Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language

10/30/2014 at 12:07 PM (Books) (, , , , , )

9780141040080

I’ve just been taken on an armchair tour on the history of English via Bill Bryson’s entertaining book Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language. I explored this genre a little bit when I wrote my post on the Gift of the Gob but this book goes into a lot more fun detail about the origins of English into its ultimate status as the world’s most spoken tongue. This book was published a while back so some of the notions do seem rather dated and erroneous as they seem to have been sourced from places you could not rely on as factual authorities. It is still an entertaining read.

Bryson first explores the ambiguities of English as understood by a foreigner. For example in English, one tells a lie but the truth, the sentence “I could care less” is equivalent to “I couldn’t care less” and the phrase “all items not on sale” means some items are on sale. He explains the intricacy of English by pointing out in the phrase ‘I went swimming’, swimming is a past participle while in the phrase ‘Swimming is good for you’, it is a gerund despite being the same word. He also goes into some detail about foreign words in other languages and I have found out that in Japanese the word for foreigner translates as ‘stinking of foreign hair’, Italians call syphilis ‘the French disease’ and con games get called ‘American swindles’ in France and Italy.

Next I found insight into how the possibility of speech evolved. The evolutionary change which pushed man’s larynx deeper into his throat brought about with it the possibility to communicate by talking. So this is why humans can talk and animals can’t. Then history of linguistics is given a mention by discussing the contributions of Sir William Jones, who discovered there were commonalities across languages despite geographic boundaries and proposed a theory that all classical languages derived from the same source. For example, brother is known as bruder in German, bhrathair in Gaelic, bhrata in Sanskrit and biradar in Persian. It may seem tenuous but I can see a connection.

The author then explains how language always has the same purpose but is achieved in multiple ways. When it comes to features of grammar and syntax, such as number, tense or gender, they can vary depending on the language. For example, the Japanese language doesn’t use plurals, in Russian nouns have twelve different inflections and Irish Gaelic lacks the words yes and no. Then he goes on to speak about cultures in which languages co-exist and how majority languages usually dominate in spite of careful measures taken to prevent minority languages from dying out.

I found the overview of how English developed in England under the language spoken by Anglo-Saxons quite informative and interesting such as the fact their pagan gods are preserved for antiquity in the names of our weekdays; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday stand for Tiv, Woden, Thor and Frig and Saturday, Sunday and Monday stand for Saturn, the sun and the moon. The English spoken changed after the invasion of the Vikings which meant a lot of Scandinavian terms became part and parcel of English. English language changed even more after the 1066 Norman conquest because their French origins resulted in the aristocracy speaking in French and while the peasants continued to speak in English.

Next comes an overview of the richness of the English vocabulary and the complexities of multiple synonyms, polysemy and contronyms. A Danish linguist said words were formed in four ways: adding to them, inventing them, removing from them and leaving them alone. The author suggests two more ways: making mistakes and borrowing from other languages.

The minor treatise in orthoepy lets readers know none of the letters in English can be relied on for consistency. The c in race, rack and rich are all pronounced differently or remain silent like the b in debt or the a in bread. Most words are not pronounced in the way it is spelled.

The discourse on dialects made me aware of something I did not know before.  Apparently one of the people quite interested in the study of dialects was J.R. R. Tolkien who later became famous as the author of The Hobbit. Dialects in England apparently function differently to the way dialects work in North America. It does not only need to distinguished by region or locality as there are occupational dialects, ethnic dialects and class dialects.

Have you ever wondered how the alphabet came into being? It has evolved from pictographs. People used pictographs to represent things but once they hit on the idea of using them to represent sound, the possibility of having an alphabet came into being. The two possible ways of rendering speech into writing is then discussed by outlining their pros and cons. Apparently English spelling is erratic because for a long time, people were indifferent to using consistent spelling because dialects prospered as there was no central authority for the English language. Things changed after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and standardised spelling was achieved by 1650. At the very same time, the Great Vowel Shift was underway. People changed the way they pronounced vowels in vast groups of words, but the publishers weren’t cognisant of the changes. This is why the: ‘ea’ sounds different in knead, bread, wear and great. English lost the /k/ sound from /kn/ words, the /w/ from /wr/ words, and the /g/ from gnat and gnaw. By the time the change was complete, writing habits had been established.

Reviewers have been rather critical of some of the author’s errors so I guess go into reading this with an aware mind. However I do think some of the errors are oversights on the parts of the editor and proofreader as they haven’t done the job of checking facts for accuracy. It is a very light-hearted approach to English language discussion so I think this is worth looking only if you enjoy the way the author, Bill Bryson, writes.

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All the Birds, Singing

10/20/2014 at 9:46 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

I found All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld on one of those prize-winning book lists. They are what I go to as a source of reference when I find myself at a loss as to what to read next. All the Birds, Singing is the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award. 

It is about a young Australian woman living on her small sheep farm on an island off the British coast. Jake Whyte likes to live in isolation and does her best to avoid mingling with the local population. As we get to know her past, it is hard to blame her for this. Her only companion is a sheepdog called Dog. I think the author is trying to signify Jake is trying to be free of attachment. Unfortunately for Jake, her sheep are turning up dead.

The second chapter is set in a sheep station in Australia, where Jake works as a shearer. The chapters switch between Britain and Australia. But it takes a while to for the reader’s mind to adjust to the switches in geography. The chapters set in Britain portray Jake’s life and her determination to manage and care for her sheep. We learn how Jake ends up as a shearer, why she came to Britain and how she got scars on her back. Wyld is very good at feeding minuscule hints and building tension to keep the readers yearning for an ultimate conclusion. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t find the end very satisfactory. But enough is already revealed so that readers know what the characters want is unlikely to happen.  Perhaps there is a hint that Jake learns how to trust again but I felt something was left unfinished. Reading this you expect find a hearty meal at the end only to find it’s just salad without even dressing. There is showing off of some experimenting with tense but that didn’t woo me.

I understood from the beginning,  All the Birds, Singing was meant as a bleak, sad story but I expected a hint of happiness by the finale. Instead it seems to be a revelation of a multitude of tragedies. Sometimes as it is narrated in the first person by Jake, you wonder if she is mentally unhinged. It wouldn’t be surprising given how traumatic a life she lived.  She notices things other people don’t see and feels fears people around her don’t understand. Lots of practical things seem to have been skipped over too – while that makes for great viewing in a movie, it makes holes in a book.

Read this review for a more positive perspective.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman

09/29/2014 at 10:26 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

From: myvictorianbooks.blogspot.com

From: myvictorianbooks.blogspot.com

I first encountered the The French Lieutenant’s Woman after finishing The Collector by John Fowles but had to return it to the library before I had the chance to finish. I gave it another go and was able to make it to the end of the book before it was time for overdue notices!

Sarah Woodruff is a governess who is looked upon with contempt by the  English community of Lyme Regis due to falling for a French naval officer who left her behind after he allegedly ‘ruined‘ her.  In spite of her pious employer’s warnings, she walks by the cliffs pining for her lost love.  Meanwhile Charles Smithson is a Victorian gentleman engaged to Ernestina , the daughter of a wealthy tradesman who is residing with her aunt Tranter  in Lyme Regis. After Charles accidentally stumbles across Sarah, he becomes fascinated by her history and tries to convince her  to go to London where her tale of scandal is less likely to be outrageous. But Sarah is not amenable to that particular course of action and asks Charles to compromise himself by meeting her in secret in order to give her emotional support while pretending she lacks the will to alter her life. During the course of this meetings, Charles begins to find himself falling for her despite warnings from her doctor that Sarah’s mind is not in the best state and may drag others down with her. 

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a tragic melodrama but now the story starts to veer off in a different track as the narrator begins to intervene in the novel and supplies three possible endings. Each offers a possible ending for Charles’s pursuit of Sarah: the first ends with Charles married to Ernestina without him explaining the details of his meetings with Sarah, the second with a recreation of a relationship with Sarah which hints of a future reconciliation, and the third with Charles ending partnerless deprived of both Ernestina and Sarah. The narrator explains the fairest way to end The French Lieutenant’s Woman is to present all the ways in which it could possibly end.

I think The French Lieutenant’s Woman is really clever and ingenious with all the interpretations given to the reader to finally conclude. But I feel it also shows the limitations of plot devices and how much authors are constricted by the rules governing writing. There are few authors who pushed through that boundary and Fowles was one of the early ones.

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The Maze Runner

09/24/2014 at 10:52 AM (Books) (, , , , )

maze-runner

In James Dashner’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Maze Runner, the protagonist Thomas finds himself in the Glade without any memories of his past apart from his name together with a community of boys who have made it their home. The Glade is surrounded by a maze out of which an escape has not been found. At night, mechanical creatures called Grievers roam around the maze and attack any boy who has not made it beyond the gates after sunset. A new boy usually appears in an elevator called The Box once a month but after Thomas there is another delivery on the second day, a comatose girl, the first girl to ever appear in the maze. Afterwards they are warned there will be no more deliveries of anyone.

Each of the boys have roles in their community and Thomas finds himself yearning to be a Runner. Runners are required to explore and decode the maze while escaping Grievers who are informed by spies called Beetle Blades belonging to WICKED. They also keep Maps to preserve patterns as the maze changes everyday. There are also Builders, Baggers, Track-hoes, Med-jacks and Sloppers. Try and guess what those careers might entail? Thomas proves himself to the Keeper of the Runners and makes some friends and also enemies after a Gathering is called to discuss his brave but foolhardy, rule-breaking actions.

After purposefully subjecting himself to injury, Thomas finds out a way to recover some lost memories. However he finds the solution to the maze is not the most pleasant of prospects for their future.  I’ve since found out that Thomas’s story continues on in The Scorch Trials and is finally resolved in The Death Cure.  Perhaps the upcoming movie version might amalgamate all 3 books into 2-hours? Although I’ve heard the movie has made some significant differences to major plot points.

As for my thoughts, I initially found The Maze Runner a little slow and irritating because the boys in the Glade speak in their own dialect using words like Greenie, klunk and shuck-face. However it is fairly easy to get into the swing of it in a couple of chapters because you are purposefully fed so little information that you keep turning the pages to find out how the kids ended up in the maze. The writing is quite simple to read but is captivating enough for young adult fiction. This is a very plot based book and not much depth is felt with the characters apart from Thomas and his best mate in the Glade, Chuck.

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Shiver

09/05/2014 at 11:08 AM (Books) (, , , , )

Shiver is the very first novel written by Nikki Gemmell, the author of very controversial book, The Bride Stripped Bare. Although Shiver is described as a novel, it seems autobiographical given her inspiration for writing the story came from her own personal experiences.

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We are introduced to Fin, a radio journalist who works the police beat for the early morning shift. When an opportunity arises to undertake an observatory expedition to Antarctica, she volunteers. In real life, Nikki Gemmell went to Antarctica to cover a scientific expedition, courtesy of radio station Triple J. In the southernmost continent, she crosses a boundary of journalism by falling for someone she interviews. Guess what happens in Shiver? There isn’t much to read between the lines. But falling in love comes at a cost in both the real and fictional worlds  and so we are fed the saccharine but trite parable of not giving up and following your heart.

The plot although it has potential felt rather dull. The characterisation of the all the different men in Antarctica was too brief because I felt a new potential suitor appeared every 15 pages and and nothing about their personalities comes through the narration apart from the fact sexism is rampant and mostly tolerated. I will admit though she has a knack for writing imagery in poetic and lyrical prose. However that can be easily be disillusioned by sentences like, ” I’ve been in one of these in Bass Strait, and a bag of vomit was passed from person to person, and there was vomit on vomit” and “I’ve done one very large **** and it’s not going anywhere. I can see bits of my dinner from last night in it”. So while I was interested in her portrayal of landscape, I found her descriptions of human interaction and functions jarring. I wondered if the beauty in prose about landscape and the grossness in prose about human needs was purposefully done  but I’m doubtful about that interpretation of Shiver.

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Requiem

08/30/2014 at 2:25 PM (Books) (, , , , , )

Requiem brings the long awaited resolution to the Delirium series. All the loose ends lingering from the previous books are neatly resolved. 

Requiem

Lena has now become a fully-fledged member of the resistance and is trusted to take on roles that require leadership skills. The rebellion in Pandemonium was only a stirring of unrest. Now a full-scale revolution is underway and the government can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the protests of the resistance fighters. This means the government starts to look at the Wilds as a threat to their order and structure and it ceases to be a safe haven. Regulators come past the border to combat the resistance head on. While the former have strength in numbers, the latter know how to put up a fight that does not require assistance from bombing planes. 

While Lena makes a stand with the resistance, we also learn of the fate of Hana – Lena’s best friend from Delirium. From Hana’s perspective, we learn she is the fiancee of the mayor’s son, Fred Hargrove, her assigned partner.  Hana quickly learns Fred is not what he appears to be on the surface and takes refuge in helping Grace, Lena’s cousin. What Lena and Hana don’t know is that their stories are going to collide.

What I haven’t pinpointed in the above plot is the love triangle of Julian-Lena-Alex. I think the entry of Coral as a nemesis for Alex gave the story a bit more bite but it was obvious Alex was still having feelings for Lena even if she was not able to see that. I felt sad for Julian because he quickly adapted to the Wilds after being torn from the life he had known but was only a source of secondary comfort for Lena. The decision she made to hook up with Julian in Pandemonium after Alex sacrificed himself for her was truly baffling but it did allow room for intense, seriously emotional cliffhangers.

The end felt somewhat curtailed but ultimately the series seems to have achieved its purpose with its depicted culmination of events. 

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Pandemonium

08/29/2014 at 2:25 PM (Books) (, , , , , )

Pandemonium is the second instalment of the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver. It continues Lena’s story after she escapes through the border fence separating the city from the Wilds.

pandemonium

Emotionally distraught at losing Alex and trying to put her nightmares behind her, Lena puts her heart and soul into helping the resistance group that rescued her by infiltrating the protest group DFA – Deliria Free America. The mascot of the group is Julian Fineman, the protest group leader’s son, who is willing to martyr himself for the cause. Lena’s assigned job is to keep an eye on Julian but the resulting adventures after they are captured by Scavengers creates a shift in the dynamic of the relationship between them. So when a place of shelter is raided before they make it to safety, Lena makes the decision to rescue Julian rather than subject him to the cure which could potentially kill him. In this story, Lena does for Julian what Alex did for her.

Later on Lena learns there were things that played out which were planned for her but realises she wasn’t taken into confidence about them. While she feels betrayed and used, she ultimately receives support she needs when she makes a strategic plan of her own. She is also rescued by a freedom fighter in the  top ranks with whom she has a connection. But before she can even come to terms with that discovery, the final chapter brings with it a massive twist in the tale. So all I can say is Requiem will be heart-wrenching.

I think the transformation of Lena from insecure, disgruntled, whiny Cinderella to assertive and capable character makes Pandemonium quite an interesting book to read. It is easy to fail to see that chapters shift in perspective between past and present. I did this so I was a confused for a while with the first few chapters. Because her characters have been established, Pandemonium is directed more by action rather than governed by emotions of characters but I felt that made the built world more concrete.

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Delirium

08/28/2014 at 10:03 AM (Books, Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

delirium

I heard about this series in the books sections of an anime forum I tend to visit occasionally. The plot reminded me of Hunger Games and Divergent which I had liked so I decided to give Delirium a chance as well. Delirium was written by Lauren Oliver, who wrote Before I Fall, which is about death. She has claimed she wrote the Delirium series because she wanted to write about the concept of love as a disease and the idea came to her while watching a report on a pandemic. 

We learn civilisation is segmented to areas which had survived bombings of the past and travel between cities is restricted. Electric fences enclose the population to protect them from people who have escaped without undergoing the procedure for the cure – the cure which prevents all over the age of eighteen contracting amor deliria nervosa which used to be called love. Beyond the perimeters of the fencing is the unregulated territory known as the Wilds.

The established government teaches, through the Book of Shhh, love is a disease often referred to as “the deliria”. For citizens over 18, the surgical cure for the deliria is compulsory. The fate for those that fail it or even families with a connection to someone uncured are not pleasant. The main character in the story, Lena Haloway, is eagerly awaiting the cure so she can forget the pain of her past and move on. Then she meets Alex, an Invalid (a name given to people who have not taken the cure  and who live in the Wilds) who is part of the resistance and succumbs to the symptoms of the deliria herself. Alex starts to shows her that love is beautiful and erases her initial reluctance and doubts.

When Alex suggests a means of escaping the cure by going to the Wilds, Lena undergoes some inner turmoil at the thought of leaving some close friendships but ultimately finds the idea not unpalatable. Unfortunately for the couple, someone has informed the regulators about plans  they have made for the impending flight and Lena is trapped against her will so she can be cured early. At the last moment, her best friend, her little cousin and Alex all contribute to her rescue .

Alex and Lena come to the borders of the electric fencing but alerts have been put out regarding their attempted escape. As a result, only one of them can make it into the Wilds. But Lena’s tale isn’t over yet because it continues on in book two of the trilogy Pandemonium.

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The Rosie Project

08/21/2014 at 9:37 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

rosie

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is my newly assigned book club read. Love finds you is the defining message in this marvellous tale full of hilarity which is narrated by the character of Don Tillman.

Don Tillman is an awkward and socially incompetent genetics university professor who decides to get married. Unfortunately he is extremely fussy and designs a sixteen-page questionnaire to eliminate undesirable candidates from the get go. This way he can ensure his potential wife is not a barmaid, a smoker or drinker and is always punctual.

Rosie Jarman is asked out by Don Tillman and she accepts. He finds out to his chagrin she fits all his undesirable criteria. To gently let her down, he offers to assist Rosie in finding out who is  her biological father. After all, he does have genetics lab facilities at his disposal.

While he spends time with Rosie, Don starts to find out the nuances of social cues and how to fit in properly. He starts to see how accepting Rosie has been while he has been discriminating. He even manages to get a second date for the first time in his life and avoid ice-cream taste issues. Perhaps Rosie Jarman fills the Wife Project candidate criteria after all?

We also are given insight into the life of Don’s best friend, Gene. His project is to sleep with one woman from every country in the world. Don’s understanding of social constructs or lack of it hinders him from understanding Gene is a jerk. Exposure to Rosie changes the way he observes the world and reacts to it.

In the Rosie Project, Don Tillman ultimately learns love is a master that you can’t fight with objectivity because it can deprive one of reason when it chooses to find you.

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The Wild Girl

08/14/2014 at 11:33 AM (Australian Literature, Books, Romance) (, , , , , )

the-wild-girl

Kate Forsyth intrigued me once with her spellbinding retelling of Rapunzel in Bitter Greens. When I saw she authored The Wild Girl, I did not hesitate. This time, she explores the story of Dortchen Wild who is credited as having told many of the fairy tales belonging to the collection of the Brothers Grimm.

Set against the backdrop of the German kingdom of Hessen-Kassel in the early nineteenth century, we learn about boy next door Dortchen fell in love with the first time she saw him, her best friend’s brother, the poor but handsome scholar Wilhelm Grimm, who has returned from Marburg. War interferes in their newly budding romance because Napoleon’s army conquers their kingdom, takes over the palace of the Kurfürst and begins an oppressive regime setting French decrees. So the Grimm brothers embark on a mission to preserve the folk tales of their heritage and publish them in a book.

Dortchen, having grown up in the care of Old Marie, knows several beautiful old stories. These include Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King, All Kinds of Fur and Six Swans. She has to tell them to Wilhelm in secret as her tyrannical father opposes her plans to get married to Wilhelm and as the story progresses we learn it is for the darkest of reasons. Although their ardour deepens, Dortchen has to guard a dark secret but Wilhelm remains mostly oblivious even when she tells him the truth in the guise of a story. For Dortchen, as time passes and all of her sisters find husbands, marriage to Wilhelm seems an unlikely outcome.

Does this teller of fairy tales who has her heart trampled and spirit wounded get her happy ending? You’ll have to read The Wild Girl to find out. This may be a darker forbidden love story but both the protagonists have better fates than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

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