Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Undercliff: visited at last

Lyme-Axton Undercliff (crossed-eye stereopair - click to enlarge)

I mentioned the Lyme Regis Undercliff here previously (see Seaton, slips and Sabine Baring-Gould); subsequent to this, Clare and I finally walked the South West Coast Path section that runs the length of the Undercliff.

Despite the book and film of The French Lieutenant's Woman, and even the many online guides and photographs, the reality of the landscape came as quite a surprise. Created by past and ongoing landslips, the Undercliff is essentially a south-facing forested ledge around seven miles long and at most a quarter of a mile wide, bounded on one side by cliffs down to the sea and on the other by a ravine and further cliffs to landward. The underlying terrain, rumpled by the landslips, I can only describe as chaotic, a mess of ridges and deep gullies, made even more difficult to negotiate by the thick coverage of woodland and lush undergrowth that has sprung up due to the damp soil and warm microclimate. It has been described as the nearest thing Britain has to a jungle, and this was an especially accurate description when walking it on a close, hot summer afternoon. We got through a litre of water each, and could easily have done with more.

What many of the guides fail to mention is the sheer variability of the walk. The landscape varies from moment to moment between open woodland, dark gullies where nothing grows but hart's tongue ferns, and huge overgrown glades smelling of wild garlic and elderflower, with clear vistas back to crumbling chalk cliffs. The path itself switches rapidly between easy forest path (at one point even opening out into a metalled drive) and, mostly, an exhausting succession of ups and downs via slopes with slippery flints and small flights of log steps. It's definitely, as generally described, an arduous and challenging walk - but a fascinating one. See the South West Coast Path official page.

Apart from the cottage ruins and occasional cliff views, both much-photographed, it's surprisingly difficult to give a good photographic impression of the Undercliff, as much of its charm is in its deep, layered vistas. However, for those who are comfortable with crossed-eye stereopairs, the 3D pair above is an attempt.

(We walked it from the Lyme end for convenience in getting home; Exeter buses are more frequent from Seaton. However, I recommend the other direction. At the Seaton end there's a rather draggy walk via Axecliff golf course and the dismal Axton end of Seaton that you might prefer to get over with at the beginning).

So here are the photos. I'm afraid they make it look like a gentle and level woodland walk. It isn't!

Lyme - looking down to The Cobb

Looking back to The Cobb from start of Undercliff walk

The start - the obligatory "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" information board

An occasional vista of dazzling white chalkface in the landward cliff

In the mid-section, past Pinhay Bay, the path briefly becomes a easy metalled drive

The half-way point: the much-photographed ruined house

Another vista of the crags that back the Undercliff to landward

An eroded chalk pinnacle
Yet another ascent - this is steeper than it looks

And the final ascent ...

... comes out of the dense woodland ...

... giving views westward to Beer Head.

The final ascent ...

... takes us up to the golf course above Seaton ...

... and we're finally down to a blustery late afternoon on Seaton Beach with views to the chalk cliffs of Beer.

The view back from Seaton to the Undercliff

It was a strenuous but great walk. It makes an interesting comparison with the Isle of Wight Undercliff, as mentioned in the previous post The writer, the cancer-merchant, his eccentric wife, and the faux castle. Geologically the Lyme and IoW ones are very similar: landslip regions with harder rocks overlying softer clays. But the Isle of Wight Undercliff is generally broader and flatter, stabilised by a deal of Victorian landscaping. There's even a main road, Undercliff Drive, running most of its length. There are, however, two sections that approach the wildness of the Lyme Regis Undercliff. One is at the southern tip of the Island, between Niton and Blackgang - see Google Maps and On the lost road. The other is the East End landslip section between Bonchurch and Luccombe - see Google Maps. The latter particularly resembles the Lyme Undercliff, but handily compressed into a kilometre or so; see The Landslip - Bonchurch to Shanklin.

Addendum: see The Bindon Landslip of 1839 (26th February 2013), which links to a new Lyme Regis Museum scan of the geologists Coneybeare and Buckland's classic monograph on the landslip, an illustrated account of their visit shortly after it happened.

Addendum 2: see Undercliff - there and back again: 3D for a larger batch of 3D images taken on a revisit in August 2014.

- Ray

Saturday, 26 June 2010


Animaris siamesis, Exmouth, June 25th 2010.
Music by Spinach for Norman.

This isn't remotely connected with books, but we went to Exmouth yesterday to see the demo of the Dutch artist Theo Jansen's wind-powered kinetic sculpture Animaris siamesis, one in his Strandbeest series of biomorphic machines. Made of recycled materials - cable conduit and plastic bottles - it's driven pneumatically; wind-powered pistons compress the air into the bottles, from which it's released to drive the walking legs. Unfortunately on this occasion it didn't do much walking due to the sand being too soft, but we did see the compression mechanism working very prettily (the action is rather akin to Wellbrook beetling mill or the Excessive Machine from Barbarella) and get to play with a demo assembly showing how the legs work.

Animaris siamesis will be at Exmouth again, below the Pavilions, today and Sunday 27th from 11am-5pm, and in Princesshay Square, Exeter, on July 2 - July 4 (also 11am-5pm).

See Google Videos for better demo movies by Jansen himself of his Strandbeest machines, as well as the official site, Strandbeest.com.

Addendum: 8th February 2010. MetaFilter just featured a YouTube link to a miniature hamster-powered Strandbeest.
- Ray

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Misattribution corner: gazelle poetry

Illustration for Thomas Moore's The Gazelle.

Further to Bad luck with gazelles, Monica just drew my attention to a reference in Agatha Christie's 1936 Poirot mystery, Cards on the Table:
"May be going abroad," said the Sergeant.

Elsie's face fell.

Though unacquainted with Lord Byron's famous poem, "I never loved a dear gazelle," etc., its sentiments were at that moment hers. She thought to herself:

"Funny how all the really attractive ones never come to anything. Oh, well, there's always Fred."
As Monica suspected, it is a misattribution. The much-parodied "dear gazelle" comes from The Fire-Worshippers , part of the epic Lalla Rookh by the 19th century Irish poet Thomas Moore (on quotation websites - ThinkExist, for example - it's commonly misattributed to Thomas More). Christie presumably mistook it for Byron's The Wild Gazelle ...
The wild Gazelle on Judah's hills
Exulting yet may bound,
And drink from all the living rills
That gush on holy ground—
Its airy step and glorious eye
May glance in tameless transport by—

opening stanza from The Wild Gazelle, from Byron's Hebrew Melodies.
... or his description of Leila in The Giaour:
Her eye's dark charm 'twere vain to tell,
But gaze on that of the gazelle,
It will assist thy fancy well;
As large, as languishingly dark,
But soul beamed forth in every spark
That darted from beneath the lid,
Bright as the jewel of Giamschid. 1
From the Song of Solomon onward, references to the gazelle in poetry are naturally frequent in works from countries where the gazelle is indigenous, but there a few other sightings of gazelles elsewhere. Apart from the reference in The Fire-Worshippers, Thomas Moore wrote a standalone poem about the "dear gazelle": see page 80 of the 1858 Poetry and Pictures from Thomas Moore. In the poem, the narrator meets (it happens all the time) a gazelle decorated by his lady love.
DOST thou not hear the silver bell,
Through yonder lime-trees ringing?
'Tis my lady's light gazelle.
To me her love thoughts bringing, —
All the while that silver bell
Around his dark neck ringing.
There's The Gazelle of the Menagerie in Hannah Flagg Gould's 1850 anthology New Poems (Gould herself was on the receiving end of misattribution, when her best-known poem, A Name in the Sand, was variously credited to Charles Dickens and the journalist George D Prentice 2). Gazelle is the name of the Native American heroine of Isaac B Rich's 1866 romantic poem set against the American Civil War, Gazelle, A True Tale of the Great Rebellion. And there's Rilke's Die Gazelle (The Gazelle):
The Gazelle

Gazella Dorcas

Enchanted being: how can the harmony of two
chosen words ever achieve the rhyme,
as with a sign, that comes and goes in you.
Out of your brow rise leaf and lyre,

and everything yours already runs as metaphor
through love songs, the words of which, soft
as rose petals, for the one who no longer reads,
laid upon the eyes, which he closes
so that he may see you: carried about as if
each slender leg were charged with leaps,
not to be fired as long as the neck

holds the head high in listening: as when, while
bathing in a dark forest, the bather interrupts herself:
the forest pool still reflected in her turning face.
The Gazelle was one of Rilke's particularly acclaimed poems dating from 1902: The Gazelle, The Swan and The Panther. The last is especially powerful, the one used by "Leonard L" (as reported in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings ) to express his experience of profound Parkinsonism.

There appear to be conflicting views about how the word "gazelle" (which derives from its Arabic name ghazal) is connected with the name of the Middle Eastern lyrical verse form, the ghazal. It's commonly stated that "ghazal" alludes to the mortal cry of the gazelle, but this may well be a folk etymology. The Encyclopedia of Arabic literature, Volume 1 (see page 249) says "Etymologically the term is associated with the verb ghazila, 'to spin', and, probably by contamination, with the gazelle (ghazal), to which the beloved is often compared" but a critique of this book in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1999, says "While ghazal is 'Etymologically . . . associated with the verb ghazila' the verb ghazila does not mean 'to spin', but 'to talk and act in an amatory and enticing manner, with a woman, or with women'". The precise origin is probably lost in time.

1. A reference explained here. Byron originally wrote "ruby of Giamschid", but a friend suggested the change as "the comparison of his heroine's eye to a ruby might unluckily call up the idea of its being bloodshot".
2 See page 303, The Dickensian, 1908.

- Ray

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Maori, Mac Cruislig and Mirab

I thought I'd written about this here before, but no. Above, a trio of pleasant miniature books in Reed's Lilliput series published in 1963 by the New Zealand non-fiction publisher A. H. and A. W. Reed (now a Penguin imprint called Raupo Publishing - a name change to the Maori for "reed" to avoid legal clashes with Reed Elsevier). One's a Maori-English dictionary, one lists Maori placenames, and one lists Maori proverbs.

Bibliographic curiosity apart, I was struck particularly by the strangeness of proverb and idiom in the third book; a large number of the sayings (whakatauki) are rooted in placename, personal or mythological references that are impossible for an outsider to deduce. Some are explicable; some not. "The ear-lobes of Rotu" = we've got nothing for you to eat (i.e. in Rotorua we've no food to offer unless we cut off our ears for you). "So you are rushing off to Orutai!" = you're getting thinner (Orutai being a place that had suffered from famine). "Climbing the mountain of Ruhaine" = growing older. "The fine weather of Hewa" = a state of inner anxiety when things appear outwardly normal. "The plug of Taumarere has come out" = it's crowded here. "The fine weather of Ruhi is spread everywhere" = peace prevails.

Paul Moon, in Traditional Maori Proverbs: Some General Themes, comments that this "personification" is often little-represented in collections of Maori proverbs, perhaps because it's rare in Maori proverbs anyway, but perhaps.
... other possibilities for the scarcity of personification in traditional Maori proverbs include their omission from published collections because the (mainly European) transcribers or publishers were looking for particular types of proverbs suited for particular markets, and hence rejected those proverbs whose personification may have seemed obscure, or may have required extensive prior knowledge ... Kei takahia a Tahu (Lest Tahu be trampled on - Tahu personified food supplies); Kua tu te haka a Tanerore (The dancing of Tanerore has begun - Tanerore is the quasi-religious personification of the quivering, heated air of summer).
However, Maori is not alone in having obscure proverb and idiom. Going right across the world, we find Alexander Nicolson's 1882 A collection of Gaelic proverbs and familiar phrases, based on Macintosh's collection (Internet Archive collectionofgael00nicouoft). Many of the sayings are perfectly clear. For instance:
Am fear a's mo a gheallas, 's e a 's lugha 'choimh-gheallas / He that promises most will perform least.

Am fear a 's luaithe lamh 's e 's fhearr cuid / Quickest hand gets biggest share.
Am fear a's fhearr a chuireas 's e 's fhearr a bhuaineas. He who sows best reaps best.
Others, however, are very strange.
larr gach ni air Camaronach, ach na iarr im air. /Ask anything of a Cameron but butter.

Bughadh an leinibh Ilich, rughadh an teine. / The bloom of the Islay child, the bloom of the fire.
The 'leanabh Ileach' was a remarkable boy, with a hard stepmother, who fed him badly, and heated his face at the fire, when she wished to pass him off as a well-fed ruddy child. See Cuairtear, 1842, p. 79.

Roinn Mhic Cruislig air na crubain / Mac Cruslick's dividing of the crabs.
He put the contents of the best-looking ones into the worst-looking ones, which he afterwards got for himself.

larraidh Mhic Chruislig air na h-eich. / Mac Cruslick's search for the horses.

M.'s master sent him to search for his horses. 'Where shall I look for them ? ' said M. ' Look for them wherever they are or are not likely to be,' said his master. Presently M. was seen on the roof of the house scraping away with a sickle. On being asked 'what he was about, he replied that he was searching for the horses where they were not likely to be. Campbell's W. H. II. 309.

Cho carach ri Mac Chrùislig / As tricky as Mac Cruslick
From the last anecdote, I think we can assume that Mac Cruslick is an archetypal trickster/fool akin to a Gaelic Till Eulenspiegel, but it's anyone's guess if he was a real person at some point in the development of the phrase.

Both the Maori and Gaelic idioms remind me strongly of one of my favourite Star Trek:TNG episodes, Darmok. This features an encounter with a humanoid race called the Children of Tama, whose captain, Dathon, opens communications with this exposition:
"Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Ubaya. Ubaya of crossed roads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray."
The Tamarian language, the Enterprise crew quickly realise, is made 100% of idiom in unexplained historical and mythological allusions (the meanings are later revealed; for instance, "Shaka, when the walls fell" means failure, and "Sokath, his eyes uncovered!" means an epiphany). Dathon attempts to initiate contact by involving Captain Picard in a ritual of shared battle against an alien monster. Tragically, however, Picard doesn't immediately grasp this intention and thinks it's a challenge to fight Dathon, which he refuses. But finally, when Dathon is mortally wounded by the monster, Picard understands and is able to convey to Dathon a little of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Darmok raised a lot of interest; see Raphael Harper's Darmok Dictionary for a selective annotated transcript. It also led to justified criticism on linguistic grounds; see, particularly Tenser, said the Tensor, which points out the essential difficulty in speaking in archetypical generalisations.
I also don't believe that a language based entirely on allusion is at all suitable for situations requiring precision. If all you're doing is arguing about a general course of action, Tamarese-B might be enough, but how can you run a starship using it? When the captain wants to tell the helmsman to go to warp factor five, does he say, "Darmok...uh...that time he went warp factor five"? At the end of the episode, in fact, the first officer orders his ship to warp out of orbit with "Mirab, with sails unfurled", which is used several times in the episode to mean something like 'go'. Shouldn't the helmsman reply, "Mirab-with-sails-unfurled factor what, sir?".
Quite so. It would be like trying to express "The cat's not eating; take it to the vet" as "Vitus in the arena. 1 Androcles in the forest. 2" without the ability say, "Ask them about FIV vaccination, and pay them the £13.75 we owe them." As the Star Trek site Memory Alpha explains in its Tamarian language article, non-canonical fiction has filled in explanatory detail of non-verbal elements and a musical bolt-on to the language for precise technical discussion.

Nevertheless, you can analyse these things too much. I think Darmok definitely has 'heart' as a story, and is a very nice episode in dramatising, by exaggeration, the difficulty of acquiring idiom when learning a language, and capturing the idiosyncratic flavour of such idiom in some languages.

1. Saint Vitus, whom, according to the tradition, the lions refused to eat when he was thrown to them in the arena.

2. Androcles in Aesop's Fables, who took a thorn from a lion's paw.

- Ray

Friday, 11 June 2010

Style Wars - Part 3 - redeeming Lowth

Further to the previous post, I ran into some interesting detail on a character who figures prominently in the descriptivism/prescriptivism debate. Robert Lowth (1710-1787) generally appears as one of the chief villains in the story, often cited as a prime originator of prescriptivist poppycock. Here's a typical description:
However, there were other eighteenth-century purists whose influence may have equalled that of Johnson, but whose statements and strictures were related not to usage, but to their own assumptions and prejudices. The most notable of these was Robert Lowth, Bishop of London. A prominent Hebraist and theologian, with fixed and eccentric opinions about language, he wrote A short introduction to English grammar (1762), which had a surprising influence, perhaps because of his own high status. Indeed, many schoolroom grammars in use to this day have laws of ‘good usage’ which can be traced directly to Bishop Lowth’s idiosyncratic pronouncements as to what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong’. His grammar is bespattered with pompous notes in which he deplores the lamentable English of great writers. He set out to put matters right by laying down ‘rules’, which were often based on currently fashionable or even personal stylistic preferences. For example, contrary to general usage, he urged that prepositions at the end of sentences should be avoided
In brief, Lowth’s influence was profound and pernicious because so many of his strictures were based on his own preconceived notions. In retrospect, it is quite astonishing that he should have felt so confident about his prescriptions. Did he believe that, as a bishop, he was divinely inspired? It is also curious that his dogmatic statements were so widely accepted among educated Englishmen. It seems that, as a prominent religious leader, no one questioned his authority.

- Chapter 1, Language Change: Progress or Decay?, Jean Aitchison, 1991
However, it appears that the whole topic of prescriptivism origins has its urban myths and garblings, and even among seemingly authoritative texts there are conflicting stories about, for instance, who coined the rule against split infinitives. In that vein, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade has compiled Prejudices, errors, misconceptions about Lowth and his grammar, a debunking of many of the claims about Lowth. For example, contrary to general belief, he said nothing about split infinitives: grammar pundits only started raising this point some 50 years after his death. He was evidently not a figure who expounded his grammatical views from the pulpit; the grammar was written before he became a bishop, and was originally written for his son. Nor were his opinions presented as hard rules; for example, his view on prepositions at the end of a sentence explicitly states that it's a matter of 'house style' rather than a command never to use the construct:
The Preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs, and joined to the verb at the end of the Sentence ... as, ‘Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with’ ... This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style of writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful,as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.
The list comes from Robertlowth.com, Professor Tieken's 1 website relating to Lowth and her forthcoming book The Bishop's Grammar: Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism , due out at the end of 2010. From the blurb:
* Definitively dispels the myth of Lowth as the icon of prescriptivism.
* An in-depth account of the author of the most important eighteenth-century English grammar.
* Gives the publication history of Lowth's grammar and shows how it was plagiarized by later grammarians.
* The primary basis of the book is an unpublished collection of Lowth's correspondence.
* 2010 is the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Lowth.
* Lowth was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford 1741-51 and Bishop of Oxford 1766-77 and London 1777-87.
* Lowth's doctoral dissertation, De Sacra Poesie Hebraeorum Praelectiones, was published in 1753 by the Clarendon Press.
Given the widespread current prejudices about Lowth and his grammar this book is likely to arouse passionate arguments for and against his ideas. Professor Geoffrey Pullum (Edinburgh) and John Humphries would be pro and Professor David Crystal and Melvin Bragg likely to be anti. The book will appeal to scholars and students of the history of English and linguistic historiography and to all those interested in questions of linguistic correctness.
It looks fascinating (even if the price is daunting). Meanwhile, Lowth's A short introduction to English grammar is available in full via Google Books. If you just read the introduction and the footnotes, he does come across as a rather curmudgeonly decline-of-English grump, but Professor Tieken's point is that the book needs taking as a whole, and as such it's an extremely creditable attempt to descriptively analyse, concisely and clearly, the grammar of English.

Of connected interest, see the home page for The Codifiers and the English Language and its associated weblog. It raises interesting questions about the "codifiers", the pundits who pronounced on language in the 18th century:
Where did the eighteenth-century codifiers find the linguistic norm they advocated in their grammars? How did their own language compare with the norms of correctness they formulated? What was the effect of normative writing on actual usage?
In hindsight, their efforts can't have been that effective; even with a privileged fast-track into grammar books in the educational system, they were unable to gain universal acceptance of their views. English, it seems, was far too robust to be remodelled by a few pet peeves. But it did give rise a schism: a viral thread that propagated many of these memes among some educated people, to coexist in permanent tension with the views of other educated people who didn't swallow them.

Addendum: Ingrid (Professor Tieken) added in the comments that
The Bishop's Grammar was published a few days before what would have been Lowth's 300th birthday, on 27 November 2010. To commemorate this anniversary, a symposium was held at Winchester College (Lowth is an "old boy" from the College), where first copies were presented to the Master of the College and to Anthony Lowth, one of the bishop's descendants.

- Ray

PS Irrelevant aside: something about the image of Lowth was familiar. I just realised what: he has a remarkable resemblance to Jeffrey Jones as Reverend Steenwyck in the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow.

1. I think this is the correct form; apologies if not.

- Ray

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Style Wars - Part 2

There are two main schools of thought on grammar. To paraphrase grammar.about.com, "descriptivism" studies how a language is, and " prescriptivism" is the view of some people on what it ought to be. This division surfaced recently in reaction to Gerald Warner's polemical piece in the Telegraph blogs, We need an Academy of English to save our beautiful language.

A number of language-related weblogs, such as BadLinguistics, have commented on it. I can't add much, except to note that Mr Warner's views - a conflation of multiple peeves about what seems to him the decline of language and decline of culture - are exactly those addressed by Geoffrey Pullum in his 2004 paper Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory. Pullum argues for the existence of explicit connections between prescriptivism and a conservative authoritarian agenda:

The clearest fact about the spirit of the regulative rules the prescriptive ideologues advance is that they are genuinely linked to conservative ideology: the mistrust of ordinary people and the pessimism about what they would get up to if left to their own devices is palpable. This makes it not so surprising that, as Geoff Nunberg 2 has observed, attention to grammatical correctness correlates to some extent with contempt for liberal-style political correctness.

- Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory (revised text of a presentation, annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, December 30, 2004).

The thrust of the paper is to address an unresolved clash of perceptions that has existed for over a century. Despite advances in linguistics, Pullum says, linguistically uninformed views inherited from the 19th century and earlier

... dimly grasped and often misunderstood, nonetheless form the backbone of what the general public understands and believes about English grammar.

Whatever the psychology may be, the specific origins of prescriptivism in English are interesting, and even make it an understandable stance for the time when it arose. A very nice paper, The Rise of Prescriptivism in English (Dr. Shadyah A. N. Cole, Um Al-Qura University Journal Of Educational and Social Sciences and Humanities, Vol. 15- No.2 – Jumad I 1424H. July 2003) traces the roots to the growth of the middle classes and an ethos of scientific rationalism in the late 1600s onward.

Pundits of that time knew classical Latin and Greek, which both had tight well-defined grammars, but when they found English was a mess in comparison, they assumed that it had "decayed". Furthermore, it was rapidly and actively altering: Shakespeare and his contemporaries were rapidly coining additions such as the many "inkhorn terms". Given that theory, attempts to shore up English with a similar structure, to protect it against imports and neologisms, don't look so arbitrary. Cole likewise shows neatly the historical roots of current features of prescriptivism in the prevailing social/political climate, such as the growth of the middle classes (for whom one index of betterment was language that distinguished them from the working class).

A handful of writers such as George Campbell (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1776) and Joseph Priestley 1(The Rudiments of English Grammar, 1772) took an essentially modern linguistic view of basing their descriptions of grammar on current best usage. But the majority made their own aesthetic judgements, dissing in their books, and in whatever venues they could find (see Swift's whinge to the Tatler 3), bits of current idiom they disliked. These got incorporated into later grammar texts, and by the 20th century, English was left with a legacy of many prescriptive rules of grammar that were the result of accretion of such arbitrary opinions.

Judging by the controversy over Professor Pullum's earlier commentary on Strunk & White (see  Style Wars - Part 1), Americans have had a particular booster dose of presecriptivism over the 20th century. Things have been less hard-line in the UK, as even the prescriptive guides of 20th century Britain were iconoclastic in some areas. When I started writing, I recall reading Gowers' excellent The Complete Plain Words (1954); no-one could mistake this for a general guide to style, as its target is the particular obfuscatory writing of post-WW2 civil servants. Nevertheless, its Correctness section comes across as pretty enlightened in its openness to coining and importing new words, and Gowers was well aware of the arbitrary nature of individual views on correctness:
One has only to look at the words proposed by Swift for inclusion in his Index Expurgatorius 3 to realise how difficult, delicate and disappointing it is to resist new words and new meanings. He condemns, for instance, sham, banter, mob, bully and bamboozle. A generation later Dr. Johnson called clever a "low word" and fun and stingy "low cant". Should we not have been poorer if Swift and Johnson had had their way with these?
Even more influential in the UK was Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926), which again has a relatively laid-back approach. While Fowler had its own set of prejudices, it nevertheless described as "superstitions" and "fetishes" many classic prescriptive diktats including those against starting sentences with "and" or "but", ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, and the use of singular "none". Given the ubiquity and overall respect for Fowler, it's hard to see why its advice didn't become mainstream - except perhaps that a book aimed at adult writers never touched grammar teaching at school level.

I like to think the time has come for descriptive grammar to strike back. One point not mentioned in these analyses of the origins of prescriptivism is the role of access to information. In the 1700s - and in fact right up to a decade or less ago - it would take years of work to properly research the print occurrences of some disputed word or phrase. Such a situation made it relatively easy for any authority figure or persuasive writer to get their unsupported opinion enshrined as a rule, and very difficult to offer an informed riposte based on documented usage. It's refreshing, then, to see the latest and most authoritative guides to grammar, Pullum & Huddleston's the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and its 'lite' version A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, to be completely descriptive in approach; the publicity led with its occasionally radical departure from trad grammatical diktats 4.

The beauty is, too, that anyone can be part of this. Professor Pullum's Prescriptive grammar in America: The land of the free and The Elements of Style) (scheduled for English Today, June 2010) contains an example of how Strunk & White gives grammatical advice that is flatly contradicted by usage.
The sentence None of us are perfect is given as an example of incorrect grammar; None of us is perfect is claimed to be the correction.

The arrogance here is breathtaking. None of us are perfect is a line from literature. It is uttered by Canon Chasuble in the second act of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), possibly the greatest of all stage comedies in English. It is absurd to suggest that Wilde didn’t know the rule of verb agreement, and surely false that he wanted to depict the learned Dr. Chasuble as unable to speak Standard English. White is simply stipulating a rule that doesn’t accord with Standard English usage, not even the usage that prevailed in his youth.

It is extremely easy to confirm this today, when hundreds of classic novels are available in readily searchable plain text at the Gutenberg Project site ...
Just so, and not merely within Gutenberg. As I've mentioned in a number of previous posts, now it's perfectly feasible even for a lay person to do a rough-and-ready corpus search by applying Google Books to the vast number of scanned texts online. For example, you can choose a time slot, say 1800-1820, and find occurrences of "none of us is" (40 hits) and "none of us are" (274 hits). You can do similar searches in Google News: for instance, between 1990-2010 for "none of us is" (96,500 hits) and "none of us are" (168,000 hits).

It's crude, but the raw analytical power is amazing; and the results of such searches can very often demolish the authority of the more mutton-headed prescriptivist claims, revealing them for what they are: unsupported asssertions that have been passed on, virus-like, down history.

The depressing thing is how difficult it is to get these non-rules out of the system. On Yahoo! Answers I frequently run into questions about them by school students whose teachers are telling them, for instance, not to start sentences with "And" or "But". This is complete garbage. If Pullum & Huddleston (co-authors of the authoritative The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) use the construct in their A Student's Introduction to English Grammar ...
But they also commonly condemn it as illogical.
... you can be sure it's OK. But what do you say to a student afraid that going against what their teacher says will lose them marks?

- Ray

1. The same Joseph Priestley as discovered oxygen (or was at least in the same queue as Scheele and Lavoisier).
2. The Bloody Crossroads of Grammar and Politics (Geoffrey Nunberg, New York Times, June 1, 2003) which tells of the growth since the 1960s of the factoid that sentences such as "Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured" contain an error.
3. See Swift's letter to The Tatler (Number 230, 26 September 1710, original here) which is quite remarkable for the number of now-accepted words that he considered unacceptable. It's also interesting - consolation to those now worrying about neologisms - to see how many of his complained-of constructs - such as "agen" for "again" - haven't made it into English.
4. See Book's coauthor sets the record straight.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

In search of the ochidore

Velvet Crab, Necora puber: On board of RV Belgica from the southern North Sea. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Pertaining to Dr C's excellent Friday crab blogging series, to which Felix Grant and I sometimes contribute, I coincidentally just ran into the word "ochidore", which was among the obscure words featuring recently in Scripps National Spelling Bee: see So C-L-O-S-E: West Fargo middle schooler finishes second at national spelling bee.

The contestant who got it wrong can hardly be blamed, as the word is deeply obscure ...
ochidore, n.
Perh. regional. Obs. rare.
A kind of crab, perh. the velvet swimming crab, Liocarcinus puber.
... and, according to this account at The Awl, "elicited horrified gasps" at the revelation that its root was unknown (National Spelling Bee contestants are allowed to ask about word derivations to get a clue to the spelling). Furthermore the definition comes from a single citation in literature, if not in the whole of the English language, telling of a prank played on an old schoolmaster during a maritime pageant:
And clapping both hands to the back of his neck, the schoolmaster began dancing frantically about, while his boys broke out tittering, "O! the ochidore! look to the blue ochidore! Who've put ochidore to maister's poll!"

It was too true: neatly inserted, as he stooped forward, between his neck and his collar, was a large live shore-crab, holding on tight with both hands.

- see Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho!, 1855.
It's apparently a Devon dialect word. In 1901, AL Mayhew enquired, apparently without response, to Notes and Queries ...
"Ochidore."—This word occurs with the meaning "shore-crab" in Kingsley's ' Westward Ho !' chap. ii. p. 44. I can find no instance of its occurrence elsewhere. I should be glad if any of your readers would kindly tell me whether " ochidore " is a Devon word. Query etymology ? A. L. Mayhew. Oxford.
... and in 1935, an article on dialect words for marine life - Devonshire Fish Names - elaborated the definition:
Ochidore. Prob. Velvet Crab ... (EDD suggests the shore crab ...)
Velvet Crab (Portunus puber). Ochidore, Velvet Fiddler.

- pages 427/432, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volumes 67-68, 1935
I haven't been able to hack the Google Books snippet view to find whether there's any explanation of the identification as the Velvet Crab - and anyway the Kingsley passage gives no reason to think that an ochidore is anything but a generic name for crab - but I assume it's to do with the "blue" description. The Velvet Crab (pictured above) does have blue-black tips to its claws, but it doesn't seem sufficiently blue for schoolboys to exclaim "Look to the blue ochidore". Blue crabs do exist - the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and the blue swimmer crab (Portunus pelagicus) - but neither of them are native to British waters. Perhaps the one in Westward Ho! was an escapee; they very rarely turn up after transport in ships' ballast (see the recent news item Rare Blue Swimmer Crab discovered in Cornwall).

As to the word itself, the trail on "ochidore" has gone very cold.

Addendum: Felix Grant adds this detail (I should have had the brain to click on the OED's etymology tab):
[Origin unknown.
Apparently used only by Kingsley (see quot. 1901), and probably invented by him; compare the following:
1901 T. L. SIMKIN MS Let. 10 Dec. (O.E.D. Archive), It does not appear whence Kingsley got this name. One old fisherman, still alive at Clovelly, remembers that Kingsley so called the Spider-crab Maya Squinado (not the Shore-crab): but he never heard any one else do so.]
I admit I don't quite understand the point of this anecdote in the OED. If the implication is that Kingsley made up terminology, this isn't a data point. The spider crab is called Maja Squinado, so the story merely means the old fisherman didn't know the Latin name, not that Kingsley was unreliable. However, the absence of "ochidore" elsewhere - for instance, in the good number of 19th century works on and in Devon dialect - is a trifle suspicious.

- RG

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Grueways and cads

An eggcorn sighting: check out the number of Google hits for the word "grueways", all in the context of a song from The Sound of Music that frequently appears on lyrics websites as:
You are 16 going on 17
Fellows will fall in line
Eager young lads
And grueways and cads
Will offer you food and wine
In brief, this is a mistaken transcription of "roués" (listen at 0:47 in the above video). What makes it an eggcorn, and interesting, is that it's not merely an error, but transforms an unknown word into something semantically meaningful for the context: in this case, presumably the idea that it refers to some kind of gruesome creepy person or monster. You certainly wouldn't want to run into a "grueway" on a dark night.

This illustrates one of the downsides of the ease of propagation of Internet material: like quotation websites, music lyric websites copy promiscuously and indiscriminately from each other, and wrong lyrics spread very rapidly without much mechanism for error correction.
- Ray

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Charles V language meme

Another one via Yahoo! Answers: an enquiry into citation for the aphorism attributed to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558):

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.

This is widely repeated, including in scholarly works, but invariably without citation. Did he actually say it? The answer may be, at best, that he only said something like it.

One book I found gives a trackable citation. According to English Literature and Ancient Languages (Kenneth Haynes, Oxford University Press, 2007 ISBN 0199212120), whIch quotes it on page 2, it was first recorded in 1601, some 40 years after the death of Charles V. The footnote 3 on page 174 cites this detail to H Weinreich, Wege der Sprachkultur, Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1985, page 190):

Diese Person ist in aller Regel Kaiser Karl V. Die älteste Fassung der Anekdote stammt, wie Erasmo Buceta berichtet hat, aus dem Jahre 1601 und findet sich in der Schrift De locutione von Girolamo Fabrizi d'Acquapendente. Der Autor stellt zwei Versionen der Anekdote vor. Die eine lautet: Unde solebat, ut audio, Carolus V Imperator dicere, Germanorum linguam esse militarem: Hispanorum amatoriam: Italorum oratoriam: Gallorum nobilem.

"'When Emperor Charles V used to say, as I hear, that the language of the Germans was military; that of the Spaniards pertained to love; that of the Italians was oratorical; that of the French was noble"

Die andere Version: Alius vero, qui Germanus erat, retulit, eundem Carolum Quintum dicere aliquando solitum esse; Si loqui cum Deo oporteret, se Hispanice locuturum, quod lingua Hispanorum gravitatem maiestatemque prae se ferat; si cum amicis, Italice, quod Italorum dialectus familiaris sit; si cui blandiendum esset, Gallice, quod illorum lingua nihil blandius; si cui minandum aut asperius loquendum, Germanice, quod tota eorum lingua minax, aspera sit ac vehemens.

"Indeed another, who was German, related that the same Charles V sometimes used to say: if it was necessary to talk with God, that he would talk in Spanish, which language suggests itself for the graveness and majesty of the Spaniards; if with friends, in Italian, for the dialect of the Italians was one of familiarity; if to caress someone, in French, for no language is tenderer than theirs; if to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement"

(Translations kindly provided by user Ehrenkater at the Wikipedia Reference Desk - I've updated the corresponding Wikiquote page)

These quotations from Girolamo Fabrizi d'Acquapendente's 1601 De locutione, apart from being inconsistent, both differ from the modern version in the attributes ascribed to to each language. From that point, we can follow the 'Chinese Whispers' propagation of the story down the centuries.

The emperor Charles V. made almost the same observation, when he said, 'that if he were to speak to his horse, it should be in High-Dutch
- Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726

The apophthegm alluded to runs thus;— "Charles V. said he would talk French to his friend ; German to his horse; Italian to his mistress; Spanish to his God ; English to his birds."
- The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 55, Part 2, 1785

Charles V, who spoke fluently several European languages, used to say, "We should speak Spanish to the gods, Italian with our female friends, French with our male friends, German with soldiers, Hungarian with horses, and Bohemian with the devil."
- The Ladies' Repository, 1808

CHARLES V. spoke five languages: the Flemish, the German, the Spanish, the French, and the Italian. He used to say, that to employ the vulgar languages according to the use for which they were most proper, he would speak Italian to the ladies, French to men, German to horses, and Spanish to God.
- The Cairn, 1846

What did Charles V. say of European languages? Charles V., who spoke fluently several European languages, used to say that we should speak Spanish with the gods, Italian with our (female) friend, French with our (male) friend, German with soldiers, English with geese, Hungarian with horses, and Bohemian with the devil
- New method of learning to read the French language, Heinrich Gottfried Ollendorff, 1850

The saying of the Emperor Charles V., characterising the European languages, is well known, but will bear to be again quoted. " Pray to God in Spanish, talk to ladies in Italian, chatter French with friends, twitter English with the birds, and swear German with the horses."
- Cassell's Family Magazine, 1888

"The great Emperor Charles V said that if he wished to speak to God he should speak to him in Spanish," he tells the little Philip. "If he wished to speak to his horse it should be in German ; if he wished to talk with his mistress it should be in Italian; but if he wished to hold converse with men it should be in French.
- Letters of Lord Chesterfield, review, The Literary World, 1890

Speak Spanish to God, Italian to your sweetheart, English to your birds, German to your horses, and French to your friends.
- Facts about France: brief answers to recurring questions, Émile Saillens, 1918

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
- The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, John Michael Cohen, M. J. Cohen, 1960

To be going for four centuries, it's an astonishingly durable meme, and it's well possible that Charles V, who had a multingual background, said something of the sort. But exactly what is ascribed to which language clearly mutates to reflect current stereotypes and prejudices (for instance, the wavering between whether French or Italian is the sexy language) of the time and the nationality of the author quoting it. It does look as if Swift invented the bit about talking German to horses (his "High-Dutch" = Hochdeutsch).

For those who read German better than I do, page 207 onward of Lingua et traditio: Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und der neueren Philologen has a section by Frank Lebsanft on the propagation of variants on this anecdote by German writers in the 1600s.
- Ray

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

BBC2 Anne Lister special

If you didn't see it, you have just under a week to catch on BBC iPlayer yesterday's 60-minute documentary Revealing Anne Lister, "born in Halifax in 1791 ... A Yorkshire landowner, she was a polymath, autodidact and traveller" whose 4 million word encoded diary is an account of her life as "the first modern lesbian".

The BBC TV Blog has an interesting account by the scriptwriter Jane English, Anne Lister's diaries: From page to screen, on the adaptation process for the associated 90-minute dramatisation, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. Personally I thought it over-prettified her character. According to the documentary, her sexual attitudes were fairly predatory; and her social attitudes, despite some progressive aspects, were largely those of a Tory landowning snob (e.g. anti- trade unions 1). But she's a historical character I admire a lot for her sheer self-awareness, energy and wide-ranging intelligence. The drama focused on the romantic aspects of her life at the expense of her intellectual and business achievements, not to mention fast-forwarding in the credits over the five-year Grand Tour on which she became the first woman to climb Mont Perdu in the Pyrenees, and the first "official" ascender of the Vignemale.

However, a deal of her intellectual side was covered in the documentary, which also went into the remarkable posthumous saga of her diaries, which were repeatedly discovery and reburied until their publication in 1988 by Virago as I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791–1840 (edited by Helena Whitebread, who has produced a second compilation, No Priest but Love). The West Yorkshire Archive Service Anne Lister microsite has a a number of transcripts from her journal as well as the key to her diary code, and The Borthwick Institute for Archives has some archival material: see The Story of Anne Lister.

1. See Anne Lister's diary September 1832, in which tells of threatening to dismiss an employee if he attends union meetings.
- Ray