Friday, 20 February 2015

On bard-induced bloglessness

A few correspondents have asked what has happened to my blog, as there have been no posts for a while. The answer is simple, and consists of two words: Shakespeare dictionaries.

It was rather unkind of Shakespeare to have two anniversaries in such close proximity: the 450th of the birth in 2014 and the 400th of the death in 2016. The result was an astronomical growth in the Shakespeare industry, with publishers vying to get their books out in good time. The interest will disappear on 24 April next year, I imagine - until the next big anniversary comes along (2023, the First Folio).

I was caught up in this flurry, and still am, having accepted commissions for two new dictionaries. The first is almost out: an Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary for schools, co-written with Ben Crystal and stunningly illustrated by Kate Bellamy, published by OUP next month. This contains some 4000 of the words students find difficult, taken from the 12 most popular plays studied in schools. We've devised some new thesaural features for it and spent a lot of time creating contextual explanations, adding theatre notes, and the like. It's been a lot of fun.

And later in the year, I will say that the second dictionary was a lot of fun - but not right now, while I'm still slogging through it. This is going to be the Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation (also OUP) - a response to the extraordinary demand for OP materials that has emerged over the past couple of years. At least three plays are being performed in OP this year - Pericles (just happened in Stockholm, performed by Ben's Shakespeare Ensemble), The Merchant of Venice in Baltimore in March at the Shakespeare Factory, and Henry 5 at the Globe in July (Ben's Ensemble again). I've had hints of other productions from correspondents. And everyone is clamouring for help, in the form of recordings or transcriptions. The aim of the OP Dictionary is to enable people to cope with OPs for themselves. It will contain every word in the First Folio, along with the evidence from spellings and rhymes, so that people can see how I arrived at my recommendations. It's been a project that, on and off, I've been engaged in for the past ten years, but the last year has seen it come to the boil.

And when dictionaries approach boiling point, everything else that is optional stops. Dictionary compilation (and, I recall, encyclopedia compilation) is unlike any other kind of writing, as you are in the hands of an impassive and uncaring force: the alphabet. With an 'ordinary' book, the author is in control. I can choose how much to include or exclude. With a dictionary, you have to reach letter Z before you are done, and leave nothing out. If the aim is to include all words in the First Folio, then that is an absolute: no tolerances are possible. So, as one slogs through the big letters - C, P, and the gigantic S... - there is no time or energy available for luxuries such as blog posting. It would perhaps be different if I were blogging casually, on everyday topics. But my blog has always been a reactive one, responding to linguistic questions that I am sent. I choose topics where the answers are not already easily available online or in the literature, and so the posts are mini-research projects, with some taking many hours to write. That luxury disappeared towards the end of last year - in the middle of letter S, as I remember.

All being well, I hope to finish the OP Dictionary around Easter-time, and expect to resume posting then. In the meantime, for those who noticed my bloglessness, thank you for asking.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

On saying potato

You Say Potato is out today.

The associated 'record your accent' survey is gathering pace, with over a hundred recordings up already at this website. My idea is to collect as many versions of the way people say a single word ('potato') as possible, on a worldwide scale, so that we can hear the subtle gradations that occur from place to place, and of course even within a place.

My thanks especially to Stephen Fry, Michael Rosen, John Humphrys, Benjamin Zephaniah, Nicholas Parsons, Brian May, and Pam Ayres, who were among the first to let me know how they say potato - often with some unexpected additional remarks!

Friday, 26 September 2014

On word-cloud calligrams

My correspondent this time is Nicola Burton of Oxford University Press, who's been looking after the publicity for my recently published Words in Time and Place, and who has come up with a novel way of presenting the word-clusters in the book. She's taken the word-cloud motif on the cover - all the words for nose formed into the shape of a nose (with more than a passing resemblance to my own hooter) - and extended it to the other thematic categories covered by the book. You can see them here, but this is an example, using the words covered in the category 'terms of endearment'.

I've been wondering what to call them. They clearly fall into a tradition of visual poetry, sometimes called 'altar poems' (after the poem by George Herbert), and they are the hallmark of concrete poetry. But the practice of making words or sentences visually resemble entities in the real world goes well beyond poetry. Lewis Carroll's famous mouse-tail is an example. The term that is most obviously applicable is calligram - from calligraphy. I have examples in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language of some of Apollinaire's. But word-cloud calligrams are so distinctive that I think they deserve a term of their own. Any suggestions?

Since the OUP blog post went up (yesterday), the calligrams have entered social media, and have been significantly retweeted. I sense a new art-form here. My book was commissioned to provide a general introduction to the enormous Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, and any semantic category of that work, large or small, could receive this treatment - and there are tens of thousands available. They can all be accessed through the OED online site, where there's a button allowing any word to be related to its location in the HTOED lists. Concrete words like nose or lavatory are likely to be relatively straightforward to handle (though they still need artistic ingenuity to be appealing). It'll be the abstract words that present the real challenge. But seeing as Nicola managed effectively to deal with death and endearment, I doubt whethere any word will be beyond the reach of the new generation of word-cloud calligrammers.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

On a question that (it) is hard to answer

A correspondent writes to ask about the use of it in relative clauses, in such sentences as the following (taken from Fowler and also a modern textbook). He finds its use unidiomatic in examples (3) and (5) in particular. Is the it omissible, he asks?

(1) This was a conference which it was my duty to attend.
(2) The debate on the bill produced a tangle of arguments which it required all Mr. Chamberlain's skill to untie.
(3) This is a thing which it is easy to say.
(4) The heaving and turbulent centuries which at one time it was the fashion to characterize the 'Dark Ages' have long had a peculiar fascination for historians.
(5) That is a question which it is very hard to answer.

These are quite complex syntactically, as they all have a nonfinite clause inside a cleft construction inside a relative clause. To see what's going on we need to simplify. Let's get rid of the clefting first.

(1) My duty was to attend (the conference).
(2) Mr Chamberlain's skill was required to untie (the tangle of arguments).

The semantic links are clear: duty goes primarily with attend, not conference. Skill goes primarily with untie, not arguments. If the it were omitted in the original examples, the force of the relative pronoun would be to point the listener/reader semantically backwards, towards the head noun. Duty would now seem to go with conference, and skill with arguments. The it restores the right semantic connection. So, in short: we avoid a potential ambiguity - though the fact that there's so much usage variation (the it often being omitted) suggests that it isn't one that causes much communicative difficulty.

The ambiguity is there in (3) and (5), but the shortness of the sentences, along with the clear meaning of the elements, makes the presence of it less needed - which is why my correspondent has noticed it when it's inserted.

It is easy to say (this thing).
It is hard to answer (the question).

It's obvious that things don't do the speaking or that questions don't do the answering, so semantically there's no need to reinforce the point when the clefts are restored.

This is a thing which is easy to say.
That is a question which is very hard to answer

Only someone ignoring the semantics would say there's a genuine ambiguity here. But traditional grammarians, obsessed with making a rule work in all cases, did regularly ignore semantics. And anyone following those rules will insist on inserting the it in these cases, probably on the grounds that it helps avoid a possible momentary distraction. From a psycholinguistic point of view, there may be a point here, but it's hardly one that's likely to cause communicative interference. I doubt whether most people would ever even notice that an it was omitted in (3) and (5). And some, such as my correspondent, evidently find the usage with it intrusive.

(4) is a special case, as it's a badly constructed sentence, which could do with being rephrased anyway! Try reducing the sentence to its basic form and you'll see what I mean.

Monday, 18 August 2014

On courtly OP

Following on from my last post, I've had several emails from correspondents asking the same question. Did the Elizabethan court have an upper-class accent like today? If not, how did the upper-class characters in the plays show they were different from the lower-class ones, if they were all using the same accent.

The actor playing the Prince asked exactly the same question, when we were mounting the Romeo production in 2004. Director Tim Carroll had a simple response: 'act'! Indeed, if actors rely on their accent alone to convey a character, something has gone badly wrong. That's one of the irritating stage legacies of Received Pronunciation: I've often been told about actor 'laziness' - that all one has to do to convey a posh character is to sound posh, and the accent will do all the work. And conversely, of course, that all an actor has to do to play a lower-class character is to sound rustic. There's so much more to it than that.

The question betrays a misunderstanding of what OP is. OP is a phonology, not a phonetics. In other words, it represents the sound system of an earlier period in the history of English. Just as Modern English phonology has an indefinite number of phonetic realizations, so does Early Modern English phonology. In other words, there are several accents in OP. When we performed Romeo at the Globe, we had a Scottish-tinged Juliet, a Cockney-tinged Nurse, a Northern Ireland-tinged Peter, and so on. But everyone reflected ths OP system in the way they spoke - for example, saying musician as 'mu-si-see-an', or pronouncing /r/ after vowels.

So of course there would have been differences between different parts of the country, and between the way the court and city people spoke and the way people spoke in the countryside. Indeed, Shakespeare says as much, in As You Like It, when disguised Orlando notices the way Rosalind speaks: 'Your accent is something finer than you could purchase in so removed a dwelling' (3.2.329). But what was that court accent? Was it 'like today'?

It was nothing like RP. RP evolved as an upper-class accent towards the end of the 18th century. In Elizabethan times, you could have a strongly regional accent and still reach the highest levels in the kingdom. We don't know exactly how Elizabeth spoke, but Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh were from Devon, and the judge Thomas Malet observed of the latter: 'he spoke broad Devonshire to his dying day'. When James brought his court down from Scotland, suddenly Scottish accents were everywhere. Francis Bacon describes James's speech as 'swift and cursory, and in the full dialect of his country'. And we know from observations such as occur in John Day's satirical 'The Isle of Gulls' (1606) that people would copy the discourse of the court. That play may even have been presented with both Scottish and Southern accents, judging by the observation of Sir Edward Hoby, in a 1606 letter, that 'all men's parts were acted of two diverse nations', and that - evidently King James didn't like it - some of the actors ended up in prison for their pains.

At the same time, we know from a famous quotation in George Puttenham's Art of English Poesie (1589) that poets were recommended to use 'good southern' - 'the usual speech of the court' or of the surrounding area to about 60 miles, and to avoid those from the north and west who used 'strange accents or ill-shapen sounds'. If there was no RP, what might this have been? We get a clue from Holofernes, who is thought to be based on a real-life spelling reformer, such as Richard Mulcaster. He knows how to read and write, and insists on pronouncing every letter. It's a natural process, still encountered today, when people pronounce the /t/ in often because, they say, 'it's there in the spelling'. So, for example, a court accent would almost certainly have pronounced the /h/ at the beginning of a stressed syllable, because it's there in the spelling. And that assumption immediately allows us to explore some interesting dramatic contrasts in OP. When A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed in OP at Kansas University a few years ago, the court characters and lovers kept their /h/'s and the mechanicals dropped them (unless trying too hard, in their play scene), as did the fairies. That allows Puck to emphasise the /h/'s when he is copying Demetrius and Lysander - a posh 'manhood', for example.

What all this points to is the existence of 'educated regional' accents, much as we have today. 'Modified RP', as some would say - or, even more recently, modified 'General British'.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Read, OP Definitely Not Dead

Well, that's been a roller-coaster of an OP ride. Three events, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. All three sold out, and hugely appreciative audiences. If you've been to the Globe, you'll know that audience reaction at the end of a play typically takes the form of a huge 'Globe roar' that I'm sure can be heard in St Paul's across the river. We got one too. But it didn't travel so far, because, of couse, we were indoors.

What an amazing space the Playhouse is. A replica, insofar as historical knowledge allows, of the indoor Blackfriars theatre, for which so many of the plays were designed. There were two reasons Ben and I were delighted to be presenting there. From my point of view, you could hear the OP perfectly. When we did Romeo and Troilus in the main house, back in 2005-6, the effect was diminished by the helicopters and general Thameside noise. In the Playhouse, you could hear pins dropping. Every OP feature, therefore, had to be top quality, and - thanks to the ensemble training in Ben's company - it was the best OP I've ever heard.

From Ben's point of view, it was an opportunity to explore the physicality and auditory dynamic of this, as he put it, 'new-old space'. Among the things we learned was the importance of the central corridor, if an actor was to be seen by all (including those in the steep upper-gallery), and the amazing opportunities for interaction provided by the balcony. At ground level, the need to keep moving if actors are not to block the view of those seated at the side stage-left and -right. The ensemble training enabled Ben's company to do this almost instinctively. Shakespeare's company had worked together for so many years that they would have known each other's acting style backwards. Ben's intention was to replicate this dynamic as far as possible, and I think it worked.

This involves the use of cue-scripts. I'd never worked with them before, but they change your whole approach to a play. In a cue-script, the actors receive only their individual lines, plus a cue - the last few words of what the previous speaker has said. This makes you listen to your fellow-actors in a very different way, and introduces an alertness into the acting that is at times electrifying. The Playhouse is a hugely intimate space, with the actors' very close to the audience. The company learned that even the slightest of movements travelled - they compared it to acting for the screen - and of course the OP travelled too. No need for projection here. As Ben said at one point, 'the words and space will do all the work for you'.

This was especially important in the second event of the series, Songs and Sonnets. How do you read the sonnets aloud, so that they can be heard without having to belt them out? In this space, it was easy to generate a quiet, reflective, and moving style. But it took an afternoon of rehearsal for the actors to internalize this. And, at the other extreme, the space also allowed the rousing songs (such as the 'hey nonny nonny' chorus) to come across with a vivacity that almost forces the audience to join in.

The first event was a general introduction to OP. Now that was a delight for me. I've often introduced OP to an audience, but giving the examples myself. Sometimes I've had Ben with me to help. But here was a whole company at our disposal! As a result we could explore the effect of OP in texts that I've never heard it used in before. For example, we dramatized the First Folio prefaces by Ben Jonson and Heminge and Condell (the latter has some lovely humour - 'BUY IT'). And we did the 'four captains' scene from Henry V, where for the first time I heard OP in distinctively Welsh, Irish, and Scottish accents. People sometimes think of OP as if it was a single accent. Early Modern English of course had the same kind of accent diversity as we encounter in Modern English.

The final event in the series, Macbeth, was a huge success - according to the audience, who said so in the talkback session that followed, and also in the Twittersphere, and, already, in a review of the occasion by Eoin Price. This wasn't just because of the OP. Indeed, if people left the theatre saying 'Wasn't the OP interesting?' then we would have failed. No, as ever, the play's the thing. And there were so many fresh ideas in this production. And cheeky moments. The witches were like playful kids, yet full of powers and scared stiff of Hecate. In classic Globe style, they played hide-and-seek before their Hecate scene. The First Witch comes on and mouths 'Where are they?', prompting one member of the audience to shout 'She's behind you!'

Another one. This was a Read Not Dead production, which meant that all actors are obligated to have their scripts in front of them. There were some hilarious moments in rehearsal as a consquence. 'Dead Banquo arrives and asks plaintively, 'If I'm a Ghost do I still carry my script?' And in the final scene, when Macduff approaches the showdown with Macbeth, he begins his speech by saying 'I have no words' - and drops his script on the floor! Much appreciated by Globe aficionados.

But the impact of the production as a whole was as Ben and I wanted it to be. The freshness of the dramaturgy was enhanced by the stimulus of the OP. It made the actors see (or perhaps better, feel) their characters in a new light, and the way in which lines were being freshly heard sparked off interactions and interpretations that I found novel and enticing. Several theatre people who were present have since told me they want to explore OP in their own settings. And Ben's hoping to take the series on tour, though that all comes down to money in the end.

There's a brave new OP world out there awaiting exploration. A dozen Shakespeare plays have been done in OP to date. That leaves another 25 or so still do. Not to mention Jonson, Marlowe, Marston, Middleton...

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

On being at

A correspondent writes to ask about what she calls 'the rise of the unnecessary use of at on the end of questions, as in Where are you at?, and wonders what's going on. Is it simply a tautology?

There's more to it than that. Semantically, where is a very wide-ranging question-word, covering such meanings as general explanation ('Where will it all end?'), broad location ('Where is Denmark?'), specific location ('Where did I leave my glasses?'), intended destination ('Where are you headed?'), and point of origin ('Where have you been?'). Kids (and some adults) like to play with the ambiguity. Where do you live?' On planet Earth.

Particles help to sharpen the focus of the question. 'Where are you going?' means the same as 'Where are you going to?', but the to emphasises the sense of direction. Adverbs like exactly do the same thing: 'Where exactly...?' The motivation for 'Where are you at?' seems to be a a desire to establish more precisely the location of the addressee. We need to look carefully at contexts to see the motivation. Here's a case in point:

X is on the train, travelling to meet Y, and Y wants to check up on whether he'll be there in time. Y calls his mobile. 'Where are you?' X replies 'I'm on the train'. This isn't specific enough for Y, who can't now ask 'Yes but where are you?' as a follow-up question. He has to rephrase, and one of the ways, evidently, is to say 'Yes, but where are you at?' - where exactly have you reached? Or, of course, to start the conversation by asking the question in that way.

The usage is reinforced by other constructions with a similar end-placed particle, all of which sharpen the focus of the interrogative, such as 'Where are you up to?', 'Where are you from?', 'Where are you near to?', and so on. There may also be some reinforcement from the idiomatic use of the same construction, in which the enquiry is more about a person's state of mind or stage of achievement ('Where are you at?' 'I've nearly finished') or a fashionable event ('Market Street is where it's at'). I suspect most uses of 'Where are you at?' will contain a semantic nuance not present in the simple 'Where are you?' So it's not simply a tautology.