The Thoughts of Mark Twain

Following on from the last post, it seems that Mark Twain had his own bit to say about English orthography, and notably proposed a reformation plan:

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k”or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 orso modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the mainzov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

It wasn’t just English though that rubbed Twain up the wrong way. When in France he famously proclaimed: “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.” And upon finding a French translation of his own story which he deemed sub-standard, he proceeded to re-translate this French version of  “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” into English, maintaining the French sentence structure and turns of phrase as a less-than-subtle mockery of the language of the frogs.

Here’s what a section looks like:

“It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”

Finally, perhaps the language which got his goat the most was German. If ever in need of a pick-me-up, find a quiet spot and read Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, which is simply entitled ‘The Awful German Language‘.  In his witty, at times utterly hilarious style, Twain rants about the innumerable exceptions, the unmemorisable use of appropriate cases, the bizarre and illogical construction of the German sentence, the confusing adjectival declination, the never-ending word constructions and finally, the outright odd gender system whereby ‘turnip’ is feminine but ‘maiden’ is neuter.

To illustrate this latter point, Twain offers us a literal translation of the “Tale of the Fishwife and its sad fate” which starts like this (nouns are capitalised as in the German):

“It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward.”

I leave you to discover the Fishwife’s sad fate on your own as I continue to search out other such little treasures from Mark Twain’s cynical pen.

Variations on English

I already wrote about the differences a Brit encounters in America and vice-versa, yet to leave it at that would be forgetting the numerous varieties of English that are spoken throughout not only the British Isles and the US, but all over the globe. Wikipedia tells me that there are something like 27 cases of Pidgin English and around 50 English-based Creole languages spread across every inhabited continent, not to mention all the geographic, social and ethnic variations we find form one village to the next in Standard English-speaking countries.

The most comprehensive collection of variation which I have come across is the Freiburg Institute’s eWAVE project (Electronic World Atlas of Varieties of English). They have so far mapped 235 different features, covering 13 domains of grammar, across 74 varieties of English. On their website you can browse by variety (e.g. Manx, Rural African American, Aboriginal, Nigerian Pidgin…), feature (e.g. absolute use of reflexives, double determiners, be as perfect auxiliary…), or informant (if you’re looking for the work of a particular person). Alternatively, if all these grammatical terms confuse the heck out of you, you can just have a look through the recorded sentences given as examples for each variety and marvel at the diversity on display.

Yale University has also begun a similar project but focused uniquely on micro-syntactic variations in North-American English (although they have also mapped a few variations in the UK). The ambition of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project is to bring together research from the last decades, and if possible record not only the academic source for each piece of data, but also information about each recorded speaker such as age and ethnicity. You’ll find some unexpected examples in there like the ‘positive anymore’ in Arizona (“Men are wearing hats anymore.”, meaning “All men are now wearing hats, and they didn’t do so before”), or double modals (“Might should we have invited Jim?”, “I might just couldn’t see it.”). However, the number of phenomena mapped so far is limited and many recorded examples date back to research in the 60s and 70s which makes me question their relevance today.

Both of these projects are aimed at collecting and increasing research into language variation, and they are created to be used by people who don’t need explaining what a benefactive personal dative construction is. For mere mortals like us, there is another source of linguistic fun in the form of the British Library’s ‘Sounds Familiar? websiteHere you can click to hear recordings of English variation throughout the British Isles. It is handily divided into lexical, phonological, grammatical and social variation, and even those terms are carefully explained. They even have a section about language change and encourage people to record their own voice to add to the mapping and investigation of regional variation. Hats off to the British Library quite frankly.

And good luck sorting out Billinge:

Thanks go to Neil for the link (he’s from Lancashire and still couldn’t quite understand it), and for making me realise that there was a more incomprehensible dialect than Glaswegian. Neil has lately also been spending his time on rope-swings in the Bolivian rainforest, all in the name of linguistic research.

Nim Chimpsky

What happens when a bunch of academic hippies take a new-born chimp and attempt to raise him like a human in New York with the aim of teaching him sign-language and finally bridging the inter-species communication gap? Well, first they give him a highbrow joke for a name, then they let him smoke weed and ride motorcycles, and finally, when the animal gets too big and is still not displaying use of syntax, they ship him off to an experimental research laboratory.

A couple of decades later, they write memoirs about their time with said chimp, and then the cherry on this sordid cake is the film: the moving documentary Project NimDirector James Marsh managed to interview just about all of the people involved in the process of raising Nim and attempting to teach him sign language – you can see their individual profiles in this Guardian article. In the end, he not only succeeds in showing us the emotional involvement the researchers had with the chimp, he also untangles the love-affairs between the human participants which only added to the delicate and complex nature of the project.

This is a documentary worth watching if only to be reminded that chimps may not have syntax, but they are probably nicer than most humans. I know whose side I’m on in any case.