A linkage gallimaufrey

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.

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Nearer the Force to thee

“For in much wisdom is much grief,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes, “and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” And if you don’t believe it, watch a costume drama with a historian sometime.

I cast some shade on my fellow nerds last week for our preoccupation with minutiae, but it’s also true that sometimes deep knowledge of a subject makes it hard to appreciate things that brush against it in a, shall we say, less immersive way. They could have at least made some effort to get the details right is the eternal lament of anyone who has just seen their field of interest given a half-cocked treatment in some bit of commercial media, and none of us who grumble about such things ever really understand that we are too narrow a band of the intended audience to make that effort worthwhile. So it goes.

One of my fields of interest is Shakespeare, and I’m just deeply immersed enough in that subject to be the guy who’s not much fun when I trip over a mistake that misrepresents some odd detail of Shakespeareana. But I have to admit that we Bardophiles have it pretty good; while we do occasionally have to roll our eyes at the moonbat chemtrail reptoid fever dreams of the Oxfordians, or grit our teeth just a little when someone misquotes “Alas, poor Yorick,” those are relatively minor annoyances in a world where there’s a movie of young Magneto in the Scottish Play. So I really do try my best to be a good sport and not grouse over things no one but me cares about because they weren’t memorizing soliloquys back in high school just because it seemed like it would be fun.

By most measures, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher should have hit the mark for me. Doescher has an admirably good ear for Shakespearean cadence and word choice, he doesn’t make a hash of early modern English morphology, and his verse scans nicely. He’s made what could have been a one-off joke into a thing that works better than it probably has any right to over an extended series, and so he gets a lot of credit for doing something clever and doing it, in many respects, very well. And yet all the same, when my famous author friend Mike loaned me a copy, I found myself bouncing off what to almost anyone else would seem like a trivial detail – so trivial, in fact, that it can be distilled to a single word, and that word is you.

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Nerds, passive peeving, and fantasy diction

Stan Carey has a post up that’s yetanother much-needed rant about passive voice peevery, and how self-styled grammarians who advise against its use (in the fine tradition of Messrs. Strunk and White) can invariably be relied on to not know what the heck they’re talking about. You should go read it. I’ll wait.

The term passive voice as a grammatical concept has a specific meaning. The mechanics of it are a little arcane for the layperson; Geoff Pullum, explaining it in linguistic terms as simply as he can manage in his Language Log essay “The passive in English,” admits up-front to needing about 2500 words to do the subject justice. But in practice, it’s (mostly) fairly easy to identify – my personal favorite test is that if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb phrase, it’s passive voice. So Bob was eaten by zombies is in the passive voice, but *Bob was going by zombies home is nonsense in English, and so that “was going” is not, in fact, passive, no matter how much E.B. White and Mrs. Badcrumble were keen to convince you it is.

Also, as Pullum and other language writers (Carey among them; he’s had cause to write on this subject before) point out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. It’s a useful tool in the toolbox of English speech and composition, and you can do things with it that you can’t really achieve by any other means. Depriving yourself of it because some blowhard wants to shame your prose with words like “weak” and “weaselly” and “flabby” and “flat” is giving in to that prime fallacy of the peeververein (and indeed, of grayfaced puritans everywhere), that if people might possibly do something too much they should be told not to do it at all.

(On the flip side, the good news about most people not being able to identify passives even if they’ve been bitten by them is that you can often get away with using them when you need to even if you’ve been told not to. I confess that I have, on multiple occasions, turned in work containing passive constructions at places that had misguided No Passive Voice Ever rules in their stylebooks, confident that their appearance in context was so utterly natural that it would never occur to anyone to call them out, and I was right and they didn’t.)

Anyway, seeing Carey’s rant gave me cause to remember one of my own recent experiences of spotting misidentified passive peeving in the wild, and reflect on the deleterious effect it has on a demographic I’m more than a little invested in. And so to delve deeper into this particular instance of not-actually-passive-griping, we’re going to have to talk a bit about nerds.

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“Grammar, Stanley.”

Sometime last summer[1], I became a dedicated fan of the Disney XD animated series Gravity Falls – a show that seems to produce dedicated fans almost to the exclusion of any other kind. If your sensibilities are anything like mine, it’s easy to see why; GF is a real delight, a sort of X-files-meets-Twin Peaks-by-way-of-The Simpsons (all acknowledged influences on creator Alex Hirsch) that’s both a satire of and homage to the canon of supernatural mysteries, conspiracy thrillers, and coming-of-age stories. It’s all played for laughs, but that doesn’t stop it from having some genuinely creepy moments along the way, in the mold of the best remember-this-is-a-cartoon-for-children shows of the last two decades or so.[2] Indeed, the show’s genius in balancing those and other elements is a big part of its enduring appeal.

Another thing that’s appealing about Gravity Falls (especially to late adopters like me) is that it was always conceived as a finite story – it takes place over the course of a single summer, giving it a chance to build a genuinely sequential through-line and a story arc with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. When the show’s final episodes – the multi-part “Weirdmageddon” storyline – aired this past winter, it was the payoff to a cluster of plot seeds that had been planted early and nurtured slowly over the years of the series’ run time.

As well as being a solidly entertaining hour-plus of television (and bear with me, I promise I’m building to something language-related here), the series finale had some great moments of subverting the expectations of the type of story GF is modeled on. One of these takes place during what looks like it’s about to be the great climactic moment of victory for the heroes – the reveal of a prophecy that’s been mysteriously hinted at since the early episodes, and which is the key to defeating the series’ omnipotent, diabolical arch-villain Bill Cipher. And the sideways turn that scene takes hinges on a moment of decidedly linguistic interest.

(Hereafter be SPOILERS, obviously – not just for the series ending, but for a major reveal of one of the show’s key mysteries that happens two-thirds of the way through the second season. If you haven’t seen Gravity Falls and would rather discover its secrets in the order its creator and writers intended, this is your last chance to turn away.)

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Bo shuda

It’s Star Wars Day, and if you’re a fan of both Star Wars and language (especially conlangs, or constructed languages), you might enjoy spending some time with The Complete Wermo’s Guide to Huttese, which opens up with some of the real-world origins of the alien language spoken in the films:

According to the Behind the Magic CD-Rom, Ben Burtt derived the Huttese language from the ancient Incan dialect, Quechua. He based many phrases on samples from a language exercise tape. I have found a site that gives lessons on Quechua and have found a few Quechua words used in the Star Wars saga. The first word is ‘tuta.’ In Episode I the phrase “Sebulba tuta Pixelito” is used meaning “Sebulba from Pixelito.” The Quechua ‘tuta’ however used in this phrase: “Imarayku kunan tuta,” means “For this night past.” Another word is ‘chawa.’ “Neek me chawa wermo,” said Sebulba: “Next time we race,” but in Quechua, ‘chawa’ means ‘uncooked.’ And although ‘tullpa’ which means “cooking spot in a kitchen” is not an exact spelling of ‘tolpa’ (Tolpa da bunky dunko=Then you can go home) the pronunciation is identical. Thus we can gather that Quechua is not Huttese itself but it is a model Ben Burtt used for the style and sound of Huttese. According to some sources, the scene where Greedo encounters Han Solo at the cantina, Greedo actually says something akin to, “I love your big blue eyes.”

There’s another handy Huttese phrasebook at Nerd Girl Army, and if you just want a brief rundown, this video will give you some basic phrases, as well as pointing out that the Huttese numbering system is base-8.

 

If this kind of thing fascinates you, then U kulle rah doe kankee kung.

The editor’s role

On Friday, I was talking with a long-time colleague – my mentor in the world of instructional design, which is the other professional hat I wear – over a postmortem lunch for the project whose conclusion has now put us both back, as it were, On The Market.

As part of his we-were-so-lucky-to-have-you speech (which, believe me, the editor or writer on your workforce appreciates beyond rubies, even if it does make them a little embarassed), I got to hear some war stories about my predecessor on this team: an Oxford-educated editor of the Mrs. Badcrumble or Miss Thistlebottom school, who once gathered everyone for an emergency meeting so she could berate them on their grammatical shortcomings – a list that (of course) included a bunch of the old superstitions of grammar nitpickery. A veteran which-hunter, in other words.

This sort of thing is quite bad enough, even though I’ve grown used to being unwillingly represented by the most myopic practitioners of my craft, but it gets even better. The thing that really floored me was when my colleague told me about his efforts trying to submit a draft to this editor. He’s a natural collaborator; we share, among other things, an ethos of pride in the work but not ego, so he makes liberal use of the comments feature to tag his drafts with notes asking if such-and-such wording makes sense or has the right tone or is sufficiently supported in the rest of the piece. You know – all the things a writer’s supposed to do.

The response he got was, “I don’t know about any of that. I’m just the editor.”

Folks, gentlebeings, let us explore the ways in which this is Wrong Wrong Wrongity Wrong.

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And yet it changes

Anthimeria is the formal term for when a word is used as another part of speech – what happens when nouns are verbed (and vice versa), when adjectives slide into noun- or verb-hood, when nouns get stacked adjectivally onto other nouns. Mrs. Badcrumble probably told you not to do it. You probably do it anyway.

And well you should. Anthimeria is part of the play of language change that makes English vital and alive. It was a major force in Shakespeare’s wordplay toolkit (from the lowly gravedigger’s “Cudgel thy brains no more about it” in Hamlet to the Duke of York’s “Grace me no grace nor uncle me no uncle” in Richard II), and remains indisepensible to the way we navigate the shifting landscape of technology and information – like the way the adjective in text message becomes a noun when we send a text, and is then further verbed to the concise, efficient text me.

It’s not always elegant; we might cringe a little when managers talk about liaising and leveraging (though we must admit, we also know precisely what they mean), but a few missteps are worth the joy of seeing a living language grow and adapt.

Because adapt it surely will, and no amount of standing athwart it yelling Stop will do any good to halt the millions of speakers who make English do what they need it to do, and serve the purposes they need it to serve, in their day-to-day lives. For living things, adaptation is survival, and repurposing existing parts for new uses is a highly successful survival strategy. Language scolds and grammar cops like to imagine a time when English was pure and perfect – usually thirty or fifty or a hundred years ago – but even if we accept that it was (it wasn’t), the world of those times didn’t know it would someday need to describe a telecommute where you receive a download that you later save to the cloud. The kinds of language change illustrated in that one scenario – portmanteau, anthimeria, semantic shift – have happened, and continue to happen, because we need new linguistic tools to match our physical (and virtual) ones.

Galileo may not have actually said eppur si muove, at least not where the Inquisition would have heard him, but it’s a good tale anyway and a good model for lovers of language. We might not approve of every vicissitude English undergoes, but it doesn’t ask for our approval; and yet it changes, will we or no, so we might as well study its movements with curiosity and inquisitiveness rather than judgment or sorrow.

“In street English, anthimeria runs rampant,” wrote professional wordsmith Nancy Friedman a decade ago (adjectivizing street in a way that even Shakespeare wouldn’t have immediately recognized), speaking fondly of a host of colorful colloquial repurposings. And of course, we’ve also rung a change on rampant too, from the days when it was a word that described the upright, aggressive, slightly off-balance attitude of heraldic beasts like the gryphon[1] that sits atop the sidebar. That strikes me as not a bad image for the English language: a fantastical creature made of composite parts, whose name isn’t even spelled the same way consistently, magnificent and terrible and the stuff of endlessly inventive stories. (Story isn’t merely one of the functions of language, after all; story is what language is.) We do it the most honor by telling its tale not as a lament for a golden age now lost, but as one that looks forward with hope and wonder, marvelling at what it might become next.


[1]Which I am at pains to point out is not strictly rampant, at least according to the fine points of heraldic blazon, but segreant, a term reserved for the rampant attitude in fantastical creatures such as dragons and gryphons that have four legs and wings. There, how’s that for peevery?