For the Love of Language

Standard

I like knowing stuff. It doesn’t matter what that stuff is, I just like knowing it. Knowledge is cool. I haven’t figured out what to do with it all yet but in the meantime, I’m continuing to accumulate it.

In that spirit, I was watching a couple of documentaries about Tourette’s syndrome – one focused on children struggling with the condition and the other explored the difficulties in obtaining employment when unable to control muscular and vocal tics. And as I commonly do (because I always want to know more), I Googled Tourette’s syndrome and began reading on Wikipedia about the details the documentaries weren’t going into.

One of the children in the documentary and one of the men looking for work had what I discovered was called coprolalia – “the utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks” – and that only a small minority of people with Tourette’s exhibit this symptom. When I clicked through the link to find out more about coprolalia, I discovered that “copro” came from the Greek for “faeces” and “lalia” came from the Greek for “to talk”. Coprolalia literally means “to talk shit”. Continue reading

Infusing Your Characters With Cultural Identity: Does It Have to Be Your Own?

Standard

In 2016, Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Big Brother and The Mandibles, delivered the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The topic was supposed to be “Community and Belonging” but she opened her address by admitting she would not be sticking to the proposed subject. Instead, she would be delivering her thoughts on “Fiction and Identity Politics”.

To boil it down to the most simple premise, her thoughts were that she shouldn’t be restricted from writing about cultural identities other than her own and that if she were, all her characters would be “an ageing five-foot-two smartass” and she would have “to set every novel in North Carolina”.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was in the audience listening to Shriver’s speech. An Australian born in Khartoum to parents of Sudanese and Egyptian backgrounds, she is a mechanical engineer, activist and founder of Youth Without Borders and last year released her memoir, although she is not a fiction writer. After twenty minutes of listening to the speech, she walked out, unable to listen to what she called “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”, continuing, “The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal.” You can read her full response here. Continue reading

How Academia Encourages Bad Writing

Standard

It’s been nearly ten years since my last official experience with academia – I graduated with a master’s degree in writing in 2007. But in the past couple of months, I’ve been exposed to it unofficially in a couple of ways. The first was through my second youngest sister, who is in the final stages of completing her PhD and asked me to review her thesis for spelling, grammar, punctuation and readability issues. The second was through my youngest sister, who is in the first year of her undergraduate degree and who I am providing weekly motivation and sounding board sessions to. But both made me realise the same thing: academia encourages bad writing. Continue reading

The Evolution Of The English Language Since The Elements Of Style

Standard

In preparation for an upcoming blog, I was leafing through my copy of The Elements of Style, which is generally considered a writer’s bible. It was originally written as a textbook for a Cornell University English course by Professor William Strunk Jnr in 1919. In 1957, the author EB White (who coincidentally took that course) was commissioned to revise it for general publication. Yes, that EB White. The one who wrote Charlotte’s Web.

As I leafed, I was struck by how much of the advice is now irrelevant or ignored. Plenty of it is still important and even now I recommend it to anyone who is serious about writing well. But nearly one hundred years has passed since its advice was first committed to paper and all languages evolve. Not just new words coming into usage and old ones falling by the wayside but the meaning of words changing and rules being completely subverted.
So I thought it would be interesting to explore the advice in The Elements of Style that is no longer as definitive as it once was. Continue reading

Why Fracking Committees Shouldn’t Be In Charge of Words And Language

Standard

Each year, various dictionaries judge and announce a “word of the year” or several “words of the year”. Sometimes these are new words, sometimes they are old words that got a good work-out during the year in question. I’m a fan of new words because they demonstrate something I try to tell people who don’t like what they consider the destruction of the English language: and that is that English, like all languages except dead ones, is constantly evolving. And while pedants don’t like this evolution, it has one significant positive aspect. It means that the language is continuing on. In an era of globalisation when linguists worry about multitudes of languages dying out, that has to be a good thing. Continue reading