Don’t Go Gentle: Writing Colourful With(out) Adverbs

img_8430Adverbs are colourful things. Despite the advice of writers like Stephen King, they can do a lot to spice up your prose.

Agatha Christie, for example, was a prolific user of them. She used regular English adverbs (those ending in “-ly”) frequently, to great stylistic effect. Take, for example, this passage from And Then There Were None:

  Vera said hoarsely:
  ‘I don’t understand you.’
  Her fingers worked spasmodically. She felt suddenly afraid of this quiet old soldier.
  He said musingly:
  ‘You see, I loved Leslie. I loved her very much…’
  Vera said questioningly:
  ‘Was Leslie your wife?’

But adverbs can be treated in even more creative ways. Here, for example, is a passage from Henry Green’s 1945 novel, Loving, the story of English servants during World War II:

  ‘Sssh,’ said Edith watching rapt. The children turned. There were so many doves they hardly knew which way to look.
  ‘And then there came a time when this wicked tempting bird came to her father to ask her hand,’ Miss Swift said, passing a dry tongue over dry lips, shuteyed.
  ‘It don’t seem right not out in the open,’ Kate mentioned casual.
  ‘And again over there too and there,’ said Edith.
  ‘Where?’ said cried Miss Evelyn too loud though not too sharp as she thought to interrupt Miss Swift. The nanny just put a hand on her arm while she droned.

Notice the difference? As Sebastian Faulk writes in his 2005 introduction to the Living, Green’s prose is full of “stylistic quirks” – not least in his approach to adverbs. Although there is one regular adverb in the passage (“they hardly knew”) there are, many more words (like “loud” and “sharp”) that look, at first glance, like irregular adverbs – or, worse, downright ungrammatical ones.

You only have to pick up a page at random to find a myriad of other examples. There’s “he said low”, “this brought her up sharp”, “he went on canny”, “Edith said indifferent”, “she answered amused”, “take everything so solemn”, and so on. Whereas Christie is writing using a very standard form of English, Green is being more linguistically creative. In taking regular English adverbs (like “loudly” and “sharply”) to the guillotine, he is deliberately breaking grammatical norms. For me, the effect is striking – striking brilliant, even.

To understand why, it’s worth putting Green’s prose under the microscope. As it turns out, he’s doing more than just chopping off bits of words. There’s actually quite a lot to say about the linguistics of what Green is doing. And, although he’s playing with norms, he’s not necessarily breaking any grammatical rules.

In standard English, we are used to seeing adverbs immediately before or after verbs in a sentence. In grammatical terms, adverbs are said to modify the verb – that is, they say something about how the action is performed. (Adjectives are also modifiers, but they modify a noun.) Most English adverbs end in “ly”, and we tend to put them after the verb, so we are well used to seeing the standard pattern you see in Christie’s passage: “Vera said hoarsely”, “she felt suddenly”, and so on. When we see a modifier after a verb that breaks that pattern, as we do throughout Green’s passage, it’s always going to feel unexpected.

Of course, there are some adverbs that don’t end in “ly”. Adverbs like “fast” and “slow” are called flat adverbs, and generally have the same form as a related adjective. Because they don’t fit the standard pattern, adverbs like “fast”, “slow”, “hard”, “wrong”, “far”, and so on, generally feel slightly less formal than regular ones. But they have been around for centuries and so are a perfectly legitimate part of English.

So, one explanation for what Green is doing, is that he’s taking regular adverbs and turning them into flat ones. The effect is to create a sort of blunt, informal style that perhaps echoes the dialect of the below-stairs workers in his novel. (In Loving, both the narrator and the characters approach adverbs in the same way). Indeed, although Green was a member of the upper classes, he was enchanted by the dialect of the men that worked in his father’s West Midland iron foundry.

But that’s not the only explanation. The other explanation is that “loud”, “sharp”, “casual”, and so on, are not being used as adverbs at all. They are, in fact, being used as adjectives.

It’s certainly rarer in English to see adjectives immediately after a verb in a sentence. But it’s certainly not impossible. One exception is what linguists call copulative verbs. These are special verbs (in sentences like “you look good”, “stay safe”, “the pies remained fresh”), which link the subject directly to an adjective. Copulative verbs explain what’s happening in the Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, for example, and in the expression “hang tough”.

Another exception is where what looks like an adjective is actually working like a noun and is, in fact, the direct object of the verb. That’s the case, for example, in Apple’s famous “Think different” advertising campaign.

Another exception is present participles (ending in “ing”) which function like adjectives, and which are not uncommonly found next to verbs. Here are a couple of examples from Loving:

(1)       ‘What’s this?” he enquired chuckling, a light in his eyes.
(2)       ‘Pounds?’ she asked making her eyes big.

Although some style guides would insist on a comma between the verb and the present participle, there is nothing particularly striking about the sentences above.

A fourth exception is adjective phrases, which are grammatically identical to adjectives on their own, but where the adjective is part of a larger chunk. The sentence below is perfectly grammatical, and not at all striking, even though the adjective phrase sits immediately after the verb:

(3)       ‘Yes,’ she said, always happy to help.

However, if you strip the adjective phrase down to just the bare adjective (“happy”), the effect might be a bit strange looking (shouldn’t it be “happily”?). But you still understand it in the same way:

(4)       ‘Yes,’ she said, happy.

This is how I read Green. In the passage from Living, I don’t interpret his “casual”, “loud”, “sharp”, and so on, as adverbs, flat or otherwise. Instead, I interpret them as adjectives. That is, they are saying something about the subject of the sentence rather than the verb – about the person doing the action rather than how they are doing it. It’s the same for Leonard Cohen’s famous lyric “You want to travel with her / You want to travel blind”. It’s the same for “Eat colourful” in this marketing for ready-made Indian food.

It’s also the same for Dylan Thomas’ famous line of verse “Do not go gentle into that good night” where, for me, it’s not about how we go – rather, it’s about not being “gentle” when we do.

Thomas perhaps even stands above Green as a master in surprising you with an adjective where you might expect to see an adverb. In Under Milk Wood, for example, there is “The boys are dreaming wicked”. Elsewhere, the cats of Llareggub “lope sly”. And so on. Stylistically, these examples are striking. They’re unexpected and surprising. Even if the sense is little changed in each case, because it plays with grammatical norms without necessarily breaking any rules, the substitution of an adjective feels more creative – more poetic, somehow.

Of course “Do not go gently” might have sounded just as powerful in its central message of raging against our inevitable journey to the grave. But it wouldn’t have sounded like Dylan Thomas. (Winston Churchill, maybe – but not Dylan Thomas.) Likewise, Living would still have been a masterpiece of modernist literature without Green’s “stylistic quirks”. But it wouldn’t have been so uniquely his.

Beyond simply the strangeness, it’s worth dwelling on a more nuanced effect of the substitution. One of the main arguments against adverbs in prose is that they amount to author intrusion. That is, because the narrator is effectively making a judgement about how an action is performed (“fast”, “loudly”, “questioningly”, and so on), their subjective presence is apparently intruding into the story. Green told the BBC in 1950 that he always avoided the “authorial adverb” because, in his words, “nothing kills life so much as explanation”.

Finally, I would propose another potential stylistic effect. In all of these examples there is an intrinsic ambiguity. In each case, it’s possible to interpret the word immediately following the verb either as a novel (flat) adverb or, as I prefer, as an adjective. (As one linguist writes: “If intransitives are followed by an adjective, the adjective is ambiguous between modifying the (intransitive) verb or the subject nominal.”) Because of the ambiguity, there’s some sense of “mystery” – of not knowing exactly what the narrator is really telling us. That speaks neatly to Green’s assertion that all other humans are essentially unknowable.

Regular adverbs will always have their place, irrespective of what Stephen King might think. And others have already preached the use of flat adverbs as a stylistic device. But, as Green and Thomas show, I think there’s even more fun to be had in surprising the reader with an unexpected adjective or two. It might start to feel like a cheap trick, once you know what’s going on. But it will definitely make your prose stand out (he said, confident).

At least, of course, until everyone starts doing it.

Milking The Cow, Amoebic Dysentery & Other Metaphors For Creative Writing

metaphors-for-creativityOne of my Christmas presents this year was Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by American novelist Anne Lamott. It’s a book for aspiring writers and novelists – aren’t we all? – and it’s full of advice and inspiration about the writing business. It’s also honest, spiritual, and consistently funny. Lamott writes a bit like Charles Bukowski spliced with Alice Walker.

What really struck me about the book is the range of metaphors Lamott uses to describe the creative writing process. The title itself comes from a memory she has of her brother, in tears, momentarily defeated by a high school assignment he has to write about birds. She recalls her father putting his arms around him and telling him to “just take it bird by bird”: a metaphor she says is helpful in approaching a novel –one paragraph or one chapter at a time.

Early on, for example, Lamott writes about writing as a form of magic or divinity:

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers.”

Later, she compares setting down the plot to driving a car at night and only being able to see as far as the headlights. Elsewhere, she describes bringing the plot to a climax as if composing a symphony:

“The climax is that major event, usually towards the end, that brings together all the tunes you have been playing so far into a major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed […]”

Somewhere in the middle, she describes writing dialogue as an act of translation:

“You’re translating the sound or rhythm of what a character says into words. You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak.”

At one point, she compares creativity – the generation of novel and striking ideas – to holding a lantern in the dark while her unconscious (which she imagines as a “kid”) digs for treasure:

“I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t know even know what the kid is digging for half the time – but she knows gold she she sees it.”

Then, she compares the act of writing – of arranging those ideas on paper – to knitting or embroidery:

“What we have in our head are fragments and thoughts we’ve heard and memorized, and we take our little ragbag and reach into it and throw some stuff down […]”

And to painting:

“I talked earlier about the artist who is trying to capture something in one corner of his canvas and keeps discovering that what he has painted is not what he had in mind.”

And also gardening:

“What happens instead is that you’ve gone over and over something so many times, and you’ve weeded and pruned and re-written […]”

All of her metaphors for writing are memorably evocative. I particularly liked the analogy of milking a cow: “the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it”. And perhaps the most striking of all is the one she uses to describe getting over writer’s block:

“[…] it was like catching amoebic dysentery. I was just sitting there minding my own business, and the next minute I rushed to my desk with an urgency I had not believed possible.”

But what’s interesting for me is the way Lamott is using metaphor – as an artist rather than a scientist – to explore the very real cognitive processes of linguistic creativity.

As she herself says in the book: “metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known”. It’s true that we don’t yet fully understand the complex linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics involved in the creation of language, let alone creative language. If we did, we wouldn’t need authors. We’d be able to design a computer programme to write the next Booker Prize winner. The Nobel Prize for literature would have already been awarded to Microsoft or Google.

Instead, linguistic creativity remains a fascinating subject for research (and novelists, at least a handful of them, can still make a living). While the metaphors Lamott uses to describe the process of writing – or at least how she herself perceives that process – perhaps don’t explain how linguistic creativity works, they do provide places for scientists to start looking.

For example, why might a writer experience the emotional need to write such that finishing a novel feels like being milked? Is the lantern holder really different to the kid digging, and what does that say about the structure of the brain? And why might creativity sometimes feel like running to the lavatory?…

They’re all great questions, of course. Indeed, they are exactly what this blog is about.

Grief Is The Thing With Compounds

crow-vector-silhouette

Crow Silhouette by Colleen O’Dell

Every year, Swansea University awards the Dylan Thomas prize for young writers. This year’s winner was Max Porter for his debut novel, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, the tale of a grieving father and his two young boys coming to terms with the death of their mother. It’s a short work, just over one hundred pages long, as much prose poem as novel. It’s sad, funny, and honest. It’s also linguistically inventive. I liked it a lot.

The story, in which the father and the boys are helped in their grieving by a magical, mischievous crow, is inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes. It’s fitting that, like the work of Ted Hughes, Potter’s book is also marked stylistically with the use of novel compounds. Here’s how it starts with the father describing the first few days after the mother’s death:

“I felt hung-empty. The children were asleep, I drank. I smoked roll-ups out of the window. I felt […] I would permanently become this organiser, this list-making trader in clichés of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines for small children with no Mum.”

On the next page, there’s “knotted-string dream” and “dinner party post-mortem bitches”. At some point the protagonists find themselves “loving the journey of hurting, hurting-hurting”. The flat they live in is “spit-level”. And so on.

Even if Porter isn’t always consistent with his use of hyphens (there are also “ball drops” and “dread dead”), “hung-empty”, “spit-level” and so on are all linguistic compounds. They are words (mostly nouns and adjectives, but also verbs and adverbs) formed by combining together two or more other words. (Technically, a compound must contain at least two root morphemes). And they are novel – at least in the sense that they don’t appear in the dictionary.

I’ve written about compounds before. They fascinate me because they show creativity – which is, after all, about novel combinations – in perhaps its purest and most essential form.

And it’s not just me who’s into them. Researchers have written entire theses on the subject – about compounding in contemporary English poetry, for example, or the various types of compound nouns in Middle English verse. Certainly, Ted Hughes liked his compounds. He even said once that the first praise he received as a young poet was for a compound epithet he’d written.

Max Porter’s book is also full of them. Sprinkled across the pages are two-part compound nouns (or nominal compounds). They include: “left-behinds”, “cock-cheek”, “futile curse-lifting”, “song-legend”, “death-chill”, “plum-pear”, “garden-song”, and “ball drops”. The visiting crow does a lot of what is perfectly described as “unbound crow stuff”.

Most of these compounds are what linguists call “endocentric”. That is, they consist of a head (the second part of the compound), which defines the general category of the compound, and a modifier (the first part) so that “death-chill” is a special type of “chill”, and so on. A few, however, are “exocentric” in that don’t have a formal head. “Left-behinds”, for example, is made up of a verb and an adverb. Although it is a noun, it’s not a type of “behind”.

There are also plenty of compound adjectives. When the boys brush their teeth they leave “a white-speckled mess” on the bathroom mirror (and not, more simply, “a white, speckled mess”). The father recalls the “boom-dry loveliness of Ted Hughes’ warm Yorkshire accent” when speaking in front of a “Ted-savvy crowd”. There’s also: “a breath-catching wait”, “dread dead”, “hung-empty”, “Shakespeare-heavy”, “Stonehenge shamanic”, “tabloid despicable”, “very blood-sport”, “spit-level”, “blood-drunk fox cubs”, “tar-black bone”, “flint-stubbled ground”, “BRAKE-FAILED BANGERS”, and even “God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating, math-bomb motherfucker”.

Again, most of these are endocentric with adjectival heads modified by either another adjective (“hung-empty”) or a noun (“Shakespeare-heavy”). Again, a few are exocentric. “Blood-sport”, for example, is formed by conversion of a (compound) noun to a (compound) adjective, and doesn’t have a formal head. Again, all are wonderfully creative.

There are compound verbs, including “back-kicked the door shut” and “mourn hunt with pack lunches”. The compound verbal noun “curse-lifting”, above, is itself formed from a compound verb (“curse-lift”), as are the compound adjectives (technically participles) “God-eating”, “trash-licking”, “word-murdering” and “carcass-desecrating”. I also spotted one compound adverb, in “the beak hurled down hammer-hard”.

Happily, Porter doesn’t just limit his creativity to two-part compounds. There are also some brilliant three-word compound adjectives, for example: “behind-glass cosy”, “dry-stone strong”, “beer-gold light”, “fuck-sacks sad” and, perhaps my favourite, “fuck-you-yellow”. There are also plenty of three-part compound nouns: “stroke-reversing suede”, “lazy-boy burn”, “decent Prince win”, “tangled wool hammering”, “hand-puppet crow”, “Boys/Dad boundary”, “bouncy castle elm” and “math-bomb motherfucker”. In all cases, the first two words in the sequence form a compound, which then modifies the head noun (the final word in the sequence).

Porter is so at home with compounds that sometimes he uses hyphens to compound words where generally you wouldn’t. “White-speckled mess”, above, is one example. Elsewhere the dad recalls the mother saying, “it hurts, fuck, fuck-fuck it hurts”. The hyphen here doesn’t just help in capturing the rhythm of speech (you could also imagine punctuating this as “it hurts. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, it hurts”). More powerfully, the hyphen also gives a sense of going beyond “fuck” to a compound fuck: a sort of double-fuck or fuck-squared. And even where the compounds aren’t novel, Porter always employs them with a skilful sense of rhythm as in this sentence early on: “we were young boys with remote-control cars and ink-stamp sets”.

In sum, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is well worth a read. Not least, it’s a master-class in lexical creativity, a real Ted-fest of compounds, jam-packed with “unbound crow stuff”. The man himself would have been impressed.

Asyndeton in Bukowski’s “Ham on Rye”

I recently did what everyone should do at some point: I read Ham on Rye. What’s most striking about Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novel – apart from the characteristic honesty and humour – is the style. Bukowski was a fan of the “tight and bloody line” and the novel is written in simple declarative sentences, à la Hemingway. It reads, at times, like a string of jabs to the ribs.

What’s also noticeable about Bukowski’s prose is that he rarely resorts to the rhetorical figures of poetry and classical oratory. In the novel, there are certainly very few metaphors or similes. But there is one figure he uses habitually, if not frequently: asyndeton.

Asyndeton (literally “unconnected”) is a fancy name for a fairly simple thing: the omission of conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses. It refers to a syntactic process (which grammarians call “asyndetic coordination”) in which parts of speech are joined together simply by placing them next to each other without an intervening word like “and” or “or”.

For example, this is how Ham on Rye starts, with Bukowski stringing whole clauses, asyndetically, with just commas to separate them:

 “The first thing I remember is being under something. It was a table, I saw a table leg, I saw the legs of the people, and a portion of the tablecloth hanging down. It was dark under there, I liked being under there.”

Although he then goes straight back to basics:

“It must have been in Germany. I must have been between one and two years old. It was 1922. I felt good under the table.”

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle wrote, critically: “asyndeton and the frequent repetition of the same word are correctly rebuked in written style”. The philosopher probably wouldn’t have approved of the Bukowski’s opening then – nor the fact that asyndeton (like word-repetition) is a very commonly used literary device. Examples of asyndeton are pretty easy to find. In Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, for example, we have asyndeton of noun phrases:

“I envied her her phlegm, her indolence, her insouciance […]”

In James Joyce’s Ulysses we have asyndeton of both prepositional phrases (“by words, by sounds of words”) and adjectives:

“We mustn’t be led away by words, by sounds of words. We think of Rome, imperial, imperious, imperative.”

In Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners we have asyndeton of successive adjectival phrases neatly wrapped around asyndeton’s polar opposite, polysyndeton:

“Yet day after day Cap still alive, defying all logic and reason and convention, living without working, smoking the best cigarettes, never without women.”

Asyndeton is not just a feature of English, either. Here, for example, is asyndeton of verb phrases in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

“Cada um de nós é vàrios, é muitos, é uma prolixiade de si mesmos […]”

So, if asyndeton is used so often, just what is it used for? What’s its purpose?

First of all, asyndeton is stylistically striking. Instead of “X, Y and Z”, which you might expect to see in the formal prose of a newspaper or a textbook, you have “X, Y, Z”. Like any figure of speech, asyndeton, is a deviation from the linguistic norm. It draws your attention as a reader. And, because asyndeton tends to be associated with poetry rather than flat prose, it conveys a general sense of the poetical. If an author uses asyndeton, at some level they are saying, “I am being poetic.”

Richard Lanham defines a figure of speech as “a device or pattern of language in which meaning is enhanced or changed”. So how, specifically, does asyndeton change or enhance meaning? How is asyndeton different to other figures of speech?

Asyndeton turns out to be a bit of a slippery beast. It can produce a variety of effects depending on when and how it is used. One of the most commonly cited effects of asyndeton is to speed up the rhythm of a passage. That’s certainly the case with this sentence from Cynan Jones’s The Dig, for example, where the asyndeton helps evoke a startled bird:

“There was a burst of charcoal, a blackbird, a sudden quick call in the quiet.”

Another effect of asyndeton is to give a sense of equality, by removing a stress that a conjunction might otherwise provide, in a list of coordinated items. Compare, for example, “I came, I saw, I conquered” with “I came, I saw, and I conquered”.

Sometimes, of course, asyndeton just helps with the scansion or the rhythm:

Rub-a-dub-dub,
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick-maker,
All put out to sea.

And asyndeton can be used, cunningly, to make opaque language even more opaque. For example, Francine Prose describes Paul Bowles’s short story, A Distant Episode, as a story “about language as one way to predict when the kick in the head is coming, language as the essence of the self that registers the fact that one’s head is getting kicked”.

At a semantic level, asyndeton applies a kind of fuzzy logic to the relevant list of words or phrases. In the following excerpt from Ham on Rye it’s not clear whether Bukowski means “and” or “or” – whether he’s going to become all of these things, or just one. The absence of semantic clarity leaves something for you to think about as a reader, and potentially help you engage with the writing:

“I felt as if I were destined to be a murderer, a bank robber, a saint, a rapist, a monk, a hermit.”

Because of this fuzzy logic, asyndeton also gives a sense of incompleteness. Whereas “X, Y and Z” suggests a closed set, “X, Y, Z” is less rigidly bounded. In this sentence from Quiet Days in Clichy, you get the sense that Miller could keep eating even after the figs and nuts:

“I felt like having clams, lobsters, oysters, snails, a broiled bluefish, a tomato omelette, some tender asparagus tips, a savory cheese, a loaf of bread, a bottle of chilled wine, some figs and nuts.”

The fuzzy logic also means that similar terms can be thrown together. Recently, I saw an advert for a Mark Wahlberg film on the side of the bus. In large letters were two quotes calling it “explosive” and “outstanding”. Because of the semantic overlap between the two adjectives (“outstanding” should generally entail “explosive” in reference to an action film), you wouldn’t say Deepwater Horizon was “explosive and outstanding”. But you might say it was “explosive, outstanding”. Aristotle said words have a “special force” when listed asyndetically like this. Because “many things” seem to be said at once, he wrote, “amplification is produced”.

So, the functions of asyndeton are multiple. But, for me, the most profound function of asyndeton, like the repetition of words, is to reveal the act of creation itself. Amit Chaudhuri wrote recently in The Guardian that “long sentences and intricate syntax are records of either a thought process of a sensory one”. For me, that’s true of asyndeton too. In the excerpt from a hungry Henry Miller above, the asyndeton clearly captures a string of pleasurable ideas bubbling, one by one, to Miller’s mind – in a sense, the process of dreaming. For me, asyndeton reveals a lot about how ideas come to us: raw, disordered, unbounded, illogical. It reveals an initial stage of writing that comes before the conscious process of critique and refinement.

And because asyndeton reveals an unconscious thought process, sometimes, it can reveal a deeper emotional state – and therefore pack a stronger emotional punch. In one memorable chapter, Bukowski writes about how his father would come home from work, and beat him. It goes like this:

“I heard my father come in. He always slammed the door, walked heavily, and talked loudly. He was home. After a few moments the bedroom door opened. He was six feet two, a large man. Everything vanished, the chair I was sitting in, the wallpaper, the walls, all of my thoughts. He was the dark covering the sun, the violence of him made everything else utterly disappear. He was all ears, nose, mouth, I couldn’t look at his eyes, there was only his red angry face. […] Then he laid on the strop. The first blow inflicted more shock than pain. The second hurt more. Each blow which followed increased the pain. At first I was aware of the walls, the toilet, the tub. Finally I couldn’t see anything. As he beat me, he berated me, but I couldn’t understand the words. I thought about his roses, how he grew roses in the yard.”

The passage is clearly without humour. It is also ripe with asyndeton – of noun phrases and also clauses. It’s uncharacteristically ripe, in fact. It jars with the rest of Bukowski’s sparse, plain style. Because of the asyndeton, you can almost feel the anguish felt as Bukoswki was writing it. This is a hard-drinking, hard-talking, hard-fighting man letting his emotions flow.

And that – the asyndeton – is what makes it pack such a punch.

Finding Dylan In “Translation”

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Bob Dylan in 1963

I’ve busked a few Bob Dylan numbers in my time. I’m one of those people who ruin the end of parties by bringing out their acoustic guitar. In my twenties, I used to play regularly at folk clubs and open mic nights. One of my favourites is “Boots Of Spanish Leather”. And I do a mean “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – or at least I think I do.

It’s not just Dylan songs. I have an anachronistic love of singer-songwriters from the 1960s and early 70s, so I like singing songs by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen too. And, until about five years ago, I would always sing them with a North American accent – the same sort of approximate, hybrid North American accent that most British artists resort to when they sing.

On “Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, I would go to town trying to imitate both the standard and less standard features of Bob Dylan’s idiosyncratic accent (“Finno-Hebraic Minnesotan, by way of Greenwich Village”, according to journalist Graeme Wood). I would g-drop right from the opening line (“Early one mornin’…”). I would drop the yod from “Lord knows I’ve paid some dues”. I’d elongate most of stressed monopthongs, like the “e” vowel in “offered meee a pipe”. I would reduce the /aɪ/ dipthongs in “I” and “my” to “ah” and “mah”. I’d reduce the unstressed “of” (for example) in “I seen a lot uh women” to a schwa. And so on.

It wasn’t until someone asked me once why I was singing in an American accent that I started to question it. I realised it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was automatic. I was trying to recreate “Mr Tambourine Man” as perfectly as I could – note for note, word for word. So, in some ways, it made sense to copy every phoneme too.

Then, I got a bit more into folk music. I started to listen to English folk musicians like Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy. They, like almost everyone on the folk scene, sing unashamedly in their own accents. It’s actually something of an unwritten rule among folk singers (often attributed to 20th century folk revivalist Ewan MacColl) that you only sing songs in a language or dialect that you speak.

Later, I studied linguistics. I found out that accent, and dialect more generally, is just one part of what sociolinguists refer to as “style” – the part of language, which is not about “what you say” but rather “how you say it”. Sociolinguists posit that our linguistic style is intrinsically linked to our social identity. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it’s almost impossible to say anything to anybody without them making some kind of judgement about who you are – where you are from, where you were educated, what you do for a living, and so on. And, just like we can code-switch between languages, within our personal repertoire, we can style-switch depending on whom we are talking to, and what sort of identity we want to project.

It made me realise the obvious – that when I sing in an American accent, I’m not being myself. I’m taking on someone else’s identity. I’m being the one thing that the folk singers of the 1960s were aiming to avoid: inauthenticity. I’m being a fake.

It took a long time to unlearn the habit, a bit like a golfer having to change their swing. But these days, I only sing covers of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in my own accent – a sort of generic South-East England British Standard English with the odd Nottingham vowel thrown in.

However, when the guitar comes out, I’m still left with a problem when it comes to Bob Dylan. The reason is that Dylan didn’t just sing in dialect, he wrote in it. His songs are not only full of phonological markers of his Woody Guthrie-influenced Midwestern dialect. His identity is marked both lexically and grammatically in the lyrics.

Take “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” for example. Across the four verses, there are particular forms of address (“honey”, “baby” and “gal”) that I would never use. There are archaic forms of goodbye (“fare thee well” and “so long”) and North American terms like “rooster”. There’s the addition of the prefix “a-” to present participles, which somehow makes me think of Mark Twain, concurrent with the frequent g-dropping (“a-thinkin’ and a-wanderin’”). There’s the contraction “I ain’t”, which isn’t part of my dialect (I’d say “I’m not”). There are bare adverbs (“you treated me unkind”), and grammatical constructions (“it ain’t no use to”), that don’t exist in British Standard English. There’s the North American use of simple past where British English would use the past perfect, and some nonstandard conjugations (“the light I never knowed”). In fact, probably the only stylistic feature in the entire song, which I would also use in speech, is the contraction of “kind of” to “kinda”.

Because of all the wonderful lexical and grammatical stylistic features, it turns out, there are very few Bob Dylan songs that I can sing without putting on someone else’s identity.

There’s only one solution. It’s the same thing you would do if you wanted to sing something written. You have to rewrite the lyrics in your own dialect. You have to attempt some sort of “translation”.

Of course, that’s not a trivial thing to do. Change just one word of a song, or one syntactic construction, and you can screw up the rhyming pattern or scansion. More fundamentally, you are faced with the same challenge all translators are faced with when changing one language for another: finding a replacement word or phrase (say, for “gal” or “it ain’t no use”) that doesn’t completely wash out any sense of identity entirely.

But, with a bit of effort, you can do it. Here’s how I now sing the first verse of “Don’t Think Twice”:

There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
If you don’t know by now
There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
It doesn’t matter anyhow
When your alarm clock rings and it’s a brand new day
Look out your bedroom window, and I’ll be gone away
You’re the reason that I just can’t stay
Don’t think twice, it’s OK

I’m definitely not saying it’s as good as the original. But it’s still recognisably the work of the Nobel Laureate – and I can sing it while remaining true to my own suburban, English identity.

Of course, hardcore Dylan fans will be screaming, “heresy!” But I would argue the opposite. Fans think of Bob Dylan as a true authentic: someone who never compromised, who was always true to his own, idiosyncratic self. I like to think, by “translating” Dylan so as not to compromise my own authenticity – I’m actually giving Dylan the respect he deserves.

 

References
This excellent book by David Pichaske includes an in depth discussion of Bob Dylan’s dialect. There are a couple of interesting papers in the journal Oral Tradition on translating Dylan into French and Spanish.

Image in the public demain downloaded here.

Crags, Cæsters & Crans: The Multilingual Tapestry of England

IMG_7774I don’t normally write about etymology. The origin of words and names is a fascinating subject in itself, mixing as it does linguistics and history with just about any sphere of knowledge. But mine is a blog about language and creativity, and there are plenty of excellent blogs on etymology (like this one) already out there. However, after a weekend road-trip from my home in the South East of England, to the Lake District in the North West, I was inspired to break the habit and write about the curious etymology of English geography.

England, like many countries, boasts a wonderfully creative assortment of place names – as Bill Bryson celebrates with the title of his recent book, The Road to Little Dribbling. Naming all of its various locations and geographical features, over the centuries, has surely taken a great deal of creativity. In many cases, place names are nouns (like Ham from the Old English hamm for enclosure), or adjectivally modified nouns (West Ham) acting as very simple descriptions. Many are noun compounds either with some kind of particle or suffix (Birm-ing-ham), or without (Cam-bridge). Some place names, like that of Pease Pottage (literally “pea soup”) in West Sussex, go beyond simple descriptions into the poetic realm of metaphor.

But what struck me on the trip is the degree of multilingual creativity (of sorts) that has been involved in naming the various villages, towns and cities, rivers, lakes and mountains, you find up and down the country. It’s not just that different languages have been used to name places by different people at different times – from the earliest Celtic languages and the Latin of the Romans, to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse of the Vikings, to the French of the Normans, and even some Italian. What struck me was how often, because of the way they have influenced each other over time, the various languages have been thrown together within English place names. It’s surely something of a paradox that in such a seemingly monolingual country, England’s multilingual past is etched into its very geography.

The best way to show you what I mean is to take you with me on my weekend road trip across the country. So jump in, fasten your seatbelt, and off we go.

Day One: St Albans to Carnforth

After breakfast, we set off from St Albans, an old Roman town a few miles north of London, and take the M1 north through Hertfordshire, then Northamptonshire – two of the many English counties taking a suffix from the Old English scīr meaning “district”. Then, it’s into Leicestershire, where the motorway passes a few miles from the burial place of Richard III and our first example of multilingual creativity: the word Leicester stems from the Anglo-Saxon Ligora-cæster: a neatly Romano-British mixture of the Celtic name of a tribe or river and an Old English word for Roman fort (from the Latin castrum). Incidentally, not far to the West is Ashby de la Zouche, probably one of the coolest sounding English towns, which provides our second example. Ashby derives from the Old English or Old Norse for “ash tree”, and the Old Norse bý for “farmstead”. “De la Zouche” is French and comes later, from the family name of a bunch of Norman aristocrats.

IMG_7758Then, it’s up through Nottinghamshire, my home county, and into Derbyshire where we turn off the motorway towards the market town of Chesterfield (open land by another Roman cæster). From there, it’s west over the Pennines, the range of hills that form the central spine of England, named at some point in the 18th century, probably to ape the Italian Appennini. Then, it’s on into the Derbyshire Dales (from the Old English dæl for “valley”), part of the wider Peak District, the country’s first national park. Here the road gets windier and things get generally wilder, and there are more sheep. We drive past Baslow (burial place hlāw of some Anglo Saxon bloke called Bassa). Then, it’s on to once plague-stricken Eyam (from the Old English ēg for island, in the dative plural, meaning something like “bits of land between streams”).

After a quick sandwich in the Miner’s Arms, it’s then back on the road. We drive on north-westward into Cheshire and the village of Disley, from the Old English leāh for clearing in a wood, for a quick visit to Lyme Park (location of another -ley, Pemberley, in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice). From here it’s up the M6, past Greater Manchester and all its traffic, into Lancashire. Through the window to our left is a third Anglo-Saxoned Celtic-Latin hybrid, Lancaster (from cæster and the Celtic-named river Lune). Finally, we reach our overnight destination, where we are fed a hearty plate of roast lamb by our hosts, my aunt and uncle. The Lancashire town of Carnforth was once just a ford populated with cranes (from the Old English cran) until a gradual metathesis eventually switched the two phonemes around.

Day Two: The Lake District

IMG_7755On Saturday, it’s the main event. After breakfast, we drive a few miles on into the Lake District, the national park which is famously home to one only “lake”, but many equally beautiful “meres”, “tarns” (from the Old Norse), and “waters” (Old English) – it’s also abundant in “crags” (from Celtic), “gills” (Old Norse gil), “fells” (from the Old Norse fjall), and “edges”. We drive north along the touristed shores of Windermere (lake of a bloke called Vinandr), remembering that calling it “Lake Windermere” would be tautology (like River Avon and Lake Michigan). On the way to Ambleside we pass a sign for Troutbeck (from the Old Norse bekkr for stream). Then, it’s on to lovely Grasmere (grassy lake), once home and burial place of William Wordsworth, for a spot of lunch. Finally, a bit further on, we reach our least body of water, Thirlmere, in the shadow of Helvellyn – the third highest fell in the Lake District (and England for that matter), a hill with something of a question mark next to it, etymologically speaking.

From there, it’s back down to Windermere and a cross-country route home which takes us via Arnside, a small seaside town on the treacherous tidal “sands” where the river Kent flows into Morecambe bay, before cutting back to Carnforth for one final night. Incidentally, Morecambe is another example of multilingual naming: it comes to us from the Latin recording of an older Celtic name (Morikámbē) for the bay itself.

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Day Three: Homeward bound

The next morning, it’s time for the long drive home. We take the less scenic route this time but it’s no less interesting, etymologically speaking.

 

References

The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A. D. Mills (1998).

 

 

 

Volcanoes and “æ”: Why Iceland is a feast for linguists too

IMG_7311Iceland may only have a population of roughly 300,000 but, as a nation, it punches well above its weight in many things: in terms of its scenery, its musical output and, most recently, in its footballing achievements.

For naturalists and ornithologists, Iceland has puffins and arctic terns. For musicologists, it has Sigur Rós and Björk. For geologists, positioned as it is where the continents of Europe and North America rub up against each other, Iceland is something of a mecca. It is a country of glaciers and fjords, of mountains and volcanoes, lava fields and basalt columns, of hot springs and fumaroles and geysers gushing forth gas and liquid from the depths. If Jules Verne is to be trusted, the very centre of the Earth can be reached via one of the craters of Snæfellsjökull, a snow-capped volcano on Iceland’s Western peninsular.

But I’d like to argue that Iceland has plenty to offer linguists and language lovers too. Here are just some of the highlights:

It all started with the Vikings

Like Danish and Norwegian, Icelandic is a Nordic language, part of the broader Germanic family. However, although it is derived from Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse, Icelandic is not a language that speakers of Danish and Norwegian can readily understand. This is because, since Iceland was first settled by Vikings in the 9th century AD, it has remained relatively isolated. While other Scandinavian languages (Faroese excepted) have changed substantially due to external influences from the rest of the continent, in its grammar, written Icelandic has not changed substantially in about a thousand years. As a result, modern speakers can still read the original Icelandic sagas of the 12th century.

Literary language, literary culture

It’s not just that Icelanders can still read the sagas – they still do. And they don’t stop there. As the narrator of Halldór Laxness’ Atom Station says of Iceland: “everything is read, beginning with the Icelandic sagas; and then everything.” When Jules Verne’s protagonists arrive in Reykjavik, on their famous Journey, their Icelandic host tells them: “every farmer, every fisherman, knows how to read and does read.” And, as well as being a nation of readers, Icelanders like to write too. Apparently, something like one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. Famous Icelandic authors include Laxness himself, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

A “magnificent language, both simple and rich”

IMG_7701At the beginning of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Professor Lidenbrock tells his nephew Axel that Icelandic is “that magnificent language, both simple and rich, containing the most diverse grammatical combinations.” (It’s fitting indeed that Verne’s protagonist is as much a linguist as he is a geologist.) Alda Sigmundsdóttir, author of The Little Book of Icelandic, is a little less flattering. She calls her mother tongue “a bloody mess grammatically, a nightmarish mishmash of inflected nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns”.

For an English speaker, Icelandic certainly looks complicated in terms of its grammar. Like German, for example, it has four noun cases and three noun genders. But, because of its isolation, the vocabulary of Icelandic has remained relatively simple compared to that of English (which has shamelessly begged, stolen and borrowed words from a whole host of other languages). As a result, English words that used to mean the same thing in Icelandic tend to have undergone a process of relative semantic narrowing. For example, in Icelandic, hundur refers to any type of dog. In English on the other hand, as a result of competition with “dog” (from Old English), the cognate word “hound” now only refers to hunting dogs.

Geeking out on etymology

IMG_7708Because of the shared Germanic roots of Old Norse and Old English, and because many Old Norse words were adopted into Old English during the Viking settlement of the British isles, there are plenty of words in Icelandic that look familiar to English speakers, and vice versa. For example, the Icelandic word for house is hús, for book bók, for daughter dóttir, and so on.

Old Norse left its mark in particular on the geography of the British Isles. As a result, lots of Icelandic place names look familiar to speakers of British English (especially those from the north of the England). In Iceland, there’s Snæfell and Kirkjufell. In the Lake District, there’s Scafell and Low Fell. In Iceland, there’s the Hafnahólmi and Stykkishólmur. In the Bristol Channel, there’s Flat Holm and Steep Holm (a holm is an islet in a river). In the south of Iceland, there’s a town called Höfn (literally “Harbour”). In the south of England, there’s Newhaven. In downtown Reykjavik, there’s Lækjargata and Geirsgata (an Icelandic gata is a road or street). In my hometown of Nottingham, there’s Castle Gate and Wheeler Gate.

Incidentally, the word “Viking” derives from the Old Norse for bay (Reykjavík, as it happens, is literally “smoky bay”). As Sigmundsdóttir says, “it is pretty easy to geek out on Icelandic and English etymology if you like that sort of thing” – and, frankly, who doesn’t?

IMG_7642

Magnificent characters

IMG_7667Perhaps my favourite thing about Icelandic is its alphabet, which still retains three graphemes from Old Norse which also existed in Old English but which don’t survive into written English today: eth (ð or Đ), thorn (þ or Þ) and æsc (æ or Æ). (I love this video for the song Dýrð í dauðaþögn by Icelandic artist, Ásgeir Trausti, as much for the Icelandic alphabet as for the music and the stunning scenery.) ð and þ represent voiced and unvoiced versions of two Icelandic phonemes which are similar to the two phonemes written, voiced or otherwise, as “th” in English. For phonologists, ð is a voiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative, and þ is the unvoiced version, both pronounced with the tongue slightly retracted compared to the English dental fricatives in “that” and “this”, respectively. In Icelandic, the letter æsc (also known as ash in English) signifies the diphthong /ai/ as in “ice”.

Proper names

Although it’s a bit old fashioned in its gender politics, Icelandic names follow a delightfully simple patronymic system where a person’s surname is derived from their father’s first name by adding the suffix son (son) or dóttir (daughter). Author Alda Sigmundsdóttir is literally “Sigmund’s daughter”. Egil Skallagrimsson, the violently unhinged protagonist of the eponymous Icelandic saga, is the son of Skallagrim. And so on.

Verbal hygiene in action

IMG_7699Icelanders are – justifiably – very proud of their language. As a result, the country has a somewhat conservative attitude towards the influx of foreign loanwords, especially from English. Officially, the Icelandic language is under the control of the Icelandic Language Committee, whose job it is to regulate the Icelandic lexicon and Icelandic grammar. As Sigmundsdóttir explains, it’s their job to invent new Icelandic words for new and foreign concepts. So for example, instead of taking the English word “computer” and assimilating it to Icelandic phonology (to kompjúter), the committee invented an entirely new word (tölva), which means something like “prophetess of numbers”. Still, despite their best efforts, Anglicisms are still creeping into informal Icelandic. Examples include: tjilla (to chill out), sækó (psycho) and sjitt (shit). Incidentally, there’s even an official list of first names that Icelanders are allowed to call their children (this one regulated by the Icelandic Naming Committee).

And don’t forget the clapping

And finally, as well as verbal and written communication, it’s worth adding that Icelanders also excel at the non-verbal variety – as anyone who heard Iceland’s travelling fans perform their “Viking thunder clap” at Euro 2016 will know. Frightening stuff!

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All photos are by the author, and were taken in June 2016. For more information about the Icelandic language I can thoroughly recommend The Little Book of Icelandic by Alda Sigmundsdóttir.