There is a price to be paid for divorcing actions and concepts from the words that describe them. Government, and the law that undergirds it, is made up of words. Devalue the words, strip them of meaning, and you do the same thing to the concepts those words describe. Action follows Thought, and for Thought to exist there must be the Word.
This was George Orwell’s central insight when he invented Newspeak for his novel 1984. Language doesn’t just describe what we think about, and allow us to communicate with each other; in a major way, it actually determines what we think about, and how we think. We conceptualize the way we do, even in the abstract, using constructs of language — even mathematics and computer code is a kind of language. Orwell understood that the Word could actually be turned into a weapon, an invisible knife to cut away a man’s ability to think (and thus, to act). All you have to do is convince a man that the Word he’s hearing means something other than what he thought it meant … or can mean anything, really. Or nothing at all. Science, history, literature, even music — they evaporate like a puddle in the hot sun because the Words used to build them stop conveying meaning.
Words have meaning. They must have meaning, for if we are to communicate at all we must transmit meaning from one person to another. This is perhaps the most unforgivable part of the postmodernist assault on the language itself: it has weakened our ability to even describe the loss of meaning.
Monty, “In the beginning was the Word”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-01-27.
August 25, 2014
July 29, 2014
Nowhere were the frictions generated by nationalist politics more in evidence than in the Cisleithanian [the non-Hungarian half of Austria-Hungary] parliament, which met from 1883 in a handsome neo-classical building on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. In this 516-seat legislature, the largest in Europe, the familiar spectrum of political ideological diversity was cross-cut by national affiliations producing a panoply of splinter groups and grouplets. Among the thirty-odd parties that held mandates after the 1907 elections, for example, were twenty-eight Czech Agrarians, eighteen Young Czechs (Radical nationalists), seventeen Czech Conservatives, seven Old Czechs (moderate nationalists), two Czech-Progressives (Realist tendency), one ‘wild’ (independent) Czech and nine Czech National Socialists. The Poles, the Germans, the Italians and even the Slovenes and the Ruthenes were similarly divided along ideological lines.
Since there was no official language in Cisleithania (by contrast with the Kingdom of Hungary), there was no single official language of parliamentary procedure. German,Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Croat, Serbian, Slovenian, Italian, Romanian and Russian were all permitted. But no interpreters were provided, and there was no facility for recording or monitoring the content of the speeches that were not in German, unless the deputy in question himself chose to supply the house with a translated text of his speech. Deputies from even the most insignificant factions could thus block unwelcome initiatives by delivering long speeches in a language that only a handful of their colleagues understood. Whether they were actually addressing the issues raised by the current motion, or simply reciting long poems in their own national idiom, was difficult to ascertain. The Czechs in particular were renowned for the baroque extravagance of their filibustering. The Cisleithanian parliament became a celebrated tourist attraction, especially in winter, when Viennese pleasure-seekers crowded into the heated visitors’ galleries. By contrast with the city’s theatres and opera houses, a Berlin journalist wrily observed, entry to parliamentary sessions was free.*
* Among those who came to watch the antics of the deputies was the young drifter Adolf Hitler. Between February 1908 and the summer of 1909, when Czech obstructionism was at its height, he was often to be found in the visitors’ gallery. He would later claim that the experience had ‘cured’ him of his youthful admiration for the parliamentary system.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.
July 13, 2014
This is Cargo Cult stuff. They did the same thing with their new innovations in Whole Word learning (reading a word at a glance), when they got rid of Phonics (sounding a word out, letter by letter), and doomed a generation to being bad readers.
Here’s the Cargo Cult part:
Professional Highly-Educated Education Researchers noted that high-level early readers were usually just identifying words at a glance — reading in a “whole word” way. While kids using Phonics read more slowly. Phonics kids were slower readers and struggled with it more.
So hey — let’s stop teaching kids this slow method of reading called Phonics and just teach them “Whole Word” reading!!! Win, win, win!!! It’s easier for the students, and even easier for the teachers, as they don’t have to teach the step-by-step Phonics method of reading. They can just say the word “horse” is horse and keep saying it until these stupid kids start learning that “horse” means horse.
Here’s the problem: This is Cargo Cult mneliaty. Yes, the high-lanrneig, early-raednig kids are in fact using the Wlohe Wrod raenidg mhoted, just as you, reading that gibberish I just wrote, employed Whole Word reading — looking at the first and last letters of the word and using context and years and years of experience in how the written language works, and what words are expected to come in which place in a sentence to read, fairly easily, a bunch of misspelled words as the words I intended.
But the high-learning, early-reading kids are only doing that because they started reading earlier than the other kids. All kids — including the early readers — go through the Phonics phase. [...]
Now, having gone through the Phonics phase at age 3 or 4, by age five I was reading quite a bit, especially Peanuts (I had whole books, decades’ worth of Peanuts cartoons). And I had moved from “mostly Phonics” to “mostly Whole Word reading,” at least as far as common words. The unfamiliar words I still had to sound out, Phonics-style.
So sure — the accomplished 6-year-old readers are indeed mostly using whole word, at least for common words. Spoiler alert: That’s because they already went through the Phonics phase at age 4 or 5.
The Cargo Cult mistake of these “Educators” is to think that Whole Word reading is a shortcut to teaching reading. No — Whole Word reading is the endpoint of learning to read. First you read letter by letter, then syllable by syllable (as you have begun to compile, in your Reading Memory, a large list of common syllables). Then you start just reading Whole Word.
You have to go through the letter-by-letter process to get to the Whole Word level. [...]
By denying kids their first step in reading — teaching them to read letter-by-letter — educators have not advanced Whole Word reading. They’ve retarded it. You can’t do whole word until you’re an ace at letter by letter.
They’re making the same mistake here with this jackass method of teaching math. The method they’re teaching is what I’d term a secondary insight. [...]
But once again the “Experts” are demonstrating their Cargo Cult mentality when it comes to pedagogy. Because kids will start intuiting these things after they’ve mastered the rote-memorization and drilling routine of arithmetic and the times tables, hey, let’s just cut out the middleman and teach the Advanced Secondary Insights explicitly! And skip all that tedious rote-memorization and drilling!
Ace, “Common Core is Pretty Dumb”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-01-21
June 25, 2014
Sonny Bunch on the serial comma, single-spaces after periods and other pressing concerns:
Via 538, I’m proud to announce that those of us who support using the serial, or Oxford, comma are on The Right Side of History™:
The poll of 1,129 Americans, conducted from June 3 to 5, showed that the pro-Oxford comma crowd has a somewhat substantial lead overall: 57 percent to 43 percent. …
Readers had asked how the responses broke down by age, so here’s a chart to show who falls into each comma camp. The younger crowd overwhelmingly prefers the Oxford comma.
This makes sense, since refusing to use the Oxford comma is stupid and barbaric, a product of a bygone era. See also:
June 22, 2014
Lois McMaster Bujold posted an image to her Goodreads page, showing the cover of a new translation of The Hallowed Hunt into a language I didn’t think was still spoken:
She also posted a letter from the translator, which discusses some of the problems inherent in translating a fantasy novel into a language which only really became a written language quite recently:
Originally (we’re talking the early Middle Ages here), Frisian was the language closest related to English, but after more than a millennium of being heavily influenced by Dutch and German, this is no longer the case. Over the centuries, Dutch, German and the Low Saxon dialects of the eastern Netherlands and northern Germany have made such inroads into the original Frisian language area (once stretching all along the North Sea coast from what is now Belgium to Denmark), that it has crumbled into several small — or smallish — enclaves, which are still shrinking or at least remain under constant pressure. In the outside world, the term “Frisian” is generally used as if it were a monolithic language, but in fact there are three different Frisian languages, which are mutually quite incomprehensible and have been so for a long time.
• North Frisian is spoken in northern Germany, in an area along the North Sea coast and on the nearby islands directly south of the Danish border, by about 10,000 people.
• East Frisian was once spoken in the German coastal area adjacent to the Dutch border, but has gone extinct there, except for one small inland area, Saterland, which was originally surrounded by almost impassable peat bogs. Saterlandic, or Saterland Frisian, is still spoken today, by some 2,200 people.
• In the Dutch province of Friesland, Frisian is still spoken as a first language by about 350,000 people (out of a total provincial population of c.630,000). It has official status equal to Dutch, here, and some 110,000 inhabitants of the province speak it as a second language. There are a lot of Frisians who for the sake of (better) employment have moved away from Friesland, bringing the total number of native Frisian speakers in the Netherlands to c.450,000. From this point, I will refer to this language, my native tongue, as “Frisian”, which is the name we have for it (Frysk), but FYI, in English it is often called “West Frisian” (a somewhat confusing name, since in the Netherlands, that is what we call a Dutch dialect spoken in northern tip of the province of North Holland).
Today, Frisian is a minority language used by about 3% of the total Dutch population, and although a lot of things have changed for the better since the beginning of the 20th century, when the Frisian language movement first emerged, we still have to fight for our rights more often than not. To give you an impression of the situation we have to deal with, a 1994 survey showed that of the total number of inhabitants of Friesland (now c.630,000), 94% can understand Frisian, 74% can speak it, 65% can read it, and 17% can write it. (These are still the most recent numbers available; I’ve read that they’re in the process of doing a follow-up survey, but apparently the results aren’t in yet.)
On the subject of literary translations, it should be understood that this is a relatively new phenomenon for the Frisian language. The Bible was not published in Frisian until 1943, and Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre appeared in our language in eight big omnibus editions between 1955 and 1976 (although some plays, like Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, had already been published separately in the twenties and thirties).
For any native Frisian readers who’d like to read this excellent book in your own language, you can buy the translation here.
May 19, 2014
I’m a fan of the ongoing BBC series Sherlock starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch (or “Cummerband Bandersnatch” as his name seems to cause the yips in some people). At Firestorm over London there’s a brief discussion of British accents in general, and the specific variants in use among the actors in the show:
An introduction to the rich variety of British accents and an analysis of accents used in Sherlock. I explore the distinctive regional accents and of course the ubiquitous BBC pronunciation, what the accents can tell us about the characters. A short, not too serious guide by someone who has no linguistics expertise.
Islands of Contrast
An accent for the purposes of this essay is a manner of pronunciation that is particular to an individual, community or location.
The British Isles are geographically small but the accents that have evolved are incredibly diverse. I grew up in the North West of England where, even though the motorway links are brilliant, travelling a mere 60 miles or so will completely change the accents that you hear.
The most ubiquitous accent in the UK is BBC pronunciation. It used to be called “Received Pronunciation” but that term has fallen out of favour. If you’ve ever watched BBC News or listened to the English programs on the BBC World Service that is the accent I am referring to. This is not a regional accent — although it is more common in South of England. When people in the UK say that someone doesn’t have an accent, they really mean the person uses BBC pronunciation.
I haven’t been back to visit England in several years, but on my last few visits the number of times I heard RP seemed fewer than any regional accent everywhere we went. Even the BBC News presenters all seemed to have regional accents rather than speaking in RP. I’m originally from Middlesbrough, which boasts one of the least attractive regional accents you’ll ever hear (the closest you’d find would be a Newcastle “Geordie” accent … but less comprehensible). It’s been so long since I lived there that I now have trouble understanding it myself…
Many fans have identified Mycroft Holmes’ accent as “posh”. There is not an official “posh accent” — and even if there was Mycroft Holmes does not have it.
Posh is a very subjective description. Where I grew up anyone who didn’t have a regional accent was “posh”. After coming to University in the South, I have realised that BBC pronunciation is not considered “posh” but “standard”. Posh was defined as the rather over-exaggerated accent people often use to pantomime the rich. There are a small minority of people who have that stereotypical accent but “posh” on its own is not a very good way of describing anyone’s accent.
If we are going to talk about poshness — I believe it’s better to view it as a “gradation of poshness” which is superimposed on BBC pronunciation, rather than a distinct “posh accent”.
BBC pronunciation and the “gradation of poshness” are not good reflectors of social status in today’s society.
Traditionally BBC pronunciation was considered the preserve of the middle classes. It was something that set you apart from the common masses with their regional accents. I wouldn’t say that class has no role in today’s society, but BBC pronunciation itself has become less of a hallmark of class. Many people who would identify themselves as working class do not have a regional accent, whilst the middle-classes are more accepting of regional accents. The BBC has worked hard to introduce presenters with regional accents onto prime time television. Therefore it is hard to judge the social status of a person purely based on how “posh” they sound. Their accent will not always match your expectations of their material circumstances.
John had me rather puzzled but my conclusion is that his accent qualifies as BBC pronunciation but unlike Mycroft or Sherlock, he has not superimposed any of those “upper class” vowels on his pronunciation. For example his “a” vowel sounds are much shorter as evidenced in words such as “pass”. John is a much better presentation of what a great number of people in the UK actually sound like.
Here is an amusing map of how the “a” vowel varies in pronunciation between different geographic areas:
John fits in very much with the blue group. His rendition of the “a” vowel is still correct and technically BBC pronunciation. However it is considered less “posh” than pronouncing the “a” vowel as “ah”.
His rhythm of speech and accentuations within words may contribute to the overall impression that his accent is different to Sherlock’s. This is true because Sherlock doesn’t have exact BBC pronunciation and neither does John. Though they deviate in different ways I would say their accents overall qualify as BBC pronunciation. It is certainly hard to pinpoint a location for the original of John’s accent.
H/T to ESR, who asked about the Sherlock accents on Google+ (the link to Firestorm was provided in the comments to his post).
It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and, with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people in Europe have not joked in their time about “concrete steps,” “contradictions,” “the interpenetration of opposites,” and the rest.
The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the 1950s when I read an article in The Times of London and saw them in use. “The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation…” Words confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers did not know it. But there is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see.
Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.
Doris Lessing, “Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer”, New York Times, 1992-06-26 (reprinted 2007-10-13)
May 9, 2014
Jon, my former virtual landlord sent along an interesting link:
An introduction by David and Ben Crystal to the ‘Original Pronunciation’ production of Shakespeare and what they reveal about the history of the English language.
April 21, 2014
The Wall Street Journal‘s China Real Time section wonders why we haven’t seen much linguistic small change from China filtering into everyday English:
As languages go, English is a notoriously promiscuous one, borrowing caricatures from Italian, chutzpah from Yiddish and faux pas from French.
And yet despite the English-speaking world’s deep and wide confluences with Chinese culture, for some reason, few Chinese words have lately entered the English-speaking world’s vocabulary.
China’s state media is hoping that could change: Last week, it cited several Chinese entries that have recently appeared [at] UrbanDictionary.com. “English speakers may soon be saying ‘you can you up, no can no bb’ in response to criticism,” the official Xinhua news agency said, referring to a Chinese phrase that means if you can do it, do it, and if you can’t, don’t criticize others. (The original Chinese is你行你上,不行别BB. In Beijing dialect, “BB” means to nag or complain.)
On the English side, resistance to Chinese words doesn’t seem to be a simple difficulty of pronunciation: though Mandarin’s different tones may be daunting, the basic syllables are easy enough, and the trickiness of French or Japanese pronunciation (coup d’etat, karaoke) hasn’t stopped English from embracing words from either language.
And there are plenty of words that would seem ripe to jump the Pacific: Here at China Real Time, one particularly accessible term, mafan — meaning a hassle, or difficulty — could be easily adopted by English speakers (and in fact already has been by many on staff). And who could resist the roll-off-the-tongue ease of mamahuhu, a term that means “so-so”? (The literal translation is “horse horse tiger tiger.”) Maybe, as some theorize, it’s just a matter of time, as China’s reach grows, and exchanges continue to deepen.
Oddly, some of the most colourful terms listed here haven’t yet become common:
15) Stupid Inbred Stack of Meat
笨天生的一堆肉。・ BUN tyen-shung duh ee-DWAY-RO
On a visit to one of Mal’s old Army buddies, Monty, on an uninhabited moon, Mal and crew encounter “Saffron”, the beautiful con-artist who once tricked Mal into marriage, and nearly stole his ship (played by the absolutely magnificent Christina Hendricks); this time, she’s taken the name “Bridget” and married Monty. A short tussle ensues between her and Mal (lucky bastard) which Monty breaks up as Mal explains the details of their shared history. When Saffron, who had been denying everything, lets it slip that she knows Mal’s name, Monty abandons her on the barren lunar surface. She screams this bit of Mandarin to the heavens as his ship departs. This phrase is also noteworthy for its use on the back cover of Serenity: The Official Visual Companion, where Chinese characters inform prospective buyers: “If you don’t buy this book, your friends will think you’re a stupid inbred stack of meat.”
6) Filthy Fornicators of Livestock
喝畜生雜交的髒貨 ・ Huh choo-shung tza-jiao duh tzang-huo
As a clergyman, Shepherd Book is usually denied the use of the kind of innovative vulgarity the rest of the crew enjoys. Sometimes, however, a particular sight inspires even a man of the cloth to throw down with the best obscenity slingers. Book offers this exclamation in response to crime boss Adelai Niska’s reprehensible act of sending the Serenity‘s crew their kidnapped Captain’s severed ear. Fun fact: the Firefly-Serenity Pinyinary offers translations of not only the entire phrase, but of the component words. We mention this in case anyone might be wondering if this translation is simply a more polite way of saying “Dirty Cow Fuckers”. It isn’t. Foreign languages are fun, huh?
5) Motherless Goats of All Motherless Goats
羔羊中的孤羊 ・ Gao yang jong duh goo yang
Another slice of pure Mandarin what-the-fuckery, this time from Wash, who has the honor of delivering some of the most outrageous Chinese dialogue this side of a Beijing mental hospital. Wash mutters this under his breath when he learns that Magistrate Higgins has put a landlock on the ship — his consternation doesn’t last long, for only a moment after noticing the lock, it was removed. Only Inara knows why (she was hired to deflower the Magistrate’s son, and accomplished making a man of him a bit too well for the senior Higgins’ liking).
4) Holy Mother of God and All Her Wacky Nephews
我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都 ・ Wuh duh ma huh tah duh fong kwong duh wai shung
This may be the most awesome phrase we’ve ever heard in any language; only its lack of vulgarity kept it from breaking the Top Three. Once again, it issues forth from the mouth of Wash. In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” we first encounter the deliciously devious ginger con-babe, Saffron. After leading Mal to the “Special Hell”, she proceeds to the cockpit where she puts the moves on poor Wash. Only his devotion to Zoe keeps him from succumbing to Saffron’s charms — devotion that earns him a roundhouse kick to the head. This marvelous line is his singular response to Saffron’s advances.
April 10, 2014
Matthias Heitmann on the odd things that happen to avoid any hint of Nazi contamination in allowable letter combinations on license plates and to mandate equal gender presence in job titles and place names:
In Germany today, you see, there is a palpable desire to cleanse society of views officially deemed unacceptable or politically incorrect. This is most obvious when it comes to words or views associated with fascism or the far right. It’s likely that even the most liberal of Germans would oppose the right of members of the right-wing National Democratic Party to voice their strange views in public. Indeed, having embarrassingly failed to ban the party in 2003, the federal government is currently trying to outlaw the party once again. Anyone attempting to defend free speech or freedom of association in this context will find themselves accused of being a fascist sympathiser, an apologist or, even worse, disrespecting victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.
The popular fear of being accused of being a Nazi sympathiser has resulted in some strange regulations. Since the 1980s, for instance, the letter combinations ‘NS’, ‘KZ’, ‘SS’, ‘SA’ or ‘HJ’, which all potentially allude to fascist symbols or institutions, have been banned from use on car licence plates. In the past few months, there has been a heated debate about whether letter or number combinations like ‘HH’ or ‘88’ (which both allude to ‘Heil Hitler’), ‘18’ (meaning ‘Adolf Hitler’), 204 (meaning Hitler’s birthday) or even ‘GV’ (which is short for sexual intercourse) should be banned from licence plates, too. This poses something of a problem for Hamburg car owners, whose licence plates all start with ‘HH’.
It’s not only on the traditional minefield of racism and fascism that free speech has suffered in Germany. Free speech has also been knocked about by feminists, too, with their determination to impose new language and behaviour regulations. Last summer, for instance, the University of Leipzig announced plans to address its staff using only the feminine forms of words. ‘Professorin’ is due to replace older formulations like ‘Professorinnen und Professoren’ or ‘Professor/innen’. Schröder, meanwhile, admitted during a recent interview that not even the Bible is immune from linguistic tinkering. When talking to girls, for instance, the masculine ‘der Gott’ could simply become the neutral ‘das Gott’.
Interestingly, when feminist language control clashes with anti-fascist dogma, feminism seems to prevail. In the German capital, Berlin, a local parliament, heavily dominated by green and left-wing politicians, voted against naming a square in front of the Jewish Museum after the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. This decision was made on the grounds that as Mendelssohn was a man, he would break the rule established in 2005 to only name streets and squares after women. This was deemed necessary in order to achieve sexual equality on the city map. As a compromise, the local parliament used Mendelssohn wife’s name alongside his own, creating ‘Moses-und-Fromet-Mendelssohn-Platz’. Although Fromet wasn’t a historic figure, she at least was a woman.
March 22, 2014
Wilfred McClay noticed the increasing use of the term “narrative” over the last few years:
We have this term now in circulation: “the narrative.” It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it. Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is that so? What does this development mean?
I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief — nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever” — and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be “constructed,” and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity — acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe.
These days, even your garage mechanic is likely to speak of the White House narrative, the mainstream-media narrative, and indicate an awareness that political leaders try to influence the interpretation of events at a given time, or seek to “change the narrative” when things are not turning out so well for them and there is a strongly felt need to change the subject. The language of “narrative” has become a common way of talking about such things.
One can regret the corrosive side effects of such skepticism, but there are good reasons for it. Halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, we find ourselves saddled with accounts of our nation’s past, and of the trajectory of American history, that are demonstrably suspect, and disabling in their effects. There is a view of America as an exceptionally guilty nation, the product of a poisonous mixture of territorial rapacity emboldened by racism, violence, and chauvinistic religious conviction, an exploiter of natural resources and despoiler of natural beauty and order such as the planet has never seen. Coexisting with that dire view is a similarly exaggerated Whiggish progressivism, in which all of history is seen as a struggle toward the greater and greater liberation of the individual, and the greater and greater integration of all governance in larger and larger units, administered by cadres of experts actuated by the public interest and by a highly developed sense of justice. The arc of history bends toward the latter view, although its progress is impeded by the malign effects of the former one.
March 20, 2014
Kevin Dettmar discusses the best form of mondegreen: the kind that makes more sense (to the listener anyway) than the actual lyrics being slurred or mumbled or bellowed by the lead singer:
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the important role that misunderstood lyrics play in the way rock music works. The problem is especially pointed in the case of the post-punk Gang of Four because they saw much of their music as a political intervention in the events of their day (the late 70s through the early 80s). But how can rock really “rage against the machine” if no one’s quite sure what it’s saying? What can it mean that a band that put a great deal of emphasis on its songwriting — pop songs as political theory — actively resisted making that theory more intelligible? Resisted to the degree that even smart and sympathetic critics have sometimes badly misread the work?
One answer involves taking the “mondegreen” seriously.
For better or worse, we seem to be stuck with the term that was coined in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, in a piece in Harper’s Magazine. That the word is about the same age as rock and roll itself is a fitting coincidence. In her mother’s recitation of the ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Murray,” Wright as a child misheard the phrase “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen” and wove a coherent narrative around the mistake, or “mondegreen.”
My mistake, trivial in itself, does suggest something important about the capacity of rock music (in which marginal intelligibility is not just an accident but rather a constitutive element) to do significant political work. For my misreading, I’d suggest, wasn’t random free association. In important, if largely subconscious and unconscious ways, what I understood of the lyrics, and the politics of the sound of the song itself, conditioned me to fill in the blanks in my understanding from among a fairly limited range of possibilities.
In music as powerful as this — and for a listener as powerfully in its thrall as I was, as I am — the mumbly bits actually provide moments where I can become co-creator of this aggressive, political music along with the band. And that, I would submit, is powerful political pedagogy. The songs on Entertainment! don’t teach me what to think: They teach me how to think. The proof is in my mondegreens.
My mishearing the line wasn’t simply an error, then — or if an error, it was a productive one. Sylvia Wright insisted that “the point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens … is that they are better than the original.” Dave Marsh maintains that his lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are better than Cobain’s. What I heard at the end of “Ether” may not have been what King and Gill meant; but having my interpretation revealed through my misreadings tells me something about where my mind prefers to go. And that is precisely the work of ideological critique. “Ether” taught me not, or not only, about Gang of Four’s politics: More powerfully, it also taught me about my own.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link. She also included a brilliant little music video to illustrate the point:
March 18, 2014
This month’s update to the Oxford Dictionary includes the words ‘c**ted’, ‘c**ting’, ‘c**tish’ and ‘c**ty’. The expletives now join the list of 750,000 English words defined by the dictionary. ‘Twerk’ and ‘Selfie’ were added at the last update.
Along with the ‘c**ty’, the words ‘Old Etonian’, ‘Rt. Hon.’ and ‘Right Honourable’ have also been included for the first time, although the choices are believed to be unrelated.
Andre Walker, “Official: Oxford Dictionary Says You Can Get ‘C**ted’ and ‘Twerk’”, Breitbart.com, 2014-03-17
March 14, 2014
H/T to Richard Gray who says “Unless you have a good grasp of languages, it can be hard to grasp the words when listening to someone from another country speak. But have you ever thought about how you might sound to them?”