Book review: Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self, by Julie Sedivy

September 7, 2021

It’s a truism that language is integral to identity. So when our relationship with it changes, complications quickly accrue: Do we become someone different in another tongue? Is that all down to culture and context, or is there something inherent in a language that affects who we feel ourselves to be? And what happens when we start our lives speaking one language but then switch to another?

These are among the questions explored, with heart and rigour, in Julie Sedivy’s new book, Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (available October 2021 from Harvard University Press, who sent me a copy). Sedivy was born in the former Czechoslovakia and spoke only Czech until the age of two. At that point her family left the country, then the continent, and her linguistic environment was transformed.

Book cover has a colourful design on a black background, with the author's name and book subtitle in white script around the perimeter. Near the top, the word 'memory' appears in all caps, each letter a different colour: green, orange, blue, red, light green, yellow. A thick, squiggly, coloured line drops from each letter into a broad tangle in the centre, before disaggregating into the word 'speaks' (again, all caps, different colours) at the bottom.As a child in Canada, Sedivy was suddenly surrounded by English, heard it animate her new friends and role models, and felt compelled to adopt it. English ‘elbowed its predecessors aside’ and became the family language: ‘What could my parents do? They were outnumbered. Czech began its slow retreat from our daily life’. The consequences were not yet apparent to her; ‘the price of assimilation was invisible’.

Years later, after losing her father, Sedivy came to realize ‘how much I also mourned the silencing of Czech in my life’. Her Czech heritage had come to feel like a ‘vestigial organ’. She had lost access to the ‘stories and songs that articulate the values and norms you’ve absorbed without knowing they live in your cells’. She wrote Memory Speaks as part of an effort to ameliorate and understand that loss, exploring

why a language can wither in a person’s mind once it has taken root, what this decline looks like, and how the waning of language can take on a magnitude that spreads beyond personal pain to collective crisis.

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The strange absence of ‘ambiguate’

August 22, 2021

If I asked you to name or invent a word that means ‘make ambiguous’, what would it be – ambiguify? ambiguate? I’ve felt an occasional need for such a term, to say that a word or piece of syntax ambiguates the meaning in text or speech.

I mean, sure, I can say ‘makes the sense ambiguous’. But there’s no reason not to have a one-word verb. After all, we have its antonym, disambiguate: to make something unambiguous. More on that later.

Take this use of since: Since I’ve been injured, I haven’t gone running. Does it mean ‘because’ or ‘since the time that’? Is its meaning causal or temporal? Without further information, there’s no way to be sure. The choice of conjunction ambiguates the sense.

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Book spine poem: Touching the Precipice

August 9, 2021

For the day that’s in it, a new book spine poem. Bit gloomy, this one.

*

Touching the Precipice

Zero, zero, zero wild flowers,
The insect societies
Collapse on your doorstep –
Mind and nature
Touching the precipice.

*

A stack of books before a white background, with the spines of the books facing out and forming a colourful visual poem.

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Four types of language prescriptivism

July 25, 2021

Prescriptivism is an approach to language centred on how it should be used. It contrasts with descriptivism, which is about describing how language is used. Prescriptivism has a bad reputation among linguists and the descriptively minded. I’m in the latter group, but I routinely apply prescriptive rules in my work as a copy-editor. It’s a more nuanced picture than is generally supposed.

I’m selective about the rules I enforce, dismissing the myths that bedevil English usage. I may apply a rule one day and not the next, adjusting to house style or other factors. I also edit texts to make them more inclusive – less ableist and more gender-neutral, for example. That too is prescriptivism, though it’s not usually categorized as such.

When people use language, they’re often influenced or guided by prescriptive advice, instruction, traditions, and norms. That influence, no matter how overt, conscious, or otherwise, must be part of how we describe language and its history. So in some ways descriptivism encompasses prescriptivism, or at least it should.

Book cover is plain in style, pale blue with a red title ('Fixing English') in all caps, then the subtitle in black title case ('Prescriptivism and Language History') and the author's name in black all caps. The word 'Prescriptivism', significantly, has a wavy line under it, as though marked as an error by a word processor.The complexity and apparent conflicts here derive in large part from the tendency to lump prescriptivism into a single category. I do this myself sometimes, for convenience. But by oversimplifying the nature and aims of prescriptivism, we invite confusion, category errors, and semantic muddles.

So how might we bring this fuzzy picture into better focus? One attractive option is proposed by linguist Anne Curzan in her book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which seeks to clarify the heterogeneous nature of prescriptivism and to give it its historical due:

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Words in your personal dictionary

June 30, 2021

A recent highlight of my reading life – which unlike my blogging life has not been overly affected by the pandemic ­– is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann, 2020). It’s a novel that does several things at once, weaving them successfully into a satisfying whole. It’s a story about love: love of people, of life, of words; it’s a mystery that straddles two eras; and it’s a fun, thoughtful exploration of lexicology.

Paperback book cover. The book is white at the top, sky-blue at the bottom, with the two colours divided through the middle with an uneven, curving line, like a torn page. Below the book title is a bird photographed in flight with mouth wide open, its throat red, breast yellow, and head and wing grey. Under the 'tear', the bird's body is in illustrated black and white. The top-half text is in dark purple, the bottom-half text in gold. As well as the title and author's name, there is also: 'Author of Attrib.' and a few short blurbs. Observer: 'A playful delight ... A glorious novel'. Spectator: 'Joyous'. Sunday Times: 'Remarkable'.

Design by Suzanne Dean

Most notably for my purposes here, the book is a word lover’s delight. Williams, who studied mountweazels as part of her PhD, has a deep interest in the nature and business not only of words – their emergence, development, and complex interaction with our minds and expressive apparatus – but also of word collection and definition: the creation and maintenance of dictionaries, and the semantic murk waded through routinely by lexicographers (and occasionally, less systematically, by the rest of us).

In The Liar’s Dictionary, the paraphernalia of writing might be overlaid on anything at all, to sometimes striking effect:

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Brits doing Baltimore accents in The Wire

June 9, 2021

Lately I watched The Wire for the first time since it screened in 2002–08. It holds up really well, thanks to its wealth of characters, superb writing, and enduring political relevance. Afterwards, I read Jonathan Abrams’s acclaimed All the Pieces Matter (No Exit Press, 2018), an oral history composed of carefully interwoven interviews with the show’s cast, crew, and creators.

Book cover shows three characters from The Wire: McNulty and Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) are in a car, Greggs looking ahead and Mcnulty looking out his half-open window, his left hand on the steering wheel. Reflected in his window is Stringer Bell. Behind the car, blurred, is a Baltimore street and overcast sky. Below them all are the book title and author name in white and blue sans-serif caps.The Wire is set in Baltimore and is suffused with Baltimore culture, including its language. Two principal characters, Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty, are played by British actors, Idris Elba and Dominic West, who had to adjust their accents to be authentic in their roles. This led to some difficulty, as Abrams’s book reveals.

Co-creator Ed Burns said that West spent a lot of time going over the accent with David Simon: ‘“Now, say it like po-lice.” “Police.” “No, po-lice.”’ Others helped out as well. Peter Gerety, a veteran of stage and screen who played Judge Daniel Phelan, said West asked him for guidance:

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Link love: language (76)

May 13, 2021

A selection of language-themed links for your listening, viewing, and (mostly) reading pleasure.

 

How to say chorizo.

History of the asterisk.

Emoji time 🕙 is meaningless.

Bookselling in the End Times.

Neopronouns: a beginner’s guide.

New Covid-inspired German words.

The linguistic construction of terrorists.

Boyo-wulf: Beowulf translated into Cork slang.

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