Monthly Archives: June 2016

melliloquent, melliloquence

Sweet words butter no bread. But they may put honey on your crumpets, and isn’t that even a little bit better?

Who doesn’t want to have a bit of blarney, a silver tongue, the power to charm with shimmering lexis and lithe syntax? Well, I guess some people don’t – there are those who pride themselves in being plain-spoken. But even plain speech can have the power of persuasion, and some of the sweetest words are direct and unadorned.

What, in fact, is the key characteristic of honey-tongued speech? Is it apposite use of adjectives and epithets? Is it careful control of the phonemes and rhythms? Is it striking use of imagery? Is it flattery of the addressee? Which of these is the sweetest sentence: “The sight and sound of you pulls me like iron filings to a rare earth magnet”; “You are a cross of the best parts of Cate Blanchett and Jeremy Irons”; “Your clothing caresses the eyes and your speech is a fabric of electric sparkles”; “You are visually elegant and orally melliloquent”?

I’m sure it comes down to taste. Not even everyone likes the taste of honey, for that matter. But this is about melliloquence, and the mell in there refers to honey, just as it does in mellifluous. In English it also has an echo of mellow, which smooths it out like oak aging, but that is an etymologically unrelated word. So is marshmallow, but sweet soft words can be as marshmallows to the mouth and ear. And somehow we overlook the overlap with smell.

If you ask people what the most beautiful words are, some will choose words with beautiful senses, but others will hew towards certain sounds. The sounds typically lean in the same direction: flowing vowels, nasals, a few soft voiceless sounds, and especially the liquids /r/ and /l/. Add the crisp whisper of voicelessness and the ll of Welsh is a sure-fire charmer, but we in English don’t have that phoneme. It’s no great surprise that Tolkien based his two Elvish languages on Welsh and Finnish (see namárië). I recall one person’s list of the most beautiful words – well, I recall two of the words it included: Shenandoah (a popular choice, I think) and diarrhea. Which does have a nice sound to it, the word I mean; its denotation detracts a bit much for many people.

A word that was not on the list was melliloquent. I feel confident that this was at least in part because the author didn’t know it. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? It starts with that soft, warm nasal, and then flows through parallel liquids; a crisp stop in the back moves into a glide, then another nasal and a stop. On the page it has those stripes llil and it is such a nice long word. And it means something so nice: sweet words, honeyed speech. Who doesn’t like to hear nice things? Well, I guess some people don’t, or at least not invariably – some dislike hearing good things about competitors, and some are uncomfortable with receiving praise, even though to others compliments are the ultimate honey (entrappingly so – even more than a spider’s web, honeyed words lead to the undoing of many flies).

I suppose the ultimate melliloquence would be words that have all of the above: praise, strikingly beautiful imagery, evocative and novel vocabulary, and an exquisite ensemble of sounds. And, of course, sincerity.

I hope you weren’t expecting an example. I kinda suck at that stuff.

Anyway, different people like different things. I’m sure each of you has encountered examples of exquisite melliloquence. I won’t mind hearing of any that you might recall.

teem

There are many different things one can taste, and many different ways of tasting them. When you taste wine, some wines give you all they’ve got right away: you may love it or you may hate it, but if you taste it again and again and again, you will get the same thing every time. Other wines give you something new with every approach: Yes? Ah, plums, leather. Yes? Ah, blackberries, blueberries. Yes? Ah, coffee, and that girl you used to know. Yes? Tannins around your tongue like a ring of soft thorns. Yes? A line of bittersweet down the middle like a stripe of chocolate. Yes? A 20-year-old bomber jacket. Yes? Your grandmother’s bookshelf. Yes? That one Christmas in the country. And so on.

Words are like that too. Some – typically ones of which you have less knowledge and ones that connect to less in your life – don’t bring a whole lot. Some bring so many things they’re like the grey murmur of a large crowd in a swimming pool. Some connect to a few things, then a few more things, then a few more. They are doors to libraries; they are Proustian madeleines.

Pictures can be like that too. I like photography, and I try to get photos that engage the eye, that bring a moment or a clear tidy story. But I also love photos that you can spend a lot of time looking at and digging into. Photos that you really have to see in magnification to catch every detail. And yet that you have to see in one broad view to get a sense of the structure, the occasion. Imagine if the events of a novel were laid out before you in the dimensions of space all at once, rather than along the line of time, and you could wander through them and look here, look there, look in different orders. Or imagine if it were not about one person’s narrative but about all the things that occur in a place at a time. This is a picture that teems with detail, information, events.

We all know some paintings and drawings like this. As children, we may have looked at Richard Scarry books. We may have gone on to spend endless time with Where’s Wally books, not only looking for Wally but enjoying the endless little actions and interactions Martin Handford put in. As museum-going adults we may have gone swimming in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

The Germans have a word for such pictures: Wimmelbild. I have been made aware of this word by Ming Thein, an excellent photographer and blogger. Read his article (it’s in English, don’t worry) and look at his photos at https://blog.mingthein.com/2016/06/24/wimmelbild-im-fotografie/ . No, really, read it. I consider it required reading for this. Do it now, then come back and continue.

Wimmelbild is a German word made from two German words: the verb wimmeln and the noun Bild. Bild means ‘picture’; wimmeln means ‘teem’.

Teem. This is a word that teems with meaning and overtones. It is more than one word, even. Of course it sounds like team – and team comes from the same root, etymologically. Team is a word for a group or set or lot of people; teem is a verb for a lot of people, or a lot of things. Or a lot of rain. If something is teeming, it is abounding, overflowing, florescing, crawling with… or pouring with so much rain the drops are like avid army ants by the billion. And that is the other root: the abundance sense comes from Old English teman (with a long e), which also gives us team; the rain sense, which also has a related sense of ‘pour’ as in molten steel, comes from Old English temen (with short e’s). The two have converged; history has led them to meet.

I do not like being in crowds. But I esteem that which teems when it is a thing I can examine at length and leisure. A crowd like a cloud of steam, perhaps, each individual like a droplet in its own path, meeting other droplets backward and forward, all viewed frozen in time or at a comfortable distance. Or any picture that you need to click on to go to the full-size version that you can inspect at length. Perhaps a sweeping array of roofs.

Or a crowd in a square.

Or a crowd in an art gallery full of paintings of teeming crowds.

Or a rink full of skaters in motion, Heisenbergian in its denial of fixed detail for those that are moving, and denial of movement for those with fixed detail.

Or perhaps even just an evening scene of diners on a patio. Does this teem enough? So many stories, moments, invitations to look and read and speculate.

Or flowers and leaves, a symposium all posing and peering at you peering at them.

Or windows – a building side of windows, each with its own life. I would like a wall-size photo of a building side of windows that you could peer at closely almost like an Advent calendar, the prizes being the lives and stories within.

Or people arrayed across a beach. Perhaps an assembly stitched from several exposures – can you see where the same person appears twice? Who is with whom? What will come next? Don’t forget to click to see the full-size view in all its megapixels!

Or books. A whole library of books. Spines with names. A universe of universes. A team of literature, a teeming of literature, an esteeming of literature.

 

aperture

The dimmer the light, the harder a time I have of seeing things. I spent nearly half an hour trying to find this book.

Can’t see it? Let me sharpen things up a little.

Still can’t see it?

Neither could I. I knew where it was supposed to be but… Turns out it was between the Bernini and Holzer books. Behind the Doonesbury box set. Bottom shelf, near the post.

Here, this book. Photography with Large-Format Cameras.

I’ve set it on the futon in our guest room. Let me sharpen up more of that for you.

It’s a book I “borrowed” from my dad. It covers clearly but in good detail the optics of cameras, and notably of large-format view cameras – cameras that allow you to shift and tilt the lens. I don’t currently own a large-format camera, and I can’t afford the time or money to use one either. But an understanding of the principles is valuable to any photographer’s understanding of the technical details of photography.

The reason the second picture has more in focus than the first is the same reason I see more sharply in brighter light (as does everyone, but you notice it more when your eyes have a more limited focal range). It’s also why people sometimes squint to see more sharply. It’s something mentioned on page 9.

Closer…

Can’t see which word I have in mind?

That isolates the subject a bit more, doesn’t it?

Aperture. From Latin apertura, from aperire, verb, ‘open’. An aperture is an opening.

We’re always looking for an opening, right? And we always want to keep our eyes wide open for one?

In a camera lens, the aperture is a roughly circular opening in the middle that constrains the light coming through. It keeps it within a certain distance from the exact middle point. The bigger the aperture, the more light gets through, but the less precise the light that gets through. Any part of the picture that isn’t exactly in focus gets even less exactly in focus, so that you notice the blurriness more and can make out the details less. In technical terms, the circle of confusion is larger for any given distance from the plane of exact focus. (This means what should be a dot is a circle due to the imprecision of focus at that point.)

Paradoxically, when there’s less light let in, you can see more details of more things (the circle of confusion is closer to being a dot); you can make out the foreground and background in more detail too. Just as long as you expose for longer or increase the sensitivity to make up for the reduced light level. But you have to watch out: when you increase the sensitivity, you can lose detail through noise – from overinterpreting the limited light that comes through. And if you narrow the aperture too much, diffraction effect starts to reduce the sharpness of everything. It may be in equal focus, but it’s in equally iffy focus.

When everything is in sharp focus, nothing stands out as much. The constraint of a narrower aperture is great when you have a lot that you want to be equally in focus. There is less “confusion” but less differentiation. When you want to isolate something more, draw the eyes to it, de-emphasize the less important parts, you don’t want everything in equal focus. You open up the aperture and the field of acceptable focus narrows down. The more wide open your pupils are – or the diaphragm (iris) on your camera lens – the more clearly one thing stands out and the more the rest is blurred out, confused. It allows you to focus on a pertinent part, whatever appertains most… or, if you mishandle it, to single out something malapert, to let it erupt at the expense of the broader parts. We can be enraptured by it… or trapped.

On a camera, you can control the aperture: let in as much light as possible and one thing stands out, or restrict the light and make more things come into focus. With your eyes, it’s involuntary (aside from what you can achieve by squinting). The brighter it is, the more your pupil contracts, the more things are in sharp focus. The dimmer the light, the more your pupil dilates, the fewer things you can see clearly and the more just a little bit stands out. And not necessarily the bit you want.

So yes, in a way, we are looking for the right opening. But we don’t always want to keep our eyes wide open. Or our lenses. Sometimes, yes. But let’s keep our options in sight.

reciprocal

There are many roads that have entirely different spatial narratives for me depending on which direction I travel them in. The same buildings, trees, hills, curves, and power lines seem and feel not the opposite but entirely elsewhere when seen from a diametrically opposed perspective. Sometimes I do not even think of the places as the same places, the route as the same route; it takes an act of mental abstraction to unify them if I can at all. But only when a route is walked over both ways can it be fully understood.

This has a parallel, or anyway an analogue, in relations between people. Any two people may see the same things, the same moments, the same interactions, as parts of two quite different schemata, two quite different narratives, two quite different ideas of what is happening and how and why and what its significance is. Each may feel sure that his or her view of the situation is accurate, and yet what is happening for one is not the opposite of what is happening for the other, but not the same. At best, it may be the reciprocal.

What is the reciprocal? Reciprocal has different uses in different places. Between persons it is used to imply mutuality or at least an even balance sheet. In mechanics it (or its related form reciprocating) can refer to something that comes and goes repeatedly, like a piston (the word reciprocal seem to me a natural fit for such an engine, sounding like a cycling cylinder). In math, it is – to quote the Oxford English Dictionary – “A function, expression, etc., so related to another that their product is unity.”

Unity? There are two ways of looking at mathematical reciprocals. One is to see all numbers as fractions, and the reciprocal of each as being the reversal of it – topsy-turvy, upside-down, arse over teakettle. The reciprocal of 3/4 is 4/3; the reciprocal of 2 (which can be written as 2/1) is 1/2.The other way is to see a reciprocal as 1 divided by the number. The reciprocal of 3/4 is 1/(3/4), which is 4/3; the reciprocal of 2 is 1/2.

If you multiply a number by its reciprocal you get 1: for example, 3/4×4/3 = 12/12 = 1 and 2/1×1/2 = 2/2 = 1. This might seem a magical fact the first time you see it if you have thought of a reciprocal as being the flipped version of a number, but if you think of it as 1 divided by the number then you see it is necessarily true. Mutual reciprocals must multiply to unity. The road out and the road back combine to make the whole route.

It is tempting to add that this mutuality leading to unity can only work if both sides keep “I” out of it. You may know that i is a mathematical constant equal to the square root of –1. Thus if you have reciprocals such as 3/4 and 4/3, but you multiply i into each, you have 3i/4 and 4i/3 (which are no longer reciprocal), and if you multiply them together the result is a negative one: 3i/4×4i/3 = 12i2/12 = (12×–1)/12 = –1. But, you know, that’s just convenient, coincidental. You can’t have a perspective without a percipient; you can’t have an eye without an I. And in real life, the result of squaring up an I with another I is not a negative one. Any time you bring two roots or routes together you gain something.

Where does this word reciprocal come from? Apparently from Latin recus ‘backward’ (from re– ‘back’) and procus ‘forward’ (from pro– ‘for’). Something that is reciprocal is complementary, or mutual, or mutually dependent, or back and forth, or alternating, or contrary, or opposing. You see: even the meaning covers a 180-degree arc from sense to countersense.

And yet it still all makes sense. I see you: you see me. We see different things. Perhaps our views are in concord, perhaps in discord; it may be that we don’t even realize that they are as different as they are. But if we are on the same road, or sitting at the same table, the product of our fractions can put us at one.

flumf

“When I get home, I am going to flumf and have a nap.”

That was me this afternoon, after we had swum, steamed, been massaged, and had lunch with sparkling wine. In short, it was a spa day, and there’s nothing I want more after all that than to flumf onto the bed and snooze for a piece of the rest of the afternoon.

Don’t bother looking up flumf in a dictionary. It’s not there. So what. I just used it and don’t pretend you didn’t understand it. Sound symbolism and phonaesthetics are an inexhaustible well, especially in English.

What do words that start with fl tend to signify? OK, many of them don’t have any special meaning in common, or any evident connection between sound and sense (fleet, flint), but those that do often have a sense of loose motion (the flapping and fluttering of a flag, for instance). There is a soft looseness to /fl/, onomatopoeically.

And how about that umf? First we should note that I’m spelling it umf and not umph. We’re more likely to spell that set of sounds umph in English, but I find that a bit too weighty – simultaneously precious (because of the ph, heavily associated with expensive words taken from Greek) and hard (because it manifests a connection to p). I want to make it clear how soft and fluffy this bed is. And flumf has those feathery f’s bedposting it, and is only one letter from fluff. But that one letter is m, and the /ʌmf/ has a dull, dense heaviness to it. Words ending in /ʌmp/ have a solid tendency to be associated with heaviness and bluntness (bump, clump, dump, lump, slump, thump). That /m/ is resonant, and the /ʌ/ is a vowel that tends to be associated with dullness (“uhhhh”). So soften it to /ʌmf/ and you have a heavy but soft landing.

And since this is English, which so freely converts words of one type to another type, thanks to its minimal requirements of derivational and inflectional morphology (i.e., you don’t have to change the form of a word to change what you use it for), I don’t have to say “I’m going to fall with a flumf on the bed” (imitative noun) or “I’m going to fall on the bed flumf” (ideophonic adverb). I can just flumf on the bed. Which in fact I did, and remained there for a halcyon hour.

And now you have had a nice brief lesson in the nature and function of phonaesthetics. Want more? Lots more? I wrote a whole master’s thesis on it. The official conferral of my Master of Arts in linguistics is this Tuesday, June 21. Don’t bother coming (I’ll be at the office). Just read the thesis. Or anyway the abstract. Or the conclusion, which is better. It’s pages 141–144 here: http://www.harbeck.ca/James/Harbeck_James_C_2016_MA.pdf

enthusiasm

I’m prone to enthusiasms.

That might seem funny to my wife, since it’s kind of a joke between her and me that I have two modes of expression, noncommital and vehement. But vehemence can be an expression of enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is really a mode of perception and action, not of expression. I’m often very enthusiastic about a thing without actually saying much about it. I just take an avid interest in it and read a lot about it – and maybe write about it too. And maybe every so often it comes up in conversation and I go on a bit much if the other person seems interested.

I think it’s hereditary. My brother has enthusiasms, too, and our father is strongly prone to enthusiasms. (Our mother is a very patient, good-natured person.) It’s true that enthusiastic people can be a bit tiring at times, but boy, can they get things done. Even if their perspective may seem a little imbalanced to us, we benefit from it. It’s like the man whose wife came to the doctor and said, “My husband thinks he’s a chicken.” “How long has he thought this?” the doctor asked. “A few months now,” the woman said. “A few months!” the doctor said. “Why didn’t you come sooner?” The woman shrugged and said, “We needed the eggs.”

What, really, is enthusiasm? It’s a kind of wind in your sails. It picks you up and you get carried away. Lord Shaftesbury once wrote, “Inspiration is a real feeling of the Divine Presence, and Enthusiasm a false one,” but I think there is something of the divine wind in enthusiasm. And not just because Japanese for ‘divine wind’ is kamikaze. Nor is it just because the “thu” sounds a bit like a gust of wind. No, though inspiration comes from Latin for ‘breathing in’, if you want divinity, you should turn to the Greeks, whose word for ‘god’ was θεος theos, and whose word for ‘possessed by a god’ was ἔνθεος entheos, and from that came ἐνθουσιασμός enthousiasmos, ‘state of being possessed by a god’, whence our enthusiasm.

So. Not just divine wind. Possession! If someone says “What has gotten into you?” you can tell them it’s a divinity. And remember, possession is nine points in the law. (No, not nine-tenths of the law. Look, I’m a bit of an enthusiast for looking things like that up, OK?)

purparty

If I were not allergic to cats, there would be nearly nothing I would like better than a party of purrs: cats and kittens, calico and tortoiseshell, shorthair and shaggy, Siamese and Persian, piled and purring all over me, the very essence of happiness. I would not require all of this ecstasy for myself; I could share it equally with others and receive a purparty of a purr party.

Purparty need not be part and parcel of feline furr and fang. A collection of furniture, purple and arty, would serve as well. Or a pie. Or a proprietorship, or other things with less propriety. Most likely, though, it would be an estate. An estate due equally to several, and severally to equals: coparceners, which is to say co-inheritors. To each their purparty.

The pur is not the one in E pur si muove, ‘And yet it moves’, Galileo’s purported recantation of his recantation. Rather, it is the one in purport and purpose and purloin and purchase: all come from Middle French, which made it from Latin pro ‘for’. And the party is from Latin partita ‘divided’, which is also the source of the parce in coparcener and, of course, part and party. A purparty is a portion or share, especially an equal share in an estate.

And what kind of estate would that be? For me, a country pile. Pile of fur and ferns, that is. If I were living on great green grounds with lawns and trees and flowers, I would be sure to have lots of cats on it. If I had to share it, if I had but a purparty of it, I would make sure to have a room or two inside (OK, three: a library, a kitchen, and a bedroom – I could share the bathroom), and to have the lushest part of the outside – so long as it had cats that I could share part of a bench with.