Tuesday, December 27, 2005

And the customer service award goes to...

This eBay auction.

It's an auction for a book, but so hopelessly overloaded with mind-bogglingly exaggerated marketing tripe that one can really be forgiven for not noticing the author's name and the title of the book amidst all the verbiage. So some bold would-be buyer sent out a question, and received the following answer:

Q: Title, author/editor, publisher, condition?

A: You are banned from bidding on a work of genius like this

This is simply priceless. In these days when so many people imagine that the customer is king, it's always a relief to see that some merchants still do the reasonable thing and treat their customers as the nasty annoying nagging little pieces of shit they really are. The answer above brings to mind the image of a bastard eBay seller from hell, grumbling away in his den, automatically banning everyone who has the impertinence to ask questions, etc. I wish him all the best, bless his dirty rotten old heart!

Monday, December 26, 2005

BOOK: William Golding, "The Scorpion God"

William Golding: The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1973. 0571102328. 178 pp.

Well, there may be something to all this Nobel prize business after all. I haven't read terribly many Nobel laureates so far — inevitably, almost all of them are 20th-century authors and I tend to avoid 20th-century authors because the risk that I will find it impossible to understand them or indeed make heads or tails of what they write is too great. But with Nobel laureates, my experiences have in fact been surprisingly positive: I've read something by three of them so far, and enjoyed the books immensely in all three cases — first Ivo Andrić (The Bridge on the Drina), then Naguib Mahfouz (Cairo Trilogy), and now Golding. Well, that's not entirely accurate; I've also read The Loss of El Dorado by V. S. Naipaul, who is also a Nobel laureate, and I found it quite boring. But it's a work of nonfiction so maybe it shouldn't count for the purposes of this statistic :-).

This book contains three novellas (or perhaps short novels), all taking place in some more or less distant historic period. All three are very enjoyable reading. On almost every page there was something clever, something original, creative, something that made me keep thinking again and again ‘you can see right away that this was written by a Nobel laureate, not by some hack who churns out one cheap mass-market-paperback historic novel after another, year after year, with most of them remaindered by the publisher within a few years, and forgotten by the public even before that’.

My main complaint about the three stories is that there are too many ‘riddles’ in them — things that aren't explained clearly, or not at all; things that the author deliberately leaves vague and doesn't explain, as if hoping that this will make the story more charming or interesting to the reader. Perhaps some readers enjoy it, but I don't like being baffled and confused by too many unexplained or inexplicable things in a story. It turns reading into hard work rather than a pleasure. I felt there was too much of that in the first two stories especially, i.e. in The Scorpion God and Clonk Clonk. In the third story, Envoy Extraordinary, there was less of that, and (unlike in the first two) everything that may have been unclear at first is explained sooner or later. Judging from the colophon, Envoy Extraordinary was first published in 1956, while the other two stories were first published in 1971, so perhaps the author's style has simply changed and become more obscure in the intervening fifteen years.

But I shouldn't complain too much. All three stories were pleasant to read anyway; I soon got used to the fact that not everything is going to be explained and that some passages can be simply enjoyed without being understood. The writing is nice and the author is very good at painting a scene with words so as to bring out images in your mind.

The rest of this post will be about The Scorpion God, and I'll write my impressions of the other two stories in two subsequent posts.

<spoiler warning>

The first story, The Scorpion God, is set in pre-dynastic Egypt, at the court of one of “half a dozen petty chieftains that line this river” (p. 59). The ruler, Great House, is believed by everyone including himself to be a god and to be responsible for such important things as keeping the sky up and ensuring that the Nile flood rises to a suitable height, neither too much nor too low (p. 13), and indeed in the opening scenes we see him involved in a curious ritual to this purpose: he runs through the countryside in full regalia under the blazing sun (remember that the Nile flood starts in June), accompanied and encouraged by his Liar. If the flood is too low: “ ‘When I was not much older than you, it happened and the God of that time took poison.’ ” (P. 13.) (A simple nilometer is also described on p. 13.) On this occasion, Great House fails to finish his run; it isn't clear whether he falls from exhaustion or because a blind man tripped him with his stick (p. 18, 26).

The king is a widower (p. 18), but he has a daughter, Pretty Flower, who is very pretty indeed and spends the better part of two pages looking at herself in a mirror and applying all the makeup that money and bronze-age technology can buy (pp. 22–23). A banquet follows that night; Great House drinks immense amounts of beer (p. 25) and is amused by the ‘lies’ told by his Liar. It is clear to us that the Liar must have seen much of the world, and that his ‘lies’ are all in fact truth, but to his listeners they are the most ridiculous and blatant lies imaginable: such things as the existence of pale-skinned people, or the concept of freezing, of ‘the white dust which is water’ (pp. 26–7). The courtiers, incidentally, are complete and utter sycophants; when the king drinks, they all drink; when he begins to play checkers, everyone's talk turns to checkers; etc. (p. 30).

Pretty Flower performs an erotic dance in front of her father and all the other guests (pp. 29–30). P. 31 is not entirely clear to me but it would seem that at this point the king is expected to have sex with her there and then, but for some reason cannot bring himself to try it (much to the dismay of everyone including her; the cry ‘Oh the shame, the burning shame of it!’ on p. 36 is hers, I guess).

The Head Man, who is a sort of king's advisor or high-priest, warns him that he seems to be losing his grip: first his fall in the morning, and now this (p. 33). A seemingly innocent exchange follows on the subject of ‘what does any man need except women and beer’. “ ‘His potter,’ said the Head Man. ‘His musicians. His baker, his brewer, his jeweller——’/ Great House tweaked the Liar's ear./ ‘And his Liar.’ ” (P. 33.) This is one of those delightfully clever things that make this book such a great read. This conversation looks quite innocent until you realize, a few pages later, that the king was going to commit suicide and the Head Man was in his mind already preparing the list of people who must be killed and buried together with the king to accompany him in his afterlife. Or at least I didn't realize this until then; but it seems to be clear to the Liar from the first moment (‘You fools! Can't you use models?’ he screams, p. 34).

The king calmly takes poison (p. 34), the musicians and the guests leave the banquet one by one, and the king is carried away on his couch (p. 35). The water of the Nile keeps rising, but it is hoped that the king's death will prevent it from becoming too high (p. 37). We witness the king's funeral on pp. 37–41; the servants who will accompany him in the afterlife do so willingly, except for the Liar: the Head Man asks him why he refuses eternal life, and he answers shockingly but quite reasonably: “ ‘Because this one is good enough!’ ” He is sent away to the pit, a kind of subterranean prison-cell (p. 40.)

The king should now be succeeded by his son, the Prince, an eleven-year-old boy who stubbornly refuses this role, wishing to have nothing to do with being a god, holding the sky up, or with “ ‘bouncing up and down on my sister’ ” (pp. 13–14, 43). He visits the pit where the Liar has been thrown, and the Liar persuades him to try finding a rope and helping him out, whereupon they would both escape Egypt (pp. 45–48).

Meanwhile the Head Man is talking to Pretty Flower; they are both concerned that the Nile is still rising, probably because of the late pharaoh's displeasure. The Head Man fancies himself quite a rationalist and, hilariously employing a socratic question-and-answer method that would make even Sherlock Holmes blush (p. 50), reaches the conclusion that the reason for all the trouble is that the princess had been having sex with someone who was not her close relative (p. 55), i.e. the Liar (p. 21). She admits this and is quite devastated with contrition and shame of having done such a monstrous, wicked thing (p. 52), for having “ ‘shattered the laws of nature’ ” (p. 52). The Prince then enters, asking for rope (as he was unable to find any by himself; p. 53); realizing what he wants it for, the Head Man has the Liar brought from the pit (p. 54). The Head Man is sure that the king wants to have the Liar with him (and that the Nile will keep rising until his wish is met), and now tries to tempt the Liar to let himself be buried, promising him not only eternal life but an elite burial spot right next to the king himself (p. 58). (Curiously, the Head Man is trying to persuade the Liar, not force him; he'd be willing to use force only as a last resort; p. 55.) The Head Man thinks of the Liar as a kind of madman, a delusional person, but on pp. 59–60 we see that the Liar is in fact the only reasonable person of the whole lot; he desperately tries to persuade the princess to take power into her own hands and disregard some of the sillier traditions (“ ‘Your brother is—what is he—ten? [. . .] Do you want to marry him?’ ”). Finally the Head Man tries to have him killed, but he escapes. I'm not quite sure what to make of the ending; the Princess seems to become somewhat more self-assured in the last paragraph, but it isn't clear to me whether this means that the Liar's words are going to have any effect after all (p. 62).

</spoiler warning>

I would say that the main theme of this story is the relativity of such things as customs and beliefs. Things which seem the uttermost absurdities to us are here genuinely and sincerely believed by these early Egyptians. The king seriously believes that his job is to take care of the flood and of keeping the sky up, and failing in this, spends his last evening cheerfully drinking and playing board games, and then drinks his poison calmly. The notion that one may wish to have sex with somebody other than a close relative is regarded as an unbelievable, monstrous impossibility (pp. 28, 55) — it is for them a taboo of the same sort that incest is with most people nowadays. I'm intrigued by the Head Man's comment on p. 55: “ ‘In all of us there is a deep, unspoken, morbid desire to make love with a, a—you understand what I mean. Not related to you by blood. An outlander with his own fantasies. [. . .] Do you suppose, my dear, there are real places where people marry across the natural borders of consanguinity?’ ” This seems to imply that the Head Man thought incest the natural state of things, not only for the royal family but for everyone. But surely this cannot have been the case in any real historic society. Surely no society with such an attitude could escape slow degeneration. In fact I vaguely remember reading that many ‘primitive’ societies went to great lengths to ensure that people did not marry close relatives, e.g. by dividing the society into several groups and forbidding marriages within a group.

Another interesting thing is that we see how people can be trapped within the narrow confines of their beliefs and experience, which they are unable to transcend. The Head Man is, by the standards of his society, a highly educated person, and considers himself a rationalist (p. 50), but the idea that the world may be large and contain other countries besides the area with which he is personally familiar is to him an absurdity (p. 55). Similarly, the concept of freezing cold and of snow is met with bafflement and complete disbelief (pp. 26–7). The Liar, who more or less alone among the characters of this story exhibits common sense by our present-day standard and who alone acts in a way that we would nowadays call reasonable, is thought a madman or a liar by his contemporaries. But from our point of view it is they that act like madmen, trapped by their absurd and bizarre traditions and religious beliefs; they reminded me of zombies; some aspects of their reason may work normally but underneath it all you always hit the utterly flawed foundations of their world-view which make almost all of their conclusions and their actions completely ridiculous. This reminds me of the cranky theory of the bicameral mind, suggested by Julian Jaynes, namely that people in the prehistoric and early historic periods didn't have quite all the connections in their brains that we have nowadays, and consequently didn't consider some of their thoughts and inclinations as having originated within their own consciousness; instead they believed these things to be coming from some external entities, e.g. from gods. In this story, almost everyone except the Liar seems to have a disconnect of this sort, as if somebody had captured half their brain and filled it with numerous misguided but unshakeably firm convictions. But the Liar is perhaps not the only exception; the Prince, in a way, is another exception; he is a child and yet has in a way more common sense than most of the grown-up characters. I guess this rather speaks against the bicameral hypothesis than for it: the Prince, being a child, is still reasonable; only through further acculturation will he acquire all the absurdities that we see fully developed in the princess and in the Head Man. Thus a person's mind is not born with all these flaws, but receives them only later from the social and cultural environment.

But anyway, I guess the moral of all this must be as in Burns's lines: ‘O would some Power the giftie give us/ To see ourselves as others see us’! These ancient Egyptians all thought themselves quite normal, but to us they seem bizarre, absurd, silly, or at least hopelessly wrong. They have the same opinion of things that seem reasonable to us (and to the Liar). Where is there a firm spot to stand on amidst this relativism? Sure, we may think that our beliefs are reasonable and justified by observation and by good arguments; we may think that our beliefs are right and those of the ancient Egyptians are wrong; but the problem is that the Egyptians in this story thought exactly the same of their own beliefs — they also thought, just like us, that experience and reason firmly support their beliefs. How many of the things that seem reasonable and true to us nowadays will appear outlandish and wrong to our descendants a few centuries from now? How many of the customs that seem natural to us, how many of the traditions that we nowadays revere, will inspire the future generations with disbelief, perhaps with disgust?

Well, at least we may try not to be like Head Man: proud of his reason but with a closed mind, completely convinced that he is right, unwilling to even consider the possibility that he might be wrong and that it might be good to change his beliefs in the light of new information. Indeed his mention of ‘[a]n outlander with his own fantasies’ (see the quote from p. 55 above) suggests that he is as much worried by the possibility of a ‘mental miscegenation’, a mixing of your thoughts with those of a stranger, as he is by the physical fact of having sex with a stranger. The Head Man is perhaps a forerunner of that stasis, that fixity, that lack of development of which the ancient Egyptian civilization is often accused. His dogmatic cast of mind is perhaps to be expected in a high priest. But there is a fair bit of the Head Man in all of us; it's a fact of human nature that having to change our beliefs is uncomfortable to us.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Ko pride pornografom v kremplje krajevni leksikon...

Nu, na mnogih takih malo bolj sleazy web straneh se pogosto pojavljajo reklame, za katere sicer ne vem čisto točno, ali poskušajo ponujati linke na online dating ali pa na čisto preprosto pornografijo, ampak v vsakem primeru si prizadevajo zbuditi v gledalcu vtis, da prikazujejo ženske iz njegovega lokalnega okolja.

Vrli pornografi so se očitno dobro založili z bazami geografskih podatkov. Ko iz tvojega IPja opazijo, da si iz Slovenije, izberejo iz svoje baze nekaj naključnih imen slovenskih krajev in jih prilepijo pod ravno tako naključno izbrane slike žensk (ki pa s Slovenijo seveda nimajo prav nobene zveze). In tako na lepem postane opazovanje teh reklam mešanica med poučno uro zemljepisa (pod kolikšnim deležem slik bodo nastopala imena obskurnih slovenskih vasi, za katere še nikoli v življenju nisem slišal) in idealističnim razmišljanjem o fenomenalno multikulturnih what-if scenarijih (kaj če bi v Jaršah res živela črnka z vzdevkom asiankitten?).

Sicer pa se jim mogoče ne smem preveč posmehovati, saj so spodaj dodali pošten disclaimer: Photos and other data are for illustrative purposes only... :-)


Saturday, December 03, 2005

BOOK: Philippe Wolff, "Western Languages"

Philippe Wolff: Western Languages, AD 100–1500. Translated by Frances Partridge. London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971; Phoenix, 2003. 1842122762. vi + 201 pp.

This is a book about the evolution of Romance and Germanic languages in western Europe during the late antiquity and the middle ages.

There is an interesting observation on dialects on pp. 18–19. Each innovation in language occurs in some particular region; these regions partly overlap, and it turns out that in almost no two places is the set of innovations that occurred there exactly the same. So if you wanted to be really precise, you would need to say that each village has a dialect of its own. But to make things manageable, we take only some of the characteristics into account when defining the dialects, and therefore “the limits traced [between dialects] correspond to no dialectal reality” (p. 19).

As we know, the Romance languages evolved from the spoken or ‘vulgar’ form of the Latin language. This had slowly diverged from the formal, classical, written language, and this divergence went in separate directions in different parts of the (former) Roman empire, until the dialects eventually became separate languages. Interestingly, the differences between vulgar and formal language didn't appear only in late antiquity but were already quite large in the classical times; this can be seen e.g. from graffiti in the ruins of Pompeii, which show us the state of the colloqual language in the 1st century AD: it already had many of the characteristics which appear in writing only several centuries later, during the decline or decadence of Latin in the late antiquity and early middle ages, and which later became the standard characteristics of the Romance languages (pp. 26–30). Christianity also had an influence here: already in the late antiquity was it adopting many characteristics of the spoken language into its written texts, in the effort to bring them closer to their intended audience (p. 50).

“[P]roto-Germanic, like Latin, seems to have used neither subjective personal pronouns nor articles.” (P. 39.) I can understand why the personal pronouns came to be used later — because they abandoned the inflections on verbs, they had to use the personal pronoun to distinguish between e.g. ‘I walk’ and ‘you walk’. But why the need to introduce articles? What is gained by them? If I compare my native language, which like most Slavic languages lacks articles, with e.g. English, which does have articles, I don't have the feeling that articles are of much use. Only rarely does a situation occur where you can really choose between ‘a’ and ‘the’, i.e. when both are correct but they mean something different. Most of the time, only one of them is correct anyway, so that it conveys no extra information.

On the divergence of spoken and written Latin in the early middle ages: “As late as the fifth century, and probably later, one can detect the passage of written to oral language as a change of style. In about 800 it became a change of language.” (P. 43.)

The Franks had adopted the Latin language, but pronounced it in their own way. “[T]he Merovingian king Chilperic (561–84) was so conscious of the inadequacy of the Latin alphabet to translate the sounds of Latin he heard spoken abouthim, that he suggested adding some characters, corresponding in particular with the spirant th.” (P. 58.)

There are a few interesting etymologies: the German Kaufmann, O.H.G. kaufo, comes from Latin caupo, tavern-keeper: “surely very typical of frontier relations, where the tavern-keeper sold a little of everything and must have seemed the incarnation of commerce to the neighbouring ‘Barbarians’.” (P. 75.) The same caupo is also the source of the English cheap (ibid.). From the old German, it also entered the Slavic languages (kupiti = to buy). I'm somewhat impressed by all this — I would have imagined that even the most backward of the barbarians must have been familiar with concepts such as trade, buying, and selling; why then the need to borrow a Latin word for these things? Or if these concepts were really new to them, does this mean that they lived in a kind of communistic bliss before their first contacts with the Roman empire?

Christianity also had an influence on the development of Germanic languages; it required them to coin or borrow words for many abstract concepts which they previously lacked (the words currently used often emerged slowly, after much “trial and error”: pp. 76–7).

Charlemagne “learned enough Latin to speak it fluently”, but, according to Einhard, he didn't despise his native Frankish either: “He also had copies made [. . .] of very ancient Barbarian poems [. . .] he outlined the grammar of the national language.” (P. 90.) Unfortunately most of this material has been lost.

The evolution of Latin in the early Middle Ages is a curious thing: as the colloqual speech diverged more and more from the classical language, the writers eventually found themselves less and less capable of adhering to the classical standards; e.g. the writings of the 6th-century author Gregory of Tours show “[a] very large number of errors or distortions [. . .] considered by the standards of the literary Latin that Gregory wished to write” (p. 69). Later authors abandoned any such literary pretensions altogether (p. 70); “classical Latin orthography corresponded less and less with the actual pronunciation of the words, and the scribes consequently departed from it more and more. Confusion increased among the declensions and conjugations [. . .] Many other phenomena could be quoted here, all bearing witness to the increasing disintegration of the link with classical Latin” (p. 70). But then came the renaissance of Charlemagne's period: by then the spoken language was sufficiently different from Latin that the latter was beginning to be studied earnestly as a foreign language; in addition, Charlemagne encouraged its use in schools (probably also hoping to facilitate the administration of his state) (p. 89); with the result that “the language of documents and other manuscripts became more correct, and literary works again began to be produced.” (P. 90.)

In the period 1000–1300, the various dialects were beginning to converge into clear forerunners of the modern languages, and their use in writing and in various formal contexts was increasing. The coalescing of dialects into a modern language was particularly late and difficult in Italy, because of its lack of political unity (p. 140). In France, “Francian [i.e. the speech of Île-de-France and of Paris] was becoming predominant by the end of the thirteenth century [. . .] Froissart was the last writer in the dialect of Picardy” (p. 159). The upper and middle classes were increasingly abandoning Latin in favour of the living languages (pp. 104–5). The less these people knew Latin, the more important the living languages were becoming; in the 15th century, “[t]he Duke [of Ferrara] wrote [in Latin] to a neighbouring podestà at Modena to send him a falcon tied in a sack [. . .] but the recipient failed to understand, and sent the archpriest instead of the bird that had been asked for!” (P. 152.) “Europe was thus in about 1500 moving towards a general agreement between nation and language.” (P. 166.)

There has also often been a period of bilingualism when both Latin and a living language were widely used (or even trilingualism in the case of England, where French was also widely used for some time; p. 122). At the same time, “medieval Latin was probably never written (or even spoken) more fluently and elegantly than in the twelfth century” (p. 108); its final decline began only in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, the humanists began their revival of classical Latin; interestingly, they often criticized not only the poor Latin of the religious authors of the thirteenth century, but also the great writers who used the vulgar tongues, such as Dante (pp. 154–5). In Italy, there were no great writers in Italian during most of the 15th century: “As soon as a writer of literary talent appeared, he tended to express himself in Latin” (p. 155). Still, eventually this excessive admiration of Latin waned, and the vulgar languages came into their own again (p. 156). A touching and patriotic sentence of Spenser is quoted in relation to that: “I love Rome, but London better. I favour Italie, but England more. I honor the Latin, but worship the English.” (Actually the quotation is from p. 254 of The Elementarie, written in 1582 by Richard Mulcaster, who had been Spenser's teacher at the Merchant Taylors' School.)

The introduction of printing encouraged the standardization of language and the marginalization of dialects. E.g. in Provence: “It was not Simon de Montfort, but Gutenberg who gallicised Languedoc.” (P. 173.)

There are also a few sections on the English language. I always understood that standard modern English is based on the dialects of southern England, but it seems that in some aspects, the northern dialects had more influence than I thought; “while Chaucer, who was a southerner, was still writing yive in the fourteenth century, it was the northern pronunciation and orthography give that prevailed.” (P. 120.) And the plural “termination -es, which had triumphed in the north, gradually eliminated the southern -en (although children and oxen remained).” (P. 169.) In writing, the letter ð disappeared in the fourteenth century, and þ soon afterwards (p. 168).

I see that I am not the only one who thinks that Spanish (i.e. Castilian — I'm not familiar enough with Catalan to be able to have an opinion about it) sounds somewhat pompous. “In about 1150 the Latin Poem of Almeria speaks of Castilian as ‘reverberating like a combination of trumpets and drums’ ” (p. 133).

I'm also glad to see that I'm not the only one who enjoys the sound of Portuguese. “The melancholy character of the race that spoke this language, and its sweet, soft sound, may explain why this thirteenth-century lyric poem in Portuguese [i.e. the Canticles of the Virgin of King Alfonso X] had such a success even outside the national frontiers. It was agreed at the time that Portuguese was more suitable for lyric poetry, and Castilian for epics and history.” I think this last concept is quite charming — the idea that different languages or dialects are particularly suitable for different genres of writing. I think that the ancient Greeks had similar notions; the Doric dialects for lyrical poetry, the Ionic for epic poetry, the Attic for tragedy and philosophy, and later the Hellenistic koine for more pedestrian things. Nowadays this is rare; we (myself included) would think it heresy to suggest that, for some particular genre, one language may be more suitable than another. I'm sure that, as long as enough authors (and sufficiently talented) make an effort in that genre, the language will adapt to accommodate it. After all, didn't the first Roman philosophers write in Greek because they found the Latin language to be too clumsy and unsuitable for philosophy? And yet little by little it evolved until in the middle ages it was the main tool for expressing philosophy in much of Europe. But still, the notion that some languages are peculiarly appropriate for some uses is romantic and charming, and I sometimes cannot entirely help wishing (against my better judgment) it were true.

There is a touching and charming anecdote on p. 147, illustrating how the local priests were often poorly acquainted with Latin. A priest, being asked what was the case of the word te (you) in a sentence from the Mass (“we beg and pray you, oh most merciful Father), was unable to answer; “When asked ‘What word governs it?’ he replied: ‘Pater, because the Father governs all things’.”

It's interesting how one of the main characteristics in the development of Indo-European languages has been the abandonment of all kinds of inflections, the simplification of declensions and conjugations, and the increasing use of prepositions and various other auxiliary words. What surprises me here is this: if a well-developed system of declensions and conjugations is really so hard for people to handle that they have to simplify it from generation to generation (and introduce prepositions and other form-words to make up for the loss of precision caused by the loss of inflections), then how come that these complicated systems of declensions and conjugations have evolved in the first place? How did the Protoindoeuropeans get the idea to encumber themselves with so many inflections if their descendants spent the next four or five millennia doing nothing but trying to get rid of as many of these inflections as possible? I cannot help feeling a bit nostalgic for the good olden days when a single word, with the aid of a fiendishly complex system of inflections, was able to say a lot of things by itself — things for which it now requires the aid a whole bunch of supporting form-words. I despise the incessant clap-trap of these numerous brief monosyllabic words in our modern languages. Sure, convenient they may be; and far easier to learn that a complicated system of inflections (even the comparatively modest German declensions turned out to be an almost insurmountable problem for me); but what are these advantages compared to the loss of the rough, simple and clear lapidary beauty of the fully inflected languages of old?

Another thing I enjoyed about this book is its pleasant chatty style. The author often uses questions (not necessarily rhetorical ones) and phrases like “let us . . .” to establish rapport with the reader and give you the feeling that you are not being merely informed or lectured to, but that you are embarking in the author's company on a journey towards knowledge. I rarely felt anything like this when reading works by English-speaking historians, but I did feel something similar when reading Braudel's History of Civilizations and Memory and the Mediterranean. Braudel and Wolff were both French — is it possible that the prevailing style of writing among historians varies from country to country?

Anyway, this is quite a pleasant book; brief and concise, engagingly written, requiring no particular knowledge of linguistics (or of languages; although I'm sure I'd be able to appreciate some of the examples better if I understood a bit of Latin and French or maybe some of the other Romance languages). I only wish it didn't limit itself to the languages of Western Europe only. I hope I'll eventually find some similar book about the development of the Slavic languages as well.