TWO MORE FROM OXFORD.

OUP, bless them, keeps sending me review copies of language-related books, and even though I haven’t had time to actually read these with the thoroughness they deserve, I can tell from the introductions and from dipping into them that they are well worth it, and I thought I’d provide a timely alert here, with the likelihood of further posts later:
1) Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy, by Simon Goldhill. I suspect the more classics-minded of you are rolling your eyes based on the title alone—Christ, not another book on Sophocles as master tragedian? Well, for one thing, Sophocles is like Shakespeare (even if we don’t have nearly as many of his plays): there’s always room for another well-written book on him. And for another, this really is (as far as I, a non-expert, can tell) a new approach, an attempt to combine traditional detailed analysis of language and themes with the more modern historical approach, for which “reception theory” is the usual tag, on a more or less equal basis. Goldhill says in his introduction: “Yet to a surprising and remarkably blinkered degree these two strands of work have continued without significant interaction. So—to take two seminal and, to my mind, outstanding studies as my examples—George Steiner’s ground-breaking study of how Antigone has been read over time [...] only very rarely actually engages with the Greek of Sophocles’ play [...]. From another angle, Charlie Segal’s long and detailed investigation of the texts of Sophocles proved to be one of the most influential studies of what has become the dominant contemporary critical tradition; yet for all Segal’s extensive and incisive critical reading, his book barely looks forward to see how his understanding relates to—or is influenced by—the long history of criticism that Steiner outlines.” He says of his own work, “The book’s structure sets out—instantiates—the question of how historical an engagement with Sophocles is or must be. This structure is an attempt to lay out what I believe to be the most pressing question facing classics as a discipline today: the tension between historical self-consciousness and the values invested in classical texts. This is a question which goes to the heart of the status and authority of the field of classics itself[...].” I find this an attractive approach; of course, it would be useless without a close reading of the texts, and I am happy to say his first chapter is a detailed analysis of the word lysis ‘release’ and its relatives in the context of the much abused notion of “tragic irony,” and it left me eager to read the rest of the book.
2) Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, by Peter Elbow. Elbow is the author of a number of books on writing with which I am not familiar, but I was immediately grabbed by the way his introduction begins: “The obsession that has kept me energized for the many years of writing this book takes the form of both anger and excitement. I’ve long been angry at how our present culture of ‘proper literacy’ tells us that we are not supposed to do our serious writing in the mother tongue we know best and possess in our bones—but rather only in the prestige, correct, edited version of standardized English or what I will sometimes call ‘correct writing.’ This helps explain a lot that we see about serious writing in the world. Many people have learned to manage or handle adequately ‘correct English,’ but in doing so, they muffle or clog their thoughts into language that’s far less clear and interesting than they could have used in the language of their talking. Many other people don’t even feel that writing is an option for them and feel excluded—yet they speak smart, eloquent, interesting things.” This guy’s singing my song, I thought, and read on. No, he’s not saying anything so simplistic as “just write the way you talk”; he’s suggesting ways in which you can use the sound of your words to improve your writing, at both the composing and revising stages. His index includes multiple page references for linguists like Wallace Chafe, Roy Harris, Nicholas Ostler, and John McWhorter, other scholars like John DeFrancis (LH post), Eric Havelock, and Walter Ong, and just plain interesting writers like Adam Gopnik. And I love this passage from page 7:

In the last section, I’ll try to show that we are moving with surprising speed toward a different culture of literacy—”vernacular literacy.” We’re already well into a culture that invites spoken language into correct writing—as long as it is mainstream speech (“White”) and also avoids “grammar mistakes.” But we’re on our way, I’ll argue, toward a culture of literacy in which all spoken vernaculars of English will be considered valid for serious writing. Writing will no longer be judged against two standards as it is now: correctness and quality. The only standard for both writers and readers will be the primal one: is the writing any good?

May that day come soon!

Comments

  1. Here’s a bit about vernacular eloquence from Tom Shippey’s essay “Tolkien and the Gawain-poet”, which I was reading this very day:
    It is obvious that the dialect of the Gawain-poet was in no way an ancestor of modern Standard English. All the poems are full (much fuller than Chaucer’s) of words now found only, if at all. in non-standard dialects. One could say indeed that the modern descendants of the Gawain-poet’s dialect are among the least-regarded and lowest-status dialects of modern England. At one point in Sir Gawain the Lady, flirting with Sir Gawain, tells him he ought to be eager to teach ‘a ȝonke þynk’ about love. The addition of an extra ‘g/k’ sound in words like ‘young, thing, ring, finger’ is still common in areas of the North-West Midlands; it is however a feature which ambitious parents and schoolteachers try hard to stamp out.
    Yet in spite of these and other marks of modern low-status, the Gawain-poet, most surprisingly to a modern ear, betrays not the slightest sign of linguistic self-consciousness or inferiority. His language is indeed in other areas almost haughtily high-status, as in his careful and zestful descriptions (full of technical vocabulary) of the upper-class sport of hunting.
    [specific examples of commonality between the poet's dialect and modern usage at "map-reference 393364 on the Ordnance Survey charts" where the poem was written — never say philology is not an exact science! — omitted, notably nont for aunt]
    Though the poet was also extremely familiar with French, his language showed clearly an old and stubborn resistance to Latinate forms, southern influence, and Standard English.
    [more snippage]
    A common ‘vulgarism’ much reproved by schoolteachers is ‘dropping your aitches.’ Did the Gawain-poet drop his aitches? In line 723 ‘etayneȝ’ alliterates with the second syllable of ‘anELede’ and is obviously meant to alliterate with ‘heȝe.’ Should the latter then not be pronounced ‘eȝe’? One cannot be sure, but in his translation Tolkien scrupulously follows the ‘error’ of his original: the only way to get the traditional and correct three alliterations out of Tolkien’s line is to read it as: ‘and with Ogres that ‘Ounded ‘im from the ‘Eights of the fells’ – a perfectly plausible pronunciation in the area, just as good as Standard English, and backed up not only by the Gawain-poet but [...] by the Beowulf-poet, whose aitches are not above suspicion either.

  2. A few more passages for the choir from Vernacular Eloquence, which I downloaded to my Kindle straight away:

    … our culture of literacy functions as though it were a plot against the spoken voice, the human body, vernacular language, and those without privilege. That is, our pervasive cultural assumptions about speech, writing, and literacy—especially as they are communicated through schooling—seem as though they were designed to make it harder than necessary for people to become comfortably and powerfully literate. The seeds of this book have lain dormant in my first book about writing, Writing Without Teachers. I now enrich my argument that teachers are not necessary for learning to write well. In fact, institutional instruction sometimes gets in the way.
    Elbow, Peter (2011-11-30). Vernacular Eloquence : What Speech Can Bring to Writing (Kindle Locations 197-203). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    And this is just an interesting promised topic from the intro (plus a few more paragraphs I thought worth tacking on):

    In the last section, I’ll try to show that we are moving with surprising speed toward a different culture of literacy—“vernacular literacy.” We’re already well into a culture that invites spoken language into correct writing—as long as it is mainstream speech (“White”) and also avoids “grammar mistakes.” But we’re on our way, I’ll argue, toward a culture of literacy in which all spoken vernaculars of English will be considered valid for serious writing. Writing will no longer be judged against two standards as it is now: correctness and quality. The only standard for both writers and readers will be the primal one: is the writing any good?
    For this development, Dante provides a model. In a small book, De Vulgari Eloquentia, he argued that the vernacular language of children and nursemaids in his native Florence was in fact nobler than Latin—and he was writing in the fourteenth century when Latin was the only language considered acceptable for serious writing. I’m not claiming that the various vernacular versions of everyday spoken English are in themselves nobler than edited written English—merely that they contain a rich store of eloquent linguistic resources that are badly needed even for our most careful and formal written English.
    I stole Dante’s title for my book. But I didn’t call it Vulgar Eloquence because his Latin word vulgar doesn’t mean “vulgar” in English; it means “the common tongue or the ordinary language of the people.” So my title, Vernacular Eloquence, is the most accurate way to translate De Vulgari Eloquentia. Notice, by the way, how a word that used to mean simply ordinary and of the people has slid into meaning coarse, dirty, or obscene. That linguistic change points to the theme of my book.
    Elbow, Peter (2011-11-30). Vernacular Eloquence : What Speech Can Bring to Writing (Kindle Locations 223-237). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    Also, speaking of Adam Gopnik, he has an *excellent* essay in the current New Yorker, about the current American prison tragedy. Unfortunately, it ends with a passive, idiotic thud, but the rest is truly top notch.

  3. Oh, shit, I’m sorry, I copied the exact same passage as Hat — I thought I’d seen his passage and read further. I will make amends will more good quotes.

  4. Actually, my reaction was more like—not another book on Greek tragedy by Simon Goldhill.

  5. Oh, shit, I’m sorry, I copied the exact same passage as Hat
    Don’t be sorry: you added a bit, and I was wondering what he meant by ‘is the writing any good?’. I still think he needs to elaborate on that; right now it sounds a bit like ‘don’t know much about art but I know what I like’.

  6. In something he wrote (had written? what’s the pluperfect when talking about dead people?) fairly recently, Christopher Hitchens mentions that one of his early editors told him he’d never make it as a writer if he couldn’t write the way he spoke. So he did, and he did.

  7. Re the New Yorker piece, what saddens me about it, like almost all political writing there, is that it’s beautifully written but the thinking is so slipshod. Saying that the number of black men in prison is higher than the number of slaves before the Civil War is an empty statement. Comparing absolute numbers is meaningless. The comparison with the Gulag is nothing if not bordering on hysterical. You can’t say something like “huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world” without also pointing out that almost no one serves their full sentence. In fact, sentences have gotten longer and longer precisely because the actual time served is often less than half the sentence.
    And I write this as someone who is in agreement with Gopnik here. Mass incarceration is a huge problem in this country. But the kind of weak reasoning on display here does nothing for the case. Just the opposite, in fact.

  8. A few more passages for the choir from Vernacular Eloquence, which I downloaded to my Kindle straight away
    Somehow I suspected the book might appeal to you!
    it’s beautifully written but the thinking is so slipshod … the kind of weak reasoning on display here does nothing for the case.
    While I understand your annoyance, I think you may be underestimating the importance of rhetorical, as opposed to logical, points in making arguments that will catch the eye of ordinary people, who do not set much store by logic. If we lived in a world where people could be depended on to respond to logic and statistics above all else, your point would be unassailable, but then, if we lived in such a world, we would not have mass incarceration. As it happens, the passage about slaves and the Gulag is precisely the one my wife came in to read to me with outrage in her voice. Whatever it takes to awaken such outrage is what’s called for. Or perhaps you think if Eisenhower had written the Gettysburg Address it would have been just as effective? Perhaps someday humans will no longer respond to eloquence, poetry, and other illogical forms of persuasion, but I’m just as glad I won’t be around for it.

  9. Is it really either/or, though? I think we can have both.

  10. Yeah, I noted the fallacy in comparing absolute numbers — and, like Hat, do take your point — but I was so happy to see the subject given the place of importance it deserves in a magazine people actually read, and I found Gopnik’s expositions of the books (several of which I’ve read, all of which I’ve skimmed) to be so outstanding, that I was willing to take Hat’s more lenient view toward the rhetoric. Maybe it’s because of my excitement, but I also didn’t find that many other logical howlers — certainly not enough to calling the thinking that slipshod.
    You can’t say something like “huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world” without also pointing out that almost no one serves their full sentence. In fact, sentences have gotten longer and longer precisely because the actual time served is often less than half the sentence.
    That’s not the only reason sentences have gotten longer and longer, and parole (the device that “shortens” sentences) ain’t exactly freedom. That was one omission I didn’t find unforgivable. America does, after all, have the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, absolute numbers aside. The rate of its imprisonment of its minorities is even further off the charts.

  11. In which form of English is “yet they speak smart, eloquent, interesting things” a clearer, more natural phrase to write than “yet they say smart, eloquent, interesting things”?
    I can see one defence of what he said, but it’s so feeble that it invites a snort of derision.
    P.S. I do sympathise with the poor chap about his surname.

  12. In which form of English is “yet they speak smart, eloquent, interesting things” a clearer, more natural phrase to write than “yet they say smart, eloquent, interesting things”?
    Less natural I’ll give you, but it’s just as clear — maybe even clearer, since people sometimes use say for writing, but never speak. Not that that added bit of clarity was needed, mind you. All in all, I wish he’d said say too — but talk about nit-picking!

  13. I can see one defence of what he said, but it’s so feeble that it invites a snort of derision.
    Nice tactic, dearie. It’s only a possible snort, but it deters almost any argument from being presented except by the bravest (Jim).
    I can think of worse surnames than Elbow.

  14. The differences between the way most Americans speak and the way they are expected to write seem so minor to me, I can’t see the standard as having much of a smothering effect on self-expression, and if some people clog their writing with pretentious words and phrases (as I am wont), that’s less the fault of a standard and more the natural desire to show off what you’ve learned.
    In America, the only speechways I’ve heard that differ enormously from the standard is AAVE. Maybe it’s just in the western cities, but I’m under the impression that most regional speech has succumbed to the schoolmarm. If so, it makes more sense to me to attempt to refine both under different criteria than to abandon any notion of a written structure more sophisticated than that of common chatter. I can’t imagine an end to racism and economic disparity in this country without an end to the stigma attached to the way many black people speak, but in conversation (especially without a written standard and when in competition with a prestige dialect) grammatical inconsistencies creep in that are unattractive on the page. So I’d rather dream of a day when most Americans will be able to converse and conversate, and will have well-writ (perhaps) and well-written essays in a folder from their years of schooling, in concordance with two standards instead of none.

  15. In America, the only speechways I’ve heard that differ enormously from the standard is AAVE.
    The cure for that is travel. I had to get a tire patched near the border of VA and TN: some of the nicest people I ever met (it was the mechanic’s day off, it took over an hour, yet he wouldn’t accept more than $20 for the work — not even a tip!), but my wife and I could barely understand a word.

  16. it makes more sense to me to attempt to refine both under different criteria than to abandon any notion of a written structure more sophisticated than that of common chatter.
    Who suggested the latter? Not Prof. Elbow.

  17. Though he’d probably take issue with “common chatter.” What’s wrong with “speech”? And speech?

  18. in conversation (especially without a written standard and when in competition with a prestige dialect) grammatical inconsistencies creep in that are unattractive on the page.
    I’m not sure what you’re saying here.

  19. The differences between the way most Americans speak and the way they are expected to write seem so minor to me
    You need to look into it more. That is not at all true.

  20. dearieme: I snort derisively at you for only being able to think of one defense for it.
    AJP: I can think of few names better than elbow

  21. I’d gladly be wrong about linguistic diversity in the US. But in my limited experience, kids all the way from Lynchburg, Virginia to New York City speak pretty much like I do, a San Franciscan. Of the young Bostonians I know, none have much of a Boston accent, and certainly their vocabularies and grammar match mine with fewer exceptions than between me and my parents.
    By “common chatter,” I was referring to the fact that most talk is repetitive and either primarily practical or diverting. Employing a large vocabulary or complex sentence structure in conversation is often considered obnoxious unless the other person wishes to play along. I don’t see a lot of music or compositional deftness in most speech.
    What I ment by “grammatical inconstancies” is that speakers of a despised dialect, especially young ones, sometimes switch between the two mid-sentence or say things that aren’t quite typical of either and can work in the flow of conversation but seem clumsy when caught static in text.

  22. Not two days ago I picked up a collection of John Synge’s plays from a bookcase of free books. I don’t know if it’s any good yet, but he writes this in the intro and I guess it’s pertinent:
    “All art is a collaboration; and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature, striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the story-teller’s or the playwright’s hand, as the rich cloaks and dressses of his time. It is probable that when the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat to his work he used many phrases that he had just heard, as he sat at dinner, from his mother or his children. In Ireland, those of us who know the people have the same privilege…This matter, I think, is of importance, for in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form. In the modern literature of towns, however, richness is found only in sonnets, or prose poems, or in one or two elaborate books that are far away from the profound and common interests of life. One has, on one side, Mallarmé and Huysmans producing this literature; and on the other, Ibsen and Zola dealing with the reality of life in joyless and pallid words.”

  23. What I ment by “grammatical inconstancies” is that speakers of a despised dialect, especially young ones, sometimes switch between the two mid-sentence or say things that aren’t quite typical of either and can work in the flow of conversation but seem clumsy when caught static in text.
    Well, blending registers in writing requires skill (take Bellow, for example), but so does all writing; Junot Diaz is the first writer to come to mind to successfully blend prestige and despised dialects, as well, but I’m sure there are plenty others — meaning it needn’t look clumsy on the page. Nothing does. Elbow isn’t saying writing is easy.

  24. Hell, with enough talent and practice anything can read well: check out Beckett’s trilogy.

  25. Hell, with enough talent and practice anything can read well: check out Beckett’s trilogy.

  26. And didn’t Portrait of the Artist start out mimicking the speech of young boy, moo cows and all? After the successes of modernism, I don’t know how anyone could view AAVE as being somehow literarily insuperable.

  27. Huck Finn, anyone?

  28. Speaking of dialects.

  29. No one but a nincompoop would deny Bellow’s success (haven’t read Diaz), but most people write with less care or at least less awareness. All his mixing was purposeful, something only possible because he had mastered the standard. Also, and correct me if I’m wrong because I could well have forgotten, but I believe most of his writing is grammatically pretty regular, even if his lexicon and dialogue aren’t. Most people, though, aren’t trying to accomplish the kinds of things he pulled off. I don’t buy the idea that the standard makes most people use language “less clear or interesting than they could have used in the language of their talking.” Real grammatical confusion, which does occur in the speech of those who have a shaky grip on the standard and have not been formally taught how to write in their native dialect, is difficult to read

  30. And I definitely don’t think AAVe is “literarily insuperable.” I would like to see something like what happened with Irish English happen to it-some standardization, which could be condemned as a loss of diversity, but a lot of serious writing, especially literature, to make up for it. And less dismissal of it in the classroom.

  31. I don’t buy the idea that the standard makes most people use language “less clear or interesting than they could have used in the language of their talking.”
    I do, intuitively. But we both kind of it owe it to the guy — Elbow, that is (god, he must have had it rough as a kid) — to read his work before passing judgment, no? You seem to think he’s saying that if everybody just wrote like they talked, they’d all write better. Which he isn’t. His argument is more complex than that. He’s saying prose can benefit from attention to natural speech, from a careful integration. He also says, with great common sense, that all good writing requires a lot of practice. I’m not sure why you’re so quick to dismiss a book you haven’t read. It seems really interesting.
    My point about Bellow was about registers, not unconventional grammar; I was introducing all that can be done with prose, with a lot of practice, before moving on to more extreme examples.
    Speaking of which, Richard Price has more than a few good prose passages written in AAVE; Don DeLillo, too, I think, though I don’t really remember if that was AAVE or just something idiosyncratic and urban (either way, his was better than Price’s).

  32. Real grammatical confusion, which does occur in the speech of those who have a shaky grip on the standard and have not been formally taught how to write in their native dialect, is difficult to read
    I’m having the same problem with this sentence as I did with the last one. Grammatical confusion does not occur regularly in anyone’s native spoken dialect, whether or not they have a grasp of the standard. Are you saying otherwise? I’m confused because you jump from speech to writing. If you’re saying, instead, that people who naturally speak a dialect but not the standard, and haven’t practiced writing, often have trouble writing… well, of course they do; but so does everyone else who hasn’t practiced.

  33. less dismissal of [AAVE] in the classroom.
    On that we agree.

  34. Ø “Irritable” bowel: AJP: I can think of few names better than elbow
    No, you’re right. And it translates well into other languages – Inspector le Coude in French, Ellen Bogen in German, Al Bue in Norwegian – even though Nelida K. disapproves of translating names.

  35. Hell, “Ankle” would be better than “Elbow”. Wasn’t there a singer called Paul Ankle?

  36. He was around the time of Pat Bone, if I remember correctly. And of course Pelvis.

  37. You’re thinking of Phil Spector. There’s Sir Dingle Foot + co. There’s the architect Ernő Goldfinger. Armand Hammer. And then there’s Judge Learned Hand.
    I bet if I tried to name one of my children Dingle in Germany or Norway or one of those highly-regulated places they’d say it’s cruel. Why did the Feet, who up until then had manly names like Hugh, Isaac and Michael, suddenly come up with little dangly Dingle?

  38. Do you mean Art Garf-ankle?
    Also, what ever happened to Patella Clark?

  39. James: I take Joe R’s remark about “grammatical confusion” to refer to what happens when people whose grasp on standard syntax is weak attempt to produce it anyway: they write something which is neither standard nor dialect, but a distorted mixture of each. What is more, the power of the standard in modern times is such that “pure dialects” do not exist any more: no Gawain-poets for us today.
    Truly the greatest of all risible names is Cloudsley Shovel (spellings vary). I cannot get far into his story at all without the audience bursting out in snickers, made all the worse by his having been wrecked on the S(c)illy Isles, quite unfamiliar to Americans.

  40. I take Joe R’s remark about “grammatical confusion” to refer to what happens when people whose grasp on standard syntax is weak attempt to produce it anyway: they write something which is neither standard nor dialect, but a distorted mixture of each.
    Yeah, that’s the second interpretation I offered, no? Where Joe and I seem to differ is that I find it less of a unique problem than he does. I don’t see why it would necessarily get in the way of Elbow’s argument. (I enjoy writing “Elbow”).

  41. If Joe seemed more on point to you than I was about the influence of the standard, then I’m sure he was on point indeed and I was wrong somewhere along the thread.

  42. Thanks, John. Nice to have expert mediators.

  43. Thanks, James. I feel very pumped.
    I also understood that Armand Hammer actually considered buying Arm & Hammer so that people would stop asking him if he named the company after himself. But he never did.

  44. Thanks, James. I feel very pumped.
    I also understand that Armand Hammer actually considered buying Arm & Hammer so that people would stop asking him if he named the company after himself. But he never did.

  45. Wikipedia says according to multiple biographers, Hammer was named after the “Arm and Hammer” symbol of the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP), in which his father, a committed socialist, had a leadership role at one time.

  46. Kneel Young.

  47. CeCe Peniston.

  48. Toe-knee Bennett

  49. Louis Armstrong

  50. Unsuk Chin and Arnold Bax

  51. Jeff Heel-ey
    Tina Weymouth
    Murray Head
    John and Michelle Phillips (Mamas & Papas)
    Cheek Corea
    Billy O-shin
    David Sole
    Buster Bloodvessel
    Phil Colons

  52. Professor Longhair

  53. Moby (dick)

  54. Herbie Hancock

  55. Frances Gumm (Judy Garland)

  56. We’ve drifted too far, I think: it started with joints (doesn’t it always?), expanded from there to anything skeletal, then all the way to the soft fleshy parts.
    Reining it back in, I offer the Swedish metal group Cartilage and, on the same general subject, the chordates.

  57. Ø: Also, what ever happened to Patella Clark?
    Having given up the stage Dr. Evelyn Patella Clark DMD practices general dentistry in Frankfort, Kentucky. Is that bony enough for you?
    Actually, Boney James is a relatively well-known jazz saxophone player from Lowell, Mass.
    I went to school with somebody named Cartilage.

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