Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Starvn - The Window Cleaner

The true miracle of Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness", and there are a few in there, is that he wrote it, not in his first language, but his ninth. Language was something he was a bit of a marvel at and he got around to mastering four and dabbled in five others. The fact that he then went on to write one of those few literary classics still enjoyable after roughly a century in print, in his non-native language is stupendous.

He's not alone of course. Nabokov wrote some novels in Russian that were translated into English then others in English which he self translated into Russian. "Lolita”, with its subtle dexterity of language that earned its own somewhat fairy kingdom title of "Nabokovian language", was written by a man who could have quite easily done so in three different tongues. He also found time to discover some previously unknown species of butterflies while he did so. That thought alone conjures dexterous images of him scribbling nasty pen portraits with one paw, while thrashing the rose bushes outside his study window with the other.

Few born holding the language write in English as exceptionally as those two and the list undoubtedly goes on. Tolkien after all invented a language to write parts of his novels in, then he went on to insist that the whole thing was pronounceable, grammatical and, in a fanciful moment, useful.

Perhaps I think it’s so spectacular because of the problems I am having teaching children the basics. I think it would have been easier at times to have written my own autopsy, or at least help out in some ways. I doubt if there has been a moment in the last two years where I have had a complete grip on the situation and, if honesty is truly a worthy characteristic, I confess to more than one time within there where the situation was almost entirely ungraspable.

Words in the English language flap about like mudskippers drunk on cherry brandy, driven by a system that seems perverse or cruel or worse. They total a huge number I'm told, perhaps 60% larger than most other languages. Semantically, they borrow from just about every source, manipulating and mangling the ones they don't understand and completely inventing others when they need to infuriate the French.

At any rate when English stands up at important gatherings it claims a structure and a reason based on solid rules. Nothing is true in that however, and so teaching it has taught me. English is the largest single addendum page in history. It did after all invent the phrase the exception is the rule, and what a twisted piece of work that one is. A self-negating piece of mental shrapnel. In fact there is not a rule that is a rule. There is not a rule that isn't more of a guide in the loosest form, the sort that lose their way and the boat they’re in charge of, damming all, drowning the worst. For example (and I only want to give one of these or we'll be here all day) think for a moment about when to add 'the' to a place name in a sentence.

Got a rule in your mind.

Does it go something like this? 'The' goes in front of places that don't have a capital, in order to tell your friend what you are talking about. You don't use it for names, unless of course it’s a big thing like the Pacific Ocean or the San Andreas Fault, or the Moon or the Sun as there is only one of these. But, once again, not for Jupiter or Mars even though there is only one of each of them and when you think about it they’re both pretty big. I guess it's there for the Earth, but only if you seem to want it to be, not in sentences like "Earth has made some terrible mistakes". Rivers have a 'the' and mountains if there are rows of them like the Alps or the Pyrenees, however not if they just want to hang out on their own looking cool like Everest, K2 or Kilimanjaro. Buildings get 'the', however they then drop it if they have a capitalised title as in the sentence "Lets destroy Sydney Opera House." However you can just as well get away with saying "I'm going to destroy The Sydney Opera House" and nobody is going to take you to court for it. You can go home, but not go to the home, unless it’s for the aged, and you can go to court of course, but you just can't go to police station unless you have a bit part in All Creatures Great and Small. You go to sea as a sailor, but live near the sea if you’re a seasider. You go to prison after court to serve time, but go to the prison after church to serve lunch to the prisoners, unless you go to the church after prison to hide out when you break out. The Cape Tribulation isn't a place and neither is Cape of Good Hope. The North and South Poles are there but not The North and South Americas. Big boats like the Bismarck have 'the' off the forward bough, but not little boats like Brindabella. The Sudan is a place but not The Wales. The West Indies but not the West Germany. The Hague, not the Paris. The Yemen but not the New Zealand.

And let’s just stop there, shall we?

I did cheat a bit because I looked up some of these things in a grammar dictionary but solely because I spent a fruitless hour and a half trying to explain them all to bemused students who expected their teacher to know something. More fool them. I guess you get the bombastic point though, the rules of English are bursting with whimsy, caprice and other words my thesaurus knows. As a rule a little like a romance novel. Characters full of bluster, situations without reason, circumstance and chance seemingly determining everything. But then again rules are made to be broken.

Anyway Conrad wrote fulsome literary worth in five languages and I found a window cleaner called "Starvn" today.

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