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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

A Generic Statement About Haystacks, and Other News

December 11, 2015 | by

Claude Monet, Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891.

  • 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.”

Camping for Everyone, and Other News

August 18, 2015 | by

campingladies

From Wiser Counselors, Better Camps, Happier Children, 1929.

  • Anyone who maintains that writers play a pivotal role in advancing and transforming our language is dead wrong—the real engines for linguistic change are teenage girls, who have served as “disruptors” since the fifteenth century, if not earlier. Linguists who have studied six thousand letters from 1417 to 1681 “found that female letter-writers changed the way they wrote faster than male letter-writers, spearheading the adoption of new words and discarding words like doth and maketh.”
  • Next year will see the release of a new Cormac McCarthy novel called The Passenger, the first since 2006’s The Road. (There’s a joke to be made here about how The Road and The Passenger together sound like a spin-off of Car and Driver, but … ah, forget it.) The new book, scuttlebutt suggests, is “set in New Orleans around 1980. It has to do with a brother and sister. When the book opens she’s already committed suicide, and it’s about how he deals with it. She’s an interesting girl.” As for McCarthy, he spends most of his time “at a science and mathematics think tank in New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), where he is a trustee.”
  • Reminder: Ottessa Moshfegh doesn’t need your praise or acceptance. “I don’t care about being a literary personality—that doesn’t appeal to me, especially because the literary world doesn’t appeal to me. I actually don’t feel like I even belong in it … If this was high school, I would be sitting with the goths, looking at everyone, being like, Whatever.”
  • In the early twentieth century, with the nineteenth amendment finally ratified, the writers of camping guides realized at last that women can enjoy camping, too—thus ensued a slew of new camping and hunting books for women. “Somehow, out of the neglect, arose the impression that woods’ joys were for men alone,” Woodcraft for Women begins. “Gradually a few women discovered that the lazy drifting down a pine and rock-bound stream calms feminine as well as masculine nerves and that the dimly blazed trail into an unknown country arouses the pioneering instinct in them as truly as it does a man.”
  • Looking back at Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques: “If the voice of this French anthropologist conveys to you nothing more than academic curmudgeonliness, let’s leave it there. But isn’t it a kind of fastidiousness that seems to belong to a vanished intellectual world? It seems a promise that he feels his discoveries too important not to be told, and perhaps they are.”

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 »

Great Steak Break, Yeats

June 25, 2015 | by

How the Erie Canal changed our vowel sounds.

Arthur_B._Davies_-_Along_the_Erie_Canal_-_

Arthur Bowen Davies, Along the Erie Canal, 1890. Click to enlarge

One thing you can learn from Timescapes, the surprisingly moving twenty-two-minute video at the Museum of the City of New York, is how big a deal the Erie Canal was. In the early nineteenth century, New York companies were already sending ships down the coast so reliably that it was cheaper for Southern merchants to send their goods to Europe via New York than to ship them directly. But everything in the Midwest—everything on the other side of the Appalachians—was stuck there, cut off from coastal and worldwide markets. It took weeks to get to Cleveland. Grain, bulky and relatively cheap, was especially not worth hauling east. The canal linking the Great Lakes to the Hudson, opened in 1825, was about twenty times faster than portage: shipping costs dropped 90 percent. It turned Manhattan into a modern metropolis, made New York the Empire State, and created America the economic superpower. Every major city in New York except Binghamton and Elmira is located along its trade route from Rochester and Buffalo through Schenectady, Utica, and Syracuse to Albany and New York City. Easy traffic made the Midwest “Northern” in the Civil War; before the canal, the Midwest had been predominantly settled by Southerners.

The canal was also the biggest thing to hit English-language short vowels in a thousand years. Read More »

Renaissance Painters Gone Wild, and Other News

February 2, 2015 | by

Piero_di_cosimo,_scena_di_caccia

Piero di Cosimo, Scena di caccia (A Hunting Scene), ca. 1490.

  • “Among twenty reasonable comments, / The only livid thing / Was the caw of the trollbird.” From an anonymous versificator striking at the very quintessence of the contemporary experience: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Trollbird.”
  • The paintings of Piero di Cosimo, a Renaissance-era artist who ate nothing but boiled eggs and painted scenes of alarming violence and sensuality, are coming to America for the first time in seventy-five years. “While Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci were all making worlds of ideal perfection, their contemporary, Piero di Cosimo, had set out on a different, more twisted path, bewitching his fellow Florentines with his visual fables and mythological fantasies … Piero’s ability to conjure the macabre, the monstrous and the miraculous offers its own distinctive pleasures and a rare insight into the more neurotic recesses of the Renaissance imagination.”
  • On Prince Albert Hunt, a twentieth-century fiddler from Texas who met a grisly end: “Prince Albert recorded only nine sides … and they are fiercely sought after due to their forceful, bluesy nature … Although Hunt didn’t alter the course of vernacular folk music, and his influence on Western swing is minimal, he did leave a testament etched in the shellac grooves of his few recordings to an idiosyncratic sound that reflected the mongrel eccentricities of his time and place. Hunt played exactly what the people of Deep Ellum wanted: uninhibited fiddle dance pieces and an occasional waltz.”
  • How to destroy the history of painting: make a black square on a white background, hang it on the wall of a Soviet gallery in 1915, and tell others to jump through it, where “the free white sea, infinity, lies before you.” Kazimir Malevich did this. Worked like a charm.
  • The “quotative like” (“I’m like, What do you mean I have to be in by ten?”) is now “one of our language’s most popular methods of talking about talking … linguists see these expressions as something like the Swiss Army knives of reported conversation. Their versatility and usefulness means they’ll probably be around for a long time.”

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The Cowboys of Europe, and Other News

September 24, 2014 | by

romanian western

From The Sons of Great Bear, a 1966 Romanian Western.

  • The Western is an integral part of the Hollywood canon, but European filmmakers weren’t about to let Americans have all the fun. Germany and France produced scores of Westerns, in part because “once you found a wide-open landscape vaguely redolent of the American West, they were relatively cheap to make.” But it was Italy that arguably perfected the European Western: “The Spaghetti Westerns, with their multiple aliases (Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite is variously also known as Once Upon a Time ... the Revolution and Duck, You Sucker!), their badly-dubbed voices, their sweaty, sunburned close-ups and their loud, redounding music, were both gothic and grand guignol. They could also be incredibly sophisticated amid all the alarum.”
  • Today in pointless but strangely gratifying thought experiments: What would the longest book in the world look like? (“If there’s a new major character introduced every hundred pages or so, you’d have 100 billion main characters … ”)
  • A second novel is rarely greeted with the exuberance of a first. To help stop “Second Novel Syndrome,” the Whiting Foundation and Slate are compiling a list of under-recognized second novels from the past five years and reminding readers of their joys.
  • The radical linguists of the early twentieth century: “Historically, it was languages that were swept in with strong political, economic, or religious backing—Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese in the Eurasian core—that were held to be the oldest, the holiest, and the most perfect in structure, their ‘classical’ status cemented by the received weight of canonical tradition … It was just over a century ago when a group of linguists made an effort to go beyond the language politics of imperialism and nationalism.”
  • Taking a cue from Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” a woman attempts to swim every (public) pool in Manhattan. (Unlike Cheever’s Neddy Merrill, she is not an alcoholic.)

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