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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Savouring each preposition

May 31, 2018

In ‘The Last Campaign’, from her story collection Orange Horses (Tramp Press, 2016), Maeve Kelly portrays a marriage whose members have deeply contrasting – and sometimes clashing – communication styles. Martha and Joe are a middle-aged couple devoted to each other and to their farm, on which much of their conversation turns:

Herself and Joe met at the tap on the wall outside. He hosed down his boots, thinking about something.

‘Isn’t it a beautiful day, Joe,’ she said. ‘You might get the last of the hay drawn in today.’

‘I might,’ he said, looking up at a small, dark cloud away on the horizon and checking the direction of the wind. ‘If it holds. I think there’s a change.’

‘It’ll hardly break before this evening,’ she said.

‘Maybe not.’

She wondered to herself why his sentences were always so short. Words spilled over in her own mind so much. She had to hold them back, conscious always of his brief replies and afraid she might become garrulous in her effort to fill the void. ‘Communication,’ she reminded herself sometimes, ‘is not only made with speech.’

From this brief exchange we understand not only each character’s expressive preferences but also the effect of the difference on Martha, who would likely be more talkative were Joe not so taciturn. For this lack she must console herself with truisms. And yet their mutual fondness is unmistakable and is underscored implicitly as the tale unfolds.

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A family isolated by language

April 15, 2018

Arja Kajermo’s short novel The Iron Age (Tramp Press, 2017) has a few passages that describe the difficulties of being linguistically marooned when you’re a child whose family moves to another country. The narrator is a Finnish girl transplanted to Sweden in the 1950s when her father finds work there:

We were now what Mother called ummikko. We were people who could only speak our own language and we could not understand the language around us. And the people around us could not understand us. It was a terrible fate to be ummikko. It was like being deaf and dumb Mother said. Outside our own home we were like cows that could only stand and stare.

The children’s teacher, hoping to address the problem, sends a letter home with Tuomas, the girl’s brother. Their father translates it painstakingly with the help of a dictionary. Tuomas is to learn Swedish fast, and to do so he must forget his native Finnish and not speak it at all, anywhere: ‘It was for his own good and he would do better at school if he complied.’

Their mother considers this plan ‘ridiculous’, but their father accedes, being unwilling to go against the teacher’s instruction. A natural, secretive compromise ensues:

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Jodie Foster: ‘He started imitating my accent’

October 20, 2017

An important character detail in the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the journey of Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, from a rural working-class background to sophisticated city life as an FBI agent.

Take for example this monologue by Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, during his first encounter with Starling (from 4:15 in the clip; transcript below):

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Uptalk in Surrey: The Twinning Hypothesis

July 7, 2017

Uptalk, also called upspeak, rising intonation, and (misleadingly) high-rising terminal, is where someone ends a statement as though it were a question? These two are for illustration? Uptalk is stereotypically associated with Australians, ‘Valley Girls’, and young women generally.

It’s also widely hated. Get people talking about their language peeves, and sooner or later uptalk will crop up. It has been described as an ‘annoying tic’ (The Smithsonian), ‘worse than vocal fry’ (Time), and as a ‘nasty habit’ in Psychology Today, which also worries that ‘statements and opinions will become extinct’. This is feverish doom-mongering.

Even Stephen Fry, normally a tolerant sort, linguistically, gave out about uptalk on UK comedy show Room 101, complaining invidiously that it had ‘invaded Britain entirely’. The host, Paul Merton, said it could be a politeness strategy, though he didn’t call it that, but Fry was having none of it (and went on to censure quotative like, which Merton also defended). Most of the audience found uptalk ‘deeply irritating’:

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