The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘English’

Greetings from Kingston Pen, and Other News

February 16, 2015 | by

kingston

Photo: Geoffrey James, via Slate

  • The Book of Mormon may be a dull, plodding testament to the assorted lunacies of America’s Second Great Awakening—but it’s also “a Great American Novel, or, failing that, a priceless artifact from the Old, Weird America—a uniquely American product, like jazz music and superhero comics, that deserves our attention.”
  • What role, if any, does the “public intellectual” have in 2015? “It might be to participate in making ‘the public’ more brilliant, more skeptical, more disobedient, more capable of self-defense, and more dangerous again—dangerous to elites, and dangerous to stability … It is perhaps up to the intellectual, if anyone, to face off against the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down ‘big ideas,’ and call that world what it is: stupid.”
  • The English language has been in decline for a long time—a very, very long time, in fact, and along the way plenty of people have seen fit to remind us that we’re swirling in the toilet bowl. “It was William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who wrote that ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.’ He died in 1386.”
  • “There’s something about making a diagram or calendar for an imagined world that feels over-the-top or maybe borderline delusional,” but everyone does it anyway—see this collection of novelists’ visual aids.
  • Kingston Penitentiary, which had a rep as “Canada’s Alcatraz,” opened in 1835 and closed only a few years ago. The photographer Geoffrey James was one of the few to document life inside it before it shut down—his photo-essay is bleak.

Fast Asleep and Wide Awake

January 27, 2015 | by

But shouldn’t that be the other way around?

A_Rotting_Am_Morgen_1840

A. Rötting, In the Morning, 1840.

Like Thomas Wyatt, who can’t quite let go, I can’t quite let go of that Wyatt poem about what she hath deserved. He says in it that love was not just a dream: “It was no dream, I lay broad waking.” The last two words are an obvious yet pleasantly unfamiliar double-synonym for wide awake.

But what’s so wide about it?

To see the link between alertness and vast side-to-side extent—and why we’re also said to be speedy asleep—the place to start is with awake. The “a-” is a weakened form of the preposition on or in, by the same verbal laziness that turned one into the article an, and then before consonants into a, pronounced “uh.” To go on board or on shore, to be in bed or on a slant, is to be aboard, ashore, abed, aslant, not to mention astern, abreast, ahead (originally nautical as well), afoot, aloof (on the luff side, to windward, steering clear), far afield, run aground. We don’t think of them as contractions of preposition + noun anymore, but many of our location and direction words have this form: afar, amid, atop, athwart, askew, awry, gone astray, and less obviously across, away, apart, around, aside, taken aback.
Read More »

4 COMMENTS

Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

Ready_to_portage_around_Lower_Basswood_Falls,_07_1961_(5188003652)

Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

7 COMMENTS

The Joys of Yiddish Dictionaries

February 22, 2013 | by

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 10.49.05 AMOne of the best things I’ve ordered on the Internet recently is a Yiddish translation of The Hobbit. After getting lost in the mail in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it finally arrived: a medium-sized white-on-black paperback titled Der Hobit, with a dedication to the “workers and residents of the Newtonville Starbucks (my office).” The translator, Barry Goldstein, is a retired computer programmer, and reworking The Hobbit is only one of his hobbies. He is an arctic traveler who has taken several trips to Greenland, and he has rendered accounts of Shackleton’s voyages into Yiddish. He is also on the editorial team of a more momentous, if not quite as whimsical, project: the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, released in January by Indiana University Press. Now, thanks to Goldstein, I have the Yiddish Hobbit, and the means to read it.

A dictionary is meant to be a reflection of a language (or a prescription for it, depending on your view), but the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary reflects an entire culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, the dictionary received a grant from the Forward Association, which publishes the newspaper for which I work.) Unlike previous dictionaries, its audience is mainly English speakers, not Yiddish. It is aimed at readers of Yiddish literature (or Yiddish translations of children’s fantasy novels), rather than people who want to speak or write the language, though an English-Yiddish dictionary is also on the way. In the battle between descriptivism and prescriptivism it takes a middle path, erring on the side of the descriptive. Taken with its predecessors, it tells the story of Yiddish in America. Read More »

8 COMMENTS

Staff Picks: Murdock Pemberton, ‘The Last September’

January 20, 2012 | by

Elizabeth Bowen.

Late at night I’ve been savoring Elizabeth Bowen’s 1929 novel, The Last September, about feckless English gentry in County Cork on the eve of civil war. This is Bowen in her early, super-Georgian mode. It’s like The Wind in the Willows meets Mrs. Dalloway, with IRA incursions. —Lorin Stein

This week I finally had a chance to crack open the momentous, beautiful Portrait of Murdock Pemberton. It presents sixty years of accumulated paraphernalia collected by Pemberton, the first New Yorker art critic and a founder of the Algonquin Round Table—paraphernalia that turned up only recently, stored in suitcases in his family’s attic. There are love letters; Freudian analyses conducted by mail; vintage art-gallery brochures; epistolary exchanges with Harold Ross, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz, among others; and of course a plethora of New Yorker columns from the early days of the magazine—all spotted with charming satiric quips on the editorial process, like “every third week or so we feel the editorial complex empowering our sense of proportion and we give vent to a little sermon” or “to keep his luck running fair, every critic should be honest with you now and then.” Indeed!—Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn

One day in 1923, a Panamanian civil servant with no interest in poetry returns home from work and composes a long poem that becomes a landmark of the Latin American avant-garde. Such is the premise of César Aira’s Varamo. The rest of the novella reconstructs the events that lead up to (but fail to explain) this mysterious burst of inspiration. It’s a lampoon of our need for narrative, and no one these days does metafiction like Aira. —Robyn Creswell

Maybe it’s because I’m in the thick of ad sales this week, but I was particularly taken with this slideshow of vintage Village Voice ads. My favorite is for a clothing line that sells, among other things, something called the “Capitalist banker coat”: “Intrepid Gyro,” the ad copy reads, “wearing its scars lightly, stalks the surplus sub-world in quest of epic styles without compromise.” —Sadie Stein

I am indulging my primordial self with William Golding’s The Inheritors, a novel chronicling the demise of ambling Neanderthals at the hands of cruel Homo sapiens. —Julian Delacruz

Anyone who has spent any time in this fair city will get a good hoot out of “Shit New Yorkers Say.”—D.F.M.

2 COMMENTS

Aamer Hussein on ‘The Cloud Messenger’

October 18, 2011 | by

Aamer Hussein, courtesy of the writer.

Though The Cloud Messenger is Aamer Hussein’s first novel, it comes after five collections of stories and a novella, Another Gulmohar Tree. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, but a long-time resident of London, Hussein has dramatized the sorts of encounters between and within cultures that reflect his own facility in seven languages. He writes with intelligent restraint about the experience of displacement, but also the indelible richness of wherever we like to think of as home. The Cloud Messenger draws on his own unsentimental education as a student of Farsi to create a romance about language and the unexpected life that reading and translating can take. Last year, we met to discuss the Granta anthology of writing from and about Pakistan at his home in West London.

Could you begin by explaining your background?

I’m from Karachi, third-generation in almost an accidental way, because both my grandfather and father were born there, even though they hadn’t lived there very much until after partition because of certain historical … mishaps, you might say. My mother is from Northern India and from a much more traditional family, although her father was an academic.Read More »

1 COMMENT