A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: September 2017

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.)

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