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December 20, 2007

Language: alive, dead or comatose

It is with such joy that I’ve been reading Issue 72 of Canadian Notes and Queries. This magazine is new to me and though we’ve only been going out for two days, I can already define it as follows: I can neither put it down, nor cease making notes in the margins. Notes in the margins of a magazine. My friend Rebecca defined it as a cousin of sorts to The New Quarterly, equally all-hit-no-miss in its content, and I concur. I have also learned the words “festschrift“, “afarensis”, and the Margaret Atwood interview led me to finally look up “abstruse”, which is sort of funny, though I don’t think she is abstruse at all. (On one trip through the dictionary I also thumbed past “aestival” which might be my new favourite word).

I have found each piece in CNQ provocative, thoughtful and compelling. And though I could probably talk aplenty in response to any of them, in particular I want to point to Charles Foran’s “Dumb as a Sack of Hammers” (from his forthcoming book Join the Revolution, Comrade).

Over drinks with an Irish journalist, he is forced to confront “the almost wilful linguistic dullness of most Canadian writers.” He acknowledges exceptions, of course, (my own suggestion being George Elliott Clark, who makes a point of it), with French Canadian writing in particular. But Foran finds, in general, that Canadian writing “displayed little or nil impulse to unbutton and dress down on the page. [The writers] were grammatically preservative and idiomatically conservative”. Perhaps, Foran posits, Canada is too new. Though his friend counters with Australia (“a linguistic free-for-all”), the Caribbean. And Foran takes grapples with these ideas throughout his piece– though you’ll have to find it and read it yourself to find out how.

The Australian point got me thinking though, about “linguistic free-for-alls”. The other example being Cockney rhyming slang, and I suppose fans of “playfulness” delight in this sort of stuff. But I don’t. There is a such a thing as trying too hard. You see playfulness’s fact of “play” defeats the purpose; it’s not real. People don’t actually speak this way (or at least most don’t), rather people publish gift book slang dictionaries of these “dialects”, and is anything less playful than that? A language with a gift book slang dictionary might as well be dead, and though any such Canadian slang dictionary would consist solely of the word “toque” I do not consider this a tragedy. No, not a tragedy at all.

Though of course I will concede the blandness of Canadian English in comparison to most other Englishes, but like Foran (“dumb as a sack of hammers”) I could find a few lively embellishments to celebrate. My family lived in the country outside Belleville early in my childhood, and in the twenty-five years since then we’ve many a time remarked upon our farming neighbours’ peculiar expressions, such as “He’s as handy as a pocket in a shirt”. I knew one man from there who used to say, “Holy doodle.” My grandmother used to express bewilderment and frustration with “For the love of Pete.” And my other grandma used to talk a lot about shitting through the eye of a needle, but then maybe that was just part of her unique charm. In fiction too– Flo in Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? is exactly who I mean.

Though it’s telling, I suppose, that many of the examples I’ve given were uttered by people now dead, and the ones who are living probably over eighty. About this, then, there’s a whole lot more thinking necessary. Which seems to be the very point of Canadian Notes and Queries so far.

2 thoughts on “Language: alive, dead or comatose”

  1. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Remind me never to play a game of Scrabble with you.

  2. Kerry says:

    My NEWEST fave word (since aestival) is sororal. I can’t believe I got this far not knowing it. But I am usually terrible at Scrabble so you have nought to worry about it. Though the other night I DID spell “banana” which I was rather pleased with…

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