Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar

Never Trust a Vowel

Vowels are shifty things. I teach literature, and when people have trouble making out words in the text that they haven’t met before, I ask them to try and take them apart to see if they recognize the parts; then they can guess at the word’s meaning. I teach medieval lit, so sometimes students are looking at Middle English or another older form of English, but just as often, it’s a Modern English word that’s flummoxing them, and the rules don’t change.
My reasons for not trusting vowels are:1. Vowels can vary from language to language, so if we know the roots of words, we can see why the vowels are what they are. For instance, Latin “e” often corresponds to Greek “o” as in English “dentist” and “orthodontist.”

2. Vowels can vary to denote tense in English. Now if we invent a new word, we just slap an “-ed” on the end of it to make it past tense, but older forms of English had elaborate systems of vowel gradation, some of which we still have (“sing/sang,” “fly/flew,” etc.). So sometimes if a word has a funky vowel in it, you just aren’t familiar with its old past form.
3. Regional accents change the vowels mostly. Occasionally there will be a consonant difference, like the b/v variation in dialects of Spanish, but usually it’s vowels. The “You say potato; I say potato” song/joke/aphorism makes this pretty clear. It’s not potato/potaco (although I’d be willing to try a potaco). It’s all about the vowels.
So if you’re trying to deduce what a word means, there’s a process I advocate, and vowels figure absolutely last, the treacherous little buggers.
First, try and figure out the root word. Take off anything that looks suspiciously prefixey or suffixey, like “-ey” or “pre-.” Then look at the root in terms of the frame of consonants, not really looking at the vowels.  So if we’re trying to deduce, say, podiatrist, we’d first remove the “-ist“ which is a clearly a suffix. It indicates a person who does the thing at the beginning of the word (like artist or philanthropist). Next we cut off the “-iatr” from Greek iatros, meaning “doctor” (as in psychiatrist), and we are left with “pod.”
Pod. Pod. So how’s your Greek? English speakers are usually better guessing Latin than Greek because English borrowed so much from Latin directly, as well as from French, Italian, and Spanish. But Greek “pod” means ‘foot.’ In Latin it was “ped.” Never trust a vowel. English has more common words with ped-, like a bicycle pedal or a gas pedal, or different animals being bipedal or quadrupedal. But “pod,” not so much. Cephalopod. Arthropod. (These are literally head-footed things, like squids, and joint-footed things, like crabs or ladybugs. But we were talking about vowels.)
And now we’re done. But consider next time you have trouble understanding a person’s accent, just relaxing your head when it comes to hearing vowels. When you don’t recognize a word you read on the internet or in a newspaper, try it with different vowels, and see if you can figure it out. I think adopting a playful, puzzler’s attitude toward language is a recipe for easier understanding, less frustration, and maybe even compassion.

When a single word tells a story–Hallowe’en edition

Certainly we craft stories out of words, but some of my favorite stories are the ones the very words contain, and that we often overlook.  I became enchanted with word histories, or etymology, in grad school, when I studied multiple medieval languages—some Romance languages, some Germanic—and saw the same words in different classes and then watched their meanings change as time passed. Linguists talk about languages developing like trees.  It’s certainly true they live and grow and branch out.  I’m more interested today in individual words, which feel a little more like people to me, with cousins in other branches of the family tree, a history to trace, and a story to tell.

The story of words always comes up in my Chaucer class, where we work toward reading Middle English.  The first week we always go slowly, getting to know the language.  I spend a good bit of time trying to make it seem more familiar than it might look at first sight (or certainly than it sounds at first listen).  As we worked through that first sentence that so many students memorize, “Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote, the droughte of March hath perced to the roote,” we paused and made sure we found all the cognates.  ‘Whan’ = when (never trust a vowel!), ‘shoures’ = showers, etc. We stopped at ‘halwes.’
Chaucer says pilgrims everywhere are headed “to ferne halwes.” I assured my students they knew these words.  ‘Ferne’ contains ‘far;’ you can see it in there (especially if you’ve learned never to trust a vowel), and ‘halwes’ is just ‘hallows.’  Blank stares.  Hallows—you know, like All Hallows’ Eve. Enough impatient faces that I realize we’re losing that idea, and I shift gears in to story-telling.
Hallow is an old word related to ‘holy,’ basically.  One can have hallowed objects—things that have been made holy, like the items present in a mass, or something holy can actually be a hallow, like the holy grail or the spear of Longinus, or… Harry Potter fans… the Deathly Hallows.  So Chaucer’s pilgrims were traipsing off to visit hallowed places and objects.  Holy things.  Taking, in fact, some holy days.  “Holidays” is just a contraction of this. But we don’t think about Labor Day in a context of holiness anymore.  Neither do we, apparently, think of Hallowe’en in this context. But I do. Because it’s a great story.
In the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, where every day is a saint’s day, and people can celebrate both their birthday and their name day (the day devoted to the saint they were named after), one day a year stands out:  All Saints’ Day.  On the first of November all saints are worshipped, not just one or two, like St. Michael on September 29 or St. Francis on October 4, to name a few recent biggies.  There are various reasons that this may have come to be, but the one that appeals to me is the clash of the old pagan festivals at the end of the harvest, and the day of holiness that follows, honoring all the saints.  There is a powerful strain of death there—for the pagans, the end of the season, the end of productivity, the beginning of the death of the world, before it renews in the spring.  For the Christians, the day of saints is already a celebration of hundreds of dead people; it is easily extended to honoring all the dead.  All Hallows’ Evening, shortened to Hallowe’en (especially if you keep the apostrophe), is the celebration of the dead, an invitation to think about life, death, and life after death, and, you can see an easy story to be told about the thinning of the veil between worlds–more commerce between the living and the dead, for good or ill, depending on your approach.  Whatever you believe, this night has its history in holiness.  Hallows.
P.S.  I’m thinking of adding little “word-tales” more frequently, either as whole blogs, like this one, or as small additional tidbits on other blogs.  If you’d like more of this sort of etymology-as-story, let me know.  Thanks for reading!