Duck Duck Book

49 – afrikan alphabets
09.17.2007, 12:03 am
Filed under: language

Afrikan alphabets : the story of writing in Afrika / Saki Mafundikwa.
West New York, N.J. : Mark Batty , 2007.
[MCL call number: 411 M187a 2007; two copies, no holds]

People in the West do not think of Africans, particularly those whose cultures are rooted south of the Sahara Desert, as people who have much history of written expression.  Surely if and when African people write they use the languages, or at least the writing systems, of Europe?  Um, not always.  And if you don’t believe me or you’re just interested to see the proof, Saki Mafundikwa’s Afrikan Alphabets should open your eyes. 

Mafundikwa begins with a congenial introduction in which he relates his experience with African writing systems and their use (he is a respected graphic designer and typographer).  Next are four chapters devoted to different alphabetic topics: non-alphabetical information storage systems — pictographs, mnemonic devices, symbolic art objects, symbol writing — are examined in their role as roots of African writing systems, and then historic alphabets, alphabets of the Diaspora, and contemporary African alphabets are illustrated and described. 

Throughout the book alphabets, symbols, characters, and letters are shown in use in literature, on signs, on handcrafted objects, and in artwork as well as in chart form.  The book is highly visual in character and even if you’re not ready to read through the text, there is lots to learn from the illustrations.  The body of the text is followed by an annotated bibliography, a glossary of linguistic and typographical terms, and a basic index.


38 – the official dictionary
11.10.2006, 8:38 pm
Filed under: language

The official dictionary of unofficial English : a crunk omnibus for thrillionaires and bampots for the Ecozoic Age / Grant Barrett.
New York : McGraw-Hill, c2006.
[MCL call number: 423.1 B274o 2006; two copies, no holds]

When you studied English in grade school, no doubt you were taught rules that illuminated the difference between the parts of speech, how to enforce the agreement between subject and object, and so on. Not all of those rules make sense if you examine them closely, but the main idea is that they are based in the way that English actually functions, the way English speakers use the language to express themselves. Modern dictionaries tend to work this way too; they carefully describe the meanings of words based on the authority of demonstrated usage. That is, the dictionary compiler includes definitions found in the language that people actually employ in their lives.

The problem is that making a dictionary is slow work; while creating new words, and new meanings for old words, happens as quickly as people can speak. Barrett’s rather slim dictionary includes only definitions he was unable to find in more established dictionaries — but here’s the funny thing: many of the words and phrases he includes can be documented awfully far back in the past:

  • buffet flat “a speakeasy or other unregulated or illegal entertainment establishment that sells alcohol, usually located in an apartment or home” — 1911
  • soup bunch “a bundle of vegetables and herbs used in the preparation of a soup — 1883
  • lumberjill ” a female lumberjack” — 1937

It’s not that I think the mainstream dictionaries are slacking off (in fact, I am kind of addicted to checking the list of new words that are added to the Oxford English Dictionary every three months, and some weird shit shows up there), but I do wonder how some of these words slipped through the cracks. Who expects that the noun “eco-roof,” or the verb “to gleek” would not be included in at least one major mainstream dictionary?

Barrett’s definitions are clear and eloquent, and the dictionary portion of the book is well laid out and easy to read. Barrett’s introduction explains a great deal about how dictionaries are usually made, and how this one was created. Another introductory chapter, “Changing English,” discusses some of the major forces for language change — especially the language of soldiers and military personnel, and the kind of plate tectonics that happens in places where communities speak more than one language simultaneously. The book would be a useful reference, if you needed that, but it also makes an interesting conversation piece.

21 – politics and the english language
07.7.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: articles, language, literature

"Politics and the English language" / George Orwell, from volume 4 of the book: The collected essays, journalism, and letters of George Orwell / Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus.
New York, Harcourt, Brace & World [1968].
[MCL call number: 828 O79c; two copies (of volume 4), no holds — ask the library staff for help if you want to put volume four on hold, there’s a trick to it]

Everyone, it seems, complains about the decline of the English language.  Careless writers continually split infinitives, they put prepositions at the ends of clauses, they use too many acronyms, they indulge themselves with jargon, and in general they express themselves in ways that are, well, not totally easy to understand.  It's unconscionable.  At this very moment, parents and politicians and teachers and writers of newspaper editorials and the clergy are complaining bitterly about the sad state of our poor language — authority figures everywhere are wringing their hands.

But George Orwell, himself famous for clear, expressive prose, is here to do something about it.  (Actually, he was on the job quite a long time ago, as this essay was first published in 1946.)  What, indeed, is really wrong with the way people write?  As Orwell explains:

"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

Orwell considers five passages taken from contemporary (c. 1946) writing, and provides a brief analysis of the different kinds of problems he sees in these five passages and in writing in general.  Orwell's brief but effective plunge into the wilds of messy, confusing prose is instructional, amusing but also sobering, and generally a very good idea for anyone who plans to write anything explaining anything to anyone ever. 

So you can see I recommend it. 

N.b.: This essay was originally printed in the magazine Horizon (April 1946).  Multnomah County Library has back issues of Horizon, but not this one.  "Politics and the English Language" has been reprinted in several other volumes of Orwell's work, including the following: A Collection of Essays (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1954), Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (San Diego : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, [1984], c1950), and The Orwell Reader (New York, Harcourt, Brace [1956]).

It is also available online in full text in several places (though I haven't checked through them to see if they're all complete and good good): 1, 2, 3, 4, and there is a Russian translation.