Posts filed under “Books & Literature”

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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ARE YOU FRIGHTENED BY GOOGLE YET?

One of the odd things about the world of Google is that improvements often arrive unannounced. Google Docs, for example, is a simple but capable online word processor that becomes more capable by invisible increments. It was only today that Dr. Boli discovered one of the more surprising improvements.

He had occasion to write something that included a Latin quotation, and it was only after having finished the document and read it through once that it occurred to him to notice: there were no wavy red lines under most of the Latin words.

The obvious first assumption was that Google recognized the text as being in a foreign language, and simply gave up on trying to check the spelling. But that assumption wrecked against the rock of the evidence that there was a wavy line under one of the Latin words. In fact, not to keep our readers in suspense, Google did indeed recognize the Latin, and it was perfectly capable of checking the spelling without even asking the writer to specify the language.

The passage in question was Tacitus’ famous description of Nero’s persecution of the Christians. You can try it yourself by pasting this paragraph into Google Docs:

Sed non ope humana, non largitionibus principis aut deum placamentis decedebat infamia, quin iussum incendium crederetur. ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appellabat. auctor nominis eius Christus Tibero imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiablilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque. igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt. et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent aut crucibus adfixi [aut flammandi atque], ubi defecisset dies, in usu[m] nocturni luminis urerentur. hortos suos ei spectaculo Nero obtulerat, et circense ludicrum edebat, habitu aurigae permixtus plebi vel curriculo insistens. unde quamquam adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos miseratio oriebatur, tamquam non utilitate publica, sed in saevitiam unius absumerentur.

Dr. Boli had copied this paragraph out of the on-line edition of Tacitus in the Latin Library. The one word Google Docs flagged was Tibero. “Did you mean Tiberio?” Google asked.

And the answer was yes. Yes, there is a misprint in the Latin Library edition of Tacitus’ Annals. Tibero should be Tiberio (the ablative of Tiberius).

Are you frightened by Google yet?

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NEW FRONTIERS IN INTERNET LAW.

The National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France) has a delightful site called Gallica, in which you can see a huge variety of the library’s precious treasures in digital form. If you visit from the United States, the home page automatically defaults to English, so that you can browse without knowing a word of French.

Except that you are required to agree to a little stipulation:

“En poursuivant votre navigation sur ce site, vous acceptez l’utilisation de cookies nécessaires à la réalisation de statistiques et d’études d’usages ainsi qu’au fonctionnement des boutons de partage sur les réseaux sociaux.”

BNF cookies

To get rid of that notice, you must agree (by clicking a button labeled, amusingly enough, “OK”).

What do you suppose a lawyer would think about a site in English that makes us agree to a stipulation in a foreign language—one to which we agree simply by using the site in English? (A translation: “By pursuing your navigation on this site, you accept the use of cookies necessary for gathering statistics and studying usage as well as for the operation of sharing buttons for social networks.”)

Even as he poses the question, Dr. Boli knows the answer. The answer is that any good intellectual-property lawyer is thinking to himself, “Boy, I wish I’d thought of that.”

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