The internet is full of things, and many of those things are wonderful gems of linguistic interest. Here are some of the language-related links that have recently caught my eye:
As if on cue, Kyle Kallgren just this week posted a video on William Shakespeare’s Star Wars as what we can hope is the first of this year’s Summer of Shakespeare series. It’s a nice corrective and counterpoint to the grousing I did in my previous post, and Kallgren highlights a whole lot of what Doescher does right in capturing the Shakespearean style in his book series. (And I note that in a couple of the examples he cites, there are, contrary to my impressions, a couple of yous sprinkled in Doescher’s verse. Though I’m still convinced he’s not doing those protocols justice, I’m also happy to not be entirely right about his work.) Kallgren is very smart and funny, and always worth watching on the subject of Shakespeareana in particular; I linked to his magisterial takedown of the painfully stupid Anonymous in my last post, but all his commentary on Shakespeare on film will reward your attention.
In my post on William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, I talked about how a single word can affect your experience of a text. For a positive take on that, check out Laura Bailey’s short but insightful post on China Miéville’s The City and the City, where the word in question is could. Considering that one of the central themes of that book is the tension between what is possible and what is permitted, Miéville’s quibble on that word is a great hook to draw the language-savvy reader into the deleriously strange world of the story. Bailey also notes that it’s not only example of Miéville’s linguistic cleverness; also worth paying attention to is the nomenclature in his invented Eastern European city-states, where “the names are all made up but completely believable.”
Speaking of invented words, Morrus, the indefatigable headmaster of the gaming site ENWorld, recently drew attention on the Tweetie to his article on the semi-official list of D&D pronunciations, which covers both entirely made-up words and real-world terms that are used in the game. A few points of interest: The designers’ guidelines that provide accurate pronunciations of words like arquebus and chitin but miss the mark on the Irish geas; the inevitable inconsistencies that come with 40 years of game history under multiple design teams, such as how to pronounce the g in Vangerdahast or whether ixitxachitl has a stress on the second or third syllable; and how many the names in the Forgotten Realms have distinctive and consistent “feel” despite not having real-world analogues – Azoun, Lathander, Miraun, Suzail, and Urmlaspyr have a quality to them that feels like they stem from a common culture, and if you’re immersed in the lore you can develop a sense of which names feel “Realmsian” and distinct from, say, the proper names in the World of Greyhawk setting. (Language in Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games is a pretty rich subject all around, and you can expect I’ll be returning to it more than once in future posts.)
I love words, but they’re not the only language of storytelling. Over on Tor.com, Mike Underwood has an essay analyzing the visual elements that make Mad Max: Fury Road a masterpiece among action movies. Some critics have mistaken Fury Road‘s explosions and sparse dialogue for shallowness; Mike lays out why that’s an error, and how its choices in kinetic visual narrative are specific, nuanced, and driven by grounded and well-thought-out concerns in the world and the plot. The semiotics of action cinema is a fascinating subject in general, and this is a great place to begin exploring that through a film that raises the bar on what it’s possible to do with its chosen genre and mode. (And if you like the way Mike thinks about narrative, you still have a few days left to get in on the Kickstarter for Season One of his smart, story-savvy novella series Genrenauts.)
Finally, back on the subject of words and usage, just today there’s a You Don’t Say entry in the Baltimore Sun wherein John McIntyre takes on the question of whether editors ought to be leaders or followers when it comes to changes in language. His answer, which may not be terribly reassuring to those who long for certainty, is, “It depends.” That’s the thing about the sister crafts of writing and editing: They require judgment calls, and lots of them. If they didn’t, we really could (and maybe should!) get machines to do them. That’s why all those deeper questions the editor needs to ask are so vital, and why those are the core of the job and not the search-and-replace correcting (or, just as often, “correcting”) of errors. Sometimes, those choices give us the opportunity to be pioneers, as with McIntyre’s quietly letting singular they slip into final copy depite the various stylebooks’ waffling on its suitability. Sometimes they require more conservatism and restraint, waiting to see if neologisms gain a foothold before letting them pass willy-nilly into print – and of course, different contexts, registers, and bodies of work are going to require different standards, so that the bleeding-edge usage that’s verboten in one style may be entirely appropriate in another. It falls on both writers and the editors who look after them to stand on the hazy border between prescriptivism and descriptivism, balancing their complementary yin and yang in the right proportions for the specific work on the table. “Is $USAGE correct English?” is almost always the wrong question; much better to ask, “Is $USAGE the right way to say this in this piece, for this audience?” – both because that’s a much more interesting line of inquiry, and because it keeps us from mistaking our opinions for facts.