On weird spelling.

On weird spelling.

mugA friend recently served me tea in a mug with spelling advice, the sort that reads “i before e except after c, or when …” then rattles off words like “foreign,” “neighbor,” and “weird.”  The resident eight-year-old dramatically read the mug. She also read my tea leaves when I’d finished drinking.  The leaves seemed to form a w, which prompted me to write her a letter about why “weird” is spelled so weirdly.

I’ve long struggled with spelling.  Elementary school spelling bees made me feel faint – luckily I’d be asked to sit after one or two words – and I still feel slightly dizzy when spelling aloud, even though I only do it for my three-year-old or the men in jail.  Nobody’s out to disparage my intellect, but spelling makes me anxious.

IMG_6482My friends teased me for weeks in eighth grade because I’d written a report about squirrels for science class, and apparently I spelled the word “squirrel” twelve different wrong ways in just four pages.  I can’t even think of twelve reasonable mistakes, but my friends claimed to have counted.  Then again, eighth graders are prone to exaggeration, especially in the service of malicious humor – I certainly was.

Conventional English spelling really is abominable, though.

stonehengeI don’t think much is known about English before 1,000 A.D.  Plenty of people spoke the language earlier, but they weren’t writing it down.  Which is a shame, really.  At Pages to Prisoners, we get a lot of requests for information about ancient religions, but there’s not always much to send.  Nobody knows what the ceremonies at Stonehenge were like because that religion was displaced by Christianity around 700 A.D., before the English were writing.  Visiting Romans had written about early Anglo-Saxon beliefs, but their writings were propaganda, all condemning the “dangerous, wild druids.”

But there are books in English from the past thousand years, and these show the way spelling changed over time.  Since parenting doesn’t leave me much time to trawl through libraries for their oldest, rarest manuscripts, my linguistic spelunking is confined to the OED.  I have the two-volume edition (and sufficiently sharp eyes that I can still read it without the magnifying glass).

The sentences using “weird” include spellings ranging from “wyrde” to “wierd” – I’ve tried my best to guess what each might have meant, but I’m decidedly unpracticed at early English.  Rather than research or expertise, all I can offer are my attempts to sound out each word and guess what a writer might’ve wanted to convey.  But these writers’ beliefs were very different from my own.

1000: What wyrde has hyder my iuel vayned. (author unknown)

I assume this means, “What power has heard my vain cry,” or “Why does fate not take mercy on me?”

426px-King_William_I_('The_Conqueror')_from_NPGSoon after this was written, William the Conqueror earned his title – England came under the rule of Normandy.  French became the courtly language of England, and English was considered the uncouth province of serfs and servants.  Even now, French-derived words are generally considered more polite than the Anglo-Saxon, and we use French words to describe animals that have been killed and cooked for wealthy people to eat.

1385: The werdys that we clepyn destene Hath shapyn hire that she mot nedis be Pyteous sad. (Chaucer)

“The forces that we call destiny have shaped her that she might need be piteously sad.”

In the early 1400s, English became courtly language of England again.  But official use didn’t make spelling any less eccentric.  Books were being produced one at a time, hand-copied by monks who sometimes altered words to suit their fancy.

EscribanoWhen the monks were deciding how to spell words, they often included etymologically-relevant silent letters.  Written language, they felt, should reveal its history.  For instance, the French word ile – land surrounded by water – became the English ile.  Then an “s” was added to make clear that the word derives from the Latin “insula.”  Fine.  But then the monks assumed that the similar word yland must have the same history, so they changed its spelling to “island.”  They were wrong, though.  The word yland comes from proto-Indo-European “akwa land,” a “water land.”  It should have no “s.”

There were no English dictionaries.  When laypeople wanted to know how to spell a word, they’d check a Bible.  But each Bible had been copied by hand by a different monk.  Words were often spelled differently from one Bible to the next.

512px-GutenbergIn the mid 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg introduced a “movable type printing press” to Europe.  (I was taught that he invented it, since elementary school history teachers in Indiana didn’t much care for celebrating Chinese discoveries.  We’d talk about China only on the Lunar New Year – instead of their cultural and scientific achievements, we learned about paper dragons and superstitions.)

With the printing press, there was more incentive to lengthen words.  Book producers had always been paid by the line, whether they were copying by hand or setting type, but typesetting is faster.  There was more risk of running out of work.  So the printers boosted profits by changing “frend” to “friend,” and the like.  Why would they worry about befuddling elementary students born centuries in the future?

And yet, the OED’s post-Guttenberg citation for “weird” has a particularly lithe spelling.

1470: As werd will wyrke, thi fortoun mon thou take. (Henry)

“As the powers that be will work, your fortune may you take,” perhaps faintly presaging “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

In the middle of the 1500s, England began to import English-language Bibles.  These were typically typeset abroad by people who used the spelling conventions of their own languages – we owe our “h” in “ghost” to the Dutch word “gheest.”  We almost wound up with silent “h”s in “ghospel” and “ghossip,” too, but thankfully those “h”s disappeared before they had a chance to confound me in spelling bees.

With more printed Bibles to consult, spelling conventions began to ossify.

1585: Vhom suld I warie bot my wicked weard, Vha span my thrifties thauard fatall threed? (Montgomerie)

I assume this means “Whom should I fear but my wicked fate, who has spun my thread toward calamity.”  This seems like a particularly sad sentiment, to me.  Something goes wrong, a friend offers sympathy, and you say, “Nah, don’t worry about it, it’s just that God has cursed me.  Nothing to be done.”

Cheer up already, Eeyore!

In the 1600s, King James authorized a new translation of the Bible.  This is when English first looks like the language I speak.

320px-First_FolioAnd there was Shakespeare.  I think I’ll blame him for weird’s weird spelling.  In Macbeth, he wanted for weird to be pronounced with two syllables – in several of his plays he toyed with characters matching the pronunciation of words to their strange spellings.

(I still get confused when kids are playing Clue and somebody asks about the wanton rampages of kernal Mustard.  It’s not pronounced colonel?)

Instead of saying “wyrd” like we do, or “wurd” like English speakers had for centuries, he wanted the actor on stage to say “wee – yurd,” the way you might drawl it out if you saw a really gross slug or something.  Presumably that gave the people writing down his play an added incentive to spell it “weird,” to make clear that it needed two vowel sounds.

After all, words spelled with “ie” were well-known to have a single sound, just the typesetters’ way of making a quick buck.

1835: Puir auld wives … Were seized in Superstition’s clutches, An’ brunt to death for wierds an’ witches. (Alexander Smart)

“Virtuous women took up superstition and were burnt to death for being strange, or witches.”  Aren’t we humans grand?

1895: Weird wends as she willeth. (William Morris)

A beautiful sentence, to my mind.  It’s recent enough to need no translating, but you could render it as “Fate does whatever fate wants,” or even “God works in mysterious ways.”

Where will weird wend my life’s weft next?

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

In Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, a bumbling anti-hero named Cugel the Clever is beset by one misfortune after another.  He attempts to burglarize a wizard’s palace but is caught in the act.  The wizard Iucounu forces Cugel to retrieve an ancient artifact – a seemingly suicidal quest.  To ensure that Cugel does not shirk his duties, Iucounu subjects him to the torments of Firx, a subcutaneous parasite who entwines searingly with nerve endings in Cugel’s abdomen, and whose desire to reuinte with his mate in Iucounu’s palace will spur Cugel ever onward.

Early in his journey, Cugel is chased by a gang of bandits.  He escapes into a crumbling fortress – only to find that the fortress is haunted.

eyesofthe.jpgThe ghost spoke: “Demolish this fort.  While stone joins stone I must stay, even while Earth grows cold and swings through darkness.”

          “Willingly,” croaked Cugel, “if it were not for those outside who seek my life.”

          “To the back of the hall is a passage.  Use stealth and strength, then do my behest.”

          “The fort is as good as razed,” declared Cugel fervently.  “But what circumstances bound you to so unremitting a post?”

          “They are forgotten; I remain.  Perform my charge, or I curse you with an everlasting tedium like my own!”

“Everlasting tedium” sounds like a raw deal, so Cugel figures he’d better slay his assailants and get to wrecking this haunted edifice.  He kills three bandits and mortally wounds the fourth with a boulder to the head:

Cugel came cautiously forward.  “Since you face death, tell me what you know of hidden treasure.”

          “I know of none,” said the bandit.  “Were there such you would be the last to learn, for you have killed me.”

          “This is no fault of mine,” said Cugel.  “You pursued me, not I you.  Why did you do so?”

          “To eat, to survive, though life and death are equally barren and I despise both equally.”

          Cugel reflected.  “In this case you need not resent my part in the transition which you now face.  The question regarding hidden valuables again becomes relevant.  Perhaps you have a final word on this matter?”

          “I have a final word.  I display my single treasure.”  The creature groped in its pouch and withdrew a round white pebble.  “This is the skull-stone of a grue, and at this moment trembles with force.  I use this force to curse you, to bring upon you the immediate onset of cankerous death.”

“Immediate onset of cankerous death” sounds grim.  Dude’s day has gone from bad to worse.

          Cugel hastily killed the bandit, then heaved a dismal sigh.  The night had brought only difficulty.  “Iucounu, if I survive, there shall be a reckoning indeed!”

          Cugel turned to examine the fort.  Certain of the stones would fall at a touch; others would require much more effort.  He might well not survive to perform the task.  What were the terms of the bandit’s curse?  “ – immediate onset of cankerous death.”  Sheer viciousness.  The ghost-king’s curse was no less oppressive: how had it gone?  “ – everlasting tedium.”

          Cugel rubbed his chin and nodded gravely.  Raising his voice, he called, “Lord ghost, I may not stay to do your bidding: I have killed the bandits and now I depart.  Farewell and may the eons pass with dispatch.”

          From the depths of the fort came a moan, and Cugel felt the pressure of the unknown.  “I activate my curse!” came a whisper to Cugel’s brain.

          Cugel strode quickly away to the southeast.  “Excellent; all is well.  The ‘everlasting tedium’ exactly countervenes the ‘immediate onset of death’ and I am left only with the ‘canker’ which, in the person of Firx, already afflicts me.  One must use his wits in dealing with maledictions.”

At times, one curse can save us from another.

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In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humans are cursed for building a bridge to heaven.  Implicit in this story is the idea that humans nearly succeeded: our edifice of bricks and stone was threatening God.

800px-Marten_van_Valckenborch_Tower_of_babel-large

In part, this story was written to disparage other religious beliefs.  In the beginning, Yahweh was worshiped by a small tribe of relatively powerless people, and so the Old Testament seems to be riddled with rebuttals (some of which I’ve discussed previously, here).  In From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch), Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch write that:

fromgodstogodThe derivation of “Babel” from b-l-l seems to have originated as a response to the widely accepted Babylonian explanation of that place’s name, Bab-ilu, “God’s Gate,” or Bab I-lani, “Gate of the Gods” – a meaning that, we’ll soon see, was known in Israel.  Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel in its entirety polemicizes against a Babylonian tradition according to which the tower-temple in Babylon, which was dedicated to the god Marduk, was built as a tribute both to him and to the belief that Babylon was the earthly passageway between heaven and earth.  According to ancient Babylonian belief, the tower in Babylon – Babel – was Heaven’s Gate.

It seems that the biblical writer, unwilling to accept that Babylon – a pagan city – was the entryway to heaven, found various ways to counter this Babylonian tradition that was well known in Israel.  First, he converted the story of the building into one of ultimate failure and human conceit.  At the same time, though, he introduced an alternative story about the gate to heaven.  This time the gate’s location was in Israel, the Land of One God.  This replacement story is found in Genesis 28: the story of Jacob’s dream.

Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon

The Bible succeeded in its propaganda campaign: by now the standard interpretation of the Tower of Babel is that humans approached the world with insufficient humility, we began a technological campaign that ultimately ended in failure, and Yahweh cursed us such that we could not cooperate well enough to attempt a similar project in the future.  Babel – Babylon – was not a passageway to heaven.  The gateway was never finished.  Because we’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, it never will be finished.

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The story of the Tower of Babel implies that all humans shared a single language before our brash undertaking.  The world’s current multitude of tongues were spawned by Yahweh’s curse.  But… what if languages are good?  What if we need diversity?

In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf speculated that the language we speak shapes the way we think.  His idea was egregiously overstated – creatures with no spoken language seem to be perfectly capable of thought, so there’s no reason to assume that humans who speak a language that lacks a certain word or verb tense can’t understand the underlying concepts.

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But Whorf’s basic idea is reasonable.  It is probably easier to have thoughts that can be expressed in your language.

For example, the best language we’ve developed to discuss quantum mechanics is linear algebra; because Werner Heisenberg had only passing familiarity with this language, he had some misconceptions about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Or there’s the case of my first Ph.D. advisor, who told me that he spent time working construction in Germany after high school.  He said that he spoke extremely poor German… but still, after he’d been in the country long enough, this was the language he reflexively thought in.  He said that he could feel his impoverished language lulling him into impoverished thought.

His language was probably more like a headwind than a cage – we constantly invent words as we struggle to express ourselves, so it’s clear that the lack of a word can’t prevent a thought – but he felt his mind to be steered all the same.

19537_27p1pWhorf’s theory of language is also a major motif in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, in which the characters’ English-language miscommunication is partly attributed to their different linguistic upbringings.  The narrator is perpetually tentative: did her years speaking Turkish instill this in her?

I wrote a research paper about the Turkish suffix –mis.  I learned from a book about comparative linguistics that it was called the inferential or evidential tense, and that similar structures existed in the languages of Estonia and Tibet.  The Turkish inferential tense, I read, was used in various forms associated with oral transmission and hearsay: fairy tales, epics, jokes, and gossip.

… [-mis] was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else’s experience, that your own subjectivity was booby-trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others.  … There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations.  You were forced to use -mis, just by the human condition – just by existing in relation to other people.

She felt cursed by the need to constantly consider why she held her beliefs.  And yet.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if more people considered the provenance of their beliefs?

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Most languages have good features and bad.  English has its flaws – I wish it had a subjunctive tense – but I like that it isn’t as gendered as most European languages – which treat every object as either masculine or feminine – or Thai – in which men and women are expected to use different words to say a simple “thank you.”  Although Thai culture is in many ways more accepting of those who were born with the wrong genitalia than we are in the U.S., I imagine every “thank you” would be fraught for a kid striving to establish his or her authentic identity.

And, Turkish?  I know nothing about the language except what I learned from Batuman’s novel.  So I’d never argue that speaking Turkish gives people a better view of the world.

But I think that our world as a whole is made better by hosting a diversity of perspectives.  Perhaps no language is better than any other … but, if different languages allow for different ways of thinking … then a world with several languages seems better than a world with only one.

tongueofadamThis is the central idea explored by Abdelfattah Kilito in his recent essay, The Tongue of Adam (translated by Robyn Creswell).  After an acquaintance was dismissive of the Moroccan Kilito after he composed an academic text in Arabic instead of French, he meditated on the value of different languages and the benefits of living in a world with many.

Here is Kilito’s description of the curse Yahweh used to stop humans from completing the Tower of Babel:

After Babel, men cannot seek to rival God as they seemed to do when they began building the tower.  They cannot, because they’ve lost the original language.  God’s confusion of tongues ensures his supremacy.  The idea may seem odd, but consider the story of Babel as we find it in Genesis: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” [11:4].  A tower whose top would touch the heavens: taken literally, the expression suggests a desire to reach the sky, to become like gods.  A rather worrisome project: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded” [11:5].  Man’s attempt to rise up is answered by the Lord’s descent: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” [11:7].  God does not destroy the work.  He punishes men by confounding their language, the only language, the one that unites them.  For Yahweh, the root of the menace is this tongue, which gives men tremendous power in their striving toward a single goal, an assault on the heavens.  The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams.  Deprived of its original language, mankind breaks into groups and scatters across the surface of the earth.  With its route to the heavens cut off, mankind turns its eyes to the horizon.

And here is Kilito’s description of this same dispersal as a blessing:

The expression, “the diversity of your languages,” in [Genesis 30:22, which states that “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors.  In these are signs for mankind”], means not only the diversity of spoken tongues, but also, according to some commentators, the diversity of articulated sounds and pronunciation of words.  Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next.  This is a divine gift.  Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign. … Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge.

Kilito endorses Whorf’s theory of language.  Here is his analysis of the birth of Arabic as told in the Quran:

According to Jumahi, “Ismael is the first to have forgotten the language of his father.” This rupture in language must have been brutal: in a blinding instant, one language is erased and cedes its place to another.  According to Jahiz, Ismael acquired Arabic without having to learn it.  And because the ancient language disappeared without a trace, he had no trouble expressing himself in the new one.  This alteration, due to divine intervention, also affected his character and his nature, in such a way that his whole personality changed.

His personality is changed because his language is changed: new words meant a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world.  If humans had not built the Tower of Babel – if we had never been cursed – we would share a single perspective… an ideological monoculture like a whole world paved over with strip mall after strip mall … the same four buildings, over and over … Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmart, CAFO … Starbucks, McDonalds …

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The current occupancy of the White House … and congress … and the U.S. Supreme Court … seems a curse.  The health care proposals will allow outrageous medical debt to wreck a lot of people’s lives, and each of us has only a single life to live.  Those who complete their educations in the midst of the impending recession will have lifelong earnings far lower than those who chance to graduate during boom years.  Our vitriolic attorney general will devastate entire communities by demanding that children and parents and neighbors and friends be buried alive for low-level, non-violent criminal offenses.  Innocent kids whose parents are needlessly yanked away will suffer for the entirety of their lives.

I can’t blithely compare this plague to fantasy tales in the Bible.  Real people are going to suffer egregiously.

At the same time, I do think that kind-hearted citizens of the United States needed to be saved from our own complacency.  Two political parties dominate discourse in this country – since the Clinton years, these parties have espoused very similar economic and punitive policies.  I have real sympathy for voters who couldn’t bear to vote for another Clinton in the last election because they’d seen their families steadily decline in a nation helmed by smug elitists.

Worse, all through the Obama years, huge numbers of people deplored our world’s problems – widespread ignorance, mediocre public education, ever-more-precarious climate destabilization, an unfair mental toll exacted on marginalized communities – without doing anything about it.  Some gave money, but few people – or so it seemed to me – saw those flaws as a demand to change their lives.

Climate-Change-Top-PhotoAnyone who cares deeply about climate change can choose to eat plants, drive less, drive a smaller car, buy used, and simply buy less.  Anyone embarrassed by the quality of education available in this country… can teach.  We can find those who need care, and care for them.

After the 45th stepped into office – or so it has seemed to me – more people realized that change, and hope, and whatnot … falls to us.  Our choices, as individuals, make the world.  I’ve seen more people choosing to be better, and for that I am grateful.

Obviously, I wish it hadn’t come to this.  But complacency is a curse.  Sometimes we need new curses to countervene another.

On writing poetry in English.

On writing poetry in English.

Throughout the month of November, in “celebration” of betrayals both past and present (Thanksgiving, land grants, sovereignty, smallpox, Christianity, Standing Rock), my co-teacher and I brought poetry by contemporary Native American writers into the jail.  One week, my co-teacher (JM) began class with an impromptu riff about the fact that, although English-speaking people had betrayed the Native Americans, it wasn’t so bad that many contemporary Native American writers composed their work in English.

JM: It might seem strange that we’re discussing poetry against oppression when all these poems were written in English.  But English was originally a language of the oppressed.  After the Norman invasion, English was a language spoken primarily by servants.  The “courtly” language, then, was French, and even now our language’s most courtly-seeming words are Latinate…

F: Which you can also see the legacy of if you consider our words for meats.  The names of the animals, which were taken care of by poor people, are all based on the original English.  But the names of the foods, that rich people were served, are all based on French.  You raise a “cow,” English, but eat “beef,” French.  You raise “sheep” but eat “mutton.”  You raise “swine” but eat “pork.”  (Although I suppose a linguist listening to me at mealtime might come to the mistaken impression that England was conquered by invaders from East Asia – you grow “beans” but eat “tofu,” “tempeh,” and “edamame.”)

JM: And English was used primarily as a language of commerce.  It has the largest vocabulary of any language because it absorbs words from trading partners.  There’s a simple grammar, and words can be used almost any way you want …

F: And it’s a good language for rude people.  If we were speaking German and I kept interrupting JM this way, you might not have any idea what he was talking about.  Essential parts of the sentence don’t come until the very end.  But in English the essential information is front-loaded, so, if you’re in a hurry, or if someone cuts you off, you still basically understand …

JM: It’s very likely that the U.S. reign as superpower of the world is coming to an end.  But English, the language, will still be used.  And the English of the future will be different from the English we use today, and that’s one of its virtues, that mutability …

That said, one of my favorite poems we read that month was Orlando White’s “Quietus,” which you can read here.  He writes of the destructive aspect of the English language: “… the c stuck between the b and d eats itself and the page will taste how desperate language is.  If you peel a sheet of paper, you will find letters who have eaten themselves…”  Which is dark, and surreal, and reminded the men of the way each sheet of paper is used and re-used, letters piling up atop each other because they can afford no clean sheets.  Poems have been given to me on the backs or in the margins of all sorts of legal documents, including a few that I was not supposed to look at “under penalty of law.”

I read the handwritten poetry and dutifully ignored the printed legalese.

I love the way Orlando White imbues the English language with an aura of mystical power: if the letters can come to life and cannibalize each other, what else might they do?  This hints at the false potency attributed to our language long ago, belligerent white men waving sheets of paper with English writing on them and claiming that those pages gave them the right to own land.  If that isn’t an evil magic, I don’t know what is.

And then, of course, there is the fact that English is eating other languages; around the world many indigenous languages teeter at the brink of extinction, buried by our burgeoning monoculture.  There is a very real worry that the spread of English will cause the words of White’s ancestors to be forever lost, “their bones scattered like dry grains of ink on a white sheet.

I speak a Smaug-like tongue; it plunders the world, hordes discourse, devastates fragile languages.  At least I try not to use it for ill.  Here: a poem (in English) inspired by the election / inauguration / infestation.

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p.s.  The first two lines, which I think are the poem’s best, aren’t mine.  They are by Starlin, an excellent writer whom I had the privilege of collaborating with for about two months.