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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘language’

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

In which we compare two David Crystal books with the inside of my 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 and going down a Wikipedia hole, 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. Only the other week, for example, I was sitting in the city reference library comparing passages in several books of railway history and taking notes on the development of Great Western Railway Wagon handbrakes. When I sit down to read a book for pleasure, by contrast, 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, purely because the amount of evidence available on the history of the language becomes much, much more comprehensive, 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. Like him, I’m exactly the sort of person who would do an emergency stop and jump out of my car to photograph a misspelled sign at a level crossing. 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. It must also help that I know some of the places he writes about: for example, when I first opened the book at a random page I saw a photo of the Boston Lodge toll house apparently taken from a passing train.

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.

Lost terminology

In which a word is snappy but fails to catch on

Jargon changes over the years; bits of it get picked up, some bits become mainstream, and some wither away.

On a trip to Wet Yorkshire the other day, I started thinking: there’s one piece of jargon which I think it’s a shame didn’t get picked up. It’s Charles Babbage‘s term mill, which he used to name something that was, for him, a new concept: a machine which would carry out arithmetic calculations according to a sequence of instructions. Today, we’d call it a computer CPU; but there isn’t really any better term for it other than that awkward three-syllable abbreviation. I’d much rather be talking about the newest Core Duo mill, or Athlon mill; it rolls off the tongue. A twin-mill machine sounds much snappier than a dual-processor one. If you look at one under a microscope, it even looks vaguely like the giant mechanical grids of 19th-century looms,* just like the mills Babbage was originally alluding to. Is there any chance of the word making a come-back? Probably not; but it would be nice if it did.

* I was tempted to take up “loom” and segue into a Doctor Who discussion, but that reference would be too geeky even for me.


In which we go back to BASICs

No, I’m not a masochist.

I take a strange, geeky, masochistic pleasure, though, in making things hard for myself. In doing computer-based things the long way round. In solving the problems that are probably easy for some people, but hard for me. In learning new things just because it’s a new challenge.

Today, I was wrestling with a piece of Basic code in an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve not touched Basic since it had line numbers, which is a long long time ago, and I barely know any of it. I forced myself to work out, though, how to do what I wanted.* It was mentally hard work, and meant a lot of looking back and forth to the help pages, but I got it done in the end. It might not be written in the best way, the most efficient way, or the most idiomatic way.** But doing it was, strangely, fun.

* or, rather, what the consultant I was assisting wanted.

** for non-geeks: every computer language or system has its own programming idioms, which fit certain ways of programming particular problems. Someone used to language A will, on switching to language Z, often keep on programming in language A’s style even if this produces ugly and inefficient code in the other language.