Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Let me hear that tho-o-ong

I am currently reading a book called Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount, Jr. and it may just be one of the more ideal commuting books I’ve tossed in my messenger bag in a long while. It’s a few hundred pages of musings on the way words work, which is a fairly broad premise able to contain lots of different angles of approach. The book is organized into chapters, one per letter (after a throat-clearing introduction, which I of course by no means object to) and then further broken down into considerations of individual words starting with each letter. Some words are selected because they figure in anecdotes which illuminate the usage of language, some because they illustrate a characteristic of whole families of related words, some because they have inherently fascinating etymologies. Some just because Blount likes the look or the sound or the sense of them.

The reason why this is perfect for the commute is because it has little discernible cumulative effect. It’s not a novel with characters to keep track of and plot points to parse. It’s not non-fiction history, which bears at least those previous points in common with narrative, nor is it even non-fiction pop science where basic concepts introduced early in the book build a foundation for understanding the denser stuff later on. It’s just mini morsels of interestingness, and I can pick it up or put it down at will. The differences between reading one page at a go, or ten, or fifty, are negligible. I can leave it untouched for an afternoon ride home because I’d rather read an online article on my phone, or take a nap, or whatever, or set it aside for days because I just got a couple of new discs from Netflix or a back-ordered book from Amazon, and when I come back and pick up where I left off it does not matter if I remember previous Alphabet Juice developments, because there are none. Or at least none which would influence my understanding of the remainder of the book.

As somebody with a long-standing obsession with genre fictions that create intricate mythologies and run to the thousands of pages through multiple annotated volumes, it’s refreshingly low-maintenance to have a book in my hands that (although I am reading it straight through cover-to-cover, because of course I am) would be equally as enjoyable if I opened it at random.

Here’s a particularly resonant (to me) example from the early going in Alphabet Juice: Blount considers the word drawl (he’s from Georgia) and in particular a Webster’s definition of the word which includes the linguistic diagnosis “vowels greatly prolonged so that vowels monothongal in other styles of speech are often dipthongized”. Blount points out that this is a fair description, while also taking time (and rightly so) to acknowledge that “monothongal” and “dipthongized” are pretty phenomenal words, themselves. In any case, this struck a chord with me because it gets to the very core of some of the earliest interactions my wife and I ever had, way back in college, long before we were aware of any romantic potential (other than the fact that we were both young, healthy, and immersed in the campus environs where pretty much every conceivable interpersonal pairing seems to have some kind of viable potential energy to it). At that point I was a boy from up north who found southern belles alluring, and a certain Dixie-raised (or Dixie-adjacent) young lady divined not only that factoid about me but more specifically that if she spoke my first name, which where I’m from consists of exactly one long-vowel syllable, and doubled up the middle, I was usually dumbstruck. To a certain extent, the young lady kept deploying this technique because she thought it was funny how I would stop in my tracks or forget what I had been about to say, but on another level there was a touch of proto-flirting to both sides of the exchange, her exaggerated drawl and my exaggerated reaction to it. Developments since then (not least including one marriage and three kids) have borne out that there was a bit more going on there than two friendly acquaintances messing with each other.

I could get even more specific about the way that my fated-to-be-future wife would tease out the sound of my name as if she were trying to make room to snuggle up inside it, and do so without any difficulty because she still does it every once in a while to this day. Except, I can’t really get much more specific without breaking my own rules about not using real names here on the blog. Believe it or not (but given that I’ve kept this blog going for like almost five years now, my own egomania can hardly qualify as a surprise anymore) I run up against this on a fairly regular basis. All sorts of things occur to me all the time which revolve around names, surnames and given names, maiden and married names, namesakes, nicknames, pet names, names from secret languages and babytalk approximations of names. That last category especially gives me trouble, as obviously I’m enthusiastic about sharing stories of the ridiculous hijinks my own kids get up to, and sometimes that would involve what they call each other as they’re learning to talk (the little girl at this point can’t quite pronounce either of her brothers’ names exactly, and of course we just encourage her mispronunciation because it’s adorable) or any number of other nomenclature-centric adventures. Sometimes it’s absolutely impossible to tell the story without citing the names specifically, and sometimes I might be able to do it although it involves certain cumbersome abstract descriptions (as above, where I called my own name “exactly one long-vowel syllable”, or if I were talking about the little guy and little girl and explained, “both names are three syllables long, though his is seven letters and hers is nine, which matters because blah blah blah”), and sometimes I might be able to refer to generalities but the anecdote would lose too much in the redaction. So, by and large, I skip it.

And so it’s just one of those areas of thought that’s intensely meaningful for me but is disproportionately under-represented here on the blog. It’s an absence I’ve been itching to address for a long while, and the train of thought kicked off by Blount’s “drawl” entry finally gave me a semi-reasonable excuse. I do think names are important, and matter, and have a certain power in and of themselves, and if I wanted to write a book that nobody except my closest (and most indulgent) relatives would read, I could almost certainly fill one up on our family names. But, I also know we live in a world now where too much personally identifying information floating around on teh interwebs can be nightmarish, so I have to keep my predilections in check. But in case you were ever wondering where I come down on the subject of names, I will own up to being a lifelong fan.

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