Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Genius of LanguageMy latest Tribune language column:
On a new essay collection called "The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect On Their Mother Tongues."
temp link/perm.preview/book excerpt

More on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here and in Diane Ackerman's chapter on metaphors in her new book "Alchemy of Mind," where she quotes Whorf:

We are inclined to think of languages simply as a technique of expression, and not to realize that language first of all is a classification and arrangement of the stream of sensory experience which results in a certain world order.

-I thought it was ironic that the Los Angeles Lakers issued a statement after the dismissal of the Kobe Bryant case saying:

This has been a very difficult situation over the past fourteen months for everyone involved. Kobe has handled himself with dignity and professionalism throughout this very trying ordeal.

First, "trying" is a pun, and second, this was nothing compared to the original medieval ordeals, in which torture or forced hand-to-hand combat was used to supposedly demonstrate guilt. Most people, in their glib pronouncements that "that was quite an ordeal" are oblivious to this gruesome history.

- From Newsweek's recent cover story on biblical archaelogy:

Scholars like John Dominic Crossan, a professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, can read volumes into a simple signpost in the Biblical town of Ephesus. "There's a gate to the market that Paul would have walked under," Crossan relates. "On top, it says Caesar is the son of God. When Paul applies that name to Jesus, it's not just a nice title. It's the title of Caesar. That is known as high treason."

(Also see CT's analysis of the Newsweek piece; story on Sudan's biblical history; earlier pieces here, here and here on the importance of biblical archaeology. x)

-I recoiled at the banality of President Bush's phrase the horror of terror, as did linguist Geoff Pullum:

The horror of terror. Surely no one but Bush could have slopped together such a ridiculous-sounding phrase - two virtually synonymous and phonetically similar abstract nouns fighting each other like two possums in a sack, I thought as I heard it.

But, Pullum finds, the phrase turns up nearly 200 non-Bush hits, so Bush shares the culpability for this banality.

- NYT on how Hurricane Frances was named. Also, news anchors kept talking about how Floridians were battening down the hatches. M-W defines "batten" as "to fasten with or as if with battens"--that helps--and says the word "probably [comes] from Old Norse batna to improve; akin to Old English betera better." The first definition is "to grow fat, to feed gluttonously." "Hatch," meanwhile, means "door," as in "espape hatch."

I'm pretty sure I heard one anchor say "batted down the hatches." Google suggests this is a rare mistake, which surprised me, given the archaic verb. The phrase gets only 9 hits, compared with over 20,000 for "batten down the hatches."

-I changed the word compunctions to qualms in my B&C blog this week, following the rule that you should change Latinate words to Old English ones whenever possible. Then I checked to confirm that "qualm" is Old English. American Heritage said its origin is unknown, but EtymOnline.com, which gets much of its info from the OED, says:

qualm - O.E. cwealm (W.Saxon) "death, disaster, plague," utcualm (Anglian) "utter destruction," related to cwellan "to kill," cwelan "to die" (see quell). Sense softened to "feeling of faintness" 1530; meaning "uneasiness, doubt" is from 1553; that of "scruple of conscience" is 1649. A direct connection between the O.E. and modern senses is wanting, but it is nonetheless plausible, via the notion of "fit of sickness." The other suggested etymology, less satisfying, is from Du. kwalm "steam, vapor, mist," which also may be ult. from the same Gmc. root as quell.

-The histories of the Italian words peccadillo and punctillo.

-Among the linguistic tidbits I enjoyed while re-reading James Wood's review last year of "God's Secretaries."

There is a one-word answer to the question of what the translators got right. It is music. And here music is meaning. Take the well-known words from Matthew 11:28: “Come unto me all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Tyndale had “Come unto me all ye that laboure and are laden and I will ease you.” The Jacobeans retained Tyndale’s rhythm; but it was they who added that simple, brief word-to our modern ears a marvellous half-adjective and half-adverb-heavy laden. Their desire, made explicit in the preface, was to use as many English words as possible, “commodiously,” for the greater glory of God. Often, they strove for the widest possible meaning, the most ambiguous resonances; the musical equivalent might be the organ stop known as a “mixture,” in which tones of related pitch are played simultaneously by a single key. A famous example occurs in I Kings 19:12: “And after the earthquake, a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire, a still small voice.” Coverdale’s earlier rendition had “a still soft hissing,” and the so-called Matthew’s Bible, of 1537 (which closely followed Tyndale), had “a small still voice.” The later translators, by changing “small still voice” to “still small voice,” retained the literal meaning of Matthew’s Bible while playing on the double sense of “still,” adding the extra suggestion that the voice has always been small and will continue to be (is still small). ...

The Princeton New Testament scholar Bruce M. Metzger complains in his book “The Bible in Translation” (not found in Nicolson’s bibliography) that the word katargeo, which occurs twenty-seven times in the New Testament, is subjected to an anarchy of different English approximations, eighteen in all, including “abolish, cease, cumber, deliver, destroy, do away . . . fail, loose, bring (come) to naught, put away (down), vanish away, make void.” ...

And, of course, there were errors, many of them. In I Kings 13:27, the wrong pronoun prompts unwitting comedy: “And he spake to his sons, saying, Saddle me the ass. And they saddled him.” Modern translations have changed “him” to “it,” but my copy of the King James Bible, at least, still proudly bears “him.”

I wrote in my college paper that the Bible should be purged of verse numbers. Mark Noll says the same thing in B&C:

Both books also comment on an unfortunate precedent set by the Geneva Bible, which was the first English-language version published with verse divisions.
Segmenting the text like this-a practice that has thankfully been overcome
in many recent translations-may have been a boon for checking references,
but it was otherwise a disaster; it encouraged prooftexting, obscured the
integrity of narratives, and dismembered cohesive discourses under the
control of the inspired authors into fragments manipulated by uninspired

-Thumbing through Paul Tournier's book The Meaning of Persons, I liked this line, a qualifier to his condemnation of superficial and self-serving small talk:

It would simply not be human to wish to divest the dialogue of everything superfluous; it would become dry and pedantic, devoid of all graciousness and poetry.

(Later, Tournier says: "The real meaning of travel, like that of a conversation by the fireside, is the discovery of oneself through contact with other people, and its condition is self-commitment in that dialogue." How that contrasts with the orientation toward private leisure and consumption in the travel industry!)

Previous column and inflections

No comments: