Thursday, July 24, 2008

The World and Man’s essential place in it

Vitruvian WorldOkay, I admit that sounds a bit overblown and vaguely philosophical — calling to mind subjective idealism, phenomenalism, the intellectual debates of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and so on. But while that’s an interesting subject in its own right (feel free to stop by Wikipedia on your way out), I had something else in mind. As usual, it all starts with words. So perhaps I might restate the title of this post as something more like: “world” and the essential place of “man” in its etymology.

If language really does define our perceptual limits (I won’t digress into a discussion of the theories of Sapir/Whorf), then it makes sense that we might find “man” in the “world” — human beings can’t really imagine a world without them in it, after all. I know I can’t! ;)

The word world derives from Old English weorold (interestingly, as you’ll soon appreciate, a feminine noun — I wonder whether this is the same grammatical process responsible for distinctions like the French le mort “a dead man” versus la morte “death, as an abstract concept”). [1] Skeat points out in his Etymological Dictionary that the word is clearly a composite form [2]. Cognate forms among the other Germanic languages include Old Norse (and Modern Icelandic) veröld, Old High German weralt (cf. Modern German Welt), Old Low Franconian uuerolt, and though not attested, I feel confident theorizing Gothic *waíralds [3].

Of what individual elements, then, might weorold be composed? Spenser thought it was war + old ; that is, the domain of an ever ongoing strife. So he says in the Faerie Queene“But when the world woxe old, it woxe warre old / (Whereof it hight)” [4]. A clever guess, and one that seems apt enough given mankind’s perennial struggles, but wrong. Rather, the word comprises the two joined elements of man + age = “the age of man” = therefore, the world. Thus, OE wer “man” (cf. Modern English werewolf = “man-wolf”, and cf. Latin vir “man”) + eald “old, ancient, aged” (cf. eald-dóm “age”); and likewise, ON verr + öld; OHG wer + alt; OLF uuer + olt — all from Primitive Germanic *weraz + *alda.

Interesting, no? And it turns out that world is hardly the only word dependent on man. Consider Latin sæculum “lifetime, age of man” (from one of the oldest known Indo-European roots, meaning “to tie, bind”). As it developed, the Latin word retained both the senses of time, cf. Modern French siècle “century”; and world, cf. Modern English secular, meaning “worldly, mundane”. Speaking of mundane, which itself derives from the Latin word mundus “universe, world” (cf. French monde, Spanish mundo, Italian mondo), it’s tempting to look for the man in mundus as well, but that’s a misstep. The original meaning of mundus is “order”, as in a world or universe arranged neatly according to a divine plan. (The Greek κόσμος carries the same original sense and survives into Modern English in the words Cosmos, cosmic, and as a combining form in words such as cosmology.)

It is equally tempting to look for man in human, but the etymology of that word is a little different. Even so, we still can find a connection to the world in it. Turning back to the familiar Latin source, the adjective hūmānus “pertaining to man”, from the noun homo “man”, we find something surprising: homo derives from humus “the ground, the earth, the soil” from which, according to the Christian tradition, the first Man came [5]. The word humus has survived into Modern English as well, referring to fertile, organic topsoil suitable for growing things. Where did the Romans get this idea? From the Hebrew Bible, one would surmise. There, the first Man took his name, Adam (Hebrew אדם), from the substance out of which God made him, the earth (Hebrew אֲדָמָה /adama/). Genesis 2:7 [6] may therefore be one of the oldest statements of etymology we know!

How much of this connection between man and the earth is due to our own anthropocentric view of the universe? All of it, really; Man was, and is, the central actor on the stage of the world (to paraphrase Shakespeare). After all, without Man, who would there be to speak the word world — or anything else, for that matter? I suppose our glossopoeic nature gives us license to name, even to define, the world with our own distinctly human nomenclature. If we one day should find that chimpanzees, dolphins, or bees have genuine languages of their own, then who knows? We may have to rethink our whole Weltanschauung. :)

[1] Does it go without saying that there are several different dialectal variations of the word, as of most Old English words? It should. “Old English” usually corresponds to the West Saxon dialect, simply because of the extent of the surviving lexis, though Modern English, in fact, is closer to the Mercian dialect. At any rate, other attested forms include weoruld, weorld, woruld, worold, etc.

[2] Skeat, Walter William. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 2nd ed. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1893, p. 718.

[3] Built from the same components as the other cognate forms; in this case, the attested Gothic waír “man” + alds “age, life” (see Wright, Joseph. A Primer of the Gothic Language. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1892, pp. 238, 212, for these words. Putting them together, however right or wrong, was me.) There is also an attested word with a similar composite meaning in Gothic: manaséþs “mankind, multitude, world” (lit. “man-seed”).

[4] Book IV, Canto VIII, ll. 276–7.

[5] Valpy, F.E.J. An Etymological Dictionary of the Latin Language. London: Baldwin, Longman, and Whittaker, 1828, p. 188. Note that other mythologies explain the origin of Man differently; for example, in the Old Norse tradition, the first Man and Woman were Ask and Embla, the Ash and Elm tree, respectively.

[6] In the King James translation, “And the Lord God formed man [Adam] of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” emphasis added. (The original Hebrew, וייצר יהוה אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tom Shippey’s Top 10 Tolkien Books

Nothing substantial today (though I’ll have something more interesting in a day or two), but I just got a link to a piece in The Guardian by Tom Shippey — his picks for the Top 10 books on/by J.R.R. Tolkien. The piece is quite old, so I’m not entirely sure why it popped up in a Google Alert today, but it’s worth revisiting — even if quite a few good books have come out since the list was published. Take a look. I wouldn’t necessarily construct exactly the same list myself, but Shippey includes a few one doesn’t see recommended so often these days (e.g., Jim Allan’s Introduction to Elvish), as well as some which are pretty hard to find (e.g., Pictures by Tolkien).

In fact, I have to say, it would be pretty hard to come up with a list of only ten books on and by Tolkien. Perhaps ten of each would be more appropriate. What would your list(s) look like?

Friday, July 18, 2008

WOTD: Fingerspitzengefühl

So far, we’ve had Words of the Day derived from Greek and Latin. One of these days I’ll get around to something genuinely English, ab origine, but today I want to talk about a German one (hat tip to Mark Hooker for the suggestion). Of course, German and English are basically linguistic cousins; the further back you go, the more alike they look. Yet German, much more than English, is a compounding language — that is, it’s very common in German to glue a whole series of words together into a long, intimidating-looking construction. You may have seen some of these eye-splitting compounds before (here are a few, in case you haven’t). Such words capture remarkably unique, specialized, and/or subtle shades of meaning. And because such expressions would require much greater verbosity in English, many of these wonderful German words have been adopted into English. I’m sure you’re familiar with a few of them already — Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung, and my personal favorite, Quellenforschung. You should find all of these in any reasonably thorough English dictionary. Well, maybe not Quellenforschung.

Even less likely, today’s word, Fingerspitzengefühl — which you’d be hard-pressed to find in any English dictionary. It’s not in the Random House Unabridged, Webster’s Revised Unabridged, Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, or the American Heritage Dictionary. It’s not even in the Oxford English Dictionary (though I would guess it will end up in one of the supplements sooner or later). Despite that, one does find the word making its way into English, and not just recently, as in this notable political op-ed by William Safire from the New York Times, March 9, 1995. Safire’s loose definition is also a good starting point, where he describes Fingerspitzengefühl as “that combination of sure-footedness on slippery slopes and sensitivity to nuance familiar to mountain goats, safecrackers and statesmen.” More recently (2005), Safire wrote a language column about filling our “vocabugap” with foreign words such as Schadenfreude and Fingerspitzengefühl, where he refined his definition of the latter into the more succinct “sandpapered-fingertip sensitivity of a safecracker.”

The word literally means “fingertips-feeling” and refers to an intuitive flair, a sensitive touch, an instinctive feeling or sixth sense about things derived from delicate tactile exploration. The German-English Dictionary of Idioms: Idiomatik Deutsch-Englisch defines “Fingerspitzengefühl für etw[as] haben” as “to have instinctive tact, to have tact and sensitivity, to have a fine instinct for s[ome]th[ing]” [1]. The word is often used in the context of business and politics. We saw in William Safire’s opinion that former American president Bill Clinton lacked it. By contrast, Adolf Hitler was said to possess a surfeit of Fingerspitzengefühl, demonstrating an often uncanny “sense of opportunity and timing.” I believe the same could be said of Napoleon. It’s an essential qualification for diplomats and ambassadors, who need a delicate touch (such as can only be made by fingertips alone) for maneuvering through the dangerously tortuous workings of diplomacy. The Diplomat’s Dictionary would seem to agree, quoting Martin Herz:
What [...] makes a good diplomat, and thus a good ambassador, [... is] a kind of empathy which comes from years spent in cross-cultural communication, Fingerspitzengefühl (the feeling one has in the tips of one’s fingers) which is sometimes acquired by amateurs but is more frequently found among people who have had a great deal of experience [...] [2].

Moreover, if you don’t have Fingerspitzengefühl, you might be said (if I may borrow from Swedish) to have instead tummen mitt i handen “a thumb in the middle of your hand” — a rough analogue to the English idiom “two left feet all thumbs.”

Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloguer at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries offers another variation: “Specifically in relation to rare books, I believe ‘fingerspitzengefuehl’ means a person with a special knack for identifying true bibliographical treasures that other persons lacking this quality might overlook. It would be appropriate for the lucky man or woman who finds a book worth thousands of dollars on a $10 bargains shelf in a used bookstore” [source; and see here for another similar account]. I think I have that, or a touch of it anyway, to judge by some of my experiences with antiquarian bargain-hunting. I’ve been known to happen upon first editions at my local used bookstores for just two or three dollars sometimes, then sell them to collectors for $100-200. Certainly a better return than you’re going to get putting your money into IndyMac. :)

And finally, let me just suggest that when it came to that intuitive, delicate touch, that fine instinct for navigating tricky slopes among the towering egos of comparative philology in the early 20th century, Tolkien certainly seemed endowed with his share of Fingerspitzengefühl.

Your homework: see if you can find a way to slip this Germanic sesquipedalian into your everyday conversation. Good luck! :)

[1] Schemann, Hans and Paul Knight. German-English Dictionary of Idioms: Idiomatik Deutsch-Englisch. New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 241.

[2] Freeman, Jr., Charles W. The Diplomat’s Dictionary. Washington DC: National Defense University Press, [1993], p. 132.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

I have many interests besides Tolkien, linguistics, and mythology (e.g., I enjoy beer and other spirits), but I normally keep those to myself here at Lingwë; they’re outside my central mission here, and I don’t know how interested readers would be in hearing about my tastes in pop culture and music, the ups and downs of training my dogs, and so forth. At least, this would be a very different blog if I wrote about those on any kind of regular basis.

But every so often, an event comes along that simply must be shared. So it is with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The brain-child of Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly — which, for the record, I’ve never watched), and starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day, and Nathan Fillion, Dr. Horrible is a three-part Internet-only ‘entertainment’ — part comedy, part musical theatre, part love story — that you absolutely must see. It’s simply brilliant, and I don’t say that lightly. (In your face, Emmies! :) You may also want to take a moment to read a little more about the genesis of the idea.

Each act is only ten minutes long, and Acts I and II are currently online. Act III goes online the day after tomorrow. And after that, the whole thing disappears — at least, until the DVD. But the whole idea is to make history with an original, free, Internet-only broadcast event. So you really should check it out this week.

I won’t say anything else about it. Just watch it. If you’re anything like me (and you probably are, or you wouldn’t be reading Lingwë in the first place), you’ll be hooked.

Monday, July 14, 2008

One month until Mythcon 39

I’ve been meaning to post some additional information on Mythcon 39 for those readers living in the northeastern United States who might be waiting for that final prod to attend. This is the first Mythcon hosted in New England, so it’s a real opportunity for us to see many new faces – faces who have found it too expensive or difficult to make it out to California, which has hosted a disproportionate number of Mythcon events. (And it looks like next year’s conference will be back in California again! More on that a little later.)

So, this year’s event is taking place at the Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT (about 12 miles southwest of Hartford). If you want to register online, then take note — tomorrow is the last day for that. After July 15, you can still attend, but you’ll have to purchase your registration “at the door.” The cost for registration, and optionally, room and board, along with a lot of other information, can be found at the Mythopoeic Society’s website by following the link above.

Why should you attend a Mythcon? Well, other than the fact that they are fun events where you get to meet lots of other folks with interests like yours, you also get to hear a lot of terrific talks on the subjects of Tolkien, Lewis, the Inklings, and other fantasy authors (in roughly that order — Tolkien has long been the mainstay of the Mythopoeic Society). This year’s event promises to be an especially good one, with a number of the better known Tolkien scholars in attendance. A few highlighted papers you can look forward to:

- Verlyn Flieger “Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth”
- Christina Scull “Memory as Evidence in Tolkien Scholarship”
- Wayne Hammond “At Home Among the Dreaming Spires: Tolkien & Oxford University”
- David Bratman “The Forgotten Women of Middle-Earth”
- Diana Glyer “C.S. Lewis in Disguise: Fictional Portraits of Jack in the Work of the Inklings”
- Ted Nasmith “From Middle-earth to Westeros and Back Again; New Artworks in a Familiar Vein”
- Janet B. Croft “The Education of a Witch: Tiffany Aching, Hermione Granger, and Gendered Magic in Discworld & Potterworld”
- Donald T. Williams “A Tryst With the Transcendentals: C.S. Lewis on Goodness, Truth and Beauty”
- Joe R. Christopher “The Thematic Organization of Spirits in Bondage” (Joe, I believe, is actually giving a second paper, too)

In addition to these , and about twenty other presentations, there will be book discussions and panels. I’ll be on a panel myself with Carl Hostetter and Arden Smith, where we’ll be discussing language and mythology in fantasy. Other panels will include discussions of Women in Middle-earth, the Valkyrie and the Goddess, and Fairy Stories (featuring Marjorie Burns, Verlyn Flieger, and Ted Nasmith). There’s also an auction where you might be able to pick up a rare book for your collection. I got a first edition Screwtape Letters two years ago. And a lot more besides this. A finalized schedule should be appearing any day now — I’ve seen a preliminary one, and it looks like a very full three and a half days.

And now, a promised word on Mythcon 40 — for those who like to plan far, far ahead. These details are certainly subject to change, but here they are anyway. According to the Mythopoeic Society’s 2007 Annual Report, a proposal has been made by Sarah Beach to host Mythcon in southern California next year. The suggested conference theme is “Sailing the Seas of Imagination”, and the planned guests of honor are Diana Pavlac Glyer and James A. Owen. If you would like to help host a Mythcon in your city, they’re open to the idea. Just let them know!

Hope to see some of you next month! :)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Tolkien Studies 5 — on its way!

The latest — and as usual, much anticipated — issue of Tolkien Studies has apparently left the printer and is on its way out to subscribers. I haven’t received my copy yet, but I deduce the fact from today’s update on Project Muse. For those of you with access, the entire issue is now available in PDF format, here. Project Muse has also made a lovely update to the format (compare it to that of Volume 4 to see just how much of an improvement this is).

For those who missed the news (any of the dozens of times I’ve trumpeted it, *blush*), I have an article in this issue. I welcome any and all feedback, comments, questions, and of course, criticism. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Harry Potter conference in my own backyard

Once or twice over the past couple of years, I’ve considered submitting a paper for one of the many emerging Harry Potter events, but in the end, I’ve had more than enough to keep me busy with writing about Tolkien. It turns out that today through Sunday, there’s a national (nay, international) Harry Potter event going on right here in Dallas. Who knew?! Just twenty minutes from where I’m sitting at this very moment, at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in north Dallas, a zillion rabid Harry Potter fans, a few scholars, and one celebrity are hobnobbing at Portus 2008. Check out the schedule here. You can read some further details here, including a few highlights on the more serious scholarly side of the event (of which there is all too little, if you ask me).

If you live nearby, there’s still time to register and attend, but I’ll warn you: admission isn’t cheap. The total conference registration is $220 USD, and there are side events, luncheons, special workshops, and minglers galore — all at an additional charge. If you opted for everything, it would set you back more than $400 USD! Wow, and I thought Kalamazoo was expensive! (But at least Portus 2008 offers a single day rate, something they could learn from at the ’Zoo.) And anyway, I suppose you could recover some of the cost by putting your Jim Dale autograph up for auction on eBay. ;)

So, Harry Potter fans, enjoy! Myself, I’m more than busy enough with Mythcon 39 coming up next month. Expect to hear a little more from me about that in the next few days.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The mythical Marathi Hobbit

I know a several people who collect Tolkien in translation, but no one who has a more extensive collection than Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull — some 170 linear feet altogether. That’s about half the length of an American football field! So I decided to ask them about the Marathi question. Who better to say whether it’s real but rare, or merely a tall tale?

Wayne told me that while writing their Tolkien Companion and Guide, he and Christina contacted Tolkien’s British publisher, HarperCollins, to inquire about the existence of the rumored Marathi translations, and they were told that there was no record of an agreement for any such translation. If the translation exists, it is therefore a pirate, and HarperCollins had only heard of its alleged existence from a third party source. Wayne and Christina believe that the HarperCollins website was the sole public source attesting the existence of a Marathi translation, and like me, they’re inclined to doubt its existence. [1]

Even if there is a pirate translation out there somewhere, no one I know has ever seen it. It’s probably no more than a fabled figment of the imagination. I consider the question settled.

[1] Paraphrasing from private correspondence.