Sunday, November 15, 2015

Description of the World - Part 1

Sitting in an aging Lazy-boy, I gaze across the room at two tall bookcases. The case on the left, one of about twenty in the apartment, mostly houses history books. Like the others, the case is made of unfinished pine. It has five shelves, but there are also books on the top and a few videotapes that I should probably discard now that I have no means of playing the old format and the same movies are available on Netflicks.

The three videotapes: La Cage Aux Folles (the good one, not the English-language remake), Jean de Florette (a movie I greatly admire. It was a significant disappointment my sister found it merely depressing. When I wonder, as many people do these days, why Gerard Depardieu got so many roles, I remember his performance in this film.), Forbidden Planet (The matte painted backgrounds of the vast underground machine beneath the surface of the planet are the obvious inspiration for the scene in Star Wars where Obi Wan turns off the force field. The Forbidden Planet remains entirely watchable to this day, though it is hard not to think of Lieutenant Drebin when Leslie Nelsen is on the screen. I guess this sort of thing works backwards as well as forwards: Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius has a retroactive effect on Prospero, the exiled Duke and magus of the Tempest.)

Volume Two of Ferdinand Braudel’s Identity of France.  That the book’s here and not on the bottom shelf with Volume One and all the other Braudel works is the first of a great many tributes my style of life pays to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Philip Goldberg, The Babinski Reflex and 70 other useful and amusing metaphors… (Must have seemed like a good idea at the time.I collect encyclopedias, which then, like me, collect dust.)

B.O. Unbegaun, Russian Grammar. (I like to skim through grammars of languages I’ll never learn and never had any intention of learning in order to get a sense of the range of structures in actual languages. Since my life has been a long reconnaissance of the universe and whatever else I encounter, I’ve had a lot of experience of reading books I can’t understand. Whether the overall operation has any value is an open question. I tend to doubt it myself, but this description is undertaken in part to investigate the issue.)

The World’s Major Languages (ed. Bernard Comrie) (One of my favorite books, actually. It provides descriptions of 50 languages, each written by a different expert but all in a uniform format. If nothing else, reading the entries teaches you what linguists have to understand. It’s like visiting the State of California’s collection of terrestrial arthropods in Sacramento which used to be curated by a dear friend of mine. You may not be particularly interested in the taxonomy of the opiliones and you certainly aren’t going to recall the Turkish consonants displayed in Table 30.2 but you have to admire the devotion of people who figured out how to pin a daddy long legs to a board without the legs falling off and the effort it took countless scholars to figure out the phonology of so many languages.)

Geoffrey Pullum and William Ladusaw, Phonetic Symbol Guide (One of my lasting regrets is my inability to master phonology. On several occasions, I tried and failed to memorize the International Phonetic Association (IPA) symbols for all the sounds found in human languages. This little book is a relic from one such attempt. In principle know the difference between a fricative and a palatal, but I have a permanent problem with the sounds of words. Like many bookish people, I’ve learned many words by sight that I’ve never heard pronounced. I’ve never been able to go from the phonetic spellings in the OED to how the actual word is supposed to sound.)

L.R.Palmer, The Latin Language (I got this book, which has a considerable reputation, because I was curious about the relationship of Latin with the other Italian languages of deep antiquity. Taking it down from the shelf, I found myself reading past where I had left the bookmark. It occurred to me that I might find the author’s discussion of  literary Latin illuminating because of its parallel with Hebrew poetics, which I’ve studied at more depth. For the record, though I’m hardly good at it, I do know some Latin.)

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