Archives for 2021

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 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!