Sunday, June 25, 2006

How I Spent My Vacation

Well, now I'm back from a week up in the Rockies, where my wife's family had a reunion. I was able to hear and compare various dialects on this trip, which led me to the following observations:

1. When you've been living in New York, the rhoticity of pretty much anywhere west of the Hudson starts to sound a little weird.

2. I got to compare speakers from the eastern and western extremities of the South/ Southern Midland border (from Oklahoma City and eastern Maryland, respectively). The Oklahoman sounded, for lack of a better word, twangy - I think this is due to a more advanced Southern Vowel Shift on her part. The Marylander, on the other hand, had the classic Mid-Atlantic fronted long /o/.

3. At one point I listened to three Inland Northern speakers talking - they were from southwest Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Chicago. Though I wouldn't swear to it, I believe that if I hadn't known who was from which place, but I had known that there was one speaker from each place, I would have known who was from where. And if you understood that beast of a sentence you deserve a prize.

I figured the best thing to read while traveling would be a book about traveling by a fun writer, so I chose Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. I'm back home and not done with it yet - it's long and I'm a slow reader (which makes grad school ever so fun), but I like it a lot, though parts of it are either too staid or too over the top, and other parts are fairly offensive by contemporary standards. Oh well - despite his bigoted asides, he clearly believed in the common humanity of, umm, humanity.

I am particularly interested in attempts by writers to relate and locate America and Europe conceptually (this is my area of research), and Twain's portrait of Europe can be summarized thusly:

1. They don't speak English very well over there.
2. They don't use soap, either.
3. The buildings might have been nice once, but now they're old and falling apart.
4. Catholicism is silly and superstitious.
5. European governments are corrupt and oppressive, and have always been so.

I'll reserve judgement on #4 for fear of repeating the Scientology controversy, but I'll say that the rest of these points are all much less true nowadays than they were then.

Overall, though, this is an extremely fun read, and parts of it rank among the funniest things I've read. My favorite part so far is a description if the elaborate ways Twain and his friends amuse themselves by pestering their tour guides. In Rome, for instance, they decide to ask about everything they're shown if Michelangelo designed it, including the forum and an Egyptian obelisk. In Genoa they pretend never to have heard of Christopher Colombus:
"Pleasant name--is--is he dead?"
"Oh, corpo di Baccho!--three hundred year!"
"What did he die of?"
"I do not know!--I can not tell."
"Small-pox, think?"
"I do not know, genteelmen!--I do not know what he die of!"
"Measles, likely?"
"May be--may be--I do not know--I think he die of somethings."
This "is--is he dead?" routine is so good that they repeat it when shown a mummy, and then with various statues. It is only with great restraint that they keep from doing it in the catacombs.

I'm reading a facsimile edition, which has some quirky spelling that I like: 'staid' instead of 'stayed,' for instance. I also learned from this book that the expression "tricked out" is at least a hundred years older than I would have guessed.

A footnote about the name Mark Twain. Or rather, about the pen-name of the Yiddish Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem. There is a shibboleth of sorts in Yiddish studies, whereby those who refer to Sholem Aleichem as Aleichem are cast down as dilletantes. (My field is a minefield of such shibboleths.) The explanation is this: 'Sholem aleichem' is a phrase - a formal greeting. Thus it doesn't make sense to refer to him as 'Aleichem.'

Okay, fine. But the same could be said for Mark Twain. Indeed, both pen-names are similar in that they are two-word phrases, the first word of which is also a common first name. Sholem Aleichem's real first name was in fact Sholem. If the appeal to logic that is purported to explain why you shouldn't call Sholem Aleichem 'Aleichem' is valid, then it should apply equally to Twain -- which it doesn't.

I'm generally dubious about pre- and proscriptions in language that are based in logic. Does this mean that I think Yiddish scholars should start calling Sholem Aleichem 'Aleichem?' No - you can't call him this, for the simple reason that he isn't called that. It's just a convention, and those who call him 'Aleichem' reveal their ignorance of this convention, and thus their status as outsiders.


the chocolate lady said...

When I was trying to tell my venerable parents that I had visited the graves of Dovid Berkovits and Ernestine Rabinowitz Berkovits, I felt like I *should* be calling her "Ernestine Aleichem Berkovits."

I once attended a talk in which the speaker consistently refered to the grandfather of modern Yiddish literature as "Sforim." I no longer remember anything else, even the identity of the perpetrator. It seems my memory has drawn the curtain of charity across the scene.

Ben said...

Sforim, eh? That's hilarious. Your memory-curtain is indeed charitable, though an evil part of me finds it frustrating, in that I'd get boundless schadenfreude from knowing who it was.

the chocolate lady said...

As would I.