February 12, 2014
When I worked for international classical record labels, I was particularly alert to differences of English usage around the world, not only as a matter of courtesy and tact but in the interests of commerce. This consciousness also emerges in everyday conversation, since I live in a cosmopolitan community in which foreign languages are not the only source of verbal challenge, the majority of English-speakers that I encounter daily not being Americans. (My only English conversation yesterday was with a half-Greek, half-German woman who lives on a Spanish-governed island in the Mediterranean.)
Today, in writing an electronic message, I spoke of a recent event “on the Carrer de Verdi” — a street in Barcelona. But, since I was writing to an Englishman, I changed — considerately, I thought — “on the Carrer de Verdi” to “in the Carrer de Verdi.” As often happens in such situations, meditations and speculations on usage sprang up unbidden. Why, I thought, do we have this difference in British and American usage? Is it possibly because, in a town setting like that of, say, Oxford (the kind of place where standard usage may be assumed to have been established), entering into a comparatively narrow street is rather like entering into a sort of structure, albeit open to the sky. In a country initially and fundamentally rural, as the United States long were, it would feel absurd to speak of such-and-such farm, with structures set well back from the road, as being in a particular country road, any more than, nowadays, a certain shopping center would be in a six-lane highway. The same might even apply to American towns, where the streets tend to be wider than in Europe, except in the older, formerly colonial parts like Wall Street, where tall buildings create urban canyons. Even if my guess about the reason for the difference is wrong, I can’t say that I regret the fact that a single English monosyllable can set off such chains of speculation.
I’m also reminded that the distinction occurs in Anna Russell’s famous disquisition on Wagner’s Ring Cycle when she evokes laughter by speaking of the Rhine Maidens’ scene as opening not on the river, but in it. And, come to think of it, while I’m content to type this post in the Carrer de l’Illa de Cuba, no one lives in the actual island of Cuba, but on it. It’s an efficient language in which a single letter can make such a difference.
February 11, 2014
For many years, I was a great collector of dictionaries. Nowadays, I’m likely to be reading a newspaper on a train and be pleased that I can look up a word on my phone, or to be reading online and stay online to go to the appropriate dictionary. I’m particularly impressed with the dictionaries for the Catalan language, including this comprehensive one, which gives excellent OED-level definitions in Catalan when you simply write the word in the box on the upper left. But my newest favorite is the Diccionari de la Llengua Catalana Multilingüe, which gives the definition in Catalan, Castilian, English, French, and German. Why learn a new word in just one language when you can learn or review it in several? You can also enter a word in any of those languages and get full information concerning the use of its Catalan equivalent. (After you type in the word, you click the name of the language that the original word is in.)
Of course, a large selection of such dictionaries, as well as allied encyclopedias, can also be bought in big, sturdy hard copy. And if you go to this main page and enter a word in the search field, it will yield up references in various dictionaries and encyclopedias. (And, English speakers, keep in mind that, when it tells you that there are 1.978 entries for your word, the period in that number is equivalent to the comma in English-language usage, not a decimal point.)
February 5, 2014
A friend who did a Ph.D. degree in art history at Harvard told me about his first class, called simply Connoisseurship. It seems that the professor brought an object into the class and set it in front of them without comment. They were then to look at it and come to conclusions. Provenance. Meaning. Techniques. Quality. Lot of things came into play. Even authenticity, since the object was sometimes a forgery or copy. I’d think such skills would be useful to any person, even a CIA officer. But, Mr. Obama and many other people of the lawyer class don’t seem to see this.