Simon Says » communiqué 018/April 2018

Simon Says: communiqué 018/April 2018

Hello everyone

Did you see any good April Fool’s jokes?

Me neither.

I can guarantee this edition of Simon Says is free from prankes and japen (and I will explain the odd spelling and somewhat archaic language later…). But first, without any trickery, let’s talk about books.

Tattoo Your Name on My Heart

In the last two editions of Simon Says I’ve mentioned the first two books in the Boniface series, so common sense dictates that I mention the third: Tattoo Your Name on My Heart.

Needing a Guitarist

When I was writing the book, I had a need for a minor character—a guitarist who plays in the fictional rock band Prickle.

Luca Parzani is that character.

The only thing that really makes sense to Parzani is his guitar and music. When he’s not playing, people tend to describe him as mercurial. That’s just a kind way of saying that his life is really messed up and that he’s not great when it comes to interacting with other people, especially his former wife, Bing-Bing.

Bing-Bing had expectations going into the marriage—daft expectations, but expectations nonetheless. What she didn’t realize was that she was the only person crazy enough to marry Luca. The other thing she didn’t realize was that there was never any money—Parzani could never keep a cent. And so in their divorce she took what she could, and what she feels he still owes she is recovering by way of taking his assets.

She doesn’t care if those assets don’t belong to him or if they are the tools of his trade—she is taking anything that she can literally lay her hands on, and so Prickle have a guitarist with no guitars because his former wife has taken them…and sold them.

The Idea

When it came to developing the character of Parzani, I followed some of the contours of Michael Schenker.

It’s likely you’ve never heard of Schenker although he’s been playing professionally for more than 50 years. Perhaps one reason why he hasn’t become a household name is that every time he seems to get near to stepping into the big league, he somehow seems to implode.

However, Schenker is—and has been for decades—a hugely influential musician. Many guitarists point to him as one of their leading inspirations. The reason he is so important to so many is that he is that rarest of beasts—a musician who combines an inherent sense of taste and great musicality with mastery of his instrument.

To give you a small example of his work, listen to Into the Arena.

At the start of his career, Schenker recorded three albums with the Scorpions, six albums with UFO, and then—when he was 25-years-old—went solo.

Into the Arena comes from his first solo album. It is an instrumental piece that starts as a moderately straightforward rock piece (albeit the 12/8 time signature is somewhat out of the ordinary). But it builds become far more complex. At around the 2:32 mark, there is an section where Schenker plays an arpeggiated sequence. To me, that musical figure was something that Luca Parzani would have appreciated.

No One Cares If You Can’t Spell

I’m going to take a controversial line for someone who makes his living by scribbling down words: Spelling doesn’t matter. At least, it doesn’t matter as much as people make out and it doesn’t matter for the reasons they think it does.

What matters is the ability to be understood.

Law of Spelling

There is no universally agreed law of spelling in the way we have the law of gravity. A word is not empirically spelled (or should that be spelt?) one way or another. Instead, we have a convention for how words are currently spelled and that convention is always evolving.

At no point in history has language been fixed and however hard anyone argues, language will never be fixed—it will continue to change. And it will continue to change for many reasons, some logical and others irrational.

Fundamentally, language is a choice. We choose to use certain words and we choose to accept that those words have certain meanings. Those decisions about how we spell a word and what a word means are then recorded in dictionaries and an orthodoxy is born.

But the recording of words follows human behavior—it does not lead. If we all, collectively, decided that cheese should be spelled cheez, then the dictionaries would follow soon enough.

Evolution of Language

Language evolves and continues to evolve because human beings oblige change.

One key reason for change is that human beings need a different way to express themselves. New devices and new practices come along and we need new words to describe them. The television is invented and we need a word to describe the box that sits in our homes—calling it a wooden box with moving lights powered by electricity is a bit of a mouthful.

But the word television has since become more than a way to describe a device. We now talk about people working “in television”, in other words, working in the industry around creating content to show on televisions.

English As It Was…

I mentioned prankes and jaypen at the start of this edition. This thought was triggered by some extracts I found from around the 1700s.

”…all other bodyes, by a certaine Mole [he] had in his Neck, and by that marke…”

”…play’d some prankes, made me…resolve to pay him his arrearages.”

”…hee was so senceless…to neglect us and bee debauch’d with another lacquay…”

You’ll notice the odd spellings (for instance, bodyes instead of bodies, certaine and marke with an E at the end) and you’ll notice the capitalization of Mole and Neck. The spelling of senceless has a logic, but the word I find most interesting is arrearages. We understand its present derivation (arrears), but would likely employ another term (such as debts) if we were writing that sentence today.

Cultural Cross-Fertilization

Another catalyst changing language is immigration and cross-fertilization of culture.

Hearing familiar words spoken with a different accent and phrased with a rhythm which (to us) is new or unusual can be intriguing. Sometimes the new words/pronunciations/interpretations stick, sometimes they don’t. But in the same way that music from different cultures starts by being “exotic” but later becomes mainstream, so language assimilates new words and changes our understanding of existing words.

Language also evolves differently in different geographies and so, for instance, we have different spelling depending on whether you’re using English (as in the language spoken by the English) or American English.

That said, there are many variant spellings within British English and some of the accepted British spellings have more of an American flavor. For instance, many words can be spelled with either an S or a Z (as an example, energise and energize are both correct British English spellings).

Error and Ease

Other factors changing the language are the ease of error and the ease of speech.

I can probably best illustrate this with two words: embarrass and occasion. Both require attention to pronounce correctly and both are easy to spell incorrectly. I mean, seriously? One S in occasion, but two in embarrass…. What’s the logic 😁

While there may be linguistic logic and history, you can misspell either word by using one or two instances of the letters C, R, and S and the reader will still understand what is intended. That makes both words particularly susceptible to change.

And if you say the word embarrass out loud, you can probably drop the “em” sound at the start and still be fully understood. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the word evolves to become barrass?

If Spelling Doesn’t Matter, What Does?

First, let me address the implicit issue—spelling does matter. That said, while spelling does matter, it only matters to a limited extent. What matters far more is what the reader understands.

You can spell words in any manner that makes you happy, but if you spell them in a way such that a reader can’t immediately understand the word, then whatever is written is irrelevant (since the reader won’t be able to understand). Equally, if an unconventional spelling is adopted, the reader may think the author can’t spell, and if the reader has that attitude, then they’re likely to question everything the author writes.

There is wrong spelling. If you spell something in a manner that does not conform to any convention or logic (so if you take the word cheese and spell it apsdfjz), that is probably wrong since it will never be interpreted.

It’s Not Going To Get Better

The challenges we face with spelling and meaning will always be there because language will always evolve and develop. And for anyone who wants to suggest that English should cease to evolve, then let me ask one question: From which point should English stop evolving?

When, exactly, should the definitive version of English be set? Is Chaucer’s version the definitive version. Is Shakespeare’s version the unchangeable? Johnson’s? Or is it the version that you think is the right version the unchanging version?

Let’s all be brave together and keep learning those new spellings.

What Survives to Become Literature?

I always find it interesting to see a disconnect between what people believe is classic work and work that actually becomes classic.

Take Shakespeare Dickens—both were commercial writers who were producing entertainment for the mass market. They were not creating work to be regarded as literary or artistic.

Both Shakespeare and Dickens are now regarded as being literature. But this regard has nothing to do with either writer’s intent or with the intent of those around them at the time they were writing. Both are regarded as they are regarded due to widespread public acclamation.

We do know of some of the other writers working at the same time as both of these authors—indeed, some are comparatively well known—but both Shakespeare and Dickens have their reputation built on their work.

We are all aware of work that is called literature today, but I wonder what will stand the test of time. What will be regarded as having literary merit by generations in 50 years, 100 years, or 400 years?

As you might suspect, I have some suggestions.

What Will Survive From Today?

I’m only going to make one guess as to a piece of work which will come to be regarded as literary and which will still be enjoyed for several hundred years: The Wire.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am putting forward a television show with multiple screenwriters.

What Gives The Wire Longevity?

I will write more about The Wire in future editions, but for now, let me point to a few of the reasons why I think this television show should be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare and Dickens.

The Wire is unique in that it treats the viewer like an adult. From the very first scene, the story has already begun and the viewer has to catch up and figure what’s going on. There are no flashbacks and there’s no telegraphing a character’s motivations or any other tricks to make sure the viewer “gets it”. Instead, the writers focus on putting the story on the screen and assume the viewer is smart enough to understand.

There is a broad and deep cast of characters. Each character is a fully realized three-dimensional individual. Each character has their own motivations and is driven by those motivations. There are no endearing quirks or characters added simply to crank up the drama or to bring some humor.

There is no one single motivation and no one character is simply good or bad. Every individual has their strengths and their flaws. Every character has their own personal line that they will not cross. But for every character there are shades or gray, compromise, and consequences.

There isn’t one single story in The Wire. Instead, each character is pursuing their own goals. Individuals operating together—whether as a police department, government, the District Attorney’s office, or members of a drug gang—drive the broad sweep of the story forward, but ultimately, this is a story of individuals.

And as a tale of individuals, the story is timeless.

It is a tale of greed, a lust for power and wealth, and in most cases a lack of care about the consequences for others of the individual’s desires. But the story also forces the characters to face the consequences of their actions, and in this context, the tale is a tragedy that can best be described as Shakespearian. 

To Close

That’s it until May.

If you haven’t watched The Wire, then where the heck have you been since 2002? Drop everything and start watching it today.

All the best

Simon