Friday 23 April 2010

On the M Quarto of Macbeth

Following the amazing discovery of the H Quarto of Hamlet (see the post for 21 August 2007), I now use the occasion of Shakespeare's birthday to reveal another startling find: fragments of the M Quarto of Macbeth, which were reported at the annual meeting of IATEFL in Harrogate earlier this month. Two fragments of what seems to have been called Macbeth's Murderous Mayhem have so far been discovered - the opening witches scene, and the speech which begins 'Is this a dagger that I see before me...'.

Act 1, Scene 1
Enter magical menage-a-trois
Magus 1: More meetings, magic-mates,
Maybe mid meteorological monsoons?
Magus 2: Moment melee-muddle's managed,
Military match mediated.
Magus 3: Momentarily.
Magus 1: Mise-en-scene?
Magus 2: Moorland.
Magus 3: Meet Macbeth.
Magus 1: Metamorphosing, Mousy-Malkin.
Magus 2: Magician-mate murmers.
Magus 3: Minute!
All: Marvels manifest malodorousness, malodorousness manifests marvels;
Meander midst mist, mucky medium.

Act 2 scene 1

Enter Macbeth
Machete meeting me?
Midpoint marking my mitt? Manipulate...
Merde! Missed! Mirage maintaining mien.
Maybe mortiferous manifestation masterable?
More merde! Misapprehension, mistake,
Molten medulla manifesting mental mirage.
Mm? Marshall'st me? Motivating my movements?
Mamma mia. Mistaken madness. Mighty misconception!
Macabre monarch-murder makes me muse.
Mistrust melodramatic mirage.
My mind, make me militant, martial.
Mucho manslaughter, mortal massacre.
Bell rings
Move, Macbeth. Melody manoeuvres me.
Mishear, Monarch. Mayday, Mayday!
Maybe marvellous merriment, maybe miserable moan.
Make my month, monc!

Sunday 18 April 2010

On being orient(at)ed

A correspondent writes to ask if it should be disoriented or disorientated.

The answer partly depends on where you live. If you're American, you're in no doubt that it must be the shorter form; and according to Pam Peters (in her Cambridge Guide to English Usage) the same preference is found in Canada and Australia. Some US style guides go so far as to say that orientate is simply incorrect. That's going too far, as British English uses both, with a noticeable preference for the longer form. However, overall (globally speaking), the dominance of the longer form is evident: Google has orient 65 million vs 4 million, disorient 1.2 million vs 0.2 million.

The usage issue is relatively recent. For quite a while there was only the shorter form: the OED gives a first recorded usage for disorient in 1655, and for orient in 1728. The first recorded use of the longer forms is 1704 (for disorientate) and 1848 (for orientate). The new verb probably arose as a result of the associated nouns. Orientation (1839) and orientator (1844) preceded orientate, and the new verb usage would have been reinforced by the arrival of disorientation (1860). Certainly, by the end of the 19th century both verb forms were available.

Fowler has no separate entry on either word in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). We might think he would favour orient, because in his entry on 'Long Variants', he advises the use of shorter alternatives, as in prevent(at)ive, cultiv(at)able. On the other hand, in The King's English, orient is criticised as a 'Gallicism'. In his revision of Fowler's Dictionary (1965), Ernest Gowers (thinking of British English) suggests that orientate 'is likely to prevail in the common figurative use', i.e. with reference to goals rather than physical direction. This is an important distinction. We are more likely to say The course is orientated towards linguistics than The basilica is orientated towards the east.

On speaking music

A correspondent writes to ask if singing is ever used in speech. She isn't thinking of intonation, sometimes described in a metaphorical way as the musical property of speech - ‘metaphorical’, of course, because our voices don't need to be tuned to concert pitch before we begin a conversation. She has in mind something rather less obvious - musical quotations or catch-phrases, where a musical extract is given a generalized linguistic interpretation.

Yes, there are instances. I've heard people sometimes say Hallejuah! when a satisfactory outcome has been achieved, but instead of saying it they sing it as the opening bars of the chorus from Handel's Messiah. I can't think of many like that. Rather more common is the vocal rendition of orchestral fragments. A contemporary example is the theme from Jaws. The jocular expression of an approaching dangerous social situation is often conveyed by people sounding out its ominous low-pitched glissando quavers. It forms part of a dialogue that is otherwise speech, and it's meant to be judged by the same standards. Nobody thinks of it as an attempt to artistically render the original musical score.

I've collected several examples of this kind in conversational settings: the theme from the Twilight Zone, Dr Who, Dragnet, the shower-room scene in Psycho, Laurel and Hardy’s clumsy walk music, the riff in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The extract is usually highly stereotyped and brief. It may be just a couple of notes. Someone who arrives in a room with something special to show may accompany it with ‘Ta-raa’, or the fanfare from a racecourse. I've heard people use the whistled motif from Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western films and the chase music from a Keystone Kops film. Devotees of The Prisoner cult TV series (the original one, not the Hollywood remake) introduce its brief musical motifs into their speech to the point of boredom. TV ads can prompt the use of a tune. I'd be interested to hear of other cases.

What is linguistically interesting is that some of these excerpts make sense even if the participants have never encountered (or have forgotten) the original version. The Jaws theme, for example, has taken on a life of its own - a musical idiom expressing mock danger. In such cases, the semantic interpretation is clear. On the other hand, in cases such as the Dr Who theme, the function seems to be pragmatic rather than semantic - to build rapport among people who have shared a cultural experience. Some of the examples may be very transient, therefore, and (as in the case of TV ads) may not make sense outside of the regional setting in which they were first heard.

Phoneticians have problems with these things. They aren't easy to transcribe, not least because they use an absolute musical scale, whereas speech uses a relativistic scale. It doesn't make sense to think of people as speaking 'out of tune' (though some prosodic disorders in speech pathology might aptly be described in that way). Try transcribing the theme from Jaws, and you'll see the problem straight away.

Friday 2 April 2010

And now for something completely different

A correspondent writes: 'I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding beginning sentences with the coordinating conjunction and. I see it being used more and more regularly in the media and in texts. As an English Language teacher I am wondering if I should just accept it? I was always taught never to start a sentence with this word. Am I being too 'prescriptive'?'

Well, yes, in a word. But 'used more and more regularly?' Not a bit. It's always been used in that way, from the very beginning of the language. It's one of the most noticeable features of Old English. We find sentences beginning with and in Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Macaulay, and in every major writer. Take this sequence from the opening chapter of King James:

1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

It goes on like that. All but two of the verses in the first chapter of Genesis begin with And.

So where on earth did the distaste of initial and come from? It was during the 19th century, when some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like but or and, presumably because they noticed the way young children often overused them. It's certainly a common feature of early story-writing style, because the children are replicating in their writing the style of everyday spoken narrative, which is full of ands. But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, the teachers banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should 'never' begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some evidently still are.

There was never any authority behind this condemnation. It isn't one of the rules laid down by the first prescriptive grammarians. Indeed, one of those grammarians, Bishop Lowth, uses dozens of examples of sentences beginning with and. Henry Fowler, in his famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage, went so far as to call it a 'superstition'. He was right. Joining sentences in this way has been part of the grammatical fabric of the language from the very beginning.