Thursday, October 1, 2020

Jazz Is Better Than Muzak by James W. Ziskin

  Do you find that proper grammar and structure sometimes interfere with style and tone? What liberties do you take with language for the sake of style?

Oh, boy, do I love talking about language. So much so, in fact, that I’m going on a bit of a tangent before addressing this week’s question.

Here goes. First, let’s all realize that language changes. How could it not? Think of English. More than 1.5 billion people speak English. (One thousand five-hundred millions.) Of these speakers, somewhere between 360 and 400 million are native speakers of English, i.e. English is their first language. Imagine trying to get all those people to agree on spelling and usage. We don’t have an Académie Anglaise to set linguistic standards, after all. Vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, style, and grammar vary significantly among the many populations who speak our language. I like to think of these varieties as flavors—flavours to our Canadian and British Criminal Minds friends. These flavors include American, UK English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Australian, South African, Canadian, Indian, etc., with countless sub-variations among those. (Ha, Baskin-Robbins, with your thirty-one flavors... Give me a break.) The flavors of English are—usually—mutually intelligible. Americans and Brits mostly understand each other without an interpreter, though there are clear differences in accent and vocabulary. I, for one, have never been able to get the hang of Cockney rhyming slang. I simply don’t get it. Nor do I profess to understand everything Catriona McPherson says, but that’s more due to Scottish vocabulary than pronunciation. Never forget, however, that Trainspotting was subtitled when it was released in the US. 

And our own Cathy Ace may recall that several years ago I phoned her with a question about Welsh, just as she was boarding a cruise ship. I was in subtitling at the time, and we were working on a film set in Wales. Our client couldn’t provide us with a script, so we had to transcribe the entire film from scratch. That was a tall order, given the unfamiliar accents and cultural references. But we managed to get most everything right, except the name of a Welsh city one of the characters mentioned. The pronunciation of the name didn’t match anything we could find on a map. I described it to Cathy over the phone, trying to imitate the name, and she knew it right away: Llanfairfechan. Take a look at this wonderful video on how to pronounce it and tell me if you could spell it.

This is another wonderful lesson about language: spelling is NOT language. (But, please, spellcheck your work before submitting. Spelling may not be language, but it can piss off editors and readers if you get it wrong.) English is the worst offender when it comes to phonetic spelling diverging from pronunciation. (For this post, I won’t go into the challenges of languages that use ideograms instead of letters.) Think of the vowels and -gh- sounds in tough, though, bough, ghost. Never the same. How does one know how to pronounce them? We memorize, that’s how. French, too, has its challenges, though not to the same degree as English. Take a name like “Meursault.” Where’s the -l-? The -t-? And the -eu- isn’t chopped liver either. Very difficult for non-native speakers to get right. And how would you pronounce “un grand amour”? Hint: the -d- is pronounced as a -t-. Yes, that’s right. A -t-.

Spelling is not language.

At least not from a linguistic point of view. The relationship between spelling and pronunciation can be complicated by phonological changes, accent, and—often—history. Spelling tends to be conservative. We hold onto spelling conventions long after they no longer reflect the current pronunciation. Take “butter.” Americans say, “budder.” Brits tend to say “buttah,” though many—e.g. Ricky Gervais—say it with a full glottal stop for the -t- in the back of the throat. Something like “buh-ah.” Imagine if Ricky were teaching English as a second language and told his students it was spelled b-u-t-t-e-r. Where are the -t-s? Where’s the -r-?

Vowels can be even more problematic. There are twelve distinct “pure” vowel sounds in English, but only five letters that we call vowels. (Okay, there’s the semi-vowel, y, but that’s not a “pure” vowel sound.) So we either need more letters in our language to represent these sounds, or we need memorize our archaic spelling. A pure vowel, by the way, is one consisting of a single phoneme, the smallest distinct unit of speech. It’s made up of only one sound, as opposed to, say, a diphthong, which has two pure vowel sounds mushed together in one syllable. Think Ow! Ah-oo. That’s a diphthong. And there are even triphthongs, though there is some disagreement on whether they actually exist in English. I say they do. Ever hear that odd way some Australians say Oh? Or No? Not all do it, but many manage to squeeze three distinct vowel sounds into one syllable. Something like ah-oh-oo.

But let’s leave diph- and triphthongs aside and talk about pure vowels. Their pronunciation differs wildly from one English variety to another, even within the same country sometimes. Even just a few miles down the road. I pronounce “France” to rhyme with “pants.” My wife, who is from India, pronounces it more like the French do, with an -ah- for the -a-. Fraahnce.

You may well ask, “So what if language changes and English has many varieties? The job of a linguist is not to correct others’ language, but to describe it.” And you’d be right. What does all this have to do with us writers, anyway? We’re not linguists. We tell stories.

Yet, at times, we writers are like “descriptive” linguists. We represent, without judgment, our characters’ language and personalities through dialogue. To accomplish this, we strive to make their dialogue “appear” realistic. I say “appear” because it’s really just an illusion. If we wrote truly realistic dialogue, our books would be unreadable, boring messes. Long and imprecise—with fits and starts, self-correction, repetition, and linguistic breakdowns. (Watch a non-scripted reality show and compare what those people say to the dialogue in a scripted sitcom. You’ll see how polished the sitcom dialogue actually is. And that’s a good thing. That’s the value a writer brings to the exercise.) And then think for a moment about the way Shakespeare wrote his dialogue. One actor at a time, speaking without interruption. It may be beautiful writing and great storytelling, but no one would say it’s realistic dialogue. So, to make dialogue more realistic, we’ve learned to have our characters interrupt each other and speak more as actual people speak.

At other times, though, we writers act more like “prescriptive” linguists—perhaps in our narration and description—and employ correct usage and syntax. It’s remarkable how versatile and nimble language can be, and it’s our job to use it as the powerful tool it is for our storytelling. While speakers of any language/dialect share a nebulous natural grammar, which allows them to understand each other, that shared grammar has its limits. It’s a continuum that, on the extreme ends, blurs into something incomprehensible. The society matron has no idea what the street urchin is saying and vice versa.

In my Ellie Stone books, I write a first-person narrator. Her language is precise—at times precious, for comedic effect—and very correct from a grammatical point of view. She knows her parts of speech, the double genitive, and the difference between a subject pronoun and an object pronoun. Me and her both know those. She always uses a comma in direct address—so should you—and will cut you if argue about the necessity and elegance of the Oxford comma.

But that’s Ellie. Not my other characters. They say things such as, “I seen him yesterday.” And they might fall victim to the occasional spoonerism or malapropism. A gangster in A STONE’S THROW described a woman he’d known years before as, “Plenty pretty back then, but surly-like and greedy. Wasn’t going to win any Miss Congenitalia contests.”

We writers use language to tell our stories. Grammar, spelling, punctuation, and words are tools we use to put that language on paper in a way others will understand. Playing with these tools, we can create fabulous effects and amuse, anger, petrify, and/or enchant our readers. Those effects have their origins in the wild complexity of English and its flavors. And, of course, its ever-changing nature. This is a very different thing from prescriptive grammar. The kind Miss Grundy taught to Archie and Jughead. As Dietrich put it, once we know the rules we can bend them.

One last metaphor. Think about the difference between your favorite jazz or rock or classical tune when transposed to Muzak. Pretty awful, even if the notes are the same. The rhythm, the pauses, the hesitation, the variations... That’s what makes jazz better than Muzak. And Muzak is what perfect grammar would be if all your characters spoke in complete sentences with Received Pronunciation to the exclusion of all else.


Leslie Karst said...

I so love your discussions of language, Jim! (Must be because I'm a grammar/language geek as well, as you know.)

I once had a review criticize one of my books for having Sally--an ex-attorney--use incorrect grammar and slang with her friends. "Lawyers don't talk like that!" the critic asserted. If only the reviewer could have spent a few minutes inside our law firm, she'd have seen how much more correct I made the language than the way lawyers actually talk to each other in real life...

James W. Ziskin said...

Thank you, Leslie! For what it’s worth, I think Sally speaks just fine! Recently I was recalling singing in French with you in Hawaii. I hope you remember that.


Keenan Powell said...

I love language too.

I've always been curious about Irish so I started studying it on apps and following Irish speakers on Twitter. In Irish, spelling is most definitely not pronunciation. It would be maddening if I was graded but I'm not, so tra la! Anyway, what I love are how terms are used and how the subtext tells us so much about the culture.

At LCC Vancouver, when Cathy Ace was interviewed by Catriona McPherson, she said something about the British invaders and Welsh castles and I laughed out loud. The only person in the auditorium of hundreds to laugh. Cathy flicked a glance at me. I know it was supposed to be funny but I'm thinking the Welsh don't guffaw.

Leslie Karst said...

Mais, oui, Jim--je m'en souviens très bien !!

James W. Ziskin said...

Leslie, I love that you even used proper French punctuation. A space before the exclamation point !

Cathy Ace said...

Fascinating and thoughtful piece, as always, Jim :-) And that video is amusing, as well as highly educational ;-) When the Welsh guffaw, Keenan, it's usually very loudly (my husband has an explosive laugh that alarms quite a lot of people) I suspect my glance during the interview was one of surprise because I'm never really aware that I've ever said anything funny...thanks ever so much for getting the joke :-)

Anonymous said...

I love language, too! My mother was a speech therapist and thought I would make a good one because I could always imitate the speech of others and "if you can duplicate it, you can show how to make corrections." I majored in Cultural Anthropology instead: wider study pool! When I write, I use some Spanish, untranslated. I changed to using untranslated expressions within dialogue and descriptions because I loved the way the author Arturo Perez-Reverte wrote Queen of the South. I read the English version, but many little expressions in Spanish were left untranslated at his request, forcing the reader to examine the context for clues in meaning. This retained the funny dialect discrepancies between culture, class and the Mexican sense of humor found in just the way things sound. It made the story exciting and different. Goals. Laurie Hernandez

Leslie Karst said...

And I love that you caught that, Jim.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Jim.

Susan C Shea said...

Clearly, I need to seek you out when I am language-flummoxed. Did you teach a language anywhere along the way in your career? I took Irish (Celtic) in college and it nearly did me in, although I loved hearing Irish poets read their work. My French is not what it should be since I spend time there and studied it for 8 years. My Bahasa Indonesian is pretty restricted too although I loved trying to speak with the gracious, giggling Balinese whenever we went. Language in those two countries is really polyglot, with English being part of the texture. My own native tongue is hard to explain as your 'gh' example illustrates. Agree completely with the rest of the Minds this week that believability trumps (sorry) schoolbook perfection.

James W. Ziskin said...

Susan, I taught French and Italian (elementary and intermediate) as a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania. And I taught English at the University of Paris X, in Nanterre. Once you get me started talking about language, it’s hard to get me to stop!