Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Northumbrian Burr

If you've never heard it before, and even if you have, you may do so here. Moribund, unfortunately, and hard to find nowadays even among the very elderly. Wild, no?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Happy Birthday Wolfgang!

1. If Mozart were alive today, he would be blowing out 250 candles at the Composers' Rest Home.

2. Like his father Leopold, Wolfgang had a misshapen ear. Because of this, the congenital fusion of the crura of the anthelix and the helix has come to be known as a "Mozart ear."

3. Mozart died at the age of 35 in Vienna. I read somewhere that the life expectancy for a resident of Vienna in the late 18th century was 35 years, so in some sense he didn't die young. On the other hand, such statistics take into account infant mortality, so the fact that the life expectancy was 35 years doesn't entail that 35 was a typical age to die at.

4. Apparently his favorite food was trout. I'm guessing Schubert liked trout too. Both composers died in their thirties in Vienna; maybe it wasn't such a good idea to eat trout right out of the Danube back then.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Why We Don't Say Chicago The Way We Think We Do

There was recently a bit of discussion at Language Log over the new term "blawg," meaning a law blog. Mark Liberman remarked that "blawg" and "blog" are pronouced the same, but Benjamin Zimmer responded that they only sound the same if you have the "cot/caught" merger, in which there is no distinction in pronunciation between these two vowels, and hance between the two words. Generally, this merger has occurred in the "midlands," that is, in stripe from the mid-Atlantic states westward. The merger tends to be more common the farther west you are. Wikipedia has the following map, which is pretty nice:

In this map the blue lines enclose the areas where the vowels are fully distinct, and the green lines enclose the areas where they are completely merged. The rest is either transitional or there is insufficient data.

Me, I'm from solidly blue turf. So I thought about it a while, and realized that I use the same vowel for "blog" and "law," namely the vowel from "caught." Thus, I would pronounce "blog" and "blawg" the same, but not "cot" and "caught." Sure enough, John Lawler, who's from the same neck of the woods as me, (I'm from the spinal column of the woods, he's from the esophagus) wrote in to the same effect.

So I got to thinking about all the trouble this merger gets us Chicagoans into. Not like the trouble a different vowel merger causes for a Philadelphian friend of mine, who insists on having her name pronounced "Carrie" with a lax /a/, not "Care-y" with tense /a/, even though I can barely produce this sound. No, the trouble stems from how our dialect is stereotyped. Cast your memory back, if you will, to the SNL skit "The Superfans" - you know, the one with the Chicagoans who discuss the Bears and Bulls in an exaggerated dialect while feasting on something they call "Polish sassage." This always rang a false note with me, and now I know why. Sure, Chicagoans ואני בתוכם front the /ah/ vowel to the point that "hot" could be mistaken by an outsider for "hat," but "sausage" has a different vowel, which doesn't get fronted. But to all those folks from within the green lines on the map above (lines which strike me, I must say, as conservative), "sausage" and "hot" have the same vowel, so if Chicagoans say "hat" for "hot," shouldn't we say "sassage?" But we don't. We may say "cat" for "cot," but not for "caught."

A good number of the actors who played the Superfans were Chicagoans or from the Chicago area - George Wendt, Joe Mantegna, Chris Farley. On the other hand, Farley grew up in Southern California, and Mike Myers, who it must be said has a decent ear for dialects, nevertheless hails from solidly cot/caught merging Canada. My suspicion is that the latter two actors suggested "sassage," and the Chicagoans didn't pick up on the wrongness of it, trusting Farley's Chicago roots and Myers's facility with accents. But the bottom line is that, as any good student of language knows, intuition is no substitute for data; language is so complex that as speakers we are unaware of how we speak. Just because we Chicagoans don't say "sassage" doesn't mean we know we don't. Case in point? Ask just about any Chicagoan what the locals call the city, and they will immediately reply "Chicaahgo." But that just ain't true. Listen to this sample from York University. Wait until the end. Hear that? That's how we say it. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ephemera and Miscellany

First, two anecdotes:

1. I was in the grocery store and the Eddie Money song "Take Me Home Tonight" came on. Now, I'm sure this song has its merits, but they're lost on me. But one thing caught my eye. Ear. There's a part of the song I'd never thought about where he sings "Just like Ronnie sang:" and then a female voice chimes in, "Be my little baby." Now this is, of course, a reference to the Ronettes classic "Be My Baby," which many (myslef among them) consider one of the best pop songs of the era. Brian Wilson, in fact, listened to it obsessively, until he became convinced it contained secret messages for him meant to drive him mad. A good song'll do that to ya. So Eddie Money is employing a cute trick, and one that I'm overfond of, which is weaving lines from well-known songs into one's own songs. Quoting, some call it. But what suddenly struck me was that the female voice was none other than that of Ronnie Spector herself. In other words, how cool must it be to be Eddie Money? (Boy, I never thought I'd say that.) Seriously, to put a reference to "Be My Baby" in a song and get Ronnie Spector to sing it? Almost makes me like the song.

2. Later that day I was in the park (it's been unseasonably warm here in New York) and I passed by a father who was saying to his kid, "You hafta finish your pop." It's not just that he said pop, although that particular non-count noun is certainly a rara avis in these parts (Soon I'll post on pop/soda/coke. I have, as we say in Yinglish, what to say on this topic). But it was also the "hafta," raising the /ae/ through the damn roof. Warmed this Chicagoan's heart. I almost went over and talked to him, but then I remembered all the other times I did things like that, and how it was never a good idea.

Now two facts that delight me whenever I think about them:

1. Ever think about the word 'em? As in "Take 'em out of the oven and put 'em on the table." I always assumed it was a contraction of "them." But since when can you drop a "th" from the beginning of a word? In fact, 'em is a relic of an entirely different pronoun, hem. How cool is that? It's a well known fact, but one I love. And though 'em may seem weird, folksy or extremely casual written out, I don't know any native speaker of American English who doesn't say it. Oh yes, of course I have data to back up that claim.

2. There's a song that I used to hear all the time on the radio called "Blinded By The Light," whose claim to fame is that there's a line where the singer seems to sing "douche." He doesn't. The real line, as penned by the songwriter, who happens to be Bruce Springsteen, is "Wrapped up like a deuce/ Another runner in the night." [or rather "Revved up"]

The famous version of the song, the one where the singer seems to sing "douche," is by Manfred Mann, who, years earlier, he had been the drummer in a band called Manfred Mann, who had a hit with the song "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" (originally by the Exciters, who are quite good). Got that - Manfred Mann was in a band called Manfred Mann. Now, in an organized record store (which is right next to my data proving all Americans say 'em), individual musicians are alphabetized, unsurprisingly, by last name, while band names are alphabetized by first letter. Thus Jethro Tull is under J, whereas if Jethro Tull had taken a break from inventing the seed drill in 1701 to go cut an album, it would be under T. So if you're looking for "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," look under "Manfred," but if you want "Blinded By The Light," look under "Mann." Which is right next to "Manfred," usually.

As for Manfred Mann, he's originally from South Africa. Oh yeah, and his real name is Michael Lubowitz.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Caption Contest #36

"Then she say's I'm not the father."
"Well, at least I still have hair."

Friday, January 20, 2006


The world has lost Wilson Pickett and Lou Rawls in relatively quick succession. I'm not sure how much I have to say about this; it's always sad when people die, of course, and when people have touched many lives with their talent the sadness is felt more widely. Often when musicians I admire die, I scold myself that I didn't fully appreciate the fact that they had been alive, but what does it really mean to appreciate that they were alive? It is worth noting, I think, that a half century after the birth of Rock and Roll Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, arguably the three central figures in early Rock and Roll, are all alive. But somehow this fact is cold and abstract, and despite having noted it and written it down, after they have lived their hundred and twenty years and are no longer alive, I will still think to myself, "I wish I appreciated the fact that they were alive," even though I tried to do just that.

But there is another recent death that grieves me deeply, even though it is not of a living thing, but of a building. The Pilgrim Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago burned down recently. It was a beautiful and unique building, as you can see for yourself:

It was designed by the legendary Chicago architects Adler and Sullivan, who served (Sullivan in particular) as a bridge between H. H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright in the development of modern architecture. Over the years Chicago has lost most of its Sullivan buildings, the majority to demolition, which makes the destruction of any remaining Sullivan buildings especially tragic. But this was not just any Sullivan building.

It was built in 1890 as the Kehilath Anshe Mayriv(KAM) Synagogue, which later merged with Temple Isaiah Israel, whose previous building was around the corner from the building I grew up in, and whose new home was and still is around the other corner. In a pattern that would become increasingly familiar, the old KAM building became a Baptist Church as the neighborhood changed from mostly Jewish to mostly African American. The Pilgrim Baptist Church in turn became famous since its music director was none other than Thomas A. Dorsey (not the bandleader), who is known as the "Father of Gospel." It was in this building that much of the development of African American Gospel music took place.

In short, this building brought together various themes that are of great personal importance to me -- The South Side, architecture, American Jewish history, Gospel music -- and yet I never saw it, even though I spent the first eighteen years of my life less than three miles away. I don't know what I could do to appreciate Wilson Pickett while he was alive, but I do know that I could have gone to see this building, whose existence and history I always knew, and now I can't.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Yiddish Cup: Found!

I couldn't help but notice the sudden frequent occurence of the phrase "Yiddish Cup." Since Yiddish is my business, I had to find out what it was all about.

Turns out, it's one of those new-fangled "internet fads." I'd post a link to a place you could read about it, but you'd probably be better off doing your own research. I'll summarize it briefly:
Two online humor websites had a dispute over content ownership. In the course of increasingly heated exchanges and actions, Neil Bauman, an executive at one of the websites, emailed Max Goldberg, owner of the other website, accusing him of having "lost possession of [his] Yiddish cup." When this email was made public a few days later on January 10, 2006 (yes, just a week ago as of this writing) it created a sensation, and the absurd, even Dadaist ring to this insult led people to try and incorporate it in any way possible into their writing, correspondence, etc.

What strikes me about this story, other than how astonishingly quickly an internet fad can develop and spread, is that no one seems to have figured out the origin of the phrase "Yiddish cup." Since I know Yiddish, however, I knew what Bauman meant immediately. So here I will reveal it for all the world to see what the heck Bauman meant by "Yiddish cup."

Bauman is alluding to a Yiddish phrase, "yidisher kop," (it varies slightly in different dialects, and "yidish kop" is one such dialectal alternative) which literally means "Jewish head," and figuratively means "innate intelligence." There is a related expression, "goyisher kop," (gentile head) that means, not surprisingly, "innate stupidity." Thus Bauman's jab implies that Goldberg is not using the intelligence inherent in him as a Jew. It's a clever move on Bauman's part, at once insulting him and yet invoking a sort of cameraderie via their shared Jewish background.

Don't be too shocked by the overt bigotry of these phrases; every culture on Earth has at some point decided that it is superior to all others; why should Jews be an exception? You don't have to like bigotry, nor, of course, should you, but our outrage at the presence of bigoted sentiments in the traditional stock phrases of a given language should be minimal.

Finally, it's sort of a shame that this phrase is not, in fact, as nonsensical as it seems; I'm a firm believer in the dictum "No sense makes sense." We live in an absurd universe; thus there is a deep truth and strange beauty to absurd, nonsensical phrases and utterances, but this ain't one of 'em.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Phony Safires

Two times in as many weeks Language Hat has called William Safire to task for writing stunningly idiotic things. I mean, idiotic even for Safire.

In case that last sentence didn't clue you in, my dislike for Safire and what he represents borders on the irrational. Now I'm not talking about his political views, though those aren't my cup of postum either, as my father might say. No, what gets to me is his attitude towards language, which is what is known as prescriptivism. This is, more or less, the view that the actual rules of language exist on some platonic level, removed from the shadows-flickering-on-the-walls-of-the-cave rules speakers follow when they speak. You see, for you and me to speak properly we shouldn't follow our instincts, but rather abstract rules handed down from on high that run counter to our instincts.

I have a hard time convincing people that this is wrong, especially since most of the people I associate with are, like me, over-educated and have developed a reflexive elitism that is often quite justifiable. After all, people who have spent years studying some arcane topic tend to know more about that topic than other people. The difference is that language is not an obscure topic. Anyone who has mastered a language (a category that includes the uneducated, illiterate, and even many severely mentally challenged people) -- that is, anyone who can use language to express their own thoughts and understand those of others -- has developed the ability to follow rules so complex that even linguists have barely begun to discover what these rules are. It should come as no surprise, then, that when prescriptivists promulgate rules, they are usually inevented ones, which have a very shaky basis.

So what? Why should I care if William Safire invents a bunch of rules and uses his pulpit at the New York Times to spread them? Isn't that his right? Perhaps, but think of the damage prescriptivists are doing:

On the one hand, they are making people ashamed of how they talk, and adding to their insecurity about language, an insecurity that causes the word "grammar" to elicit so much fear as to drive people away from studying languages and learning about language.

But this pales in comparison to the harm prescriptivists do by perpetuating social and racial injustice. Think I'm kidding or overstating my case? Consider this: When prescriptivists criticize, let's say, double negatives as being inherently illogical, aren't they implying that people who use double negatives are themselves illogical? After all, if they just knew better, wouldn't they see that two negatives make a positive, and it just follows that you shouldn't use them? Now consider who uses double negatives: African Americans, as well as other Americans from regions and backgrounds that limit their economic and educational opportunities . But really, that's their fault -- they clearly have no grasp of logic. Well, tell that to French speakers. Or Russian speakers. Or Hebrew speakers. Or Ancient Greek speakers, if you have a time machine. Because after all, Pascal, Tolstoy, King Solomon and Aristotle were a bunch of idiots, who knew nothing about logic, or else they wouldn't have spoken languages with double negatives, right?

Whew. I'm tired now, and I haven't gotten to my point yet (and at this a British prescriptivist would yell "haven't got!"). Which is the following:

One commenter on Language Hat suggested that Safire might not even be writing his columns -- that it is common practice for well-known columnists to sign off on the work of underlings and publish it as their own work. Now, I don't know if this is true, and I certainly don't want to accuse Safire of being unethical -- only of being wrong and ignorant and the worst kind of snob. But it got me to thinking that it might be fun to try and write fake Safire columns. Not satires, but things that could pass as what Homestar might call "the for real deal." I haven't read much of Safire's writing, and I'm not going to start now, but I think I might try my hand at coming up with Safiresque (Safirian? That sounds like an Iranian Jewish name) ideas about language. When I think of some I'll post them. You kids at home can try it too; hell, this could even evolve into a meme, at which point I'll wash my proverbial hands of it.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Music Out There: Daniel Johnston and Van Dyke Parks

Time to compare and contrast two new music purchases, since I had so much fun doing that last time.

Fearing that my tastes were too pedestrian, I decided to spend holiday gift certificates on music that was decidedly strange, to wit, Daniel Johnston's "Songs of Pain" and Van Dyke Parks's "Song Cycle." In retrospect, I think that only the latter is truly weird; it is a complex, and even maddening assemblage of snippets of beautiful melodies reminiscent of... well, something vaguely musty and sepia toned, strung together using orchestras playing multiple rhythms that go in and out of phase, à la Charles Ives. The overall effect is stunning, but hard to listen to.

The story behind this album is that Warner Brothers hired former child prodigy Van Dyke Parks in 1967 to create the Next Sergeant Pepper, giving him free reign. A year and $50,000 later (thus making it, believe it or not, the most expensive record ever made up to that point) the album was released in 1968 to great fanfare. Needless to say, the record-buying public wasn't ready for such an album. In all honesty, I'm not sure I'm ready for it either.

I also bought Daniel Johnston's "Songs of Pain," a collection of recordings Johnston made in 1980-81 in his parents' living room on a boombox. Johnston eventually found a cult following that included a fair number of celebrities, but his struggle with bipolar disorder made him unable to reach a mass audience.

I'm left wondering if anyone would consider Daniel Johnston an "outsider artist" if his recordings were professionally made, or if they were ignorant of his mental illness. His music is incredibly straight-forward -- simple direct melodies, truly astonishing in their elegance. The lyrics are sometimes a bit odd, but so are most lyrics. On the other hand, perhaps if the recordings sounded more normal no one would notice them.

In the end then, even when I try to buy weird music I wind up getting normal music that just seems weird.

As a sad footnote, Daniel Johnston was hospitalized recently for various serious health problems. He's out of the hospital now; let's wish him a refuah shleimah.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

From Joisey City to Boibon Street

In an excellent, albeit depressing New Yorker article this week (Yes I do read other things besides the New Yorker -- just not often) about the New Orleans police, Dan Baum speculates that New Orleanians say "woik" because
New Orleans experienced the same wave of nineteenth-century immigrants that swelled the East Coast--from Ireland, Germany and Italy.
This can't be the explanation, for the simple reason that plenty of other places (Chicago, for instance) experienced the same immigration, but not the sound change. Oddly enough, a couple of months ago the New Yorker quoted no less an authority than William Labov observing, rightly, that although the New York dialect is thriving, it is losing this very feature (as well as a few others I'll write about later). Interviews in the wake of the hurricane demonstrated that in New Orleans this feature is robust. Setting it further apart from its northeastern counterpart is the fact that in New Orleans this feature has no racial dimension (think of Louis Armstrong singing "What A Wonderful Woild"), whereas the now-dying New York area "oi" never was part of the local African American vernacular, even though it has incorporated other distinct New York features.

So where does this strange feature come from? My guess, and I don't think I'm too far out on a limb, is that it is what is known as retroflex, or rhotacized, vowel coloring. That is, in both New Orleans and the New York area "r"s are dropped after vowels, like in many other kinds of English, and in some -- not all -- of the dialects where this happens, it alters the preceding vowel. I think it's jut an odd parallel development in these two non-rhotic ("r" dropping) urban dialects that can be explained without recourse to history, aside from the forces that led to derhotacization throught the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast.

I have to admit though that my gestalt impression of New Orleans English is that it is strongly suggestive of an East Coast city, with a whiff of southernness. Sort of like Philadelphia.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Pentatonic in Blue

Though my two favorite topics -- music and language -- are fairly technical ones, I try to avoid writing about them in two much technical detail for two reasons:

1) I want people to enjoy reading this, and I don't want to alienate or bore anyone if I don't have to, and

2) I don't really know how. I'm largely self-taught in both subjects, which means I've picked up bits and pieces of the jargon, but I can't use them with confidence.

But now I want to write about something a bit technical. I will try to do so in a way that neither bores readers nor esposes my ignorance. Here goes.

A few weeks ago Bobby Lightfoot wrote a long rant about guitarist Carlos Santana. Me, I've never felt one way or the other about Santana -- he always seemed pleasant and innocuous, like most guitar virtuosos. I make an exception for Hendrix, but that's because he's a strong (and underappreciated) songwriter, not just an accomplished technician. In any case, Bobby Lightfoot characterizes Santana's playing as "pentatonic woodly-woodly" -- an apt description.

"Pentatonic" is a mode, that is, a subset of notes. If you think of the notes in the melody of "Oh Susannah" (or just about any Stephen Foster song), that's the pentatonic mode. Santana does spend a lot of his solos aimlessly wandering around the pentatonic scale. But when I first read this, I thought, "Well, pentatonic woodly-woodly is a darn sight better than blues woodly-woodly." Which is not to knock the blues, by any means -- just the mediocre musicians who use the blues as a crutch, because you can sound a lot more competent than you are if you stick to the blues, especially if you don't have an ear. Of course, this trick has its limitations, most significantly that it only works with songs that are in a blues mode. Nothing is quite as jarring as a song with pentatonic melody and harmonies with a blues solo plunked down in it, and yet you hear this fairly often. Indeed, musicians who affect faux-naif sensibilities sometimes do this intentionally, a prime example being the Velvet Underground -- if you know the guitar solo from "Pale Blue Eyes" then you know what I'm talking about.

It's a shame these modes don't mix happily, because they are the two most American modes. Some argue that the ubiquity of pentatonic music is the heritage of Scotch-Irish immigrants. That may be the case, tough I'm skeptical of attempts to demonstrate Scotch-Irish roots for American things. The heritage of the blues scale is also controversial. Of course it is African American in origin, but many seek to trace it to Africa, something else I'm skeptical of. The only element of the blues I've ever heard an African precedent for is guitar polyrhythm, which is fairly superficial, and is limited to early blues. But the blues scale never sounded particulary African to me. I think it is really an innovation of African-American culture. which I think makes it even cooler than if it were imported. Nevertheless, given that these two modes are so fundamentally American, you might expect them to combine more gracefully.

Why is this combination so jarring? I thought about it for a while, and the best answer I could come up with is that the dominant seventh in the blues scale (one of the most important notes in it) interferes with the sixth, which is crucial to the pentatonic. Earlier I thought it might have to do with the third of the blues scale, which is "blue" -- it exploits sliding and semitones to create an ambiguity between major and minor. But the third is not the problem, as I can prove.

The following is a field recording from 1926 in Darien, GA of W. M. Givens singing a spiritual called "Deep Down In My Heart."

Notice that it is strongly pentatonic, and yet the thirds are blue -- hear how he swings up to it on "everybody". Note furthermore that there is nothing remarkable about this -- it sounds prefectly natural. (While I'm at it, I can't help pointing out the strange vowels in the words "heart" and "brother.")

What could be more American than this? Pentatonic with a blue third. Ebony and Ivory. And now that I'm aware of this combination, I hear it everywhere, even in my own songs.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Latin Radio and Yiddish

Alert reader November alerted me to the existence of Nuntii Latini, Radio Finland's Latin news reports, which can be heard online. I listened to it, and found it interesting. The pronunciation is the so-called "classical" pronunciation, devised by philologists in the 18th and 19th centuries, as opposed to the various traditional "church" pronunciations used for Catholic liturgy, although they pronounced v/consonantal u as v, whereas I was taught to pronounce it as "w." Heck, for all I know, so were they, except for them "w" sounds like "v." Wery interesting. More interesting, though, was the effect of their Finnish accents, which were readily apparent -- no big surprise. On the one hand, the heavy Finnish "l" was a bit jarring and seemed out of place (although I admit I have never heard Latin spoken by a native speaker), but on the other hand the Finnish distinction between short and long consonants suits Latin very well, which shares this distinction, and was clearly audible.

All this got me thinking about the phenomenon of Latinism and its cousin Sanskritism -- I'm using these terms to mean people who think the world needs news radio broadcasts in these languages, people who raise their children speaking them, people who form clubs and go to meetings and retreats where everyone speaks. In particular I thought about the relation of these movements to Yiddishism.

The fundamental difference is that Latin and Sanskrit have had no real native speakers for over a thousand years, and a good deal more than that in the case of Sanskrit. Yiddish, on the other hand, is thriving -- a short subway ride will take me to large communities with a vibrant culture, in which children grow up knowing no other language besides Yiddish. I'm referring, of course, to the Hasidic communities. So given that Yiddish is neither dead nor dying, it begins to seem odd that there are people whose behavior towards Yiddish is reminiscent of other people's behavior towards Sanskrit or Latin. Do I have anything against such people? Absolutely not -- I admire their dedication and idealism. In fact I'm on the board of an organization that encourages young people to speak Yiddish and to foster the growth of new Yiddish-speaking communities. I go to Yiddish-speaking events, and I may even raise my children in Yiddish. But I do think that such behavior contributes to the misconception that Yiddish is dead or dying, and I think some Yiddishists cross a line when they present themselves, even inadvertently, as "saving Yiddish."

Who is acting more strangely? People who make news reports and raise their children in dead languages, or people who treat a living language as if it were dying? I don't know. On the one hand, a Latin radio show in Finland is patently absurd, not that I am against absurdity as such. On the other, it was the same impulse that resurrected the long-dead Hebrew language, thus giving birth to Modern Hebrew, or Israeli, as some argue it should be called. Go know.