Secrets and private languages

July 28, 2020

Deborah Tannen’s book You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Virago Press, 2006) has no shortage of passages worth quoting. Here are two.

The title’s foregrounding of clothes, by the way, is indicative but potentially misleading: clothing is but one of many topics whose metamessages Tannen analyses.

A chapter on inclusion and exclusion in female relationships notes the early emergence of this preoccupation:

Much of the talk that little girls exchange with their friends is telling secrets. Knowing each other’s secrets is what makes them best friends. The content of the secret is less significant than the fact that it is shared: Exchanging secrets is a way to negotiate alliances. A girl can’t tell secrets in front of girls who aren’t friends, because only friends should hear her secrets. So when girls don’t like another girl, they stop talking to her, freeze her out of the group. That’s why when a little girl gets angry at a playmate, she often lashes out, “You can’t come to my birthday party.” This is a dreadful threat, because the rejected girl is left isolated. In contrast, boys typically allow boys they don’t like, or boys with low status, to play with them, though they treat them badly. So boys and men don’t tend to share (or understand) girls’ and women’s sensitivity to any sign of being excluded. (They tend to develop a different sensitivity: to any sign of being put down or pushed around.)

Read the rest of this entry »


Book review: Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, by Robin A. Crawford

July 21, 2020

My limited knowledge of Scots and Scottish English when I was young was based on caricatures in comics, particularly ‘Hot-Shot Hamish’. It was not until later that visits to Scotland, friendships with Scottish people, and books by the likes of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh gave me a proper flavour of the richness of Scots vocabulary and grammar.

Scots is a language with Germanic roots and a complicated political history. Linguistically it has been described as a continuum spanning Broad Scots and Standard Scottish English, with considerable variety in between. A common misconception is dispatched on the Spellin an Grammar page of Scots Wikipedia: ‘Scots isna juist Inglis written wi orra wirds an spellins. It haes its ain grammar an aw.’

It is wirds that are showcased in Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, a new book by Robin A. Crawford, whose publisher, Elliott & Thompson, sent me a copy. The book is a marvellous compendium of a thousand Scottish words, from a’ (aa, aw) ‘all’ to yowe trummle ‘unseasonably cold weather in early summer’ – cold enough to make a yowe (ewe) trummle (tremble).

Read the rest of this entry »


Consumed by Lydia Davis’s short stories

May 11, 2020

An early highlight of my reading year has been Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories. Many of her stories put a slight and strange and startling twist on consensus reality (or a fresh insight that amounts to the same), sometimes combined with a self-conscious linguistic flourish:

Book titled "The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" with text in white all caps on a bright orange background, with a double border of two thin white lines. Smaller text at the bottom reads: "Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2013". In the bottom right corner is the Penguin publisher's logo.I am reading a sentence by a certain poet as I eat my carrot. Then, although I know I have read it, although I know my eyes have passed along it and I have heard the words in my ears, I am sure I haven’t really read it. I may mean understood it. But I may mean consumed it: I haven’t consumed it because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line, too.

This synaesthesia-adjacent report is one of fifteen self-contained entries in a story titled ‘Examples of Confusion’.

Read the rest of this entry »


Cúirt book festival goes online

May 1, 2020

Every April the Cúirt literary festival kicks off the festival season in Galway, Ireland, where I live. This year, its 35th, events in their original format were cancelled because of the pandemic, but festival director Sasha de Buyl and team put together a terrific mini-festival entirely online.

I just caught up on the talks I didn’t see or hear live last weekend – live online, I mean – and you can do the same if you haven’t already. Nine are freely available to view on Cúirt’s YouTube channel, and two audio-only events can be listened to on Soundcloud.

It’s a feast of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each talk is about an hour long and has one, two, or three authors speaking about literature, language, writing, and life, including short readings from their new work. If you’re not sure where to start, try Kevin Barry and Jan Carson talking with Peggy Hughes:

Read the rest of this entry »


The impassable barrier of language

April 10, 2020

Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline has a passage on the challenges (and opportunities) of using a second language. The narrator is giving a writing workshop in Athens and meets a woman who describes her experiences outside of English:

Book cover has a thick white border with the title in black all-caps at the top and the author's name at the bottom. Between them is a large photo of a conch shell stuck in a sandy beach, pointy bit down and its open side facing the viewer. The sand is pale brown, and the sea is light blue and blurry in the background. The shell is cream-coloured with brown bands and a deep pink interior.She wasn’t quite sure how the language barrier was going to work: it was a funny idea, writing in a language not your own. It almost makes you feel guilty, she said, the way people feel forced to use English, how much of themselves must get left behind in that transition, like people being told to leave their homes and take only a few essential items with them. Yet there was also a purity to that image that attracted her, filled as it was with possibilities for self-reinvention. To be freed from clutter, both mental and verbal, was in some ways an appealing prospect; until you remembered something you needed that you had had to leave behind. She, for instance, found herself unable to make jokes when she spoke in another language: in English she was by and large a humorous person, but in Spanish for instance – which at one time she had spoken quite well – she was not. So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation. The personality was forced to adapt to its new linguistic circumstances, to create itself anew: it was an interesting thought. There was a poem, she said, by Beckett that he had written twice, once in French and once in English, as if to prove that his bilinguality made him two people and that the barrier of language was, ultimately,  impassable.

Read the rest of this entry »


Book spine poem: All the Pieces Matter

April 1, 2020

If you’re lucky enough to have books and time at hand, here’s something fun you can do in lockdown: book spine poetry.

*

All the Pieces Matter

I choose to live
a life in parts –
insects’ flight
from dream to dream,
through the woods
beyond the sea.
I only say this
because I love you:
All the pieces
matter.

*

Against a white background stands a stack of books, their spines facing the viewer and creating a found poem as quoted in the post.

Read the rest of this entry »


Literal decimation

March 20, 2020

Talk to any committed language peever,* and sooner or later you’ll hear about decimate: that it properly means ‘kill one in ten’ and should not be used to mean ‘destroy a large proportion of’ or ‘inflict great harm or damage on’. This is because decimate originally referred to a practice in the Roman army of executing one in ten men in mutinous groups.

It’s the etymological fallacy: the belief that a word’s older or original meaning is the only correct one or is automatically more correct than newer, conventionally accepted ones. Words that repeatedly elicit the fallacy include aggravate, alternative, dilemma, fulsome, refute, and transpire. It’s often a vehicle for pedantic or snobbish triumphalism: I acquired this knowledge, and you didn’t, so I must display it.

Decimate is infamous in editorial circles for this reason. My rule, featured in the A–Z of English usage myths, is that if you say decimate can only mean ‘kill one in ten’, you must also call October ‘December’. (See also: quarantine for any period other than 40 days, etc.) For authoritative discussion, browse the usage notes in a few good dictionaries, starting with AHD.

Read the rest of this entry »