Thursday, February 28, 2008

Linguistic Registers

Usually, when people speak to different people, they choose to use different speech patterns. These different patterns usually reflect maturity, respect, familiarity, etc. So the way that I would speak to my grandparents would be greatly different from the way I speak with my classmates in university. These patterns of speech are broadly called Registers.

Now, Chaucer was supposed to be good at writing in different registers, evidenced by his ability to compose the speeches of his characters in the Canterbury Tales, who come from different backgrounds, and therefore different speech patterns.

Apparently, for my Chaucer midterm, it was questioned whether I was doing the same thing by using a sciencey register. I used "scientific" words -- words that I felt were succinct and poignant. What were these words? "fractal", "macroscopic", "entropy". There might have been one or two more, but those were the big ones.

I won't argue that if these three words were given in a row, most people would conclude that these words were drawn from a science vocabulary, instead of a literary one. But the allure of using scientific words is their objectivity. It *fits* what I need to say in a single part of speech without having to resort to adverbial and prepositional phrases. But perhaps that would be preferred for some profs, in order to preserve the illusion of a literary analysis.

Of course, these things rest on a continuum, and I'm pretty sure that my semi-scientific answer to the midterm wasn't far in the extreme. Just, perhaps, a bit more than the average English major. But when a novel or poem addresses things like the nature of time, it's extremely difficult for me to avoid resorting to the rich register developed to describe exactly that -- Time. Physics comes in handy for this, to talk about time dilation, and quantum singularities, etc. Sure, it detracts from the poetic image of that "tumultuous invisible river", but it is still a clean approach.

Which apparently was the second issue -- that the scientific approach was more distant than what most English majors would be(?) I wasn't really sure what he was trying to say. Maybe that the objective perspective isn't always the way to approach literature, or that I wouldn't be fully experiencing literature by maintaining my objectivity. No answers, but I enjoy the criticism; it gives me more things to think about and explore [through my essays which are weighing more and more as the term progresses].

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Linguistics and Literature

So, I'm a wannabe English major this term, as I take some more courses in English to prove my worth, and apply for official status as an English major for May 2008. I'm taking six courses, and it's a lot of fun.

As I chatted with my prof this morning before class (Intro to Semiotics), I learn that it's not recommended to take more than 4 English courses a term because of all the reading. And I'm in six. Go me. Still, that I'm achieving an overall average this term of 75 (the minimum for an honours English) should still say something, I hope.

This week is fun, because I get all the midterms and essays back that were due the Thursday and Friday before reading week. So that's four midterms and two essays. Plus the other essays for some other courses that have just taken longer to mark because those classes are larger. More marks for my sample space. Lotsa fun. Apparently for one of my essays, I took too much of a Linguistic approach, versus the Literature approach that was required. Despite the fact that my essay was described as being "clearly structured and well-written". But from the generous amount of comments throughout the essay itself, I suppose it's rather deserved. Lots of holes in my statements. Serves me right for writing things last-minute. The prof continues to write, "I know that you have just transferred into English, and the learning curve might be a steep one." Steep learning curve indeed.

But I'm learning, so I'm happy. And I'm still vaguely confident that I can get my over-75 average for the term. (Relatively effortless compared to the theorems and proofs I've had to learn and acquire for those 3rd-year pmath courses.) Still, essay-writing is the staple of the English department, and I still have a ways to go until I properly master the Essay for Literature (as opposed to my beloved Linguistics).

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Regular Irregularity

There's something in linguistics called Folk Etymology. And basically what it is, is the sort of general/popular conception of a word, without the actual historical roots. Such formations include "outrage" being from "out + rage" instead of the Latin "ultra-".

And within this realm of folk etymology, there's a general conception of the regularity of prefixes and suffixes. That "-ness" can be applied to any adjective to denote the essence or ideal quality of that adjective. (deaf => deafness; bright => brightness; etc). Unfortunately, it's "stupidity", not "stupidness". (ref: random eavesdropped conversation on the GO train a while ago.)

And "-ity" has its own set of nouns: stupidity, inebriety, sobriety, sexuality, brutality, etc. However, like all things, even this has its exception. Consider: "university". Now, I have yet to see this word used in the context of describing the essense of the universe -- which would normally be universality. And, interestingly enough, this rule is preserved in German as well: stupidität, sexualität, universität, etc. Unfortunately, I'm too lazy to investigate the consistency of this phenomena in all PIE languages, but I have a feeling that at least in French, it's somewhat true as well ("-aire").

Another one that folk etymology would have us believe is "re-" being a prefix that exclusively means "again", like in repeat, rerun, redraw, readdress, reread, etc. And yet, there's also a set of words that have an oppositional nuance: reject, renounce, recant, repel, etc.

I find it both fascinating and somewhat frustrating to know that English (as well as most other languages) can't be consistent in even these small grammatical devices. But it adds to the languages; gives it character. Or in the case of "university", history.