• Monthly Archives: July 2012

Multiple, Not Many: The Irruption of Bookishness

July 8, 2012

One of the characteristics of contemporary speech and writing is the constant irruption of bookishness (if not outright hyperurbanisms), by which is meant the substitution of bookish words and expressions even where traditional colloquial locutions would do.  This is the case of the ubiquitous present-day replacement of the word many by multiple (which, despite its dissyllabic written form, is phonetically trisyllabic).

Even taking into account the growing prevalence of linguistic hypertrophy in all purlieus of contemporary American English, trisyllabic multiple instead of dissyllabic many is to be accounted for by the irrefragable assault of bookish diction, which at bottom is actuated by a penchant for any linguistic token that would tend to signal the psychologically dominant valorization of written over spoken language as a matter of (imaginary) prestige in twenty-first-century American English usage.


Seeing Is Not Hearing

July 4, 2012

During a practice session with a twenty-seven-year-old filling in for his father as tennis coach, I heard him use the verb see instead of the traditional hear to refer to his attendance at a classical music concert (“I saw [rather than heard] Garrick Ohlsson at Carnegie Hall.”) It should be noted that this was uttered by a classical musician with a master’s degree in music theory studying for a second one in conducting. Given that the utterance’s reference (to a concert performance and venue) excluded merely listening to a recording, it is significant that a member of the younger generation chose to elevate seeing over hearing.

This example of rehierarchization of the two senses involved in the speech of  younger speakers could be multiplied manyfold. It testifies yet again (see earlier posts) to the inroads of popular culture (specifically, rock and jazz) into the sphere of classical music, audiences for which are, alas, graying apace. Moreover, as a cultural datum evidenced by language use, it tends to support the widespread valorization of seeing over hearing whatever the domain, in a culture that has long prized exhibitionism.


When Animals Speak (Gender in Fables)

July 2, 2012

Grammatical gender and biological sex do not necessarily coincide in those languages of the world (like Greek, French, and Russian) that have masculine, feminine, and neuter gender as obligatory categories of their nominal and pronominal systems (nouns, adjectives, pronouns). Thus German Weib ‘woman’ is neuter, as is Mädchen ‘girl’. There is similarly no naturalistic explanation why Greek Κόραξ ‘crow, raven’ or ἀλώπηξ ‘fox’ are masculine, whereas their ordinary counterparts in Russian, ворона and лиса/лисица, are feminine (with much less frequent masculine variants that overtly mark sex, viz. ворон and лис, also being extant). In English, where gender is not an inherent grammatical category, biological sex can be narrowly specified by resorting to lexical pairs like fox and vixen, goose and gander, dog and bitch, etc., where one member of the pair is generic (referring to either sex), the other specific (referring only to one sex).

Humans tend to anthropomorphize animals, nowhere more prominently than in myth/folklore and fable, where animals speak to each other in a human voice and language. With respect to the latter, the literary subgenre of the fable in the West can boast two great poets, the Frenchman La Fontaine and the Russian Krylov. Both used Aesop’s prose fables (among others from the classical patrimony) as material for their own verse productions, along with original oeuvres. Many have become classics in their own right. Every French and Russian child learns the famous ones by heart and can recite them into adulthood ad libitum.

Among their best-known fables is the Aesopian one about the Crow and the Fox (accompanied here by a modern prose translation):

Aesop (Αἴσωπος, Aisōpos, ca. 620-564 BC)

Κόραξ καὶ Ἀλώπηξ

Κόραξ κρέας ἁρπάσας ἐπί τινος δένδρου ἐκάθισεν· ἀλώπηξ δὲ θεασαμένη αὐτὸν καὶ βουλομένη τοῦ κρέως περιγενέσθαι, στᾶσα ἐπήινει αὐτὸν ὡς εὐμεγέθη τε καὶ καλὸν, λέγουσα καὶ, ὡς πρέπει αὐτῶι μάλιστα τῶν ὀρνέων βασιλεύειν, καὶ τοῦτο πάντως ἂν γένοιτο, εἰ φωνὴν εἶχεν. Ὁ δὲ παραστῆσαι αὐτῆι βουλόμενος, ὅτι καὶ φωνὴν ἔχει, βαλὼν τὸ κρέας μεγάλως ἐκεκράγει· ἐκείνη δὲ προσδραμοῦσα καὶ τὸ κρέας ἁρπάσασα ἔφη· «ὦ κόραξ, ἔχεις τὰ πάντα· νοῦν μόνον κτῆσαι.»

Πρὸς ἄνδρα ἀνόητον ὁ λόγος εὔκαιρος.

The Fox and the Raven
(trans. Laura Gibbs)                                               

The raven seized a piece of cheese and carried his spoils up to his perch high in a tree. A fox came up and walked in circles around the raven, planning a trick. ‘What is this?’ cried the fox. ‘O raven, the elegant proportions of your body are remarkable, and you have a complexion that is worthy of the king of the birds! If only you had a voice to match, then you would be first among the fowl!’ The fox said these things to trick the raven and the raven fell for it: he let out a great squawk and dropped his cheese. By thus showing off his voice, the raven let go of his spoils. The fox then grabbed the cheese and said, ‘O raven, you do have a voice, but no brains to go with it!’
If you follow your enemies’ advice, you will get hurt.

Here it is again in La Fontaine’s nonpareil version (followed by an anonymous––and promiscuously free––verse translation):

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695)

Le Corbeau et le Renard

Maître corbeau, sur un arbre perché
Tenait en son bec un fromage.
Maître renard par l’odeur alléché
Lui tint à peu près ce langage:
«Hé! bonjour Monsieur du Corbeau
Que vous êtes joli! que vous me semblez beau!
Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Se rapporte à votre plumage
Vous êtes le phénix des hôtes de ces bois»
A ces mots le corbeau ne se sent pas de joie
Et pour montrer sa belle voix
Il ouvre un large bec laisse tomber sa proie.
Le renard s’en saisit et dit: «Mon bon Monsieur
Apprenez que tout flatteur
Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute:
Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage sans doute.»
Le corbeau honteux et confus
Jura mais un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus.

Perch’d on a lofty oak,
Sir Raven held a lunch of cheese;
Sir Fox, who smelt it in the breeze,
Thus to the holder spoke:–
‘Ha! how do you do, Sir Raven?
Well, your coat, sir, is a brave one!
So black and glossy, on my word, sir,
With voice to match, you were a bird, sir,
Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days.’
Sir Raven, overset with praise,
Must show how musical his croak.
Down fell the luncheon from the oak;
Which snatching up, Sir Fox thus spoke:–
‘The flatterer, my good sir,
Aye liveth on his listener;
Which lesson, if you please,
Is doubtless worth the cheese.’
A bit too late, Sir Raven swore
The rogue should never cheat him more.

Lastly, Krylov’s pearl of a poem (with a modern verse translation):

Ivan Krylov (1769-1844)


Уж сколько раз твердили миру,
Что лесть гнусна, вредна; но только все не впрок,
И в сердце льстец всегда отыщет уголок.

Вороне где-то Бог послал кусочек сыру;
На ель Ворона взгромоздясь,
Позавтракать было совсем уж собралась,
Да позадумалась, а сыр во рту держала.
На ту беду Лиса близехонько бежала;
Вдруг сырный дух Лису остановил:
Лисица видит сыр, Лисицу сыр пленил.
Плутовка к дереву на цыпочках подходит;
Вертит хвостом, с Вороны глаз не сводит
И говорит так сладко, чуть дыша:
«Голубушка, как хороша!
Ну что за шейка, что за глазки!
Рассказывать, так, право, сказки!
Какие перушки! какой носок!
И, верно, ангельский быть должен голосок!
Спой, светик, не стыдись! Что, ежели, сестрица,
При красоте такой и петь ты мастерица,––
Ведь ты б у нас была царь-птица!»
Вещуньина с похвал вскружилась голова,
От радости в зобу дыханье сперло,-
И на приветливы Лисицыны слова
Ворона каркнула во все воронье горло:
Сыр выпал––с ним была плутовка такова.

The Crow and the Fox
(trans. Bishop Daniel of Erie)

For many years we have been taught
That flattery is bad and that it ought
To be despised, being a vile deception,
But all in vain: the flatterers are smart
And in the human heart
Will always find a welcoming reception.

A crow who found a slice of cheese
Looked for a perch among the trees
And, mounting on a spruce at last,
She was about to break her fast,
But for some reason she did pause
And held her breakfast in her jaws.
A fox comes by (the fragrance drew him near)
And he begins to flatter to to speak:
“You are so beautiful, my dear!
What pretty eyes and what a well-formed beak!
What pretty feathers, what a lovely tail!
You are a fairy-beard out of a fairy-tale!
Being so beautiful, if you know how to sing,
Among the birds you ought to be a king!
Sing to me, please, with your angelic voice,
Oh, let me hear it and rejoice!”
The bird of omen, who was otherwise
As wise
As any wizard
Was overjoyed
Hearing the praise the fox employed,
Her breath stopped in her gizzard,
And, being dizzy with delight,
She loudly crowed with all her might.
The cheese fell out, of course,
The fox was quick in taking it
And quit
Without remorse.

Apropos of the speaking animals’ gender in the two languages, French and Russian, where the category inheres in nouns, note that both animals are masculine in the former and feminine in the latter. As was so astutely pointed out to me by my mother Lydia Ita Shapiro (1905-1983), whose linguistic and literary range extended to a mastery of Russian, French, German, and English, and under whose tutelage I first learned these two fables, the entire character of the Fox’s speech is determined by both animals’ gender. In the French version by La Fontaine, where both Fox and Crow are males,  the honorific title Maitre ‘Sir’ is prefixed to their names, and the tenor of the Fox’s flattery is in a style befitting the speech of nobles and courtiers. By contrast, in Krylov’s Russian version, where both protagonists are females (a crucial point, in which the verse translation fails by calling the Fox “him”), their pithy epithets (плутовка ‘trickster’ for the fox, вещунья ‘prophetess’ for the Crow) and the diction as a whole betoken an overtly folkloric ambience, in which the Fox’s cajolery connotes purely feminine wiles that are as remote in linguistic embodiment as they can be from the language of courtly blandishments.


Zero, Nil, and the Philological Method

July 1, 2012

There is a rigid distinction between American and British English in the use of the words zero (< French zéro or Italian zero < alteration of Medieval Latin zephirum < Arabic çifr nothing, cipher’) and nil (< classical Latin nīl, contracted < nihil ‘nothing’), whereby the former is favored by Americans and the latter by Britons in designating the lack of a score when tabulating the numerical results of sporting events. This minimal pair of lexis opens out onto a possibly interesting cultural difference and illustrates in nuce what is meant by “the philological method.”

The philological method can be seen at work when, for instance, an art historian looking at a Renaissance painting concentrates on small details of subject and composition (like the folds of the human subject’s dress) in order to discover the work’s iconography; or when a physician posits a diagnosis by analyzing a patient’s symptoms (NB: “symptomatology” is the older name [rooted in ancient medicine] for what is now called “semiotics”). In both examples, what is important to keep in mind is the fact that physical and behavioral features may be both intended and unintended consequences of CHOICES, and thereby reflective of VALUES. Every outward manifestation of the human person (whether linguistic, art-historical, or medical) is a SIGN that is capable of “causing” an interpretation (in the context of a relational network of homorganic signs).

Returning to zero and nil, note that the American word of choice is dissyllabic, the British monosyllabic, i. e., the first is longer than the second. Analyzed in cultural perspective, what we have here is yet another instantiation of the general American tendency toward hypertrophy and the British one toward understatement.