The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘English’

Burgers and Copters, Shelves and Pants

August 13, 2015 | by

How rebracketing gives us new words.

Find_the_differences_(painting_by_Peter_Klashorst)

From Find the Differences, a series of paintings by Peter Klashorst.

How is a helipad like a cheeseburger? It’s all about arms being legs, and having an ear.

There are words that sound right in a language and words that sound wrong, and the latter often, as the gangsters say, go on a little trip. A sound or two will be dropped like a stool pigeon with cement shoes (from the front, apheresis: [k]nife; from the back, apocope: memo[randum]), or added or modified, and the word will be domesticated. What’s easier or lazier than changing anything is to leave it as is and see it differently: a process known in life as getting a new perspective or reframing, and in linguistics as rebracketing.

Unusually for such technicalia, rebracketing is a good, solid English word, not Latin or Greek. Other terms for the same thing, false splitting or juncture loss, are also easy to grasp, and in fact each more poignant than the last. False splitting, juncture loss—they sound so lovelorn. It hurts to see things that go together come apart. Read More »

Tickle the Feline Ivories, and Other News

July 17, 2015 | by

catpiano

Illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, vol. 11, 1883.

  • Earlier this year, Donald Antrim gave a commencement speech at Woodberry Forest School. His subject was “the unprotected life” and coping with its devastations. For years after a long suicidal depression, he said, “I did not write. It was enough to be restored, and I deeply and sincerely regretted ever writing at all. I’d seen what it could do, what my own choices, my own work, had done to me. I was afraid of what I might write, and afraid, too, that, were I to sit down to it, were I to try, I would only learn that I was broken, and that it was no longer possible for me to bring out a word.”
  • Time was, if you didn’t like any of the real musical instruments out there in the world, you’d just make one up in writing. The rich history of “fictophones”—imaginary musical instruments—includes Francis Bacon’s pluperfect sound-houses (“where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation”), the tublo cochleato (an enormous French horn-ish megaphone thing for amplifying the voice), and the torturetron (an organ that sends spikes into the sides of anyone near it, thus adding their pained groans to its own sounds). Best of all, though, is the cat piano, “a set of cats arrayed as sound-producing elements to be activated by the fingers,” which dates to the sixteenth century and was rumored to have cured an Italian prince of his melancholia.
  • Information overload is often depicted as one of the most tragic fates of the media age, anathema to all who prize the human condition. But it could be pretty good for poets, who can drown themselves in the “information sublime”: “Poets have not been passive victims of the proliferation of information, but rather have actively participated in—sometimes benefiting from, sometimes implicitly advocating, sometimes resisting—that proliferation … Poetries of information overload—by which I mean poetries and poems that relate either formally or historically to information saturation—demonstrate an extraordinary range of innovative responses to changing technological conditions.”
  • Today in the shifting sands of interlingual communication: German phrases have begun to yield to their English equivalents in interesting, not to say insidious, ways. “Germans are noticing that English is changing their fixed phrases, and even grammar. In English, something ‘makes sense.’ For Germans, though, ‘es hat Sinn’ (it has sense) or ‘es ist sinvoll’ (it’s sensible). The German is actually more logical. How, as in English, is something sensible actually making sense? The question is unanswerable; language is weird, and idioms especially. But nonetheless, many Germans are starting to say es macht Sinn, a loan-translation straight from English. Germans are proud of being thoughtful and logical; the idea that making sense is something they would have to borrow from the English might give a traditionalist the shivers.”
  • New York has a long, sad history of demolishing architectural wonders: the original Penn Station, the Roxy Theatre, St. John’s Church, the City Hall Post Office. The establishment, in 1965, of the Landmarks Preservation Commission did something to stop the destruction, but it was late in coming—a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks,” reminds of all that’s been lost.

Translating Knausgaard: An Interview with Don Bartlett

April 28, 2015 | by

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From the cover of the American edition of My Struggle: Book Four.

The fourth of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical mega-novel, My Struggle, releases today. But Knausgaard writes in Norwegian, and most of us are reading My Struggle in English. For this we must thank the translator Don Bartlett, who has spent much of the past four years transposing Knausgaard’s Norwegian into an addictive, lively English.

I recently had a chance to discuss My Struggle with Bartlett, who, as the book’s translator, is surely one of Knausgaard’s closest, most dedicated readers on Earth. He has been over every single word in the first four books of My Struggle several times; he has weighed commas and clauses like gold; he has scoured for the right voice for Knausgaard in English. Bartlett, who lives in England, was able to tell me fascinating things about My Struggle—among them, some of the differences between how Knausgaard sounds in Norwegian and English, why Knausgaard seems to sound a tiny bit British in the U.S. editions of My Struggle, and his own theories about why the novels have proven such a success in English.

When did you first encounter My Struggle?

I went to a panel discussion in London with three Norwegian writers, led by someone I knew was clued up on Norwegian literature. Afterward, I talked to Karl Ove and asked him what he was working on. He said he had just written five—I think it was five—novels. I asked him what about. He said, with a laugh, Myself.Read More »

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.
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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 »

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