Transcending mutual unintelligibility

March 25, 2018

A scene in Ali Smith’s wonderful novel How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) depicts a curious but common experience: people with no shared language having a conversation. Given enough time and repeated encounters, such parties may, of necessity, create a pidgin. But for one-off exchanges it’s a different story.

Like the comic Saga, whose use of untranslated Esperanto I wrote about recently, How to Be Both switches to Italian and lets the reader fend for themself. But even if, like the story’s main characters, you don’t know the language, some words and names will be familiar or guessable.

The protagonist, George, a teenage girl, is visiting a gallery in northern Italy with her young brother, Henry, and their mother:

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Dread of the telephone

February 6, 2016

Bruce Sterling’s entertaining 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier contains a brief, lively history of telegraphy and telephony. (Since reading the paperback I’ve learned that the book is also available online and in podcast form.)

In the mid-1870s the US had thousands of telegraph offices and hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph wire: as communication technology it was thoroughly established. The telephone began inauspiciously, often considered more toy or parlour trick than momentous innovation. It took a little while for its particular value to become apparent. Sterling:

After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech – individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation, and interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.

When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine – you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device swiftly vanished. . . . The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do through the machine.

I’m old enough to remember the world before mobile phones and the internet, let alone smartphones, back when house phones were central to real-time remote communication. Technology has again let us change our preferred modes of remote interaction, and the use of phones as a channel for speech has declined precipitously.

For some people, wariness and even dread of phone calls are creeping back.

[click to enlarge]

Candorville comic by Darrin Bell - never answers the phone

Candorville comic, 13 May 2012

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A fine distinction from Philip K. Dick

July 16, 2015

Philip K. Dick’s pleasurably paranoid science-fiction novel Time Out of Joint (1959) has a passage that shows the ingenuity of children in using language to manipulate perceived reality (something Dick himself did with brio in his writing). Sammy, a boy working on a makeshift radio, needs to get its crude antenna somewhere high:

Returning to the house he climbed the stairs to the top floor. One window opened on to the flat part of the roof; he unlatched that window and in a moment he was scrambling out onto the roof.

From downstairs his mother called, ‘Sammy, you’re not going out on the roof, are you?’

‘No,’ he yelled back. I am out, he told himself, making in his mind a fine distinction.

I imagine most kids, once their command of language is sufficiently sophisticated, play similar semantic games for short-term gain or amusement. The same kind of hyper-literalness is the basis for a lot of childhood humour (e.g., ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes.’). I like PKD’s understated use of it which puts us in Sammy’s head for a moment.


Chimpanzee pant-hooting, termiting, and gesture

June 28, 2015

Here are a few items of linguistic interest from In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall’s account of her pioneering study of chimpanzee behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s. I featured In the Shadow of Man in a bookmash a couple of years ago, but that was before I had read it.

Jane van Lawick Goodall - in the shadow of man - book coverTo describe chimpanzees’ practice of fishing for termites (with a twig, vine, grass stem, straw, or finger), Goodall uses various conventional phrases, such as fishing for termites and termite-fishing, which seems the default. But she also verbs termite itself, just as we’ve long done with fish:

As the termite season wore on there could be no doubt that Flo’s older offspring were kidnaping Flint with the deliberate intent of getting their mother to stop, at least for the time being, her endless termiting. […]

Fifi, on the other hand, was a keen termite fisher, and when Flint, wanting to play with his sister, jumped onto her and scattered the insects from her grass stem, she was obviously irritated. Over and over she pushed him away roughly. Fifi still played with Flint frequently herself when she was not termiting . . .

Termites taste a little like cashew nuts, apparently:

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“Nope” intensifies, diversifies grammatically

December 22, 2014

Remember the transformation of fail and win 5–6 years ago? Fleeting online slang phrases like bucket of fail and made of win may sound dated now, but terms like epic fail/win and FTW (“for the win”) and the words’ use as tags and hashtags remain popular. Fail and win have firmly, if informally, extended their grammatical domains, having been converted from verb to noun, interjection, and other categories.

A word undergoing comparable change is nope. Its metamorphosis over the last few years has in some ways been more impressive, but it seems less remarked on than fail and win – maybe because of its more limited distribution. For instance, this cartoon on Imgur (pronunciation note here), which shows Spider-Man shooting spiders from his hands, drew comments that use nope as a verb, adjective, and noun – mass and count – as well as duplicating, lengthening, and adverbifying it.

Some of the comments are listed below. A couple have swear words, so you might prefer to skip ahead if you’re likely to be offended by those:

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Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.


Communicating with the distant future

September 11, 2014

It’s sobering to imagine modern English as an archaic dialect – how the language might evolve and how our version(s) of it might appear from a position many generations into the future. That English will change radically in a few centuries or a thousand years is beyond doubt: read a few lines of Old or Middle English and you’ll get an idea of how much.

This presents a problem when communication with people in the far future is an absolute must. Whatever about literature becoming ever more impenetrable, how do we warn future humans about dangerous contaminants that we’ve buried for safekeeping? It’s not enough to isolate these materials now; they may need to be kept isolated for a very long time.

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