August 2009 Archives

Rare Helen Keller Video


Fascinating video of Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller's instructor) explaining how Helen was able to learn to speak despite being blind and deaf. It was done by Helen placing he hands on Anne's face and sensing vibrations - but note how the hands were placed.

Fun Military Terminology


One Sunday night after I watched the specials on Air Force One (the presidential jumbo jet) and Marine (the presidential helicopter fleet), I ended up watching a special on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan.

While the other two specials were somewhat serious programs on what goes into protecting and transporting the president, I was struck at how humorous much of the carrier jargon was. The list of terms I remember were

  • Ouija board - a replica of the decks with all the planes on the decks. They are moved on the board as planes land, takeoff or go into maintenance.
  • Grape - a member of the aviation fuel crew who are designated with purple jerseys<.li>
  • Knee-Knocker - It's the part of the plating between the floor and the lower part of the hatchway. If you don't pay attention, you will knock your knees over the hatchway

We normally military jargon with arcane acronyms (e.g. "CJCS" aka Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff) and terms like "campaign, friendly fire, tactical air support" which abstract away from the fact that the goal and result of combat is usually destruction.

But terms like these show the other side of the military as a bunch of people just trying to make it through the day and aware of the irony of the military lifestyle. Other terms I have heard in my day include the immortal FUBAR ("...beyond all recognition"), BUF (the B-52 bomber called the "Big Ugly Fella" or something else) and GIB (the weapons system officer on a combat plane or "guy in back").

Behind every warrior who has been glorified or feared lies a very large support and cleanup crew.

Good List of King Arthur Movies


Since I actually did Celtic linguistics for my degree, I am always interested in good Celitc (or Norse/Old English/medieval) resources. Here's a good list of King Arthur movies from Dr. Dev that skips to the true classics - Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Army of Darkness, and of course, Camelot (the musical).

Alas, the list is still a little skimpy, so while I'm on the subject, I'm asking myself to why it is so hard to film a good adaptation of medieval and ancient stories. I think we've all sat through some very expensive, very unwatchable movies. My personal unfavorites include Oliver Stone's Alexander (which not even Angelina Jolie could save), a 1990s TV miniseries of Cleopatra (too bored to look this up) and well First Knight (sorry it was King Arthur by the book to me).

I suspect that the problem is finding that balance between authenticity and cheesy entertainment. Although we may now find these pre-modern interesting in terms of universal themes vs the original culture, it should be remembered that many were actually meant to popular entertainment much like Gossip Girl, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and 24. In other words, larger than life and full of drama/comedy or both (and if social criticism comes into the mix... so be it).

For me the best adaptations include authentic touches (costumes, locations, events), but don't forget the include the swagger of the original. In fact, I've been very happy with adaptations that stray from the long as the original themes have been kept. For instance, Excalibur is the only King Arthur movie to include an ancient Celtic language spell (just the wrong one though). And although Excalibur is neither purely medieval or purely post-Roman, it doesn't really matter because neither was the original. What they did keep was the theme of kingship, the mix of Christian religious purity and Druid magic and kingdom-rocking sex scandals. What else do you need?

So here's a partial list of my favorite adaptations:

Medieval Movies

Skimpy, but oh well

  • Beowulf (2007) - Believe it or not, the cheesy 3D works to showcase both the pre-migration Germanic royal hall and the terror of Grendel. Plus, Beowulf comes off as a pretentious braggart who really needs to make a legitimate kill.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail - No there are no socialism jokes in King Arthur, but there really was an obnoxious gate keeper in the Welsh Arthurian saga Culhwch ac Olwen. I can tell that someone read the Middle Welsh literature, because the same kinds of jokes and parody appear here.
  • Charlemagne (1993) - Don't sweat the French title; it's available in English. It may not be entirely accurate, but it gives you the idea of what the secular/Papal politics of the day were. Plus, it has a fabulous Roman bath set which Charlemagne uses a lot. And it has the go-to scene of a candlelit ceremony (the coronation of the Charlemagne, The Pope and 100 candles). The candle-lit ceremony may have been pioneered in King Arthur's wedding in Camelot, but I can't verify that.
  • El Cid (1967) - If you want a trip to medieval Spain, I can recommend this forgotten classic with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren as his wife whose heart El Cid has to win again. Good costumes, lots of intrigue and a few lessons in honor and Christian/Islamic tolerance.
  • Lion in Winter (1968) - When only one family runs the kingdom, every little squabble turns into a politico-military crisis. Great costumes combined with medieval barges and frozen bath basin water add period detail, but it's the evilly manipulative dialogue from all the cast that makes it a true winner. For film buffs, this includes a very early Anthony Hopkins as the slightly war mad Richard and Timothy Dalton as the not-so-foppish King of France. The remake with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close disappointed me, but Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does an excellent King Phillip.

Ancient Movies

  • The Trojan Women (1971) - If you want 100% pure Greek drama, this will do the trick. This is a very faithful adaptation of the Eurpides play with Katherine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache and Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra. But I confess that Irene Papas as Helen steals the show. Although not classically beautiful, one look from her sultry eyes and Menelaus is ready to forgive 10 years of hellish combat (oh well). Alas, the rest of the women face the more common fate of women from the losing side as slaves and concubines.
  • Troy (2004) - Yes it diverges from the "novel" (i.e. The Iliad) quite a bit in ditching both the gods as well as Cassandra and Iphigenia. However it preserves the themes quite well. Agamemnon is still an arrogant ass, Helen is still a lonely wife, Paris the spoiled youth, the Trojans still overly confident in their military might and Hector still the noble but doomed hero. I think Brad Pitt does well in conveying Achilles' heroic swagger with the ironic awareness that this will lead to an early death (but with everlasting fame). I also think Eric Bana's Hector does a fabulous job of being both the patriotic warrior and the only one in Troy with enough sense to see what is going to actually happen, just like Cassandra would have. Good archaic Greek sets too - no Ionic pillars here.
  • Cleopatra (1963) - The one with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. This movie gets a bad rap for being overbudget and for the one where Elizabeth cheats on Eddie Fisher. However the budget is really put to good use (especially in the sequence where Cleopatra brings all of Egypt to march through Rome). Also, I think Taylor makes the most convincing Cleopatra yet. Alluring yes, but also well-educated and motivated with making Egypt a political power independent (or dominating) Rome. Like the actress herself, most of the men failed to take her seriously...but she got her way in the end.
  • Rome (HBO Miniseries) - This is the no-holds barred re-telling of the last days of the Republic. There's a certain amount of silliness (Cleopatra as a tasteless slut?), but it really picks up steam as it moves along. There's discussion in the Latinteach list about which scenes are safe to show in middle school, but this is one in which the R-rated material really, really makes the whole thing work. Polly Walker as Octavian's mother is a blast, but James Purefoy as her sometime lover Marc Anthony has more than a few original antics on display.
  • The Last Days of Pompeii (1984) - This TV miniseries hearkens back to the Sword and Sandals days, but it's quite entertaining nonetheless. You can tell it's a 19th century novel because it's primarily the Christian converts who survive, but the individual storylines crossing all socioeconomic sectors of Pompeii are very appealing, and yes the sets are fabulous. When this genre works, it really is a lot of fun.
  • Spartacus (1960 and 2004) - The 1960 version with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier is a fine Hollywood classic, but I like the 2004 miniseries with Goran Visnijc quite a bit. Visnijc brings a humbler sensibility as a man who just suffered one too many indignity and rose up to kill his oppressor. He may not have meant to lead the revolution, but he lead it well and with honor...and scared the living daylights out of his masters.

J'Adore Mon McCafé (dans mon Cubliclé)


It's always fun to see how marketers attempt to add an exotic foreign language "je ne sais quoi" to their product line, and one of the better ones (IMHO) was the McDonald's McCafé line which attempted to show how this extraordinary brew could add a touch of French elegance to your daily commute (commuté).

Aside the cheesy sociolinguistic aspect (as documented by Mark Liberman on Language Log), I do think think this does give a little bit of insight into how our grammar treats French (and pseudo French) borrowings.

When analyzing borrowings into a language, it is clear that some languages are a little more privileged than others. For some languages like French, most English speakers will actually make an attempt to pronounce the words "correctly" (the same is true for Spanish in the U.S., but not necessarily outside North America).

For instance, we "know" that French words have stress on the final syllable, drop the final consonant and have /wa/ clusters where English doesn't (e.g. quoi /kwa/, DuBois /dubwa/ and croissant /krwasã/). If you're really talented, you may even try to replicate the nasal vowels such as the one in en suite (/ã swit/) as something like /ã/ or maybe /ãn/, but not plain /an/

On the other hand, if the borrowing is from another language like Hindi, Japanese, Welsh or even a native American language, the same effort isn't usually made (unless an individual speaker knows the language). The reason for the status of French and Spanish is of course due to both proximity and cultural history. There's enough contact between the two populations that many English speakers have developed linguistic tools to categorize and pronounce these words differently.

For instance both French and Spanish introduce /pw/ and /kw/ consonant clusters, particularly consonant+w /Cw/ which are normally not allowed in English. French words are also marked as having word-final stress, even though the normal English stress pattern is NOT word-final stress. In phonological terms this could be considered a "stratum" or an area in the lexicon (mental dicitonary) where the normal rules don't apply.

Depending on the level of contact a stratum can become very developed. English technical borrowings with Latin and Greek rules have a class of rules and even suffixes/affixes all to themselves which apply only to Latinate words (One is the alternation of "c" between /k/ and /s/ as in "electric ~ electricity".

The French part of the grammar isn't that robust in English, but it does have the traditional property that it's NOT 100% accurate of real French grammar. For one thing, there are limits in how much authentic French phonology we can accommodate. Few English speakers will pronounce French "u" in the correct way - as the front vowel /y/ or /ü/ depending on your transcription system. It's very hard for English speakers to distinguish unless they have special French class training.

Also, there are errors in implementation in our English pseudo French versus real French. A classic example is the cold potato soup vichyssoise which in French grammar is pronounced with a final /z/ or /viʃiswaz/. A lot of waiters who didn't take all four years of high school French though routinely drop the final consonant (i.e. /viʃiswa/)...because that's what happens in the French stratum.

The one from the McCafé ad I noticed was how the final "e" always became "é" or /e/ "eh" with a stress. Hence "cubicle" /kubikəl/ becomes cubiclé /kubikle/ and "shuttle" /ʃʌtəl/ becomes shuttle /ʃʌtəle/ . Ironically though, in actual French spelling the "e" in "cle" and "tle" would actually be dropped altogether. Hence "cubicle" would be /kubikl/ and "shuttle" might be the really exotic /ʃytl/. Try saying that early in the morning over your McCafé

I also have to applaud McDonald's for one more thing. In the past few years French has been a neglected cultural resource (even on the Food Network). It's nice to know there's a marketer out there who's willing to bring back some old-fashioned mystique français (or is that mystique française?).

P.S. Technically "French magic" is la magie française. while la mystique is mysticism. Did I mention that borrowings can undergo change in word meaning?