Nonfiction: Linguistics

In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

I had no idea there were so many invented languages! I could have named Esperanto and maybe Klingon, but there are hundreds and hundreds of them. The first one is credited to Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century nun. I knew she wrote in a strange way, but I guess I always just assumed it was a combination of Latin and old German and…nunspeak. Apparently, it’s considered an invented language.

One wave of language inventors attempted to create a language that was not just words, but also the definition at the same time. It works in theory, but you also have to memorize an extremely complex tree of ideas and concepts that then lead you to the syllable or word that you want. Then you also have to contend with how the words are being used.

The trend that produced Esperanto came from attempts to unite the world by dissolving the language barrier. It came the closest – there are actually native speakers of Esperanto! Problems here stemmed from the biases within the languages (many of them were based in Western European languages) and the reputations that the languages began to take on (many linguists didn’t take them seriously, often because they viewed supporters of invented languages as eccentrics and outsiders rather than scholars).

There also seems to be a pretty big faction of language inventors that attempted to remove emotion from language, leaving only logic behind. Their theory is that eliminating emotion would eliminate misunderstandings. Unfortunately, the language is so complex that, according to Okrent, actual conversations are few and far between.

Okrent provides histories of the various languages, as well as fairly personal profiles of many of their creators. She also describes the way they work and includes examples of constructions. The grammatical explanations can be a bit technical for those of us who aren’t linguists, but I think I managed to muddle my way through most of them. So if you’re looking for an introduction to invented languages, their uses, and their creators, I would highly recommend Okrent’s book as an accessible, witty, and interesting guide.

My rating: A-

Summer blockbuster tally, part 4: I’m behind!

I actually saw this quite a few weeks ago, but couldn’t decide what to say about it. I liked it. I thought it was a really interesting film. I think Sam Rockwell did a great job. I just don’t have anything particularly witty or insightful to say about it. One review called it the best sci-fi movie of the summer and another called it the perfect antidote to Transformers 2. Not that I would know anything about that. Because I haven’t seen that movie. Not in a million years.

This one I just saw on Saturday. This movie is being called the must-see movie of the summer. I think this was a really well-done movie – the main actor does a really good job (and according to EW, had to do a lot of improvising) and it has a political layer to it that you don’t always expect from a summer blockbuster. But it’s kind of a downer. It’s definitely one of those films that I’m glad I saw, but I don’t ever need to see again. It’s a bit gross at times and fairly violent but I would still recommend it.

Summer blockbuster tally: 3-1-10

The best part of District 9 was that the trailer for 9 was playing for it – I can’t wait for September 9!

Food galore!

A friend of mine is moving to Ohio at the end of the month (her husband is going to be a professor there), so we decided to have one last food-and-TV (Battlestar Galactica this time) marathon before she leaves. Foodwise, I think we outdid ourselves.

She usually takes care of the savouries, so once we were done working our way through sweet potato fries with an avocado dip, hummus with pita chips, and the perennial favorite, cheesy bread, we were super-full and we still had my desserts to get through!

I made brioche (mini ones, courtesy of Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook) with a fig spread and goat cheese.

They were very cute and not as difficult as I was expecting to make. Just a heads up if you’re ever planning on making it, though, they have to rise for at least 10 hours in the fridge, so make sure you leave yourself enough time! I ended up having to use whole wheat pastry flour because that’s all I could find, but they still taste good to me. The fig spread was really easy to make and very yummy, too – sweet but not too sweet and a nice complement to the goat cheese.

Next up were cream buns from The Essential Baking Cookbook (a bargain book I picked up at Borders that’s obviously from a UK publisher). These were also pretty easy to make – I think I should have put more jam on them, but they were still very nice (even though I kept forgetting to put powdered sugar over the tops of them).

And, for the grand finale, I decided to try my hand at the Marbled Lemon-Blueberry Butter Cake from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes.

I was really surprised with how easy the recipe was – it was pretty time-consuming (I started making it on Tuesday and froze the cakes until Saturday), but there wasn’t anything tricky or out of the ordinary about it.

As you can see, my marbling isn’t the most defined, but it still tasted very good – the lemon and the blueberry is a classic combination and the flavors really stand out in the cake. I wasn’t crazy about the frosting – a buttercream – it was just too buttery for me and I think I would have preferred something that was a little lighter, more like a cream cheese frosting maybe. Now that I’ve made one triple-layer cake and seen how easy it was, I think I’ll turn to that book more often when I need an impressive dessert. Or need to feed a lot of people. It says it yields approximately 20 servings and we only had three slivers of cake last night, so I’m sending it home with my parents. Hopefully they can find some people to give it to.

Looks like Arthur is willing to volunteer his services!

What do you do with a bag of cherries?

I found myself facing just this quandary when, after stopping at the market for a gallon of milk, I noticed how gorgeous the produce was – I came home with a carton of raspberries (which I used to make the raspberry buttermilk cake from, you guessed it, Smitten Kitchen [and forgot to photograph to show you]) and this giant bag of cherries:

The first thing I did, faced with that many cherries, was to buy a cherry pitter. Which I promptly didn’t use when I made these Coconut Cherry Petits Gateaux (aka cupcakes) from Tartelette because the cherries had to be halved anyway. They were very yummy and easy to make, too. She topped hers with chopped raw pumpkin seeds, but, of course, the market didn’t have them, so I made a quick glaze from powdered sugar, some leftover coconut milk, and some almond extract and then topped that with slivered almonds. I should have used the coconut extract instead – the almond, despite pairing very well with the cherries, completely overwhelmed any trace of the coconut flavor in the cupcake.

Next up was a cherry clafoutis from Vanilla Garlic via Simply Recipes. I had heard the word clafoutis before, but didn’t really know what to expect. Again, it was super-easy to put together – and I got to use my cherry pitter! Very exciting, but still fairly messy. I replaced the whole milk with coconut milk since I had just the perfect amount left over from the cupcakes. The only problem was that I had neither a 9×9 or 10×7 baking dish, so I went ahead and just used my trusty 8×8 dish instead and baked it (considerably) longer than the recipe called for. Seriously, the recipe says to bake it for 40-50 minutes and I think we were going on 80 when I finally decided it was done. I’m not sure what to make of it nor can I tell you whether or not I did it right. It tastes good to me, but I’ll admit it is a little weird – somewhere between custard and cake. Actually, what it reminds me of most is this dense, eggy apple pancake but with cherries instead. (P.S. – This is what Arthur wanted.)

And up last was Dorie Greenspan‘s Cherry-Fudge Brownie Torte from her book Baking: From My Home to Yours. I made a few simple substitutions – I switched my carob powder for the cocoa powder (though I did use real chocolate for the rest) and instead of using dried cherries and soaking them to get them to plump up a bit, I used the last of my fresh ones and basically made a cherry pie filling (there was also no kirsch, because I didn’t have any, or, since I have an electric stove and no lighter, flambeing). Oh, and again I had to use the wrong size pan – a 10-inch springform instead of a 9-inch one. This is a very rich dessert (brownie topped with mascarpone mousse – how could it not be?!) – I just had a pretty small slice of it (chased with a glass of milk – if you can eat this and not long for a glass of milk, you are stronger than I am!) and I feel a little bit uncomfortably full. So slice with caution!