Posts filed under “Books & Literature”

A LITERARY PUZZLE.

This illustration, by the well-known DeAlton Valentine, was commissioned for a magazine advertisement. It was promoting a book, and your task, dear readers, is to guess what book. Dr. Boli will give you the hint that it was a very popular book by a very famous author; and, if it helps, he will even reveal the headline of the advertisement:

Akhn-Aton was human

Can you guess, without going to the Wikimedia Commons page where the image is hosted (because that will give away the source, of course) or resorting to Google’s massive artificial-intelligence empire, what book this image was advertising?

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YET MORE SURREALISM FROM TYPE SPECIMENS.

Looked at in a certain way, it might be discouraging to Dr. Boli that some of the most popular articles he has ever published have not been the ones he took such infinite care to write himself, but his random collections of type specimens with curiously surreal texts. Looked at in another way, it might be heartening to have discovered a quick way of pleasing the masses of readers while one is working on larger projects. These specimens all come from one catalogue, an 1895 specimen book of the Cleveland Type Company.

you-bet

the-nondescript

grumble

wishing-to-import

yankee-boys

very-laughable

teach-fret-mind

unreliable-lightning-gaugers

politicians-campaigns

laws-and-crime

can-you-wish

secluded-damsels-fair

enforced-sale

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ONE PAGE FROM AN OTHERWISE UNKNOWN NOVEL BY HENRY JAMES.

multitudinosity, which both enervated and exhausted, and yet with a vague but defining simultaneity exalted also, charmingly struck a chiming ringing discordant wavering note. Out friend was later to remember it—insofar as memory could be said to operate upon the mere passing impression of a third-person singular neuter pronoun—as a phenomenon of change so complete that his imagination, which had worked so beforehand, if not, as well, behindhand, felt itself, in the connection, without margin or allowance. The change moreover, if it were change at all, came to, at the very least, if not indeed in its essence, represent to him the emotion of bewilderment which had, as he judged it, effected a supplantation of his quite previous indifference. The abstraction acted, he was later to recall having considered the possibility of remembering through a diaphanic mist of esthetic romance, with a more puissant energy than the character. Introspection was not, he was to believe at the time, his bête noir, his fait accompli, his plume de ma tante; but it never, as he might put it, theless was not, at the moment which was, in its spacious and lethargic way, indicated by the hands of the porcelain clock, so ornate baroque insouciant suggestive serene sinuous smooth ticky-tocky dingy-dongy on the mantel, entirely unpresent as what he should, in his usual habit of precision, have called a phenomenon. “So there you,” he earnestly declared with a fresh generosity, “are.” He seemed with that to

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SOMETHING NO LINGUIST WOULD SAY TODAY.

Here are two short paragraphs from the introductory chapter of A Comparative English-German Grammar by Elias Peissner (Schenectady: G. Y. Van de Bogert, 1853).

Vowels (and diphthongs) will sound a little more open before certain consonants. The cause of it lies in the nature of the transition from the vowel to the consonant. Compare, for instance, the sounds et, it, ut, üt, ot, öt with er, ir, or, ör, im, um, om, öm, in, un, on, ön, ong, ung, ink and you cannot but see the change.

Therefore learn only the primitive sounds well and leave the rest to nature. If you should learn thus to pronounce German more purely, than we ourselves pronounce it, think not that we blame you for it; no, no, we rather admire you and are ourselves ashamed of our carelessness.

No linguist would say a thing like that today, and especially not one who writes in English. English linguists have accepted the principle of description-not-prescription as a matter of religious dogma. Webster’s Third New International makes no distinction between the pronunciations of bidder and bitter, which sounds like giving in to utter carelessness. (Interesting to note that the Merriam-Webster web site has retreated from this extremism.)

Because of this dogma, we make learning to read a dreadful chore for our children, because we insist that they learn to divorce spelling from pronunciation, making the written symbols an utterly arbitrary code to be memorized, rather than transcriptions of a small number of sounds whose universality makes learning to interpret them a simple matter. This is the secret of the alphabet, one of the most marvelous inventions in human history.

We are also accelerating the already dizzying pace of change in our language. If we teach careless pronunciation as the norm, then of course carelessness will deviate from that norm, and that will create a new norm, which in turn will have to be taught as the norm, and so on. The English language is already changing at a more prodigious rate than at any time since the Tudor age; is it really necessary to accelerate the change?

Dr. Boli, however, has made an observation. What Prof. Peissner said about Germans is equally true of American English-speakers, as long as we except professional linguists and lexicographers. If you learn to pronounce long and short vowels carefully, and make clear distinctions between consonants, you may not sound quite like an ordinary American, but Americans will think you sound better than an ordinary American. If you are in charge of teaching English to children or other foreigners, you might consider that observation and do your students a big favor.

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