Monday 21 May 2007

On a nother matter

A correspondent writes: 'Can you confirm/deny that 'an' used to be 'a' nother etc? If I am right, when did the n migrate?'

I can certainly confirm that a nother existed in English, from around 1300, as a variant of an other. Chaucer has an example: 'And saw a nothere ladye'. It was definitely a variant: there are earlier examples of both an other and another. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary also gives examples of no nother, no notherways (i.e. 'no otherwise'), and the notheren (i.e. 'the others').

The usage stayed a long time in English. It isn't surprising to see it at a time when spelling conventions had not been established, and people wrote more or less as they spoke. But the OED has found an example from as late as 1782, in a Lincolnshire glossary, suggesting that this word division stayed in people's minds, at least in some dialects. In jocular use, I still hear similar usages today: 'Got a napple?' - and you see this kind of thing written sometimes in representations of regional dialect. That people still play with article word-division is shown, in reverse, by graffiti of the type 'Be alert. This country needs lerts.'

Friday 18 May 2007

On the International Year of Languages

In a plenary session at the UN this week, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. The text affirms that this year will serve to promote unity through linguistic diversity. The Assembly called upon States and the Secretariat to work towards the conservation and defence of the world's languages. They also requested the Secretariat to appoint a coordinator for multilingualism. The idea of devoting a whole year to languages arose two years ago. It came up at the 33rd UNESCO General Conference, held in Paris at the end of 2005. It's great to see that it has been taken on board at the highest international level. There was a European Year of Languages in 2001, which did some fine things. I hope next year will do much more.

But do we in the UK have a government that is able to see anything else but the Olympics? I have my doubts. Already new arts development programmes in my area have come to a dead stop. Generating top-down interest in new language projects is going to be very hard, therefore. It's a shame, for it would be an ideal moment to resuscitate the proposal to build a 'House of Languages' in the UK - a project which nearly got off the ground in the late 90s, but which was killed off by another brilliant government idea, to build a Millennium Dome.

I think it will be up to individuals and individual institutions to do something. My own first priority will be to try to find sponsorship to get a full production of 'Living On' (see earlier posts) on stage next year. But I'm sure all kinds of unpredictable things will crop up. That's what happened in 2001, anyway.

Getting the news out is the first step. The UN has never been very good at publicising its 'years'. Hence this post.

Wednesday 16 May 2007

On answering asap

A correspondent writes from the USA: 'Here in Orange County, California, 11 to 13-year-olds are increasingly using acronyms in their conversations. Text message shorthand is now everyday talk. Instead of exclaiming, "Oh my god," kids will say, "OMG!" Instead of "Just kidding," they will say, "JK." I would like to know what you think of this development; is it good or bad for language? Why is it happening? Has it happened before?'

Yes, I've heard it in the UK too, where it's been around for a few years. (Text-messaging took off in the UK before it hit the US.) There's nothing intrinsically new about the process. I remember my Uncle Bill saying TTFN ('ta-ta-for-now') when he went off to work - and that was in the 1940s. And I say ASAP all the time. Abbreviations of this kind (i.e. colloquial ones, as opposed to the abbreviations of names, such as CNN, BBC, M&S) have been in English for ages - some for decades. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a first recorded reference to ASAP as 1955. PDQ is recorded from 1885.

Having said that, colloquial abbreviations are unusual, and what is interesting about the current text-messaging vogue is to hear so many of these (like OMG, LOL) being spoken. Some might end up with a permanent home in the language, but I doubt that most will. It's too early to say. It feels like a fashion, which might disappear as quickly as it started. It certainly isn't a big deal, as far as language is concerned. We are talking about a tiny number of uses.

As for the 'good vs bad' question - it's neither. That's like asking whether it's good or bad for the tide to come in and go out each day. It's just another manifestation of the remarkable ways in which people use language creatively to show social networks.

Monday 7 May 2007

On modernizing or not modernizing Shakespeare

A correspondent writes in relation to a point I make in an article (on the Penguin website) on whether Shakespeare should or should not be modernized, where I quote ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ as a line whose meaning is obvious to everybody. He comments: ‘But does it really mean what most people think it means? Dr Johnson in his Notes on Hamlet interprets this line as asking whether or not we will continue to exist after death. This interpretation certainly fits the context and Johnson was presumably as good a judge of Shakespeare's language as anybody. It seems probable then that the bard's most commonly quoted line is misunderstood by almost everybody and thus supports the arguments of those who wish to modernise.’

It’s an interesting point, but this isn't so much translation, to my mind, as interpretation. There's nothing in the meaning of the word be which offers this alternative. This is Johnson reading in possibilities which fit in with his mindset - someone who condemns the tragedies for their 'lack of moral purpose', and leads him to such statements as:

'In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.'

Likewise, I'm not sure I would agree that Johnson is as good a judge of Shakespeare's language as anybody. He holds an 18th-century view of literary language which leads him to such observations as: Shakespeare's narration has 'a disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few'. And again: 'his declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak'. While not denying that ‘Shakespeare sometimes sleeps’, I think we would take a different view today.

I would be interested to see a modern translation purporting to make Shakespeare's language easier which actually succeeds with the line 'To be or not to be'.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

On mixing metaphors

A correspondent from Brazil cites the sentence 'It was clear that the germs of a compromise policy would have to be sown', commenting: 'Such mixed metaphors can easily slip out in unplanned English, but in careful writing you must be on guard against them. Replacing germs by seeds would repair the metaphor. He then adds: 'I would interpret such sentence as evidence of users´ linguistic creativity', and wonders if I would agree.

Mixed metaphors have certainly had a mixed press. Fowler was strongly against them, calling them an 'offence', and getting especially angry when people asked permission to mix - 'if I may mix my metaphors...'! Some of his quotations are indeed highly incongruous or semantically obscure, and that is when the stylists have a point. But most everyday mixing is not like this. In speech, I doubt whether anyone would notice the 'germs' example, because the close semantic connection between germs and seeds conveys the user's intention well enough. Nor in speech do people really have trouble handling famous examples (i.e. often quoted in style books) like 'He had his head so deep in the sand that he didn't know which side of the fence he was on'.

Note that it's the juxtaposition in a single sentence construction here which causes the judgement of mixing. If the utterance had been 'He had his head deep in the sand. He didn't know which side of the fence he was on', we would talk instead of a sequence of metaphors. We might or might not like the sequence, but that's a different point.

Stylists don't like mixing in formal writing, where they prefer people to have taken more care in their thinking. But a blanket condemnation of mixed metaphors in writing is absurd - for if one does so, one ends up banning a great deal of Shakespeare. Dozens of examples come to mind. Here are just three:

'Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dressed yourself?' (Macbeth)
'all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries' (Julius Caesar)
and, most famously,
'To take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them' (Hamlet)

If this isn't linguistic creativity, I don't know what is.