Tag Archives: language

496. Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

There is something about blogging that I didn’t expect when I started. Since these posts are opinionated, but not totally opinion, I find myself doing research from time to time to keep my facts straight. That means I occasionally learn things I would never otherwise have known.

It’s a major bonus.

I was aware of Bob Dylan’s selection by the Nobel committee, and his reticence regarding the event, but I didn’t know the full outcome. I wanted to make an off-hand comment about it in another post, but didn’t want to make a fool of myself, so I checked out the facts.

The Nobel committee awarded Dylan the prize for literature last October “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Can a song be true literature? I would say yes, although rarely; about as often as a poem is or a novel is. Does Dylan’s work rise to that level of gravitas. Again, my answer is yes; the only other songwriter who comes to mind who worked at that level was Leonard Cohen. Paul Simon just misses the cut.

Dylan took a very long time replying to the committee, fueling speculation that he would refuse the honor, but he finally complied, and eventually provided his Nobel lecture, which is the only requirement attached to the prize.

His lecture was also my prize for checking out the facts. It is superb. I’ve provided a link below.

The lecture, actually more of a biographical essay, is written in the same intelligent but not over-educated voice that we hear in his songs. This is entirely appropriate; it is pure Dylan. He tells of the early impact of Buddy Holly, and then of American folk, then shifts to a personal analysis of three classic books, Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. He presents their complexity, their unflinching view of the rough truths of life, and the manner in which each makes statements which require the readers engagement. Much in these books is not spelled out and nailed down, just as much in his songs is not. These three books are offered for their influence on Dylan’s work.

I found the essay intelligent and moving, and instead of providing a blow by blow, I recommend that you use the link below to read it for yourselves.

I will only quote one short passage, from near the end:

Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard.

I hope you will take the time to read the whole essay. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go dig up some of those old LPs I bought while I was in college during the sixties. He has a rough voice and I don’t like his harmonica playing, but oh, those words!


492. Runeboards

If you are wondering what a runeboard is, look at the top of all the menhir posts. It is a stars-within-stars tool of divination used all over the world of the menhir. Dymal and Taipai were using one in the opening last Wednesday’s Serial and Hea Santala herself has one incised on a truncated stalagmite in her island fortress Whitethorn.

Normal folks, like Taipai, have runeboards incised on wood with counters of brass. There are seventy-one spaces on the runeboard, and seventy-one counters. Each counter bears a rune, but I’m no Tolkien. I didn’t design seventy-one unique runes. That is left for your imagination.

Each rune has several different possible meanings, so simply spilling counters on wood doesn’t mean much. There is a role for intuition in reading which meaning is appropriate to the moment. Also, in a typical spilling of counters about half of the counters just bounce off and lie mute around the board. The ai (personal power) of the caster is involved in a proper scrying.

Really exceptional runecasters, like Lyré, conjure up three dimensional runeboards out of their own personal ai, but normal people, including the rest of the gods, stick to wood and brass.

The inverted star in the center of the board is called the Heartstar. The pentagon that forms its center is called the Heart of the Heartstar. In a true reading, the rune carrying the personal symbol of the caster, or the subject of the casting, falls on the Heart of the Heartstar. If it does not, the scrying is suspect.

By the way, there is no diabolical reason for the inversion. It just lines up better that way with the small stars on either side. Aesthetics rule, in this case.

On very rare occasions, when the caster is a dziai or dziain (man or woman of power) a full mandala emerges. This means that all the counters fall on the board, one per space, with the kladak (personal symbol) in the Heart of the Heartstar. From such a casting, much can be learned about its subject, so achieving a full mandala gives the possessor power over the subject of the mandala. You will see that occur late in Banner of the Hawk.

Incidentally, if you want to pronounce dziai properly, the d is nearly silent, just a whisper of air over the tip of the tongue, as if you were saying “tisk“. Pronounced properly, dziai sounds almost like tziai. But not exactly. A native speaker would hear the difference.

I suppose there are writers who work all this kind of thing out in advance. I further suppose that those people are good at video games. Not me. I played video games with my nephew one time and found it supremely boring. In my case, I discovered (rather than invented) the rules of the runeboard as I wrote the first draft of the menhir books, and refined them while I refined the rest of the work.

That’s also how the language of the Inner Kingdom crept in, one word at a time. Grammar came later.

Also, Lyré is pronounced lee-ray.

482. Where’d Ya Get That Name?

I was writing a short story yesterday, called The Gods of Wind and Air. I knew the main character well enough, had an idea of who he was and what motivated him, and had a fair idea of what he was about to do. I had written the first paragraph and the last paragraph, so I knew where he and I were going together, but I didn’t know his name.

It needed to be reasonably short — five or six letter would be ideal. He was a peasant, with only one name and it didn’t need to be fancy, but it also didn’t need to look like he was an American. No Bill nor Tom nor even Andre need apply.

Usually by this stage in something I’m writing, I know all the main characters’ names, and minor characters are forgettable enough that their names don’t count. I didn’t want to stop the flow of things, so I went postal on the keyboard, firing off a hundred finger strokes at random while moving my hands in twin circles around the keyboard. Three seconds, four at the outside, and I had produced:

;dknclm,v mqrt09gyoweuhb sd; vkjqroifgowduh jnsdp;ogui48o uyecxvKsmvkrpifgvdwslhj merpiogiyfvcoldsjkjvm qp9fgvweujk mpf9gewqsiojksvbpo9irhgbcv anop;s’dkv90q8reudvbq][giu193reuojvbn fe][guy38ewyiush sjnf][5206yu08tr peldgjshdkv[w40efuy 2ieuochn we[]pgf0uhisdujvnmaw]p-0uyhgfovl;d klfop3yion[pqofgijeqhj

Somewhere in that mess would be letter clusters that would fire a spark in the old brain. Sure enough, there was a pel and an an which gave me Pellan, and my troubled peasant had a name.

If you plan to write a normal novel, you will need from dozens to hundreds of names. Sometimes that is easy. When I wrote Jandrax, the stranded colonists were French, three colonies removed from Earth, but still with French names. I went to Homo Hierarchicus, by Louis Dumont. It is a study of Indian caste by a French anthropologist which I had from my college days. Half of the scientists in the bibliography are French. I copied a long list of first names, a long list of last names, and chose at random from each. Then I cross-checked to see that I had not accidentally recreated some famous name — say, Marcel Proust. I did have a Marcel, but I made sure he had a different last name.

When I wrote Symphony in a Minor Key I needed a lot of Anglo and Mexican names. Where I live, that is no problem. I just went to the phone book to get twin, paired lists of first and last names.

Sometimes a reader has no trouble guessing where a writer got a name. In the western novel Flint, the villain is Porter Baldwin. Since Porter and Baldwin were two of the major locomotive manufacturers in that era, and the action revolves around frontier railroads, we have no problem figuring out where Louis L’Amour got PB’s name.

It’s not that easy when you are writing fantasy. I’ve never met anyone named Pellan, for instance. When I wrote my first fantasy novel, I needed names for five sub-lords (as I called them then). I happened to be listening to an early record (stereo, LP, 12 inch vinyl — it was a long time ago) by Ravi Shankar. In the liner notes, he explained the five parts of a raga, giving the Indian names for the movements.

Yes, you guessed it. I later modified them so that it was not so obvious. Just a piece of advice; if you are writing a fantasy about a pair of twins, and you happen to be listening to classical music — don’t name your twins Allegro and Adagio. Someone will notice.

Eventually, I needed so many odd ball names that I had a brainstorm. I bought a Find-a-word. They aren’t so popular anymore, so I will describe — a Find-a-word is a book of full page puzzles where each page is filled with letters in a grid. Your job is to find the words that are listed at the bottom of the page.

I used the Find-a-word to look for letter groupings that weren’t words, but could be in my fantasy world. Brilliant, I thought. In reality, I never found anything useful. Maybe you will have more luck. I offer the notion to you free of charge.

It’s no secret that most of the people who read A Writing Life are, or want to be, writers. If you will please look up and to the left, you will find a button that says Leave a reply.

I know you guys (and gals — and whatever) are out there. I can hear your breathing in the dark. Take five minutes and tell me what you do to find character names. I’m honestly curious.

475. Speak English!

Over in Serial today, a fairly long bit of exposition appears in Symphony in a Minor Key. It amounts to an essay (or maybe sermon) on English and Spanish in American schools. It has nothing to do with DACA or contemporary issues of immigration, since it was written in the late eighties. It also doesn’t come down for or against bilingualism. It is a look at the underlying problems faced by both Anglo and Hispanic students. Even if you aren’t following Symphony, this post is still worth a look.

I came to these conclusions by a three step process, beginning with growing up as a smart kid in a tiny, rural Oklahoma school. We were all white, all English speakers, and we all sounded more or less the same. The teachers spoke grammatical English, mostly, but the kids and their parents did not. I wanted to, and I needed to, since I planned to go to college. I read books, and the words on the page did not closely resemble the words I heard from farmers down at the grain elevator.

Eventually, I realized that the language of the books I was reading was not the same dialect that I was hearing from those around me. My English teachers consciously and painfully spoke grammatical English, the other teacher also did, but with many noticeable lapses, and no one else even tried. If I was going to go to college, I needed more, so I memorized Strunk and White.

Now I could write essays that were as good, and as grammatical, as anyone’s, no matter where that person was educated. It got me into college. Michigan State University gave me a scholarship and I was on my way.

Except — when I got off the train in East Lansing, no one could understand a word I said. My words were all correct, and grammatically strung together, but they were all pronounced “wrong”. I had “learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news”, but he had an Okie accent too, and I never knew it.

My roommates learned to understand me, and translated during the first few weeks until I had gotten used to Michigander pronunciations and learned to mimic them. My accent slowly faded, but came back with a vengeance every time I went home. I never did learn the supposed difference between “i” and “e”. Pen and pin are still pronounced exactly the same inside my head. I can fake the difference, but it hurts my mouth.

Personal experience showed me how our American language works, but I did not know why until PBS produced a mini-series called The Story of English in 1986. I recommend it if you can find a copy and a VCR to play it on. I wish PBS would make it available in some modern format.

It turns out that American English is so diverse because British English was a melange of dialects when it arrived in the New World. They found their way to various regions of America and thrived there. Now I came to understand that, when JFK said Cuber instead of Cuba, and all those fine craftsmen on This Old House leave out their “r”s, they aren’t really as goofy as they sound. They are reflecting an Old English dialect that happened to land in their region. I also realize now that “there ain’t no such word as ain’t”, simply because the South lost the Civil War.

When I started teaching in the mid-eighties, I had a clear understanding of the many Englishes, and I quickly came to recognize what that meant for Spanish speaking English learners, which led to today’s post in Serial. I won’t repeat those conclusions here, since you can just go read them there.

One final anecdote, regarding the last sentence in today’s Serial post — One our better English learners graduated from eighth grade and left us. She came back a few years later to visit her middle school teachers. Her parents had moved back to Mexico and had enrolled her in a quality Mexican high school. When we asked her how she liked it, she said, “I thought I was good until I got there, but I found out all those kids speak Spanish and I speak Mexican!”

465. Black, White, Aryan, Jew

This is a slightly rewritten republication of a post of the same name from 2016. It is important enough to say again, basically unchanged.

In America, race means black and white. It’s basically a construct. It is a handy visual tool we use so we can tell us from them.

We all partake of the same gene pool, varying only in the amount of various genes we possess. Take the whitest non-albino; put him on one end of the line. Take the blackest black and put him on the other. Assemble the millions of the rest of us and put us in between. There would be no break in the gradation.

Nevertheless, race is still here, so embedded in our national consciousness that the truth of our unity is swamped by the voice in our heads screaming, “I don’t care. Blacks are still blacks, and whites are still whites!”

This kind of confusion about basic reality leads to tragedy, and not only in America. Try this sentence:

In the days of the Third Reich, Germans persecuted Jews.

If this sentence sounds accurate, you are missing a few points. The Jews who were sent to the death camps were largely Germans. I am sure that was no comfort to them, and it isn’t the most salient fact about the situation. But it is important. If we put a wrong label on something, it makes it hard to think clearly about that thing. This process is still going on, as today’s politicians turn complexities into sound bites.

Hitler offered simplified and false solutions to real problems, based on the idea that there was a German race and a Jewish race. Jewish is not a race. It is a religion, and sometimes an ethnic group.

German is not a race. It is a language, and it is shared by several countries other than Germany. Germanism is also an attempt by the late-formed country of Germany to find national unity in a semi-mythical past.

Aryan is not a race. If you say Aryan in today’s world, it will evoke Hitler’s movement to elevate his blonde, blue-eyed “super race” to world supremacy. That super race is a myth made up of equal parts hatred and scientific misunderstanding.

In fact, the term Aryan originates in northern India, 3500 years ago. It refers to the “light skinned” conquerors who drove out or enslaved the dark skinned native population. The word Iranian is a modern variant of the word Aryan. As for the “light skinned” conquerors, think Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory. The Aryans were light skinned only compared to the people they conquered.

Hitler should be rolling over in his grave at the thought, but he got his information third hand.

It started with Max Muller, an honest German born-scholar who spent his career at Oxford. Linguists of his day discovered the link between the languages of Europe and South Asia, and developed the notion of an Indo-European language family. They believed this family of languages originated in the southwestern steppes of Russia, and was introduced into South Asia through the Aryan invaders. Muller was a strong proponent of Aryan culture, considering it one of the greatest developments of mankind. By Aryan, he meant the culture of India. After others had misrepresented his ideas, he clarified that Aryan culture did not imply an Aryan race. No one listened.

As time passed, proponents of European superiority such as Arthur de Gobineau moved the origin place of the Indo-European language family to northern Europe, confused current notions of race (such as Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean) with the linguistic and cultural classification Aryan. They “invented” the Aryan race, which they considered to be light skinned in the European sense, the originators of civilization, and superior to all others.

The caramel skinned invaders of India had been thoroughly whitewashed.

The last member of this trio is Huston Stewart Chamberlain, born in England, raised in France, and ending his life in Germany, converted to German superiority by Wagner’s music. He wrote the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, in which he saw the history of the world entirely in terms of conflict between the Aryan and Jewish races. It became a bible of Nazism, and Chamberlain became a mentor to Hitler.

Labels like Jew and Aryan matter, just as labels like black and white matter in America. A “Jew” in Nazi Germany might be a Zionist extremist who believed that God chose his people and would smite all his enemies. He might be a modernistic non-believer who had repudiated his Jewish ancestors, read Nietzsche, and listened to Wagner. He might even be some poor schmuck who just got misidentified. It would all be the same in Auschwitz.

The Aryans that Hitler believed in, didn’t exist at all.

439. Jose, Maria, y Jesus in Trumpland

[Don’t expect even handedness here.]

In English we call him Joseph, in Italian he is Giuseppe, in Basque he is Joseba, in Spanish he is just plain Jose.

In English we call her Mary, in Hebrew she is Miryam, in German she is Maria, and also in Spanish.

In English he is Jesus, in Cornish he is Jesu, in Italian he is Gesu, and in Spanish he is Jesus again, but pronounced Hey-sous.

We are going to walk with these three in this sermon for the Christmas season.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went, every on into his own city. And Jose also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, to be taxed with Maria his espoused wife, being great with child.

Of course that could be written as Joseph and Mary, but surely they are the same couple, in any language. Jose was a carpenter. He built things out of wood to feed his family, and he paid his taxes like everybody else. All the world was to be taxed, and he had to go back to the place from which his people came.

Where would that be? Perhaps a land with cities named Sacramento for the Holy Sacrament, or maybe Atascadero, Alameda, Camarillo, El Segundo, or Escondido. Perhaps cities like Fresno, La Mesa, Madera, or Mariposa show where his people once lived. Certainly they must have lived in cities like Los Angeles, Merced, Paso Robles, Salinas, or San Francisco. Even if his people no longer own the land, certainly the city named after him, San Jose, must once have belonged to his people.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

I think Luke shortened this a bit. Was there only one inn in Bethlehem? We can see the young couple, going from place to place, Jose leading, Maria on a burro since she cannot walk so late in her pregnancy. Everywhere they are turned away. Are all the sleeping places truly full? It may be. Or perhaps something about the two of them, perhaps the color of their skin, makes the innkeepers turn them away. Luke does not tell us.

I see migrant housing everywhere I go in California and I think, perhaps, a manger was preferable.

Now they are in a place where their people once lived, but to which they are no longer welcome. And here, their son is born.

Donald Trump would call Him an anchor baby. I wonder what He will call Trump, when they finally meet.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

To all people. ALL people. Imagine that!


Luke’s story is complete, but ours is not. It is up to every one of us to see that it turns out right.

428. Ve Speak Goot English

This is from today’s post in Serial:

(Language), Neil knew, was a real problem for those families who went back and forth between Mexico and the United States. The brightest children leaned to speak, read, and write English, but they were illiterate in Spanish. They could speak the lower class Spanish used in their homes, but they usually could not read or write it. Worse, their dialect was no more suitable for a good Mexican school than an American hillbilly dialect would have been suitable for a high school in Boston.

Fiction has its place. It can make us think and care, but plain old non-fiction can sometimes get things across more quickly. To wit:

We are a nation of immigrants. Everyone knows that.

Spanish is an immigrant language. Yep. Everyone knows that, too. However, so is English. If we we spoke a language that isn’t an immigrant language, we would all be speaking Cherokee, or one of several hundred other native tongues. Aztec, anyone?

English got here first. No, actually it didn’t. Of European languages, Old Norse got here first with the Vikings, but it didn’t last. Spanish got here second. English, French, Portuguese, German, Swedish — the list could get tedious if we let it — are all late comers.

English won.

Now we are zeroing in on the truth. The French gave up the right to provide the language of choice for about half of the USA when Napoleon sold Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase. Spanish lost out as the language of choice in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, part of Colorado and Louisiana, tiny corners of Wyoming, Mississippi, Alabama, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and all of California at the point of a gun. Or, a bunch of guns. That’s roughly a third of the lower forty-eight.

Like it or not, it happened, and it is irreversible. English is the language of the US, despite the innumerable other languages spoken by our immigrants. They came here, procreated, the original speakers died, and their offspring now speak English.

So why are the Spanish speakers different? It is certainly not because of anything wrong with them. It’s quite simple. When Germans immigrated, they didn’t go back. Modern immigrant Spanish speakers, primarily Mexican, documented or undocumented, go back and forth.

Migrant labor is typically seasonal. Besides, wouldn’t you rather spend winter in Mazatlan than Minnesota if you could? Hordes of Anglos do it, and they don’t even speak the language.

Not all people of Spanish background move back and forth. Many of them came to the US and stayed. Tens of thousands of them were already here to greet the Anglo pioneers when they arrived. See map above! Millions of them don’t speak any Spanish, just as Nils Hansen of Kenosha, Wisconsin (hypothetical person) doesn’t speak Danish. There is a word for these people — Americans — and they don’t pose any language problem in the schools.

Those who do go back and forth are not going to stop doing so. It works for them. Summer labor in the US, then back to Mexico for its mild winters and lower costs is not just logical, it’s capitalism. It’s entrepreneurship. It’s survival for the Mexican families and cheap food for you. Drive by any field in California at harvest time and count the Anglos bending their backs in the sun. Your total will be zero.

A wall won’t change it. A path to citizenship won’t change it, either. The idea of a hermetically sealed border is a Trumpean delusion.

So where does that leave the children of migrants? In a tough spot, to be sure. They often don’t spend the whole school year in schools in America, and they often don’t enroll while they are in Mexico. Many don’t learn to speak, read, and write English as well as their Anglo or permanent Mexican American classmates. Some barely speak, read, or write English at all. They speak Spanish, but they often don’t read or write it.

Solutions? That would take a shelf of books, not a post.