soup, maples and other points of confusion

asdfg raises a good point:

Red corn soup. Does it taste different from yellow, white, or blue corn soup? I wouldn’t expect anyone except Elizabeth to distinguish between corn colors, since she’s travelled more widely than the rest and so might have encountered more corn varieties.

Although it might be possible that at high elevations in New York there might have been more than one variety of corn that grew there then, I would expect only one variety because I don’t think corn hybridization hadn’t started yet. If that assumption is so, then they wouldn’t really have known there was any other type of corn. Just corn soup. Just like in engineering the first widget is called a widget, then later variations lead to widget1, widget2, etc.

Ah well. You asked. And I could be wrong. ((asdfg asks good questions — sometimes hard, sometimes challenging, but always good))

Now, the truth is in this case that she might be right. It’s a good ten years ago since I did the research on the daily foods of the Iroquois, and I’m not sure I could reconstruct it without going back and reading dozens of articles and books. ((And the end result may well be that I got this wrong, anyway.)) Every once in a while a reader points out something like this, some point that I can’t disagree with. It makes sense, really, if you look at it the way she presents it. I am curious about where I got the term and why I thought it was solid, but I don’t have time at this point to go searching. Someday I will, though. And if you’re still there and I’m still here, I’ll let you know.

Every once in a while I get an email or comment from a reader who is disappointed in my research. Very rarely does it happen that I have to disagree completely, but it does happen. For example, the reader who wrote a few weeks ago to say how disappointed she was that I hadn’t done better research on the trees of the Adirondack forest, because if I had I would have found out that maples were not native to the area, were in fact invasive, and could not have been present in the time period I write about.

She was very sure of her facts, but I was also very sure she was mistaken. I went to consult my sources and also various university botanical websites and indeed, there are about fifteen varieties of maples native to the Adirondacks, including the sugar maple. There’s a lot of evidence that the various Native American tribes who lived in the northeast woodlands knew of, and took advantage of, the sap of the sugar maple.

After some thought I wrote a short paragraph in reply and included some links to reliable websites in making my case. I haven’t heard back from her, but I don’t know why that is. Maybe she has more evidence I don’t know about, or maybe she just didn’t think it worth her time.

In any case, I am always interested to hear from readers who have noticed something that slipped past me, or who have expertise in an area where I did not do sufficient research. Live and learn.


lexical choice

We were watching a western on dvd last night (I cannot resist Robert Duvall in a western. I can’t see anybody but Gus McCrae when he’s on the screen, and Gus is one of my all time favorite fictional men.

/cue quote/: I met a wonderful new man yesterday. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything/end quote.

Where was I. Oh yes, lexical choice. If you write historical fiction you’re always on the alert about getting simple vocabulary right. They didn’t use the term ‘strep throat’ in the early 1800s, because the strep bacillus hadn’t been isolated or identified. So your character does have strep (and thank dog, because back then strep killed a lot of people); your character has a putrid sore throat.

Some lexical anachronisms are bound to slip through, no matter how hard you (or your editor) look for them. Most of the time you won’t even realize it’s an anachronism until a reader who happens to be an expert in sleigh bells or trapping or kitchen implements of 1820 gets in touch and let’s you know where you messed up.

Maybe five people who read the book will catch that kind of error, but most of us who write historical fiction would prefer not to make the mistake in the first place.

So when a historical term comes to my attention that is new to me, I always look it up and think about it for a while.

Yesterday evening Robert Duvall requested that his nephew bring him some convenience paper from town. The Mathematician and I looked at each other and shrugged. A few scenes later it turned out that convenience paper was an early term for commercially made toilet paper. I haven’t had time yet, but I’ve got this on my list of words to check and sooner or later I’ll go on a quest. There may even be a website about the history of toilet paper, or a Wikipedia article. There are millions of people out there with all kinds of interests, and they are happy to share their knowledge with you. Usually.

Are there any historical lexical items which you learned about through a novel or a movie?

in which I repeat myself and bore you: on dialect and dialog

The Smart Bitches have a post up about language anachronisms in historical romance. I admit to some irritation about the fact that by the time I caught the post there were 41 comments. Explaining my irritation is a little trickier.

First: The Smart Bitches are usually right on target when they talk about this stuff, okay? This is not me dissing them. I love the Smart Bitches with all my bitchy little heart. This is about the comments, and I’ve already admitted I didn’t read them so really, I should just shut up but no, I’m not going to. Because this will gnaw at me otherwise.

Any MDs out there? If you’re at a party and people start talking about gallbladders or Uncle Mikey’s valve replacement or something else similarly technical, do you get irritated because (1) you don’t want to look like a wise ass know-it-all (2) it’s really hard not to speak up anyway when you hear somebody claim that his brother’s best friend’s second cousin is an expert and he says… (3) if you walk away and join the crowd talking about baseball, the medical talk crowd will conclude that you are a snob.

Which maybe you are. Or at least impatient.

That’s how I get about language discussions. Once before class started I heard one student tell another that in Switzerland they speak a language which is half French and half German. As this was a linguistics class I felt obligated, so I said (very gently) I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, but what you were hearing is Swiss German which is… and I saw her mouth set in a prim little line. I know that line, it means: don’t tell me about language, I speak language myself!

And in her evaluation at the end of the course she wrote: this professor may know a lot about linguistics but it’s not nice to tell people they didn’t hear what they really did hear.

PLEASE NOTE: everybody is free to talk about language and linguistics as much as they like, whenever they like. I am not, and do not want to be linguistics hall monitor of the universe. Right this moment hundreds, maybe tens of thousands of conversations are going on that have to do with language across the nation. Joe tells Sally that she sounds stupid when she uses the word ain’t; Mr. Wilson tells his grandson about the etymology of the word asparagus, his own personal version made out of whole cloth; somewhere in Chicago at this very minute somebody is trying to do an English accent and failing miserably.

All fine and good. Chatter on. The problem is when I’m within hearing range. Then I get all itchy, and I have to just walk away.

So now that I’ve ranted a little (okay, a lot), and for my own peace of mind, I’m going to direct you  to my posts about language/linguistics/dialect/dialog in  fiction both contemporary and historical. You are free to ignore every word, to disagree with every thought; to curse me for a condescending know-it-all… if that’s what it takes to make us both comfortable, so be it. You’ll get all those posts by clicking on “dialog” in the tag cloud in the sidebar.

once more, with feeling: accent, dialect, language

Over at Smart Bitches there’s a long and winding conversation about various points in linguistics, particularly historical linguistics, accent, and the portrayal of such things in the written language. I put in my two cents, of course. But as the conversation gets more into details, I am having to resist trampling in there to set up my lecture podium.

So I’ll do it here.

Actually, all I’m doing is this: here’s chapter two (“The Myth of Non-Accent”) of English with an Accent: Language Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. You’ll need the ole standard Adobe Reader to open it.

It was written for an introductory course, so it’s pretty accessible — although the ground work set up in the first chapter is (of course) missing. English with an Accent is still used as the standard text in universities courses on the sociolinguistic nature of language variation in the U.S. Just to establish some credentials and/or perspective.

This chapter specifically addresses the definition and use of the word ‘accent’ from two directions. The first is L1 (First Language) — the way you speak your native tongue(s), and L2 (Second Language) — the way native language marks any language you’ll learn after (approximately) puberty.

For any linguists dropping by here, this is not meant to open up a discussion on the Black Box or the critical period (both of which I subscribe to, but don’t want to debate just here and now).

So if you’re interested, please have a look and post your thoughts.