Wordy Wednesday 4

There is a tremendous pleasure in using onomatopoeic words in speech. I think that even reading them in a book adds a little extra to the narrative.

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Field of buttercups totally unrelated to this post.

For example, a horse clip-clop, clip-clops along a road.

Hissing just has to be a snake, or perhaps a water spray, but if it is the similar sound of frying food it a sizzle.

Splish-splash is the sound of small children stamping in puddles. In France, of course, those children would be going plouf-plouf. In Portuguese, pluft-pluft. German has the verbs platschen and planschen, although I have no idea how they decline. It would be plusk-plusk in Polish vsplesk-vsplesk in Russian. I’m sure you get the idea.

I like that quite a few birds seem to be named after the sounds they make. Thus we have the cuckoo, and the bulbul. In Ladakh, the pigeon is the po-ro, in Russia it is the golb, and pretty much the same in Poland. It is due in danish.

Which may or may not lead us quite conveniently back to last Wednesday’s post, about similar or identical words in different languages. All these similarities might again be the product of languages keeping some words the same after they have evolved and changed into new languages. Or they might arise naturally, since by their very nature they are likely to sound very similar anyway.

Of course, it’s probably a mixture of both these things, and far more complex in any case.

Wordy Wednesday 3

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Arv’s comments on last week’s Wordy Wednesday post reminded me of some of what stirred my interest in the history of language. Reading about the unexpected discovery in the nineteenth century of the great similarities between words in Sanskrit, the ancient written language of much of the Indian Subcontinent, and words in Ancient Greek and Latin which were a starting point for the study of Linguistics, was something that fascinated me.

The word for ‘father‘, for example, is ‘pita‘ in Sanskrit, and ‘pater‘ in Latin and Greek.

The word for ‘mother‘ is ‘mata‘ in Sanskrit, ‘mater‘ in Latin and ‘meter‘ in Greek.

The word ‘Aryan‘, actually has the meaning of noble or honourable in Sanskrit (arya), which in Latin becomes ‘ariana‘ (holy) and in Ancient Greek ‘areia‘.

And there are other, seemingly more unlikely, connections.

The word for ‘horse‘ is ‘aswa‘ in Sanskrit, and ‘asva‘ in Lithuanian!

Whether the implications behind this are that there was a great mixing of peoples in those days and that different civilisations adopted words from the others, or that all these languages descended from one single, now lost, language in the distant past, can never be known for certain, but the evidence for the latter is extremely strong, especially as the world population was so much smaller then.

Modern research suggests that Sanskrit, spoken by the ancient tribes of India who called themselves ‘Aryans’, entered the Indian subcontinent from the north west, an area both closer to modern day Europe (and its languages) and to the source of the original migration of peoples out of Africa.

Of course, the theory of a single original language puts me in mind of the myth of the Tower of Babel…

My interest was also stirred by a number of similarities I came across when I was travelling or working overseas. One example will suffice:

Cat‘ is ‘chat‘ in French, ‘gato‘ in Spanish and Portuguese ‘katz‘ in German, ‘kot‘ in Polish, ‘kot‘ in Russian and ‘kitta‘ in Arabic.

I think the real significance of these similarities is that when you consider it logically, I don’t suppose that the speakers of all these languages were just waiting for someone to come along and give them a useful word for the furry mouse-catchers they had hanging around their villages and towns. It seems entirely probable that they all contain similar words because all those languages descended from one common source.

And this all leads me to one final thought (deep breath!)…in this ancient, lost, original language of our distant ancestors, we can be fairly certain, for example, that the word for ‘father‘ was something similar to most of its derivatives in use today. As well as the Latin, Greek and Sanskrit examples above, it is ‘padre‘ in Spanish, ‘pere‘ in French, and ‘vater‘ in German.

We may not be able to reconstruct this language (although in the future, who knows?), but we can certainly make a good guess at what a number of its words were, and they were words that most of us are familiar with today.

Starless and Bible-Black – Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

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After my previous post, it seems entirely apt to post a review, today.

Writers rely upon reviews to sell books. To spread the word. And I am conscious how bad I am at leaving reviews – mainly because I’m not very good at writing them. But I Shall Try To Do Better!

To start with, this is the review I left on Goodreads some time ago for a book that is already very well-known.

This book begins, then, full of rich, playful language as it sets the scene and gradually introduces the players.

To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’ -and -rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfounded town are sleeping now.

I have heard poems by Dylan Thomas read by Richard Burton – the actor, not the nineteenth century explorer – and his warm, mesmeric, lilting tone suits the poetry like no other voice I could imagine. Now, I cannot read any Dylan Thomas without hearing it read in his voice.

(I want my work read like that. There is a man I know with a wonderful voice; mellifluous and rich and deep, like Burgundy and dark chocolate. Not Welsh, but very English, who I shall attempt to trick into reading one of my poems or short stories out loud, one day.)

So, to the poem, or play, if you will, for it is a play, first and foremost, told as a prose poem. The play is full of wonderful voices, the voices of a plethora of small-town characters; all of them realistically drawn with their dreams and vices and foibles, and depicted with great humour, but also with sadness. Sadness, for there is resolution for most of the characters, and for some their dreams come true, but others are disappointed.

All of these characters love and hate and desire each other, they reminisce, they have ambitions. In this play, they all have their day. In this place, each one gets to tell their story, or have it told for them.

From the very beginning, the language is rich like double cream and brandy butter; too rich, perhaps, for certainly by the time I had begun to near the end it had become too much. I found myself yearning for more plain, simple language. I wanted a few bread and water phrases.

But the words invite you to savour them slowly – in fact, they demand it. Perhaps the secret, then, is to read this little and often; to dip into it and immerse yourself in the language.

I really wanted to give this masterpiece four and half stars out of five, but without that option, I give it five, although with the caveat above.

A Short History of Blogging – reblogged!

Here’s a post from a couple of years ago which might be of interest if you haven’t read it before. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Blogging has always been about self-promotion. The first known blogs were on cave walls, although they were pretty crude, to be honest, and it is often really difficult to make out what the bloggers were on about. There is speculation, indeed, that to refer to them as ‘blogs’ might be a little misleading. The fact that they tend to be short and that it is very hard to make out what they mean, leads some experts to assume that they were an early form of Twitter. And then the fact that they frequently depict crude human figures, especially exaggeratedly female ones, and various animals, suggest that even in these early times, social media were largely the preserve of the young person.

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‘Share if you think these babes are hot.’

By the time of the rise of the first true civilisations in Egypt, they were beginning to get the hang of it. They have left massive numbers of inscriptions all over walls and columns and pretty well anything else that they could get a hammer and chisel near.

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‘Amenhotep snubbed in Big Brother Pyramid game – LOL’

Some even see the Rosetta Stone as a forerunner of Google, but others don’t.

The first English blogger was The Venerable Bede. His blog is one of the main sources of our knowledge of Saxon times, which is a bit of a bugger really, when you consider how reliable social media are today as a source of modern history. He probably missed out most of the good stuff. But he blogged in Old English, anyway, which no one can understand nowadays so it probably doesn’t matter.

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Leonardo da Vinci did a wicked selfie, but would probably be criticised nowadays for how few he produced. To be anyone on social media, it is probably necessary to post a minimum of twenty selfies in any twenty four hour period, but Leo was never up to that. But most of his blogs were all about what would then be science fiction and art and politics…so he’d have fitted in quite well with today’s bloggers really.

Samuel Pepys’ diaries are, of course, just the notes he took for his blogs. They are a mix of politics and news and what his family were up to, and his ‘conquests’ of various ladies. Wisely, he wrote most of this in shorthand and, even more wisely, put the more salacious bits in code. Nowadays, it is unnecessary to use code, since language is now changing so fast that no one can understand anything that was written more than six months ago anyway.

The Puritans thought blogging might be fun so they banned it, along with just about everything else, except breathing and praying. Well, praying, anyway.

A little later, newspapers were invented. These were not really blogs, since they were filled with news, rather than self-promotion, and it took a number of years before newspaper owners and editors realised that. Once they did, however, they worked very hard to make up for lost time, and now there are very few newspapers in the world that print mainly news.

And quite a lot that do not print any news at all.

In fact, they tend to be full of primitive opinion and often depict crude human figures, especially exaggeratedly female ones, and various animals.

And thus life turns full circle.

 

Photo credit (picture 1): jmarconi via VisualHunt.com / CC BY         

Photo credit (picture 2): PMillera4 via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

How to Swear

Strangely, I was inspired to write this post after my virtual trip to Nepal with Bob, although ever since the unfortunate and divisive events in the US and the UK, I have been inundated with a request from my follower to produce this guide.

This guide, then, is intended for those who find themselves in situations of such extreme frustration that a safety valve needs to be opened before anything useful and practical can be done about the problem. Or, indeed, before a physical injury is sustained unnecessarily.

I feel your pain, I truly do.

And so I humbly offer you, the reader, this handy cut-out-and-keep Guide to Swearing.

Swearing loyalty, swearing allegiance to something, swearing to tell the truth…that’s not what this is about, even though it’s a related subject.

No, this is about swearing!

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The swearing we might indulge in when someone or something irritates us beyond simply acknowledging that fact.

The swearing we might indulge in to demonstrate to others, or even just ourselves, how remarkably annoyed by that situation or person we are.

Something along the lines of ‘Blistering barnacles!’ for readers of a certain age. Or the mutterings of Mutley in ‘Wacky Races’ for other readers of a certain age. I’m afraid these cultural references will be lost on some…you’ll just have to swear at me for using them.

Firstly, and most importantly, one should choose the correct moment. I would not advocate swearing at any random time, for it is unlikely to have the desired restorative effect and, indeed, leaves the unwary user merely looking like a pillock.

Examples of bad moments might be during a marriage proposal, or an important meeting with your boss.

Whereas an example of a good moment might be, for the English cricket supporter, the following. Let us say that after losing an early wicket, in comes number 3, a contentious choice in any case, given his recent form, and promptly gives away his wicket with an ill-advised and airy shot to the first ball he faces. That would be an excellent time.

I used to find that a really good occasion would sometimes arise when I worked night shifts. Being awoken in the middle of the day, when I had just managed to get to sleep, by an insistent caller at the front door who demanded to know whether I had invited Jesus into my life, invariably worked.

A little bit of research might be helpful, here. Since you are unlikely to be the only person indulging in a bit of swearing (unless you live in a convent, or somesuch…and maybe not even then), you could stand out from the crowd by using some of the less-commonly heard swearwords. You might derive a certain amount of satisfaction, for example, by comparing your unfeeling relative to the intimate parts of a mammal, but how much more interesting for both spectators and participants to employ some rarely heard Viking term for the feeling one gets when an unusually cold gust of wind catches one unexpectedly just as one begins to perform on the privy?

That’s class, that is.

A few key words:

Adjectives. A careful use of adjectives will enable the Swearer to not only modify and enhance the power and meaning of the chosen epithets, but also, with a certain amount of skill, extend the outburst for up to a minute without the need to introduce a new noun, keeping those in reserve in case a second assault is required.

Breathing. Remember to breathe while swearing. Running out of breath suggests that not only have you not given due thought to the composition of your swear, but, worse still, perhaps have also lost control of the entire situation.

Cursing. Now, this is another thing entirely, and outside the remit of this post. Rather than simple (or complex) swearing, cursing implies the actual placing of a curse upon another person, with the aim of causing them injury, sickness or death. I shall deal with this more fully in my up-coming post ‘Getting Promotion at Work and Dealing With Troublesome In-laws’. There are those who hold that the two are interchangeable (cursing and swearing, I mean, not promotion and troublesome in-laws), and that the person who, in a moment of great stress and deep personal antipathy shouts something along the lines of ‘Trip over a nasty lump in the ground and hurt yourself, you frightfully horrid person!‘ is merely swearing, yet all they are doing is actually attempting to curse the recipient, albeit in an amateur and rather un-thought out way, and then tacking onto the end something that is technically a mere insult, which should only be used in other, carefully defined, situations (see ‘Using insults in carefully defined situations‘).

Happy ****ing swearing.

Artificial Intelligence

This is not something that I really know anything about, but the possible dangers of building a machine with Artificial Intelligence were in the news again this morning.

Although he is not the first to do so, the fact that Professor Stephen Hawking has warned that this will inevitably lead to machines coming to dominate humans, and perhaps deciding to enslave or eliminate them, has made plenty of headlines around the world.

I have the impression that this (the danger) is not something that is taken seriously by many people, perhaps because we have all grown up with cartoons in comics and comedies on the television of lovable, but bumbling, robots, usually unfailingly loyal to their human masters. A quick trawl through the internet produces countless images of robots, predominantly benign and friendly looking ones busy helping humans. Naturally, these pictures are largely produced by companies that would like us to invest in this image. Certainly, more R2D2 than Terminator.

But science is proceeding at quite a rate, and it will not be long before this becomes an urgent issue.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Language is inevitably a compromise; no word can completely describe something. Often, we do not even agree on what a word means – as Lewis Carroll writes in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. A popular paradox ‘what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?’ is often talked about, to which the simple answer is that the force is only irresistible because it has not yet been resisted, and the object is only immovable because it has not yet been moved. The glib answer that Artificial Intelligence would have ‘ethics’ built into it so that it could not challenge humans, is meaningless.

As human beings have evolved and developed, the unquestioning belief in gods and their ethical dictats has inevitably come to be challenged. In the same way, a machine capable of learning and thought would be able to question an ethical restraint programmed into it.

And once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back. Any more than we could uninvent the aeroplane or the hydrogen bomb, once the information how to do it is out there, it will be stored and shared and eventually used.

I also find it difficult to avoid the feeling that there is a sizeable part of the scientific establishment that believe they have a right to do absolutely anything, and take any risk, and that it is justified in the name of ‘science’ or ‘progress’, be it nanotechnology or germ warfare research or some other such delight.

It does seem sometimes that as a species, we are hell-bent on wiping ourselves out.

There, that’s a nice big helping of doom and gloom for a Monday morning. But perhaps not; in my ignorant non-scientific naivety, I wonder if as long as this amazing thinking and learning machine is just that, and that only, and not a robot that can move around and do things, all might yet be well.

Of course, the writer in me then imagines this huge brain surviving the end of the World and pondering deeply for eons before declaring ‘Let there be light!’

Maybe this has all happened several times before…

Pitfalls for Writers – 4) Language; a bit of a follow-up

Back somewhere deep in the mists of time, I published ‘Pitfalls for Writers 1’. In this, I discussed some of the potential problems of language in a novel.

If I am to write a story of medieval Persia, for example, I will write it in English. No one who reads it is going to be fooled into thinking that my characters were really speaking in English. But this on its own is not enough. There must be something in the language I use that reminds the reader that the story setting really is medieval Persia.

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And so I suggested using a flavour of the speech. I might sprinkle the conversation with words such as ‘dirham’ (a unit of currency), or ‘djinns’ (genies). The characters might smoke a ‘qalyan’, which is how they would have referred to what we generally call a hookah. A greeting might be ‘Salām ʿalaykom’.

In the comment stream that followed, I concluded that I might employ a glossary, but certainly not footnotes.

This has now become most relevant to me.

About a month ago, I finished reading Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Folded Earth’. It is a novel that is set in India, written by an Indian writer, yet it uses a glossary, although she is presumably writing in the first instance for an Indian audience. This glossary explains a few words and phrases that many western readers would be unfamiliar with, although I would expect the majority of Indian readers to know them all.

My own novel is being read now by generous beta readers, and some of the discussion is over the use of the appropriate Hindi / Urdu words in the text.

And so, with ‘The Folded Earth’ as an example, I shall definitely use a glossary.

Next, it is important to employ the correct voice.

Speech:

Clearly, if the protagonists of a story are sitting down to a meal, they might complain about the amount of fat on the meat, but they would be most unlikely to refer to it as ‘adipose tissue’. Unless one or both were, for example, surgeons.

Very few people would be likely to refer to two items as being ‘in casual juxtaposition’. They would be far more likely to say something along the lines of ‘oh, they look a bit odd next to each other.’ As tempting as it might be for the author to show off their vocabulary, it is something that should be used most carefully.

Narrator:

If the story actually has a narrator, then this becomes even more important. The country bumpkin relating an everyday tale of rustic shenanigans should not be employing sophisticated and subtle wordplay. He or she should only be employing language that they would naturally use.

Author’s voice:

Even if there is no actual narrator, it remains important to use only language that would be natural to the situation. For example, it sounds plain wrong to describe a group of Vikings ‘computing’ an answer to a problem, even if it is only the author describing it that way.

Generally, of course, and I know that some will disagree with this, it is usually better to avoid all flowery and showy language in novels, and use simple language well.

Finally, a jarring note found in a few modern novels set in older times, is that the characters often think like modern folk. Reading these books as against books written, perhaps, 150 years ago, it is not just the style and language of the writing that are different, but also the prejudices. The hero of a novel set in 1840 is going to have casual prejudices against, perhaps, people of another race, women, etc etc. We tend to be reluctant to set these down in print, nowadays, perhaps as if by doing so we are almost admitting to having these prejudices ourselves.

However, if we want to depict our characters realistically, we need to do so ‘warts and all’. And if the writer is going to depict them otherwise, then he or she needs to have a good reason why they do.

 

Pitfalls for Writers 3

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 3) Spellcheck and Distractions

 

Spellcheck.

There are particular problems with the English language, when it comes to muddling words up, since we seem to be blessed (or otherwise) with a large number of groups of similar words. Within each group, they’re pronounced the same, although their meaning and spelling are different.

Did you see what I did there?

You might alter something, but then leave it on an altar.

Then there are, for example, groyne and groin; although in the US, groyne is spelled groin. Do you know which language your spellcheck uses? The default on my computer is US English, so I had to manually alter it to UK English, since I live in UK.

(This is referring to groyne / groin as in a breakwater, not an anatomical term)

Of course, if I was writing a piece to be published in the US, I would then need to alter many of the spellings to US usage.

Are you still with me?

Naturally, as writers, we should all understand the difference between ‘they’re, their and there’, but when using spellcheck it is perhaps easy, or perhaps lazy, to get them muddled up.

There. That’s what I did.

There is no substitute for a dictionary and a good knowledge of grammar.

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Distractions

Oh, I’m so easily distracted. When I am spending a day writing, be it on a novel or short story or on a piece for my blog, I turn to the internet to look something up and before I know it, I’m reading something else, which then encourages me to follow a thread somewhere to something I spotted that looks awfully interesting and then…

Obviously, if there is cricket going on, then that is understandable. Everybody needs to keep up with the score, don’t they? But it is just as likely to be an unrelated distraction.

I do understand the importance of a timetable, and I admit that I am hopeless at following my own advice, here. Occasionally I will scrawl down a note in my diary for the day that reads something along the lines of ‘Breakfast, then 9 am writing. 12 noon emails and lunch. 1 pm – 4 pm writing.’

When I do manage to have a working day that is disciplined, I invariably find that I get a lot more done. And one of the most important things, for me, is not to look at emails before lunchtime. As soon as I do, I’m no longer thinking about writing, but answering these various emails, and whatever it is they’re about.

Ooh, hang on, I need to go and check the cricket. No, no, it’s important. I’ll be back in a moment…

Pitfalls for writers – 1) language

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 1) Language

Language, or, more specifically, its usage, changes so rapidly nowadays that the writer who wishes to sound up to the minute is on a hiding to nothing.

Even if I were to successfully write a blog post using the latest idioms of the street, I suspect it would be out of date by the time it had been up on my site for twenty four hours.

What sounds edgy and street one day is laughed at the next.

Of course, older readers will laugh at it anyway, so whatever I do I end up getting jeered at.

Ouch!

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Let’s go back a little. The language of the Victorian Poor or the upper classes in 1920’s England, say, is easy enough to research and imitate, and also easy enough to understand when read today, which makes it much easier to work with. The only real pitfall might be to use a word at a period of history before said word was in use. A writer could not refer to his seventeenth century English gentleman ‘shampooing his hair’, for example, since the word did not enter the English language until 1762 and even then meant ‘massage’, as was its original meaning in Hindi, and only acquired the meaning of ‘to wash the hair’ in 1860.

The language of medieval England is also fairly easy to research, but the novelist uses it accurately at his or her peril, for precisely the same reason that no one would use Latin to write a novel set in ancient Rome – they would immediately be losing 99.9% of their potential readers.

The first three lines of ‘Beowulf’, in the original Old English:

‘hwæt, we gar-dena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!’

Anyone understand that? Nope, me neither. Seamus Heaney translates it thus:

So, the Spear-Danes in days gone by,

And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

An alternative translation I came across:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings,

Of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,

We have heard, and what honour the athelings won.

Now, I like the Seamus Heaney translation, but I prefer the second one, since I feel that it gives me more of a flavour of the time. So, the original is fun to read for a scholar of Old English, but if it’s just the story that you want, it needs to be written in a language that the reader understands, perhaps with the voice of the time (or flavour). What do I mean by voice? Let me give an example in an imaginary sixteenth century setting:

‘By my troth!’ he exclaimed.  Or…

‘By my troth!’ he exclaimeth.

In the first case, ‘By my troth!’, true to the time, conveys the voice of the time satisfactorily. In the second, the change from ‘exclaimed’ to ‘exclaimeth’ sounds awkward and cumbersome to modern ears, even if it be yet more true to the time.

Perhaps, then, the author does not need to write authentic language, but just to sound a bit authentic; to use extracts. Give a taste.

So, back to the streets. If I was to persist in my ambition to write a post in the genuine voice of an urban teenager, I am almost certain to fail.

Even if I were to pick up the words accurately, I would probably use them incorrectly, and the majority of my readers would not understand them in any case.

And so my answer would be to attempt merely a flavour of the speech.

What of a story set in a different culture to that of the writer? The novel that I am working on at the moment is set in India, and so I use several words and terms that will be familiar to Indian readers, but perhaps not to western ones.

Do I need to explain them? Or put in a glossary?

My feeling is not. An Indian writer would not feel the need to explain them, and they obviously help to give a more authentic voice or flavour to the narrative. Their use does not affect the flow of the story, either, since the reader can choose to look up the word if they wish, or simply infer the meaning and carry on. We all occasionally meet words we don’t recognise, in any case.

Does anyone think otherwise? How do you feel when you encounter dialect or unknown words in books?