Yeah, I’m Bilingual

I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique,” and wanted to add it to his museum.

Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language”

Mark Twain Rants About Language Learning

There are some exceedingly useful words in this [German] language. Schlag, for example; and Zug. There are three-quarters of a column of Schlags in the dictionary, and a column and a half of Zugs.

The word Schlag means Blow, Stroke, Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp, Kind, Sort, Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting Inclosure, Field, Forest-clearing. This is its simple and exact meaning — that is to say, its restricted, its fettered meaning; but there are ways by which you can set it free, so that it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning, and never be at rest. You can hang any word you please to its tail, and make it mean anything you want to. You can begin with Schlag-ader, which means artery, and you can hang on the whole dictionary, word by word, clear through the alphabet to Schlag-wasser, which means bilge-water — and including Schlag-mutter, which means mother-in-law.

Just the same with Zug. Strictly speaking, Zug means Pull, Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction, Expedition, Train, Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line, Flourish, Trait of Character, Feature, Lineament, Chess-move, Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer, Propensity, Inhalation, Disposition: but that thing which it does not mean — when all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been discovered yet.

One cannot overestimate the usefulness of Schlag and Zug. Armed just with these two, and the word Also, what cannot the foreigner on German soil accomplish? … Let him talk right along, fearlessly; let him pour his indifferent German forth, and when he lacks for a word, let him heave a Schlag into the vacuum; all the chances are that it fits like a plug, but if it doesn’t let him promptly heave a Zug after it; the two together can hardly fail to bung the hole; but if, by a miracle, they should fail, let simply say Also! and this will give him a moment’s chance to think of the needful word.

Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language”

Hardboiled P.I. + Grammar = Instant Cuteness

The [hotel] clerk snapped at Degarmo’s back like a terrier.

“One moment, please. Whom did you wish to see?”

Degarmo spun on his heel and looked at me wonderingly. “Did he say ‘whom’?”

“Yeah, but don’t hit him,” I said. “There is such a word.”

Degarmo licked his lips. “I knew there was,” he said. “I often wondered where they kept it.”

from The Lady in the Lake, 1943, by Raymond Chandler

The + Unexpected Plural = Instant Cuteness

I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase “CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!” from one of the great blog posts of the Internet, by Allie Brosh.

But recently, I have come across some even funnier uses of “the” + plural.

For example, “on the Interwebs.”

Dave Rubin says this all the time. Why? I don’t know. It makes him sound like a savvy, spiffy, suspender-clad octogenarian who is learning to use the Internet because he’s sharp as heck but doesn’t yet know what to call it. Dave Rubin is a commentator whose entire job is “on the Interwebs.” He’s mid-40s, my age. What is he trying to say with this? “Look, I know what I’m doing, but I’m too old to keep up with the terminology the kids are using these days”? Whatever he means to communicate by it, I think it gives him a fun, retro vibe.

And just this week, Ben Shapiro said the following: “Usually when you go camping, the purpose is to enjoy the natures.”

The Natures. This made my week.

But why? Is this some linguistic trend that I haven’t been informed of? It strikes me as a way to sound self-deprecating, but I honestly don’t know.

Have the blog readers heard any other examples of this construction?

English is Not Latin, People!

Yet some of our fussiest grammatical rules were woodenly borrowed from that language.

Every language has an internal logic of its own. Ideally, rules for formal writing should be in harmony with this internal logic. These rules can be stricter than the rules for casual speech or dialects – every language needs a way to mark formal from informal speech – but they should not actually violate the internal logic of the language.

Let me give you an example of a sentence that is grammatically incorrect but sounds like natural English:

Me and Liam are going to play Minecraft for 12 hours.”

Technically ungrammatical, but still a natural English sentence. Not only can you easily tell what it means, but it sounds like it was uttered by a native speaker, albeit a native speaker who is not trying to sound educated.

Contrast that with this:

Recently I go Vancouver.”

This sentence was spoken by a non-native English speaker, and you can immediately tell because it gives that jarring sense that it violates the language’s internal logic.

Here’s another pair:

“There is a vast right-wing conspiracy trying to destroy my husband and I.”

vs.

Again the same it felt.

The vast right-wing conspiracy sentence commits a grammatical error (an overcorrection), but it’s still a natural English sentence. The second one has perfect subject-verb agreement, but it is jarring and not natural.

The following are three ways that Latin grammar has been imported to English when it probably should not have been.

Noun Case

In Latin, case on nouns is super important. It’s how you can tell who is doing what to whom. So if someone is the subject of the sentence, you would never call them “me.” And you would never call them “I” if they are the direct object.

In Latin, every single noun has an ending that matches its number (singular or plural), grammatical gender, and one of five cases. This ending tells you exactly what is going on. So, if you like, you can scramble the word order in the sentence for effect. Cool trick, and it follows the internal logic of Latin.

English mostly doesn’t have case. (Just on our pronouns.) Instead, we indicate part of speech (subject noun, direct object, etc.) with word order. In fact, this word order rule is so strong that you can even put the wrong case on a pronoun (as in the examples above), and it still sounds natural. The word order rule overrides the case rule. This shows that English as a language doesn’t really care about case.

It also shows how important word order is in every English sentence. “Again the same it felt” sounds weird only because it violates English word order.

Splitting Infinitives

This one is such a simple misunderstanding that it earns a forehead slap.

Latin infinitives can’t be split because they are just one word. “To dance” in Latin is saltare. You cannot say salta-tarde-re (“to slowly dance”) because it violates the internal logic of the language and it wouldn’t even sound like coherent words to a Latin speaker.

Other other hand, English infinitives are two words. This allows us to split them and put an adverb in there, for effect. This is a move that English allows, just as Latin allows scrambled word order.

After all, what could be a more natural-sounding English phrase than,

To boldly go where no man has gone before”?

When you split an infinitive, you are not violating the internal logic of English. You are employing an English superpower that Latin does not have.

On this blog, when I post I try to put adverbs before or after the infinitive so that I sound more educated. Educated people’s ears have been trained that not splitting an infinitive sounds more elegant. But this is a marker of formal versus informal speech, not of native versus non-native grammar.

Ending Sentences with Prepositions

German has this feature called separable verbs. A separable verb has a preposition as a part of it, and when you speak, you are required to move the preposition to the end of the sentence. That is what these verbs do. If the preposition is not put at the end, it will not sound like a natural German sentence.

For example (courtesy of my German-scholar father):

Paul kommt morgen an. “Paul arrives tomorrow.” (From ankommen, to arrive.)

Paul reiste gestern ab. “Paul left yesterday.” (From abreisen, to depart.)

Ruf ihn an! “Call him up!” (From anrufen.)

Du ringst ein Beispiel von mir ab. “You are squeezing an example out of me.” (From abringen.)

Very funny, Dad!

Notice in the last example that you can and should put all kinds of things between the parts of the separable verb, including direct object and any prepositions you happen to need. This used to cause me trouble when I studied German. I’d be tracking a sentence but couldn’t find out until the end what the actual verb was.

Now, English is a Germanic language and it has this feature too. Examples:

“I am going to see this journey to Mordor through.”

“You guys have ten seconds to to start cleaning all this Silly String up.”

“And that one fateful tweet brought her entire career down.”

In English, the only thing you can put between the parts of the verb is the direct object. Some verbs allow you to put it there or after the preposition:

“And that one fateful tweet brought down her entire career.”

“Start cleaning up the Silly String.”

Some English phrasal verbs don’t allow you to put anything between the verb part and the preposition part:

“I like to hang out with Lord of the Rings fans.”

I like to hang Lord of the Rings fans out with.

I like to hang out Lord of the Rings fans with.”

But even with these, the preposition(s) is/are part of the verb. Which means that where the verb goes, they go, even if that is all the way to the end of the sentence:

“Lord of the Rings fans are not the only people I like to hang out with.” (Yes. Natural English sentence.)

“Lord of the Rings fans are not the only people out with whom I like to hang.” (No! No! No! This sounds like a person who is so concerned with sounding educated that they’ve wandered off the broad highway of the internal logic of English and proceeded to get themselves all tangled up in the bushes of grammatical work-arounds, producing a sentence that will be as appealing and intelligible to the the hearer as a bad case of poison ivy.)

If you must use these work-arounds in your writing in order to show off your erudition, or even just to earn the respect of your readers, I understand, although I would humbly suggest you avoid trying to formalize phrases like hang out with. But if you train yourself to speak like this, and especially if you look down on people who don’t, you will not only come off sounding snobby, you will also cut yourself off from a good bit of English’s natural range of expression.

Funny Grammar Quote of the Week

Fussy grammarians needs friends too, and so you may seek out and encourage them. Drop them a little note, telling them that they are your very favorite fussy grammarian, out with whom you like to hang. And if anybody winced there at my use of a plural pronoun for an indefinite singular, then may I suggest counseling?

Douglas Wilson, Wordsmithy, p. 100

The Maya Microcosm of Humanity

The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.

They Are Surprising to Other People

I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”)  And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.

The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.

Tree destroying a stone arch. From Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 165

A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:

“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 22

They Got Romanticized

In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.

Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read.  Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,

… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.

The Magnificent Maya. p. 33

Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound).  As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.

They Were Shockingly Cruel

First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed.  (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)

from The Magnificent Maya, p. 108

But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.

Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.

If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.

The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140).  Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 136. Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza. The reclining statue holding a bowl is the chacmool.

Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95).  This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.

Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”

They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart

from Fingerprints of the Gods, photo plate between pages 134 – 135. I have no idea how this light and shadow serpent effect was accomplished, but if true, it’s an amazing piece of engineering.

And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.

The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year.  Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.

All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:

As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:

“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”

Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162

Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”

“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)

Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.

The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012.  It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.

Bottom Line, the Mayans are People

I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.

So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.

Humans are smart.

Humans are evil.

Humans are wonderful.

Humans are everywhere.

Sources

Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.

Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.

Time-Life books, editors, The Magnificent Maya. 1993, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia.

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I am a linguist.

This does not mean that I go around picking apart other people’s speech.

Normally.

This time I’m going to make an exception. This is a grammar rant, so buckle up.

“Begs the Question”

Everyone uses this phrase wrongly. Usually, misused phrases kind of tickle me. Common usage and all that. Plus, I am sure there are some that I misuse myself. But this one is really annoying. So listen up, people:

“Begs the question” is NOT the same thing as “raises the question.”

If a situation naturally leads to a certain question, that is not begging the question. It is “raising” or “provoking” the question. For example, the Green New Deal will cost $93 trillion. Which raises the question, Where is that money going to come from? Or, my son just showed up with chocolate all over his face. Which raises the question, What happened to that pudding I made an hour ago?

“Begging the question” is a technical term from the realm of formal logic and debate. It refers to a logical fallacy where the argument assumes what it is trying to prove.

For example, “Intelligent design is not a scientific theory because the only legitimate kind of science relies on pure naturalism.” ID is unscientific because we have defined it as unscientific. This is begging the question.

I don’t know how that particular method of arguing in a circle came to be called begging the question. Maybe because these kinds of arguments avoid the question that they purport to answer. And I agree that the phrase begging the question sounds like it ought to mean raising an obvious question.

But it doesn’t.

This has been a public service announcement.