Friday, October 30, 2009

Our cool tongue

I'm not a linguist, but I dig 'em.

An example is David Crystal, a wonderful writer who really gets it in books like "Words, Words, Words." One of the neatest things inside the book is this appreciation of Emily Dickinson:

"One of the best poems ever written about words, to my mind, is by Emily Dickinson:

A word is dead
When it is said
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day."

(A post about Emily Dickinson is coming. Most of us don't get her; we should.)

But for now, is there an anti-David Crystal? Heh. Is there ever.

His name is John McWhorter, and the book in question is the popular-linguistics short book called "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English."

McWharter raises the question of why most linguists, like Crystal, don't get it about how English actually formed. Just as one example, think about the "meaningless do" as in "How do you do," or "Do you know what he is doing," or "Do you care?" It turns out, according to McWhorter, the Celtic (pronounce it Keltic) Welsh and Cornish tongues have the "meaningless do," which the Celts added to Old English, naturally, as part of the natural mixing of languages. No other languages in the entire world have such a dumb "do."

Later, the Vikings, a bunch of adult adventurers too old to easily pick up a new language filled with hard-to-learn inflections, simplified English because they couldn't quite figure it out. Their kids just copied the old man's bastardization of Old English! Gosh: We get Middle English. And soon comes Shakespeare!

I am simplifying McWhorter's book to the point of stupidity. Sorry. But maybe you'll buy it anyway! I hope so. It is fascinating.

more on urban deer

Alison - I saw your comment on my blog about the injured fawn. The question is, should an answer come in an email like this, or on the blog, or in a "comment" responded to your comment? (Old guys are easily confused.) I guess I'll do both, although what both means remains uncertain.

Anyway, yes, the limping deer you photographed this summer was back. But here's more:

Today, that male with the skinny antlers, after taking a day off, once again lounged around my back yard all day, getting up now and then to munch on some grass, or hopefully test the taste of a dying lilac leaf, or snack on a bit of tender bark. Face it, the guy is a sponge. Then, about 4 p.m., as the buck was quietly chewing its cud, a herd of six deer, including the lame one, calmly crossed my front residential street, paraded along the south side of my house, crossed the alley, and started feeding on my neighbor's grass. One youngster, a buck with a couple of little antlers the size of pencils, stuck its nose through the gate into my back yard, staring at the reclining buck. The buck glanced back, over its shoulder, and pretended not to care.

But within a few minutes it stood, nibbled grass for a little longer, and then, from a standing start, leaped my back fence, landed in the alley, seemed to be heading north away from the herd, but then changed course, unable to avoid joining the other deer.

They chomped grass for a while, until suddenly my viewing turned into anthropology. My across-the-alley late-30-something neighbor, in a car driven by her similarly aged girl friend, pulled into the yard. Their car doors remained shut, no doubt because their back seat was filled with a couple of good-sized pooches. But the friend opened her driver's-side window and stuck out her cell phone, photographing (or filming) the deer. This went on for several minutes until another nearby neighbor banged out of his house and started banging stuff into his truck. The deer skittered over to the other side of the yard, stood still for a minute or two, and then somehow collectively decided to vamoose.

Just another day in urban-deer land. I see the need for authorities to cull Helena's deer herd. And the food goes to Helena Food Share, after all. But I hope my deer survive another year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


When, last February, I was informed that my job as editorial page editor of the Independent Record had gone poof - a victim of all those smart folks running our corporations - I decided to economize. So, among other things, I did not re-subscribe to a cool magazine called "Fantasy and Science Fiction." But recently, I noticed its annual double issue on the news stand. And I bought it.

At the back of the magazine was its monthly "competition:" this time called "Hooked on Mnemonics." It harkened back to the old memory device for recalling the planets: "My Very Earnest Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets." But now, given that Pluto has been relegated to a "minor planet" status and other bodies have been added as other "minor planets," the editors said a new mnemotic is needed for the new line-up: planets and minor planets called Mercury Venus Earth Mars Ceres Jupiter Saturn Uranis Neptune Pluto Haumea Makemake Eris. (A science fictional twist was good, the magazine's editors said.)

OK; here's mine: My Vicious, Evil, Mad Cyborgs, Just Suppose Unexpected New Possibilities: Humans Might Emerge!

I realize this is not particularly funny, or clever. But ... would such an emergence be good, or bad? It is the ambiguity that is cool!

New urban deer update

For the second day in a row, my young buck lazed about my back yard in the middle of Helena, first digging out a little lie-down space before dawn in the sparce snow near my suddenly stick-like lilac tree, then enjoying the greening grass as 38-degree sunshine made more and more of the snow go away. The buck, three points on one side, two on the other, antlers skinny as twigs, was gone by 4 p.m., but around 6one of my does - the one with her two near-grown children - came strolling down my alley. I walked outside toward my back fence to get a better look - I was wondering how the youngster who had injured itself jumping my fence this summer was doing. She was the injured fawn that stumbled around my back yard for hours until I noticed the mother hanging around outside the fence. After I opened the gate, the mom timidly stuck her head around the fence-post - and her kids leaped up, animated again, and scooted to her side. (Except the injured one, who limped to her side.) Anyway, today as I walked toward them, the little family froze, as deer do when something is approachinbg. But by now, I am a known factor ... known to be benign, so they resumed feeding on my back neighbor's grass. The injured young gal - noticeably smaller now than her sister, - is no longer limping so noticeably. But her gait is stiff. I daoubt she could scamper across a street if need be.

Anyway, the threesome, at 60- to 90-second intervales, walked across the relatively quiet street in front of my house and disappeared into another neighbor's back yards. As always, I hope to see them again.