Archives for category: Writing

I was aware of George Bernard Shaw’s desire to rationalize English spelling (famously his complaint that fish could be spelled ghote without phonetic alteration), but I didn’t know that he had sponsored the creation of a new featural alphabet. His requirements were that it contain at least 40 letters; be as “phonetic” as possible (that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to phonemes); and be distinct from the Latin alphabet to avoid the impression that new spellings were simply “misspellings”. The alphabet was actually created after his death by Ronald Kingsley Read.


This means ghote be damned, fish would look like this: 


It turns out that  Penguin published a version of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion in this script in 1962. This parallel edition was paid for by the Shaw Trust, but ended up being the only book to be thus sponsored because Shaw’s will was then contested.

I like the little price sticker on this image of the cover.

Writing about the marginal surrealist Leonora Carrington in The New York Times Book Review of 4 June, Parul Sehgal introduces us (me anyway) to the concept of exophonic writers: writers who wrote in languages other than their native tongue. Wikipedia has, inevitably, a list. Ms Sehgal alludes to the following:

  • Leonora Carrington: incomprehension brings liberation. “I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words  . . . This made it possible for me to invest the most ordinary phrases with a hermetic significance.”
  • Vladimir Nabokov: was kind of forced into it. “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom.”
  • Joseph Conrad: did it to gain a larger audience (?)*
  • Yuko Otomo: English is more democratic than Japanese. “I am elated to address a professor and a dog with the same pronoun ‘you’.”
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: a sort of rebirth: She finds writing in Italian makes her “a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way”. (Which seems to have involved the rediscovery of the comma!)
  • Emil Cioran: purging the past. “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past, I changed my entire life.”
  • Samuel Beckett: a desire for self-exposure. “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.”

Quite interesting. I often say that I have found myself able to say things in a foreign language which I’d never say in English. So I’d add a category of de-inhibitor to Ms Sehgal’s list.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s switch has attracted some comment. The Economist examines the move, while Tim Parks, in The New York Review of Books provides a devastating review of the result. Success in writing confronts the writer with the burden of expectations. People liked your first book; lots of them bought it; and they are now waiting for more of the same. Maybe switching to a different language provides a bit of cover?

Arthur Koestler is another who changed language in mid-career. The New York Review of Books has a piece by Michael Scammell. Darkness at Noon was originally published in English. It was translated as it was being written (from German to English) by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy. In the chaos of wartime they were scrambling to get the book done before the Germans authorities caught up with them. They did get rough translation off to England, and sent the original German manuscript to Swiss publisher Emil Opprecht. Everyone assumed that the original was lost, hence the need to publish from the English translation. When a German edition was published it had to be freshly translated by Koestler into German from the “original” reworked English version. As it turns out the manuscript sent to Opprecht did arrive, and has recently been unearthed. The publisher of the German edition “Ullstein noted that Koestler was using ‘a great deal of foreign words instead of German expressions’ in his translation and asked for permission to change them into idiomatic German. There is irony here, for the English translation Koestler worked from is itself full of German words and phraseology, a neat reversal.”

Zinovy Zinik in the Times Literary Supplement of 26 May 2017 raises yet more complications. “A Moscow-born assimilated Jew, I left the Soviet Union forty years ago for Israel where, for a year, I ran a student theatre in Jerusalem; the, while staying in Paris (my first novel [which was written in Russian] had just been translated into French), I was invited by the BBC World Service to cross the Channel and settle down in Britain. Ten years later I became a British citizen. Like many of my contemporaries I think, speak and write in two, if not three, languages. What unites these foreign personae is my foreign accent.” He points out that Conrad liked to visit Paris at least in part because there nobody detected his accent; they all thought he spoke perfect English. (But Conrad spoke excellent French, so I’m not sure why he’d need to be speaking in English.) My stepfather, also a Pole, never lost his heavy accent, and although not a writer, would I imagine have written in Polish where his vocabulary remained much larger. In the mill buttons were always referred to as guziki (goozh-eekee). Many’s the time I’ve run upstairs for him to “get that . . . you know what . . . that thingummy”; one would just bring objects downstairs until inspiration lit on the right one.

Zinik mentions Adalbert Chamisso, author of Peter Schlemiel, a classic of 19th century German literature, who was born of French émigré parents who were fleeing the revolution and was bi-lingual all his life. There have always been lots of people like that. Surely now the pace of population movement has accelerated to such a pitch that one can no longer rely on an inhabitant of say Edinburgh speaking English (in so far as one ever could; many would claim that lowland Scots is incomprehensible to a “real” English speaker. It is however an English dialect, whatever they say, unlike Gaelic.) So the expectation that a native citizen of any country should think, dream, speak, write in the language of that country becomes less and less tenable. And I refrain from a discussion here of Jewish identity; it just gets too complicated. Yiddish is in a similar position now to Scots Gaelic: very few speak it; many wish they did.

Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het;
The trees in rank along a ledge
Do show where woonce did bloom a hedge;
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.
The grass ageän the mwoldrèn door
’S a tóken sad o’ vo’k a-gone,
An’ where the house, bwoth wall an’ vloor,
’S a-lost, the well mid linger on.
What tokens, then, could Meäry gi’e
That she’d a-liv’d, an’ liv’d vor me,
But things a-done vor thought an’ view?
Good things that nwone ageän can do,
An’ every work her love ha’ wrought
To eyezight’s woone, but two to thought.

Is this written in English? Of course it is, but William Barnes wrote in the dialect of his native Dorset. It’s his poem “Token”. How about Burns? A dialect speaker writing in the nation’s formal language shares much with the exophonic writer. Many a folk critic would want them just to pull up their socks and write proper English. Some of us seem to find it hard to believe that people can really communicate in ways which we don’t readily understand. The demand that everyone write like “we” do is a bit like shouting English words slowly at a Spaniard, and concluding that his failure to comprehend betokens idiocy. The funniest thing I’ve read recently is this from a review in the same issue of the TLS “When de Waal asked colleagues why primate face recognition tests used human faces as the target data, he was told it was thought to be an easier test for primates to pass, since human faces differ so much.” The review does not go on to mention all these chimpanzee ethologists who are scratching their heads despairing of their human subjects’ inability to distinguish between ape faces which of course “differ so much”. (De Waal himself writes in English though he was born in the Netherlands and only moved to the USA in his early thirties. You wouldn’t know he wasn’t writing in his native language. Of how many academics must this be true?)


* But his father was a translator of English into Polish, and Conrad did spend 16 years in the British merchant marine, became a British citizen in 1886 at the age of 28, and lived in England for the rest of his life. He claimed to enjoy the “plastic” freedoms the English language provided him. All of which might seem more explanatory, or at least relevant.


We’ve never really managed to get a grip on signaling irony or sarcasm in written communication. Notoriously conveying tone of voice in an email, text message, or before that in a business memo, is almost impossible. If your readers can misunderstand you it seems almost certain that they will. Apparently we have formalized this problem as Poe’s law.

Obviously we’d benefit from some punctuation mark that said “I’m making a joke here”, “This is ironic”. One might have hoped the universe of emojis might have thrown up a contender, but these two attempts seem to fall short.




Apple’s version, the wry cat, doesn’t seem to convey “irony”: more like “I just eat something that disagreed with me”. I don’t really know why the upside-down face should be ironic rather than upsetting. Still I guess if Apple were to offer the cat every time you typed “irony” enough texters might adopt it, so that everyone might begin to think that that’s what the cat means. Thus far it doesn’t though. Perhaps those fluent in emoji-speak will be able to provide a more viable example. I suspect what we really need is software that detects when we are trying to be ironic and offers us the appropriate sign. But of course if people can’t detect irony, why would software do any better?

So the search continues. Here, courtesy of Shady Characters are a few of our attempts to fill this gap in our communications repertoire.

⸮ — the reversed question mark, called the percontation point, from the the six­teenth cen­tury

¡ — the in­ver­ted ex­clam­a­tion mark from the seventeenth century. Apparently this mark is in current use in this sense in some Ethiopic languages

‽ — the interrobang from 1962 by Martin K. Speck­ter. Remington even made a typewriter with an interrobang key. The name is a combination of its constituent elements, the interrogation mark, and the bang, which is a printer’s term for the exclamation mark.

~ — the tilde, pro­posed in the early 2000s

* — the asterisk, denoting sarcasm, a more re­cent entrant

   — reverse italic, invented by H. L. Mencken and pushed by Bernard Levin and Tom Driberg. Apparently Brooke Crutchley, former Printer to the University of Cambridge, once misattributed the original idea to Driberg in a letter to The Independent.


And then there is my per­sonal fa­vour­ite, the ironi­eteken as de­signed by Bas Jac­obs


Another recent applicant for the job, designed for indicating mild irony, is the jè (pronounced yeah) as here illustrated on a subtle T-shirt. Don’t know if the shirt can catch on though: The Beatles certainly weren’t dealing in irony. “And you know that can’t be bad” jumps into reverse with all that irony larded on. 

In an earlier post Mr Houston brings us this page from Hervé Bazin’s Plumons l’oiseau, di­ver­tisse­ment © Grasset & Fasquelle, 1967.

Lots of ideas, no progress. I guess it’s hard to get agreement on this sort of thing. Nobody thinks you’re serious.

Maybe the opening today of a Dallas bookstore called Interabang Books, will boost public acceptance of the need for an irony marker in our lives. Clearly we’re going to have to sort out the spelling once we adopt the concept.

Photo from Shelf Awareness

There can’t be many left working in the business who remember the typing pool. In the nineteen sixties Bentley House’s typing pool was next door to Keith Corrin’s filing room (yes, we didn’t have to do our own filing either). It was staffed by about half a dozen ladies led by Margaret Yayawi, and they’d raise a deafening clatter as they typed away at the majority of the letters and memos which the business generated. They’d rattle off three copies of everything, letterhead, carbon paper*, onion skin paper, carbon paper, onion skin. Later, when I started writing most of my letters by hand, I suggested jokily that I deserved a pay raise for economizing on typing resources — if the typing pool had still existed perhaps I should have been reprimanded by my union shop steward (that would be me) for putting comrades’ jobs at risk. In the work environment it was the typing pool that was first revolutionized by word processing. They still got to type everyone’s letters; they just typed them more efficiently. It wasn’t till the personal computer came along and we all became typists that the pool was terminally drained.

Word processing represented a revolution in authorship. New Republic brings us a review of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016). We are told in the article that by 1984 40% to 50% of American authors were writing their books on word processors. The first book to have been delivered on disk is said to have been Len Deighton’s Bomber in 1970. The word processor certainly made editing easier: the New Republic article tells how Isaac Asimov was transformed from a notoriously messy and inaccurate typist into a neat-freak model of accuracy after he moved onto a word processor. The Atlantic also has an interview with Professor Kirschenbaum.

Nietzsche observed “Our writing instruments are also working on our thoughts”. As The Digital Reader informs us he wrote those words on the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, illustrated here.  One might imagine having rather frightening thoughts about what such a monster might do to you. The guest post by Mr Kirschenbaum originates at The Conversation and is entitled Technology changes how authors write, but the big impact isn’t on their style. The author appears to prove not so much that new technologies affect style, as that we find it difficult to figure out exactly how to define and analyze the effect.

Ian Bogost, also at The Atlantic, says in his review of Freewrite, a  sort of attempt to escape the Internet incubus and get back to the original stand-alone word processor experience, “Writing today feels terrible not because writing has changed (surely writing always felt terrible), but because today one can never write alone. The writer always feels watched by the voyeur army of real and imagined critics that later will post or tweet inflammatory comments after publication.” Really? Choose your phobia, I guess.

But not every writer rages against the machine. Kenneth Goldsmith, perhaps self-described “Professor of Uncreative Writing” at the University of Pennsylvania, describes himself as a word processor in his piece I look to theory only when I realize that somebody has dedicated their entire life to a  question I have only fleetingly considered, and of course processing words in indeed what writers do.

The big advance pre-word-processor, was the typewriter. Here from Mental Floss is a serious discussion of the model of typewriter used by 20 authors. (Link via The Digital Reader.) I can also recommend the blog Wrong Way, Write Way for typewriter aficionados. One of this ilk, Tom Hanks, has a book of stories coming this fall, each of which apparently has something or other to do with the typewriter.

No doubt the typewriter changed the relationship of the writer to his text, and naturally the word processor did too. I always used to maintain that the invention of the word processor increased the length of manuscripts by 25% as authors no longer needed to retype if they added material early (or late). Just add it in, and watch the job reflow. I suspect that some of the change must indeed be stylistic. Writing by hand has had time to evolve into a process running at the speed of thought: you have time not only to think the thought but to consider how best to express it. Does changing to any machine upset that relationship? You are probably still thinking at the same pace, but the reflection time has been curtailed. Would Proust’s style have been different if he’d had a laptop? I guess style analysis could be conducted on Len Deighton or Isaac Asimov pre- and post word processor. I rather think something would show up. After all if stylistic analysis can be claimed to tell that Marlowe wrote many bits of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, this should be a breeze.

And what comes next? The Textio Word Nerd tells us it’s going to be augmented writing. He assures us “The core tech now exists to be able to quantitatively predict with a high degree of accuracy whether a document or email you’re writing will get the outcome you want.” If you don’t write it right, they’ll redirect you onto the right path. The Textio system is demonstrated in a video linked to at the foot of The Nerd’s essay. Well, go for it if you like, but this future’s not for me. I even hate the jaunty non-copyrightable music that plays along with what’s basically a commercial for their product, which seems to be directed at people who don’t know what they want to say. No doubt there are plenty of those, and I dare say the product deserves to be successful. But augmented writing? I expected a little more from that title.


* What the abandonment of carbon paper means for our culture was brought home recently by the discovery of two new poems by Sylvia Plath. These were found, in negative image, on carbon paper folded into the back of a notebook. As people would reuse carbon paper several times, deciphering the poems took some skill; apparently the contents list for Ted Hughes’ The Hawk in the Rain had also been typed with this sheet, along with a couple of other Plath poems and a possible fifth one. Here’s the Guardian account.

We are all aware, aren’t we, that the mind is capable of making sense of a partial view of a line of type? Apparently it’s the bottom half we can do without.

I had never considered the question of whether this trick works in scripts other than our Roman/Italic versions. Israeli designer Liron Levi Turkenich did, and found that with Hebrew letters this works when we can see the bottom half of a word, while in Arabic the opposite is true. So she’s worked up a combo which one might hope would be readable by readers of either script. WNYC’s Shumita Basu had a story about this on 31 May. There’s a subtitled video at that link too.

I wonder about other scripts. What about Cyrillic? To be certain I’d need to be a more fluent reader than my couple of years in night school fifty years ago have left me, but I doubt it. Greek? Probably not. Certainly not Hangul. With Chinese, would a comparable test involve covering up the left half or the right half, rather than top or bottom? Either way I can’t imagine it would work.

Maybe this is a way forward for translations though? Ms Turkenich does suggest using the 638 new characters of her “Aravrit” combo typeface on road signs and government buildings.

Apparently this isn’t the only trick our minds can pull on us:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

From the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge.

A pendant to my post on black letter.

The key to this 1901 map, in case you can’t make it out in the German, is:

  • Blue: German alphabet (Fraktur)
  • Pink: Latin alphabet (Antiqua)
  • Pink with blue spots: Limited use of Fraktur alongside dominant Antiqua
  • Pink with yellow spots: Irish script alongside dominant Antiqua
  • Green: Cyrillic alphabet
  • Brown: Greek alphabet
  • Yellow: Arabic alphabet
  • White/grey: Kalmyk-Mongolian script

I’m not sure just where, if at all, that last one is to be found, but you’d expect it in the east and in the north Caucasus; but Turkey and North Africa are white too.

You can click on the map to enlarge it. It comes from Wikimedia Commons, via Backchannel, via The Digital Reader.

If you get this post via email and don’t see a video here, please click on the post title in order to view it in your browser. Link via The Passive Voice.

Of course any word has a first recorded usage, and that cited work will have an author, so every word could be said, in the same way as this video does, to have been “invented” by an author who happened to write down what everyone around was saying. A few of the words however really were made up by the authors quoted rather than being just first used formally by them.

Tom Phillips says of his work “I do it, you know; you can’t really be interested in what you do” which I find to ring true. If I do it, then it’s just something people do. What on earth can be interesting in such ordinary activity?

What Tom Phillips does is obsessively edit the pages of an old book by painting over much of it and leaving a few selected words connected by little rivers, establishing a new text. Some of the pages are starkly geometric and abstract in their treatment, and others, like page 50, illustrated above, are impressively realistic. He’s been at it for 50 years, so he clearly enjoys it, and in one way that is enough. Obviously others want to enjoy it too, and Thames & Hudson has just come out with a sixth recension.

As his website puts itA Humument has been a work in progress since 1966 when Tom Phillips set himself a task: to find a second-hand book for threepence and alter every page by painting, collage and cut-up techniques to create an entirely new version. He found his threepenny novel in a junk shop on Peckham Rye, South London. This was an 1892 Victorian obscurity titled A Human Document by W.H. Mallock whose title was altered to A Humument [by folding the title page to exclude the letters in the middle] for the remade book. The earliest printed version took the form of sets of boxed pages issued by the Tetrad Press between 1971 and 1976. The first trade edition was published by Thames & Hudson in association with Hansjorg Mayer in 1980 and this was followed by revised editions in 1987, 1998, 2004 and 2012 before the sixth and final edition was published in 2016. Each edition contains at least 50 new pages which replace their earlier selves in a process whose goal is acheived in the final edition in which no page of the earliest version survives.”

I can see it would be fun to do, but I’m not sure that the resulting text has much to say to us really. It’s art, no doubt, but it mostly comes across to me as a bit obsessive — but I guess that’s art, isn’t it? Mr Phillips’ website includes a 2½ hour reading of the sixth version of the work. There’s also a generous selection of page images there too — I think it may be the complete book.

Jonathan Safran Foer has done an analogous, if non-graphic, job on Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. His version is called Tree of Codes and is printed as originally laid out with the excised words die-cut away (or omitted) so that you end up reading a layered text which must have been a nightmare to print and die-cut, as well as “write”. The publisher’s website shows some other sample pages, though this picture tells the story pretty well. They also have a brief video showing the printing and die-cutting process. No wonder the book is currently out of stock: it’s not an item you can reprint on demand. The book was perfect bound: trying to fold and gather die-cut sheets like that would have been almost impossible.

The Times Literary Supplement of 31 March reviews the latest iteration of A Humument. You’ll need a subscription to read more than the first few lines though. One reflection that strikes me is whether these books are “written” by Phillips and Foer, or by Mallock and Schultz? If I cut up The Heart of Darkness into single words and drop them at random around the streets of New York, is a text resulting from your happening along later and picking up a number of bits of paper a text by you, me, Joseph Conrad, the west wind, or nobody?


Grammar Girl, via The Passive Voice, brings us the news of a sensible change at Associated Press. The AP Style Manual now embraces a bit more gender neutrality:

singular they: The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student’s gender identity isn’t what’s in their record.

The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.

I see from the piece that it was 2011 already that AP decreed email should lose its hyphen. I will have to try to comply.

The big breakthrough in machine translation occurred when Google lead the way in abandoning a rules-based system and switching to a statistical-based system in 2007. By trawling through a trillion web pages they identified masses of pages which were translations of other pages. They trained their system on thousands of pages of parallel text thus enabling the computer to come up with a range of possible translations of any new text. These alternative texts are then run through a model of the target language, thus enabling the computer to select the most likely interpretation of any cruxes. The Economist‘s recent (7 January) supplement on language processing describes this research in Section 3, Machine Translation: Beyond Babel.

“The time is coming when machines will be better at transforming a text from one language into another than a human translator.” Jaap van der Meer tells us at the TAUS blog. Most of the voices in this post caution that we not allow our expectations to run away with us. Giving with the left hand while taking away with the right, Khalil Sima’an says “Some of the more exciting kinds of translation, for example high-end literature and poetry, might remain in the hands of a few gifted human translators for some time to come.” Might remain? For some time to come? Not a lot for the anxious translator to hang onto.

But, isn’t this great news? We don’t need to imagine downloading a digital text of Crime and Punishment into Google Translate, which overwhelming dump may never get to the level of digestibility, to envisage a vast freedom of access to foreign literature. If, as I have been intermittently playing around with, I sit down to make a translation of Jean Giono’s Un Roi sans divertissement, how much of a leg up would it not be to have the whole thing rough drafted at one click of the mouse? The translator would then be freed up to polish infelicities, and important in this case, to establish a stylistic distinction between multiple different narrators — but maybe Google Translate or son of Google Translate, because most of the discussants don’t see this happy day arriving till 20 long years have elapsed, will actually be able to do this stylistic sorting more easily than me. For many readers and purposes I dare say an unedited first cut of a translation might be enough. Some publishers will regard polishing as a matter of pride. But either way, are we not inevitably going to be getting a huge increase in the availability of translated literature from all languages?