Sunday, 17 October 2010

Say what?

For the last (not "past") week or so, I have felt very (not "awfully") self-conscious about my usage of the English language. There are two reasons for this:

Firstly, I read a review of the new translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and was deeply moved while reading about Flaubert's fascination with perfection. Flaubert spent twelve hours a day writing, but produced only about a page of text per week. For him, "[a] good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.”

Secondly, while browsing through a reference book from 1900, I came across a section titled "misuse of words". I never knew that the word "execute" does not mean to put to death, but that "the law is executed when the criminal is hanged". Also, it is wrong to use "bravery" for "courage": "[b]ravery is inborn, instinctive. Courage is a product of reason, calculation. Men who are simply brave are careless, while the courageous man is always cautious." It is also wrong to use the word "such" for "so". One should say "so extravagant a young man", not "such an extravagant young man".

When it comes to language, I am the first one to acknowledge the fluid nature of it. Languages change and develop, and what was true in 1900 is not necessarily so anymore. The very nature of language is to do things we don't think are possible, and I often take advantage of it: I love creating new words in Finnish, and my sentences are often all over the place (an absurd and meaningless expression, a lot like "every once in a while"). However, I can also be anal about Finnish: one of my pet peeves in Finnish is compound words and the inability of Finnish speakers to use them correctly. It annoyes me when people capitalise the word for Christmas in Finnish - it is joulu, lower case, always. In English I over-hyphenate and spell in odd ways just because I think it looks fun. I use 'croci' for 'crocuses' even if the latter is more commonly used. I punctuate whenever I feel like it - a practice I would never entertain in Finnish. The truth (not "fact of the matter") is that I punctuate badly in English because I don't know how to punctuate well. The very nature of language in general, and that of English in particular, allows me to do this. English, with its odd range of 500 million to 1.8 billion speakers, is so widespread it can do whatever it likes, and there is nothing it can't do. So why am I torn? Isn't the changing nature of English good? Why does Flaubert's belief in perfect language get to me? Why should I care about people saying "promise" when they should be saying "assure"?

One reason is Shakespeare. I have tried to read Shakespeare in the original language, but I don't understand him. I can feel that there is beauty in his usage of English, but my knowledge of English is not sophisticated enough to understand it. When I try to write (not "try and write") pretty English, I find it looks crammed and empty rather than rich and meaningful. I often reach out for the thesaurus in my attempt to beautify my use of English. I don't concentrate on learning more. The more free and imperfect my use of English becomes, and the more I ape the free English of others, the less I feel I am saying. (A lot of times I don't even know what I am saying.) My guess is that this is also true of other speakers of English, native or not. In itself (another meaningless phrase) this is not a problem. It does make reading Shakespeare difficult, though. It is also a matter of instinct: my ears can tell that my English (and the English of many others) does not sound meaningful, or even worse, it does not sound beautiful. Of course, one could argue that the aim of language is communication rather than beauty, but I take my chances and accept the need for beauty in language at face value.

Another reason comes down to my desire to save things old and still useful. Is it absolutely necessary to make the distinction between courage and bravery? Perhaps not, but the world is a richer place with the distinction in it. Grammar and spelling rules exist for a reason, and they have a history. It is probably not a surprise (not "no surprise") that I love etymological dictionaries. I believe history of everything is important. As long as we carry with us a sense of understanding of where we have come from, we are richer. We gain nothing by forgetting, but a lot if we remember.

I feel embarrased to admit that as experienced of an English speaker as I am, my skills are nowhere near where they should be. I am not a native speaker and will never get to that level, but I feel the need to educate myself. I want to be able to write beautiful English. Maybe consulting old reference books isn't the smartest way to go about it, but it is a lot of fun. If I am sure about anything, it is this: it is never, ever, a good idea to take fun out of language.

Duffel coat: Salvation Army
Silk dress: second hand Laura Ashley, Fida
Tights: JC Penney
Ankle boots: Max&Co.
Scarf: Lindex


Lady Sophia's Lover said...



Teenysparkles said...

Oh waves, i feel that you are sitting at the other end of this post with a frown on your face. You sound so perplexed! I admire your love of language and the beauty you hear. I speak and write badly so cannot really comment...but I enjoyed reading what you had to say.

RoseAG said...

I think you could safely move on to use "Elements of Style" as your language guidepost.

That will catapult you into at least the 1930s!

Franca said...

re: try and do that. my colleague told me the other day how much it annoyed her how commonplace it has become. We even use it in government surveys now.

I had honestly never thought about it but it turns out I use it all the time. I worte a blog post the other day and the first draft containe 'try and' THREE times! Obviously I changed it all and will try TO not do it again.

re: native speaking - I think this has got nothing to do with it. Your english is probably better than about 80 per cent of the people you know. MY english is better than 80 per cent of the people i know, and it's my third language, plus i'm not even the slightest bit interested in literature and poetic use of language. My main concern is clarity, and most native english speaker can't even manage that! So what I'm saying is: it's not the native speaking that makes the difference, it's whether you care about the anal details of language enough to learn them.

Sorry, that was a bit ranty!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Waves. You have a wonderfully acute ear for language.

I wouldn't worry too much about those Victorian linguistic pronouncements, many of which were simply trying to cram our mongrel language into a Latinate framework. Shakespeare certainly felt entirely free to break the rules and coin words!

I think that reading Shakespeare is a challenge, even for most native English speakers. These are plays, after all, meant to be performed--have you tried attending a production or even watching a film? Start with one of the shorter comedies, like Much Ado or even Midsummer Night's Dream.

I think Kenneth Branagh's film version of Much Ado is just delightful: very faithful to the play, but also performed in a conversational manner that's easy to follow.

Best, Velma

furrowbrows said...

before visiting your lovely blog last night i watched this video my parents had sent me, it oddly related to your post on linguistics. this one clip is quite lengthy, but fascinating on the subject!

p.s. i love your dress (and blog) SO much

furrowbrows said...

before visiting your lovely blog last night, i had checked my email. my parents had sent me this video that, oddly, related to your post. the video clip is quite lengthy if you'd like to watch it, but fascinating all the same, his lectures are great!

p.s. i love your dress (and blog) SO much

also re-reading this right now makes me realize how much i love to drop in commas wherever i can, my worst habit,

wardrobeexperience said...

this is just another beautiful vintage floral dress... darling, you look so cute!

Anonymous said...

I guess that being not a native speaker, I'm in no position to make remarks about English but there are some point I'd like to raise.
First off, the punctuation - I couldn't agree more with you, I also tend to put my commas anywhere my heart tells me.
Second thing, I've noticed that nowadays kids start learning English earlier and earlier but somehow this does not translate into their better knowledge of English. As I spent a considerable amount of time being an English teacher, I noticed that kids do not feel the language. Yes, obviously they learn all the grammar rules by heart but they can't seem to grab the spirit of the language. Guess I'm a living proof that you don't really need school training to know English; I never got any proper education. I learnt English from Monty Python's Flying Circus and Buffy the Vampire Slayer...which may have affected my attitude towards it. From the very beginning I knew that all that I say/write must carry some extra meaning and that if we have 3 words meaning the same, there must be some difference between them (like goal, aim, purpose...know what I mean).
I often wondered about people with really good knowledge of English, people who are able to recite all the rules concerning Conditional sentences, I wondered how do they read literature? Can they feel the beauty of it? I adore reading Joyce but never bother to make any grammar analysis about his sentences. For me, the beauty of phrases like "the curls of woolly smoke" is enough to melt with delight. And in my opinion this feeling is much more important than any grammar analysis or even 100% grammar correctness.
As for the final statement, reading your posts makes me want to be able to write like you and I guess I'll never reach your level of language-consciousness.
Cheers, Katya

gina said...

Yes, language is fun! Shakespeare is hard even for native English speakers. I found that the more Spanish and French I learned, the easier Shakespeare became b/c he makes up a lot of words that use both English and Latin roots. Also, letting go of the idea that language and grammar need to be precise and perfect also makes Shakespeare a lot easier (and a lot more fun) to read.

And for Anonymous Katya, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is such a great example of the fun you can have playing with language!

gina said...

PS Love the blue tights!


Perfect outfits, great combination that you've put all together ;)

Eyeliah said...

I struggle (not “struggle a lot”) with my written and spoken English and I am a native speaker. Writing a post, at times can take me a week to get the wording just how I like it, and then I constantly revise.