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!

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English, France, Literature, Writing

I Believe in Fairies

Well I just returned from an excellent meal on Montmartre (de Leopold if anyone is interested) this evening, and I consider myself to be at the perfect level of contentment to write this article. How’s that for a title, eh?

I’ve long had a semblance of an idea in the back of my head that, to me, seems relatively novel. And like all ideas that seem novel to the individual, it is likely an idea that someone has articulated far better than I ever could (and is quite famous to boot). Regardless of the fact that it is likely not novel in the slightest, it certainly seems uncommon. That is, I rank my beliefs by how much I believe in them. It doesn’t seem that strange at first but think about it. If someone said ‘I believe in God but not as much as I believe in gravity’ it seems odd. Or at least it ought to. If you believe in God at all, that is, the omnipotent God. Then by saying that you believe in God less than you believe in gravity, then you are more or less denying the existence of God.

To say I believe in Hell but less than this apple is to damn yourself. Frankly it is ridiculous, if a single shred of you believes in an eternal pit of fire (eternal – try to imagine an eternity), then you damn well better believe in it more than the apple you hold in your hand – or at least hold it equal, as most people have a binary view of existence (real or not). This is a concept with which I have always struggled – if one is truly Christian and believe that there is the possibility of eternal torture because of things that you have done on earth – then the only logical thing to do is become a monk and devote yourself wholly to being holy. In comparison with eternity, the human lifespan is non-existant. With such a brief trial and such a long, long, long reward, why would ANY believer be anything but a devout hermit praying every waking hour?

This is kind of a demonstration of the ‘levels of belief,’ sure one many believe in God, but manifestly not so much as he believes in what is in his hand or right before him.

This is something that my mind ran with as a child. I stratified my beliefs – and by doing so I was able to believe in things that many people found ridiculous without putting them on par with my core or observable beliefs. In some cases it runs along the lines of provability or how ridiculous I would sound if i shared it with someone (although ever since one of my English professors at University told me that he believed wholeheartedly in fairies, I have had a much easier time with this belief).

So here is how this works for me – at the highest strata I have things that are core to my existence or directly observable. Here you find the belief in God (more on this in a minute), gravity, evolution, apples, etc. In the next level you have things that seem likely to exist or possible but we haven’t confirmed it yet – things like aliens and other civilizations falls under this category (I mean there are trillions of galaxies, we can’t be that special). Just below this is the eponymous level: here I have fairies, dryads, fauns, elves, etc. Then there is the level of larger things, things that I can’t tell myself ‘oh they’re hiding from us’ and that would be larger things like dragons, griffins, etc. Then there is non-belief.

If you were to ask me: ABlaine, so do you believe in God? I’d say yes, then if you asked me if I believe in fairies, the answer would be the same. I believe they both exist. It is the fact that I believe in the former that that I can believe in the latter. And as someone raised Catholic, it is very hard to just become wholesale atheist. As I said earlier, if a single fiber still believes, you may as well go for it all the way. In a way this is something like Pascal’s wager. And if an omnipotent god exists and he made us, why couldn’t these other things exist?

An it makes life so much more interesting to read Arthurian legends or Ovid’s Metamorphoses as though they actually happened (although Ovid was quite clear that he did not believe in the things about which he wrote). And there is a strong western bias here, for example I don’t believe in voodoo and the like. I am a product of Western culture, what can I say? When I go to Brittany to visit Merlin’s Tomb, the Mirror of Fairies, or Morgan Le Fay’s home – it is inexplicably more exciting for me than others.

And this is an excitement that can be found in gardens, forests, plains, mountains, the sea, anywhere really. I don’t expect to see any of these things in my life (much like the lost devout Christian would go to their shrink if they heard God speaking directly to them). But such beliefs color life in an extremely interesting way – and they give you insight into how our ancestors lived for millennia.

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Writing

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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France, Paris

An Adventure in Paris – FNAC

I thought that I was doing pretty well – despite what I expected, I managed to move from the US to France with relatively few problems. Until one nice gray day (the kind one learns to call ‘nice’ in Paris during the Fall) my laptop decided that it couldn’t be bothered. And, demonstrating that it had integrated into French culture far better than me, it quit working. I had an interview the next day and desperately tried to rouse my laptop from his strike but the grève endured. And I, like many Americans before me, dealt with the insolence of the working class by demonstrating the ease at which they could be replaced.

So I strolled over to the nearest FNAC as the day brightened (slightly less gray, one would call this kind of weather ‘pretty nice’). Sure of myself and my French capability, I found my new laptop in a corner of the second floor of the huge store. Sad and alone, a mid range Asus in a sea of Macbooks, ultrabooks, and multi-thousand Euro gaming rigs on one end and cheaper-a-night-out ultrabooks, he was prepared to scab on my old HP. Negotiations were long, I stood analyzing specifications for quite a while… ‘my old laptop has a terabyte of storage, you have only 256’ ‘yes, well I am an SSD, have you seen the kind of bandwidth I provide?’ ‘that may be so but my old laptop had a high resolution screen’ ‘well that may be so but it was also inches bigger, my pixel density is greater’ ‘Well how do you justify the fact that you have merely 8GB of RAM, a mere two more than my 6 year old laptop’ ‘2 more AND a whole new generation of chip technology, DDR4 has several advantages…’ and so forth. The negotiations lasted so long that another customer believed I was an employee. And, apparently to her own great embarrassment, asked for help with a purchase… madame, je suis pas un employé ici, les employés portent des vestes orange qui disent ‘FNAC’ sur le dos…

The process of purchase was quite simple: I went to the help desk, showed the employee the one I wanted, he scanned it, took me back to his desk, filled out the order form, printed out the invoice and handed it to me, I then took it to the first floor and payed for it, the cashier gave me a new piece of paper and three receipts, then I had to go up a floor to the retrait where a man gave me a stack of papers, another receipt and finally my new laptop. Then after presenting all these receipts to security at the door, I finally had my laptop. Who said the French were inefficient?

I walk home as the day had darkened into the territory of ‘okay’ and I started to wonder if I had closed my windows…

Finally home, and just in time as it had started to rain, the standard excitement of  opening an expensive new toy began to overtake me. My old HP looked unhappily from the end of my tacky IKEA nightstand. I sliced open the box, took out the cardboard inserts protecting the laptop, wondered for a moment if I had to charge it before using, and finally plugged it in and launched into that lovely first-use setup experience. Where you begin the long process of getting familiar with something you are going to be using for a long time.

I entered my name for the first time: the first name was alright but wait, what is wrong with my last name?

It’s an AZERTY keyboard! I had totally forgotten! After a moment of panic I decided “this can’t be so bad, the Q is in the wrong place and there are some extra letters but it could be worse. The A is in the wrong place as well… And the M, the Q… Wait I have to hold shift to make a period? Where is the question mark? Why don’t I have to hold shift for the exclamation mark? Do the French use it that often? The Enter key is tiny and – Oh my God, there is a whole extra key to use the numbers on the top row… ”

My old laptop silently looked down on me with derision.

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Literature, Uncategorized

Good Writers and Great Readers

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King

Of course to be a great writer one has to write a lot (though perhaps not so much as Stephen King…) but that is self evident. The thing in which I am more interested is the place of reading insofar as becoming a great writer is concerned. this seems self-evident, writing is the other side of reading! Of course they would be closely linked, however I’d, if I may be so bold, go even further than Mr. King. I believe to to be a great writer one has to be a phenomenal reader.

But why? If the goal is to become a good writer then why wouldn’t one spend the majority of his time practicing the art itself? Well, at a simpler level, think of it this way. You learned to speak via listening to your parents, if you spent most of your time working with what you already had… well, you would not have gotten very far. When you were learning to write, if you spent the majority of your time writing and had very little input from people that had already learned to write, well your writing would probably not improve very much would it?

We learned to speak by listening to a huge amount of material and eventually trying ourselves… but even then we listened far more than we spoke. It is the same with writing, if one focuses on practicing writing in and of itself but rarely or never draws from those far more skilled, then growth will be heavily stunted.

Reading graces the reader with experience, exposure to new styles of writing, as well as new plot devices and vocabulary. Not to mention the sheer joy of reading a good novel, poem, or story. And better, the reader doesn’t have to put much effort into the exchange. Provided he has a well developed attention span and is willing to look up the odd word he doesn’t know, all that is left is to enjoy the fruit of a stranger’s labor. And, of course, passively absorb what makes their work so enjoyable (or distasteful) to you.

Good writers are not just ‘good’ readers. I’d say to be more than a middling writer one has to be a great reader. Being very, very well read is the first major step to being an excellent writer. There is no way around it.

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