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Sunday, 17 April 2011

is is

Brian Duncan writes:

There was a fracas some months ago - I think on the "Today" programme - about the new linguistic oddity of the double "is":  as in "the thing is, is that", or "the problem is, is that" - and so forth.

They trotted out the customary "linguistic"  "expert", who suggested that the second "is" is merely a lexical filler to enable the speaker to gather his ("or -yawn - her", to quote Giles Coren ) thoughts.  This is demonstrably nonsense.

When speakers use the double "is", there's never a trace of hesitation.  All that has happened is (is) that among careless speakers - who are the majority, and, therefore, in charge - such expressions have become cliches to such a degree that, for example, "the thing is" has become a composite word, necessitating another "is" for the sake of syntax.

The fact that I find this horrifying is not of the least importance:   if it is the way that the language is going - why, then! -   it is the way that the language is going.  I wish it a happy and productive journey.  

But I find myself uncomfortably suspended between two stools.  A language that does not evolve is a dead language.  (Maybe that's why I love Latin.)  But it is possible for English to "make sense" without disrupting entirely the customs of usage and idiom.  If the double "is" has become idiomatic, it saddens me:  it doesn't make sense.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Kiss, kiss. Shake, shake.

Another politeness question in this week's programme was the etiquette of greeting ― in Mike's case by the expected handshake and the unexpected kiss. Having lived in several other countries, I don't feel it unnatural to kiss cheeks, but I do tend to flick an internal switch before I act foreign in this way.

But kissing isn't necessarily a substitute for a handshake. I used to tell foreigners that handshaking is very rare in Britain. Ignoring the congratulatory handshake, I believed that the norm was to shake hands once in a lifetime with any given individual ― on the occasion that you're introduced, or introduce each other. This I thought (and still do) was true of the greeting How do you do!

When I came to Scotland, I changed this to saying Once in a lifetime in England and once a year in Scotland. This is because people here shake hands when they meet at the start of  a new year.

Well OK, I exaggerated. We shake hands more often than I reckoned, but still far less than in other cultures and countries. What should I have said? When do the rest of you shake hands or kiss?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Politeness in emails

This weeks programme left me wondering:

  • Is the Hi greeting (or any other greeting) necessary? 
  • Is even the name of the addressee necessary?
  • Are they functionally unnecessary but desirable on ground of politeness?

  • Is there a functional reason for a valedictory phrase at the end?
  • Is there a politeness reason?
  • Do we even need a signature in informal emails?

  • How formal can emails be?
  • Are there any messages that still must be sent by letter?
  • How (if at all) should we address companies in emails?
  • Can we write to the anonymous holders of jobs, the way we do in letters?

  • If told that there is an etiquette for emails, should we take any notice?

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Can a story tell a picture?

Does every picture tell a story? Well, this one does. 
I've long been intrigued by the fact that this is the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, and so in the range of icons for feats, this represents Easter. How come? 
Orthodox theology demanded that no icon could be formed from imagination. Each picture must be a likeness, something actually seen by eye-witnesses. But the Resurrection was observed only by the dead. The get-out clause is that when the Temple Veil was rent in two and so on, the dead came out of their graves and spoke to the living. For the faithful, this is the image they described. The 
other intriguing thing about this icon is that it's a narrative. 
Jesus descended to Hell. He broke the gates of Hell. He rose and lifted up Adam and Eve. It's all there is the icon told by the results: the broken gates under the feet of Jesus; the open graves of Adam and Eve; risen Jesus raising them up.

a very different style, this first picture in Hogarth's Rake's Progress tells the narrative of writing love letters to his his lover, making her pregnant, then rejecting her when his wealthy father dies.
The linguistic 
equivalent in E
nglish of a picture that tells a story is a clause with a Present Perfect verb form. Both can indicate the result of a recent event.

Michael is certain that stringing these Present Perfect clauses to form a narrative is a feature of football punditry. He's got people to speak about a Football Tense on
Word of Mouth at least twice before this week's programme. 
I've never been convinced. And I think I got support from the guy who spoke this time. He reckons that Present Perfect narrative is probably a nonstandard device that is allowed in football programmes because there is no insistence on Standard English. I think we can say the same of the use in traditional ballads. It's unusual to find Present Perfect consistently used throughout the narrative of a ballad, but relatively common to find it in a short narrative sequence within the ballad.

Here's an unusually rich example:

Clerk Colvill and his gay ladie
As they walked in the garden green,
The belt about her middle jimp
Cost Clerk Colvill of crowns fifteen.

'O promise me now, Clerk Colvill,

Or it will cost ye muckle strife,
Ride never by the wells of Slane
If ye wad live and brook your life.'

'Now speak nae mair, my gay ladie,
Now speak nae mair of that to me;
For I ne'er saw a fair woman
I like so well as thee.'

He's ta'en leave o'his gay lady,
Nought minding what his lady said,
And he's rode by the wells of Slane,
Where washing was a bonny maid.

'Wash on, wash on, my bonny maid,
That wash sae clean your sark of silk.'
'And weel fa'you, fair gentleman,
Your body whiter than the milk.'

He's ta'en her by the milk-white hand,
He's ta'en her by the sleeve sae green,
And he's forgotten his gay ladie,

And he's awa'with the fair maiden.

Then loud, loud cry'd the Clerk Colvill,
'O my head it pains me sair.'
'Then take, then take,'the maiden said,
'And frae my sark you'll cut a gare.'

Then she's gied him a little bane-knife,
And frae her sark he cut a share;
She's ty'd it round his whey-white face,
But ay his head it aked mair.

Then louder cry'd the Clerk Colvill,
'O sairer, sairer akes my head.'
'And sairer, sairer ever will,'
The maiden crys,'till you be dead.'

Out then he drew his shining blade,
And thought wi'it to be her dead,
But she has vanished to a fish,
And merrily sprang into the fleed.

He's mounted on his berry-broun steed,
And dowie, dowie rade he hame,
And heavily, heavily lighted doun
When to his ladie's bower he came.

'O mother, mother, lay me doun,
My gentle lady, make my bed,
O brother, take my sword and spear,
For I have seen the false mermaid.'

And this earthier narrative of 
The Trooper and the Maid

A trooper lad came here last night,
With riding he was weary,
A trooper lad came here last night,
When the moon shone bright and clearly.

Bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,

Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
I'll gar all your ribbons reel,
Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.

She's ta'en the trooper by the hand
And led him to the table,

There's food and wine for a soldier here,
As much as he is able.

Bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
I'll gar all your ribbons reel,
Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.

She went upstairs to make the bed,
And she made it soft and easy.
She's pulled her petticoats o'er her head,
Crying, Soldier, are you ready ?

Bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
I'll gar all your ribbons reel,
Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.

He's taken off his big topcoat,
Likewise his hat and feather.
He's ta'en the broadsword from his side,
And now he's down beside her.

Bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
I'll gar all your ribbons reel,
Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.

They had not been an hour in bed,
An hour but and a quarter,
When the drums came beating up the town,
And every beat got shorter.

Bonny lassie, I must leave you,
Now bonny lassie, I must leave you,
If ever I come this road again
I will come in and see you.

She's ta'en her gown out o'er her arms,
And followed him through Stirling.
She's grown so full
she could not bow,
And he left her in Dunfermline.

Bonny lassie, I must leave you,
Now bonny lassie, I must leave you,
If ever I come this road again
I will come in and see you.

It's when will you come back again
To be your bairnie's daddy ?
When cockle shells grow silver bells
It's when I'll come and wed ye.