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

25 September 2019

It Rained All Night the Day I Left


I've been thinking lately about the diminution, or devaluation, of language. Degradation, even, not too strong a word. The calculation being that it doesn't matter, that precision or accuracy is irrelevant, and we're just a bunch of persnickety snobs, who condescend to honest folk and treat them like knuckle-dragging hillbillies, that never had no book-larnin', and get things all twisted around with fancy words and high-falutin' airs.

I'm obviously thinking, too, that this is connected to our present culture of false or competing narratives - conspiracy theories, in effect. Bad money drives out good. The counterfeit devalues honest weight.



There was a time, not that long ago, when a guy like Albert Einstein inspired respect. ("How does it feel to be the smartest man in the world?" somebody asked him. "I don't know," he said. "You should ask Tesla.") An athlete or a war hero, sure, but Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, the NASA team that put us on the moon, an American novelist winning the Nobel. We admired their skill, and tenacity, and sheer will. We took pride in their intellect. All of a sudden, this is suspect, and we're not supposed to trust the weatherman. Not an exact science, admittedly, but more informed than reading the entrails of chickens.

Maybe this is an odd complaint from a writer of fictions, but to be convincing, fiction depends on exact detail. If you get one thing wrong, it casts doubt on all the rest. Not to mention Twain's enduring advice: use the right word, not its second cousin. 



So if you take this inexactness, and fold it in with false narrative, you get a kind of Stalinist double-talk. "Our brave soldiers are moving ever forward," or "Our fervent comrades of industry are exceeding all expectations," and pay no mind to the NKVD machine guns behind our brave soldiers, to shoot slackers, or the bazillion shoes made to fit left feet. Facts become transactional, in the sense that they're negotiated. We agree on a shared reality, the least common denominator. (Or is that the most?)

The question then becomes, what's lost, in the exchange? As language gets dulled, it conveys less. Misuse makes it less useful. Without precision, it's at the same time less resonant. It slips its moorings, cast adrift.



Now, in France - I know, this sounds like the opening line of a comedy routine, the same crowd that regards Jerry Lewis as an auteur - the French answer to an Academy, which guards against barbarisms, like social media or cell phone jargon imported from les Etats Unis. Good luck with that one. But it reminds me that my grandmother, all these many years back, wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, complaining about their advertising slogan, 'Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.' And she actually got a very courteous response. Apparently enough people were offended by the use of 'like,' instead of 'as,' that corporate assigned a team to answer the complaints. The answer, in effect, was that they were dumbing it down. This was advertising, not Freshman English. It simply sounded better to the naked ear. My grandmother was having none of it. A longtime educator, she wasn't in the least mollified. She was fluent in French, too, although to my knowledge she never saw a Jerry Lewis picture. 

English as a language, of course, develops through usage and accretion, much like English common law, established by precedent and convention, not by fiat. There is no ruling body, the Chicago Manual of Style notwithstanding, to lay down the law one way or the other, or settle the dispute over the Oxford comma. But it's disheartening, all the same, to see language disrespected - or more to the point, dismissed. I'm not that much of a grammar Nazi, although I do think spelling counts, and I'm overly fond of the semi-colon, but what distresses me is that the dismissiveness, the act of not caring, seems symptomatic of a larger contempt for expertise, for informed debate. Somebody, maybe from the CDC, commented about the anti-vaxxers, "Science is just another voice in the room." In other words, everybody gets equal time, no matter that common sense calls bullshit. 



I'm well aware that I could be accused of falling into a You-Kids-Get-Off -My-Lawn thing, and that what I'm saying is by definition elitist, but that's the whole damn point. When language loses coherence, when it loses exactness, it loses utility. You can't share an agreed-upon reality if you can't even describe it. Is this political? Of course it is. The politics of language is about ownership. If we surrender ownership, we lose the gift of speech itself.  

01 April 2018

Punctured Punctuation


➊ Commencing today, Tribune Publishing (which includes our local Orlando Sentinel) and Hearst Magazines (consisting of Cosmopolitan, Elle, Car & Driver, Redbook, and Woman’s Day) initiate a program of ‘punctuation reduction’, both as a cost reduction measure and a nod toward modernization in recognition of “cell phone exigencies of post-Millennial Generation Z.”
Happy Easter!

➋ In addition, a number of Tronc (Tribune On-line Communications) properties such as The New York Daily News, tabloids and magazines (including a revitalized Newsweek), will begin experimental use of emojis (aka 😀 emoticons) in limited sections of their publications such as editorials, letters to the editor, and personal ads.

Background

Punctuation reduction is nothing new. On the 1st of December 1896, The New-York Times removed its logo hyphen in a bid toward modernization, thus raising eyebrows among readers. Technically, a newspaper’s stylized heading is called a nameplate. Nameplate should not be confused with masthead, which contains owners’, editors’ and publishers’ names and disclosures.

nameplate– The New-York Times.

Again, on the 21st of February 1967, The Times removed its famed period (fullstop) from its nameplate. Often discussed in business courses, the newspaper gave two justifications. Once again it modernized the famous nameplate, and The Times’ finance department calculated it saved an inordinate gallonage of ink and a corresponding reduction in operating cost.

nameplate– The New York Times.

Hearst and Tribune plan to gradually reduce or even eliminate punctuation in ‘non-ambiguous contexts.’ The reduction will begin with Oxford commas, semicolons, double-quotes, and slowly advance, allowing older readers an opportunity to grow accustomed to the removal of punctuation at the end of paragraphs, much as occurs in present-day cell phone novels. Tribune publications expect to experiment with mid-paragraph sentence termination by using three spaces instead of periods. It is believed spaces combined with a following capitalized word will improve ‘literary flow’ and ‘rapidize comprehension’.

boy, girl
He Said, She Said

As reported a year and a half ago, the San Francisco Examiner, a Hearst publication, moved to add ‘non-binary’ gender pronouns in its reporting.

Historically, colleges have led the charge toward evolving language. The University of Michigan officially supports non-binary gender pronouns comprising such examples as ze, zie, zim, sir, miz, ve, ver, vis, ou, pers, and they (singular). ‘It’ (regarded fondly by fans of The Addams Family), once considered a potential pejorative, is becoming acceptable. (“The driver parked its truck.”)

Meanwhile, the disparaging word ‘woman’ knots the knickers in Mount Holyoke Women’s College:


Outside the US

‘Genderless’ pronouns, limited to the ‘American language’, aren’t expected to impact proper English spoken on other continents. Not so with punctuation reduction and emoticons. One need look no further than James Joyce, notably Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, 3684 words punctuated with two fullstops.

Likewise, Shakespeare himself seldom used periods, as seen in Hamlet’s monologue.

James Murdoch, son of publisher Rupert Murdoch, told the Sunday Times, “Amongst news producers and consumers, News Corp faces an existential crisis of credibility, not limited to The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and– especially acute here in Britain– News of the World. Our former MySpace asset demonstrated demographics of age 25 or less attach greater believability to modern, minimalist communication. We’re eyeing emoticons (emojis), sentence simplification and eradication of superfluous punctuation as a means of engaging younger Generation X & Y readers. Within ten years, what remains of the reading public will find punctuation peculiar and outdated.” Murdoch added, “The British public has largely forgotten the NotW perceived misstep, and we may relaunch it on-line through social media.”

What To Expect

Adapting J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit from cell phone novel to the larger screen results in the following. We’ve taken the liberty of capitalizing proper names.

The Hobbit
The Hobbit
Excitable little fellow said Gandalf as they sat down again   Gets funny queer fits but he is one of the best one of the best—as fierce as a dragon in a pinch
If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit even to Old Tooks greatgranduncle Bullroarer who was so HUGE for a hobbit that he could ride a horse   He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields and knocked their king Golfimbuls head clean off with a wooden club   it sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment

Editorials

We can only imagine how an emoji op-ed might appear.
Dear Editor, Sir! I’m irate, nay, outraged. 😤 Your incompetent investigative reporting of pet psychics exemplifies the worst in fake news. ☹️ Medium Sylvia Greene predicted my Eric 🐠 would die and sure enough, within two years it floated belly-up in its bowl. So there!!! 😝
— A Disappointed Reader 😖😡🤬
Agony Columns

Likewise, what might personal advice columns look like?
Dear Prunella, The 😍❤️ darling of my life packed up his family and moved to Alaska. 💔😫 He always dishes out silly excuses: I’m nuts, I’m scary, he’s not attracted, he’s happily married. 😒 Also, I didn’t use a real knife🔪, more like a cleaver. 👿 Would it violate my restraining order if I snip off my ankle bracelet and move to Fairbanks? 🤔
— Most Definitely Not a Stalker 😭
Happy holiday, everyone! 🐣🐥

15 February 2018

Older Than You Think


"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" - (Explanation later)
The New York Times ran a great article the other day called, "Many Animals Can Count, Some Better Than You".  I am sure that every one of us who has /had a pet can assure them of that.  (Try to gyp a dog out of the correct number of treats.)  Not only can they count - as a female frog literally counts the number of mating clucks of the male - but they can compare numbers.  (Read about the guppies and the sticklebacks.)

But where the article really got interesting was where they talked about that, despite math phobia, etc., humans have an innate "number sense." There is archaeological evidence suggesting that humans have been counting for at least 50,000 years.  Before writing ever came around, people were using other ways of tallying numbers, from carving notches (bones, wood, stones) to clay tokens that lie all over Sumerian sites and which often looked, for decades, to archaeologists like bits of clay trash.

But the ability to count and the desire to count and to keep track comes before tokens or notches, otherwise they'd never have bothered.  And language - blessed language - comes before all of that.  So get this:  they say that the number words for small quantities — less than five — are not only strikingly similar across virtually every language in the world, but also are older (and more similar) than the words for mother, father, and body parts.  Except certain words like... no, not that!  (Get your mind out of the gutter)  Except the words for the eye and the tongue. Make of that what you will...

Dr Mark Pagel, biologist at Reading University, said, “It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”  That just gave me goosebumps when I read it.  


Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 BC
Development of Sumerian cunieform writing,
Td k at Wikipedia

I admit, I'm fascinated by the past. (That's why I became a historian...)  To me, history is time travel for pedestrians, a way to connect with our ancient ancestors.  So let's zip around a bit, starting with jokes (Reuters):

Sumerian man,
looking slightly upset...
(Wikipedia)
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” - Sumeria, ca 1900 BC

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.” - Egypt, ca 1600 BC, supposedly about the randy Pharaoh Snofru

The earliest [written] "yo' mamma" joke, from an incomplete Babylonian fragment, ca 1500 BC:
"…your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?"
(Okay, so it doesn't translate that well, but we all know where it's heading.)

And this riddle from 10th century Britain (for more see here):
"I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant’s daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye."
(Answer at the end and no peeking!)

Plot lines go very, very far back as well.  

Ancient Egyptian leather 
sandals (Wikipedia)
The fairy tale with the oldest provenance is "The Smith and the Devil" which goes back at least 7,000 years, and has been mapped out over 35 Indo-European languages, and geographically from India to Scandinavia.  (Curiosity)  The bones of the story are that the Smith makes a deal with the Devil (or death) and cheats him.  Now there's been all sorts of variations on it. In a very old one, the smith gains the power to weld any materials, then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain. Over time, the smith's been transformed to clever peasants, wise simpletons, and, of course, fiddlers ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is, whether Charlie Daniels knew it or not, a variation on this very, very old fairy tale), and the devil occasionally got transformed to death or even a rich mean relative.  Check out Grimm's "The Peasant and the Devil" and "Why the Sea is Salt".

Enkidu, Gilgamesh's
best friend - his death
sends Gilgamesh in
search of eternal life.
(Urban at French
Wikipedia)
But Cinderella's pretty old, too, and just as universal.  Many people believe that the Eros/Psyche myth is the true original.  The Chinese version, Ye Xian, was written in 850 AD, and has everything including the slipper.  There's a Vietnamese version of ancient lineage, The Story of Tam and Cam.  And there are at least 3 variations of it in 1001 Nights.  (BTW, if you're gonna read 1001 Nights - and I recommend it highly - read the Mardrus and Mathers translation in 4 volumes.  Available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon.)

And, of course, many stock plots go at least as far back as Sumeria, including rival brothers (Cain and Abel), blood brothers (Gilgamesh and Enkidu), old men killing their rivals (Lamech, Genesis 4), the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood (complete with ark, dove, and rainbow), and the quest for eternal life (Gilgamesh).

BTW, most of the stories in Genesis come from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which makes perfect sense when you remember that Abraham is said to have come from Ur of the Chaldees, which was a Sumerian city.  

But back to words, which are, after all, our stock in trade as writers.  Remember above, where I quoted the NYT how you could communicate with Neanderthals by pointing and using number words?  And remember that sentence at the very beginning?  
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" 
According to researchers, if you went back 15,000 years and said that sentence, slowly, perhaps trying various accents, in almost any language, to almost any hunter-gatherer tribe, anywhere, they'd understand most of it.  You see, the words in that sentence are basic, almost integral to life, constantly used, constantly needed, for over 15,000 years, since the last Ice Age.  (It's only recently that we've lost our interest in black worms except in tequila and mescal.)

Due to the fact that we live on a planet with 7.6 billion humans and counting, it's hard to realize that, back around 15,000, there were at most 15,000,000 humans on the entire planet (and perhaps as few as 1,000,000).  They probably shared a language.  If nothing else, they would have shared a basic trading language so that when they ran into each other, they could communicate. Linguistics says that most words are replaced every few thousand years, with a maximum survival of roughly 9,000 years. But 4 British researchers say they've found 23 words - what they call "ultra-conserved" words - that date all the way back to 13,000 BC.

Speaking of 13,000 BC, here's a Lascaux Cave Painting.  Wikipedia

Now there's a list of 200 words - the Swadesh list(s) - which are the core vocabulary of all languages.  (Check them out here at Wikipedia.)  These 200 words are cognates, words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages:
Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit).  
Now this makes sense, because English and Sanskrit are both part of the Indo-European language family.  But our 23 ultra-conserved words are "proto-words" that exist in 4 or more language families, including Inuit-Yupik.  (Thank you, Washington Post.  And, if you want to wade through linguistic science, here's the original paper over at the National Academy of Sciences.)

So, what are they?  What are these ultra-conserved words, 15,000 years old, and a window to a time of hunter-gatherers painting in Lascaux and trying to survive the end of the Younger Dryas (the next-to-the last mini-Ice Age; the last was in 1300-1850 AD)?  Here you go:

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, 
who, this, what, man/male, 
ye, old, mother, to hear, 
hand, fire, to pull, black, 
to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

There's got to be a story there.  How about this?

"I give this fire to flow down the bark!  Who pulls the man from the mother?  Who pulls his hand from the fire?  Who / what / we?"

I was trying a couple of variations on these words, and then I realized that the ultimate has already been done:


"Who are you?" [said] the Worm.  


PS - the answer to the riddle is "onion".  

13 December 2017

Couldn't Care Less


A friend of mine was wondering the other day why common expressions get dumbed down, in terms of usage being corrupted. It was because I'd used the phrase 'rhetorical question,' and he wanted to know exactly what that meant. Not that he hadn't heard it before, but how had it come to mean what it's now taken to mean, and were we even using it correctly?

I had to think about it. I decided it originally meant a question intended to spark discussion, a rhetorical device, in other words. Then why, Tony asked me, does it mean a question with an obvious answer, something that goes without saying? In this sense, Tony himself was posing a rhetorical question, something to encourage conversation or deepen our curiosity.

Why does language get less precise? We know English isn't static. It's full of borrowings, and disharmonies, and new constructions. Usage is a moving target. Leave it to the French, naturally, who being French have an Academy to settle these difficulties. The problem being that nobody under the age of four score and ten bothers to pay any attention. Younger people go right on using 'gigabyte,' or whichever neologism or borrowing fits the bill. If everybody else in the world is comfortable with the word, why complain that it lacks authenticity? Orthodoxy is itself suspect. Judgments are arbitrary. Who's being held to which standards?

It's curious, nonetheless, how vocabulary moves into common currency, and loses its specificity. Some of this is a broadening, or dilution, but some of it is almost willful misapprehension. Freudian, for example. Does it mean anything at all, other than being generally dismissive of self-examination, conflating it with self-indulgence? (You can be impatient of narcissism without discarding any and all inner reflection.) Another one is Darwinian. I'm thinking particularly of the expression 'Social Darwinism.' It's taken to mean a barbaric compact, brute force, the weak trampled underfoot, which describes the condition, but Darwinian it ain't. Survival of the fittest had never meant the biggest, baddest predator in the jungle, it's in fact more appropriate for the elusive prey animal who lives to see another day, and breeds for stealth.
Admittedly, we're talking science here, and complicated ideas get the pulp squeezed out. Marxist, there's a good candidate that's turned into a catchall. I think we might be talking about a general carelessness, or simple mistrust of ambiguities and contradictions, a constipation of our mental bowels. Thinking makes your head hurt, let's face it. Labels come easier. But that's almost presupposing a dumb gene, and dumb isn't a survival mechanism. Or what if it is? What if it's a social survival mechanism? Maybe it's about the aggregate comfort zone, not the individual's personal comfort at all. 

Getting into deep waters. Maybe all it is, is laziness. Do we hear a double-negative in 'I Couldn't Care Less,' and lean into the wind? Or is 'I Could Care Less' not a correction of grammar but a contraction, one less syllable, one less hesitation in our thought process, a slip of the tongue? Language is an amalgam, and impure, but all the same, we keep trying for accuracy. The purpose of language, the purpose of words, is to explain ourselves. We can obviously use language to misdirect, to deceive or obscure or conceal - our words may be false, but they still have weight - and does a cracked glass then ring true?

If we lose meaning, if we pretend a thing is what it is not, we're substituting a false equivalency. It all weighs the same. Nope. Look again. Your glass is empty.



"When use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty," which is to be master - that's all."

20 September 2017

Cold War Words, Hot War Words


You may remember that my last piece here was about the importance of empathy as illustrated by two very different books about intelligence work: John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Nicholas  Rankin's Masters of Deception.  Today I want to go back to those books to discuss a  different topic: language.
Le Carré is renowned for his plotting and characters but it is his use of words that dazzles me the most.  He invented a vocabulary of spying, most of it in Tinker Tailor, which is both memorable and believable.
When TTSS was adapted for TV and appeared on PBS there was a full-page ad, sponsored by Mobil, I believe, promoting the show and explaining the vocabulary.  Clearly someone thought the average viewer would be baffled by the jargon and give up even before they had a chance to be baffled by the plot. 
The most famous example, of course, is mole, for a double agent, especially one who was working for Side A even before he dug his way into the ranks of Side B.  Le Carré says he borrowed it from Russian intelligence circles although it turns out Sir Francis Bacon used it in the 1600s.  Le Carré says he had not read Bacon, and why should we doubt him?.  What is certain is that mole is part of everyday usage now.
Here are a few more of Le Carre's memorable coinings:
The Circus: MI-6 , so nicknamed for its (fictional) location in London at Cambridge Circus, but of course suggesting the chaos that often goes on there.
Lamplighters: The secret communication and dead letter people.
Breakage: People quitting the Circus.
 Scalphunters: The dirty work crowd, killers, kidnappers, etc.
Joe: Any agent in the field.  "I have to meet one of my joes."
Coat-trailing: Trying to convince the other side that you are a likely candidate to work for them. 
Honey trap: An attractive person set to woo a spy with their physical charms.
And so on.
But it isn't just terminology that makes Le Carré's language so vivid.  Let's take a couple of examples from a later book, Smiley's People.  An old Russian wants to tell George Smiley that he has acquired three facts that might be used to destroy their deadly enemy Karla.  But the coded message he gives is "I have three proofs against the Sandman."  Sends a shiver down my spine.
A few pages later Smiley reflects on the fact that a spy in trouble immediately discards the most valuable thing he is carrying.  But here is how that comes out:  "in the spy trade we abandon first what we love the most."  And that brings it to a whole different level, doesn't it?


My favorite of Le Carre's non-Smiley books is A Perfect Spy.  The protagonist of that one, Magnus Pym, is a double agent (this is not a spoiler) and he writes a confession to his son, although he certainly knows that the boy will never be allowed to read it.  Discussing the years just after World War II, he writes, "Vienna was a divided city like Berlin or your father"  For me, that's a real gut-punch.

What about the new le Carre novel, A Legacy of Spies?  It's very good but only two bits of language leapt out for me.  There is a safe house which Smiley named the Stables.  If that strikes you as having a mythological reference, at least one character in the book agrees with you.

And in a flashback we see the old spy's protege Peter Guillam demanding an explanation of the dodgy operation they were involved in.  Smiley tells him some of the story and then asks:

"Do you now have all the information you require?"
"No."
"I envy you."
 
Classic Smiley.

Moving on to Rankin's book about deception in the wars.  I was fascinated to learn that certain important and familiar words came from World War I. (Rankin notes that they did not appear in the famous eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, which appeared in 1911, but received major attention in the twelfth, after the war.)

Among the new words are propaganda and camouflage.   Also, in the British empire the best shooters were those who could kill small, fast-moving marsh birds called snipes. And, of course, those shooters were called snipers. 

I knew that tank, the word for heavily armored fighting vehicle, came from a bit of World War I deception - they're just spare petrol tanks! - but I had not realized that Ernest Swinton is credited with both the concept and the name.  Swinton was also a writer; his much-imitated Defence of Duffer's Drift turns what could be a pedestrtian lesson in military strategy into a fascinating story. 

And speaking of writers, the Director of Information for Britain during part of the war was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps.  Oh, and one more?  During World War II, the assistant to the Head of Naval Intelligence had to be a real extrovert, a glad-hander who could play talent-spotter, make nice between competing agencies, and represent the office to the outside world.  The job went to a fellow named Ian Fleming.  Wonder whatever happened to him?

07 January 2017

The English Language


NOTE: It is my honor today to welcome my friend Herschel Cozine as a guest blogger. Herschel has published extensively in the children's field, and his stories and poems have appeared in many of the national children's magazines. His work has also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines, Wolfmont Press Toys for Tots anthologies, Woman's World, Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, and many other publications. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and his flash story "The Phone Call" appeared in Flash Bang Mysteries' summer 2016 issue. He currently has a mini-mystery in Over My Dead Body, and a story scheduled in OMDB's next issue as well. Herschel, it's great to have you here (again)! — John Floyd





I would like to concentrate today on the English language. I'm not talking about its idiosyncrasies that  allow one to use "ghoti," according to GBS, to spell "fish." Rather I am more interested in the variances between the British and U.S. in the spelling and meaning of words.

I am fully aware that the British were here first, so to speak, and that it is their language that we have borrowed and, supposedly, corrupted. But because one is the first to use an item doesn't necessarily mean he is using it correctly.

The British, for example, have the philosophy that two letters are better than one in the spelling of a word. "Why use one when two will do the same job?" It sounds like our government's approach. A brief list to demonstrate my point:

Sulphur
Aluminium
Honour
Humour
Programme
Grille
Favourite

I won't even try to spell "maneuver" the way they do.

It seems to me a waste of space and ink. Walt Disney drew his characters with three fingers instead of the usual four. "Think of the money I save on ink," he said.

But Disney wasn't dealing with the British. They're awash in ink; most of it red as I understand it.

Recently I contracted with a magazine in Canada to write a story, and was told by the editor to use the British spelling of words. Fortunately for me there were only two. I'm not good with this kind of thing.

Then, of course, there is the meaning of words. In this instance I see no advantage of one over the other. Here are a few:

US                                 British

Hood                             Bonnet
Trunk                            Boot
Elevator                        Lift
Policeman                    Bobby
Gentleman                   Chap
Run (in stocking)        Ladder
Panties                         Bloomers
Bathroom                     Loo
Excellent                      Capital
Flashlight                     Torch (or Electric Torch)

Then there is the ubiquitous "bloody," which encompasses most of the four-letter words we Americans use. In this case the British have economized. Would that we followed their example in this instance.

Of course, the British refer to a two-week period of time as a fortnight. I have no idea why. When I was in the army, stationed at a fort, a day seemed like two weeks. Is there a connection here?

One need not travel to the United Kingdom to see and hear differences. In this country we speak several different languages, depending on which part of the country we are in. My father, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, changed the "erl," liked "berled" potatoes, and lived on "Thoid" Street. When I lived in New England, the residents drove "cahs," went to "grammah" school, and ate "botatoes." Since they dropped the "R's" from words, they found themselves with a surplus, so they put them on the end of other words. "Idears" and "diplomers," for example. Southerners eat "ahs" cream. Texans? I am still grappling with that one.

Here in California, we don't even speak English. Recently I was in a coffee shop. The table next to me was occupied by some young folks. One young lady with purple hair and tattoos on her arms and eyelids was holding court. I couldn't understand a word she said. I attributed that to the ring in her nose, which kept her from enunciating. But the others at the table had no problem with it. Truly remarkable.

But I digress. In the past few years a whole new language has come into existence with the emergence of texting. I wonder if the British text. How could they possibly communicate using a single letter? LOL.

I wonder, too, if this form will ever influence our writing. Just as English in Chaucer's time is far different from today's, will future generations see a similar change? Hamlet will soliloquize thusly: "2BR not 2B." I will, gratefully, not be around to see it.

CU later.



14 November 2015

Watch Your Language: Fighting Words in Young Adult Mysteries


When my first young-adult mystery came out last month, many people asked me how writing mysteries for teenagers is different from writing mysteries for adults. I answered that, as far as I could see, it's not all that different. I didn't dumb down the plot at all--Fighting Chance is a whodunit, and I wanted to make interpreting clues and identifying bad guys just as challenging as it is in the whodunits I write for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. As for characterization, the central characters in Fighting Chance are younger than the ones in my other mysteries, but I didn't try to make them less complex. I've taught young people long enough to know they're fully capable of following complicated plots and understanding three-dimensional characters. Setting, theme, other elements of fiction--again, I didn't see any need to make adjustments.




Language, though--that one raised some questions.

Fighting ChanceSome of those questions related to craft. Could I create a convincing voice for my protagonist, a seventeen-year-old boy who loves sports but doesn't much care for school? (In fact, his voice seemed to come to me naturally. Maybe I should be concerned.) Could I avoid outdated slang, as well as slang so cutting-edge it might fade from fashion by the time the book made it into print? What about minority characters? I've read a number of YA novels written by other middle-aged white ladies, and their attempts to write dialogue for streetwise African-American teenagers have often made me cringe. Could I have a diverse cast of characters without making similar blunders?

And then there's the issue of profanity.

For some YA authors, apparently, it's not an issue at all. A couple of years ago, when I went to a YA panel at a mystery conference, one author lamented that some middle-school librarians won't carry her novel because its title contains a certain word--I'd rather not say which one. The other panelists sympathized. It's ridiculous, they said, for librarians and teachers to fuss about this word and that word. After all, kids today are smart. They know what all the words mean. And, as writers, we need to keep it real.

The panelists made some legitimate points. Yes, teenagers today are smart. Yes, they know what all the words mean. The thing is, too many decades ago, when I was a teenager myself, we knew what all the words mean, too. I still remember the first time I heard one of my contemporaries use what I'll refer to as the F-word. I was chatting with a group of friends when Joanne casually dropped the word into the conversation. The rest of us reacted with stunned silence--not because we didn't know what the word meant, but because we did. We just chose not to use it, because we thought it was crude.

That opinion seems to have faded. I don't have any supporting data I can cite, but it seems safe to say that most people today use profanity more freely than most people did thirty or forty years ago. I think that's probably true for people of all ages, not only for teenagers.

TeenagersWhy did people change their opinions about which words are too crude to use? Again, I can't cite supporting data, but I suspect books, movies, and other media led the way. That's definitely where I first encountered many of the words that now slip into my speech more easily than they used to, words spoken by clever and likable characters on the page or the screen, words I heard so often that they lost their shock value and began to seem like normal, acceptable things said by perfectly nice people. So when we say the language in YA novels should keep it real, perhaps we should remember that books probably don't just passively reflect reality. Probably, they also help shape it. If today's teenagers use more crude language than the teenagers in my day did, it's probably partly because of the movies they see, the music they listen to, and the books they read. And if that's true, maybe YA authors need to think carefully about the kind of influence they want their books to have.

Or maybe it's no big deal. After all, we're just talking about words. If today's teenagers use language once considered crude, so what? What's wrong with crude language? I won't try to make a full argument here, but I encourage you to read an essay by Barbara Lawrence, "Four-Letter Words Can Hurt You" (http://talkingtok.wikispaces.com/file/view/4+letter+words.pdf). Lawrence argues that many crude words dehumanize people in general, and women in particular, by reducing them to purely physical terms.

I'll provide an example of a crude phrase that does exactly that, an expression Lawrence doesn't discuss. When did it become all right to say "knocked up"? I've heard several television comedians use that expression recently, and this one still shocks me. Two human beings come together to create a new life, in what should be an affirmation of love and commitment and faith in the future. And these comedians reduce this act to "knocked up"? Now it's a violent act, a victory of the strong over the weak, an assertion of a man's power to impose himself on a woman. I'm sorry. I think I've got a pretty good sense of humor, and I know political correctness can go too far. But I don't think "knocked up" is cute or funny. I think it's ugly. And I think that, as a YA author, I have a responsibility to refrain from doing anything that might encourage young people to think this ugly expression, or any other ugly expression, is okay. I think I have a responsibility to make careful choices, in the hope that any influence I might have will encourage my young readers to make careful choices, too.

Caution: TeenagersSo what standards should guide an author making choices about what sort of language to use in a YA mystery? Yes, we want to keep it real. But for any fiction writer--YA or otherwise, mystery or otherwise--realism isn't the only relevant consideration. My YA mystery is set in a small town in Virginia. If I were intent only on making dialogue realistic, my teenaged characters would say "sir" and "ma'am" whenever they address adults. I chose not to let them do that.

When I moved from Ohio to Virginia, I was suspicious when my Lynchburg College students kept addressing me as "ma'am"--"Yes, ma'am," "I'll have that essay done tomorrow for sure, ma'am." At first, I thought they were being sarcastic, implying I was as dictatorial as a drill sergeant--in Cleveland, almost nobody outside the military says "ma'am." Eventually, I realized that these students say "ma'am" because they were raised to say it, that they were being respectful, not sarcastic.I was stunned. I was used to student sarcasm and knew how to handle it, but respect left me blinking in confusion. And when I wrote Fighting Chance, I decided to keep "sir" and "ma'am" to a minimum. I felt that, realistic as these expressions might be in a novel set in Virginia, they might not feel realistic to readers in other parts of the country.

That's the sort of decision fiction writers make about language. After all, if we were aiming only for realism, all the dialogue we write would be studded with "um" and "er" much more often, and our characters would constantly be saying "like" and "you know."" Unless we're trying to create some sort of comic effect, we usually edit such stumbles from the dialogue we write, along with the repetitions and qualifiers that make most real speech far from vivid and entertaining.

I'm reminded of a famous statement from William Wordsworth's "Preface" to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. (Yes, I know. If you hear reports of earthquakes in Grasmere today, they're undoubtedly caused by Wordsworth spinning in his grave because he never intended his words to be used in this context.) Wordsworth says the language of poetry should be "as far as is possible, a selection of the language really used by men" [and women], and "that this selection, wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life."

How about that as a standard for the language in YA mysteries? We won't make our characters say "golly" and "darn," because that's not language really used by teenagers--not today, and not often even in my day. But we can select some of the language really used by teenagers, and not select other language really used by teenagers, because we don't want to encourage our young readers to think "vulgarity and meanness" are okay. We don't want to use whatever influence we might have to make real-life teenaged speech any meaner and more vulgar than it already is.

Swansea University Karate Club (6)Naturally, I can't resist the temptation to use a passage from my YA mystery to show how this standard can be applied. In the first chapter of Fighting Chance, my protagonist, seventeen-year-old Matt Foley, is at a tae kwon do tournament, sitting on the home team bench as he and his friends watch their coach spar with a mysterious baby-faced stranger named Bobby Davis. Near the end of the first two-minute period, the coach scores a point by using a combination move he's been teaching his students. It's a short-lived victory--a few pages later, Davis kills the coach with a powerful kick to the larynx, and Matt and his friends will spend the rest of the book proving it was murder, not an accident. For now, Matt's impressed not only by his coach's skill but also by his restraint:

It was pretty cool--like Coach had been holding back, passing up chances for easy points, waiting to score with that particular combination so he could show us how effective it is. Now, that's a teacher, I thought. "Great combination, Coach," I called.

Joseph seemed to be having the same thoughts I was. "Most instructive," he said. "Mr. Colson said we should try to score such way--roundhouse kick, right jab, left punch. Now he has performed one, to demonstrate us how to aspire."

Derrick drew his head back. "To demonstrate us how to aspire? What's that--Latin? What the hell are you saying?"

"You know exactly what he's saying," I said. "Don't be a jerk, Derrick." Joseph's from Kenya. His family left five or six years ago, after his father got killed, and moved around until the Episcopal Church found his mother a job in Ridgecrest. In some ways, Joseph's English is probably better than mine. It's definitely better than Derrick's. He's got a formal way of putting things, though, and sometimes his vocabulary's off--natural enough, I guess, if you learn English in a classroom instead of at home. There's no point making a big deal whenever something comes out strange.
First, a few words about Joseph. I'll admit I shied away from the challenge of writing dialogue for a streetwise African-American teenager. I didn't think I could do a convincing job. I did want a diverse cast of characters, though, so I did the best I could. Joseph was born in Africa, and he's now an American. The way he speaks is based on the speech patterns of a number of international students I've had over the years--bright, ambitious students who study the dictionary every night to expand their vocabularies but sometimes have problems with idioms and syntax. I hope Joseph's dialogue sounds real and also subtly encourages young readers to respect the speech of newcomers still in the process of learning English.

As for Derrick, he's a minor character--not a bad guy, really, not at heart, but he thinks too highly of himself and sometimes tends to be a bully. He says "what the hell," not "what the heck," because I can't remember the last time I heard anyone, of any age, say "what the heck." But I often hear teenagers, and others, say "what the hell." I've also heard them say harsher things, but I don't think it's necessary to use anything harsher here. "What the hell" is, to modify Wordsworth's phrase, a selection of the language really used by teenagers. I think it works here.

In response to Derrck, Matt says, "Don't be a jerk, Derrick." (For those familiar with Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, this is Matt's save-the-cat moment, the moment when he proves he's worthy of our respect by standing up to a would-be bully.) He could have said something harsher than "jerk"--we can all think of harsher words he could have used. Lots of teenagers use those words, but lots use "jerk," too. Maybe Fighting Chance would seem edgier and more daring if Matt had used one of those other words. But I think "don't be a jerk" is a legitimate selection of the language really used by teenagers, and I'm willing to live with the consequences of making that selection.

I'm not saying that I've found the ideal solution, only that I think the issue is important. I don't think YA authors should shrug it off with cliches about keeping it real. We make careful, responsible decisions about the way we portray various groups, and the way we present various issues, because we think our books might influence the way young people think and act. If our books might also influence the way they speak and write, shouldn't we make careful, responsible decisions about language, too?
Girl reading



22 November 2014

Personpower! (They let me off my leash again…)


by Melodie Campbell

Apparently, the current hot project for Those Who Don’t Have Enough To Do At City Hall, is making our language completely gender-neutral.  “Harbourmaster” is the latest word to fall under the gender axe.  While I wouldn’t dream of suggesting “Harbour Mistress” (this is a family column) I am not so sure about HarbourPerson either.

No doubt about it, that man in “woman” has got to go.  Probably the first place to be hit will be public washrooms.  Better get used to “Persons” and WoPersons”.

If that isn’t confusing enough, imagine what is going to happen to all of our great tunes?  Are we really going to be singing along to “Hey Mr/Ms Tambourine Person”?  Frankly, “When a Person…loves a Person” just doesn’t do it for me.  “I’m a Solitary Person” might squeak by, but “Pretty Person” doesn’t have a chance.

Not to mention the effect this will have on our great literature.  Hemingway will have won the Pulitzer for “The Old Person and the Sea.”  “Little Persons” will be read by persons of gender everywhere, and “The Person of LaMancha” may sweep Broadway.  My own personal <sic> favourite has got to be Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Persons.”

All this could result in a new branch of philology, with its own name, of course – SEpersonTICS…and since my Canadian government is so insistent on being politically correct, surely Winnipeg deserves to reside in “Personitoba?”

You see, the problem is personifold.  You can’t just draw the line here.  ALL things must be included and made equal.

It’s simple, when you get the hang of it.  Fireplaces will have persontels, the rich can live in personsions, and those of us with long fingernails can go for personicures.  “Manuella” may not be too happy about becoming Personuella, but what the heck.  We’ve got a persondate.


(This is a leash-free day, so go for it, and add your own gender-free word changes in the comments.)

When she is not cracking the whip as Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada, Melodie Campbell spends her time writing funny novels like The Artful Goddaughter, for Orca Books.

02 July 2014

Use your words! Or don't...


by Robert Lopresti 


"But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you."  -T.S. Eliot.

I've been jotting down words and phrases in my notebook lately, mostly uses that are new to me.  I asked a few people for language that has been bumping in their ears, and added them to my list.  Tell me what you think.

It's a thing.  One day I asked my wife "When did thing become a thing?"  Oddly enough she knew exactly what I meant.  The phrase comes up most often as "Is that a thing?" And it has two meanings: Does that exist? and Has that become popular/a trend?  Ben Yagoda was able to find it used on TV in 2001 in an episode of That Seventies Show (not meaning that It dates back to the seventies, of course).  And naturally there is a website that allows you to pontificate on whether something is a thing or not.

Because grammar.  I had a hell of a time finding an article about this, largely because I didn't know what to look for.  Or should I say "Because ignorance?"  The proper term is apparently "propositional because," and it means a blog-friendly language abbreviation, the word "because" followed by a word or short phrase.  It happens because Internet.  And because attention span. 

What I couldn't find is a discussion of the way I see the expression used most often, which is as a snarky dismissal of the arguments of someone you disagree with. 

Of course, some people insist that gay marriage must be forbidden, because religion.

Our opponents feel they must violate our constitutional rights to own guns, because Columbine.


I mentioned this to my son-in-law recently and he told me it was an example of a snowclone.  So...

What the hell is a snowclone?  Glad you asked.  It is a neologism created by Glen Whitman when  Geoffrey Pullam  asked for a term for "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers."

Let me see if I can make that clearer.  You take a phrase in common usage (especially one that has some pop culture cachet to it) and you substitute a word or two to create a new phrase.  I actually wrote about one here.   Remember Gil Scott-Heron's great song "The Revolution WIll Not Be Televised?"  Well, a quick look at the Internet informed me that:
The revolution will not be blogged
The revolution will not be webcast
The revolution will not be digitized
The revolution will not be effectively distributed
The revolution will not be sexualized
The revolution will not be plagiarized
The revolution will not be satirized
The revolution will not be copyrighted

Many more but you get the idea. 

Curated.  I'm pretty neutral on the ones above, but this one bugs me.  I keep running into stores whose merchandise is "curated."  It has become to furnishings what "artisanal" is to bread.

Whataboutery.  This one, on the other hand, I love.  I saw it once and immediately looked it up on the web.  Apparently it comes from Britain.  The Wiktionary gives it two related  meanings:

  1. Protesting at hypocrisy; responding to criticism by accusing one's opponent of similar or worse faults.
  2. Protesting at inconsistency; refusing to act in one instance unless similar action is taken in other similar instances.
I'll offer a third slight variation:
      3. Protesting self-centeredness; refusing to take a complaint seriously because someone somewhere has it worse.  ("There are children starving in China...")

What follows are a list of things people have been doing to ideas lately. Most of them were reported by my friend and fellow librarian, Marian Alexander.

  • Interrogating
  • Privileging 
  • Unpicking
  • Parsing
  • Honoring

Please tell me what you think of these terms, and the other ones that bug or amuse you.  As for me, I'm done.  Because bed.

30 March 2014

Slow Death by Disuse


by Louis Willis

The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences. 
Oxford Dictionaries.

In his article “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?” on the Slate website, Paul Collins relates a brief history of the semicolon:

       The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.  

Collins notes that the advent of the telegraph in 1850 might have “radically” changed language use because punctuation marks cost the same rate as words ($5.00). As far the semicolon, his perusal of “telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion.” He never quite says that in these modern times the Internet is killing the semicolon but strongly implies that it is. He believes, nevertheless, that “semicolons serve a unique function,...” but fails to say what that function is.
Matthew Kassel believes the semicolon isn’t dying but is “the perfect punctuation for the digital age.” In his "The Semicolon Is the Perfect Punctuation for the Digital Age" article on the New York Observer web site, Kassel argues “that the semicolon is...perfectly suitable for text messaging, instant messaging and online correspondence via Facebook and other social networks, where disparate ideas roam free and ‘unexpected juxtapositions’ are the norm.” He felt “compelled” to defend the semicolon because he “often uses semicolons in digital communication and [has] encountered some unexpected pushback.” Further, for him “the semicolon’s breezy informality… captures the unstructured, colloquial nature of digital correspondence more so than any other punctuation mark out there.” I didn’t find a whole lot of semicolons in his articles on the Observer site, and I couldn’t access his Twitter account, which was probably due to my unstructured, colloquial nature. 
The goal of communications on the social networks is to get the message out as quickly as possible and don’t bother about those little pesky things called punctuation marks. Way back in 1999, one writer, Amy Harmon, in an article "Internet Changes Language" published in the New York Times on February 20 noted that “Although judgments vary, what seems clear so far is that the Internet has propelled the traditionally deliberate pace of language evolution to higher speeds.” 
The semicolon doesn’t lend itself to the speed Twitter and Facebook requires because it insists on a brief pause to allow the reader to think. Readers who, like me, sometimes want, not just dip into an article, story, or essay, but to savor it, would, in these times of instant gratification, miss the semicolon. I have faith, though I don’t know if it is “the perfect punctuation for the Digital Age” as Kassel suggests, that its demise is not imminent. 
To you semicolon; may you live forever.