Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Tree Grows in the Slush

This week's slush brought a cover letter in which the writer noted that she was in the process of learning English. Which handily explained why she kept talking about her woodpecker character's "beaks," "feets," and "fathers" (the kind of fathers, one assumes, that grow all over woodpackers).

Still, I have to admire anyone who attempts the million hydra-heads of English language usage. It's a damned hard language, and our attitude only makes it harder. Whereas certain of the French seem to think, "anything that we use this much should be beautiful," Americans are more apt to think, "anything that we use this much should be fun." So we're constantly playing with our language. Want to use that noun as a verb? (to chicken out, eg) Go ahead! Want to garble two words into one, forming a term that adds no particular nuance of meaning to the language, but is fun to say? (chortle; ginormous) Why not?

But there are limits to the amount of fun you can have with the language one publishes. For instance the manuscript that looked like it was supposed to rhyme; was laid out in stanzas... and yet didn't. Was the writer attempting slant rhyme, I asked a fellow editor? "No, this rhymes," she said, and read it back to me in a Brooklyn accent.


Anonymous said...

My beloved says that "chortle" dates back to 1872 (Lewis Carroll used it in Through the Looking Glass)...does that count as a newfangled word? I know the French have invented words since 1872 (degueulasse springs to mind).

P.S. I'm using the word "newfangled" in its 1533 sense: "lately come into fashion," not in its Old English (1386) sense of "inclined to take."

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that degueulasse dates to 1872. I first heard it in 1990 when I lived in Brussels, and my knowledge of the French language was quite extensive for an 'American student'. I guess not extensive enough!!

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, are you saying it doesn't date to 1872 and is that it is new??? I'm curious as it is one of my favorite words and I use it all the time. And you don't hear it often or in French class in America. Barb

Anonymous said...

Dear Barb,

I assume degueulasse is new (by that I mean 1960s or later) because it's a slang modification of degueuler (to barf), but I don't really know. Oops, and maybe true Frenchmen don't say it at all...I learned French in Brussels, too! (Hooray for "septante" and "nonante!")

But I do know that even the French add words regularly, and it takes mighty acts of legislation to try to get them to stop. I also suspect that English is easier to learn than many languages when it comes to conjugating verbs.


CJ Omololu said...

A little OT, but David Sedaris has a hilarious bit about learning French in Me Talk Pretty One Day. Pointing to the calf brains in butcher's case and asking "are those the thoughts of cows?" One thing though, you have to listen to the audiobook to get the full effect. And make sure you're wearing Depends.

Anonymous said...

We had a similar problem when three of us wrote two picture books together. (The first one had rthym and the second one had to rhyme.)

One of our group was a Southern Lady. We'd continually have to tell her that, in the rest of the US the word she was using wasn't pronounced that way and had a differnt amount of sylabls. (okay where's the spellcheck when you neeed it?)

The books got published anyway -- under our pen name of C. W. Bowie (a mix of all three names)
And I think the editor had a few questions about the verse in book 2. (New York editor v. Southern Lady plus Mid-American.)

-Busy Toes
-Busy Fingers

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