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.

Commonalities: Louis and Lewis

I discovered a new poet a couple weeks back.  Or, as with vehicles, I ought to say “new to me;” had I been a bit keener back in Lyric Poetry class, I’d have taken note of Louis Macneice before now.  As it is, I read a story using his poem “To Mary” as an epigraph:

Forgive what I give you.  Though nightmare and cinders,
The one can be trodden, the other ridden,
We must use what transport we can.  Both crunching
Path and bucking dream can take me
Where I shall leave the path and dismount
From the mad-eyed beast and keep my appointment
In green improbable fields with you

This dedication of The Burning Perch to his last beloved, Mary Wimbush, is a sort of apology – according to Jonathan Allison, an apology for dedicating to her a book of poems borne of his nightmares.

Whatever he may be apologizing for, whatever their green improbable fields be, I enjoy this lyrical promise: the hope that he will indeed dismount from nightmares, perhaps gaining some new strength from having endured them, and in some wise meet with happier times.

I immediately had to read more of Macneice’s work.  And so I looked at “Bagpipe Music,” which almost sounded familiar, and found “The Sunlight on the Garden,” and some dozen others.

Macneice’s voice is distinct, but certain elements of his work reminded me of the poetry of CS Lewis.  “To Mary” ends on a much more active and optimistic note, but like Lewis’s “Infatuation,” starts a tad suddenly, employs enjambment throughout, uses the same images of night-mares (riding and ridden) and cinders.  “The Sunlight on the Garden” twists with internal rhyme, quietly ruminating like Jack’s “On Being Human.”   Then there’s “I am that I am,” with its touch of melancholy, its thoughtful and academic treatment without getting too obscure or eschewing rhyme: qualities to be found in a number of poets, to be sure, but Lewis is, as ever, lingering at the surface of my mind.

My curiosity piqued, I looked up Macneice himself.  Like Lewis, he was born in Belfast (9 years later); he too lost his mother at a young age, went to boarding school, was educated in the classics, grew to love Norse mythology, had a group of literary friends who discussed their work, gave lectures, worked with the BBC on radio broadcasts, and wrote a number of books before dying in autumn of 1963.

Louis Macneice and CS Lewis

Also, can we talk about how they were pretty easy on the eyes?

Of course, that list makes them seem more similar than was in fact the case; some bias or other must account for it.  The fact that both were thoroughly grounded in Greek and Latin, and perhaps their having lived at roughly the same time, can in all likelihood account for similarities of subject and tone. That air of melancholy they sometimes share was drawn, I imagine, from their reading of Nordic sagas and Irish mythology.

On the other hand, Macneice, unlike Lewis, abandoned his childhood faith and never returned to it.  This sets him on a different trajectory, spiritually speaking, such that he kept company with different authors, focused more of his attention on Ireland and the shadow of war, and spent more time carrying on romantic relationships.  His later work tends more toward the cynical and ironic, expressing the futility of modern life.  So for all their commonalities, and for all the beauty and complexity of Macneice’s work, I figure that Lewis is the one whose work will stick with me.

Reflections on an Anniversary(ish)

2 years ago, Melpomene and I were on gchat, and my sistermuse idly mentioned that she thought she might like to blog, as it would be a forum for continuing to write in a semi-deliberate fashion. It was a very quiet night at my former job, so I set up an account with wordpress, and sent Mel the joint passwords. I chose my name, and hers… with the idea of highlighting our rather opposite natures, but I confess that I was afraid she’d hate the name I gave her. After all, the first time you look “Melpomene” squarely in its Greek face, it is a bit of a shock.

I am so glad that Melpomene leaped aboard and took hold of the tragic muse blithely. I delight in the company of the muses who have joined us since. I hope soon to welcome one more. I wiggle with the satisfaction of a child who performed a ‘sucessful’ puppet show when you, our readers, express delight with the thoughts of these, our not so humble egotists. God grant us all the continuation of this great venture, by nursing our creativity and whetting all ya’ll’s’s appetite for this blog’s peculiar brand of thought provoking hilarity and hijinks.

Now may he also preserve us from run on sentences, and forthwith, with my love, Good Night

By Dawn’s Early Light

A few weeks ago I attended festival in the Midwest known as, “The Highland Games”.

My brother was competing in the bagpipe showdown, and the rest of the family tagged along to ogle the cable tossing and prance with the country dancers.

But the main event was the mass band of pipes, initiated by the playing and singing of every National Anthem of every country ever.

Well, okay, the anthems of Britain, Canada, Scotland, and the good ol’ US of A.

And several things struck me about these songs.

First, the lyrics of both Britain’s and Canada’s anthem are a trifle . . . . insipid.  Each only has about 6 words total, with word order varied slightly. I am sorry to all you British and Canadians, but it is true.

Second, I never realized that “Scotland the Brave” had words! Quite pretty, purposeful, and pugnacious words, at that. Scotland, rock on.

And third, my own national anthem holds more power than I ever realized.

After the Scottish song faded, there was quite a bit of cheering. It was nice.

But when the opening bars of “The Star Spangled Banner” resounded, suddenly every single person in the stadium stood up. Almost as one, we placed our hand on our hearts, and joined in singing.

And I was shocked to find tears running down my face. Attempts to staunch them only led to more weeping.

When the song was finished, the applause was thunderous. It actually drowned out the 60 or so bagpipes.


I might be a mite prejudiced. Were I British or Canadian I might love their anthems as well.

But in my secretest of secret hearts, I doubt it.

“The Star Spangled Banner” is a song that can rally troops, and unite complete strangers. This is a song that somehow captures what it means to be an America. It hold the hope, courage, strength, and sheer stubbornness that have marked the American character from the moment that the Founding Fathers pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to this fledgling country. This song has both narrative drive and spiritual pull.

For a song with not even 200 years of use behind it, (and only half of those as the official “National Anthem”,) it still can call forth the National Identity and Pride.

The American National Anthem was written in during the War of 1812 by a Baltimore Lawyer and mediocre poet, Francis Scot Key. Key had been in negotiation with the British for a prisoner exchange, and when the battle for Fort McHenry began the British would not let him leave their ship. He spent the night on the British command ship, wondering if his own countrymen were surviving the heavy artillery siege.

As day break began to illuminate the horizon, Key peered through the mist and gun smoke to see the American flag still flying high over the fort, torn and stained, but steady. That moment of pride in his country led keys to write a poem, and later set it to music. (The music was actually a popular piece that had begun as the anthem of a drinking society, but was then used as a hymn setting.)

And Key got it right. This is poetry that shares that moment of struggle and triumph with every American.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

On the birthday of this beautiful Country, may God bless and protect us, and give us the courage to continue to pursue and defend Freedom.

Tuesday with Thalia: The End of the World

This is the last post of the Spring Book Meme, and, fittingly, it concerns the end of the world as we know it. For, as my mother is quick to mention, if it really concerned the End of the World, we would have no need or desire for books!

What, we ask ourselves, is the book we would want with us if the civilization collapsed around us?

I have given thought to this matter for many years, not just in preparation for today’s blog. I harbor a feeling that I must prepare myself, not just for the Last Day, but for the remainder of these weary last days. I never go anywhere without planning a route back to my family in case of sudden disaster. For example, I went to Meadowmount, the violinist’s practice….gulag… in the Adirondacks. I figured if the world ended, I would take my violin, my bedding and Mr. Galamian’s gun and find a boat from Lake Champlain, through the waterways of the Great Lakes, down to Green Bay, over on the Fox river, carry my boat to the Wisconsin river in Portage, and arrive at my family’s house within a few weeks. I was almost disappointed that the world continued lurching through eternity.

So this post answers a question that I have actually considered a great deal. The book I would guard, cherish and preserve against the ravages of time is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In the introductory book, Thucydides himself sums up his own purpose in writing this history.

“The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. (My italics. I seem not to trust your readership today. It’s a fluke. )

Though this does sum up the major reasons I want to preserve Thucydides, I should also mention that the writing is lovely. Even in translation, Thucydides’s writing is beautiful. He recounts the tragedies and follies of his times as honestly as he could, in the hope of saving us and our children trouble. Don’t lose his wisdom.


PS. All this chat about the end of the world is making me le tired. I’ll just take a nap before I fire ze missiles, shall I?

Book Meme: Real Life Love

A real man.

It is not often that you encounter a real life Hero.

I mean, there are the heros who will always touch your life; Parents, or the dog that saved its owner that you read about in the Readers Digest.

But you can’t rationally have a crush on a dog, and though I love my parent madly, I am very glad that they are married to each other.

And so there is something wonderfully special when you read a book, fall in love with a character, then realize that he is real. He is one hundred percent flesh and blood.

My first crush was real.

He was a soldier.

He was honorable

He was brave

He was kind

He was wise

He could make me laugh

He could make my heart melt

And he never even did anything romantic!

But when he stood up in front of the men he lead, and through the author’s words I could see that they would trust their lives to him, I knew that I could too.

And I knew that someday I would marry a man like him. Because he actually existed; there are men like that in this world.

His name is Maj. Richard Winter, and he died on January 2, 2011 at the age of 93. He led Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division through Normandy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, and the Purple Heart. He created military tactics that are still studied in military academies today.

The book, Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose, tells his story, and those of others who fought in Easy Company, some good, some bad. But they are real, it actually happened, and this is something that I might someday actually be able to find.

So I suppose this would not accurately be called a first crush, (or if it is I am a little obsessed) but it is my first encounter with manhood, and I am deeply, everlastingly in love.

Damien Lewis as Winters in the mini-series Band of Brothers.

Of SS. Crispin and Crispian

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

Today is the feast day commemorating the life and the martyr’s death of the twin saints Crispin and Crispinian (also called Crispianus or Crispian).  Their lives are so shrouded in legend that the feast day was removed from the liturgical calendar, as their story may have been cobbled (ho ho!) together from several sources.  Nevertheless, Crispin and Crispian are remembered as the patron saints of cobblers and all other workers in leather and lace.  The legends have it that they were Roman brothers of distinguished blood, who fled Rome’s persecutions and went as missionaries to Gaul; they settled in northern France, near the Aisne River in the region of Soissons.  There they made shoes to support themselves and the poor, preaching when away from the cordwainer’s bench.

Then, according to New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia:

            …during the Diocletian persecution they were brought before Maximianus Herculius whom Diocletian had appointed co-emperor. At first Maximianus sought to turn them from their faith by alternate promises and threats. But they replied: “Thy threats do not terrify us, for Christ is our life, and death is our gain. Thy rank and possessions are nought to us, for we have long before this sacrificed the like for the sake of Christ and rejoice in what we have done. If thou shouldst acknowledge and love Christ thou wouldst give not only all the treasures of this life, but even the glory of thy crown itself in order through the exercise of compassion to win eternal life.” When Maximianus saw that his efforts were of no avail, he gave Crispin and Crispinian into the hands of the governor Rictiovarus, a most cruel persecutor of the Christians.  Under the order of Rictiovarus they were stretched on the rack, thongs were cut from their flesh, and awls were driven under their finger-nails. A millstone was then fastened about the neck of each, and they were thrown into the Aisne, but they were able to swim to the opposite bank of the river. In the same manner they suffered no harm from a great fire in which Rictiovarus, in despair, sought death himself. Afterwards the two saints were beheaded at the command of Maximianus.

Another legend from the Honourable Cordwainers’ Company holds that

Millstones were hung about their necks and they were thrown into the river Aisne. But both had the makings of sainthood in them even then and they refused to drown. At this point they were thrown into a cauldron of boiling lead, then a cauldron of pitch, then fat and oil but, they emerged unscathed. Legend suggests that they frolicked and sang until delivered by an angel. They were beheaded on November 8th, 288 A.D. on a plain near Soissons…

(This reminds me of nothing so much as the somewhat out-of-fashion story of The Five Chinese Brothers.)

But though Crispin and Crispian set such an example of how to live and how to die, their feast is more commonly remembered for the battles fought upon it: the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944; the Battle of Balaklava  in 1854 (in which occurred the famous Charge of the Light Brigade); and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

This last (or first, chronologically speaking) was rendered most triumphantly by Shakespeare in Henry V, wherein King Henry rallies his much-outnumbered army.  A year before that battle, English mercenary soldiers hired by the Duke of Burgundy had been executed on the spot by French forces loyal to Charles VI, despite the mercenaries’ attempt to take refuge in Soisson’s cathedral, which was dedicated to Saints Crispin and Crispinian.  Henry’s speech, then, rechristens the day as one of English victory rather than English defeat, and the clouds of English arrows vindicate him.

The day would not be complete without beholding Kenneth Branagh’s powerful enunciation of that speech.  Ecce!