(Posted by Evan)
"Thank you so much for the blog. I shall lose no time in reading it" -Benjamin Disraeli
I think Bryson misunderstand's how things like "Get fucked" and "Go fuck yourself" are actually insults and not invitations for a pleasurable experience. In the first case, I'm pretty sure it's a contracted form of "Get fucked by somebody or something you don't want to get fucked by." It's also possible that its "Get into a situation that you would describe with 'I'm fucked.'" I agree with the general sentiment though. You have to admit that if someone says to you, "I will fuck you", it's pretty ambiguous about their feelings towards you and their specific intentions.
British cross-word puzzles are apparently beastly. Clues can be word games in themselves, anagrams, for example. Where you at Sean? Can you hang with the Brits?
Pallandrome - A word or sentence that is spelled the same backwards and forwards. "Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas." Bryson says it does not pass the plausibility test but I see no problem with that. Though to be fair, back in 1990, The Mars Volta hadn't been invented yet.
Anagram - Scramble the letters of words to make new words. "circumstantial evidence = can ruin a selected victim." That's pretty good.
Rebus - a riddle in which words are arranged that gives a clue to an intended meaning.
Holorime - Two statements that sound the same but use different words. As Bryson mentions, a really good way to do this is to listen to music and just go with your gut on what the lyrics are. I've done this a lot, but I can't remember any because now I just remember the real lyrics I guess. But Steph has one where she thought (still thinks) that a popular Shania Twain hit involves the lyrics:
Oh, oh, oh, really go wild-yeah, doin' it in style
Oh, oh, oh, get in the action-feel the attraction
Cum on my head-do what I dare
Oh, oh, oh, I wanna be free-yeah, to feel the way I feel
Clerihews - A limerick that starts with someone's name and summarizes their life in a few lines.
The part about William Spooner and Spoonerisms was pretty funny. Here's a list of some more. But it really reminded me of Yogi Berra. Yogi was a catcher for the New York Yankees and then later was a coach for the Yankees and Mets. But he's famous for saying things that don't make sense but are actually kind of brilliant if you think about them.
"When you come to the fork in the road, take it."
We'll finish off with the master - with Italian subtitles no less.
(Posted by Evan)
The main point in Chapter 9, Good English and Bad, is the lack of central authority for the English language, like the Académie Française for French.
Bryson says we have less verb inflections but use words in amore flexible way. I see this as kind of semantic as "used to drive", "will drive", "would drive" could be considered the verb inflections, just involving two words. He attributes most of the wackiness to imposing Latin grammar on a non-Latin language. So if we don't have an authority on our language why do we have to learn rules in school. Apparently, amateur grammarians were taken as authorities by some people and the rule propagates.
Queen Stefanya adds this little nugget:
Lastly, dictionaries do not save as authorities either, and some even take the descriptive view of explaining how things are used instead of the prescriptive view of explaining how it should be used. This all reminds me of what the guru N. N. Taleb calls "Teaching birds to fly." The idea being that people just do things, and then academic types (such as myself) figure out how they did it and explain it to them, usually without request.
This takes us nicely in to Chapter 10, Order out of Chaos, which is mainly devoted to dictionaries of English and how they came about. Bryson takes us through the difficult things to consider in making a dictionary by first considering the number of words. Could a dictionary ever be able to encapsulate them all? No. Even the more limited consideration of words in people's vocabulary is unclear. Estimates abound.
I think it is really something that our memories can work in this manner. Relying heavily on a small cluster of words and then be able to bring in more exotic terms that we may not have used in a long time. I've noticed in my writing that if I do that I have a tendency to want to use the same words again soon after.
Next, how do we define words? Can we capture every nuanced meaning for a word in a single dictionary? No. Lastly, by the time you are done you have to start over because language is always changing. Still, I have to admire people like Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, and James Augustus Henry Murray for trying. I have a strong desire to be comprehensive, flawless and exhaustive in all subjects, even as I secretly concede that it's impossible to be any of the three usually. Strive for perfection, you'll fall short into something pretty damn good. On the other hand, you may end up like W. C. Minor who kept himself institutionalized all his life and also CUT OFF HIS OWN PENIS WITH A PEN KNIFE!!! Accept your flaws is a good mantra too.
To show you how thrilling this book is, here is basically The Mother Tongue version of the photo album of classic cars mentioned in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice:
Speaking of which, I have a website now, so here's those classic cars. Hubba hubba!
Chapter 11, Old World, New World. The American English language takes it's root at a particular time in the transient development of English English. It borrows words from Dutch, Spanish, and French colonials as well as Native tribes. The latter in particular are often converted into more palatable spellings and pronunciations such as raugraoughchun into raccoon.
The origin of O.K. is unknown, huh? I had once heard that it meant "zero kills" and was coined during the Mexican-American War. However, the first print version in 1839 predates this. Still works for zero kills though. Also interesting is that certain Appalachian folks speak a similar version of English as Elizabethan England, and that Southern dialect words (consarn it) are closer to hoity-toity English. This reflects the role of social motility, with dialects being preserved in geographically isolated regions such as these, or in culturally isolated communities such as the Pennsylvania Dutch (who preserve their non-Dutch German language to some degree).
Shout out to The King's English (1931). It's a 'modern usage' book. I didn't get that from reading.
I meant this one of course. It's a quaint little book store. Not a great book store. But it's right along my bus route.
In Chapter 12, English as a Global Language, Bryson makes the case that English is a global language. He estimates that about a billion (American billion) people speak English as either a first or second language (back in 1990). The fact that they do this not because they think its the most awesomest language but because they know it is the most important testifies to me that English has become the official international language of the world. English words are incorporated into many languages including Serb-Croation. The Japanese do it the most, and the French, of course are the most resistant.
It may seem trivial but it is kind of important point to remember that first language - foreign, second language - English speakers prefer they're own language to English. The fact that they prefer to read and watch TV in their native language speaks to that, and seems obvious, although I wonder about music. American pop music is all the rage across the world, is it not? In any case, one lesson I learned from traveling in Europe is that although almost everyone there speaks English, they will find it rude if you assume they do. Learn how to politely ask "Excuse me, do you speak English?" in the native tongue and it will get you a long way.
Making up a language is ambitious, crazy... and ambitious. I wonder if the inventors of Volapük or Esperanto had any friends. I mean, speaking one of those languages is geekier than speaking Klingon or whatever Middle Earthers speak. At least those movies/shows/books were cool, so there's some excuse for geeking out. But a language out of the blue, for the sake of it? That's a little cultish.
(Posted By Evan)
Bryson discusses in Chapter 5 the rich vocabulary and extra shades of meaning in the English language, to the point of unnecessary synonyms (such as sternutation for sneezing) and redundancies (various different). On the other hand we seem to be missing terms for things we should have (like the positive of 'incorrigible') or pack multiple meanings into words (polysemous) such as fine (fine art, fine gold, a fine edge, feeling fine, fine hair, and a court fine").
He then lists six ways that words are formed.
1. BY ERROR.
He lists typographical errors, mistranslations and mishearings of words that stuck. This made me think of Rickyism’s for any Trailer Park Boys fans out there. (Language warning!)
I often use the word “lase” which I define as (v.) to emit laser light. This is an example of a ‘back-formation,’ discussed in the same section. A laser is (n.) a device that emits ‘laser light’. It’s actually an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission Radiation. It’s a historical convert from the MASER (M is for microwave). The R is completely redundant because Stimulated Emission is always Radiation so it could have just been MASE and LASE. “Laser” sounds more like a noun though, huh?
Laser light is fundamentally different from natural light, as different as a liquid is from a solid. A laser is not a light (or lamp), it’s a source of ‘laser light’. But a laser will not emit ‘laser light’ unless it is properly aligned. I’ve been trying to revive an old laser lately, so my reports to my boss recently have included sentences like, “I spent some time trying to get the laser to lase but it’s still not lasing.”
2. BY ADOPTION.
Interesting ones in this section are how words may come through multiple paths and arrive at the same time to give us pairs like "catch and chase, cave and cage, amiable and amicable". Also the doublets that are of half native - half foreign such as eyes/ocular ".. mouth/oral, book/literary.." or of two different Latin adjective forms ("earthly and terrestrial, motherly and maternal, timely and temporal").
3. BY CREATION.
Hats off to Shakespeare. He created some 1700 words or more, over 10% of the words he used, he made up. Now that's a writer.
4. BY DOING NOTHING.
This one was weak because there mainly just changes in connotation, but this was good boner joking.
(p. 81) Sometimes the changing connotations of a word can give a new and startling sense to literary passages, as in The Mayor of Casterbridge, where Thomas Hardy has one of his characters gaze upon "the unattractive exterior of Frafrae's erection" or in Bleak House, where Dickens writes that "Sir Leicester leans back in his chair, and breathlessly ejaculates."
5. BY ADDING OR SUBTRACTING.
I liked Bryson's point about how we can run roughshod with prefixes and suffixes and still make it sound pretty like taking the root word of hen and making incomprehensibility out of in, -com-, -pre-, -s-, -ib-, -il-, -it-, and -y.
Pronunciation is hard. I think Chapter 6 and 7 are probably best read aloud, in order to appreciate the differences in pronunciations Bryson is highlighting here (such as the "ng" sound in bring versus sing or the "th" sound in mouth, mouth, thigh, and thy). I did not subject my fellow UTA bus riders to this experiment, however. In addition, to these more formal intricacies, we are subjected to slurs. By which I mean Bryson talks about tendencies to slur words. The Baltimoron-ese is the pinnacle! I knew we were the best at something!
I never really had the accent and lost any trace I may have had. But ask me to say 'Orioles' and you might catch a hint. But the video below does a great job because this guy learned to correct his accent so he can switch in and out of it. When he is in it, he sounds just like my Uncle. This brings me to uncontrollable tears of laughter, I hope it does the same for you. Enjoy!
Between a dialect, a pronunciation, a creole, a pidgin, and a language I am now lost. But at least got to learn about Gullah or Geechee.
This YouTube page called Wikitongues is cool. You can find an example of someone speaking just about any language there. Here is Gullah – it's subtle, so I recommend watching the whole thing.
Spelling is hard too. This was my favorite part from Ch. 8.
(p. 130) In The English Language[page 91], Robert Burchfield, called by William Safire the "world's most influential lexicographer," talks about grammatical prescriptivists who regard "innovation as dangerous or at any rate resistable." It should be resistible. ...And in The Treasure of Our Tongue, Lincoln Barnett laments the decline of spelling noting: "An English examination at New Jersey's Farleigh Dickinson University disclosed that less than one quarter of the freshmen class could spell professor correctly." I wonder, for my part, how many of them could spell freshman class.
A quiz then follows to see if we can determine which of a list of words are mispelled. I got about half of them right.
(p. 131) So was misspelled at the end of the preceeding paragraph. So was preceding just there. I'm sorry, I'll stop.
Anyway, what this blog post needs is another YouTube video. Happy Saturday!
(Posted by Evan)
Author Bio: (From Wikipedia) "William McGuire Bryson (born 8 December 1951) is an American-British author of books on travel, the English language, science, and other non-fiction topics…
Bryson was born [in 1951] in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of Agnes Mary (née McGuire) and sports journalist Bill Bryson Sr…. In 2006 Bryson published The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a humorous account of his childhood years in Des Moines.
Bryson attended Drake University for two years before dropping out in 1972, deciding instead to backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high-school friend, Matt Angerer (the pseudonymous Stephen Katz). Bryson wrote about some of his experiences from this trip in his book Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.
Bryson first visited Britain in 1973 during his tour of Europe and decided to stay after landing a job working in a psychiatric hospital—the now-defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. He met a nurse there named Cynthia Billen, whom he married in 1975. They moved to Bryson's hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, in 1975 so that Bryson could complete his college degree at Drake University. In 1977 they settled in Britain… and now holds dual citizenship."
(From penguin books,)
"In a national poll, Notes from a Small Island was voted the book that best represents Britain. His acclaimed work of popular science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, won the Aventis Prize and the Descartes Prize, and was the biggest selling non-fiction book of its decade in the UK.
His new book The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an extraordinary exploration of the human body which will have you marvelling at the form you occupy. Bill Bryson was Chancellor of Durham University 2005–2011. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. He lives in England."
(From Durham University)
"Bill Bryson was Durham University's 11th Chancellor, and formal head of the University, from April 2005 to 31st December 2011…
In 2004 he returned to Durham to receive an honorary Doctor of Civil Law. In 2006, Bill was awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2009, was the first American to be made an honorary freeman of the City of Durham.
A high profile international figure, Bill is not only famous for his books; he is also actively involved in promoting cultural, environmental and scientific issues. In 2002, he travelled to Kenya with CARE International, an independent humanitarian organisation working to end world poverty through sustainable development programmes. In 2003, Bill was appointed as a Commissioner for English Heritage, and in 2005 he launched a call to improve the protection of Britain’s ancient trees and woods alongside The Woodland Trust and the Ancient Tree Forum."
I think Bill Bryson is funny. In researching his bio I came across this interview titled: Bill Bryson interview "I enjoy the preposterousness of life" So do I, Bill, so do I. This opening passage had me going pretty good.
(p.2) Consider this ... warning to motorists in Tokyo: "When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor."
In the interview, Bryson says he felt pressure to be comical in his early books and that mainly took the form making fun of people. I found these slurs (that's what they are) on the Irish pretty comical.
(p.9) An Irish buggy was a wheelbarrow. An Irish beauty was a woman with two black eyes. Irish confetti was bricks. An Irish promotion was a demotion.
In Chapter 2, Bryson tells us about the development of Neanderthal Man and Homo Sapiens. I didn’t know we were the only mammals that could choke on food. The implications for articulate speech go a long way to explaining my cats’ limited vocabularies.
We are provided with a two-sides theory of the development of language shown through the lens of childhood language development. a) the blank slate that learns what it experiences; b) an innate ability to learn language. Nature vs. Nurture (or vice versa rather, respectively). The evidence provided by Bryson seems to favor Nature, but doesn’t attempt to be decisive. He talks about how historically, different languages developed at the same time and how children all seem to learn language in the same way and on the same time scales. He points out what would be very strange coincidences between distant languages such as Sanskrit and English, hinting that some cognates may be universal originating from onomatopoeia. Personally, I am skeptical about the existence of a Proto-Indo-European mother tongue.
Oh and this sentence about Sanskrit on page 22, "That so much of it survived at all was in large part due to the efforts of priests who memorized its sacred hymns, the Vedas, and passed them on from one generation to the next for hundreds of years even though the words had no meaning for them." makes me think of Djinn in Salamander by Thomas Wharton, getting an ancient language tattooed on his body, the living scroll.
In a book that Andy recommended, Probably Approximately Correct by Leslie Valiant, a book about ‘machine learning’ mostly, he argues that evolutionary learning is not fundamentally different from conventional learning of a single organism through experience and offers this as an explanation as to why it is difficult to distinguish Nature from Nurture. Through evolution we have learned through our genes, our genetic memory, while through experience we have learned through normal memory. It’s a neat idea. Bryson points out many times that one distinct characteristic of English is it's flexibility. So maybe an evolutionary theory is appropriate.
This book was published in 1990. I wonder how much our knowledge of these things has changed since then.
Chapter 3 on the other hand shows us how different languages can be. “It appears there is no feature of grammar or syntax that is indispensable or universal.” (p.29) The way that culture and environment influence language is seen in the 50 words for snow of the Eskimos. As Bryson points out, languages change over time, they mix with other languages, and they die out. They can be generated through the development of pidgins and then creoles to full-fledged languages. I didn’t know that a creole was type of language. I always thought Creole was a language in Louisiana and some of the Caribbean nations. I had never heard of a pidgin.
But I thought Bryson could have done a better job of describing how these classes of languages are distinct. I just gather that a language is superior to a creole and a creole is superior to a pidgin.
Chapter 4 is the start of the real book, how the English language began. I found this chapter fascinating. I wasn’t aware that English was historically Germanic. I always thought of it as a mix of European languages, but rooted in Latin. This seems to be Bryson’s point about the rules of Latin being arbitrarily imposed upon English being one of its peculiarities.
Poor Celts. Sounds like they had a good thing going. Then those barbarian Anglo-Saxon-Frisian-Jutes invaded and ruined everything. But it’s interesting how the crass and uncultured English survived because it was so. Bryson points out how the Romans and Celts left little in the way of vocabulary beyond the names of places in the English Language. This is later made more explicit when he describes how the Anglo-Norman occupation provided a lot of terms related to government and high-class professional crafts, while English maintained authority over the language of love and dirt. One of my favorite parts of the book so far was the remaining 1% of modern English attributable to pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon English containing all the best words:
(p.57) ... man, wife, child, brother, sister, live, fight, love, drink, sleep, eat, house and so on.
Language is a major class signifier, and has major implications for politics, but it goes both ways. The Anglo-Normans were able to rule over the English with their imposition of government official language but the language dissolved because it was too haughty for the populace and still looked down upon by Parisians. I hear that the Parisians also mock the Quebecois, and yet the latter are still proud of their language and still call it French.
A similar dynamic occurs in professional communities. Jargon can be used to exclude lay people from knowing what a doctor, lawyer, or scientist are up to. But within the field, if you use a lot of jargon people will think you are an idiot.
You made it to the end. You deserve a treat.