Monthly Archives: November 2014

Strong with the fronting Master Yoda is

One of the great classic topics in linguistics is… the syntax of Yoda’s speech. What’s up with the way he talks? What are the characteristics of his syntax? It’s not universally agreed on… or even galactically. But there’s something interesting you might want to know about the language he speaks. I tell you in my latest article for

Why so strangely Yoda speaks

For the interested, here are some more linguistic looks at Yoda-speak:


What’s English?

This was first published on The Editors’ Weekly.

Here’s a quick quiz. Tell me which of the following are English and which aren’t. For each one, say why it is or isn’t English and, if it’s not English, what it is.

  1. There’s no place to plug your car in in the parkade.
  2. A wha dat dey dem people deh nyam ih smell sweet.
  3. He was found to have contraband in the boot and under the bonnet, so he is in gaol.
  4. Breid is a staple fuid prepared by bakin a daich o floor an watter.
  5. That pom’s running around like a chook with its head cut off.
  6. Biiolojii esa saiens, daa studehs lief, plant a’ anamal.
  7. Sildenafil is contraindicated in hypertension.
  8. I might have the odd poutine, but mostly I don’t pig out.
  9. Tell me, what is one to do yaar? They are like that only.
  10. Ðā ġeseah ðæt wīf ðæt ðæt trēow wæs gōd tō etenne.
  11. If yall are fixin to go, I might could leave early.
  12. One coffee regular. All set?
  13. I damn tired den langgar the car lor. Dun know oreddy lah!

Wasn’t that fun? As you may have guessed, all of the above are versions of English from different places (and in one case a different time). But of course they’re not equally acceptable in all contexts, and some are sometimes treated as different languages now. I’m willing to bet that several of them were more than a little hard to understand, and most of them seemed somehow “wrong” to you. So let’s look at what they are and what they mean.

  1. Albertan: There’s no place to plug in the block heater on your car engine in the parking garage.
  2. Jamaican (patois; from Chat Jamaican by J.J. Thomas): What are those people eating? It smells sweet.
  3. British: He was found to have contraband in the trunk and under the hood, so he is in jail.
  4. Scots (from Bread is a staple food prepared by baking a dough of flour and water.
  5. Australian: That British person is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
  6. Pitkern and Norfuk (Pitcairn and Norfolk; descendants of the crew of the Bounty; from Biology is a science that studies life, both plant and animal.
  7. Medical jargon: Viagra® should not be prescribed to people with high blood pressure.
  8. Canadian: I might have the occasional dish of French fries with cheese and gravy, but mostly I don’t eat to excess.
  9. Indian English: Tell me, what can one do, man? They are just like that.
  10. Old English (Anglo-Saxon; from Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.
  11. Southern US English: If you [plural] are getting ready to go, I just might be able to leave early.
  12. New England English: One coffee with cream and sugar. Is that everything?
  13. Singlish (Singapore English; from I was really tired, which is why I crashed into the other car. I don’t know any more about it!

There is not one “right” English. English is a language complex. All languages have different levels and tones and different usages for different contexts, but English, due to its spread, has much more variation than many. Within their own systems, all of the above are perfectly grammatical. Obviously, most of them would only be acceptable in a conversational tone directed to a specific audience, but to that audience, they would sound entirely natural.

And that’s the take-home. What sounds natural to you, and what sounds natural to the audience you’re editing for, in the context of your document? Are you sure? The Albertan sentence sounds perfectly normal to me, but there are many Canadians who would scratch their heads at it…


Ah, kismet. The ineluctable, inescapable, yet somehow eternally exotic fate. What has been decided for you by God, your every move just like a chesspiece until, finally… mate.

Mate? You are mated. You kiss your mate. Kiss me, mate: it’s kismet. The attraction is more than merely cosmetic. Though it be a bridging of a chasm, it will take you to the other side surely. Kismet makes no mistake.

Kismet is fate, sure, but fate with an air of the exotic: Baghdad and baggy pants, perhaps – a 1950s version, not the 2000s. Kismet is redolent of foreign spices, as much korma as karma, not mere garlic but a right forest of foreign spices. Which ones? Doesn’t matter, as long as they have an exciting otherness. When you fall in love, after all, you project so many of your own desires on the other person, just as when you swoon for the exotic and mysterious you are really looking at a painted mirror reflection of the back of your own closet. You may be captivated, but truly you are held captive by a fantasy of your own devising.

Well, such are the anfractuous – nay, Byzantine – ways of fate. What goes out the front door may come in the back door, or vice versa. Things you set in motion may end up where you never see them; seeds you sow may be harvested by others. On your way to escape your fate, you meet it. But when you call it kismet, it probably also involves a striking coincidence.

Most responsible for the flavour of this word, as you may know, is a 1953 musical play, Kismet, which became a hit movie in 1955, a heady romantic stew full of waspy orientalism, a plot full of remarkable coincidences, all happening in a single day. Its best-known song is “Stranger in Paradise,” which an incognito prince sings to a maiden who has suddenly captivated him. The musical was by Wright and Forrest, with book by Lederer and Davis, but it was based on a 1911 play by Edward Knoblock (who changed his name from Knoblauch, which happens to be German for ‘garlic’). And the music that made it so famous is based on music by the Russian composer Alexander Borodin. That most famous song is taken right from Prince Igor, from the Polovetsian dances: songs of enslaved Polovetsian maidens forced to dance for their captor, Prince Igor.

The word kismet comes to English from Turkish, which got it from Persian qismat, which got it from Arabic qismat ‘portion, lot, fate’, which comes from qasama, verb, ‘divide’. Divide because your fate is your portion, the lot that falls to you. But of course fate may join together as well as pull asunder.

Why was I fated to think of this word today? People have started decorating for Christmas. That makes me think of the Huron Carol. Which, for musical reasons, makes me think of “Paint It Black”: you can segue the one into the other – “’Twas in the moon of wintertime I want to paint it black.” I have mentioned this previously here on Sesquiotica, in my word tasting note on quodlibet, from the fall of 2009. I decided to mention all this today, with video links, on Twitter. Now, if you look at the video of the Huron Carol I chose to link to, you will see it was done in 2010 by a group called Quod Libet. It so happens that the rendition of “Paint It Black” I linked to – an a cappella choral version – is by a group called Kismet.

So it was fated.


I really like cartoons.

The feel of newsprint makes me think immediately of cartoons. If you give me a newspaper, I will read the cartoons. I may or (more likely) may not read any of the rest of it. (I get my news online anyway.) Some of the most important influences of my youth were cartoons. MAD Magazine. Calvin and Hobbes. Doonesbury. I even used to read a magazine called CARtoons, which was comic strips about cars. (I loved cars. I’ve still never owned one, though. I love public transport more. I rent when I have to.)

Naturally, I wanted to be a cartoonist, too. I’ve always aimed to amuse others (I have not always succeeded). I’ve always liked art. And I had the idea that cartoons would take less work than other forms of art. Not true, of course, but I was very good at self-deception. I wanted quick results. I did five panels of a comic strip somewhere in high school. Didn’t do anything with it. Never even got around to inking it – it’s just in pencil, with guide lines for the text. Here it is, so you can see the kind of person I was as a teen (click on a cartoon to see a larger version):

Explains some, doesn’t it? I did a better cartoon once in university, for a theatre class. I saw it somewhere in the last year or so. If I can ever manage to find it (no luck so far, but I know it’s around here somewhere), you will see it. [Revision: Found it!]

More recently, I have done light drawings on various sorts for various purposes. I illustrated my step-grandfather’s memoirs of playing the hobo during the Depression (edited and published by my grandmother):

I even did some for the Literary Review of Canada years ago (I’m the designer, and they were lacking a real artist for an issue or two several years ago):

(The smudges weren’t in the magazine version. Not sure how they got there.)

But those are not comic strips. Not that all cartoons are comic strips; originally, none were. They were preparatory drawings for paintings, stained glass, etc., done on heavy paper – Italian cartone, from carta ‘paper’. We get the word carton from the same source. But cartoon has the oon, as in loon, goon, poltroon, spittoon, saloon, and so on: generally less dignified and often funnier.

Humour is the key to cartoons. They can have great art in them; Bill Watterson, who drew Calvin and Hobbes, is an unbelievably good artist (as witness strips such as the tyrannosaurs in F14s one): excellent technique but always in the service of most excellent funniness. But some of the greatest cartoons out there rely on their wit much more than their technique. Dilbert is one; a more extreme example is xkcd, which is ridiculously smart and funny and just uses stick figures (although some of the strips, such as “Click and Drag” [you have to click and drag on it to see more of it], show us that it’s not that Randall Munroe can’t draw, it’s just that he mainly prefers to keep the art simple). And there’s my editorial colleague Iva Cheung, who takes a similar approach in her comic strips: spare in the drawings, but very intelligent and funny, and it can’t be done without drawing.

So cartoon started with the heavy paper. Then it transferred to the kind of drawings done on the heavy paper. Then the linear style of drawing came to be known mainly for humorous or satirical drawings (as with editorial cartoons). They came to be printed on lighter paper. Now we often see them on screen rather than on paper; in fact, animated shorts are called cartoons, as in Saturday morning cartoons with Bugs Bunny (originally drawn on vellum and shown via celluloid) – and these are made with full-colour paintings, even if simplified (just like cartoon violence: exaggerated, vivid, without lasting harm). And now the key element of many non-moving cartoons is actually the wit behind them, not the artwork itself. This word cartoon caroms semantically around.

I wonder if I should try drawing cartoons for Sesquiotica every so often.

Or maybe I’m better off not…

hobnob, schmooze

I have reached the point in life, it seems, where hobnobbing is de rigueur. Aina and I were at another wine-and-nosh thing this evening at the Bata Shoe Museum, engaging in the willy-nilly give-and-take of politely bibulous conversation fuelled by canapés. It’s always a little bit of a raised-eyebrow thing, hobnobbing; it’s not the scuttlebutt you get with hoi polloi around the knob of a hot hob, it’s more of a respectable rhubarb, a bit of hemming and hawing and nobly nodding, not with the rabble but with the nobs. “Hobnob” is the sound echoing the halls of the local Olympus as the almost-somebodies enjoy being almost somebody.

But is it schmoozing? Oo. There’s maybe something a bit oozy about schmoozing. It’s the same kind of general polite conversation, but somehow there seems to be an oleaginous overtone to it, perhaps an avaricious intent. You can schmooze lightly with people, yes, but you can also schmooze someone into something or schmooze something out of someone. The ooze is unavoidable, but the schm also gives it a certain ludicrousness, thanks to other schm words – schmuck, schmendrick – and the dismissive reduplication: “Writer schmiter. He scribbles a bit.”

And where do all those schm come from? Yiddish. Schmooze is from Yiddish schmues ‘chat, gossip’, from Hebrew shemuah ‘rumour’. And here’s the thing. Less than a century ago, the nobs who hobnobbed were the rich WASPy sorts, and the people who schmoozed were not even permitted into establishments where one might hobnob. If you schmoozed you were Jewish, burdened with all the stereotypes that came with it. And still to some extent hang onto it. Which is a prime reason, I think, why schmooze has a different tone than hobnob. Entrenched prejudice.

Hobnob, by the way, comes from a phrasal adverb, hob and nob, referring to give-and-take and also meaning just ‘however it may turn out’ – because it’s from hab and nab, which is from have and ne have, with the old ne meaning ‘not’. Like willy-nilly from will ye, nill ye. To have and have not. To give and take.

Or to pretend there’s a give and take. Just passing the same goods back and forth above the heads of the have-nots. To take from those who give, and pretend that you’re the giver and they’re the takers. Look, I have a certain station in life! Oh, I shall bestow some largesse on you. Or maybe just some large s—.

Well, I’m being a bit overdramatic. Most of the people at the Bata this evening were associated with a local university, and most were not exceedingly well off, just comfortable enough to give a little money to the program. Nice people whose main priorities in life are something other than getting as much money as possible. We happily checked our coats and went in and had wine and nosh. I’m not sure we checked our privilege, though.

But we did schmooze.


As some of you know, I am on Twitter (@sesquiotic). Twitter allows you to post publicly, for the benefit of anyone who follows your feed or looks you up, messages of up to 140 characters each. This is not very much, and the terseness can lead to tenseness; Twitter is often like communicating in Morse code using car horns. So sometimes I will tweet sequences of tweets so I can fit in a larger thought. Instead of a message here about something, a message there about something else, I send out a spate of messages, six or ten or fourteen in a row, all in a sequence on a specific topic.

I’m certainly not the only person to do this. Actually, many tweeters do it from time to time. Some do it a lot. @HeerJeet practically specializes in it, numbering the tweets so they can be followed. He and some others of those who send such sequences call them Twitter essays.

The thing is, even if you send 14 tweets, that’s still less than 300 words. We’re talking about an “essay” that is less than a page. It’s a short essay, more like a fleshy thought. And on Twitter it’s experienced as a sudden burst of tweets, like a spring shower, a flash flood… a spate.

Yes, I think spate is the word we need here. It’s a word we get from Scots English, a word that may be related to spout. It referred first to a sudden flood, as from a heavy rain (we’ve had a few of those in recent years in Toronto, thanks in part to more extreme weather, and in part to paving over too damn much so the ground doesn’t absorb the rain before it flows into the sewers). It can also refer to a sudden and/or heavy rainstorm.

Or, more often, to a sudden intense pouring forth of something that comes in individual instances: a spate of books, attacks, bombings, shootings, incidents, mergers, murders, kidnappings, suicides, lawsuits; occasionally it refers to mass objects such as violence or publicity. But it is more often the raindrops than the flooding creek.

The sound of the word is so suggestive. Listen to its echoes: spit, spat, spout, spurt, also spite and spot. A spate can erupt from your pate until you are sated. What comes in a spate is no paste, nor is it even-paced. If it is words, it is a spatter of expatiation. And then, as quickly as it began, it is done.

Are you a fan of its?

Sometimes editors (and others) wonder what the difference is between, say, “He’s not a fan of Cher” and “He’s not a fan of Cher’s.” Is there a distinction? Is it equally important in all instances?

There is a distinction: it’s between possession and association. In some cases it’s the same thing; in others, quite different. “A picture of Mr. Goldfine” is not a picture belonging to Mr. Goldfine but a picture depicting him; “A picture of Mr. Goldfine’s” is a picture belonging to him. (“Mr. Goldfine’s picture” can mean either because we use the “possessive” for both possession and association.)

When you talk about fandom, there is again the possible distinction between association and possession, but in that case it really refers to the same thing, just from a slightly different angle. “A fan of Cher’s” is the same as “a fan of Cher” but in the “Cher’s” case it gives a sense of there being a collection of fans belong to Cher, as opposed to it being simply an attitude on the part of the fan.

It also follows that because running in the rain is a kind of action, not an entity that can possess, “A fan of running in the rain’s” is odd.

English pronouns are more archaic than the rest of English; they preserve case distinctions that have been lost everywhere else, mainly because they’re so entrenched and we used them automatically by habit and without analysis. In cases such as this, a distinction can be made with them when there is a real distinction to be made: “A picture of him”; “A picture of his.” In instances where the distinction is not a significant one, we may hew to the older construction, which in this case uses the genitive because that was the case governed by this construction: “A fan of his” may seem more natural than “A fan of him” (though this will vary from speaker to speaker). (Languages that have full and productive cases systems for nouns tend to use different cases after different prepositions and depending on context; German and Latin are two languages that do this. Old English was another.) Note, however, that the association/possession distinction still matters: “I am not a fan of it” is fine; “I am not a fan of its” is probably not.


What does space sound like?

What does the vast expanse between the burning stars sound like? What do the dark empty spaces around and between planets sound like? What does the space between my computer and yours sound like? What does the distance between me and the library on my wall sound like, what does the cliff gap between my window and the high-rise library of people across the street sound like? What does the space between an atom’s nucleus and its electrons, proportionally so much greater than the gap between sun and planets, sound like? The great unknown? The emptiness that is full of dark matter and potential matter? What do the spaces between thoughts sound like? The spaces between minds?

NASA has recorded electromagnetic pulsations in space and converted them to sound. Hear them at if you wish; they are reminiscent of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (such as Kontakte), and not altogether coincidentally.

But to me, space sounds more like Ligeti.

Ligeti György Sándor. The closest you can come to saying that with English sounds is “Liggety Jrrj Shahndor.” Hungarians put the family name first. Ligeti was a Hungarian Jew born in Romania who moved to Hungary and later Austria and Germany.

Ligeti was one of the great modern composers. Even his name is musical. It is three canonical syllables, licking and bouncing tip-back-tip of the tongue, the vowels all up and front. It sounds like legato and ligature, and it looks almost like light. And no one seems to know what it means. Like life and music, it is there and we use it anyway.

Ligeti will remind us of space because his music was used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and some other films. It is music that I learned, in my youth, not to listen to when I was alone by myself at night in our large house surrounded by dark woods at the foot of a mountain. The foreboding, the voices so discordant and confused and full of empty and howling like the wind through the trees, building and swirling. The famous Kyrie that we hear when the monolith is first revealed on the moon. Kubrick’s movie, in so many scenes, keeps space entirely silent, amazingly so. But here, no.

But this is not why Ligeti’s music is the sound of space. Stanley Kubrick doesn’t get to decide everything for everyone. Listen to Lux Aeterna, “eternal light”:

And listen to the famous Kyrie:

Watch them, watch them sing, watch. They stand there, scores out, reading, counting, hitting every note.

The words are simple: kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison, ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’. It is from a requiem mass, the mass for the dead, those whose voices have stopped generating and are now forever dissipating into space. Can you hear that, the words, the supplications, the mercy, can you make it out from all of those voices?

I have seen the score to that Kyrie. Every note is written on it. Each voice has a line. Each voice has its own notes, its own bar divisions and rhythms. Every one of them has its plan and its clear line and purpose and statement. Every one of them has been rehearsed, has rehearsed carefully, sedulously, has burned the midnight oil to prepare for this. We hear them all together and we simply hear an enormous texture. We hear an ebb and flow and a hive of noise. We hear so many individuals and intervals that what we hear is not them but the relation between them, the attempt to reach and meet and join, the negotiations and failed connections. The space between them. The concert of solipsisms. Like a hundred metronomes, each in its own tempo, all making individual sense, together making… noise.

Space is voices. Voices express minds, minds that experience. Space is the experience of space, is the experience of reaching and not touching. It is full of the dark matter of the mind, the belief in distance and separation. Space is the only way that everything is not just one thing. And yet we are tied across the gaps, legato, with ligatures. We are all celestial bodies, burning in our dark suspension, and the reaching out is light.


I love being in galleries.

Every city I visit, if there is an art gallery, a nice, large art museum, I will surely go to it. (Unlike museum, gallery can also name a place you can buy art; but the ones I go to are mostly art museums.) I will walk in the door and dive into the art. I will inhale the smell of old oil and acrylic and the myriad modes of preservation, mixed with the aroma of the cafeteria – they always smell the same, museum and gallery cafeterias, and the aroma of their coffee wafts through the halls and mixes with Matisse and Titian and O’Keeffe and Sheeler and Cassatt and Caravaggio and Degas and the gallery itself – and I will wander past these windows onto other worlds, the heightened moments and vivid observations of so many hypersensitive minds and eyes and skilled hands, and I will swim through and past the other people too, peering and photographing and sketching and resting. I will read placards and I will pull off my spectacles and lean close to inspect the strokes. I will soak in this inland sea, the water of life and breath saturated with the salt of artists’ sweat and fretfulness.

A sea? An aquarium. The paintings are the windows. But they are not the windows to the exotic tanks; I am a fish, we all in the gallery are fish, and the paintings are the windows looking out, through which we are seen or ignored by the people and plants and animals, the scenes and dreams, the abductions and abstractions, that we see through them. They are a view for us to the divine, the transcendent, the hyperreal, the world the way we always try to make it be but never quite succeed – and they are a view of us by that world, as it looks in for a moment and continues on. Every artist has been given a window, or several, to clean, and they have cleaned them in different ways so we can see differently, always at least a little obscured or smeared or diffracted; this is how we know we cannot allow ourselves to believe that we see it exactly as it is (a mistake we often make in the “real” world). We know we see layers and angles, freezes and melts, the slashing and dotting gestures of the painters and the hard caresses of the sculptors. All so that we may see, and all so that we may be looked into. Or ignored, pointedly.

Well, if we are ignored by some of the art, we at least do not always ignore each other. In a gallery I love the art, and I love the architecture, but I also love the art lovers, the gallery-goers, the human element. They are often so amusing, and some are so pleasing to the eyes. I hope it will not gall you too much if I say I like the gals in galleries, especially the elegant ones, lingering long, eyes open, looking well and looking good. There are often entertaining gentlemen too. When we were recently in the Rijksmuseum I took photos of the people looking at the art, like brightly coloured fish at the glass. You see, just as we tap on the glass to get the fish to respond, the paintings put on a show to catch our attention and bring us around in hopes of feeding on the soul food they promise. They feed us regal lies, but they tell us too that the world is not all grey, even if it largely is; they provoke our allergies with the lees of the grail from which we have drunk, but as we cross their sill we are eager still for all that is within their gyre.

Not all galleries are art galleries, of course. There are rogues’ galleries, shooting galleries, the cheap seats in a theatre (whence playing to the gallery, which the paintings too are doing), and assorted long arcades: architectural features with a wall on one side, a ceiling above, and arches on the other. Gallerias. There’s a galleria in front of the building I live in; it extends along the front of the hotel next door, too. It’s a great place on a weekend to watch people shoot their wedding photos. Yes, it’s not quite the same word, galleria, but that’s just because galleria is the Italian version of the word. A galleria is a good place for viewing art: sheltered but daylit. Now we may see art in a gallery that has the name but neither daylight nor arches.

Whence comes the word? Oddly, we are not entirely sure, but it seems it’s from Galilee. The porch of a church – next to the narthex – was sometimes called galilea, possibly because it was at the far end from the altar as Galilee (Galilaea) was far from Jerusalem. Its name transferred to the colonnaded form, as will happen (think of your attic). But while the galilea is far from the altar, Galilee is where the person came from that the churches are all about; he is the entry point to the faith.

Have you been to Galilee? It is hilly, but it is also laky: one big lake, to be exact. If you take the road there from the Mediterranean, you drive uphill for a bit, and across the plain of Megiddo, and drive back downhill for a bit, and you can reckon you are at about sea level. And then you crest an edge and see that you are going much farther down still, down to the lake, more than 200 metres below sea level. It is as though some massive gravity has warped the space-time of the landscape, and everything flows towards it. Well, not everything; it has one outlet, the river Jordan, which drains it and flows as the axis of the Holy Land down to the Dead Sea, which has no outlet but the air and is so saturated with salt you can easily float on it.

Galleries have a similar gravitational pull on me. I flow towards them and pool in them and swim in them. They are places where I can cast my glance to one side and catch nothing, and cast it to the other side and find it overflowing. They are places where storms may be bred by mistrust and stilled by rebuke. They are places where water is walked on. I am not the one walking; I am one of the fish holding up the feet of the walker, because I crave the touch of the transcendent.