Language, Writing

The Rise and Rise of English – And It’s Negative Impact on Global Literature

As a native speaker, the rise, spread, and entrenchment of English in the global order has been a boon. No matter where I go I know that I will be able to communicate with the vast majority of people with whom I would want to communicate. It has become a sign of education, class, and culture to speak English. Here in Paris wealthy families pay very well for nannies and governesses that speak English natively.

Every major literary work is translated into English, the majority of global best sellers are written in English, pop music and TV are dominated by English the world over. If life was a game of Civilization 4, the United States (not Britain) is well on it’s way to cultural victory.

It is making cross cultural communication easier and could indeed become THE global language. We see this is a good thing most of the time.

But is it?

In France I work at a technology venture capitalist firm. Everyone that works here must speak English. If one even wants a shot at being funded they must speak English well enough to present – ideally well enough to work in California if we send them there. Further, all public relations pieces, blog articles, etc. are written in English. Bad English.

Turns out that watching TV and reading blog articles doesn’t really prepare one to write a respectable essay. The European tech VC field is FULL of people that insist on writing and communicating in English. However they make no effort to actually ameliorate it. Often they reach a level where they can speak decently and then cease to improve.

This is a widespread problem, it is certainly not limited to the French business world. It’s most lethal poison seems to be reserved for the literary traditions of non-English speaking countries. This is a point brought up by Minae Mizumura in her recent book. According to her the literary tradition of Japan has been declining since 1945 – vocabulary is shrinking, words are getting simpler, old stylistic flourish have ceased exist entirely. She nears claiming that Japanese literary tradition is on it’s deathbed. And maybe it is. God rest Soeseki and Kawabata.

Not only is reading in English seen as somehow both cool AND intellectual at the same time, but even authors are now writing in English or in Japanese designed to be easy to translate. Obviously this has a huge negative effect on the actual quality of the literature. And it doesn’t stop there, the same problem is seen in European literature as well. Most writers now eye a translation to English and target English readerships.

The negative effect this has on their native literature is clear – but what about the effect on English? We, as native speakers, are inundated with the asinine and poorly written output of the entire world. And as the ESL proportion of the English speaking population increases, so too does the simplification of our language – all in order to reach people that only know it incompletely.

The government of the UK is removing e.g., etc, i.e., n.b., et al from usage because apparently it expects too much of an education from the legions of new ‘Britons’ crowding the island. English writers are being encouraged to use fewer idioms in order to accommodate people that don’t know them. Idioms are a core part of English! I expect simplified orthography to be the next step; we do live in an age where Oxford professors question the value of spelling at all.

What a time to be alive!


The Many, Many, Many Benefits of Journaling

For the sake of journalistic (or blogger, whatever) integrity I have to be honest: I am horrible at keeping journals. It is a next to impossible task for me to keep writing in one for more than a month. I get sick or go on vacation and habit dies a quick death. But when I do keep journals I feel like I realize the value as I am writing it. I get to run through my day, critique my actions, and practice my writing. And, of course, a lot of things that seem like a big deal when they are happening seem pathetically unimportant seven hours later when I am writing them down.

But what is  truly wonderful is the fact that you get to watch your writing style develop over the days, months, and years (you also get to see your handwriting get progressively better until high school and then fall off, at least in my case). You can see where you started and just how far you have come, which is wonderful when you are having doubts about your ability as a writer or whether or not you have improved. Doubts that everyone has in the path to becoming a writer… Actually, I’d say that no matter what art you choose, the further you get the slower you advance. And considering the difference between good and great is, in many cases, quite thin – you have to just keep working at it!

But if you don’t see your improvement it is too easy to get frustrated and fall into a rut. Once there you’ll have to climb out. And the easiest way to do this is to see just how far you have come.

But this is only one benefit the journaling has to the aspiring author – there are two others that I want to cover. The first is that it is a bottomless source of inspiration, especially if you develop some kind of tagging system (either on the computer or marking the top of the journal page). A short sentence at the top to give a sneak peek of the contents when browsing. You life is full of the stuff about which whole novels are written; the difference between you and a great writer is practice. A practiced eye insofar as finding the stories in the mundane, and a practiced style. Without both your writing can only be so good.

Lastly, it is a wonderful drug. Diving into your childhood, seeing how you felt and remembering things long forgotten, this is all priceless. And nostalgia is a feeling that sharpens others – a childhood memory is usually a thing of extremes extreme happiness, contentment, pain, wonder – and it is these kind of sharpened emotions that make the best materials for writing.

So start journaling, your future self will thank you.


Always be writing

One thing that I have come to realize over the last few years of trying to be a writer is that you must always be writing. Always. I don’t want to sound like one of the those fifteen million blog articles on the internet that target authors who prefer to introduce themselves as an author rather than actually write… But this is one thing that you simply must do. you could use your laptop, tablet, etc. but the simplest tool is also the best: get a notebook.

Ideally you should already be journaling every night but this is another habit that you ought to pick up. Your ideas could come from anywhere and at anytime and, as I am sure you must know by now, they don’t always stick around. They may be killed off by a distraction or task at  hand. An ideal has lifespan and unless you write it down it is likely to die without any real development!

Save those ideas! I look over them at the end of the day and choose the ones that I think are worth keeping. Then I write them up on the computer – along with a little information about the circumstances that led to the idea. Return to this sheet once in a while and work out a new article, poem, or story from the best of these ideas.

Beyond just writing ideas, sometimes I’ll be sitting in the bus or the metro and just crank out a short story or poem in its entirety. These sometimes these are nice in and of themselves and sometimes serve as a nice sortie into uncharted territory. If you like the first report back, perhaps it is worth your time to expand the idea into a more detailed story.

There really is no excuse, if you want to be a writer you need to write. If you want to be one of those artists that does nothing but introduce themselves as such at dinner parties, then disregard all the above.

English, Literature

Middle English- A Fading Tradition

Less than 40 years ago Chaucer was still a critical part of the progression of an English student. At the very least there would be the expectation of having studied ‘The Canterbury Tales’ if you went to a relatively good school in the UK or a private academy in the US. If you studied English in University you could expect to also read ‘The Parliment of Fowls’ and ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ of Chaucer, ‘Piers Plowman’ by William Langland, and ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ by an unknown poet today called ‘The Gawain Poet’ or ‘The Pearl Poet.’ These are magnificent and hugely influential writings that have been slowly forgotten by modern English speakers. And, although they are seldom read outside of academic settings, their influence is still felt in the literature. Old poetry like this doesn’t die, the tales and themes live on in the works of men who had read them.

This is one of the greatest arguments for studying Middle English (beyond the fact that it is really easy to pick up), you will begin to see the influence that ME works had and still have on English today! It is almost as eye opening as when one reads the bible for the first time and starts to see biblical themes everywhere in literature. The influence of poets like Chaucer is difficult to shake!

In the old way, my school still required public recitation in class. And one of the things that we had to memorize was the first lines of the Prologue of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ These are lines that have been studied for over 700 years and used to be common knowledge among all educated adults. Please listen to them read aloud, the are really quite beautiful:

It sounds foreign and difficult to understand but read read the beginning here:

1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
13: And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
14: To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15: And specially from every shires ende
16: Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,

It really isn’t the difficult to understand, and with a well annotated reader, one could be reading it as easily as Modern English by the end of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ People who haven’t read ‘The Canterbury Tales’ tend to think that they are rather short, but these are not tales in the vein of Grimm rather these are short stories – some 40 pages long. Unfortunately fewer and fewer people are reading these wonderful stories. And the few that do read them on translation! A real shame because ME is so easy to pick up with a little effort.

If you are at all on the fence about learning this wonderful poetic and literary tradition (a tradition you are a part of as an English speaker), please read the Miller’s Tale. It is as funny as South Park, but you’ll also be able to brag about it.


Literature, Writing

Marginalia: Reading as a Conversation

For the first time in a long time I sat down to read without writing in the book. I had walked all the way to a small park in the center of Paris (Jardin Nelson Mandela, just west of Les Halles), sat down on a concrete bench and took out my poorly taken care of copy of Paradise Lost. Usually there are large groups of Algerians listening to indecipherable French rap music through their phones, but no music today! It should have been so nice…

I had forgotten my pen.

With nothing to write with, I had no choice but to carry on, I had walked all the way there after all. It was terrible, and it totally reassured me of the value of marginalia. Especially with a long, complicated book like Paradise Lost, writing in the margins as you read really helps you keep track of what’s going on, who is talking, etc. I also like to make notes of obvious references to other literature that Milton put in his poem (usually Latin and Greek works). Further, it helps with pacing, it is very hard to skim if you are busy underlining, circling words, and writing short reactions.

Reading ought to be a conversation. Writing in the margins keeps you more engaged, and now that you can’t unconsciously skim, you retain much more. Beyond retention, this process also adds a very personal touch to your book. It makes it much more entertaining to return to five or ten years later. An should you want to find a quote that you really liked 400 pages ago, you probably marked it the first time you saw it and can quickly find it by flipping through the pages.

Lastly, when you read a really long novel with an enormous cast (Russians…) it can make it way easier to follow. When a long conversation started between major characters, I’d write right up front which Nikolay this is; how he is related to Sofia, which house they are at, etc. After doing this for a few hundred pages you develop an extremely intimate understanding of the family trees and begin to glimpse complicated family politics. You might be surprised how many things were slipping beneath your notice.

Give it a try, it might seem tedious at first, but it is a habit worth developing.