May 14th, 2009


The continuous aspect

Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge; I am learning Irish. I find it fascinating that both English and Irish use a continuous aspect for the verb in this phrase (Tá mé = "I am", ag foghlaim = "at the learning", more or less). I understand that the Welsh dw i'n dysgu Gwyddeleg is a similar construction.

Other languages that I know would just use the simple present - j'apprends l'irlandais; ich lerne Irisch; ik leer Iers. It's quite difficult to think of a situation where you would say "I learn Irish" in English, or foghlaimím Gaeilge in Irish. (Or dysgaf Gwyddeleg in Welsh?)

There is a Dutch form which is almost identical in wording to the Irish version - ik ben iers aan het leren - but this is closer in meaning to the French je suis en train d'apprendre l'irlandais, roughly "I am in the middle of learning Irish", so is correct in fewer circumstances. It's also rather colloquial.

It's striking that the languages of the archipelago have developed such similar formations for this set of meanings. A (rather minimal) amount of googling indicates that some linguists think this is just coincidence. I am not convinced. I am reminded of the way that Albanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian and Romanian all put the definite article as a suffix to the noun, although they come from three different language groups.

Just a thought.

May Books 12) The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

This is very far from being a typical PKD novel, yet it was the only one to win a Hugo award, in 1963. The other nominees were The Sword of Aldones, by Marion Zimmer Bradley; A Fall of Moondust, by Arthur C. Clarke; Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper; and Sylva, by Jean Bruller. The only one of these I have read is the Clarke, which is good solid stuff from one of the greats, but I think the Hugo voters got it right. (Have any translated novels other than Sylva ever been shortlisted for the Hugo?)

Alternate history as a sub-genre often gets a bit consumed with its own cleverness, but The Man in the High Castle takes quite a different approach. The plot, as far as it matters, is about two German plots, one to attack Japan, the other to assassinate the author of a novel where Germany and Japan lost the war, and the attempts of Japanese and Americans (and one dissident German) to thwart them. Dick almost instructs us in how to read his alternate history, by having his characters read and talk about their alternate history, and with other incidents probing the links between reality and authenticity. There are a couple of "normal" Dickian moments, when one character somehow finds himself in our world, and when others discover that their world is also fictional; but the flaws in reality are much more subtly done here than in many of Dick's books, and for that reason more effective.

It is a peculiarly subdued novel. Dick's writing is often manic: this isn't, except perhaps just a little towards the end of Juliana's journey. She and Frank never get back together. Mr Tagomi triumphs morally but is damaged physically. The man in the high castle actually lives in a fairly normal house and isn't really very nice. But it lingers in the memory.