Sunday, 31 October 2010

Implications of Language Reform

In the New Year, I will be visiting China, so in recent days I have been brushing up on my Chinese, which had been lying in a lumber room growing mouldy. I tell you this by way of lead-in to the following anecdote. The other day, I was chatting with one of my students during the break between periods. This particular student hails from Taiwan and I had some particular questions about some items of Chinese vocabulary, which I proceeded to write/draw for him (the distinction between writing and drawing fades somewhat in a pictographic language like Chinese). It was at this point that the conversation took a turn for the interesting. My student didn't understand what I had written. And, surprisingly enough, not because of my dodgy handwriting.
In the 1950s, ostensibly to encourage greater literacy and increase efficiency, the Chinese communists reformed the language by introducing simplified Chinese characters to replace many of the traditional ones and introducing the pinyin system for foreign learners of Chinese. Warren Carroll, one of my favourite historians, despises the pinyin system and refuses to use it in his works, opting instead for the older Wade-Giles system, but I've never felt any particular animosity towards pinyin. The romanised spelling of Chinese words which is used in that system is rather counter-intuitive, but once you get the hang of it it's more or less phonetic, and unlike the Wade-Giles system it is capable of depicting the all-important Chinese tones. Unlike Carroll, I don't see anything particularly Marxist in pinyin.

Simplified characters, on the other hand, are a different matter. I had been technically aware of the distinction between simplified and traditional characters before, but wasn't aware of any practical implications (apart from making them easier to remember and therefore read) before speaking to my Taiwanese student, whose name is Mars.

A spelling reform in a European language is a purely practical matter of standardising writing so everybody is spelling things the same way. It may accrue political overtones depending on who supports or opposes it, but it is not by nature a political thing. This is because European languages use an alphabet. The letters of the alphabet denote, more or less approximately, the pronunciation. They do not denote meaning. Spelling reform, therefore, can only ever be an attempt to conform writing with current pronunciation or new conventions regarding depicting particular sounds. Chinese, on the other hand, does not use an alphabet. The various components of characters may contain a hint of how to pronounce the word but mostly they denote meaning. Which means that when you change characters, you change meaning. As Mars explained to me with a few examples, by simplifying characters the nuances of meaning that words formerly had are lost. This naturally has repercussions on how people think.

Does this sound familiar? It should.

Interestingly, I discover that there was a second attempt at further simplification in the 1970s which did not go down well and was rescinded.

Quant a moi, I fully intend to continue brushing up on the simplified characters if for no other reason than that they are easier to learn and read. But, following this conversation, I can sympathise with Chinese outside the People's Republic who see them as a form of cultural rape. Yet another thing the Communists have to answer for.

Friday, 22 October 2010

For John Milton, Concerning the Barbarous Nature of Rhyme. A Retort.

A shadow passed across the world, as those who saw can tell,
The day that, with a deaf'ning crash, Rome faltered once and fell;
And Cicero turned in his tomb, but no verse from him came;
Catullus' lyrics, like his corpse, grew cold; he said the same.
And eastwards, where an emperor yet sat upon a throne,
Men chose words for precision, and left their art alone.
Thus Homer's six dactylic feet, whose sound would bless the ear,
Were saved and savoured, handed on, but no one wrote their peer;
The Versifiers left their pens and gave up prosody,
But Providence was moving, moving imperceptibly;
Soon from the mist-filled valleys of the Frankish realm there came
A rumour of a righteous king, one worthy of the name;
From out his mouth came eloquence in Frank and Roman words,
More earthy than the badger's lair yet lofty as the birds;
And many men then came to him to see if it were so
An emperor was in their midst like those of long ago.
He called to him the artisans, the skilled of mind and hand
And then like falcons sent them forth, that all throughout the land
His tribe might feel transcendent warmth, with vision magnified
By craftsmanship's forgotten fruits, exceeding ancient pride.
Then men recalled magnificence, exulting to regain
A past surpassed by things within the mind of Charlemagne;
And in the days to come, though some achievements came to naught,
The sparks remained, and others fanned to flame what he had wrought-
In later years, when tongues were changed and others were no more,
In newbuilt towns were heard the sounds of those called troubadour.
A troop of trav'lling wordsmiths were these Carolingian sons,
Each man a gold-tongu'd Orpheus who captivates then runs,
And each one left behind him sheer enchantment when he'd gone,
A ling'ring vision built of lyric verse of Occitan:
Of ladies unattainable the lowly fain would woo,
Of cunning foxes, Roland's horn, of tales told anew
Of Arthur and his knights- these were the subjects of their song.
It broke upon the people like the sounding of a gong.
And ere long this unprecedented, mesmerising style
Had found a place among the race of England's scepter'd isle;
In noble rhyme did pilgrims wend their way to Canterbury,
In self-same form was one knight sworn to uphold cortaysie
While seeking for a man of green that he had seemed to slay
Whom he must journey far to find, and find ere Christmas Day;
The lilting sound of English words, their rhythm and their shape,
Made drunk the cream of England like the crushing of the grape;
Their interlocking sounds, like jigsaw pieces, like a jar
And lid did show our tongue's true worth thence in perpetua;
The very ideal Form of verse was this, its hard-won peak! -
Thus English made its own that which was sought in vain by Greek.
And all the poets gathered round and marvelled at the sight,
That such a humble language should ascend to such a height.
As for a hoard of scattered jewels, they grabbed and grasped around
That each might show his peers his own rendition of the sound;
The Muses smiled as they surveyed this thing they had achieved
And blessed the poets, who in turn revered what they'd received
And handled with grave reverence this sacred gift of rhyme,
As circumspect as priests, or actors in a pantomime,
Yet joyful with an almost Dionysian delight-
They came before an altar every time they sat to write.
So Spenser wrote in wonder of his virgin fairy queen,
The Bard improved on Petrarch in ways hitherto unseen,
And Robert Southwell's verses, which he offered with his blood,
Were kept by grateful hands the day his gore was mixed with mud;
Then Donne, late as a cleric or as first in passion's heats,
Did sigh to write of fleas and maps and various conceits,
And Pope and Dryden tried their hand at epic; with respect
Translating from the masters who were mouldy with neglect,
But reasoning such brilliant verse could yet more brightly shine,
To set it off, they placed it in a rhyming dual line.
Then lest the rhyme grow hoary with convention as with age,
Will Wordsworth and Sam Coleridge began another stage-
For rhyme can work as epic but is not thereby confined-
It can appeal to both the learned and the simple mind.
Achilles is no more fit subject than a man and son
Discussing which place they prefer- this or a different one.
But while these poets wrote their works and all the Muses smiled,
A figure in a darkened spot was sulking like a child,
A man apart whose hardened heart did curse them as uncouth
For writing rhyme, which he believed the realm of wayward youth
And Philistines- he far surpassed such unsophisticates:
"Blank verse," he said, "is better for our tongue's inherent traits."
And so he cursed the verse that rhymed, his face towards the wall;
Its very sound was bitter to his ear, like bilious gall.
The poets disregarded him and kept on just the same.
"He is," they said, "a harmless man- John Milton is his name."

Friday, 1 October 2010

Glimpses of the Age of the Soapbox

"The past is a foreign country," said L.P. Hartley, "they do things differently there."

In recent weeks I have had the at times frustrating but also rewarding privilege of proof-reading and editing my grandfather's memoirs. The experience has been enlightening, to say the least. In it, my grandfather details his childhood growing up during the war (at 13 he was overseeing a factory because there were no experienced men left to fill the job), his years as an itinerant preacher in Queensland and his subsequent years as pastor of various Baptist churches.

What has struck me most (and there have been several things that have struck me) is the difference between the culture of the 50s, when my grandfather was an itinerant driving from town to town in a "gospel wagon", and the culture now. Simply put, there is no way the kind of evangelism my grandfather practiced would work now. Not just the content of the message but the methodology.

A slight tangent. There is a fellow whom I regularly see who preaches from a soapbox (actually a small platform) outside the Queen Victoria Building opposite Sydney Town Hall a few evenings a week. He is, I think, Baptist, or certainly from that tradition of preaching, and almost never does anybody stop to listen to him. Mostly, people are embarrassed that he is there. Some, no doubt, are offended by things he says (he invariably sets up shop during the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and preaches hellfire in shrill tones to the passersby), others are simply put off by the fact that he is there at all, waxing eloquent to bustling crowds of the indifferent. I admit I usually have the latter reaction, even when I happen to agree with what he's preaching about, and I feel like taking him aside and telling him, "Mate, you're not helping the cause here. You're just making people more alienated from Jesus than they were before."

Yet, returning to my grandfather's memoir, in the 50's my grandfather was doing a very similar thing. He would park his wagon in the main street of a country town or a Brisbane suburb, stand up in the back and begin preaching. And a crowd would gather. People would come and listen. Some would heckle, of course, but others wouldn't. Occasionally, there might even be converts. He tells of one time when he was assisting a Baptist church in Park Ridge, south of Brisbane, over the course of a few months. As part of the work, they initiated a Sunday school and would drive through the town to pick up children and take them to the church. As the weeks went on, the number of children who wanted to come rose steadily until they had to sell their vehicle for a larger one to accommodate them. This would not happen now, I think.

I don't think these reminiscences are symptoms of a rose-coloured view of the past or, indeed, are isolated examples. For example, I think of what Frank Sheed used to do, first in Sydney and later in London- very much the same style of thing.

What does this mean? Were people more spiritual in the 1950's? Are they less spiritual now? Or is there some other reason? One could, I suppose, argue that people who had lived through the war would naturally be more open to God and anyone claiming to speak for Him. On the other hand, can anyone deny that today's generation is more hungry for meaning than any within living memory? Alternatively, it could be merely evidence of different things appealing to different generational cultures. Perhaps both theories are true to one degree or another.

There are of course practical considerations to take from that observation. If soapbox preaching was accessible to one generation but not to another, there surely must be some mode of evangelism which would appeal to the latter as soapbox preaching did to the former.

In any case, it is enlightening to get a glimpse of this foreign land where getting up on your soapbox did not automatically make you a pariah and an oddity.