Thursday 25 January 2007

On new editions

Someone writes to ask whether The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (CEEL, 1995) will have a new edition. I suppose one never says never. But I doubt it. Which prompts some thoughts on new editions.

One writes a new edition because the old one is out of date, for some reason. The second edition of CEEL (2003) was needed for two reasons: a century had changed, so every reference to 'in the present century', 'in the last century', and so on was wrong (plus the associated verb-form changes from present perfect to past - 'in the present century we have seen' vs 'in the last century we saw'); and the Internet had arrived, in all its many linguistic forms, requiring a whole new section. There wasn't much else to change - a handful of updates and expansions of points here and there. The population figures for English as a global language needed updating, in particular. But apart from this, the two editions are very close. Whether the amount of change warrants a new edition is a decision made by the publisher, always.

You have to distinguish a 'new edition' from a 'new impression' - that is, a reprinting of the book as the previous print-run has run out. Print-runs vary enormously. For books like mine, they're usually around 5,000 or 10,000 copies, depending on such things as the publishers' estimate of likely sales, and how much warehouse space they've got. Printing books 'on demand' in small print-runs is also changing things. A new impression is a chance to change things in a small way - getting rid of typographical errors that were missed first time round, for instance. Due to a last-minute change in printing The Stories of English, for instance, when a map was re-located towards the back of the book, some page references in the footnotes ended up being two out! A new impression allows you to get rid of that sort of problem.

You also have to distinguish a hardback edition from a paperback edition. Many publishers do not publish these simultaneously, as they naturally want to recoup their investment in a book by the higher price of a hardback. With my books, a paperback generally follows a year later. That too is a chance to make a few changes, though I don't normally do so.

Somebody mentioned Language and the Internet yesterday, and that's a nice example of a need for a new edition quickly. That book came out in 2001, and it had a new edition in 2005. That's amazingly fast. Why? Because in 2001 the first edition of that book made no mention of instant messaging or of blogging. Although blogging had been around since 1997, it didn't take off until 2003-4. Now it's the fastest growing area of Internet activity. A new edition is urgent, under the circumstances.

Am I working on any new editions at the moment? I don't like new editions, actually, and only do so when I have to. I mean, if I wrote a book in say 1999, that was because I was really into that topic then. Things have moved on since. I'm interested in other things now. To have to go back to how I was thinking in 1999 and try to take on board everything that I thought then and see how it might be improved... Well, it's a bit of a bore, to be frank. So there's just one, which has got to be revised at regular intervals, and that is The Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. This has had a new edition roughly every five years since 1980, and there will be another one early next year.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

On not being a speech therapist

I have finally managed to track down the source of an error which surfaces regularly in correspondence. 'As a qualified speech therapist', said someone in a letter to me recently - and about me! Excuse me? Not me. I am an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. But a 'real' spth? No. (My wife is.) I worked with speech therapists in clinics and schools for many years, so any confusion would be understandable; but my role was always as a 'clinical linguist' - someone who describes and analyses the linguistic character of disorders of communication, but who never treats.

So where did the error arise? Wikipedia, of course. There it says in the entry on me, plain as the beard on my face: 'He is also a qualified speech therapist'.

I say 'of course'. I edit encyclopedias, and very early on I was intrigued by the wiki concept, thinking it would actually help my work. How wrong I was. I quickly discovered that there were so many errors that it just wasn't a safe procedure to use wiki entries without scrupulous checking - in which case you might as well go to the more reliable sources to begin with. Wiki is fine for fun browsing, but I would never take a 'fact' from there without doing a second check. The Wiki managers now seem to have realized the dangers of uncontrolled eneyclopedia compilation for themselves, as I read they have introduced a tier of editorial supervision into the system. Faced with the entries that have been mischievously (or worse) tampered with, and growing threats of litigation from people whose characters have been assassinated, I wasn't surprised. In fact, I predicted years ago that this would have to happen.

I had never thought to look me up in Wikipedia before, but, having been told about the speech therapy error, now I did. I learned some interesting things about me. I live in Holyhead 'with my wife and four children', it says. Well that's a surprise. I've just looked round the house and I can't see them anywhere. (The last one left home years ago.) I 'write articles for the Catholic devotional magazine, The Tablet'? Never. I used to review for them once, back in the seventies, but the only article I ever submitted to it was turned down! And I'm 'president of Crystal Reference Systems Limited'? Ah, it must have been an American who put some of the entry together, for we would never say 'president' in the UK. 'Chairman' I was, before that little company was taken over last year. That's history now.

My entry - as virtually every Wiki entry I have ever read - is a fascinating, unpredictable, dangerous selection of facts and fictions. And the problem is, you never know which is which. It's not as if accurate information isn't available, especially these days, when official websites exist for most things. It takes a lot of time and effort and professionalism to compile encyclopedia entries which are balanced, objective, and accurate, and even then, the professionals don't always get it right. Wiki's fond hope is that by letting everyone have a go, eventually the truth will emerge, and the result will be better than the traditional encyclopedia. That was always a naive belief. Many of the entries are fuller, certainly, than anything you have ever seen in print, and you can read stuff there which is unavailable anywhere else. But beware: lurking within the depths of detail there be always dragons.

Wednesday 10 January 2007

On Shakespearean r's

A correspondent, having listened to the samples of 'original pronunciation' (OP) on the Shakespeare's Words website, writes to ask how I know that the letter r was pronounced after vowels and before consonants in Shakespeare's day - in such words as arm and far. The full answer can be found in my Pronouncing Shakespeare - but, briefly, the main reason is that people who were writing at the time tell us so. There's a nice statement from Ben Jonson (the dramatist, yes, but he also wrote an English grammar in which he describes the way letters are pronounced) who talks about 'the dog's letter' [think 'grrr'] being sounded in the middle and at the end of words, but less firmly than at the beginning. Other writers talk about it too. Exactly what phonetic quality the sound had is open to question. It might have been a trilled sound (as in modern Scots), but from the descriptions at the time I think it's more likely to have been a retroflex one - that is, one where the tip of the tongue is curled back, as in a lot of American and West Country speech. That's the sound I used in my recordings, anyway.

He also asks whether there are any OP productions taking place at the moment, and how to hear more of it. I don't know of any. Pronouncing Shakespeare is the story of the first OP production at Shakespeare's Globe in 2004, of Romeo and Juliet. There was another one in 2005, of Troilus and Cressida. Videos were made of these productions and are lodged in the library at the Globe. I know that a couple of US universities have been playing about with OP, notably some people at the Blackfriars project in Virginia. But I don't know of any planned production right now. The Globe has no plans to do another one, as far as I know. Maybe one of the other theatres will take it up, in due course. John Barton told me that there was some interest at Stratford in doing an OP version of Henry V as part of the 'completish works' season there, but it never went ahead. (I say 'completish' because there's no King Edward III or Sir Thomas More - which, despite the authorship uncertainties, were both produced at Stratford in the last few years. So the media hype that in 2006-7 the RSC is producing 'every word that Shakespeare ever wrote' is a bit of an exaggeration.) OP would sound great in the Swan, it seems to me. Although the Globe productions were excellent, the character of the OP was inevitably lost a bit in the noisy environment.

Some prose pieces in OP can be heard interspersed with music from Globe musicians on the double-CD: The World's Globe (signum SIGCD077), which came out last year. I also have a CD of extracts from Troilus, using some of the actors from the company, which I can make available to teachers of this subject. Otherwise, there are extracts on the above-mentioned website ( and also on the Globe's website.

Monday 8 January 2007

On being artistic about language death

A comment sent in response to my blog 'On editing encyclopedias' raises the topic of dying languages, which is so important that it deserves a separate post. I reproduce most of the comment here:

'I’m a writer from India and have written over a hundred short stories. Recently, I read your book ‘The Language Revolution’... have been reading a lot of your books ever since. In ‘The Language Revolution’, you have made an observation: though language death is a serious social tragedy, not many artists have reflected upon it as they have on other catastrophes. You have said that except for some poems or an odd article, there isn’t a single drama or novel or even a short story... However, while reading this, I was glad that I had already written a short story about a dead language. The premise and the claims are all purely imaginary, but through the story I wish to emphasize that with every language that dies, mankind is losing at least one vital message.'

I'm always very happy to read material on this neglected topic, and I wish more were available. For a UNESCO conference in 2003 I collected as much material as I could find to back up a keynote paper called 'Crossing the great divide: language endangerment and public awareness', and I managed to track down a couple of dozen pieces, mainly poems, which is not much at all really. I include references to some of them in the paper. (You can read the paper on my website at click on the category 'Language Death & Diversity' and you'll find it under 'Articles'.)

An important point to note is that the neglect I refer to in The Language Revolution, and which is the theme of the paper, is in relation to material on language endangerment and death in general, not on individual languages. There is of course a great deal of imaginative writing about particular languages - I know of several poems, stories, songs, and so on which focus on the situation of Welsh, for instance, and there is bound to be similar material on other languages. Brian Friel's play Translations, in relation to Irish, comes to mind. But what we don't have much of is writing in which authors step back from their own language situation and reflect on the world crisis. My correspondent suggests that his story does do this, and that's crucial.

I don't know of any novels on this subject, but the other genres mentioned have actually been exploited, albeit minimally. There is David Malouf's short story 'The only speaker of his tongue', for example, and for plays Harold Pinter's Mountain Language and my own Living On. I give some quotes and observations in the UNESCO paper. But my point applied to the arts in general, not just to the textual arts. I don't know of any musical pieces on the topic, for instance. Isn't it a perfect subject for Philip Glass? Do you know of any paintings? Or sculptures, apart from Rachel Berwick's 'living sculpture' that I allude to in Language Death? Or - for this is a topic that is bigger than the 'high arts' - pop songs or raps? My most profound hope is that the artists of the world (in the broadest sense) will take this subject on board. It is, as I argue in the paper, the only real way of getting the subject of language endangerment into the hearts of the public at large.