Welcome to the first issue of Letras, fortnightly!


Those of you who are following Formal Monkey Linguistics [1] will want to read this followup about Titi monkey call semantics [2]. And those of you following Japanese Moé Maid Linguistics [3, 4; PDF] will want to check out this one on tsundere phonetics [5]: we knew that tsun prefers obstruents and dere (moe) sonorants, now we learn that tsun lowers f0 and dere elevates it. These are exciting times.

I'm not following the debate on language evolution closely enough to have an opinion, but I wanted to mention that Everett has just described the Chomskian proposal as “the ‘X-men’ view of language evolution/mutation”. Regardless of whether you're for or against it, this is just the perfect name for it and I'm using it from now on.

Tom Dougherty has been quiety blogging on Ryūkyūan languages for some time now. Here he comments on extra-metrical Okinawan verse and why it must have been resolved by changing vowels into glides (CV+V → CGV), or else eliding them (CV₁+V₂ → CV₂). I notice this is the same conclusion that Kawamoto arrived at in The Poetics of Japanese Verse – because, in classical verse, extra-metrical (ji-amari) lines always have at least one vowel-onset syllable following a vocalic coda (i.e. all ji-amari lines have two vowels together, which must have been resolved in the same way).

Rendaku is a Japanese morpho-phonemic voicing that happens in the second member of compounds (takeaodake). It doesn't always happen (takekawatake), and the conditions for it remain obscure. One famous discovery is Lyman's Law: rendaku never occurs if the second word already has a voiced consonant (tokageootokage). Shigeto Kawahara has wrote a lot of online articles on rendaku, and now he's reaching quite the scandalous conclusion: that it's related to the writing system – to the dakuten diacritic used to mark voicing. I still find it more likely that the order of causality is reversed – the orthographic norm must be a reflex of something – but his points that daku can't just be described as “voicing” are valid (specifically in the case of /h/, whose historical development from /p/ still has consequences in modern phonology).

People of generative sensibilities will like Norbert Hornstein's polemics blog, Faculty of Language.

Anyone using statistics and following the reproducibility crisis should read Andrew Gelman's blog. See especially The Garden of Forking Paths (PDF), and this followup on why getting rid of p-values isn't enough (though p-values definitely suck).

Book: Derek Bickerton, Bastard Tongues

This general-audience travelogue was both a pleasure reading, and fascinatingly informative. Bickerton's generativist (“bioprogram”) proposal for the genesis of creole languages comes from his noticing that they're surprisingly similar, regardless of their source languages (all follow SVO order; all have distinct time-mood-aspect markers which agglutinate, and so on). He concludes that such features are in some way basic or purer, close to the defaults of the human language faculty. Older languages are damaged by history and weighted by cruft, but creoles alone “spring pure and clear from the very fountain of language”.

I was surprised to learn that Bickerton is deeply controversial in creole studies (“I do not know”, one tells me, “of anyone who consider themselves a creolist in the vein of Bickerton, in the same way that I know of substratists, superstratists, gradualists, etc.”) From what I could muster, the consensus of the field is that: a) creoles are more diverse than what Bickerton allows; b) they carry more from their source languages; and also c) they don't get ready over a single generation. However, Bickerton's proposal that creoles are in some sense “basic”, and very similar to each other, is still a salvageable theory, with reservations (“Bickerton’s position that creoles offer a special window on the human language faculty is maintained” – Tonjes Veenstra, Creole Genesis: The Impact of the Language Bioprogram Hypothesis, in: The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies).


Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

This is a story about people in the future who've created a kind of secular, monastic boy's order, Castalia. The Castalians' main occupation is scholarship; they'd spend their lives studying, say, classical music, or philology, but they're forbidden from actually creating things, like music or poems; instead, they create papers like Development of fashion trends in the audience of seventeenth-century recitals: an analysis via contemporary etchings, et cetera.

The Castalian's most prized creation is the titular Glass Bead Game. The details are left to the reader's imagination, but the basic idea is that the various game pieces and board positions have been mapped to Castalian disciplines – math, music, astronomy, architecture etc. – in such a way that progressing through board positions allows one to represent formulæ, passages, celestial configurations, and so on; and also, simultaneously, every move can be read as a statement in another field – a theorem proof may seamlessly be taken as a piece of music, or the orbit of a star system. In this way, the game is a highly esoteric form of interdisciplinary interplay, its true depths only ever accessible to the lifetime initiate. And the game is æsthetic; moves are alternated with Oriental meditation on board positions and their endless implications.

And yes, it feels weird to have someone writing about you behind your back like that, especially when they did it before you were born.

The main conflict of the story is the main conflict of academia: on the one hand, Castalia is something inherently precious, anyone who gets in contact with it agrees that it should be preserved; on the other hand, do we have the right, to be fed like this by the State and the People to play our unfathomable games, while the world outside is burning? To Hesse's credit, this discussion is the very first thing that the protagonist Knecht discusses, already as a child novice; and to Hesse's greater credit, there's never a solution, and his position as an advocate for Castalia is played kind of artificially – he performs his role as a devout Castalian in debates, but he's always questioning it in the back of his mind.

Hesse's homoeroticism plays here between novices, but most importantly in the figure of the hardened old master who softens for the boyish enthusiasm of the applicant and true disciple. The alternation of these roles through the ages is itself a kind of game, and if The Glass Bead Game is about anything, it's about this: pedagogy and the transmission of knowledge.

Of all brain-dead rules about writing, the one I don't hate is “show, don't tell”. Unlike, say, Strunk & White tripe, “show, don't tell” at least may actually do some good to the absolute novice, as Chekov once exemplified:

You’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.

Nonetheless, “tell” has its uses, too; e.g. Tolkien was a master of using it to let the reader co-create a world – notoriously, in The Lord of the Rings, we're never quite shown what is it that the One Ring even does; we're just told it's terribly powerful, and that reticence is exactly why it gets its otherworldly aura. The trick about “show” vs. “tell” is choosing the correct one for the best effect, case by case and line by line. On that point, The Glass Bead Game is too telly. The story is presented as a biography written by Castalians, and those dispassionate scholars describe everything in abstractions and broad strokes; one feels like one's floating high above the scenes, and can never quite touch anything. The effect is tiring, and by the end of the book I was dragging through it. You could argue that this style is fitting to the theme; but, having read Demian, I find it has more to do with Hesse's prose itself, and not necessarily in a good way.

This paragraph is about the ending, and while not specific, you should skip it if you want to be perfectly unspoiled: the ending is the strongest part of the book, and the part that elevates it into… well, into something. It's utterly baffling. I don't know what to make of it, and I'm not sure we even should.

I read the English translation by Richard and Clara Winston.

Robert E Heinlein, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag and Other Stories

After reading a Žižek allusion to Heinlein's The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, I went searching for it. It was, of course, much less heady stuff than the original Žižekian discussion on Lacanian theory, and this contrast is in itself amusing; Žižek feels like a taboo-breaker, in that he admits the existence of something as despised as science fiction into the same idea-scape as Hegel or Adorno. This is especially refreshing because I think all kinds of literary intertext – quotations, re-readings, name-droppings – are just a kind of highbrow book club, a more blasé way of going "dude have you read this? it's so cool!" (which is why university professors are so quick to categorically disavow the entirety of sci-fi).

I found Heilein's prose to be crisp and agreeable, though the “other stories” were all lackluster. I enjoyed the day I spent with Jonathan Hoag; the mystery got me hooked, but the enjoyment came more from the characterization – specifically the protagonist couple and its productive, cute (though decidedly gender-dated) intimate-cum-professional relationship. We could do with more harmonious protagonist-couples, methinks. I wonder, though, whether real love can ever be anything like these idealized routines we read in romantic fiction – or whether it should; surely co-dependency is a bad thing?

When looking for this story, I stumbled upon a real-world Jonathan Hoag. Apparently his “unpleasant profession” was versification, since there's a book titled The Poetical Works of Jonathan E. Hoag...... and subtitled With Biographical and Critical Preface by Howard P. Lovecraft. Just one more in a long list of ways Lovecraft keeps unexpectedly haunting me. You can laugh if you want, I don't care; humor is but the faint terrestrial echo of the hideous laughter of the blind mad gods who will eat us all. Real-world Hoag was the model for Innsmouth's Zadok Allen. Heinlein's mysterious Hoag is unrelated… or is he?

Borges, Ficciones

Fiction is just a trick of words, all smoke and mirrors; an illusion that creates the impression of depth and weight out of suggestions and thin air. Consequently, it's perhaps the highest legacy of an author to earn the morpheme -an; to become a style, a mode of illusion, is something more concrete than just leaving behind stories. I'm just getting started with Ficciones, and it's already so… Borgesian. You know it's an anthology of fictions, and you start reading a piece of fiction. So far so good. The fiction focus its camera on an encyclopedia – a fictional book-within-the-book, and it's a pirate encyclopedia to boot – except this printing, and apparently only this printing, has a couple extra pages describing a non-existent country (or is it? the characters research like mad, finding tantalizing allusions here and there, but nothing definitive); and in this fictional country, the national pasttime is world-building: describing a made-up planet. We then spend the rest of the time learning about this planet: its metaphysics and geometry, its biosphere and algebra.

Relevant to my interests, the narrator alludes to a full set of conlangs. There are two language families, and both lack nouns. The Southern family refers to things by piling up monosyllabic adjectives, and the Northern one by verbs, understanding the world as processes. We are given one example: hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö “towards up behind enduring-flowing mooned” = “upward, behind the onstreaming, it mooned”. Despite this refusal to conceptualize nouns, there seems to be plural inflection; later on we learn that a hrön is an accidentally duplicated object, and the plural of the word is hrönir.

I started reading Borges because I wanted to try out Kató Lomb's language learning method (“just read books; don't use a dictionary”), and Spanish was the low-hanging fruit; but I'm afraid it's too low-hanging. I don't think there's anything for a Portuguese speaker to learn properly; I've never studied a single word of Spanish, and I can just pick a high-lit book from the shelves and read it, with higher comprehension than I have of Japanese (which I've studied for years). I remain skeptical that Portuguese even exists.


Alan Moore, Providence

Speaking of Lovecraft and book clubs.

Promethea was less a story than a soapbox for Moore to expound his ideas on art and the occult. Providence, similarly, is severely weakened if you just read it as a story. Each issue is something like a puzzle or scavenger's hunt, where every panel includes hidden allusions and references to the Lovecraftian mythos, to specific stories within it, and (more seldomly) to the developing plot. There are all sorts of little hints, like the panel borders: they're hand-drawn when the protagonist is going through mundane action, but become razor-sharp when in higher states of consciousness – dreams, hallucinations and… other things.

How does one approach such a beast? My method has been like this. First, I hit Facts in the Case of Alan Moore's Providence to find out which of Lovecraft's stories are referenced in this issue. I then read or re-read said stories. Then I read the issue, on the lookout for clues. Then I follow the relevant post in Facts..., which spills everything – and never fails to amaze me with how much of it went right over my head.

The end result is kind of a book club for re-exploring Lovecraft, and Moore's tying-together of it is just like your enthusiastic friend trying to fit all Tarantino movies together.


We've been living in scorching dry heat for some time now, but a cold front is about to hit; the dip in pressure hangs in the air like a promise. This led me to a barometer design by Goethe. Which got me wondering about the fragmentation of the modern age: why is it that the kind of person who knows how a barometer works now despises the kind of knowledge needed to appreciate a poem by Goethe, and vice-versa? And how to revert this state of affairs?

I'm still experimenting with the format, and your comments are welcome. Thank you for reading, and see you in a fortnight!