China Miéville’s new conjunction

January 5, 2018

One of my holiday-reading highlights was China Miéville’s dazzling dark-fantasy collection Three Moments of an Explosion (Macmillan, 2015). The story ‘The Bastard Prompt’, about imaginary illnesses materialising in reality, begins in media res and quickly flies off on a lexical tangent:

We’re here to talk to a doctor, Jonas and I. We’re both on the same mission. And, or but, or and and but, we’re on different missions too.

We need a new conjunction, a word that means ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the same time. I’m not saying anything I haven’t said before: this is one of my things, particularly with Tor, which is short for Tori, which she never uses.

This ‘and-but’ word thing of mine isn’t even a joke between us any more. It used to be when I’d say, ‘I mean both of them at once!’, she’d say, ‘Band? Aut?’ In the end we settled on bund, which is how we spell it although she says it with a little ‘t’ at the end, like bundt. Now when either of us says that we don’t even notice, we don’t even grin. It almost just means what it means now.

So Jonas and I are here in Sacramento, on missions that are the same bund different. Although honestly I don’t know that either of us thinks we’re going to figure much out now.

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Linguistic sci-fi in Embassytown

August 29, 2017

The sun still rose, and the shops sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe. —China Miéville, Embassytown

Science fiction offers endless scope for linguistic experimentation, and there’s no lack of creativity at a purely lexical level: new terminology abounds in hard SF, weird fiction, and other speculative genres. But I haven’t read many SF novels where language is a central theme, though I’m sure that says more about my underexploration of the genre than it does about SF itself.

Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 are notable examples. But they are several decades old, and – though I’m probably an exception here – the ideas and storytelling in both books underwhelmed me. So when I read China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011), I felt there was finally a linguistic science-fiction book I could recommend unreservedly, should anyone ask for one.

Embassytown does not admit of simple summary, so I won’t try, but I do want to describe some of its linguistic ideas. There will be spoilers. For proper reviews of the book, read Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian and Sam Thompson in the LRB.

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The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

January 23, 2014

I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.

This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThemself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.

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Gender-neutral ‘henchpersons’

January 2, 2014

Discussions about gender-neutral language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, generic guys, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and –trix, and common terms like chairman/chair(person), spokesman/woman/person, and fireman/firefighter.

Other items crop up less often: one such is henchman. That it’s relatively rare even in the niche of sexism in language is evidenced by its omission from Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, which includes a fairly thorough thesaurus (the Hs include handyman, heiress, heroine, horseman/woman, hostess, housewife/husband, huntress, and husbandman).

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