February 29, 2004


Last night my wife Aven and I made pizzas for dinner:


While this was not as involved a culinary endeavour as my wife and I are often known for, the pizzas were quite good and afford me the opportunity to include eye candy on my blog (an odd metaphor to use to refer to pictures of food). We started off mixing and kneading the dough with our Kitchen Aid stand mixer, and we added fresh rosemary to the pizza dough. After leaving the dough to rise, and shaping it into two rather rustic-looking oblong shapes, we added the toppings. My wife brushed her crust with roasted garlic olive oil, while I opted for a blend of the roasted garlic olive oil and herbed chili olive oil. As for the toppings themselves, I went with a more traditional (though fulsome) selection of pepperoni, green peppers, mushrooms, red onion, green olives, garlic, bacon, tomato sauce, oregano, basil, and three types of cheese: mozzarella, cheddar, and parmesean. My wife, on the other hand, went with the somewhat sparser, though more unusual ricotta cheese, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black kalamata olives, red onions, and basil. Here’s what they looked like before going in the oven:


Pretty easy to make, but very enjoyable. And we were able to enjoy them while watching Leafs win one. Go Leafs, go!

Posted by Mark at 06:08 PM | Comments (3)

February 28, 2004


Last night I attended an interesting lecture given by Roberta Frank, a former professor of mine. The talk was entitled “Not Much is Worse than a Troll”: A Norse Poem from Medieval Orkney and discussed the Old Norse poem Málsháttakvæði (which means ‘proverb poem’). This poem is filled with proverbs such as “Not much is worse than a troll”, “Dragons often rise up on their tail”, “Easily grasped are the crimes of a hog”, “The living man always rejoices in a cow”, and “To love another’s child is to cherish a wolf”. Roberta’s talk stressed the importance of philology and how close attention to language informs our understanding of medieval Northern Germanic literature and culture, and was both interesting and entertaining.

Following the lecture was a reception and then an enjoyable performance of early music from Scandinavia by Ensemble Polaris. Among the many talented musicians in Ensemble Polaris are the multitalented Kirk Elliott, who played violin, harp, bowed psaltery, accordion, and Swedish bagpipes, and Ben Grossmann, who played the hurdy gurdy and jew’s harp. I always enjoy hearing unusual and/or early music instruments being performed. The performance was recorded by CBC Radio 2 for future broadcast on Music Around Us, so give it a listen when it comes up.

All in all, a nice way to spend an evening.

Posted by Mark at 12:40 PM | Comments (3)

February 27, 2004


A certain grammatical point I was teaching to my English writing class started me thinking about the place of writing in people’s day-to-day lives. First the grammatical point itself.

I was teaching my students about when to use that and when to use which to introduce a relative clause. The rule of thumb that is oft repeated is to use that if the relative clause is restrictive (restricting the meaning of the noun it modifies and thus essential to the meaning of the sentence) and which if the clause is nonrestrictive (adding additional information and thus not essential to the meaning of the sentence). Of course this is a prescriptivist rule that can be traced back to Fowler. In practice the distinction is not so clear cut. But what I told my class is that if they follow this rule they’ll never be wrong. It’s an arbitrary rule, but written language is filled with arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with the deeper structure of language.

Although the human brain seems to be wired to learn spoken language automatically, written language is an artificial skill, and thus we must follow artificial and often arbitrary rules in order to communicate effectively in writing. Indeed, I constantly have to remind my students not to write in spoken idioms. They very naturally write in an almost conversational tone.

This made me speculate about the perception of the different registers of language. My theory is that people of a younger generation (at least younger than me) are in many ways better able to express themselves in writing, or at least they are less intimidated by it because they grew up in a world of the internet, e-mail, blogging, instant messaging, etc. If nothing else, they are more naturally prolix. However, they have a harder time differentiating between spoken language and written language, because communications such as e-mail and blogs exist in a liminal state between speach and writing. The boundary between spoken language and written language is much fuzzier. People of my generation or older probably didn’t write as much when younger, certainly not as much in informal contexts, because we didn’t have an output like e-mail. For this older generation, written language was more restricted to formal contexts. Certainly there was letter writing, but not in the same quantity as there is e-mail, and I imagine that letter writing was already in decline long before e-mail anyway. Thus, while those in the older generation may not have as natural approach to writing, they are more aware of the difference between spoken and written language.

Well, that’s my theory anyway. I’d be interested to hear what others thought, particularly those who write blogs. Do you write in the same register that you speak in? I find it very difficult to bring myself to write in anything other than a written idiom.

Getting back to the starting off point for this train of thought, how do others use that and which in spoken and/or written contexts? I’d be particularly interested to know if usage guides like Fowler are still used by magazine or newspaper editors (a question that perhaps Alasdair or Sue could answer for me). Or is this sort of thing just left up to the individual writers? Is a breakdown in the diffentiation between spoken and written language being felt in such written contexts?

The irony of all this is that one of my lines of research that I’m particularly working on right now is discourse analysis which is essentially taking a theory linguists developed by studying spoken language and applying it to written text. It is particularly applicable to medieval literatures because they are closer to their foundations in oral traditions, again in a liminal state between spoken and written language. It’s sort of the reverse of e-mail, but with perhaps similar results.

Posted by Mark at 02:46 PM | Comments (2)

February 26, 2004


I’ve been pondering syntax rather intensely over the last couple of weeks, both Old English and Modern English. Well, perhaps I’m always pondering syntax, but there are two things in particular I’ve been thinking about recently. Today I’ll post on my Old English musings and tomorrow I’ll write about my Modern English musings.

While working on a discourse analysis of the Old English poem Judith a while ago, I ran into the phrase sittan eodon (sittan being an infinitive meaning ‘to sit’, and eodon being preterite plural of the verb ‘to go’),1 and it occurred to me that in the context (men attending a feast), it didn’t seem to make sense to translate it as an infinitive of purpose (‘they went to sit’); it seemed like two separate actions (‘they went and sat’).

Of course, it is often pointed out that an infinitive with a verb of motion or of perception in Old English often seems to function like a present participle in Modern English (‘he went running’ or ‘I saw him running’). In fact, in Modern English we can still use the bare infinitive after a verb of perception in this way (‘I saw him run’). With the verb of perception, the infinitive can be anything, but with the verb of motion, the infinitive is generally something appropriately connected to the motion, perhaps describing the manner in which the subject moved. The classic example is in Beowulf: “Com on wanre niht / scriðan sceadugenga” (‘The walker in the darkness came gliding in the dark night’).2 Less frequently a verb of rest is used instead, as in lagon slapan (‘they lay sleeping’).

What I wondered is to what extent this construction was relevant to my Judith passage, an infinitive of rest following a verb of motion. Of course many scholars would (and have) simply classify this as an infinitive of purpose. Perhaps the infitive shows consecutive action (‘they went and sat at the banquet’), or perhaps the passage should be translated as ‘they went, sitting at the banquet’).

The thing about syntax questions like this is that the more you think about it, the less clear it becomes. Do ‘they went and sat’ and ‘they went to sit’ come to the same thing anyway?

Stæfcræft is seo cæg, ðe ðæra boca andgit unlicð (‘Grammar is the key, which unlocks the meaning of these books’).3

1 The full quotation is: “Hie ða to ðam symle sittan eodon” (‘They then went to the feast and sat’) Jud 15.

2 Beo 702b-703a.

3 ÆGram 2.16-17.

Posted by Mark at 02:31 PM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2004


I thought I’d start with a brief discussion of what I’ve been reading lately. My reading interests are rather eclectic actually.

Leaving aside the more research-related work reading, I’ve recently read H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (again), and Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. Quite a mix.

In recent months I’ve been on a bit of a Jules Verne / H.G. Wells kick, and, of course, since I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, I often pull my facsimile edition of The Strand Magazine Holmes stories off the shelf from time to time. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the Pratchett novel and would certainly read another Maurice book at the drop of a tiny rat-sized hat, I’m afraid I haven’t been converted into a Pratchett fanatic generally (sorry Aven). In any case, it’s a interesting book about what would happen if animals became intelligent. It’s quite fascinating to see how they develop cognitive abilities such as language.

At the moment I’m reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. As a former research assistant at the Dictionary of Old English and someone with a great interest in lexicography in general, I’ve been enjoying this book enormously. I would certainly recommend the book to anyone, especially Mike, who I know enjoys dictionaries, perhaps almost as much as I do.

Posted by Mark at 06:21 PM | Comments (0)

On angynne...

Well, every blog needs a first entry, and this is mine. I don’t intend to write on any specific theme to start off with, but this blog won’t simply be a diary of my day-to-day activities either (though where relevant there may be some of that). I’ll start out just writing about my thoughts and observations on language, literature, music, food, culture, history, and so forth in the hopes that someone may be interested in reading my mad ramblings. In the future, I may blog (if I may use this word as a verb) about music as I write or record it or my academic pursuits as I engage in my research, but for now this site will contain amalgam of all these things. Thanks to Mike for making all this possible. Enjoy the ride.

Oh, and a cookie to anyone who correctly identifies the title of this entry.

Posted by Mark at 03:29 PM | Comments (4)