Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday diversion – “Potter Rock”

It doesn’t really surprise me to find that people out there are making music based on the Harry Potter universe. What does surprise me is the sheer number of people doing it, and the imagination behind their efforts. Take a peek at a strange assortment of what’s out there, including such acts as:

  • Draco and the Malfoys
  • The Whomping Willows
  • The Parselmouths
  • The Remus Lupins
  • The Hermione Crookshanks Experience — my personal favorite!
Be sure to check out some of the amusing song titles! Each band has its own website (or MySpace page, ugh) – I won’t link to them all from here, but feel free to follow them on your own and give ’em each a listen. Some of them aren’t half bad (while a few of them are more than half bad indeed, hahae).

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hemingway short stories – Part 2

Read Part 1. Once again: these posts will contain SPOILERS.

The four stories I “reviewed” in the first part of this series were the last four, by date, of The First Forty-Nine, all written toward the end of the 1930s. In this installment, we’re going back to the beginning, starting with “Up In Michigan”, Hemingway’s first short story, written in Paris in 1921. Many of these early stories comprise the so-called Nick Adams stories, which, taken together, form something like a bildungsroman of one of the most classic “Hemingway heroes”. So, with that preamble, here are some thoughts on the next five stories.

“Up In Michigan”
Interesting that this was written in Paris in 1921, as the setting seems quite remote from that in both space and time. It’s set in rural Michigan at some point in the past – it feels like the 1880s, perhaps? It has the character of a Western vignette. It’s a rather sad, poignant tale about the loss of innocence and about how what we hope for or expect isn’t always what we actually get when we finally do get what we thought we wanted. In other words: it’s a retelling of that old saw, “be careful what you wish for ...”

“On the Quai at Smyrna”
This could be a companion piece to “Old Man at the Bridge”, though written much earlier. A short, strange, experimental story about the sometimes surreal horrors of war. This time it’s the Greeks verus the Turks. The story is filled with dead babies and horrbile cruelty to animals, all treated very cavalierly by the narrator. There is no conclusion per se. I’m not sure I get it. Following the story, there’s a strange little “chapterlet”, called CHAPTER I. Looking ahead, I find these little opuscules in between all the stories from here to “Big Two-Hearted River”. Strange. Is this a sort of Canterbury Tales?

“Indian Camp”
I remember this story from college. It’s the first Nick Adams story, though as we’ll see shortly, “Up In Michigan” is set in the same geographical locus. The story centers around the emergency delivery of an Indian baby by Caesarian section, something only a surgeon can do. Luckily, Nick’s father is just such a man. While he operates, saving the mother and baby, the father slits his own throat with a straight razor and bleeds to death in silence in the same room! Why? The reason is not explained. Is it because a white man has touched his wife “intimately”? And where did George disappear to?

“The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”
Picks up after “Indian Camp”. It’s about the tense relationship between the Indian and the White Man. Each thinks the worst of the other. What does it mean that Dick Boulton is a “half-breed”? Enormous hypocrisy in Nick’s father over the matter of the stolen lumber. What exactly is the relationship betwen the stories and the “chapterlets”?

“The End of Something”
A masterpiece of a short story! Set in Hortons Bay, the seting for “Up In Michigan”, only much later. Each of these stories leads right into the next with some shared image. For example, in the case of “Up In Michigan” to “On the Quai at Smyrna”, it’s the image of the creeping fog. In this case, it’s the image of the lumber, and the saw mill. The story is about the breakup of the relationship between Nick and Marjorie, but it’s beautifully foreshadowed by the death of the town, Hortons Bay, itself brought about by the end of the lumber. All that’s left is the and the “ruin” of the old saw mill, standing like a reminder of the ruin of their relationship. Also, the fish aren’t biting – itself strange – which allows the dialogue to subtly move from the first “what’s wrong?” (i.e., the fish aren’t biting) to the second “what’s wrong?” (i.e., with the relationship). Very nice! As I said, a tight, brilliant little masterpiece.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pakistan: Etymology of a topical toponym

Pakistan (along with its neighbors) has been in the news a good deal lately, especially with the botched raid on the Red Mosque last month, so I thought it might be illuminating to reconsider the etymology of the country’s name. As with so many of the countries in Southwest Asia and North Africa, Pakistan is essentially a constructed nation, and a recent one, as land was divided up and put back together again in the wake of World War II, too often with absolutely no regard for cultural or ideological fault lines – a sort of geopolitical Humpty Dumpty. For Pakistan, part of British India was carved off into the new nation in 1947. These new countries needed new names, and in the case of Pakistan, the story is an interesting one.

Supposing you were to go trolling around in Urdu, and its direct ancestors, Persian and Arabic, for a possible etymology. What would you come up with? The –stan suffix seems a straightforward place to begin as it occurs in so many other toponyms, such as Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Hindustan – and even Kafiristan, as immortalized by Rudyard Kipling.* (Note that, as tempting as it is to suppose so, the Turkish Istanbul is not from the same root; it actually derives from Greek. That’s another story for another day, so in the meantime, I’ll just refer you to They Might Be Giants.) So, the suffix comes from the Urdu stān “a termination denoting place, situation; added to words ending in a vowel, as hindūstān, the place or country of the Hindūs; if the word end [sic] with a consonant, istān is employed, as gul-istān, a rose-garden” [1]. The Urdu stān goes directly back to Persian ستان (i)stán “place” (and still further, back to Sanskrit).

So far, so good. How about the first part, pak–? A very tantalizing possibility, now often adduced, is the Persian پاک pák “pure”, Urdu pāk “pure, clean, upright”. I wonder if this is distantly related to Chinese, specifically Cantonese paak, Guangdang baahk “white” – the source of English bok choy.

So, “land of the pure”, eh? Sounds good. But – it’s wrong. Or at least, it’s folk etymology after the fact. Pakistan is actually an acronym, as deliberately (if more artfully) constructed as the country itself. Choudhary Rahmat Ali coined the name in the middle 1930s, and its actual original meaning referred to the constituent cultures of the region: Punjabi + Afghani + Kashmiri + Sindhi + Balochistani (with the addition of an internal –i– for euphony). Later, when the actual nation was being put together by the diplomats of the Axis, Allied Powers, the British*, Rahmat Ali adjusted the acronym somewhat to incorporate additional regional “props” (e.g., to Iran).

Interesting how the name of the country - a superficially harmonious mélange of otherwise warring components, force-fit together and given a self-complimentary folk etymology after the fact – fits the country itself so well.

* Here’s another fun linguistic note: the kafir in Kafiristan means, basically, “infidel” in Arabic and Persian. The term is still in common (if unexpected) use, in the kaffir lime, whose leaves are a wonderfully aromatic ingredient in some of my favorite cuisines.

[1] Forbes, Duncan. A Smaller Hindustani and English Dictionary. London: Wm. H. Allen & Co., 1861, p.416. Note that Hindustani is a general term which applies both to Urdu and Hindi, essentially the same language, differing only in the use of the Arabic script for the former and the Devanagari script for the latter.

* My friend squire (see the comments) corrected me on this, then corrected my correction (offline). That’s why he gets paid to teach Social Studies and I don’t. But at least my mistakes are proof I don’t just copy my posts from Wikipedia. ;)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Glossopoeia and the Internet

There’s an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times today, all about how the Internet is facilitating the spread of artificial languages (or conlangs). Made-up languages themselves are nothing new, of course. Whether for popular culture – for literature, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Quenya and Sindarin or Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat; or for movies like the Star Trek franchise – or with the more altruistic goal of brokering world communication – Esperanto, Volapük, Ido, Solresol, and others – artificially constructed languages have been around literally for centuries (just ask Dr. Pangloss). But with the explosion of instanteous worldwide communication made possible by the Internet, any Tom, Dick, or Harriet’s new made-up language can suddenly attract speakers. Now that is a wild thought!

In the case of Sonja Elen Kisa and Toki Pona, as discussed in the Times article, her own private language (well, more or less private – she did post it online, after all) now has “more than 100 speakers today.” How strange would it be to create a language – for whatever personal reasons one might have – and then to start hearing, straight out of the blue, from complete strangers “singing Toki Pona songs, writing Toki Pona poems and chatting with Toki Pona words”? This is either really cool or really creepy – or perhaps it’s somewhere in between.

Toki Pona even has its own Wikipedia article, a sure sign of some success. And if you want to learn it yourself, there’s a wealth of information at its official site.

The Times article goes on to establish a background context using the examples of Klingon, Esperanto, Loglan, and Tolkien’s constructed languages. Surprisingly for an article of this type, the information on Tolkien is accurate and fairly detailed, referring to his “secret vice”, and correctly identifying four of his invented languages. The author, Amber Dance (and did you ever hear a name more suited to an, err, exotic entertainer? :), even gets it right that that the languages came before the speakers, before the myths, legends, and geography of Middle-earth, rather than vice versa (see Tolkien’s letters #131 and #180, for example).

One thing I’m curious about is why – from a psychological standpoint – people want to learn somebody’s made-up language. I do understand (rather well) the desire to create made-up languages. My friend Gary and I used to make them up years ago, largely inspired by Tolkien himself. We called them our “Artificial Dialects”, and though they usually never got much further than a sketch of the grammar and a small vocabulary (again following Tolkien’s lead), they were quite a valuable intellectual and imaginative exercise. One of our languages, Kindric, intended to accompany a fantasy novel I was writing at the time, eventually swelled to something like 10,000 words! In Kisa’s case, again, the creation of Toki Pona had a clear psychological motive, but what about the learning of it by all those people who’ve never met her? What motivates someone to make that kind of investment, to learn it, compose in it, sing songs in it, and so forth?

I guess they just enjoy it. Perhaps it’s just a leisure activity like any other. Perhaps they’d just say hakuna matata. Or in Toki Pona, ale li pona. (There! I’ve just written the first entry for the first Swahili - Toki Pona dictionary. The rest of you Toki Ponans, get on finishing that, will you? :)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hemingway short stories – Part 1

Back in college, I was a big fan of Ernest Hemingway. I read The Sun Also Rises several times, in several courses (actually, I first read it in high school), then took a senior seminar – i.e., an intensive, semester-long study of a single author – on Hemingway. I read quite a few of his short stories in that class, maybe 20-30 of them, and I’d read a few before it as well (most notably, the short story everybody has read, “Hills Like White Elephants”).

Well, as you may have noticed, I’m reading Hemingway’s short stories again now. And this time, my intention is to read them all – all 70 of the them. (That may sound like a lot, but consider that Anton Chekhov wrote something like 600!) I’m also keeping a little diary of my impressions of each one, so I thought it might be fun to share some of those thoughts here, a few stories at a time. Any interest? Assuming so – blogging really is, at least at the stage of composition, talking to oneself, isn’t it? – here are my first four from The First Forty-Nine:


“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
I especially like getting the lion’s perspective on being shot (terrible – that is, terribly convincing – though it is to read), because it shows a different reflection of Macomber’s fear. But the lion faces his fear (Macomber does not), earning Wilson’s respect – expressed tersely, in typical Hemingway fashion: “damned fine lion.” The dialogue in the story is terrific – subtle, snappy, and suggestive – and the characterization is masterful. The ambiguity of the ending (accident? murder?) is a real triumph of storytelling. Does it mean anything that the gun that kills Macomber is a Mannlicher?

“The Capital of the World”
The opening is terrific – there are so many Pacos, so many people in Madrid, but we’re going to hear about just one. To highlight that all the more, we keep hearing about all the fine details of a dozen other characters, all drifting in and out of the café where Paco works as a waiter – bit players in the brief, tragic life of the story’s central character. I love the attention to the details of what everybody else is doing at the moment Paco is dying, and on how their lives will go on, just as they always have, without him.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
A story chiefly about regret. And about dealing with (or failing to deal with) memories of past horrors, mainly the horrors of war. Interrupted by lengthy stream-of-consciousness passages more typical of Faulkner than of Hemingway. These passages are quite remarkable (though printed entirely in italics, they’re a little hard on the eyes), full of the images and afterimages, the sounds and echoes accumulated over a lifetime (one now nearing its end). How do you record the essential truths – or admit the lies – of your life? Can you? “Now he would never write the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.” Wow, heavy. The story has a sensational ending – quite surprising.

“Old Man at the Bridge”
One of the shortest stories I’ve ever read. It’s really more of a snapshot, a momentary character study, just a single pose really, of two people shocked by war. One, a soldier trying to help villagers across a bridge to safety; the other, a loving old man, lost with worry over the animals he had been taking care of in his village. The cat would probably be able to fend for itself, but what about the goats? What would happen to them? It’s tragic to see this generous spirit so uprooted, more tragic still when you realize it’s just a reflection in miniature of the larger destructiveness of war, repeated in countless villages, wrecking countless lives. The last line is so depressing!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Lendors vs. borrowers — to the death!

Polonius was right: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” And that goes double for subprime lending! ;)

By now, you’d have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the crunch hitting the Housing Sector, mainly driven by the spectacular implosion of subprime lending. I won’t rehearse all the details here in this post; you can read a little about it here, or just peruse some of the results from Google News. This is a subject I’ve been following closely ever since I left my last employer for the present one. I used to work for a mortgage company that specializes in subprime loans. In fact, the looming crisis is one reason I left. And I still know people over there. I keep expecting to hear about layoffs any day now (Countrywide, my previous employer’s chief competitor in the area, considered by many to be an industry bellweather, just announced layoffs, and their stock was just downgraded to “underperform”). Anyway, what does all this uncharacteristic financial mumbo-jumbo have to do with the usual concerns of my blog?

Well, I just had to share this with my fellow logophiles. Ever consider the meaning of mortgage? The word first appeared in English in the wake of the Norman conquest of England — along with a depressing assortment of other new Anglo-Norman arrivals: peasant, oppression, tax, penalty, punishment, treason, judge, jury, prison, and exile, just to name a few. No wonder the Domesday Book was a national bestseller! ;) It appears in 14th Century Middle English as morgage ( < French mort + gage) and literally means “death-pledge”.

So, a mortgage is a pledge (or perhaps a struggle) to the death. A long, slow, painful struggle at 8 per cent. If you’re lucky. And if you’re not — well, let’s just say you’ll have plenty of free time to ponder the etymology of foreclosure.

Isn’t that comforting? :)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Harry Potter Butter

“Hairy butter” — now doesn’t that sound appetizing? But why does it look like he’s wearing overalls? Oh yeah, I forgot this is Iowa; bib overalls are like the official uniform, aren’t they? ;)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A headline I never thought I’d see ...

“Robbie Coltrane mobbed by Harry Potter-mad Tibetan monks!” You read that right! Here’s the story.

A new wrinkle in the developing Harry Potter translation story

Not only are fans making unauthorized translations of the real Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, they’re even translating the fakes. Have you heard about the fakes, by the way? Somebody too the time to write 560 pages of complete malarkey (I’ve downloaded it — and again, no, you can’t have the link!), which is crazy enough on its own. But now, an industrious, err, fan, I guess, has translated the bogus book into Persian, and it’s for sale in Tehran! But in this case, the government has no objections at all. What is this, Iran — or Russia? Insanity, right?

More unauthorized Harry Potter translation news

Last week I talked a little bit about amateur efforts in China to make a translation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows available in advance of the officially licensed one. Now, there’s news about an unauthorized French translation, carried out in just a matter of days and then posted online, allegedly by a sixteen-year-old boy operating alone. That’s a far cry from the teams of organized Chinese translators (though they were also young people). Luckily for the unnamed French teenager, because he didn’t intend any financial harm to the publisher, he was released after just one night in jail, and the Ministry of — err, I mean, the French Authorities, aren’t going to file criminal charges.

There’s also recent news of an unauthorized Spanish translation released online by South American fans — and surprisingly, that version is still readily available on the Web (no, I won’t provide the link!). And the unofficial translation into Vietnamese (with, by now, requisite posting online) is probably complete by now; the first chapter was online in Vietnamese within one hour of the book’s launch in English.

People want their Harry Potter! And apparently, fans are too impatient to wait for their official translations (or to try reading the book in English) and are taking matters into their own hands. With something as unabatingly popular as Harry Potter, fans tend to feel ownership of the characters and stories — perhaps more than is healthly. Just as they’ve felt perfectly justified for ten years now in demanding that Rowling not kill so-and-so or not do this-or-that (for all the good it’s done), and just as they’ve launched a thousand disturbing slash fan-fiction stories of their own, so too readers simply will not wait for their own publishers to provide a translation.

This is a fascinating new cultural phenomenon. Is anyone aware of a precendent? Or are we seeing literary history unfold?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tip triple on a triple tipple*

My wife just sent me an interesting article about the humble – but ubiquitous – gratuity, probably because I’m always grousing to her about why we have to tip so many different people these days. Not that I’m a bad tipper at all; perhaps just a reluctant one. Anyway, at the close of the article, Liz Weston comments a bit on the folk etymology of the word “tip” (for a gratuity), dismissing the old saw that it’s an acronym for “to improve performance” or “to insure [sic] promptness.” Rather, she tells us, the word “tip” has been in use to refer to a gratuity since the middle of the 18th century, far predating the hey-day of TLA’s in the 1930s–1940s.

Naturally, etymologies always catch my attention, and when I read about one I don’t know myself (like this one), I’ll usually look into it. With the disclaimer: I do not own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, to which one would often turn for such things. Even without one, I can usually make do, but the OED is especially good for pinpointing the earliest appearance of particular usages. So, anyway ...

According to both the American Heritage Dictionary and MSN Encarta, the etymology of this usage of “tip” is unknown. In the case of Encarta, the date of origin is given as early 17th century, but I would treat that with some suspicion. In any case, I think we can do better than simply shrug.

There’s an interesting clue in Charles Mackay’s Dictionary of Lowland Scotch, where under the head-word tift, we read that tip is “a slang word for money given to a servant as a small gratuity to procure drink or otherwise” (emphasis mine). Mackay goes on to assert that “No English or Scottish etymologist has succeeded in tracing these words [tift, tiff, tip] to their origins,” but after suggesting a couple of (to me) unconvincing possibilities, he offers up tiff “a drink” as a corruption of tipple — and clearly also connected to tipsy [1]. Now if a tip was originally connected with procuring drink (as also evidenced by the more obvious French and German equivalents of the term, pour-boire and trinkgeld), I think we’re definitely onto something!

But haven’t we just traded one problem for another? What’s the origin of tipple, after all? It doesn’t seem related to other European roots for “to drink”. Most of the usual suspects (e.g., Skeat) trace it back to a Germanic origin, attested in Middle English tipeler “bartender” and Norwegian tipla “to drink little and often” (now that’s my kind of verb! ;). Another source suggests the rather wilder theory that tipple < Latin tipula “a water spider” (as in tipulam agere “to play the water-spider” – that is, to be constantly drinking) [2]. And there are other suggestions, including tip < sip; or tipple as a frequentative of tip, in reference to the continuous tipping of the glass to the lips (where likewise, tipsy may refer to the tippler’s tedious tendency to tip over under the table). Is this starting to sound nonsensically Seussical? :)

It seems pretty clear to me, then, that the origin of tip = gratuity need not be weakly reported as “origin unknown.” Far from it: we have, to my view, pretty clear evidence that it relates to drinking, though along an etymological road less traveled, and that it calls tipple and tipsy its most immediate family.

Nice, eh? I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitstaff. ;)

* I would recommend that as a new tongue-twister, but the results might be NSFW.

[1] Mackay, Charles. A Dictionary of Lowland Scotch. Edinburgh: The Ballantyne Press, 1888, p. 238-9.

[2] ———. The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe. London: N. Trübner and Co., 1877, p. 460.

Friday, August 10, 2007

No wonder Sauron was cranky ...

He was called Myron as a kid! No kid deserves a name like that. It’s even worse than Eustace Clarence Scrubb, isn’t it? He probably wore glasses too, and got teased by the other Maiar on the playgrounds of Valinor. Poor little duffer. :(

< /sarcasm>

Enter the dragon – the conclusion of wraith/writhen

In parts one and two of this discussion, I started with the etymology of “wraith” and then traced out a ramifying sequence of speculations on how that word and its cognates (some closely, others more distantly related) help tell the tale of Tolkien’s approach to his fiction. Tom Shippey called this “creation from philology” [1], and it really typifies how Tolkien began with ruminations on a word, or on the relationships between words, out of which ruminations a narrative would begin to suggest itself to him. Fascinating. At least, I hope you find it as interesting as I do.

In this (final, I expect) installment, I wanted to push just a bit further. If you recall from the previous posts, I’d talked about wraith as related to “writhe, writhen”, introduced the idea of the Lost Road and the World Made Round; connected this (if tenuously) to another round thing, the Ring; and then doubled back (like Ouroboros) to return to the Blessed Realm, and in particular, to Varda. What’s left, you might reasonably ask?

The same Indo-European root, wer–, that gives rise to wraith, wroth, and writhe also leads in another direction: to worm, in its original sense of “dragon”. From Primitive Germanic *wurmiz, we find Gothic waúrms, Old English wyrm, Middle English worm, Old Norse ormr “snake, serpent”, Old High German wurm, and Latin vermis (cf. English vermin) [2].

Dragons were rather important to Tolkien, of course. We find them both in his fiction and in his sphere of professional study (as in the Old English Beowulf and the Old Norse Fáfnismál). But what of that more common word, “dragon”? Its ancestors include Latin drăco, Greek δράκων, Old High German traccho, Old English draca, Old Norse dreki, and Middle English dragun (whence also Modern English dragoon). There’s even another Modern English cognate (albeit an archaic one), drake. But where worm comes originally from the sense of “turning, winding”, dragon comes from an Indo-European root, derk–, meaning “to see”. Thus the dragon is “the seeing one” or “the monster with the evil eye” [3].

In his professional study of Beowulf, Tolkien once wrote that “Beowulf’s dragon [...] is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, pure plain fairy-story dragon.” Instead, its depiction “approaches draconitas rather than draco” [4]. Tom Shippey then explains how Tolkien’s response to this was to put a real, honest-to-goodness dragon at center stage in his own novel, The Hobbit [5]. Even more interesting is Tolkien’s choice of his name, Smaug — derived, Tolkien tells us in a letter, from *smaug, the past tense of *smugan, Primitive Germanic for “to squeeze through a hole”. And most telling of all, notice that an attested Old English cognate, sméogan, occurs together with a worm in an ancient protective spell: wið sméogan wyrme “against the penetrating worm” [6]. Smaug really is “a worm who squeezed into a small hole”! It’s also amusing to note that sméocan “to smoke, reek” is very close to sméogan (just as “smoke” is phonologically close to Smaug, a fire-breathing dragon). Coincidence? I doubt.

And finally, this naturally leads us to Sméagol, Gollum’s alter ego. Tolkien derived this name from the same root that gave him Smaug, and with the same meaning. You will recall that this is just what Gollum does: he squeezes into small holes under mountains. In fact, this may even be a jesting reference to the fact that Gollum was originally of some sort of Hobbit-kind. What do Hobbits do, after all, but squeeze (since they tend to be “fat in the stomach”) into small holes? :) But coming back to Gollum. As you will remember, he possessed the One Ring for a very, very long time. We read how it unnaturally preserved his small, mean person for years and years beyond the normal lifespan of his kind. He was, in fact, becoming more and more like a wraith. (My friends N.E. Brigand and squire have observed and discussed Gollum’s kinship with the wraiths at somewhat more length in the archives of the Reading Room.)

As a final note, I should mention that the other common English words serpent and snake are not, despite their suggestive consonants, directly related to *smugan. Rather, they come from a pair of Indo-European roots, serp– and sneg– (whence also “snail”), both meaning “to crawl, to creep” [7]. There may be a loose relationship between the three words, but if so, I have not seen it documented. I do wonder whether sneg– > Old English snaca “snake” might have been an unconscious source for Tolkien’s snaga, a Black Speech word, said to mean “slave”, used to refer to weaker, smaller orcs (cf. the goblins of The Hobbit).

And so, we’re back to wraiths once more. From wraiths to bent roads, from rings to dragons (and perhaps orcs and goblins) — we’ve gone there and back again purely by digging into the roots of words. I’m reminded of something Gollum said: “It would be cool and shady under those mountains. The Sun could not watch me there. The roots of those mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning.”

Roots indeed.

[1] See his essay, “Creation from Philology in The Lord of the Rings” in Salu, Mary and Robert T. Farrell, eds. J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press, 1979: 286-316.

[2] See Watkins, Calvert. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 99. Also see Skeat, Zoëga, and Grimm for many of the cognates I’ve mentioned throughout this post.

[3] Ibid., p. 16.

[4] Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983, p. 17.

[5] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth. 3rd rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p. 90.

[6] Ibid., p. 89.

[7] Watkins, p. 76, 81.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Harry Potter news and discussions

A few links to share this morning for the Harry Potter crowd (more Tolkien on the way very soon, for those of you who’ve been twiddling your thumbs the past couple of weeks). Note that following links may expose you to SPOILERS!

Take a look at for some excellent, well-trafficked, and “serious” Harry Potter discussions (including rampant spoilers). Elements explored include alchemy, postmodern elements, Christianity, Arthuriana, and much more. Definitely enough to keep anyone busy for quite some time!

On the subject of Christian interpretations, here are a couple of interesting posts I came across recently. Not being a religious person myself, I didn’t realize that the epitaph Dumbledore selected for his family’s tomb — “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” — is a direct quotation from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapter 6). This post discusses it, and related matters. And here, a Catholic priest comments on the book, including his thoughts on Rowling’s epigraph from The Libation Bearers. And for those of us who were worried, what a relief that he “do[es]n’t think you will go to hell if you read Harry Potter.” Excuse the sarcasm. :)

And finally, in translation news, Rowling’s adopted countrymen are calling aggressively for a translation of the complete Harry Potter series into Scottish Gaelic, which hardly seems an outrageous request, considering that it’s already been translated into Latin and Ancient Greek! (However, even a “dead” language such as Latin probably has more speakers than Scottish Gaelic’s 60,000 or so. Still, why not?)

And speaking of translation, have you been following this story? Eager fans in China have been organizing Wiki-like teams of amateur translators to produce an unauthorized translation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — even going so far as to post it online in its entirety, two months before the officially sanctioned translation will be available. So far as I know, this is an unprecedented organization of volunteer literary labor. Despite the obvious copyright infringement, one has to admire the divide-and-conquer approach — I mean, they translated a more than 700-page novel in just three days! Apparently, would-be volunteers were even tested to ensure some degree of quality control. How about that?!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Daniel Radcliffe, Icelandic mood music, and a dwarf who turns into a fish

Two posts in one day? But that’s madness! ;) And what could I possibly mean by that enigmatic title? Read on!

It’s funny how one thing can lead to another, isn’t it? Yesterday, my wife Jennifer sent me a link to an interview with Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who portrays Harry Potter in the films. It was a very interesting read (note: the interview contains SPOILERS about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), but one of the most interesting details was Radcliffe’s mention of the Icelandic musical act, Sigur Rós. I’d never heard of them but was intrigued. I took a look at Amazon for reviews and samples from the album Radcliffe praised, Takk..., and what to my wandering eye should appear? They have a track called “Andvari” — unfortunately, the only one you can’t sample. Andvari, of course, is the dwarf who took on the likeness of a great pike in the Old Norse Völsungasaga, and he’s particularly close to my own heart: a) because he’s a kind of fish, like me; b) his father, Oinn, was one of the models for Tolkien’s dwarves in The Hobbit (though more clearly drawn from another Old Norse source); and c) because his name in the Middle High German version of the legend (the Nibelungenlied) is given as Alberich, a reasonably close cognate to my own middle name, Aldrich. Remembering the riddling words of Loki, “What fish of all fishes, / Swims strong in the flood, / But hath learnt little wit to beware?” — it’s like he knows me, isn’t it?! ;)

Funny how one thing leads you to another. And thanks to Daniel Radcliffe for indirectly recommending another interesting band taking inspiration from mythology.

A phonological mystery — solved?

Fatto per dissimilazione? I'm not so sure!Well, we’ve just polished off another July, folks, and it got me to thinking. Why is the Italian word for that month luglio, and not *iuglio, or even better *giuglio (which would match giugnio “June”)? I’m pretty familiar with sound change as a process driving language development, but this one has puzzled me for a while now.

As we all know, the month of July is an eponym honoring Julius Caesar, just as August is named after Augustus Caesar. And as in English, the other Romance languages all preserve the j, or else use an i if the j isn’t a natural part of their alphabets (as is the case with Italian). For instance: French juillet*, Jèrriais (a Norman dialect of French) juilet, Spanish julio, Portuguese julho, Provençal juls, Catalan juliol (originally julh), Romanian iulie, Sardinian arjolas, Walloon djulete, Neapolitan julo. And even outside the Romance language family, the word has been loaned out into other languages as far and wide as Estonian, Indonesian, Faroese, Hungarian, Dutch, Danish, Bulgarian, and dozens of others — even Hawaiian!

Well, let me back up a moment. I say that it’s pretty much universally j or i, but there are two exceptions I know of: the Friulian lui and Ligurian lûggiu — but both these languages are spoken in the north of Italy where they must have experienced considerable influence and competition from Italian. It wouldn’t surprise me if both had earlier forms with the vowel or semivowel rather than the voiced alveolar lateral approximant of modern Italian. (Yeah, the chicks dig me. ;)

Looking further back toward the source, I should note Occitan julhet, Greek ιούλιος, and Latin (the horse’s mouth!) jūlius, iūlius. So how did we end up with luglio?! The substitution of j for l (at least, medially) in the Romance languages is fairly common, especially in Spanish (e.g., Latin filius > Spanish hijo, Latin folium > Spanish hoja) — but the reverse? Even the 18th Century Italian linguist Giovanni Veneroni suspected this was an error and corrected luglio to *juglio in his celebtrated Italian Grammar, adding “sic corrige meo pericolo” as a CYA.

According to an online etymological dictionary of Italian, the substitution is explained by dissimilation. This is a linguistic process whereby two similar sounds in a word become less alike over time in order to make pronunciation easier (e.g., Old French marbre > English marble). But that doesn’t sound right, does it? To me, it sounds like *giuglio, *iuglio > luglio is the reverse of dissimilation, increasing the burden on pronunciation!

But wait a minute! In pondering this over time, another thought occurred to me. Setting aside *giuglio, despite its attractive harmony with giugnio, let’s assume for a moment that the original form was *iuglio. It’s actually extremely common in Italian to substitute i for l. There are hundreds of examples of this. A few common ones: Latin flos (genitive flōris) > Italian fiore, cf. French fleur; Latin plătĕa “a broad street or court” > Italian piazza, cf. French place; Latin flŭvius > Italian fiume, cf. French fleuve. I’m not sure if this process is observed initially. In all the examples of which I’m aware, it occurs after an initial consonant; most of the time this is a labial (f, p, b), but not always (e.g., Latin claudo > Italian chiudo). I also don’t know whether the process was bidirectional (i > l as well as l > i), but if so, then perhaps this is the answer after all. What do y’all think? Plausible? Any opinions or information to add?

* In Old French, July was originall called juinet “little June”, but it became juillet through the continued influence of Latin through the Middle Ages. In an apparently similar process, we see Sicilian giugne “June”, giugnietto “July”. “Little June” — isn’t that cute? :)