Quotation of the month – Johnson on the mutability of language

I’ve always been fascinated by the tension between prescriptivism and descriptivisim, so it was a surprise to discover the Preface to Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary only recently. I had difficulty choosing which part to quote, because the whole thing is so perfectly phrased in that poised but passionate 18th-century way. The whole text is well worth a read, and available on Project Gutenberg and on the British Library website.

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary Second Edition
Title page to the second edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

“…with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.
With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
…The language most likely to continue long without alteration, would be that of a nation raised a little, and but a little, above barbarity, secluded from strangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniencies of life; wither without books…men thus busied and unlearned, having only such words as common use requires, would perhaps long continue to express the same notions by the same signs, But no such constancy can be expected in a people polished by arts, and classed by subordination, where one part of the community is sustained and accommodated by the labour of the other. Those who have much leisure to think, will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or fancied, will produce new words, or combinations of words. When the mind is unchained from necessity, it will range after convenience; when it is left at large in the fields of speculation, it will shift opinions; as any custom is disused, the words that expressed it must perish with it; as any opinion grows popular, it will innovate speech in the same proportion as it alters practice.” – from the Preface to Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)

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Books with pink covers – Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes

Ever the admirer of Desert Island Discs, I found myself listening to Marian Keyes one day. I’d never read any of her books, but writers talking about life and books and music has to be one of my favourite things, so I gave the episode my full attention. I was captured by how warmly and openly she spoke about mental health and addiction and how this finds its way into her writing. Early on, she talks about being pigeon-holed as a “popular” writer, and Kirsty Young asks her why she thinks she’s put in such categories:

“Because I’m a woman. And because, for good or for ill, lots of women enjoy my books, and they relate to them. And in my own little way I feel that they are quite empowering. And I think that anything that empowers women […] has to be slapped down. And so if we like something, by telling us it’s rubbish, it makes us feel a bit silly for having liked it in the first place. And I know so many men will be listening to this and thinking, ‘that’s not true’. But it absolutely is true. […] I am very proud of the books I write and the reach that they have. I’m prepared to put up with a pink cover if it makes me more accessible. I don’t see anything wrong with being accessible. It would sadden me to write a book that was only read by seven people. It’s that choice. But it means then that I am patronised, and categorised as […] not terribly clever.” (5:40-7:40)

Guiltily, I remembered how doggedly I avoid any book with a pink cover. “My God,” I thought, “I’m part of the problem.” My solution: to immediately go out and acquire a book by Marian Keyes. Lacking the funds necessary for a trip to the bookshop, I set off to my local library. I found three books by Keyes. This Charming Man was just too pink. I baulked. The Woman who Stole my Life seemed an improvement, but didn’t immediately grab me. The final book I found was Sushi for Beginners. Not too pink, and about editing, a topic I love reading about. Perfect! The editing of a women’s magazine, to be sure, but better than nothing. It’s also a decidedly thick book at 564 pages. I took this as a good sign.

Sushi for Beginners Marian Keyes

During the first few pages I was nervous. The women in the book talked a lot about shoes and make-up. Horoscopes were mentioned. I was out of my depth and dangerously close to becoming judgmental. I can spot the precise moment Keyes converted me. It didn’t even take long. 18 pages, in fact. “Trix…had the glittery, luscious-sticky look of a devotee of the more-is-more school of slapplication.” I laughed aloud, disrupting my fellow quiet café-goers with my unrestrained mirth. Soon I found myself abandoning the other book I was reading (The Long War) in favour of Sushi for Beginners. Me! Abandoning science fiction for women’s fiction? What was happening to me?

The short answer is that I had discovered that not all women’s fiction has to have bland, stock characters, or predictable storylines. Keyes’s writing is witty and knowing, accessible but not patronising. And the characters are just so likeable. At numerous stages I found myself wishing I were their friend, or thinking, “other people feel like this? I didn’t know!” Yes, the characters talk about men and handbags and lipstick. But they also talk about depression and homelessness. Even the obsession with horoscopes has a genuine, character-driven reason for being there. It’s about the character’s need for control and order, growing out of her disordered, disrupted childhood. It’s not just, “because she’s a woman. And women who read books with pink covers like horoscopes”. Here’s one of my favourite moments of Keyes putting into words those feelings that don’t get talked about:

“She was surprised to find she was happy to be with a crowd and happy to be on its edges. Such contentment was rare: all Ashling knew was that she almost never felt whole. Even at her most fulfilled, something remained forever absent, right at her very core. Like the tiny, pinprick dot that remained in the wash of black when the telly used to shut down for the night. But tonight she was calm and peaceful, alone but not lonely.” (p.45).

There are so many insightful moments like this. Moments that hold a mirror up to your life, for better and worse, and then tell you it’s all ok.

Not all the characters are likeable. They are real people, bitchy, selfish, and they make mistakes. One of the characters ends the novel learning that not all of those mistakes can be forgiven. It shocked me that one of the main characters didn’t end up with the rose-tinted (pink) ending that I was expecting. It stayed with me for quite some time.

My name’s Anouska. I’m a feminist, and I like books with pink covers.

Favourite quotation: “He didn’t know much about girls’ hair, but he had a feeling that it was usually more elaborate than this one’s. Wasn’t it normal to have a kind of interfered look to it? Surely it shouldn’t just hang there on her shoulders, being brown?” p.20.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Marian Keyes, Desert Island Discs’, BBC Radio 4, 17 Mar 2017 [accessed 25 April 2017]
Marian Keyes, Sushi for Beginners (Michael Joseph, 2000)

Reading Fatigue

I think I’m suffering from reading fatigue. A dull, grey feeling fills me as I read, as though my brain has been replaced by cotton wool. I read words, and they’re good words, I know this logically. They’re good words in a good order. And yet they have no effect on me. It’s like I’ve eaten a delicious meal, and I’m so full that nothing I eat really tastes of anything any more.

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Perhaps I’ve been spoilt. Just recently I’ve read a few utterly sublime works. Books that became instant favourites. Impossible Views of the World, with its awkward intellectual heroine who felt like she’d been crafted just for me.The Raqqa Diaries, so brutally honest, its simple style revealing unbearably painful truths.Spill Simmer Falter Wither with its lyrical eloquence belying the heartbreak of a person at odds with the world. Few books are going to live up to these experiences. And yet I keep reading.

Perhaps I’ve just read too much. My reading muscle has seized up, cramped, needs a break. I spent two weeks doing work experience in the editorial department of a publisher recently, so was reading non-stop during the day and on my 4-hour commute. It was an absolute dream. It was my job to read books, write about books, and talk about books. Dream though it was, perhaps a break would be no bad thing. And yet I keep reading.

Perhaps it’s because, since starting this blog, I feel like I have to have something to say about everything I read. I have to have An Opinion. I have to assess what I like and dislike. I have to write down my favourite moments from each reading experience so that I never forget them. And then I have to package those thoughts into a neat parcel to be read, perhaps, by someone else. Perhaps because now I have to read, it’s no longer fun.

And yet, I keep reading. I reach for it, instinctively. As though I’m on a reading treadmill and I have to keep turning the pages or else I’ll fall off. I wait for those moments where a book hooks me, intrigues, inspires me. Those moments where something is so perfectly phrased it’s as though the words sidestep your neurons and an idea arrives, fully-formed, in your mind, as though it’s been there all along. And every time I go to the library, a book store, my own heaving shelves, I find more and more books. And so I keep reading.

Circular Narratives and Linguistic Relativism in Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’

When twelve alien vessels arrive on Earth, the world reacts with confusion, violence, and fear. The US military recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help comprehend the aliens’ language, and attempt to ask the question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

I am so blown away by this film that I barely know what to say. Every aspect of it has been exquisitely crafted. The otherworldly score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is bookended by Max Richter’s gut-wrenching ‘On the Nature of Daylight’. The visual effects are stunning, with everything taking on a surreal beauty, including the Heptapod aliens themselves and the vessels they arrive in. While the depiction of the world-wide chaos prompted by the arrival of the “shells” is entirely believable, the focus is instead on a group of linguists and scientists attempting to decrypt the alien language of one of the twelve vessels. Amy Adams is outstanding as linguist Dr Louise Banks whose understanding of the world is being literally rewritten as the film progresses. And this leads me to probably the most interesting thing about the film. Essential to its narrative is the concept of linguistic relativism, a theory evolved from the work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. It states that the structure of a language affects the speaker’s cognition (rather than a person’s cognition dictating the structure of the language). The most famous example of this comes from anthropologist Franz Boas, who suggested that because the Inuit language has so many different words for snow, Eskimos may see snow, even think about snow, differently to the rest of the world.

Linguistic relativism also forms the backbone of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” (from ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four)

 

arrival-from-imdb
Amy Adams in Arrival. Image © 2016 Paramount Pictures

As Dr Louise Banks learns the written language of the Heptapods, as she begins to dream in it, think in it, communicate using it, her conscious and subconscious begin to resemble those of the Heptapods. The written language itself, known as “Heptapod B” (the spoken language is “Heptapod A”), is created from something resembling squid ink that takes on a 3-dimensional form suspended in space. (Visually, the designers were inspired by Tolkien’s Elvish.) The original story on which the film is based calls it, “fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice.” Its circular form reflects the fact that Heptapod B is non-linear; the Heptapods do not view beginnings and endings in the same way an English-speaker would (in this way it is visually and thematically reminiscent of Ouroboros, the tail-eating snake). When using Heptapod B, the writer knows how the sentence will end. A single symbol cannot be changed without changing the meaning of the entire sentence. The circular writing is reflected in the narrative of the film, both thematically and practically. The first shot of the opening sequence and the first shot of the closing sequence are nearly identical, and Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ begins and ends the film.

The film goes to great lengths to be scientifically accurate, and the production consulted scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram and linguist Jessica Coon to ensure all terminology and references were sound. But while it is intellectually stimulating, and informative without being patronising, it is also profoundly moving. It manages to combine far-reaching concepts about extra-terrestrial life, the nature of time and consciousness, with a deep understanding of love, family, and human nature.