Language and the Invention of Writing

From Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (hat tip: Ken Wheeler):

In late December I recommended one of my favorite recent books off my reading list – recent in this case meaning when I read them, not necessarily when they were published. That was Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster. (You can see my review and recommendation here.) I’ve been casting about since and in the last week I’ve finally found a book on a related topic that has captured my interest: The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan. But what really prompted me to write this post was this poster I saw on Jason Kottke’s site.

(You can purchase the poster here from a place called usefulcharts.com.)

As you can see, the poster traces the evolution of our modern Latin alphabet back to what is known as Proto-Sinaitic. All of this is prologue to my current fascination with the history of writing.

Language is not an invention. As best we can tell it is an evolved feature of the human brain. There have been almost countless languages humans have spoken. But they all follow certain rules that grow out of the wiring of the human brain and human cognition. Critically, it is something that is hardwired into us. Writing is an altogether different and artificial thing.

Since we live in a highly literate culture, it can be a bit hard not to think of writing as just a different version of language – there’s the sound version and the written version. But again, there’s nothing natural about it or inevitable. Indeed, the invention of various scripts that can encode virtually all the potential meaning of human speech and as well as it sounds is one of the most fascinating stories of human history.

More at the link. Marshall is right. A recent question on an exam asked students to identify and state the importance of language. The correct answer is that language allowed Homo sapiens a massive competitive advantage over other hominins (indeed, over every other living creature, and over the elements as well). Language is more than, e.g., a particular shriek that indicates the presence of a snake. Language is a particularly complex system of communication that allows its possessors the ability to imagine counterfactuals, e.g. what would happen if we tried this? As far as we can tell, no other creature can do this, certainly not to the extent that Homo sapiens can. Animal behavior might be sophisticated, but it is generally instinctual, evolved over millions of years.* It would never occur to a bird, for instance, to put a roof over its nest.

Most of the answers on the exam, however, spoke of language being invented in Sumeria c. 3000 BC, and impressed into clay tablets, which allowed good record keeping and as a bonus gives historians today some idea of what ancient Sumerian society looked like. But as I wrote in the margins more than once: “Language ≠ script!”

If I correctly recall the material from an undergraduate anthropology class, the linguist Noam Chomsky is largely responsible for the notion that language is a part of us in the same way that our livers are. There is a language module in our brains (a “Universal Grammar,” in Chomskian coinage) that gets turned on at a certain age based on whatever an individual happens to hear.** This theory makes a great deal of intuitive sense, even if we haven’t yet located any language center. Encoding language phonemes as writing, however, is not at all natural – it is an achievement of civilization and must be taught to people at great effort over many years. And it’s not just learning what letters represent what sounds, or combine to make what words: keep in mind that as much as 70% of face-to-face communication involves intonation, facial expression, or body language, little of which gets represented in writing (one of the reasons why, historically, people were suspicious of it). This is why a transcription of a conversation or an impromptu speech often reads so awkwardly, and why polished literacy usually involves the mastery of certain prose conventions that help to overcome the inherently limiting qualities of script.***

In the Middle Ages, as Michael Clanchy states in his well-known book From Memory to Written Record (1993), literacy was a technical skill, like IT might be today – you need people to do it, but there’s no reason why a manager should have to set up his own computer network; he has better things to do. And if literacy was technical, then medieval people tended to distrust documents in a way that we don’t anymore. A document was often just as a disembodied text that anyone could have written. It was much better to hear something from someone trustworthy, who heard it from someone trustworthy, who heard it from the source. The line of human transmission guaranteed the authenticity of the information. Along the same lines, there is a famous story about how John de Warrenne, earl of Surrey, when asked by King Edward I to justify by what warrant he held his estates, drew a rusty sword and declared that:

My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.

In other words, no document needed here! Clanchy himself warns against being biased in favor of literacy, if for no other reason than non-literate people tend to have much better memories than any of us do (or even just linguistic skills – I met a man in Egypt who could not read any language, but who had acquired the ability to speak fluent English by talking with tourists). Literacy can also be a tool of centralized coercion, when you teach people how to read, and then make sure they read only things you approve of.

Finally, and to return to the theme of Marshall’s post, the Roman alphabet actually doesn’t fit English all that well. One wishes that we could have an alphabet in which every phoneme gets its own unique character, or at least a standard combination of characters – and that our eccentric English orthography could finally be rationalized. But I suppose on another level that it’s good that we share an alphabet with so many other languages, and that in each case the letters represent more or less the same sounds – it makes learning French, German, Estonian, Welsh, or Turkish that much easier (that is, if you’re like me and have become addicted to script).

* I am aware of stories about how corvids can bend a wire and then use it to extract an object from a bottle, or how octopi can figure out how to open screw top lids on jars, or even how pods of killer whales can invent adaptive behaviors and then communicate them to their young, demonstrating a form of animal culture. But as I read once, in response to the claim that man is not the only tool-making animal: “Using a blade of grass to extract ants from an anthill is not a tool. The internal combustion engine is a tool.”

** Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech (2016), his last published book, deals with the possibility that Universal Grammar might not be entirely universal. The missionary-turned-linguist Daniel Everett claims to have discovered, in the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest, a language that does not include recursion (e.g. the Pirahã are incapable of formulating a sentence like “he said that she would come”), thereby undermining a key feature of human language as understood by Noam Chomsky. Being Tom Wolfe, he focuses very heavily on the status to be won by defending one’s own theory or exploding someone else’s, but one question that he doesn’t seem to consider is: is it possible that recursion fell out of use among the Piranã people due to their isolation plus genetic drift or even revealed maladaptability, in the same way that penguins lost the ability to fly or certain cave dwelling creatures lost the ability to see? That is, Universal Grammar might indeed exist, it’s just that some people don’t need it and so have lost it – it’s not that UG never existed in the first place. Snakes are considered tetrapods even though they don’t have any limbs – their ancestors did once upon a time, but in the meantime the animals evolved a different means of locomotion. (Or they were cursed to crawl about on their bellies, if you adhere to Genesis 3.14.)

*** This is parallel to how filmmakers use all sorts of tricks – like panning, cutting, or zooming – to overcome the fact that their medium imposes a frame on and flattens one’s experience of reality.

Appalachian English

From Appalachian Magazine (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

Appalachian English: Why We Say “Warsh Rag” & “Low Tar”

The world that I knew as a kid was far different than that of most other children; however, at the time, I had no idea.  I thought that every child had grandfathers who were coalminers, a father who bucket fed orphaned calves, a grandmother who spoke about Jesus as though she knew him personally and a mother who wasn’t above forcing her disobedient son to snap a green branch from the willow tree out in the front yard.

I grew up Appalachia and Appalachia was all I knew.

It was not until I reached the golden age of 18 and moved away to college in a distant city that I slowly began to realize just how unique and wonderful my life’s experiences had been compared to so many others.

My first day of living in a freshman dormitory, I evoked the laughter of the entire floor when I used the word “warsh rag” to describe the newly purchased wash cloths my mother had included in my bag of necessities.

In the world that I came to age in, that’s what they were called and that was the only thing they were called.

In the days, weeks and years that followed, I would one by one learn that the way we spoke as a child was far different than how most others talked.

To my astonishment, I discovered that a “mountain holler” was actually spelled an pronounced as “hollow”, I also faced criticism for pronouncing wire as “war”, fire as “far”, and tired as “tarred”.

Through the years, my classmates, teachers and employers have all attempted to either correct my pronunciations or berate me for speaking this way; however, I have since learned to be proud of my Appalachian-English and that there are many linguistic experts who have come to our defense in recent years.

Read the whole thing.

Speaking of the Funk, I’m looking forward to a presentation there this week:

“Archaeology of the Cherokee Heartland”

Join us this Thursday, Feb. 7, at 2 p.m. when we host Dr. Benjamin Steere of Western Carolina University. Dr. Steere, author of “The Archaeology of Houses and Households in the Native Southeast,” will introduce participants to the world of the prehistoric Cherokee who lived in the Southern Appalachians. Reserve your seat by calling (770) 720-5967. The cost is $10 (or $5 for members).

Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp

Both the French and German languages feature a discrete set of intransitive* verbs, largely dealing with motion, that require the verb “to be” (not “to have”) as their auxiliary in the perfect. Thus:

• J’ai fait, j’ai marché, j’ai mangé but je suis venu, je suis allé, je suis arrivé
• Ich habe gemacht, Ich habe spatziert, Ich habe gegessen but Ich bin angekommen, Ich bin geganen, Ich bin gefallen

I recently realized that this feature was operational in English as late as the King James Bible (1611), in which we read things like:

• I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes (Ps. 119:83)
• The end of all flesh is come before me (Gen. 6:13)
• Behold, the whole family is risen against thine handmaid (2 Sam. 14:7)

So when did this use of “to be” fall out of common usage? I asked my colleague Graham Johnson of Reinhardt’s English program what he knew, and he provided some helpful commentary:

The answer is similar to the question you asked several years ago about when “thou,” “thee,” and “thine” (second person singular pronouns) dropped out of common English usage.

The verb form in the example “Christ is risen” is known as the present perfect tense, which now in Modern English uses a form of the verb “to have” (in the present tense) rather than “to be” (in the present tense) combined with the past participle: “Christ has risen.”

We find both of these (1. “thou” and 2. perfect present using a form of the verb “to be”) still in common use in Early Modern English – so, early- to mid-1600s.

We also see some poets even in the mid 1800s occasionally using both, but by then it seems to be rare, with the writers doing it for dramatic results (using old-fashioned forms), rather than because either is in common usage. We even will find a more literary author use a present perfect in the 1900s either to make a line sound more “old-fashioned” or arguably to sound more biblical, i.e., echoing the KJB (this is rare indeed).

So, without delving into the material enough to pin down an exact decade or two (which may be impossible to do with certainty anyway), one could say that both these changes happened after Early Modern English and before Late Modern English – basically still being used but less and less over the mid- to late-1700s, and by the mid 1800s not much at all, except for artistic reasons (to sound a little archaic).

Interesting – thanks, Graham! 

(The title of this post is a mnemonic device.)

* They have to be intransitive verbs, because in all three languages the auxiliary verb “to be” normally signals the passive voice (“I am eaten”). Intransitives cannot take an object, thus they cannot be made passive.

-eum

The original Museum was the “hall of muses” in Alexandria, and the original Mausoleum was a memorial to the Persian satrap Mausoleus at Halicarnassus, which was so impressive that it was designated one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Lyceum was a school founded by Aristotle in the grove of Apollo Lykeos, while the Athenaeum was a school in Rome that was named after a nearby temple to Athena. Finally, the Colosseum (also spelled Coliseum) was a venue for gladiatorial combat in Rome that took its name from a colossal statue of Nero.

All of these “-eum” words have become general words in English. Museums and mausoleums are all over the place, and a lot of cities have coliseums (although lyceum, as “lycée,” is much more common in French*).

Plenty of other such words have not become general ones. Either they still refer to specific buildings, or specify types of buildings, in the ancient world only. I jotted down a few:

Ramesseum – the memorial temple of Ramesses the Great
Mithraeum – a temple to the god Mithras
pyreum – a Zoroastrian fire-altar (from Greek pura = fire)
Serapeum – a temple to Serapis in Egypt

And -eum is simply the Latin equivalent of the Greek -eon, which we also see from time to time, as in Odeon (a venue for the singing of odes) or Pantheon (a temple for worshiping all gods).

* It’s interesting how “lycée” is common in French but “academy” is common in English. The Academy, of course, was Plato’s school, in opposition to which Aristotle founded the Lyceum. But I’ve always considered the French to be far more Platonic than Aristotelian, and the English more Aristotelian than Platonic.

Dare Stones

I have just discovered the existence of South’s version of the Kensington Runestone. From the Brenau Window:

In November 1937 as America clawed its way out of The Great Depression, a Californian man showed up at the history department of Emory University in Atlanta with a most peculiar object – a 21-pound chunk of rough veined quartz with some foreign looking words chiseled into its surface. The man said he found the rock in a North Carolina swamp, about 80 miles from Roanoke Island, while he was driving through on vacation. The strange stone caught the attention of one of the professors, Dr. Haywood Pearce Jr., who also served as vice president of Brenau, where his father was president. The inscription on the stone read “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence unto heaven 1591,” and a message to notify John White of that news bore the initials of the author of the carved writing, EWD, presumably those of Eleanor Dare.

Although Emory’s historians weren’t interested, Pearce and his father certainly were. Perhaps they concluded that, if this chuck of rock indeed marked the graves of America’s “first white child” and her father, it might well be the thing to put their college on the map. They wound up paying the California man $1,000 for the treasure.

Anyone who has used tiller, plow or trowel in Appalachian dirt will swear the region grows rocks. But nothing plows better than cold cash. To make a long story short, over the next four years, similar rocks popped up all over the place, mostly found by four people. Pearce and his father over the years acquired close to 50 of the huge stones, all with similar inscriptions unearthed as far south as the banks of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. Although the Pearces’ fervent explorations and money never turned up graves or any other evidence to authenticate the stones, a team of Smithsonian Institution-commissioned historians – headed by the venerable Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard – traveled to Gainesville and, in a preliminary report, assigned some validity to what had then come to be known as “The Dare Stones.”

David Morrison’s article notes that the Saturday Evening Post, in 1941, conclusively proved that most of these stones were forgeries, but what about the original one? From the Washington Post on July 5 (hat tip: Ron Good):

In the past few years, researchers have been taking another look. For one, the letters etched on the first stone look very different from the others. It doesn’t contain any suspiciously modern words as the others do. Plus, Dare was “moderately educated,” Schrader says, and her husband was a stonemason. It’s reasonable to think she may have learned the skill from him.

In 2016, Schrader had a sample of the stone analyzed by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, exposing the quartz’s bright white interior.

“The original inscription would have been a stark contrast to the weathered exterior,” science writer Andrew Lawler wrote for National Geographic. “A good choice for a Roanoke colonist but a poor one for a modern forger.”

Schrader said he would like to marshal the funds for an “exhaustive, geochemical investigation,” but first, this fall, a Brenau professor will assemble a team of outside experts to analyze the language more thoroughly.

“The type of English that’s on the stone was really only used for about a hundred years, so it’s a nice time marker to be able to study,” Schrader said.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. (I make no comment on the use of “Virginia Dare” by white nationalists – if the rock is authentic, then it’s authentic, and if it’s fake, then it’s fake. What “uses” it is put to are beyond the investigator’s concern.)

Language and Politics

Some notes, to complement my post from three years ago:

• On my transatlantic flight to Shannon airport I sat next to a charming young woman from County Donegal who was returning from a medical research conference in the United States and who is about to defend her dissertation at the University of Galway. Donegal contains one of the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland although she was not a native speaker of Irish (she was Xhosa, in fact), she did her duty and learned the language in school. The trouble, she told me, is that each of the three west coast Gaeltacht areas (Ulster, Connacht, and Munster) speak a different dialect of Irish, and they’re all different enough to cause problems. So when you go to take your final exam, there’s no guarantee that the person examining you will be speaking the same dialect that you’ve studied!

• Our first stop on the tour was the Dingle Peninsula, a Gaeltacht area (and home of the Munster dialect). There were plenty of signs in the language although I think I overheard it being spoken exactly once. Our guide told us that many high school students come during the summers and stay for two weeks in an Irish-speaking home, on a government-sponsored program to help promote the language. On a coach tour of the peninsula we stopped at St. Caitlín’s (i.e., Catherine’s) Church in the village of Ventry, which was distinguished by being the resting place of its longtime priest Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, who died in 2016 and who is responsible for translating the Bible into Irish. According to our guide, he was the first person ever to accomplish this feat. I thought, surely not – surely someone translated it before? Turns out that there have been previous translations, but Ó Fiannachta’s was the first Roman Catholic one (prior to Vatican II, of course, a Latin Bible was all that a good Catholic really needed). A stained glass window in the church commemorates Monsignor ó Fiannachta and specifically compares him to St. Jerome, who had originally translated the Bible into Latin in the fifth century.

• As I noted before, most personal names and most place names are translatable. That is, if you’re speaking in English, you use the English version, and if you’re speaking in Irish, you use the Irish version. Exceptions exist, of course: being a native Irish speaker and scholar, Pádraig Ó Fiannachta is so called, never “Patrick Fenton.” The Gaeltacht village of Lispole has been spared having its name rendered as such on this road sign:

Note how the other place names are given: Irish version first, in Title Case and italics, and English version second, in ALL CAPS and roman. This convention is a good one: it produces a clear distinction between the versions and probably cuts down on confusion, and hearkens back to the time when Irish required its own font.

• A number of other Irish names and words are standard when speaking English. I jotted down a few:

  • Oireachtas Éireann (the Irish legislature), comprising the Seanad Éireann and the Dáil Éireann
  • Teachta Dála (a member of the Dáil)
  • The political parties Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin
  • Garda Síochána (the police)
  • Taoiseach (Prime Minister, but note that his ceremonial superior is simply the President)
  • Tánaiste (the deputy Prime Minister)
  • Brú na Bóinne (the “Palace of the Boyne,” which I’ll be writing more about)
  • Amhrán na bhFiann,” the national anthem, which is sung in Irish (although there is an English equivalent called “A Soldier’s Song.”)
  • The transportation companies Bus Éireann and Aer Lingus
  • RTE, that is, the national broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann
  • Éire (not “Ireland”) appears on postage stamps

Also, county names appear only in Irish on the number plates:

Cork

Kerry

Louth

• But note that the town of Dingle, which the Irish minister for Community, Rural, and Gaeltacht Affairs ordered in 2005 be known only by the Irish version of its name (“An Daingean”) held a plebiscite the following year to reverse this decision, and overwhelmingly voted to return to the bilingual place name dispensation. As one man stated: “People feel they are being bullied. They have lived with ‘Dingle’ all their lives.” Methinks tourism branding might have had something to do with it as well. If the place has been known and advertised as one thing, why mess with it? Not to mention that there already is a “Daingean” in Ireland, the seat of Co. Offaly.

• Our guide in Dublin Castle pointed out that most place names in English are simply phonetic renderings of the Irish names. The English generally didn’t bother to translate what the names actually meant. Thus did “Dubhlinn” become “Dublin,” and not “Blackpool” (which is what the name means, and which refers to a dark pool on the River Poddle near where it enters the Liffey). But why, I asked, is the Irish name for Dublin actually “Baile Átha Cliath” (pronounced “bally a klee”)? That, she told me, comes from a different geographical feature at a different site: a “hurdled ford” further up the River Liffey. (“Bally,” I discover, simply means “place of,” hence Ballyduff, Ballygally, Ballymena, Ballymoney, etc. But I don’t think that “Ballyackley” ever existed as an English name.)

Apparently Dubhlinn was the Viking settlement, and Áth Cliath the native Irish one; one name stuck in English, and the other in Irish. History is full of these sorts of nominal weirdnesses.

• But for a real naming dispute, you have to travel to the North, where “Are you Derry or Londonderry?” is a question one can ask in that particular city, by means of inquiring which “community” one belongs to.* That is, the nationalists prefer Derry, while the unionists Londonderry. Note that this is a dispute in English: the Irish equivalent of Derry is Doire, and presumably you could call it Londaindoire in Irish if you wanted to, although I highly doubt anyone ever does. According to Wikipedia, it wasn’t that big a deal prior to the advent of the Troubles (viz. the “Apprentice Boys of Derry“), at which time it became a shibboleth. I saw signs in the Republic reading “Doire DERRY” in the prescribed typography noted above, and I actually saw a “Londonderry” sign in the North, that is, some nationalists had gotten to it and effaced the offending prefix.

In the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, how to solve this impasse? Many people say “Derry-Londonderry,” and I saw it written out “Derry/Londonderry” more than a few times. Our guide said that this has given rise to the jocular nickname “Stroke City.” I think that a good compromise would be to call the city “Derry” (it has a nationalist majority which naturally took control of the place once the gerrymandering was abolished) and the county “Londonderry” (there never was a “County Derry”).**

Failing that, you can always use the name of the local river and its estuary as an avoidance strategy, as does this place:

• At the time of the Romans, some of the people inhabiting what is now Scotland were known as the Picts, and spoke a Celtic language related Welsh and Breton (a Brittonic, or P-Celtic language). The Scots themselves were originally from Northern Ireland and settled western Scotland in the early Middle Ages, founding the kingdom of Dalraida. Thus is the country known today as Scotland, and Scottish Gaelic is a Goidelic, or Q-Celtic language, related to Irish and Manx. If this language was reintroduced into Northern Ireland as a result of the Scottish settlement in the seventeenth century, I saw no evidence of it. But I did see some signs in “Ulster Scots,” which some people hold up as the official minority language of Northern Ireland, and which, as far as they are concerned, is due the same amount of protection and promotion that the Republic lavishes on the Irish language. The trouble, as our guide pointed out, is that Ulster Scots “doesn’t really exist,” and I think she is right. Here is the opening paragraph for “Lunnonderrie” in Wikipedia:

Lunnonderry, kent by monie fowk as Derry, is the seicont mukkilest ceitie in Northren Ireland (eftir Belfast) an the fowert-mukkilest ceitie on the iland o Ireland. In the 2001 Census the ceitie proper haed 83,652 indwallers.

The ceitie ligs in the nor’wast o Northren Ireland naur the mairch wi Coonty Dunnygal, whilk is pairt o the Republic o Ireland. The ceitie is naur the mooth o Loch Foyle an kivers baith banks o the River Foyle. The auld wawd ceitie o Derry is on the wast bank o the River Foyle. The wast bank is aften kent as “Ceitiesyd” whyls the aest bank is aften kent as “Wattirsyd”.

In other words, it is English, with its speakers’ accent rendered phonetically, and certain dialect words that you might recognize (“kent,” “mukkilest”) if you have ever had to read Chaucer, Langland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

But as a result of the Good Friday Agreement and the spirit of outreach that it has promoted, Irish has been finding more and more of a place in Northern Ireland.

* Apparently the name of the eighth letter of the alphabet also marks the distinction, at least according to an article from the Guardian from 2013:

Almost two thousand years later we are still split, and pronouncing H two ways: “aitch”, which is posh and “right”; and “haitch”, which is not posh and thus “wrong”. The two variants used to mark the religious divide in Northern Ireland – aitch was Protestant, haitch was Catholic, and getting it wrong could be a dangerous business.

UPDATE (8/18): the article in front of “H-Block” in this sentence from the Irish Independent, if it isn’t just an error, suggests that “haitch” still prevails in some parts of Ireland:

Its programme included a talk by the leaders of ‘The Great Escape’, when 38 IRA prisoners broke out of a H-Block in Long Kesh in 1983.

** One slight problem with this is that “County Londonderry” doesn’t really exist anymore, except for ceremonial purposes. All across the UK, in the 1970s, local government was reorganized, producing bogus “counties” like “West Midlands,” “Tyne and Wear” or, in Northern Ireland, “Causeway Coast and Glens.” I respect the way that the Republic has not meddled with these historic subdivisions (even though they are a legacy of English imperialism!). I was reading a newspaper article on the abortion referendum and noted a map of the results: populous counties (most notably, Dublin) had been subdivided into smaller units, while sparsely populated counties had been amalgamated (e.g. Sligo and Leitrim, if I’m not misremembering). But note that the counties themselves retain their territorial integrity. Up the Republic!

The Latin Word for “With”

Tim Furnish comments: “This, dear readers, is why young people should take Latin.”

Publix supermarket in South Carolina censors high school graduate’s ‘Summa Cum Laude’ cake

Well, we’re guessing the folks at this particular Publix supermarket didn’t graduate summa cum laude.

The story starts with a proud mom ordering a cake online for her son’s graduation party. On it she wanted the words “Congrats Jacob! Summa Cum Laude Class of 2018.”

But then she found that the software at the Publix near their home in West Ashley, S.C., refused to include the word “Cum” in the decoration on top of the cake because it considered it to be profane.

Undaunted, Cara Koscinski used a special-instructions box to explain that the offending word was part of a Latin phrase for academic honors and meant “with” (laude translates as “honors” or “distinction” and summa as “highest”), according to a report by local TV station WCIV. She even included a link to a website explaining the meaning, reported the Washington Post.

And so the box containing a frosted sheet cake arrived for the Saturday celebration of Jacob Koscinski’s 4.89 grade point average and admission to a pre-med program at college.

“And when we opened it, it was a huge shock to all of us,” Cara Koscinski told the station.

Yes, instead of the word “Cum,” there were three hyphens. ‘‘Congrats Jacob! Summa – – – Laude Class of 2018.’’

“The cake experience was kind of frustrating and humiliating because I had to explain to my friends and family, like, what that meant. And they were giggling uncontrollably. At least my friends were,” said Jacob Koscinski, 18.

I suppose that, technically, Publix is in the right here – as long as “highest” and “honor” are in the ablative, the preposition “with” can be understood. But “Summa Cum Laude” is a pretty standard expression, and I agree with Mrs. Koscinski: “I can’t believe I’m the first one to ever write ‘Summa Cum Laude’ on a cake.”

It’s always depressing to see the triumph of ignorance, like the author whose work featured a “fireman” (i.e., someone responsible for shoveling coal into a boiler on a steam ship), and which was changed to “fire fighter” upon publication, because we don’t want to be sexist. Maybe not, but “fire fighter” is precisely the opposite of what that sort of fireman was about. (I can’t remember where I read this, but I insist it’s true.)

The Style Sheet

For lack of anything substantive to post right now, please enjoy my style sheet for undergraduate papers. Comments or suggestions are welcome.

***

These rules do not apply to all forms of writing, but they do apply to formal, academic prose. Thus, you are to follow them when submitting assignments for this class. Violations will bring your grade down!

• Number your pages.

• Always have a proper title. “Western Civ. Paper” or “Book Review” are not proper titles.

• A novel is defined as “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” Do not refer to any historical book as a “novel.”

• Please italicize the titles of books, and place the titles of articles in “quotation marks.”

• Please accurately designate when past events occurred. Do not use vague phrases like “at that time” or “in those days.”

• Be aware of the distinction between it’s and its, and all other homophones such as:

thrown and throne
to, two and too
whose and who’s
populace and populous
four, for and fore
allowed and aloud
principle and principal
fourth and forth
know and no
since and sense
their, there, and they’re
cited and sited
pray and prey
rein, rain, and reign
your and you’re

• Avoid “process” statements, such as “after reading this document” or “I have chosen to write about A and B” or “at first this wasn’t clear to me.” Just as athletes dress in the dressing room or chefs cook in a kitchen, so also you should hide the essay-writing process from your reader. Just get down to it.

• Make sure that pronouns agree with the nouns they refer to. Instead of: “When a student does not come to class, they are in trouble” write “When a student does not come to class, he is in trouble” (both singular, if sexist) or “When students do not come to class, they are in trouble” (both plural).

• It must also be clear which noun a pronoun is referring to. “The Serbs disdained the Croats, because they were more sophisticated.” Who was more sophisticated?

• If you have a subordinate clause referring to a person, make sure that the relative pronoun is who, not that or which. “Many people that voted were confused” ought to be “Many people who voted were confused.” Always use “who” to refer to people (and “that” to refer to things).

• “Where” refers to a place, and “when” to a time. Do not write things like “the century where this event occurred.”

• Do not neglect the proper formation of past participle. For example, write “he was supposed to do it,” not “he was suppose to do it.”

• Verbs in the active voice tend to be better than verbs in the passive voice. “The dog ate its breakfast” is usually better than “the breakfast was eaten by the dog.” The passive voice can be useful, such as when you do not know who was doing the eating (“The breakfast was eaten.”). Too many passives, however, make for weak prose. Name the actors and their motivation.

• One recounts literature in the present tense (ex. “No one can be certain if Hamlet is really insane”) but recounts history in the past tense (ex. “Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death around A.D. 30.”). Always use the past tense when writing about historical events. Certainly, you should not shift tenses when recounting the past (“Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, and then washes his hands of the matter”).

• Make sure that you write in complete sentences.

• Only use commas where appropriate. In particular, avoid placing a comma after the main verb in a sentence, e.g. “He wanted, to establish an absolute monarchy.” Omit the comma. Also, do not join independent clauses together only with a comma (a comma splice) or with nothing at all (a run-on sentence).

• Please use the examples below as models for the formation of possessives. Do not form plurals with apostrophe-s.

Singular noun: The dog’s breakfast (apostrophe-s)
Singular noun ending in “s”: Prince Charles’s bald patch (s-apostrophe-s)
Plural noun not ending in “s”: The women’s salaries (apostrophe-s)
Plural noun ending in “s”: The deans’ luncheon (s-apostrophe)
Special case: Jesus’ parables, Moses’ laws (s-apostrophe)

• Avoid colloquialisms, such as “Henry VIII was a righteous dude” or “the Black Death was a major bummer.” They are out of place in formal writing and imply that the reader does not need to take you seriously.

• The first time you mention some person or some thing you should explain who or what it is. Always give a person’s name and job description in full the first time you mention him or her – “U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt,” for example. Later, you can give his last name only. Similarly, write “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” before you start using “NATO.”

• Practice proper parallelism. Write sentences like “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” or “The Bible contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers.” Do you see how these work? In the first sentence, the four objects of the verb “to offer” are all single-word, concrete nouns. In the second sentence, four nouns, each modified by an adjectival phrase, act as the object of the verb “contains.” That is, all the list items are grammatically parallel to each other. Do not write lists that do not exhibit such parallelism, for example: “The candidate promised quality, frugal, clean administration, and honest.” (A possible revision: “The candidate promised quality, frugality, cleanliness, and honesty.”)

• Each paragraph should function as its own mini-essay. A paragraph should start with a topic sentence and stick to that particular topic, with the sentences flowing logically from one to the other. If narrating events, the events should be narrated in the order they occurred – certainly, information should not be introduced without explanation.

• Think carefully about the words you use. If you are unsure of the meaning of a word, look it up in a dictionary. Use a thesaurus to find words that are similar in meaning. Come back to your paper more than a day after writing it and read it through. Does it make sense? Can you say it better?

Book Review

From The American Interest:

Addicted to Addiction

A new book about early modern England reveals an eternal truth: We are all addicted to something, and maybe that’s not a bad thing, so long as we choose well.

The first addicts to stumble across the threshold of the English language, refugees from Latin, were not only drunks or gamblers. Their ranks included devout Christians and scholars. Today we argue about whether addiction is a sin or a sickness, but when the term first entered our language it could name a virtue and an accomplishment: In the 16th century “addiction” covered many forms of “service, debt, and dedication,” including the pious Christian’s zeal to obey God’s every command. Rebecca Lemon’s new study, Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England, does not merely trace an etymological development. She takes the earliest meanings of “addiction” not as a cute quirk of linguistic history, but as a challenge to our contemporary shared understandings of substance abuse, political sovereignty, religious faith, and love.

Lemon looks at a range of sources, from translations of John Calvin’s sermons to pamphlets promoting anti-drunkenness laws, but her primary focus is on plays and poetry. The first chapter looks at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; then we get Twelfth Night, the Henry IV and Henry V plays, and Othello; and lastly, literary portrayals of the custom of “health-drinking.” Throughout, Lemon uses other sources to explore the artistic works’ portrayals of addiction: For Faustus we get religious texts on God’s grace as the power determining whether someone is addicted to God or to vice; for Othello, with its crimes of passion, shifting legal rulings on the culpability of people who commit crimes while drunk.

Lemon begins in the 1530s, when “addiction” begins to appear in English to designate both distorted desire for wine or riches and properly exclusive, single-minded desire for Christ. In 1534 George Joye asks God to “make faste thye promises to thy servant which is addicte unto thy worshyppe.” For these Protestant writers, Catholics were “addict to their supersticyons,” whereas they should be “addict unto none but to christ,” “addicted to praiers,” to “the meaneynge of the scripture.” Lemon’s Protestant sources share a suspicion of anything too material, too embodied—fasting, kneeling—as if Catholic sacraments were the original substance abuse. Lemon quotes a translation of the Letter of St. Paul to Titus which opens, “I Paule my selfe the addict servant & obeyer, not of Moses lawe as I was once, but of God the father, and ambassador of his sonne Jesus Christ.” That Paul should be an addict is obvious to his English readers; the important question is to whom he ought addict himself.

More at the link.

Ottoman Turkish

Earlier on this blog, I wrote that “no one has started rendering Turkish in Arabic script, as a way of disavowing Kemalism.” But apparently I spoke too soon! From Hürriyet:

Ottoman Turkish should be taught in schools, Erdoğan says

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has once again said Ottoman Turkish should be taught in schools, accusing the early Republican period’s “language revolution” of “destroying” the Turkish language.

“It is one of the biggest problems in recent history that our language has become a subject of political discussions. In the name of ‘language revolution,’ our Turkish was attacked by unpleasant, dull and soulless words.

The bond between our nation and its old civilization was tried to be weakened,” Erdoğan said on March 15 at the award ceremony of a high school’s composition contest at the presidential complex in Ankara.

Ottoman Turkish is an old form of Turkish using Arabic script, with many words borrowed from Persian and Arabic. As part of cultural reforms to create a Western-style secular state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, replaced Ottoman Turkish with the Latin alphabet.

Paul Halsall comments:

I think Erdogan has a certain justification. As it stands now many modern Turks cannot understand anything written 80 years ago or earlier.

I seem to recall that the Chinese Communist Party considered a move to using only pinyin but did not precisely because it would create cultural barrier with the past that would be uncrossable for most future Chinese.

Lord Kinross (Patrick Balfour) in his travelogue Within the Taurus: A Journey in Asiatic Turkey (1954) p. 13, recounts how upset many Turks were on being forced to give up the fez, and the widespread approval of King Edward VIII in Turkey because on a visit to Istanbul in 1936 the then Prince of Wales had asked why no Turkish music was heard on the radio. It had been prohibited by Ataturk, but thanks to the Prince’s inquiry it was once again played on the radio for all.