Saturday, 24 September 2016

Islands again

Some years ago I posted here about islands; it must have been quite a while ago, as it was occasioned by a visit to an Open Day at Silchester, and they have been a thing of the past for a year or two (maybe three – time gets quicker at a certain age, in an ironic reversal of an arrow [which gets slower and slower, having no doubt heard about Xeno). But I've been thinking about islands again  – in the context of elephants and Cyclops.

Somewhere on Radio 4 last week a woman spoke about dwarf elephants (and iPlayer's indexing algorithm isn't good enough to remind me of who she was).
Dwarf elephants are prehistoric members of the order Proboscidea which, through the process of allopatric speciation on islands, evolved much smaller body sizes (around 1.5-2.3 metres) in comparison with their immediate ancestors. Dwarf elephants are an example of insular dwarfism,...
Also sprach Wikipedia.

But the woman on the radio didn't mention Cyclops – a strange omission, given that the "fact" (some doubt there, I suspect?) is so succulent. Perhaps she didn't mention it because she has an academic haughtiness about the story. But Wikipedia had no such fastidiousness: has been suggested by the palaeontologist Othenio Abel in 1914,[3] that the finding of skeletons of such elephants sparked the idea that they belonged to giant cyclopses, because the center nasal opening was thought to be a cyclopic eye socket.
A studio guest asked why dwarfism happened on islands. I'm sorry to have to be so reliant on Wikipedia, but iPlayer has let me down::
...large terrestrial vertebrates (usually mammals) that colonize islands evolve dwarf forms, a phenomenon attributed to adaptation to resource-poor environments and selection for early maturation and reproduction.
... Not that "large". In 2003 a fossil was found on the island Flores. Homo Floresiensis, was known by some more fevered journalists as 'the hobbit'.
In the late '80s or early '90s, with Reading Haydn Choir, I sang Stanford's The Revenge, a Ballad of the Fleet. The libretto,  was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson  (the hosts of that wiki – IMSLP  – are presumably politically hostile to all that lickspittle bowing and scraping, as they call him plain "Alfred Tennyson"; I've referred to this strenuous egalitarianism before, in connection with the word titled [see the rant in red here].)

But the opening words of that piece are "In Flores, in the Açores" (which leads me to suspect that Tennyson didn't know much about pronouncing Portuguese, FWIW), and I remember, when Homo Floresiensis was discovered in 2003, wondering if it was the same Flores. (It's not. BTW  – unless HMS Revenge was fighting off the coast of Indonesia. :-) )
In a later Reading Haydn Choir concert I sang Handel's Acis and Galatea, with the Cyclops Polyphemus represented by a very agile bass. [Keep up. keep up; I mentioned Cyclops a while back.]
Homo Floresiensis is thought by some experts (I haven't kept abreast of all the arguments, though I think there are several theories [with one having Homo Floresiensis descended from an as yet undiscovered small ape]) to have been a descendant of Homo Erectus subjected to insular dwarfism.

Ho hum time for bed.

 PS And here's a clue:

Thus might Spooner keep the con-artist apart from the aviatrix, we hear. (8,3,5,4,3,5)

Update 2016.09.25.15:05 – Added PPS

PPS And another:

Bad-mouth trendy food shop first, with malice aforethought. (10)

Update 2016.10.25.16:25 – Added PPPS


Thursday, 15 September 2016

Quips and quiddities

I've been thinking about seasons – specifically about adding an s. Taking as an example the frame

"a <season> day

I thought it was simple (if arbitrary): you can have a winters day or a summers day, but you can't have a springs day or an autumns day.

But I was forgetting the importance of collocation – what comes next  (in this case).

I was led to uncover this when I wanted to put numbers on this pattern. BNC doesn't happen to include an instance of a winters day.  And this made me use the "any noun" search syntax; which led me to conclude that the pattern is even more uneven. All season names are much preferred without the s (I've no  idea what its syntactical status is – some kind of possessive, I suppose; stay tuned for an update.)

By the wonders of BNC, the following seven links all run a BNC query; depending on line speeds, processor speeds, and all sorts of other techy imponderables, you may have to wait a second or two after clicking for the full story to unfold

winter [*n]  1590  winters [*n] 19 
spring [*n]  1086  springs [*n] 90 
summer [*n] 23163  summers [*n] 21 
autumn [*n]   774...
Why so many more cases of summer? About 30 times as many as of autumn, 20 times as many as of spring , 15 times as many as of winter. (Those numbers are wobbly; I didn't use a cuaculator. I could've just said an order of magnitude greater, but that expression has been sadly debased.) Hmm...  Meanwhile, back at the a <season>s <noun> pattern...
 ...But autumns doesn't follow the pattern of feast and famine. In that case it's feast and starvation; absolute starvation. The string autumns [*n]  just doesn't occur in BNC. And precious few occur in the much bigger (520 million words – more than five times bigger) COCA; just three (of which one is a mistake, resulting from a mistaken parsing of the word back):
autumns [*n] 3

I'm  not sure what this shows, except that when you put numbers on something you end up finding that things aren't quite as clear-cut as they seemed at first.

And here are two numbers that have only the very faintest soupspoon of a connection (and even that is arguable – it's just that the number of refugees world-wide can only increase when nation-states take more than their fair share of the planet's resources).

The first comes from a UNHCR report. CNN reported it like this

 The second comes from the ONS:

But the numbers reached out and grabbed my attention by dint of their similarity. I suppose another way of looking at it is that we have reached a tipping point: the number of refugees world-wide now exceeds the population of the UK (and that's before any readjustment that Nicola Sturgeon might have in mind ).

But time's wingéd chariot could do with some 3-in-ONE.

PS A couple of clues:

Affect brilliant fedora without an emergency jump-starter (13)
Such a way of arguing makes him a demon (2, 7)

Update 2016.09.16.11:45 – Added PPS and PPPS

PPS And I meant to add, justifying my subject-line (this is more of a quiddity than a quip), earlier this week I heard something of interest to a one-time translator of songs (a bit of background covered in this old post) . In Monday's Woman's Hour (the song starts at about 18'30")  Kizzy Crawford sang about a pond skater (no, really). She sang in English, but she sang the last chorus in Welsh. One word leapt out at me from the Welsh. Earlier (English) choruses had involved the word lily pad (see? – it really was about a pond skater); and the word that jumped out at me from the Welsh was lily pad.

I looked this up in an online Welsh dictionary: pad lili. What was up? Was Kizzy fibbing?

Of course not. She does say, in the interview that precedes the song, that Welsh is more appropriate to singing about nature. And one of the ways it has of being more flexible may be the choice of translation sources.  By chance I found this alternative translation (in Google Translate): lilypad  – note the lack of word-break.

Marvellous things, dictionaries. But they have their limits.

PPPS The promised update on syntax: the jury's still out. In some cases, it's obviously a possessive; summer's lease is the metaphorical lease held by belonging to a metaphorical summer. There's an apostrophe, and its aptness is not in question. But in summers day there's no apostrophe* and no sense of possession. I'll ask some teachers.

Update 2016.09.18.10:45 – Added P⁴S

Yes – it's an attributive genitive (also called descriptive). Some people omit the apostrophe, and in cases where the idea of possession is weak (or absent) this tendency is stronger.

Update 2016.09.26.11:15 – Added P5S

*Nonsense – I just misunderstood the BNC's search algorithm's treatment of the apostrophe.  I think  it's true, however, that the apostrophe , which usually marks possession, is less widely insisted on (and, from the point of view of a language historian, more likely to  be dropped   – rather like the apostrophe marking omission before words such as bus, cello or phone – when the sense of possession is weaker.

Update 2016.10.29.15:05 – Answers to those clues: DEFIBRILLATOR and AD HOMINEM.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Rood boy

© Copyright JThomas and licensed
 for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Cooped up in Ruthwell Church, the Ruthwell Cross was the 8th century's Angel of the North (made for the open air)

The Cross is the bearer of an extract from a poem that may be the earliest written poem in an English dialect  (Northumbrian, thought to be a fore-runner of Scots*). [That may is due to doubt about its having been written before the cross was made. It may have been added some time later.]

The poem may, for all I  know (next to nothing in this case) even have been written specifically for this cross. It is, after all, The Dream of the ROOD  (rood meaning "cross"); I imagine the word can still be seen today,  fossilized in the vocabulary of church architecture: rood-screen.

The poem is an amazing piece of anthropomorphism, with the cross itself reflecting on the crucifixion; it feels guilt about being the instrument of the Saviour's torture and death but finds a kind of solace in the thought that the sacrifice is necessary for the redemption of mankind. [I suspect the anthropomorphism breaks down a bit here; is the poet a man – caring about the fate of Mankind – or a cross {an unusually altruistic one}?]

In the late  '80s (or maybe early '90s– there are sadly no written records) I sang with the University of Reading's  University Chorus. We sang Howard Ferguson's 1958 setting of The Dream of the Rood. He was at the time an old man; he died in 1999, but he came to the concert; and at the dress rehearsal he pooh-poohed the notion that his music was "modern": "It's about as modern as the design of the Morris Minor". This was fairly accurate if he meant the Minor 1000 , designed in a 1956 update; but the Morris Minor was, says Wikipedia, "conceived in 1941" and first saw the light of ...erm ... Motor  Show in 1948 (fully ten years before Ferguson's piece). 

The Ruthwell  Cross was covered in Melvyn Bragg's the Matter of the North  (in the second episode, broadcast last week   though the whole series will be available on iPlayer for about a year). It is an extraordinary example of the strength  of multiculturalism even so early. He speaks to Dr Chris Jones, of the University of St Andrews, who lists some of the many influences that come together in the Cross: an Anglian poem, runic script, elements of Greek and Roman and Celtic design...

The whole series mérite un détour.


PS Here are a few clues:
  • Interminably hunts for something to eat (7)
  • Principal reason for buying after conjunction's onset of astrological borderland (4)
  • Unrestrained colt or filly for Dr Spooner's cornucopia? (5,4)
And a special 50th anniversary clue:

Spock's not atypical response to hearing "the one about `American soldier goes into a pub... '" (7)

Update 2016.09.07.16:25 – Added footnote

* This is a bit of a throwaway. In particular, "thought to be a forerunner" is a gross over-simplification. The history of Scots is not something I've studied, but I put in a link to Scots so that you can follow this up if you want to know more. Wir Ain Lied ("Our own language") is the most authoritative source of information on Scots that I've found.