Stikkordarkiv: language

Three by Gerald Durrell

Rereading non-fiction seemed to work even in the middle of the funk, so I reread three Gerald Durrell books in row. The first one I picked up was A Zoo in my Luggage, in which Durrell has finally decided to start his own zoo rather than just collect for other zoos. The year is 1957 and in his optimism he – and his wife Jacquie – decide to do the collecting first, assuming that any town in Britain would be happy to house them once they get back. Who wouldn’t want a zoo? Thus in in the first part of the book they return to the Cameroons, where Durrell has been before, and go to stay with the Fon of Bafut.

What follows is an account of the antics of the animals, the hunters and the Fon and his «court». The narrative follows a path that will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book by Durrell, a mixture of hunting and stalking episodes (a fair amount of which end in failure), quite a few hunters turning up with «beef» to sell and ensuing haggling, accounts of how the animals fare once caught, some take well to captivity, some don’t, and the social interaction with the people of Bafut.

I find the narrative fascinating, not least because I am interested in the animals and the practicalities of catching them and keeping them alive and happy. The books from the Cameroons are especially fascinating, though, as Durrell faithfully records all dialogue in the original «pidgin» (including his own, as he speaks it fluently, as far as I can tell), and for a language nerd this is obviously great fun. The aforementioned «beef» for example means any animal (whether mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile or insect). And a conversation may progress like this:

‘Na whatee dere for inside?’
‘Na squill-lill, sah.’
‘Na whatee dis beef squill-lill?’
‘Na small beef, sah.’
‘Na, bad beef? ‘E go chop man?’
‘No, sah, at all. Dis one na squill-lill small, sah… na picken.’
‘Dis beef, my friend. Na fine beef dis, I like um too much. But ‘e be picken, eh? Some time ‘e go die-o, eh?’
‘Yes, sah,’ agreed the hunter gloomily.
‘So I go pay you two shilling now, and I go give you book. You go come back for two week time, eh, and if dis picken ‘e alive I go pay you five five shilling more, eh? You agree?’
‘Yes, sah, I agree,’ said the hunter, grinning delightedly.

I am not blind to the inherent racism in the narrative, there is more than a little condescension in the way Durrell describes the people of Bafut, even while he obviously regards the Fon as a friend he also presents him as something of a spectacle. Durrell himself is not unaware of this, he is nervous when first contacting the Fon to ask if he may return as he is not entirely sure how the Fon will have reacted to the way he was presented in Durrell’s previous book from the area (The Beagles of Bafut, which I read next). It turns out the Fon is delighted to be a celebrity, and even his reactions in this regard add to the somewhat «simple savage» image Durrell presents (whether consciously or not).

The latter part of the book deals with the difficulty of getting the animals to Britain alive, healthy and happy, and then the naively unforeseen difficulty of finding somewhere to house the zoo. Some quite funny episodes occur while the animals are housed temporarily as a Christmas attraction in a department store basement, for example, while the serach for a permanent location continues. Spoiler: It all turns out well.

Having finished A Zoo in my Luggage it seemed natural to follow it with The Beagles of Bafut, which chronologically comes first (the trip was made in 1949). It follows much the same pattern, but ends once the collection is safely in Britain where the animals are sent off to various zoos both in Britain and in the rest of Europe.

Not feeling up to anything else and not being quite done with Durrell, I then picked up The Drunken Forest, in which Gerald and Jacquie make a collection trip to Argentina and Paraguay (in 1954). The setting is therefore completely different, but the narrative follows the same familiar pattern. In this case the trip is complicated by a coup and unfortunately the Durrells have to leave without their collection, which gives another insight into the possible troubles one can run into as an animal collector.

A sort of postscript: There are many opinions about zoos, and my own feelings on the subject are ambivalent. On the one hand keeping animals captive to provide entertainment for humans is obviously problematic. On the other hand, modern zoos are part of the global conservation effort, with captive breeding programmes for endangered species (and Durrell was a pioneer in this area, «Durrell Wildlife Park was the first zoo to house only endangered breeding species» according to Wikipedia, and Durrell refused to exhibit animals simply for show) and there is much to be said for their role in educating the general public, creating interest in biodiversity and thereby helping push initiatives to conserve the animals in their natural habitats.

Smakebit på søndag: Made in America

madeinamericaJeg tar nok en pause fra U- og leser litt i Bill Brysons Made in America, om hvordan amerikansk engelsk utviklet seg til å bli slik det ble. I dag skal jeg være så orginal at jeg serverer en fotnote som smakebit:

Why the -s termination rose to prominence is something of a mystery. It came from northern England, a region that had, and still has, many dialectal differences from the more populous south, none other of which has ever had the slightest influence on the speech of London and its environs. Why the inhabitants of southern England suddenly began to show a special regard for the form in the late sixteenth century is unknown.

(side 25) Språk er gøy.

Flere smakebiter finner du hos Flukten fra virkeligheten.

Lost for Words – John Humphrys

There seems to be a bit of a red thread going on here, what with all these language-related books, and you might suspect I have been influenced by working at the department of language and communication studies. Which I have, I’m sure. You can’t just blame my employer, though, as we got John Humphrys’ Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language in a three for two sale (or something) while on our honeymoon this summer, and I hadn’t started the job then. You might blame my employer for the fact that I’ve just read the book, though, I suppose.

Anyway, Humphrys’ book is basically a collection of examples, or at least that’s what it feels like, with a little discussion around each one and with some conclusions drawn from the evidence. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusions. It’s also hard not to laugh at times, especially when Humphrys reminds me of why I had to quit reading feminist literary theory. It’s because feminists manage to write this sort of thing in good faith and expect us to take them seriously:

Is E= mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypotheses that it is insofar as it priveleges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to us the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having priveleged what goes fastest.

(Luce Irigaray, apparently.*)

I can understand that women feel uncomfortable being termed a «chairman» or a «fireman» or any of the other «male» words that have been and are still current in our language(s). I just think that sometimes, perhaps, the so-called feminists go over the top a bit. And that quote is a keeper**, and even if Humphrys’ book did nothing else, providing me with that would still be worth the time and money.

But it does do more. It’s funny, frequently lol funny, and it’s intelligent. In short, it’s a good read.

A thought: I wonder if I ever split infinitives? Let me know if you spot any, will you?

* Actually, one thing this book is missing – which is a major drawback – is proper references.

**The more I read it, the more the mind boggles. Especially at these «other speeds that are vitally necessary to us».

Broken English Spoken Perfectly

A collection of examples of that which we know as Engrish, but with a mostly Scandinavian origin. My favourite was from «A hotel in Vienna» and literally made me laugh til I cried:

In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.

(I couldn’t help imagining a porter with a particular affinity for horror movies, who would naturally be more difficult than the average person to «alarm».)

All in all: Funny.

Typisk norsk

Det er jo hyggelig å få ting man ønsker seg til jul. Jeg kom aldri så langt som til å se på Typisk norsk på TV, men boka er jo litt mer brukervennlig i og med at man ikke er avhengig av å først finne ut og så huske et spesiellt tidspunkt på akkurat det tidspunktet og være i nærheten av en tv. Sånt er jo bare pes. Boka derimot kan man for eksempel plukke opp når man spiser frokost eller bare tilfeldigvis har noen ledige minutter.

Og det har jeg altså gjort.

Man kan vel si at jeg nå vet langt mer om norsk språkhistorie enn jeg gjorde før jul. Ikke at det egentlig skulle så mye til, selvsagt, og mye av det jeg nå vet har jeg sannsynligvis glemt igjen snart (med en hjerne som lekker som en sil blir det gjerne sånn). Men da kan jeg jo lese boka om igjen. For den var riktig så underholdende. Det var vel kanskje særlig alt «ekstramaterialet» som var underholdende, med det kan man jo også lese igjen. Boka inneholder nemlig, foruten språkhistorie fra unionsoppløsningen til i dag delt inn i tiår, bokstavenes historie, ords opprinnelse, forsøk på gjenoppliving av gamle ord og «Folkets ordbok» som kanskje var noe av det mest fornøyelige, der var det nemlig svært mye nyttig. «Automagisk» har jeg vel hatt i mitt aktive ordforråd en stund, men arrogasme («den nærmest sanselige gleden man kan ha av å plassere en velformulert (men ganske arrogant) replikk på riktig sted til rett tid) for eksempel var en praktisk nyhet.

Boka kan altså i høyeste grad anbefales, og jeg har store planer om å prøve å få med meg i hvert fall ett eller to av programmene i den nye serien. Og så var det å melde seg inn i kjell-bevegelsen, da.