Old English in LoTR
This month, Peter Jackson’s film The Two Towers hits theaters in the United States. It is the second installment of Jackson’s dramatization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. It seems an opportune time to take a look at Tolkien’s use of language to set the tone and environment of Middle-earth, particularly his use of Old English.
Tolkien was not simply a writer of fantasy stories. He had a day job as a professor of philology at Merton College, Oxford. He was one of the world’s foremost experts on Old English and his 1936 essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, revolutionized the teaching and study of Anglo-Saxon literature, treating the poem as a work of literature for the first time, rather than just a historical artifact. The Middle-earth stories about hobbits and wizards were simply a hobby and a way to amuse his children.
Word Of The Month: Weapon of Mass Destruction
The word (actually it is a noun phrase) of the month is:
Weapon of Mass Destruction, n., a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon. Sometimes radiological weapons are included in the definition. Also WMD. In use since at least 1937. Pre-1945 uses of the term referred to conventional weapons of great destructive power, such as the bombing of cities by aircraft, and chemical weapons.
Weapons of mass destruction have been all over the news lately. The United States is gearing up for war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein continues to develop them. The United Nations has sent inspectors to Iraq to ensure that he does not, in fact, possess such weapons. And in the midst of this, North Korea announces that it has a nuclear weapons program, in violation of agreements it has entered into with other nations.
American Dialect: New York Speak
One of the most distinctive dialects in the United States is that found in New York City. Often called Brooklynese (a misnomer as the dialect is common to all five boroughs, plus parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, and not just Brooklyn), the dialect has been introduced to the world via Hollywood, from the Bowery Boys to the Sopranos.
New York is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the country. Not everyone there speaks with the New York dialect. And unlike the dialects of other regions, like Boston or the South, the New York dialect is class-based. The higher you are on the social ladder, the less likely you are to sound like a New Yorker.
Correction: Hub City
In last month’s issue, in the article on New England dialect, we said that Boston was called the Hub or Hub City because Bostonians considered it the hub of the universe. While this may be true in the hearts of Bostonians, it is not the exact origin of the term. The term is from a quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (father of the jurist), who said in the 1858 Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, “Boston Statehouse is the hub of the solar system.”
Slang In Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Part II)
(This is part two of a two-part article. The first installment appeared in last month’s issue.)
Last month, we took a look at Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (BtVS), a popular US television series that uses slang, both real and created, to set the mood and establish the characters. The show follows the exploits of Buffy Summers, the one girl in all the world endowed with the preternatural powers needed to slay vampires and fight the demonic forces of evil. Aided by her friends Willow and Xander, as well as by her “Watcher” Giles, she works to rid the world of evil, starting with her hometown of Sunnydale, California.
In the first part of the article we examined how BtVS used actual slang terms and phrases to good effect. This month, we will look at how the writers use a few derivational rules and patterns to create a wide variety of unique slang terms. We will also examine the speech patterns of a few of the characters to see how the writers and actors use language to establish and shape the characters.
Word Of The Month: Diplomacy
War is on everyone lips. Will the United States attack Iraq? What is being done to get weapons inspectors back into that country? What is going on at the United Nations Security Council and back in the foreign ministries at capitals around the world? The word of the month for November is:
Diplomacy, n., the conduct of international relations through negotiation, the methods and skills by which this is achieved. From the French diplomatie (pronounced –cie). In English since 1796.
Here we take a look at some of the words associated with diplomacy, what they mean and where they come from.
Slang In Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Part I)
(This is part one of a two-part article. The second installment will appear in the November issue.)
It is not unusual for movies to use accents and dialects to create mood and a sense of location. Whether it is Meryl Streep adopting a Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice, Joe Pesci playing the out of towner with a New York accent in My Cousin Vinnie, or the entire cast of the Coen brothers’ Fargo setting the location in rural Minnesota, the use of dialect in entertainment is well established. The use of dialect in television, however, is rarer. Sure there is the occasional character from New York who is readily identifiable by his accent and use of youse guys, but other uses are of dialect relatively rare. One show, however, that makes good use of dialect, but not always the dialect of a particular place, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Book Review: Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
Randall Kennedy has penned an insightful, thought-provoking, and balanced discussion of what he terms (in a gross understatement) “a troublesome word.” Nigger is perhaps the last surviving language taboo in American discourse. It is a word with tremendous social impact. It has been used as a justification for murder, university professors have been stripped of tenure merely for uttering it, and it is the one word that white rap artist Eminem refuses to utter.
Kennedy opens the book with a discussion of the word’s etymology, pointing out that it is from the Latin for black and that initially it was not derogatory. But by the early 19th century nigger had acquired a distinct offensiveness. Not only was it used to denigrate African-Americans, but it also served as social marker for the whites who uttered it; it is not a word used by the polite classes. Kennedy spends much of the first chapter giving examples of the cruelty and oppression delivered upon African-Americans over the centuries by whites using that term.
Word Of The Month: Halloween
The end of October is when all the ghosts and goblins come out. 31 October is Halloween and that is our word of the month. Presented here is something of a Halloween bestiary of spooks and specters (and some commonplace things) that one might find on the last night of the month.
Halloween, n., holiday celebrated on 31 October, supposedly the night that witches and demons emerge. The word is a clipping of All-Hallow Even. The modern, clipped form is from the 18th century, but All Hallow’s Eve dates to the 16th, and Allhallowmass, denoting all the saints, dates to 1083. According to the Celtic calendar, 1 November was the first day of the New Year. The night of last day of October was Old Year’s Night or the night of the witches. With the coming of Christianity, it was transformed into a holiday to celebrate the saints.
Book Review: The Way We Talk Now
Since 1989, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has been a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. He regularly delivers essays about the changing nature of the American language. The Way We Talk Now is a collection of some of the best of these radio essays.
His essays cover the spectrum of language change, from etymology to the influence of politics on language to grammar and usage issues. His subjects include cigarette jingles, how the meaning of superman has changed over the years, what is a cult, and spelling bees.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton