Bureaucratic Syntax?

It should be known that Akaky Akakievich expressed himself mostly with prepositions, adverbs, and finally, such particles as have decidedly no meaning. If the matter was very difficult, he even had the habit of not finishing the phrase at all, so that very often he would begin his speech with the words “That, really, is altogether sort of . . .” after which would come nothing, and he himself would forget it, thinking everything had been said.

A few pages later:

“So it’s that, that’s what it is,” he said to himself, “I really didn’t think it would come out sort of . . .” and then, after some silence, he added, “So that’s how it is! that’s what finally comes out! and I really never would have supposed it would be so.” Following that, a long silence again ensued, after which he said, “So that’s it! Such an, indeed, altogether unexpected, sort of . . . it’s altogether . . . such a circumstance!”

(Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat”, 1842)

I bought the very handsome Everyman Collected Tales, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, last Sunday at Daedalus Books in Maryland, and haven’t had time to read more than the one story. (Grades were due Tuesday, and I have an indexing job to finish by Monday, so I haven’t had much time for anything else.) Here are a few desultory notes, so my April archives won’t be quite so bare:

  1. I’m probably not the first to notice a superficial and (I assume) coincidental resemblance between the anti-hero of “The Overcoat” and Bartleby the Scrivener: they come to rather different ends, but spend their days copying documents and seem to have no other life.
  2. I wonder how many readers will feel compelled to look up the linguistic meaning of ‘particle’, which I have never run across except in scholarly treatments of ancient grammar such as Solodow’s The Latin Particle ‘Quidem’ or Denniston’s magisterial The Greek Particles. (I also sometimes wonder how many casual browsers have thought that the latter was a physics text.)
  3. None of the blogs I read have mentioned that April 1st was Gogol’s 200th birthday. Perhaps I need to read more literary blogs, particularly since politics and economics are none too cheery subjects these days.
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One Response to Bureaucratic Syntax?

  1. Al Kriman says:

    Regarding (2):

    Particle is the standard English word for joshi, Japanese postfixes like -wa, -ga, -o, -he, -no, etc. that serve a variety of purposes for which English uses mostly syntax (for case-marking), prepositions, and general adverbs. [Japanese nouns don't have grammatical number, so I claim the previous sentence parses. Maybe it does anyway.] I was a physicist before I knew any Japanese, and only later became aware of Denniston’s Greek Particles, but I can’t remember a moment when the use of “particles” in grammar gave me pause. Physical and linguistic senses both fit the general meaning of pars + cula, and it seems that both senses already occur in classical Latin. I do remember being surprised by the terms “atoms of probability” and “atomic names.”

    Most things now referred to as “particles” that are of interest to physicists are subatomic (the subject of “elementary particle physics”), and these mostly have either Greek or more-or-less whimsical names. In addition to particles and classes of particles whose names were constructed in Greek, there are particles named by letters (e.g. “the phi” or “the phi meson”). Some use a letter name as base. (E.g., muon — originally called the mu meson, and then discovered/defined not to be a meson. Maybe there was an early stage when mu was simply the symbol for meson [briefly mesotron, before Heisenberg's classically motivated objection to the name], until it was realized that there was a whole zoo of similar particles now called mesons, like the pion, still occasionally a/k/a pi meson, let’s run this sentence on a little longer.) Some particles are called by both styles (e.g., the tau — a lepton like the muon — is also called the tauon). (The term lepton is not a reference to the coin. There are also hadrons, subdivided into mesons and baryons.) Much of the Greek alphabet has been used up in this way.

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