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Wednesday 22 July 2009

These having caught my eye...

David Crystal (always worth a read or a listen to, especially when when he's talking about language), writing in last Saturday's Guardian Review, reported on the Ledbury poetry festival, introducing his remarks with a small modern parable:- A spaceship is approaching a planet on which two races are known to exist, one being beautiful of countenance and friendly to us humans, the other being very ugly and hostile. One is known as the Lamonians and the other as the Grataks. But which is which, we do not know. The point of it is that most people assume that the Lamonians are the nice guys and the Grataks the baddies, it all being all a matter of sound associations - or as Crystal had it, of sound symbolism. The l,m,n sounds in the word Lamonians, together with its long vowels or dipthongs and its pollysyllabic rhythm are interpreted as being nicer than the harsh sounds and abrupt rhythm of Grataks.

At the festival poets were asked to say which words they hated most and why. Which I now invite you to do, either here in the comments box or at The Guardian books blog or both.

Now two snippets from The Independent last Friday:-

Arifa Akbar reorting a conversation with Alain de Botton concerning the latter's School of Life, a modern day literary saloon, an idea that he derived from a conversation with Kylie Minogue's father. Something Mr Minogue (who is also her manager) said about performance caused de Botton to realise that the future for lterature too, lay in live performances. Their business had fallen by 60%, Mr Minogue said, because of internet downloads - and the same was about to happen to books. Writers should: Do what musicians do, start a new revenue stream.... maybe there's a community for books, rather than it being a solitary thing.

My other Independent snippet is of a 16 year old Graffitit artist named Cartrain who, it seems, nicked a rare packet of pencils from Damien Hurst's Pharmacy exhibit at Tate Britain. He had intended to replace them with a packet of genuine Tesco pencils, but the security was too tight and he was unable to do so. Hurst was not a happy bunny about this and Akbar was asking whether this should go down in the annals as a) an act of vandalism, b) guerrilla art or c) a shameless publicity stunt. What thinkest thou?

From the TLS (July 10): a review of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's book Poetry as Insurgent Art (a book of aphorisms (and some poetry) such as Don't slip on the banana peel of nihilism, even while listening to the roar of nothingness. and Poetry is the anarchy of the senses making sense) rephrases the old question What can poetry do? as What are poets for? He is thinking of them in terms of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. His answer (which I like) is the the poet should be: a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full discourse and has a low tolerance of bullshit.

And from the same paper one week later, A N Wilson reviewing two books on Isaiah Berlin relates a Greek fragment by Archilochus told to him (Wilson) by Lord Oxford: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. There follow two lists, one of poets and thinkers classified by Berlin as foxes and one of hedgehogs. Shakespeare, Goethe and Aristotle, for example, are among the foxes. Plato, Ibsen and Proust weigh in as hedgehogs. I wonder who your favourite(s) might be for each group... and if you agree with Berlin?


NanU said...

Hello Dave,
Among the words I truly dislike is 'mellifluous'. Happily, it doesn't come up very often. It's meant to be a nice, complementary, word, but I find it too syrupy and artificial.

Tesco pencils would have been good for a laugh. For a couple of days. As long as the precious pencils found their way back to the exhibit. I vote Botched Publicity.

Keep up the cool blog!

Jinksy said...

I thinkest thou dost try my brain, and fear I should learn to abstain from penning lines of naught but drivel...about which no one needs to quibble.

Jim Murdoch said...

There is a Wikipedia article on sound symbolism, Dave. I like the idea of it but I'm not sure how scientific it is. It works in the example given but what if we made the characters human, say Mona and Greta, do we assume that Mona is going to be nicer than Greta? Do we assume that Greta is German and attribute 'German' characteristics to her before even meeting her? Using aliens is one thing but as soon as we start to think of real world examples other factors come into play.

As for the Pharmacy stunt, my first thought was: Who the hell would have noticed? I think the theft really comments on the work as a whole. How much of it could vanish and the work still . . . well, work? What if I made a wee change in a famous poem, for example:

   I wandered lonely as a cloud
   That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
   When all at once I spied a crowd,
   A host, of golden daffodils;

Does the poem still work? Would most people even notice what word I've changed?

And as for foxes and hedgehogs, I thin both my Literary heroes (that would be Larkin and Beckett) would be hedgehogs and the one thing they would be remembered for would be the truism: Life is too long for most of us.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I don't think I can hold all those interesting questions in my head Dave!
First of all - words I hate - well there are all the words associated with unpleasant things - prison, torture, stoning etc.
Then there are the words I hate because they are overused - these seem to vary with each generation - when I was at college the "in" words were dichotomy and heirarchy - and boy were they overused.
I do agree also that "scratchy" words are often unpleasant - can't think of any offhand, but I can think of some lovely words juat by liatening to them - honeysuckle, waterfall, columbine - I could go on.
On another point - I do seem to keep reading that books are going to go out of fashion - what a terrible thought that books should become antiques. What would replace that feel, the smell and the joy of holding a new book in your hands?

Mariana Soffer said...

Interesting what you say about the arbitrary assumptions about which group from the spaceship is good and which one is bad..
I will propose you here a more complex calculation that can determine more accurately what people will say, for that you have to contemplate all the following values of each word
-amount of letters
-amount of strong vowels
.amount of weak vowels
-number of consonants : guttural, pharyngeal, ..
and there are several more variables that can be selected to predict the outcome, of course these variables will have to be combined between each other in some kind of mathematicall way or by building a model like a decision tree to be able to use them to predict.
On Damien Hurst I would choose C
I liked
Poetry is the anarchy of the senses making sense

Faviourite fox: john berger
Favourite Hedgehog: Alan Turing

Thanks for the fun david, take care

David Cranmer said...

The small modern parable is very interesting. I've seen something said like this before but not as well.

Dave King said...

science girl
Welcome to my blog, and yes, I think I agree with you on all points, 'mellifluous', particularly - and for the same reason.

I think that's an excellent comment in its own right! Thanks.

I do think this sound business works at the instinctual level. I think we are often influenced subliminally by the sound of names - and other parts of speech also. I'm not sure that that should really be classed as 'symbolism', though. Symbolism to me has a conscious, even conceptual, element to it. I do take your point about the difference applying it to humans, though.

The Wordsworth analogy is a good one, I think. I'd like to think I'd notice, but as to would it make a difference, probably not.

I would have guessed Becket. Bit surprised by Larkin, though.

The Weaver of Grass
I didn't really expect anyone to take them all on, just to choose what took their fancy. Thanks for your thoughts. So far as the words are concerned, it does depend in part upon their use, I think. There are certain words I would try to avoid when writing poetry, for example, but maybe not otherwise. I can relate to your suggestions. Even more so when it comes to the little matter of books going out of fashion. I was reading only yesterday of Google's belief (can such an entity have a 'belief'?) that the book of the future is a single fluid book of all books together!!

Welcome, and many thanks for such a comprehensive response. I like your mathematical formula idea. That could be great fun to devise - and maybe even greater fun to test!

Yes, I liked anarchy of the senses, too.

Berger and Turing... interesting!

Dave King said...

Much thanks for that.

Batteson.Ind said...

Really interesting post!... having read them, I now also like "dipthongs" and "pollysyllabic"!... I also like "bung", "omnipotent" and "blancmange" (french I know..but still counts in my view!)
I don't like the words, "chard", "inert", "blinked" and "special".. for examples.. I love the idea of that parable!.. Going away now to see what other words please and displease me :-D

Batteson.Ind said...

Oh.. and i would say definitely guerilla art! Sure, the piece of "art" in question was debatable as an actual piece of "art" in my view, therefore, anything done to it (theft, destruction, etc) could be argued as also, "art".... A lot of art to me at the moment seems to be art because no'one thought up with it (or got away with it) before... This makes it a statement none the less, just don't get arsey artist on the general public when they fancy joining in.. surely it's a compliment the "piece" moved someone into a physical reaction!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hi Dave - I am back for another think! I would like to think that the theft of those pencils was guerilla art but the cynic in me feels it is more likely to be a publicity stunt - because that is what life seems to be like these days, don't you think?

Madame DeFarge said...

Fascinating post. I'm not sure that I can think of any words I hate. It's possibly more how they can be pronounced in different accents or used wrongly that bugs me.

Mark Kerstetter said...

1. I have trouble imagining a poet who hates a word.

2. Hurst: publicity stunt.

3. There are few foxes I'm afraid, and a whole lot of hedgehogs.

Ferlinghetti's "reporter from outer space" comment is provocative, but I wonder if being a reporter to an editor in outer space might not also be helpful.

Dominic Rivron said...

I heard Ferlinghetti on Radio 4 not that long ago saying that the world was crying out for more Beat poetry.

Least favourite word? I've several.

Partnership: as in the vogue expression "work in partnership with" which at worst (e.g. when politicians use it) I take to mean "hanging on to the coat tails of".

Holistic: I'd like to like this word, but it's not half as good as "all-round" and is just a pretentious way of saying the same thing.

Cloudia said...

I was given the Ferlingetti and it is antique, up-to-the-moment and liberating!

Aloha, dear Dave

Comfort Spiral

Helen Ginger said...

Lordy, Dave, you come up with the most interesting and eclectic posts! It's always fun to drop by.

Straight From Hel

Lori ann said...

oh dear i hate to even write it, but the word i hate the most is :


and i really do prefer foxes and hedgehogs to people(kidding!) unless it's Alain de Botton and how Proust can change your life, that i love!

Dave King said...

Lori Ann
Good answers those - in my opinion.

Carl said...

Hi Dave - Wow thats a weeks worth of posts rolled into one. I can't think of any words I don't like because of the sound of them.. although I get the idea. Most of my disliked words have emotional connections. Popular is a word I just don't like.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Two words I hate:



Do you hear either of them in the UK? The second one I hate because uttering it one is usually lying. The first I hate because it is unnecessary, clumsy, and (maybe appropriately?) purely reactive.

Dave King said...

the watercats
Maybe doing this we have to be careful not to find too many words we do not like! I mostly agree with you, but struggle to seewhat is wrong with "special".

As to art being art now because no one got away with it before - I think you're maybe on to something there.

The Weaver of Grass
The cynic in me is inclined to agree with the cynic in you - they have a sort of trade union, you know, these cynics.

Madame DeFarge
I can relate to that, though some words are certainly more difficult to use, particularly in some forms of writing, so I suppose I have a tendency to dislike them on that account. I guess I should just see them as a challenge.

I very much take to your last point. Thinking that way could take us on a bit, I think.

No disagreement there. I have a slight aversion to all jargon words used outside their proper domain. Holistic is a good choice. I had not thought of it before, but I do see what you are driving at. I might have a think about other pretentious words.

I can imagine!

And always good to have you along. Thanks.

Popular is an interesting choice. I wonder how much our reaction to a word (rather than the way it is used) is down to sound symbolism an d how much to associations.


Por-active is very active in the UK. it is a brand of butter-alternative, for one thing. Before I retired we were constantly being told to be pro-active. Pro-life tends to be the by-word of v arious action and pressure groups. Interesting how these words quickly pick up political connotations!

A Cuban In London said...

Hey, Dave, did you catch the Guardian's war poetry special in the Review section yesterday? Carol Ann Duffy's poem was extremely good, in my opinion.

Greetings from London.

readingsully2 said...

I think there is a lot to sound symbolism. It is tied to aesthetics I think. Words with appealing sounds are kind of like beautiful faces...usually symmetrical by the way. Words that have harsh or abrupt sounds evoke ugliness or control, or dictators...certainly harshness. I believe that is why alliteration is so appealing in poetry...because it sounds nice.

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