Sunday, October 15, 2017

Rorschach Philology

Six years ago, Fox News (and imitators) ran a most ill-founded story in a genre that we may term Allah-sightings.

The underbelly of a plane was streaked, thus:

Mene, mene, tekel  upharsin

Omigosh!  Arabic writing!  Terrorists on the tarmac!  How did they get access to the airplane!!  At whom shall we point the finger of blame!!!
BLUF:  Bogus.  The streaks on the airplane are not writing of any sort, let alone a terrorist message in Arabic.  (Our post on the matter, and on the underlying problem of the semiotic ambiguity of abstract images, can be viewed  here.)

Later, someone imagined that, by tilting your head a certain way, a decorative swipe on a certain brand of sneakers looked rather like … you guessed it,  “Allah”.  Only this time, it hadn’t been placed there by jihadis;  rather, by Islamophobes, since shoes are well-known to be held in low esteem in circum-Mediterranean Islamic lands.  Hullabaloo on social media.  Fortunately that story died before it could become a staple of the jihadi media, else we might have faced further killings such as those that followed the Danish-cartoons scandal.
Here you can read about that episode:

Again:  Bogus. Judge for yourself:

And now we are being told, by such gullible outlets as the BBC and the New York Times, that (in the words of the headline in National Geographic),

    Viking Funeral Clothes Reveal Surprising Arabic Lettering

Namely, once again, that ubiquitous "Allah".  Along with (as a bonus) "Ali", another simple graph that is little more than an extended swoop.
The proper response to such a claim (by a Swedish “textile archaeologist”, not a linguist) is to present the evidence, and weigh it.  But that would be merely one step in the arduous progress of empirical science.  Instead, to pump up their headlines, the media assume the truth of that unproven assertion, reporting the claims in factive mood, as “Why Are These Viking Burial Clothes Inscribed with Arabic Script? “(History) and “Why did Vikings have 'Allah' embroidered into funeral clothes?” (BBC).   At the same level:  Has Eric the Red stopped beating his wife?

What is really going on this that the clothing is decorated with an abstract geometrical blocky design, part of which reminded the textile specialist of something she’d seen somewhere in Arabic script -- specifically, the early variety known as Kufic script -- or rather, a decorative blocky variant of Kufic. 

Now, it is unquestionably the case that Arabic scripts have been used for calligraphy, typically depicting brief Koranic quotations.   Great ingenuity was devoted to some of these, so that the results  in some cases  resembled those Hispanic-American “tags” which only the initiated could make any sense of, or the similarly cryptic Hippie-era posters for San Francisco rock concerts.

Poster for a SF Shiite mosque
known as the “Fillmore West”.
Notice the “Allah” hidden in the picture.

The fabric pattern in question, however, is extremely simple, and likely merely generic.  Thus:

For an example of genuine Kufic-block-script-(influenced) design, cf. this:

And sure, if you select a bit here and a bit there, there is a sort of resemblance -- as there could hardly fail to be in sketches so schematic.  Actually, even at that, the match is not close, so that the Swedes conceded that, to read the thing as “Allah”, you had to read it in a mirror.   Which would seem to be a sort of Black-Mass version of the holy name, like Satanists chanting the Credo backwards.  Hardly evidence of Islamic influence.

(For many examples of  subjectively-similar or suggestive designs, simply google-image "fret motifs".  You will find  to your surprise  that Islamic influence extended even to the Aztecs and the ancient Greeks!)

[Note btw, that that serious-looking graphic with the mirror and all, is by no means a photo of any part of the actual tattered garments.  Rather, it is an idealization of a piece of the garment, which then in turn is given subjective interpretation.  Thus, there are actually two layers of "Rorschach" here.]

Medieval Islamic abstract decorative designs, whether linguistic-influenced or not, are quite lovely, and have been influential in many sister cultures.    As to whether these Viking funeral garments were directly or indirectly influenced by these, I can have no opinion, not being an art historian.   
Certainly it is within the bounds of historical possibility that there was contact, since the Vikings were great seafarers, and the Arabs  great wayfarers; they intersected, in particular, during the time of the Moors in Spain.  (Raid on Seville, 844 A.D.)
But as a student of linguistic sociology, I detect a few clues as to why, despite but a slender stalk of empirical support, this story has legs.  By the same NY Times reporter  (though in this case, she is rather more guarded, having run her rough-draft past some skeptics)  came this recent article:

[Note:  In the PC Guardian's  article,

in a picture purporting to show a "re-enactment" of Viking combat, the only warrior with face visible is ... a woman.]

And, even more telling, this spin

(Someone bring Steve Bannon his smelling-salts.)

The pattern of journalistic dots, though as sketchy of those on the Viking garments, at least suggests why so empirically underbuttressed a claim  would be embraced for a comforting narrative.

[Footnote for the Arabic-literate]  Even with that mirror-image sleight of hand, there isn’t really a match.  The Viking design shows three horizontal strokes, all of them connected; whereas in Arabic, the initial alif is non-connecting.  And the blob that struck the Swedes as resembling the final hā’  of Allāh  would be upside-down.  So, if the design had been intended to spell Allah, it was a (double) misspelling, and thus blasphemous.

Seeing Allāh in that clothing  is like spotting Orion in a skyful of stars.   And from there to such gormless headlines as “Were some Vikings Muslim?” (National Post), and even speculations as to whether they were indeed Shiites (based upon another supposed sighting of the simple design for "Ali"), is like concluding that the skies proclaim the truth of the Olympic religion.

For a wide-ranging survey of Arabic language and stylistics, check out this:

[Footnote 19 October 2017]  A day or so after this post went up, another Arabist went up on Twitter to scoff at the Swedish claims, making some of the same points (e.g. about non-connecting alif), but adding a new one based on timelines.  For, whereas Kufic script is ancient, the subvariety of ‘square’ or blocky Kufic, supposedly postdates the Vikings’ floruit by centuries.
A nice idea, but there’s a hitch.  For, the design was constrained by medium in which it was worked (whether made by Vikings, or merely captured by them), a thin strip of stiff fabric:  the weave imposes its own rectilinear preferences.   Just as Babylonian clay tablets virtually dictated the geometry of cuneiform, so this hem would itself bring forth or invent `square Kufic’, pour les besoins de la cause, independent of any prior existence of the style  or imitation thereof.

[Sociopolitical footnote]  It is perhaps no accident that this fond fantasy was emitted out of Sweden.  As is well known, that nation has, in recent years, been wondering whether it has perhaps bitten off rather more than it can chew, so far as imported demographics.  However, it has long been politically impermissible in Sweden to remark publically on the elephant in the room.  So the sparring goes on  in code  and behind cover.] 

Who knew that Vikings were so controversial?  For a quite aggrieved-sounding feminist article from that same reliable Guardian, try this:

That article's headline is conclusively proven by a passage in the Protocols of the Elders of Patriarchy, where historians of old were caught bwa-ha-ha'ing as they inked out all such records.


Appendix on Steganography

A genuine case of a name hidden in designs, is that of the stellar cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, who used to work-in the name of his daughter  NINA (all-caps), in drawing after drawing.  Here is one with the hidden items highlighted:

Notice that, as was the case with the Arabic spelling of Allah and `Ali, the ease with which the name Nina can be secreted away as part of a larger design, is dependent on its simple form;  if his daughter’s name had been Murgatroyd, Hirschfeld would have been out of luck.

After signing his name in a lower corner, he would usually append a small Arabic (Arabic!) numeral, showing the number of times the name was hidden in that particular drawing.  Here, for example, in a (rather cruel) portrait of Katherine Hepburn, we are challenged to find three occurrences:


And in this tour de force, the name “NINA” appears no fewer than thirteen thousand times.:


Can you spot them all?  Set aside the rest of your life, full-time, to accomplish this necessary task.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Lost Lyric of Langston Hughes

[Found among his papers at his death, and published here  for the first time.]

Either Way

So some of them’s easy,  and some of them’s hard;
this day’s  one of the latter.
But Time goes rolling, and Time glides by;
in Time, it does not matter.

I’ll find me a boxcar heading West,
and I will ride that train.
And if I find that the past was best,
I’ll just roll East again.

Now some folks like life sunnyside-up;
for some, things wind up scrambled.
Me I been rich, poor, blissful, and blue,
everywhere I’ve rambled.

[For an appreciation of this most American of poets, try this.]

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Deeper Meaning of Columbus Day

As we do each year at this time, while the wheels of governance lie briefly idle, and ochre and russet creep into the leaf,
the lawnmowers having fallen silent,  the rakes not yet out of the shed,
we offer this classic essay on the discovery of America.

Certain people -- cranks, for the most part, after the fashion of Baconists -- strenuously maintain that the American continents were discovered well before Columbus.   And after extensive researches into ancient evidence, abetted by the most advanced techniques of modern science, we must concur to this extent:  The discovery happened a very very long time ago;  and it was made by none other than penguins.

Thoughts for Columbus Day
[Originally posted Monday, October 10, 2011]

Scene: The Earth.  Time: The last glaciation.

It was cold. -- How cold?

Cold enough for the seas to descend, or to freeze to solidity; so that feet might pass the Bering Strait, leaving the tired old world  for the undiscovered new.
And such was the route (so historians tell it) by which the New World was first peopled. 

And yet these scholars neglect one simple fact:  It was so d*mned cold, so effing cold, that, any normal person, it’d freeze his f***ing b*lls off.
Which leads, by simple syllogism, to the novel yet suddenly irrefragable fact:  Who passed the Strait on that fateful day, were no men as we now know them, but such Beings as scoff, as laugh at ice -- their laughter bell-like in the  frigid air.  And so we are forced to this startling, yet eminently logical conclusion: (I anticipate a Nobel, or at least a MacArthur, for noticing this): Native Americans are the lineal descendents of penguins.
            The contentious might object, that the migration route of the Amerindians went via the northern polar regions, whereas the penguins of today inhabit Antarctica, somewhat to the south. The objection may, however, be overcome, via – mm – symmetry considerations.

            To be sure, a people which could eventually settle in MesoAmerica and the Caribbean  must have lost, over time, their original solid penguinity, much as salamanders, long confined to subterranean caves, in time may lose their eyes; thus leading to the present-day American anthropoid fauna's sadly decayed state.  And this, no doubt, by the same Mendelian-chromosomal processes which originally led to their distant ancestors, beginning from humble vertebrate beginnings, to attain that exalted, richly feathered, impeccably streamlined  pinguinal state. (I invite the lab lackeys to iron out the details.)



So, a bit of merriment for the long-weekend.  But the holiday indeed is increasingly under attack, from the professionally offended.  The calendar on our kitchen wall (a freebie some corporation sent to my wife) is so politically correct, that it does not list Columbus Day, even though it’s a federal holiday.   But I mean -- that’s the kind of information that calendars are for;  that’s their point.   Even if you personally don’t have that day off, and couldn’t care less about the holiday, you still might like to know that there won’t be any mail delivery or pick-up on Monday.  
Latest twist:  The speaker of the New York City Council, no less, one Melissa Hypthenated-Surname Whatever, is demanding that the statue of Columbus be removed from … Columbus Circle.  (She has not yet weighed in on whether Columbia University should be renamed, or simply destroyed.)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Name of the Day: “Henery”

Back in 1965, when I still listened to the blandly homogenized pop medium known as Top 40 radio, a song soared onto the charts  that didn’t fit the rock & roll mold at all, and seemed to come from another world:  “I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am”.  It was harmless, charming, catchy.   Once ever you heard it, you could never forget it:

    I'm 'Enery the Eighth, I am,
    'Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
    I got married to the widow next door,
    She's been married seven times before
    And every one was an 'Enery
    She wouldn't have a Willie nor a Sam
    I'm her eighth old man named 'Enery
    'Enery the Eighth, I am!

Wikipedia (that fount of all that is good and true) provides the surprising background.  It is a British music-hall song dating back to as early as 1910 -- few indeed were the ditties of such venerable vintage that made it onto the pop playlists.  And yet -- scarcely to be credited:

In 1965, it became the fastest-selling song in history to that point when it was revived by Herman's Hermits.


What revived that memory  was a passage in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), referring to a simple workman of rural southwest England:

He always signed his name "Henery"—strenuously insisting upon that spelling, and if any passing schoolmaster ventured to remark that the second "e" was superfluous and old-fashioned, he received the reply that "H-e-n-e-r-y" was the name he was christened and the name he would stick to—in the tone of one to whom orthographical differences were matters which had a great deal to do with personal character. 

As kids, exposed to the ditty, we made no philological hypotheses concerning the trisyllabic name -- just something silly, metri causâ, we supposed.  But Hardy’s witness demonstrates that the pronunciation is time-honored among the English popular classes.
Yea indeed, still further up the scale:  for the regal name of Henry is trisyllabic in Shakespeare.

The medial schwa is not etymological, but the product of popular epenthesis (or anaptyxis, if you insist), like the pronunciation “ellum” for elm, or the by-form alarum from alarm.

Psycho-literary afternote:
This serial connubium, relentlessly running through no fewer than eight grooms, might be seen as a feminine revenge -- a payback with interest --  against the original polynubial King Henry, who actually limited himself to half a dozen.

"N-n-ex-x-x-t !!"

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Of Dullards and Dotards

“Rocket-Man versus The Dotard”:  it sounds like one of those wrestling events that The Donald used to impresario.   And it has elevated the fine old word dotard, which goes back as far as Chaucer,  into the flickering limelight of public attention.  To explain the word  were needless, as there is a nice summary here:

Note:  The word is sounded with a long "o":  DOTE-erd, almost rhyming with goat-herd.  Likewise the related word meaning 'senility', dotage.

But what younger readers may not realize (younger, that is, than four hundred years)  is that such spicy language on the public stage  is by no means an innovation.  For centuries, it has been the practice of controversialists   to belabor their opponents with colorful and inventive epithets.   Shakespeare’s plays well illustrate this.   Yet such slanging was not the province merely of playwrights and pamphleteers:  so sober a figure as Sir Thomas More, early sixteenth-century author and statesman (and ultimately martyr), and the subject of adulatory treatment in “A Man for All Seasons”,  whom no less than C. S. Lewis declared "a man before whom  the best of us must stand uncovered",  was a master of the genre.  His writings

… are by no means free from the scurrility which is characteristic of that age of controversy.  His opponents are “swine”, “hell-hounds that the devil hath in his kennel”, “apes that dance for the pleasure of Lucifer”, and so on.
-- The Cambridge History of English Literature, volume III: Renascence and Reformation (1908), p. 17.

Apes that dance, while Satan applauds!  If only Kim the Lesser had thought of that one!

As it is, this recent use of dotard  likely tumbled out of some old-fashioned Korean-English dictionary, rather than springing from the pen of any antiquarian Pyongyang polemicist.   Nonetheless, we applaud the momentary return to the scene, of this roguish old tatterdemalion vocable.


Despite the hoopla, dotard isn’t really so rara an avis as all that;  it should be familiar to anyone well-read.   Much more puzzling to American readers was the word wazzock, deployed back in 2012  against then-Presidential-candidate Mitt the Twit (to use another Britishism) after his lamentable junket to England.  You can read all about the word, and the episode, here:

     Word of the Day: “Wazzock”

And, for more on the variegated vocabulary of our present POTUS, this:


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Autumnal Equinox

All summer long  we lay at ease
adrift  amid  the daffodils;
by dawn refreshed, and evening breeze,
the while  the Sun  the sky-dome fills.

Yet now behold,  the face of Day
confronted is  with that of Night.
And each upholds  its war-array:
there, of Darkness;  here, of Light.

Stark at noon  the balance stands;
th’ assailants are  of equal strength.
Yet mark how,  as each day  extends
it fades,  and lapses  in its length!

How too encroaches  on the brink
of twilight, when the birds seek rest,
the swarthy foe who smears his ink
alike on cloud-banks, and on nest.

Thus ever did the Gods contend;
thus e’er, the Giants  whirl the wheel
of Ragnarok, while sinews rend;
until at length -- the Noon must kneel.

Soon groan the lands ‘neath Winter’s torment;
in dark  the linnets  cease to sing.
Yet grant Lord, though the fields like dormant,
that from our ash,  may spring -- the Spring!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Adventures in Juvenile Lexicography

Katherine Nelson, in Keith Nelson, ed., Children’s Language (1978), p. 66,  offered the following glimpse into the orismological instincts of budding lexicographers.  Asked a “What is it?” question about the word tiger (“a large, fierce, flesh-eating animal (Panthera tigris)…” to you and me), the tots responded:

(1) “at the zoo”
(2) “animal”
(3) “it’s like a lion:
(4) “lives in the jungle and runs a lot”
(5) “animal with stripes and it eats a lot of things”
(6) “to run”
(7) “someone growls”
(8) “hair on its head”

I then polled our son (aet. su. 4 years,  3 months), who offered this:

   “It’s something that is big, and it eats people, and it runs around in the jungle.”

His assessment of her other examples:

apple: “it’s juicy; it’s big; it’s round”

car:  “Something that’s big, and not so tall -- it’s this tall [shows with his arms];  it can kill someone that stays in front of it, if it’s moving.”

coat: “It’s something that keeps you warm, is big and sort of smooth, and has little furry stuff”  [Note:  Our family was at that time facing an Edmonton winter]

bed:  “It has legs, or doesn’t, and it has a pillow, and it stands up on its posts”.
[Note: That first idea in the definiens, at once oddly precise and maddeningly vague, probably meant:  “Prototypically a bed has legs (the ones you see in books), but ours doesn’t” -- the family, indeed, then in exile and furniture-poor, slept on a mattress on the floor.]

Striking  is this repeated note of ‘big’, present in every definition except the last:  extending even to the humble apple -- even a baby is bigger than an apple, let alone a robust four-year-old.   But in light of the lad’s subsequent specialization in differential geometry, an explanatory hypothesis presents itself.  What may well have struck him was the apple’s unabashed convexity -- round, not like a thin dime, but round all around:  having everywhere positive and (roughly) constant Riemannian curvature, as he would no doubt rephrase the definition upon more mature reflection.  Such an apperception of an apple was indeed the Eureka moment of the founder of differential geometry, Carl Friedrich Gauss, as depicted in the movie “Die Vermessung der Welt”.