It’s a truism that language is integral to identity. So when our relationship with it changes, complications quickly accrue: Do we become someone different in another tongue? Is that all down to culture and context, or is there something inherent in a language that affects who we feel ourselves to be? And what happens when we start our lives speaking one language but then switch to another?
These are among the questions explored, with heart and rigour, in Julie Sedivy’s new book, Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (available October 2021 from Harvard University Press, who sent me a copy). Sedivy was born in the former Czechoslovakia and spoke only Czech until the age of two. At that point her family left the country, then the continent, and her linguistic environment was transformed.
As a child in Canada, Sedivy was suddenly surrounded by English, heard it animate her new friends and role models, and felt compelled to adopt it. English ‘elbowed its predecessors aside’ and became the family language: ‘What could my parents do? They were outnumbered. Czech began its slow retreat from our daily life’. The consequences were not yet apparent to her; ‘the price of assimilation was invisible’.
Years later, after losing her father, Sedivy came to realize ‘how much I also mourned the silencing of Czech in my life’. Her Czech heritage had come to feel like a ‘vestigial organ’. She had lost access to the ‘stories and songs that articulate the values and norms you’ve absorbed without knowing they live in your cells’. She wrote Memory Speaks as part of an effort to ameliorate and understand that loss, exploring
why a language can wither in a person’s mind once it has taken root, what this decline looks like, and how the waning of language can take on a magnitude that spreads beyond personal pain to collective crisis.
I’ve been greatly enjoying videos by Geoff Lindsey, an accent coach from the UK who also gives courses at University College London. His YouTube channel has about 20 videos to date, mostly around 5 or 10 minutes long, on a wide range of topics to do with pronunciation and phonetics.
‘Most folks are amazed when they see the inner life of speech,’ Lindsey says in a fascinating, Stranger Things–themed primer on the human vocal organs that provides a snapshot of what happens anatomically when we speak:
Here he reveals what superhero names can tell us about stress patterns in English compounds – why, for example, we say Superman but Invisible Woman:
The Scots Syntax Atlas (SCOSYA) is a fantastic, newly launched website that will appeal to anyone interested in language and dialect, especially regional varieties and their idiosyncratic grammar. Its home page says:
Would you say I like they trainers? What about She’s no caring? Have you ever heard anyone say I div like a good story? And might you say You’re after locking us out? All of these utterances come from dialects of Scots spoken across Scotland, but where exactly can you hear them?
To answer this question, we travelled the length and breadth of Scotland, visiting 145 communities, from Shetland in the north to Stranraer in the south. We were particularly interested in the different ways that sentences are built up in these different areas. This part of a language is called its syntax, and it’s one of the most creative aspects of how people use language.
The resulting interactive Atlas has four main sections: How do people speak in…?, Stories behind the examples, Who says what where?, and Community voices. The two questions are self-explanatory. Community voices is a collection of extracts (audio and transcripts) from the conversations recorded – a trove of accent and dialect diversity.
The science journal Nature recently published tips from author Cormac McCarthy on ‘how to write a great science paper’. Though familiar with McCarthy’s novels,* I hadn’t known about his work elsewhere, which includes ‘extensive editing to numerous faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico’.
Biologist Van Savage, co-author of the Nature article, knew McCarthy at the SFI and they worked together ‘to condense McCarthy’s advice to its most essential points’, combined with ‘thoughts from evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh’, the article’s other author. This means it’s not always clear whose language is used.
In any case, the resulting advice interests me both professionally – I’m a freelance copy-editor with a background in science – and personally, as someone who strives to write better but is leery of much of what passes for writing punditry.
A lot of what McCarthy and co. say is sensible, if sometimes short on context, and some of it will likely be familiar to you, since many of the same ideas about writing perennially do the rounds. Other tips, however, are dubious or infelicitously phrased.
I recommend that you read the original article before my annotated excerpts below, because I’ve skipped a lot of the good stuff: You don’t need to read me saying ‘I agree’ over and over. So off we go:
Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.
‘We get a lot of binge listeners,’ says linguist Daniel Midgley in episode #221 of Talk the Talk. I’m one of them. When I first encountered Talk the Talk, a podcast about language and linguistics based in Australia, I listened to an episode here and there. Soon I came to like it so much that I wanted to listen to everything they had recorded.
So I downloaded all the mp3s and got stuck in, usually while walking. It took a while because there are, at the time of writing, 360+ episodes, more or less one a week since November 2010. Early episodes are short, 10–15 minutes, then they grow to 40–65 minutes. I had to binge to catch up, and I enjoyed every minute.
A podcast’s appeal hinges not just on its topics and ideas but also, critically, on its people. This is highly subjective, of course, but I’ve bailed on podcasts before because I found the presentation style too dour, too portentous, too breathlessly enthusiastic. No such problems with the Talk the Talk hosts, whose company is affable and edifying.
Oliver Sacks is one of my favourite science writers, for many reasons: the remarkable lives he reports, his insight and empathy in doing so, his unabashed honesty, his love for the creative arts. He also excels at conveying technical ideas and complicated phenomena in plain language without compromising their complexity.
Sacks has a flair for the right word, the telling metaphor, the poetic flourish that impresses his stories’ truth. He doesn’t rely on jargon but will use it when appropriate. Though his breadth of vocabulary and command of registers are impressive, they never feel forced or flashy. This is someone whose love of words is obvious in their prose – you might think this would be automatic with authors, but it’s not.
Recently, after reading Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, I visited his YouTube channel to catch up on any supplemental material, and ended up watching all the videos (there aren’t many, and they’re short). In one, Sacks reads an anecdote from his autobiography, about his time at the University of Oxford, which chimes nicely with his logophilia:
My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures, and a couple of years later had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favourite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider. Stronger than most beer, and cheaper too.
Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize: the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper. There were seven questions to be answered. I pounced on one – Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation? – and I wrote non-stop for two hours on the subject. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.
The results were in The Times that weekend. I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded. How could someone who’d come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams Prize? Fifty pounds came with a Theodore Williams Prize. Fifty pounds! I’d never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s Bookshop, next door to the pub, and bought, for 44 pounds, the 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary – for me, the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then, for bedtime reading.
If you’re impressed (or appalled) by the idea of someone reading the entire OED, well, there’s another book all about that; I’ll have more in a separate post soon.* In the meantime, you’ll find more Oliver Sacks in the Sentence first archives.
‘We know more about the rings of Saturn than we know about the narwhal,’ writes Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams. This ignorance extends to its etymology. Wondering why the animal remains ‘so obscure and uncelebrated’, Lopez believes that the answer lies partly with ‘a regrettable connotation of death in the animal’s name’:
The pallid color of the narwhal’s skin has been likened to that of a drowned human corpse, and it is widely thought that its name came from the Old Norse for “corpse” and “whale,” nár + hvalr. A medieval belief that the narwhal’s flesh was poisonous has been offered in support of this interpretation, as well as the belief that its “horn” was proof at that time against being poisoned.