Friday, January 27, 2006


One of the most difficult questions concerning the English language is which case of pronoun should follow "than".

Technically speaking, the nominative should probably be used. This is because the pronoun is actually the subject of an implied verb. Let's look at an example:

I was more surprised than he. (Notice "he" in the nominative as a subject pronoun).

The verb "was" is implied.

In modern speech, however, this is rarely used. "Than" is almost always followed by the accusative (the object case) of the pronoun. There is no grammatical defense for this usage unless we suppose the existence of superpronouns.

I suggest that anything following "than" in this type of sentence is actually the object and should be in the accusative. This superpronoun encapsulates the entire implied clause (subject + verb).

I was more surprised than him. (Here, "him" is a superpronoun which stands for the implied clause: "he was".)

Note that this issue is transparent for proper nouns because their accusative and nominative forms are the same and we don't notice the case.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Perseus at the Met

This weekend, my wife and I visited the Greek Antiquities wing of the Met (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City). It's easy to miss because you have to go left from the main entrance instead of forging directly ahead.

Last time I visited, I didn't find that wing until the very end of the day and my head was already throbbing with the discord of European Impressionist followed by Asian Art, African, Mexican, Early American (including a breathtaking collection of Tiffany glass), Modern Art (some Warhol and that giant, autumnal Jackson Pollock). Considered by most people to be one of the top three museums in the world, it certainly packs a punch.

This time we were wiser. We entered the building and immediately headed left. We limited our taste of the museum's treasures to a double helping of Hellenic history.

I loved the ancient coins. They weren't spectacularly round, but the image of Athena's owl is hauntingly like the Greek one Euro coin of today. Plus ça change...

The armor from the Bronze Age was also amazing. One can picture the fellas from theIliadd screaming up the beach toward the walls of Troy wearing those very items. The yseemed very lightweight when compared to Medieval armor- so they probably had both better mobility and less protection. The feats of Achilles, Ajax (the greater), and Hector certainly seem plausible. A heavy throw of one of their spears could pierce their enemy's armor.

Finally, we saw the magnificent statue of Perseus triumphantly holding aloft the head of Medusa (the only one of the three Gorgon sisters to not be immortal). The statue was actual by an Italian sculptor of the Renaissance, so it wasn't nearly as Hellenic as the previous exhibits, but the story of Perseus still rippled from the stone.

In the story, Athena had given him a special sack for transporting Medusa's head, but the Italian has him waving the thing about like an autographed picture of Zeus. Now that I think about it, that might acutally be Perseus. Petrified by his own stupidity. But, it probably isn't.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Time Keeps On Tricking

I've been thinking about time (no, not Chronos specifically) in relation to myths (and other "stories").

When I read War and Peace, I was amazed at Tolstoi's ability to move the "lens" from the very high level (politics, historical trends, truths of human existence, and large scale troop movements) to the very detailed (what the girls we wearing to the opera, initiation rituals, the fabulous costumed sleigh ride). Deftly moving between these two levels allowed him to inject the story into us in a way that would otherwise not be possible.

Mythological (and Fantasy) tales do the same thing with respect to time. The magnifying glass of the narrative moves down into everyday details of the protagonist's life (often birth or childhood conditions) then sweeps upward through some leap of time. The lens then refocuses on the details of the protagonist's life once again.

Lately, I've been reading one of Grimm's Fairy Tales each night (the brothers collected 210 of them, after all). I've noticed that the tales almost always make a significant time jump one-third or two-thirds of the way through the story (depending on the type of story). The jump always moves approximately a half generation or the time necessary to go from being a baby to a (mostly) grown person.

The time shift occurs one-third of the way if the character is active (i.e. must perform an heroic quest). The shift occurs two-thirds of the way through the story if the character is passive (i.e. something happens to the character such as a rescue or a transformation). Obviously this is not exact, but rather a rough observation.

Great fantasy novels always span a generation. Usually, we follow the son or daughter of a previous protagonist through their adventure.

The Greek myths always involve at least a mention of the character's parentage and, often, the character's children are involved.

It's surprising how few modern stories employ this device given its illustrious track record.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Cyclopean Tower

I've been thinking about the lighthouse as a mythological symbol. The fire on the hill, the flash of light that that warns one of danger in the blackest night.

The references that come to mind are mostly modern, however. The early sections of Joyce's Ulysses, where Stephen and Buck are living in the martello tower (not exactly a lighthouse, I know). They Might Be Giants song Birdhouse in Your Soul which talks of killing off Jason and "countless, screaming argonauts" instead of keeping the beaches "shipwreck free".

Is it simply the idea of the tower? Or is there something specific and special about the one-eyed tower overlooking the rocky waters?

I would be interested if anyone else could provide examples of the lighthouse as a mythological symbol.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

S's Rules (The Possessive in English)

People who only speak English often get hung up on the minor differences between the British "dialect" and the American "dialect" of the language. True, a few words are spelled differently and many words are pronounced differently, but communication is not a problem. When I lived in Europe, I was sometimes in a room with English speakers from half a dozen countries and we had no difficulty communicating- not even a little bit.

Compare that with the situation in some other language. People who speak other languages (in addition to English) know what I'm talking about. Sometimes the differences between dialects from city to city are so extreme that communication is difficult (if not impossible).

Therefore, it came as a surprise to me to find no clear, definitive rule about 's in the English language. Despite the absence of an Academie Anglaise, one can almost always find a clear consensus on the basic rules of grammar and usage. Occasionally, one will discover that a rule differs slightly between England and the States, but each side will have a single, clear rule. Not so with apostrophe s.

In school, I was taught the overly-simple rule that any word (whether singular or plural) than already ends with the letter s, simply appends an apostrophe to indicate the possessive. But, upon further digging, the rules (from both sides of the pond) seem to agree up to a point.

Let's see where the rules agree:

1. Any singular noun that doesn't end in "s" or an ess-sound appends an 's to make it possessive.

2. Any plural noun that doesn't end in "s" or an ess-sound appends an 's to make it possessive.

3. Plural nouns that end in "s" take only an apostrophe to indicate possession.

That, unfortunately is where the agreement ends. We're left with the final case: a singular noun ending in "s". Some sources indicate that proper nouns take only an apostrophe and all others take the full 's. Other sources say that only "historical" proper nouns use the apostrophe and all others take the full 's. Some sources even state the dubious rule that all singular nouns ending in "s" take the full 's.

The best rule (the one that most closely resembles current usage and (correct) historical usage) is the following:

4. A singular noun ending is "s" take either an apostrophe or the full 's depending on whether we pronounce the word with an added syllable or not.

For example, we say Chris-ess house (Chris's house). We pronounce the extra syllable, so we write the full 's.
But, we say Achilles- heel (Achilles' heel). We do not pronounce the extra syllable, so we write only an apostrophe.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Iphigenia in Tauris

This week I read another of Euripides' plays- Iphigenia in Tauris. It's interesting because the action of the play takes place several years after the events of "Iphigenia at Aulis", but the play itself was written nine years earlier.

Again I was amazed by Euripides' modern style and the ease with which a modern reader could relate to a drama written over two thousand years ago.

Even though it's not chronological, I'm glad I read the plays in this order. It was nice to see Iphigenia have a chance to do a scene with her brother, Orestes, when he was old enough to respond.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Wa Wa

For some reason, one of the biggest challenges a westerner faces when learning the Japanese language is that of postpositions. Many languages (including almost all Western languages) use prepositions.

Prepositions are words that precede a noun (or clause) and indicate it's case. Some languages indicate case by appending (or prepending) syllables to a word. Most modern languages, however, have done away with these case endings and use prepositions instead. An example of this would be using "of" or "'s" to indicate the genitive case.

Japanese, on the other hand, uses postpositions. These particles often serve the same funtion as prepositions. The difference is that postpositions come after the word which they modify.

One would think that simply moving these little words from their position before the noun to a position after the noun wouldn't pose a problem. But, for some reason, it does.

One particle in particular doesn't have a good English equivalent. The particle "wa" is, in my book, the grand champion of Japanese particles. Roughly translated, "wa" might mean "as far as ___ is concerned", but this doesn't show it's true power.

Wa is incredibly useful because it introduces a topic. This is so efficient that I wonder why more languages don't employ this tool. My wife and I use wa as shorthand when sending instant messages or email messages to each other. With two words, the topic is established and can be elaborated.

This post wa I hope you enjoyed it.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Iphigenia In Aulis

Recently, I stumbled upon the film Ιφιγενια (made in Greece during the late seventies). It was an excellent opportunity to practice my Greek (it was spoken in Modern Greek, but subtitled in English- thankfully). It was also an excellent opportunity to experience the Modern Greek interpretation of the story.

After reading Euripides' play (upon which the movie is based), I was amazed at how closely the film followed the ancient playwrite's text.

It was great to see all of our old friends before their charged arrival at Troy. It made Achilles' refusal to fight seem less petulant and more understandable. After all, Agamemnon had already "offered" his daughter to Achilles in marriage only to have it be a ruse to lure Iphigenia to Aulis for the sacrifice. Perhaps Achilles grew tired of having Agamemnon take women from him. Thus, when Briseis was claimed by the king after the initial Trojan battles, Achilles stormed back to his tent and refused to fight.

But, we're not talking about Achilles and his rage. We're talking about Iphigenia. Euripides wrote the play in 405 BCE and yet it resonates beautifully with the modern audience. I stopped myself several times during the reading of the play and thought: the words I'm reading were penned over two thousand years ago. For two thousand years these characters have done this tragic dance. Even then, it was an old story- from the Bronze Age. When I think about the inspiration and entertainment that these stories still bring, the connection with all of the generations of humanity that have gone before...but, I digress.

It's easy to see the parallel with the Old Testament story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But, it's also easy to spot the fundamental difference between these two stories of a father sacrificng his beloved child. Abraham's task is a test of faith. Once he passes this test, the sacrifice need no longer occur and a ram is killed instead. Agamemnon, on the other hand, does not face a test of faith (though he does briefly question the motives of the oracles). Agamemnon faces the far less spectacular choices of: the fortunes of his house against the fortunes of Greece, the impotence of one man against a mob, and indecision and second guessing that a man must endure when faced with a horrible situation.

My wife thought that Agamemnon displayed some of the onerous characteristics of the Ogre Father of various myths and stories, but I disagree. Here was a man forced to choose between his country and his daughter (he went back and forth on this decision throughout the play). He was forced to choose between his eldest and most beloved daughter and the rest of his family. Remember, Iphigenia's sisters were back at the palace and the mob threatened to return and destroy Agamemnon's house if he did not make the sacrifice to appease Artemis. Once the winds began to blow, they could unbeach their ships and vent their lust for battle on the Trojans.

Iphigenia's speech at her father's knees was moving and almost flew from tragedy to pathos. Euripides wisely focused on "what" was happening and not "why". He focused on "how" it was happening and how it affected the lives and emotional states of those involved. Only Iphigenia's mother was truly absorbed by the motives- her sister's infidelity. (Remember that Clytemnestra and Helen were sisters).

One last thought for the moment: knowing the Greek myths, I can't help but feel that perhaps the biggest reason for the drama being endured by Agamemnon was not Helen's betrayal of Meneleus when she ran off with Paris, nor Euripides newfound patriotism in Greece as a whole (and not just Athens), but rather Agamemnon's slaughter of Atremis' stag. Yes, I know that the episode is mentioned and given as the impetus for the specific sacrifice, but Euripides was still a man of his time. We have seen time and again that major mythical sin was overstepping the bounds appropriate for a mortal, even though he be a hero. Agamemnon overstepped those bounds for a single moment, but the gods see time differently than we do.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

PBS Show About Myths

A few weeks ago I found a program on PBS called "In Search of Myths and Heroes". That particular episode attempted to the trace the origins of the Arthurian legends. This week's episode dealt with Jason and the Golden Fleece.

I don't know if this is a regular program or simply a few hour-long episodes, but they are really terrific. The host exudes a genuine enthusiasm for the subject matter and the lady reading excerpts from the stories makes the words live and breathe.

It's refreshing to see myths and legends being tackled with both awe and skepticism. I would highly recommend the show to anyone interested in the subject of Mythology.

Here in New York City, the program airs on WLIW (PBS).

Six Persons Are A Group Of People

I don't mean to come off as a Grammar Nazi (or the Usage Police), but here's another abuse of the language that has been bothering me of late: persons vs. people.

When talking about a specific number of individuals, we use the plural of person. For example:

one person, five persons

This should look familiar. It is the normal use of the plural in the English language.

However, English (like many other languages) has a strange word that, although singular, refers to a plural entity. In the case of Italian, the word is gente. In the case of English, it is people.

They were a proud people.

In this case, people means a collection of individuals which are being grouped together because of some common characteristic. It behaves like a normal word with a plural form too.

The various European peoples prepared for the change.

But, people can also be used in different way. It can also refer to a collection of individuals. Isn't this persons' job? In this second, always plural, usage of the word people, it refers to an unspecified number of individuals.

I saw six persons standing by the road.
I saw a group of people standing by the road.

Most of you will correctly note that the above usage seems almost awkward. That's becuase, in modern usage, people has almost completely taken over this function from persons- except in the legal field.

This is fine. It's natural for a language to undergo change. It's also nice to remind ourselves of where we've been linguistically and what is technically correct. That way our usage decisions will be concious and not accidental.

Here's the nit. It seems that some people have gotten wind of this usage of persons in legalese and, in an effort to sound as pompous and officious as possible, have begun using persons to refer to an unspecified number of people. On the same day, I'll see "official" signs using both words in the same way.

What can I do but sigh? It might be annoying, but it's still not as bad as what these same people have done to 'I' and 'me'. That, however, is fodder for another post.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Goodbye, Vocative

I come not praise the vocative, but to bury it. That once mighty case of address, cut down in its prime by the informality of email.

In elementary school, I was taught to begin the composition of letter with the phrase "Dear Person,". That's 'dear' + the recipient's name + comma. Dear is an adjective that modifies the noun. They cleave together and form a single unit. The comma which follows indicates that I am addressing the recipient. Voila. The vocative case. Hey, you. Hi, Dad. Hello, dear friend. Good riddance, blue serpent.

Alas, "dear" sounds archaic at the top of an email. Now we are left with the hip, eworthy greeting "hi". Simple? One swaps the word "hi" for "dear" right?

Wrong, fool. "Hi" is itself a greeting that requires the vocative. In other words, it must be followed by a comma. It does not form an adjectival phrase to be followed by a comma. That was the function of the now semi-defunct "Dear Person,".

It may seem harsh, but I use this as a quick 'test' of the sender whenever I receive an email message. Failing the test doesn't indicate that the sender is stupid (it is a common mistake) or that the content is not worthwhile. It does, however, indicate that linguistic prowess will not be found.