Showing posts with label Lewis Carroll. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lewis Carroll. Show all posts

15 February 2018

Older Than You Think


by Eve Fisher
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" - (Explanation later)
The New York Times ran a great article the other day called, "Many Animals Can Count, Some Better Than You".  I am sure that every one of us who has /had a pet can assure them of that.  (Try to gyp a dog out of the correct number of treats.)  Not only can they count - as a female frog literally counts the number of mating clucks of the male - but they can compare numbers.  (Read about the guppies and the sticklebacks.)

But where the article really got interesting was where they talked about that, despite math phobia, etc., humans have an innate "number sense." There is archaeological evidence suggesting that humans have been counting for at least 50,000 years.  Before writing ever came around, people were using other ways of tallying numbers, from carving notches (bones, wood, stones) to clay tokens that lie all over Sumerian sites and which often looked, for decades, to archaeologists like bits of clay trash.

But the ability to count and the desire to count and to keep track comes before tokens or notches, otherwise they'd never have bothered.  And language - blessed language - comes before all of that.  So get this:  they say that the number words for small quantities — less than five — are not only strikingly similar across virtually every language in the world, but also are older (and more similar) than the words for mother, father, and body parts.  Except certain words like... no, not that!  (Get your mind out of the gutter)  Except the words for the eye and the tongue. Make of that what you will...

Dr Mark Pagel, biologist at Reading University, said, “It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”  That just gave me goosebumps when I read it.  


Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 BC
Development of Sumerian cunieform writing,
Td k at Wikipedia

I admit, I'm fascinated by the past. (That's why I became a historian...)  To me, history is time travel for pedestrians, a way to connect with our ancient ancestors.  So let's zip around a bit, starting with jokes (Reuters):

Sumerian man,
looking slightly upset...
(Wikipedia)
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” - Sumeria, ca 1900 BC

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.” - Egypt, ca 1600 BC, supposedly about the randy Pharaoh Snofru

The earliest [written] "yo' mamma" joke, from an incomplete Babylonian fragment, ca 1500 BC:
"…your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?"
(Okay, so it doesn't translate that well, but we all know where it's heading.)

And this riddle from 10th century Britain (for more see here):
"I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant’s daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye."
(Answer at the end and no peeking!)

Plot lines go very, very far back as well.  

Ancient Egyptian leather 
sandals (Wikipedia)
The fairy tale with the oldest provenance is "The Smith and the Devil" which goes back at least 7,000 years, and has been mapped out over 35 Indo-European languages, and geographically from India to Scandinavia.  (Curiosity)  The bones of the story are that the Smith makes a deal with the Devil (or death) and cheats him.  Now there's been all sorts of variations on it. In a very old one, the smith gains the power to weld any materials, then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain. Over time, the smith's been transformed to clever peasants, wise simpletons, and, of course, fiddlers ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is, whether Charlie Daniels knew it or not, a variation on this very, very old fairy tale), and the devil occasionally got transformed to death or even a rich mean relative.  Check out Grimm's "The Peasant and the Devil" and "Why the Sea is Salt".

Enkidu, Gilgamesh's
best friend - his death
sends Gilgamesh in
search of eternal life.
(Urban at French
Wikipedia)
But Cinderella's pretty old, too, and just as universal.  Many people believe that the Eros/Psyche myth is the true original.  The Chinese version, Ye Xian, was written in 850 AD, and has everything including the slipper.  There's a Vietnamese version of ancient lineage, The Story of Tam and Cam.  And there are at least 3 variations of it in 1001 Nights.  (BTW, if you're gonna read 1001 Nights - and I recommend it highly - read the Mardrus and Mathers translation in 4 volumes.  Available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon.)

And, of course, many stock plots go at least as far back as Sumeria, including rival brothers (Cain and Abel), blood brothers (Gilgamesh and Enkidu), old men killing their rivals (Lamech, Genesis 4), the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood (complete with ark, dove, and rainbow), and the quest for eternal life (Gilgamesh).

BTW, most of the stories in Genesis come from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which makes perfect sense when you remember that Abraham is said to have come from Ur of the Chaldees, which was a Sumerian city.  

But back to words, which are, after all, our stock in trade as writers.  Remember above, where I quoted the NYT how you could communicate with Neanderthals by pointing and using number words?  And remember that sentence at the very beginning?  
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" 
According to researchers, if you went back 15,000 years and said that sentence, slowly, perhaps trying various accents, in almost any language, to almost any hunter-gatherer tribe, anywhere, they'd understand most of it.  You see, the words in that sentence are basic, almost integral to life, constantly used, constantly needed, for over 15,000 years, since the last Ice Age.  (It's only recently that we've lost our interest in black worms except in tequila and mescal.)

Due to the fact that we live on a planet with 7.6 billion humans and counting, it's hard to realize that, back around 15,000, there were at most 15,000,000 humans on the entire planet (and perhaps as few as 1,000,000).  They probably shared a language.  If nothing else, they would have shared a basic trading language so that when they ran into each other, they could communicate. Linguistics says that most words are replaced every few thousand years, with a maximum survival of roughly 9,000 years. But 4 British researchers say they've found 23 words - what they call "ultra-conserved" words - that date all the way back to 13,000 BC.

Speaking of 13,000 BC, here's a Lascaux Cave Painting.  Wikipedia

Now there's a list of 200 words - the Swadesh list(s) - which are the core vocabulary of all languages.  (Check them out here at Wikipedia.)  These 200 words are cognates, words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages:
Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit).  
Now this makes sense, because English and Sanskrit are both part of the Indo-European language family.  But our 23 ultra-conserved words are "proto-words" that exist in 4 or more language families, including Inuit-Yupik.  (Thank you, Washington Post.  And, if you want to wade through linguistic science, here's the original paper over at the National Academy of Sciences.)

So, what are they?  What are these ultra-conserved words, 15,000 years old, and a window to a time of hunter-gatherers painting in Lascaux and trying to survive the end of the Younger Dryas (the next-to-the last mini-Ice Age; the last was in 1300-1850 AD)?  Here you go:

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, 
who, this, what, man/male, 
ye, old, mother, to hear, 
hand, fire, to pull, black, 
to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

There's got to be a story there.  How about this?

"I give this fire to flow down the bark!  Who pulls the man from the mother?  Who pulls his hand from the fire?  Who / what / we?"

I was trying a couple of variations on these words, and then I realized that the ultimate has already been done:


"Who are you?" [said] the Worm.  


PS - the answer to the riddle is "onion".  

04 December 2012

Growing the Language


by Dale C. Andrews

Barney and Clyde, The Washington Post, December 1, 2012
Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
                                      The Bells, First Stanza
                                      Edgar Allan Poe

America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.
                                      Warren G. Harding

    So, you are doubtless wondering, what exactly does Edgar Allan Poe have in common with Warren G. Harding?  The italicized words set forth above are the clues – both “tintinnabulation” and “normalcy” basically did not exist until used by Poe and Harding, respectively.  Poe’s made up word, derived from the Latin word for "bell", tintinnabulum, entered the English language largely because it fit Poe’s pentameter.  Harding’s invention, or at the least popularization, of the word “normalcy” is predictably baser, deriving from the existing word “normality” and Harding’s political aspirations, which required a less high-falluting word to garner the support of the voting public. 

    These two words eventually gained entry to most dictionaries, but prior to besting that bar they were “sniglets.”  “Sniglet” is itself a made-up word, and one that, I will admit, I had not encountered until I heard a weatherman in Washington, D.C. use it several weeks ago.  A sniglet is defined (simply) by the Urban Dictionary as a word that should be in the dictionary but isn't.  The “should” part of this may be a bit generous – the word “irregardless,” for example, an illegitimate progeny of “regardless” and “irrespective,” qualifies as a sniglet and is used often.  At least for me it continues to grate.  (With apologies to my Tuesday partner in crime Mr. Dean, my wife and I had a law school professor who used to scratch through "irregardless" whenever it appeared in a paper or exam and write in the margin “this is only a word in New Jersey!”)

    As noted, “sniglet” is itself a "sniglet".  The word was invented by Richard Hall, a comedian and actor in the 1960s.  Hall published several books of sniglets and also, for a time, had a newspaper column devoted to these wannabe words.  While Hall coined the word sniglet, the concept was previously more broadly encompassed by the word “neologism,” which encompasses not only a newly coined word or phrase, but also a newly offered idea or theory.  Some skips and jumps through the internet reveal that neologisms or sniglets often make their assault into accepted speech from the springboard of literature.  Science Fiction, for example, has reportedly given us the then-new words “laser,” (Light Amplification through Stimulated Emissions of Radiation) in 1960, and “robotics” in 1941.  (Thank you, Mr. Asimov).  Other then-new additions to the language that sprang from literature include “nymphet,” from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, “Orwellian,” from the themes set forth in George Orwell’s 1984.  And as descriptive nouns we have a “Scrooge,” a “Pollyanna,” someone who is “Quixotic” as well as those who are “Sadistic,” (derived from the practices of the Marquis de Sade). 

    Commenting on the need for the English language to fluidly grow, Thomas Jefferson stated the following in an 1831 letter: 
I am no friend, therefore, to what is called Purism, but a   zealous one to the Neology . . . .    The new circumstance under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed; so will a West-Indian and Asiatic, as a Scotch and an Irish are already formed.

So, it is often we, the writers, who are either responsible for all of this or, at the very least, carry the ball by repeating, in dialog, that which we hear around us.  Print adds legitimacy.

    As we approach 2013 it is interesting to look at previously aspiring words and phrases that “passed their finals” and gained admittance  into the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2012.  Newly legitimized words for 2012 include:
  • Man-cave
  • Sexting (Alexander Graham Bell must be rolling in his grave)
  • Earworm (denoting a song you can’t get out of your head)
  • Bucket List
  • Energy Drink
  • Aha Moment
  • Game Changer
  • F-Bomb (as in “Dropping the F-Bomb”)
  • Gastropub
  • Mash-up (Something created by combining items from two or more sources).
    Although writers can nudge the language in new directions, as the foregoing discussion and examples illustrate, there are some places that the language simply will not allow itself to go.  Thus, while Lewis Carroll is discussed prominently as a contributor of sniglets or neologisms, more often than not Carroll’s imagination proved too great for the more conservative tastes of evolving language.  No greater example of this exists than his poem Jabberwocky from Through the Looking Glass, composed almost completely of substantive words that are still aspiring to existence but never made it.
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.