History of words, words about history…

Still on the subject of podcasts in the midst of a Busy Holiday Season®️, there’s another one I feel completely compelled to share, even if absolutely none of you will be interested in joining me: The History of English podcast (recently misheard rather intriguingly as the “History of English Podcasts”) is completely wonderful.

The show, running since 2012, appears to be an extracurricular passion project of a solo practitioner lawyer from North Carolina, who says absolutely nothing about himself on the show. But he has quite a lot to say: he presents the history of English in meticulous hourlong increments, starting from the absolute dawn of the knowable history of human speech all the way up to—God knows, because seven years in, he’s only gotten a little beyond Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a few hundred momentous years shy of Shakespeare.

Anyone interested in etymology or English history or both would almost certainly enjoy the show. One thing I find tremendously charming is the way that Kevin (for that is the host’s name) delivers etymological facts by theme as he marches forward in time. An episode documenting the messy bloodline of King Alfred the Great, for example, provides him an opportunity to talk about Old English words for family and inheritance. But just when it veers close to feeling like a lengthy fact dump, the show manages to keep moving along narratively.

But anyway, enough about the show. Let’s talk about me.

I’ve had a long-simmering interest in the history of languages. Before the internet, I remember staying up late with my parents’ encyclopedia, reading the cross-references to work out how languages are related to and descended from each other. I briefly flirted with the idea of majoring in linguistics, before realizing that (at my university, at least) the subject was a great deal more medical, more wetly throaty, than I’d anticipated.

But there’s no shame in being a dilettante, I hope, and Kevin from the podcast gives me hope about even the prospect of being a devoted learner and teacher in one’s spare time around a busy lawyer’s schedule.

Okay, actually, enough about me. Back to the show.

The early episodes of the podcast go way, way back. By episode 7, we’re still in the land of Proto-Indo-European, which is the language that gave birth to most European and some Asian languages. It was spoken so long ago, by people who did not write, that all we know about it has been reconstructed by linguists working backward from modern languages like forensic analysts, finding traces of ancient words in the similarities and gaps between current words.

This absolutely blows my mind, and always has. Not only do linguists figure out little clues about dead languages by finding commonalities between their daughter languages; they also bring in geography and botany and biology and genetics to connect the dots. For example, we find some clues about where these Proto-Indo-Europeans lived by analyzing which words they had, and didn’t have, to describe the world around them—no words for “monkey” or “palm tree,” so not the jungle, and none for “olive” or “grape,” so a colder climate. Words for certain kinds of sheep only, which tells us something about what kinds of animals they could have raised, and that in turn tells us something about what their world looked like.

This kind of thing is completely bananas to me: can you imagine doing this as a job? Can you imagine tracing the spoken words of people who died five thousand years ago, and also getting to learn a lot about sheep in the process? Goals, I tell ya.


Something I find so fascinating about the history of words is that it traces the history of thought, and the history of sound. These are things that don’t tend to leave impressions in the archaeological record, and they can be obfuscated in written histories. But words can’t help but shift and change with use, like a well-worn pair of jeans thinning around the wearer’s knees.

And one thing that language doesn’t lie about is the thought process that goes into the mundane everyday choices of words that average people make. Despite the best intentions of grammarians and usage experts everywhere, language never has been primarily about perfection. It’s about communication. It does its job to the extent that people can understand what others want to say, and can make themselves understood in the process.

People of all stripes are natural geniuses at inventing new, easier, and more nuanced ways of saying what they mean. Sometimes they borrow and break old words to do so. Sometimes, this way, words come to mean their opposite: pairs like “guest” and “host,” “give” and “take,” and “black” and “white” come from the same Indo-European root word. Through the messy process of speech occurring over generations of people delicately navigating their societies, these words took on seemingly nonsensical new meanings. And just like we’re all writers now, we’re all the masters of how to communicate our meaning, our humor, and our nuances exactly how we please.

Okay, now back to me.

In Book One, I indulged myself by writing a little sub-subplot about linguistic history. (This is the pleasure of writing a book: no one can stop you). I imagined a pair of late-Victorian scholars chasing a theory about how one might get to know the ancient inhabitants of Europe by looking at the words they borrowed from each other. As it happens, I think the theory as presented in the book is wrong, but the great thing about fiction is that, again, no one can stop you. I can do that on purpose and no one is allowed to criticize me!

I imagine most of you are either long gone or reading out of mere politeness by this point. But to sum it all up: I think there’s something tremendously beautiful about how language can pry open our deep history. Every time we open our mouths to speak, we’re not only articulating our own present thoughts—we’re also building upon the feelings and frustrations and joys and creativity of millions of people over thousands of generations. All the people that came before us still live through us in this little way, carved into our bodies in our DNA and carved into our brains with the words we keep shifting and borrowing and laughing and shouting.

Further recommended reading if you are interested: John McWhorter’s piece, which includes a fascinating idea that the weird way English uses the verb “to do” (as in: “do you like me?” Where every other self-respecting language would say: “Like you me?”) actually comes from Celtic languages.

And on that note, Merry Christmas to all!

Audio fiction podcasts for long drives.

In addition to living in the Golden Age of Television, we also appear to have the great fortune to also be living in the Golden Age of Podcasting. (How can a medium that didn’t exist 20 years ago have a Golden Age? I’m not entirely sure, but it sure feels like there will never be a time with more podcasts than there are now. I mean, how…?)

All this Content can make some of us (me) feel a little overwhelmed. Thoughts and prayers. We’ll get through this together.

But not before I recommend some Content.

The podcast world is full of all manner of shows to listen to: political analysis, news updates, science and history and pop-culture informers, emotional shows about hidden and unknown things that, one surmises, couldn’t be revealed outside the secretive world of the podcast. And then there’s a whole lot of random people swapping jokes with their friends for public consumption, which I’ll admit is a genre I really don’t get.

Due to my strong innate inclination to FOMO, I’ve become a heavy user of this medium. Shocking though it may be to you few, you happy few, you band of readers, the world of written Content like blogs is long gone, and the age of video and audio is at hand. Therefore, people whose ideas I want to hear are saying their ideas out loud in this format, rather than writing them down. And I do get a lot of insights this way, but unfortunately, one must listen to the whole damn thing to wait for a few morsels of wisdom to fall. This makes podcasts rather more difficult to skim than a printed article, and a lot more time-consuming.

So I listen at 2x speed. Then I wonder why I tend to feel a little manic and overstimulated.

But that’s a problem for another time.

After this wordy intro, all I’m really here to say is that one of my favorite genres of podcast lately is fiction. It’s a rich field, and because the podcast medium is cheaper to produce and has lower barriers to entry than film/TV and traditional book publishing, there are a lot of small producers making great audio fiction that you can access all for free.

This time of year, a lot of us are traveling, and I think some of these podcasts make a great short alternative to an audiobook if you like to listen to a story while you drive, or while you take a break from whatever you need to take a break from this season.

All of these shows make the most of the limitations and the opportunities of audio-only, whether they have a single narrator or a whole cast.

So, below are some of my favorites in different genres, in no particular order:

  • Surreal: Welcome to Night Vale and Within the Wires: Two shows from the same writing team at Night Vale Presents. Welcome to Night Vale is in the form of bizarre, hilarious community-radio broadcasts from a town in the desert where all conspiracies are true. Listen basically in any order, except for episodes marked as multi-part. For more of an ongoing story, each season of Within the Wires is presented as found audiocassettes of various kinds (relaxation tapes, museum audio guides, dictation tapes, and voicemail) from an alternate history of the 20th century. It’s slow but so creative and beautiful.
  • Parody: A Very Fatal Murder from The Onion perfectly parodies investigative reporting shows like Serial, wherein the host has boundary issues. The first season stands alone very well.
  • Action: Carrier has excellent performances. It follows a woman who takes over her father’s job as a trucker, only to find that there’s something very wrong with her deliveries. Also, Passenger List tells the story of a young woman trying to find out what really happened to a plane that disappeared in midair with her brother on board. These are both miniseries, so there’s an ending!
  • Eco-Thriller (?!): Forest 404 from the BBC was a great sci-fi adventure set in the far future, when the world has entirely forgotten nature. The feed also includes ambient nature sounds and brief talks with scientists about topics related to the story. It’s also a miniseries (as Tahani knows, you can trust the BBC to exhaust itself rather quickly), so there’s an ending.
  • Drama: Motherhacker and Sandra (both from Big Podcast company Gimlet; both miniseries (do you see a pattern here? I love an ending)) are comic dramas with great acting that live in our world of spam calls and Amazon Alexas, but with unnerving twists.
  • Suspense/Horror: Video Palace was a truly creepy story of a man investigating a mysterious VHS tape that haunts him.
  • Sci-Fi: Steal the Stars has government alien conspiracies, forbidden love, and a main female character with a captivating, deep voice. What’s not to like?
  • Immersive: The Walk, written by novelist Naomi Alderman of The Power, is controversial in terms of quality, but I liked it and would recommend it if you’re down to have a weird, maybe dissatisfying narrative experience. This is immersive audio, meaning you the listener find yourself spoken directly to by the cast. You are tasked with walking from Scotland to London to deliver a mysterious package as the world goes to pieces around you. It’s weird, and it doesn’t necessarily entirely work as a story, but I listened to it with some friends on a long drive and it was absorbing and made the drive feel eventful, rather than merely distracting me from the tedium. So give it a try.

Are there others you like that I left out? Leave a comment or let me know on Facebook or Instagram.

The restless middle.

It’s been a strange bit of time, lately. (Isn’t it always, though, in a way?) I often get the feeling these days of being stuck in between one thing and another, or of waiting for something, or of an itchy feeling like I’m ready to run. As though there’s a soundtrack playing music quietly that makes you feel that something is around the corner, not having revealed itself just yet. And you get antsy waiting for it. A heavy restlessness.

The restlessness has some apparent causes that I won’t get into here and now. But it’s such a pervasive feeling, almost like a physical sensation, that it refuses to be broken up by logic or planning. (In any event, planning and I are on a break.)

Rob Bell did a podcast about something like this: “An Anatomy of Restlessness.” He touches on all of it, the whole feeling that has been lurking at my shoulder for a while: the guilty feeling at not being satisfied even in the midst of such a lucky life. A gut feeling that “the cloud has moved.” A stirring like in the first days of creation. The difference between the forms (the material facts of life that surround us) and the spirit that animates them: even if the forms haven’t changed, and they used to satisfy, they may no longer, once the spirit has moved.

Rob has some questions that I found helpful, and you might too, if this restlessness thing is following you as well:

  • Is the restlessness calling me to do more, or to do less?
  • Do I need to walk farther into the thing (whole-ass it, as Ron Swanson might say), or step away?
  • Is it about accepting that the situation is fine, or is it about recognizing that it really isn’t good enough?
  • Is there another challenge to take on, or is rest calling?
  • Is it about new birth, or about doubling down on what already is?
  • Is it about finding a break, or finding continuity?

For me, the answer to a lot of those questions is: yes; both; sometimes. Do more, yes, but of the right things. Let the others go. Walk further into the right things; step away from the things that no longer fit. Take on the challenges that get me excited; walk away from the challenges that only cause the joyless stomach ache.

It feels a great deal like a trip through the middle. If I take a stroll to look around at the smattering of pieces that make up my life, I can tell that the kinks are getting worked out of a few of them. Others are marinading, not ready for prime time. Others are hopping along in their juvenile way, learning to ride their bikes. Others are extremely good at the routine, doing it so automatically that they forget how they got home in the evening. And so on. It’s not glamorous, and it has a way of sagging, just as the heavy middles of so many novels do, sandwiched unceremoniously between sparkling beginnings and ends.

But in novels as in life, I might be better off to lean into it, to give the middle a bit of a sense of character. Give it a pizzazz all its own. Welcome it in. Because it’s a piece of the life, too. The restlessness, the middle, all of it, every day, forms the whole. Some day this, too, may be a joy to recall.

This morning, I took a moment to write down all the changes for the better that have happened in the last year: all the successes, learnings, adventures, small and large joys. Damn, what a year. It still feels like the middle. Just a little sparklier.

“But then time came for us too. We weren’t who we used to be but we also weren’t who we would be next, either. There was this awful in between. And we had to stay in it for so long.”

Welcome to Night Vale,” episode 152

Reith Lectures. A history of histories.

We live in a time of many, many podcasts. But while we’re here, one benefit is the ready availability of recordings that weren’t even made to be podcasts. Recently, I’ve been meandering through the archives of the Reith Lectures, an annual series of five lectures by a single speaker each year, exploring some topic of interest. The BBC has been putting the series on since 1948 before a small, invited live audience, but the whole catalog is available online for free, for posterity.

Some of my favorites have been Bertrand Russell speaking on “Authority and the Individual” and the need for a world order to prevent the recurrence of world war (1948), Dr. Jonathan Sacks on “The Persistence of Faith” in a secular world (1990), John Keegan on “War in Our World” (1998), Niall Ferguson on the enemies of the rule of law (2012), Kwame Anthony Appiah on culture (2016), and Hilary Mantel on historical fiction (2017). Other lecturers include Stephen Hawking and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The archive of these lectures is how the internet shows the best version of itself: it acts as a leveler to share humanity’s knowledge somewhat evenly. Without mass communication, these lectures would have been heard only by those elite few who were invited to the talk. The BBC was able to tear down that barrier by broadcasting the talks on the radio. But the internet sends the talks even further, into the future and into great distances of space, lasting however long the digital archives of the BBC do.

Beyond these recommendations, I have some observations.

First, are we now living through a new age of audience participation (and can we make it stop?) In the Reith Lectures, at some point around the late 20th century, audience questions and answers show up. I assume that the audience was allowed to ask questions before then (although, it would be fascinating to find out that they weren’t!) but it was only relatively recently that the audience participation was included as part of the lecture recording. As someone who has sat through several too many “more a comment than a question” sessions, I’m never stoked about the opportunity to be held hostage to the often egomaniacal whims of whoever runs fastest to the public mic. But sometimes, miraculously, the commenter does have something of interest to say, despite my impatience. Anyway, I wonder if the inclusion of these questions in the recording signals a recent phenomenon–a symptom of some deep societal change opening us up to the thoughts of the rando, or the decreasing cost of data storage, or who knows what. In any event, this has made the actual substance of the lectures shorter, but the recordings stay the same length to make time for the almighty q&a, and I suppose I have to live with it.

Second: in the last 60 years of lectures, the history of the period echoes a bit in the choices of lecture topics. Some topics are of continual interest (scientific advancement is a perennial favorite), whereas others dwindle: there have been very few lectures on religion in the last 30 years, for example. This reminds me of a story about the making of Downton Abbey: allegedly, the audience never sees the family begin eating a meal, because historical accuracy would also require showing them praying, and the modern audience would find that too spooky indeed. So too, perhaps, with the lecturers: we are in an age recently in which religion is not a topic for lectures of general interest.

Another fun aspect of a dive in the archive is that you get to hear the accents mutate and diversify from the absolute lunacy of the mid-20th century upper-class pinched aristocrat voice to a spectrum that includes all manner of Brits, international voices, and even the occasional Canadian.

A final observation: there is a strange middle ground here between enjoying something old as a curiosity, and enjoying something recent by learning from it at face value. A work of scholarship that is very old is a historical document. We’d study it to find out more about the period in which it was written, but we are not as likely to use it for information about what it actually says. In other words, it ages enough until it is a primary source document–but only a primary source document. On the other hand, very recent scholarship is just scholarship. But where is the line? How old does something have to be before it becomes a primary source for a historian studying the time it was written, or a curiosity?

The first lecture, from 1948, is from Bertrand Russell, talking about his views on the need for a world authority to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to prevent another world war. His views sound essentially quaint. They would be quite useful in assembling a history of the early anti-nuclear movement. But no one would use them now in a policy paper about nuclear policy or international relations.

More recent lectures felt, to me, to be in a funny kind of limbo in that regard. Lectures from the ’80s and ’90s are not yet far enough away in time to be quaint or revelatory (“my goodness, I didn’t realize people thought like that way back then!”). Instead, they’re just outdated. I guess they’re waiting in the vault, aging like a fine wine, but somewhat awkwardly. (Perhaps my bias is showing: I’ve never been very interested in history of the recent past. My interest in history has always been next door to my interest in fiction, trying to find other worlds to visit.)

As an example of this phenomenon, let’s briefly compare Bertrand Russell in 1948 to military historian John Keegan fifty years later in 1998. Both speakers saw a strong UN or other world body as the key to eliminating war. Russell thought it should do so through disarmament, eliminating nuclear weapons. In his day, scarcely out of World War II, it must have seemed quite possible that nuclear war would soon be frequent. But Keegan, speaking after the end of the Cold War, is adamantly against disarmament: he argues that the dangerous knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons can never leave humanity; therefore, responsible actors (the United States!) must retain them. For Keegan, nuclear weapons still looked like the future of war.

Twenty years on, as a lay observer of war, I’m not so sure. Yes, we have scares about nuclear Irans and North Koreas. But we also see something akin to “war” happening purely online through hacking and disinformation campaigns, and through the quiet misappropriation of information. These are “war” in the sense that the security state turns its full attention to them. But these appearances of “war,” in which nuclear weapons sit basically forgotten (we pray), where actual combat occurs only with unsophisticated non-state actors and technology otherwise is the most feared threat, would be unrecognizable to an ancient person. Or even to Russell.