The whole race of unreal people

April 7, 2016

Time is against me these days, but I want to share a few passages of linguistic interest from Lorna Sage’s remarkable memoir Bad Blood. Sage, who was a professor of English and a literary critic, grew up in a village called Hanmer in north Wales. This first excerpt, which considers the local dialect, follows a note on Thomas Hardy:

Hanmer wasn’t on his [Hardy’s] patch, of course, but you could picture the Maelor district as a mini-Wessex, less English, less fertile, lacking a writer to describe it. The local dialect did make a lot of the syllable ‘Ur’ that he singles out in Tess to stand for the ancient burr you can hear in country voices. In Hanmer grammar ‘Ur’ or ‘’Er’ was the all-purpose pronoun used for men, women, children, cattle, tractors. It implied a kind of levelling, as though all were objects, and you could use it for a tree or a stone, too. In my memory it’s always associated with negatives – ‘dunna’, ‘conna’, ‘wunna’. You kick a gate that’s warped half off its hinge: ‘’Er wunna open,’ you say without surprise. Everything had its own sullen, passive power of resistance.

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Unexplained jargon in fiction

April 22, 2015

richard stark - the rare coin score - Parker - book coverI picked up this Richard Stark novel in a local second-hand bookstore and was attracted by the reviewers’ descriptions of its main character (click the photo to enlarge). Funny how repulsive can have a contra-semantic effect. The ‘unforgettable Parker’, it turned out, is the same one played by Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank. Sold!

The Rare Coin Score has one stylistic detail I want to analyse here. Parker, Billy, Claire and Lempke are in a backyard planning a heist of rare coins. Parker, the ‘supreme bastard’ protagonist, has suggested a shortcut in packing the loot. Billy, a rare-coin specialist, explains why it wouldn’t work (note: he’s holding a spatula because he’s barbecuing burgers):

‘You take valuable coins,’ Billy said, gesturing with the spatula, ‘you just drop a lot of them in a canvas sack, carry them off someplace, dump them out on a table, you know what you’ve done?’

Parker said, ‘Tell me.’

‘You’ve lowered their value,’ Billy told him, ‘by maybe twenty-five per cent. Coins are more delicate than you might think. They rub together, knock together, the value goes right down. You go from unc to VF just like that.

‘Billy,’ Claire said wearily, ‘they don’t know those terms.’

‘I’ve got the idea,’ Parker said. ‘The point is, we’ve got to pack them up, right?’

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Book spine poem: a language evolution special

October 24, 2013

Someone once told me it was harder to make a book spine poem, aka bookmash, from non-fiction titles. I don’t know; I hadn’t really thought about it before, and I’m never conscious of it when constructing them.

But it led me to look at my earlier book spine poems and see what pattern emerged. Fiction/non-fiction ratios (in reverse chronological order) are as follows: 5:5, 7:2, 8:2, 4:4, 2:5, 6:2, 2:4, 4:4, 2:4, 2:4, 2:5, 3:2, 3:4, 4:3, 2:1, 0:4, 1:4, 0:3, 2:2, 4:2, 1:2, 4:4, 7:9.

That’s 75 fiction vs. 81 non-fiction. I was surprised that there were more non-fiction, and that the totals ended up so close. Two are exclusively non-fiction but none contain only fiction. (New challenge!)

I don’t usually set out with a theme in mind, but this time I wanted to make one about language/linguistics, which was always going to skew heavily towards non-fiction: 2:7. Non-fiction surges ahead – for now.

[click to enlarge]

stan carey - book spine poem - bookmash - evolution the difference engine

Evolution: the difference engine

Words words words ad infinitum –
The power of Babel,
The languages of the world.
Human speech: the articulate mammal enigma,
Evolution: the difference engine.

*

Thanks to the authors: Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, Nicholas Ostler, John McWhorter, Kenneth Katzner, Richard Paget, Jean Aitchison, Robert Harris, Carl Zimmer, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; and to artist Nina Katchadourian.

More in the bookmash archive.


I didn’t cycle up the Liffey on a bicycle

May 22, 2013

Edna O’Brien’s book Girl With Green Eyes has a romantic line involving bicycles in Dublin:

Ah, the bloom of you, I love your North-Circular-Road-Bicycle-Riding-Cheeks.

It’s a sweet declaration ending in an impressive hyphenated string (though if I were editing it I would separate cheeks from the compound and reduce the capitalisation: North-Circular-Road-bicycle-riding cheeks).

In a modest correspondence between books decades apart, Declan Hughes’s Irish detective novel The Dying Breed has another elaborate compound phrase constructed with the help of bicycle imagery:

I made a face at that, my d’you-think-I-cycled-up-the-Liffey-on-a-bicycle face.

When I tweeted that sentence I was treated to a few variations on the theme: Belfast’s D’you think I floated down the Lagan in a bubble? (@charlieconnelly), and Glasgow’s D’ye think ah came up the Clyde on a water biscuit/banana boat? (@ozalba; @Yanbustone).

There are many versions of this idiom, often beginning Do you think…, You must think…, or I didn’t… More (or less) familiar lines include: Do you think I came down in the last shower?, You must think I was born yesterday, and I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday.

I love the water biscuit one, but for some reason I relate most strongly to cycling on the Liffey – so long as I steer clear of Gogarty’s swans.


Would of, could of, might of, must of

October 23, 2012

When we say would have, could have, should have, must have, might have, may have and ought to have, we often put some stress on the modal auxiliary and none on the have. We may show this in writing by abbreviating to could’ve, must’ve, etc. (Would can contract further by merging with the subject: We would have → We’d’ve.)

Unstressed ’ve is phonetically identical (/əv/) to unstressed of: hence the widespread misspellings would of, could of, should of, must of, might of, may of, and ought to of. Negative forms also appear: shouldn’t of, mightn’t of, etc. This explanation – that misanalysis of the notorious schwa lies behind the error – has general support among linguists.

The mistake dates to at least 1837, according to the OED, so it has probably been infuriating pedants for almost 200 years. Common words spelt incorrectly provoke particular ire, sometimes accompanied by aspersions cast on the writer’s intelligence, fitness for society, degree of evolution, and so on. But there’s no need for any of that.

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