Well, CD friends, it is now the 2nd week of the intersession for Cal State students. One of the topics I enjoyed from last summer break was about light vacation reading, so I’m wondering if a winter reprise “Light Winter Reading” might not be in order. Or, since not everybody gets a winter lull for reading, perhaps I can disguise this topic as “New Years Reading Resolutions.”
I’ll start off with one of the texts for the English/Linguistics class I just finished. Its “The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way” by Bill Bryson from Perennial 1990. Of all the cockamamie things, why am I suggesting a linguistics book? Its well written, informative, and most of all, amusing, on that most prosaic but essential of topics, our own language.
“Mother Tongue” covers the development, spread, and idiosyncrasies of English told with wit and backed by scholarship. For example, I already learned from a lower division lit survey class that though Old English words (derived from the Germanic dialects of Europe) comprise only about 1% of vocabulary still in use, those remaining are among the most fundamental words in the language—man, wife, child, brother, sister, live, fight, drink, love, sleep, eat, house, etc. But, I did not realize before about the relationship between levels of formal diction and social history. For instance the Norman Conquest brought not only a triumphant French nobility, but also the influence of the French language to Anglo-Saxon Britain. The vocabulary derived from the French ruling classes became the language of civil discourse and polite society. To use Bryson’s example, we feel instinctively drawn to an Old English hearty welcome rather than a Norman cordial reception.
But, there’s more. Bryson is hilarious on the evolution of language. We—meaning English majors like me—have a prescriptive sense of the language, meaning we teach the language as if it was a fixed, perfectible entity (probably because most of us are destined to be teachers … cursed to correct verb complements and distinguish s-type from p-type adjective clauses for the rest of our lives). But, English has been remarkably versatile and perhaps nowhere so in its vocabulary, one of the richest among languages (perhaps 450,000 words to German’s 180,000, etc). To take an example from Chapter 5 “Where Words Come From,” words are adopted, created, or evolved in surprising manners. “Pea” for instance is a word created erroneously by false analogy from the word “pease” (as in the nursery rhyme “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold.” “Pease” was thought to be plural count noun requiring a singular word “pea” to denote a single item; however, etymologically, “pease” could be both plural or singular).
Bryson is perhaps more amusing in its discussion of the globalization of English. Some words have become well nigh universal—airport, passport, hotel, bar, soda, jeans, know-how, sex appeal, no problem, etc. The Japanese for example have been particularly industrious: erebata—elevator, nekutai—necktie, bata—butter, sarada—salad, chiizu—cheese, bifuteki—beefsteak, shyanpu setto—shampoo and set, etc.
Estimates at how much of the world speak English range as high as 300 to 400 million claiming English as a first language; but as anybody who has read some fairly garbled program notes from visiting foreign dance troupes realize, there is difficulty in distinguishing between people who claim to speak English from those who actually can. This really is a fun book.
But, I’d also like to put down a book from my own wish list, though its actually a re-reading: “Count Zero” by William Gibson available in paperback (1987). Though I’ve no idea if it’s true, I’ve heard that Gibson started “cyber-punk” as a genre and technological sub-culture and coined such terms as “the net,” “the matrix,” and “cyberspace.” Even now in these jaded days of technological languor and social apathy, on my prior reading I found it to be an exciting and imaginative adventure. What other author can evoke a sense of fin-de-siecle ennui, a somewhat grungy subculture based upon equal parts dazzling technology and elicit drugs, corporate and fine arts intrigue? The art of Joseph Cornell (“Cornell boxes”) and even voudoun (voodoo) magic appear in the novel. “Count Zero” is the middle book of the trilogy “Neuromancer,” “Count Zero,” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive.”