Saturday, May 12, 2012

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel

I hope nobody (scholars OR music fans!) will take offense at a gentle parody of the profession, in honor of the famous annual conference in Kalamazoo.  Really, truly, we mock because we love!

Something tells me it's all happening at the 'Zoo.
I do believe it. I do believe it's true.
Hmm, hmm. Whoa! Hmm.

It's a light and tumble journey
from the East to the Midwest,
just a fine and fancy ramble to the 'Zoo.
But you can drive a rental car
if you can't afford to fly;
the medievalists will love it if you do.
If you do, now....

Something tells me it's all happening at the 'Zoo.
I do believe it. I do believe it's true.
Hmm, hmm. Whoa! Hmm.

Assistant profs spend all their time
collecting names and contacts,
and the rookies all try not to look so young.
Emeriti will dominate in every Q&A,
and Spenserians think most of this is dumb.

The tenured profs won't watch the clock.
Our funding's on the chopping block.
The amateurs are Tolkien fans.
The grads drink all the wine they can.
What a gas, you'd better hop the van
to the 'Zoo! To the 'Zoo! To the 'Zoo!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

English - not the mess we thought it was

 Unlike Will Rogers, I may have met a man or two I didn't like, but I've never met a language I didn't like.  Every language has its own music, its own aesthetic, its own cultural history wrapped up in its lexemes and idioms.  Icelandic shudders at loan words and prefers to revitalize ancient phrases or invent new compounds for new elements of culture--the nation has declared its linguistic independence from the world.  Latin fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, completely opaque to any but the elite few who are worthy to tread the hallowed footsteps of Virgil, Ovid, Caesar, Augustine.  I can't imagine how it was ever spoken by people with brains as ordinary as my own.
But English!  What a wonderful beast is English!  A hybrid creature half Germanic and half Romance--like a griffon with claws at one end and golden feathers at the other.  It can sing, it can march, it can threaten, it can woo.  English welcomes practically every newcomer as one of its own: to the linguistic world, it offers the sentiments of the Statue of Liberty.  All are welcome here, if they are willing to bear an -s in the plural or an -ed in the preterit.
English has its troubled past and its troubling present--its grammar bears the scars of half-forgotten conquests, of oppression and rebellion, of the vacillating fortunes of its speakers.  Once, King Alfred had the Bible translated into English when most of the world insisted it remain in Latin (which was, of course, itself a translation from the original).  Then, generations of continentalized elites declared English incapable of expressing the complexity of theology, of court, even of love.  Now, we might more properly speak of Englishes in the plural, as this omnivorous creature has caught footholds all over the world, changed and adapted itself (some might say cuckoo-like) to its new surroundings in the mouths of new speakers.  Pedants fear that English is in decline--that the fact that some speakers don't generally us the verb "to be" is somehow going to cause us to forget what it is "to be," or as if saying "two deers" instead of "two deer" somehow represents a dumbing down of a more intelligent system.  To the former, one must point out that many languages have gotten on just fine without ever having a "to be" verb--and august Latin barely ever used the one it did have.  To the latter, I would just point out that, if we hadn't always regularized odd words based on our normal patterns, we would not say "had helped" but rather "had holpen," and the plural of "book" would now be "beech."  Enough said.
All the same, as a student of linguistic history, what I think is loveliest about English is this very hodgepodge heritage that comes down to us in what seem like the arbitrary rules and spellings of our strange and hybrid language.  Isn't it fascinating that we spell "taught" with a "gh" not because we're perverse and like to confuse students in spelling bees but because those letters were once pronounced--with the sound of "ch" in Scottish "loch"?  And isn't it wonderful to know that we don't mispronounce "subtle" when we ignore the "b" but that it was always pronounced our way, and the "b" was added retroactively to make it look more Latinate?
So this is a love letter to English.  Here are several things, dear language, that are wonderful about you:
* Some languages, like Thai, have different "registers"--a completely independent set of vocabulary for talking to a sister versus a teacher versus a political leader.  English, while too disorganized for that, still has its approximation.  I can "say you have pretty hair" or I can "compliment your elegant coiffeur" and, while both mean the same thing, one sounds significantly smarter than the other.  The fact that the former is Germanic and the latter Latinate doesn't mean that all Germanic formulations are inelegant.  One of the most evocative phrases in English, "to wreak havoc," is entirely native Anglo-Saxon: it literally means to set one's hawk loose upon songbirds.  What an image!
* English, along with some other languages, has this wonderful ability to take the past tense of an intransitive verb and turn it into the root of a new transitive verb. So the verb meaning "to perform an action oneself" makes a new verb that means "to cause something else to perform that action."  Examples:
"To fall" (as in, I fall down) becomes "to fell" (as in, I fell a tree--I cause the tree to fall)
"To lie" (as in, I lie down) becomes "to lay" (as in, I lay the fork down--I cause the fork to lie down)
* Most of the time, a verb means the same thing no matter what tense or inflection it.  ("to walk," "I walked," "I have walked" all refer to moving at a slow pace.)  But English seems to find this dull and predictable.  Hence, we have wonderful oddities like this:
"To strike" means to hit something.  "Struck" (past tense) means the same thing.  But "stricken" (the past participle) is almost always used as an adjective of emotion.  One can be "stricken" by the death of a loved one, but when one has been hit by a foul ball, we usually now say he was "struck" (where long ago it would only have been proper to say, he was "stricken").
"To smite"--this is something pretty much only God gets to do these days.  And although in medieval literature people "smote" each other all the time (usually on the "helm"), I don't know if anyone has done so more recently than when Gandalf "smote" the Balrog on the mountaintop.  However, anybody with half a heart can be "smitten"!
That is the wonder of English.  Well, one of its wonders.