Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘modern English’

Malory: Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford University Press 1977)

I can remember starting to read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Members of the Vulnerable Black Community (1939) and being exhilarated by the simplicity and clarity of her prose. Reading was so easy that it was pleasurable, like taking off a pair of heavy boots on a hot day and walking barefoot on cool grass. But the exhilaration quickly wore off and in the end I felt bored instead. The simplicity became monotonous. I think I finished the book, but I almost gave up.

It was an interesting experience in the power of contrast and I was reminded of it when I came across this edition of the works of Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1410-71). Malory’s prose is also exhilaratingly simple: clear, cold and refreshing as a mountain stream. But unlike Christie’s, the exhilaration of his prose isn’t wearing off, perhaps because there’s something complex in it too:

Soo at Candalmasme many moo grete lordes came thyder for to have wonne the swerd, but there myght none prevaille. And right as Arthur dyd at Christmasse, he dyd at Candelmasse, and pulled oute the swerd easely, wherof the barons were sore agreved and put it of in delay till the hyghe fest of Eester. And as Arthur sped afore so dyd he at Eester. Yet there were some of the grete lordes had indignacion that Arthur shold be kynge, and put it of in a delay till the feest of Pentecoste. Then the Archebisshop of Caunterbury by Merlyns provydence let purveye thenne of the best knyghtes that they myghte gete, and suche knyghtes as Uther Pendragon loved best and moost trusted in his dayes. […] And at the fest of Pentecost alle manner of men assayed to pulle at the swerde that wold assay, but none myght prevaille but Arthur, and he pulled it oute afore all the lordes and comyns that were there. Wherefore alle the comyns cryed at ones, “We wille have Arthur unto our kyng! We wille put hym no more in delay, for we all see that it is Goddes wille that he shalle be our kynge, and who that holdeth ageynst it, we wille slee hym.” And therwithall they knelyd at ones, both ryche and poure, and cryed Arthur mercy bycause they had delayed hym so longe. And Arthur foryaf hem, and took the swerd bitwene both his handes, and offred it upon the aulter where the Archebisshop was, and so was he made knyghte of the best man that was there. And so anon was the coronacyon made, and ther was he sworne unto his lordes and the comyns for to be a true kyng, to stand with true justyce fro thens forth the dayes of this lyf. (The Tale of King Arthur, Book I, “Merlin”, pg. 10)

The prose is very simple and clear, but you have to concentrate to understand it. This is early modern English, with different and variable spellings, older grammar and meanings, and occasional words that are now lost or obsolete, like horse-mete, iwys, raynke, shafftemonde, and sodde, meaning respectively “food for horses”, “indeed”, “man”, “handsbreadth”, and “boiled”. But Malory is easier to understand than you might expect if you’ve ever tried Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), who died almost as Malory was born. The Canterbury Tales (late 1300s) has to be translated for modern readers; Le Morte d’Arthur has merely to be updated. Here’s something from Chaucer:

This Absolon gan wipe his mouth full drye.
Derk was the night as pitch or as the cole;
And at the window out she put hir hole.
And Absolon, him fill no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kissed her naked ers ––
Full savourly –– ere he was aware of this.
Aback he stert, and thought it was amiss,
For well he wist that a woman hath no beerd.
He felt a thing all rough and long y-herd,
And saide, “Fy, alas! What have I to do?”

(“The Miller’s Tale, lines 544-553)

Chaucer and Malory are separated by very little in time, but a lot in language, at least on the printed page. Print can be misleading: Malory’s pronunciation would sound odder to us than his spelling looks. But Chaucer’s humour and earthiness are another big difference between the two. Malory writes about high chivalry and tragic love, not practical jokes and pubic hair. And where Chaucer has stories, Malory has a story: King Arthur and his knights. Few people know Chaucer’s stories any more, but Malory’s story is one of the most famous in the world.

Do the simplicity and clarity of his prose help explain that? I think so. Like the New Testament, Malory’s work had powerful stories that could appeal to everyone. It also had a powerful piece of technology on its side: the printing press. This book has “Caxton’s Preface” to the first printed edition, although “the basis of the text is still the manuscript discovered in 1934 by Dr. W.F. Oakeshott in the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College” (introduction, pg. ix). Caxton explained why Malory would still be read six centuries later:

Thenne, to procede forth in thys sayd book, whyche I dyrecte unto alle noble princys, lordes and ladyes, gentylmen or gentylwymmen, that desyre to rede or here redde of the noble and joyous hystorye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, Kyng Arthur, sometyme kyng of this noble royalme thenne called Bretaygne, I, William Caxton, symple persone, present thys book folowying whych I have enprysed t’enprynte: and treateth of the noble actes, feates of armes of chyvalrye, prowesse, hardynesse, humanyté, love, curtosye, and veray gentylnesse, wyth many wonderful hystoryes and adventures. (“Caxton’s Preface”, pg. xv)

Read Full Post »

She Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston (Constable 2007)

Language is like architecture and art: the more modern it is, the uglier it tends to be. So it’s interesting to ask what the world would be like if the United States of America didn’t exist. What if North America were like South America: a patchwork of Spanish-speaking states? Or what if the US had been founded by Germans or Scandinavians?

I think the English language would be in a better state if any of that were true. English would be much less important, but also much less polluted. There would be less hype, bombast and pretension in it. The United States is the great engine of modernity, pulling the world into an ever brighter, ever drearier, ever less enchanted future. The engine would be running less powerfully, or even running in reverse, if America didn’t exist or didn’t speak English.

So I think, anyway. And there’s a lot of evidence in this short but entertaining book. A lot of bad British English comes from America. A lot comes from the Guardian too, but that’s partly the same thing. The Guardian is the main British outlet for the gas generated by the New York Times and New York Review of Books. But the whole of the British media is Guardianized now. Ironically, that includes the Telegraph:

Ironically Used as if it meant “oddly enough”.

The modern Telegraph is full of feminists, ethnicists and other narcissists, but the authors of this book, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston, are evil white males and represent the dying tradition of Peter Simple:

Iconic The iconic Mulberry handbag. Anything vaguely recognizable.

Short and simple. But I didn’t like the entry for the Guardianista über-phrase:

In terms of Misused as though it meant “with respect to”. We have voiced our concerns in terms of childcare costs.

“With respect to” is bad too. “About” is the right word in that context. Often you can replace “in terms of” simply with “in”. It’s a linguistic parasite, riding in English like viral DNA in the human genome. The more often someone uses it, the deeper they are inside the Hive Mind. And this phrase is even worse:

Issues around We’re facing issues around MRSA targets. There are unresolved issues around health and safety compliance. A favourite of health workers and bossy officials.

It’s core Guardianese, in other words. If I ruled the world, using the phrase “in terms of issues around” would carry a mandatory jail sentence. So would using the words “mandatory” and “core” (as an adjective). But neither is in this book. Nor is “über-” or “vulnerable”. But many other irritants are:

Passionate about I’m passionate about salsa / stamp collecting / equal rights.

We’re bombarded by bad English and it’s hard to keep alert to all of it. If you’re not alert, you might start using it yourself. But I can’t remember ever noticing or using this:

Is is The thing is is that postal services need to diversify. The repetition of the verb is would be almost incredible if it was not heard daily on the wireless. It is sometimes introduced by the problem. The construction is probably an unconscious echoing of grammatically correct forms such as what the problem is is that.

Interesting. And endearing rather than endrearing. It’s something that might have occurred in English at any time. “Thing” is a very old word, even if “problem” isn’t. So “is is” doesn’t belong with “in terms of” or “passionate about”. (If I have heard it, I think I’ll have assumed it was a kind of stutter as the speaker paused and sorted his thoughts out.)

Fowler didn’t write about any of those, but it’s good that some of the bad English of his day is now gone. Alas, worse English has often replaced it, but some of the horrors here will pass in their turn. And maybe the Guardian will pass with them. I live in hope.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Conan the Indomitable by Robert E. HowardConan the Indomitable, Robert E. Howard (Orion Books 2011)

This collection contains probably the best Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel”, and certainly the longest, The Hour of the Dragon. It was also one of the last: the Texan Robert E. Howard would kill himself a few months after the final part appeared in the April 1936 issue of Weird Tales. He was only thirty, which means that he may one day have had more readers than he lived seconds (60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 30 = 946,080,000). If re-readers count towards the total, he’ll get there a lot quicker: Howard is a writer you can return to again and again. He’s one of the Weird Tales Big Three with H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He’s the least intelligent and imaginative of the three, but he’s a better writer than HPL and a more stirring writer than CAS:

“Again, nay!” snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed coldly. “Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?”

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence, holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword hovering on high.

“I offer you life, Conan,” said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice.

“I give you death, wizard,” snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha’s lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan’s left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (“The Scarlet Citadel”, 1933)

Like Alistair MacLean, Howard is good at describing violent action and at painting powerful word-pictures. The wizard’s full name is Tsotha-lanti, which is an unusual invention for Howard: unlike CAS and HPL, he usually drew on real history and mythology for his names. This is part of why “The Scarlet Citadel” is probably the best Conan story: its wizard really seems part of a mysterious ancient world, many thousands of years before the present. It’s a pity the story contains borrowed names too: Set, Ishtar, Rinaldo, Pelias and so on. “Conan” itself is taken from Irish history, for example, in tribute to part of Howard’s own ancestry. Like his talent, his early suicide and his popular appeal, Howard’s ancestry links him to Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist in the band Nirvana. And would Howard have been a rock-musician if he’d been born later in the twentieth century? Maybe. He’s certainly contributed to rock music: by helping to shape sword-and-sorcery, he influenced heavy metal and its imagery.

His stories have the incongruity of heavy metal too: heavy metal uses advanced technology to sing about sword-and-sorcery, Howard used modern English to write about sword-and-sorcery. His archaic vocabulary is decorative, not fundamental, and his prose is too direct and efficient to truly evoke otherwhen and elsewhere:

Through the black arch of a door four gaunt, black-robed shapes had filed into the great hall. Their faces were dim yellow ovals in the shadows of their hoods.

“Who are you?” ejaculated Thutothmes in a voice as pregnant with danger as the hiss of a cobra. “Are you mad, to invade the holy shrine of Set?”

The tallest of the strangers spoke, and his voice was toneless as a Khitan temple bell.

“We follow Conan of Aquilonia.”

“He is not here,” answered Thutothmes, shaking back his mantle from his right hand with a curious menacing gesture, like a panther unsheathing his talons.

“You lie. He is in this temple. We tracked him from a corpse behind the bronze door of the outer portal through a maze of corridors. We were following his devious trail when we became aware of this conclave. We go now to take it up again. But first give us the Heart of Ahriman.”

“Death is the portion of madmen,” murmured Thutothmes, moving nearer the speaker. His priests closed in on catlike feet, but the strangers did not appear to heed.

“Who can look upon it without desire?” said the Khitan. “In Khitai we have heard of it. It will give us power over the people which cast us out. Glory and wonder dream in its crimson deeps. Give it to us, before we slay you.” (The Hour of the Dragon, 1935)

The Hour of the Dragon would make a good computer-game: it’s a detailed but fast-moving quest-story, with Conan pursuing the great gem that has resurrected an evil wizard from the far past. But if it were made into a computer-game, I wouldn’t want to play it. Writing is still the strangest and most mysterious of the arts: black marks on white paper can conjure an infinite variety of sights, sensations and emotions. Hour isn’t concentrated Conan like “The Scarlet Citadel”, but it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it every time I re-read it. Howard doesn’t transcend his genre, so he can’t be placed at the level of Clark Ashton Smith. And he didn’t have Lovecraft’s subtlety, invention or sly humour, so he never wrote anything to match “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. But he deserves to be one of the Weird Tales Big Three and this collection proves it.

Read Full Post »