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Blog : Posts tagged with 'English'

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Books I Haven’t Read (I’ve lost count which part)

In which we compare two David Crystal books with the inside of FP’s head


Yesterday’s post, about how we can’t stop ourselves buying books, segues quite nicely into today’s. We didn’t just buy books on Saturday; we bought more on Sunday, from the weekend bookstall outside the Watershed that I remember mentioning not that long ago. I picked up a copy of By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal; and then, thought to myself, should I really be buying a David Crystal book when I already have a book of his on the shelves that I haven’t yet read? I didn’t pause for long, because “you’ve already got one by him” is hardly a very good reason for not buying a book, but it’s true that the one Crystal book already on our shelves is one that I’ve never been able to get very far with. It is: The Stories Of English.

I find the language fascinating: both in use and in history. It’s such a playful thing, can be twisted and swerved, can be squeezed and stretched, and can be bent into truly awful puns. I love playing with it, I love its richness and I love its history, its constantly fluctuating and mercurial history. And so, I thought – rightly – that The Stories Of English would be an extremely interesting book. Crystal, moreover, is a very engaging and lighthearted writer. He’s very easy to read, very interesting, and clearly knows what he’s writing about very thoroughly.

So why, then, is it that I’ve never managed to get past the Middle English chapters? I’ve tried to read it several times, I’ve always enjoyed the sections I have read immensely, but I’ve never been able to get through Middle English. Every time, my enthusiam’s petered out somewhere in the fourteenth century, I’ve not come back to the book, and its later chapters have remained untouched. And so – given the number of times I’ve made an effort to read it – it definitely counts as a Book I Haven’t Read, even though it’s actually very good.

There’s one thing, only one thing, I can put my finger on. It’s quite a non-linear book. There are excurses and diversions. There are lots of box-outs. This is understandable. All histories can be highly non-linear, and The Stories Of English is deliberately written in a non-linear way, to take account of the parallel histories of different dialects of the language. I’m used to reading non-linear texts, or in a non-linear manner when I’m online,* or when I’m researching something: flipping between tabs in my web browser, or shuffling through several open books on my desk, comparing pages and stopping to take notes.** But when I sit down to read a book for pleasure, I’m not used to doing that. I expect my books to have a beginning, middle and end; a linear structure if not a linear narrative; flipping back and forth, both physically and mentally, needs more concentration. Crystal’s straightforward writing style, in this context, is deceptively easy to read. Especially when you reach the Middle English period, and the stories of English really start to get complex,*** it needs a lot more mental effort to keep track of things than you might think you’d need when you open the book.

By Hook Or By Crook, by contrast, is structured in a linear way, but one that’s orthagonal to its linguistics. It’s a road-trip book, essentially, with Crystal musing on anything of linguistic interest – or of any interest to him at all – which he comes across on the way. And it’s ideal for me to read, particularly because that’s the way my own brain works.**** I’m racing through it, and I’ll probably have read it by the weekend; and I’ll probably read it again and again over the years. Its mode of writing complements my own favourite mode of reading, and my own favourite mode of thinking.***** The Stories Of English, by comparison, is something I have to concentrate on to get my head around. That, I suspect, is why it’s a Book I Haven’t Read. Yet.

* Wikipedia particularly

** only the other week I could be found in the city reference library comparing between several books on railway history and taking notes on the development of Great Western Railway wagon handbrakes, for example.

*** which is not so much due to a lack of complexity in Old English as due to a lack of texts in Old English – complex diversity requires a certain amount of evidence in order for the diversity to be visible.

**** I am, like him, the sort of person who would do an emergency stop and jump out of my car to photograph a mis-spelled sign at a level crossing.

***** It must also help that I know some of the places he writes about. When I first opened it, at random, for example, I saw: a photo of the toll house at Boston Lodge, apparently taken from either the works or a passing train.

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Englishness

In which we can’t complain


This post was originally written down the other day, in a notebook, sitting in a cafe with K. Post follows:

I’m not sure why, but I can’t bring myself to complain in shops. Maybe it’s a British thing. Maybe it’s a shy geek thing. Nevertheless, whatever the reason, I can’t bring myself to complain in shops, which is why I am sitting here in a cafe drinking herbal tea, instead of the cold drink I was planning to enjoy. I don’t normally drink herbal tea, at all, and sometimes when I’m thirsty I like to have a cold drink then a hot drink, close on each other’s heels. The server misunderstood me – it is a chilly day, after all, and I received two hot ones.

No doubt the server – who sounds American and therefore almost certainly would complain if she found herself in my situation – would not mind if I’d said: hang on, I meant the cordial, not the herbal tea. But, being shy, and geeky, and English, I said nothing, and decided that I would enjoy the tea even though I hadn’t meant to order it. Fortunately, it’s actually quite nice.

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Red cross

In which we eat roast beef


Today, of course, we should all be marching around with a bulldog on the end of a string, eating roast beef and Yorkshire puddings,* and generally Being Patriotic. It’s St. George’s Day, so all English people should rise up and be proud of their Englishness.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Hang on there! What’s this siren going off here for?

A Siren (unnamed): Weee-oooo, weee-oooo (etc).

Ah, I see you’ve found my new Excess Sarcasm Alarm then.** Damn, I thought for a minute there was a risk you might believe me. Here’s a tip: if anyone tells we should be doing more to celebrate it, back away slowly. You could always suggest they move to Sofia, or anywhere else in Bulgaria, where St George’s Day is celebrated rather more fervantly than here. I’m always wary of patriotism for patriotism’s sake. If you want to be patriotic, go out and make your community a better place, every day of the year.

* even though they taste much better with lemon and sugar, like pancakes. The pudding, not the beef.

** Only £15.99 from all good electronics stores, as soon as I can find enough unobtanium to power them all

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Signs you might be English

In which we rely on stereotype


If someone walks into you in the street, you say “sorry”, even though it’s not your fault.

You can have ten-minute conversations with complete strangers, but only about the weather or how terribly the buses are running.

You will sigh at people under your breath, but never dare of telling them what you think.

You will be stubborn enough to always wait for the other person to apologise.

You keep all your feelings to yourself.

And when something great and amazing happens to you, you say “Ooh, that’s nice.”

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It’s a telly phenomenon

In which we refuse to watch the football


As I said some time ago, I’m going to go my best not to write anything about Big Brother. And so far, I’m doing quite well.

I’m going to do my best not to mention the World Cup, too. As I said yesterday, I don’t care about football at all, myself. Neither does Big Dave, even though if you met him you’d probably expect him to be a supporter.* If there’s one thing both me and Big Dave dislike more than football, though, it’s the assumption that even though we don’t like football we must be interested in the World Cup. We get funny looks just because we don’t give a toss whether England win or lose.

People do seem really surprised if you tell them you don’t care at all about it. Even people who aren’t football supporters, and who would never normally watch football. They say things like: “But it’s the World Cup!”

“Yes, I know! It’s football! I hate football!”

“But England are playing! You’re English! You have to support England! You have to at least watch the England matches.”**

“Um … no, I don’t. It’s football. I hate football. Just because I don’t want to watch football on the telly doesn’t mean I’m suddenly Not Really English.” And at that point they usually give up, and look at me a bit oddly for the rest of the day. They don’t seem to get that I just don’t care about football, any football.

So, I’m not going to watch it, or write about it. The only thing that will get me to watch England playing in it, is if somebody ties me up in front of the telly so I can’t get away from it. A cruel torture indeed.

* he would fit right into the traditional football-supporting demographic without too much trouble – especially if, like me, you only saw him in a shirt and tie at work, so didn’t realise that he doesn’t wear sportswear at home.

** all, ooh, three of them.

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Nationalistic

In which we go dragon-killing


Well, I sat down at my computer to write a long serious post about how I need to lose my shyness. But then, I thought: hang on a minute! It’s Saint George’s Day! So, I dressed up in a suit of armour and went out to sing Jerusalem and stab a few dragons instead.

Actually, that last bit wasn’t quite true. I love the fact that other countries have deadly serious national days; England has a national day to celebrate a mythical Lebanese man who isn’t even a Catholic saint any more. Bulgaria, in fact, has much better St George’s Day celebrations than we do, although no longer on the same date.* England has, well, nothing at all, and most of the people who campaign for more of a celebration are rather nasty nationalists. We could do with a decent national celebration, if only as an excuse for a party.

* because they still date their saints’ days with the Julian calendar, which is a couple of weeks out.

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Ravens (part one)

In which a myth is researched


Now I’ve told you about all these posts I had planned, I’m worried that you’re going to be all disappointed when you actually read them. As disappointed as the mother was today, when she took the experimental test birthday cake out of the half-working oven today, and found that it hadn’t quite worked properly. I’m feeling as if I should do a bit more background reading to make sure my posts are worth it.

As a researcher, I was always a bit rubbish. I’m one of those people who hoovers up random, unconnected pieces of information like anything; but when it comes to use it I can never remember where it came from. Little factoids are no good unless you can judge how true it is likely to be, and you can’t do that if you don’t know their provenance.

For example: everybody knows that the Tower of London maintains a family of ravens, for there is an ancient legend that states that should they ever leave, the Tower, the monarchy and the nation will fall. Their wings are therefore clipped, to try to lessen the risk of them wandering.* Everybody knows about the legend, and its ancient origins. Just how ancient is it, though?

There’s an article on the ravens and the current Tower Ravenmaster in the current issue of Fortean Times. It claims that it was Charles II who was first warned that the ravens must never leave the Tower; but that there is no actual evidence for their presence before the end of the 19th century. So, possibly another of those ancient traditions invented by the traditionally-minded Victorians. Possibly not, though. There is another, older myth on a similar theme; but it wasn’t about literal ravens at all. It’s a much, much older myth, and it isn’t even English.

On Sunday, after reading the FT article, I spent a good hour or two reading up about it, and writing a post about it, before deleting it in a fit of stupidity. It took that long because, as I said above, I can remember a lot of things, but can’t remember why. So, I spent quite a long time reading the wrong books in search of information I was sure was in there. Bah. I’m going to go and reread them now, so I can go and rewrite.**

(read part two here)

* and, incidentally, the Tower now has a well-equipped isolation aviary to which they’ll be moved if there’s a bird flu outbreak in Britain.

** and to give me an excuse to break this over-long post up into parts.

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