Sunday 24 June 2007

On undesirable alignments

A correspondent writes to enquire about the typographical phenomenon in which pieces of identical text - single words or phrases - appear exactly above each other in a column of print. She gives an example from a BBC website of 22 June - a remark by Gordon Brown: 'It is a good thing he is out, it is a good thing Iraq is a democracy, it is a good thing people are able to vote' - in which the first and third examples of 'It is a good thing' are exactly aligned. She comments: 'To an experienced reader these occurrences shout out like a bad spelling' and she asks 'Has this phenomenon ever been questioned, or analysed? Are there any logical or mathematical reasons or is really down to randomness?'

This is a consequence of repetitive content in a narrow measure. I notice it regularly when editing my general encyclopedias, which have a two-column setting and quite a bit of repeated text. An example would be a family of artists. If each person has to be expounded using the same house-style, as is typical with encyclopedia entries, the likelihood of alignment is strong. It is difficult to reproduce the effect in a blog, but the following is an approximation:

[The leading mambers of the]
family were John Smith (1800-1880), born in Dundee, Scotland, and
his two sons Allan Smith (1830-1910), born in Plymouth, Devon, and
the prolific James Smith (1835-1891), born in Plymouth, Devon.

In a first typesetting, alignments of this kind can occur every few pages, and because they are so intrusive the typesetter usually takes pains to avoid them. I pick up any that haven't been noticed, and make minor changes to get rid of them, such as taking back or taking over a word from one line to another, or hyphenating, or making a stylistic change in the text. For example:

[The leading mambers of the]
family were John Smith (1800-1880), born in Dundee, Scotland, and
his sons Allan Smith (1830-1910) and the prolific James Smith (1835-
1891), both born in Plymouth, Devon, UK.

Alignments of this kind are generally a consequence of narrow settings, such as newspaper or website columns. They are much less likely to occur in a full measure line on a reasonably wide page. And if they do appear, it is a consequence of poor typographical editing - or no such editing at all, in the case of many websites.

Just occasionally, in my experience, it proves impossible to get rid of the alignment, and one ends up having to live with it. One can do very little with a quotation, for example, as in the Gordon Brown instance. Playing about with the inter-word spacing is possible on a printed page (though not usually with much effect). This isn't an option on web pages.

Thursday 14 June 2007

On simplifying English

A grad student from the US writes to ask if there have been other attempts to provide a simplified English apart from Ogden & Richards' Basic English and Quirk's Nuclear English. She wonders why these attempts never prospered. Is it, she asks, because linguistic simplification is impossible to achieve, as an end in itself (as opposed to the simplifications introduced when teaching English as a foreign language, as a stage towards students achieving command of the full language)?

There certainly have been other attempts to provide a simplified English for special purposes. One was devised for the European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA), for simplifying maintenance manuals. The Voice of America has a 'Special English' project, with restricted vocabulary and simplified grammar, which has been going since 1959. And there have been several constructed languages based on English which aim to facilitate international communication, such as Seaspeak, Airspeak, and Policespeak.

I suppose you might include under this heading the kinds of simplification introduced by the UK's Plain English Society (or the equivalent in other countries) in their campaigns to increase everyday intelligibility. These are an end in themselves, and on the whole very successful too. But they had to fight to get their proposals adopted, and the battle against gobbledegook is by no means over. Plain English campaigns are only a partial simplification, though, being focused for the most part on formal written English intended for the general public.

An arbitrary simplification of the entire language is unachievable, in my view. All artificial or constructed languages come up against the same problem: how to bridge the gap between the simplified form and the reality of English as it is spoken and written (and, now, used on the internet) in its full range of unsimplified varieties? One needs to preserve continuity (with the non-simplified language) and to provide motivation. The logical arguments are all on the side of those who argue for a simplified English spelling, for example, but the pragmatic arguments are not - and pragmatics always wins. The only simplified spelling movement to have succeeded was Webster's, in America, and that was for a special set of reasons (coinciding with US independence). There have been dozens of proposals for simplified spelling since, and none have made much headway. Progress would be even more difficult to achieve if proposals were made to simplify grammar and vocabulary. The usage brigades would be on the streets fighting to defend the language's expressive richness.

Simplification is actually complicated. It sounds easy, for example, to reduce vocabulary to a core set of words. But as soon as you do that, if you want to maintain your expressive power, you have to increase sentence length. Look at the way the Longman Dictionary of Contemporay English handles its defining vocabulary of 2000 words. All the entries restrict themselves to those words, but as a result some of the definitions get quite long. The whole point of 'long' words is that they compress into a single unit what it often takes many words to say.

A distinction has to be made between artificial and natural simplification. I don't think artificial proposals are likely to succeed, outside of special circumstances (such as Seaspeak), though they might achieve a fashionable status for a while. But natural processes of simplification are certainly possible - and visible today on the Internet. If one looks at the kind of language used in chatrooms, instant messaging, texting, and other genres of language where the technology or the nature of the interaction requires short and speedy responses, then we find shorter sentences, reduced vocabulary, and simplified spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. I give some statistics and illustrations in my Language and the Internet - the second edition in 2005 includes instant messaging and blogging, which weren't around when the first edition appeared. It's too early to say whether any of these simplifications will have a long-term impact on language; they remain special varieties at present. But when you type rubarb, for example, into Google and you get 85,000 hits, it makes you wonder. Maybe English spelling will simplify, in the long term, as a result of Googlonian democracy.

Sunday 10 June 2007

On imaginary pronunciations

A correspondent writes to ask if there is a term to describe the situation when someone insists that two words should be pronounced differently because of the spelling. She recalls a case from her childhood when a teacher told her to pronounce the words threw and through differently because they are spelled differently. She remembers the teacher haranguing the class: 'an educated person pronounces the letters in a word'. And she has since come across it many times (she writes from the USA) - people who believe they pronounce the l in half or the b in debt, and so on, even though they do not.

My correspondent suggests the term 'Holofernizing', after the pedant in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost - which is not a bad idea. She worries about the legitimacy of using Holofernes' name in this way, for he was someone who (judging by the text) really did pronounce the b in debt. But I wonder if he did. Certainly I have never seen a Holofernes on stage where the actor took that character-note seriously, and spelling-pronounced all his words. It would probably produce an unintelligible performance.

I don't know how much Holofernization there is among teachers in Britain, but I imagine it is there. It is unfortunately quite common to find people whose beliefs about language run contrary to their practice. Even more common, of course, is the reverse situation to the one described by my correspondent: people who condemn a usage which they do unconsciously practice themselves - such as those who condemn an 'intrusive r', and take pains to avoid introducing one in law and order, but do it all the time in such less noticeable cases as Africa and Asia. I don't have a term for that either.

Is there an alternative term to 'Holofernization'? I don't know of one. Linguistic terminology focuses on language realities, not imaginings. There are very few terms for states of mind about language - hypercorrection is one, when people over-compensate for an uncertain usage (as in the case of between you and I). It would be good to formally identify this problem - for, according to my correspondent, many American children are being berated by teachers for failing to make distinctions which have no basis in reality.

Perhaps a reader of this blog will come up with a better one.