Muhly on diacritics and blog comments

Back on 17 May, Nico Muhly posted a complaint on his blog about diacritics in the New York Times:

Sometimes I don’t really understand what the Times is up to. They have some weird style sheet that allows this article to get away with pretentiously rendering Astérix and Obélix in that fashion, and then this article to get away with spelling names like Björk and Ólöf without any diacritix at all (Olof?). This is particularly annoying because é in French is, literally, the same thing as e just with an acute accent on him. Ó, and Ö, in Icelandic, are totally different letters, with Ö being at the far end of their Alphabet…

Anyway. It’s just weird to me. Talking about “Astérix” in the newspaper seems a Bit Much if you can’t spell Ice-ish people’s names with the letters to which they Я accustomed.

Muhly then got a comment, on his blog, from a disaffected reader, saying simply:

Oh God please write about something meaningful.

Muhly chose not to disregard this annoying comment, but wrote to the reader and also posted about the affair, citing his passion for diacritics and other interesting spellings.

Here’s his defense:

A few days ago, I wrote a post about diacritical marks in the New York Times. I think this is supremely, insanely interesting, because English has so few diacritical marks and other languages have so many. Even visually, a paragraph of Vietnamese looks and feels totally different than a paragraph of English, or French, or Icelandic. I took especial notice of an article about Icelandic musicians in which my homegirl Ólöf’s name was rendered Olof. It’s funny, but it looks Crazy Different to me. It’s like a picture of somebody without their eyebrows or something …

The grain of this language is informed by the diacritical marks. The American eye is drawn to (and made anxious by) the briar patch surrounding the original letters. Think about the movie Koyaanisqatsi. The eye is intrigued by the inscrutability of those a’s, that q without its u! If that movie had been called “Life Out Of Balance,” you had better believe it would not have done nearly as well. Also think about how there is a developing internet ebonic (?) which misspells swear words: azz, shyte, pu**y. Also, isn’t anybody else obsessed with how different newspapers render Al-Qa’eda? The moral of the story is that I find this stuff really interesting.

But, of course, not everyone does. What’s odd is that someone should post about their tastes on Muhly’s blog, as if Muhly would change what he posts about to meet their expectations (“more interest me!”, as people sometimes say on soc.motss). Mostly, though, I think that people who post (or e-mail) comments like this just want to display their superior taste and to disparage Muhly’s.

We get comments like this on Language Log every so often (plus people saying that they don’t think some of the cartoons we post are funny, and other irrelevancies), and some of the Language Loggers get e-mail along these lines. At first, we were inclined to respond, but nothing good ever seemed to come of that, so now we usually just delete the comments and messages.

But Muhly felt that this one crossed a line, and he wrote in response, beginning:

Why on earth are you using the comments space on my blog to be so mean to me!? Are you the same person as “Dana” from a few months ago? I’m happy to keep the whole exchange up there in the interests of not censoring anybody, but keep in mind that I didn’t respond to your last comment: other strangers did.

I’m quoting this bit here only because Muhly refers to censorship. But deleting comments on your own blog is not censorship; your own blog is not a public space, open for anyone to say whatever they want. Keeping such comments up only gives the commenters an audience for their irrelevancies and mean-spiritedness.

7 Responses to “Muhly on diacritics and blog comments”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    It’s startling how many people complain over at Science Blogs that “this isn’t SCIENCE!!”

  2. mollymooly Says:

    In fact, sometimes NOT deleting comments from your own blog can cause you legal problems:

    Carrie v Tolkien

  3. Rick S Says:

    I absolutely support your right to delete comments on your blog, and I consider it inappropriate for anyone to disparage you, your tastes, or your beliefs (where not germane to the discussion) here. But I think “censorship” is a valid term for the act of deleting comments, and while your blog is not publicly owned, it is certainly publicly available. Is it that the term “censorship” carries more emotional weight with you, perhaps? I think there is such a thing as justifiable censorship, and have no reluctance to call it that.

  4. mollymooly Says:

    @Rick S.

    It’s true that “censorship”, like “propaganda” and “discrimination”, are nowadays boo-words. We need either to rehabilitate them or to find non-judgmental equivalents.

  5. Ian Preston Says:

    @ Rick S

    “Censorship”, to me, suggests an attempt to keep expression of the views in question out of the public domain altogether and that’s where I feel the “emotional weight” coming from. Deleting comments from your own blog seems to me more like deciding not to publish a letter in a newspaper or journal. It’s not trying to prevent a particular view from getting an airing; it’s more an editorial decision about whether this expression of the view belongs to or enhances the discussion in your publication.

  6. Music and words | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] “Muhly on diacritics and blog comments” 5/26/09 […]

  7. Music and words | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] “Muhly on diacritics and blog comments” 5/26/09 […]

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