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In Next Month's TVR



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Tim Buck

Tim Buck
The cave mouth shoots straight down into a yawning abyss. Grasping the nylon rope, a lone caver plunges through the darkness, his helmet lamp casting a ghostly glow on the ancient hues of sleeping limestone. He descends fearlessly, rappeling into the oblivion until boots at last strike the solidity of a rock-strewn floor. Farther into the gloom, a natural tunnel leads downwards at a manageable angle. The air is damp, almost cold. Yet, excitement produces a nervous perspiration. At first, he is thrown off-balance in this alien world. But after a while, the spelunker becomes accustomed to the new surroundings. Another corridor veers off from this main one, and he takes it. Discovery beckons. Soon, the passage reduces dramatically in size, and progress is made only by crawling, then by lying flat and elbowing the body forward. A flush of panic almost undermines the advance, but after a few moments, nerves are regained and the spell is shaken off. This tight space finally gives onto a chamber, where dark-green cavewater, its depth unplumbable, lies placidly on either side of a narrow pathway. One misstep would be calamitous. Carefully, the adventurer moves toward an opening in the far wall. Through it, he is now in a much larger "room." Splashed with lamplight, it reveals a grotesquerie of impish stalagmites in frozen eruption from the floor and eerie stalactites that drip from the vaulted ceiling. Pearlescent in color and streaked with iron oxides, these calcite formations decorate the chamber in surreal fashion. Time seems to pass geologically as the caver explores ever deeper into this honeycombed system's interconnected passageways. Some rooms are separated by treacherous chasms and are reached by tightly hugging the flowstone walls. One of these great halls contains giant columns formed by eons of riverflow. Yet now, only a few silent pools of mysterious water remain. Each of these rocky grottos or immense cavities holds a bewitchment of subterranean alchemy wrought by time, water, and stone. The pleasures of exploration are so keen that there is a very good chance our intrepid one will become hopelessly lost.

So, too, is the delving into literature.


Christopher Lord

Christopher Lord
The effect of computers on spelling is to produce a curious divergence. On the one hand, the spell-checker tells people using word processing software when they have used a word that doesn't have an entry in the dictionary file so that almost anyone can produce a text free of nonexistent words (although the writer who can't spell will inevitably pick the wrong suggestion for a correction from time to time); at the same time, un-spell-checked email, chat room contributions, and so on are desensitising online communities to spelling errors, indeed to the whole concept of standardised spelling, since they are corroding grammatical and stylistic standards generally. For many, spelling is evidently something that the machine does, like formatting paragraphs or setting a fount.


David Isaacson

David Isaacson
Just when did "no problem" replace "you're welcome"? Might this be a linguistic symptom of significant cultural change? My latest encounter with this phrase distresses me a bit. One of my pleasing tasks as the Humanities Librarian in the university where I work is to select a few of our recently acquired books to display on the New Books shelves. I place yellow slips that have been stamped "New Books" in these books. Because our library is a large, complex bureaucracy, I don't stamp the slips myself. No, I'm not above such pedestrian work — it's just not part of my job description. A student assistant in Monographic Acquisitions has this as one of her less intellectually challenging assigned tasks. Recently, after thanking one of these students — a sweet, demure, young woman — for stamping some of these slips, I was momentarily taken aback when she replied, "No problem." No, minor solecisms like this aren't as harmful as inhaled anthrax. I knew from the rest of this woman's demeanor that she meant "You're welcome."


Mark Halpern

Mark Halpern
The Eskimo Snow Vocabulary debate concerns the numbers of words Eskimo languages have for snow in its various forms, as compared with other languages. The evidence usually offered consists of lexical counts, with each side in the debate claiming authority for its own list of such words gathered from native informants, or from dictionaries compiled earlier from such interviews. But besides all the difficulties regularly associated with the compilation of word lists for a language that until recently was purely a spoken language, and whose present-day written form is largely the work of non-natives, there is in this case a special problem: lexical counting fails to distinguish between words in common use and those virtually never used by, or even known to, ordinary users of the language in question. This problem is one that has gone largely unrecognized to date, but is so serious as to vitiate virtually all attempts made so far to settle the matter.



The February issue of The Vocabula Review is due online February 17.


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