Monday, April 27, 2015

Commas, Prepositions and Lots of other Wordy Goodness.

I always understood that English evolves with time.  But my college Linguistics classes and my IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) theatre class never went into the fascinating detail covered in Mary Norris’s new book. 

Her fierce, at times academic, delivery of the information was challenging (maybe even boring) at first, but in no time, I found myself drawn back to the book time and time again, eager to get another small lesson in the life of our language. 

Who knew that, in addition to birthing a nation, many of our founding father’s invested time into the development of a language for our new England?  Here’s a passage that explains that:

Benjamin Franklin, who was already in his eighties when he befriended Webster (Noah) and who advocated spelling reform, had encouraged the younger man to adopt his ideas.  Franklin proposed that we lose c, w, y and j; modify a to u to represent their different sounds; and adopt a new form of s for sh and a variation of y for ng as well as tweak the h of gh to distinguish the sounds of”thy” and “thigh”, “swarth”, and “swathe.”

Wow.  My IPA studies provided a basic understanding of diacritical marks in order to use or teach accents and dialects to those who are not lucky enough to have refined ears.  I never gave thought to the fact that somebody had to actually study sounds and break them down to tiny components and then devise a way of to symbolically distinguish one sound from another.  Surly a myriad of uses exist for this knowledge other than theatre.  Think about how valuable intonation and inflection in pronunciation must be to the CIA and the FBI. 

This book is packed with information, including a look at the detailed work that goes into each edition of the New Yorker, where Mary Norris worked at a copy editor and where she learned to examine literary works with bionic eyes.  She brings that attention to detail to every subject in this book.   Norris devotes over ten pages alone to a discussion on gender neutral words and all the acceptable variations of s/he, his/hers and sheesh

If this sounds interesting but perhaps a bit much for an intro to language, try Richard Lederer’s The Miracle of Language.  Leaderer covers much of the same material but in a more playful and digestible fashion. 

As for me, my appreciation of  our language is growing along with my understanding that, like many things in life, sometimes even the traditional, time-tested ways of doing, being or saying need to be examined challenged, and YIKES! maybe even changed.  My greatest wish is that this book will finally drill into my head how to properly use commas.

Thanks for stopping by.