A cussed acrostic

September 4, 2016

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

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Language acquisition and the ‘wild child’ Genie

August 23, 2016

An area of language acquisition that has attracted considerable scholarly (and lay) interest is the so-called critical period hypothesis. This proposes a critical period in childhood during which people need to acquire a language in order to become fully proficient in it.

Abby Kaplan’s new book Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained has a helpful chapter on this, investigating whether the ability to acquire a language falls sharply or gradually after a certain age, whether the progressive difficulty in acquiring a second language is universal or admits exceptions, and so on.

In examining whether early childhood exposure to language is vital for its acquisition, Kaplan writes that one source of evidence is ‘the very sad cases of people who weren’t exposed to a language as children, usually due to extreme abuse or neglect’.

A famous example is Genie, who was found in 1970 aged 13 having spent most of her life until then in isolation.

Genie - Secret of the Wild Child documentary PBS Nova

Image of Genie from the Nova documentary ‘Secret of the Wild Child’

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Language dream files: the speech balloon

July 20, 2016

I had another language-related dream a few nights ago. The last time I remember this happening, my sleeping mind conjured a weird connection between raccoons and the word chiefly.

This time, I dreamt I kicked a rubber ball at a door, my grandmother suddenly opened the door, and the ball got pronged on the pointy tail of a speech balloon near her head. Then we laughed, the way you do out of delight when something physically strange happens.

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James Thurber explains the New Yorker comma

May 17, 2016

James Thurber’s book The Years with Ross (1959), which recounts the early years of the New Yorker under Harold Ross’s stewardship, has much to recommend it. Thurber fans are likely to have read it already but will not object to revisiting a short passage or two, while those yet to be acquainted may be encouraged to seek it out.

james thurber - the years with ross - new yorkerRecalling dinner one spring evening in 1948, Thurber describes being mostly a spectator while Ross and H. L. Mencken hold court:

The long newspaper experience of the two men, certain of their likes and dislikes, and their high and separate talents as editors formed basis enough for an evening of conversation. They were both great talkers and good listeners, and each wore his best evening vehemence, ornamented with confident conclusions, large generalizations, and dark-blue emphases. . . .

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The whole race of unreal people

April 7, 2016

Time is against me these days, but I want to share a few passages of linguistic interest from Lorna Sage’s remarkable memoir Bad Blood. Sage, who was a professor of English and a literary critic, grew up in a village called Hanmer in north Wales. This first excerpt, which considers the local dialect, follows a note on Thomas Hardy:

Hanmer wasn’t on his [Hardy’s] patch, of course, but you could picture the Maelor district as a mini-Wessex, less English, less fertile, lacking a writer to describe it. The local dialect did make a lot of the syllable ‘Ur’ that he singles out in Tess to stand for the ancient burr you can hear in country voices. In Hanmer grammar ‘Ur’ or ‘’Er’ was the all-purpose pronoun used for men, women, children, cattle, tractors. It implied a kind of levelling, as though all were objects, and you could use it for a tree or a stone, too. In my memory it’s always associated with negatives – ‘dunna’, ‘conna’, ‘wunna’. You kick a gate that’s warped half off its hinge: ‘’Er wunna open,’ you say without surprise. Everything had its own sullen, passive power of resistance.

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Photo challenge: Dancer on the door

July 13, 2015

On the Daily Post blog, Cheri Lucas Rowlands has invited WordPress users to share photos of doors as part of a photo challenge. For a break from my usual subjects, I’m joining in with a repost from 2010, just because.

Doors, Cheri writes, can be a source of beauty in the mundane, and in this case I love how an old building with a certain mournful, dilapidated charm was briefly transformed by an anonymous street artist into something quite magical.

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Oliver Sacks on echolalia in Tourette’s syndrome

July 8, 2015

One of the neurological case studies in Oliver Sacks’s remarkable book An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) involves Dr Carl Bennett, a surgeon in British Columbia who has Tourette’s syndrome. Sacks spends a lot of time with Bennett at home, work, and play, to learn more about the condition and how it affects his daily life.

Oliver Sacks - an anthropologist on mars - seven paradoxical tales - book coverPeople with Tourette’s are often depicted stereotypically as beset by elaborate physical twitching and involuntary swearing and the like, but this oversimplifies a very complex condition. In Bennett’s case the Tourette’s never affects his surgery, but outside of such contexts the compulsions of touching and vocalising do present to a striking degree.

Bennett’s Tourette vocalisations are not so much swears and other taboo expressions as ‘juicy’ phrases devoid of real meaning (at least in his use of them), uttered over and over again. To satisfy this urge, Bennett systematically collects odd names. One passage in the book describes how, after a calm bout of morning exercise – half an hour on an exercise bike, smoking a pipe, reading a medical book – Bennett’s echolalia returns in force:

he kept digging at his belly, which was trim, and muttering, ‘Fat, fat, fat . . . fat, fat, fat . . . fat, fat, fat,’ and then, puzzlingly, ‘Fat and a quarter tit.’ (Sometimes the ‘tit’ was left out.)

‘What does it mean?’ I asked.

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