Monday, April 20, 2009

Aspiring to the Archaic

I like to dig out old words, turns of phrase and writing styles and put them to new uses -- er, let's be Heideggerian -- I like to make myself aware of these words, phrases and stylings so that they can do their work through me.

I've started a series of silly posts through my Facebook status that have turned into a short story (about the weather, of all boring things), serialized in two or three sentence chunks. I'm writing in a seventeenth century sort of voice, including some archaic words. I'm also ending up with some made-up words, as the modern words filter through the language of the enlightenment and adjust themselves accordingly, and as I need to coin new epithets and epigrams for contemporary objects and situations.

At first this practice was a little embarrassing because the voice sounded like that of historic romance novels or fantasy series. Such genre writers attempt to use archaic sounding language when they are describing a sinewy warrior's kilt fluttering in the wind, or a green-eyed faerie-queen alighting on the back of a silvery steed. I do not wish to conjure up such imagery. (Barf.) I even commented on my second post, "I hope none of you think I actually write like this." Even with the disclaimers, I've already seen some positive feeback on my wordsmithing. One friend was particularly fond of the kenning, "hypothermic indwellers," referring to the people of earth in the wintertime.

Apart from the ridiculous Facebook serial, I would seriously like to see what happens as older styles of modern English are applied to modern genres such as blogging, creative non-fiction, and memoir writing. This is not like writing in a different language. Old English and Middle English are different langauges from Modern English. This is just an experiment in reviving writing styles that have fallen off, even if it is just to fetishize them or get some other kind of kick out of them. Ideally, I would like to recover the different types of expressiveness that I think are peculiar to the different periods and that have been lost in contemporary usage -- I'm not just in it for the intellectual kitsch.

Some of the things a particularly miss in English are words that begin with "a" (afloat, adrift, aloft) which I think may have been used more often when poetry required them for a nice cadence, the shortening or lengthening of "-ed" words by using an accent aigu or a substituting a "t" (rais├ęd, dropt), reversed word orders (where you really have to think to figure out what modifys what) a la Shakespeare and Pope, and a whole mess of vocabulary that has been put out to pasture. (See my post "Talk Victorian to Me" below.)

The spoken-word linguists (which is most of them) would want to choke me for this. They love that langauge just keeps on truckin' with no memory of the past. "Those archaic word usages died for a reason, and gosh darnit they need to stay dead!" But I am always at odds with those linguists. I don't appreciate watching language get hacked to death. I'd like to preserve some of it from a gruesome fate, and even ressurect a few bits of it from the grave.

I am wondering if there is a place for me with the written-word linguists (or if, at least, I wouldn't start brawls with them like I might with the other linguists) -- those who study the trendy sounding, newish discipline of literary stylistics. They like to look at how people do things with words (not strictly in the J. L. Austin sense). I don't know these fellers too well yet but I think they might like looking at and thinking about what to do with old words too. NIU has a stylistics MA program, but unless I come out on the bottom of all the other application heaps, I don't really want to go there. I'd like to leave Illinois as soon as the wheel in the sky allows.

For now I'll keep fooling around with these styles on my own, and see if allowing them to work through my twenty-first century being creates anything worth writing a paper about (and maybe the paper will be in a seventeenth century scientist's writing style).

A side note: I overheard a professor telling a tale of plagiarism that had me stifling laughs down the hall. (I work for another professor on the 4th floor where all the "Englishmen" hang out.) He received a paper that began with what was obviously nineteenth century prose, interspersed with paragraphs of freshman level writing. It occured to me that perhaps the freshman couldn't tell that the writing he was copying and pasting sounded completely different from the writing of any living person. Or even if he couldn't tell the difference, he might have known that a sixty-year-old professor could tell something was up. The prof. must have noticed my muffled snickering because he bothered to duck in and stop me in the middle of licking an envelope to swear that I never heard anything. I never know when this guy is being serious. This is the same professor who wrote on my paper about paradox in John Donne (which got an A) "I'm surprised you didn't mention paradox more."

1 comment:

  1. I too am seriously interested, nay passionate, about employing the old-style words and phrases which were a feature of the English tongue in her golden ages (the Renaissance and, to a lesser extent, the Victorian era). I sincerely believe that English has become sorely impoverished by its neglect of this splendid phraseology and lexicon.

    In my opinion, but not only mine, English is especially deprived of a great marker of intimacy as opposed to polite distance in not having a productive use of the pronoun "thou" (as Romance languages have to this day). Not only that, but this useful distinction between singular and plural second person pronouns would eliminate the abhorrent neologisms such as "you guys", "y'all" and "youse" which have been dragged in to compensate for the ambiguity.

    I was glad to find out there in the world some other people who share a love of the majestic and grand vocabulary of yesteryear.


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