Monday, January 28, 2008

News on the Tolkien Encyclopedia Diary

About eight months ago, I introduced the Tolkien Encyclopedia Diary to Lingwë readers. This was an ambitious project to systematically review every single entry in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (ed. Michael D.C. Drout, Routledge, 2006) begun by one of its contributors. As I blogged then, I got involved a couple of months into the project — not long after another fellow contributor, and between us, we set to work.

Now, just over a year after the Diary’s inception, we’re finished. Between the three of us (plus a small handful of reviews by two other contributors), we’ve set down 815 reviews of the Encyclopedia’s 537 entries. I wrote 111 of these (mostly when I should have been doing something else — shhhh! ;). Also thanks to some meticulous record-keeping by N.E. Brigand, I can tell you that more than 200 of the entries were reviewed by two people, and roughly 25 were reviewed by three. It was important to us to record multiple perspectives whenever we could, but close to 300 of our reviews are still just “one person’s opinion”, for what it’s worth. Of course, even those multi-angle reviews are still just our opinions. I, for one, would still love to hear from others.

That being said, I think we’ve made some good observations during the long, slow process of digesting the Encyclopedia. Have a gander and see if you don’t think so. What’s next for the Encyclopedia Diary? Well, without getting too far ahead of ourselves, we’re investigating the possibilities of turning it into a printed book – to preserve our reviews and to serve as a companion (a very useful one, we think) to the Encyclopedia. It would be a poor substitute for those who don’t own a copy of the Encyclopedia; however, the price would be a mere tithe, so perhaps a poor substitute is better than none at all.

Drop me a comment with any thoughts you may have. Would any of you thousands, dozens, err, several readers be interested in a piece of Tolkien ephemera like this?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I’ve been reviewed ... a bit

Up to this point, I haven’t seen any of my publications on Tolkien and the Inklings reviewed — with only one exception: reviews of my entries in The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia by fellow Diarists Squire and N.E. Brigand. But I just came across a short review (or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a short summary with a brief qualitative assessment) of The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On over at the Tolkien Collector’s Guide. The reviewer, calling himself Khamul [sic]*, describes each of the book’s six chapters in a paragraph.

Here’s what he had to say about my chapter:
Jason Fisher’s From Mythopoeia to Mythology: Tolkien, Lonnrot [sic], and Jerome is the first article (that I’ve read) that directly & openly discusses Christopher Tolkien’s role as author in the writing of The Silmarillion. As often as he is praised for his editorial role in the book’s assembly, not many people discuss in detail his role as (essentially) author. Fisher states ‘without Christopher, we might have had a ‘Silmarillion’, in the loosest sense of that term, but we would not have had The Silmarillion’. The Kalevala & The Latin Vulgate Bible are (as is implicit in the title) also disussed.
I take this as favorable, though the reviewer doesn’t go into a lot of detail on what he liked or didn’t like. He did call the book “good scholarship” at the outset; and in his closing, he complimented it as “a very good selection of articles; and very current (CoH is mentioned).” The mention of The Children of Húrin, moreover, was mine. In discussing one text painstakingly assembled by Christopher Tolkien, it seemed appropriate to herald the arrival of another. :)

I must say it’s nice to learn that people out there are reading the book! If you are, let me know!

* Was my "[sic]" pretentious? His namesake is actually Khamûl, and I am such a Type A Nitpicker that I couldn’t let it go unmarked. Apologies for my Diacritical OCD. ;)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Max and Leo "fighting"

Beowulf has nothing on my puppy Leo’s radical combination of dog, cat, and monkey fighting techniques! And check out the crazy noises he makes. No doubt optimized for puppy shock and awe. :)

Good thing Max is a tolerant old dog.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Make quick work of academic citations

Recently, I came across a great tip for automatically generating properly formatted citations for your academic papers. Those of us who write such papers know that it can be fairly tedious to write and double-check these citations, especially when you have to mentally shift between formats — MLA, Chicago, APA, and so on. For citations in MLA style, you can use a little utility called Knight Cite, hosted by Calvin College; however, it requires you to plug in all the data points yourself. In other words, the citation it spits out is only as good as the information you provide. And of course, it’s limited to the MLA format only.

But wouldn’t it be nice if you could switch between formats as needed and get a ready-made citation with all the necessary data filled in automatically? Indeed it would, so here’s the tip. Point your web browser to World Cat, look up the book, journal article, film, music recording, or what have you (World Cat has almost everything you might need); next, click the Cite this Item link; then, copy, paste, and reap the benefits of the Information Age. :)

The beautiful thing is that World Cat takes all the labor out of generating citations. Even better, if you’re looking up journal or magazine articles, World Cat knows the page numbers already. Here’s an example, for Anne C. Petty’s 2004 essay, “Identifying England’s Lönnrot,” published in Tolkien Studies, Volume 1. Pretty sweet, am I right?

Of course, every once in a while, you might still have to write your own citations, especially for extremely new (or forthcoming) titles. Or for some alternative sources, such as rest-stop graffiti, Magic 8-balls, alien mind transmissions, tattoos, and epithets shouted from passing vehicles. Fortunately, the good folks at the PMLA have provided some guidance there too! ;)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tom Shippey on Geoffrey Chaucer

I came across an interesting new book recently — Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature. Two of its collected essays especially caught my eye: “Geoffrey Chaucer” by Tom Shippey, and “Charles Dickens” by A.N. Wilson (known to me for his biography of C.S. Lewis).

The book wasn’t available in our local library system, so I requested it through interlibrary loan. It’s quite a handsome volume, with a novel two-column layout and beautiful woodcuts of the authors and scenes from their best-known works. My favorite was the illustration for Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Anyway, I immediately read Shippey’s essay on Chaucer, which I enjoyed immensely (as I do practically all of Shippey’s work). Like all the essays in the collection, this is a short overview, but it’s quite an insightful one. Here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite for more:
Chaucer seems to understand people intimately, from all classes of society and walks of life, yet identifies with none. His works span the range of medieval genres, but he delights in exposing their limitations. His poetry is one of constantly shifting perspectives and unconscious self-betrayal. [1]
Chaucer delights in demonstrating that the meaning of words is determined by their users, or tales by their tellers. He likes to use the same line in different poems, with entirely different meanings in context. His characters, like his poetry, are complex, inscrutable, capable of being read many ways. He is the poet of shifting awareness and uncertain boundaries, of mixed motives and mirror images. [2]
Give it a look!

[1] Epstein, Joseph, and Barry Moser [illustrator]. Literary Genius 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, October 2007, p.9.

[2] Ibid., p.13.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mind your P’s and Q’s — and your C’s and K’s

Regular readers will know by now that I am engrossed in Nicholas Ostler’s* biography of Latin, Ad Infinitum. I’m still only about halfway through the book, but I’ve already learned a great deal — a good sign for any book! I’ve been dropping post-it notes onto pages for some time now with an eye to composing a post or two (or half a dozen, more than likely), and this is the first of them. These posts, I hope, won’t be your run of the mill notes (like speculating on the origins of that old saw, “mind your P’s and Q’s”), but rather a series of interconnected and generally pretty arcane points — the sort of thing I love. Feel free to drop me a line with feedback.

So, to business. Ever wondered why we have the letters C, K, and Q, when all three originally represented basically the same sound? (Certainly in Classical Latin, they did. And for that reason, the Romance languages that developed from Latin didn’t always inherit all three letters — often losing the K.) I’ve definitely wondered about this, and Ostler provides an answer. [1]

It appears that each letter was used in connection with a different following vowel, a practice Latin borrowed from Etruscan (to which early Latin owed a great deal). Proper usage dictated that K was used before A, Q before U, and C otherwise. That would be interesting enough on its own, but here’s the part I found most interesting: this explains why in English we call these letters cee, kay, and cue. Look at the vowels! An ancient orthographical rule of the Etruscans — a people extinct for well over a millennium — still persists in English today! I would add that, far earlier, the names of the letters in Latin showed the same pattern (, , ), and likewise in the emerging vernacular of the Middle Ages. Therefore we have French (, ka, cu), Spanish (ce, ka, cu), Italian (ci, kappa [a borrowing from Greek, but the pattern nevertheless holds], cu).

And then there is the case of Romanian. Whereas some of the Romance languages lost the K, Romanian initially had no use for the Q. The other two letters followed the Etruscan pattern and were called ce, ka. Here’s the interesting thing: the Q was officially reintroduced into Romanian late in the 20th century (in 1982, to be exact), though it was in use for some time before that date — only in loan-words from other languages. What did they name the letter? Turns out it was (or chiu), which bears out the same Etruscan pattern! (Though in the case of this late addition, the letter name was probably driven by that of other Romance languages and not with any specific awareness of the underlying reason.)

The pattern breaks in the Portuguese Q — , [or cappa, ditto my note on Italian], but quê. I wonder why. I would strongly suspect Berber or Arabic influence, but if that were the case, why wasn’t Spanish affected?

* Ostler is a pretty interesting surname, actually. In fact, ostler is an ordinary English word, though an archaic one. An ostler is basically an innkeeper — Tolkien uses the word in this sense in his poem, “The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late” (The Lord of the Rings and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) — though in another sense, it was more specific: the man who took care of the horses at the inn. An alternate spelling, hostler, belies its kinship with hostel, hotel, hospitable, and even hospital.

[1] Ostler, Nicholas. Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. New York: Walker & Co., 2007, p.59 footnote.

Friday, January 11, 2008

They call me Juror #8

Earlier this week I finally had the chance to serve on a jury. I’ve been called several times, but more often than not, I have been dismissed from the general cattle call right away. Once, I made it into a courtroom and participated in the attorneys’ voir dire. That was a criminal trial, alleged aggravated assault, with a pair of defendants (whose middle names were respectively Napoleon and Canute — no kidding! And that really tickled my literary fancy, I can tell you!), but I didn’t make that jury. This time, I did; and so I engaged in the only opportunity ordinary citizens have for direct participation in government.

My trial was a civil lawsuit in the 191st District Court, Judge Gena Slaughter presiding — and don’t you just love her name! One thing I found very interesting about this trial was that the defendant was not a native speaker (though he could speak “a lot of English”), and so he experienced the entire trial through chuchotage. This is a wonderfully onomatopoeic word for whispered simultaneous interpretation. This was inaudible to those of us on the jury until the defendant took the stand to give his own testimony. At that point, I listened carefully to his answers in Spanish, and the interpreter’s translations into English. Now I am certainly not fluent in Spanish, but I can speak and understand enough to follow along fairly well, especially when a translation immediately ensues. For the most part, the interpreter was excellent; however, I did notice a few instances when she failed to render something he had said into the English testimony, or rendered it somewhat more loosely than perhaps she ought.

On our jury, we had only two fluent Spanish speakers, and during our deliberations, I asked them whether they had noticed the same minor errors and oversights. They had, and we brought this to the attention of the rest of the jury. None of these mistakes were of the kind of importance that would alter our verdict (and were surely within accepted legal tolerance), but they do raise thorny questions about communication — especially in an environment where the precision of legal definitions and a preponderance of Latin and French legal terminology can make successful communication even entirely in English problematic. As we were to learn firsthand during our deliberations!

And here’s an anecdote to back that up. I happened to have my copy of Nicholas Ostler’s biography of Latin with me, which I read from while in recess or during breaks in the jury room. This didn’t go unnoticed, and several of us had a conversation about the history of Latin as well as why I should be reading about any such thing.

Later, during deliberation, a preliminary canvas showed a split of eight to four on the question of “negligence” and “proximate cause” in our case. We debated, argued, asked questions, drew diagrams, talked over each other, and generally did exactly what juries do for another two hours, during which only one person from the majority defected to the minority (which didn’t help the prospects for a verdict, as we were required to agree by at least ten to two, not eight to four, or seven to five).

Finally, I tasked myself with closely parsing and puzzling over the several pages of legal definitions the judge had given us, obviously something I should have done much sooner. This included the definitions of such vague terms as “proximate cause,” which sounded straight out of Aquinas: “Effects are denominated necessary or contingent, as the case may be, by the condition of their proximate causes.” [1]). This led me to come up with another, less equivocal way to phrase the jury charge. Not unlike Cicero, I daresay, and with my biography in Latin on the table in front of me, I orated clearly and concisely, for no more than two minutes; whereupon, we took another canvas. Apparently, I had flipped all seven remaining in the majority over to the minority opinion, resulting in an immediate unanimous verdict. Jaws dropped around the table, and I sat down. One of my fellow jurors broke the silence by saying, “I guess you have to read about the history of Latin to be able to make something like that happen.”

And people have always told me I’d make a hell of a lawyer. Case closed. :)

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas. Philosophical Texts. Sel. and trans. by Thomas Gilby. London: Oxford University Press, 1951, p.257.

Friday, January 4, 2008

A tragic story

Edi Vesco, author of Il Magicolibro — I Segreti Del Mondo Di Harry Potter [The Magic Book — The Secrets Of the World of Harry Potter], “billed as the world’s most complete guide to JK Rowling’s boy wizard Harry Potter,” was murdered by her 18-year-old son on New Year’s Day in Milan. Read about the tragedy here (Italian) or here (English).

This is a truly horrifying and very sad story. If it’s particularly grey and dreary where you are, of if you’re easily disturbed or depressed (the details are pretty gruesome), think twice about following the links above.

Addio, Signora Vesco.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Perfect pitch — but at the cost of expressiveness?

NB: I’ve been meaning to post about this for ages, so I have to apologize for the staleness of some of the underlying stories I’ll be referring to.

Some time last year, I heard an intriguing piece on NPR (which I can’t find now — maddening!) in which the phenomenon of perfect pitch was correlated with native fluency in tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese. Diana Deutsch of the UCSD Pyschology Department is probably the leading researcher in this field, and she’s discovered some very intriguing things. (Here’s a link to one of her most recent, and highly readable, publications on the subject, from the 2006 issue of Acoustics Today.)

Just what sorts of discoveries has she made? How about this? While only about 14% of American English speakers exhibited perfect pitch, fully 60% of Mandarin Chinese speakers did so. That’s pretty staggering, don’t you think? And what’s more, Deutsch recorded Chinese speakers pronouncing the same word on different days, and a different times of day, weeks apart, and the recordings sounded identical (pitch-accurate within a semi-tone — basically, the difference between Middle C and C#). The NPR piece played a number of these samples, and others are available on Deutsch’s website.

No wonder so many Chinese speakers — like my favorite cellist, Yo-Yo Ma (who reportedly does have perfect pitch) — are gifted musicians, right? But after ruminating on this research for a little while, I began to wonder whether this perfect pitch might come at a cost in expressive flexibility.

Think about it. Tonal languages like Chinese convey lexical meaning through precise tones. Why tones? One theory holds that they were necessary for expanding the range of meanings possible in languages that are largely monosyllabic, and often phonemically limited. So, pronounce the same collection of phonemes in each of Mandarin’s four tones, and you get four distinct meanings — most often, completely unrelated to one another. The pitch becomes crucial for understanding. And the more tones you have, the greater the need for pitch-perfect speech. Mandarin Chinese only has four tones, but Vietnamese has six, and Cantonese has nine!

In most Indo-European languages, lexical meaning is unrelated to tone or pitch. Rather, these factors can be used to convey a wide range of secondary connotations instead — irony, humor, emphasis, irritation, accusation, you name it. This is very common in expressive languages such as English and Italian. Consider an example. I just found a more or less random sentence in a recent email (from my wife to one of our friends): “I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.” Here are a few (by no means all) of the variations possible:

1. I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.
[Maybe he doesn’t mind, though.]
2. I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.
3. I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.
[However I don’t care if you have to.]
4. I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.
[Alas, he does.]
5. I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.
[However he is, in fact, obligated.]
6. I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.
[Rather than work from home, maybe.]
7. I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.
[Rather than have to go somewhere else.]
8. I just wish Jason didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.
[Today or the day after tomorrow, say, would be better.]

Would all of these shades of meaning be possible in Chinese? I don’t think so! Because of the lexical significance of its tonality, spoken Chinese approaches melody (I tried to capture this in the picture I made, above) — and you can’t alter a melody without producing a completely different sense. Mozart isn’t Debussy. Tonal languages perforce become a sort of monotone. Well, not a literal monotone (perhaps we could call it a “fixed polytone”?), but anyone speaking the same sentences would sound much more “identical” than in English, Italian, or Dutch, for example.

So far, studies have been limited to just a couple of Asian languages. I’d like to see the investigation expanded to consider other tonal languages, such as Yoruba, Cherokee, Hausa, and Punjabi. I’d also like to see the study applied to Indo-European pitch-accent languages, such as Norwegian, Swedish, and Serbo-Croatian. Cherokee might make an especially revealing study, because it’s spoken with tone in Oklahoma but without tone in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the population of speakers is very small (fewer than 25,000, 99% of whom speak it only as a second language).