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This week's Irving Washington BooK NooK selection considers a pair of books about the English language: one fictional, one factual.

From Riddleyspeak to Doublespeak: The Many Forms of English in Our Real, and Imaginary, Worlds, Part One.

Intro by Beeblefish

English is one of those languages that is as inconstant and changing as fashion, petrol prices, or the various stories that politicians come up with to try to explain away being human. There are probably as many dialects of English as there are hills to live over, or subcultures to populate it with new Creoles, full of unique terms and slang, one of which, Netspeak (the burgeoning language of internet communication) is probably a stage of hyperdevelopment as we all realize that archaic mechanisms, like finishing long words and including ' marks in contractions, arent really necessary when the trade off is fractionally faster typing.

The wonderful thing about our language is that you can understand English in its many forms. From the grating spelin'-devoid drawal of de ole Mississip (as heard in Huck Finn); tu thee vizshoeal abominashun that iz fonix; to sentences that, in grammar like Yoda, are; it all rings with meaning to any English speaker that stares at the words (and rolls them around in their head) long enough.

Many authors have recognized this plasticity of English and used it to create new and thought provoking literary worlds. In this article we will look at one such literary world, as seen in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, as well as looking at the multiplicity of English itself through the eyes of Bill Bryson in his work Mother Tongue. Next week's article will extend this discussion with reviews of two more works, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and George Orwell's 1984. We also invite you to come on down to the Irving Washington BooK NooK and comment on this article on the corresponding
Book Club Forum, with a view towards developing a dynamic second article where we can synthesize what is discussed with what has come before and, in the end, maybe just produce a nice little Guide article on it. In any case, welcome to your book column, share and enjoy!

Riddley Walker

by Russell Hoban
Reviewed by Asteroid Lil

Originally published in England in 1982. Nominated by National Book Critics' Circle; nominated for Nebula Award; winner of John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science-fiction novel.

[Note: Sometimes the best way to discuss a new language is to include its vocabulary as examples. I have done so in this review: words and phrases from Riddleyspeak are shown in boldface, in the column that follows.]

Gone ter morrer here to day

Pick it up and walk a way

Dont you know greaf and woe

Pick it up its time to go

Greaf and woe dont you know

Pick it up its time to go

London town is drownt this day

Hear me say walk a way

Sling your bundel tern and go

Parments in the mud you know

Greaf and woe dont you know

Pick it up its time to go

a work chant from Riddley Walker

Who knows what year it is? Who cares? In the Dark Ages of Europe, this is the answer you might have received. Civilization is behind us, people would tell you, and hard work is ahead, and fear when the sun goes down. We go behind our fence and our strong men keep watch against wolves both animal and human. That life is bad now when it was good for our ancestors, this proves we have sinned in some way.... We are less than they were.

Riddley Walker's story comes to us out of another Dark Age, a time
thousands of years after a nuclear holocaust that ripped civilization apart in an instant and took with it, for a time, even drinkable water. There are oral traditions that recall the Bad Time, when humankind went to hell, when men and women drank blood and ate each other to survive. In Riddley's time even the dogs no longer share their lives with men. It's a tribute to mankind's persistence that a semblance of government exists, but it is greatly debased, the shadow of a memory. A Pry Mincer and a Wes Mincer (men named Goodparley and Orffing) make a regular circuit around the forms (farms) and fentses (foraging clan HQ's)
imparting news and performing a ritualistic puppet show. This is how the generations have preserved an awareness of what befell the race, and how the clevverness brought them down from their boats in the air and picters in the wind. The puppet show re-enacts the sins of Mr. Clevver and the heavy road that Eusa, representative of man, must now follow.

Hoban makes none of this backstory explicit, however. What we have is Riddley's story, in Riddley's extraordinary dialect. Riddley tells us what happens to him and intersperses it with nursery rhymes, work chants, folk tales, and whole pieces of the litany that each man must commit to heart on his coming-of-age. His little folk stories display a formal structure, complete with a title and a formal, quasi-Shakespearian ending couplet.

Riddley's world (that fragment of 'Inland' that we would recognize as East Kent) is on the cusp of change. The agrarian way of life is beginning to dominate, and the foragers, the fentses are beginning to feel squeezed. Riddley Walker, a member of the How Fents, is the son of Brooder Walker, a connexion man of note, and, when Brooder is accidentally killed at the beginning of the story, Riddley inherits that title. The job of the connexion man is to find the reveal... to explain the inner meaning of events to the rest of the fents. But circumstance bounces Riddley out of his predetermined groove and makes his adventure into a catalyst for events much larger than himself.

The language is nothing less than spooky, and sometimes this reader found herself having to repeat passages aloud to make sense of them. Indeed, one phrase eluded her understanding for over 10 years of re-reading and discussion with others. Initially one thinks, 'Ah, an S-F Huck Finn.' But when Twain wrote Finn's story, he only had to listen to the patois of Victorian Mississippi river rats and transcribe it. Hoban has created a dialect that includes a dimension of past time, of phrases, words and sayings whose true meaning is long forgotten, and which the reader must sometimes work to understand in Riddley's kiltered context.

Only one fragment of pre-Holocaust English remains: a pamphlet titled The Legend of St. Eustace. On being shown the pamphlet, Riddley asks Goodparley what it means, and Goodparley responds, 'I can as plain the mos of it to you. Some parts is easier workit out nor others theres bits of it wewl never know for cern just what they mean.' But the fragment is believed to be blipful, and is studied intently for its tell.

Listen to a man exclaim;
'Well scatter my datter!'

or hear Riddley explain how he gathered the facts and pirntout what he should do next, or tell about a man who;
'...wer so much out of luck his numbers all gone randem and his program come unstuck.'

The language takes on the texture of a midden at an archeological dig. Potsherds of ideas and symbols are jumbled in with everyday speech... and eventually the reader knows more about Riddley's world than Riddley ever can. Sometimes the punfullness of the speech interacts with history in a way so wrenching that it must be truth itself. So when the Ardship of Cambry tells Riddley that he, the Ardship, is a member of the Puter Leat, and that he is expected to do Some Posium, one is both amused and deeply saddened.

Riddley Walker is not a casual read. Beyond the story, beyond the
language, Hoban has woven in strands of real history that make Riddley's world feel complete. Not surprisingly, it took the author five and a half years to write this book. Hoban started out as a writer of children's books and his work has never lost a certain lucidity, of deceptively simple expression.

Mother Tongue

By Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Beeblefish

What does the shrift mean in 'short shrift', or the spick in 'spick-and-span'? And if we a raring to go, and then run around to and fro, causing us to get all out of kilter... what the heck are we actually doing? These are examples of language fossils, or words that have fallen out of common use, but are still preserved in expressions or idioms. This is one of the many tidbits about the English language that Bill Bryson includes in his book Mother Tongue.

This is no mere scholarly work on linguistics, though it is scholarly. Nor is it what you would expect from a book that traces the history of the English language from its humble beginnings, to its emergence as what the author considers the most important language of the planet. It is an expansive work, yet not overwhelming... mostly due to Bryson’s many asides and anecdotes on the history, development, structure, and future of English.

A journalist, author of travel books, and linguist, Bryson includes some truly enlightening and thought provoking insights. There is truly no way to merely describe how addictively interesting this book is, and I find myself with no option but to hurl some of it at you:

'In Old English there were at least six endings that denoted plurals, but by Shakespeare's time these had by and large shrunk to two: -s and -en. But even then the process was nowhere near complete. In the Elizabethan Age, people sometimes said shoes and sometimes shoen, sometimes houses and sometimes housen. It is interesting to reflect that had the seat of government stayed in Winchester, rather than moved the sixty miles or so to London, we would today very probably be talking of six housen and a pair of shoen.' (p55)

It is amazing to note that such a small difference near the beginning of the structuring of a language could have had such a profound effect; this is what Chaos mathematicianen call the Butterfly Effect (but that's another story, for another column).

Bryson notes how the various dialecten of English in England can vary over ridiculously small distancen, while the dialecten of other English speaking countrien are not quite so varied [Though it may have not been so in the past, returning to the Huckleberry Finn example, Bryson notes that Mark Twain used seven distinct Midwest American dialecten for various characteren in this book]. He explores the originen of English worden, and the odd creaturen called spelling and grammar. He even explores the many creolen and languagen on the fringe of English, such as the French/English cross Cajun, and the West-African/English cross Gullah.

In another interesting note, this one about the varied pronunciation of certain common English words, he notes that ' sufficiently sophisticated computer could probably place, with reasonable accuracy, sometimes to within a few miles, almost any English-speaking person in the world depending on how he(or she) pronounced the following ten words (p.99):

  • cot

  • caught

  • cart

  • bomb

  • balm

  • oil

  • house

  • horse

  • good

  • water

A real page turner, pick this book up if you have any interest in language whatsoever It is incisive, witty, and despite it leaningen towards humour, thoroughly educational.

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