30 September 2009

It's the Economy, Stupid:

Why Modern English is Not Better than Old English

Sometimes Old English gets characterized as evolutionarily inferior to Modern English—the communicative Neanderthal to today’s Homo Linguisticus. And in a way it’s understandable: the language certainly had a smaller vocabulary before the introduction of Norman French, and it barely resembles today's English on the surface. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature states that

“Old English poetic language is not necessarily congenial to the demands of precise reasoning; sentence boundaries and relationships between clauses are often uncertain. And yet despite these interpretative problems, the Exeter Book ‘elegies’ are among the most moving and powerful poems in Old English.”

Moving and powerful they certainly are. But what Broadview misses is that they have such force because of, not in spite of, these interpretative problems—or at least the linguistic differences in which they have their roots. If English’s evolution made it broader, it also made it shallower. The gain in quantity of verbiage available was accompanied by a loss of significance: when you have more words to choose from, each word must necessarily embrace less meaning. This dearth is evident in modern attempts to translate the Anglo-Saxon classic The Seafarer, one instance in which Modern English shows itself to be far less expressive than its “less evolved” antecessor. Because it lacks the necessary density of meaning and economy of language, Modern English grunts and snorts through The Seafarer where Old English sings.

Translation dilutes The Seafarer‘s content by shearing off the multiple associations Old English attaches to each word. The language is more condensed than we can adequately express with Modern English. In their translation, Igor Fux and Matthias Kasimir try to limit the effects of this problem using parentheses and slashes to indicate ambiguous or multi-layered meaning in the original. It opens “May I by myself sing (work) a true song” (Fux and Kasismir, l. 1). This significant double-meaning in the word “wrecan” (l. 1) is lost in other modern translations, which each choose some variant of one meaning or the other. As such, modern readers miss out on this imagery that blurs the line between tangible and metaphysical creation, a connotation that would have been clear in the ears of Anglo-Saxon listeners more accustomed to working with their hands than we are today. Fux and Kasimir seem similarly ambivalent about “narrow/ frightening” (l. 7), “weep/ wail” (l. 10), and “lowered/ cut” (l. 12). These are not different voicings of a similar concept, but radically divergent readings of each word in question. Shifting them into our more narrowly defined language requires excluding some of the meanings present in the original Old English words, and the poem loses thickness as a result.

Modern English also fails to invoke the significance of The Seafarer’s original spare form. Jonathan Glenn’s translation showcases how Modern English relies on too many words to truly capture the stoic melancholy of the Anglo-Saxons. The poem is an elegy, dealing heavily with loss, hardship, and solitude. Because its tone is so subdued, it needs to be pithy: what it says is enhanced by how few words it says it in. After all, these are warrior-folk living a lean existence. They place no premium on filigree; every word counts. Even the best modern approximations are too verbose. For example, “abode and still do bitter breast-care” (Glenn l. 4) cannot hope to be as concise as “bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe” (l. 4). Even though the number of syllables is the same, the increased number of accents and stresses in the modern line gives it more insecurity, more desperation to make its point known. And “the mind of the sea-weary one” (Glenn l. 12) can only stammer in blustered awe at the serene majesty of “merewerges mod” (l. 12). Modern translations may be considered to be less disjointed, more flowing and lyrical. But even this detracts from the original work’s significance, since elegies are meant to evoke abandonment and disconnection. Modern English loses the minor tonality expressed in that heavily rhythmic stress pattern, a pattern like oars rowing steadily away from home.

Languages suit themselves to the needs of the societies that employ them. In an orally literate culture like the Anglo-Saxons’, people can only understand words as fast as they can be spoken. So it makes sense, especially in poetry, that storytellers should layer each word with multiple meanings to provide maximum expression. Furthermore, in an environment of verbal economy, it is absolutely necessary to rely on form as much as content to communicate tone, style, setting, and even theme. Modern English is good at expressing a lot of things, but Anglo-Saxon elegies are not among them, perhaps because we don’t use English to pass down stories by oral tradition anymore. So the word “modern” does not at all confer superiority—it merely indicates what era the language is best at describing. Modern English does pretty well with stock markets and shopping malls and identity theft. But there’s nothing like Old English for talking about earfoðhwile.

24 September 2009

A Modest Proposal

Remember when you were in high school and your parents wanted you home by a certain hour from a party and they told you, "Just let me be the bad guy. You don't have to say you want to leave, just say, My parents will kill me if I'm not home by 12."

Maybe your parents were geopolitical geniuses, because that's exactly what Barack Obama has to do with little kid Israel right now. Despite demands from the Palestinians, the Arab League, the United States, and the left in his own country, Bibi Netanyahu complains that he can't muster the political gumption to freeze settlement building-- the right would freak out. I can understand that; he did, after all, get elected on a conservative platform. But look: right now America's president has made a conspicuous effort to reach out to the Muslim world and risked his own popularity at home by putting unprecedented pressure on Israel's leaders. Meanwhile Fatah has just had its first party-wide conference in 2 decades. If Israel keeps building settlements in the West Bank, it may well sabotage the best shot at a peace deal that has appeared since the Oslo accords.

Enter Dad Obama. And by "enter" I mean "invade." That's right. America invades (liberates?) the Israeli-occupied West Bank, doesn't kill anyone, gently but firmly escorts the building crews away from the settlements they're working on, and vaporizes every trace of settlement construction.

Before you hyperventilate, think about it. Israel's settlements in the West Bank are in defiance of UN resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention. The existence of the settlements--inasmuch as they represent a deliberate obstacle to Palestinian statehood and therefore a grievance of young, unemployed, potential Muslim extremists all over the world--constitute a far more serious and deep-rooted threat to American security than did the situations in either Afghanistan or Iraq before the invasions.

Who could then give Netanyahu any guff for halting settlement construction? To his conservative base, he could holler in shock and outrage, but he'd be totally powerless to do anything in the face of US Army-shaped "facts on the ground." And everyone would know it. We could even offer compensation to help displaced Israelis resettle in Israel proper. The Palestinians could remove the settlements from their list of objections and focus more energy on unifying themselves, improving security, and reducing corruption. The Europeans, long champions of Palestine, wouldn't even have to make any token noises about respecting sovereignty, since we wouldn't invade Israel at all, just the West Bank, and even then it would be Afghanistan-style: a friendly liberating force helping the locals against an oppressive tyrant. In fact, the American government is already helping to train Palestinian Authority security forces (with admirable results as internal security continues to improve in the West Bank). Of course the hardcore right-wing Zionists would hate us, but the increased goodwill from the Muslim world would be staggering. And isn't that what we've been trying to accomplish lately in those other Middle East lands we've invaded? Let's send our troops where they can really combat Arab Anti-Americanism. The only real front in the war on terror has always been Palestine.

23 September 2009


You know those people who get all excited about saying, "No one speaks well anymore! In fact the rabble would respond to this diatribe of mine by saying 'we speak good!' And that's disgusting! Ewww! Let's cut out the tongues of anyone who says the word 'like'!"

I can sympathize with those people, but man they sure make themselves easy to loathe.

I'm no linguist, but I feel like a lot of our colloquialisms have a longer and more distinguished history than we expect. I mean, look at Chaucer (the Knight's Tale, 192-3):

Hir yelow heer was broyded in a tresse
Bihynde hir bak, a yerde long, I gesse.

What a desperate cop-out for a rhyme, right? And yet it gives us a historical record of this crutch of a phrase that frankly I would have found hard to imagine outside of the twentieth century. I mean can you imagine Benjamin Franklin saying, "We must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately, I guess"? Yeah, that's what I thought. And yet Chaucer used it . . pretty much the same way we use it today. I guess (har har) that Chaucer didn't shy away from using appropriate or relevant verbal conventions in his writing, as many writers and "You-know-what-I-mean" haters do. You know what I mean?

line 105.
Creon got served.

19 September 2009

Man Proposes. God Disposes.

We live in an age of wonder. This month, if all goes as planned, German cargo ships will be the first ones to make the trip from Asia to Europe through the Arctic waters north of Russia known as the Northeast Passage. This route cuts over 4000 miles off the trip ships currently have to take through the Suez Canal. “It is global warming that enables us to think about using that route,” said Verena Beckhusen, a spokeswoman for the Beluga Group shipping company, according to the New York Times. And that’s not global warming’s only breakthrough trade route. Some scientists now predict that navigation of the Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic could also become commercially feasible within 20 or 30 years. The Northwest Passage has long been a dream for international traders, and the object of expeditions to prove its viability. In another age of wonder, the Victorian Era in England, one such attempt provided the basis for Sir Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes, part of the Royal Holloway Collection of Victorian paintings now on exhibit at BYU’s Museum of Art. The painting offers us an ambivalent view of social progress in Victorian England and invites to reexamine the advancements of our own era.

In 1845, England sent John Franklin to lead a crew whose aim was to map the Northwest Passage. The flowering of international commerce had already enriched Britain immensely, and the straits offered tantalizing financial gains to any country that could control them, if they proved navigable. Industrialization was also rapidly advancing the technology available for exploration. The expedition was outfitted with the newest inventions of maritime science, including steam engines from the London and Greenwich Railway and an iron rudder and propeller that could be retracted into iron wells to protect them from damage. The expedition set off . . . and was never seen again. Years later, searchers discovered that they had been trapped in the ice for years, gradually killed off by weather and disease and starvation. Marks on crew members’ bones indicated some had resorted to cannibalism. (1)

In Landseer’s deft hands, the scene becomes a perfect encapsulation of the Victorian era’s pathos. A forbidding but majestic icescape frames two polar bears ferociously tearing through the remains of the shipwreck, with a broken telescope lying discarded and useless in one corner and an exposed ribcage visible above the ice in the other. In many ways, Victorian England was a place of heady optimism, reflected in the rags-to-riches story of Thomas Holloway himself. But his collection of art, purchased a few years before his death, highlights the tensions associated with society’s progress. Many pieces are gritty scenes of the human suffering that accompanied urbanization: debtors’ prisons, rising crime, crowded homeless shelters. However, almost all the rest of the paintings exhibit a striking polarity: they are idealized scenes of rural bliss, natural beauty, and exotic locales. Escapism. The rich people who drove the demand for art—those who had benefited from the radical social and technological changes sweeping over England—wanted to forget about the price progress had exacted on their country.

Man Proposes, God Disposes is unique in the collection for synthesizing elements of these two groups of paintings. Nature’s awesome serenity serves as a backdrop to the woes humanity invented for itself: the obsessive, feverish worship of technology and commerce leads to calamity. That calamity was evident in the ills present in newly-industrialized Victorian England, and Landseer seems to say that such rapid and unconsidered change threatens to twist people’s very humanity from their grasp—can’t we see those ravenous polar bears as stand-ins for the crew members? And on some level, can’t a society be called cannibalistic that launches some to fabulous wealth at the expense of others who languish in poverty?

Landseer’s painting might be particularly relevant for us as a 21st-century audience. Our society exhibits many parallels to the Victorian Era: boundless opportunity, increasing reliance on technology, ubiquitous commerce. Bu with a daily backdrop of headlines populated with slums, hunger, and extremism, it seems unnecessary to ask what calamities could be riding the coattails of our progress. And the Victorians would probably be taken aback at the social cannibalism of Ponzi schemes and sub-prime mortgage loans. Landseer’s title is a warning; hubris has been the bane of mortals since Icarus. Our achievements must be tempered by an acknowledgment and minimization of their negative effects. So while the world produces and invents and communicates as never before, new passages are going to continue to open up to us. But every action has consequences. Or as the New York Times put it, global warming can help the Arctic open up for shipping, fishing, and oil exploration . . . but it “could be a particularly harsh jolt to polar bears.”

08 September 2009


I know you are skeptical.
I was skeptical too.
Skeptical because anything that becomes a phenomenon around here usually drowns in its own popularity. Not only around here. I guess it stands to reason that when lots of people start telling you you're cool, you start to think you're cool.
Well, a lot of people around here have been telling Fictionist they're cool. But guys, guess what?

They kind of are.

Not that they know it. Well, they might know it a little. It might just be sloshing around their ankles a bit. But they probably deserve it. On Friday I went to a show of theirs at Velour and was fortunate enough to discover that this was the night they had chosen to unveil the songs that will appear on their next album in October.

Let me tell you why I was glad to hear that. First: I know that every band has those rabid fans who would probably scream in exultant and conspicuous recognition at the opening lick of every song, just so everyone in earshot knows This Is Their Favorite Song, and they will sing along with all the words. I wasn't ready for that. This was my first exposure to Fictionist (I saw them once as Good Morning Maxfield, but it was in the Wilk, which, come on, doesn't count), and everyone else's ignorance of the setlist made the playing field feel more level. I didn't have to fight my way into a social caste, I didn't have to prove anything-- it was about the music.

Second: the music is good. Fictionist is a band made up of musicians. You know, some bands are made out of people who devote themselves primarily to political opinions, or graphic design, or having the right friends, using the band as a billboard to paste their intentions on. Fictionist is a bunch of nerds. Frontman Stuart Maxfield used to be a fixture in the BYU Jazz combos, always with his mustard-yellow solid-body Telecaster rather than one of the big hollow boxes preferred by most jazz guitarists. Jacob Jones, the keyboardist, was another HFAC regular. I have seen him, with my own two eyes, playing Dixieland trombone in a straw hat. I don't say this disparagingly at all-- I'm saying the kids have credentials. And you can hear it. The chords are sometimes complex, but never for the sake of complexity. They are lush, or brooding, or nostalgic, or exuberant. And when the band falls seamlessly into a new time signature four bars before falling effortlessly back, they aren't shoving it in your face, they're just saying, Here, dance a little. The songs bypass gee-whiz unconventionality and deliver instead emotion that is familiar and universal, but sonically better articulated than we're used to.

Also-- and yes, this deserves its own paragraph-- they love the Beatles. One of the songs in Fictionist's set could have been the B-side George never wrote for While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and their encore tune was She's So Heavy. The last Provo band I enjoyed this much was Don Juan Triumphant, who I once saw play the second half of Abbey Road while waiting for someone to show up with an amp. It's not a coincidence.

Fictionist is real. No matter how many flannel shirts are in the audience, these guys just love to play. In fact, Stuart Maxfield looks a little uncomfortable in the jeans it seems his fans demand he wear. And that's a good sign.