Sunday, September 25, 2011

The curious lives of French prepositions

When you study comparative Romance philology, it’s only a matter of time before you notice that French exhibits some prepositional anomalies. These have interested me for years. For heaven’s sake, you might wonder, how do we explain Spanish con, Italian con, Portuguese com, Romanian cu, all from Latin cum, but French avec? Where did parmi “among, between” come from? And how about dans “in”? What about chez “at the home of”, which is so useful it has made its way even into English? None of these are found in the other Romance languages — and there are plenty of other examples — but why?

I was asking myself questions like these twenty years ago, and though I have now long known the answers, it struck me that some of my readers might be interested as well. Since chez is my favorite example, I’m going to save it for last. Let’s start with the strange-looking avec.

This word is the modern reflex of Middle French avecques, in turn from Old French avoc, avuec, avoec. The latter is the spelling found in The Song of Roland, used prepositionally near the beginning of the poem (l. 186), but used adverbially near the end (l. 3626). The word is a contracted or elided form of Latin apud hŏc “with this (thing)”. The path would have been something like Latin apud hŏc > ap[ud] hŏc > Vulgar Latin *abhoc > Old French avoc. What is most interesting is that French kept a vestigial trace of the pronoun, hōc, the neuter form of hīc “this”. Quite separately, the Latin preposition apud eroded directly into an Old French preposition od, ot, o “with” — which occurs with greater frequency than avoc in Roland. There is also one occurrence of the construction o tot “with all” (l. 1357), with the same meaning as modern avec, and which looks something like the obsolete English withal.

Originally, Latin apud and cum had different connotations, the latter more often associated with coincidence of time than with people or things, but French took one path, all the other Romance languages the other. Why is a difficult question, one that would require a lot deeper investigation that we have time for here, but it was during the Carolingian/Merovingian dynasties that avoc began to outshine od, likely under the influence of Frankish (i.e., Germanic) constructions and preferences. (Let us remember too that Old English wið was originally “against”, preserved now only in withstand; whereas, it was mid that connoted the sense of our modern preposition “with”.)

Many of the other anomalous French prepositions evolved along similar lines from Latin collocations of either preposition + noun/pronoun, preposition + preposition, or preposition + adverb. By contrast, the other Romance languages (particularly Italian) usually derived their forms directly and solely from the original Latin prepositions. The “French model” explains parmi and dans, among many others.

Parmi, also attested in Roland, is formed from a preposition + noun, from L per mĕdium “in, through the midst of” > VL per mĕdiu > OF par mi, parmi. The preposition dans is similarly formed. The usual Romance preposition from Latin in “in(to)” became French en (cp. Sp en, It in, P em, Ro în), but dans came from OF denz, in turn from L de ǐntus “from within”. There is also an alternative (and redundant) form in dedans, from OF dedenz (< L de de ǐntus). Other “compound” prepositions of this sort include avant, dehors, dessous, dessus, delà, dépuis, avant, devant, envers, devers, etc. Some of these have direct cognates in the other Romance languages, but not all of them.

As promised, my favorite: chez. This wonderful preposition is unique among the Romance languages, and so valuable and concise that is has been borrowed from French. We all know what it means: “at the house of”, as in, “party this weekend chez Jason and Jennifer.” (That’s just an example; please do not knock on our door tonight unless you come bearing wassail! ;). This one is the real anomaly, because it is essentially just a noun repurposed into a preposition. This becomes pretty obvious when you consider that the only way to translate it requires the use of a noun, “house, home, etc.”.

So, as you may have guessed already, French chez goes back to Latin casa “house”. The c > ch sound change is among the most common in the language; cp. OF castel, chastel < VL castellu, OF cheval < VL caballu, OF chien < VL cane, OF chose < VL causa, and hundreds more.

The use of chez as a preposition comes along after Roland. In Old French, chez was not a preposition, but rather a noun meaning “house”. The prepositional use today has pushed this noun out of the language. Instead, the common French word for a house is maison, of which the English cognate form is mansion (< VL mansiōne < L manēre “to stay, remain”). The other Romance languages retain the derivatives of L casa in common use, cp. Sp casa, It casa, P casa, Ro acasă — but the Latin noun still survives in modern French as the specialized noun case “a small house or hut; or a square on a chess-board”. In the 11th century, the usual construction would have been je vais à chez Gautier (translating Latin vado ad casam Walterii), but à chez contracted rapidly to chez alone.

And the rest, as they say, is histoire. :)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

One more obscure reference

At the heart of anything you might care to say about C.S. Lewis, there is this: he was a great polymath and bookworm with the habit of salting diverse, often obscure quotes into his own essays, frequently without attribution. This can be frustrating for those reading his works. Tom Shippey gives a perfect example of this:
[English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (OUP, 1954)] makes for very hard reading, as Lewis no doubt knew. The first few pages refer casually to Pico della Mirandola (1463–94), Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), Paracelsus [Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim] (1493–1541), [Heinrich Cornelius] Agrippa [von Nettesheim] (1486–1535), names barely known (if at all) to most students of English literature. A little later Lewis switches casually from the De Rerum Natura of [Bernardinus] Telesius (1509–88) to the De Rerum Sensu et Magia of [Tommaso] Campanella (1568–1639), giving no introduction to either name. Six pages later he mentions that “pleasing little tract De Nymphis”; from what Lewis says I would be interested to read it, but he gives no reference. [1]
Earlier today, a friend of mine sent me an email to inquire what I knew (if anything) about another of these unidentified quotations. This one comes from Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism. In the third chapter, Lewis writes without preamble, translation, or citation: “Zum Eckel find’ ich immer nur mich” [2]. My friend wanted to know what this meant and whether Lewis was quoting.

The meaning is straightforward enough. I told her to translate it, “ad nauseam, I find only myself.” Lewis uses this passage almost to translate his own phrasing in the sentences coming just before: “The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there.”

But is Lewis quoting? If he isn’t, why German? It’s reasonable to suppose he is, so I poked around a bit, and it looks like he is indeed quoting — or to be more accurate, paraphrasing. There are two clues in proximity to the passage that point the way: (1) “Arthur Rackham’s [illustrations] to The Ring […] at a time when Norse mythology was the chief interest of my life”, and immediately following the German passage, and signalling a change in subject, (2) “In music […]”. [3]

I think the source is the libretto to Richard Wagner’s opera, Die Walküre. In Act II, Wotan (equivalent to the Norse Odin) sings: “Zum Ekel find’ ich / ewig nur mich / in Allem, was ich erwirke!” “Only I find / Myself in all I am planning!” [4] As you can see, Lewis turns immediately from pictures to music in the essay, right at the moment of this paraphrase. Prior to it, he discusses Arthur Rackham’s illustration’s to Wagner’s Ring operas. These include wonderful illustrations for The Valkyrie, published in 1910, when Lewis would have been twelve years old. Lewis even mentions Valkyries directly a few pages before trotting out this German passage. It all seems to fit. The German phrase is the fulcrum in the subject matter of the chapter, making it all the more intriguing that Lewis chose to signal the shift in untranslated German. Of course, in Lewis’s day, the majority of his readers could be relied on to understand simple phrases in the most common European languages. Whether they would have gotten the reference, I’m not sure. It seems likely enough. But today, not so much.

So, mystery solved? Does anyone have an alternative theory? I do think that some of Lewis’s works could really benefit from annotated editions, along the lines of Douglas Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit. I’ve thought this before, but I’ve never undertaken any such project myself, both because I have my hands full with Tolkien, and because I know so many other scholars better qualified than I am to take on Lewis at his most obscure.

[1] This is from an essay called “New Learning and New Ignorance: Magia, Goeteia, and The Inklings”, given as the keynote address at the C.S. Lewis and Inklings Conference in 2006. It was later published in the collection Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings (ed. Seguro and Honegger, Walking Tree, 2007), but since I don’t have the collection in front of me, the quotation I give above is from the keynote paper, which Tom kindly sent me in 2006. The published quotation might be slightly different.

[2] C.S. Lewis. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 22.

[3] Ibid., pp. 14–5, 22.

[4] Richard Wagner. Die Walküre. Trans. Charles Henry Meltzer. New York: Fred Rullman, Inc. 1904, p. 28, 29.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Read a free excerpt from my book

McFarland works closely with Google Books to provide previews of the titles they publish. I’m happy to report you can now read an excerpt from my book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, online. Just point your browsers here. The amount you’ll get to read may vary depending on where in the world you are, but if you can see what I am seeing right now, then you’ll be getting the preface, all of Tom Shippey’s essay, the first couple of pages of E.L. Risden’s essay, and some of the front matter (copyright, abbreviations, acknowledgements, table of contents, epigraph).

A little more than a month out, the book seems to be selling well, as near as I can judge. It is starting to appear in library catalogs. Thirteen now report having it on their shelves, a new one every two or three days, though the nearest to me so far is more than 500 miles away! And I’m starting to hear from people who have read it. As of today, there are four reviews at, all of them five stars. There is another at GoodReads, also five stars. I’ve been getting some private email about the book as well — please keep the feedback coming!

Reader reactions so far are overwhelmingly positive, which I find extremely gratifying. I’ll be sharing published reviews as they appear. The first of these are likely to be in the monthly periodicals, Mythprint and Amon Hen, with Mythlore following this fall, and other journals such as Tolkien Studies in the new year. If anybody sees a review somewhere, or a mention of the book that goes beyond merely listing it, I’d really appreciate hearing from you.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Fiat Lingua!

From David Peterson, President of the non-profit Language Creation Society (LCS), comes the welcome announcement of a new journal aimed at the interests of language creators.
The LCS is launching a new online journal called Fiat Lingua. A new article will appear on the first of every month. Articles will be available in PDF form on publication, and will be free to download. Articles themselves are self-selected and published with permission, with the copyright reverting to the author upon publication. On occasion, when we’ve received enough material, LCS may publish an anthology of Fiat Lingua articles in print and electronic form. Information about such anthologies will be released when relevant.

If you’d like to contribute an article to Fiat Lingua, contact us at We’re looking to include both formal academic-style papers and informal contributions (humor, news, tips, reviews, editorials, interviews, interesting works in progress, poetry, short fiction, conlang sketches, puzzles, etc.). All contributions, academic and nonacademic, should be of interest and value to a readership of people primarily interested in invented languages. You may include color, but future print anthologies will likely be in black and white. And, as publication will be online, authors will also have the opportunity to edit articles after they’ve been published. If you have a question about a project you think might be suitable but you’re unsure, feel free to send us an e-mail and we can discuss it.

The purpose of Fiat Lingua is to provide conlangers with a visible forum to publish papers related to conlanging or conlangs — especially subjects or projects which don’t lend themselves easily to listserv or forum posts.
The new journal’s first essay is “Case Marking and Event Structure: One Conlanger’s Investigations” by Matt Pearson, a professor of linguistics at Reed College. This essay is one of the “academic-style papers”, not an “informal contribution”. Some amateur conlangers may find this sort of thing a bit dense and intimidating, especially as the first half of the essay explores nominal cases systems in various real-world languages, some of them pretty obscure. It’s only in the second half that the author gets more “autobio-graphical” and talks about his own invented language. But if this essay is anything to judge by, the journal should be a valuable new venue for the discussion of artificial languages. I look forward to seeing more.

Having said that, I must now digress …

I’ve always found it interesting that the vast majority of conlangers devise complex case systems for their languages, with eight, ten, or more cases — much more complex than most real-world languages today. Seemingly, these conlangers don’t mind their languages going unlearned and unused (except by themselves), as intricate case systems are usually quite an obstacle (usually, but not always: witness Quenya and Klingon). Why do they do it? I guess I should rephrase — why do we do it — since I have been just as guilty. I haven’t worked on invented languages of my own in quite a few years, but at one time, I was simply mad for it. I was a conlanger avant la lettre. As I’ve written before, my friend Gary and I used to call them “Artificial Dialects”, and we had binders full of them. (They still exist, but they’ve been doing no more than collecting dust for what feels like a century now.)

So, why? Sometimes it’s out of the wish for “results [that] are sufficiently bizarre to satisfy my taste for the exotic”, as Pearson says. He also aims at “retaining the feel of a natural human language”, but the majority of the most widely spoken languages in the world today are shedding (or have already shed) their case systems. Of widely spoken languages that still do have case systems, real or vestigial, most are usually much simpler today than they were in centuries past. As a result, real-world languages tend to be more easily learned by wide audiences (which, in turn, often further erodes case systems and other complex grammatical features). The most successful artificial languages (like Esperanto) are usually the ones with the simplest grammatical systems.

Faced with that reality, why push on and do it anyway? Maybe your language is meant to have been spoken millennia ago, or by isolated pockets of indigenous people? Or maybe the real, secret reason is just to show off. “Look at me! Look how much I know about linguistics! I’m going to demonstrate every single oddity I’ve ever read about in my conlang, so buckle your seat-belts!” Things that are complex, it stands to reason, require more careful devising, more knowledge, more effort, and we want people to be impressed, by golly! And it’s not just nominal case systems. The same motivations apply to all aspects of conlang grammar, syntax, phonology. “Look at me! Look at this amazing inventory of sounds! I can pronounce a full range of aboriginal clicks, so you had better learn too! Look, I’ve discovered consonants for which I had to invent new glyphs! Oh, and I’m giving you tones as well. Why wouldn’t I?”

Why indeed? Such languages might be fun in theory and for study — and I don’t wish to deny anyone their fun, or their learning by doing — but with only a handful of exceptions, they will never be spoken outside the conlangers’ basements. My own invented languages certainly never got any further. :)