A word so dreadful and rotten

February 16, 2020

Antonia White’s coming-of-age novel Frost in May, published in 1933, became Virago Press’s first Modern Classic in 1978, which is the edition I recently read. It tells the story of Fernanda (‘Nanda’) as she progresses through the Convent of the Five Wounds, coming to terms with its norms and her evolving relationship with religion.

The top quarter of the book cover is dark green, with the text "Virago Modern Classics" in yellow, then, in larger white text, the author's name and the book title. Below them is a detail from Adolf Dietrich's painting "Mädchen mit Schürze", showing a young girl in three-quarter profile, with fair hair tied back with a black bow. She faces left and has an expression that could be either concentrating or absent-minded.Frost in May is apparently based on White’s own experiences in Catholic boarding school. Tessa Hadley describes it in the Guardian as ‘exquisitely poised between a condemnation of the school and a love letter to it’. The convent applies a severe form of discipline, which now and then encompasses language use:

Nanda dropped her lily with awe. It stood, she knew, for some mysterious possession . . . her Purity. What Purity was she was still uncertain, being too shy to ask, but she realised it was something very important. St. Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was “___,” a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.

In the book, the unspeakable word appears within the quotation marks. I’ve removed it to see if you can guess what it is. The answer appears further down. I’ll give you a clue: it begins with ‘b’, and it’s not a slur or swear word.

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Scots Syntax Atlas: mapping oot the dialect

December 18, 2019

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.

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Language like poppies in Ali Smith’s Autumn

October 8, 2019

Autumn (2016), like all of Ali Smith’s novels (I’m guessing – I’ve only read a few so far), is a delight in linguistic and other ways. This post features a few excerpts that focus on language in one way or another.

The main character, Elisabeth, is visiting her old friend Daniel in a care home. Daniel is asleep. A care assistant talks to her:

A very nice polite gentleman. We miss him now. Increased sleep period. It happens when things are becoming more (slight pause before she says it) final.

The pauses are a precise language, more a language than actual language is, Elisabeth thinks.

I like how the writing itself conveys the particular pause in speech before the word final. Smith could have used dashes or described the pause in a subsequent clause or sentence, but the parenthesis, unexpected, feels just right.

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Mizzled by misles

February 27, 2019

The first time you saw the word biopic, did you pronounce it ‘bi-OPic’, to rhyme with myopic, either aloud or in your head, before learning that it’s ‘bio-pic’, as in biographical picture? If so, you were well and truly mizzled. I mean MY-zelled. No, wait: misled.

There are words we know, or think we know, but: (1) we probably got to know them in print before hearing them spoken, and (2) their spelling is ambiguous or misleading in a way that leads us to ‘hear’ them differently – perhaps incorrectly – in our mind’s ear.

Eventually there’s a lightbulb moment. Oh, it’s a bio-pic, not a bi-opic! I’ve been mis-led, not mizzled! Some linguists and language enthusiasts call these troublesome words misles, back-formed from misled, which is perhaps the prototypical misle.

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Book review: The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri

July 16, 2018

George Orwell’s famous essay on the politics of language, strained and self-contradictory as it is, rests on the incontestable idea that people manipulate language for political ends – whether it’s to prod something improper towards legitimacy or to dodge responsibility for interpersonal shortcomings. The political, after all, is personal, and language is as personal as it gets.

The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri (Em Dash Group, 2018) shines a welcome light on such language in its social guise and dissects it for our pleasure and occasional squirming. A slim volume expanded from its original 2003 edition, the EED packs considerable insight and wit into its 132 pages, showing how we routinely choose (and avoid) certain words to massage the truth, let ourselves off the hook, and passive-aggressively get our own way.

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Talk with your mouth full: the literary game of mouth-filled speech

June 29, 2018

In 2011 a reader wrote to linguist David Crystal with an interesting question. Having tried recently to brush their teeth and talk at the same time, they wondered how such ‘approximations of real words’ might factor into language – and whether authors had ever exploited this form of speech ‘for inventive literary purposes’.

In his post on what he calls ‘mouth-filled speech’, Crystal looked at phonetics, politeness, etiquette, risks, and frequency (‘really rather common’), but found scant examples in literature or language corpora. My intention here is to share a few from books I’ve read in the meantime – mostly novels but one non-fiction.

We may talk with all sorts of things in our mouth, such as food, pens, pins, fingers (our own or other people’s), tongues (just other people’s), dentist’s instruments, gum shields, gags, and of course toothbrushes. Crystal lists various other possibilities.

Transcribed, the utterance may be transparent or heavily obscured, depending on the writer’s strategy and skill in treating the phenomenon. Context can help readers infer the muddled words, or the author may convey it through repetition. When there’s no narrative reason to have characters speak unclearly, it can be a nod to realism or verisimilitude or perhaps serve as a linguistic game or challenge.

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The Speech Community

June 8, 2018

I recently enjoyed Language and Social Context: Selected Readings (Penguin, 1972), edited by Pier Paolo Giglioli. It includes some articles so famous that even a non-linguist like me knew them (John Searle on speech acts, William Labov on nonstandard English), along with many that I didn’t.

One article I especially liked is ‘The Speech Community’ (1968) by linguistic anthropologist John J. Gumperz, in which he describes that unit as ‘any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage’.

The idea of a speech community is very useful when discussing and thinking about language: we easily forget how highly social and context-dependent are the linguistic rules and norms we observe more or less unconsciously. Gumperz goes on:

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