Sunday Poem: First Words to Grammar

grammar

Rounding up the current series from the collection Poems Inspired by Second Hand Books on Sale on Amazon:

Though babies bawl and puke and smell

And generally have little glamour,

The marvel is they learn so well

The passage from first words to grammar.

The language matters not, forsooth,

From Almaty to Alabama

It grows inside like their first tooth

As they progress from words to grammar.

And we as parents watch with pride,

Despite the odd mistake or stammer,

Our offspring take within their stride

That magic step – first words to grammar.

Sunday Poem: Semantics

semantics

In my collection entitled Poems Inspired by Second Hand Books on Sale on Amazon, after Human Memory, here is the second, The Semantic Basis of Argument Structure. For this book not to have a poem dedicated to it would be a profound injustice.

Researchers into semantics

Are rarely great romantics.

They feel so strongly 

About words used wrongly

They get antics in their pantics.

Thursday Interview: Nimrod

babel2

– Now, Nimrod, we all have a soft spot for your great granddad Noah, who got us out of a spot of bother, but the same can’t be said for you. This Babel thing – what on earth got into your head?

– I’ve never understood why a bit of ambition is equated with arrogance. What’s wrong with building a tower to heaven? OK, so it presented a few technical difficulties, but that’s what architecture’s all about. The Burj Khalifa, the Petronas – you’ve got towers all over the place now and no one bats an eyelid. I was a pioneer.

– But all the way to heaven? Didn’t it occur to you that God wouldn’t like it?

– That’s another thing that’s got around – that I had some sort of plan to chuck Him out, wage war on Him. Not at all, I simply wanted to take a peek at what’s up there. I mean, it’s all very well for Him, all high and mighty and omniscient, I can’t even pick my nose without Him seeing, but we haven’t got the foggiest how He lives or what His tastes are. Scrambled or sunny side up? Apple or Samsung? Beyoncé or Taylor Swift? It’s not as if it would cost Him a lot to tell us.

– I think His point is He likes to be shrouded in mystery. A bit like the royal family. People would lose their awe if they knew all about Him. But tell me about the construction itself. Must have been a huge challenge.

– The difficulty was calculating the height to width ratio. Bear in mind we only had bricks and mortar back then, none of your steel girders or reinforced concrete, so to suppport the weight, it had to taper up to a point at the top. My worry was that we’d reach that point before we got to heaven. I mean, no one could actually tell me how high heaven was, so there was a bit of guesswork involved.  But I think our calculations must have been close, otherwise God would never have freaked the way He did.

– What exactly happened? He saw what you were doing and flew off the handle?

– He totally lost it, man! I mean, talk about overreacting. You’d think He’d caught me peeping through his bathroom window. I though He was going to smite us all dead or something, but He just made everyone jabber away in different languages and it was total pandemonium. You had the foremen squabbling over the plans, bricks going to the wrong place, scaffolding falling apart. In just two days, the whole site ground to a halt. And I was running round giving orders that no one could understand – it was a nightmare!

– Well, it gave a lot of work to teachers and linguists and interpreters, that’s for sure. And you know what? The number of languages in the world today is dwindling rapidly. Barely 7000 left, a quarter of them spoken by fewer than 1000 people. And English looks set to become a global language, not that everyone’s happy about that, mind – ask the French!

– Well, maybe one day you’ll build a tower like mine. All you need is funds, technical savvy and loads of slave labour. So you’ve got it sorted, I’d say – I mean, that’s how it’s done in Qatar, isn’t it?

At a Loss for Words

thesaurus

When I started writing, I thought if I used a thesaurus, I was cheating. A bit like using Bisto to make the gravy. But I was younger then, and my brain was chock-full of words. Opinions differ on the matter, but many will agree with Steven King’s assertion: ‘Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.’ That was indeed my position until language attrition set in.

Nice as it is to be bilingual, there’s a downside. Anyone massively exposed to a second language knows what I mean. You don’t forget your mother tongue, but unless you use them regularly, the words don’t come so easily anymore. They’re still there, but hiding away like bugs that are scared of the light. Coaxing them out can take a while: you know there’s a word you want, but it just won’t come. It’s called the TOT state (tip of the tongue) and it’s frustrating. I realised how far the attrition had gone when people in Britain started saying to me, ‘You speak very good English.’

So now I use a thesaurus. When the word I’ve come up with isn’t quite right, either in meaning or in rhythm, I look for alternatives. And joyfully browse for a while, rediscovering words that had slipped away into the shadows of my mind: fusty, arrant, bray, chary, nosh, drub, noisome, pudgy – the list could go on. Not that I’d want necessarily to use those words myself – there’s a definite limit to the number of less common words you want to pepper your writing with. Nosh or pudgy, certainly, if the context is right. I’d think twice, though, before writing arrant or noisome. But whether I use them or not it’s always nice to get back in touch with friends I’ve not seen for years.