Thursday, 22 March 2012

Text Speak is NOT Killing the English Language

I know, I know. This has been debated to death. But people are STILL harping on about it. And as a linguist I feel the need to put in my twopennyworth (is that the right word?). This is what this blog is for after all...

I met someone the other week, someone who works in education, who works specifically in the field of literacy, who cannot bear text speak. This person believes that text speak is responsible for some children's inability to spell. That text speak is responsible for some children's poor grammar, poor punctuation, poor English.

I disagree.

And so does one of my heroes, David Crystal. Here is a picture of him looking pensive:

He is marvellous and I love him. He makes the very salient point that in order to play around with the rules, as text speak does, one first has to understand the rules. You can't deliberately mess something up without an understanding of what it should look like before you start messing about with it. Or words to that effect. He puts it much better than me. Obviously.

And to add weight to my argument, I cite this award-winning poem by Hetty Hughes:

txtin iz messin,
mi headn' me englis,
try2rite essays,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
b4 comin2uni.
& she's african

What I love about this poem is the fact that the poet is so self-aware. She openly mocks her own culture, the culture of the grammar-purists, the culture of contemporary 'yoot' (er, youth), and all through the traditional medium of poetry. That high art to which, traditionally, all writers would aspire.

If we denounce text speak as being responsible for the perceived low levels of literacy in the UK (I say 'perceived' because I don't believe this is necessarily the case) then we are missing the point.

Creative play on language is an inherently human thing to do. Very young children play with language, creating rhymes and nonsense words to entertain themselves and others. At the other end of the scale, academics use fairly impenetrable Latin abbreviations to communicate in shorthand. Surely this is no different to people (young and old I hasten to add) coming up with creative ways to abbreviate certain words to facilitate the speed of text messaging, or indeed to send messages in secret code (as a parent, I am determined to keep on top of all my daughters' slang so that they cannot hide anything from me. An impossible task I know but I have to convince myself it will be possible!).

We need to accept that the English language is not a fixed entity. It evolves. It has properties that enable us to play with it, extend and create new meanings, introduce new words, new characters even, and it is precisely this that keeps me coming back for more.

The Yellow Wallpaper - madness in confinement

Following my recent post on female hysteria, my thoughts are still on the representation of madness in 19th century literature - how it was perceived to affect women, and how female authors dealt with both the perceived affliction and society's tolerance (or otherwise) of the afflicted, while at the same time, subverting this image through their writing.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper has not met with universal acclaim but is, I think, a really strong piece of writing about a woman struggling with various aspects of her life. Maybe it says something about me that I can identify with her - I almost want to crawl into the wallpaper with her...

You can read the full story
here but if you don't have time, here is a very brief synopsis:

The first person narration is by a woman who is diagnosed by the men in her life (her husband and her brother, both of whom are physicians) as having a nervous disposition and "a slight hysterical tendency". She is thus prescribed various drugs to keep her "happy". She is removed from her usual surroundings and taken on holiday (hmm...) to a rather old and spooky house where she is given a room upstairs, away from the rest of the household. She assumes this to be an old nursery, later used as a gym, due to the presence of bars on the windows and iron rings in the walls. We can assume this is in fact an old asylum and she is being misled by the men (and women) around her. It's notable that her room is located upstairs - it is attic-like - she in effect becomes the 'madwoman in the attic' like Bertha in Jane Eyre.

Anyway, long story short, the yellow wallpaper in the room becomes a focus for her and she begins to see images of another woman, and herself, inside the paper. Her psychosis deepens to the point where she sees "creeping" women not just in the wallpaper, but outside and eventually her psychosis takes over and she becomes the creeping woman in the wallpaper.

What I find most arresting in this story is not Perkins' description of her heroine's mental illness (yes, I'm going to call her a heroine), although this is done convincingly well, but the little hints throughout the text that point to external reasons for her experiencing this breakdown, as opposed to any internal or inherently female causes (notably that of female hysteria).

Like many women of the time, our heroine is defined by her sex, her role as a wife and as a mother. She is not named at all. Not once (unless I'm mistaken. Which I might be. Stranger things have happened as Mr Darcy will tell you...). Mention is made of her baby son, but we never see her with her baby. She has been deemed too ill to look after him. Neither does she seem to fulfill her role as a wife - she is a poor hostess and barely spends any time with her husband who is away most of the time. When he is with her he treats her like a child, not an equal, and certainly not a sexual, partner. Instead she is in the charge of "Jennie" who acts as housemaid, nurse and eventually, effectively, jailor, whom she distrusts.

Her one passion is writing and this is strictly prohibited for the sake of her health. She writes in secret when her husband and Jennie aren't looking. But this passion begins to dull as her psychosis (and the slow-drip of the drugs) kicks in.

So here is a woman who has had her liberties and rights taken away from her. And all under the guise of treatment for her hysteria.

What Perkins does so well in this short piece of writing is to get inside the mind of a woman struggling with the everyday pressures of 19th century life. We are all products of our environment (discuss!) and our heroine's fateful lapse into mental illness is perhaps inevitable given not only the way she is treated, but the expectations that are made of her - expectations of which she is fully aware and which become therefore self-fulfilling.

In presenting the situation thus, Gilman shows us that society is at fault here. She is very consciously subverting the accepted social norm in an implicit, rather than explicit way. As modern readers of this text, understanding the sociohistorical context, we can appreciate her courage and skill as an author in addressing this horror (for this is what the treatment of the protagonist amounts to).


Read up on Gilman, she's an interesting 19th century author. She was herself subjected to "rest cure", forbidden to work, kept to a domestic/docile* (delete as applicable) routine and wrote The Yellow Wallpaper as a reaction to this.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Madwoman in the Attic - Hysteria as control?

I've been thinking about the representation of women in literature, particularly 19th century novels and short stories (these are the things that occupy my mind when I'm at work (don't tell the boss!)). It has dawned on me that while we find many examples of strong-minded, strong-willed, heroine-type women, these are almost always contrasted with crazy loon-type women! For why?

I give you the following examples:

Elizabeth Bennett is presented as a level-headed woman in Pride and Prejudice. She is the focus of the omniscient narrator and we trust her judgement. She is however, surrounded by hysterical women - her mother, her younger sister Lydia. Do these women reflect the actual underlying craziness inherent in all women? Elizabeth's judgement is, after all, proven to be wrong in the end and she conforms to stere
otype in becoming more mute, subdued, less outspoken. Rewarded with wifedom. Hmm...

Jane Eyre is similarly a very modern woman for her time. Then she falls in love. And all seems to go well until the madwoman in the attic is revealed in the most shocking way. Is Jane being punished for her refusal to conform to the norms of the time? Does the imprisoned woman represent the oppression that was Victorian marriage? Or is Bertha (the madwoman) a double for Jane, a mirror to her own repressed neuroses, fears and hysteria?

The word 'hysteria' crops up here, does it not, and this is significant in understanding the way women in 19th century literature are presented. Or rather, the way they are viewed by society (male society? I don't want to appear overly feminist here, but there is a case to be made, I think, that men wanted to oppre
ss women for their own ends. Yes.), an image which was subverted by brave female authors.

I think I'm right in saying that 'female hysteria' was a medical condition considered by physicians to affect up to one quarter of women in Britain in the 19th century. Men did not suffer this affliction (the name comes from the Greek 'hystera' meaning 'uterus'). The list of symptoms ranged from nervousness and insomnia to irritability and "a tendancy to cause trouble". Again, hmm...

The weirdest thing about this female hysteria is the treatment prescribed by the (male) doctors: pelvic massage resulting in hysterical paroxysm. If you've seen the film The Road To Welville you'll know what this involves...

Can you guess? Google it if you need to.


Done that?


We can move on.

What I'm getting at, in my clumsy way, is that, for women, for centuries, the fear of being diagnosed with hysteria was a way in which they could be controlled by society. Speaking up against oppression, demanding equal rights to men, being an active sexual being rather than a passive seductee (see The Lady of Shalott), was not behaviour condoned by society. It was dangerous to behave in this way. It was easily dealt with by labelling it as 'female hysteria'. Treatment could then commence with the aforementioned pelvic massage (those poor, poor doctors, eh?), hypnosis and drugs.

Sandra Gilbert has published The Madwoman in The Attic: which is brilliant and well worth dipping into.

Now, all this seems to have got rather heavy, which isn't really what I intended. But life can get a bit heavy sometimes can't it? And I think that's fine.

Neil Gaiman - "The Graveyard Book" - Like The Jungle Book? A bit, actually, now you mention it...

This is the first book by Neil Gaiman that I have read. And admittedly, it was because I 'had to' as part of a course I was studying. I don't think I would have picked it up otherwise. And I would have been culturally poorer for it!

This book rightly won the Carnegie Prize. I say 'rightly' because, in my opinion, it does everything a children's book should do (more of that below), it beautifully combines realism and fantasy, and cleverly mixes up different genres (gothic, coming-of-age, thriller, romance, crime).

So what does it do that a children's book should? This is a very leading question, isn't it? Why should a children's book have to DO anything? And should the things it does be any different to the things a book for an adult audience does? I have set myself up to be contradicted and ridiculed, but hey ho. This is what I think...

For me, a story for children must, above all else, speak to the reader without patronising them. It should not have an obvious didactic message or moral. The themes should not be restricted to 'nice' stories with cutesy, happy endings like so many children's books I've come across lately. (I mean come on! The three little pigs EAT the wolf, right? The huntsman in
Little Red Riding Hood kills the wolf, right? Why do some publishers think children will be horribly disturbed and mentally scarred by these endings? OK, if I was a wolf I would be greatly disturbed. They seem to have been persecuted somewhat. What others wolves are there? Peter and The Wolf, the wolf in Snow White that gets killed instead of her. Oh hang on, that's a wild boar isn't it? Anyway, poor wolves I say!) There is no need to sanitise absolutely everything that children read and Gaiman understands this.

The opening of the story, I think, is actually quite chilling, with the narrator following a murderer as he tries to track down his toddler escapee, sniffing the air in the manner of the Child Catcher in
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (he was TERRIFYING, do you remember?). Quite a haunting image for an adult or parent. But for children, it's instead rather exciting. It's so removed from reality that it just grips them immediately. It doesn't (despite what we might worry about) invoke terror or make them recoil in horror. Adults tend to project their own fears onto children. Unnecessarily so.

And so Gaiman plunges us into his world of murderers and ghosts, schoolboys and bullies, vampires and werewolves, hell and, finally, release. The coming-of-age aspect interplays subtly and wonderfully with the ghostly inhabitants and the protagonist's inability to see them (or perhaps to believe in them) as he is drawn to the real, tangible and sexual world outside. We understand that he cannot stay in the graveyard. He understands he cannot stay in the graveyard. His 'parents' understand he cannot stay in the graveyard. Yet it represents a brave and bold step for him to take.

Children's literature often involves a 'retreat and return' element (see
Peter Pan, Swallows and Amazons, Where the Wild Things Are, etc. etc.). In The Graveyard Book the retreat is to the graveyard but the return isn't to the safe, cosy nursery of Wendy in Peter Pan or the welcoming bedroom of Where the Wild Things Are. It is to the unknown 'real' world. We're left feeling optimistic but at the same time unsure of the future.

I love that.

It represents a change of state. A mental shift in the protagonist. A physical shift too in his bodily state. When children come of age and step into the world they ARE unsure of the future. And we hope they are optimistic about it too.

And this book leaves me feeling optimistic about the future of literature for our little boys and girls.

The Graveyard Book official website

ResoluteReader: Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys

This review of Neil Gaiman is one I completely agree with.  If you haven't read any Gaiman (he is a "children's author"), then I recommend you start with The Graveyard Book.  A review of this to appear shortly...  

ResoluteReader: Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys: Having now read three of Neil Gaiman's excellent fantasy novels, I think I've discovered a pattern. It basically  goes like this. Lead chara...

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Literature? Eh?

A think-piece to begin. Or is it thought-piece? I know, I'll call it a muse-piece. As this blog is subtitled Thoughts on Literature I thought it might be useful to try to define what 'literature' means.

There are those marxist theorists who see it as a purely political tool and an arbitrary term, which I agree with to a certain extent. Who decides what should be in the literary canon? We are encouraged to study Shakespeare (who is undoubtedly held up to be the ultimate in literary genius by all of us educated in the English-speaking world), Chaucer, the Romantic poets (well, only Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Blake), Dickins, the current poet laureate (sometimes...), all of whom are male, pale & posh (except for Carol Ann Duffy, notably the first poet laureate to be either female or gay). Women authors, black authors, non-English speaking authors and others are often studied separately, in their own separate modules of work. 'Let's look at post-colonial authors today children'! Great that they're being included but why differentiate them? Why does the study of these authors need to be justified by virtue of their difference to 'the canon' rather than on their own merit?

There are stylistic approaches to literature which try to unpick literary value inherent in the text itself. Why, for example, is Lady Chatterley's Lover considered to have more literary value than a Mills & Boon novel? Both are trash romance are they not?* Practitioners of stylistics would argue that the value lies in the text. Mills & Boon may be derived from DH Lawrence and therefore share some language features with Lady Chatterley's Lover, but Lawrence's language has higher intrinsic value. One of the main techniques cited is 'deviation'. Deviation may be lexical, grammatical, semantic, etc. and covers a range of techniques such as metaphor, allegory, making the familiar strange, etc. which is only to be found in works of 'literature'.

However, I am in danger of writing an academic essay here instead of sharing my thoughts...

Suffice to say, the term 'literature' is not necessarily a neutral one and so I wanted to squash this before it became an elephant in the room...

I'm not restricting this blog to the great works of literature, but I won't be pointedly avoiding them either.

We'll see what we get to when we get to it.

And decide then what we think.

Shall we?


* I am playing Devil's advocate here. I love DH Lawrence.

Welcome readers

Welcome to my first post on my first blog. How jolly modern of me. Only 7 years or so behind my peers, but hey, I've been busy. Life takes over doesn't it? And all those things you planned to do somehow end up taking a back seat to the 'real' things in life. Things like getting a job. Buying a house. Having a family.

OK, so having a family definitely constitutes 'real' life. How much more real can you get than pro-creating? Answers on a nappy please...

And now all those things are done. Or are at least underway. And I feel the need to return to all those things I planned to do. The first chapter of my novel is kind of started (isn't everyone's?) and happily sitting on a memory chip inside my clock (it is a clock and it is also a cupboard. It is ingenious and I love it) and there it will no doubt sit until my children have begun to need me less frequently during the evenings and I'm able to fully enjoy a glass of wine without the buzz of a baby monitor in my ear.

And so to the job in hand and an explanation of Got Darcy All Wrong. If you haven't read Pride and Prejudice then I hate to spoil it for you, but Elizabeth, bless her, got Darcy all wrong. I see this as a metaphor for my life in a way. In my experience, first impressions are almost never borne out. I should point out that I am drawing a distinction here between first impressions and gut instincts which, in my experience, are almost always borne out. A gut instinct is a feeling you get about a person, a situation, a place, a building, a story, a haircut. It is beyond your control and comes from deep within. A first impression is a judgement you make consciously and is inevitably and inescapably subject to your personal baggage; where you live, how you were educated, your principles, politics, tastes, etc. It comes from without rather than within.

I have learned not to trust first impressions. I get them wrong. Like our beloved Elizabeth.

I shan't be harping on about Pride and Prejudice; its nuances. Its well-crafted realism. And its oddly fairytale ending. More has been written about this rather excellent novel than can ever be digested and regurgitated by one person (that is not to say I haven't tried). Instead I shall be looking at other works, new and old, and sharing some thoughts about them with you.

If you'd like to join me.

Which I hope you will do.