Tag Archives: grammar Nazgûl

On wine tasting and grammar

I talk about word tasting regularly. But actual wine tasting has a lot in common with opinions on grammar.

I’ve tasted a lot of wine in a lot of places served by a lot of different kinds of people, and one thing that’s pretty consistent is that the people who know the least about it have the most rigid and snobby opinions. It seems they’re insecure and make up for it with bluster and strict rule-following. Meanwhile,those who know the most about it have a well-informed open-mindedness and are focused on enjoying it. Compare tasting experiences with different people pouring:

Person who has taken a one-day course in wine and wants to come off as an expert The winemaker
[wears business formal attire] [wears a puffy vest over an old button-up]
“You will taste blackcurrants, plums, and black pepper in this. Eucalyptus? No, there’s none of that.” “What do you think? …Eucalyptus? Yeah, I see what you mean! I think that’s the 5% tempranillo and maybe some of the terroir.”
“This wine matches well with roast beef and grilled meats. …Oh, no, never have red wine with white meat.” “Don’t tell anyone, but I opened a bottle of this red blend with Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is just a stuffing and cranberry sauce delivery system, right?”
“That’s not ready for tasting. It needs three years in the cellar.” “Here, let me get you a barrel sample. We’re bottling this next year… It’s looking really promising.”
“Please. Let me get you a clean cup. You don’t want to contaminate the taste.” “Just use the same glass. The next one’s darker anyway. I’ll swap up when we get to the sweet wines.”
“Oh, those grapes are completely different. You could never mistake the one for the other.” “I thought I was trying a Merlot from Oregon and it turned out it was a Pinot Noir from California!”
“Never chill red wine!” “Try this Grenache chilled. You’ll be surprised how well it works! Refreshing, right?”
“This wine is a higher-quality wine at a higher price point.” “Taste this! You won’t believe how little it costs!”

You get the general idea. If you’re talking to someone who says “Never do that” or “Always do this,” you’re not talking to someone who’s spent their life enjoying wines. You’re talking to someone who’s more concerned with appearing to know something than actually knowing it and enjoying it. The fear of seeming ignorant is overriding – they associate lesser knowledge with lower status. Meanwhile, the people who really enjoy it and enjoy knowing about it also enjoy discovering it with other people.

So what does this have to do with grammar? It’s the same divide: The snobs don’t know a lot, and those who know a lot aren’t snobs. I’ve been a language professional for 20 years and I know a lot of other language professionals… and I’ve heard and seen no end of grammar grumblers. Here’s how it typically goes:

Grammar snob Language professional
[only reads literary fiction] [loves genre fiction and “trash”]
Ain’t ain’t a word!” “Say it ain’t so!”
“These Twitterers don’t even know how to use proper grammar.” “Twitter English is fascinating. It adds so many levels of nuance.”
“Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Grammar superstitions aren’t something I really cotton to.”
“Misplaced apostrophes upset me so much! I have to fix them!” “Did you see what that nitwit with the marker did to that sign? Someone needs to get a life.”
“A sentence always has to have a subject and verb.” “Not really.”
“There is only one correct English.” “I don’t wear white-tie to the beach. Why would I use formal English in a beer ad?”
“Singular they is an abomination.” “Yay! We’ve added singular they to the style guide! About time.”
“The language is in a dire state. People don’t even know what words mean anymore.” “Hey, look! Merriam-Webster just added a whole bunch more words! Ooh, including some new verbings.”
“Swearwords are a sign of limited intelligence.” “Did you see? Another study showing smart people tend to swear more. F— yeah.”
“When someone makes an error, I just have to correct them.” “Ha. Say what you want. I’m off duty and I don’t do freebies.”

People who enjoy wine enjoy wine in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment. People who enjoy language enjoy language in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment.

That doesn’t mean anything goes – you’re unlikely to see a wine lover drinking cabernet sauvignon with a tuna sandwich, but just because they are unlikely to taste good together. And most wine lovers have their favourites and least favourites. Likewise, language professionals have things they like more or less (there are certain turns of phrase I’m almost allergic to, but I know that’s me), and they can recognize what’s not going to work well on a page and fix it. That’s why they’re professionals.

The point is to get as much from it as you can. If you’re rigid about rules and who’s right and who’s wrong, you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. You just care about status. But since your pursuit of being “right” is making you wrong a lot of the time, well, as the saying goes, you just went hunting and shot your dog.

Nazgûl

A person who is severely prescriptive in matters of English usage is often called a “grammar Nazi.” I must say I dislike this term. Real-life fascists and racists do not amuse me, and I am resistant to trivializing them. We wouldn’t think it reasonable to call a person a “grammar rapist,” after all, would we?

Various replacements have been suggested, among which I like “grammar numpty” – a numpty being a stupid person (it’s a Britishism). But that’s not quite optimal either; ‘stupid’ is arguably different from ‘obnoxiously purblind’. I find myself more partial to “grammar Nazgûl” (you can leave off the circumflex on the u if you want).

If you’re a Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) fan, I don’t need to tell you what a Nazgûl is, so off you go. You can spend the next few minutes writing a piece explaining something like how Gollum would not fall into lava with the ring; lava, being molten rock, is still so dense that a person falling on it would fall onto it, not into it, and would immediately combust on the surface (and the ring would of course melt). Facts, after all.

For the rest of you: ring? Yes, ring. Sauron, the great sorceror, forged rings of power, which gave their wearers great powers but gave him greater powers over them, for he had the one ring that had power over all of them, a ring that bore this inscription:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Which means

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It’s a tidy little exercise in morphology – frankly, I’m surprised it’s not more often used in introductory linguistics classes. You can see readily enough that ash nazg must mean ‘one ring’, that a verb root plus –atul means the verb is done to ‘them’ and a verb root plus –atulûk means it is done to ‘them all’ (meaning –ûk must mean ‘all’, more or less). Other details that are known, though not inevitable from the text, are that burzum means ‘darkness’ and ishi is a postposition, and agh means ‘and’, and in –atul the –at is a verbal ending (meaning something like ‘to’) and –ul means ‘them’. Also, ash means ‘one’ and nazg means ‘ring’, not vice-versa (nothing in the sample itself makes that necessarily so).

So is nazgûl ‘ring them’? No, because of the difference between ul and ûl – the circumflex means it’s a long vowel (literally: hold it longer, just like you hold the /k/ in bookkeeper longer than the one in bookie). That makes it a different sound. Also, nazg isn’t a verb. Nazgûl is from nazg plus gûl, which means ‘wraith’. What’s a wraith? Kind of like a ghoul. Hmm.

Well, it is a constructed language. ‘Bind’ uses the root krimp, like English crimp, for instance. Whether Nazi influenced Tolkien’s invention of nazg here I don’t know (the Nazis did like Wagner’s Ring Cycle), but he was writing this in the 1940s.

What is a Nazgûl, then? A ring-wraith, yes, but what are those? Men who took up rings of power forged by Sauron, came under Sauron’s control, and, after Sauron lost the One Ring, were tasked with seeking it out mercilessly. If anyone was carrying it, and especially if anyone was wearing it, they could sense it, and they would swoop down with the aim of destroying the wearer and restoring the ring to its rightful condition. They descended as if from nowhere, uttering unbearable sounds.

I’m not saying that the parallel is exact. But consider: A person learns a set of tidy rules about English that give a sense of knowledge and control. They believe that in enforcing them they are serving the betterment of English and their own expression, but the rules become ends in themselves, and their enforcement an exercise in condemnation and destruction. They dedicate themselves to seeking out transgressions. A hapless person uses a bit of grammar that falls within their set of magical rules – or, rather, strays against it – and they swoop in as if from nowhere, making sounds terrible to the hearer.

Does that seem a bit of an extreme caricature? Not all that extreme. Look, I was one in my younger days, so I have some idea.

That does mean that, unlike a Nazgûl, one may always stop being one. Nonetheless grammar Nazgûl is at least as viable as any other similar term. And it has a good ring to it.