Archive for the ‘English studies’ Category

I read in today’s New York Times about publication of the final volume of DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English. This project was started at the University of Wisconsin by Prof. Frederic G. Cassidy, who passed away in 2000.

I had the great pleasure of studying with Prof. Cassidy, who was one of the readers of my Ph.D. dissertation on 9th-centry Anglo-Saxon sermons. He was a true gentleman and scholar. I’m sorry that he did not live to see the completion of the project, but it certainly stands as his monument.

And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche …

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just about the most amazing graph ever

I recently saw a LinkedIn discussion about how to define the South. Think there’s no such thing? Think again.

This graph from the ASARB in 2002, available from the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, shows the distribution of church membership. The different colors signify the predominant religious denomination in each county in the U.S. Black dots signify that there is an absolute majority of that denomination in the county. Click on the map to enlarge.

Care to guess what the red counties mean?

Southern Baptist, of course. If like me you grew up in the South you know intuitively what this means. I found this map while researching a course on Faulkner I taught for Miami’s Institute for Learning in Retirement in 2007 (you can find a PDF of my PowerPoint on my Presentations).

Oh, and there is one other way. I can’t locate it now, but I remember reading about a study that looked in Yellow Pages to find occurrences of the word “Dixie” in business names. Not surprisingly, as I recall, the percentage was highest in Alabama and Mississippi. But I don’t think the results were as striking as this.

I can only think of one other graphic I have ever seen that so effectively captures meaning. (Sorry to be mysterious, but I’ll have to blog about that later).

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Our English words for common terms often set us apart from speakers of  European languages, especially the Romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and others descending from Latin. In English only one name for a day of the week (Saturday) comes to us from Latin. The others are from the ordinary English words sun and moon, or from figures in pagan Germanic mythology such as Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Freya/Frigga (spellings vary).

Most Greek and Latin church traditions name Easter from the Hebrew Pesach (Passover). But once again, English turns to pagan roots and uses the name Eostre. This is possibly a female fertility figure associated with spring rebirth, but there’s not a lot of hard evidence left to be able to draw definitive conclusions.

That doesn’t stop the neo-pagans and New Agers from coming up with all sorts of speculation, of course. They share with some extreme fundamentalists the notion that this makes the English term Easter somehow “really” pagan.

Nonsense. The early (7th century) missionaries from Rome who came to Britain to convert the heathen Angles and Saxons simply made over existing traditions to Christian concepts — baptizing the names, as it were, or causing them to be born again. An English speaker using the word Easter is not any more or less pagan than a French speaker using the term Pacques. Pagan is as pagan does.

The illustration (from Wikimedia Commons) is by Johannes Gehrts and reflects a late 19th-century German Romantic view of Eostre. With a few Italianate putti flitting around and a tidy-looking purple martin house.

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From T.H. White’s The Once and Future King: The young Wart, of mysterious parentage, confronts the fact that his foster brother Kay will become a knight and (so he believes) he, Wart, will never be one:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics — why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

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pictured, left to right: Messor barbarus; physicist Murray Gell-Mann

This post’s title comes from one of the great imaginative romances of the 20th century – and from quantum mechanics. As you might suspect, there’s a connection.

T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is a brilliant re-creation of King Arthur (with the Round Table, Lancelot, Guinevere and all the rest). It’s the direct basis of at least two other works: the musical Camelot and Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Re-reading it this month I was also struck by how much the relationship between Merlyn the magician and the boy Arthur (aka the Wart) resembles that between Dumbledore and Harry Potter. I later learned that J.K. Rowling has described the Wart as “Harry’s spiritual ancestor.”

The Sword in the Stone is the first of four sections of the novel, and the only one about Arthur as a boy. Merlyn’s tutorship includes changing the Wart into, among other things, a fish in the moat, a falcon in the mews, and an ant in a glass case. White’s ant world is the ultimate totalitarian society (its appearance in 1939 is hardly coincidental). The Messor barbarus ants know only two concepts: Done and Not-Done. They obey all orders sent wirelessly to their antennae. They never ask questions. Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory is the slogan carved above each tunnel in their nest.

It’s also Gell-Mann’s Totalitarian Principle, coined by physicist Murray Gell-Mann as a basic law of quantum mechanics. Any interaction between sub-atomic particles not expressly prohibited by some natural law must be assumed to be probable (the soft version) or must be inevitable (the hard version). Astronomers now have indirect though pretty good photographic evidence that black holes are real; but long before that, their existence was considered almost certain because (a) the laws of physics said that they could exist, and (b) no known law prevents them from existing.

Gell-Mann had a flair for such things. He also coined the term quark, the never-seen subatomic building block of observable particles, from a passage in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (‘Three quarks for Muster Mark!’). A physicist after my own heart.

The Once and Future King is one of the great, great books of the 20th century. I’m certain that the Disney cartoon is a two-edged sword (ha!) in that most people wrongly assume the novel is aimed only at children.

They’re wrong. Read it. It will break your heart.

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W. Shakespeare, Gent.

I posted a blog entry today at Lisa Haneberg’s Management Central site on the topic of motivation vs. behavior. In it I quote Hamlet to Gertrude as he advises her to have nothing to do with his murderous stepfather:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
. . . Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either exorcise the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

In other words, behavior. Don’t become virtuous so that you may act virtuously; instead, act virtuously so that you may become virtuous.

The problem here is that we need to recognize that while Shakespeare may articulate this or that idea, we mustn’t fall into the trap of the Shakespearean fallacy: acting as if Shakespeare is advocating the same. He isn’t; his character Hamlet is.

Or take this better-known speech, from the same play:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This is Polonius to his son Laertes. How many motivational speakers have gotten 4 hours ot of this? But:

  • Is this Shakespeare’s advice?
  • Sure, it sounds reasonable.
  • But Polonius is a fool.
  • Does that make his advice worthless?
  • Does it matter?

This why, in Shakespeare, you end up throwing up your hands and say it’s the ultimate example of John Keats’ negative capability — the capacity of the artist to create believable characters who may (or may not) be like their creator. Sort of the opposite of the clueless Dan Brown.

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James Joyce, 1882-1941

James Joyce, 1882-1941

June 16th, 1904 is a date celebrated by lovers of James Joyce the world over as Bloomsday. It’s the date of the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses as Leopold Bloom wanders the streets of Dublin. Joyce first went out with his great love Nora Barnacle on that day.

…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

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422px-LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattOn June 8, 793, Vikings raided the remote abbey of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in the first Viking incursion into England. Alfred and other Anglo-Saxon kings of England were able to battle the invaders with some success, but for almost the next 300 years England, especially the North, was locked in a cycle of invasion, warfare and settlement. The Vikings’ Old Norse was a cousin of Anglo-Saxon and some elements of modern English come from it — for example the personal pronouns they, them, etc., and skirt (a cognate of shirt, from Old English).

The beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospel is among the treasures of medieval art. Shown here is the title page from the Gospel of Matthew. Look carefully and you can make out stylized letters reading:

liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham…

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham…

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J. Buckett's tombstone

J. Buckett's tombstone

In 1972 when I visited the small village of Stockbridge, England (a little northeast of Winchester) I found this tombstone in the church cemetery. It’s a splendid example of a poetic epitaph. They don’t make them like this anymore.

When I went back in 2002 moss had made some of the writing illegible, but based on my notes from 1972, here’s how it reads:


Memory of
many years Landlord of the King’s Head Inn
in this Borough
who departed this life November 20th (?), 1802
Aged 67 Years.

And is alas! poore BUCKETT gone?
Farewell convivial honest JOHN.
Oft at the well by fatal stroke,
Buckets like pitchers must be broke.
In this same motley shifting scene
How various have thy fortunes been!
Now lifted high, now sinking low,
Today thy brim would overflow.
Thy bounty then would all supply,
To fill & drink & leave thee dry.
Tomorrow sunk as in a well,
Content unseen with Truth to dwell.
But high or low or wet or dry,
No rotten stave could malice spy.
Then rise immortal BUCKETT rise,
And claim thy station in the skies.
’Twixt Amphora and Pisces shine,
Still guarding Stockbridge with thy sign. 

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W. Shakespeare, Gent.

My doctoral area was Anglo-Saxon, but my related area was Renaissance. I don’t see how there could be a better teacher of Shakespeare, though, than in my undergraduate years — George Walton Williams at Duke. I wanted to teach this class in part to honor him. “Themes and Patterns in Shakespeare” was the third class I prepared for Miami University’s Institute for Learning in Retirement. Here’s a PDF of my presentation.

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