a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: language

Friday Phrases #2

Last Friday, I decided to make a weekly contribution to the blog in the form of a phrase or word history plucked out of a dictionary I own. This is the giant Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: 17th Edition revised by John Ayto. It’s a delightful book which provides you with a list of more than a million words and phrases and their roots, along with stories that may be associated with them.

The idea is to open the book to a random page, and select one eye-catching entry to post about, every Friday. I’ll learn something new, the book will do more than sit on my shelf gathering dust and I’ll get to post a little something without spending a lot of time and effort on it – I’m suffering from a serious lack of either of those things.

Here goes nothing, today’s entry is –

FINGER. The old names for the five fingers are: 

(1) Thuma (Old English), the thumb. 

(2) Towcher (Middle English, ‘toucher’), foreman or pointer. This was called the scite-finger (‘shooting finger’) by the Anglo-Saxons. It is now usually known as the first finger or forefinger, or the index finger because it is used for pointing. 

(3) Long-man, long-finger or middle finger. 

(4) Lec-man or ring-finger. The former means the ‘medical finger’ (literally ‘leech finger’) and the latter is the Roman digitus annularis, called by the Anglo-Saxons the gold finger. This finger is used as the ring finger (also annular finger) in the belief that a nerve ran through it to the heart. Hence the Greeks and Romans called it the medical finger, and used it for stirring mixtures under the notion that that it would give instant warning to the heart if it came into contact with anything noxious. It is still a popular superstition that it is bad to rub ointment or scratch the skin with any other finger. 

(5) Little man or little finger: The Anglo-Saxons called it the ear-finger, because it is the one used to poke inside the ear when it tickles or to worm out the wax. It is also known as the auricular finger.

And that’s it for today. Have a happy weekend!

Friday Phrases #1

This entire plan to be a regular blog-poster is on the brink of failure yet again. But the other day as I was going through my giant suitcase of books (my room has no place) I found a much beloved tome – the Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: 17th Edition. I had found this at Crossword of all places at a whooping seventy percent discount a couple of years ago. This book is a delight; gives a whole new meaning to the word dictionary. Amazon describes it in this fashion – “Much loved for its wit and wisdom since 1870, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable takes you on a captivating adventure through its trademark blend of language, culture, myth and legend.”
So what I’ve decided now is a very simple ritual. No matter what I read or do every week, I will return to the blog every Friday to post about one word or phrase or word history from my ginormous dictionary of phrase and fable. The idea is to open the book to any random page and post the entry which most catches my fascination.

Today’s phrase is this: (Page 285)
CLOSE ENCOUNTER: Journalistic jargon for any meeting, whether personal or professional.
Fair enough, this is how I use it, but then it goes to say…
The phrase was popularized by the title of the science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), itself referring to contact with extraterrestrial beings from a UFO. A ‘close encounter of the first kind’ is thus simply a sighting of a UFO, while a ‘close encounter of the second kind’ is evidence of an alien landing. A ‘close encounter of the fourth kind’ is an abduction by aliens. The categories were proposed by J Allen Hynek’s The UFO Experience: A Scientific Enquiry (1972.) 
Further on, Wikipedia says that there have been extensions to Hynek’s list, so that there are now fifth and six kinds of close encounters to describe even further varying degrees of UFO contact. Another word I learnt today is ufology – the study of UFOs. 

Linguistalks with Payal Khullar

(Another of my famously bad titles, but it stays.) What studying linguistics entails is not clearly understood, in my experience, in India. Having just finished two years of a post-grad in Linguistics, alongside only about ten students from the whole university, I have grown used to people asking me – Why! What now? And what exactly is linguistics, anyway? It would surely help to have someone better equipped to answer these questions. 

The idea for today’s post came from a Linguistics blog I follow called All Things Linguistic, which features a series of interviews with people in linguistics-related jobs. This is not quite the same, but gives a way to interact with people in the field, learn what people do with degrees in Linguistics and attempt to answer some of the questions I tend to be asked; not to mention, along the way, spark in you an interest in linguistics if I can. 

The first interview in what I hope will be a long series, is with Payal Khullar, who simplifies fascinating concepts in language sciences through her blog over at Language & Linguistics. You can check out her site, and keep in touch on Facebook and Twitter. Payal has had an interesting journey to linguistics and I’m glad to have her share it with us. 



1. Tell us about yourself. 
I am just an ordinary person with ordinary talents. I guess the best part about my personality is that I have always been super excited and passionate about whatever I do. In fact, I have hardly been able to do anything half-heartedly for more than a week in the past. 

If you look at my career graph, you would say that I have dipped my feet into deep waters with extreme temperatures in my life. And, well, that is what I like about myself the most. From a studious scholar of botany, to a failed cartoonist, a well-paid online educator, and a not-so-bad content editor at a popular e-commerce website- I guess I have tried it all. I must say, however, that my life has become rather stable for quite sometime now. 

My career took a serious turn after I cracked the JNU entrance exam. During the two years of Masters degree program at SL, JNU, I fell in love with Linguistics. Not many people know that I rejected a cool job offer at a well known publishing house before I joined IIT- Delhi. 

At this moment, I am working as a research fellow and teaching assistant for Linguistics at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department of IIT- Delhi. My research areas include syntax, language variation, language processing and language acquisition. 

Besides all of these things, I am an avid blogger and poet (well, almost). 

2. Why did you decide to study linguistics? 
Honestly, I never planned a career in linguistics. After an Honours degree in Botany from one of the best colleges in Delhi University, I started working in an e-commerce startup. Everything was more or less okay, and, then, one random day, I felt I want to go back to the drawing board and study something interesting; perhaps, something I haven’t studied before. Linguistics was an experiment. One that worked out quite well for me. 

3. Did studying linguistics change you? How? 
Yes, it did. Drastically, in fact. When I talk to people now, I constantly look for evidence of dialectal variation. When I interact with infants and kids, I recollect theories on language acquisition in my mind. 

I have also become highly sensitive to power dynamics between languages and linguistic rights of minority communities, especially in multi-linguistic areas. It’s quite weird, but I judge someone’s character based on how they think about different languages and speech communities. 

I guess, it is impossible to study something for years and not let it effect you on a personal level. 

4. What are some common misconceptions about linguistics? 
I think, all linguists of the world will agree with me on this. When you tell someone you’re a linguist or that you study languages, the first thing they want to know is the number of languages you can speak fluently or the types of scripts you can write in. Then, they ask you which is the best language in the world. If you do not lose your cool, they will continue to discuss how they think Chinese must be difficult to learn for the kids in China. 

Sometimes it gets difficult to make people understand that, as language researchers, we are not interested in studying any particular language. Linguistics is the study of language as a cognitive object, or as a social phenomenon. It is not about learning grammars and vocabularies of standard varieties of prestigious foreign languages. 

Also, I don’t think a lot of us are aware of how research in linguistics has contributed significantly to smart phone technology, highly interactive user interphases, operating systems, online dictionaries, language translation, search engines, etc. People take language for granted. Commercial application of linguistics is not restricted to foreign language teaching. 

5. What is some advice you wish someone had given you about linguistics / university / work? 
I think, it’s very important to read classical, state-of-the-art works in Linguistics or, for that matter, in any field of study one is interested in. Often, at the undergraduate and even at the post-graduate level, students are taught theories and made to learn concepts without giving them a background on how those theories and concepts were introduced in their time, how they got accepted or rejected, how they survived or failed to survive criticism, and how they changed and developed with time. What we often read as a one line definition of something actually is a result of years of research and experimentation in the field. It is important to know that as well. It also sort of brings in motivation for research. 

Also, no definition and no concept must be taught or learnt as gospel truth. We must not fear from deconstructing theories and redefining concepts. 

6. Could you share any favourite linguistics quotes / books / blogs / videos / links? 
There are some very interesting Ted talks on the subject. For instance, this one here by renowned Linguist Steven Pinker: What our language habits reveal. Pinker talks about how thoughts are linked with language. I think, every linguist and non-linguist must look at this once. 

And then there is one that explains origin and evolution of language, language diversity, biblical myths, etc. using very cool animation. Check it here: How Languages Evolve – Alex Gendler.

On teaching, children and a short month-long volunteer experience

(Has anyone noticed how terrible I am at coming up with titles?)

Today’s post is a condensed (yes, it was even longer) form of an essay I wrote for a job/fellowship application. I have since accepted another role, so here I am reposting this to the blog. In November last year, I took up a month-long volunteer position at an NGO called Door Step School. An English teacher at the Community Learning Centre – exciting. 

My meticulous lesson plans crumbled when I stepped into the classroom and found myself surrounded by thirty little monsters yelling incoherent strings of rote-learned ‘missmynameispooja’, ‘hellogoodmorningbye!’ So on that first day, all I did was observe the other teachers handle the class with expertise, a healthy combination of strict and loving. 
Door Step School works towards bringing literacy to the marginalized sections. Some of their biggest projects include day schools for children at construction sites and the innovative School on Wheels initiative. The Community Learning Centre which I joined also had children of construction workers. They had been successfully enrolled in government schools. Now the Centre provided them with a support system to ensure they stayed in school and could manage the school-work. 
The counsellor at the Centre asked me to set up the base for English teaching that the next volunteer teachers could build on. My first task was to build a bond of trust. To really get through to the children, I needed to understand their contexts, the experiences that had shaped them. But all they had were questions for me! So I began to share. I told them about my house and my school, they took real delight in stories of my pet cat, and gradually, they opened up to me.
spelling activities with some 3rd-graders
I didn’t realise someone was taking photos, but it did not get past the kids!
We chatted about big and little things – the holiday decorations in their slum, someone’s birthday, their tiffin that day. When they shared their problems, their worries stayed with me, often long after the school hours. My first lesson hit hard, but it was also the most important – learning not to pity them. As our friendship blossomed, the issue of discipline slowly dissolved. As with all the other children I have taught, I planned my classes around the knowledge that eight-year-olds tend to be impatient and need to be constantly engaged. 
All the ‘English’ that these eight and nine year-olds knew was reciting the alphabet, unable even to distinguish one letter from the other or decode the individual sounds. To make it worse, they were too apprehensive to speak up. I don’t know English, they would reply in Marathi to any question I posed, until I had an idea. I drew a picture on the board. Cake! Car, scooter, table, chair, computer, the words came tumbling out. 
outdoor lessons were my favourite (though I’ve managed to look morose in every picture)
I visited the government school for a storytelling activity. Sitting in that ramshackle excuse for a classroom, with a group of bright twinkly-eyed children enthusiastically talking about their school, I realized with a new light how shameful and infuriating it was to rob them of the opportunity to learn. I decided to scrap my plan for the session and ask them what they wanted. That day we learned some twenty English words they were curious to know. 
Equipped with a set of phonics books, I arrived in class one day and taught them how to write their names. Sound out words from colourful storybooks. Suddenly, spelling stopped being gibberish. Car became c-a-r and different from c-a-t. I made little paper chits with capital and small letters and made them match pairs. Some games worked, others did not. With time, I developed an intuitive sense of which activities would be successful with whom. 
A month sounds too little in the big picture, but I am glad I powered through. I believe I made a difference. By the end of my volunteership, more than anything, I sparked in the children an interest in reading. And there was another outcome. I emerged from the experience ready to face and adapt to newer challenges. Today, I want to teach and learn from it, and do this forever.

“Indian in blood, English in tastes” – bilingualism and language education

(this is not a direct reference, but representative of the sad books I am buried in lately)
This past month I have been working on my Masters’ dissertation in psycholinguistics. The project is not what this post is about, but something I stumbled upon during my research. My subjects were 13-14 year old students from my hometown. 
In a questionnaire about their language profile, I cheekily inserted a question that had little to do with my study – how important it is to be proficient in your mother tongue (here, Marathi) versus English. An overwhelming percentage of the tiny minds asserted that the importance of English proficiency far exceeds that of Marathi.
Bilinguality has always been of interest to me, as someone oddly comfortable in her second language. And yet, it disappoints me to see children parroting an uninformed English-bias, greatly influenced no doubt by their own language teachers, who really should know better. I am not here to argue against the presence of English in our schooling, but against the pervasive ignorance of language policy and linguistic theory in mainstream primary education. This post is about how we got here, and why we must leave.
How We Got Here: Language Policy and Trilingual Education
Since Akbar’s times, Persian was the official language of India. It was during the British rule, obviously, that English took over. In the English Education Act of 1835, T.B. Macaulay emphasized the need for a class of people who were “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” (The last bit is particularly tickling.) This is really how English entered Indian primary education, although it would be wrong to say none of our reformers supported Anglicizing our education. 
Post-independence, one of the biggest debates was (still is) the matter of selecting a National Language. Gandhi was in great support of Hindustani, a sort of combo of Hindi and Urdu. South India rejected Hindi as the national language, not surprising considering how little resemblance their Dravidian languages bear to this language of the North. In 1949, a compromise was struck, and both English and Hindi became the ‘official languages of the Union’ (Part 17th of the Constitution) with no mention of a national language as such. The intention was to eventually push English out entirely, but hey, we never got there.
Much violence and protests resulted in the trilingual education policy or three-language-formula – schools must teach Hindi, English and the regional mother tongue. (Even this was contested in parts of South India, but let’s not go there.) The point is this, in a country divided into separate states based on linguistic choices, no region seemed ready to allow official status to the language of another speaker over his own. English belonged to no one and hence, irony, to everyone. It stayed as the lingua franca.
In our post-colonial society, English was the language of the elite – an influential class. Today, our mass adoption of English gives our country one of its biggest economic advantages. Such valorisation is difficult to erase, but why should we? If anyone can pull off multilingualism, it’s India. 
Why We Must Leave: The Bilingual Brain versus Popular Opinion
So, political reasons out of the individual control is why English is here to stay. And it is not a bad thing, I am happy that today, sitting all the way here in India, I can talk to the globe with a command on English that only my very early exposure in school could have given me.

But, lately, I have seen far too many parents converse in English with their children. Preachy teachers with fake British accents (or not) encourage it. Infuriating. You see, in India, the aforementioned trilingual education policy makes it impossible not to raise kids as multilinguals. In such a situation, trying to block out the mother tongue to replace it with English is, at best, misguided.

The bilingual brain functions differently from the monolingual brain. It contains in itself more than the sum of two languages, which is why we can speak in mixtures of English and our own language. Linguist Vivian Cook calls this multicompetence. In fact, with every new language you learn, the structure or “shape” of the brain changes. How beautiful is that!
According to Jim Cummins, a Canadian expert in second language education, the two languages in a bilingual brain interact and overlap, such that certain basic cognitive skills and concepts can transfer from one language to the other. Lots of exposure to the second language, plus overt instruction in the first language is enough to develop proficiency in the second language. Teaching in this manner increases the child’s comfort, and hence competence. Any child better learns new things while cocooned in old familiar things.
In India, we enter school at the age of 4, our brains fully equipped with the mother tongue. Not to use this as a resource in learning English is silly, but to actively encourage wiping it out is dangerous.

Banning the use of the first language, Cook says, will not stop learners from using it. The brain can’t separate two languages just because some random teacher wants it to. What banning the mother tongue will do is make tiny gullible minds guilty of using it to help think, it will demoralize those who realize they need their mother tongue to better understand and learn. 

Banning the first language in a second language classroom takes away an effective learning strategy. It becomes harder to learn English without using the mother tongue. And we don’t want that, do we! Banishing the mother tongue from a child’s home is attempting to exchange a potentially restructured cool bilingual brain for a simple monolingual one. Neither scenario is very positive. 
And, really! I wish more people understood this. More than anything, I wish we had more language teachers with a fair grasp of linguistic theory and an interest in it. It is easy to underestimate something like language, something everyone can “do,” but its widespread application is the very reason it is so essential to get it right.
In that diverse set of some 60 students I spoke to during my data-collection spree, one little girl stood out. All long braids and twinkly eyes. Both the languages are very important, she told me emphatically, each in its own way. I told her to hold on to that thought. 

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

My spoken Hindi is shaky at best. But I can read Hindi fairly fluently, one reason being that it shares its script, called Devanagari, with my mother tongue. A little detail I love about the cover of Dreaming in Hindi is how the title of the book is fashioned to look like Devanagari, squiggly letters with a line running across the top.
One of the harder aspects of learning Hindi for an English-native must be this script, which unlike English, is perfectly phonetic and has no letters for vowels. We add additional markers on each consonant letter for any following vowel sounds and consonant clusters. So the name Priya consists only of two letters (प्रि and या) in Hindi – a fact that must take a while to wrap your head around. We in turn find it difficult to make sense of all the vocalic variations in English and spend long hours scratching our heads over why the word lose sounds no different from loose… I digress.
Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich is a book for language lovers by a language learner. Which makes it basically, very subjectively, the best kind of book. Having recovered from a long cancer treatment, American journalist Kathy Rich finds herself wanting to escape. And in what I have been told is a rather Eat, Pray, Love-esque way, sets out to remote India on a freelance writing assignment. A Hindi learning course takes her to Udaipur, a small city in the desert of Rajasthan. Kathy describes it as exactly the sort of exotic mess that the word India would bring to mind – dust and scorching heat, women in billowing sarees, lavish palaces, narrow streets, and minds steeped in old tradition.
Dreaming in Hindi follows Kathy’s experience of learning by-immersion a strange foreign tongue, the struggle to make meaning when thrust into a new reality, the myriad misunderstandings it leads to, the peculiarities of the Hindi classroom, the cultural demands from a white woman in semi-rural India. Kathy’s accounts also describe the political situation in the country, beginning with the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, which happens shortly after her arrival in India. Nearly a year later, even as she exchanges emails with her American friends about the tragedy, the India around her is cocooned in its own suffering, with many instances of communal violence leading up to the 2002 riots in Gujarat… it is a book that teaches vital lessons in empathy. 
But this is not a travelogue, Kathy never quite embraces the new. She frequently turns into a carping critic of everything Indian; not once acknowledging it as a natural result of culture shock. Many, many characters populate Kathy’s accounts, much like they do the country. Kathy resorts to calling people by descriptors – the Whisperer, Dad 1, Dad 2. She mostly keeps to herself, and despite having lived in a home-stay for fairly long, leaves with hardly any insight into the middle-class Indian mind. Towards the end of the book, even as she waxes eloquent about how she misses Hindi back home, it is difficult to understand what, if anything, she actually liked about it. She is funny, I’ll give her that. But her constant acerbic remarks about her peers are petty and take a while to get used to. 
The best moments are when Kathy becomes obsessed with the Bollywood movie Lekin, the time she spends volunteering at a school for the deaf and hearing impaired, learning sign languages, her doctor’s visits, and her interactions with the Hindi poet Nand Chaturvedi. Such times, when she castes aside her reckless judgement or learns better, are worth it. 
Miracles are limited by place. “If you smile, you heal faster,” Dr Aggarwal told the uterine cancer patient, but away from her room, in the dim scruffy hall, he said simply, “If you get cancer here, you die.” And her? Too advanced, he said matter-of-factly. He brightened. “To you make a patient smile, you make them healthy,” he chimed. So cruel, I thought, breathless with anger, then I saw. That’s all he had. All he had were words. 
She intersperses her anecdotes with conversations and consultations she later had with various linguists, academics, pedagogues about language acquisition. It is cool how many sociolinguists cite this book as a good perspective on language learning (most recently I saw it in a book by applied-linguist Vivian Cook.) Kathy also details the most basic theories of language science and its history, throws us interesting tidbits she learns along the way – like how sign languages have dialects, or how you can be dyslexic in one language and not another, and so on… things which, as a Linguistics student, I know and have studied, but are pretty cool either way. 

And these little dollops of information are what makes Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich just the nicest read for anyone interested not only in contemporary India, but its language and most of all, anyone curious to know what linguistics is all about. (More specifically recommended for people who already know a bit about Indian languages.)

Foreign language studies are a rigged operation, I learned. An estimated 95 percent of students “fossilize,” the linguistic term for hardening at a certain level. Ninety-five! So accent’s a given, perfection’s impossible, and odds are you’re on your way to becoming a linguistic fossil: good work. At some point, then, the question has to become, Why would you even try?


In Hindi, you drink a cigarette, night spreads, you eat a beating. You eat the sun. “Dhoop khana?” I asked Gabriella Ilieva, a moonlighting New York University Hindi professor, first time we hit the phrase. “Sunbathe,” she said smiling. “To bask in the sun.” My mind, alert for ricocheting syntax, was momentarily diverted by the poetry of idiom, the found lyricism that’s the short-form answer to the question of why you’d try. 

The Language of The Third Reich: A Philologist’s Notebook by Victor Klemperer

The German Literature Month, a favourite bloggy event! We are closing in on the end of November and I have only finished my first read. I stumbled upon it in the Linguistics section of the campus library and would highly recommend it to those interested in this chapter of history, language, etymology and philology. I don’t think familiarity with the German language is requisite. The Language of The Third Reich is part memoir, part compilation of diary entries, very insightful and wholly absorbing. 
About the book: The Language of The Third Reich is a book by Victor Klemperer, who after serving in the First World War, worked as a professor of Romance Studies at the Dresden University of Technology.
“Under the Third Reich, the official language of Nazism came to be used as a political tool. The existing social culture was manipulated and subverted as the German people had their ethical values and their thoughts about politics, history and daily life recast in a new language. Originally called LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen, the abbreviation itself a parody of ‘Nazified’ language, the book was written out of the conviction that the language of the Third Reich also helped to create its culture. The book is translated by Martin Brady, a film historian and artist.”
My thoughts: Klemperer dedicates this book to his wife, and the crisp dedication ascertains the tone of the book – sincere, heartfelt, with the humourless smile of a survivor. He starts with the word heroic and its nazifierte meaning, how for a whole generation of Germans heroism wears a soldier’s uniform. The LTI, as Klemperer calls it, breeds military-worship. Heavily romanticized words like heldenhaft (valient) and kämpferisch (gladiatorial) replace the more accurate and narrow kriegerisch (warlike.) Over and over he ironically quotes Schiller, calling the LTI a language that thinks and writes for you. A poison you inadvertently unthinkingly drink, that runs through your being.
In a chapter titled The Star, Klemperer states how from all the suffering in the twelve years of hell, the single worst day for the Jews was 19 September 1941, when it was made compulsory to wear the Jewish star. Over the following chapters, The Jewish War, The Jewish Spectacles and The language of  the victor, Klemperer describes with growing despair how the LTI enters the speech of those who on the face of it don’t support the Nazis and even the Jews, how no one escapes the constant venom that has no antidote.
“In the evening I was on air raid protection duty; the route to the Aryan control room passed just a couple of metres from my seat. While I was reading a book the Frederick the Great enthusiast called out ‘Heil Hitler!’ as she walked past. The next morning she came up to me and said in a kind tone, ‘Forgive me for saying “Heil Hitler” yesterday; I was in a hurry and I mistook you for someone I was supposed to greet in that way.’ 

None of them were Nazis, but they were all poisoned.”
Kemperer calls the Nazified German a language of faith. He reflects on how, in those days, people would express not a leidenschaftlichen (passionate) belief in things but a fanatischen (fanatic) as if fanaticism were a pleasant mix of courage and loyalty. In I believe in him, one of the best chapters of the book, he notes speeches where Hitler calls himself the German saviour, demanding this exalted status from his followers. Excessively used in the National Socialist vocabulary are words that radiate an aura of permanence, like einmalig (unique,) historisch (historic) and ewig (eternal). It is as if the Third Reich were not only unprecedented but infallible, even holy. Klemperer says, “Nazism was accepted by millions as gospel because it appropriated the language of the gospel.” 
And then he talks about the people, the cult of followers. The prefix ‘Volk-‘ enters the LTI vocabulary – Volksfest, Volksgemeinschaft, Volksseele, the people’s festival, the people’s community, the people’s soul and even today we still have the people’s car. Klemperer talks about the Nazi leadership herding its followers like cattle. Every message must be simplified and the bold underlined golden rule is not to let the Volk think critically. One direct consequence of this is the introduction of foreign terms into the language. An impressive defamieren (to defame) kicks out the German schlechtmachen (to run down.) The LTI prefers using Terror and Invasion to their German equivalents. Foreign words are scarier, they stupefy and drown out thought. 
In the beginning, Klemperer’s diary entries bleed a steady against-all-odds optimism, soon a weary hope and finally you find him clinging on to his intellectual instinct as some form of strict self-preservation. Through the book, he attempts to trace the roots of Nazism, muses on his experiences in the First War, on patriotism, fascism, Zionism, race, identity and ideas that were once exotic and largely impersonal. He mentions how as a boy the term ‘concentration camp’ sounded colonial to him, utterly un-German, and wonders whether it will now forever be associated with Hitler’s regime. 
Klemperer analyses every aspect of the politics of language in a methodical Orwellian fashion. I mentioned the irony already and the humourless smile, that is the pull of his writing. He shares many experiences he had, people he met and was in correspondence with over the years; some bring up terrifying images and others helpless sympathy, most incidents left me shaking in disbelief. But he says it all with this recurring clever dark comedy that made me feel at once intrusive and small, and overcome with awe. I’ll leave you with one of the early entries, dated 12 August 1935 –
I received from the Bls the first news since they emigrated. I find it very depressing: I am envious of these people’s freedom (…) – and instead of just being happy they complain about seasickness and being homesick for Europe. I have knocked off a few lines of verse to send them:

Thank the Lord with all your might
For furnishing your means of flight
Across the sea from grief and fright – 
To where your woes are truly small;
To spew a little in the sea
From a ship that cruises free
Is hardly worth a word at all. 
Lift your weary eyes to view
The Southern Cross beyond the blue;
Far from all the woes of the Jew
Your ship has bridged the ocean. 
Do you yearn for Europe’s shore?
It greets you in the tropics more 
For Europe is a notion!

Embassytown by China Mieville

Note: This post may look like it contains spoilers, but rest assured, it doesn’t. This is not a review. This is a book I do not consider myself adept to review. But I do want to mention it on the blog, if only as a recommendation, and spend maybe a moment here dwelling on its genius. There is so much to say about Embassytown that I wouldn’t know where to begin. The world Mieville has created is intense and nearly disorienting in its detail. I have a feeling that just its basic premise would suffice to make you want to read it. Because if it does, you’re in for a hell of a ride. I hope it does…

Concept: In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet called Arieka. On the planet of Arieka, humans and other exotic extraterrestrials co-exist with the indigenous Ariekei. The Ariekei are bizarre looking creatures with two wings, many hairy legs and two mouths which they use together to speak. The language of the Ariekei, simply called Language is unique in many ways and comprises speech units that are like two words spoken at once, one with each mouth.


In Language, unlike in our languages, there is complete non-arbitrary sound-meaning correlation, in that:


For humans, say red and it’s the reh and the eh and the duh combined, those phonemes in context, that communicate the colour. That is not how it is for the Ariekei. The sounds aren’t where the meaning lives. Language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen. 

For the Ariekei, a word that is not meant is only noise. So anything that is unknown to the Ariekei cannot be said, because it cannot be meant. With their perfectly referential language, the Ariekei cannot lie, or even speculate. The closest they can come to making allusions is by inducting humans into Language to function as rhetorical devices: making them undergo bizarre ordeals to turn them into human similes that then become part of Language. Lying is a thrill to the Ariekei, who compete at Festivals of Lies to see who can most closely approximate speaking an untruth, an act which is considered impossible and also, highly taboo. 
Embassytown describes a revolution. It’s the story of Avice Brenner Cho, a human simile, who is “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given her.” It is the story of how the simile turns into a metaphor. Of how the Ariekei learn to symbolise, how the Ariekei learn to write, and how they learn to lie. It is a political fable about the power of words. 

My reaction: Normally I like to keep this blog gif-free, but this is hard to resist. His expression does perfectly capture my reaction to this book. I’ve read it thrice over, cover to cover, since December, and I’m blown away…


On language: As a new linguistics student and a long-time language enthusiast, I am delighted by Embassytown as a rumination on human language. These are rough notes I’ve made in my diary, often in the last dull minutes of my morphology class, mulling over the book that a part of me hasn’t stopped mulling over in months:
Embassytown is sort of an evolutionary story, as the Ariekei go from being vessels of their language to creatures who possess the capacity of self-aware expression. Does lying make us human? A strangely fitting detail in the book is that it is when the Ariekei learn to lie that they learn to write, scratching primitive marks on the ground, even as Avice pictures them soon holding pens in their giftwings. It begs the question – when did humans go from describing what they saw to predicting what they didn’t or couldn’t actually witness? 
It is fascinating that once the Ariekei understand lies, they can no longer tell the truth like they used to. It changes their perspective of the world, of language, and in a biblical fashion, there appears a shift in their understanding of right and wrong. Embassytown puts forth the most obvious and difficult questions of truth and morality. What, really, is left of the meaning of the word truth without the concept of a lie. 
On weird fiction: Apparently Mieville insists on his writing being labelled as weird fiction. That brings to mind Lovecraft, above all others. Weird is a genre I associate, on an instinct, with fantasy. Kraken would fit that description, it was a strange book that I never particularly enjoyed. Embassytown, if I had to, I would say, is classic old-fashioned science fiction; even though I haven’t read enough sci-fi to make that distinction, I have an intuition about this, it has a feel. A linguistics thriller, I saw it called somewhere – what a delicious description. One of my pet words on this blog is genre-defying. Embassytown, rather, is genre-defining, I’d say, a highly recommended read for those of us who love earnest stories that take themselves seriously. 

(from Reveling in Genre: An Interview with China Mieville)
There’s simultaneously something rigorous and something playful in genre. It’s about the positing of something impossible—whether not-yet-possible or never-possible—and then taking that impossibility and granting it its own terms and systematicity. It’s carnivalesque in its impossibility and overturning of reality, but it’s rationalist in that it pretends it is real. And it’s that second element which I think those who dip their toes in the SF pond so often forget. They think sf is “about” analogies, and metaphors, and so on. I refute that—I think that those are inevitable components, but it’s the surrendering to the impossible, the weird, that characterizes genre. Those flirting with SF don’t surrender to it; they distance themselves from it, and have a neon sub-text saying, “It’s okay, this isn’t really about spaceships or aliens, it’s about real life,” not understanding that it can be both, and would do the latter better if it was serious about the former


On book reviews: Every once in a while I come across a book that leaves me breathless, heady, asking questions, wanting more. It is at times like these that a part of me is thankful for places like Goodreads and blogs, where I find other passionate responses to stories and get to share mine. A part of me is also anxious, this is the part that has to summon all my thoughts to one place, organize and flesh them out with coherence before committing words to post. Surely I couldn’t possibly do justice to a great book and I’m wary of the idea of me commenting as if an expert on a work of genius. And then I remind myself that Tabula Rasa is a book review blog only for the convenience of the term, when actually it is a book appreciation blog. Thus reassured, I proceed to gush, and swoon, and rant, and end up with posts, like this, that are typically disorganized but on the whole, heartfelt.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Having heard a lot about this book, I was looking forward to a good afternoon read. What I got instead was a 200-page rant by an author, who seemed to be in an exceptionally bitchy mood. I owe the popularity of the book to the fact that the author chose to write for the whole mass of self-proclaimed Grammar nerds out there who wouldn’t want to miss the chance to re-proclaim just how Grammar-nerdy they are, and would hence, buy her book. (Wait. Don’t they call themselves “Grammar Nazis” these days?)
The book is pointless.
From all the rave reviews I had read about this book, I expected it to be insightful in either of two ways:
1) It showed the importance of punctuation.
2) It taught punctuation.
However, the book was nothing but a weird mixture of the two. On the one hand, the author made it very clear that she considers punctuation endlessly important, but never mentioned just why it was important in more than two parroted (from other books, writers, grammarians) sentences. On the other hand, the book never fully taught the rules of punctuation, either. It only gave examples of ridiculously funny signs and boards, with all the wrong punctuation marks in all the wrong places; and the author went on to poke fun at the people who might have written them! Her condescending tone and her misplaced self-importance irritated me immensely. You can’t blame those who don’t know the correct use of punctuation for never having learnt it. You can say that you think they are wrong in assuming that it is unimportant, tell them why you think that, and correct them.
Right from categorizing herself as a case of exceptional genius and stating “While other girls were out shopping and making out, I bought books on grammar.” to the constant jabs at grocers and teachers, there were far too many stereotypes for my taste. The author also often mentioned her distaste for people who go out of their way to endorse bad grammar and spelling on the Internet and in text messages, but isn’t the lack of good language in the virtual world “old news”, so to speak?
Not to mention, in almost each of these so-called jokes, the author ended up throwing in a short explanation, which any true grammar lover would not have needed and which any person who had not understood the joke in the first place would have found too short. It seemed like she was thinking: I should probably explain the joke, just in case some self-proclaimed stickler doesn’t understand it, and feeling put down, stops reading my book. That is another reason why I didn’t like this book: it’s the least honest book I have read in a while.
The book was very disconnected and I had the impression that the author was herself not quite sure what she wanted to say: the parts about the art of punctuation and her general dislike of emoticons seemed abrupt, out of place and frankly, quite unnecessary. The book was, like I said before, a whole big pointless mildly funny rant. Sigh. Those were four hours of my life I’ll never get back. If you like grammar or humour of any sort, do yourself a favour and stay as far away from this book as you can.
This might seem like another rant too, which it sort of is. But it’s just a bad review on my blog, not a book that claims to be a lot more. If I were to write a book, it would be nothing like this. No. I would never write a book about mistakes, I’d rather be a teacher.

Fictional Languages and Words

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme hosted at The Brokeand The Bookish. We
have to choose today’s topic on our own. I recently finished reading A
Clockwork Orange and Nadsat, the language in which the characters communicate
is very interesting. 
Here’s a list of Ten Fictional Languages and Made-up
Words which I Like
:
10. Parseltongue, Gobbledegook, (not to mention)
Troll from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
 – However, we
never actually get to read any of these languages, which is a shame.
9. The word “Kerolamisticootalimarcawnokeeto
from The Book of Brownies by Enid Blyton
 – This was a magic word that
Hop, Skip and Jump had to memorize and say, to do something that I just can’t
remember, but my sister might. 

8. Jabberwocky from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – Remember
this poem with a lot of playful nonsensical words; I could only vaguely
remember it, but I just re-read it and it is funny!
7. Hobbitish from Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein –
I realize I need to read The Lord of the Rings as soon as possible, but until I
do, this one is great.
6. The different languages from the Hitchhiker’s
Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams
5. The different languages from the Discworld series
by Terry Pratchett 
– The languages of the Feegles, the dwarves,
Death of Rats are all crazily fascinating.
  
4. The Alien Language (often called R’Lyehian) from
Cthulu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft
3. Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess –
It took me a while to get used to the language but it was worth it.
2. Lapine from Watership Down by Richard Adams 
This is the language that the rabbits speak. My favourite part about it is that
since rabbits can’t count above four, any number more than four is called hrair,
which, I guess, means many.
1. Newspeak from 1984 by George Orwell –
The section at the end, which gives a detailed analysis of Newspeak is actually  my
favourite part of the book.
Which are your favourite fictional languages or made-up
words?