Posts Tagged ‘grammar’
December 31, 2015 | by Damion Searls
We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person.
It can be staggering to realize, suddenly, that something you’ve never thought about—something you’ve always accepted as real—is just an article of faith. Language is often what turns the lightbulb on: someone defines reality afresh with a new word (mansplaining, Rebecca Solnit) or by showing the hidden powers and interconnections of an old word (debt, David Graeber). Rarely is the realization about language itself.
Of all the dogmas of classical antiquity, only grammar has held its ground. Euclidean geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, Roman law, Christian doctrine—the schools have radically demolished them all. But even now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.
The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ’s Birth or God’s Divine Purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: “Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take … Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”) The grammatical dogma he means, though—and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against—is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat. Read More >>
December 11, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Our new Winter issue, hot off the presses, features poems from A New English Grammar by Jeff Dolven. One of them, “*The Haystack’s Painting,” has occasioned a roiling linguistic-grammatical debate at Language Log. “I would have no problem with a sentence such as ‘We sat in the haystack’s shadow’ in any case, but the case at hand is not a generic statement about haystacks,” one reader writes: “The body of the poem personifies the haystack, so it seems perfectly consistent that the title does also. If the reader is caught short by the title, only to have the tension relaxed by personification in the following lines, this is to the poet’s credit.” Another says, “I’m not quite sure what’s being considered ungrammatical about ‘The haystack’s painting.’ Haystack is a noun; nouns have possessive forms. It’s certainly unusual to consider the subject of a painting to be the ‘owner’ of that painting, but I think it’s quite an effective poetic device here.”
- The poet Stephen Spender kept his sexuality a secret—a burden he managed only with the belief that leading a double life was completely ordinary for a writer. “In the 1990s, when literary parties were more fun, or I was more fun, I used occasionally to see Stephen Spender,” Andrew O’Hagan writes: “there he was, the establishment on quivering legs, queer as a chocolate orange but safely married. (When I spoke to him, I discovered he could flirt with his eyes shut.) … ‘Just do your thing,’ one wishes to say to him, but he was doing his thing, and part of that thing was not really to know what his thing was. Sexual identity gets all the limelight, but sex itself wasn’t particularly important to Spender and the freedom he harped on about, and feared losing as a result of his domestic decisions, was the freedom to write as he wanted to.”
- Today in length: books have more of it than ever. A survey found that the average number of pages in a book has increased by 25 percent since 1999—to four hundred pages. “The real struggle is publishing an unremarkably-sized book,” one agent says: “the most difficult area now appears to be the middle. Mid-list, mid-career, middle-sized—in fact anything that’s middling.”
- Jewels, vases, statues, masks, vessels … you name it, the Ancient Greeks had it in gold. And now this plunder is ours, all ours: “We learn a great deal about Greek art by being grave robbers. The immensely privileged eased themselves into the afterlife with much of the booty that had cushioned their time on earth. It seems they aimed at taking along enough symbols of power and wealth to get whatever passes for honor in the underworld. Greek and Roman rulers and victors wore wreaths more often than crowns; so we find gold imitations of the rich foliation of crowns made from different tree branches. Phillip II was buried in an underground miniature temple wearing an oak leaf wreath made with stunning realism by his little army of goldsmiths.”
- People have been flying in the movies for more or less as long as they’ve been flying in real life. The plane, in cinema, has long functioned as an essential piece of visual vocabulary, and also as propaganda. During World War II, the military commissioned directors like William Wyler to bring a glorious variant aerial combat into movie houses: “Wyler and his crew embedded (as we might now say) with the 91st Bomb Group. They took their sixteen-millimeter cameras on bombing runs … The results of his time with the 91st Bomb Group were assembled into a short documentary called Memphis Belle (1944), which James Agee praised for its immediacy. ‘I could not guess which shots were re-enacted and which were straight records,’ Agee confessed, and postwar movies would often aspire to induce precisely this confusion. Agee had an ethical commitment to documentary, and a temperamental suspicion of artifice, and during the war his insistence on the literal, visceral truth reflected the biases of the filmmakers themselves, who often battled Army censors over how much unvarnished reality they could show.”
October 26, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Ask your standard-issue grammarian about further versus farther and he’ll trot out the conventional wisdom: farther should be used to refer to literal distances and further to metaphorical ones. But what if everything we’ve been taught is a lie? Caleb Crain investigates: “Further didn’t originally mean ‘more distant’ but something like ‘more ahead,’ or, as the contemporary O.E.D. puts it, ‘more forward, more onward’ … farther refers to a greater distance, literal or metaphorical, from a shared measuring point. Further refers to a greater progress in a shared direction.”
- What did the literary world look like before the free market enveloped and swallowed it? Memories of that time are getting murkier every day: “It is almost impossible now to remember … that poetry was the literary genre to which the greatest prestige accrued until the mideighties; that one might have spent an afternoon talking with an acquaintance about the rhythm of a writer’s sentences … that we didn’t think of success in writing mainly in relation to the market, and in relation to a particular genre, the novel, and to a specific incarnation of that genre, the first novel, possibly until 1993, when A Suitable Boy was published, or maybe a year earlier, when Donna Tartt’s The Secret History appeared. It is now difficult to understand these examples as watershed occurrences in an emerging order, and difficult to experience again the moral implications of living … in an order that was superseded.”
- NPR personalities used to position themselves as the genuine, warts-and-all alternative to the downy baritones on offer from traditional radio broadcasters—but today even the NPR voices have come to sound manufactured, their hesitant cadences and informality built into the script. “In addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection … A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance … the preplanned responses of NPR personalities sound somewhat counterfeit when stacked against the largely, if not completely, unscripted monologues that open rawer podcasts … an even more forceful catalyst for speech patterns has been the modern Internet, the most powerful linguistic relaxant outside of alcohol.”
- E. H. Shepard is best remembered as the illustrator behind the original Winnie-the-Pooh, but before that, during World War I, he ran a soldiers’ magazine from the trenches: “For months, his life, like all those on the front, was surrounded by slaughter. His sketchbook was full of pictures of crammed dugouts and rough shelters. He drew the chaotic rubble of no-man’s land, the plight of the wounded, and the tall roadside crucifix used as a lookout post by the Germans … But there’s still plenty of humor in Venti Quatro, the soldiers’ magazine he edited, satirizing the gung-ho coverage of the British press, so far from the bitter reality. His wit is not verbal, but visual—a quality hard to define—seen here in affectionate caricatures of fellow officers and in the wonderful, rhythmic dance of beak-nosed, moustachioed officers in swirling tutus.”
- More and more literary magazines are charging a reading fee—is this blatant money-grabbing or the latest in a series of efforts to stanch the flow of submissions? “The major reason literary journals charge fees has less to do with money, and more to do with the enormous number of submissions they receive. Around the country, MFA programs are graduating people who want to be writers, so they submit creative writing to literary journals. The journals, with small staffs and minuscule budgets, are overwhelmed with submissions and take a long time—sometimes six months to a year—to reply. Most writers can’t wait that long for a single response, so they send their work to more journals. The whole thing snowballs … In some sense, then, writers are to blame for blanketing journals they haven’t even read with their work.”
October 20, 2015 | by Bernd Brunner
Navigating a new language.
Some people see learning a language as an obstacle course or, more euphemistically, as a second coming of age. Whichever way you look at it, when it comes to Turkish, English speakers are faced with a much harder task than with an Indo-European language.
Why does the Turkish alphabet not contain the letter w? Very few Turkish words remind me of their equivalents in the languages I know; nothing follows a familiar pattern. Over and again, I read meanings into words that turn out to be false friends. Why does engel mean “obstacle,” kalender “unconventional” (it can also be a male first name), tabak—“dish”? Why do you “drink” a cigarette—sigara içmek? Why is a sunflower called a “moon flower,” and a hornet a “donkey bee”? Who came up with the idea to choose inmek for “get off”? Will I ever learn to stop dotting the ı? Read More »
September 4, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Joy Williams has a new collection out, and a reporter has found her in rare form: “Williams does not have an email address. She uses a flip phone and often writes in motels and friends’ houses on old Smith-Coronas; she brings one with her and keeps others everywhere she stays … Williams now splits her time among Tucson, her daughter’s home in Maine and Laramie, migrating across the country with her dogs in her Toyota, which has 160,000 miles on it but is pretty new by her standards. (Her last car, her old Bronco, neared 360,000.) She eats a lot of Weetabix.”
- You should be proud of your name: it’s yours. It denotes y-o-u, and no one can take that away from you. Unfortunately, things get a bit complicated if your parents happen to have given you a necronym, that is, a death name: “It usually means a name shared with a dead sibling. Until the late nineteenth century, necronyms were not uncommon among Americans and Europeans. If a child died in infancy, his or her name was often given to the next child, a natural consequence of high birth rates and high infant mortality rates … In their 1989 Dictionary of Superstitions, folklorists Iona Opie and Moira Tatum offer one reason for the necronym’s decline: many parents feared it was a murderous curse.”
- “Unless ice burns and burning fire cools / No bard could look on you and not speak out / It can not be that I monopolize / The making of the songs that give you praise / Or that such pools as are your dearest eyes / Have just one bather.” These lines, and about eight others like them, are worth seventy-five hundred pounds. That’s not because they’re excellent, necessarily. It’s because Ezra Pound wrote them. They’re from an unpublished sonnet he wrote to the British painter Isabel Codrington in April 1909; it sold at auction earlier this week. “He obviously admired her,” said a perceptive employee at the auction house.
- Let’s go on an adventure with the passive voice, shall we? Watch as, step-by-grammatically-irksome-step, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” becomes “Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown.” “We have finally fully arrived at the ultimate in passive voice: the past exonerative tense, so named because culpability is impossible when actions no longer exist. For the most extensive erasure of direct communicative value, the original object can now even be removed entirely.”
- Duchamp is old hat. The future of toilet art is, like the future of most things, in Japan, where an exhibition called Toilennale “brings together Japanese artists who have transformed sixteen public restrooms into sites for art installations … one park lavatory literally becomes a sweet site, transformed inside and out by a trio of artists into an enormous piece of pink candy titled ‘Melting Dreams.’ ”
July 30, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in pictures of the Brontë sisters that are probably actually not pictures of the Brontë sisters: have a look at this one from the mid-nineteenth century, recently purchased by a collector named Seamus Molloy on eBay for fifteen quid. It could very well be Anne, Emily, and Charlotte, couldn’t it? And yet: “There’s no record of them having their picture taken, photography wasn’t exactly flourishing in Howarth in the 1840s, and it would have been expensive … Apart from anything else, it looks nothing like them. When Anne was four she told her father she wanted ‘age and experience’ but the women in the photograph are closer to middle age than the sisters would have been (Anne was twenty-eight when she died). They’re too cross-looking, too.”
- While we’re talking tricks and illusions pertaining to Victorian-era writers—hackers have taken to using passages from Sense and Sensibility to fool computers’ security-screening processes. (Computers are famous for adoring the prose of Jane Austen.*) “Adding passages of classic text to an exploit kit landing page is a more effective obfuscation technique than the traditional approach of using random text,” an important computer person said. “Antivirus and other security solutions are more likely to categorize the web page as legitimate after ‘reading’ such text.”
- Sarah Manguso on being a mother and many other things: “A man who used to cuff and clamp me, and who once cut a hole in my tights with his coke razor and fucked me through it, became a close friend. One month I had an unusually heavy period. I think I might actually be having a miscarriage, I told him. At least you aren’t having a kid, he replied, shuddering. We both laughed.”
- Our London editor, Adam Thirlwell, on the Argentinean novelist Alan Pauls: “His writing—whose background is always the grotesqueries of recent Argentine politics—is a constant process of evaluations, of readings and misreadings, as his characters try to investigate the true nature of the stories in which they find themselves … events are always hidden behind the scribble of the characters’ thinking, a haze of suspended investigation into an infinitely receding past—both personal, and also historical: the era of the Junta and the Dirty War.”
- Here at The Paris Review, we capitalize the word Internet, because our style guide says so: it’s a proper noun. I have questioned the wisdom of this rule on more than one occasion, but I’ve stood idly by and let it happen. Well, no more. The denizens of this World Wide Web, this information superhighway, this e-zone, must draw a line in the digital sand. “Whether or not to capitalize the word internet might not seem like big fish to many readers, and they would be right … but neither is it simply a matter of correct grammar. How we think about and make use of words can have a profound impact on how we think about the things those words represent … changing the capitalization would signal a shift in understanding about what the internet actually is: ‘part of the neural universe of life.’ ”
*This is a lie.