Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Review -- Limits of Language

Another one of our occasional MOTP reviews (a positive one, this time). Obviously, it was written some time ago. But my delight in this book remains unabated:

Limits of Language

by Mikael Parkvall

"Limits of Language" arrived today from Amazon. I've never smoked crack, but reading this book approximates what I imagine it would feel like -- an initial rush of pure pleasure, followed by the irresistible craving for just one more bump, yielding to that craving over and over until - six hours later - you find yourself surrounded by cats not fed, laundry not done, unwashed dishes, unpaid bills, and yet you still can't stop yourself. You want more. You want it to last forever. Damn you, Mikael Parkvall! How could you write a book that caters so brilliantly to my utter fascination with words and all things language-related? And be so smart and funny too?

I just tore myself away to feed the cats and pass this message along to goodreads members. There are still three shopping weeks until Christmas. Nobody else appears to be listing this book. So - if you know anyone with an interest in words or language - buy them a copy. Their puppy-like gratitude will last all year. Heck, now that it's out in paperback, you can get your own copy for less than twenty bucks.

A pdf preview of the detailed table of contents and the first 19 pages is here:

The table of contents at the link above is very detailed, but fails to capture the author's wit, and the sheer geekish zaniness of some of the topics. Some highlights -

A 30-page "linguist's calendar", marking the anniversary of various linguistic milestones (e.g. 'birth of Kanzi, the most talking ape there is';'the Dalmatian language becomes extinct, when the last surviving speaker accidentally steps on a landmine') giving linguists an excuse to celebrate throughout the year.

Habla Usted Phrase-Bookish? A side-splitting selection of useless phrases culled from phrasebooks around the world. For instance -

"At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?"
"I have my own syringe".
"The beast had a human body, the feet of a buck, and a horn on its head".
"I don't play the violin, but I love cheese".

Untranslatable Words: e.g. the Kuot word aFone "to drink from a bottle in such a fashion that drool trickles from the mouth back into the bottle", the Czech umudrovat se "to philosophize oneself into the madhouse", or the Ciluba word ilunga "a person who is willing to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time".

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to reading about the word's most dadaistic verb morphology*.

I don't play the violin, but I LOVE this book!

* Oh, OK. Here is the paragraph in question:

Linguists are supposed to take languages seriously. We are not supposed to laugh at them. So, apologies to all Kobon speakers out there, but I just can't help it. The prize for the language with the verb morphology most looking like it had been thought up by Tristan Tzara must go to Kobon. If there are any sceptics among the readers, here follows the suffixal paradigm for the counterfactual mood in Kobon:

1sg -- bnep 1du -- blop 1pl -- bnop
2sg -- bnap 2du -- blep 2pl -- bep
3sg -- böp 3du -- blep 3pl -- blap

The Quiet Man

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It may look inviting, and I'm sure those 5€ mojitos are delicious. But, lemme tell you, the ambience can only be described as distinctly creepy. Not in a good way, either. More in a transvestite hooker kind of way. A pity, since it would be a good candidate for my local hangout, being right next door to the building my apartment's in.

Varmint Cuisine

Ever since I was bitten by an American gray squirrel (right), for a crime no worse than feeding it peanuts, it's no secret that I have not been a fan of this particular form of vermin. They are just rats with bushy tails, and don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise.

Thus, the news that Great Britain has instituted a campaign to save the native red squirrel population by encouraging the hunting and eating of the varmints on the right in the picture can only be considered a step forward for mankind. So, to my British readers out there, what are you waiting for? Shouldn't you be out there hunting to feed your family?

As the slogan puts it, "Eat a squirrel! Save a squirrel!"

Source: New York Times, January 7th, 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Abstinence Teacher

Here at MOTP, we run occasional book reviews. Filtering out the dreck so that you don't have to.

WARNING: may not be entirely suitable for maiden aunts.

by Tom Perrotta.


Tommy, Tommy, Tommy! How did such a promising young literary stud like yourself turn out to be such an emasculated whore? When did things start to go so horribly, horribly wrong?

Let me be clear. When I picked you up at the airport in San Francisco, it was with entirely clear-eyed, realistic expectations. Let's face it. I wasn't looking for the literary love of my life. Just a two-plane romance - enough to while away the time it takes to get from SFO to Madrid. Maybe a little bathroom nookie during my stopover in Dulles. And believe me - I'm no snob about this s**t. I think there's everything to be said for the fleeting joy of airplane lit. Done right, it can be one of life's great pleasures. And the possibility can never be ruled out that it may lead to a deeper and more passionate commitment. I mean, look at Nate and Brenda in "Six Feet Under", and how well it worked out for them. Even the briefest of airport bathroom encounters is pregnant with possibility.

So I'll admit to a certain nervous excitement as I boarded the plane at SFO, your manly bulk in my pocket, pressing against my crotch in mute promise of pleasures yet to come. And for the first 20 pages or so, you didn't disappoint. There was wit, a sense of direction, a certain ability to nail characters with brisk efficiency within a couple of snappy paragraphs.

But I should have heeded the warning signs that were obvious right there in the book store. Even if the appalling cutesy biographical sketch could be excused as a horrendous contrivance foisted upon you by your publicist, there was that truly worrisome 'author portrait', which presumably you had to have approved at the very least. You know the one I'm talking about. The one where your desperate need to be liked permeates every line of the simpering come-hither rictus of a wistful little-lost-geisha-boy pout that you project to your potential johns. It might as well have been subtitled "me make you happy long time".

Did they teach you that at geisha school, Tommy? To try to be all things to all men? Because, here's the thing, eunuchboy. Let me let you in on a little secret. Nowadays even the sweatiest of Japanese salarymen no longer finds the response "Who would you like me to be?" even faintly arousing in answer to the question "Who are you?".

So that, when your thin excuse for a bold courageous novel touching on polemic issues related to sex education degenerated into an incoherent mess of not wanting to offend anybody under any circumstances, frankly my frustration increased in direct proportion to the flaccidity of your prose. What was particularly weird was that you were hardly fooling anyone with your lethally boring 150 pages of padding trying to cover up the moral vacuum at the heart of your cardboard ex-stoner Jesus freak.

And what about plot, Tommy? Do castrati get a pass?


Or is that what passes for resolution these days? Fading to black as hormonal Barbie and stoner Ken get it on. Despite the well-documented lack of genitalia of said eponymous action figurines.

And apparently of the author of this excessively wordy piece of trash of a book, devoid of almost any smidgen of intellectual content. Guaranteed to offend nobody. Unless, of course, you have a brain

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A ruthless rhyme

L'Enfant Glacé

When Baby's cries grew hard to bear,
I popped him in the Frigidaire.
I never would have done so if,
I'd known that he'd be frozen stiff.
My wife said: 'George, I'm so unhappé!
Our darling's now completely frappé!

(from "Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes", 1902, by Harry Graham)


I hadn't intended to see "My Name is Harvey Milk" tonight. But I had a hard time finding the movie theatre, so that by the time I got there, the film I'd intended to see was already 15 minutes underway, so I chose Harvey Milk instead. It just blew me away - extraordinarily moving, and Sean Penn's performance has to be among the top five performances I've seen by any actor or actress. In anything. Ever.

I'm still so jazzed by the film it's hard to consider going to bed. But it's midnight, so I'd best call it a day for now.

A truly wonderful movie, all the better for having stumbled across it serendipitously.

Some cows are scarier than others

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En la Escuela

So, classes started yesterday, and once again I am left to ponder the eternal question - what is it about studying advanced Spanish that makes it a virtually exclusively female pursuit? I am the only guy in a class of 8. It's odd, because there are plenty of male students in the school - they just apparently never make it through to the most advanced levels.

I'm also the oldest, though not egregiously so - the age mix is definitely better than in Buenos Aires. Once again, my classmates make the mistake of underestimating me, presumably on the entirely erroneous assumption that anyone over 50 must essentially be some kind of doddering escapee from the senior citizens' center. Why then, was I the only one to know that the Smurfs are called "los pitufos" en español (a term also used as a synonym for the English phrase "rug rats")?
Or that this gentleman:

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is called "Bob Esponja".

I also know the names of the seven dwarves in Thpanish, but I didn't want to show off. (OK, just a little: "Grumpy" is "Gruñon" and "Sleepy" is "Dormilón").

In other news, all of Madrid is bery bery happy that Penelope won the Oscar. This was the first thing I learned when I showed up for class yesterday morning, even before taking the placement test. El País ran a whole special on her, including the most hilarious picture of her first communion class, wherein she can already be seen preening in ostentatiously diva-like fashion. My sources here inform me reliably that she and Javier Bardem are an item. Also that the Bardem family run a restaurant right in the neighborhood. Which, believe me, I fully intend to track down.

My readers deserve nothing less.