Language Feed


No writer has more influenced my use of a single word than Seamus Heaney has.  And the word in question is "so."

Listen to my sermons.  Read their manuscripts.  And, if you are listening/looking for it, you will notice how often I use "so" and how dependent I am upon it for the flow and structure of my work.  I actually have to restrain myself from overusing it.

And this is due to Heaney.  I think when I read what he said about "so," it resonated with my own previous, conversational use of of the word.  Our northeastern Oklahoman use of it seemed very similiar to what he described of his Irish relatives.  Maybe our linguistic connections to the Old World were closer than we realized.

Where does Heaney talk about "so" in the way that deeply influenced me?  In his magnificent translation of Beowulf.  Here is how he translates the famous opening lines:

So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

[Note: I've never, in a sermon, dared the single word sentence "so."] 

Here is his explanation of the translation.  He gets to "so" at the very end, but you need to read what comes before.

It is one thing to find lexical meanings for the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work.  Without some melody sensed or promised, it is simply impossible for a poet to establish the translator's right-of-way into and through a text.  I was therefore lucky to hear this enabling note almost straight away, a familiar local voice, one that had belonged to relatives of my father's, people whom I had once described in a poem as "big voiced Scullions."

I called them "big voiced" because when the mean of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf.  A simple sentence such as "We cut the corn to-day" took on immense dignity when one of them Scullions spoke it.  They had a king of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk.  And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives.  I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon.

Convention renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and--more colloquially--"listen" being some of the solutions offered previously.  But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.  So, "so" it was.

Don't you just love that description--"obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention"?  Who would fail to use a tool like that once discovered?

And, thus, in pretty much every sermon, there comes a point where I utter this two-letter word and know full well that behind my utterance lies the translation work of Seamus Heaney, the idiomatic expressions of his Irish relatives, the majesty and power of the old Anglo-Saxon epic, and the courage and greatness of the stories it tells.

Grammar police

Just opened up my Daily Beast daily e-mail, and this was the top story and headline:

Why is the U.S. lagging behind our peers in educating our students? The Daily Beast’s Dana Goldstein on a new book with a startling conclusion: they value intellect more than we do.

Maybe because major publications commit grammatical errors in their headlines.  As the proper phrasing of that should be "Why the World Is Smarter Than We Are."  

I also don't think anyone is surprised that there is an anti-intellectualism in the U. S.  Didn't de Tocqueville even write about that?

Fascinating article on ultraconserved words

A Washington Post article on a fascinating new study about two dozens words that have basically sounded the same for 15,000 years and appear in a wide array of language families, not just Indo-European.  Here is the tantalizing opening of the article:

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

It’s an odd little speech. But if it were spoken clearly to a band of hunter-gatherers in the Caucasus 15,000 years ago, there’s a good chance the listeners would know what you were saying.

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the last Ice Age.



by Jason Schneiderman


I used to love words,

but not looking them up.

Now I love both,
the knowing,

and the looking up,
the absurdity

of discovering that "boreal"
has been meaning

"northern" all this time
or that "estrus"

is a much better word
for the times when

I would most likely
have said, "in heat."

When I was translating,
the dictionary

was my enemy,
the repository of knowledge

that I seemed incapable
of retaining. The foreign word

for "inflatable" simply
would not stay in my head,

though the English word "deictic,"
after just one encounter,

has stuck with me for a year.
I once lost "desiccated"

for a decade, first encountered
in an unkind portrayal

of Ronald Reagan, and then
finally returned to me

in an article about cheese.
I fell in love with my husband,

not when he told me
what the word "apercus" means,

but when I looked it up,
and he was right.

There's even a word
for when you use a word

not to mean its meaning,
but as a word itself,

and I'd tell you what it was
if I could remember it.

My friend reads the dictionary
for its perspective on culture,

laughs when I say that
reference books are not really

books, but proleptic databases.
My third grade teacher

used to joke that if we were bored
we could copy pages out of the dictionary,

but when I did, also as a joke,
she was horrified rather than amused.

Discovery is always tinged
with sorrow, the knowledge

that you have been living
without something,

so we try to make learning
the province of the young,

who have less time to regret
having lived in ignorance.

My students are lost
in dictionaries,

unable to figure out why
"categorize" means

"to put into categories"
or why the fifth definition

of "standard" is the one
that will make the sentence

in question make sense.
I wonder how anyone

can live without knowing
the word "wonder."

A famous author
once said in an interview,

that he ended his novel
with an obscure word

he was sure his reader
would not know

because he liked the idea
of the reader looking it up.

He wanted the reader,
upon closing his book, to open

another, that second book
being a dictionary,

and however much I may have loved
that author, after reading

that story
(and this may surprise you)

I loved him less.

"Worsted in the battles of life"

A retired minister in my congregation loaned me his copy of the 1947 Evangelical and Reformed Book of Worship.  Looking over it today, I enjoyed the language in the "Prayer for Social Righteousness."  The paragraph in particular was interesting.  I didn't like its resignation in the final phrases, but the language, particularly in the opening phrases is evocative:

For those who have been worsted in the battles of life, whether by the inhumanity of their fellows, their own limitations, or the fickleness of fortune, that they may contend against injustice without bitterness, overcome their own weaknesses with diligence and learn how to accept what cannot be altered with patience.

As to that acceptance of what cannot be changed, the similarity to the Serenity Prayer should not go unnoticed as Reinhold Niebuhr, the author of that prayer, was E&R and his brother H. Richard was on the committee that drafted this edition of their book of worship.