A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Tolkien meets the Oulipo

An Epitome of the Idiosophical method

(The core of Idiosophy is that the idiosopher can be misinformed and incorrect at every step in a logical process, and still arrive at a meaningful conclusion.) Our starting point is an earlier post, on which Tom commented, wondering what the “Ents’ Marching Song” would sound like in Latin.

1. The riposte humorous:  Hexameters! Longfellowish sprawling hexameters.

2. Noticing a flaw in the joke: Wait, no. Archy the cockroach liked hexameters because he had six feet. Ents all have two feet.

3. Transfiguration: But ents have lots of toes. Ent-latin should have big feet with lots of syllables.

4. Observation: They do. The first line is definitely one long foot. I suppose it’s possible to argue that the second line is a jumble of small troches and dactyls, or maybe iambs and anapests with stray syllables at either end, but that’s not how I hear it.

In the willow-meads of Tasarinan I walked in the spring.
Ah, the sight and the smell of the spring in Nan-Tasarion!

LotR, III, iv

5. Following the thought wherever: How could we construct a sound-pattern for big feet that makes them into poetry? Alliteration is matching the sound at the beginning of the foot. Rhyme is matching the sound at the end. If we’re just using iambs and troches, rhyme and alliteration are our only choices. With big feet, though, we have the possibility of matching sounds elsewhere. That would be a novel poetic structure!  Dactyls have three syllables. Can we match the middle consonant?

6. Noticing that someone smarter is ‘way ahead of me:  “Errantry” has lots of that kind of central sound-match. It’s neither rhyme nor alliteration, but my ears enjoy it the same way.

he built a gilded gondola
to wander in and had in her
a load of yellow oranges
and porridge for his provender…

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 3.

7. The unexpected arrival:  J.R.R. Tolkien was a Modernist writer, and “the most striking element of modernist poetry is the invention and experimentation of new modes of expression.” This is what my heroes in the Oulipo are interested in, too.  This is derived from a root as mathematical as any of their self-imposed constraints.

Up at the top of the page, I promised a meaningful conclusion.  Coincidentally, Dimitra Fimi just published an essay in the Times Literary Supplement about world-building.  She points out that writing speculative fiction is about creating a different set of rules from those we see in the world around us, and writing your story in strict adherence to those rules.  But, she says, that’s exactly what the Oulipians do, except they’re doing it at the level of the text, while fantasy and science-fiction writers do it at the level of the story. So it’s entirely reasonable that JRRT was doing this on purpose,working on both levels at once.

Hazards of French Châteaux

Alan Coren (1938-2007) wrote some of the funniest things I’ve ever read.  I first encountered him when my mother went on vacation to England and brought me back a copy of an issue of Punch as a souvenir.  That magazine is awfully moldy and tattered now, but Coren’s column is still legible.

I’ve bought every book by Alan Coren that I’ve been able to find, over the years.  That includes a copy of Golfing for Cats that was never published in the USA; I found it in an antiques store in Palm Springs.  None of them contains the article that introduced me to Coren.  Some entrepreneurs have acquired the Punch archives, but they’re only interested in selling the cartoons.

So I’ve rescued “And a Gray Dawn Breaking…” here, under the “20th Century Paleography” rubric.

We are totally somethinged

A blog post I read was lamenting the current state of the world. The author discreetly summed up, “We are totally s—-ed.” The dictionary built into my Unix operating system informs me that there are 130 English words that fit that pattern.


Some of the words were unexpected; they were familiar words that I didn’t think of as fitting that pattern.  Some of the words I’d never heard before (“savoy” is a verb?!). There was an impressive list of 25 words the author might have actually meant (some more probably than others). Most of them, of course, are just past participles of ordinary verbs.

Unexpected New to me
samoyed semiped seaweed seedbed sexiped sickbed soliped succeed sunweed salited savoyed sweered sheered stonied
He could’ve meant Ordinary Participles
sabered saboted scabbed scalded scalled scraped screwed scuffed scarred scorned scummed sewered shabbed shafted shagged shammed sharded shanked skinned sludged slugged smeared slashed slabbed snubbed saddled sainted satined savored scarfed scarved scented scooped scoured sepaled serried settled sharded shawled sheaved shedded sheeted shelled shipped shotted sickled sighted sinewed singled siruped skeered skidded skilled skimmed skulled skirted slacked slatted sleaved sledded sleeved slipped slitted slopped slotted smelled smudged smutted snagged snapped snooded snouted sparked sparred spasmed spathed spatted spavied specked spiffed spitted splayed spoiled sponged spotted spurred squared staffed staired stalked stapled starred starved statued stealed stemmed stepped sterned sticked stilted stinted stooded stopped storied straked striped strived stubbed studied stuffed stunted subdued sugared sweated swelled swooned syruped

Multilingual Ents

The twitterati were discussing Ents in foreign languages yesterday. The marching song of the Ents is so primitive, so devoid of nuance, that it’s got to be fun for a translator to work on. “We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door.” In my French translation, they don’t usually worry about rhythm in their translations of the poems (that’s not a French thing to do) but this time they couldn’t resist: “Nous allons, nous allons, nous allons en guerre, pourfendre la porte et briser la pierre!” It’s a literal translation, which insists that we put the accent on the “al”s and turns out to be amphibrachic meter. Now, if you know anything about French poetry, that’s about as likely as Dr. Seuss writing a rondeau. Somehow it seems to go with Rohan, but it’s too light-footed for Ents.

Olga gave us two Russian versions. One is prosaic: “Мы смерть несём за шагом шаг.” I like this. Literally it’s “we’re bringing destruction, step by step.” It’s not entirely prosaic, I must point out: “shagum shag” is a nice onomatopoiea for the sound I’d make if every step I took required pulling a root out of the ground. The poetic version, though, is amazing: “Идём-грядём, судьбу несём.” I translate that as, “We go, we’re climbing the ridge, we’re bringing doom.” Let me try to give an impression of the sound. That “ë” is pronounced “yo”, and I can’t resist putting the stress on those. “idYOM, gradYOM, sud’bu nesYOM”. That’s heavy. That’s twenty tons of oak talking. It goes really well with “hoom” and “hom”, which Treebeard uses either as interjections or as punctuation. Massive kudos to the translator. JRRT cared about the sound of his writing as much as anything. I think he’d have liked this verse, based on a line in Letter #142: “the time I once spent on trying to learn Serbian and Russian ha[s] left me with no practical results, only a strong impression of the structure and word-aesthetic.”


I went looking around the Web for a basso aria from a Russian opera to illustrate this post. Bozhemoi, what a downer! Pro tip: don’t do that without professional assistance.  Russian composers are some of the most depressed people on earth, and nothing good has happened to characters sung by basses since the Baroque. The death of Don Quixote at the burning of his library isn’t even the worst one I found.  To anyone who would undertake a similar quest, I recommend that you wait for a sunny day, get a Prozac prescription, surround yourself with friends and loved ones, put a newly-adopted kitten in your lap, and only then start listening to the results of a web search for Russian basso arias.

Echoes of Númenór

Akallabêth tells us there were three languages in use in Númenór:

For though this people used still their own speech, their kings and lords knew and spoke also the Elven tongue, which they had learned in the days of their alliance, and thus they held converse still with the Eldar, whether of Eresséa or of the westlands of Middle—earth. And the loremasters among them learned also the High Eldarin tongue of the Blessed Realm, in which much story and song was preserved from the be inning of the world; and they made letters and scrolls and books, and wrote in them many things of wisdom and wonder in the high tide of their realm, of which all is now forgot.

Alan and Shawn at the Prancing Pony Podcast reminded me of this. Languages are parallel between Númenór and medieval England:

Númenór England
Common people Adunaic Anglo-Saxon
Aristocracy Sindarin French
Scholars Quenya Latin

This Númenórean social divide persisted all the way through the Third Age, and it shows up in the way Gondorians talk. Let’s look at two words for strong fighting men, both of which make teenage boys snicker: “doughty” and “puissant”.

‘Happily your Caradhras has forgotten that you have Men with you,’ said Boromir, who came up at that moment. ‘And doughty Men too, if I may say it; though lesser men with spades might have served you better.’” The common folk of Minas Tirith hear rumors that “When the Riders came from Rohan, each would bring behind him a halfling warrior, small maybe, but doughty.” Grimbold of Rohan gets that adjective, as would many warriors of the Rohirrim. Frodo describes the Rangers of Ithilien as doughty, and he’s being polite. “Doughty” is a good Anglo-Saxon word, meaning “the guy who gits ‘er done.”  It’s appropriate for Rohirrim, hobbits, and other such plebs.  Boromir, despite being of a noble family, has a strong mixture of base blood, so he uses it to refer to himself and Aragorn.

But the blood of Westernesse runs “nearly true” in Faramir, and when Tolkien says that about him, he means the blood of the Númenóreans who escaped to Middle Earth at the last minute: the Faithful; all from the aristocracy. Now listen to Faramir talking to Éowyn: “You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant…” The word “doughty” is gone, replaced by its French synonym.  Faramir is an expert rhetorician — putting some social distance between his target and his rival is a nice move — though perhaps only a professor of philology would expect such a maneuver to work in that context.

More than three thousand years later, the social-linguistic fracture lines endure in Gondor. And Denethor at least was proud of it.  Florence doesn’t seem so bad any more.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

I’m playing with graphs again. Here’s a picture of my net-neighborhood out to two steps, i.e., the sites on my blogroll and the sites on their blogrolls.

graph of blog links

Web Neighborhood

The funniest thing about this graph is that, despite the fact that it was designed to be my neighborhood, Idiosophy isn’t in the center.  Olga’s Middle Earth Reflections is. (Fair enough; her blog has more than a thousand followers.) Science teaches humility, along with everything else.

Nobody else is interested in economics, so Grasping Reality is ‘way over in the corner. The rest of the network is easier to read if I cut that one link.

Zooming in on the non-economic network

J.R.R. Tolkien brings together some diverse parts of the world. There are priests and theologians along the south, language-inventors up in the northwest corner, medievalists in the northeast, and a little knot of modernists on the east side.  Nobody who knows Tolkien’s curriculum vitae would be surprised to see that list (except perhaps for the economists and the physicist), but if there’s anything else in life that connects these communities, it doesn’t come immediately to mind.

Technical note

Drawing these graphs took ten minutes.  The tools you can download freely from the Web are amazing.  This was made by the “igraph” package in R.  To make these plots, I used an algorithm that simulates a simplified physical system to place the nodes. It puts an electric charge on the nodes, so they want to be separated and legible. Then it pretends the links are rubber bands, so inter-linked nodes are pulled tighter together.  I learned how to do this from an excellent tutorial by Katherine Ognyanova. (Who must be one of us; she posted the etymology of her name on her blog. I wonder if she’s related to the Vedic fire-god Agni.)

Twitter Voices

I have just listened to two podcasts by people whom I know only from Twitter.

Elaine Treharne spoke with a Stanford University podcast on Anglo-Saxon literature, as I mentioned the other day. Sarah E. Bond talked to the New Books Network about Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean, her study of professions that were excluded from polite society in Ancient Rome. (Seriously, U.Mich. Press? $80?)

Prof Treharne’s voice sounded just like I expected. Prof. Bond’s was a surprise. She sounded like my sister. In retrospect this makes sense; she grew up just a bit down the road. But why my different reaction? Why do I have an expectation of the sound of someone’s voice from reading their tweets?

After careful examination (the unexamined Twitter feed is not worth following), I have come to the conclusion that I hear all tweets by women as if they were read by Kathleen Turner.

Prof. Treharne’s voice is similarly pitched, with allowances made for her outre-Atlantique accent, and therefore sounded right to me.

This post is of no importance to anyone.

Anglo-Saxons Weren’t Cynics

Elaine Treharne of Stanford University did a podcast interview recently. She gives a beautiful reading of the poem that she does not want to call “Wulf and Eadwacer” because it’s not really about those two guys. It’s about the woman who narrates it.

Titles are a problem in other ways, too.  The podcast is unfortunately entitled “Reading After Trump”, as if the current president of the USA were in some way responsible for the thirty-year assault on the humanities, rather than just collecting its foul harvest. But let’s pass that by.

The interviewer asked an interesting question: What have we lost, that the Anglo-Saxons of a thousand years ago knew? Prof. Treharne’s response was “hope”, which I think any scholar of Tolkien would applaud. She contrasts that with the cynicism of our modern age. She finds no trace of anything like it in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. That got me wondering about cynicism. Whence does it come? The Bosworth-Toller dictionary contains nothing about cynics. 

Looking at the reasons for cynicism, it’s easy to see why it’s a relatively recent development. I studied with expert cynics in my youth, who taught me what to look for:

A government official who takes an oath of office, which he immediately abandons in favor of handing out money to his supporters. This doesn’t apply at all.  An Anglo-Saxon expected this of his king. Any king who didn’t do that would get ditched for one who would. They would even flatter a king by calling him goldwine, “gold-friend”. There’s no ground for cynicism here.

A boss who’s several levels of management above me is clueless about what’s really happening, and will make foolish decisions because of his exalted distance. Not generally a factor, because the medieval orders were clearly distinct. The baron to whom I and my ox reported was the highest official who concerned himself with my job. The king was forbidden by custom to care how I did my job, just as I didn’t care how he did his. (Notwithstanding the continental practice of giving Charlemagne credit for figuring out how to grow wine grapes in Germany.) Cynical gossip around the village well wouldn’t happen as a result.

Advertisers who lie to me to get money from me. Not a factor, either. The Anglo-Saxon economy was largely based on gift-exchange. That’s an economics term; it doesn’t mean festive wrapping paper and bows. It means you’re dealing with people you know so they’ll give you seeds in the spring because you will still be around at harvest time to pay them back in the fall. Anglo-Saxon peasants worked that way because they didn’t have much money. (OK, this is disputed, but generally all the cash money got siphoned off as Danegeld.) In fact, one purpose of money is to make it possible to have economic interactions with people whom you do not trust. Kings have to do that all the time, but the general public did not. Money and cynicism go hand in hand. Without the former, it’s not surprising that we don’t see the latter.

People who pretend to love me to get their hands on something of mine. This seems like it should have been possible in a medieval society, even before they had French people running things. In fact, it’s possible that the narrator of “Wulf and Eadwacer” is running a scam like that.  This is the one solid case where I’d expect to see hope failing and cynicism prevailing.

So of the top four reasons to be cynical, I find three that don’t apply to Anglo-Saxon England, but one that definitely does.  The fact that we don’t see a cynical reaction to that last is some pretty solid evidence for Prof. Treharne’s idea.

Skin Color in Roman Britain

There has been quite a stink over the past few weeks about what color skin the Romans in Britain had.  The BBC put a dark-skinned Roman official in a children’s cartoon history program, and the denizens of social media were off to the races. [1] Mary Beard and Neville Morley picked up the standard for the classicists. Among the alt-right antagonists was the pop market-analyst N.N. Taleb, who got famous for coining the term “Black Swan”, but seems not to have the chops to back up his reputation. The noise from the racists got so loud that the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge felt obliged to weigh in. This is kind of amazing to me. I was sure everyone knew that the Roman Empire stretched well into Africa and Asia.  They even had an emperor called “Philip the Arab“, for crying out loud!  When the Roman generals chose troops to occupy a far-flung province, prudence dictated that their preferred troops not have any language in common with the subject population except Latin.  So claiming that the Romans in Britain were all light-skinned seems unsupportable.

But let’s see what they’re saying.  As nearly as the the alt-right are willing to be understood, they’re basing their objections on a map of genetic markers in the current British population.  A 2015 study of the fine-scale genetic structure of the UK doesn’t show much sign of African genes.  They think this “hard science” is much more important evidence than squishy, historically-based evidence, even when the historians have eyewitness accounts.  The Guardian article I linked at the top lists some good reasons why genetic surveys might not be the best evidence for claims about ethnicity 2,000 years ago.

I’d like to add another reason:  There resemblance between the genetic survey’s clusters and the patterns of family names in the UK is not strong. Leslie et al. tracked autosomal DNA, not mitochondrial, so there should be strong parallels.  Surnames and genes are inherited from the same ancestors, after all. A map from the Nature article looks like this:

Leslie et al. map of clusters

Clusters of genetic similarity.

In the course of tracking down hobbits, I found the work of James Cheshire and his collaborators,  which shows a strong relationship  between clusters of family names in the UK and the cultural/administrative regions of the country.  Here’s a map published by Cheshire, Longley, and Singleton in 2010.

Clusters of family names

There are some general resemblances. The big homogeneous blob in the East and South East is there, though family names don’t let it extend all the way to Northumberland.  I can see hints in the light-blue smear in the North West and the purple smear in the southern West Midlands. Below the coarsest level, though, the two distributions do not resemble each other very well.  In particular, the genetics suggests that the people of Pembrokeshire (the southern peninsula of Wales) are affiliated with the Scotch-Irish borderlanders.  Family names suggest they’re more like the West Midlanders.  And if there’s a family resemblance between Yorkshiremen and Cornishmen, it doesn’t show up in their names.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the genetics is pointing us in a common direction with external markers of family ties. There really is something there, and a salute to the geneticists who have managed to tease it out. However, the signals are accompanied by a lot of noise.  We can’t yet use genetic evidence with any precision.  When we have a person standing next to an Ethiopian legionary on Hadrian’s Wall and writing about it, it would be foolish to try to contradict him with our rudimentary genetic surveys.

Post-scriptum: I really enjoyed the line, “History is written by the winners; genetics is written by the masses.”

[1] Sorry.

All that is gold does not glitter

Over on Facebook, Arthur Harrow raises a point of logic:

“all that is gold does not glitter” means “nothing that is gold glitters” like the difference between “all refrigerators are not Frigidaires” and “not all refrigerators are Frigidaires.” It seems to me that JRRT would know the proper grammar; do you think there is significance to this?

The common proverb, of course, is “all that glitters is not gold”, which is a useful thing to remember.  Tolkien twists it around for his narrative purposes.  But I have learned that he thought about the roots of words as much as he thought about their current meanings, so I think this is JRRT having some fun with etymology. According to my go-to source on the Web,

c. 1300, glideren (late 14c. as gliteren), from an unrecorded Old English word or from a Scandinavian source such as Old Norse glitra “to glitter,” from Proto-Germanic *glit- “shining, bright” (source also of Old English glitenian “to glitter, shine; be distinguished,” Old High German glizzan, German glitzern, Gothic glitmunjan), from PIE *ghleid- (source also of Greek khlidon, khlidos “ornament”), from root *ghel- (2) “to shine,” with derivatives referring to bright materials and gold. … Other Middle English words for “to glitter” include glasteren and glateren.

Etymologically, everything that is gold glitters, by definition.

gold ring on black background

Does not glitter

But if we look at a modern dictionary, “glitter” means “sparkle”. The stuff that people throw around to celebrate is called glitter because of light sparkling off its cut edges, not because of the metallic sheen of the plastic it’s made from. The old meaning of shining like gold has passed over to “gleam”.

So, apart from its purpose in the story, “all that is gold does not glitter” is using the precise logical meaning that Arthur identified to make a wry comment on a change in the English language.

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