My Year of Journaling

You might recall the start of 2021, I initiated an experiment in writing in a journal on a daily basis. No more sporadic journal writing in waves. This new regime was to give some rigour to my writing practice. I did stick with it, but a couple of times a month, I found myself too busy to write and just completing the daily exercise with a sentence or two, usually about how busy I was that day.

After 365 journal entries, I have 82 pages filled with a total of 41,225 words. That sounded impressive until I did the maths and realised I only wrote on average 110 words per day. When I was working on books, I kept my momentum by writing 5000 words per week (roughly 750 per day). I console myself with the thought that journaling wasn’t the only writing I did in 2021. There were these blogs, a couple of new essays, two articles for East Anglia Bylines and editorial work on a short story (published in September) and two academic articles (published in June and October).

What was this journal about? As a journal intime, it was about me, my feelings and my ideas for writing. Looking back at the year, the journal entries often referred to Covid and how I was feeling about it, or how the government restrictions, cancelled events and rescheduled flights interrupted my life. Interestingly, the words Covid, pandemic and test(s) didn’t even make the top 100 words on the frequency list – I uploaded the file into a concordancer as geeky linguists like me do. There were, however, a fair share of implicit references to it ‘things being as they are these days.’

Among the highest frequency words from the year of daily journaling had to do with writing itself – write, wrote, writing, blog and article all made regular appearances. Related to this was the word time – that showed up big and bold on a word cloud that I generated of the journal file (see below). These word clouds exclude pronouns and function words (such as determiners and conjunctions).

Word cloud of my 2021 journal

Back to the concordancer, which includes all words in a text, of those 41,000 plus words, the most frequent one was the pronoun I. No surprise there as journals are home of the Narrative I, which is also the Authorial I. As I was writing to me, and most certainly not to anyone else, I felt free to work through writing ideas, including the ridiculous and unpublishable – an exercise of creative muscle-stretching. Above all else, I was free to say what I thought, and the results often surprised me. These deeply private thoughts included affirmations, self-loathing, and the recording and interpreting of dreams. The act of writing such thoughts has been psychotherapeutic to say the least.

For these reasons, I’m continuing in 2022 with daily journaling, and I can highly recommend it – and not just for people who write.

Meritocracy: the self and the social

While I’ve read some fine books in 2021, my favourite this year has to be Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. Central to this book is the idea that thinking we live in a meritocracy – an idea much-used by politicians – has created a false sense of deserving and has alienated the unsuccessful. Sandel points out that many who have not received the rewards of their hard work, in particular those who have been most effected by the economic crises of recent decades, blame their governments and/or immigrants, giving rise to populists’ movements in democracies such as the UK and America. Reading this book made me re-examine my own thinking on meritocracy and how it has changed over the years.

When I was a child, I believed that if I tried really hard at something I would reach my goals. Watching Jimmy Stewart films and being told by teachers and parents that anything was possible if you worked for it, I was a product of my culture. Yet, I knew even then that there were limits. I was never going to be Miss America (because I didn’t have the looks), nor was I going to be a professional baseball player (because I was a girl). By the time I was a teenager in the 70s, the women’s lib movement made me all too aware that adult life was not played on a level field and that if I succeeded at anything, I would be paid less than my male counterparts.  

While the bubble was deflating, there was still enough air in it for me to believe that hard work and ambition would have their rewards. Living in predominately white, working and lower-middle class America, believing in meritocracy was a default position. On top of that, I was caught up in the wave of aspirational coaching and new age spirituality espousing the notion that positive thinking yielded positive results. My reading list in those days featured self-help gurus Wayne Dyer and Louise Hay. It was all about self-improvement – it was all about me, me, me…

Although I found such thoughts empowering, there was a flipside to all of this: that failure was something I projected on to the situation. I would never blame a government or social structures – that seemed a sign of weakness, blaming others as a child would. By my mid-twenties, I easily blamed myself for the jobs I didn’t get, the publications not realized and for times of being negatively targeted by family members or colleagues. Likewise, when I did achieve and accomplish something I owed it to myself (and sometimes luck). I was being rewarded for my labours and for jumping over obstacles. It was still all about me, me, me…

Over the years, the more I talked to friends, the more books I read in politics and sociolinguistics, the more films and stage plays I saw, the more my thinking included how the power of social structures, the media, advertising and popular culture, along with money of course, dictates who achieves and who does not. Sandel’s book deconstructs our so-called meritocracy in a similar way. I was particularly pleased to see how he uses corpus linguistics to illustrate points on language used by politicians and advertisers to sell the idea that we live in or could live in a meritocracy if we vote a certain way or do certain things.

But Sandel has done more than just validate my own thinking. He has made me aware of the judgements I have made in recent years about the less educated, noting how they tended to vote more for Brexit and Trump. Sandel points out that a university degree is on the one hand not always given to the smartest or most deserving and is on the other hand an entrée to the jobs our society places more value on. He also looks at education in the climate change debate, again making me think differently. Politicians on America’s far right who are climate change deniers are just as educated as those who believe that climate change is real and human made. Both sides of the argument have used their schooling and analytical skills to justify beliefs they already had.

As 2021 winds down, my thanks to Michael Sandel.

Michael Sandel

Allyship – Word of the year 2021

Dictionary.com has announced that allyship is its word of the year. A word I have never seen before, let alone this year. I was expecting vaccine, variant, renewables or some neologism, like antivaxxer.

According to Dicitonary.com, allyship is a noun referring to ‘the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.’ It’s a straightforward blended word, combining the word ‘ally’ with the morpheme ‘ship.’

Although allyship is new to Dictionary.com, its origins go back to the mid-1800s, but that was in a broader sense, a group of allied organisations. The modern sense used by Dictionary.com can be traced to the 1940s but didn’t come into more regular use (apparently, even though I missed it) until some 15 years ago.

These lexicographers go on to say, ‘Allyship acts as a powerful prism through which to view the defining events and experiences of 2021 – and crucially, how the public processed them.’ For me, recent examples of this include white protesters at the Black Lives Matter marches and heterosexuals across the world actively supporting gay rights in Ghana, Uganda, Russia and Poland. Though some in these pools of partisans have been accused of virtue-signalling (another good word), I’d like to think that the vast majority are genuine.

But I was put in my place when I did my own corpus search on allyship and found an article from The Guardian. Questioning the allyship of whites who support black causes, Kelsey Smoot had this to say:

‘The truth is, genuine allyship is not kindness, it is not a charitable act, nor is it even a personal commitment to hold anti-racist ideals – it is a fall from grace. Real allyship enacted by White Americans, with a clear objective to make equitable the lived experiences of individuals across racial lines, means a willingness to lose things. Not just the extra $50 in one’s monthly budget by way of donating to an organization working towards racial justice. I mean palpable, incalculable loss.’

Smoot raises some good points about empathy and activism. Nevertheless, I like the social justice flavour of allyship and might start using it myself for actions I think are genuinely deserving. This might be a tall order.

Dying languages, changing climates

With the recent publication of ‘Native Speaker 2,’a few people have asked me about the inspiration behind this story of a feisty nonagenarian who is one of the last speakers of an American Indian language. It was loosely based on a talk that I heard at a linguistics conference back in 1995. When an old American Indian woman spoke in a quivering voice of her sister’s death marking the demise of their language – with no one to speak to, a language doesn’t live – there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. Some 25 years later, the emotion of her words stays with me. My retelling added some humour in the characterisation of the aged woman, and I used the Wintu language group of Californian languages as the language on the verge of extinction. My gratitude to Leanne Hinton’s Flutes of Fire, a highly readable book about Californian Indian Languages.

Dying and extinct languages are undoubtedly one of the many consequences of colonialism. One of the other consequences is that countries colonised in the modern era (16th century to the present) are more vulnerable to disasters brought on by climate change. This has been highlighted these last few weeks with coverage of COP26, where indigenous peoples and their supporters had a more notable presence than at previous COPs. One native Brazilian, protesting against the destruction of rainforests, also made the point that the rich nations that colonised the southern hemisphere have caused most of the devastation to our planet and are still reaping the rewards.

endangered languages
Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Okay, I was talking about California earlier, a rich state in rich country (speaking in broad terms). America has been both colonised and coloniser. Though it could come down to the appellations, Native/Indian American and just American. Nevertheless, the cultural and linguistic side of these dual roles, coloniser and colonised, has been surreptitious and slow, taking place over decades and centuries. But on the environmental side, the spirit of both roles can be seen in the damage the US has brought upon the world, including itself, in my lifetime. America has become the bully who self harms.

On a lighter and nerdier note, according to linguists and anthropologists, the relationship between climate and language has other direct links. Differences across languages can be explained in part by different regional climates. For example, languages spoken in warm, wet and heavily wooded areas, such as in the Asian-Indian subcontinent, tend to use more vowels and fewer consonants. At the other extreme, languages used in arid, desert-like regions are more consonant heavy. One of the explanations for this has to do with the effects of dryness on the vocal cords (all vowel sounds are voiced, involving vibration of the vocal cords).

The conference I went to back in the nineties was my first and last native American language conference. As fascinating as it was, I was among the few non-indigenous people in attendance. The linguistic field of language documentation for dying languages had moved on and was starting to hand over the reins to those whose ancestors spoke the native languages. Although people were welcoming, I felt like an intruder, a descendant of contemptible European colonisers. I only wish now that my younger self realised the full extent of the harm of colonisation, damage that goes far beyond languages and cultures.

The Stories We Tell: Some Thoughts on Narratives

Loads can and has been said about narratives, with books and academic journals devoted exclusively to the topic. I’ve been thinking about the utilitarian side of narratives. In Gaia Vince’s Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time, the power of stories is seen as the creator of languages and communities. This is familiar territory in anthropology and linguistics (I’m thinking Labov (1969), Prince (1988), Hardy (2005) and the writings of Margaret Mead and Mary Douglas). What I found more illuminating was this anecdote:

“In a 1944 study in the United States, 34 college students were shown a short animation in which two triangles and a circle moved across the screen and a rectangle remained stationary at the side. When asked what they saw, 33 of the 34 students anthropomorphized the shapes and created a narrative: The circle was ‘worried’, the ‘little triangle’ was an ‘innocent young thing’, the big triangle was ‘blinded by rage and frustration’. Only one student recorded that all he saw were geometric shapes on a screen.”

Vince explains this as the brain devising narratives with actors and story patterns where none exist in order to make sense of things. I do wonder to what extent this is cognitive and innate or behavioural and learned given that so much of our learning in early childhood involves anthropomorphizing animals and objects.

On the flipside of this, researchers across a range of disciplines have used storytelling to encourage subjects to talk about their experiences. One of my former students researched the attitudes of Saudi women in higher education by asking them to fill in a narrative for which my student researcher provided the frame. This proved far more fruitful than interviews, where these women gave brief answers and appeared reluctant to speak about their workplace and culture.

Arguably, some of the appeal of Twitter (excluding the years when it was hijacked by a US president) and other social media is the way that they provide a stage for people to tell the stories of their lives. Sociolinguist Ruth Page covers this in her book Stories in Social Media: Identity and Interaction. Having studied these online communications as a linguist myself, I find interesting the use of common knowledge and public discourse in these often highly elliptical narratives, especially those limited by the number of characters allowed. That is, what isn’t said is as important as what is. Since understanding and communicating with stories appears to be human, perhaps too is the need use ellipsis, creating gaps in stories that we know our audience can fill.

Given the ubiquity and usefulness of storytelling, it’s a shame the word ‘narrative’ has recently taken on a negative connotation as an arm of propaganda. This politician or that group creating its own narratives which the media – mainstream and social – start to follow and build upon. Do I need to give examples? Nope, I’ll let you fill in the gaps.

Reflections on translation

1 – Among my favourite mistranslations are Welsh signs that have been translated by English-speaking officials in their efforts to retain bilingualism in Wales. One sign written as Rhybudd: Gweithwyr yn ffrwydro, which in Welsh means ‘Warning: Blasting in progress’ was translated as ‘Warning: Workers are exploding.’

2 – Recently, there was quite an uproar over whether a white translator should be allowed to translate the work of a black writer. Dutch writer and winner of the International Book Prize Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was tasked with translating Amanda Gorman’s presidential inauguration poem into Dutch. The most vociferous attacks came from activist-journalist Janice Deul, who said it was ‘incomprehensible’ that a white person had been chosen for the job. If sharing an identity grouping is necessary between writer and translator, Deul missed out the fact that Rijneveld was born female and identifies as non-binary, making ‘them’ even less qualified. In this way of thinking, Rijneveld should have gained some points for being a poet and in their 20s, like Gorman. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the publisher to cave in at the thought of a boycott and lost book sales to pull Rijneveld from the assignment and issue an apology for the poor choice of translator. I share in the sentiments of Gorman’s Spanish translator, Nuria Barrios, who described Deul’s victory as a ‘catastrophic…victory of identitarian discourse over creative freedom.’ 

3 – Apparently, historians had deliberately mistranslated – or perhaps creatively translated – love letters sent by Frederic Chopin to his many men ‘friends’ in order to make the composer appear straight. According to one German source (er, which has been translated into English), many of the translations from were fraught with consistent ‘errors,’ such as male pronouns in Polish being translated as female in the target language.

4 – In Nice, there’s a restaurant with a bilingual menu that lists the French salade aux avocats in English as salad with lawyers. Bon appétit.

5 – Language documentation involves the preservation of dying languages, mostly indigenous languages that have lost out to conquests and the globalisation of the world’s leading lingua francas, such as English, French, Spanish and Arabic. I was pleased to read about a linguist who has been translating newspapers dating back to the 1890s from Hamaii, the dying native language of Hawaii, into English. Even though the original project was about documenting the language and the culture of the pre-American Hawaiians, a by-product has been the discovery of a treasure trove of meteorological and geographical information. Climatologists are now using these digitalised translations to help predict earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other potential disasters.

6 – George Steiner once said, ‘Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.’

Mars, Venus, Men, Women – An assignment I’d like to forget

One of the strangest writing assignments I’ve ever had involved adapting  The Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus Book of Days into an abridged reader for students of the English language. Based on the 1990s best-selling pop psychology book by John Gray, this book contained  365 ‘inspirations to enrich your relationships’ (according to the jacket blurb). 

The premise of the original book was that by nature men and women are  psychologically and behaviourally different and that heterosexual couples should respect these differences. Along with spreading the idea that men and women ‘speak different languages,’ it reinforced gender stereotypes, saying that men need to fix and do things, leaving women to  talk about emotions. As Victorian and cringeworthy as that sounds, it had an audience at the time and has since sold over 15 million copies. 

As for the sexes speaking different languages, this anecdotal claim has been thrashed to death by sociolinguists, who have studied large groups of people and concluded that the perception of language difference between the sexes is far greater than the reality. An excellent debunking of Gray’s work appeared in Deborah Cameron’s 2007 book The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Today, we can confidently say that gender differences are more nurture than nature. In her book Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It, Angela Saini cites several studies of mathematical ability, intelligence, motor skills and almost every other measure showing consistently that men and women are not so different after all. (Sorry, dear reader, I know I have referred to this book before – it’s a treasure trove of information and insights.) Another good read on this topic is Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain, where  the author, a cognitive neursoscientist, reviews the lamentable history of sex-difference research that has been riddled with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias and dodgy statistics. 

But there I was back in 2003 rolling my eyes while typing ‘men are like rubber bands’ and ‘women are like waves.’ Thankfully, I was halfway through my assignment when the marketing department at Penguin Books decided to pull the project and not publish the EFL version of Gray’s book of days after all. I never found out what was behind Penguin’s decision. I wonder if they were concerned about the emerging scandal, where John Gray’s credentials were questioned – he’s not a scientist or trained psychologist and apparently holds a mail-order doctorate. Or perhaps Penguin had a crystal ball and knew that engendered thinking was going to be challenged, further diminishing this variety of self-help tome . As much as I don’t wish to dwell on this silly assignment, I’m glad I can look back on it from the vantage point of a more informed world when it comes to men and women (even though we still have a way to go). In the end, I was doubly blessed – not only was I freed from reading and having to rewrite this piffle, but I had already been paid a flat rate for the entire assignment and was able to keep it.

Some Favourite Words of 2020

Not pandemic or woke or clickbait or any of the over-used words that made it to the top of lexicographers’ lists this year. My favourite words of 2020 are those words that have entered my consciousness and left a footprint. Here are just a few.

Princessation – This neologism describes the process of making a girl or young woman feel like a princess, encouraging femininity. I ran into it while reading about a recent study conducted by the Fawcett Society on the dangers in exposing children to gender stereotyping. While the act of princessation has been going on for centuries, the naming of this process is significant. It efficiently sums up behaviours and words and colours them with a negative tint. I think we are making progress.

Blursday – One of these pandemic-inspired words, it refers to the feeling of one day blurring into the next. Working without our usual timetables and having a paucity of choice, doing much of the same thing from the same rooms day in and day out, many of us have no idea what day of the week it is.

Dietrologia – It’s an Italian loanword that pops up now and again in English. I stumbled across it in a short story by Paul Theroux, published in The New Yorker. Dictionary definitions say it refers to hidden motivations behind some action or understood reality. In Italian it’s often used in political journalism and when talking about conspiracy theories. What I find interesting about this word is how it is used in Italian, sometimes on its own, other times with fare (to make). Along with denoting conspiracy theories, it also means ‘second-guessing,’ ‘raking up old history’ or for telling someone their logic is ‘backwards.’ These multiple uses pack conspiracy theories with the connotations they often deserve.

Murderable – I ran into this self-explanatory and nasty word this past month in an article in The Guardian about the reporting of fatal domestic abuse. The author of this piece claimed that some newspapers referred to victims of fatal domestic abuse as ‘murderable,’ which of course sounds horrible and is not surprising given the high prevalence of misogyny in our society. I was going to write about this word, making the point that it nearly always refers to women – an educated guess.  Yet, after I searched two corpora of written British English, I only found two places where this word was used.  In 1920 D.H. Lawrence (some credit him with coining the word) used it in Women in Love: ‘And a man who is murderable is a man who in a profound if hidden lust desires to be murdered.’  The other place this word appeared was in The Guardian article where I found it in the first place. I also searched a couple of websites of the UK’s most popular tabloid papers – nothing.  ‘Murderable’ could be one of those words that is usually spoken and rarely written. As a result of this little research activity, this word appears on my list not to make a feminist point but rather as an example of false expectations and assumptions – especially when it comes to language.

And finally – goldfinch – I’ve never seen one, nor could I identify one, until this year when they started to appear in our town and even in our garden. Thanks to Covid-induced lockdowns, fewer cars and less human activity have allowed fauna to thrive and explore places they might not usually go.  This word and the beautiful little creature that it denotes will always remind me ironically of this otherwise dismal year.

Thoughts and Translations on the French Laïcité

I love a good mistranslation as much as the next person, but some mistranslations are not funny. Worse, they can be dangerous.

After the barbarous death of history teacher Samuel Paty, French president Emanuel Macron supported the teacher’s right to teach students about freedom of speech using the infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed. Among those to express their discontent with the French president were the international English-speaking press, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the UK’s Financial Times. I’m not alone in thinking this has to do in part with the translation of French into English. In condemning terrorists, Macron spoke against ‘séparatisme islamiste’ in France which has been translated as an attack on ‘Islamists’, a negatively loaded word referring to extremist and violent supporters of Islam. What Macron meant would be more accurately translated as ‘Islamic separatism,’ which is seen as harmful to integration. To put this more into the French context, for decades debates about séparatismes religieux have been about the Catholic faith and the fact that Catholicism hasn’t been the country’s official religion since the laïcité was put into law in 1905. The laïcité is mainly about individual rights to freedom of speech and religion in a secular state, a government not run by any single religion.

As with many mistranslations, cultural differences are at play. In countries like America, discrimination of minority groups, such as Muslim people, puts the media and well-meaning left-wing thinkers on hyper-alert for anti-Muslim racism. I’m not saying racism against Muslims doesn’t exist in France – of course it does. However, according to a recent survey by the National Institute of Demographic Studies, most Muslims in France feel socially and culturally integrated. Other studies also support these findings. As someone with a second home in France, I don’t find this surprising.

Interesting too that it appears most of the Muslims who were angered by Macron’s speech linking terrorism and separatism, live outside of France in non-French speaking countries, where  the president’s words were translated into Arabic and Turkish. Since I don’t speak either Arabic or Turkish, I’ll step aside from this part of the debate. Plenty of polyglot scholars in the French media in recent weeks who have raised this issue of mistranslation are doing this work for me.

In fact, there has been so much published and podcasted about these misunderstandings of the laïcité and mistranslations in France, I wasn’t going to bother writing about it. That is, until a couple of nights ago when Channel 4 News (UK) ran a story about Muslims in France being discriminated against by new integration measures proposed as laws. A French speaker mentioned the laïcité, and it was translated into English as ‘secularism.’ While secularism is part of the principle of the laïcité, keeping church and state separate, the first definition of secularism is typically ‘indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations’ (Merriam-Webster English Dictionary) – which is not laïcité.  As much as I am a devotee of Channel 4, I think on this occasion their liberal slant (which I usually lap up) may have played a role in both the reporting and translation.

Whether these translations involve English, Arabic or other languages, given social sensitivities and political tensions, I do wonder the extent to which these mistranslations are triggered by some sort of unconscious bias. Seeing this in the Channel 4 report has made me wonder about my own.

Vignettes on Learning

From our present day tribulations – pandemic, climate change and the populism that has made both worse, along with creating a more unstable world – an underling theme emerges. In a word – education. Lack of education or deliberate blocks to education have played a role in creating these problems.

By education, I don’t mean only formal education, but also informal, those things that are systematically self-taught. At its most basic education is about the practice of learning in order to acquire knowledge and develop critical thinking skills. As conspiracy theories and bizarre twists of logic accumulate, knowledge and critical thinking appear to be in short supply.

*****

A friend asked me, ‘How was it going as a councillor?’ Like a lot of people, she was surprised that I even ran for the District Council. People see me as more of a political activist than a politician, more literature and language than government. I answered, ‘It’s okay. I’m learning things and I enjoy that.’

*****

Tara Westover’s brilliant autobiography Educated shows the power of learning and education. Growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho, Westover was home schooled in a limited way, a casual use of old textbooks and outside reading restricted to the Bible and the Book of Mormon.  She discovered that she had some musical talent and enjoyed performing in the local amateur drama group but knew that she wouldn’t be able to do anything with this talent without going to a college or university. One of her older brothers, a traitor to the family, had taught himself using SAT preparatory books and eventually ended up with a score sufficient enough for university. Tara followed suit, informally educating herself to pass the exam and start her formal education at Brigham Young University.

While this speaks to the power of informal education, it was formal education that proved to be life-changing. It not only exposed Westover to different ways of thinking outside of her family’s strict conservativism, oppression of women and paranoia about all government institutions, it also made her think differently at an emotional level. She realised that her dominating father was probably bipolar and that the physical and verbal abuse she had suffered at the hands of family members was wrong and reflected their sicknesses.  Being aware of her own learning, she describes reaching these insights: ‘I had begun to understand that we [she and her siblings] had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.’ 

*****

When I was in my twenties, I read Indries Shah’s Learning How to Learn. This primer of Sufism explores learning as a way of developing psychological well-being, an openness to the education of life.  He also flipped this idea on its head to show that there is a reciprocal relationship here – psychological well-being, to which I add emotional intelligence, enables us to learn.

*****

During the first Covid lockdown, I decided to enrol in a MOOC (massive open online course) in a field outside of the humanities disciplines that have shaped my professional life. The course was about bees and the environment. And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, I did it in French. I soon discovered that the words I didn’t know in French were nearly the same in English, such as apidae and anemogame. My next MOOC was called Les Racines des Mots Scientifiques – in French, where I learned mostly Greek.