Like, Literally, Dude!

Ticked off by verbal tics? Language-expert Valerie Fridland has written an entertaining book about the origins and utility of what many people consider bad speaking habits. Like “like,” vocal fry, and excessive intensification.

Many of these speech habits she covers in Like Literally, Dude are tiny, she says, like saying “Whaaa?” instead of “What,” but that dropped “t” is one of the many linguistic choices that help craft a person’s social identity and offer great guidance for authors writing dialog. Your Gen Z college student can’t sound like one of his professors!

Different versions of “what” have subtly different effects. “What-hh,” as she describes it, has a tiny puff of air after the strongly enunciated “t.” It’s what you say when you’re interrupted for the 43rd time while trying to write a tricky paragraph. “What?” is a normal, business-like query. But “whaaaa?” is more casual or characteristic of certain population groups. To my ear, it indicates not an actual question, but conveys a sense of true wondering. It’s what you’d say if a spaceship landed in your back yard.

Fridland’s book delves into many such features that distinguish one person’s speech from another’s. And, speakers vary their speech, depending on what they are (mostly unconsciously) trying to convey. She says we use vocal tics “to project different attitudes and stances toward what we talk about and who we talk with.” A goldmine for dialog-writers!

Her observation that young people and women generally lead the way in linguistic changes is especially interesting, as is the note that these are the very speech patterns that take the brunt of criticism, women’s speech having been historically “disparaged as chatty, gossipy, and less topically important than men’s.” And women typically soften their presentation so as to be non-threatening. When writing my novel Architect of Courage, told from a man’s point of view, I worked hard to reflect male speech patterns—for example, excising “I think” and “I want,” and replacing them with flat statements and “I need.”

Take “like,” like it or not. This much-maligned word serves a great many non-grammatical (versus ungrammatical) purposes in sentences. One of Fridland’s examples is “I exercised for, like, ten hours.” Anyone hearing that understands the speaker did not, in fact, exercise for 600 minutes, but more that it felt that excessive. Leave out the “like,” and the sentence says the same thing, but doesn’t mean exactly the same. In this role, “like” becomes “a way for a speaker to communicate a certain impreciseness or looseness of meaning.”  

“Discourse markers” are features of speech that don’t contribute to the actual meaning of a sentence (so, you know, actually, oh, um, uh), but convey a sense of the speaker’s intentions. Although we think of these language quirks as being of recent vintage—a deluge of undesirable flies landing in the ointment of perfect English expression—their pedigree is lengthy. Fridland’s example is, “Oh, I finally got a job!” In that sentence, the “oh” invites the hearer to share the surprise.

The tendency to start sentences, “Soooo, . . .” give the speaker a few seconds to gather her thoughts and signals the hearer to listen up. “Well, . . .” does the same. Such discourse markers appear in Shakespeare and date back more than a thousand years. So much for modern bad habits! “Like” used as a discourse marker can be found as early as 250 years ago.

So, if you like language and if you write dialog involving different ages and types of people, you may find this book, whose subtitle is “Arguing for the Good in Bad English” helpful as well as entertaining!

More Ways to Annoy Your Reader

In the litany of authorial sins that readers object to, are quirks that require readers to reread or rereread a passage to figure it out. So said the hundreds of readers who responded to a recent Washington Post query, written up here (paywall).

One cause for having to reread a passage can be the abandonment of quotation marks—Cormac McCarthy is an author who omits them (though, I admit, I don’t mind rereading him).

Hilary Mantel had the opposite quirk. She kept the quotation marks but eliminated everything like “Cromwell said” or “said the Cardinal.” Some dialog passages needed several readings to be sure I had the words coming from the correct character’s mouth. Most confusing in Wolf Hall, but better in the later books.

Another annoying source of confusion are gratuitously complicated timelines. The structure of a book should make it easier, not harder, to follow. Even Sulari Gentil’s clever The Woman in the Library (my review) baffled me at times. In a plot like nesting dolls, you have to stay alert to a change in point of view. Is it the author writing or the author she’s writing about or . . . . ???

On to the complaints about characters, starting with “unrealistically clever children or talking animals.” No, please.

A big one we should have evolved past by now is sexy descriptions of women in non-sexy situations. I read a lot of cringy stuff focusing on a woman’s appearance, especially her figure, top and bottom. Need I mention such descriptions are almost always written by men? Turn the tables and write about male characters in such a salacious way, you see how awful it is. (See this column by Alexandra Petri, “If male authors described men in literature the way they describe women.” Or this essay by Prasanna Sawant, “The Bizarre Ways Some Male Authors Describe Women.”) I don’t believe the male authors are even aware they’re doing it. Appearance is what they notice about women in real life, so that’s what they put on paper, whereas the male characters just show up.

Readers also object to “disabled characters who exist only to provide treacly inspiration.” That holds for any character who is meant to demonstrate a point, like the protagonist’s open-mindedness: “Look, he has a Black friend, a gay friend, a loyal dog!” Authors need to give those friends and mutts something to do.

Then the readers got down to nitpicking. Somebody will object to almost anything, it seems: overused phrases like “his smile didn’t reach his eyes,” “she exhaled the breath she didn’t realize she was holding” (I encounter that one a lot). Even individual words would prompt readers’ to get out their blue pencils: burgeoning, preternatural, inevitable, lugubrious. In the comments on the article, one reader objected to “spelling based on sound, not a dictionary. Just read one novel that referred to riggers (not rigors) and emmersed (instead of immersed). I was stunned to read the author’s note in which she complimented her editor.” I, on the other hand, was pleased and surprised to see that such creatures still exist.

Post writer Ron Charles, who compiled these complaints, predicts that “somewhere some cynical, market-driven AI scientist is working on a novel-writing program that can accommodate all these complaints.” I hope not. Words written by a real person—blind spots and annoying habits and grammar lapses and all—are preferable to a formula any day.

Read Part 1 of this article here.

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Writing Tips: Lingua Franca

I read (and liked!) Daniel Mason’s debut novel The Piano Tuner several years after he was interviewed in the late, lamented short story magazine Glimmer Train, and only now rediscovered what he’d said about it.

The Piano Tuner takes place in Myanmar, and Mason faced a dilemma that all of us who write stories set in other countries and cultures face: how much do you express in English, and how much in the language of the people speaking?

The interviewer pointed out that Mason used a lot of Burmese words and phrases in his book, and Mason explained why. He said he usually kept the Burmese word when there was no English equivalent, or at least not a good one. Some of the words he could have explained, but then the novel becomes a dictionary, so he didn’t. Following that decision-rule, he used the word thanaka, rather than “the women whose faces were painted with sandalwood paste.” Good call.

In my upcoming novel set in Rome, the main character is American, but speaks Italian, and except when she’s talking with her brother, all the conversation is in Italian. I make the point about her language skills early (it’s even a plot point), and then drop in an Italian word, here or there to remind the reader that it’s not English being spoken. Certo (sure), Bene (fine), Cara (dear—oddly, a word I’d never use in English, unless the speakers were elderly!) are all words I use as reminder words. I also make sure to use the Italian name of the hospital where my character is taken: Ospidale Fatebenefratelli (Isn’t that great!?) Word order and speech rhythms can serve as reminders readers are in foreign territory too.

I especially admire the way Cormac McCarthy handled Spanish in The Crossing, set in Mexico. There was a lot of Spanish conversation, but he managed to reiterate the thought, not verbatim, but sufficiently, so that I always understood what he meant.

Mason said he used Burmese words for specific jobs, to avoid English connotations that don’t fit the Myanmar context, and, sometimes, just because of the way the word sounds. For example, the Portuguese word caatinga refers to scrubby brush-land, but to Mason simply sounds much more evocative and he used it in another book.

Just in case readers are uncomfortable encountering such an unfamiliar word, Mason put little instructions on how to say it in front of the word—just once, I hope. I don’t remember this, so it must not have been intrusive (and I don’t find any examples of this using Amazon’s “look inside” function). I suppose if an author used a great many foreign words, the pronunciation advice might become tiresome, but there might be other ways to handle it too—for example, including a glossary, correcting a “newbie” to the country, or having a character take language lessons. Readers figure out their own pronunciations for names of characters, for example, and go right on reading, so it isn’t a huge dilemma. But the occasional culture-specific reminder through language helps maintain a sense of the exotic.

Mason’s first collection of short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earthwas a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In the Glimmer Train interview, he said he had a lot of ideas that weren’t 300-page ideas, but might make good short stories. “I’d love to try to do that again,” he said. He did. And was right.

Met Your Metaphor?

In his July “language lounge” column for Visual Thesaurus, lexicographer Orin Hargraves dives in the deep and sometimes murky sea of metaphor. To get us in the mood for the topic, he cites the opening lines of Alfred Noyes’s poem, “The Highwayman.”

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.

Each of those lines, even though they combine unlike things are easy to picture. As Hargraves says, metaphors are fundamental to “how we make sense of the world and how we integrate new information with things we already know.” We take some aspect of one domain (darkness, sea, ribbon) and apply it to another thing: wind, moon, road. With a well-constructed metaphor, we know almost instantly what aspects of darkness, sea, and ribbon we should apply, ignoring their many other attributes.

Seeing life as a journey is such a prevalent idea, we probably don’t usually perceive it as a metaphor at all. Think of common phrases like: the hero’s journey; the road not taken; a trip to nowhere (waste of time); his first marriage was a detour; on the right path; choosing a hard road; got off on the wrong foot; they crossed paths with . . .; “we’re on the road to romance” (Sinatra). Scholars Lakoff and Johnson believe that metaphors are essentially conceptual and coming up with the language to express them, as in the preceding examples, is secondary. We make inferences from these concepts and guide our lives according to the metaphors that derive from them (“just putting one foot in front of the other”).

But that’s a bit abstract. Hargraves focuses on a particular type of metaphor that most reminds me of a Hollywood pitch session. His examples: Twin Peaks meets Doctor Who; Le Corbusier meets Flash Gordon. Such metaphors assume a broadly shared cultural context between the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader. I assure you that any metaphor where one of the noun phrases referred to a hip-hop star would sail right over my head. Unless the audience can sift out what aspects of the two nouns are being compared, the metaphor doesn’t work on its own.

Hargraves gives an example from fiction (source not named) of what could have been an obscure pairing, but the writer explains it sufficiently to make it work:

“So what do you want in a man?”
“Butch. Beautiful. Brilliant. Captain America meets Albert Schweitzer. Spends all day dashing into (the) fray while making the world safe for democracy. At night, playing Bach cantatas while curing cancer.”

I know next-to nothing about Captain America, but with that explanation, I get it.

For Your Bookshelf
Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Talking Funny

Language Lounge is a monthly column for word-lovers, and writers seem automatic members of that tribe.  I access the column through Visual Thesaurus, which is a graphical thesaurus that creates a network of word similarities, rather than a list, and helps in finding that word that’s ever-so-slightly out of reach.

The columnist, Orin Hargraves, this month talks about discourse markers (a new one on me), which help writers create and readers follow the flow of a narrative. As he describes them, “they’re linguistic signposts to indicate the direction they are taking or to clue up their audience about how something should be taken.” Perhaps the most obvious example is a negative one. How many times in the truncated communication environment of social media has one of your comments been completely misconstrued? Jokes and sarcasm, especially, are easily misunderstood. At least my jokes are. Why I insert a {ha!} at the end.

Examples of discourse markers he provides include “of course,” which indicate the writer (or speaker) knows the audience probably already understands the next bit. Of course you do. Writers (or speakers) can signal that what’s coming is an opinion with a discourse marker like “In my mind,” or “I think.” I knew someone who liberally used phrases like “To be honest,” or “Candidly.” It took me a while to catch onto the fact that whatever followed was likely an untruth. So, in a perverse way, his usage was actually quite helpful. Similarly, “With all due respect” usually signals an impending insult.

In particular, Hargreaves focused on the word “funny,” as in “Funny you should say that,” or “funnily enough,” when what follows is unlikely to be funny (ha-ha) at all. Nor is it “odd” or “peculiar,” which funny, by extension, sometimes means. What this discourse marker seems to signal is, “I’m about to say something that doesn’t exactly follow what you just said, but is somehow related to it.” Like this:

Joe: “I really hate broccoli.”

Jane: “Funny you should mention it. I feel the same about peas.” Nothing to do with broccoli at all, but related to the larger category, cringy foods.

Hargraves says people use a great many “funny” signals:

  • “that’s funny,” preceding an observation the speaker finds remarkable or unusual. (“That’s funny, I could swear I left my keys on the counter.”)
  • “funny enough” introducing a slight or suspicious coincidence (“The body was in the alley and, funny enough, in the exact place the psychic said it would be.”)
  • “funny how” about things not funny at all (“Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”)
  • “it’s funny to” introducing something unexpected (“It’s funny to picture them searching for that missing gun, while I had it all along.”)

When a character’s conversation is taking an unexpected turn, you can keep readers (and hearers) on track if you send a funny signal.

More Short and Sweet: Tips on Effective Prose in Short Stories

Last week Sisters in Crime sponsored another of its “Short and Sweet” webinars about short-story writing. Talented author Art Taylor again hosted, along with award-nominated Ed Aymar, to talk about constructing a text. There’s a great satisfaction in doing it well. As Brendan DuBois said in the current issue of The3rdDegree, there’s a “satisfaction in seeing how an author can tell a gripping story in the confines of a relatively small playground.”

The prose—that is, the words on the page—are not just a delivery vehicle for character and plot, Taylor said. How a story is told is its own experience. If it’s told in a style that makes you think of floating down a lazy river on a summer day with the insects buzzing and the green smells rising, that’s a different experience than a style like a machine gun’s rat-a-tat-tat.

Of course, you can have both. If you lull the reader with a warm, sleepy meandering text until unexpected events cut it off with the rat-a-tat-tat of hard consonants and short sentences, that wakes the reader up. In my writing, I default to long sentences, chains of clauses linked by commas and conjunctions. I have to remind myself not to write a fight scene that way! Make it punchy.

I’m sure I was nodding when Taylor said, “Let the reader do some of the work.” Over-explaining is annoying. Trust that your reader is following along and understands some things without explanation. “She started making dinner, so they would have something to eat that night.” Clearly, everything after the comma should go. If you can envision your readers saying, “I get it, I get it!” then cut.

Short stories, especially, benefit from pruning everything unnecessary. Taylor called this “economy, efficiency, and an unrelenting focus.” Nothing should be in the story that doesn’t serve its purposes. Taking this a step further, he suggested that each line of a story ideally should accomplish several things.

A recent short story described a journalist and his investigations of hazardous jobsites. He takes a woman to dinner and, in the middle of their evening, a terrorist appears and shoots a dozen people. It was like walking into another story. Perhaps the author used the crusading journalist trope to make readers sympathetic to the murdered man, but weren’t there more integrated ways to accomplish this? It’s as if the story wore a plaid skirt, a striped blouse and a polka-dot vest, when what it needed was a dress. Fancy, sure, but One Thing.

I was relieved to hear from Ed Aymar that he writes lots of drafts. Me, too. And he endorsed the idea of reading work out loud, especially dialog. It’s one of the quickest ways to spot where the text isn’t working. Another of his good ideas is to rewrite your text a bit when using it for a reading. The pacing and emphases may need to be adjusted.

Sisters in Crime has archived the video of Taylor and Aymar’s presentation for its members. “Crafting Prose in a Short Story” is full of additional writing tips, too. Join?

Photo: the 3D printed dress at Selfridges Department Store, London, was photographed by Bradley Harper.

“How Fun!” Language Evolves

Today, on International Mother Language Day, we pay tribute to our first languages, the ones our mothers cooed to us in our cradles. Why I didn’t grow up with a West Texas accent is a mystery. As Visual Thesaurus writer Orin Hargraves says, the term “mother language” also suggests “the source, inspiration, or protector of something”—in this case, the valuable developmental skill of communication.

Lots of online commentary—snarky Facebook posts, helpful grammar websites—tackle the topic of “correct” language. But what is correct, under what set of rules? For writers of fiction, not just the grammar characters use, but also the word choices, diction, and rhythm of speech support development of distinctive voices.

S.A. Cosby’s wonderful Razorblade Tears meticulously captures the small-town Virginia speech patterns of the Black protagonist, Ike, as well as his down-and-out white partner in crime, Buddy Lee. Stephen Graham Jones creates a pitch-perfect rendering of the rhythm of Blackfeet tribe members’ speech in The Only Good Indians. (I read audio versions of both these memorable books, in which the language was further elevated by the quality of the narration.)

In Anglophone countries, “Standard English” is what educated white people speak. But even in England, many people don’t speak it. Just ask Henry Higgins. Like him, critics of people who speak nonstandard English are affronted by perceived lapses. “The ways in which some white speakers feel licensed to disparage black speech,” Hargraves says, “is not different in kind from the way the Britons, starting in the 1600s, disparaged the speech of Americans.”

Like all languages, English evolves. Reading novels from the 18th, 19th, and even the early 20th century demonstrates how vastly different are today’s ways of expressing ourselves. My story “The Adventure at Sparremere Hall” is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and part of the challenge of writing itwas to immerse myself in the loquacious, roundabout style of John Watson who “wrote” more than a hundred years ago. Here’s a short paragraph. “This looks promising, I thought, and with a breath of anticipation, I slit the envelope with my paper knife. The letter was indeed intriguing, and when I came to the end I was quite uncertain how the great detective would react to it.” Today, we’d say, “There’s an intriguing letter here, Holmes. Listen up.” This is to say, what is the “correct” or “ideal” English speakers should aspire to? The expression “how fun!” first struck me as awkward and ungrammatical. But it’s useful, and everyone understands what I mean.

Although many people decry nonstandard English, Hargraves points out that dialects and vernacular speech do follow rules, just a different set of them. The people who speak those variants know their rules, which is essential in order for them to communicate with others who share that dialect. Consensus wins out in a population of speakers, Hargraves says, and “the way most people in a community speak has a way of becoming the way that everyone speaks.”

From a writer’s point of view, it isn’t possible to merely throw in a few “ain’ts” or drop a few “g’s” in order to establish a rural character. You have to develop an ear for it, to feel it, like Cosby and Jones do. Then the reader will feel it too.

Leapin Leprechauns!

When it comes to a painful history, Irish authors know whereof they speak, and they know how to tell a story laced with humor. Fiction is one way to process lingering cultural traumas.

While I’ve read quite a few books by Irish authors in paper, they are wonderful books to listen to, as the narrators’ accents are transporting.

Crime Fiction

Next up for me is A Galway Epiphany by the award-winning Ken Bruen, called “the Godfather of the modern Irish crime novel,” being released April 1. It features his character Jack Taylor, an ex-cop turned private eye who becomes the center of his own mystery, when he is hit by a truck and left comatose but unscratched (narrated by Gerry O’Brien).

In the Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty’s first book featuring police detective Sean Duffy–a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the bleak Belfast spring of 1981, hunger strikers in HM Prison Maze are dying. Paramilitaries are setting off bombs, gunfire rakes the streets, and Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer who targets homosexuals. The violent backdrop is tangible, especially with the forceful narration of the award-winning Gerard Doyle.

Stuart Neville wrote a series of excellent novels also set in Belfast, including the one I listened to, The Ghosts of Belfast. Fellow author John Connolly called it “not only one of the finest thriller debuts of the last ten years, but also one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times.”  Also narrated by Gerard Doyle.

In an interview, Doyle says that when he was a child, his parents would often take him with them to the pub. “I’d sit on the bench late into the evening listening to the stories and the lies. And the music! I even sang sometimes. They’d put me up on a table. One of my best was Ronnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustbin.'”

Other Fiction

The Gathering by Booker prize-winner Anne Enright “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping,” said the editors of The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading a few years ago under the auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.

Glenn Patterson is another writer who gave a memorable reading in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association takes place. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.

You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

Tennessee Williams: In His Own Words

(Very) recently I discovered a thing called Quote Cards, which seem to be used in Facebook posts, to create cards for book promotion, etc., etc., etc.

So many times I read a powerful/beautiful/resonant sentence that inspires a “Wow!” You probably spot those too. Was there a sentence in the last book or story you read that stopped you in your tracks? That meant something powerful to you in that moment? Put it in the comments! I’ll compile a list for all of us. And I’ll bet you get lots of likes!

Meanwhile, here are quotes from a master. The Zoom class on Tennessee Williams I’ve been taking ended last week, and if you’ve read the previous posts about it (links below), you’ll know how interesting it was. The class was led by Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The theater’s next session is on Shakespeare’s Henry V.

For our last class, each of the 45 or so students submittedthought-provoking quotations from Williams’s plays, stories, and poems that particularly struck us. Here’s a sampling:

“I tell you, there’s so much loneliness in this house that you can hear it.” (Vieux Carré)
“Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” (“The Timeless World of a Play,” essay)
“I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“Caged birds accept each other, but flight is what they long for.” (Camino Real)
“A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.” (Stairs to the Roof)
“Every time you come in yelling that God damn ‘Rise and shine! Rise and shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’” (The Glass Menagerie)
“Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out and death’s the other.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“The girl who said ‘no,’ she doesn’t exist anymore, she died last summer—suffocated in smoke from something inside her.” (Summer and Smoke)
“There’s a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go!” (Camino Real)
“Make voyages—attempt them—there’s nothing else!” (Camino Real)
“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.” (Sweet Bird of Youth)
“The only difference between a success and a failure is a success knows an opportunity when he sees it and a failure doesn’t.” (Night of the Iguana)
“All of us are in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars!” (Summer and Smoke)
“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” (Conversations with Tennessee Williams)
“Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.” (Tennessee Williams)

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive (2/10)
How to See (2/17)
The Actor’s Challenge (2/24)

Image by sonseona for Pixabay.

Navigating Oceans of Words

From time to time, my writing group has included a member whose first language is other than English. It’s only when you tackle editing the prose of such an individual that you begin to appreciate what an unwieldy beast American English is.

A stunning recent reminder of this came in Reuben Westmaas’s essay on word order. It turns out that English has a very precise requirements for stringing along adjectives. Who knew? I didn’t.

Here is Westmaas quoting Mark Forsyth: “Adjectives absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. [Really?] So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

It’s mind-bogglingly true. Try rearranging this example: “I just bought nice new wine refrigerator” (opinion-age-purpose-Noun) These insights, which most of us have internalized since “See Spot chase the big red ball” (size-color-Noun) and not thought of again—not even thought of as reflecting a thing, like a rule–are from Mark Forsyth’s 2013 book, The Elements of Eloquence.

I’m sure glad that decades of reading and listening have imprinted that rule in my brain so that I don’t have to actually think about it. I’ve also abandoned any thought of teaching ESL.

A second problem is our language is jam-packed with idioms. To a German-born friend, I suggested a book I was currently in love with—The Big Sky, one of Pulitzer-winner A B Guthrie. Jr.’s six monumental novels about the Oregon Trail and the development of Montana. To me, it was a perfect evocation of the American sense of the limitless possibilities of “going West” (alas, fading now), of being independent and free, of the frontier.

I foolishly didn’t recognize that the idioms were thick as the forests, and not just modern (for 1947) idioms. It employed colorful uses of language that would make sense to an 1830 fur trapper and his backwoods brethren rafting on the Missouri River. And here I thought the language was absurdly simple. We won’t mention their grammar: “Ain’t nothin like whiskey to ile (oil) a rusty tongue.” He gave the book back to me in complete bafflement.

A final problem is spelling, given that dozens of languages form our crazy talk, and the “rules” created to pretend it makes sense, which are rife with exceptions. Relatedly, I’d include that bane of the self-published and indifferently edited: homophones (led, lead; bough, bow; pique, peak; great, grate; and so on and on and on).

We all remember the spelling rule “i before e except after c and in words that have the ‘a’ sound.” Sure. Westmaas points out that more American words violate that principle than follow it. In fact, the score is 900 to 40 in favor of “exceptions.” I’ll take his word for it. How I became a school spelling bee champion is one of life’s mysteries. We writers sail on, navigating our little boats through a sea of linguistic confusion. We may take the peculiarities of English for granted, but when we’re faced with a non-native’s prose, wow. There be dragons. Give those adventurers credit!

Photo: Steve Johnson, creative commons license.