Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Talk Victorian to Me




Yesterday I read two novels. I was home with a cough like an old man's, and though I yearned to go outdoors the cough kept me planted in my chair. I sat in the sunroom with a window cracked to let in the breeze, nursed a cup of jasmine tea, and got lost in the 19th century.

Tess of the D'urbervilles and Wuthering Heights were my yesterday's source of my amusement and sorrow. Both were volumes I had recently purchased at a used book emporium, and I had snatched up the "Norton Authoritative Text" edition of each. The identical format made it easy to skip from Tess's ignominy to Heathcliff's abuse. What made it even easier was that I chose, by chance, two novels with the same "period" English.




There are tomes of criticism written on each of these fine stories, so I won't get into that here. In fact I haven't read any of it yet -- I wanted an unspoiled look at the text the first time through.

What struck me about the novels is the similarities in the language; how in some respects this makes the novels similar, but in others the shared vocabulary has no unifying effect on two novels of the same, often stereotyped, period. The authors' voices and styles shine through the web of multi-syllabic, multi-comma sentences as proof that the "Victorian" novel might not be such an easy thing to define. And that people who say they love Victorian literature shouldn't lump together fifty years worth of novels because they use the same big words.

I am no scholar of the Victorian, but I appreciate it. I think it's amazing that some of the most passionate and passionately loved works in the English language were penned in such a time of convention, social constraints, and sexual repression.

Anyhow, I am off topic. I meant to write about those big old words.

Some of the language gets in the way -- Hardy's descriptions of Tess's emotions are often long-winded and full of abstractions. No clever metaphors help us better understand her pain. Only a thesaurus and dictionary combined can define feminine anguish the way Hardy thinks it pans out. But Hardy and Bronte both dropped some gorgeous yet altogether abandoned words into my lap. Words I'd seen before in my journey through early American literature I now saw popping up across the pond and used as liberally as ever.

I wish to revive them, resurrect them from the vaults of words that have been laid to rest. These words are not archaic. Not in the dictionary sense anyway. You'll find them right there next to "blog" and "ADHD" without any note indicating they were quietly tucked away into libraries and bookshelves at the turn of the century. No disclaimers about using them in public. "People won't understand you. They might laugh at you. Besides, no one really knows how they're pronounced. No one living has ever heard them pronounced." Well, except maybe in a high school English class.

Here are my favorites:

Supernumary

Singular

Frock

Phlegmatic

Kine

Appellation

Concatenation

Victuals

Vociferate

Supernumary is an important word. I think people should use it because they often use words like superfluous, when really supernumary would do much better. The meanings are not the same.

Singular is my absolute favorite. All my most read writers use this one liberally. I am beginning to think everyone used it liberally until 1900. Then it was locked away with the rest, until a cell phone company discovered it, misspelled it, and appropriated it. Most students probably think it's a made up word; they probably think the same of Nike. In my opinion, singular is a much better word than unique, weird, distinct, or any of the other near-synonyms we would use today. It is singularly descriptive in its ability to single out.

No one wears frocks anymore. I want to trade in all my clothes and apparel for frocks.

Kine are livestock, particularly cows. This one took me awhile. I never look up the words untill I have gleaned sufficient meaning from the contexts in which I find them to have a good understanding. Then, someday, I'll look them up. I've loved these words for some time. I looked them up last night.

Phlegmatic. Sounds gross. But you pronounce the "G." That is, unless we're just talking about how much phlegm someone has. Then its hard to know if we're talking about mucus or apathy. Actually a "Phlegmatic" sounds like a machine that removes your boogers for you. The word sounds too harsh to mean apathetic. I like its deceptively interested sound.

So I'm going to attempt to dust off some of these forgotten linguistic heirlooms and polish the scratches and dents out of the misused or appropriated ones.

Also, I think I'll read some of that criticism tonight. I need to stop fawning over the words so I can see the novels.


From this day foreword, I shall conduct all my
correspondence through holes in trees.

1 comment:

  1. I fully agree with you that we need to revive some of the beautiful classical vocabulary and sentence structure of the 19th Century (mainly, but not only Victorian). If everyone did that, it would be far more pleasant to hear than the present strident cacophony of modern speech.

    ReplyDelete

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