Letter writing these days is so rare that it is seen as almost quaint, and there is loads to regret about that, but in these days of online communication a greater number of people may actually be writing more often. The result of this opening up of the communicative arena is a more relaxed attitude towards formal rules of writing, and nowadays surely only dreary pedants would get their knickers in a twist about mixing up ‘fewer’ and ‘less’.
And yet all have our pernickety obsessions. The place I work in is involved in English language teaching and assessment; this means that all our materials need to be exemplary, and proofreading is a highly valued skill. But colleagues and I still lock horns from time to time about what and how to correct. Personally, I have strong views on the use of commas, which to my mind should be enough to make meanings clear without exhausting the reader (like one book I read about Motown music). And I am peeved on a daily basis by the superfluous comma in the instructions on our photocopier at work: “Please, wait a few seconds after the machine has been switched on.”
My co-workers in the test development department seem to care deeply about the correct use of hyphens in their materials, whereas I gave up on those a long time ago. To me, they are handy for coinage but to be abandoned at the earliest opportunity once the word has entered the language. Would you write ice cream, ice-cream or icecream ? And does it even matter?
Of course, as always, context is everything. There has been some discussion in the media recently about the implied meaning of punctuation in text messaging. Full stops are a no no, apostrophes mark you out as detail-oriented and ellipsis is strictly for the over 60s …..
What I intended to do today:
- Iron my linen dresses
- Sort out cupboards and drawers
- Take stuff to the charity shop
- Polish up a data transcription
- Walk into town and back
- Open new bank account
What I actually did today:
- Bussed it into town
- Had lunch in Pret
- Browsed for ages in Lakeland
- Bought a chunky julienne cutter, and extendible window mop.
- Bought two wildly expensive dresses and a funky necklace which they saywill take me anywhere
- Took a taxi home
I did open a new bank account though.
Brits tend to place a high value on Ps and Qs. My mother trained me up to thank people for having me and to ask permission to leave tables. When a neighbour whose approval she sought pronounced me to be at the age of 7 a child with ‘polish’ , she glowed with pride.
Fast forward to the 1990s when, in my then incarnation as ‘La Mamma di Michael e Julian’ in Italy, I coached my boys in pretty much the same way. Their impeccable translation of these English politeness norms into Italian were admired by their teachers and occasionally prompted alarm in other mothers. One rang me up after Mike had tea at her home to ask why he had said ‘Grazie di avermi ospitato’ on leaving. She was offended at the implication that languages without that phrase were in some way inferior. These things go deep, and now Michael’s son too is learning the power of politeness to persuade : ‘Can I have a Welsh cake please, Nana? ‘
But politeness is always there in other cultures, it’s just different. In Italy it is customary to ask for permission, ‘Permesso‘ , before entering another person’s home, even if you know them well, and this becomes automatically assimilated into your repertoire once when you have been there for a while. Among people of a certain age, the polite you form, “Lei” is still used and I had a neighbourly and comfortable relationship with Signora M. opposite for 25 years without venturing into the more familiar ‘tu’ form.
English shed its intimate and polite forms of ‘you‘ a few centuries ago apart from some regions. But since returning to the UK last year I have noticed a new form creeping into the language: the use of yourself, usually in business situations as in ‘ in that case I will need a signature from yourself ‘. This is definitely intended to be polite form as I note all my younger male colleagues using it with me. God forbid.
In a recent tv interview, Andre Aciman, the author of the novel Call me by your Name was unrepentant about his decision to make the main character just seventeen. It’s such a beautiful age he said, and I knew what he meant. My own romantic gene emerged at the age of 13, inspired by the fair-skinned paper boy who put the South Wales Evening post through our letter box every evening. A couple of years later it gathered momentum with my crush on the curly haired plumber who played air guitar to the Strawbs in the Briton Ferry Rugby club.
By the time I was seventeen the romantic gene was raging and I fell properly in love for the first time with all the joys of passion awoken and reciprocated. And when he gently dumped me for a physiotherapist two years later, I naturally booked into Heartbreak Hotel because that’s the downside of romantic genes.
So I get what Aciman meant when he said that seventeen is a special age, and if you think of it, so did many songwriters like Janis Ian, Stevie Nicks, the Beatles, and even Abba. But my favourite ode to seventeen year olds has to be from Aretha.
I pride myself in being open to new technologies (with the usual caveat, for my age and gender). I use my smartphone to organise my travel, pay bills, and track my exercise. My kindle app contains a well stocked library, ranging from academic articles, cookery books, to cheesy midlife romances. I am active on all the usual suspects in social media, and I think they can be extraordinary tools for sharing ideas, in the same way that coffee houses were in the 18th century.
But there are some types of reading where paper surely has the edge, and one of these is reading to a child, because it allows you to relive some of your own early reading pleasures (and naturally, the more dog-eared and coffee stained the book, the higher the affective value). Recently with my grandson I have been rereading the same children’s stories I read to his father and uncle. Yesterday I dug out an Alfie book by Shirley Hughes, and my 31 year old son immediately sought out his favourite illustration from it.
No doubt when the time comes we will read Roald Dahl’s ‘Boy’ and I will almost certainly cry at the page when he receives the last letter from his mother. This has become a family tradition.
But what has really excited me recently is coming across in various second hand book shops the slim hard backed Ladybird readers of the 1960s. The other day I heard a mother reading the Magic Porridge Pot to her child in the doctors surgery and I was struck by the beauty of the illustrations and storytelling of those early readers. The real classics are written by Vera Southgate and now I am on a mission to build up a collection. How can the cartoonish illustrations of today compare with this evocative frontispiece of Rapunzel and the prince’s beautifully peaked hat?
The writer Laurie Lee described birth as an ordinary miracle, and the same could be said of language acquisition. Everyone learns to to communicate verbally at some point, but it is still fascinating to observe toddlers take small incremental steps from first words to full sentences.
My small grandson is acquiring two languages in a naturalistic way, German at home with Mama and with Oma when she visits, and English from Papa and the community he lives in. And because languages and linguistics are my stock in trade, I am enjoying analysing this development of his speech. For example, I remember his early attempts to make a negative sentence by putting the word ‘not’ the end of the phrase as in “that way not”or “Nana’s arm not”. There was a definite logic to this strategy and although it wasn’t standard grammar his meaning was usually very clear.
Then came the (for me) the very enjoyable phase when he would notice evaluative phrases and reproduce them immediately. So, when I complimented him on his accurate positioning of a sticker in his workbook, “That’s perfect!” He would congratulate himself with the same phrase on his next attempt. My linguist friends would approve of his sensitivity to interpersonal meaning.
I am also delighted by his ability to pronounce difficult sounds in both languages. His gutteral ‘ ach’ ‘ would warm his Opa’s heart and the title of this post refers to an English nursery song our boy sang for his Oma in Berlin. I was impressed by his ability to reproduce the difficult consonant cluster ‘pumpkin’ so well, although I later found that he was actually singing. “Four little pumpkins” – a case of misheard lyrics.
My grandmotherly pride knew no bounds, however, when he saw snow falling for the first time and exclaimed ” Das klebt auf dem Dach! “! (It’s sticking to the roof) because that was a real sign of his developing language. The linguist Bernard Spolsky believed underlying linguistic competence to be demonstrated through creativity, or the ability to produce new sentences. This first sighting of snow prompted a small boy to do just that.
This museum got some media attention a few years ago, and the online site is still a mournful hub of sorry tales and philosophical musings.
In it we find a virtual depository of images posted as emblems of love stories which have gone wrong or, by mutual agreement, just petered out. These artefacts range from a wedding dress in a jar, to a bottle opener. What is striking about the posts is the universal nature of romantic disappointment, and how the contributors attempt to extract some kind of meaning from the experience. What you might call regret management.
This theme was explored movingly ing a conversation between father and son in the film Call me by your name, a hot Oscar nomination this year (and only to be missed by emotional cowards).
As the journalist Terence Blacker wrote eloquently:
‘Some good things do not last. Their short, intense lifespan might be a matter of days, or even a night. They may end up broken, but they are only failures in the eyes of dreary puritans. Often they were, while they lasted, small triumphs of romantic life’