Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What? No Meta-Post?

Hugh Kenner, in The Pound Era

"If we no longer think, with Swift and Johnson, that languages ought to be stabilized, we still feel that their proper condition is stability. The admission of ain’t to a large American dictionary provoked newspaper hysteria in 1961-62. That in Canto 53 the same emperor appears indifferently as Tcheou Kong and Chao Kong causes many readers uneasiness outweighing the instruction the Canto affords, and a scholarly convention in citing the word ideogramic is to tag it [sic], meaning “not so in my dictionary.” Words, since the 18th century, have seemed fixed upon a rigid and authorized grid, each little violation of which incites the Great Anarch.

Behind such feelings lies the notion of a stable shared world in which all men’s senses participate and the features of which have been labeled by agreement, though different agreements obtain in Italy and in Sweden. Gatto, say the Italians for some reason, and katt the Swedes; it would be simpler if they said the same thing, but anyhow cats are cats. The linguistic contracts, being arbitrary, are fragile, and the only code book, Webster’s or Larousse’s, wards off unspeakable disorder. An alternative notion, that names should be left in place because they are somehow right, is traceable in theory to Plato’s Cratylus but in practice to costive notions of correctness. Both positions were still seriously defended in the early 19th century. Both linger in the average literate psyche. Both were rendered obsolescent by the slow discovery of language, a complex coherent organism that is no more the sum of its constituent words than a rhinoceros is the sum of its constituent cells, an organism that can maintain its identity as it grows and evolves in time; that can remember, that can anticipate, that can mutate. Latin is not a dead language; everyone in Paris speaks it, everyone in Rome, everyone in Madrid. The poetic of our time grows with this discovery."

Borrowed from this Languagehat post. It bears repeating.

Making the Rounds in March

     You always sense it with your nose and your ears more than with your eyes; the air is full of it, it flows out of the soft earth, gurgles along in brooks, roars in veritable streams, and whistles merrily in blackbird-song. What does it matter if the grass in the meadow is still blond and brown as a hare! The truth is if you take a closer look around you will find things under last year’s stubble, under the dried leaves—a light green something shooting upwards. Is it the creeping strawberry or the dark green of the celandine, God only knows which, but it is fertile and eager, spreading greenly, if only you look for them like lice up against the base of these brown hairs of last year.

     But what of that; this isn’t about the embarrassment of weeds, let them grow as they can if it is their time, for we have more a more serious nomination for spring. You might call them branches or broom handles. We, however, know that they will become lilacs, black elders, barberries and viburnums, gooseberries, hawthorns, dogwoods, honeysuckles and privet; for now has come the time when spring asks what you have planted last autumn. I planted all this last autumn, sir, and besides that willows and cotoneasters, mock-oranges, deutzias, spireas, maple and broom, sumac and rowan, oleaster, bird cherry and flowering cherries; I should really have a white coat like a doctor in the hospital, walking around from bed to bed and diagnosing with his eyes and his hands as to how his charges are doing. Thank God, this one’s not so bad; the patient is still sleeping, but the pith is green and full of sap; true, this little limb is bad, but one little operation, my little bush, and we’ll regain ourselves and start sprouting like mad. And what is wrong with you I don’t know; we may have transplanted you without some of your finer roots, you look more dead than alive; we have no magic, but it is still possible to hope that “nature will cure,” as the doctors say; it is still possible to bend over the patient and carefully score the skin here with my nails—well, I don’t know. And here, the rabbits did this to us, eating the outer layers of the colutea during the winter right down to the quick; God only knows how we’ll get out of this one, and it seems nothing remains but to shrug our shoulders and chalk the whole thing up to the capriciousness of nature.

     Those were the invalids, but God be praised for the others! They live already, I tell you, they’re already at work, you have only to look at the buds. Yes, have a look at the blossoms; some look like little knots and some jut out of the end of the branch like a thumb or the hard end of a spear; but most are obscured by a little insect seated on the twig, wings folded; it sits facing down, hunched over and immobile, and drinks until it is ready to burst. This one over here on the viburnum looks like a fuzzy gray fly with a thin behind, this one of the barberry looks like a dark and engorged tick, this one on the dogwood is just a flat little thing; you can’t even see it as it clings to the branch; but they are there as they eagerly and breathlessly drink. Just another little while now, and the the sated little fly will spread its folded wings, the immobile aphid will carefully unfurl its own, and more wings, still wrinkly and folded, will spread themselves and face then sun to rise up from their bough from spring until autumn. We people call these things leaves, but they are nothing more than the buds themselves growing wings.

     The little wings of the leaves, the flying pollen and the buzzing of all sorts of insects; I tell you, all this arises from one of the strongest impulses of life, and spring truly starts with the fluttering of all the little wings on the earth.



[Wikipedia served as my specialist dictionary, helping me convert Czech common names to Linnean binomial nomenclature and then back to English common names. I can't imagine having been able to do this without it.]

Monday, March 30, 2009

Just Posting a Skosh

Somewhere in perusing the internet today I came upon a reference to the word skosh. and found to my amusement that it was a borrowing from Japanese sukoshi (a little bit). I was surprised, for I'd apparently I had a notion it was of good anglo-Saxon stock, having heard it since my youth (usu. with epenthetic t--more like "skowtch" if I can be quick and dirty with the phonetics.)

Upon some thought, though, its not altogether surprising a useful little word of Japanese could have made it into English in the years before my parents were born, what with the military presence in Japan right after World War II (which continues, at least on Okinawa, until the present day.) My paternal grandfather served in the Eastern Front during WWII (in Fiji, from what I'm told). This is not to say I'm suggesting Papa brought that word back himself, but if ever there were an organization to move slang around the world, I suppose the US Army would be it.

It's interesting to think back on my grandfather, who died when I was six. His parents were immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (mountains of NE Slovakia) who had managed by design or chance to get out of Europe in the decade just before World War I. He participated in the Second World War as part of an effort, one of whose very tiny aftereffects is written into the English language.

New Čapek by noon tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Word-Hoard Or Word Problem?

(I get the vague impression that I've articulated this somewhere before, but I find no evidence of it. Either that or it's so obviously a blog post I can't believe I haven't yet.)

Among my various half-tended patches of language is Old English. I'm not sure if it's a matter of being interested in Old English per se, but since I am interested in comparative translation, historical linguistics, an English speaker...Beowulf sort of keeps coming up.

A housemate finally gave me another copy of Seamus Heaney's bilingual translation of the poem (I either gave mine away or left in in Vermont) and this has brought me back to another book I picked up a while ago, Barney's Word-Hoard: An Introduction to Old English vocabulary. (1985)

This story is going to veer into mathematical territory here, as unlikely as that may seem from my largely linguistics-based interest in the work, but there's an interesting series of numbers thrown out in the introduction that have always struck me. (That, and the nickname "Old Anguish," which I hadn't heard before I found the book.)

"The total vocabulary of [preserved] Old English poetry...is something over eight thousand words, of which about sixty percent are compound words. But a student need learn only a quarter of this number of words to know the meaning of over ninety percent of the running words he will meet in reading Beowulf." (vii.)

I remember the first time I read this a couple of years ago going "wait, what?" It struck me as a very indirect way of expressing these quantities, so of course I got cracking. For the following, I assume the phrase "this number of words" refers to the total vocabulary, and not the subset of that comprised of compound words.

compound words in preserved OE lexicon: "something over 8000"*"about sixty percent"=~5000 compound words.

"a quarter of (this number of words)"="over ninety percent of the running words he will meet in reading Beowulf."
.25 * ~8000 = ~.9 * B

B = ~2000/~.9 = ~2200-2250.

Well, now we know how many "running words" there are in Beowulf. The running words vs. hapax legomena post will have to wait for another day.

This wasn't a math problem, you say? Could have fooled me.

Going Home

     With this title I do not mean any symbolic way home--no pilgrim’s return to his homeland from far-off lands; I mean the entirely ordinary and everyday trip home; a trip which one could almost undertake with eyes closed: straight on here and around the corner and across the street and left and right and there we are. I’m thinking on a trip which we undertake with the eyes of our attention also closed, which we undertake out of habit, inattentively, mechanically, proceeding step by step into our own footprints. No one discovers the world when taking that daily trip home. Similarly, no special thoughts occur along the way. It is as though one’s own thoughts are falling back into the footprints of yesterday and the day before.

     But once in a while a man meets with a cosmic occurrence on the way that switches him suddenly onto a different track. A sudden rain strikes and the pedestrian finds a brook in place of his own footprints which he must jump over; going home seems a bit fresher and becomes an invigorating adventure. Or the wind comes up and the walker must struggle against its malevolent opposition, gaining ground step by step, as if conquering his own home. Or the path is covered with black ice (whereupon I have finally gotten at my actual subject). Yes, once in a while (especially overnight, when nothing can be done about it) freezing rain comes down like glass, except that no one stumbles so much over glass, glass not being so treacherously uneven, and also since it would be impossible to make such a quantity of glass—that stands to reason. And when that slippery ice stands between you and your home, then (after a few unsuccessful attempts at normal walking1, at sliding uphill, at gliding or of finding firmer footing) you realize a few more or less unaccustomed things in regard to the walk home.

1. That there is something like mountains and oceans, deserts and abysses between you and your house (even though it is just there around the corner and across the street), thousands of dangers, difficulties and cursed places, and that the ordinary walk home can be something like an expedition to distant regions as yet untouched by human feet;

2. That your house is something like a castle on a glass mountain, which gives it a certain inaccessibility, but also a special and purely magical beauty;

3. That there is something in the old sayings, such as “finding yourself on a slippery slope “ or that “it is not good to lose the ground beneath your feet,” and “east, west, home is best,” or “look before you leap”;

4. That undertaking even such a small piece of the trip home means putting one foot in front of the other and that even a small step forward is a measurably meaningful success in life.

5. That your house is truly a safe haven where a boat tossed by a storm can cast its anchor and say “ahh, that’s better,” and that safety is perhaps the closest thing to that which we call happiness—among other reasons, because you don’t normally realize it.

     All these things considered, a man returned home has a new outlook on those down below him still outside and trying to get home. Oh, you people look like a mule on ice! Isn’t it just hilarious how they look like ants crawling around down there?



1 Growing up in Vermont I was taught from a very early age the proper way of "walking" on ice—a foot-shuffling maneuver designed to minimize the potentially catastrophic impact of putting your foot down onto a low-friction surface. My mother and I (and, I’m sure, many others) find it humorous when we come across others—even other Vermonters—who never learned this trick, and enjoy teaching it to them. Here in Santa Cruz I have absolutely no use for this. Someday again, though.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


     There is no point in disbelieving it and deliberately appearing incredulous in the face of this new disappointment—it is already upon us. First of all soot begins to fall in place of snow, beautiful black municipal soot, which darkens the ugly white snow so prettily, puddles and swampy spots begin to form on the ugly smooth ice, the air brings in an auspicious tepidity and dampness, mud and muck seep out of the pores of the earth, fog and pools and all the little vernal messes, and there can be no doubt—spring is upon us. I caught the swollen buds when they were still under the snow; now something quickens in them quietly, and a week from now they will split open and the fuzzy and coltfooted tips of leaves will spring forth. The swallows on the roof twitter their exuberance; it matters not whether it is drizzling, say, or if their claws seize old of damp and miserable weather, the sparrows’ clocks have already struck spring; they fluff themselves up, vociferate and shake themselves, twitching their tails and fluttering their wings as they whirl themselves somewhere into the garden.1 And when night falls, those alto, throaty moans, the longings of the cats ring out from the courtyard. That is the the first spring, the dark and wild spring of the cats, and everything else follows in sequence.


     A large number of gulls come into Prague without fanfare or festivities, having first sent a delegation of their numbers. Now they arrive in full force, happy and healthy, it seems. Mayor Baxa has not welcomed them nor granted them a commemorative ceremony in Prague, although they are foreigners, nor has councilor Čenkov made any proclamation nor has anyone showed them the memorable sites of the City, they were not invited to the Castle nor the famous representation of Libuše, Mr. Strimpl has not received them by proxy for Prime Minister Beneš2; in short nothing has happened in the accustomed manner to make a more pleasant stay in Prague for these pleasant foreigners; perhaps that is why they are having such a good time. They are most fond of holding regattas3 on the Vltava and flying circles around Střelecký Island, going on fishing excursions, swimming (freestyle) and other sports; sometimes they have a content laugh under the March sun, and at night… Wait, where do the gulls go to sleep? Who has seen a sleeping gull? They supposedly nest on the rocks by the ocean; where on earth do they spend their nights in Prague? No one knows this, not even the best experts on the Prague nightlife or the police. It is one of the innumerable secrets that surround us that we cannot bring to light.


     Since every single place I look on the street an egg is rolling or trundling by, since it is the time of the pomlázka4 and dyed eggs, even though I dislike eggs and because it actually could have happen, I will tell you this little story about an egg. Once there lived a hen in Spain, a little over four hundred years ago, an ordinary hen who scratched in the courtyard and cocked an eye at every grain and laid eggs and cackled all the while. Once, however, she lay an egg and did not cackle, she sat on it silently and looked so—well, so solemn and secret that the entire chicken coop marveled. “Please,” a second hen asked her, “you old thing, what has happened to you? You look like a abbess or something. Do you feel well?” The happy hen looked at her with a proud and maternally sainted expression. “Just now,” she proclaimed proudly, “just now I have laid the Egg of Columbus.”5



1 [The Czech had an onomatopoetic expression for the high-pitched noise of bird flight noises "frrrrr!" which was delightful, and which I have tried to replicate here.]
2 Ludvík Strimpl (1880-1937) painter and artist who took part in the First World War in France in the fight against Austria, after which he entered the diplomatic service and later became Head of Protocol for the President of the Republic. [Obviously was considered the only person a Czech from 1948 wouldn't recognize without endnote-based assistance. Edvard Beneš eventually became president and is famous for being threatened into signing the Munich declaration. Karel Baxa was important enough a mayor to have his own Wikipedia page. This Čenkov fellow...not yet that I've been able to track down.]
3 Regatta - a festive, sporting race on the water [oh, 1940s Czech editors, you crack me up]
4 [There's that Easter whip again.]
5 [This is something I had forgotten about too. Columbus...but not quite how you think!]

Creating Productivity by Increasing the Number of Distractions!

It is spring, the time of year when the young man's fancy turns to new and exotic case systems, alluring non-Indo-European tongues and sexy, sexy aspectual distinctions.

It is also the time of year when I get bored with having only Czech as my plaything all winter (shocking but true) and apparently crave languages with severe constraints on syllable patterns and phonologies.

To that end, I have ordered a grammar of Finnish, signed up for an online Finnish vocabulary program, and ordered a book of Hawaiian grammar lessons. Spanish still holds no lasting interest for me, of course, in spite of my environment.

Predictably and paradoxically, this has increased my productivity in terms of the Čapek and the Fuks I'm working on. I have two Čapek updates I'll get to as soon as I format and footnote them, (within twenty-four hours, hopefully) and one more before the end of the month. The Fuks I'm playing closer to my vest right now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Cusp Of Spring

     You’re the first, the one we’ve waited the whole winter to see: you, snowdrop; you, earliest crocus; you, winter aconite; you, pussy willow. Your blossoms are ther before the the first flower forms and the first leaf unfurls, they flower before nature can start to breathe. Love comes first. Everything else comes later: the eagerness of growth, the work of roots, the quiet and relentless struggle for life, but you, first flower, do not spring from anything but yourself. The raw earth is still closed, the roots cannot suckle at a ground yet sleeping, the plant brings out that first flower from its own essence. It doesn’t have anywhere to get anything from, so it offers up its own heart to the undertaking of spring.

     As far as it concerns us people, do not believe every rumor, O spring bud—it is not so bad. Even we would like to have paradise on earth and holy peace and resurrection and eternal spring and other things like that, but meanwhile we’re only arguing about how to arrange it and where to get it from and who is going to do what and so on. It seems that it just hasn’t worked yet, unless the very earth we live upon were to open up itself to (as the gardeners say) vegetate the garden of Eden. But if we pay close attention, we will find people here and there who put their whole hearts into these heavenly undertakings, and bring the means to make our world better out of themselves. Love comes first.


     But I witness that previously mentioned first snowdrop (it doesn’t have another given name and played its part anonymously for the honor and glory of its kind), and it was plucky to set itself to such spring business. It had to bore through the snow and ice, quite the little icebreaker; to plunge into spring full force, accepting the risk of night frosts and freezes. You don’t realize such a little flower experiences no idyll of sunny comfort—-it is a noble lot, all courage and adventure. The first herald standing before the lines and waving a white banner. Pioneer and conqueror. The first settler in an inhospitable country. The first white sail on the ocean.

     It is courage and it is a matter of course. That is a good thing.


     As far as the plants are concerned it has already begun: here is a stubby sprout, fat and closed-off, pokes through the earth, a leaflet extends over there that is so beautifully green that there had never been anything like it, but that’s not all. When you look at it closer you see that this tiny little life is coming out of last year’s mold and rot, that it is up to its neck in the communal grave of last season’s vegetation. Last year’s leaf is not interred until now; now, in this time of sprouting it returns to ash and dust. When we take a decent look at it, the spring earth is not bestrewn with flowers; it is strewn to a much larger extent with dead foliage and rot and decomposition of what was there last year. Only now is the previous year buried; only now does dead life return to the earth from which it arose. This is no resurrection of the dead; it is a resurrection among the dead.

     Listen, you fresh little leaf among the heaps of decomposition, this itself what I’m trying to show you: the eternal concurrence of life and death.



...and now March is half gone?

I've been more restrained of late (or at last like to tell myself I have been) with the boy-my-life-is-crazy and where-has-the-time-gone posts, and that having been said, I'll proceed to do exactly that.

March has been somewhat different. I got into graduate school--master's in library science, San José State, and am trying to wrap my head around the changes that will entail. Also, the store I work at has recently moved into a brand new location three times the size, which involves a whole slew of logistic and sociological problems that are going to be weeks, if not months, in the sorting out. Switching my schedule to a 6:45 am work five days a week is also not without its issues.

All of these have contributed to a certain amount of constant fatigue and narrowing of my abilities to focus. My main translation efforts continue apace, but the Čapek is suffering. Never fear, though. If I have enough energy for navel-gazing, I'm bound to get back on track.

Re-learning how to nap's been a big help.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Signs of Spring

     There are many signs in heaven and on earth which accompany the onset of spring; the blackbirds, for instance—as soon as the blackbirds begin to shout and whistle away, you can bet your life that it is March and that it is all starting. Or the Lenten rose, let’s say: suddenly its golden or purple bud appears out of nowhere: but the Hamamelis is already blooming with its little yellow stars and the snowdrop’s little chalice rings in the terrible western wind. At that time the clouds have passed across the sky with striking speed, the earth opens up and the Iris reticulata opens its blue gothic flower.1 Those are the basic signs of spring.

     There are other, equally reliable indicators of spring, as when the housewives begin to wash the windows. It happens as it does with the Lenten rose, most likely some impulse from the cosmos; each hangs a blue skirt and red apron out the window, waving rags and singing; the patrolman on the street pretends not to see it (Kate’s not tied to anything, you see), but it is well-known that normal girls don’t fall out of windows these days.

     The most important sign of spring is of course the bricklayers. Someone’s grandfather, pipe in hand, appears at every construction site that has slept the winter away, fallow and abandoned—-most likely he himself had hibernated there—-but in March he comes to and walks around the piles of bricks, puffing away at his pipe, which is a sign that spring has come. At that a group of men appear with masonry tools and other noisy implements, whereupon they begin to pound boards and clap bricks together, which gives the perfect aural impression of spring, together with the blackbirds’ song.

     This is at a part of the world’s expanse known as a “site,” which is probably from the Aramaic for “cursed place” or something else damned and abandoned, full of disorder and filth. But even the construction site awaits its spring day when a band of men voyage to it and hammer and dig up that degraded surface. Look at the earth open up: under the cultured layer of human ventures, filth, and topsoil there appears the dead (and therefore virgin) clay, sediment, or a deposit of sand which breathes out cold and raw moisture. They set to with great exertion and lashing of whips and a procession of carts bearing away the results of their excavation, and in a week the basement and framing of a new building begin to spring forth from the earth.

     The clangorous, chirping bricklayers’ spring, smelling of lime and fresh walls, mortar and sawdust; there is nothing less poetic than the spring which unfolds raw furrows in the fields: it is happier and manlier than that. I mean nothing against the blackbirds, larks, woodpeckers and titmice, but the music of spades, of work, which rolls out in the first early spring days from the streets, yards, and construction sites with its tools and saws, boards, bricks and coats of paint; it is just as exhilarating as birdsong. The brooks bubble and the the soil gives up its first flower; the blackbird pipes its lovely song and one builder shouts to the other: “Franta, pass me a brick!”



1 Hammaelis —- a bush cultivated in parks with yellow ornamental flowers. Iris reticulata -- a dark blue iris originally from the Caucasus

Monday, March 02, 2009

Frustrated Intentions

     Every winter, at least from the start of February, when the days start to lengthen, I state with firm and sacred resolve: No, decidedly I will not let this year get by, and when it comes I will illuminate is as I should—from up close, attentively and deductively. I will take a certain stick or branch, measure out a square meter of earth and pay attention to how spring is made. I will study the first moist and crisp little balls as they form into the first buds, I will watch the bud to see its gradual growth, its hairy or sticky surface, its sudden swelling; I will have to be there when it finally opens (with a weak little sigh) and the pale edge of the first leaf comes out, as it unfolds in little wrinkles like a newborn, until the composed fans of the leaves begin to open and stretch out until proper leaves are made of them, and there, then there will be a green bush in the place of a place of bare twigs, and I will know it detail how it has happened. Yes, decidedly I will do so. And as I sit on my heels and look at my square meter of earth: suddenly a little pebble gets pushed aside and a tiny finger pushes up, and I watch as the first fresh blade of grass crawls up, such a thin and happy little thing, soaring up and beginning to stretch; I’ll watch its little siblings, I’ll count them and there will not be a single one which I have not assisted in its marvelous birth. Maybe my clay will even produce a strange little bulb which spreads and swells into a proper thing right under my eyes; maybe a crocus will come out of it or a coltsfoot or some hitherto unknown flower which I will discover and attach my name to. Maybe a pair of birds will alight on my little enclosure and show me how eggs are made. In short, I definitely won’t let this year just go by; I’ll catch spring in flagrante, I’ll hold it right in my hand, right in my palm to see how it’s done and to make sure there’s no fakery, no scam, no trick to it; I’ll track it, control it, watch it, check up on it, stare at it, test it and watch it and I won’t let anything get by me this year.

     Yes, I pass every winter with the same firm and worthless resolution. Then come the days when the sun starts to shine again, the ice melts and the gulls fly back, and then I decide that this day or the next I will begin to carry out my plan. And listen, it is so beautiful when the blue sky comes back and all of that. Grandmothers on the street selling violets and primroses, a man gets the urge to take a willow switch and chase the women around1; my God, I’ll just set this little bit of work aside and moonlight a bit, go on a visit, dispense these two social obligations, and just get this letter out, and then I’ll be alone with spring and go have a look at how it’s really done. And do you know what? Today I won’t a single one of these tasks or obligations today, even if they’re dragging me off—today I have to go see if spring has started.

     And for the love of God, it’s all over already! The bushes are green, there are already blooms in the young grass, and we can already sit in the shade of the first cherries, wiping our brow, and decide to go for ice cream. Wait, the cherries are already gone? Then give me the autumn plums instead, even autumn is beautiful and there’s much left to enjoy… but what? Friend, where has the time gone? It is December already, the heat is on inside, you already feel a year older; you had to make it all good again next year, and when the beginning of February comes, you must again resolve not to let it get away from you. But be careful that this spring doesn’t pass you by in a gust of wind, doesn’t sneak around you and dash on by. Be very, very careful next year!



1 [Yes, this is actually a Czech Easter tradition. Relevant quote:

"Another popular pagan tradition surviving to these days is the whipping of women and girls. The whip or “pomlázka” is braided from three or more willow rods. Pagan Slavs believed that whipping brought good luck, wealth and a rich harvest for the whole year. The strength and vitality of young twigs was supposed to be transferred onto the person whipped. I suspect that in these days, men don’t have a clue about the metaphysical meaning of this tradition; they simply enjoyed the opportunity to chase the village girls and have some fun."]