föstudagur, desember 31, 2004
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
And surely you'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mi',
And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne!
This song exists also in Icelandic, thanks to Árni Pálsson, as "Hin gömlu kynni gleymist ei", but I love the Scots lyrics. Why mess with a good thing? And why take a good word like stowp that is even more archaic that the modern Icelandic staup for having retained an ancient pronouncation and turn it into bikar, "chalice"?
But today is not for pedantry. Pass the glasses down the table, the cups and stowp and then if we run out, the chalices too, and let the bottle follow.
fimmtudagur, desember 30, 2004
Þetta þjóðareinkenni endurspeglast einnig í sýningu Þjóðminjasafnsins nýopnaða. Þar stendur til sýnis togvíraklippur úr þorskastríðunum. Því er lýst sem 'sennilega eina vopnið sem íslendingar hafa fundið upp.'
Það er svo sem rétt. Hvorki hafa íslendingar fundið upp margt hvað varðar hernaðarbúnað né farið oft út í stríð í venjulegu merkingu þess orðs. Ekki að þeir hefðu getið það heldur, en það er annað mál. Nei, í núverandi samhengi ætla ég að benda á eitt atriði sögulegt og síðan segja það gott í bili.
Ég veit ekki hvar þessir flugeldar, kenndir við gamla hermenn og forna bardaga, eru framleiddir, hér á landi eða úti, né hvaðan öll hráefni í þá koma, á þessari hnattvæðingaröld. En með púðurslyktina í nösunum á gamlaárskvöld kemst ég ómögulega hjá því að muna það, að fallbyssur Evrópu hefðu varla eins mannskæðar verið án brennisteins frá Mývatni. Íslendingar fundu ekki upp byssur og byssupúður, en íslenskur brennisteinn varð örugglega banamein mun fleiri víða um heim heldur en dóu í öllum orrustum Sturlungaaldar.
Hvort þetta sé fagnaðartilefni, þetta íslenska hlutverk í styröldum meginlandsins, er önnur spurning, en ég hef ekki heyrt neinn láta eftir sér að minnast á það, hvað þá hneysklast yfir því, í sambandi við þessa, hinni mestu sprengingarhátíð.
miðvikudagur, desember 29, 2004
The town is gearing up for New Year's Eve. Kids are setting off firecrackers and jumping frogs to the great dismay of the basement-apartment-living classes in post code 101. The other night in Grindavík a band of fun-seekers of varying ages and degrees of intoxication was apparently unable to fight down the urge to set things on fire a hair early this year, and it went roving through the downtown in search of flammables. Last night the start of firework sales was marked by the local Björgunarsveit with an early show set off near Perlan, giving me and another late-working scholar (standing with our heads stuck up between the accordian blinds and the window, noses to the glass) a prime view of some of this year's nifty whiz-bang items. The latest innovation seems to be things that go paff and then dissolve into shimmering nebulae of metallic red and green that drift on the wind.
And now the special advertising section has made it into my mail slot. I always like checking out the array of fireworks named after medieval battles and burnings-in: Flóarbardaga, Njálsbrenna, Flúgumýrarbrenna. This naming practice is, to a certain degree, tasteless, a point made annually by one or another columnist. However one feels about battles, there is something a bit off about commemorating brennur, the least honorable way of dispatching your opponents in feud.
But the stuff of violence is exciting, there is no getting around that. The tools of violence, especially old, romanticized violence, also make good names for fireworks: sverð, exi, spjót, and of course atgeir, the wonderful weapon owned by Gunnar á Hlíðarenda the exact nature of which is still not known. Knobby and pointy it must have been, though.
The kappar, the champions of old, also lend their names: Gunnar himself, Leifur heppni, Ari fróði ("fyrir þá sem vilja ekki of mikið læti"), Auður djúpuðga, Gunnlaugur ormstunga ... It is nice to see the women of saga represented, I suppose. Hallgerður langbrók, for example, is an explosive with a lot of flash and silver. This is only appropriate, for Hallgerður caught the eye of none other than Gunnar á Hlíðarenda with her colored clothes, her yellow hair, her silver bangles and neckrings amassed in the course of two prior marriages. (This blonde bombshell tended to outlive her husbands, and she won her lasting literary fame in large degree by proving the end of Gunnar when his bowstring broke in battle and she would not give him a lock of her yellow hair to replace it.)
This time I noticed the copy for Hallgerður:
Það verður enginn svikinn af þessari.
I'm sure I'm meant to read that as "no-one will be disappointed in this one" (and that one is grammatically feminine because it is a cake explosive, a kaka), en svik er svik; this is Hallgerður langbrók, and I can't help seeing this as a revisionist comment on this most reviled and yet beloved of saga women: "No-one will be betrayed by this woman."
mánudagur, desember 27, 2004
Bless the University Almanac for putting up a page that shows exactly what the length of a hen's tread is from one short day to the next both in Reykjavík and up in Akureyri. I, for one, would not otherwise have a sense of this measure, being a town-dweller and unused to hens. Most of the local fowl are clustered in the town end of the pond, sqwonking and slurping up quantities of soggy bread, and hens do not number among them. The dominant species is the gray goose. Their steps are clearly visible in the snow and the spacial distance from one to the next easily measurable by anyone with decent boots and a ruler. Or, if the temporal span of a goose-tread were of interest, one could take a stopwatch along and time the interval of their lazy waddle from one pink foot to the other. However, to my knowledge the tread of geese does not correspond to any other particular distance in time or space.
Not unless we count intellectual space, in which the span between the one goose foot and the next is the space of attribution. Quotation marks are goose feet, gæsalappir, and quotations appear within them, innan gæsalappa. As a result, the geese on the snow-covered Tjörn remind me of gray dons and docents, lost in thought, methodically marking on the white page the borders between their own scattered thoughts and those of prior scholars.
fimmtudagur, desember 23, 2004
This is not a skate.
But in Sweden it is a skata, I have just learned. In Norway skjære, England magpie. In Iceland it isn't anything, because these raucous birds have never found there way there outside of the dictionary, but I am newly given to understand that the name is skjór.
In Iceland skata is a skate and not a magpie at all. So is tindabikkja, an amusing word if ever there were one. But skata seems to be the one of the two that is most used in connection with the nasty-smelling fermented starry ray eaten every December 23 in honor of St. Þorlákur and, really, in honor of Icelanders' historical ability to survive on a diet that would have qualified as a natural disaster anywhere else.
The town today, as on every Þorláksmessa, lies under a choking haze of skötulykt, a noxious ammoniac vapor reminiscent of toilet cleaner fumes or the emissions of an enormous and territorial tomcat. Perhaps the jólaköttur himself.
Imagine if the traditional dish were made of the Swedish skata, a magpie-pie. There would be a nursery rhyme about it, even.
No, wait. Those were blackbirds. Fjárinn.
miðvikudagur, desember 22, 2004
The shortest day brought a nasty little thaw and sloppy rain that curdled the snow where it lay and turned it into a sullen mess of cottage cheese that sucked at your feet as you walked about the city. But the shortest day was blessedly short, and with the further fall of night, the temperature dropped again. This made of course for instant treacherous slickness everywhere as meltwater became glassy black ice. The wind came up and drove the last of the fine snow along the streets in long, shifting skeins like wool being carded by the thin spirits of winter.
But that wind settled, and then the swirling hundslappadrífa (snow falling in clots the size of a dog's paw) was lovely against the dark, especially as viewed from below, through glass, with a glass of red wine in hand. Today the town is white again, slowly turning blue. The sun will come up a little ways back, rather than further, on the path it has taken all winter.
That's what vetrarsólstöður is: the stopping place of the rising sun in its progress along the horizon before it marches back again. The Icelandic word has nothing to do with light and dark and all to do with the solar path as viewed from rather high up on the bowed surface of the third planet. We were just yesterday at an outermost point of earth's complicated, annual, carnival trajectory. The little spinning boat is still for an instant and you gape out at the lights of the fair and the illuminated faces of the nearest fair-goers before the gears engage and the arm of the machine jerks you back. And you gasp as the little boat spins again, now suddenly the other way, jamming you against your friend there beside you, and both of you laugh in terror and delight.
þriðjudagur, desember 21, 2004
Google has developed a scanning technology that the company claims is not destructive. Clearly, Google will need to work closely with libraries to ensure that no books are damaged. It is an illusion to think that the digital versions of scanned books can replace the books themselves.
A participating library will get a free digital copy of every book scanned in its collection. In other words, each library will essentially get a digital backup of a significant portion of its holdings, but it will be critical to remember that printed books are a stable medium, one that has persisted for
hundreds of years.
Hear hear. I would only have said it more stridently myself. In fact, I will anyway.
There is real danger of damaging books physically during scanning, either through carelessness or because of unforeseen effects of the scanning itself. Goodness knows that even the preservation techniques of earlier ages have sometimes turned out to be destructive. And I for one seem always to be hand-copying something out of a book I am not permitted to photocopy because it is too fragile.
The stability of books as a medium cannot be stressed too much. They are of course vulnerable to fire and water (as are electronic media), but they are remarkably durable. You can, for example, drop them on the floor several times before this abuse has any impact on their legibility.
Furthermore, writing or set type on pages is organized into informational quanta in such a way that damage to part of it does not reduce the readability of the rest. In contrast, many digital, machine-readable formats are so sensitive to corruption that a few 0s or 1s out of place makes the entire document unreadable.
Imagine if books worked this way, if the careless underlining of an interesting word or a single dogeared page were to make it impossible for the next potential reader to even open the book. (Note that we've borrowed the vocabulary of opening and closing books into the language of digital documents, and note that it brings exactly the deficiences of the younger medium versus the older into high relief.) Whole pages and quires have gone missing from books and manuscripts, and though obviously it would be better if we had them, their loss does not equal the loss of the information on the rest of the pages. If this were so, we wouldn't have Beowulf or The Poetic Edda or most anything of any age.
Even if they are accurately scanned (and it would be generations before anyone truly knew whether they had been accurately scanned), the books themselves must not be destroyed. They contain information that will not be captured by any technology of reproduction, never mind one being put into practice by people who cannot possibly be reading all the material they are meant to be copying accurately. And:
Digital technology is only a few years old, and even in that brief time, the digital world has produced dozens of incompatible, and often unreadable, media formats. The Google project will enhance the usefulness of the books it encompasses, but it in no way will render them obsolete.
I still fear greatly that large-scale digitalization of the great libraries will make it more difficult for those of us who know this to convince cash-strapped bureaucrats to continue buying, housing, and preserving physical books. I know that this is already a problem in the American legal profession as well as in the matter of newspapers, and it would be an enormous tragedy if it became a bigger problem than it already is in the Academy in general.
I could go on at huge length on this matter, and on the whole concept of searchable text, and I probably will. I leave you will this comparison of the durability of technological versus human methods for decoding information preserved in outdated formats.
The format in question in this first example is magnetic wire, a precursor of magnetic tape. I know of a sizeable collection of recordings preserved on magnetic wire, made in the second decade of the twentieth century when this was the cutting edge of technology for recording sound. There are, to my knowledge, now only two machines in the United States that can play magnetic wire spools. I once met on a plane the one fellow who knows how to repair them when they break down, which they do, apparently, often.
The other format is medieval Icelandic, an admittedly obscure language, one fairly obscure even in the context of 13th-century Europe. Even discounting Icelanders, there are today more people in the United States who can decode this antiquated storage format than there are machines than can play magnetic wire, more by an easy factor of 100. And they can teach others to decode it too.
More ranting on this subject to come, but now I really must trot across the street and look at that manuscript from 1827. I expect the handwriting to be perfectly awful, but at least I will not have to endure the antics of Microsoft Word perpetually crashing and freezing my machine.
mánudagur, desember 20, 2004
I am always heartened to see Icelandic kids happily engaged in the time-honored practice of scooting one's feet back and forth on packed snow or an icy patch while, say, waiting for the bus, totally absorbed in the experience of near-frictionless movement for its own sake. Or shuffling through powder. Or poking the rimey edge with a stick as the ice crust forms over standing water. These activities have eternal charm, it would seem, international appeal extending even to the oh-so-slick teens and pre-teens of this subarctic hotspot. They may be too cool for school, but they are not too cool for ice.
The water in the Tjörn froze a forbidding black a few days ago, and then the sky went blue-gray and dumped several centimeters of fluffy white on top of it. It's been fairly still, and so the snow has lain quietly, tracked through here and there by awkward geese and red-clad children. Sunday evening, crossing over onto Lækjargata, I saw a lone small figure, well-insulated in parka and boots, trudging with an air of great concentration in that snow. Passing by, I could see that it was a boy of maybe nine. He was pushing the glittering snow from the dark ice with his feet so as to form two-meter-tall letters, presumably visible from the air, spelling (in English): HELP.
laugardagur, desember 18, 2004
Or perhaps it was a descendant (though not, obviously, through the patriline), an afkomandi Völsunga. He had an avian friend on his shoulder, a green páfagaukur, and they seemed to chat amiably back and forth as the line crept forward, though of course I only caught half the conversation. I was tempted to alter my usual order:
Eina með öllu nema remúlaði, og aukinn skammt af steiktu Fáfnishjarta, takk!
But at the last minute I thought better of it (and opted against the raw onions as well).
Later, in a bar, with a glass of whisky in hand, I encountered a nykur, a water horse, or in this case, a beer horse.
Sei sei, mikil ósköp. Bærinn allt morandi í sagnadýrum.
fimmtudagur, desember 16, 2004
A gray goose flew by me yesterday, less under its own power than being hurled along by the gale. During the night, offshore winds were clocked at fifty meters per second, well into the duodecimal top bracket of the Beaufort Scale, but seas were apparently small. As one paper put it, the waves are blown down by that kind of wind before they can heap up. Today I saw ravens windsurfing merrily, hopping lightly up from the corner of a rooftop into the blast, hanging for minutes at a time, wingtips twitching, then letting themselves drop back onto the roof corner before trying it again. The dry, castor-sugar snow that had been making everything look like an overzealously-sweetened county fair funnel cake is being scoured off the streets and whipped out to sea.
miðvikudagur, desember 15, 2004
Soð- is a boiling word. The verb to boil, sjóða, is cognate to English seethe. (Etymologically speaking, sheep, sauðir or sauðkindur, are animals for boiling, but thankfully this does not prevent one from roasting them quite crisp in practice.) Greifi corresponds to German graf, Danish greve; it's unclear when it got borrowed in. I'm used to thinking of the soðgreifi as the Count of Boiling, but it occurs to me now that the title is better cast as Seethe Reeve. Somewhere along the way, the ge- of Old English gerefa got lost, freeing up refa to become reeve and shire-reeve, later sheriff. The gerefa and refa must have been leaders of men, liners-up of those men into a secgróf (OE), orderly like letters in the alphabet, staves in the stafróf (Icel.).
The cups clink together, held by the loops, on the way from the cabinet to the tables. Then they are set out in rows, two abreast, eight to a table. Then the bell is rung.
mánudagur, desember 13, 2004
sunnudagur, desember 12, 2004
Mind you, the natives do also wipe out sometimes, spectacularly, even. Some tens of them went down with bone-jarring thumps over the past few weeks of fierce weather, landing first on the pavement and then in the emergency room. But I have never seen for sale here the little elasticized slip-on cleats that I have seen in Norway. Mostly, the good folk of Reykjavík are really very deft, moving from icy patch to dry pavement and back like seasoned travellers stepping on and off an airport's moving sidewalks.
But the truly dreadful conditions of earliest spring are yet to come: a hand's breadth layer of slick ice under a hand's breadth of icy water and above it all, speeding you along to your inevitable wet fate, a Beaufort 8 wind that catches you like a glímukappi and throws you down.
fimmtudagur, desember 09, 2004
This was pleasing supper entertainment, skemmtileg og fróðleg og umfram allt jólaleg. I found myself turning over in my head Jan de Vries's speculative etymology of the word Jól, clearly related to English Yule, Old English geol or geola and plenty of other Germanic words for the season around the turn of the year. De Vries grants that the pre-Germanic connections of this word are unsicher, but he offers, citing Feist, that it may well attach to an Indo-European root having to do with turning, axles, and wheels. In other words, jól and hjól may have the same origins; the jólahjól may by dumb coincidence echo a very ancient understanding of time and winter.
miðvikudagur, desember 08, 2004
On Nordisk film and the white bear:
Nordisk film, the Danish cinematic concern, uses a polar bear perched on a Mercator globe as its logo. I am fascinated by this reminder that around the time that film was becoming a popular entertainment, spectacle in Denmark must still have consisted in large degree of the viewing of items from the exotic reaches of the colonies: Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, parts of Africa.
In fact the white bear has been the object of Danish viewing pleasure for much longer than that, even, if we may judge by the 13th-century tale of Auðun vestfirzka. Probably fictional but none the less instructive, the Icelander Auðun travels from his native Eastfjords to Greenland and acquires a white bear cub which he then transports, with many a mishap, to the King of Denmark. I do not do the tale justice. It is a brilliant little narrative and well worth the hassle of learning Icelandic to read it in the original. But my point is the bear, the object of visual fascination then and later. Now, it seems, it is the very symbol of spectacle, flashed up on screens across Copenhagen before the main feature, the signal that something worth seeing is about to appear.
I wonder whether I should be heartened or disturbed that I am distracted less by the welter of Irish and Scottish accents among the Macedonians than by Alexander's horse Bucephalos being played by a Frisian. A noble beast looking much out of place.
On "National Treasure":
The whole idea that there is a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence is irritating. A moment's thought should be enough for anyone to realize that the treasure map is on the front.
laugardagur, desember 04, 2004
A Norwegian attempting to say that he is speaking would write.
Jeg sitter og snakker.Literally, this means "I sit and talk," but the construction is used to express an ongoing activity in the present. Certain verbs are valid, officially, for forming this present progressive, according to whether the speaker is sitting, walking, lying, or simply busying himself, respectively:
Jeg sitter og snakker.
Jeg går og snakker.
Jeg ligger og snakker.
Jeg driver og snakker.
Other verbs are not valid. However, I have seen in informal writing (specifically, a note scrawled and tacked onto a dormitory door) a parallel construction with the verb to be, være:
Jeg er og spiller piano.
Clearly also a present progressive ("I am playing piano," lit. I am and play piano) and a thought-provoking one, since modern Icelandic does use vera (to be) in its own present progressive:
Ég er að spila piano.
But this would be parallel to and even less standard Norwegian sentence than the one above, namely:
Now, spoken Norwegian does not distinguist between og (and) and å (the infinitive particle), and on top of that, the final -r of the present conjugation is indistinct or absent in many dialects, and thus a common native error in writing is of exactly the form of the sentence above, though with one of the approved verbs in the auxilliary position. Thus:
Jeg er å spille piano.
Jeg sitter å snakke.
When foreigners are taught Norwegian, a great fuss is made about not making this error, and honestly, I have never seen a foreigner be tempted. It's a native thing, I think, like þágufallssýki in Iceland.
But how interesting that the native temptation is there. Að is the relative of the particle å in Norwegian (Danish at, Swedish att, Old Norse at), and it brings to mind yet another present progressive construction, this time from slightly antiquated English:
I am a-playing piano.Or more familiarly, from many a ballad (mang en ballade):
When I was a-walkin' one morning in May
I met a pretty fair maid and unto her did say ....
That outdated English particle a that looks suspiciously like að, å, and the rest has left the language, it would seem, but the whole thing makes me wonder if there is not some historical present progressive underlying this all, one which was standardized according to one analysis in Icelandic (to be + að + infinitive) and another in for example Norwegian (to sit, walk, lie, busy oneself + og + simple present).
I keep telling myself that I really must track this down sometime.
sunnudagur, nóvember 28, 2004
laugardagur, nóvember 27, 2004
Apparently, early European settlers in the Americas took the turkey to be a species of peacock. This is not as crazy as it might seem. After all, turkeys do have an impressive fan of tail feathers, and that is what peacocks are known for. If you knew the one by reputation only and encountered the other, it would be easy to make a misidentification.
The North American Meleagris gallopavo (note the descriptive species name gallopavo: lit. "chicken-peacock") seems to have been tagged with the name turkey as the result of other confusions. Apparently, in the sixteenth century the guinea fowl was already being imported into Europe from Madagascar via Turkey, and hence it was known as a turkey. When the North American bird was traded up into Europe along the same route, it was confused with the guinea hen and called by the same name.
At least, this it what I am given to understand here.
Conspiracy theorists take note: the role of Madagascar here as the origin of guinea fowl provides a potential Lemurian connection for these tangled etymologies.
fimmtudagur, nóvember 25, 2004
Probably I am thinking about the thylacine because I just recently wrote about the polar bear, whose other name is thalarctos, an impressive princely word. It sounds like a title, rank. Thylacine is not so regal-sounding.
But what a pleasant slippery word it is, lithe and foxy.
What an engaging stripey fellow the thylacine would seem to have been in person:
This site is a fine museum. There are films. Watch them and see how springy and elastic these animals were, with their long hind feet, heels on the ground. See their great dark eyes and alarmingly wide gapes.
This site dreams of cloning thylacines. Think of that.
This movie keeps catching up with me on late-night TV, when I'm actually in a place with a TV, and really it has a great deal more charm than IMDB would have you believe, at least, it does if you enjoy rolling the idea of the thylacine over and over in your mind in the hours after 2 am.
The Icelandic word for thylacine is pokaúlfur, "pocket-wolf," a good example of a coinage that makes sense, even if one has little use for it. Pokadýr are marsupials, "pocket-animals;" pokarottur are possums, "pocket-rats." It is a logical word, pokaúlfur, but not, to my ear, an evocative one. I do not know when it was coined, but I would like to, because suddenly I am curious whether it came into being before or after the last thylacine in captivity died, in 1936.
miðvikudagur, nóvember 24, 2004
HJØRDIS. . . . men sig mig, når Sigurd for i viking og du var med, - når du hørte sværdene suse i den hvasse leg, når blodet damped rødt på skibsdækket, - kom der så ikke over dig en utæmmelig lyst efter at strides blandt mændene; klædte du dig så ikke i hærklæder og tog våben i hånd?
DAGNY. Aldrig! Hvad tænker du på? Jeg, en kvinde?
HJØRDIS. Hm, en kvinde, en kvinde, - hm, der er ingen, som ved hvad en kvinde er istand til! - Nu, en ting kan du dog sige mig, Dagny; thi det må du sikkert vide: Når en mand favner den kvinde, han har kær, - er det sandt, at da brænder hendes blod,
hendes bryst banker, - svimler hun i sælsom fryd derved?
DAGNY (rødmende). Hjørdis, hvor kan du -!
HJØRDIS. Nu da, sig mig -!
DAGNY. Det tænker jeg forvist du har fornummet.
HJØRDIS. Ja, en gang, kun en eneste; det var hin nat, da Gunnar sad hos mig i buret; han krysted mig i favn så brynjen brast, og da, da -!
DAGNY (udbrydende). Hvad! Sigurd -!
HJØRDIS. Sigurd? Hvo taler om Sigurd? Jeg nævnte Gunnar, - hin nat, da kvinderanet -
DAGNY (fatter sig). Ja ja, jeg mindes, - jeg ved vel -
HJØRDIS. Det var den eneste gang; aldrig, aldrig siden! Jeg tænkte, at jeg var slagen med trolddom; thi at Gunnar så kunde favne en kvinde, det - (standser og ser på Dagny.) Er du syg? Mig tykkes, du blir bleg og rød!
DAGNY. Visst ikke, visst ikke!
I wrestled with myself, posting this bit of Act II, on the question of whether to render it into English, but I concluded that I had neither the time nor the appropriate English. It should be a 1850's idea of what people in 900 sounded like, based on sources written around 1300. It should come out perfectly dreadful, or like Longfellow, or like dreadful Longfellow, and I'm just not up to it at the moment.
þriðjudagur, nóvember 23, 2004
Mind you, change of itself is not bad.
I can get enthusiastic about language on both sides of whatever phoneme shift you like. Watch me.
I mourn, in a recreational kind of way, the exinction of delightful grammatical fauna like the Old English dual pronoun wit, the disappearance of engaging orthographic flora like the eðel of Old Norse. All the while I know that I can invoke these odd creatures in prose and verse, summon them from beyond the grave exactly by bemoaning their vanishment, and it is just possible that I enjoy my revenant menagerie the more in its afterlife than I would have otherwise.
But when Ursus maritimus disappears from the North, when he succumbs (and I mean the great white bear himself and not his signifier in any particular tongue), on that day and ever after no amount of clever verbiage, no ex post facto ekphrasis from stock footage will begin to make up for it.
(Update: see also Ray Girvan at Apothecary's Drawer for a considered reaction to the same Reuter's piece, full of excellent links. Learn, for example, how to identify a snowclone.)
mánudagur, nóvember 22, 2004
It is, as you see, wonderfully inscribed, as befits this brilliant linguist. The bottommost line of writing is nagari - Sanskrit - apparently one of two such inscriptions in Denmark. Stefan Baums has a lovely page here with a bigger picture, discussion of the Sanskrit (in Danish), and some bibliography.
The runes spell out this piece of wisdom:
Ef þú villt fullkominn vera í fróðleik, þá nem þú öllum tungum, en týn þó ekki at heldr þinni tungu.
If you will be perfect in knowledge, then learn all languages, but do not lose your own language either.
Having shouted myself hoarse over just this string of pseudo-Spanish during many a late night at Kaffi List, I am pleased to learn that these nonsense syllables derive phonetically from the chorus of the Sugar Hill Gang's 1979 Rapper's Delight: "I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop ... " Granted, the original text is a scant step up in terms of sense, but the phonotactic reanalysis is still amusing.
Mark Liberman at Language Log is also amused (though, yes, insufficiently European to be familiar with the Ketchup Song -- I assure him that he is not missing out on much). He compares this example of language contact to folk etymology formation like that which gives us eggcorn for acorn, but seems slightly disappointed that the semantics of both versions of the chorus are not more robust.
But note this brave attempt (duly noted at Apothecary's Drawer) to unpack the difficult line piecemeal into a Satanic message. The urge to reanalyze syllables, any syllables, into meaningful words, is a strong one.
My longtime favorite weird example of this phenomenon is the flash video "Hatten är din" (The hat is yours) with its helpful subtitles in Swedish. (For the Scandinavian-impaired, English glosses are here.) The same Eurocentrism that enables me to say "Oh yes, the Ketchup Song" of course prevents me from recognizing the original language of "Hatten." In any case the point is that the singer is not, in fact, singing Swedish words, but a Swedish speaker faced with the phonotactic subtitles cannot help but hear them as Swedish. And they are hilarious.
Reparsing language one cannot understand into language one can understand, particularly funny language, can be a powerful coping mechanism. During the war in Afghanistan, the airwaves were flooded with worrisome news full of unfamiliar placenames. Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion responded with humor, featuring on the 20.x.01 show a news report live "from the mountain province of Donundestan, from the provincial capital of Rillirillibad." The famous New Yorkistan cover of The New Yorker is another example, in which the local names are "Afghanicized." Typical, perhaps, for New Yorkers, the humor is at once literally self-effacing and yet obnoxious.
Apropos of which, I fear that I am coming to the conclusion that "Hatten er din" is a hair too far to the obnoxious side for me to enjoy as wholly innocent entertainment. I find now on the web a cottage industry in the image of "Hatten." An entire site devoted to reparsing Turkish songs into arguably sensible Swedish resides at Türkhits: Alla talar svenska! ("Everybody speaks Swedish!"). Beyond the dubious little animation on the front page, the entire phonotactic exercise is one that disarms potentially threatening Turkish (what are they singing about? are they talking about us?) by making it both comprehensible and ridiculous. The glosses erase Turkish and replace it, tellingly, with badly-accented Swedish so absurd that we can only conclude that the speakers are fools or lunatics. After all, as the title reminds us, everyone speaks Swedish -- but some clearly better than others, no?
Not a charitable analysis, I realize, and I do not wish to be misunderstood as attacking the motives of the creators of either "Hatten" or the Türkhits site. Whoever they are, I have no knowledge whatever of their intentions at any point in the creative process. Their audience, too, is probably overwhelmingly innocent in their enjoyment of the linguistic cleverness involved. I mean only to say that I find the implications of some of this 'translation' in its particular cultural context discomfiting and complicating.
But the form has promise. A clip called Daler och det hemliga vapnet a.k.a. Han teleporterar Taliban ("he is teleporting the Taliban") shows a degree of political engagement. (English gloss here.) As an apparent attempt to comment on Bush, Osama, Blair, and Afghanistan within the constraints of a relatively short and wholly predetermined set of non-Swedish sounds parsed as Swedish, this clip is an example of art in a closed frame for which I know no parallel. Surely it rivals dróttkvætt.
sunnudagur, nóvember 21, 2004
laugardagur, nóvember 20, 2004
But the hardcore hreintunguherjar do get to have what must be a lot of fun coming up with clever coinages to replace loan words both old and new. The so-called Language Laundry linked to above has put together a list of aggressively Icelandified placenames for numerous locations not in Iceland, a must-visit for any etymologically-inclined geography buff. Many of the other words found on their other lists are also entertaining, though probably of limited use in downtown Ísafjörður either because the coinage (despite enormous cleverness, etymological rigor, and phonetic ease) is utterly unknown to all inhabitants of Ísafjörður or because the item glossed is nothing one would find oneself needing to speak of in downtown Ísafjörður.
But I am not one to be over-daunted by issues of practicality. Some of these neologisms are pure poetry and an enjoyable genre unto themselves. Personally, I'm happy to make up such things or enjoy the inventions of others without the purist agenda that would demand wiping out the pre-existing loanwords. In some cases, to do so would produce linguistic effects both weird and not necessary desirable.
By way of example: the crocodile.
The hreintunguherjar propose replacing the term krókódíll with words constructed of native timber, as it were, such as brynmerill (roughly "armored floating one") or bakkadreki ("riverbank-dragon"). These are great words. Brynmerill contains both the bryn- of Brynhildr and byrnies and (to my ear, at least) an intimation of glittering by analogy with the verb merla. Lovely word. And bakkadreki is fully servicable, descriptive, and þjálft. I think I've seen one or the other of these, fleetingly, in television subtitles.
However, it would be a shame to lose krókódíll. It's an old borrowing from Latin, into which it was borrowed from Greek. In fact the medieval Icelandic translation of the Lives of the Desert Fathers [Vitæ Patrum] includes an even more Greek version of the term: korkódríllus (though it is declined like a Latin word there, oddly enough). Which is all just to say that loanwords can be quite venerable and well-bred.
Furthermore, I think one loses something by eliminating the foreign-soundingness of the word krókódíll in Icelandic. Crocodiles are, after all, not very Icelandic creatures. This fact was driven home to all in 2001, when Mayor Reinhard Reynisson proposed importing some of them (or more properly some of their cousins, the alligators) to Húsavík as a tourist attraction. At the time, part of the pleasure of talking about the affair while it was tied up in the Ministry of Agriculture was exactly to do with the word krókódíll in an Icelandic sentence.
And why shouldn't we get to hear on the level of the sign the inherent strangeness of this plan? Why shouldn't a loanword appear in a sentence that was after all about importation? Krókódílar í Húsavík? How bizarre. How much more bizarre than brynmerlar í Húsavík would have been. Such a nativist word rather fails to contain the implications of having large, scaley, cold-blooded crocodilians lashing their tails through the pearly geothermal waters of northern Iceland.
Unfortunately for those of us who would also have liked to have been able to experience the pleasure of travelling to Húsavík to see the krókódílar in their new, northern home, the Minister of Agriculture, Guðni Ágústsson, denied Reinhard Reynisson an import license. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy occasional verse, Guðni was duly lampooned for his own biological purism:
Húsvíkingar sitja nú í sárum,
sviftir eru góðri tekjuvon.
Grætur köldum krókódílatárum,
kvikindið hann Guðni Ágústsson.
The folk of Húsavík are in arrears,
robbed of a good source of income.
He cries cold crocodile tears,
that bastard, Guðni Ágústsson.
The minister himself cited this anonymous verse in a speech on salmon importation. Translation is mine.
I find this verse eases some of the disappointment I feel in how the matter of the crocodiles has turned out. It is another excuse to talk about krókódílar in Icelandic - in verse, no less. But it also raises another question related to the topic of language purity:
If we replaced the krókódíll with something more nativist, like brynmerill, what would become of crocodile tears?
fimmtudagur, nóvember 18, 2004
This year the Leonid meteor shower is expected November 19, peaking at about 2149 GMT, which is not good viewing from where I am. Neither is it expected to approach the display seen three years ago, which was truly spectacular: Leonids in 2001
The photo above is from the 2001 storm, taken near Mount Shasta in California by John Flinn.
miðvikudagur, nóvember 17, 2004
Today I find myself reflecting on this administration's apparent views on information flow and good versus bad intelligence in light of a passage from the Middle Saga of Bishop Guðmundr of Iceland. The passage in question directly addresses credibility and belief, understandably so, as the saga contains numerous miracles:
... því at þat vita allir menn at þat er allt satt er gott er sagt frá guði og hans helgum mönnum, ok er því gott góðu at trúa, en illt er at trúa illu, þótt satt sé, ok allra verst því, er illt er logit, ok verðr þat þó mörgum góðum mönnum at trúa því er logit er, ok verðr þá eigi rétt um skipt er menn tortryggja þat er gott er ok satt, en trúa því er illt er ok logit.
... for all people know that all good things said of God and His Saints are true, and for that reason it is good to believe good things, but it is bad to believe bad things, even if they are true, and worst of all is when bad things are lies, and yet it befalls many good people that they believe things that are lies, and it is not a good state of affairs when people doubt what is good and true but believe that which is bad and a lie.
Text cited from Miðsaga af Guðmundi byskupi in Biskupa sögur (1858), eds. Guðbrandur Vigfússon & Jón Sigurðsson, Copenhagen, vol. I, 592. Translation mine.
One cannot dispute the idea that giving credence to slander (bad things that are also lies) is undesirable. Belief in good and true things seems similarly beyond reproach. However the other two propositions could worry a modern mind.
The notion that "all good things said of God and His Saints are true" is probably not so bizarre as it appears at first glance. It may rely on a medieval notion of figurative or allegorical truth. That is, a story about, say, a saint performing a virtuous deed or even a miracle need not have been historically accurate in all details to contain this sort of truth, either about the holiness of the saint in question or the virtuousness of the deed in question. Since the saga of Bishop Guðmundr is heavily concerned with miracles, events which by their nature strain the credulity of the audience, this is a kind of truth value of great importance to the compiler or author.
(Though we are not medievals, we also have this notion of allegorical truth. The tale of George Washington and the cherry tree is not one we tend to take seriously as historical truth, but rather as expressive of a truth about George Washington's character as an honest man.)
More arresting is the remaining proposition, that "it is bad to believe bad things, even if they are true." Within the context of a religion in which salvation depended in part or in whole on faith (here I will sidestep countless theological complications and the whole matter of the Reformation), this idea might be necessary. But in the context of an earthly government and its take on promulgating and disseminating information, gathering and using intelligence, this proposition would be quite distressing.
Not that the compiler of the Middle Saga had this administration in mind when penning that line. He most certainly did not. But I, reading it, do. I am unavoidably conditioned by my own historical horizon, recent events that reveal an administration that condemns criticism even if it is justified and seems to be poised to cut itself off from any incoming information that might be categorized as illt, þó satt, that is: bad, yet true.
þriðjudagur, nóvember 16, 2004
It's the Day of the Icelandic Language, coincident with the birthday of Iceland's most beloved poet, Jónas Hallgrímsson. Thanks to Dick Ringler, you may read about Jónas and see his poetry, in Icelandic with copious English notes and translations here. In honor of the day, I recommend a ramble though that excellent site.
mánudagur, nóvember 15, 2004
"The agency is being purged on instructions from the White House," said a former senior CIA official who maintains close ties to both the agency and to the White House. "Goss [the new agency head] was given instructions ... to get rid of those soft leakers and liberal Democrats. The CIA is looked on by the White House as a hotbed of liberals and people who have been obstructing the president's agenda."
I will grant as much as that leaking intelligence to the media in time of war is, shall we say, not always a good thing, even if the war in question is also not a good thing. Loose lips can indeed sink ships.
However, it is deeply troubling that this is framed in terms of party affiliation or loyalty or disloyalty to President Bush. The idea that this administration would purge the Central Intelligence Agency of officers based on those officers' supposed obstructiveness or non-obstructiveness with respect to the administration's agenda suggests that the real target of the purge is the very intelligence those officers bring in. The administration should be basing its agenda upon the intelligence the CIA gathers, not tailoring the CIA to only bring in that intelligence that makes the pre-determined agenda seem like the right one.
But in saying so, I identify myself as a member of the Reality-Based Community. So be it; I have hereby outed myself.
Perhaps this latest news item made you recall, as it did me, that arresting paragraph in Ron Suskind's article in the New York Times Magazine ("Without a Doubt," 17.x.04), commented on in its time on dKos:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
I remember thinking at the time I had this before me on slick newsprint that this matter of reality-basedness went to the heart, four years later, of the massive irregularity that was the 2000 elections. In that election the difference in the totals for the two major candidates was very small indeed, and there was real question as to whether the count had been precise and accurate enough to determine who had won the plurality or, yea, majority, of the votes. But in the crisis as it developed, many Democrats took the stance that a recount should be held, and the Republicans, memorably, did everything in their authority and in their power to block a recount. They succeeded.
In light of the paragraph from Suskind's article above, we can see the same issue. A result based on a recount would have been exactly a solution emerging from the judicious study of discernible reality, the reality in question being the ballots.
Now: there remains in theory a real question about what recourse a democracy has when the difference which should determine the winner of an election is within the statistical margin of error of the system. In such a case, it really would, mathematically and statistically speaking, be impossible to answer the question of who had in fact won the election. It is the case that the Democrats did not offer a solution to this potential problem.
But the Republicans did not offer a compelling and viable alternative to reexamining reality, the actual data, the ballots themselves, in order to reach a solution. They ignored any theoretical ramifications of the problem of the margin of error and instead conducted what many regard as having amounted to a power grab. But that much is history - they did come to power - and whatever your personal take on whether the High-Court-driven resolution to the matter of the 2000 election was in any way inappropriate, you may yet still find the larger point here a necessary one. Results falling within the margin of error is a special case, and it may or may not have been the case dealt with, whether well or badly, in 2000.
Aside from that special case, there is a larger issue raised by the dismissal of reality-based thinking.
This is the crux: Democracy is a reality-based system in the sense used by the aide quoted above. Polling to determine the will of the electorate is a solution emerging from the judicious study of discernible reality. An administration that does not buy into solutions emerging from the examination of reality in the form of ballots or any other representation of the will of the electorate is an administration fundamentally opposed to democracy.
That last point bears repeating:
An administration that does not accept solutions emerging from the examination of reality does not accept the legitimacy of democracy.
At the risk of burying that point, I'll return to the initial subject: intelligence. Counting votes is one way of examining reality, a kind of reality internal to the state. Gathering and analyzing intelligence abroad is a way of examining reality external to the state. The chill that Mr. Royce's article sends though the reader signals a fear that the administration may be choosing to blind itself to information that would have allowed it to make better policy decisions. (Better than what? Better than otherwise.) It is a fear that the giant, in its rage, will put out its own eye and in so doing become more dangerous to itself and to all.
Perhaps this is all a phantom, an unruly flock of anxieties born of Mr. Royce's particular choice of words or that of his source. Certainly a word like purge sends those who've read some Soviet history to prick up their ears and listen for a different sort of Georgian accent. Perhaps it is all a misunderstanding. But some of us had hoped that the President's regrettable use of the word crusade had been an unfortunately slip of the speechwriter and that it would be, in fact, regretted. To our great dismay, that word proved to have been all too apt, all too descriptive and intentional. This fact and the way this latest news item rings the same alarm bells rung by the Suskind article make one pause and worry.
sunnudagur, nóvember 14, 2004
A dog also crossed my path, moving at great speed in pursuit of a hurled thing. To judge by the cries of the leash-holding woman standing nearby, this animal was named Moose.
föstudagur, nóvember 12, 2004
I have learned that Lemuria, initially conceived of as having been a land bridge between Africa and the Indian subcontinent, was originally postulated in an attempt to explain the geographical distribution of lemurs.
Somehow, I had never put this bit of etymology together myself. The lost continent that accreted so many associations with Atlantis, Mu, sunken civilization, extraterrestrial wisdom, crystals, pyramids, Theosophy and whatall is in fact called land of lemurs.
I cannot help but think of how things could have fallen out slightly differently and the locus of lost mystic wisdom come by a different name:
Chipmunkia. Squirrelia. Chinchillia.
fimmtudagur, nóvember 11, 2004
It's awful that it's gone this way. It's awful that it did so on what may be actual votes (though the chatter on dKos suggests that some unfunny funny stuff may indeed have taken place). It's awful that 51% of the voting public was duped or thinks radically differently or whatever happened. The pundits are gnawing on just what it was that did happen.
I note however these two facts:
1. The 48%. The minority could have been smaller, and that would have been worse. 48% is close enough to being the half or in fact the majority that the 48% has to take seriously the need to stand fast and fight hard for the next four years. The temptation is to flee, but that would put the remaining good folk (the then 47% and dropping) in an increasingly bad spot.
Other people have made these points. Stand and fight, says Meteor Blades. Sit and refuse to be moved, says DHinMI, both Kossacks. Hold the line, they say at Not Geniuses, quoting the New Republic at length. An excellent post on Another Liberal Blog points out that the Bush victory was by an embarrassingly thin margin, historically thin, thinner than an incumbent has ever squeaked by on before. Meanwhile, turnout was enormous, with the result that though Bush can truthfully claim to have been elected by more voters than any other American president in history, he is also the only American president ever to have been voted against by so many as voted against him now. More Americans voted for Kerry than voted for Reagan. That's tremendous. And that's nothing the 48% should walk away from.
2. Iraq is a disaster and going to get much worse before it gets better. Take heart in the fact that none of the enormous amount of shit-splattering that is going to happen is going to hit Kerry or the Democrats. It will stick to Bush, to Cheney, to their machine, and to the Republicans in general. This means that a) when the country finally gets rid of the bastards, a Democratic president may be able to go credibly anew to the world and plead forgiveness for the deeds of the Republicans. That is, there is a possibility for keeping the idea alive in the mind of the world that this is the doing of some Americans, not all Americans. And b) perhaps some of the 51% will start noticing that this is a disaster, and cross the line over into what is now the 48%, swelling the ranks.
As Leofsunu exhorted his companions at Maldon by example:
Ic þæt gehate, þæt ic heonon nelle
fleon fotes trym, ac wille furðor gan ...
I swear this, that I will not from this place
a foot's tread flee, but go onward ...
And though I might cite Maldon here, this is not a hopeless fight.Áfram, 48%, áfram ...
miðvikudagur, nóvember 10, 2004
The now-ubiquitous election 2004 map by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman at the University of Michigan:
The web now crawls with juxtapositions of this map (or one of the others by this Michigan gang found here) with others. The map of pre-Civil War slave and free states is particularly interesting, as it demonstrates that the "dividedness" talked of now goes back more than a century.
But for the long view, I personally prefer this item, Nicolas Sanson's "Amerique Septentrionale" (Paris (1650-)1651):
Yes, California is an island. Now and always.
mánudagur, nóvember 08, 2004
Det minner meg om det gode med å flytte. Dere må ikke misforstå meg: jeg misliker å flytte. Jeg rett og slett hater å pakke ned. Jeg oppliver det som om jeg drev med å ødelegge hele verden, gjøre alt om til rot og kaos. Men i det at alt er pakket ned og ligger tryggt og ferdig i taskene og kassene ... det er herlig. Herlig å vite at man kunne reise straks, dra hvor som helst, være nomadisk og fri.
Når jeg har billettene i hånden. Det er en lettelse.
To call the Republicans in Congress the lap dogs of the White House is to insult Chihuahuas everywhere -- they at least bark on occasion.
First, the shorter OED takes albeit as a contraction "all though it be that," where '"it" holds a place in the grammar for the proposition to follow. That is, the OED agrees with Safire and Fowler in analyzing the word such that the "it" element need never change in number or, for that matter, gender.
However, not only is the inæsthetic form albethey in circulation, but the more pleasing and grammatically identical "all be they" is also current, albeit more difficult to Google efficiently.
Furthermore, these same spies have also gone a-hunting in Chaucer and come up with three verses from the Wife of Bath's Tale all ending on the same line; the first verse appears here:
The firste stok, fader of gentilesse -That "al were he" must be the equivalent of "although he were." The pronoun "he" is personal and refers back to a masculine antecedent rather than forward to some (default neuter) proposition. Likewise the Knight's Tale (l. 1851) includes the phrase "al were they."
What man that claymeth gentil for to be
Must folowe his trace, and alle his wittes dresse
Vertu to sewe, and vices for to fle.
For unto vertu longeth dignitee,
And nought the revers, savely dar I deme,
Al were he mytre, coroune, or dyademe.
All this points to the grammatical understanding that produces "all be they" and its more misshapen relatives being quite venerable, though it be an understanding that hasn't made it into the shorter OED. So to those among you who need morphology to have an ancient pedigree I say, feel free to employ these quirky forms, all be they less frequently seen in print. Chaucer has your back.
Comparing albeit to synonyms though and although, he remarks that the old intensifying prefix al- has lost the strength it had had centuries ago, with the result that though and although differ only in register (although is slightly more formal, he says) and not in degree.
I beg to differ. In my speech, at least, although has always been a sharper contrastive than though. Though is a throwaway, an in-passing concessive nod to something a little to the side of what I'm actually talking about. The stronger version with the prefix is the one I use to signal the new direction my line of thought is about to take, as when, after ranting in one direction for a while, making a point, and pausing to let it sink in and sipping my coffee, I pipe back up with an introductory "Although ... "
But is this perhaps the Icelandic part of my head speaking? Certainly al- remains an intensifier in Icelandic, and alfagur is more fair than fagur alone, and so I am bound to hear although as if it were a stronger form of though or þó, cognate to the non-existent *alþó.
Or is the influence metrical rather than etymological? The phrase "Og þó ... " is used exactly as I use although as described above, as the introduction to a new and contrastive topic in the conversation.
Still, I don't think this is all due to Icelandic in my case, though I concede there may be an element of interference at work. (See how that works?)
Safire also unpacks albeit into the phrase "all though it be that." I raised an eyebrow at this, because I have always analyzed the word differently, as a contraction of the phrase "although it be."
[Here a brief pause in which it is noted that in either case the archaic English subjunctive be is right in line after the though just like it would be in Icelandic, whether modern or medieval: þó það sé, where sé is the present subjunctive of vera, to be. Neat.]
Anyway, the seemingly subtle distinction between "although it be that" and "although it be" matters because the "it" in the latter may refer back to some element in the preceding clause, whereas the "it" in Safire's version is freestanding and has no antecedent. English grammar being what it is, pronouns and their antecedents need only agree in number. What is my point? Well, I know myself to have come out with constructions like:
Those people are a lot of fun, albethey loud and opinionated.
I am not sure I have ever heard anyone else say albethey. I know I have never seen it in traditional print media or tried to write it myself, and seeing my attempt to spell it for the first time here I cannot deny a certain degree of embarrassment. It looks terrible. But I know that I say it, and upon reflection I know that it stems from an unconscious understanding of the "it" in albeit as a (singular) pronoun referring back to the (singular) topic of the preceding clause. If the topic is plural, well then the pronoun must be as well.
Furthermore, a quick Google search reveals that I am not alone in my use of the form albethey. It seems to be all over the net. Logic suggests that the form albewe should be possible, but I find only one use via Google, and the pronoun antecedent is a little unclear. *Albeyou and *albeya'll I find not at all.
The evidence from the web points to at least two analyses of the term albeit being current today, mine and Safire's, and his is really that of the 1965 revision of Fowler's Modern Usage. Apparently Chaucer (who used albeit) also used alwereitso, which looks to have been a past tense version of albeit [just as Icelandic þó það væri corresponds to þó það sé]. The "so" in that word suggests an underlying form more like Safire's / Fowler's expansion than like mine, and so perhaps today's less standard forms like albethey reflect a newer, unetymological analysis of albeit, but they are nonetheless amusing for all that.
laugardagur, nóvember 06, 2004
Now, I mean no offense to dogs, but the fact is that they have, historically speaking, gotten a bad rap in literature. This is the example that springs to mind at present moment:
Saxo Grammaticus (floruit early 13th century) in his History of the Danes (Gesta Danorum), book VII wrote the following. I won't tire you with the context.
They say that Gunnar, the bravest of the Swedes, was once at feud with Norway for the most weighty reasons ... For Gunnar, in order to punish the cowardice of the conquered race by terms of extraordinary baseness, had a dog set over them as a governor. What can we suppose to have been his object in this action, unless it were to make a haughty nation feel that their arrogance was being more signally punished when they bowed their stubborn heads before a yapping hound? To let no insult be lacking, he appointed governors to look after public and private affairs in its name; and he appointed separate ranks of nobles to keep continual and steadfast watch over it. He also enacted that if any one of the courtiers thought it contemptible to do allegiance to their chief, and omitted offering most respectful homage to its various goings and comings as it ran hither and thither, he should be punished with loss of his limbs. Also Gunnar imposed on the nation a double tribute, one to be paid out of the autumn harvest, the other in the spring. Thus he burst the bubble conceit of the Norwegians, to make them feel clearly how their pride was gone, when they saw it forced to do homage to a dog.
From the translation here.
For the Latin wonks:
Dan 7.9.4 (p. 201,7 )
Complete original text .
 Ut enim Gunnarus devictae gentis ignaviam inusitata condicionis deformitate multaret, rectoris loco canem iis praeponi curavit.  Quo facto quid aliud eum assequi voluisse putemus quam, ut plenus superbiae populus insolentiam suam manifestius puniri cognosceret, dum obnixos latranti vertices inclinaret?  Et ne quid contumeliae deesset, satrapas procuravit, qui sub eius titulo privata ac publica negotia tuerentur.  Cuius etiam iugi constantique custodiae distinctos procerum ordines applicabat.  Statuit insuper, ut, si quis aulicorum ducis sui despicabile duxisset obsequium variosque discurrentis incessus plenis venerationis obsequiis insequi supersedisset, membrorum clade supplicia lueret.  Sed et geminum genti vectigal imposuit, unum autumnalibus copiis, alterum vernali tempore persolvendum.  Ita, Norvagiensium tumore exploso, obtentum est, ut liquidius fastus sui detrimenta cognoscerent, quem caninis adactum obsequiis viderent.
But what troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush by people who don't just favor different policies than I do - they favor a whole different kind of America. We don't just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is. (NYT 5.ix.04)
I would even put a finer point on it. I would say that we are looking at a disagreement about what America is for. The United States began after all a social experiment born of the European Enlightenment. The huge support the newly elected executive enjoyed among evangelicals (to say nothing of the truly frightening presence of the Dominionists in the mix) suggests (vægast sagt) widespread confusion of what the state is for and what the church is for. Not only has the wall between Church and State been eroded, but the very notion that such a wall might be desirable or even imaginable is fallen on hard times.
föstudagur, nóvember 05, 2004
fimmtudagur, nóvember 04, 2004
mánudagur, október 18, 2004
Realpolitik from saga Iceland
There was a rancher out in the territories name of Ravenell. He was an uncompromising sort of man, and over time he earned a reputation for being unfair in his dealings with other men. At one time or another he had run roughshod over the grazing land or water rights of just about every smaller rancher in the area, and being kind of a big rancher himself, the biggest for miles around, that meant that Mr. Ravenell had trampled on pretty much everybody at one time or another. Men who felt they’d been wronged and who’d gone to him to see about payment of damages of that manner of thing found that they could not get a hearing. Ravenell laughed in their faces.
More than once Ravenell had even been party to disagreements where people got pretty badly hurt or worse, but even when just about everyone agreed that Mr. Ravenell was in the wrong and that he owed it any number of men to make it right, no one of those men was ever able to get a posse together to go and do anything about it—this being the frontier, far from the reach of the officers of the law, sheriffs and such, posses were the means of doing something about troublemakers and lawbreakers. But Mr. Ravenell was a powerful man. He was just too tough to go up against, and he knew it, and so he continued do what he pleased without bothering himself about what other people thought about it.
It so happened that Ravenell shot and killed a man he had hired to look after his stock. The fellow, Ernest was his name, had done something that Ravenell had specifically told him not to do—ridden a particular horse of Ravenell’s. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal but that Ravenell had sworn up and down that he would shoot any man who rode that horse, and it was common knowledge that he had done so, just as it was common knowledge that Mr. Ravenell was not the sort of man to break his word. And though there were a lot of people who thought that that was a pretty ridiculous thing to swear up and down about, you couldn’t exactly say that Ernest hadn’t been warned. In any case Ravenell shot him him dead.
This is where luck began to change for Mr. Ravenell. Ernest had a cousin, a rancher in another part of the district, a man named Sam, and Sam took this business pretty ill, and he resolved to do something about it. He rode around to all the famers and ranchers in the district and to try to get them to meet to discuss the state of affairs. They agreed that this was a good idea, and in fact they extended an invitation to Mr. Ravenell to come talk terms. Word of this meeting got to Ravenell, but he did not concern himself about it. He reckoned it was unnecessary that he show up and beneath his dignity besides. Anyway, even if they did decide that he owed this Sam something for the death of his cousin, they would be unable to do anything about it. They never had been able to before in these sorts of affairs.
But this was when, as I said, luck changed. Some kind of tipping point had been reached with regard to the collective ill-will Ravenell had earned for himself. The farmers and ranchers met, talked, compared grievances (which now included being slighted yet again when Ravenell didn’t even deem them important enough to meet with), and agreed that Ravenell had had it coming to him for a long time now and needed to be taken down a peg or maybe more than one. He would be declared an outlaw and be run out of the district. A posse formed up and stood to ride out. Ravenell got wind of this, but too late. The best men of the district showed up at his ranch, rifles in hand, and set about telling him how things were going to go. He had not even bothered to watch the gate, much less get his own men together and arm them.
This is how things were going to go. Mr. Ravenell was to forfeit his ranch, all his stock, and all his goods except what he could carry himself. He was to move out of the district. The posse confiscated the most valuable goods right then, while Mr. Ravenell watched. They tied him up along with his men so they wouldn’t get in their way. In fact they treated them in a pretty brutal and dishonorable way; they hung them by their ankles upside down from the rafters of the house and maimed a few of them pretty badly. This was by no means the usual way of doing things, even where troublemakers and criminals were concerned, but a lot of resentment had built up over the years.
Things turned out such that Sam moved onto Ravenell’s ranch and became a much wealthier man than he had been before. This was in part because he took over Ravenell’s herds, but also because people had a very good opinion of him, seeing as he was the man who taught that bully a much-needed lesson, and with neighbors who were also friends, he prospered. Ravenell slunk away wounded and in disgrace and set up house again on an undeveloped spread with a run-down farmhouse on it the next district over.
This is the point where I could stop, toss out the moral that truly pride goeth ever before a fall, and issue a dire warning for our own leaders operating in the Wild West of international relations that their hubris in discounting the importance of other nations’ opinion of our actions as a nation is going to get them and by extension all Americans in serious trouble sooner rather than later. But that is not exactly the point I am making, though it is a good point, and that is not the story I am telling. That is not, in fact, the way the story goes, for actually I am retelling, albeit in compressed and Americanized form, a 14th-century Icelandic saga about a farmer named Hrafnkell who lived in the east of Iceland in the days of the medieval Commonwealth. The disputes among the landed farmers of Commonwealth Iceland that are recorded in somewhat fictionalized form in the Icelandic sagas bear a sometimes uncanny resemblance to the strained dealings among nations today. This is because the Commonwealth, having no King, no higher authority, or executive arm, was in essence a collection of sovereign individuals all jostling against each other, trying to keep the inevitable disagreements that arose between them from sparking too much violence, all the while trying to maintain, or better yet, improve their individual standing in society. It was a sort of libertarian paradise---or hell, depending on your point of view. The Wild West in the days before law came to town was not so dissimilar, which is why this story can be updated for the American reader without doing it particular violence. Sovereign nations, having no higher authority to appeal to either, behave in a very similar way. Some very thought-provoking parallels come into view if one is in the habit, as I am, of reading Icelandic sagas. Your suspicion that I will draw a lesson at the end of my retelling of this one is correct, but the story does not end where I last left you.
The story does not end there because our Mr. Ravenell, as I have been calling him, has a second rise to power. He works hard on his new land and builds up his herd. He is more careful in his dealings with people. As he becomes a richer man, he makes himself useful to others in their own dealings, and he gains a reputation for being a good friend in need. And as he grows richer in alliances, he grows richer in material things, and some years on he is again quite a powerful man, but one who is regarded in a new light. Ravenell lives on his new and now flourishing spread, while Sam, the man who had brought him down, lives on what had been Ravenell’s ranch.
Then something else happens. Sam’s brother Avery comes back out west to the district. He’s been away this whole time making a name for himself as something of an adventurer back East, taking part in the Civil War, and becoming known as a solid sort of fellow as well as a crack shot. He plans to set up on his own, but for the moment he is staying with his brother.
Ravenell hears news of Avery’s return. And he hears one day that he will be travelling along a certain route with only a small group of men. Ravenell rides out with some of his own men, ambushes Avery, and guns him down together with all his companions. He then rides to his old ranch, where Sam is not expecting him, and sets out to this upstart how things are going to go.
Sam will forfeit the ranch and all such profit as he has had of it since he moved in. He will return to his old farm, where Ravenell will permit him to live out his days, provided he never get uppity in any way again. As for death of his brother Avery, Ravenell owes him nothing for that, since it was not a greater harm than the torture inflicted on Ravenell during the confiscation of his goods. As to the killing of Avery’s men, that was no worse that the mistreatment and maiming of his own men at the same time. As to the killing of his cousin Ernest, for that Sam had been compensated more than enough already, enjoying as he had Ravenell’s ranch and wealth for those several years. The two men are, Ravenell says, even.
And that is the way it in fact goes. Ravenell moves back onto his old, now even richer farm, and Sam is forced down to his original station in life, or even rather lower. Sam does go back to the farmers and ranchers who he’d talked to at the beginning of things and tries to get their support again against Ravenell. They tell him to get lost. He dies a man of modest means and no influence, wheras Ravenell enjoys power, prestige, and a good name for the rest of his days.
There is a big discussion among the people who study saga literature about to what extent Hrafnkell / Ravenell undergoes a reform of character during the course of the story. That question is mostly beside my point here. I do want to point out whether or not the essential core of Ravenell’s being changes in the course of the tale, what he learns by the end that he hadn’t known at the beginning is how to pass the global test. Furthermore, his actions are an example of how passing the global test and ensuring one’s own security are not contradictory.
Let me unpack that for you.
I tell this tale for the benefit of those who were disturbed by Senator Kerry’s use of that phrase, “global test,” to show how I understand that phrase myself. Everything I have heard from Sen. Kerry has led me to believe that this is also how he understands the global test, though most likely he has come to his understanding by a route that does not go through a 14th-century Icelandic prose work. Be that as it may.
When we meet Ravenell at the outset of the tale, he has a name for doing what he likes in his own self interest, up to and including killing men. He does not pay damages or compensation for his actions ever. He relies on his own strength, which is objectively greater than that of his nominal peers. He does not bother to justify his actions to anyone. He does not talk terms, attend meetings, or any of that sort of thing.
At the end of the tale, Ravenell has learned to talk about his actions in the language of fairness and balance, in the language of making things right to people who feel that they have been wronged. This is the crucial difference. In his speech to Sam, he sets out how the harms on both sides balance out. Sam himself is still aggrieved want wants revenge, but the larger community of farmers and ranchers will not lend him support this time. Why? Because the community has accepted Ravenell’s justification for his actions. He has successfully made the case that he and Sam are quits; he has passed the global test.
President Bush would have us believe that attempting to pass any kind of global test would necessarily compromise the ability of the United States to act freely in its own interest and in its own defense. This is not so.
Observe the example of Mr. Ravenell. He has clearly not gone soft during his years as a poorer man. He reclaims his old land and former wealth and station. He even kills several more men for whom he does not pay compensation. He still acts perfectly freely in his own interest—the only change is in how he portrays those actions to the larger community. The change in his rhetoric makes him secure long-term in a way that his bullying ways of might-makes-right did not. Before, grudges were steadily building up against him, with disastrous results. After, his might rests on right, on the community opinion that Ravenell has behaved in an acceptable manner.
But make no mistake: Ravenell is not relying merely on a nice-guy image. Look carefully at how he ensures his future security. He does not go after Sam and kill him, which might have seemed the obvious route. He waits for the return of the brother, Avery, and takes him out. Why? If he had killed Sam, it would have fallen to his brother to take action, just as Sam had taken action after his cousin Ernest was killed. Avery, popular war hero and crack shot, would have been much more dangerous still on the loose than Sam. Ravenell does exactly what he needs to do, but then he can make the case that he has done the right thing.
President Bush and his administration, I shouldn’t need to point out, have said again and again that they are not interested in making that case. They do not care to make themselves popular among other nations or justify their actions to anyone. They have run the country much as Ravenell ran his affairs before being humbled, and with some of same results: a great deal of resentment against the US is building up overseas (incredibly, really, considering the surge of goodwill after 9-11), and that resentment cannot possibly be good for American security.
Senator Kerry has shown that he has an understanding of the importance of alliances and of justifying the country’s actions to its own citizens and to the world. He is already better thought of overseas than President Bush , and this could only help him in the rhetorical task that is the global test. Sen. Kerry is also determined that nothing interfere with the defense of the nation’s security. Simultaneous dedication to both those ideas is what is needed to reclaim our former station in the world as a respected member of the community and a secure one. The fact that Kerry knows that dedication to both is possible makes him the better candidate in this election. The fact that Bush thinks that it is impossible to do both makes him the worse candidate by far and a danger to the long-term security of the nation.
Postscript: The saga of Hrafnkell is readily available in at least two fine translations, one by Hermann Pálsson (Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 1970) and another by Terry Gunnell in the collection The Sagas of Icelanders (with preface by Jane Smiley, Penguin, 2000).