‘You just say what’s in your squanch’

March 24, 2016

Last year I shared a scene from Rick and Morty that contained a series of nonsense words like plumbus, schleem, and blamf. It was probably my least popular post in years. Undeterred, I’m featuring the show again. (I hadn’t seen it in November; now I have.)

In an episode called ‘The Wedding Squanchers’ we’re introduced to the cat-like character Squanchy on Planet Squanch and, more to the point, to the improbably versatile word squanch.

The word’s hyperpolysemy quickly becomes a running gag. Squanchy tells Rick his house party is squanchy and that he likes Rick’s squanch (style, I think). Then a specific verb use of squanch takes us into adult territory. Well, it is Adult Swim.

Rick and Morty - The Wedding Squanchers on Planet Squanch - Adult Swim

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Sarcastic punctuation in The X-Files

December 21, 2015

English has no standard punctuation mark or typographic style to show sarcasm or verbal irony. This lack has inspired a whole menagerie of proposals over the centuries, including backwards question marks, upside-down or zigzag exclamation marks, and left-slanting typefaces (‘ironics’, ‘Sartalics’). Some have gained niche usage, while others faded more or less instantly: only the winking smiley ;-) ;) has become widespread, and only in informal text.

I notice the gap sometimes when chatting online, for example when I misinterpret someone’s tone or they misinterpret mine. A tongue-in-cheek statement can easily be taken at face value if the reader doesn’t know the writer well. This happens often on Twitter, where strangers’ statements can spread without much pragmatic context.

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What will the future of ‘like’ bilaik?

December 18, 2015

The rise of quotative like (I was like, What?) has been swift and striking since it emerged a few decades ago. No word stays exactly the same, but the changes and extensions to like have been more noticeable than most on account of its versatility, popularity, and prominence.

So what will happen to like in the future? More change, if these tweets are anything to go by:

If you click on Sarah’s first tweet (or its date, in some browsers) you can read more follow-up discussion.

I would have been confused by what the child meant, and I’d probably have exhausted her patience long before figuring it out. The fact that Sarah Shulist is a linguistic anthropologist and Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist (who has done research on like) may have helped them infer the child’s intent more quickly in each case.

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Danger Mouse, linguistic prodigy

October 24, 2015

In idle half-hours I’ve been watching Danger Mouse on a DVD I picked up for the price of a croissant. As well as being enjoyably daft and wryly amusing, it’s a trip down memory lane; my sister and I loved the cartoon as children.

Browsing its Wikipedia page, I see that it was even more popular than I supposed, placing third (behind The Muppet Show and The Simpsons) in a UK Channel 4 list of the top 100 children’s TV shows of all time. It had a fantastic theme tune too:

Puns and silly wordplay are a constant (‘Shooting star? Crumbs! I didn’t even know they were loaded’). In an episode titled ‘I Spy With My Little Eye…’, written by Brian Trueman and directed by Keith Scoble, there is an exchange rich in overt linguistic humour, excerpted here.

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Like a ha-ha

December 19, 2013

Robert Harris’s 1995 thriller Enigma, which fictionalises a group of code breakers in World War II, contains a playful nouning of ha-ha:

Jericho drew back the curtains to unveil another cold, clear morning. It was only his third day in the Commercial Guesthouse but already the view had acquired a weary familiarity. First came the long and narrow garden (concrete yard with washing line, vegetable patch, bomb shelter) which petered out after seventy yards into a wilderness of weeds and a tumbledown, rotted fence. Then there was a drop he couldn’t see, like a ha-ha, and then a broad expanse of railway lines, a dozen or more…

Is this the influence of Nelson Muntz, or are we to ‘hear’ the laugh some other way?


Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: epilogue

October 24, 2011

Last night the BBC broadcast the fifth and final episode of Fry’s Planet Word, its new documentary about language. At first I intended blogging about each episode, but after two (Babel and Identity) I could no longer summon the enthusiasm. It wasn’t bad, but it was too often superficial and repetitive, too reliant on platitudes and stereotypes.

Episode 5 is about the power and glory of storytelling. Fry is enjoying a horse-drawn jaunt in Dublin, listening to David Norris rhapsodise about Ulysses. Norris is recalling Leopold Bloom’s cat and the onomatopoeic words Joyce used to convey its mews. Alas, he misspells twice (mkgneo and mrkgneo instead of mkgnao, mrkgnao, and mrkrgnao), and the BBC’s subtitles amplify the error.

It may seem trivial, but the lapse reveals a lack of care. Of course Norris, a devoted Joycean, should have known better. But how hard would it have been for the BBC to check a couple of spellings? The error is especially unfortunate given that Norris’s point is about Joyce’s attention to detail and his understanding of the importance of every letter.

Other encounters include William Goldman, who talks about screenwriting, Peter Jackson (Tolkien, Stephen King), Mark Rylance (Shakespeare), Simon Russell Beale (Shakespeare), David Tennant (Shakespeare), Brian Blessed (Shakespeare), Guillaume Gallienne (Shakespeare), Sir David Tang and Johnson Chang (Shakespeare), Robert McCrum (Wodehouse), Ian Hislop (Orwell), Richard Curtis (Auden, pop songs), and Sir Christopher Ricks (Bob Dylan).

Some of these discussions are enjoyable, but you’d be forgiven for wondering if women read or write books at all.

Near the end, the show ambushes its viewers with a blast of Coldplay, that we might reflect on the power and significance of their lyrics. Fry asks us, “Can Coldplay . . . really stand alongside the pantheon of great poets?” I’ll spare you my thoughts on that.

Given the prevailing fixation on electronic communication, it was good to see Fry’s Planet Word end in a bookshop, with Fry wandering happily among shelves laden with physical books. And I was glad, earlier in the show, that Ulysses was singled out for particular praise: a few more people might feel encouraged to read it.

The series has memorable moments; episode 3’s admirable Jess, a “Tourette’s hero” with coprolalia as a special power, leaps foul-mouthedly to mind. But I’ll remember it chiefly as a missed opportunity. In short, I’d have liked more depth, research, and complexity, less pretty scenery* and jovial chat between like-minded friends.

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* Fry travels to the Mediterranean to read a few lines of The Odyssey on a boat, etc.


Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: Identity

October 3, 2011

Episode 2 of Fry’s Planet Word (BBC) focuses on dialects and sociolinguistic identity. It kicks off in Yorkshire, where poet Ian McMillan demonstrates stereotypical aspects of various local accents. Fry is inspired to offer his own verbal tour of the UK’s accent map, playing a weatherman to help precipitate the “microclimates” analogy.

There’s an unexpected detour into Whorfianism. After pondering our dialects’ effect on how people perceive us (Geordie, once scorned, is now adored), the show looks at languages’ effect on how we perceive the world. Lera Boroditsky, who champions linguistic relativity, tells Fry that people speaking Russian or English espouse more collectivist or individualistic ideas, respectively.

This has dinner-party Wow value, especially when it’s the only side of the story we’re told, and it seems inevitable we’ll soon hear the no-word-for-X meme. Sure enough Fry asks, rhetorically, “If you don’t have a word for evil, does it vanish?” The answer, which was not supplied, is a resounding No. (Assuming the existence of evil for the sake of the question.)

Next up is language death, something Fry rightly laments. We venture to Connemara, County Galway, where he famously had a cameo in the Irish TV soap opera Ros na Rún. He drinks Guinness and hears stories in traditional pubs, asks schoolchildren about learning Irish (they admit to texting in English), and shares hopes and trivia about the Irish tongue. Fry has spoken on this subject before.

In the Basque country, Fry meets a woman who says language, like food, can absorb external influences. He suggests that language and cuisine might be closely entwined because recipes were once passed on by word of mouth. It’s an interesting idea, but without researching it I have no idea if it’s based on fact or theory or hearsay or whimsy; and this, I think, is the show’s fault.

When I wrote about the first episode, Babel, I said Fry’s popularity and likeability would draw an audience who might not have a particular interest in language. But because he is not a specialist, he misses opportunities to ask better questions, and we are left with too much fluff. I kept getting the impression that the most important thing in any encounter was that everyone enjoy themselves and get along.

In France, Fry meets one of the 40 immortals of the Académie française, which dictates on “proper” French. It’s a curiously awkward meeting, and Fry, left outside the door while the Académie holds a meeting, decides the system is “very strange and very French”. Lightening the mood, he hears from a hip-hop singer in Marseilles how subcultural and ethnic minority slang is slipping into common spoken French in small but satisfying ways.

Similar mixing is happening in Hebrew, which died as a spoken language but was revived through political will and collective identity. Fry visits Ghil’ad Zuckermann, who offers an amusing metaphor of Hebrew as a Phoenix, a cuckoo, and a magpie. At a garage, they discuss the problem of what to call things like puncture and carburettor in a language that was frozen for so long. Some ancient terms are modernised, some words are borrowed from elsewhere.

Every language, so long as it lives and is not totally isolated, is a melting pot, and the show finishes in a cauldron of partisan wit: a football ground, where Fry watches Norwich City and he bonds with his chosen tribe. The obvious point is quickly made, and there is no time for analysis or examples of the curses and chants of the terrace.

Planet Word is fond of bonding, and of cultural quirks and scenic jaunts, but so far it suffers from a dearth of information and structure, and a surfeit of Stephen Fry himself (whom I like). Experts are interviewed, but given too little time. That said, it is an enjoyable programme with broad appeal; your mileage will probably vary principally according to your feelings about Fry and your foreknowledge of linguistics.

Next week’s episode is about swearing. That should be fun.

Update: Language Log has posted a critical review of this episode that looks in more detail at its shortcomings.