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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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A story of language

June 1st, 2003

towerofbabelBY JOEL HESS

One of my fondest childhood memories is the every-Sunday excursion with my father to the Cobbs Creek branch of the Philadelphia Public Library. Dad was an appliance salesman for a small independent store, these days a vanished institution done in by suburban malls and national chains. His job required him to work miserably long hours, and well into my childhood he would arrive home only shortly before my bedtime. Sunday was the only day I got to spend any real time with him, so I especially cherished our weekly library ritual.

Dad was a voracious if not especially sophisticated reader — he leaned toward big, sweeping epics set in exotic locales: Michener, Durrell, Uris. I inherited his voracity but not his epic tastes, so once we reached the library we would head our separate ways, he to the new-issues section to investigate the latest Herman Wouk opus, and I to the nonfiction rooms. I had little use for fiction in those days, but I was fascinated by all those thousands of books on every conceivable subject known to mankind: rows and rows of titles on Chinese porcelain, bats, the history of aviation. It didn’t take me long to discover the language section, with its bounty of tomes on all the world’s tongues: huge, unliftable German dictionaries, self-teaching guides to Samoan and Swahili, glossaries of Cockney rhyming and Australian Outback slang, learned treatises on the origin of Basque and the classification of Bantu languages. Truly a feast – and, with a library card, a moveable one. I made extensive use of my card, and checked out two books in particular often enough that I single-handedly filled the little slips attached to the inside back covers. Both are long out of print and almost forgotten now, but they were major influences in my developing interest in everything linguistic.

The first is The Story of Language, by Mario Pei (J.B. Lippincott, 1949, 1965). Pei, a mid-century Italian-American linguist, was the author of two dozen or so books that explained language and linguistics in laymen’s terms; he was also very involved in the Esperanto movement in this country. The Story of Language was his attempt to summarize the whole field for non-linguists; each chapter encapsulated one aspect of, well, the story of language. I was enthralled by his methodical explanations of theories of the origins of human language, with colorful names like the ding-dong and bow-wow theories; the history of writing systems; how most of the world’s languages could be grouped into families on the basis of comparisons of vocabulary and grammar; the ways that language interacts with other human constructs like religion, science, politics, superstition; and a host of other topics. Although the writing was often awkward (Pei’s native language, after all, was Italian, not English), he amply compensated for this flaw by the wealth of details and fascinating tidbits of information he managed to cram into about four hundred pages.

Turn to any page and you’re likely to learn something you never knew before: The name “Manhattan” may come from a Delaware Indian phrase meaning “the place where we all got drunk.” The Dutch language gave us the words “freebooter,” “coleslaw” and “blunderbuss.” Colors have different connotations in different languages; we are sad when we are blue, but in French, “to be blue” is to be amazed. The ancient Aramaic language of the Bible is still spoken by Christians living among the Arabic-speaking peoples of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Pei originally wrote the book in 1949 and revised it in 1969, so much of the content is hopelessly out of date, but rereading it even today I find myself swept away once again by the awe and mystery of human language.

In a lighter vein, my love of wordplay was nurtured by a delightful book called Language on Vacation, by Dmitri Borgmann. Borgmann, a controversial figure in recreational-language circles because he stands accused of stealing work without attribution, nonetheless accomplished in this book a sort of encyclopedia of English-language wordplay, from word squares to anagrams to palindromes to a survey of the longest words in English. A few snippets: “Suoidea” is the shortest English word containing the five vowels in reverse alphabetical order (it’s a taxonomic classification which includes pigs). The 1964 Chicago telephone directory had a listing for a Zzyzzy Zzyzzyxy. “Waltz, nymph, for quick jigs vex bud” is probably the shortest sentence containing all twenty-six letters of the alphabet that makes actual sense. “Deceased” is an example of a kangaroo word, which carries within its spelling, in normal order, a smaller word (“dead”) with the same meaning. Language on Vacation: An Olio of Orthographical Oddities (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965) is hard to find now, and it’s a sought-after item at puzzle conventions and such. If you come across a copy, grab it! •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Hess | Link to this Entry

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