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The targeted offenses: IF YOU ARE STOLEN, CALL THE POLICE AT ONCE. PLEASE OMNIVOROUSLY PUT THE WASTE IN GARBAGE CAN. DEFORMED MAN LAVATORY. For the past 18 months, teams of language police have been scouring Beijing on a mission to wipe out all such traces of bad English signage before the Olympics come to town in August. They’re the type of goofy transgressions that we in the English homelands love to poke fun at, devoting entire Web sites to so-called Chinglish. (By the way, that last phrase means “handicapped bathroom.”)

But what if these sentences aren’t really bad English? What if they are evidence that the English language is happily leading an alternative lifestyle without us?

Thanks to globalization, the Allied victories in World War II, and American leadership in science and technology, English has become so successful across the world that it’s escaping the boundaries of what we think it should be. In part, this is because there are fewer of us: By 2020, native speakers will make up only 15 percent of the estimated 2 billion people who will be using or learning the language. Already, most conversations in English are between nonnative speakers who use it as a lingua franca.

In China, this sort of free-form adoption of English is helped along by a shortage of native English-speaking teachers, who are hard to keep happy in rural areas for long stretches of time. An estimated 300 million Chinese — roughly equivalent to the total US population — read and write English but don’t get enough quality spoken practice. The likely consequence of all this? In the future, more and more spoken English will sound increasingly like Chinese.

It’s not merely that English will be salted with Chinese vocabulary for local cuisine, bon mots, and curses or that speakers will peel off words from local dialects. The Chinese and other Asians already pronounce English differently — in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, in various parts of the region they tend not to turn vowels in unstressed syllables into neutral vowels. Instead of “har-muh-nee,” it’s “har-moh-nee.” And the sounds that begin words like this and thing are often enunciated as the letters f, v, t, or d. In Singaporean English (known as Singlish), think is pronounced “tink,” and theories is “tee-oh-rees.”

English will become more like Chinese in other ways, too. Some grammatical appendages unique to English (such as adding do or did to questions) will drop away, and our practice of not turning certain nouns into plurals will be ignored. Expect to be asked: “How many informations can your flash drive hold?” In Mandarin, Cantonese, and other tongues, sentences don’t require subjects, which leads to phrases like this: “Our goalie not here yet, so give chance, can or not?”

One noted feature of Singlish is the use of words like ah, lah, or wah at the end of a sentence to indicate a question or get a listener to agree with you. They’re each pronounced with tone — the linguistic feature that gives spoken Mandarin its musical quality — adding a specific pitch to words to alter their meaning. (If you say “xin” with an even tone, it means “heart”; with a descending tone it means “honest.”) According to linguists, such words may introduce tone into other Asian-English hybrids.

Given the number of people involved, Chinglish is destined to take on a life of its own. Advertisers will play with it, as they already do in Taiwan. It will be celebrated as a form of cultural identity, as the Hong Kong Museum of Art did in a Chinglish exhibition last year. It will be used widely online and in movies, music, games, and books, as it is in Singapore. Someday, it may even be taught in schools. Ultimately, it’s not that speakers will slide along a continuum, with “proper” language at one end and local English dialects on the other, as in countries where creoles are spoken. Nor will Chinglish replace native languages, as creoles sometimes do. It’s that Chinglish will be just as proper as any other English on the planet.

And it’s possible Chinglish will be more efficient than our version, doing away with word endings and the articles a, an, and the. After all, if you can figure out “Environmental sanitation needs your conserve,” maybe conservation isn’t so necessary.

Any language is constantly evolving, so it’s not surprising that English, transplanted to new soil, is bearing unusual fruit. Nor is it unique that a language, spread so far from its homelands, would begin to fracture. The obvious comparison is to Latin, which broke into mutually distinct languages over hundreds of years — French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian. A less familiar example is Arabic: The speakers of its myriad dialects are connected through the written language of the Koran and, more recently, through the homogenized Arabic of Al Jazeera. But what’s happening to English may be its own thing: It’s mingling with so many more local languages than Latin ever did, that it’s on a path toward a global tongue — what’s coming to be known as Panglish. Soon, when Americans travel abroad, one of the languages they’ll have to learn may be their own.

Michael Erard
Wired

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When the Times of London reported in 1837 on two University of Paris law profs dueling with swords, the dispute wasn’t over the fine points of the Napoleonic Code. It was over the point-virgule: the semicolon. “The one who contended that the passage in question ought to be concluded by a semicolon was wounded in the arm,” noted the Times. “His adversary maintained that it should be a colon.”

French passions over the semicolon are running high once again. An April Fool’s hoax this year by the online publication Rue89 claimed that the Nicolas Sarkozy government planned to demand “at least three semicolons per page in official administrative documents.” Parliamentarian Benoist Apparu was in on the joke—”The disappearance of the semicolon in Eastern France is absolutely dramatic,” he gamely proclaimed—and linguist Alain Rey (barely) kept a straight face for a video calling Frenchmen to arms. Reporters were taken in, since, like every great hoax, it was plausible enough to be true. Le Figaro has proclaimed, “The much-loved semicolon is in the process of disappearance; let us protect it,” and there was even a brief attempt at a Committee for the Defense of the Semicolon—a modern update on the Anti-Comma League that France had back in 1934. French commentators blame the semicolon’s decline on everything from “the modern need for speed” to the corrupting influence of English and its short, declarative sentences. It’s a charge leveled for years stateside, too, with Sven Birkerts bemoaning the Internet’s baleful influence on semicolons a decade ago.

Has modern life killed the semicolon?…

The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that “All [semicolons] do is show that you’ve been to college.” New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was “semicolon boy.” And though semicolons have occasionally made news—tariff bills have imploded over their misplacement, and a 1927 execution hinged on the interpretation of a semicolon—the last writers to receive much notice for semicolon use have been a New York City Transit employee and the Son of Sam. In 1977 the NYPD speculated that “the killer could be a freelance journalist” because of his “use of a semicolon” in his taunting letters. (Decades later, columnist Jimmy Breslin still marveled that “Berkowitz is the only murderer I ever heard of who knew how to use a semicolon.”)

Semicolons do have some genuine shortcomings; Slate’s founding editor, Michael Kinsley, once noted to the Financial Times that “[t]he most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism, is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is.” All journalists can cop to this: The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.

Yet semicolons serve a unique function, so it’s tempting to think that some writers will always cling to them. When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling. Yet English was not this student’s first language.

He was an exchange student—from France.

Paul Collins
Slate

It is hard to imagine a genre more misunderstood than memoir. Sometimes, these personal stories of our lives can illuminate the hearts and minds of writer and reader alike. Other times, they amount to little more than narcissism.

As a memoirist, critic, and teacher, Sven Birkerts is well positioned to explore this subject, and thankfully so. His “The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again,” is instructive, observant, and astute, a meditation on craft and culture by a relentlessly thoughtful writer. It is even at times a memoir itself, as honest and artful as any he examines.

Memoir, Birkerts writes, requires the juxtaposed perspectives of past and present, of what one recalls and how one recalls it. The recollection should be intuitive rather than chronological, a “felt past” allowing the themes of one’s life to emerge. They should be as relevant to the reader as they are defining of the writer, “universalizing the specific” in ways that assume “there is a shared ground between the teller and the audience.”

Lyrical memoirists, like Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard, have pursued “restoration, searching out recurrences and patterns, but also then allowing for the idea that pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience.” Coming-of-age memoirists, like Frank Conroy, Jo Ann Beard, and Maureen Howard, have sought to extract from this “most dramatically fraught period of our lives” a sense of “how I came to be who I now am,” Birkerts writes.

Sons have sought reconciliation with their remote fathers through memoir, as in writings by Paul Auster, Geoffrey Wolff, and Blake Morrison. Daughters have sought distance from their domineering mothers, as in writings by Jamaica Kincaid and Vivian Gornick. Still others have struggled to confront and overcome trauma in their pasts, from incest to disfigurement, like Mary Karr, Richard Hoffman, Lucy Grealy, and Kathryn Harrison, Birkerts writes. Each memoirist has traversed the landscape between past and present in varying ways, using an array of literary techniques to craft their works.

Ultimately, however, memoirists share the human desire to know themselves, for their own sakes as well as their readers. They seek to recall and re-create their lives, and, in so doing, to compel readers to do the same. “Memoir is a narrative art,” Birkerts writes, “but through its careful manipulation of vantage point it simulates the subjective sense of experience apprehended through memory and the corrective actions of hindsight. In other words it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life.”

Birkerts is as incisive a literary analyst as he is eloquent a literary essayist. His occasional forays into his own life further elucidate his points by way of example, while they offer glimpses into the mind of a memoirist writing about memoirists. His book, required reading for anyone interested in the genre, is an engaging study of how we come to understand ourselves through this most personal of literary expressions.

Robert Braile
Boston Globe

Seamus Heaney thinks that poetry has a special ability to redress spiritual balance and to function as a counterweight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world. He calls this “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality”. Heaney’s personal mantra is a phrase by an earlier Nobel prizewinner, the Greek poet George Seferis, who felt that poetry should be “strong enough to help”. He wasn’t calling for straightforwardly uplifting verse, but saying that he valued poetry’s “response to conditions in the world at a moment when the world was in crisis”. This is what Heaney means by redress, whereby “the poetic imagination seems to redress whatever is wrong or exacerbating in the prevailing conditions”, offering “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.”

David Constantine developed this theme in his essay The Usefulness of Poetry, showing how Bertolt Brecht’s dogmatic requirement that lyric poetry should be “useful” was subverted in his own work. The effect of Brecht’s poems on the reader is not an engagement with his political ideas, says Constantine, but rather “a shock, a quickening of consciousness, a becoming alert to better possibilities, an extension, a liberation”, for such poetry is, “to put it mildly, a useful thing if, when reading it, we sense a better way of being in the world”.

This is the perspective we need in considering the so-called “role” of poetry in the ecological debate: a “way of being in the world” or what Auden himself called “a way of happening”…As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But if Seferis and Heaney are right, poetry can at the very least be “strong enough to help”…poetry’s power is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem’s effect on every listener or reader…

In Ireland people still think poetry is important. If our own politicians spent just a couple of minutes each day reading these kinds of poems, they might be better fitted to carry out their duties more responsibly. We might even be able to trust some of them then to act in our interest in what they do to tackle the problems of environmental destruction and global warming.

George Szirtes [author of the 2005 TS Eliot lecture, Thin Ice and the Midnight Skaters] wrote:

“‘If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?’ scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper…What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change.”

Listing various poems which had worked towards such change, Szirtes continued: “The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear. The quotation about poetry making nothing happen is, in fact, half-remembered from the second part of Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats, that goes:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

“Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of the above: that poetry is itself a way of happening. But what does it mean to be ‘a way of happening’? Does it mean anything at all?”

Auden wrote his elegy after Yeats’s death in January 1939, as the world was preparing itself for war. In his book The Poetry of WB Yeats, written during the conflict and published in 1941, Louis MacNeice wrote:

“If the war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called ‘escapist’, it also made nonsense of poetry that professes to be ‘realist’. My friends had been writing for years about guns and frontiers and factories, about the ‘facts’ of psychology, politics, science, economics, but the fact of war made their writing seem as remote as the pleasure dome in Xanadu. For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons.”

Writing during the Irish Troubles in her study Poetry in the Wars, Edna Longley observed that all Northern Irish poetry since 1969 had “shared the same bunker”:

“Thus what Derek Mahon calls ‘An eddy of semantic scruple / In an unstructurable sea’ might as well concentrate on ‘semantic scruple’. Neverthless MacNeice, knowing Yeats and Ireland, did not follow Auden into his post-Marxist conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’: ‘The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.’ [The Poetry of WB Yeats, 1941]. Yet Auden’s own phrase in his Yeats elegy – ‘A way of happening’ – defines the only social and political role available to poetry as poetry.”

Neil Astley
The Guardian

Part 2 tomorrow…

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Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard (courtesy of New York Times)

Do you know what it’s like to be deeply, unbearably in love, all the while aware that you can never completely trust the object of your affection? I would wager that Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard do, almost to the point of delirium.

Don’t misunderstand me. I have no intimate acquaintance with the personal lives of these dramatists. It’s just that their ruling passion, jubilant and exasperated, proclaims itself publicly in pretty much everything they write, including their new plays of this season (“Rock ’n’ Roll” from Mr. Stoppard, and “Homelife” and “Me, Myself & I” from Mr. Albee).

How could it be otherwise, when it’s the most basic tools of their trade that they so adore? The faithless lovers of Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee are, in a word, words.

Or to quote one of the interchangeable title characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the 1966 play that made the young Mr. Stoppard famous: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”

It is one of the livelier paradoxes of the English-speaking theater today that its two most dazzling wordsmiths are incurably suspicious of the language they ply with such flair. No other living playwrights give (and, it would seem, receive) more pleasure from the sounds, shapes and textures of their lavishly stocked vocabularies. And none is more achingly conscious of the inadequacy of how they say what they say.

This contradiction is not just an element of their style; it’s the essence of it. It’s what gives that distinctive, heady tension to their plays, the friction that sends the minds of receptive theatergoers into exhilarated overdrive. It is also what makes actors say that mastering these playwrights’ ornate, fast-footed language requires the sort of hard study demanded by Shakespeare.
Inordinately slick and fleet of tongue, Stoppard and Albee heroes — from the 19th-century Russian philosophers of Mr. Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia” to the battling husband and wife of Mr. Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — are forever trying to pin down chameleon words, like so many adrenaline-drunk Ulysseses wrestling shape-changing sea gods. (Words, as one character in “The Coast of Utopia” puts it, “just lead you on” and “arrange themselves every which way.”) These heroes may not stand a chance of winning but, oh, what a beautiful fight…

That state of questioning every word can paralyze. There’s the sense with Mr. Albee and Mr. Stoppard that their characters keep talking as fast as they can because otherwise they would sink into silence and all the terrifying questions that lie within…

Within this shadowy context, so profound as to be immeasurable, Mr. Albee and Mr. Stoppard use bright, impeccably assembled dialogue to illuminate the provisional structures of daily life. They see the cosmic joke within the limitations of language and revel in it in ways that remind us of how much the Absurdists have in common with music-hall comedians.

Ben Brantley
New York Times

In Buddhist tradition “the stopping mind” refers to the tendency to fixate on things, ideas or experiences, and thus impede acceptance of the transitoriness of everything, ourselves included.

But that notion grew out of societies that never envisioned a high-tech, commerce-driven culture such as ours that prizes incessant motion and change both for their own sake and as fuel for the profit system.

Addicted to speed, we need help stopping: not in fear or paralysis, but in a mode that gives us pause to sort out what we see and feel. We need relief from our own glib knowingness, which lets us glide through the element of surprise in daily life.

Hence our need for the arts, especially the arts of our own time, which respond to our condition implicitly and sometimes explicitly.
I started out as a critic in a world slower than this one – no Internet, no credit cards, no cash machines – yet already jet-propelled. At the very outset, I encountered the then-new tendency – minimal sculpture – that tried to make the arresting quality of art the entirety of its content.

Confronted with a piece such as Carl Andre’s “Voltaglyph 20” (1997) – which closely resembles things he made 30 years earlier – I felt that it left me nowhere to go – in interpretation, in emotional response, in conversation. Yet as sculpture, it somehow convinced me.

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(Photo courtesy of Haines Gallery)

Writing my way out of that apparent cul-de-sac left me with heightened alertness to the interruptions built into artworks: passages that slow the movement of attention through the work’s structure or toward a clear idea of its meaning.

Other factors also played a part. Art institutions, including the market, quickly absorbed the shock delivered by the utter inertia of work by Andre and other New York artists of his generation. Yet even to those long familiar with Andre’s work, a stony absurdity close to the heart of it can still obtrude itself unexpectedly and induce a blush of self-consciousness about the whole business of dwelling on art objects.

Few visual artists working in more complex idioms can cause the kind of comprehensive full stop that Andre contrived. But complexity in art – in good work, anyway – usually entails some choreographing of the work’s reception.

Consider a photograph by Lee Friedlander, whose retrospective comes to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in February. A black-and-white shot of an apple tree under snow, it might have risen no higher than Christmas-card banality. But Friedlander’s choice of viewpoint and lens and his tuning of the print produced an image that not only precludes our entering into it sentimentally but also continually drives the eye back to the picture surface graphically.

The medium’s inherent realism draws the eye into the image space, but it rebounds again and again to the powerful, effectively abstract network of forms at the picture plane. A momentary stoppage occurs – like the still point at the apex of a parabola – with each volley of attention. It is as if Friedlander forces us to reassemble the image repeatedly in order to see it.

With every such interruption of what we may prefer to imagine as a seamless flow of perception, we contact an inner silence that ordinarily we may not hear at all: a momentary clearing in the pervasive cultural fog of received opinion and inferred expectation.

Genuine shocks – an accident, sudden bad news – often produce a similar hiatus, making us feel cruelly isolated in our subjectivity. By providing this sort of radical interruption free of practical consequences, artworks allow us to grow more comfortable with it, even to appreciate it as a truth of experience.

The kind of interruption or stoppage I describe need not last long. It can do its work of aerating awareness in an instant or a cascade of instants. For this reason, the periodic laments we hear over the short spans of time people spend in front of individual artworks miss the point. The quality, not the duration of engagement, matters.

To a knowing hand, any medium may offer the means to contrive the rhythms of comprehension and arrest that the culture at large offers only in degraded form, if it’s offered at all.

Deborah Butterfield’s sculpture “Untitled (Rust)” (2004) shows how it can occur in assemblage. Butterfield constructs sculptures of horses – each one portraying a specific animal, she claims – from scrap metal or wood. A viewer of her work re-enacts in some measure the process of gaining, losing and regaining sight of the possibilities of forming an image in the round from components that in themselves suggest nothing horse-like whatsoever.

Often a viewer circling a Butterfield sculpture literally will stop and savor a vantage point from which the governing image seems to coalesce or to dissolve into abstraction or mere raw material.

Critical writing about art seldom describes well, and almost never exemplifies, the kind of respiration of reception I have tried to evoke. To find that in language, we have to turn to poetry.

Kenneth Baker
San Francisco Chronicle

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Messages sent into space directed at extraterrestrials may have been too boring to earn a reply, say two astrophysicists trying to improve on their previous alien chat lines.

Humans have so far sent four messages into space intended for alien listeners. But they have largely been made up of mathematically coded descriptions of some physics and chemistry, with some basic biology and descriptions of humans thrown in.

Those topics will not prove gripping reading to other civilisations, says Canadian astrophysicist Yvan Dutil. If a civilisation is advanced enough to understand the message, they will already know most of its contents, he says: “After reading it, they will be none the wiser about us humans and our achievements. In some ways, we may have been wasting our telescope time.”

In 1999 and 2003, Dutil and fellow researcher Stephane Dumas beamed messages in a language of their own design into space. Now, they are working to compose more interesting messages.

“The question is, what is interesting to an extraterrestrial?” Dutil told New Scientist. “We think the answer is using some common ground to communicate things about humanity that will be new or different to them – like social features of our society.” Fortunately those subjects are already being described mathematically by economists, physicists and sociologists, he adds.

Tom Simonite
New Scientist