He cursed the curse that would not come

April 14, 2014

Language is a recurring theme in The Reawakening, Primo Levi’s account of his life in the months immediately after liberation from Auschwitz. In particular, the book describes many encounters with people of different tongues and how he and they find ways to communicate based on second, third, or no languages in common.

Other features of language emerge in the book’s frequently wonderful characterisations. A description of the foul-mouthed “Moor from Verona”, for instance, begins with physical detail:

There were about twenty others in my dormitory, including Leonardo and Cesare; but the most outstanding personality, of more than human stature, was the oldest among them, the Moor from Verona. . . . He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, while his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

And from there builds a picture of a man at once enigmatic and larger than life yet who is accommodated comfortably in the expansive pages of Levi’s memoir.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, against his trade, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come.

While it’s admirable to take such care over swearing practices, it may be better to just unleash any expletive at all than to compound the frustration in a vain search for the perfect curse. But to each their own.


Language rules of the Third Reich

April 8, 2014

Last week I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, and thought the following passage would be of interest to readers of Sentence first since it deals specifically with the euphemisms and language rules (Sprachregelungen) used by the Third Reich.

In Arendt’s text the following comprises a single paragraph, but I’ve introduced a few breaks to make it easier to read here:

All correspondence referring to the matter [Final Solution] was subject to rigid “language rules,” and, except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as “extermination,” “liquidation,” or “killing” occur. The prescribed code names for killing were “final solution,” “evacuation” (Aussiedlung), and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung); deportation – unless it involved Jews directed to Theresienstadt, the “old people’s ghetto” for privileged Jews, in which case it was called “change of residence” – received the names of “resettlement” (Umsiedlung) and “labor in the East” (Arbeitseinsatz im Osten), the point of these latter names being that Jews were indeed often temporarily resettled in ghettos and that a certain percentage of them were temporarily used for labor.

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An European vs. A European

March 24, 2014

E. P. Thompson’s magisterial History of the English Working Class (1963) contains a short, innocuous phrase that nonetheless pulled me up short: “The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon”. Then later, the same formulation: “the materials for an European and a British frame of reference”.

I don’t remember ever hearing a native English speaker – which Thompson is – say an European, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It may be a generational thing, among other factors.

The OED includes several standard pronunciations, all starting with [j] – the “y” sound of you, aka the voiced palatal approximant – which would ordinarily be preceded by “a”, not “an”. But English inherited the word from French Européen (from Latin, from Greek), which begins with a vowel sound, not a [j].

This may explain the gradual switch in both UK and US English, if not the timing (click to enlarge):

google ngram viewer - a european vs an european us and uk english

Or maybe someone better informed on these matters will edify us in the comments.

The inexorable decline of an European is confirmed by a search in COHA, whose most recent example is decades old (“convening of an European constitutional convention”, Christian Science Monitor, 1952). A comparison with GloWbE, however, shows it’s not unheard of in unedited (or unprofessionally edited) writing around the world:

an european in coha vs. glowbe corpus comparison

A search on Twitter shows likewise, though a brief examination of the results suggests it’s mainly non-native English speakers who use it.

Have you seen or heard, or do you say, an European? What do you make of such an usage?


Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

February 28, 2014

A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:

One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’

Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.

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Percy Shelley’s reading addiction

December 10, 2013

Books accompany me almost everywhere. Because you never know. On a walk or cycle I may decide to sit on a bench or rock or by a tree and pass an hour with the view, and while there in the fresh air might feel the urge to visit whatever portable parallel world I’ve packed. Or I might be in a slow queue and tired of looking around, so out comes a book and the wait dissolves.

Some books are especially engrossing and greedily demand every moment even tenuously available. Though reading over a work-break cup of tea or while on the loo is normal enough, reading while walking to the kettle or bathroom might not be. (This, at any rate, is just an occasional indulgence.) But I know I’m not as bad as Percy Bysshe Shelley – for one thing, I don’t forget to eat. Not habitually, anyway.

Shelley . . . was always reading; at his meals a book lay by his side, on the table, open. Tea and toast were often neglected, his author seldom; his mutton and potatoes might grow cold, his interest in a work never cooled. He invariably sallied forth, book in hand, reading to himself, if he was alone; if he had a companion reading aloud. He took a volume to bed with him, and read as long as his candle lasted; he then slept – impatiently, no doubt – until it was light, and he recommenced reading at the early dawn. . . . In consequence of this great watching, and of almost incessant reading, he would often fall asleep in the day-time – dropping off in a moment – like an infant. He often quietly transferred himself from his chair to the floor, and slept soundly on the carpet, and in the winter upon the rug, basking in the warmth like a cat; and like a cat his little round head was roasted before a blazing fire.

(Extract from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s biography, quoted in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by James Sutherland. I do like that use of “impatiently”.)

Fellow readers, how conventional or extreme are your reading habits?

Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing ‘Prometheus Unbound’, oil on canvas, 1845


Book spine poem: A Pagan Place

December 7, 2013

A new bookmash. It has been weeks since I made one.

[click to enlarge]

stan carey - bookmash book spine poetry - a pagan place

*

A Pagan Place

The idea of prehistory, a pagan place –
Land of milk and honey, the white goddess;
Cows, pigs, wars and witches,
Women, fire, and dangerous things.

*

Again this one is top-heavy with non-fiction – I tend to notice the ratio only after putting them together. See my previous one on language evolution for stats on fiction vs. nonfiction.

Thanks to the authors: Glyn Daniel, Edna O’Brien, Bríd Mahon, Robert Graves, Marvin Harris, and George Lakoff; and to Nina Katchadourian for the idea.

For more like this, see my archive of book spine poems (25 at last count), which includes links to other people’s. If you want to join in the fun, do – send me a photo or put a link in the comments. Remarks about, say, my inconsistent use of the serial comma are also welcome.


Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

November 27, 2013

If any lightfoot Clod Dewvale was to hold me up, dicksturping me and marauding me of my rights to my onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, I’d let him have my best pair of galloper’s heels in the creamsourer.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Though I grew up in the countryside, I’m not of direct farming stock, which may be why I learned of yan tan tethera only quite recently (courtesy of @vencut2 on Twitter). It’s an old counting system used traditionally by shepherds in parts of the UK, and also in knitting and fishing and so on, or by children for their own amusement.

stan carey - herd of sheep in Ireland, spring 2009 - yan tan tethera

Metheradik (=14) sheep in the west of Ireland (photo by Stan Carey)

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