How to accept language change, with David Cronenberg

June 24, 2022

Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*

This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:

“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”

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Unlikely syntax will lead to clarity

June 1, 2022

This Reuters story about monkeypox, published on 30 May 2022, has an unfortunate ambiguity in its headline:

Beneath the Reuters logo is the headline, in black on white: 'Unlikely monkeypox outbreak will lead to pandemic, WHO says'

The same headline appeared on sites syndicating the report, like Yahoo! News and Nasdaq, and with trivial differences at the US’s ABC News, India’s Business Standard, Singapore’s Straits Times, and others.

The problem is the main clause:

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One did not talk nonsense to horses: Notes on Molly Keane by her daughter Sally Phipps

May 27, 2022

When the Irish author Molly Keane (1904–1996) suggested to her daughter Sally Phipps that she write Keane’s biography, she told her: ‘I trust you completely; the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’

Book cover shows a black and white portrait photo of Molly Keane as a young woman, with title ('Molly Keane: A Life') and author's name, Sally Phipps, below it, along with a blurb from Diana Athill: 'Marvellous'.The result of that proposal, Molly Keane: A Life (Virago, 2017), is an excellent account I can recommend to anyone who enjoys Keane’s work. It contains several passages and items of linguistic note, which – this being a blog about language – may be of passing interest also to those who have not read her.

Keane wrote her first dozen or so novels as ‘M. J. Farrell’. The name came to her fortuitously:

When returning from hunting one evening she saw the name M. J. Farrell over a pub doorway and she took it as a pseudonym. Secrecy was important to her as she thought no one would dance with her in the horsey society in which she moved if it was known she was a writer.

The seriousness of ‘horsey society’ extended to the horses themselves:

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Wordable awareness

April 7, 2022

I came across an interesting word in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (Picador, 2007). It appears in the middle of a conversation between an estranged couple, here discussing their son:

‘We talked about it,’ Keith said. ‘But only once.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Not much. And neither did I.’
‘They’re searching the skies.’
‘That’s right,’ he said.
She knew there was something she’d wanted to say all along and it finally seeped into wordable awareness.
‘Has he said anything about this man Bill Lawton?
‘Just once. He wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.’
‘Their mother mentioned this name. I keep forgetting to tell you. First I forget the name. I forget the easy names. Then, when I remember, you’re never around to tell.’

Seeped into wordable awareness is a lovely phrase, and wordable is a curiously rare word, given its straightforward morphology and transparent meaning. It has virtually no presence in large language corpora:

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We ourself can use this pronoun

March 25, 2022

On a recent rewatch of the 1979 film The Warriors, I noticed an unusual pronoun spoken by Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright:*

Still image from The Warriors. Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright, is shown in close-up wearing a head-dress, saying, 'I think we'd better go have a look for ourself.' It's night time, and the background shows pale blurry lights.

Ourself, once in regular use, is now scarce outside of certain dialects, and many (maybe most) people would question its validity. I’ve seen it followed by a cautious editorial [sic] even in linguistic contexts. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), describing it as the reflexive form of singular we – ‘an honorific pronoun used by monarchs, popes, and the like’ – says it is ‘hardly current’ in present-day English.

But that’s not the whole story, and it belies the word’s surprising versatility and stubborn survival outside of mainstream Englishes, which this post will outline. There are graphs and data further down, but let’s start with usage.

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David Cronenberg on inventing a language

January 29, 2022

People invent languages for different reasons. It’s always a creative act, but artistic expression is not always the main motive, as it was for Tolkien. It may be a political undertaking, as with Esperanto. It can be a pastime, a linguistic or an intellectual exercise, or a job, which is how Klingon came to be. And it can be a mixture of these and other things.

Filmmaker David Cronenberg came close to ticking a few of these boxes early in his career. On a recent re-read of Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley (Faber & Faber, 1992), I came across this brief discussion of Cronenberg’s linguistic aims for his first film, the avant-garde Stereo (1969):

Cover of 'Cronenberg on Cronenberg', Faber & Faber paperback edition. It features a photo of Cronenberg on the set of Naked Lunch, sitting facing the camera with his hands resting on a large tentacled prop. Similar items hang behind him, strapped and chained. He is facing the camera and wears round glasses and a black sweater.I wanted to create a novel mode of interrelation. There is no speech [in the film], but we know there is a kind of speech in gesture. Every community has a whole unspoken dictionary, and I wanted to invent one of my own. I had seriously thought of having the people in the film speak a tongue I had invented, but it’s very tricky to avoid making it ridiculous. I tried to get the alienness of culture involved in the film in subtle ways. One of them was to have that balletic sense of movement.

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Book review: The Rise of English, by Rosemary Salomone

December 13, 2021

For much of the previous millennium, a pidgin language was used around the Mediterranean for trading, diplomatic, and military purposes. Based originally on Italian and Occitano-Romance languages, it had indirect ties to the Germanic Franks and thus gained the term lingua franca.

Nowadays that phrase tends to be applied to Latin or English. Latin’s time as the default international language of learning ended long ago; English’s status as a lingua franca is still broader but very much in flux – and politically fraught, simultaneously uniting and dividing the world.

Tackling this topic is a new book, The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language, by Rosemary Salomone, a linguist and law professor in New York. Her impressive book (sent to me by OUP for review) does much to clarify the forces behind English’s position as a lingua franca and what the future might hold.

Having a lingua franca brings great benefits for travel, business, politics, and research: witness the speed at which Covid-19 vaccines were developed through international scientific collaboration. But English’s primacy rests on centuries of violence and exploitation. The power dynamics have shifted but remain unbalanced and entangled with complex threads of post-colonial identity.

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