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Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Five Clocks

I commend to your attention a rare and unusual book, The Five Clocks, by Martin Joos (Harcourt, Brace, NY, 1961). It is rare: if you aren't connected to a good university library strong in linguistics--which many, perhaps all, of you are--you will need an interlibrary loan or a rare book dealer. It is unusual: Martin grew up on a cow farm in Wisconson, and consequently went on to a degree in Electrical Engineering. He served at Bletchly Hall in WWII (I learned most of what I know of cryptanalysis from him. I also learned about the bistability of a long chain hanging over two posts and lots of other catenary facts, and lots, lots else from him.) He ended up at U. Wisc. and finally U. Toronto. teaching linguistics. He wrote much about English, but his favorite language was Middle High German, for which he assembled a wonderful reader. He was, I think, sorely distressed by almost everyone's ghastly mispronounciation of MHG, about which one man, however dedicated, could do so little for the world at large. He was my father's best friend, and wrote a fine and unusually intimate obituary for the journal Language upon my father's death in 1965. They wasted(?) incalculable hours writing long letters to each other in cipher--sometimes quite complex ciphers, e.g., bi- or triliteral substitution followed by elaborate transposition. With only one exception, each eventually cracked the other's cipher. (My father wrote Martin in enciphered IPA phonetic transcription; Martin eventually wrote back that he knew its cleartext basis was phonetic, not English as spelled, but he couldn't break it.) (Oh, and I can't resist: at a cocktail party in Austin, Texas in 1961, Martin told me, hanging on his every word, and anyone else who would listen, the story of 19-kana-nigori, a WWII Japanese naval code. I noticed A. A. Hill, ex-Navy and also in codes, go white. Obviously 19-kana-nigori had never been declassified. Martin either didn't know or didn't care. Since he knew everything, I hold with the latter.) And the book? It's about spoken English style. Sometimes drily and punctiliously academic (that's so Martin) and sometimes fancifully fictional (Martin) and sometimes both. Do read it.

5 comments:

  1. I will be honest that I can't follow your advice in the near future. (Work leaves me not enough time for one clock, let alone five).

    But it would super duper cool if you posted some on cipher stories. Or are you warming us up for the stories with the Pair posts, and I'm like the Karate Kid asking why I have to paint the )#(*$)#$ fence when I just want to learn to fight?

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  2. Bob, you spotted a possible connection I didn't, between the Pair posts and ciphers. I wrote some stuff about ciphers a couple of years ago to a friend; I'll try to find some. Your real recourse would be to go to Yale and ask to see my father's correspondence, much of which is exemplary but also hilarious. For twenty years he carried on a correspondence (about ordinary academic matters) with the lexicon of English and the syntax of German. His friend wrote back vice versa.

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