Saturday, 20 December 2008

Star Trek: Beowulf

I was going to post about an article at the economist concerning the development of the English language, but since this week saw the passing of a brilliant, shining star of a woman, I figured I would wait on that until next week, and instead do a post about Star Trek.

Majel Barrett, wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and sci-fi heroine in her own right, passed away December 18 at the age of 76. Aside from her roles as Nurse Chapel on the original series, and the forthright and outgoing Lwaxana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, she also played the voice of the ship's computers, and produced two further series: Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict, both excellent shows in their own rights. She will be sorely missed.

And so, as an excuse to talk about Star Trek on a medieval blog, here's the trailer for the wonderfully wrong Star Trek: Voyager episode "Heroes and Demons," in which the holographic Doctor, going by the ever-so-heroic name Schweitzer (Robert Picardo), enters a holodeck program gone bad, taking on the role of Beowulf to fight an alien entity that has taken the place of the monster Grendel in the holo-novel. Hilarity ensues.

Normal Version (funny in its own right)

Benny Hill Version (dubbed over with Yakety Sax, courtesy of the BennyHillifier)



Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Rhetoric of Change

So I was reading an older post by Michael over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak (Dec. 8 -- Good Rhetoric = Bad Argument), and it got me thinking: of course rhetoric can be used to hide logical flaws in an argument -- the Ad Herennium depicts rhetoric first and foremost as the skill-set of lawyers and politicians, after all -- but it can also be used to elevate the truth, and to unite people in a common belief.

I am writing, as you may or may not have guessed from the title, of the speech given by President-Elect Barack Obama on the night of 4 November 2008. Like many millions of others, I found myself hanging on every word. At the end of his speech, a lump in my throat, the first thing I thought to myself was something to the effect of "wow, America is great again." And to be fair, that's pretty impressive, given that I'm a Canadian. The second thing I thought was, "wow, I wonder who wrote that speech."

It was a speech that would have made Aaron Sorkin either proud or jealous. Despite the number of brilliant things that came out of the mouth of the fictional President Jed Bartlett, very few in the one hundred fifty-five episodes he wrote came close to giving me the feeling researchers are now calling 'elevation,' the feeling Obama's speech inspired in myself and millions of others that night.

I've been meaning to take a closer look at it since then.

Part of the success of that speech was the hope the now President-Elect was peddling: hope for the future, hope of a better tomorrow. Part of its success was in the delivery: clear, concise, confident. But for my two bits, the greater part of the success of that speech was its level of rhetorical sophistication.

While the first half of the speech (about a thousand words, the whole totalling a little over two) was mostly average political and/or heartfelt thank-yous to friends, family, and campaign workers, the second half was a rhetorical masterpiece. The speech was based around the same thesis that his entire campaign was based around: first, (explicitly) that "America can change," and second, (less explicitly) that change is a positive thing.

It focused around the life and experiences of a 106-year-old black woman named Ann Nixon Cooper, and while I'm certain that she's a perfectly nice person, I think we can agree that the President-Elect wasn't actually talking about her. She was a metaphor for the progress (remember, change is a good thing) that America has made over the past hundred or so years.

Tied together by the antistrophic refrain "yes we can" at the end of half a dozen verses, the speech plots the positive changes America has seen in the last century, and does so with flair. Anaphora, balance, isocolon, asyndeton, polysyndeton and rhetorical questions -- these are some of the more frequently used (and well used) structural devices in the speech. Every statement is balanced, every phrase is mirrored, all building to culminate in a dozen lines of some of the most stirring prose America has seen in decades.

If you'll bear with me, I'll go into a bit of detail. Below are quoted the final lines of the speech. I've added brackets and underlining in areas to try to give a sense of the structural repetition that gives the writing its power.

"America, (we have come so far.) (We have seen so much.) But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves -- [if our children should live to see the next century];[if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper], (what change will they see?) (What progress will we have made?)

"[This is our chance to answer that call.] [This is our moment.]

"[This is our time,] (to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids;) (to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace;) (to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth,) [that, out of many, we are one;] [that while we breathe, we hope.] (And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people): Yes, we can."

As you can see, the sentences begin in pairs -- "we have come so far," "we have seen so much;" "if our children should live..." "if my daughters should be so lucky..." -- and then graduate to triplets -- "this is our chance," "this is our moment," "this is our time" -- culminating in three actions to take place now: "to put... back to work," "to restore," and "to reclaim."

Then there is a contraction: two doublets -- "out of many, we are one," and "while we breathe, we hope" -- and a single, long, balanced phrase. Sum it up with a final repetition of the refrain, and you have what may be the perfect way to end a speech. Can this man write? Yes, he can.

Even in the nuances earlier in the speech this ability is obvious. In listing the changes America has seen, he gives us this gem:

"A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination."

In addition to the obvious lack of conjunctions (asyndeton), and the tripartite structure (balance or isocolon, depending who you ask), this sentence also gives us three things, three nouns: a man, a wall, and a world. For me, this is the reader's digest version of the whole Obama campaign -- everything he sold, every word in every speech he gave can be boiled down to these: the individual, adversity, and the prize for overcoming it. The American Dream.


But there's a dark side to such mastery of rhetoric. You'll note that nowhere did you find yourself thinking, "what about the bad changes?" Nowhere in my mind stirred thoughts of the gradual overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the rise of the religious wrong, the spread of unintelligent design. That's the 'black magic' of rhetoric, nowhere did he say "all change is good," but I bet you believed it by the end. I know I did.

The danger of rhetoric is this: if it is used well, it doesn't need to convince the listeners of the speaker's correctness; if it is used well, the listeners will want the speaker to be right so intensely that they will convince themselves of the speaker's correctness.

Don't get me wrong, I buy it. Hook, line and sinker, I buy what that man is selling. But do remember, that whether you like the product or not, it's still being sold.

But then perhaps that's the real change America needed: someone who had both enough moral fortitude to think that hope (rather than zealotry, xenophobia or ignorance) was a product Americans would want to buy, and also enough pragmatism to get past his idealism and actually try to sell it.

Wow, that was a long post.



Reassessing the 'Are we dancer?' debate

I'm inspired to follow up on Vellum's post yesterday about The Killers and their poor choice of lyrics in 'Human.' This had actually been a serious matter of debate amongst pop music aficionados, for most people agree it's a shit line. However, some people are inclined to defend it, given that it came out of the mouth of The Killers, clearly tehbestbandevarz!!1!*

The band, in turn, defends the lyrics as being inspired by Hunter S. Thomson, and thus being incredibly intellectual. Plus, Brandan Flowers insists he put a lot of thought into that lyric, because it meant a lot to him. Or something.

So there's accusations flying, and defenses popping out of the woodwork, which means I need to weigh in. My official opinion, thus, is:

Where have you BEEN? The Killers have NEVER written good lyrics.

The Evidence:

1) All These Things I've Done

'I got soul, but I'm not a soldier.'

I get what they were going for – 'soul' sounds like the first half of 'soldier,' blah blah. Sadly, the English language is not about pretty sounds. The meaning is, I would, perhaps strangely, argue, more important. And 'soul' has nothing to do with 'soldiers.' Vellum postulates that perhaps soldiers are defined by their souls, and thus having a soul but not being a soldier is something curious.

Yeah, I laughed in his face, too.

2) When You Were Young

'Waiting on some beautiful boy to /To save you from your old ways / You play forgiveness.'

How, exactly, does one 'play' forgiveness? Pretend? Feign? Offer? Or is Forgiveness a piano standard I'm missing? Perhaps Memory?

3) Bones

'But I don't really like you / apologetically dressed in the best / but on a heartbeat glide.'

'Apologetically dressed in the best' I'll let slide, because it's probably some poetic notion that I'm simply not going to give any thought to. But 'on a heartbeat glide'... what does that even mean? Gliding on a heartbeat? Though a perfectly acceptable phrase, that doesn't make sense in context. Or maybe it's like the Electric Slide, a retro dance move that we've forgotten about. The Heartbeat Glide. Sounds like a winner – I'll try it out at the next wedding I attend.**

4) Human

'My sign is vital.'

I get what he's trying to do here... but no. Unless you're an astrologer, no. Again, confusing the 'sounds good' with that pesky 'meaning' that words and phrases carry. Ah well. We don't pay him to write good lyrics. We pay him to make marketable, bouncy, obnoxious, family friendly music.


Thus, I'm not sure what the drama over the 'dancer' bit is. They've always written lousy lyrics. For that matter, so have most pop artists.


*The opinions expressed are not those of the author. Mercifully.

**Which will then probably be the last wedding I attend. Double score.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Beowulf and Dancing.

I was going to post on the underground cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu in Turkey, but then I realized I had nothing to say about them except "Wow, these are pretty neat." This would make for a very short post.

So, moving on to other things, I was listening to the radio, and Hunter S. Thomson asked me (in the guise of the rock-pop group The Killers) "are we human, or are we dancer?" The obvious grammatical mistake notwithstanding, I figured it was a good enough question to be worth trying to answer from a medieval standpoint. Then I realized that until about 1450, nobody wrote things down about dancing. According to Karen Miriam Silen, in the book "Women and Gender in Medieval Europe" by Margaret Schaus (pp.187-8):

"Despite the large number of references to dance, however, medieval writers recorded surprisingly few details about specific movements of steps before the middle of the fifteenth century, when a few Italian dance masters produced the earliest known manuals."

"Fortunately," she writes, knowing I want more,

"a great deal of information about earlier dance practices can be gleaned from medieval sources, including chronicles, saints' lives, preachers' aids (especially collections of sermons and moral tales called exempla), and treatises of the vices and virtues."

What she fails to mention is how much the 'epic' (and I use the term VERY loosely)* poem Beowulf can tell us about manly dancing in the -cough-dark-cough-** ages.

[You'll forgive me, I hope, for using an online translation for those of us who don't speak Old English naturally. The translation is courtesy of Dr. Anne Savage of McMaster University, with her Beowulf in Hypertext website.]

The dance begins with a strong hero sleeping on the floor. Then enters another strong-man into the hall and the dance begins.

"Straight away he seized a sleeping warrior," reads the text. Of course this first partner is not the primary, and he is soon eaten. But!

"Then farther he hied; for the hardy hero with hand he grasped."

The dance begins -- in earnest. Beowulf "clutched [the claw] boldly," reads the text, going toe-to-toe with the other æglæca.

"Up he bounded, grasped firm his foe, whose fingers cracked." It's a little icky, maybe, but wow, that is one strong and manly grip.

"The fiend made off, but the earl close followed." Who is leading, who is following? I don't know for certain, but I do know both were "gay with gold."

Okay. Maybe only Mr. B was.

In the end, Grendel has enough of dancing with our hero, the Alpha Male, and heads home: "Grendel thence...his den in the dark moor sought."

And sure, this little doe-see-doe ends with one partner ripping off the arm of the other, but you know what?

I think it's romantic.

Well kinda.

At least you'll read my next post. And that's what's important, right? :D


* If it doesn't have at least twelve books it's not an epic anything.

** Don't get me started.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The Venetian 'Dialetto'

For my inaugural post, I'm afraid I'm going to confuse you all a little. Though I represent the Art History portion of this blog, I'm going to begin with some musings on linguistics. Sorry for the confusion. But this was simply too interesting to pass up.

An article from The Times Online discusses the Venetian 'dialect,' Veneto. Do check it out- it's fascinating. So, naturally, I wanted to discuss it a little.

First, background: the language known as Italian is actually one of many 'dialects' from the Italian peninsula. It was originally the Tuscan language, spoken by those in and around Florence – namely Petrarch and Dante. With the move for unification, however, those in charge of such things began to push for an 'Italian' language, and decided upon an amalgamation of Tuscan and highlights of the other Italian languages. Why Tuscan? Why, to preserve Petrarch and Dante's language, of course.

Most curiously, it was the twentieth century and the joys of television that unified Italy under a single language. I find such a clear effect on a language fascinating. If not for television, Italy would probably still not have a unified language. As it is, it is still not unusual to have Italian grandparents who don't speak 'Italian,' but some vaguely familiar variant. As an American, the Italian grandmother I met could not understand a word I said, partly due to the differing 'dialect,' and partly from my accent. She grew up outside Tuscany, and thus grew up speaking another language altogether.

Traces of these varying 'dialects' (I keep using quotes because they are actually different languages) remain in traces here and there: the inability of northern Italians to understand those from Sicily or southern Italy, or the ability of Venetians to speak and be utterly incomprehensible. We're not talking accents here, like a southern American accent, or a rural Canadian accent. These are completely different languages, sharing only a common ancestor (Latin, of course).

Back to the article. The Venetian language seems to have remained the vernacular in Venice, with both the wealthiest and the poorest citizens still able to speak it, untainted by Italian. Children who are taught Italian in school still learn Veneto from their elders and from their playmates. As someone who is pained by the many languages dying every year, this positively warms my heart. (Vellum is not the only linguistic aficionado on this blog)

Also fascinating is the list of English words derived from Veneto. Even 'ciao' is descended from the Veneto 'vostro schiavo.'

Those of you who know Italian should by now be wondering how similar the two languages are. My first impression was that reading Veneto was like reading medieval Italian: basically the same, with enough letters dropped off to be confusing, and thus much easier to comprehend when spoken aloud.

But then I looked a bit deeper.

There remains the 'Venetian dialect' of Italian, which is very closely related to Italian, except with those dropped letters. Wikipedia offers us 'Marco sta rivando' vs 'Marco sta arrivando' for comparison. But in Veneto, it becomes 'Marco el se drio rivar.' I can make sense of half of that sentence, but the 'se drio' throws me. Clearly, Veneto is not a dialect of Italian. It is more closely related to Spanish and French than to Italian, and from a brief encounter with the alphabet, I'll suggest it has more than a couple of ties to eastern European languages like Hungarian, as well.

The article, sadly, does not address many of these differences, but check out the Wikipedia article for a more detailed explanation and some lovely links.

(Kudos to Cranky Professor for the original link.)

Hope that's given you something to think about.


Obligatory Welcome Post

Welcome to the blog.

Let us introduce ourselves. I am Vaulting, and my cohort is Vellum. We are bizarre individuals who happen to be medievalists. You can expect largely the same from this blog – bizarre musings with a bit of medievalia thrown in here and there. Vellum in particular has a wide range of interests, so expect his posts to be somewhat all over the place. I hope to keep my posts more medieval-centric, but no promises. We'll see how it goes.

Do check out the links we've listed ––––––––>
They're usually more entertaining than we are, and well worth a visit.

Vellum promises a post tomorrow on Derinkuyu and Cappadocia (Turkey), so I'd recommend stopping by for that. Underground cities are just bloody cool.

Vaulting and Vellum