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“In every grain of sand there is the story of the earth”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked before (see here and here) at sand as a critical ingredient in the stuff of modern life. Today’s post features Steven Connor on the metaphorical power of sand…

Sand belongs to the great, diffuse class, undeclared, rarely described, but insistent and insinuating, of what may be called quasi-choate matters — among them mist, smoke, dust, snow, sugar, cinders, sleet, soap, syrup, mud, toffee, grit. Such pseudo-substances hover, drift, and ooze between consistency and dissolution, holding together even as they come apart from themselves. And, of all of these dishesive matters, sand is surely the most untrustworthy, the most shifting and shifty.

Nobody would seriously consider taking a stand on a cloud, but sand has betrayed many an architect and edifice. Sand is at once architectural and archiclastic. An eighteenth-century continuation of Baron Munchausen’s adventures describes how the Baron and his party survive a whirlwind of sand by scooping an igloo-style sand-chamber in which to shelter from the storm, and then digging a tunnel from their bunker back out into the light. Sand has the capacity to engulf and inundate, blearing contours, eroding and erasing every edge and eminence. As such it is the ultimate mockery of the permanence of stone, for it is no more than one of stone’s own moods, the manner in which stone, atomised, consumes itself. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” imagines the monumental statue of Rameses the Great dismembered on the Egyptian sands. The shattered chunks of head, legs, and pedestal portend a further, finer comminution, after the membra disjecta themselves will have been milled away into flatness: “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Sand is reversible. Only utter desiccation can attain to this pouring, milk-smooth liquefaction. Sand-baths were used in the ancient world both to draw out the damp ague of rheumatism and as a kind of sauna, to promote perspiration. Sand is the product of abrasion, but is also itself abrasive, used in sand-blasting to etch and burnish. Pliny tells us of the use of sand under a saw edge to make a clean cut in marble, and to polish it after it has been carved.

Sand signifies neutrality, indifference, and uniformity; yet it also has hairtrigger sensitivity and responsiveness. A grain of sand (in actual fact often a tiny parasite) is the irritant that provokes in the oyster the nacreous secretions that build into a pearl. Sand has a favoured relation to sound, putting a hoarse rattle in the throat of the wind, and is itself all ears. In 1787, the German physicist Ernst Chladni showed how drawing a violin bow over a metal plate could induce in the fine sand sprinkled on it hierophantic figurings of the sound, in quivering mandalas and ripple-fingered arpeggios. Though sand can disfigure and obliterate, it can also disclose the ghost wrist of wind and the perturbations of the earth. It is a detection and reception mechanism, forming ridged isobars, shivering musculature, oscilloscape of the air’s sculpting shoves and gusts.

Sand participates in dream and vision. The Sandman brings sleep by throwing or blowing sand into the eyes of children. But the sand does more than merely seal the eyes, for in many versions of this nursery tale, it is the very stuff that dreams are made on, the numb matter of sleep, swirling, particulate, that the sandman carries in his sack. The somnolence of sand is redoubled when in Top Hat (1935) Fred Astaire soothes Ginger Rogers to sleep in the hotel room below him by spreading sand on the floor and hush-dancing a susurrous soft-shoe shuffle. The origins of moon-walking are to be found in the novelty slides and scrapes across a sanded stage by music-hall acts like Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Specious it may be, but sand is also the secret stuff of omen and auspice, in the practice of divination through tossing and scrying handfuls of sand, known in Arabic as ilm al-raml, the science of the sand, or what might have been its Greek equivalent, psammomancy.

Sand is not only temporary, it is also the most temporised form of matter. It is the image or allegory of time, shifting, yet unshiftable. It seems a compiling of the minced, mounded years that go into its making, and grains of sand imitate the elementary atoms of time, moment upon pattering moment. Sand is featureless, without joints or divisions, even though it is nothing but division all the way down. Yet it is this very feature that makes it useful in the measurement of time, for, unlike other materials, sand will flow easily and regularly, even as its volume diminishes. Sand-glasses came into use in part because of the need to measure time at sea, far from any landmark; speed would be measured by counting the number of knots in a rope paid out from the back of the ship in the time it took for the sand to run through a half-minute glass. A half-hour period of watch, known as a “glass”, was also measured in this way. Grains of sand, in the form of quartz crystals, with their precise oscillations, still micro-regulate our time. In fact, the sand of hourglasses was often not quartz sand at all, but powdered marble, or eggshell. But we find it hard to give up the idea of the affinity of sand and the glass through which it runs, since silicates of sand are still the most important source of glass. George Herbert imagines this interfusion when he writes that “flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust/That measures all our time; which also shall/Be crumbled into dust”, while for Gerard Manley Hopkins the soul itself is “soft sift/In an hourglass – at the wall/Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,/And it crowds and it combs to the fall”…

From the mythical Sandman, through the grains in an hourglass, to an irritating mote lodged in the beachgoer’s eye, sand harbors unappreciated power: “The Dust That Measures All Our Time.”

Rachel Carson

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As we muse on metaphor, we might send ideal birthday greetings to Marsilio Ficino; he was born on this date in 1433.  An Italian scholar and Catholic priest, he was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance.  The first translator of Plato’s complete extant works into Latin, he was important in the revival of Neoplatonism, and was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day. His Florentine Academy was an attempt to revive Plato’s Academy, and influenced both the direction and the tenor of the Italian Renaissance and thus the development of European philosophy.

Ficino was also an astrologer, and is credited with having inspired the Tarot card deck– the Tarot of Marseilles– that was the pattern from which many subsequent tarot decks derive.

Marsilio Ficino, from a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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“Warning: this guide contains highly offensive language and discussion of content which may cause offence”*…

Salty language, systematically sorted…

Ofcom [the UK’s communications regulator— essentially their FCC] commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct research to help them understand public attitudes towards offensive language on TV and radio. This document serves as a Quick Reference Guide summarising views towards the acceptability of individual words on TV and radio…

For example…

And there’s more: other sections unpack the relative offensiveness of “references to body parts,” “sexual references,” “political references,” “references to race, nationality, and ethnicity,” “references to sexual orientation and gender identity,” “religious references,” and “Non-English words” [mostly South Asian].

Public Attitudes to Offensive Language on TV and Radio: a Quick Reference Guide… a report that doubles as a remarkable lexicon.

See also: “Cursing and the Bloody Class Struggle.”

* from the title page of this report

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As we curse carefully, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that The “From Hell” letter was postmarked. Received the next day by George Lusk, head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, it purported to be from the serial killer we know as Jack the Ripper, who enclosed half a preserved human kidney. The police and Lusk’s group received hundreds of letters pertaining to the Ripper case, many dozen supposedly from the killer himself. The “From Hell” letter is one of the few that has been seriously considered to be genuine.

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“I cannot well repeat how there I entered”*…

Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465 — Source

A collection– and consideration– of the illustrations inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy…

A man wakes deep in the woods, halfway through life. Far from home, unpermitted to return, his heart pierced by grief. He has strayed from the path. It’s a dark night of the soul, his crisis so great that death becomes a tempting end. And then, as wild beasts advance upon this easy prey, his prayers are answered. A guide appears, promising to show him the way toward paradise…

[This month] marks the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri’s death, the Florentine poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, arguably our most ambitious Western epic. Eschewing Latin, the medieval currency of literature and scholarship, Dante wrote in his vernacular tongue, establishing the foundations for a standardized Italian language, and, by doing so, may have laid cultural groundwork for the unification of Italy.

The poet’s impact on literature cannot be overstated. “Dante’s influence was massive”, writes Erich Auerbach, “he singlehandedly established the expressive possibilities and the landscape of all poetry to come, and he did so virtually out of thin air”. And just as the classical Virgil served as Dante’s guide through the Inferno, Dante became a kind of Virgil for later writers. Chaucer cribbed his rhythm and images, while Milton’s Paradise Lost may have been actually lost, were it not for Dante as a shepherd. The Divina Commedia is a touchstone for works as diverse as fifteenth-century Castilian and Catalan verse; Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842); and Mary Shelley’s Italian Rambles (1844), which finds the poet at every turn:

There is scarcely a spot in Tuscany, and those parts of the North of Italy, which he visited, that Dante has not described in poetry that brings the very spot before your eyes, adorned with graces missed by the prosaic eye, and which are exact and in perfect harmony with the scene.

If Dante’s poetry summons landscapes before its reader’s eyes, artists have tried, for the last seven hundred years, to achieve another kind of evocation: rendering the Commedia in precise images, evocative patterns, and dazzling color. By Jean-Pierre Barricelli’s estimate, a complete catalogue of Commedia-inspired artworks would exceed 1,100 names. The earliest dated image comes from Florence in 1337, beginning the tradition soon after the poet’s death in 1321. Before long, there were scores of other illustrations…

A thoughtful consideration and a glorious collection: “700 Years of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Art,” from @PublicDomainRev.

* Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

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As we visualize, we might send well-worded birthday greetings to Samuel Johnson; he was born on this date in 1709.  A poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, Johnson’s best-known work was surely  A Dictionary of the English Language, which he published in 1755, after nine years work– and which served as the standard for 150 years (until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary).  But Dr. Johnson, as he was known, is probably best remembered as the subject of what Walter Jackson Bate noted is “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.  A famous aphorist, Johnson was the very opposite of a man he described to Boswell in 1784: “He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.”

Apropos Dante, Johnson observed “if what happens does not make us richer, we must welcome it if it makes us wiser.”

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Dr. Johnson

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“English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge”*…

Plus ça change. The opening pages of The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, an instructional book of table manners dating from around 1480 and written in Middle English. Amongst other directives, children are told Bulle not as a bene were in thi throote (Don’t burp as if you had a bean in your throat) and Pyke notte thyne errys nothyr thy nostrellys’(Don’t pick your ears or nose).

To be honest, it is a mess…

English spelling is ridiculous. Sew and new don’t rhyme. Kernel and colonel do. When you see an ough, you might need to read it out as ‘aw’ (thought), ‘ow’ (drought), ‘uff’ (tough), ‘off’ (cough), ‘oo’ (through), or ‘oh’ (though). The ea vowel is usually pronounced ‘ee’ (weak, please, seal, beam) but can also be ‘eh’ (bread, head, wealth, feather). Those two options cover most of it – except for a handful of cases, where it’s ‘ay’ (break, steak, great). Oh wait, one more… there’s earth. No wait, there’s also heart.

The English spelling system, if you can even call it a system, is full of this kind of thing. Yet not only do most people raised with English learn to read and write it; millions of people who weren’t raised with English learn to use it too, to a very high level of accuracy.

Admittedly, for a non-native speaker, such mastery usually involves a great deal of confusion and frustration. Part of the problem is that English spelling looks deceptively similar to other languages that use the same alphabet but in a much more consistent way. You can spend an afternoon familiarising yourself with the pronunciation rules of Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish and many others, and credibly read out a text in that language, even if you don’t understand it. Your pronunciation might be terrible, and the pace, stress and rhythm would be completely off, and no one would mistake you for a native speaker – but you could do it. Even French, notorious for the spelling challenges it presents learners, is consistent enough to meet the bar. There are lots of silent letters, but they’re in predictable places. French has plenty of rules, and exceptions to those rules, but they can all be listed on a reasonable number of pages.

English is in a different league of complexity. The most comprehensive description of its spelling – the Dictionary of the British English Spelling System by Greg Brooks (2015) – runs to more than 450 pages as it enumerates all the ways particular sounds can be represented by letters or combinations of letters, and all the ways particular letters or letter combinations can be read out as sounds.

From the early Middle Ages, various European languages adopted and adapted the Latin alphabet. So why did English end up with a far more inconsistent orthography than any other? The basic outline of the messy history of English is widely known: the Anglo-Saxon tribes bringing Old English in the 5th century, the Viking invasions beginning in the 8th century adding Old Norse to the mix, followed by the Norman Conquest of the 11th century and the French linguistic takeover. The moving and mixing of populations, the growth of London and the merchant class in the 13th and 14th centuries. The contact with the Continent and the balance among Germanic, Romance and Celtic cultural forces. No language Academy was established, no authority for oversight or intervention in the direction of the written form. English travelled and wandered and haphazardly tied pieces together. As the blogger James Nicoll put it in 1990, English ‘pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary’.

But just how does spelling factor into all this? It wasn’t as if the rest of Europe didn’t also contend with a mix of tribes and languages. The remnants of the Roman Empire comprised Germanic, Celtic and Slavic communities spread over a huge area. Various conquests installed a ruling-class language in control of a population that spoke a different language: there was the Nordic conquest of Normandy in the 10th century (where they now write French with a pretty regular system); the Ottoman Turkish rule over Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries (which now has very consistent spelling rules for Hungarian); Moorish rule in Spain in the 8th to 15th centuries (which also has very consistent spelling). True, other languages did have official academies and other government attempts at standardisation – but those interventions have largely only ever succeeded at implementing minor changes to existing systems in very specific areas. English wasn’t the only language to pick the pockets of others for useful words.

The answer to the weirdness of English has to do with the timing of technology. The rise of printing caught English at a moment when the norms linking spoken and written language were up for grabs, and so could be hijacked by diverse forces and imperatives that didn’t coordinate with each other, or cohere, or even have any distinct goals at all. If the printing press has arrived earlier in the life of English, or later, after some of the upheaval had settled, things might have ended up differently…

Why is English spelling so weird and unpredictable? Don’t blame the mix of languages; look to quirks of timing and technology: “Typos, tricks, and misprints,” from Arika Okrent (@arikaokrent).

* Douglas Coupland

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As we muse on the mother tongue, we might spare a thought for a man who used it to wonderful effect: Seymour Wilson “Budd” Schulberg. The son of B. P. Schulberg (head production at Paramount Pictures in it’s 1930s-30s heyday) and Adeline Jaffe Schulberg (who founded one of Hollywood’s most successful talent/literary agencies), Budd went into the family business, finding success as a screenwriter, television producer, novelist, and sports writer. He is probably best remembered for his novels What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall, his Academy Award-winning screenplay for On the Waterfront, and his (painfully prescient) screenplay for A Face in the Crowd.

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“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”*…

Detail from the Constitution of India, 1949

Bulwer-Lytton had nothing on Indian jurists…

The English language arrived in India with the British colonists of the 17th century, giving rise to unique genres and variants, including some that characterize formal communications on the subcontinent to this day. Among these, the derogatory term “Babu English” was originally used by the British to describe the overwrought officialese of “babus” or Indian bureaucratsa style described at the British Library as “aspiring to poetic heights in vocabulary and learning, despite being full of errors.” 

“Babu English is the much caricatured flowery language of… moderately educated clerks and others who are less proficient in formal English than they realise,” wrote Rajend Mesthrie in English in Language Shift (1993). His examples include the clerk who asked his employers for leave because ‘the hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket’; the job applicant “bubbling with zeal and enthusiasm to serve as a research assistant”; and a baroque acknowledgement from a PhD thesis: “I consider it to be my primordial obligation to humbly offer my deepest sense of gratitude to my most revered Garuji and untiring and illustrious guide professor . . . for the magnitude of his benevolence and eternal guidance.”

The modern form of Babu English turns up most frequently in the language of India’s legal system. 

Take for example the 2008 case of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar, who was killed, together with a housekeeper, Hemraj, in the Talwar family home in Delhi; the murder rocked the nation. In 2013, a trial court ruled that the victims had been murdered by the girl’s parents:

The cynosure of judicial determination is the fluctuating fortunes of the dentist couple who have been arraigned for committing and secreting as also deracinating the evidence of commission of the murder of their own adolescent daughter—a beaut damsel and sole heiress Ms Aarushi and hapless domestic aide Hemraj who had migrated to India from neighbouring Nepal to eke out living and attended routinely to the chores of domestic drudgery at the house of their masters.” 

Had the judge accidentally inhaled a thesaurus? With its tormented syntax and glut of polysyllabic words, the judgment is a clear descendant and example of today’s Babu prose. In May 2016, a landmark judgment on criminal defamation written by a future Chief Justice pushed into new stylistic directions with phrases such as “proponements in oppugnation” and “made paraplegic on the mercurial stance.”

“It seems that some judges have unrealised literary dreams,” one former judge told me. “Maybe it’s a colonial hangover, or the feeling that obfuscation is a sign of merit… It can then become a 300-page judgment, just pontificating.”

Judges also retain a tendency to also quote scripture, allude to legends and myths, and throw in a dash of Plato, Shakespeare or Dickens. Some trace the legacy of flowery judgments to Justice Krishna Iyer, a pioneering and influential Supreme Court judge who served a seven-year term in the seventies. (“You had to perhaps sit with a dictionary to understand some [of his] judgments,” one lawyer remarked.)

But the former judge pointed out that this isn’t just a problem bedevilling judgments written in English. Even lower court judgments written in Hindi, he said, often deploy “words that were in vogue in Mughal times… It’s a problem of formalism.”

… 

Wherefore, qua, bonum: decrypting Indian legalese“: a colonial hangover, or unrealized literary dreams? Mumbai-based @BhavyaDore explores.

* George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

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As we choose our words carefully, we might send passionate birthday greetings to Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland; she was born on this date in 1901. A paragon of prolixity, Barbara Cartland wrote biographies, plays, music, verse, drama, and operetta, as well as several health and cook books, and many magazine articles; but she is best remembered as a romance novelist, one of the most commercially successful authors worldwide of the 20th century.

Her 723 novels were translated into 38 languages. and she continues to be referenced in the Guinness World Records for the most novels published in a single year (1977). Estimates of her sales range from 750 million copies to over 2 billion.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

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