all, Joyce’s way with the English language, to the extent that I still consider, after all these years (and one or two rereadings), the English language to be the book’s true protagonist.

I have since read two other books that I also feel to be books about language: Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur about French, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante‘s Tres Tristes Tigres about Spanish.

One of these days I’ll try to expand on what I mean.

Brat Worsts Cantor

June 12, 2014

It so happened last night that my wife Pat and I had bratwursts (the little Nuremberg ones) for dinner last night. We first had them when we visited Nuremberg in the course of a long trip through central Europe in 2001, and they memory made us go the photo albums from that trip (at the time we were not married yet and kept separate albums) and relive some of its highlights.

Shortly after dinner we sat down to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where the first bit of news to be discussed was the defeat of Eric Cantor by Dave Brat. And an obvious headline occurred to me: Brat Worsts Cantor.

A few minutes ago I googled “Brat Worsts” expecting to find such a headline somewhere, but all I find was “brat worsts” as a misspelling of “bratwursts”. When I tried “Brat Worsts Cantor” I got nothing!

Have headline writers forgotten about the verb “worst”? It’s in all the dictionaries I have access to (‘to gain the advantage over; defeat’ — AHD; ‘to get the advantage over; defeat or beat’ — Collins; ‘to defeat; beat’ — Random House Kemerman; ‘to get the better of; defeat’ — MWCD). Or have pun headlines gone out of style?

Not for me, they haven’t.

Friendlies and previouslies

June 7, 2014

During the weeks leading up to the FIFA World Cup, the various national teams — whether or not they have qualified for the Cup — play against one another in matches that are known as friendlies. A friendly (short for ‘friendly match’) is the equivalent of what in North American sports is called an exhibition game, that is, one that is not played as part of a competition.

While friendly as an adjective goes back to Old English, the OED dates its first appearance as a noun (pluralized, as a matter of fact) to 1885. In English — unlike many other languages, European and other — an adjective cannot be automatically be turned into a noun. It is usually done by ellipsis: in a noun phrase made up of an adjective and a noun, after some time the noun is dropped. While past appears as an adjective around 1300, it didn’t become a noun (meaning ‘past time’ or ‘past tense’) till after 1500 (preterit was used before that, alongside present and future — these were already nouns in French before being borrowed into English). Temporary can be short for ‘temporary worker’ or ‘temporary crown’ (in dentistry). Danish means ‘Danish pastry.”

Glossonyms (names of languages) may also be thought of as belonging to this category, with “English” short for “English language (or tongue),” but many glossonyms of this type (English, French, Welsh, Danish) go back to Old English, so that the ellipsis is not a conscious one.

Then there are certain ethnic or “racial” designation: black, white, Hispanic… One does not usually say “a black” or “a white,” but “a Hispanic” is not uncommon, and they are pluralized as nouns (blacks, whites, Hispanics). Other ethnonyms (by which I mean not only ethnic but also national, regional or continental designations) may function as both nouns and adjectives, especially those ending in -an (American, German, Italian, Mexican, Asian…), but these are based on the Latin -anus (-ana, etc.) and the nominalization of the adjective already took place in Latin, where it is the norm. Ethnonyms without special endings (such as Greek, Navaho, Yoruba) usually serve as both nouns and adjectives, but here the noun came first, and in English it’s the adjectivization of nouns that is the norm.

Other than such elliptical transformations, an adjective (invariably preceded by the) can be used as a plural noun denoting the class of people characterized by it: the Chinese, the English and the Irish; the rich and powerful against the poor and powerless; The Beautiful and Damned, The Naked and the Dead

The fact that in other languages adjectives can be freely used as nouns can be confusing to translators. In García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad there appears a character, based on a real person, called El sabio catalán. Here both sabio and catalán can be either adjectives and nouns, but the intent is for the former to be a noun meaning ‘scholar’ or ‘learned man’ and the latter to be an adjective meaning ‘Catalan’ or ‘Catalonian’ (from Catalonia). But the hapless translator, Gregory Rabassa, translated it as the wise Catalonian. While the prototype, Ramon Vinyes, was known to be a literary scholar, there is no record of any special wisdom on his part. (This is only one of Rabassa’s many gaffes.)

So much for adjectives. Rarer still is the nominalization of adverbs. There are, of course, yesterdays and tomorrows (both quite old), but not many others.

I have recently found the need to nominalize the adverb previously. By this I mean a segment of a multi-episode television show, coming before the current episode, in which the preceding action is summarized by combining clips from a previous episode (or episodes). Invariably one reads the legend — or hears an announcer saying — “previously on [name of show]“. If there is a name for this kind of segment (the converse of a trailer, as it were), I don’t know it. So I have taken to calling it a previously. “They’re showing the previously!” I might say to my wife. And of course she knows what I mean.



May 5, 2014

I immigrated to Los Angeles from Germany with my parents in December, 1950. We settled in Boyle Heights, on the Eastside of Los Angeles (sometimes misidentified with East Los Angeles) and I enrolled in Theodore Roosevelt High School. I was 15½ years old, but I had a strong academic background from my high school (Oberschule) in Germany, especially in science, and so I should have eased into 11th grade, with a prospective graduation in June, 1952. But there was a problem with chemistry: I knew enough of the subject matter to get in at the end of the first semester, but I didn’t know enough of the English terminology, for example the meaning of “solvent”, “solute” and the like. And so I had to wait till the beginning of the next semester to begin chemistry from scratch, and, because a year of physics was to follow it, my graduation was put off to January, 1953, making me (along with the June graduates) a member of the class of 1953.

Had I made it into the class of 1952, I would have started and finished college a year earlier than I did, and my life might have turned out quite different from the way it did. Also, the president of my class would have been a Jewish boy named Don Tokowitz, a star of the boys’ gymnastics team. Boys’ gymnastics was the one sport in which Roosevelt High excelled; in basketball and football we had no one to compete against schools that had the likes of Willie Naulls or Jon Arnett.

Boyle Heights, which is now 95% Latino, was in the 1950s an ethnically diverse neighborhood. Chicanos were already the largest group, but far from a majority; there were significant numbers of Jews, Japanese-Americans and (as they were called then) Negroes, and smaller but notable communities of Armenians, Chinese, Molokan Russians, and even a few Anglos. In student politics there seemed to be in place a Tammany-Hall-like regime that saw a semester-by-semester alternation of student-body offices among the four major ethnicities. It must, then, have been the Jews’ turn when Don Tokowitz was elected president of his class.

Don Tokowitz has been in the news recently; I’m sure you’ve heard or read about him. But not under that name: seven years after his graduation from Roosevelt he changed his name to Donald Sterling.


Pan tumaca

March 28, 2014

I like to think of myself as a kind of honorary Catalan. I have lived and worked in Barcelona; I have traveled around Catalonia, from the Ebro to the Pyrenees and from the Mediterranean to the Noguera Ribagorçana. I dance the sardana. I speak Catalan fluently and, what’s more, I write it “correctly” (that is, in accordance with the standard), something that most Catalans of my generation, their schooling under Franco having been entirely in Spanish, cannot do. And I love what Catalans consider their quintessential food: pa amb tomàquet (or, as colloquially pronounced in Barcelona, pan tumaca), literally “bread with tomato,” but actually bread (any kind of crusty bread, toasted or not) onto which the inside of a ripe tomato is pressed, followed by salt and olive oil. If the bread is toasted, garlic may be rubbed onto it. Once ready, it can be eaten by itself, as an accompaniment to dishes, or, most typically, as a base for sandwiches, open or closed, “mini” or full-size.

The ripeness of the tomato is essential. Catalans use ripe tomatoes mainly for the purpose of making pa amb tomàquet (I have actually heard it referred to, pleonastically, as tomàquet per a fer pa amb tomàquet). For slicing and dicing (as in salads or English-style sandwiches) they prefer their tomatoes underripe, even green. I remember having a meal with a Catalan friend in Madrid, during which she complained several times about the ripeness of the tomato.

The techniques of applying the tomato to the bread are varied. If the fruit is of a soft, juicy variety, it can be simply cut in half and pressed on the bread. Otherwise a grater or even a food processor can be used (the latter especially in restaurants).

I have recently discovered an alternative way of making this delicacy. I don’t know if it’s original with me; I have not found in the twenty or so recipes I checked on the Web. I discovered it through good old mother necessity: I had no full-size tomatoes, but I had a basket of cherry tomatoes (of the Sweet 100 variety). I put a few of them (as many as would fit) into a garlic press, and squeezed, with the holes above the bread. Voilà! All the inside of the tomato came through, the peel stayed back, and I had the perfect beginning of pa amb tomàquet.

After sprinkling a little salt on the tomato-covered bread, I did something different from the conventional pouring of the olive oil. This step is, traditionally, so essential that in Majorca the concoction is called pa amb oli (pronounced like pamboli), “bread with oil.” But while I love olive oil, I also love avocado, specifically avocado that’s ripe enough to spread on bread like soft butter. And this is what I like to do with pa amb tomàquet as an alternative to olive oil. I have served it done this way to Catalan friends, and, except for some kids, they have liked it.

Or so they said.

Another N-word

March 26, 2014

I am going to mention Geoff Pullum again. Not because I wish to say anything about him — I think I’ve said enough (here and here) — but because about a week ago the Daily Telegraph published an article about him, by Tom Chivers, showing him to be the thoughtful and rigorous linguist that he generally is.  What I do have something to say about is the headline that the article bears online: “Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?” (Geoff Pullum himself, in the Language Log post in which he references the article, calls it “regrettably headlined.”)

The “grammar Nazis” mentioned in the body of the article are, as far as I can tell, people who get peevish about alleged violations of imagined rules of grammar. What this behavior has to do with Nazism, at least as I experienced first-hand in the ghettos and concentration camps of Central Europe during World War II, is beyond me.

It seems to be so universally agreed that the Nazis were bad that people nowadays apply the name, or other names or terms associated with Nazism, to whatever they don’t like. So we have Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazis” and Seinfeld’s “the soup Nazi”; Obama’s promotion of affordable health care earns him a comparison with Hitler, and a billionaire likens increased taxation of obscene profits to Kristallnacht.

It’s not that people could have forgotten what the actual Nazis were like. The entertainment industry sees to it that movies (features and documentaries) and TV programs about the Nazi era keep coming out, and the Holocaust industry fills the media with reminders.

I am tired of having to tell people, “No, a soup-stand owner who treats customers in a capricious and arbitrary manner is not therefore a Nazi.” The Nazis were, in fact, anything but capricious or arbitrary: they followed procedures meticulously.  People, from those who saw “Stalag 17″ 60 years ago or “The Book Thief” last year, should know that. And higher taxes on the super-rich are not the same as breaking shop windows and dragging people out to beat them up.

So, a plea from someone who was there: leave this particular N-word for the real thing.

A perverse satisfaction

March 21, 2014

Like most thinking people on this planet, I am concerned about the fate of the crew and passengers of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370. But I am also drawing a kind of perverse satisfaction from the fact that it hasn’t been found. It’s reassuring to know that, in this age of global surveillance, when everything that happens is supposed to be known to someone, it’s possible for a large object to disappear from sight without being detected.

Many years ago, when I was young, I had a fantasy about an island somewhere in the South Seas that is surrounded by a constant wall of fog, which over the centuries has been settled by various groups of people who somehow got stranded there. I had worked out a geography and an ethnography for it, and I had even thought of writing a novel in which the island is destroyed by some natural catastrophe but a few people escape to the outside world, where they recognize one another through some signal or other. But by the time I started writing novels, around ten years ago (see here), I no longer thought that such a thing was possible, namely, an island that can remain undetected to the present. Now I’m going to rethink the matter.

Lemberg again

March 14, 2014

In most media accounts of the current crisis in the Ukraine, the chief city of western Ukraine — the heartland of the anti-Yanukovich protest movement — is called Lviv. But yesterday, in a report on NPR’s Morning Edition, Emily Harris referred to it by the Russian name, Lvov.

Why? Because the report was about the political differences within a married couple living in Kharkiv (called by that name, the Ukrainian one, rather than the Russian Kharkov). The husband is an ethnic Russian and the wife a western Ukrainian, but their common language is Russian, and so, when telling Emily Harris their story, they called the place where they met (at university) Lvov. And the reporter didn’t bother mentioning that this is the same place that elsewhere is being called Lviv.

I will repeat my advice of a a couple of years ago: stop mispronouncing Lviv, Lvov or Lwów (the combination of palatal /l/ with /v/ with no intervening vowel, is nearly impossible for anglophones) and stick to the time-honored Lemberg. So what if it’s the German form? Danes don’t mind that we call their capital Copenhagen (as long as the a is that of mate, not of father — they didn’t like the way Danny Kaye sang it in Hans Christian Andersen) and not København. Russians don’t mind our calling their capital Moscow (a respelling of the German Moskau) and not Moskva. So, once again: Lemberg!

Gerund and participle

March 1, 2014

I recently ran across, serendipitously, an article in The Atlantic Monthly blog by Kevin Dettmar, a professor of English at Pomona College, titled “Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities.” He begins, “I’ve never hated a film quite the way I hate Dead Poets Society.” Since I remember also disliking (if not hating) the film when I saw it, I was intrigued. Dettmar’s main reason for his attitude toward the film is that Mr. Keating, the literature teacher (played by Robin Williams) who is its hero, encourages students to experience poetry as he does by “feeling” it rather than find their own experience by actually reading it. Dettmar cites, as his first example, a thorough misreading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” He then writes:

In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.

Whoa! Has Professor Dettmar actually read a poem by Robert Frost titled “The Mending Wall”? The famous poem that begins “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” is titled “Mending Wall”; it’s about the narrator and his neighbor mending the wall between them. In the title, mending is the gerund of ‘mend’ and wall is its direct object; it like ‘eating breakfast’ or ‘making money,’ and such a phrase does not allow, in English, an article before it. If one wants to fully nominalize the phrase (treat it as a noun) then of is required between the gerund and the object: the eating of breakfast, the mending of (a or the) wall. Otherwise, the verb form ending in -ing can only be a present participle, and the mending wall can only mean ‘the wall that mends,’ which is not what the poem is about. Consider hunting game and the hunting game: the former is the activity of hunting wild animals, the latter is a game based on hunting.

Contributors to Language Log often decry the ignorance of grammar by teachers of English, and this instance certainly validates their complaints. Among the chief decriers is Geoffrey Pullum, coauthor (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (and its cheap sibling, A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar). I admire and respect Geoff Pullum but (as I have noted in a few previous posts) I have my differences with him, and one of them is that CGEL and SIEG have abolished the difference between gerund and participle, and conflated them into a single verb form that they call gerund-participle, simply because “no verb has different forms corresponding to the two uses” (SIEG, p. 32). I wonder: had there been just one verb with two different forms, would that have made all the difference? As I have shown in the preceding paragraph, the two uses are governed by different rules; is that not enough to justify regarding them as different verb forms, as they are in most other inflecting language?

The problem is that, by focusing exclusively on the phenomenology of standard English and deliberately ignoring that of other languages (including dialects and older forms of English), Huddleston and Pullum have strayed from what I think of as the historical function of grammar: teaching the rules of a standard language to students who may or may not be “native speakers” (those whose primary vernacular is a colloquial variant of the standard, what I call a parastandard). In fact, historically the first grammars were of “dead” languages — ones that no longer had a colloquial variant: Sanskrit, Homeric Greek, Classical Latin, Koranic Arabic, Scriptural Hebrew.

While I don’t believe in the “universal grammar” theories of Chomsky and his school, I have found that the concept of parts of speech (or lexical categories) is of great help in relating discourse in one language to what it might be in another, even when the structures are quite different: that prepositions in English correspond to postpositions in Japanese or Turkish does not really hinder understanding.

And, it seems, professors of English need to be taught about gerunds and participles.



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