Showing posts with label English language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English language. Show all posts

26 August 2022

The Day the Language Changed

Recall your high school English classes, the books you had to read. Early on, it's usually Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter or even Robinson Crusoe. Of this last, I prefer the Andy Weir version, but that's a story for a different day.

Now let's not kid ourselves. No English teacher is going to assign Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks. Their job is not to bump up sales at Barnes & Noble. They want culturally significant writings in the English language. A stranded sailor in the waning days of exploration, a metaphor-heavy story about an angry captain and the whale who maimed him, and religious hysteria in Colonial New England have a lot to say about how the language has evolved.

Take those three tomes with Charles Dickens' body of work, and you realize that, at least in the 18th and early 19th centuries, novelists were a wordy bunch.

And then some guy from Hannibal, Missouri writes a travelogue laced with humor, local color, and... spare prose? The Innocents Abroad is a diary of one Samuel Clemens's travels from the Mississippi River through Utah and Nevada, to California, and even to Hawaii back when it was still independent. Writing as Mark Twain, he ditches the heavy, ponderous prose of Melville and Hawthorne (and Dickens) for one-liners. Instead of long introductory essays (Hawthorne goes on a political rant about the Whigs), Twain jumps in and starts talking about preparing for his trip. This isn't fine literature. This is a cigar-chomping Border State wanderer talking to you over a bottle of whiskey. 

And the eyes sweep right across the page. Even though language has shifted somewhat since 1870, you understand instinctively what Twain is saying. It's a refreshing change.

He's not the first English-language writer to cut to the chase. Shakespeare himself kept his dialog spare, lacing just enough in to avoid long passages of stage setup and sound effects. Yes, he wrote drama, but in between his less-than-subtle references to classical literature and to history (skewed, of course, toward the Tudors and their Stuart cousins) are puns, dialog meant to appeal to the masses. But Shakespeare wrote drama. Washington Irving did not. If you've ever read his essays about living among the Dutch of Upstate New York or his famous The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, you know Irving didn't waste words.

But Irving was an exception. Twain, more popular in his own time than Irving ever hoped to be, was, no pun intended, novel.

Of course, Dickens, Melville, and Hawthorne, while trying to lean into symbolism and history (sometimes contemporary history), also had to keep hungry audiences coming back. In an age before mass media, readers in Illinois or Texas had no clue about whaling ships or pre-Revolution Massachusetts. Dickens knew his readers did not just live in London, and those that did knew nothing about parts of their own city. So, internal monologue and heavy description were not just smart, they were mandatory.

Twain emerged after the Civil War, when telegraphs sent news and messages instantly across the continent. The telephone would follow in 1876. And anyone could hop the railroads and cross the country. So, people's knowledge of the world had widened. By the time of A Tramp Abroad, Twain did not have to spend pages describing the Swiss Alps or the German Black Forest unless it served his story.

In fact, the first really difficult Twain book to read is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and mainly for his insistence on writing in Huck's broken dialog. On the other hand, we are discussing a book that introduces a character too racist for the Confederacy, that being Huck's Pa. The Prince and the Pauper, The Gilded Age, and Tom Sawyer all have more in common with Stephen King and Nicholas Sparks than Herman Melville.

Is it our shortening attention spans? Maybe. But Twain, for all his reputation while alive and since, was an outlier. For an example, I direct you toward Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, which begins with James doing his own literary criticism. (Spoiler alert: I abandoned that one. I could finish Moby Dick.)

It wasn't until after World War I, a few years after Twain's death, that prose started to tighten up. We now look to Hemingway as our role model. Clean, sparse prose almost to the point of white room scenes, Hemingway was part of the Lost Generation. Raymond Chandler made fun of him in a Philip Marlowe novel, but that same novel followed his example, just with more similes that fell to the ground like cocaine from a politician's coffee table. (Ouch. That was bad.)

Hemingway's time overlapped that of Tolkien, whom I would call the last of the classical writers. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has so much description, interior monologue, and side stories that Stephen King's work looks like a collection of pamphlets. But try to submit something like The Fellowship of the Ring today, and expect a form rejection letter back. Update The Old Man and the Sea for the present day, and you might get a serious look.

But I have to believe Hemingway took Twain's get-to-the-point method of storytelling as permission. Some lament the change as the death of the "high-minded novel." Normally, that means tales of middle-aged college professors in inappropriate relationships with young female students. (Actually, Philip Roth pulled that off brilliantly in The Human Stain, but that was a jumping off point.) These days, especially in crime fiction, we want our prose lean.

24 October 2013

A Question of Grammar

by Eve Fisher

In the course of a misspent life, I've noticed that words are tricky things. Slippery. Even though most people think they know exactly what words mean, what a passage means, what this SAYS - well, maybe not. There are two main reasons for this:

(1) We all interpret everything we read, hear, or say through the filter of our own separate minds, and we can never QUITE get across what is in our minds.

EXAMPLE: I taught (briefly) a creative writing class, and the first exercise I did was say words, and have everyone write down the image it conjured in their minds. Then we compared images. "Apple" was represented by Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, the Apple record logo and, of course, the computer. So much for precision in language - choosing the exact word that everyone will understand the same way...

(2) The actual grammar of language, learned as infants, coded almost into our DNA, leads to far more ambiguity than anyone ever talks about.

I have a lot of examples for the second one, which I personally think is very important. Some of it comes from when I put myself through undergraduate school by teaching ESL classes. I taught Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian, Vietnamese, and Puerto Rican students, and in the course of teaching them English, I learned a lot about my language, their languages, language in general.

English has the largest vocabulary on the planet, because we have incorporated, adopted, and stolen words from every culture we've run across. This gives us a huge array of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives to choose from. So many, that foreign students often got fed up. Just take a look at Roget's Thesaurus some time to understand why.

English has an obsession with time. Most languages make do with simple present, simple past, simple future, conditional past/conditional future (woulda/coulda/shoulda), and the imperfect past (the way things USED to be). English laughs at that simplicity, and slices and dices time until we swim like a fish in a multi-dimensional chronology that we take for granted. The prime example is that English (as far as I know) is the only language with three - count them, THREE - present tenses: I do. I do that often. I am doing it right now. I eat. I eat here often. I am eating. Drove students crazy, and they usually just stuck to the simple present, because they could never figure out the others.

But English is sweet when it comes to nouns, because we don't gender them. ALL our nouns are gender-free. The book; the chair; the woman; the man. All European languages, of course, decline nouns (changing the end depending on where it stands in the sentence) and they also gender nouns - they are male, female, and (sometimes) neuter. What this means is that the pronoun you use after you use the noun must match the gender of the noun. This is a piece of cake in English: I took the book to the library, where I gave it to the librarian. But in French, it would be I took the (male) book to the library, where I gave HIM to the librarian. Well, what's the big whoop about that, you might ask? Allow me to provide an example where changing the pronoun changes the meaning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5, King James Version)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Au commencement était la Parole, et la Parole était avec Dieu, et la Parole était Dieu. Elle était au commencement avec Dieu. Toutes choses ont été faites par elle, et rien de ce qui a été fait n'a été fait sans elle. En elle était la vie, et la vie était la lumière des hommes. La lumière luit dans les ténèbres, et les ténèbres ne l'ont point reçue. (John 1:1-5, Louis Segond version)

Or, to translate it literally from French to English [my emphasis added], "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. SHE was in the beginning with God. All things were made by HER, and nothing of what was made was made without HER. In HER was the life and the life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not receive HER."

A slight difference. With implications. For one thing (aside from all questions of faith or Catholic doctrine) I think it helps explain the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and the concept (later doctrine) of Mary as Mediatrix of all the graces.

On a lighter note, my favorite example of differences in translation:

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (KJV, Matt. 5:5)
"Heureux les débonnaires, car ils hériteront la terre!" (Louis Segon, MAtt. 5:5)
Let me assure you, les debonnaires are not the meek... they are the good-natured, the easy going. THEY will inherit the earth, at least in France!

Pronouns matter; words matter; grammar matters. Think about that the next time you read a Maigret, or a Steig Larsson - or the next time someone tells you, "just do what it says."

PS:  By the way, the fact that all of the quotes above are from the Bible is in no way deliberate - it's just that the Bible has about the only books that I've read both in French & English.  Almost all the other books that I have read in French, I have only read in French.