Sunday, 21 June 2009

the elegance of long sentences

I've been listening to a series of lectures by Brooks Landon on how to compose long sentences rich in meaning and yet easy to understand, and I'm loving the lectures, with their analysis of language and the great examples included in each session.

I've always loved grammar, but tended to see it as the analysis of written words rather than a means of constructing beautiful sentences. Now I'm seeing it in a different light, as a tool for the writer. Which makes me think of a comment about Hegel's Science of Logic in a novel I'm reading (Freedom and Necessity, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. One of the characters writes about Hegel,
And, still in the introduction, he talks about how dry and empty are the forms of grammar when studied by themselves, but how full of meaning they are to one who has studied languages.
I'm also reading a book by Virginia Tufte, Artful Sentences; Syntax as Style. To quote the blurb,
In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte presents-and comments on-more than a thousand excellent sentences chosen from the works of authors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The sentences come from an extensive search to identify some of the ways professional writers use the generous resources of the English language.

The book displays the sentences in fourteen chapters, each one organized around a syntactic concept-short sentences, noun phrases, verb phrases, appositives, parallelism, for example. It thus provides a systematic, comprehensive range of models for aspiring writers.
As an aspiring writer, I'm loving the book!

Here are a few of my attempts at long sentences. The first two are based on actual sentences quoted in Tufte's book and the third is my attempt to write a 500-word sentence. (As you will see, I couldn't do it!)

She tried to call the dog, at ease before the fire, his great serrated jaws looming like a cavern, his rough fur lying tufted and spiky along his spine, his enormous tongue and teeth in a gaping, panting yawn, and his sharp curved claws extended and stabbing into the rug.

By night-time, the dogs’ main exercise was undertaken restfully in the lounge-room, lying about on rugs or covering the distance to the couch, all vying with masterful Fido to drag themselves up by paws, claws and teeth like wolves conquering a mountain cliff, while the human woman, a grubby thickly-waisted little person, told them how to behave and yelled angry commands in a beer- soaked growl punctuated by occasional abrupt sneezing, as a result of which she was eventually taken to a hospital in the City.

Dreaming of the past, longing for a chance to make things right, to show Ronald, the man who now despised her, that she wasn’t as evil as he thought, Susan walked along the path in the sunshine, ignoring the songs of birds, the rustle of leaves and the chirping of sparrows; nevertheless, she noticed the mud underfoot, the dirty, stinking mud that coated her shoes and clung to the hems of her jeans, the very jeans she had worn when she betrayed Ronald, giving way to her temper (that temper having caused her enough trouble in the past that you'd think she'd have learned her lesson long ago) and set herself on the path to loss and suffering, not a path that she had taken consciously - she had lost the opportunity to choose when she drove her vehicle into the car park, saw Ronald with the woman, and jumped to such a hasty conclusion, one that she now regretted, and knew she might regret to her dying day.

These awful sentences make it rather obvious I've still got a lot to learn, but I'm having fun.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Baha'i and Esperanto

When I read Brian Barker’s comment on my post, 'caring about dying languages', I wandered off around the internet to follow it up and came across Andrew O’Hehir’s article that reviews the book 'In the Land of Invented Languages'. The reviewed book was written by Arika Okrent.

The article makes the book sound interesting and I'll be looking out for it, but the subsequent comments are also worth a read.

There's plenty of informed discussion of the variety of languages that have been invented and the motives of the people who invented them. Brian Barker's comments there relate to Esperanto.

One topic I didn't see mentioned was the Baha'i religion's attitude to a universal auxiliary language. My neighbor recently gave me a book about this religion, which I had never previously heard of (not proselytising, as she's not a member of that religion).

They seem an optimistic group (not unrealistically so, I hope) and aim for world unity and peace in the future.

Their site says, in relation to their vision for a future United Nations:
4. Making a commitment to a universal auxiliary language and a common script

The United Nations, which currently uses six official languages, would derive substantial benefit from either choosing a single existing language or creating a new one to be used as an auxiliary language in all its fora. Such a step has long been advocated by many groups, from the Esperantists to the Bahá'í International Community itself.18 In addition to saving money and simplifying bureaucratic procedures, such a move would go far toward promoting a spirit of unity.

We propose the appointment of a high-level Commission, with members from various regions and drawn from relevant fields, including linguistics, economics, the social sciences, education and the media, to begin careful study on the matter of an international auxiliary language and the adoption of a common script.

We foresee that eventually, the world cannot but adopt a single, universally agreed-upon auxiliary language and script to be taught in schools worldwide, as a supplement to the language or languages of each country. The objective would be to facilitate the transition to a global society through better communication among nations, reduction of administrative costs for businesses, governments and others involved in global enterprise, and a general fostering of more cordial relations between all members of the human family.19

This proposal should be read narrowly. It does not in any way envision the decline of any living language or culture.

The Baha'i site says:The Bahá'í community, comprising members of the Bahá'í Faith from all over the globe, now numbers some five million souls. They represent 2,112 ethnic and tribal groups and live in over 116,000 localities in 188 independent countries and 45 dependent territories or overseas departments. What was once regarded by some as an obscure, tiny sect is now recognized by the Encyclopedia Britannica as the second-most widely spread independent religion in the world, after Christianity.

If you put this number together with the Encyclopaedia Britannicas estimation that
more than 100,000 persons worldwide use the language [Esperanto], and several dozen periodicals are published in Esperanto(*1)
then perhaps in the future everyone might have a second language that makes understanding between individuals and groups more of a possibility.

Reference:"Esperanto." Britannica Student Library. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2008 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica.