Saturday, September 27, 2008

Jailer, Gaoler ... Goaler?

I was playing a little hooky yesterday from class preparation and reading a bit of Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers. I came across the phrase "king, judge, or goaler." ("The temporal king, judge, or goaler, can work but on the body.") My first thought was that "goaler" was a typo for "gaoler," the British equivalent of "jailer," and I so emended the text in my mind.

My second thought was that maybe the reference was to some other function, and that perhaps I had been too hasty. So I looked in the online OED. Lo and behold, the spelling "goaler" was listed as one of the spelling variants of JAILOR, JAILER, GAOLER. A little more research via Google Print turned up a great many occurrences of the spelling GOALER with the meaning, and presumably the pronunciation of, "jailer." It goes back at least as far as variant readings in Shakespeare's Folios and seems to expire sometime in the late 19th century; Trollope was using a spelling that was on the way out.

Granted then the venerable pedigree of the spelling "goaler," does that make it any less of an error? Judging from the etymology of the word, the combination OA cannot be anything but a confused orthography for the more correct AO — and yet it was surprisingly popular and widespread.

From this I draw this lesson for textual studies, that it is necessary to distinguish between the proper ("correct") reading and the "correct" etymology. GOALER is the correct reading in Trollope, although the orthography is a poor representation (therefore "incorrect") of the pronunciation and the etymology of the word in general (which is why, no doubt, such a spelling gradually vanished in the presence of competing spellings).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Qal or Niph'al?

In response to a student's question, I was led to look up the parsing of the form ‏יֵחַת in HALOT — the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, now the standard lexicon for Biblical Hebrew (a revision of the older Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon). I was surprised to see that all of the forms of that type (the imperfect of the root ‏חתת) were taken to be from the Niph'al stem.

If you look at the same forms in BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs), they are parsed, correctly in my opinion, as from the Qal stem. Now purely from the standpoint of morphology, either parsing is possible. Due to the accidents of accidence (so to speak) the same vocalization would be used in either case.

Nevertheless, if HALOT is correct, we would have the strange arrangement whereby the perfects of the root are in the Qal and the imperfects are in Niph'al (there are a few in Piel and Hiphil but they don't concern us). It is more sensible (and more economical) to assume that both perfect and imperfect forms are parsed as the Qal.

This assumption is strengthened when one notes that חתת is a stative verb, not an active verb (look at Jer. 50:2, for example), and the underlying Qal vocalization *
yiqtal is standard for stative verbs. With geminate verbs, the vocalization יֵחַת is exactly what would be predicted. I have no idea why HALOT opted for the Niph'al in this case.

I don't suppose that anyone really thinks that HALOT is infallible, do they? If you do, then stop.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Among many grammatical treatments, see Waltke & O'Connor,
An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, §22.3j (p. 369).

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Writer David Foster Wallace is dead. I will miss him.

All the newspapers are calling him "postmodern," which is true in kind of a chronological way, but he really didn't fit that whole ironic life-is-just-a-game-without-rules mold of the postmodern. More than any other modern writer (not that I know that much about modern writing), he tried to meld a contemporary sensibility with a commitment to values, or at least value-seeking, that is universal.

This old interview at Salon, after Infinite Jest came out, has a lot of insights. Some excerpts:

There's something particularly sad about [living in America today], something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know.

... I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn't the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous.

... The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting [as not lying] -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.

There are certain contemporary writers or artists that one feels like are companions for the journey, and this is different than liking the old writers who are great and nourishing but dead long ago. They (the companions) make one feel not alone. And now DFW has gone, and we're a bit more alone than we were.

One last thing: his essays in books like Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, are just incredibly funny. His description of the McCain 2000 campaign in Lobster (as well as his evisceration of John Updike in the same) just have to be read. Honor a great writer and go read 'em.