Saturday, 31 December 2011

more about the novel 'Pompeii'

I loved the novel Pompeii so much that I can't resist writing about it again.

I don't want to post a spoiler, of course, so I have to be careful here...

But the whole time I was reading it I was thinking of the fact that the Romans didn't know what a volcano could do, because the only volcano to have erupted near a city was Etna, in Sicily. Only an extremely highly educated and well-read citizen would have recognised the warning signs of a volcanic eruption. This was one of the gripping aspects of the story - I winced each time Attillius, the main character, pondered the strange things he was seeing.

Two of the Pliny family play a part in the story, uncle and nephew. I've just come across the nephew's account of that day. It must have been a terrifying day. Parts of it remind me of the night in 1983 when I drove through ashy smoke to the Upper Yarra Valley, trying to find my uncles, who were trapped in East Warburton during the Ash Wednesday Bushfires. There was an air of general panic, and a young constable standing at the crossroads at the town of Yarra Junction told me East Warburton was burned to the ground and everyone was dead. Pliny's account of fleeing from Misenum with his mother as part of a panicked crowd seems to have had similarities to the misinformation and fear that governed the night of our bushfires. He wrote:
We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, other that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world. Nor were we without people who magnified real dangers with fictitious horrors. Some announced that one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned; lies, but they found believers.
As far as I know, Misenum survived the eruption okay. And my uncles were fine, by the way. They were asleep in bed!

Some trailers for the 2009 exhibition in Melbourne, 'A Day in Pompeii', give some idea of what it must have been like for those people in Roman Italy so long ago:
here and here.

I remember that I wept when I saw this one in 3D.

Here's a link to the published letters of Pliny the Younger. I couldn't find the one to Tacitus about Vesuvius, though. Perhaps I didn't persevere long enough. I'm looking forward to reading through them one by one. It's a great insight into the life of a man I'd like to have met.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

matrix - a mother of a word

Matrix. What a word. It has so many meanings these days that I won't even try to cover them all. However, I will mention the fact that matrix comes from Latin and has a sense of 'pregnant animal', 'womb', or 'mother'.

I've just finished reading the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris. Unputdownable! It's quite a feat to keep the reader's interest to the last word when a story is set in Pompeii in AD 79, because we all know it must end with the eruption of Vesuvius.

The story opens when 'the engineer' is climbing by moonlight up a hill overlooking the port of Misenum. He's the new 'aquarius' - water engineer - sent from Rome to replace the mysteriously missing Exomnium.

I think I fell in love with the book on page 10 when, in the engineer's point of view, we read;
Oh, but she was a mighty piece of work, the Augusta - one of the greatest feats of engineering ever accomplished. It was going to be an honor to command her. Somewhere far out there, on the opposite side of the bay, high in the pine-forested mountains of the Apenninus, the aqueduct captured the springs of Serinus and bore the water westward - channeled it over ravines on top of tiered arcades, forced it across valleys through massive siphons - all the way down to the plains of Campania, then around the far side of Mount Vesuvius, then south to the coast at Neapolis, and finally along the spine of the Misenum peninsula to the dusty naval town, a distance of some sixty miles, with a mean drop along her entire length of just two inches every one hundred yards. She was the longest aqueduct in the world, longer even than the great aqueducts of Rome and far more complex, for whereas her sisters in the north fed one city only, the Augusta's serpentine conduit - the matrix, as they called it: the mother-line - suckled no fewer than nine towns around the Bay of Neapolis; Pompeii first, at the end of a long spur, then Nola, Acerrae, Atella, Neapolis, Puteoli, Cumae, Baiae, and finally Misenum.
There's a mild romantic interest in the story, but the true love in this book is the engineer's passion for the 'mother-line'. I think I'll never use the word 'matrix' again without thinking of the complex engineering that brought water to this section of Italy in the first century.

I've walked parts of the O'Shannassy Aqueduct Trail above Warburton - not the whole thirty kilometres! - and always had a sense of walking on the flat, so I think that aqueduct may have a gentle drop similar to the Augusta. There's a history of the O'Shannassy here.

Although the two books are quite different genres, Pompeii reminds me of Robert Drewe's novel, The Drowner, because each has a protagonist who comes from a family that lives by a deep, almost spiritual, understanding of water.

The complex engineering of The Augusta is an integral part of the plot of 'Pompeii', so I was fascinated to see a photo of the castellum aquae of Pompeii - the little chamber where the water entered the town and divided into three conduits - as part of the Wikipedia entry about the novel.

Photo by RHaworth (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 22 December 2011

when words are lost, we all suffer

In Overland Issue 205 There's an article titled 'Language and politics in Indigenous writing'. It's a report on a PEN panel, originally presented at the 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival.

In the first of three follow-up essays, John Bradley talks about his work with the Yanyuwa people of the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria.

He writes:
The more, however, I think about this language, the hardest thing to write about or explain is how the language seems to belong in the land and sea: it is as if it rises up out of the Yanyuwa country.
Today, only the old people speak Yanyuwa. A lot of other people can understand it, but they can't speak it, which is something the old people continue to worry about.
Further on:
When the British flag was raised at Sydney Cove 222 years ago, there were 250 separate languages spoken on the continent later known as Australia. There were therefore 250 cultures, nations, each with their way of understanding the place they called home. In addition, there were at least 600 dialects of these languages. Whichever way these numbers are viewed they speak of diversity. In 2011, less than one hundred of these languages are spoken, some by only one or two people; of this one hundred, 15 are considered strong: that is, all generations of the language community are speaking the language.
He says it has been suggested by some linguists that by 2050 perhaps only a few indigenous languages will be spoken.

All of the above writing makes similar points to what I heard recently at the talk at Preshil.

It seems that the message is getting out to the average Australian (me, for example) that we should be concerned at this potential language loss.

Bradley added something I hadn't thought about, that there is other knowledge disappearing with the languages, knowledge that might be important in my own life, as well as that of the native speakers of these tongues.
Thus we are confronted by an epidemic of silencing that will result in language and cultural loss, an epidemic that has in part been produced by thinking that everything we need to know can be said in English. Yet only now, as these languages fall silent, have biological and ecological scientists begun to see how much of the knowledge that lives in these languages and cultures is also of value to them: fine-grained details of species and micro-environments have been named and worked with for millennia by Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. In the words of the Malawian-born author Amadou HampatĂ© Bâ from 1966: ‘An old person dying is a library burning.’
A friend of mine, who emigrated from Argentina, once told me his grandfather had been the repository of a wealth of information about Argentinian plants and herbs, and that information had died with him.

I wonder what sort of world we are headed for, where languages die and knowledge is devalued and lost to the human race.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Origin of the word golf

As I drove along today, I passed a Volkswagen Golf, and wondered why they named it that.

I thought I recalled that Golf is the German word for a gulf. (I checked it on my great little Franklin electronic translator, and I was correct.

Wikipedia gives this etymology of the name:
The Golf name is derived from the German word for Gulf Stream and the period in its history when VW named vehicles after prominent winds, including also the Passat (after the German word for Trade wind), Jetta (after the Jet stream), Bora (after Bora) and Scirocco (after Sirocco). "Golf" is also a sport, a theme that is shared with the Polo and Derby.
Here in Australia, and apparently in most of the world, it's called the Golf, but in America it's called the Rabbit. says:
Why did Volkswagen decide to call the new front-drive small car it called the "Golf" everywhere else in the world the "Rabbit" in America? Go ahead and guess, because VW has never offered an official (much less believable) explanation.
Anyway, to get back to my musing as I drove along...

I began to wonder where the sporting name golf originated. I probably wouldn't have followed this up, except that today's Grammarphobia post was about this very word.

And an interesting read it was, too!

So now I know. Or I don't, really, seeing the origin is obscure.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Facetious worship of saints, and Scrabble

My new word for today comes from an article in The Age about young Victorian, Anand Bharadwaj, who recently became the World Youth Scrabble Champion, in Malaysia. He said his favorite word is douleia, meaning worship of saints and angels. It uses all the vowels.

The word wasn't in the dictionary on my computer, nor was it in the online Macquarie Dictionary, but I presume it is one of the 130,000 words officially accepted in Scrabble. I'm not sure where one would find this list of words, but perhaps it would be here.

However, I don't think I'll be using this word anywhere except possibly in a game of Scrabble, because I can't figure out its definitive meaning. In some places it's defined as meaning slavery, and in other places, worship.

I think I'll stick to an old favorite, facetious, which is fun to say and has the vowels in alphabetical order.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

wands, magic and walls

When I was discussing concepts with some students this afternoon, I asked them what the word wand made them think of.

I was surprised to find most of these twenty-first century children initially had the same image as I did, a short piece of wood with a star on the top and lots of glitter - a magic wand that a picture-book fairy might carry. I had expected that the juggernaut Harry Potter franchise might have overlaid the older image with that of a short weapons-grade wand.

Wondering about the original concept of a wand, I looked the word up and found the Online Etymology Dictionary gives the older meaning as a bending, flexible stick.

When I was studying German, back in antiquity (my youth), I used to wonder why words in German sometimes looked exactly like English words but had seemingly totally different meanings. Nowadays I'm often pleasantly surprised to find out such parallels are the result of linguistic history, not coincidences.

The German word for a wall, Wand, is the same word as the little stick Harry Potter carries, because long ago walls in early Germany were made of whippy sticks plaited together.

In looking around the Net to research this post I came across a delightful new meaning - lavender wands.

Helen Keller realises everything has a name

I have the pleasure of working sometimes with young people who want to improve their ability to read and write. Today I wanted to talk to a group about concepts. We read about Helen Keller and how she first began to attach a word to the concept of 'water'. There's a moving film adaptation of Helen Keller's life story here, in which we see the moment when she realised the connection between the word water scratched on the palm of her hand and the actual flow of water from a pump.

Here's a quote from a book called Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat, Bantam Books, 1987:
Here the case of Helen Keller, who was taught by Anne Sullivan, is particularly illuminating. When Sullivan came to teach this child, who had been blind and deaf from an early age and was therefore unable to speak, she realized that she would have to give Helen unrestricted love and total attention.
The key step was to teach Helen to form a communicable concept. This she could never have learned before, because she had not been able to communicate with other people to any significant extent. Sullivan, therefore, caused Helen, as if in a game, to come into contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts, each time scratching the word water on the palm of her hand. For a long time, Helen did not grasp what this was all about. But suddenly, she realized that all these different experiences referred to one substance in many aspects, which was symbolized by the word water on the palm of her hand... Thus the different experiences were implied in some sense as being equal, by the common experience of the word water being scratched on her hand. It is worthwhile bringing out in more detail just what was involved in this extraordinary act of creative perception. Up to that moment, Helen Keller had perhaps been able to form concepts of some kind, but she could not symbolize them in a way that was communicable and subject to linguistic organization. The constant scratching of the word water on the palm, in connection with the many apparently radically different experiences, was suddenly perceived as meaning that, in some fundamental sense, these experiences were essentially the same.

To return, for a moment, to the idea of a metaphor, A could represent her experience of water standing still in a pail, while B would represent her experience of water flowing out of a pump. As Helen herself said, she initially saw no relationship between these experiences. At this stage, her perception may be put as A not= B. Yet the same word "water" was scratched on her hand in both cases. This puzzled her very much, for it meant in some way Anne Sullivan wanted to communicate that an equivalence existed between two very different experiences, in other words that A = B.

Eventually, Helen suddenly perceived (of course, entirely nonverbally, since she had as yet no linguistic terms to express her perception) that A and B were basically similar, in being different forms of the same substance, which was represented symbolically by the word "water" scratched on her palm. At this point, there must have been in Helen a state of vibrant tension, and indeed of intense creative perceptive energy, which was in essence similar to that arising in a poet who is suddenly aware of a new metaphor. However, in the case of Helen Keller, the metaphor did not stop here, but went on to undergo a further rapid unfoldment and development. Thus, as she herself said later, she suddenly realized that everything has a name.
I've always loved words. And now I see that they are not just great for enabling us to to communicate with others, but, even more crucially, are essential for allowing us to think. Ayn Rand says:
Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication, as is usually assumed. Communication is merely the consequence, not the cause nor the primary purpose of concept-formation—a crucial consequence, of invaluable importance to men, but still only a consequence. Cognition precedes communication ; the necessary pre-condition of communication is that one have something to communicate. (This is true even of communication among animals, or of communication by grunts and growls among inarticulate men, let alone of communication by means of so complex and exacting a tool as language.) The primary purpose of concepts and of language is to provide man with a system of cognitive classification and organization, which enables him to acquire knowledge on an unlimited scale; this means: to keep order in man’s mind and enable him to think.