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Of Course!

10 January 2011 | Category: Language

I am ashamed to admit — especially here in public on my very blog — that until quite recently, I did not know what the phrase "of course" actually meant. I use the expression frequently, of course, like the literary equivalent of a nervous cough, but I simply took for granted that it was an idiomatic synonym of "naturally," an approximation of "certainly" or "obviously." I never bothered to consider the origins of the phrase.

Standing portrait of Charles Dickens around age 40

Charles Dickens in 1852. Daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet.

Then I read Bleak House, Charles Dickens' classic 1850s novel. Midway through Chapter 37, I came upon the following snippet of dialogue:

"Are you in debt again?"

"Why, of course I am," said Richard, astonished at my simplicity.

"Is it of course?"

That's where it struck me: "is it of course?" In other words: "is it a part the course you are taking?" or "is going into debt really part of the ordinary course of events?"

The meaning was there in the words all along: of + course = being a part of the course, a step in the path, a basic constituent of the circumstances. You can't avoid it; it's part of the course. Like that cursed bunker on the eighteenth hole.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the phrase "of course" was originally more limited in meaning that it is today. It was used as a modifier, and therefore writers needed to include a noun to be of course or a verb to do something of course: "a journey of course" is, for example, a journey to be expected as part of the procedure; "to dine of course" is to dine according to the recognized pattern of action; "a muffin of course" would be a muffin somehow implied by the sequence of events; "a matter of course" is a common expression that developed in this form. All these usages take "course" by its literal meaning: an established path, the way of things.

It was not until roughly the beginning of the 19th century, shortly before Dickens, that people started using "of course" as a set phrase, gradually discarding its literal implications. Speakers began to say "of course" as an affirmative answer to a question, as Richard did in Bleak House. They also began to interject it in the middle of their sentences, of course, to imply that what they were saying was only natural, or even to admit the obviousness of their statements.

The Google nGram Viewer reveals how "of course" grew to become a common English phrase over the 19th century. Using data from the scanned texts available at Google Books, the graph below tracks the frequency of the expression by plotting what percentage of all bigrams (or two-word sequences) in English language publications from 1750 to 2000 were the combination "of course."

As "of course" became more common, it became a unit, so that by the turn of the millennium I was able to grow up using the phrase from grade school through college without ever pausing to think about the significance of the words that make it up. That's embarrassing, perhaps, but too fascinating to keep to myself.

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Rhetoric and the Masses in “Julius Caesar”

8 February 2010 | Category: History, Language
Title page of Shakespeare's First Folio

The earliest published version of Julius Caesar appeared in Shakespeare's posthumous first folio, printed in 1623. Its title page is shown here.

Shakespeare's tragedy Julius Caesar commemorates one of the great turning points in the history of Western Civilization: the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire. Before the time of Caesar, Roman sovereignty had resided with the people and the Senate. After Caesar, power fell into the hands of a hereditary emperor. Shakespeare's play only presents a snapshot of one moment in this long period of transition. It is more poetry than history — but this is its virtue. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare asserts the power of words to mold minds and shape events. He makes language the real force behind history, casts oratory as its general, and crowns clever beguiling rhetoric as the true master of mankind.

Rome's true history is at times indistinguishable from its legends. According to the Roman historian Livy, the Roman Republic began in 509 BCE when the people of Rome revolted against King Tarquin the Proud and conferred authority upon an elected senate. Livy's stories and dates may only be myth, but it is clear that the SPQRSenatus Populusque Romanus, or the Senate and the People of Rome — governed Rome for several centuries with no king. Then, in 49 BCE, the Roman general Julius Caesar led his troops into civil war against the Senate. As Caesar gained power, he prevailed upon the Senate to declare him dictator in perpetuity in 45 BCE. Very quickly, however, a band of senators began to plot Caesar's assassination, fearful that he might otherwise establish a new monarchy and dissolve their republic. On March 15, 44 BCE, as many as sixty conspirators led by Senators Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus attacked Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey, stabbing him 23 times. Although Caesar's dictatorship had ended, his murder provoked a new civil war that ultimately led to the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of a new imperial monarchy under Octavius, who became Emperor Caesar Augustus in 27 BCE. Monarchy remained the dominant form of government in Europe until the twentieth century.

The play Julius Caesar, written around 1599 CE, is a dramatization of the Roman Senate's conspiracy against Julius Caesar and the beginnings of the civil war unleashed by his death, culminating in the defeat of the assassins Cassius and Brutus.1 Shakespeare based his play closely on the work of the Roman historian Plutarch, but he mixed tradition with poetic invention and contemporary English concerns. For Shakespeare, living in Elizabethan England, there was no such thing as a government without kings or queens. This certainly shaped the way Shakespeare viewed Rome's historic struggle between monarchy and republicanism. Julius Caesar was structured as a tragedy — the conspirators who hoped to maintain popular sovereignty by killing Caesar ultimately lost everything by their deed. The play was in part a warning of the chaos and conflict that could arise from the absence of strong leadership.

The most critical moments of Shakespeare's play take place in Act III, Scene 2 (read the text), shortly after Caesar's death. Rumors of the assassination had spread through Rome, and the scene opened upon a mass of citizens who had gathered in the forum awaiting more news. This crowd was addressed in turn by Marcus Brutus, one of the leading senators involved in the assassination, and Mark Antony, a fellow general and supporter of Caesar. As these men delivered their oratory, the people of Rome would decide on their reaction to Caesar's death and choose whether to support Brutus, the Senate and the Republic, or Antony, Caesar and tyranny.

Shakespeare depicted the "throng of citizens" in Julius Caesar as helpless to think for themselves in the face of the powerful language wielded by Brutus and Antony. The masses were convinced first by one speaker and then the other. In the end, the people made Antony and Caesar their heroes and Brutus their villain. Tyranny prevailed, and the scene appropriately closed with news of the arrival of Octavius ― the man who would become Emperor. In order to see why the citizens in Shakespeare's play ultimately chose to revolt against their own sovereignty, it is essential to examine the speeches of this scene and uncover the inner workings of their rhetorical magic.

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The Genetics of Language

21 July 2009 | Category: Language

Genetics is the study of inherited variation. While it usually refers to biological heredity, genetics can apply to language as well. Language, like life, is constantly evolving. From the time when an utterance is first given meaning, it is subjected to powerful forces of change. Some words are never more than passing fads, and they die within a generation. Other words take a strong hold. Over time, these survivors mutate and their families expand. The largest word families can fill pages of dictionaries in several languages. What better word-family to exemplify the genetics of words than the family that includes the word genetics itself?

The English noun genetics, first used in its current sense in 1905, is immediately descended from the adjective genetic, meaning "of or relating to origin or development." Genetic, in turn, is derived from the Latin word genesis, borrowed from the Greek word γένεσις (genesis), which means origin or creation—you may recognize it as the name of the first book of Judeo-Christian scripture. Finally, the word genesis itself stems from the Proto-Indo-European root gen-, meaning "to produce" or "to be born."

The Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) was spoken around five or six thousand years ago. Its use predates the development of writing, which means that this language left no direct record of its existence. The exact time and place when it was spoken is hard to trace with certainty. Nonetheless, linguists are certain that PIE existed, because it left children: other languages that were written and that are so similar they must have sprung from a common ancestor. These related languages, which originated as regional dialects of PIE and slowly drifted apart into separate tongues, form a group called the Indo-European language family. This family today includes over 400 languages, including English and its close relatives like German and French, as well as more distant cousins like Greek, Russian, Persian, and Hindi. All these languages have a common origin, which means they are endowed with many similarities. Look, for example, at the word used to mean "mother" in various Indo-European languages:

English German French Greek Russian Persian Hindi
Mother Mutter Mère μητέρα (mētéra) мать (mat') مادر (madar) माता (mataji)

These words are too similar to have come about independently—they share a common root. By comparing the word for mother in various Indo-European languages, linguists can reconstruct a hypothetical root word in the Proto-Indo-European language. In this case, the root word is believed to be mater. This root word has also mutated in other directions, so a number of modern English words can be counted as its children, including maternal, matron, matriarch, matrix, and matriculate.

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Metaphorically Speaking

6 January 2009 | Category: Language

I adore the name we've given our galaxy. The Milky Way—so delicious! It escaped the strange titles given to our near neighbors like Andromeda, Triangulum, and the ever-romantic Large Magellanic Cloud. Milky Way is much more homey. It's very pastoral, the sort of name you'd expect for a meandering country lane that runs between the co-op creamery and the local dairy farms. It's also what we've called our galaxy for thousands of years. Indeed, it's inherent in the very word "galaxy," which was coined in ancient Greece and spelled γαλαξίας: gamma, alpha, lambda, alpha, xi, iota, alpha, sigma; galaxias. This is derived from the root word γάλα, gala, milk. So this is how we, as meager earthlings, can begin to make sense of the great cosmic swirling mass of stars 193.1 quadrillion times the mass of our own planet—by expressing it in terms of a streak of milk against the nighttime sky. There's something incredibly humble and human about that.

Humans are always expressing meaning through metaphor, to simplify complexities otherwise impossible for any but the experts to understand. Such everyday figurative language fills our lexicon. Computing, as you might expect, is a field full of these metaphors. You probably enlisted the aid of a mouse to get to this page—not a furry rodent, but a sophisticated piece of computer hardware that makes up part of the human-machine interface. You might be thinking of this website as a page, but it's really data rendered to your screen in an array of lighted pixels, and it's unlike anything you'd find in a book. We talk about going to web sites, as if they were locations to explore, even though the data really is being sent to us while we sit still. People might call this surfing the net, but it's not at all like what they do on the beaches of California. There's simply no way to understand things as complex as a virtual world comprised of nothing but electrons, except to make metaphors and draw analogies.

On one hand, I think this aspect of human thought and language reveals the limit to our status as "intelligent" beings. To understand anything even remotely outside our normal experiences, we have to resort to this childlike and rather innocent scheme of naming things after what we're familiar with. It shows how, for all our modern scientific arrogance, we still understand very little of the world for what it really is.

Simultaneously, however, it is a tremendous asset that we can just reuse simple ideas to conceptualize about complicated things that would, otherwise, remain forever outside our grasp. This capacity is in fact the very root of our intelligence and the very mechanism of language. Once we know a little, we can learn things not by what they are, but simply by what they're like—and thus, from our own experiences, we can build a mental model of the universe that allows us to do very real things, from the everyday experience of empathizing with another's thoughts to the very complex operation of sending telescopes to space to better understand the galaxy, our Milky Way. We do this all by using analogical frames of reference. We do it all by speaking, and thinking, in metaphors.

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Music and Meaning

27 December 2008 | Category: Arts, Language

Selection of the Score from Vivaldi's Concerto No. 1 in E major (Spring)

Selection of the score from Vivaldi's Concerto No. 1 in E major (Spring)

"Music," wrote nineteenth century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "is the universal language of mankind." This is a striking statement—and I fear the claims of poets are always best served cum grano salis to allow for gentle seasoning and healthy skepticism. Music is not language. Nor is music universal. It may be made by people everywhere, but the styles, contexts, interpretations and meanings can vary tremendously between cultures. Throughout this diversity, however, music remains an intensely communicative medium. It stirs our emotions, colors our stories, and even defines our identities. It isn't language, but still, it does speak to us in its way. How does music communicate? Why is music different from language? By examining one against the other, we might learn a little about each.

It's easy to demonstrate what separates the language and music. To start, music is not language, because children don't grow up learning music to tell their parents "I'm hungry" or to ask "Are we their yet?" Music is not language, because although one could write a score for The Tempest, no musical arrangement alone could reveal the story. A composer might write a piece inspired by Shakespeare's words, but no listener would ever hear it and think, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep." Fundamentally, music is not language because it lacks language's precise symbolism: its words. In English, for instance, if someone wants to talk about a dog, he can simply say the word "dog," and be done with it—even though there is no real connection between word and beast but for the symbolic association people have created. It's true in any language: dog, canis, chien, perro, hund, собака, كلب, कुत्ता, 狗, 犬; ten different languages, ten different words, none of them anything like the animal we call a dog, but all of them carrying exactly that meaning. There is no word, however—no note, chord, rhythm, or melody—that means dog in music. Music is not a language.

Music relies on different mechanisms to carry meaning. Instead of communicating by abstract symbolism, music evokes meaning through emotion and resemblance. The latter of these, meaning through resemblance, might also be called meaning by mimicry. So it is that although there is no specific musical symbol to denote "dog," a skillful composer could still use music to imitate a dog's barking, growling, scratching, and howling, and thereby convey meaning by reminding listeners of the things they associate with the animal. Antonio Vivaldi famously employed this method in The Four Seasons, imitating birdsongs, raindrops, and thunderstorms to indicate different times of year. Of course, meaning by mimicry is more complex than simply imitating the sounds a thing makes. Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, as an example, reminds listeners by its sparse instrumentation that it was recorded in the isolation of a northern Wisconsin cabin during winter. Inventive composers can communicate myriad ideas by trying to find a way to employ pitch, rhythm, and instrumentation to evoke our thoughts on a particular subject.

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