Book spine poem #39: Language, Language!

December 18, 2016

My latest piece of doggerel in book-spine form has an obvious theme.

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Language, Language!

Language, language!
The story of language.
Language, slanguage
Spoken here: a history of
Language, a history of
Writing: style, style,
Style in fiction,
Linguistics and style,
Language and linguistics.
What is linguistics?
Understanding language.

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[click to enlarge]

stan-carey-book-spine-poem-language-language

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Book spine poem: Broken words

August 18, 2015

New books mean a new book spine poem, aka bookmash. This one has a language theme.

[Click to enlarge]

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stan carey - book spine poem - broken words spoken here

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English 3.0, a short film about digital language use

November 16, 2014

English 3.0’ is a 20-minute video (embedded below) from documentary filmmaker Joe Gilbert about the effects of digital culture on language use and change, particularly English. The introductory voice-over asks:

Will abbreviations, crudely spelled words and a lack of consideration for grammar become the norm, or are these anxieties simply great plumes of hot air manifesting out of fear – fear of the new?

This question is addressed from various angles by a series of talking heads whose comments are for the most part informed and level-headed: in order of appearance, David Crystal, Fiona McPherson, Robert McCrum,* Tom Chatfield, and Simon Horobin.

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English 3.0 by Joe Gilbert, a short documentary film about digital language use

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Crystal, for example, reports on children’s use of abbreviations in text messages, which he analyses when visiting schools. Back in 2004 the abbreviation count was only about 10% on average; on a recent visit there were none at all. The students tell him they “used to do that” but it’s not cool anymore; one child, tellingly, stopped when his parents started.

Chatfield (whose excellent book Netymology I reviewed here) talks lucidly about various conventions in informal digital communication, characterising them as innovations which, like any technology, can be used skilfully or not. He believes talking about a decline in English “lets us off the hook, because it stops us from asking what it means to use new opportunities well or badly”:

We really need to be a little bit more sophisticated about this, and partly recognise that what people are doing is bending screen-based language to be more expressive rather than less. When you don’t have a human face there in person to convey emotional text and subtext, you tend to go above and beyond conventional standard English, conventional good grammar, in order to get your meaning across. You draw smiley or sad human faces out of punctuation; you use lots of exclamation marks; you use irony marks and asides; on Twitter you use hashtags. Now this isn’t for me bad grammar so much as good innovation when it’s done well.

The video could have done with more female voices – one woman out of five participants is not a very good balance – and subtitles would be a welcome addition especially for non-native-English speakers.

But compared with the last video about language that I featured on Sentence first, Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’, ‘English 3.0’ is a dose of fresh air, common sense, insight, and tolerance, and is well worth 20 minutes of your time.

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* Not McCrumb, as the video caption has it. This is why we need proofreaders.


Bone-houses in the Story of English

November 17, 2011

In the preface to his new book, The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal writes that the usual approach to telling the story of English is to offer a broad view that identifies general themes and trends (as in the same author’s Evolving English), while another method is to pick particular words and phrases and detail their idiosyncratic origins and characteristics.

The first approach, Crystal says, gives readers “a clear view of the wood” but “very few of the trees”; the second does the opposite. His aim in The Story of English in 100 Words is to unite these perspectives, so he chooses 100 words and uses them as a base from which to explore how the language emerged and developed over the last millennium and a half.

The list may appear random at first glance, but each word represents something of broader significance — a whole class of words or mode of change, for example, or a certain social or cultural idea — which allows Crystal to move from the specific to the general and thereby describe the history and character of the language in neatly self-contained 2- and 3-page nuggets.

It’s quite a short book, but I’ve had others on the go so I’ve only dipped into it so far. What I have read has been very entertaining and informative. While the book is aimed at general readers, it is likely to contain surprises even for those very familiar with the terrain: Crystal says he himself learnt something new while researching every chapter.

I learnt several new things while reading the chapter on bone-house, a “word painting” from the 10th century. Crystal says it was used by the Anglo-Saxons, who spelt it ban-hus (pronounced “bahn-hoos”). It referred not to an ossuary or building for the dead, but to a living human body. (The Danse Macabre of the Middle Ages shows a similar frankness about our common anatomy and mortality.)

Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

The picture created by bone-house or ban-hus, Crystal writes, was evidently an appealing one,

for the poets coined several words for the same idea. They also describe the body as a ‘bone-hall’ (bansele, pronounced ‘bahn-selluh’), a ‘bone-vessel’ (ban-fæt, ‘bahn-fat’), a ‘bone-dwelling’ (ban-cofa, ‘bahn-cohvuh’) and a ‘bone-enclosure’ (ban-loca, ‘bahn-lockuh’). The human mind, or spirit, was a ban-huses weard — ‘guardian, or ward, of the bone-house’.

Such vivid figures of speech appear throughout the poetry of the age — Beowulf is full of them — not just in English but in the early verse of other Germanic languages. Crystal continues:

These coinages are called kennings, a word adapted from the Old Icelandic language. Kenning is from the verb kenna, ‘to know’, and it captures the idea that these coinages have a meaning that is more insightful than can be expressed by a single word. Ken is still used as a verb in Scots English and in some northern dialects of England. And we still hear it as a noun in the phrase beyond our ken. . . .

Kennings don’t seem to have been much used outside of poetry, and they fell out of use after the Anglo-Saxon period. But the same poetic impulse lies behind many compound words. We hear it still when a scientist is described as an egghead, or a criminal as a lawbreaker or a boxer as a prize-fighter. But we don’t seem to take the same joy in creating vivid alternative descriptions as the Anglo-Saxons did.

This bone-house regrets that.

All 100 words are listed in the Telegraph at the end of a fascinating introduction to the book by Crystal himself, in which he writes that “words are more than just linguistic objects. They are windows into the world of those who use them.” In which case you can think of this book as a time machine with 100 portals.

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Disclosure: I received an advance copy of The Story of English in 100 Words from Profile Books — not to review, but because I helped them source a particular image of Belinda Blurb. (You’ll find me listed in the illustration credits at the back.)

I almost forgot: On Google+ I posted a very brief excerpt of Crystal’s amusing first encounter with singular y’all, for all you all y’all who might be interested.

Edit: John E. McIntyre writes: “I knew I’d heard people use y’all as a singular, had even been addressed as such myself. But no, everyone said, y’all is always a plural, and it’s only damnyankees who get it wrong.” Lots more on this at Language Log.

[image source]

Book review: ‘Evolving English’ by David Crystal

September 20, 2011

Earlier this year, ELT Journal kindly sent me a copy of Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, a new book by the eminent linguist and author David Crystal.

Published by the British Library, Evolving English is an illustrated history of the language, and it is a fine and fascinating work. My review has now been published and is available online. Here’s an excerpt:

The relationship between language and culture is a theme that runs throughout Evolving English. As its subtitle One Language, Many Voices indicates, the emphasis is on the great variety of English. . . . Everyone who speaks or writes does so in a unique idiolect. Our language overlaps with the shapes it assumes in the particular circles and cultures we move in, but English would not have become a global lingua franca were it not flexible enough to accommodate so much regional variation. (I find Irish English a particular joy, but again I could be biased!)

Crystal’s book celebrates this diversity and the infinite ways it gives life to language. . . . [It] offers not just a snapshot of English as we know it but a panoply of snapshots throughout history, some familiar, some obscure. It presents them in the context of their times and cultures and shows skilfully and entertainingly how they bring to bear on the language we revel in today.

You can read the full review at ELT Journal. At about 2000 words it is quite detailed – but it will, I hope, appeal to anyone with an interest in language and the history and evolution of English.

A note on the publisher: ELT Journal, originally named English Language Teaching, has been in continual publication since 1946 and gave its name to the field of study often called ELT. The website has a large archive of articles, but – my review excepted – you’ll need to subscribe or pay to read more than an extract or abstract.