or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Book Learning

One of my New Year's resolutions was to post every day in 2008. We see how far I got with that. I'd hate to post just for the sake of posting: I like everything to mean something.


I've always been a heavy-duty reader, and once upon a time--the time when I managed a bookstore--I didn't get audiobooks. Disdained them, in fact. They seemed geared to people who were too lazy to actually pick up and read a book--to people who needed everything done for them.

Now I get audiobooks, now that iPods are not only ubiquitous but, it seems, essential. When you're reading, you pretty much can't do anything else. When you're listening to an audiobook, you can do nearly anything, as long as it doesn't sap too much of your brain power. You can do housework, you can commute, you can knit...you get to squeeze more reading time into your day, and who couldn't use more of that?

I've listened to a few of the lecture series from The Teaching Company, and they sure are a mixed bag. Understanding the Fundamentals of Music is a great introduction to and explanation of the basics of music--concise, informative, detailed--but the instructor, Robert Greenberg, is so tiresome: he makes lame jokes and uses the expression "my friends" six or eight times per half-hour lecture (and that is much more tedious than it sounds, by which I mean that no matter how tedious it sounds, it's more so). He's like a really smart, pretentious uncle you'd call for help with your homework but never, ever want to have dinner with. His material is great; if only someone had helped him work on his presentation.

I couldn't even finish Seth Lerer's History of the English Language. There are plenty of interesting tidbits of information, but the overall effect is of leafing through an intermittently engaging textbook while a stranger is droning in your ear. By the time I got to Part 3, I had had enough: I staggered through lecture 25 or 26 and realized there was just no way I was going to make it through to the end.

But John McWhorter's Story of Human Language is tremendous. You ought to go buy it right now. It's on sale, for the moment, for $49.95 (regularly $199.95) and it is totally worth every cent (fifty bucks for eighteen hours, thirty-six half-hour lectures, is just over $2.75 an hour, which makes it cheaper than a movie and, with the general state of cinema these days, more entertaining). I am going to be borrowing so much stuff from it in the coming weeks! I want to invite Dr. McWhorter out for a coffee or a beer or something and just listen to him talk about things (he has to pay his own airfare, though). His lectures are casual and conversational, but informative and authoritative. (The schwa is a vowel sound that can be represented equally by any vowel and which sounds like none of them--like a little grunt in place of a proper vowel. The schwa sounds like the "a" in "along", the "e" in "bitten", the "i" in "expensive", the "o" in "ballot", the "u" in "hiccup", and the "y" in "beryl". It's just a short, completely unstressed "uh" sound--as you can see, it can only appear in an unstressed syllable--and it's actually the commonest vowel sound in the English language. In lecture 6, McWhorter describes it as a "muddy, crummy little sound", which is delightful.)

Seriously. It's so great. Just buy it.


I carry around little books to jot down notes and lists and such in, and as I was listening to the Story of Human Language on the bus this morning, I made a note: "Cackle -> Cack? Frequentative?"

In an early lecture, Professor McWhorter was talking about frequentatives, although for some reason he didn't call them by name. A frequentative is the difference between, as he mentions, "drip" and "dribble" or "nip" and "nibble"; the first in each of these pairs is a single action or a slowly paced series of actions, while the second is a quicker, more (yes) frequent version of the same action; it suggests not only repetition but rapid repetition. Most frequentatives in English end in "-le", but, as McWhorter and I both noted, we're not making them any more, at least not with that suffix; the ones we have are the only ones we're going to have in the foreseeable future.

So: is "cackle" the frequentative of "cack"? Well, not really, but as usual, it's a little more complicated than yes-or-no.

"Cack" has existed in English, but in a most limited usage; it's related to "caca", which sounds like baby talk but is actually related to Latin "cacare", "to defecate". It has nothing to do with cackling. That word is from one or another of the Germanic languages: possibly an old German word, "kakeln", with the same meaning, a word which is rather self-evidently onomatopoeic. However, there's also an old Dutch word, "kake", which meant "jaw", and there is a possibility (a slight one) that "cackle" is actually the frequentative of this word. More likely, though, we simply took "kakeln" from German, though it might have been influenced at one point or another by the Dutch word.

I've been looking for an excuse to use this last morsel, and I guess now's the time. The word "poppycock", which means "nonsense", is actually from a Dutch word, with the vowels, unsurprisingly, changed in English: the Dutch original is "pappekak", which means, literally, "pappy (pap-like, or soft and smeary) cack"; "soft shit", in other words. Do the manufacturers of the popcorn snack by that name know about this?


Blogger Frank said...

Dr. McWhorter is a thoroughly captivating speaker. I've watched him on TV talking about his books (some on language, some on race, some on language AND race; if you really liked his lectures, you might want to check them out) and been enthralled every time.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008 9:37:00 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Dr. McWhorter is a thoroughly captivating speaker. I've watched him on TV talking about his books (some on language, some on race, some on language AND race; if you really liked his lectures, you might want to check them out) and been enthralled every time.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008 9:37:00 PM  
Blogger Doug van Orsow said...

Great candid thoughts on the TeachCo lecturers! But Dr. Greenberg has better courses that the one you've viewed. He really is the heart and soul of the Teaching Company, especially his courses from ten years ago.

The History of the English language course can be overwhelming, so I can see why you dropped it.

But McWhorter has that element of entertainment that keeps ones attention span long enough before falling asleep. I only wish he would produce an encore or two.

You may find my Teaching Company user forum helpful, where I review all lectures in their new courses:


Hey, its a way of life!


Doug van Orsow
forum administrator

Tuesday, January 08, 2008 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

After doing a little research on McWhorter, I discovered that I had, in fact, seen him before: he's been in a couple of episodes of Penn & Teller's Bullshit! (which kind of hit the skids in the fourth season, if you ask me). Once I finish the TTC course, and I have no doubt the whole thing will be as engaging as the first six lectures, I suppose I'll have to buy a couple of McWhorter's books. "The Power of Babel" looks particularly good--like a written version of the course, only more so.

The trouble with Dr. Greenberg's course is that I just don't like his teaching style. There's no doubt that he knows just what he's talking about. In fact, I was first introduced to TTC when I borrowed Greenberg's "Bach and the High Baroque" from a music-loving friend. I ended up skipping some of it, eventually jumping to the end of the course, which is all about the Goldberg Variations and is fantastic; such an informative discussion of a piece of music I've loved for so many years. I listened to the entirety of "Fundamentals of Music", but it was a struggle in places, because there's something grating about Greenberg's style. I just wish I didn't find it so off-putting, because there are few of his lectures that sound really interesting.

As for "History of the English Langauge", it's not that it was overwhelming: it was a combination of not really liking Lerer's style, either (apparently I am a very particular student), and finding the material sort of draggy into the third part. Some of the reason is that the third section is almost entirely about American English, which is a subject I don't find especially interesting, being Canadian: I'd rather he had devoted a series of lectures to various Englishes (Caribbean, Newfoundland, Irish/Welsh/Scots, pidgins and creoles, and so forth), because it's not all about America all the time. At least not to me.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008 9:32:00 AM  
Blogger Thiltetu said...

I've got Power of Babel sitting on my bookshelf, and it's quite good- he explains many of the forces behind language changes, language death, etc., and uses varied examples to demonstrate his points.

Saturday, January 12, 2008 3:03:00 AM  

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