There’s this old argument between the Descriptivists and the Prescriptivists and it goes something like this. The “Descript-” side insists that human language is a shifting, morphing, breathing thing. It takes on whatever forms or structures it requires, and leaves us with a dictionary that, theoretically, begs to be re-written every day. A Descriptivist loves Shakespeare, but he’s perfectly comfortable with the idea that the English we speak is a long stone’s throw from that of the Bard. To the Descriptivist it’s all good. He loves and celebrates all of it:from Afro-American Standard, to English-based Creole, to Chinook jargon, Scots English and the deeply presumptive “Standard English” spoken by a good handful of Oxford dons and in its thousand other variations, to him there is no literary tradition with such a wildly diverse vernacular. Your factory-issued Descriptivist rejoices as English goes about the business of absorbing and morphing and generally growing richer and more varied with nearly every new addition.
In the US version of the language, appropriated “loan words” from across the globe are spoken every day by an English-speaking population of a nation that is easily, observably, the world’s most racially, ethnically, politically, and confessionally diverse. Whether speech or writ from a conservative, rural Southern town or that of a progressive enclave on the West Coast, American common speech features a picquant selection of gesundheit, apparatchik, skookum, and cerveza. British, Irish, Australian, and non-traditional English-speaking countries' versions are similarly adaptive and expressive.
“Prescript-” Englishers would insist, however, that none of the above – save the Oxford don option – is English in any pure sense. Things like regional dialects and nouns morphing into verbs and odd eastern European inversions while marginally tolerable, can never really be part of the way we talk, write, and generally communicate – at least not if we hope to claim some kind of pristine mastery of our language and ensure its durability once the robot apocalypse ensues, threatening to render English obsolete in favor of some cypher-based hieroglyph. (One suspects that robot-overlords are likely to be Prescriptivists of the fundamentalist sort.)
Still, the current crop of rigid, yet non-robotic Prescriptivists do have a point. The ‘anything goes’ approach to modern language has led to the lexical fornication that gave birth to all those repugnant -ize verbs beloved of MBAs – commoditize, actualize, monetize. And a definite ugliness ensues whenever writers of our gorgeously analytic, devastatingly crunchy lexical descendent of Anglo-Saxon tongues wander from the path, from the garden of Joyce into the weedbed of Proust, drawn away by the infelicities of the synthetic languages – their libertine syntax, Latinate pretension, and particularly their deep dependence on shifting, mellifluous endings. Nothing in the world like a cheap rhyme. Yet the darkness shall ever fail to fully overcome the light, and despite seemingly exponentially cascading cultural illiteracy, and regardless of how you, personally, look at (and love) English - more conservatively prescriptive or progressively descriptive – this tongue remains one that is vitally democratic: lending weight and voice to even the shakiest expression, and inclusion to every foreign shape it assumes. Skookum, cerveza, gesundheit.
All that just to say that English lends itself readily to innovation, to novelty, but not out of poverty of expression, rather its opposite: wealth begets wealth, strength begets strength. It is the nature of English to explore, to test, to assimilate, and by these, to endure.
To the point. Below lurks a simple exercise – a stuffed pork chop of juicy objectives intending to illustrate that: each of us, in the way we like our English, is some arbitrary mix of prescriptivist and descriptivist; we’re also not people intimidated by language unafraid to color outside the lines; said lines, on balance, are a good and necessary thing; and the English language, well composed and sporting a thoughtful, innovative construct can take on ridiculously non-standard forms and come away from the encounter none the worse for wear.
What follows are four brief synopses of books too little known, and even less read, written in a form of English that would set a strict Prescriptionist’s hair on fire. Yet they are, one and all, undeniably English language novels. They are not Russian, or, God forbid, French. Four books that will frustrate, fascinate, stretch your imagination, test your phonetic skills, mock your petrified world view, challenge the entire concept that “there’s a right way to say things” and finally, force you to read right out loud if you have any hope of understanding what’s going on. In the end, at the very least - whether among the frustrated or the fascinated - the probability is high that you’ll come out of the experience convinced of what an astoundingly diverse and limitless thing is this English tongue, and dedicated to the proposition that with our ears attuned to its music we are under no threat of getting stuck on its notes.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban – it’s two millennia following the Day the bomb dropped, and human progress in the east of Kent, England – and presumably the rest of the planet – has been reset to the Stone Age. Little Riddley Walker has just turned 12, the age of majority in this post-apocalyptic greyscape where the only option to “raining” is seemingly “about to rain”. Now fit to work, the man-boy has been given the job of making “connexions” – parsing current events for sense, knowledge, and to promote the general edification of the benighted.
A deeply atmospheric book filled with absurd bits of wisdom on the limits of human progress and the importance of myth in human interaction, Riddley Walker will introduce you to a language that surely reminds you of the English you know, but more than that, it should encourage us in the desirability of a constant, conscious engagement with the world, its deep and enduring mystery, and the privilege of being chosen to tell its story.
STORY – life-affirming, sobering, engaging post-apocalyptic sci-fi that avoids the simplistic morality typical of the genre, and delivers an expansive, engrossing world. A work of stunning imagination.
DIFFICULTY of the “ENGLISH” – Ouch. Impassible and impossible at places without major patience and a good ear. My advice? Read aloud and don’t get stuck on meaning, first listen for the music of it, and once heard, rejoice in this fictional treatment of the humane enterprise of keeping the story going.
A CITATION - “Raining agen it wer nex morning. Theres rains and rains. This 1 wer coming down in a way as took the hart and hoap out of you there wer a kynd of brilyants in the grey it wer too hard it wer too else it made you feal like all the tracks in the worl wer out paths nor not a 1 to bring you back. Wel of coarse they are but it dont all ways feal that way.”
Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy - Rinthy Holme will bear a child, a son. The father – her brother, Culla, will take the newborn into the forest and leave it there to die. Culla will then return home with the lie for Rinthy that her baby had indeed perished. But a mother’s love is not so easily extinguished. When Culla sets off in search of profitable labor, Rinthy sets out in search of her child.On their separate paths brother and sister encounter, respectively, the depths of human depravity and the heights of human charity.
This chronicle of ruin, abandonment, desperation, of hard lives worn by hard people is McCarthy’s second novel, and a bruising first mature example of the complicated ethics that will come to mark his work. This is not a book to “like” or “dislike”, but a stunning chiaroscuro of the human soul that raises the question of whether the light can, indeed, overcome outer and inner dark.
STORY – gothic, occasionally gruesome, stunningly visual and deeply atmospheric, set among the rural poor of Appalachia, sometime early in the 20th century.
DIFFICULTY of the “ENGLISH” – a Southern U.S. dialect filled with archaic language, some odd inversions, but also chock-full of the delightfully ornate expository passages which make McCarthy McCarthy.
A CITATION - “In a world darksome as this'n I believe a blind man ort to be better sighted than most.”
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman – Sammy Samuels wakes up blind, wearing shoes that cannot be his own. His girlfriend has taken a powder, the cops have beaten him silly, his doctor refuses to diagnose his blindness, and the local bureaucracy can’t seem to find its way to dishing him any benefits. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t have a dog.
Echoing Samuel Beckett riffing on Kafka, James Kelman has produced a novel of the absurdity of working class anti-privilege so profound it’s got everyone who reads it as angry, confused, and/or tongue-tied as Sammy. The book is written in a growling, punishing Glaswegian working class dialect that features, among others, more than 4,000 instances of the “F-word”. It somehow also won the Booker Prize (1994, back when the Booker Prize was an award that mattered) – a fact that so thoroughly ticked off one of the Prize Committee members that she threatened to quit rather than participate in feting a novel she considered to be – her word – “crap.”
Fekkin’ snowflake. “How Late It Was, How Late” is an utterly original, brutal, deeply intelligent, current, and visceral novel that will challenge your negative capacity for empathy like few novels you will ever read. James Kelman kicks my ass with each title of his that I read. If this kind of writing is not “genius”, then that word means nothing.
STORY – stream of consciousness day(s) in the life of a hungover, angry Weegie, so strap in. Utterly disreputable protagonist that you can’t help but love, especially when paired up against the fekked up power structures of our white-man’s world. Disagree with me, fascist.
DIFFICULTY of the “ENGLISH” – Dust off your best (worst) Scottish accent and read out loud. My loved ones thought I was barking, but this novel’s patois will beat you to death and if you wimp out, you’ll miss a damn fine yarn out of pure, degenerate laziness.
A CITATION - “Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt. That's the story; the cot to the fucking funeral pyre.”
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth – The novel that gets everything right that “Game of Thrones” gets wrong. Story, character, and – oh, God – the language.
It's 1066-1067 A.D. and William the Conqueror and his band Norman buggerers have just sailed across the Channel to brutalize England. Buccmaster of Holland, narrator and protagonist, local landowner and council member, possesses the gifts of visions and ass-kissing, both of which seem to work in his favor until he turns out to be averse to paying the new Norman taxes. In answer to Buccmaster's defiance, the local French prick-lord razes his village to the ground, killing his family, and confiscating his land, at which our hero takes on a new line of work: member of a guerrilla band (of sorts) that wanders forest and fen in search of foreigners to cut. Or at least to talk a lot about cutting foreigners, and about the way history has way of getting good men by the short hairs and not letting go.
Kingsnorth has created an immersive world, and in a genius stroke, a “shadow language” mix of Old English and Modern English (that we latecomers not become too lost) that manages to both evoke antiquity and tell a ripping story of justice, satisfaction, and dignity in identity. This Saxon golden age tale of the “grene men” in the woods brings the legend of Robin Hood immediately to mind, but the story is deeply contemporary. Social breakdown, the loss of all assurances, and the desperate steps men will take when they’ve nothing left to lose, when “all is broc, and all is gan.”
A tiny wedge of friendly advice: Have yourself some fun discovering just how awful and anachronistic the dialogue on "Game of Thrones" is by comparison. Listen to five minutes of dialogue of any episode of the show and then read any page of "The Wake". If this is not apples and bowling balls, then I have no ear. Or, more likely, you don't. Because if you can't hear how bad the TV "ye olde English, dude" is when compared with this artful form, you should go somewhere where no one will hear you scream and jab hot, jagged spikes into both ears, destroying the delicate instruments God placed there because you are already fucking deaf anyway.
STORY – straightforward, reminiscent of the tone of the ancient national epics - Beowulf, the Kalevala, the Tale of Igor's Campaign, etc. - pick one. The narrator is a wavering, slippery sort who sees visions and probably could use medicating, so don’t trust him unless you’ve no other choice. Post-apocalyptic lit set a millennium in the past, with rough gods and rougher omens, buxom wenches and other visions everywhere, and the leader of band of merry, murderous men bent on revenge while he goes about losing his marbles ever so deliberately right before our eyes.
DIFFICULTY of the “ENGLISH” – Bring your grammar school phonics back into play, and when that doesn’t work, check the helpful glossary in the back of the book for unknown words. As you go along, the reading/comprehension will come easier to you. Getting to the end of the story is worth it.
A CITATION - “upon a hyll stands a treow but this treow it has no stics no leafs. its stocc is gold on it is writhan lines of blud red it reacces to the heofon its roots is deop deop in the eorth. abuf the hyll all the heofon is hwit and below all the ground is deorc. the treow is scinan and from all places folcs is walcan to it walcan to the scinan treow locan for sum thing from it. abuf the tree flies a raefn below it walcs a wulf and deop in the eorth where no man sees around the roots of the treow sleeps a great wyrm and this wyrm what has slept since before all time this wyrm now slow slow slow this wyrm begins to mof.”