A dash of rhetoric

In a discussion at The Passive Voice, Karen Myers wrote at considerable length on the differences between the so-called prestige dialects of written English and other languages, and the colloquial dialects that make up the spoken languages. She ended with this bit of advice:

If you want to write an essay, use formal written English. If you want to write a narrative, use voice (the spoken language in all its registers).

Being the ancient curmudgeon that I am, I had to demur. And being the lazy curmudgeon that I am, I had to cut and paste and repost my response here, as a trifle of evidence that I have not gone entirely silent. Here is what I had to say:


 

The key, which hardly any linguists seem to have grasped, is that formal English is rhetorical and colloquial English is conversational. Nearly all the differences between them can be explained in terms of information theory.

(Referring again to ancient history: when I was a linguistics undergrad, information theory was not offered even as an option as part of the curriculum. It was a third-year maths course open, I believe, only to maths majors. My professors not only didn’t know it, they didn’t know it had any applicability to languages, and some of them, I believe, had never heard of it at all.)

In terms of information theory, the strict grammar and finely graduated vocabulary of formal English are error-correction devices. When you converse with another person or a small group, your listeners can give you immediate feedback, and if it appears that they did not understand you according to your intentions, you can immediately offer an explanation or a rewording. You can’t do this in either a published text or a speech to a large crowd. You therefore have to include such cues in the text as are needful to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding. The art of rhetoric is not concerned only with swaying people’s emotions, as some people suppose; it is also about expressing your case with force and clarity when close two-way communication is not practicable.

This is a difficult art, and those who teach it are rewarded by being called ‘prescriptivists’, who, as any Postmodernist linguist can tell you, are the source of all evil in the universe. One of my professors told me flatly that all prescriptive statements about usage and grammar are by definition wrong; whereupon I concluded that she knew nothing about her subject and transferred to a different class.

The linguists of the anti-prescriptivist school claim that there is no such thing as an error in usage, that whatever any native speaker of a language says is automatically valid and grammatical. But they do not hesitate to use asterisks to indicate erroneous constructions: *goed, *childs, *gooses, and the like. What they object to is that people who know formal language should presume to teach it to those who only know the language in its colloquial registers. They believe that status-signalling is the only reason why formal language exists, and flatly refuse to ask how or why a given dialect came to be associated with high status in the first place.

In the cases of English and German, the formal language was codified chiefly in response to the need to translate the Bible, which is a notoriously difficult text. Luther in German, Tyndale and the Douay-Reims and King James translators in English, had to invent numerous idioms and turns of phrase to accurately convey the meaning of the original in a vernacular edition. And they had to do it in rhetorical, not conversational, language, because their translations would be read by multitudes of people who could not ask the translators for clarification, and they would be read from the pulpit to large crowds of people who could not even request clarification from the preacher. They had to solve the technical problem of error-correction for their translations to be useful at all. (Other translators tried and failed, or succeeded to a lesser extent, and their efforts are forgotten except by specialist scholars.)

A number of languages achieved their first literary form in this way. The principal surviving text in Gothic, for instance, is a large fragment of the Bible as translated by Wulfila (or a committee which he is believed to have led; cf. paintings by the ‘School of Rembrandt’). Several North American aboriginal languages were first committed to writing in the same way and for the same reason. In each case, the dialect employed in the translation became a standard reference point for the later literary use of the language, not because kings and princes favoured it, but because the Christian part of the population were familiar with their vernacular Bible, heard it weekly, often quoted it daily, and there was no other uniform published text which similarly large numbers of people could be expected to know well.

The Latinate garbage which was grafted onto formal English in the eighteenth century – the shibboleths about prepositions and infinitives and so forth (which I agree with you in despising) – was the product of a time when highly educated Englishmen were expected to be learned in Latin, and English gentlemen were expected to pay lip service to Christianity without actually believing it. To these people, the prestigious author par excellence was Cicero, and you can see exactly how they tried to remodel English to resemble his pompous and artificial Latin. But that attempt did not ‘take’ in the long run, because unlike the Bible, the works of Cicero were of no interest at all to the bulk of the literate populace. The professors worshipped Cicero, the schoolmasters assigned him, the upper-class schoolboys were bored by him, and the classes below them didn’t care a fig about him if they had heard of him at all.

In light of all this, I would modify your closing advice: If you want to write a narrative, use written (i.e. rhetorical or error-correcting) English – but disguise it with the idioms of whatever colloquial speech is appropriate. Part of the art of rhetoric, after all, is to plausibly deny that one is being rhetorical. Shakespeare knew this perfectly well, which is why he made Mark Antony say:

I am no orator, as Brutus is,
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man
That love my friend, and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him.
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
To stir men’s blood. I only speak right on.


Addendum. I do not know of any finer or pithier example of a man using rhetorical English, and even as he does, pretending that he is ‘just plain folks’ talking colloquially.

The new year in Gondor

As Gandalf reminded us, the New Year in Gondor shall always begin on the 25th of March; and here we are. But I have not been reading Tolkien recently, though I have been somewhat immersed in the work of one of his epigones – as I shall discuss below.

What I have been reading is From First to Last, by Damon Runyon, who wrote what silly people call ‘realistic’ or ‘mainstream’ fiction, but was really in the fine old tradition of the American tall tale. And my Beloved Bride and I have been watching The Witcher, based on the stories of Andrzej Sapkowski. And this experience, I find, gives the lie to the old canard that ‘worldbuilding’ is the particular province of science fiction and fantasy writers. For Runyon built a world, and a very colourful and recognizable world at that, founded in the gangster-ridden New York of the 1920s and 30s, but lovingly worked up into an imaginary and imaginative place all its own. Whereas Sapkowski’s worldbuilding is paper-thin, and the quality of his world seems to rely far more on the genre expectations of his readers or viewers than on his own imaginative powers.

I will say, however, that Sapkowski does a lively trade in Slavic mythology, and particularly in the wonderfully weird monsters that the Slavs are so good at inventing; and this contributes a great deal to the charm and interest of his work. Whereas the only monsters Runyon ever dealt in were gangsters and bootleggers, and maybe the occasional racehorse. Obviously these two authors cater to very different tastes; but of the two, I find that I have the more to learn from Runyon, because he has very few equals in the difficult art of using the language of his narration and dialogue to build up his world in the reader’s mind.

Whereas Sapkowski’s translators employ a style so pedestrian it actually makes me wince at times, and whatever merits he may have as a stylist, they fail to come across in the English version. What’s worse, the screenwriters for the TV adaptation have no idea how to tell a story straight, and mix together timelines across a span of fifty years or more without ever troubling to tell the viewer if t’other comes before which, or after which, or during which. This is less troubling to the sort of viewer who just wants to be swept along by sex and violence and good rollicking action, and doesn’t give a damn whether he can understand it or not. But there are websites and supporting videos and all manner of aids designed specifically to help people understand the storyline of The Witcher, which shows that there are a great many of the other kind of viewers, who do care and want to understand, and cannot make head or tail of the story without external help. This is a very grave fault.

I hope I shall have more to say about both these writers and their interesting works in the near future. But meanwhile I am beset with troubles, for my Beloved Bride is battling an injury, and a dear friend of mine has just lost her husband, and I am spending more time than I could wish helping them both cope with the practicalities of the situation. Life has set in with unusual severity, and for the moment, there is no time for stories.

New beginnings

I last posted on January 1, which is, in some respects, a singularly unfortunate time for new beginnings; especially in the throes of the Bureaucratic Plague. Between the assorted shutdowns, slowdowns, and putdowns, and beastly weather right from the North Pole, and the Narcissist-in-Chief duking it out with his successor, who has every appearance of being a slightly warm corpse, and Big Tech trying their hardest to unperson all the crimethinkers, and what not, I found it advisable to spend the last two months hibernating under a rock and then try again.

So here we are in March, which was the first month of the year in the early centuries of the Roman calendar. It was on the 15th of that month (Idibus Martiis) that the new consuls took office each year, and with it command of the year’s legions; and that day was the official beginning of the campaigning season. (This, by the way, is why Julius Caesar was assassinated on that day. Even after the New Year changed, the Ides of March remained a major festival, and it was considered most proper for the Senate to discuss military affairs on that day. Caesar meant to do both before he left Rome to finish the conquest of the Mediterranean world. Oops.)

The Ides of March continued to be New Year’s Day until the second century B.C., when it was moved to the Kalends of January. There it remained until the Council of Tours (A.D. 567) officially moved it to the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. This was also the traditional date of Christ’s crucifixion, fitting the old Jewish tradition that prophets lived an exact number of years from their conception to their death. As it happens, there is some evidence supporting the notion that Jesus was born in December; so the tradition may actually have been true in his case.

Dionysius Exiguus (a.k.a. Little Dennis), a Scythian-Roman monk, had gone to enormous pains to work out the exact number of years since the birth of Christ (in which he was probably off by a shade) and his crucifixion (which he probably got right). This was an intellectual and historiographic feat of the first order – a fact that we too easily forget. [Read more…]

Textbooks

Textbooks can go to the devil. No book written by the third-rate mind about a first-rate mind has ever done more good than harm.

—John C. Wright

And now… Eleventy-’Leven

The astute will notice that it has been exactly one full year since I last posted, despite my feckless hope that there would be no more long delays. I can but beg the Plague Year of 2020 as an excuse, and humbly ask your forgiveness.

For the benefit of those who are still with me, last year was such a total loss that I am asking for a refund. Accordingly, I have applied to the Celestial Bureaucracy (Office of Temporal Affairs), on behalf of all those affected or afflicted, to have their time returned to them by adding one extra year to their allotted lifespan. Normally, the paperwork involved would be hideous – complainants must all be identified by name, address, and CB(OTA) serial number – but in this case, I simply added a cross-reference to the Human Genome Project. If my claim is approved, every living thing with human DNA will receive extra time in lieu of the late, unlamented 2020. Which means that all of us, except politicians, will get to live one year longer.

You’re welcome.

Happy New Year to all, and may it be infinitely better than the last one!

Nineteen Eleventy-Ten

First off: Happy New Year to my 3.6 Loyal Readers, and anyone else who may drop in!

I have been terribly silent these last few months, and I believe I ought to make some account of the reasons. My Beloved Bride and I had a complicated finish to 2019 (or Nineteen Eleventy-Nine).

Earlier in the year, after long and tedious tests and much soul-searching, my GP and I agreed that my spinal injury (which is degenerative and will not improve) and my depression (which is treatable, but always with me), taken together, made me unfit for any regular employment. We put in an application for me to receive a disability benefit. This application, I am told, is usually denied on the first attempt, and often on the second; it’s a bit like getting neutrons through an osmotic diffusion barrier – a small fraction of the eligible particles succeed on each pass, and most of the others eventually give up and fly off elsewhither. To my vast surprise, I was accepted on the first try, and duly proclaimed a Complete and Permanent Waste of Space. This hurt my self-conceit, but we needed the money more; and as a married man now, I could not honestly contemplate the alternative of just curling up and dying with the cold comfort of an old-fashioned freeman’s honour. The philosophy of Trufflehunter the Badger was out of my reach:

He said he was a beast, he was, and if his claws and teeth could not keep his skin whole, it wasn’t worth keeping.

My claws and teeth could not save my skin, but I have someone who thinks it is worth keeping nevertheless, and must defer.

That was in the spring. A few months later, the long-delayed affairs of my father’s estate were finally wrapped up; his bit of land in northern British Columbia cleared the immensely complicated probate process of that province, and the persons responsible for the estate (I among them) agreed to put the land up for sale. Even before we could hire an agent to handle the sale, the next farmer to the south, a man by the name of Juell, made an unreasonably large offer. We dickered a bit to observe the decencies and got out from under.

This gave me an odd problem. I now had a lump sum of money coming to me, large enough to disqualify me from my disability payments, but not large enough to keep me indefinitely. There is, however, a well-intended loophole in the regulations. It seems that one can own exempt assets over the limit and still receive the benefit; and one exempt asset is a house. My Beloved Bride and I accordingly started house-hunting. This was more difficult for us than it would be for most people, because most banks (in Canada at least) won’t consider disability benefits when counting your income to determine your eligibility for a mortgage. Our real-estate agent, the cheerful and competent Justine Poirier, put the matter in the hands of an equally cheerful and competent mortgage broker, Jodi McDonald; I recommend both, if you ever happen to be looking for real estate in Calgary. After due process, during which several officers of the bank crawled up all my bodily orifices with a microscope and Geiger counter, we were approved for just about the smallest mortgage that the banks will deal in. (Anything under $75,000 is considered fiddling small change, and they leave it under the sofa cushions where they found it – or something.)

We then, after a careful search in the course of which several likely properties were sold before we could make an offer, bought a quaint old townhouse on the less fashionable side of town, with a basement that made us dub the place ‘That 70s House’. I am sitting there now, surrounded by imitation wood panelling, stuccoed arches in the Spanish Colonial style, and mural wallpaper with a scene of autumn foliage in high mountains (which partly makes up for the lack of windows). When we bought the place, there was also a superannuated shag carpet in the colour known to decorators as ‘Harvest Gold’ and to the rest of us as ‘Mustard Vomit’, but this was just one layer of kitsch too many. We expelled it from the premises and replaced it with a modern carpet in a deep, tranquil blue.

We took possession of That 70s House on the 16th of December, moved in on the 20th, and celebrated a quiet Christmas under our own roof. In the course of  the move, our roommate (who came with us) caught flu, or typhoid, bubonic plague, hydrophobia, or all of the above – something of about that degree of virulence – and passed it along to both of us as a Christmas present; and I, in a bungled attempt to cut down an old candle to liberate the wick which had burnt down into the wax, stabbed myself an inch deep in the webbing between my left thumb and forefinger, so that we had to pay the movers extra to do all the things I could not manage with one hand. We survived all this kerfuffle, and had our first dinner guests over last night for New Year’s Eve. (It would have been Hogmanay, for both the Beloved Bride and I are largely Scottish by adoption, but we were mercifully spared, because the dinner was conducted without haggis. We count this among our blessings.)

And now I am sitting in my new basement among kitschy décor and half-unpacked boxes, and my B.B. is upstairs playing the latest Mario game on her Nintendo Switch, and it is Nineteen Eleventy-Ten today, and I finally feel fit enough to get on with some work. I hope there will be no more extended silences on this site for a long time to come.

Principles and methods

As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

—Harrington Emerson, The Twelve Principles of Efficiency

Surrender?

I’m seriously thinking of packing it in.

I mean, I will probably continue to write for my own amusement, since I need to fill my time somehow; but I am coming to the conclusion that it would be folly to try to publish anything further. The public simply does not want the kind of stuff I write. I have seen the kind of stuff that does sell, and it doesn’t appeal to me at all; so it does not stand to reason that what appeals to me would sell.

I am more disheartened than I can say.

EDIT, 27 August: I have ‘received a communication’ to the effect that it is my business to carry on, though no favourable outcome is promised. Cf. the Scriptural injunction against ‘hiding one’s light under a bushel’. My light needs no bushel; I could probably hide it comfortably under a thimble; but that is no excuse for doing so.

I thank all of you who responded with encouraging words. There appear to be more than 3.6 of you, a fact that confuses and astonishes me; but I never did master the New Math.

A small update

I have been trying to teach myself to draw maps in the current version of Adobe Illustrator, since the old version that served me faithfully for years isn’t compatible with my current operating system. (At one time I would have drawn the line art by hand, scanned it, and added lettering and shading by computer; but since my stroke, I can’t trust my hand to produce anything clean enough to use.) In the process, I have learnt two things:

1. Adobe Illustrator is absurdly powerful, but this also makes it absurdly difficult to do the simplest things. It feels rather like trying to pick up a raw egg with a construction crane.

2. I can only work on this stuff for an hour or two at a time before my eyes go funky. Once that happens, the job becomes intensely uncomfortable and more or less futile. It feels rather like trying to pick up a raw egg with a construction crane whilst operating the controls with boxing gloves on.

Nevertheless, I have put in a bit of practice on a scratch map that bears no possible relation to any of my written work. I do not intend to show this map to anybody. But I am gradually getting familiar with the tools again, and finding where they are hidden in Adobe’s New & Improved™ Horrid User Interface.

By the way: Don’t tell me to use Photoshop instead. Line art should be vector art. Raster art is resolution-dependent, which means that it looks like soft-boiled feces when blown up to larger sizes. Vector art scales. This is an article of religion, which I will not be talked out of. (And don’t talk to me about the GIMP, which is like picking up a raw egg with a construction crane whilst operating the controls with tongs held between one’s toes. The chief trouble with open-source software is that good user-interface designers have a rational expectation of getting paid.)

The art of low expectations

First, a word of explanation after my long absence.

In the past six months, my health has broken down for various periods in various ways, which the McStudge (having requested copies of the relevant reports from my personal tormentor-imp) found most amusing in a small way. Normally he, or it, depending how you look at things, turns up his nose, or its disgusting proboscis-type appendage, at anything less than the damnation of millions and the destruction of nations; but the suffering of an individual, especially if pointless and unedifying, makes a pleasing appetizer or between-meals tidbit. But enough about the McStudge, or I shall be carried off to the suburbs of Gehenna on the resistless wave of a single run-on sentence.

During the spring, my trouble was simple depression for the most part; I could not frame to write anything, and though I started various blog posts with the best of intentions, the impulse always ran out in a general fog of despair and futility before I got anything half finished. Part of the trouble has been that my Beloved Bride lost her job through no fault of her own, her employers having shut down their Calgary office, and then, when she seemed certain to get a new job, that employer went out of business also. The reason for this deserves a short but angry digression.

According to the rules prevailing in Calgary, business properties as a whole are expected to pay a fixed share of the city’s budget every year. For many years the bulk of those taxes were paid by the tenants of expensive downtown offices – oil companies, banks, and the like. Then, thanks largely to the stupidity of higher levels of government, our oil industry collapsed, leaving millions of square feet of empty office space, and nobody to pay the taxes thereon. To compensate, the city raised the tax rate on all the surviving businesses. And when some of those went out of business, it raised the rate again – and again – and again. The average business-tax increase was 32 percent for 2019 alone, and many firms are paying triple what they paid just five years ago. All this culminated in a full-fledged tax revolt earlier this year, but not before thousands of small businesses had gone to the wall, my B. B.’s old and new employers both among them.

Wurst restaurant in Calgary, with sign: ‘PROPERTY TAXES – 2014, $74K – 2019, $208K’

An example of The System at work. (My Beloved Bride was not employed here.)

To the best of my knowledge, this method of setting taxes was last used in the late Roman Empire, and played a considerable share in causing the fall of Rome. Each town and district in a province was set a fixed tribute, to be collected from whoever had the ability to pay. In the declining days of the empire, it sometimes happened that one citizen had to pay the entire tribute due from his town! Some Romans escaped this ruinous system by fleeing right out of the empire. Millions more stayed put, but when the Goths and Vandals invaded, they did nothing to defend themselves; they would rather be ruled by barbarian kings than Roman tax-collectors. Calgary has not had a barbarian invasion – yet – but a lot of business owners have been fleeing from the city, and we now have the highest unemployment rate of any major city in Canada.

All this takes a toll on one’s health, mental and physical, and my Beloved Bride has had a hard time of it. I have done what I could to help, or at any rate, what I knew how; but it left my mind in no condition to write anything. After months of this grief, we took a holiday to save our sanity. We spent most of a week in Penticton, B.C., among lakes and beaches and orchards and vineyards; also among Elvis impersonators, who were having a festival there at the time. We came back rested in body and refreshed in spirit, and I promptly caught pneumonia. My doctors prescribed antibiotics, which caused my gout to flare up. They then prescribed prednisone for the gout, which caused me to become narcoleptic – I generally passed out two or three hours after taking my morning dose. There was nothing they could do for the prednisone, except wean me off it slowly – it is dangerous to stop taking that drug suddenly. These things cost me the whole month of July and half of August. I stopped taking prednisone last Monday, and today was the first day I felt well enough to write.

So now you know where I have been, and why.

One of my many unfinished tasks is to draw some maps for the Magnificent Octopus, and the Orchard of Dis-Pear, and various other works in process. I have scribbles and scrawls and scraps, but nothing suitable for reproduction; and as Tolkien observed long ago, if your story contains any substantial amounts of travel, you have got to start with a map and then write the story to fit it – it won’t work the other way round.

I should like to post my revised and cleaned-up maps here, as I get them done; but I have a shyness about it. Just now, thanks to the gaming industry, the world is flooded with pretty-pretty fantasy maps, ‘painterly’ in quality, rich in saturated colours and quasi-pictorial renderings of terrain, and often very poor in the actual information that one wants to get out of a map – visually impressive, but not particularly legible. (George R. R. Martin set a deplorable fashion, by the way, when he published his maps of ‘Westeros’ without any scale, and then wrote about 5,000 pages of turgid text without ever mentioning how many miles it was from hither to yon, or how many days it took to get there. This is inexcusably lazy; but that is a rant for another time.)

Anyway, my own maps are not pretty or painterly, and I don’t generally work in colour, and I am rather afraid that my 3.6 Loyal Readers (if you are still there and still reading) will give them a resounding raspberry. So I am going to start off with a map by a Famous Name, the worst piece of work I could find. Then your expectations will be duly tempered, and I shall have nowhere to go but up.

In 1870, at the height of the Franco-Prussian War, every newspaper in the world was full of breathless reports about the Prussian invasion of France and the siege of Paris. The immortal Mark Twain contributed his own unique burlesque angle to the story, by hand-engraving a ‘Map of the Fortifications of Paris’ for the public to follow the proceedings by. The map was published in his own Buffalo Express (and other papers) with glowing ‘blurbs’ and reviews, written, of course, by Twain himself. Some of the blurbs:

I have seen a great many maps in my time, but none that this one reminds me of.
TROCHU.

It is but fair to say that in some respects it is a truly remarkable map.
W. T. SHERMAN.

I said to my son Frederick William, “If you could only make a map like that, I would be perfectly willing to see you die – even anxious.”
WILLIAM III.

And my personal favourite:

My wife was for years afflicted with freckles, and though everything was done for her relief that could be done, all was in vain. But, sir, since her first glance at your map, they have entirely left her. She has nothing but convulsions now.
J. SMITH.

And here it is, in all its hand-gouged glory, Mark Twain’s map:

I hope to do better than this. God have mercy on my soul if I do worse.