Babel No More

I have never thought of myself as particularly good at languages. This despite my reputation in my workplace as someone who can read anything. Indeed, on lection, in the past eight years, I have reviewed books written in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese, as well as English. My Latin and Greek were once good enough to read Vergil and Homer, I’ve studied Old and Middle English – and many years ago I learned enough Russian to read a Chekhov short story, though I doubt I could recognize half the characters in the Russian alphabet anymore.

I still think of myself as monolingual, however, because my capacity for carrying on a conversation in any language except English is practically nil. In Spanish, for instance, my pronunciation is good (honed by years watching Noticiero Univision), my vocabulary is adequate, and I can often think of a single thing to say, if given about half an hour to prepare. But the thought of somebody saying something back to me makes me extremely reluctant to use Spanish in my everyday life. Or rather: it’s not so much that they might answer with something I didn’t understand – I could perhaps stumble forward from there, despite my shyness, and the fact that it would take me another half an hour to think of the second thing I wanted to say – but the probability that they would immediately switch to English. Everybody’s English is better than my everybody else’s language.

However, since I can read six modern languages (with proficiency varying from high to struggling), and have a few “surge” languages in reserve that I might be able to swot up given a spare month or two, I verge in some ways on the category that Michael Erard calls “hyperpolyglot.” His fascinating book Babel No More tries to do many things: to define “hyperpolyglots” (which includes defining what it means to know or use a language); to locate living hyperpolyglots; to look at the history of hyperpolyglottery; to speculate on the neurological and social contexts for the speaking of many languages; and to travel the world while writing a voice-driven book about eccentric people.

I am deeply in sympathy with all the aims except the last; as readers of lection know, voice-driven nonfiction is one of my pet peeves. Erard, however, keeps the ratio of exposition to chatter substantially high. Once in a while he lapses. Erard flies to Düsseldorf to get some background on neurolinguistics, and tells us that

As any good expedition begins with a meal, Loraine and I considered hyperpolyglots over sushi. Tomorrow we’d be visiting the brain institute, and we had much to discuss. (166)

That’s fine, but who cares.

My peeves aside, though, Babel No More is relentlessly provocative. Erard is constantly caught between the desire that there should be linguistic prodigies in the world, and the rueful awareness that claims on behalf of such prodigies always need discounting by (at least) half. “If you read or hear that a certain person ‘can speak’ (or ’speaks’) a large number of languages (for instance twenty or more) you should always be a little skeptical,” said the late Swedish polyglot Erik Gunnermark (226). Gunnermark himself claimed to speak six languages well and seven others passably, but some who knew him in turn doubted Gunnermark’s claims: one colleague says, “I don’t think [he] could speak very many languages very well—but he could read them” (226). Gunnermark claimed to be able to read forty-seven languages (92).

Two principles are at work in the example of Erik Gunnermark. One is that the definition of “knowing” a language is far more nuanced than common wisdom would have it. I “know” Italian well enough to read contemporary novels without a dictionary, and to have read the entire Divina Commedia in the original at one point in my life. But people will come into my office and ask me the most basic words in Italian, and I haven’t the nebbiosissimo. When I was in Rome nine years ago, I was reduced to pointing and gesticulating in order to demonstrate my most basic needs. (Fortunately espresso is one of them.)

The other principle is that the languages known by any polyglot form a steeply descending curve of such competence, and can be arranged in graph form (as Erard does on 221-22). There are native bilingual and trilingual people who are completely at home in each of these languages, and they often learn a fourth or fifth language well enough to be able to converse unhesitatingly. A sixth, a seventh . . . these are within the range of accomplishment, but the conversations that a polyglot holds in those languages will be more basic. S/he might get by in rudimentary conversations in shops or airports in half a dozen other languages, and know the most phrasebook-like versions of a few others, and be able to read a few others without a dictionary, and a few others with. And then there are a bunch of languages where one knows how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and whatever-it-is you say when you bump into somebody in the market. (Συγγνώμη! Bocsánat! Undskyld!)

Nobody can be near-native in more than four or five languages. (But I know people who are highly fluent in that many, mainly from crossroads-of-Europe places like the Benelux countries and the Baltic.) Partly the constraint is one of time. It takes time to learn them and time to keep them current. A few years ago, struck by the sense that I ought to practice reading the eight languages I could nominally read, I devised a plan of reading one Bible chapter in each of them, on an eight-day rotation. One chapter a day does not sound like much; the material was familiar and the translations (or in the case of Greek, the koine of the original New Testament) fairly basic. But let me tell you, reading the Bible in eight different languages at the rate of one language per day is a shortcut to madness. You can’t keep it up unless you have nothing else to do. (Two features of many of the hyperpolyglots Erard studies are extremely good time management and near-compulsive study skills.)

“The enemy of the language-learner is forgetting,” says one of Erard’s informants. “You can only prevent this by regularly studying” (134). Sir Richard Burton (the world traveler, not the movie star) learned over two dozen languages, but never all at once; he spoke them “in blocks or spurts” (47), and time away from any of his languages had to be redeemed with time spent studying again before he could return to it. The example of such hard work, Erard says, is the basis for one theory of superlearners.

One view says: what matters is a person’s sense of mission and dedication to language learning. You don’t need to describe high performers as biologically exceptional, because what they do is the product of practice. (163)

But clearly there’s a sense in which at least some hyperpolyglots are just gifted with verbal ability.

The other view says: Something neurological is going on. We may not know exactly what the mechanisms are, but we can’t explain exceptional outcomes fully through training or motivation. (164)

Indeed, some language “accumulators” are of low intelligence, or hampered by social anxieties; they are savant-like in their ability to memorize gigantic vocabulary lists. They work hard, but they also do things that normal hard-working people can’t (and fail at things that the mentally normal handle easily). Great language learning can be a gift in the same way as great musical ability or great chess talent. There is probably more than one pathway there, and sometimes people take several at once (just as there is more than one kind of polyglottery).

Erard lists several talents to cultivate if you want to use a lot of different languages: mimicry, openness to experience, metamemory (remembering what you know and what you don’t), and the less-definable Sprachegefühl [sic] (“feel for language,” 263). I think I understand Sprachgefühl, though I may not possess it to any great degree. It is partly what the poet Keats called “negative capability.” In any language, there are various ways to pronounce words, various idioms that don’t make logical sense, lots of synonyms, multiple registers, and above all tons of irregularities that don’t apply in every other (sometimes any other) languages. If you have a feel for language, you roll with it.

You cannot learn languages, or in a real sense even learn much about your own language, if you are unable to yield to uncertainty. In this, language is utterly different from math or chemistry. If you ask someone who is competent in two languages, but lacks Sprachgefühl, to translate something, they will give you a rote dictionary equivalent. If you ask a multilingual with Sprachgefühl to translate something, they will tell you three ways to say it in writing, one way to say it to your grandkids and and one way to say it to a cop, plus an interesting way they say it in Kentucky. As Ron Washington says of baseball, that’s the way language go.

Erard, Michael. Babel No More: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster], 2012.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 28th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Walking the Walk

In her confused and querulous review of Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars, Joan Acocella casts opprobrium on “anything goes” linguistic descriptivists. Such academics, she implies, carefully prune their own language of substandard usage, and reap the social benefits of good grammar. But they let their charges – the students and the general public – wallow in a morass of slovenly, uncorrected English.

[Hitchings] thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.

No surprise here. Hitchings went to Oxford and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. He has completed three books on language. He knows how to talk the talk, but, as for walking the walk, he’d rather take the Rolls. You can walk, though.

Acocella taps into a theme current in much conservative criticism of educators. By giving up on drilling the young in “who and whom,” the argument goes, teachers are really oppressing them, under the guise of fostering their freedom and appreciating diversity. Meanwhile, these ivory-tower liberals wouldn’t be caught dead splitting an infinitive, and continue to enjoy the privileges that they deny their students. Liberals pretend to appreciate the great unwashed, but they themselves are never more than an hour out of the shower.

Some of this is just blanket “it’s all the fault of liberals” rhetoric, as when the old guard blames the New Deal for the Depression and the Great Society for urban poverty. Teachers, the complaint goes, must be to blame for ignorance. But there’s enough logic in Acocella’s remarks to merit some rebuttal. Do we do students a disservice by claiming that the double negative is a feature of their dialect, rather than a slatternly bad habit?

First principles first: the double negative really is a feature of a dialect. Suppose someone says to you: “He ain’t no fool.” You have two recourses: (A) you can scold her for using “ain’t,” which ain’t a word, and you can slap her again for saying that he ain’t no fool, which clearly, in the terms of symbolic logic, must mean that he is a fool, the opposite of the intended meaning. (The intended meaning that somehow came through loud and clear, despite the dialect.) Or (B) you can understand the sentence and answer in whatever way the subject’s degree of foolishness might require.

Now suppose someone says to you: “Il n’est pas un sot.” Again, there are several things you can say.

  1. “Hop off, frog.”
  2. “Je crois quand même qu’il est vraiment un sot!”
  3. “Huh?”
  4. “I’m sorry, but ’sot’ isn’t a word. In fact, none of your words are words. And by using a double negative – both ‘ne’ and ‘pas’ in the same verb phrase – you’ve inadvertently said ‘He is not a fool, not,’ which means that he is a fool. You need to study critical thinking.”

I’d probably say (3) in real life, and think of (2) later that night while I was falling asleep. (1) might cause an international incident, so that’s out. But (4) is hilariously absurd. Nobody corrects someone else for using their own language. You may hate the idea of escargot; you may still be calling your frites “Freedom Fries”; but even so, the French have a right to their own language, don’t they?

The people we don’t think have a right to their own language are people who speak our own differently from the way we do. Nobody’s embarrassed by cousin René when he starts speaking French, or even speaking English with that killer accent of his. But we’re embarrassed all the time by the way cousin Larry speaks: by his nonstandard syntax (even if it’s the syntax of Shakespeare); by his nonstandard vocabulary; by his regional accent (even when he’s speaking perfectly standard English in that accent).

“Non-standard” dialects of English are complete languages in the way that French is a complete language; regional accents are complete phonologies in the way that standard French is a complete phonology. It ain’t lazy or stupid to talk the way my grandfather talked, it’s plain different. Yet we disparage dialects, often in terms as seething and tendentious as those Acocella uses to disparage Hitchings’ arguments.

Why should that be? It’s essentially a social-class prejudice; as Bernard Shaw put it, “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him,” and so for Americans and Australians and Irish people, for any in-group fractured into smaller in-groups. We are more inclined to despise the language use of our fellow Americans the closer it is to our own; such situations make us more anxious. Hence Bill Cosby’s beef with Black English:

You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with “why you ain’t…”

Hence the way my Slovak grandmother would despise other immigrant families in Chicago: not for speaking Slovak or Polish, in which she was fluent herself, but for speaking with accents, and displaying incomplete mastery of standard English inflections. “Listen to him!” she would say. “‘I was borned here.‘ He was born here, and he can’t even say ‘I was born here!’”

Obviously there is such a thing as incomplete knowledge of a language: just listen to me trying to speak anything but English, and you will get a vivid demonstration. But there are also people who move between or among the internally-coherent dialects of English with ease, and there are those who seem trapped within a certain dialect, never really mastering another. The former, the “code-switchers” as linguists call them, may owe their code-switching to innate ability, combined with accidents of birth and upbringing. The latter, however, monodialectal as well as monolingual, may be just as intelligent, just as capable of problem-solving, moral behavior, and philosophical meditation as those who move freely. It’s just that – to borrow Bill Cosby’s terms – they talk the same way on the corner as they talk in the house.

The pedagogical implications of these principles will have to wait for another blog post. But one thing is clear about what my colleague Jackie Stodnick calls “language-land”: it is a beautiful place, full of fluent speakers. It only starts to be ugly when we don’t perceive fluent speakers of dialects to be as intelligent, or as morally competent, as speakers of whatever currently passes for the standard in our language.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 21st, 2012 |No Comments »

The Rules of Language

A desperately confused book review by Joan Acocella has touched off a flurry of corrective reactions from the online linguistics community, including two excellent posts by Mark Liberman at the blog Language Log. Acocella’s confusion is rooted in an inability to distinguish two meanings of the word “rule.” She goes ballistic over the fact that linguists disparage prescriptive usage rules, but at the same time insist that languages are structured by rules. Hypocrites!

I’ll use an analogy that I use in class. I stole it (with modifications) from Steven Pinker, but I’m not ashamed, because he probably stole it from somebody else.

The rules of language come in two varieties, like laws. You can break the laws of New York City, but you can’t break the laws of physics.

Think about this sentence: “You can’t turn right on red in New York City.” In one sense this is true. If you turn right on red in the Five Boroughs, the NYPD is empowered to write you a ticket. But in another sense, it’s absurd. You certainly can turn right on red in New York. I’ve seen it done hundreds of times – when the NYPD didn’t see it.

Now think of this sentence: “You can’t turn downwards in New York City, burrow through the pavement, and drive on subway tracks.” I think we can say with some confidence that you really can’t do that, except in a science-fiction movie. Cars can’t penetrate asphalt, at least not more than an inch or two, before they’re compelled to stop.

(Now, you might say that I’ve broken the rules for modal verbs in my examples. But that’s just a smaller example of my point. Everybody says “you can’t” when they mean “you may not,” just as everybody says “they” when they mean “he or she,” and just as they say “the White House” when they mean President Obama, or “It’s just what I needed” when their Aunt Melva gives them a crocheted toilet-roll cover for Christmas. Everybody understands what everybody else means extremely well in each of these linguistic situations.)

There’s a certain type of linguistic rule that you definitely can break, in the same way that you can turn right on red in New York. My neighbor broke several of these linguistic traffic laws yesterday in the course of explaining the deficiencies of the existing shelving in his wife’s sewing room.

“She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves of hers,” he confided to me.

Where do I begin. My neighbor used /e/ in the word “can’t” instead of /æ/. He used /n/ at the end of “nothing” instead of /ŋ/. He used the dreaded “double negative” – “can’t do nothing” – which some would insist works out to a single positive. He used “them” as a determiner in the noun phrase “them shelves,” instead of saying “those shelves.” And he used the pleonastic, periphrastic genitive “of hers,” instead of merely saying “her shelves.”

So what did I say in reply? “Please rephrase! I cannot understand your faulty grammar and phonetics!” Well, no. I said “That’s a shame.” Because after all, she coul’n't do nothin’ with them shelves.

My neighbor executed a possible but proscribed sentence in my hearing, analogous to a cabbie making a flawless right turn on red in front of me at 37th and Madison. I understood exactly what he was doing, and though I could have written him a linguistic ticket, I surely did not. To do so would have been to act like a grammar cop, and a particularly nasty cop at that, perhaps driven by a need to meet my quota of usage tickets. More importantly, to correct his “grammar” would have been to kill our neighborly relations. I would have underscored that I have an Ivy League PhD in English and that his terminal degree is a diploma from a Texas public high school. Not to mention the facts that (1) I damn well enough understood what he said; (2) my own grandparents, and I myself when I’m relaxed, woul’n't of said it different; and (3) he’s a hell of a lot more competent to fix a shelf than I am.

But what if my neighbor had defied the linguistic laws of physics? What if he’d said

“Do she shelves those with anything not can.”

I would (A) have stared at him amazed; and (B) dialled 911, because he was obviously having a stroke.

“Do she shelves those with anything not can” is a totally impossible rearrangement of an otherwise standard English sentence. No English speaker has ever uttered it, unless in the furthest grips of neurological impairment. It breaks linguistic rules that lie deep within our brains.

And that’s what linguists mean by “the rules of language.” The rules that discourage people with Ivy League PhDs from saying “She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves” are conscious, socially prescribed rules, much like rules of traffic, or fashion, or indeed of literary style. (In fact, in some works, “she cain’t do nothin’” might be great literary style.) The rules that prevent anyone at all from saying “Do she shelves those with anything” are unconscious, second-nature features of knowing a language.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 14th, 2012 |2 Comments »

What’s in a Name?


Your career choice, place of residence, and spouse, apparently.

I recently ran across the phenomenon known as “egotism” or sometimes “implicit egotism,” which is the statistical probability that the letters that form your name will in some way correspond to or predict what career you go into, where you will live, and who you will choose for a spouse or partner.

In a thumbnail: People named Dennis or Denise are very likely to become dentists. Dennis and Denise are also likely to live in Denver. And, they are also likely to marry someone with a surname that begins with the same letter as their own: a Smith would more likely marry a Sanchez than a Zelig.

The research on egotism was begun by U Buffalo psychologist Brett Pelham and you can read more about him on his homepage, as well as reading the initial study, which was published in 2002. Previous scholarship had posited the “name letter effect,” which holds that people have positive associations with the letters in their own names. Subsequent scholarship has pursued the implications for egotism on other “life choices,” such as a recent study that showed that names influenced people’s responses to disaster and charitable giving: someone named Katherine was more likely to donate to a Hurricane Katrina fund, for example.

This is all very interesting to those of us who study language and literature and who find ourselves often trying to make the case for the power of language and the constructedness of reality or identity. In ENGL 2350, I often struggle to explain the structuralist/deconstructionist idea that there is no reality outside of language/the text — my skeptical students are confident that they know reality as well as the difference between what’s real and what’s written, and they have a hard time embracing the proposition that what they know is shaped by the language system in which they exist. Maybe Pelham’s statistics can serve as more persuasive fodder for a discussion of these issues?

Of course, there are many out there who will recoil from the idea of name as destiny. In fact, we would scoff at a creative writer who constructed a character named Dennis who was a dentist who lived in Denver. What a lack of imagination!, we would say.

So what do you think? Has your name determined your life choices?

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on February 22nd, 2010 |3 Comments »

Birth of a Meme


Let the record show: on the single snowiest day in the history of Dallas/Ft Worth, the University of Texas at Arlington was open for business as usual.

UTA usually closes at the hint of a flake in the wind, so faculty and staff were perplexed at finding themselves on campus yesterday. It was tough to drive, tougher to walk in from your car, and once you’d walked in, Thursday provided a ghost-town experience, classes and meetings mostly unattended by people who’d had the sense to stay home.

Among those who soldiered in, the questions bubbled up: why are we here? Why isn’t UTA closed? In the universal human struggle to make meaning, people asked themselves: why is this day not like other days? Since it apparently wasn’t Passover, people started scanning the UTA Events Calendar for something out of the ordinary.


Come to find that Earvin “Magic” Johnson was fixing to talk Thursday evening at Texas Hall. His topic was “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business.” (As one wag put it, the first of the 32 is “Be a basketball Hall of Famer.”)

Critical thinking in the English Department quickly centered on a connection between Magic and the fact that we were tramping through a foot of slush to get to our depopulated classes. Or rather, a connection between somebody and the slush. Certain faculty opined that Michael Jordan was to blame. Others suspected Michael Irvin. But whoever they thought was speaking, suspicions ran high: they’re not closing UTA because they don’t want to cancel the sports guy.

F2F in offices and classrooms, on Facebook and Twitter among those who’d stayed toastily at home, we saw the birth of a meme: yeah, they’ll close this place at the first flurry, but if there’s any schmoozing with the stars scheduled for that evening, they’ll make us all drive in from Waxahachie.

Memes are fascinating things: in moments, they morph from snarky remark to common wisdom, with minimal pause for reflection in between. Because really, the “can’t close, Magic’s here” meme makes no logical sense whatsoever. Classes started at 8am; Magic was going to talk at 6pm. If it was important for Magic to speak at all costs, why not cancel daytime classes and announce that the University would open at 6pm? For that matter, why not announce that everything but Magic would be cancelled?

Worst case, the lecture itself would have to be cancelled. But reflect. Magic’s in town already. His speaker’s fee is a sunk cost. Instead of putting everybody through the ordeal of “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business,” the great man could have proceeded directly to whatever upmarket watering hole the suits had picked out for his face time with the high rollers, sparing all concerned an hour of their lives and actually increasing the benefit to UTA.


No, I gotta call nonsense on the Magic meme. And I don’t have any very good theory to offer in its place. To invoke Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.” When I got up at 6am on Thursday, there was snow on the lawn, but the paths and streets were clear. By 630, I remarked to my plus-one, “Could that be new snow on the walk?” By 8am, the new snow was ankle-deep, and we were splashing doggedly through it on our way to deliver quality instructional minutes.

No, I probably wouldn’t have closed UTA either. After all, when Magic Johnson and I (and 55,000 other people) were students at Michigan State in the 1970s, eleven inches of wet snow would have been just another school day. It wouldn’t have been one of my brightest decisions, but I’d have kept UTA open, and (as in the actual event) no real harm would have resulted.

But people crave order instead of randomness, key determining factors instead of “whatever,” and sinister motives instead of inertial forces. And always, everywhere, memes represent a collective distrust of authority that is salutary for a community.

UTA – like nearly every school, government, and corporation in the world – is in the business of producing hot air. Our leaders insist on branding us “Mavericks,” when we seem to be indistinguishable from any other large state university in the country. They loudly proclaim that we are moving toward “Tier One” status, when many faculty in the humanities are staggeringly overworked, and paid at near-poverty levels ($12,500 a semester to teach five classes is common). Neighbors of UTA get cheery mailings suggesting that UTA and Arlington are working together to make our city a real “college town,” although, in a city with a downtown so empty that every day seems like a snow day, a city famous for razing neighborhoods to put up stadiums with vast parking lots, UTA’s biggest new community initiative is . . . putting up a stadium with a vast parking lot.

Every institution in the world, I repeat, engages in such hollow rhetoric continuously. UTA is no worse than others, and is a pretty good place to work in lots of ways. But whenever there’s a high volume of white noise from officialdom, people stop listening pretty quickly. As a coping mechanism, they construct memes that cynically find hypocrisy at the heart of random, or even well-intentioned, behavior.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 12th, 2010 |3 Comments »

Linguistic Sesquicentenary: L.L. Zamenhof


Ludwig Zamenhof, inventor of the language Esperanto, was born on 15 December 1859, which means that Tuesday is his sesquicentenary.

(Incidentally, “sesquicentenary” deserves to be a Word of the Day one of these Days. OED tells me that it derives from the prefix “semi-” and the suffix “-que”: IOW “half-and,” or “half again as much.” The things I never knew . . . I always assumed that “sesqui-” things, like centennials and pedalians, were vaguely related to seqouias or Sasquatches or other large items. Serves me right for making stuff up instead of checking the dictionary to start with.)

In front of me as I write is a tiny green book that I acquired in 1971, a book that has somehow survived every upheaval in my life since I started high school. It is The ‘Edinburgh’ Esperanto Pocket Dictionary. The introduction, written in 1933, informs me that the dictionary is “suggestive—not exhaustive. It must, therefore, be used with intelligence.” In fact, Esperantists often associate themselves with intelligence, like MENSA members or baseball statheads. Nor is this an outmoded rhetoric. Esperanto’s official American website still prints a paragraph I got in a little flyer (since lost) with my dictionary back in ‘71. In the Esperanto analogue to “F U CN RD THS U CN BCM A SCY N GT A GD JB,” Esperanto-USA informs us that:

Inteligenta persono lernas la lingvon Esperanto rapide kaj facile. Esperanto estas la moderna, kultura lingvo por la tuta mondo. Simpla, fleksebla, belsona, ĝi estas la praktika solvo de la problemo de universala interkompreno. Esperanto meritas vian seriozan konsideron. Lernu la internacian lingvon Esperanto.

There’s no indication of how “rapide” or “facile” a “stulta persono” can learn Esperanto. But the implication is that enlightened individuals would naturally want to learn an artificial language that enables them to speak with . . . well, with any other enlightened person who has learned it too.

Quaint as Dr Zamenhof’s invention seems today, it had a lot more urgency in the 19th century. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, came of age in a period when vast multilingual empires spanned Eastern Europe, and contact between different cultures was frequently lethal. Peter Forster, in The Esperanto Movement (The Hague: Mouton, 1982) tells us that

He was impressed by the Bible story of the Tower of Babel, and at the age of ten wrote a five-act tragedy on this theme, with the scene set in Bialystok. (50)

Zamenhof was fluent in Russian, Polish, and German. He studied French, English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and though he was not a native speaker of Yiddish, he certainly could understand that great lingua franca of Jewish Eastern Europe as well. With what Yiddish speakers would call “chutzpah,” he devised Esperanto at the age of 19 from a mix of Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and other Indo-European roots, and set about a life’s work promoting international use of the language.

Esperanto was never supposed to become the mother tongue of the whole world. In fact, Zamenhof and other Esperantists distrusted linguistic imperialism. They simply wanted Esperanto to become everybody’s second language. Cultural diversity would be preserved; but by sharing a medium of communication, the world’s diverse cultures would stop killing one another. Zamenhof wrote, in 1904:

Homaron Vi kreis perfekte kaj bele,
Sed ĝi sin dividis batale;
Popolo popolon atakas kruele,
Frat’ fraton atakas šakale.

Thou didst create humanity in perfect beauty,
But it divided itself in battle;
People attack people cruelly,
Brother attacks brother like a jackal. (Forster 85-86)

As a teenager, I studied my little Esperanto dictionary eagerly. (Linguistic geekdom FTW, as a later generation might remark.) I knew that Esperantists wore green star badges in their lapels to signify their membership in the brotherhood, but I never saw any such badge. And I never acquired any other books in Esperanto, limiting my Esperantist efforts to word-by-word translation of a few English sentences, breaking my brain in an attempt to figure out how the ubiquitous “j” after vowels was supposed to be pronounced. (I still can’t say for sure, though I suppose it makes vowels into diphthongs.)

Somewhere, there must have been better-organized budding Esperantists than I, because the language seems to be alive and well. The Web is crawling with Esperanto materials. Not least is the Esperanto Wikipedia, where you can look up such subjects as Okulo, the eye (Zamenhof’s day job was as an ophthalmologist), and in fact Zamenhof himself.

Zamenhof died in 1917, in the midst of a war that seemed a cruel mockery of his hopes for world peace. 150 years after his birth, his vision of a universal second language has more-or-less come to pass, though not as he dreamt. Today, when two speakers of disparate languages meet, they immediately try to converse not in Esperanto but in English. As often as not, they succeed. We live in a world governed less by the Pax Americana than by the Pax Coca-Cola, perhaps. But having an international language of first resort has made the world a smaller, and arguably a much safer, place than Zamenhof knew.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on December 11th, 2009 |No Comments »

Words we use thinking we know what they mean when in fact they mean something quite different

Apologies for the long title, which is almost a post in itself. I wish there were a word (and there probably is) for the linguistic category I want to discuss: those words that we use thinking we know what they mean only to find out, sometimes after many years and multiple degrees, that they mean something quite different. I am not referring here to malapropisms: comedic confusion of one, generally multisyllabic, word for another. Uttering a malapropism involves substituting one word for another with a similar sound, thereby generating a humorous and nonsensical sentence. I am also not talking about faux amis, those words in two languages that sound similar but have different meanings, such as embarrassed in English and embarazada in Spanish. No, what I have in mind is something more sinister: words that we trust, and that we have good reason to think mean what we think they mean, but that turn out not to be our friends at all.

For me, one such word was malinger. For years I thought that this word meant “serious and longlasting” in reference to an illness, when in fact it means, in the words of the OED, “To pretend or exaggerate illness in order to escape duty or work; to feign or produce physical or psychological symptoms to obtain financial compensation or other reward.”

Really, though, my supposition about malinger made sense. I had read it literally as a compound of mal and linger, and thus produced my definition. According to the OED, mal in malinger is probably the negative prefix derived from French and ultimately Latin, but in this case it is compounded with “heingre, haingre thin, emaciated.” Thus the meaning has nothing to do with lingering, although the form of the word probably is influenced by linger. None of this would have helped if I had ever solicitously said to a colleague or associate, “Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear of your malingering illness.”

Had I been a Renaissance spelling reformer or an eighteenth-century grammarian, though, my mis-definition could have had much larger consequences. They didn’t always get their etymologies right either. Take island, for instance. Ever wondered why it has an s in it? Renaissance spelling reformers mistakenly thinking it descended ultimately from Latin insula, and so concerned about signaling this etymology that they stuck the s in. In fact island came from a perfectly good Old English word, igland (pronounced eelond), which was doing just fine without the s. (Such smug meddling has of course made spelling bees a lot more challenging).

I don’t remember if I have ever used the term malinger in speech or in writing; it’s not a term that comes up a lot (with either the correct or my erroneous definition). But finding out that you have been cherishing a word with the wrong meaning is a big shock (it’s okay, I’ve known for a while, and so I’m over the worst of it). Frankly it makes you wonder about all the others.

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on October 20th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Knick Knack Know How


Recently I have been spending a lot of time listening to nursery rhymes. It’s been at least three decades since I last paid attention to most of these songs, and I certainly didn’t notice the first time around how very odd many of them are. Take “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” for instance:

It’s raining; it’s pouring.

The old man is snoring.

He went to bed and he bumped his head,

And he wouldn’t get up in the morning.

Now maybe this old man just wasn’t a morning person, but it seems more likely that he has suffered some sort of terminal head trauma. Not that, present weather excluded, you get to sing this song much in Texas anyway. The persistently sunny climate just doesn’t lend itself to the sub-genre of nursery rhymes dealing with rain. These songs bespeak their origin in a damper, drearier clime, where you might want it to stop raining so that children may play. (“The Sun Has Got His Hat On” also doesn’t get much play here, since it seems to point out the blindingly obvious).

Even the less odd (or perhaps just more familiar) rhymes start to seem peculiar the more you think about them. Take “Humpty Dumpty,” for instance. As the song goes, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Really, what help could a horse be expected to offer in such a situation of accidental dismemberment? In the absence of opposable thumbs (or even fingers), what were the horses trying to do? Nose Humpty back to his original wholeness?

But the undoubted winner of nursery rhyme weirdness is “This Old Man,” a careering, repetitive ditty featuring an ominous ancient who plays a wild game of “knick knack” on various objects and body parts. The questions raised by this narrative are multiple: Who is this old man? What is knick knack exactly? What is meant by “rolling home”? (it’s hard not to connote this latter as drunkenness).

The more you think about it, in fact, the more you find violence, excess, and ethnically inappropriate sentiments (Paddywhack, for instance) coursing through these songs. To be sure, they are vehicles that teach skills like counting and color recognition and, as such, perhaps it doesn’t really matter what their particular content is, as long as it has a good beat and you can dance to it. For the adult listener, however, these rhymes fascinate because a coherent and fully historicized interpretation seems to wait just around the corner, a reading that will explain away all their oddities and surprising juxtapositions. The history of scholarship on nursery rhymes has offered many such interpretations, probably the most well-known of which is the connection between “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” and the bubonic plague. According to this reading, the “roses” of the song refers to the rosy rash presaging the illness; the “posies” to the flowers or herbs carried because they were thought to ward off infection; “atishoo” to the sneezing symptom; and “all fall down” to the most likely outcome of contracting the plague.

Although most such specific historical readings of nursery rhymes have been discredited, especially since the majority of these songs were written down for the first time only in the late eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, the rhymes themselves continue to delight with their quirky, even post-modern lack of regard for realism, reason, and closure (Polly never gets her tea). They are a rare place of survival for what must be, in many cases, an ancient tradition that is still passed on orally, even in today’s highly literate culture. They allow you glimpses into the societies that originally produced them (I never heard “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” as a child, for instance, because it is an American song about American issues) but they never completely reveal themselves.

And what does this all have to do with English? In short, it reminds me that our subject is, well, the world—and that, for us, the pleasure and promise of a recalcitrant text is almost as great as belting out a round of “This Old Man” at the top of our lungs. Go on. Try it.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on October 6th, 2009 |2 Comments »