Picking Nits in English

Lately I’ve repeatedly come across two bits of English usage that look really wrong to me. Checking them up, it turns out that in one case I was right, in the other wrong.

Principle/principal. Many native English speakers of extremely high academic accomplishment don’t seem to know that “principle” is a noun and “principal” most commonly an adjective. They will happily write “my principle objection is blah blah bla”. Wroooong.

Jealousy/envy. In Swedish, the words svartsjuka and avund have distinct meanings. Svartsjuka (literally “black illness”) is what you feel when you fear that your partner may be cheating on you. Avund is what you feel when a colleague gets the big grant you both applied for. Now, I used to believe that “jealousy” mapped exactly onto svartsjuka and “envy” onto its cognate avund. I thought people were making an entertaining error when they said they were jealous of the neighbour’s new car. Not so. According to the dictionaries I’ve consulted, “jealousy” in fact encompasses both svartsjuka and avund, while “envy” does map directly onto avund. Envy is thus a subset of jealousy. I find that I’m expected to experience jealousy both if the mailman bangs my wife and if he gets the big grant I applied for.

Don’t even get me started on how bad native English speakers are at faking King James Bible grammar.

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Carl Michael Bellman’s Butterfly

i-1bfa9d22b47287c4ba35779cbac5bd2f-z_bellman_bellman.jpgOne of the brightest stars of Swedish literature is Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795). Much of his work is a kind of humorous beat poetry set to music, chronicling the lives of Stockholm drunkards and whores. Central themes are boozing, sex and death.

“You think the grave’s too deep?
Well then, have a drink
Then have another two and another three
That way you’ll die happier”

“A girl in the green grass and wine in green glasses
I feast on both, both gather me to their bosom
Let’s have some more resin on the violin bow!”

But Bellman wasn’t strictly speaking part of the underworld he wrote about. He was more of a bourgeois onlooker, periodically a court favourite, and counted the era’s top artists and intellectuals among his friends. One of Bellman’s most well-known and beloved songs is a piece of fawning praise to King Gustaf III, eulogising his great park and summer palace at Haga north of Stockholm. It was written in 1790-91 in an unsuccessful attempt to get Bellman’s wife Lovisa a job as overseer of the Haga household, and then modified and dedicated to the poet’s landlord whom he owed for rent. Pretty much everyone in Sweden can sing Fjäriln vingad syns på Haga, but some of the words are archaic and the syntax is convoluted, so few really understand the sense of the lyrics anymore. Here’s a literal translation I’ve made.

At Haga, the butterfly can be seen making its green home amid misty frost and down, its bed in a flower. Every little marshland creature, just awakened by the sun’s warmth, is inspired by the western wind to festive revelry.

Haga, in your bosom are seen sprouting grass and the yellow plaza. The proud swan raises its neck, rocking in your streamlets. From afar in the open spaces of the forest are heard incessant echoes: sometimes the hammering of granite, sometimes axes in birch and fir trees. [Referring to the king’s construction projects in the area.]

See, the Brunnsviken inlet’s little mermaids raise their golden horns, and water cascades higher even than Solna church steeple. On a neat road under vaulted trees the horse frolics and the wheel throws dust into the air, while the farmer smiles fondly toward Haga.

What a divine pleasure to be greeted by one’s beloved under the eye of such a mild monarch in a park as lovely as this! Everyone cries with gratitude whenever his eye falls upon them. Even the most bad-tempered person is happy when touched and charmed by that gaze.

For lyrical translations of Bellman into English, see Paul Britten Austin’s Fredman’s Epistles and Songs. Here are the Swedish lyrics for Fjäriln vingad including the little-known original job-seeking version. Haga hasn’t changed much in the past 200 years, and the whole park is open to the public. Highly recommended!

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Going to Trondheim

Almost half of Aard‘s Dear Readers are based in the US, nearly a fourth are in Sweden, and the remaining fourth is dominated by people in the UK, Canada and Australia. Alas, the citizens of my Scandy neighbouring countries show very little interest in the blog, and so I don’t know if I have any readers in the Norwegian city of Trondheim.

I’m going to be in Trondheim from 1 to 6 September for this year’s Sachsensymposium. It’s the main conference for archaeologists working with post-Roman, pre-Viking Northern Europe, and I will be accompanied by Professor Steve Steve. If you’re in Trondheim and feel like meeting me or Prof. Steve over a cup or glass or flagon of something or other, then please drop me a line!

So You Want to Write Interactive Fiction?

Back in 1996 I played Curses, an extremely good text adventure game. I also read the inspiring documentation for Inform 3, the programming language Curses was written in, and found it extremely elegant. (The game, the programming language and its documentation were all the work of one Graham Nelson.) I had vague plans for writing my own game in Inform, but never got round to it. Instead I went through various interesting upheavals in my life (mainly involving women and the resulting children) that pretty much catapulted me out of geekdom, certainly as far as gaming was concerned.

Now, inspired by the Colossal Cave paper I linked to the other day, I googled “graham nelson inform”. And boy have he and his associates been busy!

Inform is now at version 7. It has transformed into a natural English compiler for interactive fiction. Inform 7 source code can look like this:

Martha is a woman in the Vineyard.

The cask is either customs sealed, liable to tax or stolen goods.

The prevailing wind is a direction that varies.

The Old Ice House overlooks the Garden.

A container is bursting if the total weight of things in it is greater than its breaking strain.

This incredible-sounding piece of software is a free download available for Win, Mac and Linux. Book-length documentation is included. I’ve got to check out what kind of text adventures / interactive fiction people are writing these days with tools like that!

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Late Medieval Seal Matrix


When someone dies their ID card and on-line banking code-dongle are destroyed to prevent identity theft. Their signature dies with them, so that’s not a problem. In the past, people with a bit of money and influence had seal matrices filling the function of all these things. They “signed” documents by affixing wax seals to them, stamped with their unique design. And when the owner of a seal died, the matrix was generally destroyed and then molten for scrap or buried with him.

For this reason, Medieval seal matrices are rare finds, and when they do turn up they tend to be in pieces. But recently, a 15th or early-16th century matrix was found at a farmstead near Linköping in Östergötland, Sweden — in pristine shape, hardly even corroded. It’s now in the County Museum where I saw it back in the spring.

The image on the seal shows a knight in armour with a heavy sword over his shoulder and something round in front that I can’t identify. (Sorry about the crappy photograph.) So far my enquiries into who the owner of the seal may have been, and whether any documents sealed with it survive, have been unsuccessful. But we’re clearly dealing with someone in the nobility.


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The Antiquity Photography Prize

Like myself, Martin Carver at Antiquity wants good archaeopix. Unlike me, he’s offering a cash prize and publication in a top-tier print journal.

Antiquity would like to announce the Antiquity Photography Prize. This will be a cash prize awarded for the best archaeological photograph published in the journal in that year. The first prize will be announced for the year 2008. As well as photographs published as part of articles in the journal, consideration for the prize will also include frontispiece photographs published in the editorial.

We would be very grateful if you could spread the word of this prize and encourage new submissions, especially for the editorial frontispieces. Along with the image, we ask for the following basic information:

1. When was the photograph taken?
2. Where was it taken?
3. Where was it taken from – the air/the east….
4. What are the circumstances of the find?
5. What is the date of the find?
6. What camera was used?
7. What film was used?
8. Any other technical information – e.g. tripod used?

All submissions should be sent as high resolution tiff or jpeg files to editor@DELETE-THISantiquity.ac.uk or sent on CD to The Editor, Antiquity, King’s Manor, York YO1 7EP, UK.

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Howard Williams Invites You to his Tudor Manor

i-c28f1eacc63c4db5210afd93d4863083-Stokenham vertical.jpg

My friend Howard Williams teaches archaeology at the University of Exeter, England. He’s joined me in Sweden three times so far, once for a rural bike trip, twice for co-directed excavations, and he’s soon returning for yet another jaunt around the country’s sites, museums and archaeology departments. Attend his lectures there if you can!

Here’s a guest entry by Howard about his fieldwork during the past summer. I would have been there too but for my paternal duties.

Stokenham Fieldwork, July 2007
By Dr Howard Williams

This summer I led the third season of fieldwork exploring the Medieval and Tudor manor house at Stokenham in Devon.

The principal focus of this year’s fieldwork was ‘Manor Field’ east of the parish church. Until its abandonment in the 1580s this was the site of the manor of Stokenham. It has been a field ever since. Geophysical, topographical and fieldwalking surveys suggested where the manor house might be, and we opened two trenches to explore the surviving remains.

Trench 1 consisted of a 25 by 5 m intervention placed to investigate the largest terraced platform in the Manor Field. This terrace had produced the highest concentration of Medieval building material and finds in the 2005 fieldwalking survey. We revealed the remains of one of the rooms of the manor house with the substantial foundations of walls suggesting a building of at least two storeys and a fireplace with the burned remains of logs still in place!

Over half a metre of rubble contained clues to how the building was constructed. It was a lordly dwelling of the 15th and 16th centuries. The roof was of slate with decorated ceramic ridge tiles. The walls were partly mortared, lined with plaster internally and lime-washed externally. The floor included flagstones and decorated tiles with a fish-design (perhaps from the manor’s chapel). Mortared drains were also revealed. One wall was found collapsed and contained sculpted sandstone window-pieces, further evidence of a high-status building.

Finds included a large animal bone assemblage including cattle, sheep, pig and possibly also deer, horse and dog. There were also large numbers of fish bones and oyster shells. Artefacts included iron nails (parts of the timber superstructure of the building), iron tools and horseshoes, fish hooks, belt-buckles, brooches, pins, a thimble, a bronze finger-ring and bronze and silver coins. Among the finds indicative of a high-status building was an iron key with a heart-shaped handle. All this evidence serves to suggest that Trench 1 had correctly located the site of the abandoned and lost manor house of Stokenham.

Nearby we opened a 10 by 3 m intervention – Trench 2. Here we found another building foundation and a midden stuffed full of finds including animal bones, oyster shells and artefacts including bronze pins and metalworking evidence. We also found a road surface made of slates lain on-end and framed by quartz blocks: the road leading into the manorial complex.

The results are to be studied at the University of Exeter and published in a suitably scholarly journal. It is one of only a handful of Medieval and Tudor manorial sites investigated by archaeologists in the South-West of England. Stokenham promises to provide valuable information on the life of the minor nobility to complement the work done on castles and palace sites.

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Afro-Chinese History Manipulation

i-f6944a5738caa8a34be406011383ccad-sharifu.jpgChina’s interest in the natural resources of Africa has ballooned lately and received much media coverage. Apparently, the last time somebody was that interested in metal ores and scrap, they were Germany in the late 1930s. This political force field across Africa is now, of course, being dressed up in cultural finery, including the manipulation of historical perceptions.

Under the leadership of Admiral Zheng He, China enjoyed a brief era of transoceanic power with insanely huge ships in the early 15th century. These efforts were apparently terminated because the Chinese failed to reach anyone whose civilisation impressed them.

Now a group of islanders off the coast of Kenya have suddenly “remembered an old legend” according to which they are the descendants of Zheng He’s crew members. And China is happily encouraging this folklore. Young islander Mwamaka Sharifu is studying medicine in China thanks to a scholarship from Beijing. She’s living proof of the long-standing peaceful contacts between China and Africa!

I don’t believe one word of it, but I wish Ms Sharifu all success with her studies. I also hope that the traditional Chinese prejudice against dark-skinned people isn’t bothering her too badly.

Thanks to Jerry Helliker for the links.

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Godless Sweden

I sometimes make reference here to how godless Swedish public discourse is, particularly compared to the fundie-infested US situation. Here’s a good longer piece about this issue by Jerker (it’s not a funny name in Swedish, being simply a dialectal version of Eric) of Allotetraploid, also partly available in an English translation by Felicia of Life Before Death.

(No wonder God hates Sweden. We don’t like him much either.)

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Prized Possessions

I got to thinking about my most-prized possessions. Which are they really? Which of my stuff would I try to rescue if the house caught fire, or if we had to flee enemy troops and bring along or hide our valuables?

One way to look at it would be to simply enumerate the most expensive stuff I have, the things that would cost the most to replace if they disappeared or would fetch a good price if I sold them. But YuSie and I don’t really have any valuables. No gold or precious stones or artwork or other collectibles worth mentioning, and our home electronics are simple and years old. So’s our car. And we live in a huge tenement building that’s most definitely not our possession. Also, even if I did happen to own something with a big price sticker, say, an inherited vintage watch or a piece of heavy celebrity memorabilia, there’s nothing to say that I’d be very keen to replace it if I lost it.

Another approach would be to rank stuff according to sentimental value. But I am unsentimental about material possessions. Sure, many old things I’ve got trigger fond memories when I handle them, but I never seek them out to get that effect, and I wouldn’t miss them if the option to seek them out were closed to me. Photographs of the kids when they were younger provoke a really strong emotional response in me on the rare occasions when I look at them, but it’s kind of knee-jerk and backwards — of course I don’t wish that my son had quit growing at age two, and I don’t love his current version any less than I did his toddler one. Old photographs of your kids really just invite painful nostalgia.

My most prized possessions must be something that I’d miss and that would be hard or even impossible to regain if I lost it. Thinking about it, I find it’s mainly stuff to do with my work. I’d be really upset if my archaeological finds went up in flames, but they’re not strictly my possessions, I just safekeep them until the Heritage Board’s administrative machinery has churned out a museum allocation for them. I’d be more distraught if my unpublished manuscripts and databases went to the great null device in the sky, which is why I make regular backup copies of the files onto various servers. I’ve got digital diaries and reading lists from the mid-90s onward, but I back them up too.

Picturing myself in the parking lot, watching the house go up in smoke, I can’t really think of a single thing I’d like to charge in and rescue. As long as my family is safely with me there on the asphalt, as long as we all still have our health and wits, I can’t really see that there is anything I can’t afford to lose.

What about you, Dear Reader?

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