Archive for March, 2014

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, sliced in half (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 to those who saw “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.