Giving The Wake a Failing Grade.

I’ve been vaguely interested in reading Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake because, as its Author’s note says:

This novel is not written in Old English — that would be unreadable to anyone except scholars. It is written instead in what might be called a shadow tongue — a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today.

Sounds enticing, right? Fortunately, I’ve been warned off by Two Linguists Explain Pseudo Old English in The Wake, an excellent demolition job in which linguists Gretchen McCulloch and Kate Wiles explain exactly why it would enrage me to the point of throwing it against the wall if I ever tried to read it. Some excerpts:

Gretchen: The Wake uses fuck quite a bit, with the spelling fucc or fuccan because it’s avoiding k. Here’s an example sentence from page 99: “go fucc thyself i saes and let thy frenc freonds do the same”. It’s set in 1066, so is fuck old enough? Should Kingsnorth have been using swive or something else instead?

Kate: HAHAHAHA YES LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT.

He’s fallen into the most basic of heffalump traps. Everyone calls it an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word but it’s really not. In fact, none of the Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words were Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words. Most of them aren’t even Anglo-Saxon. There’s no denying they had a filthy sense of humour so there’s plenty of smut. But they were a pragmatic bunch and their taboo words, certainly as we have them recorded, were pretty literal: shit had all the scandalous effect of ‘defecation’; words for sex were no ruder than ‘intercourse’ in the contexts that we find them used and ‘bastard’ just meant illegitimate.

And this is super weird as he went to such pains to stress he’d only used vocabulary which existed in Old English and has survived to today. But I suppose ‘fuck’ really works to confirm our stereotypes of this period as nasty, brutish and short and its people as crude and bodily. Why bother trying to conjure up a nuanced and balanced world and take the reader ‘back to what it was like without anachronism’ when you can use the language as a tool to bludgeon the reader with the stereotype they’re expecting.

[…]

Gretchen: […] From my perspective, if one of the major selling features of your book (and reasons it got nominated for a Man Booker Prize) is that you’ve written a hybrid language that evokes the linguistic spirit of a particular era, it’s an important service that someone analyze this language for how well it does that, so your readers know what’s being evoked in them. And unfortunately, I have to give it a failing grade.

[…]

Kate: Well said. The reduced vocabulary, simplified syntax, and avoided punctuation/capitalization also take readers in a particular direction, making the Anglo-Saxons seem less capable of complex thought. As an artistic decision, I’ll defend to the end of the world an author’s right to muck about with language however they like; but as a decision that’s explicitly meant to put readers into the Anglo-Saxon “worldview”, I need to point out that the world we’re viewing is through glass that’s more cracked and warped than it needed to be.

Gretchen: Yeah, and instead, he’s actively choosing to perpetuate a certain mindset associated with Anglo-Saxons, that they had the same taboos as a modern reader, which is just so many kinds of false. But it’s the type of false that most people aren’t going to catch, and therefore highly misleading. Throwing around Ren Faire thees and thous might not be completely accurate either, but adding an extra letter to a pronoun isn’t wholesale cultural revisionism the way altering their entire taboo system is.

Kate: Exactly. All of this feels like cherry-picking the best olde bits that most match his preconceptions of Anglo-Saxon England, rather than building the world from the roots up. Which is fine, but by using the language in this way it gives such a message of ‘authenticity’ that everything that’s expressed in his shadow tongue is represented as ‘historical truth’.

Oh, these writers who have brilliant ideas that they’re too lazy to do a good job of realizing! The whole discussion is well worth reading even if you have no interest in the novel, because it’s lively, funny, and informative. (Via Mark Liberman’s Log post.)

Comments

  1. I enjoyed the informed criticism, and the flaws they pointed are real flaws, and unfortunate. However, I still very much want to read the novel. Perhaps because, promises notwithstanding, I never took it as closer to historical truth or “the anglo-saxon worldview” in any shape or form; it’s always been clear to me that Kingsnorth’s England is creative anachronism, as idealized and fantasy-fictional as Tolkien’s, a reflection of his “Dark Ecology” value system more than any historical one. (Disclaimer: I’m probably more sympathetic towards fantasy/anachronism/neopaganism/”Ren Faire nonsense” than most of you.)

    More than anything, I find that the conlang works for me—

    when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness
    none will loc but the wind will cum. the wind cares not for the hopes of men

    It seems to me to strike the right balance of ostranenie while avoiding the need for a dictionary. As someone who’s interested in both conlangs and fantasy lit, I can’t let it pass. I’m also intrigued by the premise of post-apocalyptic pseudo-medieval genre lit (incidentally, the review talks a lot about how Kingsnorth portrays Anglo-Saxons as “simpler”, as a pejorative stereotype; and a stereotype it is, but here it isn’t pejorative at all; the author is staunchly anti-modernity, so he’s idealizing a romantic past, not depreciating it). I suppose I should read The Wake before learning Old English, to minimize irritation…

    It’s a shame that Unbound won’t sell the ebook directly, though, but only through Amazon/Google/etc. (they’ve contracts to fulfill). It seems perverse, somehow, to finance some mega-corporation with a Kingsnorth book. I asked him about it, but, predictably, he doesn’t use ebooks, much less sell them. And shipping paper to my country is just too damn expensive; so I guess I’ll give up and buy the Amazon version.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    Props for the phrase “fallen into the most basic of heffalump traps.”

  3. Wiles says:

    It really threw me off when Kingsnorth had things like ‘cepe’ for ‘keep’, because before an ‘e’ it should be pronounced ‘ch’ and my brain read ‘chepe’ EVERY. TIME.

    Apparently keep comes from OE cépan. Has she never encountered the word?

  4. Jim (another one) says:

    “The reduced vocabulary, simplified syntax, and avoided punctuation/capitalization also take readers in a particular direction, making the Anglo-Saxons seem less capable of complex thought”

    Important point. She is pointing out a pernicious stereotype of Saxons, or maybe actually Saeson or Sassanach, which is basically they were orcs out of Mordor that swept all civilized life before them. I’m looking at you, Gildas.

  5. @Jim (another one): Again, this is an author who sympathizes with CS Lewis and Ted Kaczynski, who’s hostile to modernity and the notion of “progress”; someone who profess that

    Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better, they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes to technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point; the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.

    So when he portrays Anglo-Saxons of the past as “simpler”, he’s not portraying them as orcs. He’s portraying (his particular idealized version of) them as right, and us as the orcs, in the true Tolkenian sense of the word; i.e. for him, it’s the modern “religion of complexity” that’s sweeping everything beautiful from the world, etc.

  6. Whatever the exact semantics of fuccan in different circumstances (and it’s unlikely that it meant ‘engage in intercourse’, which is not really neutral at all but clinical), I have trouble believing that ‘Go have intercourse with yourself’ is ever anything but insulting. Consider Nikeratos, the protagonist of Renault’s The Mask of Apollo, speaking with Speusippos, Plato’s nephew:

    Theodoros exclaimed that I was getting dreadfully thin, and gave a party for me, at which he produced all the handsome youths he could think of who were free just then. Though they went as free as they came, I was grateful for the kindly thought, and sorry to disappoint him by leaving with Speusippos. But he had let me know he had things to tell me, which would not do in a crowd.

    As soon as we were alone, but for his link-boy [slave who lights the way with a torch] walking ahead, I asked his news. He said, “The Academy’s by the ears. No one knows how it will end.”

    “Does it matter? He wrote last year, and Plato told him to go and play with it, or whatever philosophers say instead.” I had got rather drunk at the party.

  7. I have a lot of difficulty reading that sort of stuff in type. Any sort of type. Unless it is actually copied from a manuscript with all the abbreviations noted, &c. But really, I want to see the original. I wouldn’t be able to bear this, because: no original. Ugh.
    Sorry: Yes. Throw it at the wall. Or into the midden.

  8. I enjoyed the informed criticism, and the flaws they pointed are real flaws, and unfortunate. However, I still very much want to read the novel.

    Yeah, I certainly don’t mean to imply that it’s a bad novel (and people should feel bad for liking it), it’s just that its flaws are exactly the kind that would drive me up the wall. If you do read it, let us know what you think!

  9. Rebecca says:

    I had a lot of fun reading it. I also disagree with many of his language choices, but enjoyed the linguistic analysis that enabled me to have a critical view of the language he constructed. He’s a poet, and it shows; he often seemed to put modern English sense of poetry and rhythm above historical fidelity, and that was woth appreciating.

    To me, the simplifications came across as part of the meta-dialogue between author and reader, and did not reflect a psychologically or culturally limited Anglo-Saxon people. In fact, you could argue that the structure of the events and the storytelling prove the opposite. I would hesitate to call this a historical novel rather than a psychological, post-apocalyptic thriller, and the coarseness of a restricted, artificial languages worked very well for this purposes.

    That said, if you go in expecting rigorous adherence to what we know of pre-normal English or linguistic reconstruction, you’re definitely going to be disappointed. I’d still say the well-crafted story, particularly (as has been pointed out) in the context of the author’s leanings, was very much worth the read.

    @leoboiko Have you tried book depository.com? Won’t help if you have customs issues, but prices are reasonable and worldwide shipping is free.

  10. That’s a fun interview. But, while it’s great to know that the bodily-function-based swearing being anachronistic, the idea that his use of it “works to confirm our stereotypes of this period as nasty, brutish and short and its people as crude and bodily” doesn’t ring true to me. I mean, British people today swear a whole lot; that doesn’t seem to cause them to be stereotyped as “crude and bodily”. I haven’t read the book, but my uninformed guess would be that the author simply – at some level – felt that this sort of swearing is such an integral part of what it means to be English (or even human!) that it simply must have existed. England without running water, hospitals, or railways? No problem. England without recognisable curse words? Inconceivable!

  11. What a rollercoaster ride. I bought this book based on, I’m pretty sure, a mention here, and now I’ll have to move it straight from the “to read” pile to the “to throw against wall” pile. No, seriously, like Leo I haven’t given up hope yet. I was never really expecting more than a vague OE-y veneer, after all. But the article was very enjoyable anyhow, even though it did remind me of how sad it will be when the Toast closes down at the end of the month.

    Re cepan, it’s true that the word is not that obscure, but on the other hand it is an exception to the rules of OE pronunciation — you would indeed normally expect that /c/ to be palatalized, all things being equal. If I recall correctly the reason it isn’t is that the word cepan is the result of i-umlaut on something like *copian — basically the same process that gave us the word “feet” — and so arrived too late to join the palatalization party.

  12. Eli Nelson says:

    I think I’ve read somewhere that the OE rules connecting palatalization to quality of adjacent vowels were fossilized, rather than productive, from a very early stage (maybe even before the earliest documents we have, or before the split from related languages?). So it’s not surprising that you can’t always predict if a c or g in an Old English text represents a palatal or velar consonant. I believe that’s the very reason the convention of marking palatalized consonants explicitly with a dot above the letter was developed.

    The adjective keen is another example of non-palatal “c” before “e”: it comes from Old English cēne, which the OED says is from Proto-Germanic *kōnjo. In a way, it’s not surprising that the reflex of umlauted o, although a front vowel, does not palatalize the preceding consonant, as we also don’t see palatalization before the front-vowel y which is the reflex of umlauted u.

  13. Phillip Jennings says:

    Gretchen catches Kingsnorth out on ‘ire’ as being Latin in origin, but ‘godes yrre baer’ is found in one of my favorite bits of Beowulf.

  14. per incuriam says:

    Whatever about the language, the timing seems impeccable: judging by the Brexit debate go fucc thyself i saes and let thy frenc freonds do the same is a fair approximation of what half the electorate will be voting for next week.

  15. Kingsnorth on brushcutters: I have rarely read such arrant nonsense, which would take prizes in Pseuds Corner. The man has got it completely in reverse – which I suppose means he is talking out of his nether regions – when he says using them rather than scythes is for “religious” not “practical” purposes.

    He should try taming a large, uneven area of long grass with a scythe in rare moments of leisure from work, family, etc. I have steam coming out of my ears and my blood pressure is up dangerously.

    He should go back to his commune and commune only with like souls and not inflict such nonsense on the world at large. The only thing I might say in his favour is that he seems to have a lot of grit to have fought his way to novel-length using the (apparently poor) archaic language…

    Humphh…

  16. @Paul: I was thinking about that remark too, as I was clearing some loose brush this afternoon. I do not currently own a scythe or sickle, but I have used them, and the job I was doing would have been much easier with a better tool than what I had.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Paul: he says using them [brushcutters] rather than scythes is for “religious” not “practical” purposes.

    What the author says:

    Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better, they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes to technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point, the religion of complexity The myth of progress manifested in tool form….

    This has nothing to do with any “religion” in the usual sense, but with the modern attitude which “worships” complexity, as in machines rather than simpler [though harder to handle but more efficient when mastered] tools.

  18. But, Marie-Lucie, if the tool is better only after mastering and someone doesn’t want to spend time and effort to master it, but uses a simpler to use tool, it is a rational choice about one’s priorities, not worshiping complexity. I don’t actually think people are worshiping complexity. Just think about amount of time people who are not hanging on the verge of subsistence are spending on gardening, or home improvement, or fishing. Most people like doing simple activities. We are forced to use complex things for work.

  19. The book’s at the top of my pile, so I should get to it in a day or so.

    Kingsnorth does concede that if you have five acres to mow, you’re going to be able to do it faster (not necessarily better) with a tractor.

  20. This has nothing to do with any “religion” in the usual sense, but with the modern attitude which “worships” complexity

    Yes, Paul knows that, but he’s pointing out that the quoted supercilious attitude is one possible only for the idle thinker who doesn’t actually have to clear fields. Cf. those who think we should use only fine handmade objects instead of cheap, vulgar mass-produced ones, or those who shake their fingers at parents who take their kids out for a fast-food meal instead of spending all day preparing an old-fashioned family dinner (after which they can all strum homemade musical instruments and sing improving songs).

  21. I’m not going to claim that Kingsnorth is an agricultural laborer, but he has taught scything in the past and talks about how satisfying it is. So he does it because he can, not because he must. Still, “the strengths and weaknesses of a leader are no indication of the merits of his cause” (I forget who said this, and Dr. Google is equally ignorant). Certainly the environmental footprint of the scythe is much lower than that of the brush cutter / weed whacker.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Gretchen catches Kingsnorth out on ‘ire’ as being Latin in origin, but ‘godes yrre baer’ is found in one of my favorite bits of Beowulf.

    God’s crazy bear? Is that Beowulf himself?

    (I’m projecting German irr into it. That’s probably wrong; OE y should be something else entirely. Gottes irrer Bär is just too funny to pass up. – (Sich) irren means “to err”, and may well be cognate to it.)

  23. “I would hesitate to call this a historical novel rather than a psychological, post-apocalyptic thriller, and the coarseness of a restricted, artificial languages worked very well for this purposes.”

    Exactly. Having read the novel, I think that the Toast article, and to an extent the comments here, don’t really acknowledge the exigencies of telling a story for a contemporary audience. Seems to me that “ye olde Englishing” that Kingsnorth has done is perfectly appropriate for his purposes. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is an obvious comparison, but also perhaps Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, with its pseudo-Biblical diction.

  24. “God’s ire [he] bore”: not Beowulf but Grendel, the “feond on helle”. And yes, it is a borrowing of Latin ira into Proto-West-Germanic (if not before) and so cognate with irren; Middle and Modern English ire is actually a reborrowing via French.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    bushwhacker vs scythe

    I was not arguing in favour of old-fashioned tools vs machines, just commenting on the author’s use of “religion”. But I think that each type of tool has its place.

  26. George Grady says:

    John Cowan:

    Your quote is from Zelazny’s “Death and the Executioner”:

    “Why are your followers not beating the bushes, seeking to save you?”
    “They would come if I called, but I will not call. I do not need to.”
    “Why did they cause me to dream that foolish dream?”
    The Buddha shrugged.
    “Why did they not arise and slay me as I slept?”
    “It is not their way.”
    “You might have, though, eh? If you could away with it? If none would know the Buddha did it?”
    “Perhaps,” said the other. “As you know, the personal strengths and weaknesses of a leader are no true indication of the merits of his cause.”

  27. I know someone who professionally clears vegetation, and uses both a scythe and a power mower. They each have their uses, but I forget how each is used. I did get to try the scythe, and it’s quite enjoyable (at least when it’s not work).

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Y, I would think that the power mower is used for largish, flat areas, and the scythe for precision work in smaller. steeper or otherwise less accessible areas where the tool is both lighter in weight and easier to maneuver.

  29. @George Grady: I said before that there ought to have been a discussion of Lord of Light on this blog.

    I can’t remember (and I’m not sure where my copy is): Was that conversation between Sam and Yama or earlier between Sam and Rild?

  30. It’s between Sam (the Buddha) and Yama, because it’s Yama who dreams the dream about the guardians of the four directions who defend the Buddha. Rild is already dead at that point. I don’t know the title “Death and the Executioner”; I’m only familiar with the book Lord of Light as a whole.

  31. George Grady says:

    If I remember correctly, Lord of Light was originally serialized and Zelazny wanted each chapter to be able to stand on its own.

  32. WP says that two chapters (not all seven) were printed separately in F&SF. Checking, “Death and the Executioner” indeed corresponds to Chapter 3 of the novel; on the other hand, the headnote in the collection in which I found it says that all the chapters were serialized. “What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.” —Thomas Browne

  33. That’s fascinating; in fact, I’m a-gonna post the sucker.

  34. I had not realized that Lord of Light was a fix-up novel, although in retrospect it makes sense. Even when I first read it, I noticed that the chapters were all rather lengthy and self contained.

  35. I don’t know if it’s a fixup in the classic sense: it reads to me as if it were conceived as a novel and then some parts excerpted. But I could be wrong. Any of chapters 1-4 could work as a stand-alone, but I find it hard to believe that any of 5-7 could.

    If anyone reads Lord of Light for the first time (and if you do, you have a treat in store) because of all this discussion, I’ll mention that chapters 2-6 are a gigantic flashback and happen before chapter 1; chapter 7 (and last) follows directly on chapter 1. This confused me on first reading, as well as a friend of mine who read it on my recommendation, so I now always give this warning (it seems to have confused some Amazon reviewers as well).

  36. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve mown with a scythe. With gloves to prevent blisters, it turns out quite well, but it’s pretty hard work. Controlling exactly where a powered lawnmower goes on a slope is also hard work, but it doesn’t take as long.

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