Thursday, May 31, 2007

Beer and Wine: Reflections on Iceland


http://www.slate.com/id/2167422/pagenum/all/#page_start
Field Maloney was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, May 31, to examine the factors that have boosted wine's popularity over beer, the options brewers have for reclaiming the lead, and whatever other questions readers have about alcoholic beverages.

Gimme wine any day! Cheap wine is a glut on the market here in California and better than French vin ordinaire because, I'm told, software moguls with bucks retire early and set up gentleman farmers' vineyards. Good for them.

During Chaucer's time ordinary folk drank wine. Britain only became a beer/spirits culture during the Little Ice Age. Funny culture us--certainly not Mediterranean but not truly Nordic, a tertium quid like hyenas, neither dogs nor cats. Funny language, English, a Germanic language with a vocabulary that comes largely from Latin, either directly or via French--except for the most common vocabulary items and "little words"--and a grammar that veers toward Chinese. In China, our translator said that when Chinese linguists started working on developing a formal grammar for Chinese they took English as a model because it was the "big" language that had the grammar closest to Chinese--very analytic.

I became disillusioned about our Northern roots after, unexpectedly, spending 3 weeks in Iceland. My husband had a heart attack on the plane coming back from England, which was diverted to Reykjavik where I stayed while he was in hospital. The only thing I liked about Iceland was the weather--cold, very windy, dramatic and changeable. The language was terrible. The book I got cheerfully announced that almost all verbs in Icelandic were irregular. Even as a native English speaker with a little German I couldn't make out anything. I went to the University looking for the philosophy dept hoping to hook up and do something productive but I couldn't find it: you'd think "philosophia" or something like that but it turns out that philosophy is "heimspecki"--worldview. I kind of like that. At the hospital, my husband was in the "heartsdeild" (sp?)--the heart department: Icelandic doesn't pick up Latin or Greek for technical terms. I figured out that "kvennadeild," women's department, was gynecology--queen, woman, kvenna (genitive)--but it was only just before we left that I realized that "naturhereingangur" (sp?) on the sign above the entrance to the hospital I used didn't refer to some exotic disease but just meant "night entrance"--night's going-in doer.

The culture was worse--so near yet so far. I felt much more comfortable in Kenya. The Icelandic don't queue. It took me quite a while to figure out how to get served in stores as I politely held back while everyone else bumped ahead of me. They are also glum and observe long silences when they have nothing to say. I couldn't figure out what the doctors were trying to tell me because they seemed, by my lights, so pessimistic. In the US it would be, "Wow, you have terminal cancer, but don't worry, you'll live to be 100! This is a challenge! Make you a better person--what a jolly experience!" In Iceland it was more along the lines of, "Um, you have an ingrown toenail. Here are all the technical details. This will hurt."

The worst of it I remember was breakfast at the hostel where I stayed--which was a wonderful place http://www.guesthouse.is. Stay there if you visit! I got coffee, and saw two pitchers labled "mijlk" and "surmiljk." I immediately pored the surmilk into my coffee--obviously I thought, cream: the top of the milk. But it was some sort of "sour milk"--buttermilk or liquid yogurt. Beware of this stuff. It clots in coffee and tastes terrible. That was when I decided, unilaterally, that English was a Romance language and that our manifest destiny lay with the South. South! The climate is awful and they stand too close--though in my experience all non-English-speakers stand too close and also are not sufficiently bonded with dogs--but the language is intelligible, at least in writing, they don't serve this shit, and you can make out what they're up to even if you don't approve of it. Drink wine!

"The Greek empire extended as far as the olive--the Roman as far as the vine." And that definitely didn't include Icelend. The vine grew in England before the Little Ice Age and Romans ruled up to Hadrian's Wall. Even if we have a Germanic language, sort of, we're wops. Screw beer--drink wine!

8 comments:

Andrew said...

I'm sorry to hear about your husband, but everything you say about Iceland makes it seem more attractive. But then of course New Jersey is, as everyone knows, largely settled by Italians, who wouldn't see the point.

why is Icelandic "sur" supposed to be further from "sour" than from French "sur"?

H. E. said...

Because it's closer to "sur" than to "aigre" (Italian: acido).

My mini-theory: native English-speakers reflexively interpret any word that looks foreign as Latin-derived even if it sounds like English because most English words that are unfamiliar, technical or foreign-sounding are Latin-derived. So we overlook phonemic similarity to English, in particular to familiar English words of Anglo-Saxon origin, and latch onto similarity to Latin-derived English words or vocabulary items rattling around in our heads from the 2 years of high school French or Spanish everyone takes. One look at "surmiljk" and we plug it into the paradigm "surtax," "surcoat," "surfeit."

There's the surprise in Icelandic--so near yet so far. In retrospect we can dope out a some of the vocabulary because it's close--"sourmilk" of course! How could I have missed that! But we miss every time because we're looking far rather than near, overlooking what's most familiar because it's familiar. It's like Chesterton's "Invisible Man"--the invisible postman.

Gotta watch it though--there's a professional linguist who occasionally visits here and I confess this is just wild, amateur speculation.

hmm. said...

well, all this doesn't sound so enlightened to me...

Andrew said...

I think that's probably a bit true, in as much as new _English_ words are likely to be latin-derived. But you weren't looking at an English menu.
To have that reflex for foreign words as well is the sort of thing that learning languages is meant to deprive you of. Perhaps that doesn't happen if the languages you learn are latinate. I don't know. I mean, I speak two germanic languages, (two and two halves, if you count Danish and Norwegian) and I have almost exactly the opposite reflex. I'll always go for the teutonic root unless its a latin word that I actually recognise.

H. E. said...

There's probably a literature on this somewhere--I'm 'satiably curious and will poke around. However, if we have that reflex when we encounter unfamiliar words in an English context there's a pretty good chance it carries over when we look at non-English words. In a Greek class I took for fun before vacation we compared biblical passages in Greek with translations and the feel was remarkably different. We struggled with the Greek--gorgeous, baroque, difficult. Then we looked at the Vulgate and the entire class audibly breathed a sign of relief: clarity! Straight, orderly, intelligible--fancy Spanish. The German sounded nagging and didactic; the French seemed vaguely risque.

Anyway my husband has a simpler theory of surmilk: you expect cream on the breakfast table--who in their right mind would drink sour milk?

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