Audio lingo

April 19, 2012

This blog normally focuses on text, sometimes on images and video. Audio is relatively under-represented, so what follows is a selection of podcasts and interviews I’ve listened to lately, in a language-and-linguistics vein.

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Some of you already know about Lexicon Valley, a new podcast on language from Slate, hosted by Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo. There have been six episodes so far, 20–40 minutes long and covering such subjects as syntax, taboo words, pseudo-rules and Scrabble. The show is entertaining, well-researched, and sometimes surprising.

Critical reaction from linguists and others has been very positive. Arnold Zwicky, who features in one show, is impressed, while Neal Whitman finds it interesting and linguistically sound. Dave Wilton thought the first episode fun and first rate, despite one minor criticism; Joe McVeigh (“excellent”) and Crikey (“treasure”) also praised it.

Lexicon Valley is on a temporary break but will soon be back with new episodes. Listeners are invited to comment and suggest ideas for future coverage.

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Since 2009, to mark National Grammar Day in the U.S., John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has been writing humorous pulp serials which he calls Grammarnoir. This year they reappeared as podcasts: Grammarnoir 1 (2009) (text); Grammarnoir 2 – Pulp Diction (2010) (text); and Grammarnoir 3 – The Wages of Syntax (2011).

Grammarnoir 4 (2012) has yet to be broadcast, but the script is online in four parts: one, two, three, four. Each serial plays with the style and language of hard-boiled crime fiction, and is packed with drama, derring-do and editorial wit.

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Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, gave a lively and fascinating interview with New Books Network about slang in all its rambunctious glory. A voluble and thoughtful speaker, he discusses lexicographical research, historical attitudes to slang and taboo, the Urban Dictionary, and more.

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In 2001, Judy Swallow on NPR’s The Connection hosted an interesting discussion about language between Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace – both articulate and passionate commentators on language. They are rather more prescriptivist in their outlook than I am, but don’t let that put you off. One listener calls in to criticise different than, insisting it should be different from. Her reasoning was quite strange:

If you compare two things, one’s gonna be up and one’s gonna be down, and then you use than, but if something is simply different, it’s different from the way it used to be.

(It’s possible she said gotta rather than gonna; I couldn’t tell.) Garner defended the usage, saying that different from would have been “very awkward and difficult” in the instances in question. My post on different than, from, and to, which received a fresh flurry of comments recently, shows that different than is acceptable.

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Finally, a shout-out to A Way with Words, a public radio favourite hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, which I’ve been enjoying for years and recommend highly to anyone unaware of it. Etymology, wordplay and dialectal variation are recurring themes.

If you know any podcasts or other audio material that you think I might enjoy, language-related or otherwise, feel free to suggest them.

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David Foster Wallace

September 30, 2008

RIP David Foster Wallace, the American writer and teacher whose life came to a sad and abrupt end on 12 September 2008. He was 46.

I can thank my mum for introducing me to Wallace’s writing. Many years ago in a second-hand bookstore she happened upon A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; the front cover caught her eye and the back cover* enticed her to buy it for me. From its opening essay about tennis, trigonometry and tornadoes (PDF, 3.25 MB) to its closing tour de force about surviving a luxury cruise (PDF, 8.6 MB), I had never read anything quite like it. I quickly read it again and before long I was knee-deep in Infinite Jest, Wallace’s best known and most infamous book, then his other fiction and non-fiction – all of it eloquent, brilliantly styled, inspiring and occasionally maddening.**

The only David Foster Wallace book that didn’t win me over was Everything and More, where his peculiarly messy kind of fussiness sat awkwardly with the subject matter (mathematical infinity) and seemed hastily written and edited besides. But everything else I read, for example his terrific articles on David Lynch, the ethics of boiling lobsters, and the “seamy underbelly” of U.S. lexicography, thrilled me with the force and grace of good writing. Tense Present (the last link) is one of the more entertaining essays you’re likely to read on English usage, and doubles as a review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Garner returns the compliment in this interview: he seems to have happily adopted the neologism SNOOT, Wallace’s family’s term for an extreme usage fanatic. It’s an acronym of Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or Syntax Nudniks of Our Time. From the essay:

Family suppers often involved a game: If one of us children made a usage error, Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and lighthearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly. But the really chilling thing is that I now sometimes find myself playing this same ‘game’ with my own students, complete with pretend pertussion.

While Wallace’s writing has a healthy vein of self-deprecation and black humour, it also has more than its fair share of alienation and torment. Wallace suffered from depression, which worsened sharply in the months leading up to his apparent suicide. Many cultures condone death delivered finally at the hands of family, doctors or other authorities, but maintain a taboo over delivering it ourselves. Deciding to die, moreover, is anathema to western society’s glorification of productivity and its obsession with prolonging life, regardless of the cost to human dignity and quality of life.

In a speech at Kenyon College Wallace said: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day”, which hints at the kind of person he was, or at least wanted to be. For all the whimsy and satire of his writing, Wallace was a deeply humane writer whose attachment to the world may finally have become too much to bear.

There’s a storyline in Infinite Jest about an underground film so entertaining that seeing it is an instantly and fatally addicting experience. Temper the exaggeration and you wouldn’t be far from the effect that Wallace’s writing had on me, though I realise that it’s not to everyone’s taste. For the curious and enthusiast alike, there are links to some of his journalism here and here, and an extensive collection of obituaries here.

* Specifically, the reference to David Lynch.
** Not least the very frequent footnotes.