Call me Ishmael

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From Roy Peter Clark:

I've been writing a bit lately about famous literary texts and what makes them work.  The beginning of "Lolita," say, or the ending of "The Great Gatsby."

So I've been thinking about "Call me Ishmael," arguably the most famous short sentence in American literature.  Among its charms, I argue, is that it is a short, short first sentence for a long, long book, "Moby Dick."

What stumps me is the syntax.  I get that the subject is understood, that "call" is an imperative verb.  The word "me" feels like an indirect object.  But what the heck is "Ishmael"?  A direct object?  A noun in apposition to "me"?

I asked the question on Twitter, but got no results.

Can you or your Language Log colleagues enlighten me?  I would be grateful.

Lost on the high seas of language — Roy Peter Clark


In "Call me Ishmael", the name "Ishmael" is what CGEL calls a "predicative complement" (p. 251-257) — and "me", I think,  would be treated by CGEL as a direct object:

A predicative complement is oriented toward a predicand, normally S[ubject] in intransitives, and O[bject] in transitives. In both cases it may be classified as either depictive or resultative [...]

_____ INTRANSITIVE TRANSITIVE
DEPICTIVE Kim seemed uneasy. He found Kim intolerant
RESULTATIVE Kim became angry. He made Kim happy.

As CGEL notes, predicative complements can be noun phrases (and less often, prepositional phrases) as well as adjective phrases.

And call is among the verbs that can take locative as well as predicative complements: "She called him to the podium" vs. "She called him stupid" — or "She called him Ishmael". (Whence the old joke "Call me X, or call me Y, but just don't call me late for dinner".)

This analysis is a traditional one — I think it goes back at least to Otto Jespersen, who certainly used the term "predicative", though I haven't found his analysis of the transitive cases.

 

 

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74 Comments »

  1. un malpaso said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 9:21 am

    This brings to mind: what about the classic "Call me a cab/OK, you're a cab" joke?

    In the first (ambiguous) sentence, what would "cab" be in the "proper" reading (as in, "call a cab for me")?

    Am I correct in assuming that in that case, "me" is the indirect object, and "cab" is the direct object, or is it something more complicated?

    [(myl) That's essentially right, though sometimes "me" in such constructions might be called a "benefactive".]

  2. DavidO said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 9:32 am

    I've always liked the joke, "What is the fourth word of 'Moby Dick'?"

  3. Thierry Guillemin said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    May I just mention two very different translations in french ?

    The first, by Lucien Jacques, Joan Smith et Jean Giono in La Pléiade : "Je m'appelle Ismaël. Mettons."

    The second, by Armel Guerne : "Appelons-moi Ismaël".

    Needless to say, I much prefer Guerne's version, true to the abrupt original text.

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    I wonder what it was about that me that made him think it was an indirect object?

    Maybe it was the presence of call, which can license a prepositional phrase with to. Or the influence of its equivalents that take an indirect object/dative in other languages.

    Or was it by analogy with clauses like Call me a cab or Bring me Ishmael?

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 10:20 am

    Or Give me the name "Ishmael"?

    Call me Ishmael has the same sequence of parts of speech as Give me blubber, so the syntax might certainly feel the same, though Mr. Clark had doubts.

    DavidO: A similar example, though I wouldn't call it a joke, is "What is the first word of Lolita?"

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 10:37 am

    Or the second word.

  7. Brian said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 10:45 am

    First word of Lolita: Lolita. Second word: or.

  8. Roy Peter Clark said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    Thank you, language loggers, for weighing in. I'm getting the sense that there may be more than one way to describe "Call me Ishmael" syntactically. Years ago at a conference on journalism standards, I uttered something like: "Call me irresponsible. Call me Ishmael." The poor transcriber who listened to the tape could not make out that last word, so the transcript turned out "Call me irresponsible. Call me a schmuck."

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    I was brought up to call this construction the double accusative. That is a splendid example of the now-discredited practice of modelling English grammar on Greek and Latin grammar. As nouns in English have no case, the modern term "predicative complement" is far better.

  10. jrand said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    First word of Lolita: Foreword
    Second word: Lolita

  11. Rodger C said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    First word of Moby-Dick: Etymology.

  12. Brian said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    If we're counting all paratexts, jrand, we are way off on Moby Dick, too.

  13. peter said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

    The British magazine The Spectator recently held a competition for the opening paragraphs of imagined sequels of famous novels. Contestant Bill Greenwell's clever entry began with an opening sentence that told you all about the sequel:

    "Call me Moby."

  14. peter said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    jrand: First man mentioned in the Bible: Chap. One.

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

    @peter: imagined sequels of famous novels

    The Beard, Cerf, Durkee & Kelly 1991 The Book of Sequels has a Clancy/Cussler-style pastiche Moby-Dick II: Raise the Pequod! that begins with "Don't call me, Ishmael—I'll call you."

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    No respect for "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold" in the great-opening-sentences-of-American-Lit sweepstakes?

  17. Dennis said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

    Actually, the first line of Moby Dick is
    The pale Usher- threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.

  18. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    @ Eric P Smith -

    'As nouns in English have no case…'

    They don't have nominative-accusative contrast, but they do have case – plain and genitive.

  19. maidhc said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

    I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

    I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train …

    "TOM!"

    You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.

    The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

    I scarcely know where to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth’s credit.

    The one opened the door with a latch-key and went in, followed by a young fellow who awkwardly removed his cap.

    Just after passing Caraher's saloon, on the County Road that ran south from Bonneville, and that divided the Broderson ranch from that of Los Muertos, Presley was suddenly aware of the faint and prolonged blowing of a steam whistle that he knew must come from the railroad shops near the depot at Bonneville.

    It was Sunday, and according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors' coffee joint on Polk Street.

    To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

    Maybe it comes from living in San Francisco, city of clammy humors and foghorns that warn and warn — omen, o-o-men, o dolorous omen, o dolors of omens — and not enough sun, but Wittman Ah Sing considered suicide every day.

  20. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

    @Ray Girvan:

    Reminds me of the sequel to "Rebecca":

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again, again.

  21. RP said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

    @Pflaunbaum,

    As I understand it, it is contentious to regard the house/house's distinction as being one of case. The main problem is that we say "the Queen of England's dogs" not "the Queen's of England dogs", and colloquially maybe even "the man in front of me's wife" but never "the man's in front of me wife". If it is a genitive it is phrasal not lexical, so it isn't a matter of each noun having two cases, plain and genitive.

  22. RP said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

    @Pflaumbaum,

    Sorry for mistyping your name above. I'm typing on a phone.

  23. jrand said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

    Brian, Peter – Good points, except "Foreword" was not added by an editor. It is not "paratext" or a chapter heading. Nabokov wrote it, and if you ignore it, you misconstrue the whole story.

  24. JS said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

    It was late evening when JS arrived.

  25. marie-lucie said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

    translations into French

    The first, by Lucien Jacques, Joan Smith et Jean Giono in La Pléiade : "Je m'appelle Ismaël. Mettons."
    The second, by Armel Guerne : "Appelons-moi Ismaël".
    Needless to say, I much prefer Guerne's version, true to the abrupt original text.

    As a French speaker I don't like either of those proposed translations. It is true that the English sentence can mean that the speaker is not actually called by that name (something never resolved in the book), but Call me Ishmael could also be said by a person actually called by that name but who for some reason is not giving his full name, or for whom this name is not his first name but his middle or other name, or a nickname that he prefers to his actual name, etc. In fact the choice of this name by the speaker in the novel is quite significant about what he thinks of his position in life, but this is left to the reader to figure out.

    The first translation means literally : "My name is Ishmael. Let's say." which pointedly calls attention right away to the fact that this is not the speaker's real name. As for the second translation, it means literally "Let's call me Ishmael", and I find it even more awkward than this English sentence. Also, by introducing a 1st plural form, both translations seem to try to involve the readers into the narrator's circle, creating a kind of complicity which is not necessarily the author's goal: Ishmael is telling his story, but he remains a stranger to most of the people he encounters, and he cannot be said to actually "confide" in the readers. I don't see why Call me Ishmael is more "abrupt" than "Appelez-moi Ismaël", which means the same thing and does not load the sentence with extra baggage introduced by the translator.

  26. marie-lucie said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

    (Sorry, I should rewrite my last sentence):

    If Call me Ishmael is abrupt, so is "Appelez-moi Ismaël" which means the same thing and does not load the sentence with extra baggage introduced by the translator.

  27. Bob said,

    June 21, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

    "It was love at first sight."

  28. Thierry Guillemin said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 2:05 am

    I read with great interest your remarks about the 2 translations, but do not agree with your suggestion ("Appelez-moi Ismahel").

    "Call me Ishmael" is an equivalent of Beethoven's four-note opening motif of his 5th symphony. Should you miss it, the entire interpretation would be ruined.

    And "Appelez-moi Ismahel" does not cut it. Let's put it that way : it is a faithful translation which does not correspond to french "sprachgefühl".

    Which brings me to German : in german, too, there are (so it seems) two available translations : "Nennt mich Ismael" and "Nenne mich Ismael". Although the former seems superior, what brought a translater to choose the latter ?

    Which brings me in turn to suggest a Mission Impossible to Mark Liberman :
    "Your mission, Sir, should you decide to accept it, will be to :
    - Find examples of translations of this opening in other languages (the sample should not be inferior to ten)
    - Explain the differences
    - Make a choice
    As always, should you fail, we will disavow any knowledge of your actions, and condemn you to translate Nabokov's Onegin translation back into Russian, without any hint of the original.
    Good luck, Sir."

    This, Marie-Lucie, should settle it, don't you agree ?

  29. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 3:49 am

    @ RP -

    I don't think phrasal genitives make the case against case, as it were. I mean, surely you'd not dispute that pronouns inflect for case? – yet you can still get phrasal genitives like your example, the man in front of me's wife. The phrasal genitive doesn't mean we can't analyse me as accusative (or plain, perhaps). And in a friend of mine's wife you still need to analyse mine as an independent genitive.

    Following CGEL, I'd take the final word of the phrase in these examples as having 'inner case' and 'outer case'. England's in the Queen of England's dogs has accusative inner case and genitive outer case.

  30. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 3:51 am

    Sorry, I mean plain, not accusative.

  31. Thierry Guillemin said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 5:01 am

    Sorry (esprit d'escalier), I wish to re-write the mission :

    - Find examples of "twin" translations of this opening in other languages (the sample should not be inferior to ten)
    - Explain the differences in each language between those two translations
    - Make a choice
    - Show the differences in tonality between the afore mentioned languages
    - Draw conclusions…

  32. languagehat said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 8:58 am

    And "Appelez-moi Ismahel" does not cut it. Let's put it that way : it is a faithful translation which does not correspond to french "sprachgefühl".

    Can you explain why? Also, in case you weren't aware of it, marie-lucie is a native speaker of French.

  33. Jason said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 9:39 am

    FYI, French Wikipedia says, of the translations of "Call me Ishamel…"

    Il existe cinq versions de Moby-Dick en français :There are five translations of Moby Dick in French: [...]

    À titre d’exemple, voici comment sont traduites, selon ces cinq versions, les deux premières phrases du roman. As an example, here are how the first two sentences of the book are rendered according to these five versions.

    Lucien Jacques, Joan Smith et Jean Giono : « Je m'appelle Ishmaël. Mettons. Il y a quelques années, sans préciser davantage, n'ayant plus d'argent ou presque et rien de particulier à faire à terre, l'envie me prit de naviguer encore un peu et de revoir le monde de l'eau. »

    Armel Guerne : « Appelons-moi Ismahel. Il y a quelque temps — le nombre exact des années n'a aucune importance —, n'ayant que peu ou point d'argent en poche, et rien qui me retînt spécialement à terre, l'idée me vint et l'envie me prit de naviguer quelque peu et de m'en aller visitant les étendues marines de ce monde. »

    Georges Saint-Marnier : « Appelez-moi Ismaël. Il y a quelques années de cela — peu importe le nombre exact — ayant peu ou prou d'argent en poche, et rien ne me retenant à terre, je décidai de naviguer un peu pour voir l'étendue océanique du globe. »

    Henriette Guex-Rolle : « Appelez-moi Ismaël. Voici quelques années — peu importe combien — le porte-monnaie vide ou presque, rien ne me retenant à terre, je songeai à naviguer un peu et à voir l'étendue liquide du globe. »

    Philippe Jaworski : « Appelez-moi Ismaël. Il y quelques années de cela — peu importe combien exactement — comme j'avais la bourse vide, ou presque, et que rien d'intéressant ne me retenait à terre, l'idée me vint de naviguer un peu et de revoir le monde marin. »

    If it's a matter of majority vote, «Appelez-moi Ishmaël» seems to be the popular one. I lack native speaker intuitions about how natural this sounds in French, but it certainly seems closest to the English meaning.

  34. Mark Dowson said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

    It was a dark and stormy night….

  35. Thierry Guillemin said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

    I am french.

    It does not cut it, because it is so proper, "bien élevé". It establishes a contract with the reader. There is no contract : Ishmael, when he says "Call me Ishmael", grabs you. "Appelez-moi Ismahel" fails to do that – however faithful to the text – whereas "Appelons-moi Ismahel" abruptly succeeds.

    By the way the five translations are very interesting to compare. What about my idea of a Mission Impossible ? I have the feeling that those three words (and the remainder of the first paragraph) could give birth to interesting debates in Language Log. Where else ?

  36. marie-lucie said,

    June 22, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    Jason, thank you very much for posting those five versions.

    TG, speaking personally, "Appelons-moi Ismahel" (sic) does not succeed with me, and I also dislike the preciousness and artificiality of the rest of the paragraph by the same translator. When would anyone say "Appelons-moi" whatever? The only context where this sentence would work for me is something like the following: someone wants to make a movie based on incidents in the life of a certain person, but not a real bio, so they will change the names of the characters. The person thus featured will have a say in how the movie is done. Now the person and the filmmaker are discussing the name which will be used in the movie, and the person suggests "Appelons-moi Ismael" 'Let's call me Ishmael': it works here because the "moi" referred to is not the person talking (who is included in the 1st person plural set indicated by the verb ending) but the equivalent of "my character", the movie character which will represent the person.

    As for "Appelez-moi Ismael" being less compact and abrupt than "Call me Ishmael", it just happens that the French verb form "appelez" is longer and has more vowels than the monosyllabic "call", which furthermore begins with a percussive "k" sound. But the extremely odd, even ungrammatical "Appelons-moi" is hardly an improvement: orally, since the "on" nasal vowel is much less sonorous than the one written "ez", the word is muffled rather than percussive. And whether orally or in writing, the oddity and awkwardness of the form leaves the reader or listener wondering in perplexity, wanting to ask "What did you say"? rather than being "grabbed" and pulled into the story.

  37. John Swindle said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 12:24 am

    Why is "Ishmael" a predicative complement rather than an objective complement? Or is the latter term obsolete?

  38. Vishal said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 12:31 am

    Call Me Ishmael is the most interesting piece of literary criticism I've ever read

  39. Thierry Guillemin said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 1:21 am

    Much ado about three words… Some more remarks :

    - I agree the rest of Guerne's translation is precious
    - I do not understand your proposition of a possible context for "Appelons-moi" (your first paragraph), which is far-fetched, to say the least
    - I do not agree at all about your second paragraph : it is not a question of sound(s) but of tone : you are with a sailor, no questions asked, please no questions
    - btw, I had noticed that there are three syllables in "Appelez/Appelons" vs one in "Call"

    Apparently, we do not grok french, literature or Melville the same way, which is fun. Did anyone ask Lautréamont ("Vieil océan") to grok Mlle de Scudéry ?

  40. zythophile said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 3:21 am

    Peter: the late, great British cartoonist Raymond Lowry drew a terrific cartoon showing the white whale saying to the whalers: "Incidentally, it's 'Moby-Richard' to all but a small group of intimate friends."

  41. Exe said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 3:53 am

    @Pflaumbaum, I really do not believe that the genitive in English is an actual case. "It was the man who no money had's own fault" would as per your analysis require that the past tense verb 'had' could receive case. I'm not sure of whether you can do it with prepositions, but in, say, Danish sentences such as "Det var ham med hatten pås egen skyld" 'På' roughly corresponds to English 'On', and has in this sentence gotten a genitive-s. (No one ever writes this because it look horrid, but people say it all the time)

    The analysis I generally see of the phenomenon is that the possessive s in English and Danish is not a case ending, but actually a reduced form of a possessive determiner of sorts, which also accounts for why the 'genitive s' never cooccurs with 'the' and 'a'

  42. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 5:15 am

    @ Exe –

    I'm confused by your example, It was the man who no money had's own fault. It's completely ungrammatical.

    But you're right that it's not just nouns and pronouns that can inflect for outer case. The man I was sitting next to's suitcase, for example.

    The reasons against a clitic analysis, which is what you seem to be suggesting, are given in CGEL, pp480-1. For pronouns there often isn't any 'possessive s' – e.g. my, mine, your, our, their – so what other option there is aside from analysing it as the genitive case? With nouns, CGEL points put that 'genitive formation is sensitive to the internal morphological structure of the noun':

    The duck's [dʌks] plumage
    The goose's [guːsᵻz] plumage
    The ducks' [dʌks] plumage
    The geese's [giːsᵻz] plumage

    'The realisation of the genitive is crucially bound up… with the inflectional formation of the noun'. You can't get to the above pattern just with an 'add -s and assimilate it phonetically to the preceding consonant' rule.

    All that's from CGEL. I haven't read anything else about the English genitive for about 15 years, so maybe it's wrong! But I find it convincing anyway. Positing two systems, a case system for some pronouns and irregular nouns, and a clitic for the rest, seems much less economical.

  43. marie-lucie said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 6:59 am

    TG:

    - I agree the rest of Guerne's translation is precious
    I am glad we agree on something. Would you say that this style is what we would expect from the no-questions-asked "sailor" you describe below?

    - I do not understand your proposition of a possible context for "Appelons-moi" (your first paragraph), which is far-fetched, to say the least
    It is indeed far-fetched, but I don't understand how you can find the rare and barely grammatical "Appelons-moi X" a suitable equivalent for the straightforward "Call me X".

    - I do not agree at all about your second paragraph : it is not a question of sound(s) but of tone : you are with a sailor, no questions asked, please no questions
    At first I thought you were talking about sounds, and I still think that the sounds have something to do with your reaction. About "tone", have you never seen written, or heard something like: "My name is Michael Smith, call me Mike"? (this is quite usual at least in North America). I don't see "Call me Ishmael" as particularly abrupt or impolite.

    - btw, I had noticed that there are three syllables in "Appelez/Appelons" vs one in "Call"
    Two syllables in normal speech, unless you are a méridional, and the words begin and end with vowels. My point is that there is no way to reduce them to the monosyllabic "Call", with its initial stop consonant, which contributes to the impression of abruptness you feel.

  44. languagehat said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 7:52 am

    it is not a question of sound(s) but of tone : you are with a sailor, no questions asked, please no questions

    As a native English speaker, I do not find that "tone" in "Call me Ishmael" at all; it seems to me quite neutral. I think you are projecting something that is not there (exoticising?).

  45. Erik Zyman said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 8:13 am

    @ Pflaumbaum: would you accept "It was the man who no money had's own fault" in an archaizing or poetic register? I do, on the parse where "no money" is the direct object of "had" but appears to its left rather than to its right. To put it in context (changing "man" to "author" for the sake of the meter):

    (1)
    And what of th'absence at the fête of salt?
    'Twas th'author who no money had's own fault.

    (Hey, I never promised anything better than doggerel.)

  46. peter said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 8:43 am

    @zythophile: I share your admiration for Lowry's clever cartoons!

  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

    If we want to add 's to a verb, an intransitive one might work. "It was the man who objected's own fault." Is that possible in informal contexts?

    Thierry Guillemain wrote: "'Call me Ishmael' is an equivalent of Beethoven's four-note opening motif of his 5th symphony. Should you miss it, the entire interpretation would be ruined."

    I have grave doubts. The original sentence is probably better than any alternative, but not so much better than changing it would ruin the entire interpretation of the book. Unfortunately, the experiment can't be done: you can't give people copies of Moby-Dick with that sentence slightly changed and ask them to discuss their interpretations. However, you could give people copies of great but not universally known poems, as written and with one word changed, and ask their opinions. Has this ever been done?

    For a trivia contest, I once changed one note near the beginning of an 18th-century fugue so it violated the rules of counterpoint at the time. Although several dedicated fans of classical music, including amateur performers, listened to the sound file and looked at the score, the only person who found the changed note was was a professional player of the viola da gamba. (Unfortunately, I don't know whether he recognized it by listening or just by looking.)

  48. Milan said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    @languagehat: I, not a native speaker, think "Call me Ishmael" does contrast with "I'm Ishmael" or "My name is Ishmael", which both would be translated unambigously as "Je m'appelle Ismaël."*, in that it doesn't make clear whether "Ishmael" is his real name, a nickname or pseudonym made up for the nonce. This in my opinion makes the narrator seem to be rather direct and maybe a bit impolite, but also mysterious.
    *Well I think so not being a native speaker of French either

    ———————
    Another point is the translation of the name: In German there is the choice between "Ischmael" an "Ismael", the latter being more common and evoking associations of either the Old Testament in a christian context or modern Ashkenazi jewry and the former the old Hebrew culture of wandering shepherd tribes as it described in the bible. Apparently allmost all translator chose "Ismael", being more in Germany, but I wonder whether "Ischmael" would have some points on its side, considering how the archaic feeling of revenge is a driving in the novel and "Ischmael" is likely to summon archaic images.

  49. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

    Jerry: "It was the man who objected's own fault" is absolutely grammatical for me, and I don't think it would even call any attention to itself in a formal context. Other examples that work well for me:

    Whose is it? That kid who is crying's.
    What happened? That man you see yonder who screamed's kid just jumped off the roof.

  50. Andy Averill said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    Somebody once wrote a novel that began "Call me, Ishmael." But I forget who.

  51. Thierry Guillemin said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    @languagehat : I do not find this to be neutral, although I may have stated my point somewhat clumsily ; what I hear is something like : "Considering what I am about to tell you, my name is of no importance, let us stick to a convention so as not to lose our time about that…".

    @Jerry Friedman : of course, I have exaggerated, but this sentence is one essential part of that masterpiece (to exaggerate once more, I could almost agree with Aragon who felt the incipit was the true matrix of a book) ; and "Appelez-moi" is plain, desperately plain

    @marie-lucie : two syllables, perhaps in everyday conversation, but it needs not be always slack, you know.

  52. g said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

    Jerry Friedman — Do I understand correctly that both score and audio had the change, and the challenge was to find what note didn't "work"? And: do you still have the thing in question? I'd be interested to attempt it, as I suspect would be many of my acquaintances.

  53. Not a naive speaker said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    What about the T–V distinction when translating into French or German?

  54. peter said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

    Jerry Friedman said (June 23, 2013 @ 12:24 pm):

    "For a trivia contest, I once changed one note near the beginning of an 18th-century fugue so it violated the rules of counterpoint at the time. Although several dedicated fans of classical music, including amateur performers, listened to the sound file and looked at the score, the only person who found the changed note was was a professional player of the viola da gamba."

    Felix Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words can be played readily with contemporary jazz harmonies. Modern audiences IME mostly won't notice, but people from Mendelssohn's time would have noticed at once. All this shows is that music, like all other human artefacts and activities, is socially constructed. It says nothing about the correctness (whatever that would mean) or otherwise of any one interpretation. Certainly, nothing is ruined.

  55. Atombrecher said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    'and "Appelez-moi" is plain, desperately plain'
    About as much as 'Call me'. I think you are caught in subjectivity on this one.
    As Marie-Lucie remarked, 'appellons-moi' would more accurately translate to 'let's call me'.
    With '-ez', Ishmael gives an order. With '-ons', Ishmael convenes of something with his reader/listener.
    Also, you were talking about the four strokes of Destiny. Yet, I hear 'Ish-ma-el', which gives a five-strokes english sentence.
    'Appelez-moi Ismael' fits the bill. It also has the advantage of not changing the text, or introduce new meanings. Often, the simpler, the best.

  56. Michael Cargal said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

    I had always assumed that Ishmael was the main character's first name, but my son pointed out that this is unclear. No one in the book ever calls him Ishmael, and it is just as likely a Biblical allusion: I am like Ishmael, fleeing to the sea as Ishmael did to the desert.

  57. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

    g: Here's the question:

    At http://alt-usage-english.org/sdc2010/pics/illegal_fugue.mid you can hear the beginning of an 18th-century composition, and at http://alt-usage-english.org/sdc2010/pics/illegal_fugue.pdf you can see it. One note has been changed, creating a violation of the laws of counterpoint at the time. Identify the wrong note and explain why it's wrong.

    Yes, the wrong note is in both the sound file and the score. If you want to let me know the results, I'd be especially interested in what you and your friends think of the sound before looking at the score. You can e-mail me at jerry_friedman@yahoo.com .

    peter: I'm surprised that modern audiences mostly don't notice your jazz harmonies in the Songs without Words. I thought some of the people taking the trivia contest would notice, but they didn't spot the smaller change I made.

    Of course, audiences would notice jazz rhythms.

  58. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    Michael Cargal: To me it strongly suggests that the narrator's name is not Ishmael.

  59. marie-lucie said,

    June 23, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    Any of the translations which preserve the imperative are compatible with "Ishmael" (or its equivalent) being an assumed name (assumed for the purposes of the autobiographical author), without drawing undue attention to the fact. I think that most critics have understood the reference to be to the Biblical Ishmael, but this reference may not be obvious to non-English-speaking readers, who may not be as steeped in Biblical lore as those familiar with the King James Bible (whether for religious reasons or through familiarity with older English literature).

    Appelez-moi being too "plain" for Call me: this seems to be an instance of the fallacy of finding words in a foreign language much more interesting than in one's own. The foreign words are more interesting because one has expended some effort to learn them, at an age when language learning is conscious and sometimes painful, while the words of one's own language seem boringly familiar. I am sure that some English speakers find Appelez-moi much more interesting than plain old Call me.

    As for the T-V difference, since the "call" is addressed to the readers, only V (or the relevant verb form) is appropriate. Of course, if "Call me Ishmael" was part of a conversation between the book's characters (such as "Ishmael" and another sailor introducing themselves to each other), T-V choice would be important, but it would apply across the board and would not need to be renegotiated with every instance of "you" or an imperative (and since the book takes place in the 19th C, the conventions of that time would need to apply).

  60. peter said,

    June 24, 2013 @ 1:39 am

    Jerry: Of course, it is partly due to context and expectations. Playing Mendelssohn with jazz harmonies (and indeed rhythms) in a piano bar elicits no surprise: people just think these are songbook-standard ballads, some of which seem familiar. Were I to play them in a classical music recital more people would surely notice. (Note that the ambience of a classical music concert in Mendelssohn's time was much closer to that of a modern piano bar, with people entering and leaving, talking, and eating, throughout.)

  61. languagehat said,

    June 24, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    I, not a native speaker, think "Call me Ishmael" does contrast with "I'm Ishmael" or "My name is Ishmael", which both would be translated unambigously as "Je m'appelle Ismaël."*, in that it doesn't make clear whether "Ishmael" is his real name, a nickname or pseudonym made up for the nonce. This in my opinion makes the narrator seem to be rather direct and maybe a bit impolite, but also mysterious.

    Well, of course, but nobody's suggesting it be translated "Je m'appelle Ismaël." Thierry Guillemin cited the translation "Je m'appelle Ismaël. Mettons." — but of course that's a very different (and in my opinion stinking) kettle of fish. I didn't say it didn't contrast with "I'm Ishmael" or "My name is Ishmael," I said it didn't imply "you are with a sailor, no questions asked, please no questions," and I stand by that opinion.

    although I may have stated my point somewhat clumsily … of course, I have exaggerated

    Well, there you go. When communicating on a public forum with people who do not know you and your ways, it's best to state your points clearly and without exaggeration, or you will be misunderstood.

  62. SeaDrive said,

    June 24, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

    There was no reason why I shouldn't have been sent for the beer that day, for the last ends of the Fairmont National Bank Case had been gathered in the week before and there was nothing for me to do but errands, and Wolfe never hesitated about running me down to Murray Street for a can of shoe-polish if he happened to need one.

  63. g said,

    June 24, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

    Jerry — Thanks! On listening to it nothing stuck out as particularly wrong. There are a few things I didn't much like but they are repeated features and couldn't be fixed by changing one note, and in any case they don't look illegal to me. Looking at the score, I do see a violation of something that I *think* was at one time a rule of counterpoint, or maybe of harmony, though it sounds perfectly reasonable to my ears. I'll circulate your links a bit and let you know what transpires.

    (I'm in no sense an expert on the rules of counterpoint in the 18th century, nor am I anything like a professional musician. On the other hand, I sing in a choir, and listen to plenty of classical music, and am a big Bach fan.)

  64. Ø said,

    June 24, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

    When communicating on a public forum with people who do not know you and your ways, it's best to state your points clearly and without exaggeration, or you will be misunderstood.

    Many of us (myself included) should have these words prominently displayed somewhere–preferably in our brains.

  65. g said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

    [To Jerry, with apologies for clogging up the discussion here with off-topic-ness.] So — I've now found the context of the question, and hence the answers — the possible violation I thought I saw was wrong. Of the people I've circulated it to, so far two have come back with answers. One was as baffled as me or more so. The other identified the erring note but his reason why it might be wrong had little to do with the reason given in the answer.

  66. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    I hate to disagree with Marie-Lucie, who is generally right, but why not "Appelle-moi Ismael"? I think the tone is closer to the original. Granted, there are many readers of Moby Dick, but when I read it, I read it by myself. That sailor was talking to me, and since he is a sailor, I imagine he'd use the "tu" form to another guy.

  67. marie-lucie said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    JPM, "Ishmael" is writing the story of an all-important episode of his life, involving a tragic story which unfolded at sea, among a little-known professional group living in large measure apart from normal society (not just sailors but whalers), and he is addressing whoever wants to read the story, not just "another guy". He is not having a conversation with you or me or anyone else in particular. Also, the story was written and takes place in the 19th century. Unless the story was intended for children, which it definitely is not, I would find "tu" to the reader totally out of place in the context.

  68. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

    peter: I misunderstood the context. It occurs to me that some of your more astute listeners might wonder whether some of the "Songs Without Words" had gotten words, or at least become jazz standards, during the "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" era.

    g: Thanks for the information. First, I'm not trying to be superior about this. I'd never recognize that that note was wrong. (And though I've heard some of the "Songs Without Words", I don't think I'd recognize any of them even unaltered.)

    This really makes me wonder about the discrepancy between what composers write and what people hear, even people who have considerable musical talent and are quite familiar with the music of the time. Was J. C. Fischer, or for that matter Bach, following the rules for the benefit of just a very select few?

    However, it might be significant that one of your correspondents identified the wrong note, just as (to wrench this back toward the topic) most people can say that a word or grammatical construction is wrong even if they can't explain why. Also, I got an e-mail from someone who identified the wrong note and said how to correct it.

    My next project (in my dreams) will be to put a jazz solo from one song on top of a jazz accompaniment from a different song. Will anyone notice? What if I match the chord progression, or just the key, or just the tempo?

  69. Ken Brown said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

    Melody from one song on top of the chords of another? I think that has often been done in jazz.

  70. marie-lucie said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

    JPM, perhaps you are thinking of Baudelaire addressing himself to his (ideal?) reader: Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!. This does not seem to me to be at all Ishmael's attitude.
    "Appelle-moi Ismaël" right at the beginning would suggest that there is a character intimately known to "Ismaël" that the reader is going to encounter, or at least a character who is going to play a role in the story, whether concretely or in Ismaël's recollection or even imagination. There is no such person in the book. Moreover, both "Call me" and "Appelez-moi" can be said either to a single person or to several persons, including the audience at a lecture or play, for instance. The plural interpretation is the most general one, while the singular one would lead the reader to expect that it refers to a specific person. And I don't think there is anything else in the book which suggests that Ishmael is addressing a very special person. Not even an unspecified sailor: why give extremely detailed descriptions of life aboard to a sailor who knows it as well or better than the narrator?

  71. languagehat said,

    June 26, 2013 @ 8:36 am

    My next project (in my dreams) will be to put a jazz solo from one song on top of a jazz accompaniment from a different song. Will anyone notice?

    I'm not sure what you mean by "a jazz solo from one song," but playing a tune from one song on top of the chords of another is absolutely standard procedure in jazz — if it's a well-known tune, you're doing it to make the listener smile with an unexpected musical allusion; if it's an obscure one, you're doing it for the pleasure of your bandmates (and any other jazz musicians who happen to be in the audience) and to show off your chops (it's not easy to fit a tune from one song into a performance of another on the fly).

    What if I match the chord progression, or just the key, or just the tempo?

    It has to match chord progression and key or it will not be musical (i.e., it will sound awful), and I'm not sure what you mean by "tempo" — the tempo is chosen by the performers, it is not an inherent part of a tune.

  72. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 26, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    Not the melody but an improvised or supposedly improvised solo. The basis for this is that naive listeners like me can hear no connection between these solos and the tune. What do sophisticated listeners hear? (Maybe I should add that in classical music I often can't hear the connection between a variation and the theme.)

    Let's take two 32-bar 4/4 standards with the same chord progression, and let's suppose two groups have recorded them in the same key and at the same tempo, and in each we can find a 32-bar solo accompanied by the rhythm section, and we have the original recordings of each instrument separately. We exchange the two solos. Will a sophisticated listener, listening to either altered song from the beginning, be able to tell that anything unusual has happened?

    Now let's do the same thing with two songs that have different chord progressions. Can sophisticated listeners tell? What if they hear only the solo, not any initial or final statement of the melody?

    Now let's do the same thing but with two recordings that are in different keys.

    Do the answers depend on who the soloist is or what the style of jazz is?

    I feel sure that if the two songs were played in different tempi, sophisticated listeners could tell something was wrong (though I might not be able to).

    By the way, when jazz musicians play one tune on top of the chords of another, do the tunes have to have the same chord progression (at least in the part that's played) for it to sound musical?

  73. Avery said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

    This post is old now, but I simply must mention that a Japanese essayist, I think Kure Tomofusa, once decided in middle school that with his newfound English grammar knowledge he could read Moby-Dick in the original.

    He went to the library, grabbed a copy, and was utterly confounded by these three words. If you read them in the overliteral Japanese grammatical style, they appear to be imperative, but why imperative? Is he angry with someone? The next sentence supplied no context. He then looked at a translation, but was even more confused, because obviously the translation was not imperative, and it was not very good (something like "My name? Well, for now, let's say it's Ishmael"). In fact there is no easy way to render this sentence into Japanese.

  74. Avery said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

    The point of the story is that in the space of the first three words on the first page of the first book he chose, Kure went from believing he could read anything written in English to being convinced that all the grammar he learned in school was for naught, English was a mystifying language of deception, and he should just stick to his native language from now on. So he did.

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