Broken English: Seen But Not Heard (Part 3)
So we’ll recap.
There are some things in language that can only be seen via the written word and not heard via the spoken. This can be inconvenient when you’re caught without a pencil or have lost both your writing hands in battle with the enemy, but it also stands to reason, in the same way that a painting of an incident differs from a verbal description of that same incident.
The flexibility of the written word also allows the clever to do artistic things with writing, as illustrated in my previous posts by the Japanese examples of ate-ji and fake furigana. To summarize these two concepts for the lazy or overwhelmed, ate-ji is kind of like classy puns made of Kanji. Since you can’t “hear” a Kanji, they must be written. Fake furigana is like typing “read: [blank]” where the [blank] is filled with pointed lies instead of the actual correct reading of the tagged word. Example: “Rebecca is a woman (read: witch).“
The point I’ve made thus far–that the written language differs from the spoken language–should come as no surprise to those of you who can speak and read a language. That’s why I get bummed out when dudes like retired journalist Bob Ingrassia criticize other journalists for writing words “people never say.” Seems awfully silly to decry literary journalism that doesn’t sound exactly like a dad talking to his son.
In the various Japanese courses I took in college, there was a consistent importance placed on the differentiation between kaki-kotoba (written words) and hanashi-kotoba (spoken words). My teachers–all of them–spoke plainly of this differentiation with unfaltering certainty: “You wouldn’t really say that word. It’s a kaki-kotoba. The equivalent hanashi-kotoba would be [blah].”
The Japanese version of Bob Ingrassia would surely be a social pariah. Meanwhile I’m left wondering why we don’t have this distinct differentiation in English. To be sure, we could. There’s no reason we should have people who work as journalists for near twenty years and still look down on literary English because “that’s not how people talk.”
Anyway. The segment where I lash out at a guy about whom I know almost nothing is over. What I wanted to get to today is the reverse phenomena of that which I’ve been discussing so far–that is, language that can be heard but not seen. Probably the rarer case, it is still hardly rare. The modern English-speaking populace has formulated lots of clever ways to visually represent the subtleties of intonation and pronunciation. Writing “gonna” instead of “going to” or “wanna” instead of “want to”–hell, as far as I can tell, all contractions come from a need to mimic speech in writing. The first people to say “gonna” were almost certainly thinking “going to” before “gonna” became a recognized thing.
Then there’s the italics. You may have noticed by now that I use these like a crutch, because I love them. LOVE. They just look so severe. They make you imagine a speaker with grave, mortified intonation:
“So it’s about a space cargo vessel and its mild-mannered crew, but their return flight to Earth is delayed when a horrible alien bursts out of William Hurt’s chest.”
“Yeah she seemed really into me and all, but I guess I was kind of turned off when she turned out to be a man.”
Another such phenomenon that seems to have crept up on our society while I was away from it is the use of periods [.] as emphatic markers.
I. Hate. This. Practice.
The reason I hate this practice is because you can’t just, fuckin’, you know, like, use punctuation marks however the hell you please, man. I mean a period already has a purpose. It ends a thought. Definitively. If your thought isn’t over, you can use an ellipse. . .
. . . dude.
For centuries, the period has signified the end of a thought, represented in spoken English by a falling intonation. Here’s what I hear when someone on Facebook goes, “I. Love. This. Song.”
Tell me I’m not alone.
It’s clear what they’re trying to convey, though. And in their defense, I don’t really know a better solution. If it were up to me, which I guess it kind of is, I’d just go, “I. . . LOVE. . . THIS. . . SONG.”
But that could be mistaken for dying words or vaguely diabolical. And I guess I don’t want that.
Other, more subtle nuances in intonation truly can’t be expressed in writing. Let’s take the word what. Here’s the word what as you would say it when you’re in disbelief.
Here’s that same word, but as you would say it when you don’t know why someone is giving you the stinkeye.
And here’s how you’d say it when confronted with this obese duckling:
I dunno. Maybe there are individual solutions for writing to each of these things, but certainly not standardized or even widely recognized ones. But anyway. I guess I’ve made a point. Somebody come up with more examples in the comments.