Justin E. H. Smith
William Safire’s recent retreat to half-time duties at the New York Times
may no doubt be taken as an indication that he is not long for this world.
I confess I cannot help but fantasize about the position this will open up,
not of course that of right-wing bloviator at the heart of the liberal media
establishment, but that of our nation’s leading language maven. Give his
op-ed column to some cocky veteran of the Harvard Crimson. I want ‘On
This title, under Safire’s reign, has been something of a misnomer. He
purports to write on language, but for the most part writes on a particular
language. The language he writes on is also the language he writes in, and
it is, to be sure, a historically significant and widely spoken one. But
language itself is one thing, languages are quite another. Safire would
know this if he were willing to venture out a bit and consider a language,
such as French, that captures, in distinct terms, the distinct concepts of
language per se, on the one hand, and this or that language on the other.
Even if he were to concede that it’s not langage but this or that langue
that interests him, surely there are others besides English that would
warrant attention. The Uralic family, for example, consisting in the Finno-
Ugric and Samoyed branches, has some interesting features. Yurak, one of
its lesser children has ten distinct moods for its verbs: indicative,
narrative, potential, auditive, subjunctive, imperative, optative,
precative, obligative, and interrogative. Yurak’s cousin Selkup attaches
conjugational suffixes to verbs to express different modes of action,
including the continuative suffix, the breviative, the frequentative, the
plurative, and the usitative.
It’s just a hunch, but I’m pretty sure Safire wouldn’t have a thing to say
about the usitative suffix. And yet this is assuredly a bit of language,
employed competently by hunter-gatherers out in the tundra, and described
beautifully, with breathtakingly foreign extracts of written Selkup too
dense with diacritical marks to reproduce here, in Björn Collinder’s
magisterial Survey of the Uralic Languages (Stockholm, 1957).
But let us return to the Indo-European family. If I were allowed to write
‘On Language’, I would devote much space to negation and to definite articles,
drawing rich examples for comparison from the Slavic, Romance, and Germanic
branches of this distinguished dynasty.
I would meditate on a curious parallel between the French split negation,
“ne…. pas” or “ne… rien”, and a certain vulgar means of denying in
English. Consider the French for “I saw nothing”: “Je n’ai vu rien.”
Consider, now, the structural similarity to this of the colloquial “I didn’t
see shit.” I have no developed theory to offer, but it seems to me that
this counts as a split negation in English, and that ‘shit’ is doing exactly
the same work as the French ‘rien’. That shit and nothing are substitutable
is a fact perhaps of interest to psychoanalysts as well as linguists. Here
I’m only pointing it out.
I have more developed ideas about definite articles. One thing that has
long troubled me is the existence of languages, such as Russian and Latin,
that can do entirely without them. I have seen some of Bertrand Russell’s
work on definite descriptions translated into Russian, and there the
translator was forced to simply retain the English article. But one wonders
if the problem that concerned Russell would have come up at all if he had
been a monolingual Russophone.
The absence of ‘the’ in Russian troubled me greatly recently as I struggled
to translate Aleksandr Blok’s melancholy and Nietzschean poem about
Leningrad, the one that begins “Noch’, ulitsa, fonar’, apteka.” Is he
writing about a night, a street, a lamp, and a pharmacy, or the night, the
street, the lamp, and the pharmacy? Can this question even be answered?
In order to preserve the original Russian’s meter, I decided to leave out
the definite articles in the first stanza, and put them in in the repetition
of the same terms in the second stanza, thereby yielding the extra syllables
needed to make the English rendition flow. Here is the result:
Night. Street. Lamp. Pharmacy.
Meaningless and murky light.
Live another quarter century.
It will be as now. No hope of flight.
You’ll die, you’ll begin again from the start.
Just as before, it will all repeat.
The night. The canal’s icy ripple.
The pharmacy. The lamp. The street.
Now the question I’ve been unable to answer is whether the repeated use of
‘the’ at the end is poetic license on my part, or whether the original
Russian nouns entitled me to insert whatever articles I felt were needed,
and for whatever reason. Again, they are there at the end, and not in the
beginning, only to preserve meter, and not because the meaning of the
Russian seems to require them more in the second stanza. But are they truly
not there in the Russian, are they equally there and not there, or is there
simply no fact of the matter?
If Arthur O. Sulzberger is interested, I will be happy to meditate on this
further, as on related questions, in the Sunday Times. It is much more
likely, of course, that the same young cock from the Crimson who got the op-
ed column, or perhaps his roommate, will get the language column as well,
and he will expatiate on the origins of words like ‘synergy’ and approvingly
rehash the witticisms of Winston Churchill.
Having come to terms with this harsh reality, I look forward to offering my
thoughts on language, as well as art and culture, to you, the good readers
of 3 Quarks Daily, every third Monday in my new column, ‘Selected Minor