Linguistic Rivalry

In the part of my brain devoted to languages, French and English dwell in the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers.

linguistic1Well, technically French should be the only uncontested ruler, since it’s my native language…

linguistic2… but my native “academic tongue” is English, and though I don’t write perfectly in English, writing academically in French is actually much more difficult for me – the first article I wrote in French received the following reviewer’s comment:

“There are a few problems with the language, due to the fact that the author is clearly not a native French speaker”.



But then my English isn’t super strong when it comes to understanding song lyrics. And I can’t baby-talk very well in English. Anyway, French and English occasionally bicker, but they’re generally pretty reliable, and switching between the two stopped being difficult a long time ago.

In another antechamber of the language bit of my brain, however, dwell another two little linguistic daemons who are not quite so disciplined.

Meet Russian and Spanish.

These days, Spanish is happy and having loads of fun, whereas Russian is, to tell you the truth, annoyed and gloomy (and not just because of national stereotypes).

Russian, you see, has been living for almost a dozen years in the Antechamber of the Languages I Have a Basic Knowledge Of. At the beginning, it was living there with English, but English quickly upgraded to the Antechamber of Languages I’m Good At, before moving to the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers along with French.

Russian was cool with that, because I’d started to learn English two years before, so English had a big head start, and also English is a ridiculously simple language to get pretty good at, compared with Russian.

But after a few years, Russian started to realise it wasn’t progressing towards the Antechamber of Languages I’m Good At. We had an awkward chat:

Russian: What’s going on? You’ve been learning me for years and all you seem to be able to do is hold a basic conversation, carefully avoiding using weird aspects and not bothering too much about declensions.
Me: Well, you’re a difficult language and I don’t really have any time to learn all the crazy aspects and declensions. But one day I’ll pick you up again.

A few years later, we had another awkward conversation.

Russian: Hey, where’s English now? Is it still in the Antechamber of Languages You’re Good At?
Me: Um, well, English has done pretty well for itself and has sort of upgraded to the uncontested rulers chamber. But one day, I’ll work on you, Russian, and you’ll move one antechamber up.

Except I didn’t. Instead, one day, I decided (half on a whim) to pick up Spanish.

Spanish: Hola ¿qué tal?

Russian: Who the hell is this.

At the beginning, Russian imposed its rule. Once, during a Spanish lesson, the teacher said something to me that I didn’t get, and I automatically replied “Я не понимаю” (“I don’t understand”).

Russian was ecstatic. Best joke ever. That’ll teach her to bring this foreigner into my antechamber, Russian said.

So for a while I would say ‘ia’ instead of ‘yo’ (for ‘I’), ‘da’ instead of ‘sí’, etc. I also kept getting some words mixed up because they sounded vaguely similar; the words ‘vez’ in Spanish and ‘raz’ (раз) (‘a time’) were particularly difficult.

But after some time, it became desperately clear to Russian that Spanish was catching up, and then winning.

Now whenever I try to make up a sentence in Russian, such as ‘I’m reading a book’, this is what happens:

Me: No, no, move aside, Spanish – come on, Russian, I’m asking you!
Russian: Oh, you care about me now, do you? I don’t know where those words are. I’m busy.
Me: come on, make an effort!

Russian: How about those words instead?
linguistic5Me: I don’t need those! I need read and book.
Russian: How about this whole sentence? linguistic6Me: … No! That doesn’t mean ‘I’m reading a book’, it means ‘Attention, the doors are closing’. It’s a sentence you heard in the St Petersburg metro in 2002. Why did you even bother remembering that sentence?

Russian: *shrugs*

Finally, grumpily, and only if the words are on top of the pile, Russian hands me what I need. (But it doesn’t happen very often. Russian is very sulky.)

Me: OK, so now, how do you conjugate and declense those?
Russian: Sorry, I’m going to bed now.

Sometimes Russian is a bit more active and revivified, for instance if I’ve been exposed to a lot of Russian recently. But then Spanish gets angsty because it thinks I’m leaving it alone, so it slyly barges in at the most unexpected moments, replacing prepositions or innocuous little words with Spanish ones. ‘But’, for instance, which, for reasons unknown, I always want to say as ‘pero’ when I try to speak Russian.

When I do, I hear echoes of Spanish’s gleeful JAJAJAJAJAJJAJAJAJJAJAJA (which is hahaha in Spanish) because it’s such a great joke right.

Though I’m no linguist, my guess is that only in the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers can languages cohabit fairly peacefully. All the other languages are Darwinistically condemned to a ruthless war, finishing each other’s sentences, layering over each other’s words, and being generally mean and petty about who gets used more and why.

It’s quite an exhausting battle. Maybe I’m atypical, but my experience seems to contradict the oft-repeated mantra that you get ‘better at learning languages’ if you already know a few. I haven’t seen much of that kind of politeness in my own cerebral antechambers.Sometimes, it’s true, English and French help me understand Spanish a bit better, but only on a lexical level, because some words are closer to English and some to French.linguistic7So yeah, poor Russian is very gloomy these days. Well, at least, to cheer itself up, it can still go for a nice little stroll across an even darker part of the linguistic corner: the silent, eerie, scary, Cemetary of Completely Dead Languages.
linguistic8RIP, Hours and hours and hours of repeating rosa, rosa, rosam, rosae, rosae, rosa.

Why Writing Is Like Everything Else

I’ve been reading blogs on writing and on publishing for more or less eight or nine years now, and I think that one of the most important things I’ve learnt from this daily blog-reading is the following message:

Writing is, pretty much, more or less, to some degree, basically like everything else.

See for yourself: here’s a small selection of things that writing is like.

To begin with, writing is very much like cooking. In fact, it’s so much like cooking that many different people have different views on why it’s exactly like cooking; however, others would argue it’s closer to baking, and I mean a cake, though apparently it can be much more precise than that: it’s in fact exactly like baking muffins. While you’re busy being a domestic god/dess, you might as well know that writing is also exactly like crocheting or knitting. You prefer shorter needles? No problem! Writing is pretty much like sewing too. When Rex starts yapping that it’s time for his morning walk, you can also do that productively, because writing is like walking the dog. Once you’re back, you might want to do a jigsaw puzzle, which is more or less what writing is, anyway. Don’t forget, once you’re back, to clean the floor, which, incidentally, is precisely what writing is like. You can even do it in your knickers, because writing is like walking around in your knickers. Then if the weather is still nice out, you might consider gardening; because gardening, and oh my goodness there are too many blog posts to list here, is absurdly similar to writing.

If you’re less of a domestic person and more of a multi-talented artist, here are some words of comfort. Writing is, in fact, very much like painting. However, if the blogosphere is to be believed, it’s even more like sculpting. Yes, all this vocabulary of carving out and polishing makes the analogy particularly strong: writing basically equals sculpting. Seriously, I promise you, it’s exactly like sculpting. Pottery, too, as you might have guessed. However, let’s not forget, while we’re talking about visual arts, that photography is also analogous to writing in many different ways. Sorry, what’s that? You prefer music? Well, you’re in luck: writing, as you might know, is just like singing. It’s also, to some degree, pretty much like playing the piano, though surprisingly enough it’s not like playing any other instrument, as far as my research has gone. If you’re more of a dramatic arts person, fret not, for writing is, thankfully, also like acting.

But wait, I hear you ask, what if I need some exercise in-between all these artistic activities that are exactly like writing? Fortunately, sports are the number one category of things that are like writing. In fact, sports in general are like writing. But there are also particular sports that are analogous to writing. I won’t bother you with all the literature on why writing is like running: it’s not difficult to see that many writers are constantly running, running, even running marathons. Some are also into other sports, and thanks to them I can report that swimming, dancing and skiing are also just like writing. Riding a bike is also part of the list of physical activities that are to some degree the same thing as writing. Do you prefer combat sports? Well, you might want to try judo, which happens to be a lot like writing. But some of you are more attracted to extreme sports, aren’t you – if which case, rest assured that hiking a canyon, rock-climbing, mountain-climbing, scuba-diving, and skydiving will provide much information as to what writing is like.

Boy, all of these active Duracell bunny writers are making me feel bad. Let’s go for a walk, for writing is obviously pretty much like walking. Then some stretches: yoga is a lot like writing. Yes, even in your leisure time, you can gather snippets of wisdom as to what writing is like. Fishing, for example, is like writing. Meanwhile, you might be rowing a boat, which thankfully is also like writing. Seasonal events should be taken advantage of: dressing up for Halloween appears to be pretty similar to writing. Making snowballs is so obviously like writing that it goes without saying. There is a lot of controversy around whether bowling is like writing: some say it is, but someone else says that writing is like golf, not bowling. Not sure I want to take sides in this debate, being equally bad at both. It’s also a shame I can’t drive, because apparently writing is like driving. But some people have tougher Sunday activities, and they might want to consider that the house they’re building, and their digging in the dirt, are also perfectly acceptable analogies for writing.

But of course writing is also a lot like much more romantic and sensual things. It’s like falling in love! And after this sweet event, you can gain relief from the idea that writing is like being in a relationship. This relationship entails a ton of sex, if writer-bloggers are to be believed: though Paulo Coelho himself argues that writing is like making love to a computer. It’s also like having sex with a beautiful woman. Consequences, consequences: as Mary Higgins Clark (and many others) report, writing is also like being pregnant. And after being pregnant comes having a baby, which thankfully is pretty much like writing. Don’t worry though: practicing medicine is very similar to writing, so you’ll be aroung like-minded people in the delivery room.

Feel free to share in the comments other things that writing is like. One thing’s for sure, though: blogging isn’t like writing. I don’t know how many books I could have written in the time I spent reading others’ and writing mine…

(nah, I love it, really.)

The Duchess of Cambridge’s Guide to Essay-Writing

Summer’s coming, undergradate and MPhil dissertations are due soon, and it’s time to get articles sent to journals before the August and September lethargy gives peer-readers even more excuses to take 6 months over reviewing our 7000-word pieces of genius research.

It’s also the right weather for the sempiternally worshipped Duchess of Cambridge (DoC) to properly dazzle the world with her impeccable figure and flawless sense of style, so I thought I’d corner her for an interview about how we can transfer her otherworldly sartorial perfection to our academic writing.

CB. Hello, Your Cantabrigian Highness! How was Australia?

DoC. It was ever so interesting. Among other things, I discovered that giraffes have even longer tongues than the men who watched the slow oscillation of my sister’s derriere at my wedding.

CB. Right… Tell us, pray, o eternal empress of chic – what tips from your wardrobe and attitude can we apply to academic essay- and article-writing?

DoC. Well, to begin with, we must all agree that the ideal outfit is perfectly fitted, but of a lovely bright or pastel colour.

CB. Indeed, you are not a fan of baggy tops and maxiskirts in fifty shades of browns and greys. What’s the tip here?

DoC. My dear, the ideal article is carefully trimmed to fit exactly the subject matter – no fluffy extras, no bits of fabric hanging out here and there, and rigorously no asymmetry. Be scissor-happy: as close to the body of the essay as you can be. No blurry tulle or misty gauze: use honest, clear, tangible fabrics. But to counteract this rather severe tailoring, allow yourself a generally bold, bright, youthful, sharp tone of voice. White and black are to be kept for important occasions: black for paradigm-shifting articles, and pretty, lacy white lies for academic reviews of your friends or colleagues’ latest books.

CB. All of this should be monochromatic ?

DoC. Well, I do like monochrome, but accessories will help you ensure it doesn’t end up being monochord. Allow yourself little deviations from the overall tone – but only where it matters. A nice little controversial quotation to top your introduction like a curly fascinator, an interesting clutch to set off a dull paragraph towards the middle of the essay.

CB. And a grand, lyrical, flashy conclusion?

DoC. My goodness, no! It would attract attention solely onto itself, to the detriment of the body of work. Conclusions should be like my shoes: very bland, distanced enough from the ground that they’re not flat, but certainly no platforms. Let the essay speak for itself and end sensibly.

CB. That’s helpful, Your Highness, but some people would accuse you of taking too few risks. Aren’t we going to end up with a rather classical style?

DoC. This is where another rule comes into play: hair should be down unless absolutely necessary. This will add unexpectedness, a sense of welcome playfulness, a certain je ne sais quoi of unpredictability. Structure and plan everything, but always leave something unprepared – something for the winds of inspiration to frolic around with.

CB. Erm what? Your hair is unprepared?

DoC. *coughs* Well, it’s prepared in a special way that makes it feel natural and unexpected when the breeze plays around with it. Think of it as your scholarly background – all that knowledge that you’ve accumulated over the years. Some of it is already present in your structure – you’re consciously integrated those sources, you know you’ll mention them at some stage. But the rest is still there, maintained, curled and trimmed by years of taking notes, rereading them, forgetting them. Not exactly unprepared, but let’s say, artistically free-floating. A flick of the wind and ta-dah! who knows which idea might come and kiss your cheek when you think you’ve got your whole argument sorted?

CB. What is it with knees? Why do you rarely show your knees?

DoC. Knees are like transitions between subparts. They do all the hard work, but they are aesthetically displeasing and lack grace. Try to conceal them whenever possible. That said, should an impolite gust of wind ruffle your skirt as you get down from an airplane, the effect can be quite alluring; use this tip sparsely, to showcase, for a brief moment, the strength of those solid hinges of yours.

CB. What can you tell us about handling our ideas?

DoC. Take inspiration from the way in which I artfully handle little Prince George to show him around to my people: from all different angles, and apparently effortlessly. It looks like a nine-month-old healthy baby isn’t at all too heavy for my impossibly delicate arms. Cultivate that style. Show all the facets of your ideas, trying to make it sound like it’s very easy to hold them for a long time in improbable positions.

CB. Is it always necessary to remind everyone of your status by constantly flashing your  tacky diamond and sapphire engagement ring?

DoC. Yes, dear. It’s called a self-citation. You’ll see when you’ve got actual work to show for your importance in the field: you’ll refer to it absolutely all the time. You’ll find, in fact, that I’m being quite restrained, only alluding to my status in one place per outfit. Of course, you can’t do that yet, because you’re a nobody who hasn’t yet done anything worthy of unsubtle allusions.

‘I refer you to my previous work in the field’

CB. Thanks for that. A final question, Your Royal Youness. People like me have days when they have pimples, or scruffy hair, or really no wish to squeeze our feet into high heels. For some of us, it’s every single day. What can we do if we really can’t follow your example, o grand guru of demure fashion?

DoC. I’m not interested in such people. I’m sure they can find their own style guide to follow. Go ask Lady Gaga, I heard she coached Slavoj Zizek.

Thank you, tabloidal deity, for granting us half an hour of your busy schedule. She has now returned to the hyperactive nothingness of her royal duties, leaving us with some hope that we shall one day find true love, in the form of a permanent and salaried position, within some academic establishment. And perhaps we will soon parade, in front of a crowd of excited journalists politely complimentary colleagues, a cuboid baby freshly delivered by an academic press.

Writing Funny Things When You’re Sad

Last year, when I wrote the first instalment of Sesame Seade, I didn’t have a care in the world. Gaily bedight, I carried my mini-computer around Cambridge and typed away in various coffee shops and all the Frappucinos in the world smiled at my enthusiasm and little birds sang songs of joy in the blue skies. Easy to be funny when things are generally fun.

And then Sesame got sold, and suddenly there is A Deadline for book 2 of Sesame Seade (Gargoyles Gone AWOL). But just at the time when I was supposed to start writing it, I ran into some quite unfunny personal difficulties, and suddenly it wasn’t as easy-peasy as it had been to write what is essentially supposed to be a lolarious book, as opposed to a supreme tear-jerker.

And thus I discovered what happens when you try to write something funny when you’re sad:

1) The Woody Allen syndrome: Every joke ends up being a sad sarcastic comment about your own existential crisis. Which, of course, is endlessly fascinating to nine-year-old readers (not).

2) The Laurel & Hardy syndrome: Since I can’t do verbal humour and sophisticated jokes anymore, let’s cram the page with slapstick comedy! Ha-ha! Look at her falling over! Brilliant if you want it to sound like your heroine’s lost all her brain cells somewhere between books 1 and 2 and has also become completely malcoordinated.

3) The Recycling Bin syndrome: Hey, there were some funny passages in book 1. What if I changed a word or two and recontextualised them in book 2? Works wonders if your readership is exclusively composed of goldfish.

4) The Mission: Impossible syndrome: If I can’t make it funny, at least I can make it HYPERACTIVE with like A LOT of ACTION and people who RUN and JUMP and at some point there’s a BANG and a WHOOSH and who cares about humour when there are SHRAPNELS???!!! There are many problems with this, the first being that I don’t know what shrapnels are.

But you’ll be glad to hear that after a lot of dilly-dallying and soul-searching and obsessive synopsis sessions (writing a synopsis doesn’t require humour), I finally managed to get going on Gargoyles Gone AWOL. And lo and behold, once you stop angsting about how unfunny you’ve become because of the unfunniness of your current situation, you realise that forcing yourself to write funny things not only works – just like it used to – but also cheers you up.

Bibliotherapy I guess, but the other way around.

Clem x