Review: Righting the Mother Tongue

I’m not sure where I found this book originally, but it called out to me and my word-loving sensibilities.  Let it stand as a point in favor of libraries: you can have all the fun of impulse book-buying without any issues of budgeting (well, except your time) or storage (aside from the temporary tsundoku by your bed).

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling is David Wolman’sWriting the Mother tongue journey through history to figure out just how English spelling became so confusing, whether it’s possible for it to be simplified, and what might become of the language in future.  Wolman himself grew up with siblings whose competence in spelling left his ability far behind – not to mention the frustration that attended his classroom attempts at words like “different,” “restaurant” and “license,” words from various forebears with diverse paradigms.  He heads on a road trip through various parts of England and America to discuss language shifts with a number of experts.

I was, for the most part, already familiar with a lot of his journey: the Wessex dialect of Old English spread on account of Alfred the Great’s influence; monks, clerics, and scribes set about copying manuscripts and Bibles; the Norman conquest brought an influx of French words, used mostly by the higher class.  Then there was a bit of an English resurgence, due in part to the popularity of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible.  Gutenberg’s printing press and its movable type meant that printing houses chose spellings that worked best for their margins, as opposed to the scribes who would tailor their wordwork for the ease of whoever was buying (and reading) it.

Chapter 5, which bridges the gap between the advent of printing and the publishing of Johnson’s dictionary, was the most illuminating section for me.  It noted that self-appointed tastemakers and language-shapers in the 16th and 17th centuries favored this or that construction/spelling and set it apart as most “correct,” so as to distinguish the polloi from the more educated, stylish elite.  For example, they included more Greek and Latinate terms, and, occasionally, tweaked certain words to more greatly resemble their fellows: rime became rhyme to match rhythm, delit became delight to match right and might (which had themselves undergone a shift, from pronouncing the “gh” to leaving it silent).

Then follows Samuel Johnson’s codification of English in his Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, To Which Are Prefixed a History of the Language and an English Grammar.  Spelling was far more settled by this point (1755), and the dictionary cemented it further.

The chapters following that detail some history of American English, including several different parties in the past 200 years who wished to render English spelling a simpler matter.  Even today, the Simplified Spelling Society fights for a more efficient system.  Admittedly, the members of said society aren’t quite sure which system to utilize instead…but they all agree that English has a lot of “booby traps,” spelling-wise, that students have to spend a lot of time learning to navigate.

For my own part, that navigation was easy.  I grew up with the luxuries of educated, involved parents; plenty of reading material that taught me how words looked; and a fairly good memory for reproducing words, especially if I knew their etymology.  Wolman addresses this in a chapter on the Scripps National Spelling Bee:

Manning says she sees words differently now that she’s a Bee parent.  She had never thought much about all the other languages that influenced English spelling or the different parts of speech, but as her daughter developed a love of words and started studying for the Bee, Manning found that there was much more to spelling than just remembering what letters go where.  “It’s those clues and weird little histories that you pick up – that’s what makes it interesting.”

…an orthography that is perfectly reflective of pronunciation may not be ideal.  In isolation, words with silent or extra letters may strike people as inefficient, and at times they are.  But in other cases, they help our brains draw dotted lines between words with related meanings, such as sign and signature, condemn and condemnation, dough and doughnut, or bomb and bombard.

After deftly navigating the arguments between prescriptivists, who wish to prescribe, or lay down rules, for ‘proper’ spelling and grammar, and descriptivists, who prefer to record how people are in fact using language from day to day, Wolman goes on to examine how we treat orthography in the 21st century.  Nowadays, everyone’s computer or mobile device is outfitted with an spellchecker, which some suppose renders spelling irrelevant; does it matter if I forget the first “r” if my computer underlines “irelevant” with a red squiggle?  If we all disregarded the red squiggle, would the spelling change?  Wolman spends some time on the history of spellcheck before turning to Google and its suggested spelling function:

The last thing Google people want is to be perceived as setting rules or boundaries around what users do.  A company as big as Google already has enough trouble dispelling fears of Big Brother-esque practices.  “The question, ‘Do you mean?’ is deliberately ambiguous,” said Norvig.  “What we’re not saying is, ‘Here’s how you spell.’”  In this way, Google can be authoritative without being authoritarian, providing a snapshot of what’s out there in cyberspace without presuming to correct your English.

Chalk Google up as descriptivist, I guess.  I lean toward the prescriptive side myself, though not as heavily as I did before reading this book.  Reminding myself of the centuries of change English has already undergone makes me a tiny bit less likely to castigate someone’s spelling as wrong! …but see what I do next time something says “there” instead of “their.”

Overall, Righting the Mother Tongue is a fairly interesting book on the history of English orthography, a discussion of of spelling reform, and some description of the cognitive side of reading and writing (which helps account for the difficulties some people have in these activities).  While he examines the weirdness behind certain words – the now-silent “g” in “right,” the “h” in “ghost” or “rhubarb,” the in-and-outs of “aisle” and “isle” – Wolman spends more time on the shaping of the English language as a whole:

“Language is people,” Crystal told me as we stared out at the River Avon.  Words are not the flesh of thought entirely, for we also think in pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings.  But words are an essential part of the flesh of society and cultural intercourse.  They are products of human innovation, folly, power, preference, and change.  For that reason, correct English is nothing more than a phantom.  That doesn’t make English any less expansive and glorious, but the idea that there is clearly a right or a wrong way to go about the business of pronunciation, grammar, or even spelling, flies in the face of language’s true machinations.

English has grown and shifted before, an organism that changes with time and the people who use it.  It is not petrified or ossified, but living: it will continue to grow and shift and, perhaps, look quite different in a generation or two.

A Drinking Song

Among his myriad moments of poetic genius, W. B Yeats scribbled this tiny snippet. Does he drink to make her beautiful in his eye, or does he drink out of sorrow? Can it not be both? At any rate, I recited it in my best bad Irish accent. Here it be.

A Drinking Song
By William Butler Yeats 1865–1939

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

 

 

Be all that as it may, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Epitaph

ELIZA EVELINE

commander, cellar-keeper, particular,
seamstress, mistress, fortress,
treasurer, stone-hearth-sweeper, and
Wife of
one
A.P. Rodney,
once visited New Orleans,
settling her bonnet lightly
and mouthing wonders at the distance
and decay
and desires to set up in so sunken a city.
She was
A (proud) native of Wilkinson County, Miss.
where rivers don’t float the dead
and every calendar day is
precious, perilous, alive.
but fever or war or accident found her,
and she, settling into the fog,
Died March Sth 1865.
A.P., never to remarry,
buried her in stone three feet over ground,
in a lichen-growing sepulchre that
will not hide the passage of one
Aged 34 yrs. 9 mos., & 7 days
as it eases her into eternity.

image

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Last year, I was engaged in a search for books featuring unmarried women who nonetheless lead lives (or, at any rate, experience some events) worth the reading.  Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie made it to my list; I checked it out of the library; annnd it was promptly ignored for months and months, as I hemmed over my bookshelf and let myself be waylaid by other considerations.

Miss Jean BrodieHaving actually cracked it a week or so ago, I found it to be a fairly quick read.  Miss Jean Brodie teaches at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and selects for herself a set of girls to be her crème de la crème: the girls who accompany her to museums, the theater, various rough neighborhoods, and tea at various houses.  Each one becomes famous for a certain trait or ability (from mathematics to sex, apparently), and the set as a whole are more devoted to this teacher and what she teaches them than they are to the school or their respective houses.  As the official summary puts it:  Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

She doesn’t follow the usual curriculum nor the usual pedagogical methods, and is therefore something of a target for the criticisms of the headmistress and other staff – except for the men, who are rather taken with her.  As she never marries any of them, the story technically still fits my criteria…but I really wasn’t looking for someone who jumps in and out of unhealthy or adulterous relationships.

I also wasn’t looking for someone who declared “I am in my prime!” every page or two.  Miss Brodie’s prime is mentioned 57 times, without further digging into what one’s prime is or why it matters that she is in hers.

Whilst reading, I became convinced that both the book and I were missing something in turns.  I missed some shades of significance where British schooling, Edinburgh accents, and Scottish religious experience is concerned, while the book’s depiction of Jean Brodie misses the point by painting in generalities.

Or, at least, it seemed to miss the point.  Maybe it meant to outline a particular sort of person, leaving readers to fill in any gaps with their own experiences.  Or perhaps it was all an effort to portray a person of just such shallowness, the sort of shallowness that attempts (and sometimes manages) to appear profound.  If so, the effort is successful: I find myself quite agreeing with the character who eventually “betrayed” Miss Brodie (such that she lost her teaching post) that Jean Brodie is a bit of a fool – but folly being some distance from a fireable offense, she is sacked for being a fascist.

(This left me wondering how sensible or attractive fascism might have seemed to a woman in the 1930s. The fact that Jean Brodie admires Mussolini and Hitler is utterly foreign to me, having grown up in a post-world-war time when most everyone discusses Hitler as a means to talk about the worst person they can think of on short notice.)

On the bright side, the book does have a quite intriguing narrative setup.  It describes the girls in sixth form, jumping ahead to when this one dies, that one gets married, jumping back to when they were younger yet, returning to sixth form and the time thereafter. This arrangement makes for a good deal of dramatic irony, and illustrates something of how detached our understanding (of a character, a person, an event) can be: sometimes you learn how things turn out without having any idea how they got that way.

There are also some delightful turns of phrase, some particularly suggestive bits of description; it couldn’t very well be otherwise, given the sort of person Miss Brodie is.  One passage notes that “above all, Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together; she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.”  Another notes her “excessive lack of guilt” and how one girl recognizes that as problematic.

“An excessive lack of guilt” might well characterize the whole book.  Both Miss Brodie and her set are unapologetically interested in Certain Things and disregard the rest. There’s a particular instance of religious conversion which must have involved a good deal of reading, thought, prayer, and various turnings of soul. It is given all of three sentences, and presented as a psychological change more than anything.

Bottom line: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a pretty good story, with somewhat lively characterization of a compelling personality.  But I’m not sure that it compels anyone in healthy ways, and as such it isn’t the story I was looking for.

On the Poor Quality of Christian-Made Movies: A Proposition

Originally posted on The Search:

GodsNotDead

A year ago at this time, discussion of Hollywood’s “religious renaissance” began in earnest. Movies like Son of God, Noah, Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead were preparing to release, with more faith-oriented films set to come out later in the year (Mom’s Night Out, The Identical, Left Behind, Exodus). A year later, after mixed box office results and plenty of heated blogosphere chatter, what have we learned about what works and what doesn’t when faith and film collide?

There is a lot that could be said about this topic, and a lot that has already been written. Brandon Ambrosino’s excellent recent Vox piece, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” summarizes many of the key themes. I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about this topic over the years and hate to belabor familiar points, but the increasing ubiquity and decreasing…

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Authors: Pursue Problems; Avoid Didacticism

As Thalia has noted, she and I have worked with Athanatos Christian Ministries for some years in guiding the semi-finalists of their annual novel contest in polishing their submissions.

When it comes to editing any sort of writing project, my kneejerk inclination, which I may or may not follow, is to read it through and take a red pen to any and all mechanical errors and questionable phrasing. This can get fussy, and honestly it’s all but meaningless with regard to the unfolding of the plot – unless there are some particularly egregious misspellings!

But spelling, grammar, and comma usage are a free-and-easy fix compared to more fundamental aspects of a story. Clearing away the haze of poor mechanics reveals the soundness (or deficiency!) of its underlying elements. So writers, bear in mind a couple of basic principles:

Problems are Plot. This took me a very long while to get my head around – first because I wrote self-insertion stories wherein I could ~magically~ do anything and everything (including fly a magic carpet to Venezuela, own a house full of gemstones the size of my fist, and have my grade-school crush fall in love with me: plain ol’ wish fulfillment, nothing more), and later because I crafted characters who I hated to subject to troublesome things. It seemed unkind, creating someone just to afflict him with grief, or her with financial disaster, or both of them with romantic disappointment that could easily be avoided with a little bit of communication.

But characters exist for story, and stories are fueled by problems. This is the essential Rule of Drama.  Maybe they’re internal problems, which eventually manifest in a strange or sudden action from the protagonist.  Maybe they’re mechanical problems: the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, the plane is falling from the sky, the parachute was replaced by a live alligator. Maybe they’re failures of communication or understanding. Maybe they’re the tension between what is right and what is easy. Maybe there are triplets, not twins.  Maybe a man came through the door with a gun in his hand.

Don’t just show me a nondescript fellow carrying on his orderly life in a mediocre fashion.  Don’t just give me a flat sequence of happenstances, don’t spend the whole book describing the landscape or characters, don’t bore me with 12 chapters of exposition.  Start somewhere, add problems, work to solve the problems, add more problems in the meantime, and end up somewhere else – or as someone else.

This is also an important point.  The Catcher in the Rye presents us with a character and adds problems, or something like, but none of them are resolved.  The Holden Caulfield at the end is just like the Holden Caulfield at the beginning, except he’s a little bit older.  Which might be the idea: here, look at this teenager; behold how lame he is; don’t you just want to not be like him in any way?

It’s a long-winded, time-consuming way to teach a single lesson.  But it does follow my other main rule for writers:

Don’t Be Didactic.  What does that mean?  Well, in an earlier post I noted that “didactic” comes from the Greek word for “teaching,” and thus isn’t bad per se.  Teaching is good: but how to do it?  Show your work.  Don’t tell the reader “Well, that business was just evil” or “James suddenly behaved properly, fancy that” or “Communism doesn’t work.”  You have just told the reader about the start of the maze, then dropped him off at the end of the maze, and revealed none of the twists and turns within it.  You have held up a solved puzzle, an assembled model, a fully-folded piece of origami, and kept its inner workings to yourself.  Will it hold together?  How should we know?  Can we take your word for it, since you didn’t take us through the process?

Emily pointed out that some examples or excerpts would be helpful, and indeed, I stand convicted of doing the thing while telling storytellers not to do it.  The difficulty is that I don’t want to quote sections of Athanatos entries I’ve read, since that’s not in keeping with contest rules or a spirit of charity.

So let me take a step back and note that, as I understand Athanatos, their mission is to find and encourage Christian authors.  However, they want stories, first and foremost: well-crafted, well-told, beautiful stories, which will draw in and grip whoever reads them.  They need not be explicitly Christian, if that makes sense; in fact, a latent approach might be preferable.  Though we’ve gotten a fair few novels featuring one or more of the following tropes, it’s not always most effective to feature an altar call, full Bible verses, a conversion prayer, the appearance of angels, a discussion of various points of doctrine, or a bright shining light with a heavenly voice.  There might be occasions where one or another of these, or something like them, can be deployed to good effect; for the most part, such elements only speak to readers already on the inside of the circle.

Stories are journeys, not destinations, so let your characters and your readers travel.  Stick your travelers between a frying pan and a fire.  When difficult questions arise, don’t just answer them, straight off; let them unfurl into tension between characters who want different things, who believe different things – just like real life.  Let there be consequences to choices made, and let those consequences illuminate the nature of the choices instead of baldly stating your estimation of it.  Not that every single choice the characters make must be labored over in a welter of philosophizing – in that case, they might not do anything – but maintain personalities that are real enough to conflict with each other, in such a way that resolution of that conflict means something.

The best books have the power to change their readers.  Fashioning something with that power requires some heavy lifting and a good deal of internal wrestling (and revision, and revision, and revision).  But the end product shines like the sword Zhaligkeer:  “You have then the strength of four blades, not just one.  There is a tension in the twisting of the braid that is never undone.  This tension is what makes the sword leap to the hand and sing in the air.  No common blade forged of a rod and flattened can stand against it.”

The White of the Chart

You probably knew this about me (and even if you didn’t, it’s pretty standard human nature in the 21st century), but:

I am a liiiiiittle obsessed with site stats.

In particular, I am fascinated with the fact that WordPress sees fit to give us a map of the countries in which our blog has been viewed. It is super-pleasing to me that such a thing exists, and even more pleasing to see that somehow in the past year we’ve drawn someone in from Kazakhstan and Mali, and a couple more views from China:

2015-01-20 Stats MapBut mostly I wish it were possible to fill in the blank spots.

Like, how do I lure in the folks from Greenland? Technically they’re owned by Denmark or something, so how come the 68 Denmarkian views don’t fill Greenland in too? Same goes for Norway and Svalbard, and France/French Guiana.

And, despite the fact that I post nothing whatsoever in Arabic nor Korean, I find myself wondering about the fact that we’ve never been visited by anyone from Iran nor North Korea.  It’s impossible to tell whether we’re unappealing to the market, if we’re just plain irrelevant to their interests, if the area in question somehow does not have any internet access whatsoever, or if the complete and utter lack of readership reflects a greater degree of censorship and/or governmental control over the internet.

Or, okay, it’s not completely impossible to tell on that last one, at least not where North Korea is involved.

Anyway, one could characterize this desire to color in the map as juvenile.  But is that desire for completeness a bad thing?  I think it reflects a concern with universality: what I really want to write is something worth reading, no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what years you exist.  A lot of the books we read and ideas we discuss here are universal enough, but our interpretation of them comes from a very specific background.  I want to learn more about these places to determine what I’m missing out on when I lack feedback from them.

So there’s Greenland and Svalbard and North Korea, of course, plus Laos, Papua New Guinea, El Salvador, Haiti, most of the former-Soviet –stans, Iran, Madagascar, Suriname and French Guiana, Lesotho, Mauritania, Congo, Tanzania, Senegal, the Gambia, Liberia, et cetera, et cetera.

I know pretty much nothing about most of these countries. Sure, I could point to them; I could name the capital, maybe, and perhaps recite a detail or two (especially where Haiti or Iran’s concerned). But what makes Gabon different from anywhere else? What is it that I don’t know about Niger that I really would like to know, and what’s so worth finding out that someone from Niger would bother consulting me about it? What made Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan into different nations when the Soviet Union broke up?

So here’s my plan: this will be a year of those grade-school-type geography projects. You know the sort – you get assigned a country and must figure out how many people it has, what religion(s) those people believe in, how they govern themselves or are governed, their folk traditions, their dress, their crops, their livelihoods. What natural features or edifices are worth looking at if you go there. What animals you want to seek out or avoid. Local news, weather, and traffic.

There is a whole lot of world out there, and while it isn’t necessarily possible to travel to all of it…it’s certainly possible to learn more about it!

(…and then, of course, it’s worth learning more about all the places that HAVE visited us. Silly of me to shun all the other places I don’t know about in favor of their more aloof neighbors, I suppose.)

Cool Jep Stories

I think I answered most questions the average viewer might have about Jeopardy and how it operates last week.  But there are still a few odds and ends that seemed worth noting, so this is just to cover anything I missed before.

First off: John and his pink-shirt-Friday friend Adam, as well as Adam’s brother Aaron, did a podcast concerning John’s run on the show.  After watching the January 15 show, we listened to part of it and tracked down the 4 youTube video segments (from 1984) of the first Jeopardy! show hosted by Alex Trebek.  It’s much the same in essentials, but Alex gives so much more detail about how the show works; there’s much more applause from the audience; and unless I’m much mistaken, it was possible for contestants to ring in before the question was over – a “hack” buzz that isn’t possible today.

1984 Alex Trebek

I’ll take “mustaches” for $1000, Alex.

Reading through Ken Jenning‘s second AMA reminds me that oh yeah, Jeopardy doesn’t normally cover travel costs – so if you register and make it to auditions/the show, be reading to pony up for the flight, car rental, and/or hotel stay.  The second- and third-place contestants get $2000 and $1000, respectively, but that doesn’t necessarily cover everything.

Ken also noted that he’d been blackballed from game shows, “like the card-counters who get kicked out of casinos.”  This isn’t the case for everyone, as Jeopardy is probably the biggest stickler where its contestants are concerned.  The registration page reads “You are not eligible to be a contestant on JEOPARDY! if you have appeared on a nationally broadcast game show/dating show/relationship show/reality show in the last year or three game shows/dating shows/relationship shows/reality shows in the last 10 years.”

Another perennial point of interest is the stories that the contestants share right after the show’s first commercial break.  Sometimes they manage to be fascinating, often they come across a little dull or strange, and sometimes they’re just random.

Cool Jep StoriesWell, not without reason.  It’s a bit difficult, we (family and friends) decided, to tell a story of any significance to a nation of strangers when you’ve less than a minute to do so, context and all – and any time taken on storytelling is time taken away from answering questions on the board.  So it’s best to be brief, especially because Alex spends some 5 to 15 seconds introducing the story.  Moreover, you can’t be not-boring without attempting to be unique, or at the very least uncommon; you can’t do that without some people finding you very strange, or a jerk, or a very strange jerk.

We learned from John that contestants give the show 5 topics or fun facts or tidbits (free of any sort of promotion or advertisement), highlighting the one they find most interesting to discuss.  But Alex gets the list, and he’s the one who picks which story goes on the show.  During John’s week of play, a lot of different people ended up discussing how they met their spouses; someone joked during a post-game discussion that Alex should write a book concerning all the meet-cutes he’d heard about.

Since I have no meet-cute of my own, this leaves me wondering: what stories would I tell?  What 30-40 second-story could I share with the country without feeling weird about it?

Anything posted here, I guess, edited accordingly.  Perhaps I’d relate details about my ongoing project of fashioning a liturgical calendar of cocktails, or volunteering as Boswell for every trip I go on, or confess touching the manuscript containing the LeFay Fragment.  Maybe I’d discuss my affinity for parodies.

But maybe I’d just say “Well, my brother got on the show, and it was so much fun I wanted to do it too.”

What story would you share on Jeopardy?