Tuesday, September 10, 2002
Sunday, September 08, 2002
There are apparently people out there who don't care for Adam Gopnik, but I don't understand them. He's the main reason I keep subscribing to The New Yorker, and I think he's one of the best stylists and funniest writers around (thoughtful as well as funny, but being funny is harder than being thoughtful). I would like to bring to your attention his article "The Cooking Game," from the double Food Issue of Aug. 19 & 26; I wish I could provide a link, but the magazine has not chosen to put it online, so I'll have to type in my quotations (probably just as well, as it will keep me from quoting so much it takes up my entire blog).
The article is about a cookoff among five chefs in Manhattan restaurants, all of whom agreed to create meals based on farmer's-market ingredients chosen by Gopnik. Who cares, you say (unless you are a serious foodie), and you would be right, except that Gopnik can write about anything and keep you turning the pages with delight and anticipation. He begins with a paragraph saying that cooks are "the last artists among us who still live in the daily presence of patronage"; unlike artists, writers, and the rest, they have not been "Byronized.... there to instruct and puzzle an audience, not to please it." He goes on:
But although cooks are a source of romance, they are not themselves Romantic. They practice their art the way all art was practiced until the nineteenth century, as a job done to order for rich people who treat you as something between the court jester and the butler. Cooks can be temperamental--cooks are supposed to be temperamental--but temperament is the Byronism of the dependent; children, courtesans, and cooks all have it. What cooks have in place of freedom is what all artists had back before they were released from the condition of flunkydom: a weary, careful dignity, a secretive sense of craft, and the comforting knowledge of belonging to a guild.Isn't that well said? I don't care if it's "true" in the judgment of historians; it gives me a new way of looking at the world and making connections I hadn't made before, and reading the words gives me intense pleasure. Let me finish up with another quote that provides the sort of illustration of perverse human nature I can't resist. He tells a story one of the chefs, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, told him, about a time when everyone in the restaurant was sure a customer who'd been coming and ordering different things was actually William Grimes, the main food critic of the NY Times.
"So the very next day, Grimes actually calls from the Times and asks for a wine list. Now, this guy, let's call him Mr. Hudsucker, had taken a menu with him--but not a wine list! So, I mean, now we're getting obvious." He went on, "That Friday, a 'Diner's Journal' article comes out that lists all the dishes Mr. Hudsucker ate at the bar! So, O.K., the next week H.M. Hudsucker makes another reservation, and we flip over backward for him, creating all these tasting menus, and the servers going through hula hoops. You have to be careful with that stuff, of course, because it's like the Enigma secret--you want to use it, but you don't want it to be obvious you've broken the code. Anyway, finally someone comes into the kitchen and I say, 'That's Grimes,' and he says, 'No, it isn't. I know Grimes, and that's not Grimes.' And I say, 'That's not Grimes? Then who the hell is that?' Later, a waiter went over without my knowing it and said, 'You seem so, uh, passionate abut food, Mr. Hudsucker, are you in the business?' And he said, 'What business?' And the server said the food business. And Mr. Hudsucker said, 'The food business? I'm in the insurance business. I just like it here.
"And the really terrible part of the story is that he came back and we didn't do anything for him--not because we're malicious. It's just, just that at this point we're sort of disillusioned with H.M. Hudsucker, no fault of his own. And he walked out upset. It's ironic because... he was the ideal diner! He ate like a food critic without being one! The ideal guest."
Friday, September 06, 2002
I didn't go to J school. But. I strongly suspect they drum into their students the vital importance of maintaining a lively and engaging style by means of using contrast whenever possible, and even when not. I picture reporters waking up in the morning muttering "Although I will be going to work today, I will be taking the subway..." and going to bed with "I am currently lying on my right side; however, I will soon turn to the left." Normally the incessant parade of "however, although, nevertheless, on the other hand" doesn't especially bother me; I accept it as a professional tic. But. Read the following quote from Joyce Wadler's article in today's paper:
The wall behind Billy's bed is a mural of Billy and his girlfriend, Mary Fragapane, who is also a painter, kissing, with the names Billy and Mary written into it. There are photos and paintings of Mary, a pretty woman with long dark hair, throughout the apartment. Billy says he did not have to white-out anyone else's name when he and Mary started dating, two years ago, although, coincidentally, his last girlfriend's name was Mary.Didn't it occur to anyone that the word "because" would be more appropriate than "although"?
Wednesday, September 04, 2002
Scientists used to think that babies couldn't pick up the subtleties of speech sounds, and so took a long time to distinguish between, say, the r's and l's in English. But a landmark 1997 study by Patricia Kuhl showed that one-month-old American babies could distinguish 'every English sound contrast we threw at them'. Then they found out that one-month-old babies exposed to Spanish and Kikuyu had the same facility, and that one-month-olds everywhere were good at distinguishing sounds, even if they were from languages they'd never heard. But they went on to discover that they lose this general capacity as their first year progresses and they become more attentive to the rhythms and patterns of their mother tongue.Sounds like it might provide support for a moderate version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I also like this bit, which reinforces a lesson about the limitations of the male-scientist mindset:
This is a good and necessary thing. It is only by picking up on familiar cadences and sound combinations of their mother tongue that they begin to pick words out of the flow of other people's speech.
The words they pick out go on to influence how they think. This is well illustrated in a 1995 study by Berkeley psychologists Alison Gopnik and Soonja Choi. Noting that the Korean language puts a greater emphasis on verbs while a sentence in English was not complete without a noun, they found the same patterns evident in the way Korean and American mothers talked to their infants and the way the babies developed their own vocabularies. And they also found that Korean-speaking children learnt 'how to solve problems like using the rake to get the out-of-reach toy well before the English-speaking children', while English-speakers started categorising objects earlier than the Korean speakers.
[Cognitive scientists] also credit much of the new thinking to the entry of large numbers of women into the field over the past few decades. Until their arrival, the profession was dominated by men who did not think it necessary to test their theories on real children. Now it is a field in which much of the imaginative thinking comes from men and women who spend time with children, both in and outside the laboratory.(A tip of the hat to Billy Blogs.)
Tuesday, September 03, 2002
Monday, September 02, 2002
The fact is, they are professionals, and from the time professional baseball began, in 1869, with the Red Stockings of Cincinnati, the most accomplished baseball players played for money. That is literally the name of the game.
Now, like most lovers of language, I hate the use of "literally" to mean its opposite ('metaphorically'), but I've grown resigned to hearing it in conversation and reading it in e-mails and the like. But to read it in the New York Times, allegedly a great newspaper, from the pen of Berkow, who's been paid for his writing for many years now, is depressing in the extreme. No, Ira, the name of the game is literally baseball. You could look it up. (Furthermore, the first professional player was probably the great pitcher Jim Creighton, who died at 21 in 1862, but that's not really Languagehat material.)
Having gotten that off my chest, I will quote a delightful exchange that, whether real or invented (sorry, Ira, you get no benefit of the doubt today), perfectly sums up a basic feature of human nature:
I got into a conversation the other day with a guy who sold stationery for a living. He resented the players. Why?
"They make too much money," he said.
"What's too much?" I asked.
"They make more in one time at bat than I do in a week."
"Would you trade places with them?"
"And if someone told you you were making too much money, what would you tell them?"
"I'd tell 'em it was none of their damn business."
Friday, August 23, 2002
Update. I'm making a quick internet check while my brother is off on some errand, and (realizing I probably won't get a chance to blog on Sunday, when I return, very late, to NYC) I wanted to wish my loyal readers a Happy New Year for 7511, as of September 1!
Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Tuesday, August 20, 2002
ROTHSTEIN - Miriam Chilson. Died at age 91, on August 14, 2002. She would've turned 92 on September 21. Miriam was the wife of the late Irwin Chilson, the late Lou Fineberg, the late Phil Rispler and the latest late Moe Rothstein.I submit that Miriam must have been quite a gal to have inspired that bit of affectionate wordplay, and that Irwin, Lou, Phil, and Moe were four lucky guys. I wish I'd known her, and I hereby honor her memory.
What I don't understand is why he didn't go all the way and adopt the Gregorian calendar, which had been around for over a century and was used in the Western countries he wanted to emulate. For over two hundred years Russia remained 10 or 11 days behind, and Peter didn't like being left behind. Strange.
Monday, August 19, 2002
Vicki Goldberg presents the photographer Josef Koudelka, who's led an amazing life, both complicated ("Never married, he has three children by three women of different nationalities. He has helped support all three children, he said, and has remained in touch with them.") and simple ("I have two shirts.... I have one trousers for one year, one shoes for one year, one jacket for two years, two socks, and for travel a good sleeping bag."). He did a series of photographs of Gypsies:
The Gypsy pictures are dark, brooding, disjunctive, tinged with tenderness and sorrow. Years later, he said, he met some Gypsies on a pilgrimage and told them he'd done a book on their people: " 'We know,' they said. `We call you Iconar. We have the book. It's been cut apart and put in a chapel. We pray for the people in them.' "
And Christopher Hall describes working on a project to build a 13th-century castle in a remote area of Burgundy (Treigny, in la Puisaye, for those keeping score at home; the Times, uncharacteristically, doesn't supply a map). They're using medieval tools and techniques and even wearing medieval clothes (barring safety glasses). I don't know about you, but that sounds like a great way to spend my summer vacation, if I still had a summer vacation.
There's also a good piece by Norimitsu Onishi on the use and misuse of statistics, but I posted that on MetaFilter (where it sank without a trace).
Sunday, August 18, 2002
Saturday, August 17, 2002
Within a couple of decades, Verlan has spread from the peripheral housing projects of France's poorest immigrants, heavily populated with Africans and North African Arabs, and gained widespread popularity among young people across France. It has seeped into film dialogue, advertising campaigns, French rap and hip-hop music, the mainstream media. It has even made it into some of the country's leading dictionaries.
A language of alienation that has, paradoxically, also become a means of integration, Verlan expresses France's love-hate relationship with its immigrant community and has begun to attract a number of scholarly studies.
Ah, so it's some newfangled thing, a product of those strange Arab immigrants! Except it's not. As they eventually mention, in a tossed-off sentence in the seventh graf, "The first documented uses of Verlan date to the 19th century, when it was used as a code language among criminals, said the French scholar Louis-Jean Calvet." Then it's back to the immigrants and their entertaining ways, so beloved of reporters the world over.
This is just silly. Verlan is a venerable form of inner-city slang comparable to the Cockney rhyming-slang of London; it is in no way new, not even to "the attention of a wider public" (which they claim discovered it in the 1980s). I knew about it when I was first studying French forty years ago, and it was not considered new then. Of course it's been used by criminals and defiant youth; these are prime users of slang everywhere. And of course immigrants (in this case North African Arabs) are represented in both groups. To make that the focus of the article is ridiculous... and sadly inevitable, given the blinders that come with being a reporter.
Friday, August 16, 2002
If this book doesn't make you angry, it wasn't worth writing....
It attacks no use of language.
It defends all the words and phrases and sentences you have been trying to stamp out: Finalize. Hopefully. Between you and I....
This book defends all those constructions—not on the grounds that anyone can say what they please (though of course they can)—but on the grounds that all those constructions are grammatically correct.
His basic technique is to show that every maligned usage turns up in Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner, etc., and to ask the entirely reasonable question, Whose language sense would you rather trust, a great writer's or Edwin Newman's? He has a great deal of fun with Newman, Safire, John Simon, and the other mandarins of "good English," and shows them tying themselves into knots trying to "correct" sentences there was nothing wrong with in the first place. The book is, alas, long out of print, but it's available from online bookstores, and of course there's your friendly local library (if they haven't put it on the For Sale table, but don't get me started on that). Try it, you'll like it. It's the perfect antidote to David Foster Wallace (see below).
And for an excellent shorthand equivalent (just theory, no examples), try Alan Pagliere's article at, of all places, The Vocabula Review (home of linguistic curmudgeonry).
As a Yale undergraduate, she planned to study comparative linguistics. She studied Latin in high school, picked up French and German from her father's translation of vocal concerts and later her own classical singing and learned Russian in college. But, early in her sophomore year, she was shopping for one course to fill her distribution requirements and was urged by a friend to try physical anthropology.
Dr. [Eleanor] Sterling, who still resembles a graduate student in jangling silver bracelets and a peasant skirt, was riveted by the professor, who studied lemurs in Madagascar. "I was mesmerized by how she spoke." Dr. Sterling said. "I took every class she taught from then on. I'm sure I would have been happy doing something else. But that was the turning point."
Dr. Sterling's gift for language complements her science. "I was lucky to come from a linguistic background to this," she said.
To write a book about the natural history of Vietnam, which will coincide with a museum exhibit next year, she had to read the so-called gray literature — unpublished papers, many in Vietnamese. So she hired a tutor. She is fluent in Swahili, from African fieldwork, hard at work on Spanish and has lately taken up Lao and Burmese, for a total of 11 languages.
Her husband suggested a novel study method when Dr. Sterling set out to polish her Spanish for a speech in Bolivia. A nephew was peppering her with questions about Harry Potter. She had read the books in English but strained for details. So she re-read them in translation. "Killing two birds," Dr. Sterling said, using an unlikely figure of speech given her profession, "with one stone."
An impressive woman, no?
Thursday, August 15, 2002
Wednesday, August 14, 2002
"Language develops, of course, but that doesn't mean I can't have my opinion about the changes."
This expresses a paradox that has plagued me ever since I began studying linguistics. A linguist has, ex officio, no opinion regarding the facts of the language; it would be like a physicist preferring one subatomic particle to another. Yet a linguist with any feel for the language can't help but have such opinions; I, at any rate, can't. I accept certain developments with a cheerful and welcoming heart; "hopefully" as a sentence adverb is an example. Others, like "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," I have come to accept, however grudgingly, as semantic changes that I have to live with (though I personally will never use the new sense). But there are some that fill me with insensate rage, however unseemly it may be in a person with scientific training, and I fear I will never come to terms with them. Such a thing is the growing use of "may have" to mean "might have": "If he had started running earlier, he may have caught the ball." No, no, I cry (soundlessly) every time I see this—he might have caught it! A few years ago, when I began to notice this phenomenon, I started to keep a record of occurrences, but it eventually became futile; it would now make more sense to record instances of the correct usage. And what am I, proud holder of an M.Phil. in linguistics from one of our finer educational bazaars, doing talking about "correct" usage? Correct is whatever native speakers say! Yes, yes, quite correct... eppur si muove lo stomaco. It's probably just as well I went into editing, where this irrational attitude is an asset.
Tuesday, August 13, 2002
Monday, August 12, 2002
Sunday, August 11, 2002
The transition is the meaning (OED's number 3) 'capable of producing a certain effect or result; effective': "So vertuall was the speech of Paul a Prisoner, in the heart of his Judge" (W. Sclater, 1619). Now consider this quote (J. Smith, 1815): "Whatever is the real length of the leg b a [of a siphon], the virtual or acting length when in use, only extends from b to the surface of the fluid." (Note the premodern commas in both quotes.) It's natural to contrast the "virtual or acting" with the "real." From there we get the OED's meaning 4: 'that is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually; admitting of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned': "Every proof a priori proceeds by Causes either real or virtual" (Waterland, 1734). Now the weight of reality has shifted; the "virtual," once the powerful agent, is now opposed to the real, and the way to the modern electronic-ethereal is open.
While I'm on the subject of the Times Magazine, the cover story this week is "The Odds of That" by Lisa Belkin, who for a reporter does a pretty good job of presenting the uncomfortable, unintuitive scientific truth (though she tends to use "we" too much). It's about coincidence, and the tagline "In paranoid times like these, people see connections where there aren't any" pretty much sums it up. Since I recently posted a rant about coincidence, I thought I'd bring it to your attention. You can never have too much balloon-pricking.