Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Basic Words and the Translation of ωφθη, part 2

Part of my fascination with "basic" words stems from my interest in developmental psychology and linguistics. I have now three children (my wife was actually in labor with our third as I was writing my last entry) and being an aspiring linguist I like to think about language from their point of view. What follows are all just my own observations; I haven't formally studied developmental psychology, though I'd really love to.

From a developing child's point of view, language seems to grow in two ways simultaneously. It moves from the particular to the abstract, and it moves from early and common experience to wider and more specialized experience. Thus, a child will first learn the words "circle", "triangle", "square", and only later learn the word for "shape"---I think about the same time they learn you can call things "chair-shaped" or "car-shaped". They might know, earlier, how to answer properly a question like "what shape is this?" when you point to a geometric shape, but before they realize something can be x-"shaped", they don't use the word "shape" themselves meaningfully. Much later (none of my children have reached this stage yet, my oldest being only 4 1/2) he will learn the word "form", which means the same kind of thing as "shape" but applies not just to physical things, but also to things like plots or arguments or grammatical patterns. This is one kind of growth in vocabulary and language.

Another kind is of growth is from the more common to the less common. A child will learn very early on words that apply to his ordinary, day-to-day life: "food", "clothes", "floor", "spank", etc. At a certain age, he starts taking a hard look around and noticing many things he doesn't know the word for, because they weren't terribly relevant to him at first. This stage (the "what's that called?" stage) never really ends, but is only a natural commensurate with broadening experiences.

Now, it seems to me that this same distinction is useful when thinking about words that can have multiple meanings or translations. I see three distinct patterns in words with multiple senses---if anyone can think of more, I would be happy to hear about it.

First, there are words which have multiple meanings simply because they are abstract, like the word "form". Abstract words can refer either to the abstract concept, or to any of the particular things from which the concept is abstracted. So, "form" can mean, depending on context, just the same as "physical shape", or else it can mean something more like "pattern". It is quite possible for another language to lack a word with precisely the same range of abstraction as our word "form", and so when translating to such a language from English, the word "form" will always necessitate a choice based on context.

Another kind of multiple senses a word might have represents a simple expansion of language referrents within a single vocabulary word. For example, the word "run" is first used to refer to a physical act of motion, but it is also extended to refer to what a politician does when he wants to be elected. Here you have what you might call a sideways rather than an upward expansion of meaning: a word goes from one concrete to a different concrete. Now this is typically done on the basis of some analogy: here the connecting idea is that of the race, of which a political campaign is one kind, and another kind of which is the sort you run physically. The connecting analogy, however, is often quite weak and may well not be understood at all by the person who uses the same word in two different ways.

A third kind of multiple sense is a sort of a combination of the previous two. A word may start with a simple and concrete meaning, but then also take on an abstracted meaning while retaining the basic meaning as well. "Shape" might be a good example, actually, as the word can be used as a synonym for "form", although you have more of a feeling of speaking figuratively when you use the word in that way. "See" is another good example, actually. It begins by refering to physical sight, but then also comes to mean any sort of knowing.

Actually, this is an excellent example, because it illustrates a very common way in which vocabulary is expanded: An abstract idea is represented by a word which, in its first use, refers to the most basic or primary instance of this abstraction. Sight, for humans, is the most important sense. It is the first and most basic way in which we come to know things; hence, "to see" is most naturally adopted as a synonym for "to know". I think this is the case, actually, in every language that I know.

Semitic languages have a lot of good examples of these. HLKH, "to walk," in Syriac (and I think in Hebrew) has also the meaning of "to proceed", as you might use in "to proceed to my next point"---walking is the first and most basic mode we have of proceeding from one place to another. The word for "to stand" in Hebrew (I forget it at the moment) also means "to begin", on the same principle: in a basic, physical sense, you typically have to stand up in order to begin anything. TOV, "to turn around" also means "to do again", or even just "again" or "furthermore".

English has, I think, fewer examples, proabably because it is so vocabulary happy, that if it could ever find a separate word for the more abstract meaning, it would do so. I would not be surprised at all, though, to find that originally the ancestor of the word "go" or "gehen" originally referred also to physical walking.

Ok, this post is already way too long, so I'll break off abruptly here and continue later. Next time, I'll try and draw some inferences for the task of translating from these three kinds of multiple senses.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Grimm Truth behind Pigs and Razors

Behold, the wonders of Amazon's all-knowing Automatic Recommendation System, Extraordinaire (ARSE), from whence the Amazon gods pull their divine wisdom. Clearly I should suppress my doubts and seek one day to learn the lesson it seeks to teach me about myself. I will obey, lest it be angered and recommend to me harsher lessons, such as Skating With the Stars or Pickled Herring-Wrapped Filet of Haggis.

I mean seriously, did someone actually program it so that any movie with at least 5 blades in it gives Gillette a free ad? And I'm sure there were pigs and cows in the movie somewhere, but honestly. (Mind you, not that I'm at all averse to bacon and sirloin...)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Cool Quote #6: Egil the Melancholy Viking

The sagas, so far ahead of their time, were prose stories about regular people, and often show an amazing insight into human nature and personality. Egil Skallagrimsson was an ugly, irascible, unpredictable Icelander, yet composed some of the most beautiful poetry Norse literature has to offer. Isn't it funny the combination of traits we often find in people? Anyway, check out this quote from Egilssaga:

As autumn progressed, Egil grew very melancholy and would often sit down with his head bowed into his cloak.

Once, Arinbjorn went to him and asked what was causing his melancholy: "Even though you have suffered a great loss with your brother's death, the manly thing to do is bear it well. One man lives after another's death. What poetry have you been composing? Let me hear some."

Now that's a man who understands melancholic personalities! :-D

Actually, it has been suggested that Egil suffered from Paget's disease. The saga says he had exceptionally broad bone structure in his head, disturbingly mobile eyebrows, and was generally in a bad mood. Also, Paget's disease would have given him a low-level headache all the time, as well as another unusual characteristic, useful to a Viking: when a farmer dug up his skull a century or so ago, the bone did not chip or shatter or break when he hit it with an axe, it just turned whiter.

The saga writer obviously had no access to the science that would have explained Egil's condition, but he did have access to a more general explanation: human nature, something the saga writers seemed very good at analyzing.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Improve Your English

Berlitz commercial. I almost spit when I first saw this. Watch and laugh.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Something Rotten in the State of ... Greece?

This is cool: sauvage noble posts his translation into Greek of Hamlet's To Be Or Not To Be speech.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Cool Quote #5: Beowulf

Continuing my pericopeal efforts to demonstrate the joys of Germanic literature, here's some Beowulf to tide you over til gaetanus' next installment. Frederick Rebsamen's updated translation has the two huge benefits of a) being a clear rendering in modern English, if a bit of a paraphrase (inevitable if you're not doing prose), and b) quite successfully following the rules of Old English (Old Germanic, really) poetic structure. You must read aloud this passage about the Danes first discovering the carnage left by Grendel, noticing the patterns of alliteration that bind the lines together:

At dawning of day     when darkness lifted
Grendel's ravage     rose with the sun.
The waking Danes     wailed to the heavens
a great mourning-song.     Their mighty ruler
lord of a death-hall     leaned on his grief
stooped in shadows     stunned with thane-sorrow
bent to the tracks     of his baneful houseguest
no signs of mercy.     His mind was too dark
nightfall in his heart.     There was no need to wait
when the sun swung low     for he slaughtered again
murdered and feasted     fled through dawnmist
damned to darkness     doomed with a curse.
(ll. 128-137)

Rebsamen has no problems using modern English to imitate the Old in creating new compounds like death-hall, bloodgrief, heartstrong, slaughter-maid, and hell-mother.

I'll post later about the poetic form common to all the old Germanic languages, but for now, here are the roughly corresponding lines of the original for comparison (audio link below):

Ðá wæs on úhtan     mid aérdæge
Grendles gúðcræft     gumum undyrne·
þá wæs æfter wiste     wóp up áhafen
micel morgenswég.     Maére þéoden
æþeling aérgod     unblíðe sæt·
þolode ðrýðswýð     þegnsorge dréah
syðþan híe þæs láðan     lást scéawedon,
wergan gástes·     wæs þæt gewin tó strang
láð ond longsum.     Næs hit lengra fyrst
ac ymb áne niht     eft gefremede
morðbeala máre     ond nó mearn fore,
faéhðe ond fyrene·     wæs tó fæst on þám.
(ll. 126-137)

this is an audio post - click to play

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Basic Words and the Translation of ωφθη, part 1

I've had some linguistic thoughts recently set off by the question of the proper translation of ωφθη in I Corinthians 15:5.

ωφθη is the first aorist passive for οραω, which has the base sense "to see". In I Cor 15:5, Paul is in the middle of giving a sort of basic confession of faith; he had just finished saying that Christ had died, was buried and rose again on the third day. He then goes on that "και οτι ωφθη κηφα επειτα τοις δωδεκα". κηφα here is in the dative (I can't seem to do an iota subscript here). Hence, this might be translated rather obviously "and that he was seen by Kephas, and then by the Twelve". Now, this was essentially the translation a fellow student gave for this passage, but our teacher (actually a well known expert in Koine Greek) objected to this translation on the following grounds: οραω, he said, can mean "to see" in the normal way with your eyes, but it also has a broader sense. It can be used, for example, for things like mystical visions or intellectual intuitions. Therefore, since the word is not restricted to the simply visual dimension, he would prefer that it be translated in such a way as to leave open the non-visual possibilities of the word οραω: St. Paul might be refering to some sort of mystical vision or a "faith experience," and not to an actual seeing of a risen Christ with the eyes. So his choice was: "and that he appeared to Kephas, and then to the Twelve".

Now, I have a problem with this logic. Granted that οραω can be used in all these non-visual ways, isn't the same true of the English verb "to see"? One might experience some revelation and "see the light", or perhaps "see the error" of one's ways. In fact, "see" can be used in so general a way as to refer to almost any type of knowing or experiencing something: "Come and see for yourself", "I see now that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle must be 180 degrees." So if the English verb "to see" can express as wide a range of meanings as the Greek verb οραω, why not use the one to translate the other?

This begs another question, however: if the English verb "to see" can have such a range of meanings, why is it that the phrase "and that he was seen by Kephas, and then by the Twelve" seems so clearly to indicate something visual, as opposed to some purely mental apparition? I think this merits some attention, so I intend to do a small series of posts looking at this question. I think it is significant that οραω and "to see", in fact, are both what might be called "basic" words: they are both words learned at the Mother's knee, describing a very basic and very universal phenomenon. This indicates to me that one must understand the wide range of dictionary meanings for these words in a special way. In other words, the fact that there are multiple options that can translate the word οραω means something different from the fact that there are multiple options that can translate, say, the word μορφη, which also has a wide range of meanings but is an abstract word even at root.

So, I'll be pursuing this line of thought over the course of some days. In the end, I'll come back to the question of the translation at stake and make my choice.

Blog Translation Carnival

For those interested, ALTALK, the blog for the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), has announced the Carnival of Blog Translation. See the link for details and rules, as well as a decription of the particular blog phenomenon known as the carnival. In short, pick any blog post that was posted in February (even among your own), and translate it. Into what? Into whatever you're qualified at, or interested in trying! Sorry, gaetanus, I don't know how many blogs you'll find in Coptic or Syriac... ;-)

(h/t to languagehat)

My Blog is Random and Different--Just Like Everybody Else's

If you're new to blogging, you may still be fresh and innocent and think how wonderful it must be to have a venue for your random musings for all to read. If you've read any blogs other than those of yourself, your friends, and your neighbor's sweater-wearing chihuahua, you have likely found that approximately 70% of blogs maintained by actual people are self-described as 'random' or some essentially synonymous expression (see "stuff" in The Bitter Scroll's own subtitle). It's cute, in a wacky, slightly modern-rebellious kinda way. (Because, you know, not following the crowd is what everybody's doing these days.)

Unfortunately, what lacks in content will never be fully made up by form or medium of expression. The more readers who experience the wearing-off of the novelty of blogs, the more they will want some indication of content, some way to fit what you're likely to say into the vast hierarchy of knowledge and opinions. The more you leave it open, the more readers will fear pictures of pets or detailed descriptions of how you felt when you stubbed your toe yesterday.

The solution? Well, it depends if you think there's a problem, of course. If you really don't want to be heard--you just want to talk--blogging probably really is for you. (And easier on the rest of us. You can't click away from a RL conversation.) But if you want people to read your stuff, you need to give them a reason to read before they read. In the approximately 0.4 seconds in which they judge your blog worth it or not when they stumble across it, you need to convince people that your blog is worth reading. Then, of course, actually make worth reading.

I think we've got more than enough blue pills in the blogosphere. We could probably use a few more attempts to escape from the matrix of randomness and, ironically, uniformity.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

When Bureaucrats Try To Talk Linguistics

Don't know how I missed this post the first time (h/t to Månskensdans), but it really is funny. I can't wait to be asked if I have a native speaking knowledge of Etruscan or IndoEuropean -- or Quenya, for that matter.

I'm totally with Johan on this one (if I'm translating correctly): "Not that I need to, but now I know what I'll do next time someone questions the benefit of my learning Gothic." A Swede after my own heart.

Cool Saga Quotes #3 & 4: Think the Terrible Two's are Bad?

This one's just classic. It's from the famous Egilssaga:

When the time came for Skallagrim and Bera to go to the feast, Thorolf and the farmhands got ready as well; there were fifteen in the party in all.

Egil told his father that he wanted to go with them. "They're just as much my relatives as Thorolf's," he said.

"You're not going," said Skallagrim, "because you don't know how to behave where there's heavy drinking. You're enough trouble when you're sober."

Oh--did I mention that Egil was three at the time? In his defense, though, he was mature for his age:

As he grew up, it soon bcame clear he [Egil] would turn out very ugly and resemble his father, with black hair. When he was three years old, he was as big and strong as a boy of six or seven.

There. All better, right?

Learning from Linguistic Friendships

First off, Hejsan! to all my readers in Sweden, a whole bunch of whom seem to have gotten here by way of a link someone posted on a Swedish fantasy and RPG site. (Jag börjar lära mig svenska, och var glad att finna en intressanta sida där jag kan öva mig att läser.) Incidentally, Scandinavian readers of Tolkien are bound to recognize some of the Old English words and names of the Rohirrim that are lost on speakers of modern English. E.g., Gamling the Old, where gamol is simply the Old English for 'old', like the modern Swedish word gammal. Relationships like this come from the Norse influence on Old English (from Norwegians and Danes mostly) during the centuries before the Norman Invasion (9th to 11th).

Anyway, the main reason for posting has to do with a quote I remember reading about from either Tolkien or Lewis, I can't remember which. The gist of the quote was that not only were all of the Inklings friends, but that one's friendship with one person illuminated one's friendship with another. To wit: C. S. Lewis had a certain relationship with Tolkien, but it only went so far. But when others of the Inklings were around, he learned even more about Tolkien's personality by watching his interaction with them. Each person brought out a different facet of the personality of each of the others. As members of their circle left or died, Lewis (I think the quote was from him) found that his own friendship with Tolkien was affected as well, by being limited: He would never again be able to watch and learn from the interaction between Tolkien and, say, Charles Williams.

My little epiphany this morning came when I was reading (with extensive help of a dictionary) a Swedish-language blog (Månskensdans -- which now lists Bitter Scroll on his blog list; tack, Johan!). As I look up the word betyder and discover that it means 'to mean' (as in, "tack means 'thanks' in Swedish"), two thoughts rush into my head at the same time. The first is that it's got to be a cognate of German bedeuten: the 'eu' of German was a development from a ü-sound in Middle High German, and that sound is spelled 'y' in Swedish. The second is that betyder looks a lot like 'betide' -- admittedly a word no one uses anymore, but modern English speakers still recognize that the question "What will this betide?" is asking "What will this mean?"

I love moments like this. My short but growing relationship with my new friend, the Swedish language, has helped me form a closer bond with a much older friend, German. (Yeah, I know this sounds weird, but stay with me.) Readers may notice that I often speak of words and languages like members of a family: "These words are cousins, descendng from a common ancestor." ... "Gothic, and its younger Germanic siblings Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old English...", etc. I see the analogy even more clearly now. If you've ever gotten to know the family of a person you know well, you start to see the little ways they act in a new light, and you understand that person better. So it is with language families. If you really want to know a language thoroughly--why it has some of the expressions it does, why certain verbs are defective, why it forms words they way it does, even why it sounds the way it does--get yourself on a linguistic Family and Friends program. You'll never stop learning.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Cool Saga Quote #2: Sensible Vikings

From the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal:

In due course Imgimund and Grim set off on their raiding expedition and prospered in their life as Vikings. They did not attack where it made no sense, and had acquired five ships by the autumn...
Again, practicality permeates the sagas.

Some Old English in Tolkien

For general reference or interest, I thought I'd gather into one place as many of the Old English words lurking in Tolkien’s writings as I could think of. Some you’d expect; others might surprise or interest you. Some might seem more or less intentional on Tolkien’s part--as an Anglo-Saxon scholar, he would at the very least have been aware of their meanings, and therefore aware (and perhaps glad) of the “coincidence” (if such it be) between the meaning and his use. In some instances Tolkien has explicitly noted the connection somewhere (LOTR appendices, his letters, elsewhere). Of the names of people of Rohan, I've only included what I thought were the most interesting or relevant or original. (Most of them are simply historically documented Anglo-Saxon names anyway.)

Standard abbreviations are used: OE=Old English, ON=Old Norse, ModE=Modern English, OHG=Old High German, ROTFLMAO...you get the picture.

Beag: ‘ring’. In the Mercian dialect (which Tolkien used for the Rohirrim), I think this would have been spelled bag; either way, pronounced almost like modern English ‘bag’. Remind you of the last name of any hobbits you know?

Beorn: ‘man; noble, hero, chief, prince, warrior’; however, this is also how OE would render ON bjorn, ‘bear’.

Brego: ‘ruler, chief, king, lord’.

Deagol: diegol, deagol, ‘secret; hiding place; grave’, akin to diegan, ‘to die’. So if Smeagol is one who digs (see below), Deagol recalls all sorts of aspects of his relationship to Smeagol: the death he caused, the grave he dug, and that which he kept hidden and secret (this last meaning is referenced by Tolkien in LOTR, Appendix F).

Dwarrowdelf: dweorg, ‘dwarf’ (akin to German zwerg, Old Norse dvargr) + ‘delf’, an archaic noun formed from ‘to delve’, hence, ‘the delving of the Dwarves’, or ‘dwarvish digging’.

Dwimorberg: dwimor, ‘phantom, ghost, illusion; error’ + beorg, ‘mountain, hill’.

Dwimordene: dwimor + dene, ‘valley, dale’.

Dwimmerlaik: dwimor (see above) + loga, ‘liar, deceiver’ (akin to ‘warlock’).

Emnet: ‘[geographic] plain’.

Ent: ‘giant’.

Ettenmoors/Ettendales: eoten, ‘giant, monster, enemy’ (sometimes confused with Eotenas, ‘Jutes’) + mor ‘moor, morass, swamp’ or + dæl, ‘dale, valley, gorge, abyss’.

Grima: ‘mask, helmet; ghost’. Perhaps Wormtongue was a mask or ghost of his former self; or perhaps he was a mask for Saruman’s influence in Rohan. Either one works.

Hasufel: hasu, ‘dusky, grey, ashen’ + fell, ‘skin, hide’.

Isengard: isen, ‘iron’ + gard, geard, ‘place, realm, ward, enclosure, yard, garden’ (hence middangeard, “middle-earth”).

Mathom: maðom, ‘treasure’; although ironically in the Shire they were no longer seen as treasures but as useless oddities to be given away (like today's fruitcake, I suppose).

Meduseld: medu, ‘mead’ + seld, ‘hall’. As we know from Beowulf and elsewhere, the meadhall is the standard place for the king to feast with his kin and dole out gifts and entertain guests.

Michel Delving: micel, ‘great, big,’ hence Scottish ‘muckle’. So the name signified a great digging or dug area.

Mirkwood: mircwudu, ‘dark forest’. In Norse poetry the term referred to the vast expanse of primeval forest in Germanic areas of the Continent.

Mordor: ‘murder’

Mundburg: mund, ‘protection, trust, security, the king’s peace’ (hence names like Edmund) + burg, byrig, ‘fortified dwelling, walled city’ (hence the –burg, –bury, and –borough endings of English place names). So Mundburg would be the city that symbolizes safety and security, with a royal connotation.

Orthanc: ‘intelligence, understanding, cleverness, skill, mechanical art’ (akin to OHG urdank). Isn’t this precisely the (downward) progression that Saruman’s mind underwent?

Quickbeam: cwicbeam, ‘aspen, juniper’.

Riddermark: mearc, ‘mark, sign, line of division; an area thus defined: boundary, district, province’ (possibly akin to the name Mercia). So the Riddermark is the district of the Riders (with the vowel in 'rider' shortened), just as Denmark is the district of the Danes.

Rivendell: reofan, ‘to rend, break’ (akin to ModE ‘rift’) + dell, ‘vale, hollow, dale’. So, a valley formed from the rending of stone (either naturally or otherwise).

Saruman: searo, searu, ‘clever, cunning’.

Scatha: sceaða, scaða, ‘criminal, assassin; fiend, devil’.

Shadowfax: sceadu, ‘shadow’ + feax, ‘hair’. (Compare Fairfax.)

Simbelmyne: simbel, simle, ‘ever, always’ + myne, ‘mind, remember’.

Smeagol/Smials: smygel, ‘retreat, burrow’. Hence, a ‘smial’ could be a modern descendant of this word, while *smeagol might indicate one who burrows or digs.

Smaug: Could be related to either (or both) of smygel (see previous entry) or smoc, ‘smoke’.

Theoden: þeoden, ‘king, ruler’, akin to þeod, ‘people’; Þeoderic (Go. Þiudareiks, Norse Þidrek, Germ. Dietrich), name meaning ‘ruler of the people’; and þeodisc, ‘of our own people’, akin to teutisch, the old form of deutsch, ‘of the German(ic) people’.

Thrihyrne: ‘three-cornered’.

Warg: wearg, ‘wolf, outlaw’, akin to Norse vargr.

Withywindle: wiðig, ‘willow’ + windel, ‘basket’. So the Withywindle river valley was like a big basket of willows.


You are a Black Coffee

At your best, you are: low maintenance, friendly, and adaptable

At your worst, you are: cheap and angsty

You drink coffee when: you can get your hands on it

Your caffeine addiction level: high

Actually, my favorite type is Arabic/Turkish coffee. Every time I've come back from Palestine, it has taken me a while to get used to the weakness of American coffee. The solution I found is to drink tea when I come back, then even American coffee tastes strong in comparison.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

My statue

Well, not really. This is the statue of King Alfred in Winchester. I'm testing out Hello for publishing pictures. Posted by Picasa

Feasts and Fun in February

Here are some language-related or otherwise my-fancy-striking observances slated for this month, as listed on a couple of very unofficial-looking sites. Still, they're fun.

Feb. 13th: Blame Someone Else Day, Get a Different Name Day, International Skeptics Day

Feb. 20th: Northern Hemisphere Hoodie-Hoo Day

Feb. 21st: International Mother Language Day

February is also National Time Management Month. It's National Cherry Pie Month, but also National Children's Dental Health Month. Finally, February is Library Lovers Month.

The current Catholic calendar (on which each day is the official feast of approximately 37,345,509 saints) includes the following:

Feb. 13th: St. Jordan of Saxony. Saxon noble and Dominican historian.

Feb. 17th: St. Guevrock. 6th century Briton with a cool name.

Feb. 22nd: St. John the Saxon. Invited by King Alfred--not me, the first one--to restore faith and learning to the English abbeys ravaged by the Danes. Killed by French monks.

Feb. 25th: St. Ethelbert of Kent. Baptized by St. Augustine of Canterbury, leading to conversion of thousands of countrymen.

Some Wisdom for your Wednesday

Norse wisdom, specifically. Today is Odin's day, after all, so here are a couple of my favorite verses from the Norse Hávamál, The Sayings of the High One (Odin), which imparts little snippets of practical, day-to-day Viking wisdom like a Norse Book of Proverbs:

Wits are needful for someone who travels widely,
anything will do at home;
he becomes a laughing-stock, the man who knows nothing
and sits among the wise. (5)


About his intelligence no man should be boastful,
rather cautious of mind;
when a wise and silent man comes to a homestead
seldom does shame befall the wary;
for no more trustworthy a friend can any man get
than a store of common sense. (6)


Wise that man seems who retreats
when one guest is insulting another;
the man who mocks others at a feast doesn't really know
whether he's shooting off his mouth amid enemies. (31)


It's a great detour to a bad friend's house,
even though he lives on the route;
but to a good friend's the ways lie straight,
even though he lives far off. (34)


He should get up early, the man who means to take
another's life or property;
the slumbering wolf does nto get the ham,
nor a sleeping man victory. (58)


It's better to live than not to be alive,
it's the living man who gets the cow. (70)


Cattle die, kinsmen die,
the self must also die;
but glory never dies,
for the man who is able to achieve it. (76)

Keanu Reeves tried his hand at translating this last verse in The Replacements when he told his team: "Pain heals; chicks dig scars; glory...lasts forever!"

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Cool Saga Quote #1: "When I was your age..."

I suspect that Cool Quotes will become a feature of The Bitter Scroll, since there are so many cool quotes from Germanic literature, but since I've been reading the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, it's first. It's a bit long, but check out the way Ketil the Large rails at his son to get him to do something with his life:

On one occasion Ketil said to Thorstein his son, "The behaviour of young men today is not what it was when I was young. In those days men hankered after deeds of derring-do, either by going raiding or by winning wealth and honour through exploits in which there was some element of danger. But nowadays young men want to be stay-at-homes, and sit by the fire, and stuff their stomachs with mead and ale; and so it is that manliness and bravery are on the wane. I have won wealth and honour because I dared to face danger and tough single combats. You, Thorstein, have been blessed with little in the way of strength of size. It is more than likely that your deeds will follow suit, and that your courage and daring will match your size, because you have no desire to emulate the exploits of your ancestors; you reveal yourself to be just as you look, with your spirit matching your size. It was once the custom of powerful men, kings or earls -- those who were our peers -- that they went off raiding, and won riches and renown for themselves, and such wealth did not count as party of any legacy nor did a son inherit it from his father; rather was the money to lie in the tomb alongside the chieftain himself. And even if the sons in herited the lands, they were unable to sustain their high status, if honour counted for anything, unless they put themselves and their men at risk and went into battle, thereby winning for themselves each in his turn, wealth and renown -- and so following in the footsteps of their kinsmen. I believe that the old warriors' ways are unknown to you -- I wish I could teach them to you. You have now reached the age when it would be right for you to put yourself to the text, and find out what fate has in store for you."

Thorstein answered, "If ever provocation worked, this would be provocation enough." He stood up and walked away, and was very angry.

Ah, for the good old days of raiding and plundering! Simpler times...

I love the writing style of the sagas. So down to earth, direct, practical. Very approachable. It's the same with their nicknames. On (or near) the continent you have names like Louis the Fat, Aethelred the Unready (OE Unræd, meaning ill-advised) and Charles the Bald, which are descriptive enough, but the Scandinavians have a certain knack for nicknames: Erik Blood-axe, Thorfinn Skull-splitter, Unn the Deep-Minded, Thorbjorn the Pock-marked, Asbjorn the Fleshy, Asgeir Scatter-brain, Hallfred the Troublesome Poet, An Twig-belly, Ragnar Shaggy-breeches, Thorarin the Evil, and (poor girl) Thordis the Stick.

Monday, February 6, 2006


Whaddya know? Here's a whole bunch of Icelandic words for snow. My favorite is definitely krap: 'slush'.

Who knew the eskimos had moved? ;-)

On a sadder note, it still hasn't snowed measurably this winter. Grrr.

Friday, February 3, 2006

In the Mood

[Derek's in luck, this one actually interests me. :-P]


Remove the blog in the top spot from the following list and bump everyone up one place. Then add your blog to the bottom slot, like so.

1) corndog
2) Jeni
3) Anastasia
4) Haligweorc
5) King Alfred

Next select five people to tag

1) Mikaela
2) polyglot conspiracy
3) sauvage noble
4) Unlocked Wordhoard
5) Shrine of the Holy Whapping

What were you doing 10 years ago?

January 1996: Starting second semester of sophomore year of college. Had a big blizzard that year: 4 feet of snow. Tons of classmates' flights didn't make it in time for start of classes. Then again, classes didn't start on time anyway, so it was OK. Taught a classmate from Hawaii how to make a snowball. Anyway, classes included Philosophy of Human Nature, Intro to New Testament, American Gov't II, some medieval English class (I remember reading Macbeth [again], Troilus & Criseyde, Donne, some passion play, some other stuff), and two other classes completely slipping my mind right now.

What were you doing 1 year ago?

January 2005: Course Development Director for an online university. Great job. Terrible workplace.

Five snacks you enjoy:

A. Cheese Nips (not Cheese-Its). I've often said that if limbo of the just existed and I went there, destined for fulfillment of all natural desires, but nothing more, I would be eating Cheese Nips (among, you know, doing other things, I imagine).
B. extra-sharp cheddar on triscuts (same as Derek)
C. M&Ms
D. shrimp cocktail (My family's recipe for cocktail sauce: add lots of horseradish, and look at a bottle of ketchup.)
E. Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch (I know it's not really a snack, but it's my favorite flavor of ice cream.)

Five songs you know all the words to:

A. Pretty much anything by They Might Be Giants
B. Pretty much anything by Billy Joel
C. Hammer of the Gods - Led Zeppelin
D. The Distance - Cake
E. Tango to Evora - Loreena McKennitt ;-)
(F. many others)

Five things you would do if you were a millionaire:

A. Pay off debts
B. Help friends and family pay off debts
C. Save
D. Donate
E. Buy a hell of a lot of books, and beautiful bookcases worthy of their content

Five bad habits:

A. Not blogging for large spaces at a time
B. (See question about snacks)
C-Z. Vices that are between me, God, and my confessor.

Five things you enjoy doing:

A. learning/reading dead languages
B. hangin' wit' ze buddies (and other friends)
C. vegging out and watching Deep Space Nine (or Firefly or some other scifi show)
D. travelling
E. teaching

Five things you would never wear again:

A. Most of my Halloween costumes growing up
B. The particular combination of red and green I wore for about 30 seconds in college until then-roomate gaetanus looked at me and said, "That says, in big, bold letters, 'Santa's Elf'".
C. A red shirt I once had so long I hadn't noticed it had turned rather pink.
D. Unfortunately, many things I probably will wear again but shouldn't. I know of five colors. I don't know what clashes.

Five favorite toys:

A. books
B. digital camera
C. digital voice recorder (I get most of my ideas when I'm driving)
D. keyboard (musical kind), just for playing around
E. can't think of more at the moment

Thursday, February 2, 2006

The Choices of Master Macduff

Though not written in anything so interesting as old English or Gothic, Shakespeare’s plays still suck me in, and since high school, Macbeth has consistently been my easy favorite. It’s dark, tragic, Scottish, has a ghost, and is generally overcast. Not to mention it’s a fascinating study of the psychology of sin, centuries before Crime and Punishment (another favorite work of mine).

Even Tolkien, who usually couldn’t be bothered with modern English and who seemed to think old Willy S. could have done a lot more with some of the traditions he probably had available to him, still couldn’t avoid picking at Macbeth for useful imagery. Tom Shippey notes how the march of Birnam Wood became the March of the Ents, the not-born-of-man prophecy became a prophecy about no man (but rather a woman and a hobbit), and also notes some other lines of the play (I don’t have the book handy) that JRRT seems to have taken and run with in his books.

My recent reading of Macbeth got me to thinking that perhaps part of the tragedy is how the evil done to Macbeth by the weird sisters (and for all his sin and ambition, he was still tricked and led into sin) never had a chance to fully unravel itself before Macbeth’s death. What I mean is this: Macbeth from the beginning knew the women were evil and (as Banquo counseled him) not to be listened to. Each time one of the witches’ prophecies came true in an unexpected way, this should only have been confirmed to him, and in fact he does admit this—yet psychologically he is unable to change himself as long as there is another prophecy to cling to with false hope.

Look at his reaction to Birnam Wood’s arrival at Dunsinane: He knows that his ambition is fruitless, that his line will not retain the Scottish crown (it will go to Banquo’s line), and that his doom is now at hand. But he still has that one hope that none born of man can kill him. Now, a rational person unbothered by unruly passions and unattached to the trappings of this world might suspect that this prophecy will turn around to bite him in the…well, be as untrustworthy just as the prophecy about Birnam Wood. But for whatever reason, he wasn’t ready to do that. Macbeth had to be shown to the bitter end the consequences of trusting demonic powers.

When he finally does learn the truth about Macduff, he finally fears for his life. Now what happens? Does he repent? Well, no, but perhaps he didn’t have a chance to. I mean, he’s still trying to save his life, and maybe if that threat had gone, he’d have had more time to think about his actions. Of course, then again maybe he wouldn’t have, and would just have become bitter in his exile. But I wonder if Macbeth might just have been psychologically ready to look at himself and repent once he’d had a chance to really hit rock-bottom.

We’ll never know, because his hand is forced. Macduff, now motivated by revenge for his family’s deaths, will either kill Macbeth or bring him away in chains like a Roman triumph parade, and Macbeth is forced to choose without thinking. I’m reminded of the scene in Lord of the Rings (the book) where Sam wakes up and his suspicion of Gollum pushes Gollum away, and leaves him to choose his evil side more or less permanently. Of course Sam was justified in suspecting Gollum, just as Macduff’s feelings are also understandable. Unfortunately, sometimes only going the extra mile to be virtuous and charitable—to a truly heroic extent—is what will draw out the best good of a situation.

It’s my belief that everyone, no matter how well things seem to be going for them on the outside, has to struggle with something dark in the inside, and we never know how our actions will play into that struggle—even if it’s not our fault. Lack of guilt is little consolation when you learn that you could have done extra to help a friend.

Anyway, back to Macbeth: All of this has led to two creative projects. One was simply a poem inspired by the play, that I have submitted to the Lent/Easter edition of Dappled Things. (I'll post again when it comes out.) The other, which will be longer in coming, is another collaboration with Mikaela. We enjoyed our work on The Lay of Life and Loss so much, we found ourselves planning (rather ambitiously) another whole set of songs last night, inspired by various themes, scenes, and sometimes single lines from Macbeth. The fact that Starbucks was closing is the main reason I don’t have more to say right now, but based on how our ideas were flowing last night, something interesting will most probably come of it.