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Language Items from 2011:
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with our hands Persuasion
wolfpack effect No word for it Time to give up English
with mistakes The cold call
The Oxford comma Appalled Feral label Happy Birthday King James Bible Scientific mis-understanding Fast and slow languages Christmas Evening
There is getting to be several standards of good English – well,
three any way. There is good scientific writing, good humanities
writing and good fiction writing. Scientific papers are written in a
somewhat old fashioned, formal language using very precise words with
scientific definitions. There is an air of objectivity conveyed by this
style. I am used to it and so I struggle with the dry, dense text but
don't complain. On the other hand when I read some post-modern stuff, I
am annoyed because it seems unnecessarily weird, just weird. Of course,
we all like fiction.
One of the ways this is coming to a head is in an argument about
whether it is OK to use passive sentences. So the first thing to deal
with is – what is a passive sentence? This is driving linguists up the
wall. According to them, it is their term and their definition ever
since grammar was invented. A passive sentence is one where the
recipient of a transitive verb becomes the subject of the
sentence. “I closed the door” is active and “The door was closed
by me” is passive. Linguists rant at pundits who complain about passive
sentences that are not passive and further, use passive sentences in
their complaints. They resent people with no grammatical knowledge
spouting their ignorance in public.
The complainers seem to have a different definition, a passive sentence
to one that does not put responsibility on the actor. They are
complaining about sentences like “Mistakes were made” because it does
not clearly say who was responsible for those mistakes. But this does
not fit all complainers. Some are not satisfied with agency being clear
– they want blame. “Sometimes passive voice is used to mean "vague
about who's at fault", which seems to be the grammatical sense gone
adrift; sometimes it means "listless, energyless, lacking in vigor",
which is one of the more general, non-grammatical senses of passive;
sometimes it seems to mean "on the fence, not taking sides", which is a
sort of transmuted combination of the two.” A few even take offense at
uses of the verb-to-be in copula sentences, “The water is boiling”. Who
they ask is to blame for the boiling water? Now it turns out that what
is wrong is sentences that sound objective rather than subjective. How
dare someone pretend to be objective!
All the complainers appear to hate scientific writing for all these
with our hands
There is this idea called 'embodied mind' which means that the brain
gets a lot of information from the body. So for example we know how
angry we are from how fast our heart is beating; we feel more in charge
if we take an expansive posture; we think more deeply about a problem
if we physically stand back from it; and countless other examples that
scientists are finding.
I have always been a believer in the importance of gestures (and other
non-verbal channels) in communication. We should not 'sit on our hands'
but we should also not force particular gestures because they may turn
out to be confusing or inappropriate. We should just relax and let our
hands do what they naturally do.
Now it seems that gestures are not just an integral part of speech but
an integral part of thought. How we gesture affects how we think as
well as the other way around. We can think more clearly and learn more
quickly if we gesture our way through life. It is not just
communication with others that needs the moving hands but communication
I notice that people differ in the amount they gesture and whole
cultures do too. We must learn from our family how much to gesture. But
I think that the obvious differences are more just in the size of the
gestures rather than the number. I have noticed that some people have
small movements of their hands while the hands sit in their lap or on a
table top. You would not notice these if you were not looking for them.
Others may even not move and still be gesturing, the movement is being
programmed by the brain but the stimulation of the muscles is so small
that nothing moves. We do this with our vocal muscle when we read
silently. Other people use great sweeping movements that no one could
Jeremy Dean, author of the PsyBlog site, did a summary of his
previous postings on the subject of persuasion, each of which reviews
one or a number of scientific papers.
“Here are the most important points for crafting the perfect
persuasive message, all of which have scientific evidence to back
- Multiple, strong arguments: the more
arguments, the more persuasive, but overall persuasive messages should
be balanced, as two-sided arguments fare better than their one-sided
equivalents (as long as counter-arguments are shot down).
- Relevance: persuasive messages should be
personally relevant to the audience. If not, they will switch off and
fail to process it.
- Universal goals: In creating your
message, understand the three universal goals for which everyone is
aiming: affiliation, accuracy and positive self-concept.
- Likeability: ingratiating yourself with
the audience is no bad thing—most successful performers, actors,
lawyers and politicians do it. Likeability can be boosted by praising
the audience and by perceived similarity. Even the most fleeting
similarities can be persuasive.
- Authority: people tend to defer to
experts because it saves us trying to work out the pros and cons
ourselves (read the classic experiment on obedience to authority).
- Attractiveness: the physical
attractiveness of the source is only important if it is relevant (e.g.
when selling beauty products).
- Match message and medium: One useful rule
of thumb is: if the message is difficult to understand, write it; if
it's easy, put it in a video.
- Avoid forewarning: don't open up saying
"I will try and persuade you that..." If you do, people start
generating counter-arguments and are less likely to be persuaded.
- Go slow: If the audience is already
sympathetic, then present the arguments slowly and carefully (as long
as they are relevant and strong). If the audience is against you then
fast talkers can be more persuasive.
- Repetition: whether or not a statement is
true, repeating it a few times gives the all-important illusion of
truth. The illusion of truth leads to the reality of persuasion.
- Social proof: you've heard it before and
you'll hear it again—despite all their protestations of individuality,
people love conformity. So tell them which way the flock is going
because people want to be in the majority.
- Attention: if the audience isn't paying
attention, they can't think about your arguments, so attitudes can't
change. That's why anything that sharpens attention, like caffeine,
makes people easier to persuade. And speaking of attention...
- Minimise distraction: if you've got a
strong message then audiences are more swayed if they pay attention. If
the arguments are weak then it's better if they're distracted.
- Positively framed: messages with a
positive frame can be more persuasive.
- Disguise: messages are more persuasive if
they don't appear to be intended to persuade or influence as they can
sidestep psychological reactance (hence the power of overheard
arguments to change minds).
- Psychologically tailored: messages should
match the psychological preferences of the audience. E.g. some people
prefer thinking-framed arguments and others prefer feel-framed
arguments (see: battle between thought and emotion in persuasion).
Also, some people prefer to think harder than others.
- Go with the flow: persuasion is strongest
when the message and audience are heading in the same direction.
Thoughts which come into the audience's mind more readily are likely to
be more persuasive.
- Confidence: not only your confidence, but
theirs. The audience should feel confident about attitude change.
Audience confidence in their own thoughts is boosted by a credible
source and when they feel happy (clue: happy audiences are laughing).
- Be powerful: a powerful orator influences
the audience, but making the audience themselves feel powerful
increases their confidence in attitude change. An audience has to feel
powerful enough to change.
- Avoid targeting strong beliefs: strong
attitudes and beliefs are very difficult to change. Do not directly
approach long-standing ideas to which people are committed, they will
resist and reject. Strong beliefs must be approached indirectly.”
How did this unusual little word conquer the world? It is used and
understood everywhere. In English it looks like an abbreviation but of
nothing. It is new as words go and has a silly history. Why did it
spread from English so far and so fast.
It is pronounceable in almost all languages, has a very common vowel
and consonant and a simple syllable. It is short enough to be useful in
telegrams and now texting, Twitter etc. By coincidence it matches
somewhat similar word meanings in Scottish, Greek, German and Finnish
(Och aye – oh yes, Ola Kalak – all is right, Ohne Korrekur – no need
for correction, Oikea – correct). And it implies that the speaker
is young, informal and is comfortable with American culture and idiom.
But it also has a very distinct, subtle and useful meaning. Most people
without thinking would say that OK means a middle of the road and vague
'yes', 'good', 'all right'.
But a linguist, David Beaver, has a different meaning. He points out
OK is used to express acceptance or acknowledgement while not
indication whether there is also agreement or affirmation. He gives
examples of exchanges:
“Isn't he smart? OK!” doesn't sound like a natural exchange but “Isn't
he smart? Yes!” does. The question is demanding agreement and therefore
OK is not correct.
“I promise to give it back. OK.” is fine but “I promise to give it
back. Yes” is not. The statement is a promise and the only thing to do
with that is acknowledge it. Agreement is not logical.
“Get out of my stuff!! OK, OK.” is reasonable but “Get out of my
stuff!! Yes, Yes.” is not. I can accept the demand but I can't agree
with it because here I am in your stuff caught red-handed.
Quite often OK is used to say: I have understood and I am able to
object and I do not object but I have not explicitly agreed with your
thinking. If I wanted to say that I really agreed I would have said
yes. I either disagree or only weakly agree or don't want you to know
whether I agree. You'll have to live with that – OK?
In the context of public speaking,
there seems to be a universal fear of it for no apparent reason. I
have told people who were suffering with this fear that it is
natural. It is a sort of primitive reacting to all the eyes looking
at the speaker. It is unnerving.
It turns out that this now has a name,
the wolfpack effect. “Imagine a pack of predators stalking their
prey. The predators may not always move directly toward their target
(e.g., when circling around it), but they may be consistently facing
toward it. The human visual system appears to be extremely sensitive
to such situations, even in displays involving simple shapes...The
wolfpack effect is a novel “social” cue to perceived animacy...
showing how it irresistibly and implicitly shapes visual performance
and interactive behavior.” So if all eyes are on you, even though
the eyes are in different places, moving in different directions and
speeds, but never shifting their gaze – then you are it, the prey.
Speakers need to be aware of this
natural reaction, see it for what it is, and avoid being drawn into
thinking of their audience as a pack of predators. The first law of
public speaking – like your audience.
No word for it
Some bloggers have a particular public
service - they check facts on many things published by newspapers and
magazines. G. Pullum at LanguageLog hates people writing that some
culture y has no word for x and therefore have no knowledge of x.
Quite often he finds that this 'fact' is simply wrong and they do
have a word or standard phrase for x. Recently an editorial in the
Guardian got him angry.
of English spelling are familiar enough. Or shud that be enuff? Most
of us admit we are embarrassed when we spell it embarassed and know
that we are pompous about acommodating other people's erors. A poll
for the English spelling society, which would like the rules relaxed
at least to admit alternatives, found most people were irritated to
read misspelled words, even in the informality of the internet. This
is a mystery. It is our language and we can spell it how we want.
Texters happily use abbreviations and phonetics. In the 19th century
the admirable American lexicographer Noah Webster just rewrote the
rules. He said he wanted to rescue the native tongue from the clamour
of pedantry (he blamed the English aristocracy) which is why plough
is plow, centre is center and colour became color. Irregular
spelling, it is claimed, contributes
to the high level of illiteracy in the UK, while phonetic
languages like Italian and, apparently, Finnish not only have no
problem with dyslexia, they don't even have a word for it. In
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell develops an entirely plausible form of
spelling some future version of English. The critics claim that it
would mean different spellings in Newcastle and Bristol. But go to
India or Africa and it is clear the Anglophone world is already
divided not only by pronunciation but by usage. In an increasingly
homogenous world, the moment has come to step back where we can from
uniformity and let in variety and simplicity.”
Pullum sets them straight: there is an
Italian word for dyslexia, dislessia, and three Finnish words,
lukivaikeus, lekihairio and dysleksia. This information is readily
available on the web. So is the idea that dyslexia is a
genetically-linked condition with many symptoms unrelated to
spelling. Finnish and Italian scientists have done important work on
dyslexia. Of course Pullum is right to call the Guardian on an easily
checked factual error – but - Pullum himself leaves the impression
that the effect of non-phonetic spelling is trivial. Wrong! The
effect on those who have dyslexia is much more severe when they have
to learn to read and write in a language that does not have phonetic
Ben Yagoda gave his university advanced writing students a
questionnaire and here is what he found:
94% used 'disinterested' to mean uninterested rather than impartial,
88% used 'momentarity' to mean in a moment rather than for a moment,
88% used 'presently' to mean currently rather than shortly,
80% used 'nonplussed' to mean unfazed rather than fazed.
How long are some going to fight changes in meaning? Are you more
worried about being see as exhibitionist or pedantic? Or are you more
worried about being seen as ignorant and not respecting the language?
Re-establishing an old meaning that has almost disappeared is a losing
battle and while you are using the old meaning you will be
Some others to give up on:
decimate now means killing a significant proportion rather than one
fortuitous now means lucky rather than accidental,
hoi polloi now means the fancy people rather than the common ones.
Here is the bottom line – the function of language is communication. If
you want people to understand you then speak the language they will
understand. Tailor your language to your listener. If you want to
understand what others say then take the meanings of words as they
intended. Tailor your understanding to the speaker. A little tolerance
difference is what is needed.
The linguist, Mark Liberman says that
“English has the third-worst orthography among modern languages,
after Japanese and Chinese.” Reading error rates among first-grade
school children are many times higher in the UK than in other
European countries. The second highest was Denmark with less than
half the rate. France, Greece, Italy, German and Netherlands had less
than a tenth the error rate. The problem with English is that many
sounds have more than one spelling and many letters and letter
combinations have more than one sound. There is just no one-to-one or
even many-to-one mapping, but a many-to-many. Added to this is the
fact that syllables can be much more complex in English than in many
languages. There are many loan words in English that have not had
their spelling changed.
So why does English have such terrible
orthography. The simply answer is that it was an early language to
have its spelling fixed and it was fixed by opinionated amateurs and
by printers who spoke with a mixture of dialects. Each word found its
final spelling independently of other words. Often more attention was
given to that was thought to be a word's etymology rather than its
sound. Once fixed it is difficult to change spelling even if the
pronunciation later changes and many words changed their sound. The
fixing started in the final stages of an enormous change in
pronunciation. The result is a mess.
Is there any chance that English
spelling will be reformed. Not likely!! But individual words may
acquire alternative spellings. I can remember the first time I saw
'nite', it was very weird. Now I read past it and hardly notice. With
the spelling used in email, texting and twitter – many alternatives
will become readable without noticing. Slowly individual words may
change their spelling. On the other hand, the existence of electronic
spell checkers mean that it will take a long time for older spellings
What do people use their language for: information, inspiration,
cooperation and all those useful things, and then also, gossip. It is
like candy, we can hardly resist it. In some periods in the past, whole
levels of society have had cultures that were nothing but gossip, mind
you, gossip with style and class. The popularity of soap operas and and
daytime series is probably because it gives people a big gossip 'fix'.
It is a glue that holds us together – makes us care what happens to a
friend's friend's mother that we rarely see. It also keeps us in line,
when we fear what the neighbours will say. And, of course, it teaches
us how to deal with situations before we meet them because all the
options have been aired for someone else's problem. It is part of the
social lubricating chatter that is so comforting, like talking about
the weather or the local sports team.
However, it is a very important part of being human. We seem to come
ready, able, and eager to gossip – it is not something that most of us
had to learn to do or learn how to do. In fact, the opposite, we have
to learn to keep gossip in check. We do not want to be known as 'that
gossip'. We need to gossip but we need to learn how to keep secrets,
not lie, and not be cruel and vindictive too. These later skills do not
come as easily as gossip.
We should value our gossip: sweet, comforting, amusing, entertaining
gossip. And very occasionally a warning to others of some dangerous
person (if we are very sure we are correct).
I read a few language blogs regularly. I have tried many more but lost
interest in them. Why do some become boring and infuriating? Why are
others addictive? The big difference is whether they are prescriptive
or not. This is something that has grown on me. One person judging
another on the basis of language has made me uncomfortable and
sometimes angry at the rudeness of the complainers. And reading someone
who is always negative and bossy is tiresome. They are often annoyed
but have very little new to say. That has pushed me more and more away
from the prescriptivists. So now I restrict myself to descriptivists
Descriptivists are often accused of accepting anything, but that is not
true. They say that the way good authors write and educated native
speakers speak is THE language. Understand that language rather than
fight it. Seems reasonable to me. The people who do this kind of
linguistics are positive, they enjoy the language and have really
interesting things to say about it. Even, often, they have a good sense
When they see an unusual usage, they do several things. Is the usage
not really unusual but just from another place, class, age group, time,
profession and so on? And does the speaker have contact with that other
place, class, age group, time, profession etc? Often people say that
something is a mistake when really they just have a very restricted
experience. Often they think something is new when it is old. Sometimes
something is said to be a mistake because of some silly made up rule
(like don't split infinitives) that no one actually follows. If it is
actually unusual, how did it come to be used? Is it an obvious stumble
or typo and not what was intended? Is it newly coined and if so is it
likely to survive? Was it intended and not good usage? If so what was
the cause or is there a pattern of such mistakes?
Instead of anger there is good-natured inquiry into the language that
people actually speak and write. They examine recordings, search google
and other large masses of text for the frequency of various forms –
this is not arm chair theorizing but evidence based scholarship.
The cold call
What makes us receptive to strangers on the phone? Who will you listen
to or answer a survey for?
1.People like moderate speed to speaking (about 3.5 words/sec). Very
fast speakers give the impression of being untrustworthy and very slow
speakers appeared somewhat stupid and frustrate a busy listener.
2.A lot of pitch variation is not particularly helpful, it sounds
artificial - especially if it is artificial, of course.
3.People respond more to lower pitched male voices but pitch is not
important in female voices.
4.Frequent very short pauses or 'um's in the train of speech is more
convincing (about 4 to 5/min). No breaks sound scripted and not
authentic. Too many sound disfluent. Although there is an optimum
frequency, being thought disfluent is better than appearing scripted.
5.An air of genuine polite friendliness is essential.
It seems to me that the lack of a face to look at and read must colour
our judgment a bit as this seems a harsh and arbitrary list of
turn-offs. Or maybe we just don't like this sort of phone call to begin
with and so we turn-off at the slightest hint of something or other we
The Oxford comma
Those of you that have followed my
ramblings on language will not be surprised that I HATE rules about
commas. I insist, against all the authorities in the world, that
commas are not part of grammar but notes for the reader on the
intended cadence. They say, “you will understand what I mean better
if you make a little mental pause right here”.
And so I will discuss what is called
the Oxford comma. Suppose I write, “carrots, pork and beans.”
That is a bit ambiguous. Am I thinking Boston baked beans or am I
thinking pork roast and runner beans? If I use an Oxford comma as in,
“carrots, pork, and beans”, you will incline more to the roast
and runners. If I am an 'Oxford comma user', is the problem for me.
People think they have a choose to either always, always put in the
comma or never, never put in the comma because they think it has to
do with grammar and there is a rule that must be obeyed. They have to
be an Oxford comma user or not an Oxford comma user.
If we forget about grammar and think of
a comma as a little pause, the use of commas becomes less of a battle
ground. Now I could write, “carrots, pork and beans”, and the
reader would think, “carrots (pause) pork-'n-beans”. Or I could
write, “carrots, pork, and beans”, and the reader would think,
“carrots (pause) pork (pause) and beans”.
I hear tales of editors stripping out
commas (not just Oxford ones) because they believe that written
language should not have any unnecessary commas and they have
strict rules of grammar about where commas are necessary. The number
of times that I have to read a sentence twice when a comma would have
saved me the effort. I want to know where the writer intended a
pause. I know I am alone in this. Other people do not seem to want
punctuation to be about pauses and abrupt changes in voice – they
want it to be about grammar. Too bad for me – I love the spoken
language and the written one is a very second best. This is not an
argument I am going to win.
Here is Geoffrey Pullum commenting on someone being 'appalled' by
an error in a newspaper headline:
“I'm actually never surprised at errors of this type. In my
view, given the almost malignly confusing overlap between the
paradigms of the three lexemes, it is astonishing that so many of us
often get the forms right. Take a look at the forms of all three
verbs side by side:
plain form / plain present tense
3rd person singular present tense
preterite (simple past) tense
Does that look like a logical and orderly language designed for
convenience of learning and use by an intelligent people? No. English
morphology is a disgrace. We users do our best with the mess that has
resulted from its slow evolution through more than a thousand years
of history in the British Isles and elsewhere, but sometimes as I
look at the chaos of what we are expected to regard as correct, I'm…
Looking at the causes of the English
riots, there are a lot of different pictures of who was actually
involved. So far it has been said to involve criminals, protesters,
gangs, the underclass, youngsters, youngsters who are influenced by
black culture, the poor, anarchists, racists. Apparently all of these
are somewhat wrong and somewhat right and there are no simple
answers. Surprise, surprise. There is no description to describe them
all – but most must be alienated, they did not feel part of the
communities they were attacking. What is even more telling is that
those communities do not appear to be very willing to see them as
members – the alienation was mutual.
The Guardian had little piece of the
word 'feral' by Jon Henley. “Feral: there's a lot of it about,
lately. The term has, of course, been a mainstay of Daily Mail
headline writers for at least the past five years, prefaced in the
early days by the fig-leaf "almost" but invariably followed
by "youths" or, better still, "yobs". Ken Clarke,
the justice secretary, caused a bit of a Twitterstorm today by
pairing it with the term "underclass" to refer to the
people who took part in last month's riots; London mayor Boris
Johnson went one better, speaking of a "feral criminal
underclass".” This implies that people who were and should be
domesticated have left the community and are living wild – it
implies a deep them/us split.
It has been used in the last few years
for many rich and powerful groups such as feral bankers, feral media,
and feral politicians, to mean that they were being extremely selfish
without a thought for others. Henley sees the new use of 'feral' as
different. “And that's the problem. In the sense of "abandoned
by – or escaped from – society", "living outside the
mainstream", "beyond the control of rules, regulations and
accepted norms", even "gone wild", feral seems quite a
reasonable choice of word to describe something big and faceless such
as an economy, the media, or even, at a pinch, a powerful and
privileged elite. But when you start applying it to people (youths,
yobs), or to a disadvantaged group of people (an underclass), it's
somehow different. Then feral becomes, intentionally or not,
dehumanising. Use it in that way and you're comparing humans to
animals. Which isn't, can we agree, a very nice thing to do.”
Happy Birthday King James Bible
It is the 400th anniversary
of the King James Bible which was still in use, in a revised version,
when I was young. It started in 1604 when the new king, down from
Scotland, attempted to heal some rifts in the English Church. He held
a special conference of bishops and puritan divines to sort things
out. One of the ideas that came out of this conference was a plan to
re-translate the Bible into English. 47 scholars worked on the text
for 7 years and created a masterpiece. The book had probably the
greatest influence on English of any work ever written.
The first translation of the Bible from
Latin was by Wyclif in the 1380's - before printing so all the copies
were produced by hand and disseminated by the Lollards. For this
Wyclif was burnt as a heretic. Tyndale translated it from the Greek
in 1525 and was also burnt at the stake. It was still not considered
acceptable for ordinary people to be able to read the Bible for
In 1534 Henry VIII broke with Rome and
translation of the Bible exploded and within a few years there were 5
major new versions competing with Tyndale's. They all borrowed
heavily from Tyndale. When James I set in motion the new translation
he suggested that the original Greek and Hebrew be used but that all
the earlier English translations be consulted and that they even look
at translations in other modern languages. So a huge committee, with
a number of different religious viewpoints, did this translation from
more or less every source available. It is a wonder that the result
was even readable!
The raw translation was worked over by
6 scholars to refine it. They were instructed to not just remove
translation sloppiness and any hints of unacceptable theology they
might find, but to make it good writing. They were told to make it
easier to read and to sound better
when read aloud. “It's an interesting reflection on the
state of the language that the poetry of the Authorized Version came
not from a single writer but a committee.” But that is not quite
the whole picture. This process of cleaning and refining the language
brought the text closer to the Tyndale version very often.
It is interesting to compare the King
James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, the two great influences
on modern English, contemporary with each other. The Bible uses only
8000 words. “From that day to this, the Shakespearian cornucopia
and the biblical iron rations represent, as it were, the North and
South Poles of the language.” While the Bible is, even when it was
first published, written in somewhat archaic language meant to sound
old-fashioned, Shakespeare was coining new words and word usages and
sounding like the very latest thing. But both were poetry without
rhyme. Both were written for oral delivery and had great cadence.
They sound right coming off the tongue - and they defined the growth path of English.
Somerville and Hassol give a list of
words that scientists use that cause mis-understanding in the public.
Meaning for public
Meaning for scientists
Tiny atmospheric particle
Good response, praise
Vicious cycle, self-reinforcing
Mistake, wrong, incorrect
Difference from exact number
Distortion, political motive
Offset from an observation
Indication, astrological sign
Plus or minus sign
Ethics, monetary value
Scientific data processing
Change from long-term average
We all know
how fast some languages are spoken and how slowly others are. But the
rate of information expression is about the same for all languages.
Some languages are efficient at packing the information in and are
spoken slowly. Other languages have more words, or more importantly,
more syllables per 'idea' and are spoken faster. “For instance,
Spanish is characterized by a fast rate of low-information syllables,
while Mandarin exhibits a slower syllabic rate with more informative
syllables. In the end, their information rates are very similar
(differing only by four percent).” Languages with a complex
linguistic structure are spoken more slowly.
that the brain has a maximum comfortable information processing rate
and languages must conform to this rate. We can produce and take in
sounds much faster than we can extract the meaning from those sounds.
I would be
interested in the pauses, their number and length. It seems indicated
to me that we stick them in a stream of speech at the exact points
where a little more time is needed to clarify a little linguistic
knot. It may be that the number and length of pauses is related to the
grammar/syntax of the language – with the amount of information
that has to be held in memory until the end of a phrase, clause or
Every Christmas for many years I have started getting into the
Christmas season by reading A Child's Christmas in Wales. Dylan Thomas'
way of playing with the meaning, sound and rhythm of the language never
fails to amaze and entertain me. It is one of rare those times that I
find myself moving my lips and almost making the sounds aloud – just to
savour it. Here is the tail end of the prose poem.
The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were
snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs,
with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying
“Execelsior.” We returned home through the poor streets where only a
few children bumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and
cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill,
into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the
whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and
the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave.
Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight
bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I
dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under
the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went
singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light
the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a
large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night,
each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case,
and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made
noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in
caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.
“What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?”
“No,” Jack said, “Good King Wencelas. I'll count three.”
One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly
distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied
by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door.
Good King Wencelas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen...
And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not
spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell
voice for the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the
keyhole. And when we stopped running were outside our house; the front
room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping
gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
“Perhaps it was a ghost,” Jim said.
“Perhaps it was trolls,” Dan said, who was always reading.
“Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left,” Jack said. And we did that.
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle,
a cousin sang “cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake's Drum.” It
was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the
parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then
another in which she said her heart a Bird's Nest; and then everybody
laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom
window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I
could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill
and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling
night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the
close and holy darkness, and then I slept.