(UPDATED, 2011.03.02) David Mitchell is the author of Cloud Atlas. I had read that this book used some kind of future English, so I got it from the library – again and again, using every trick there was, for 15 weeks or longer. I never finished it. In fact, I could barely get through one of the novellas in the book, which seemed to revolve around a sub-race of cloned servants working in a below-ground Korean McDonald’s. As an example of exolinguistics, I didn’t understand what the appeal was.

The Bat Segundo Show is Ed Champion’s little-known podcast of interviews with authors and a couple of other luminaries. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an interviewer who combines unfettered American boisterousness with solid preparation and research. (It’s what the Reflex Blue kids are going for, whether they know it or not.)

The guy goes a hundred miles an hour with a lot of force and volume (so much so he was asked to cool it in a coffee shop once, right on air). Even though his tone makes you think he’s gonna come back with a glib rejoinder recycled from “ironic” TV shows, he actually checks in with another question about the book in question and its transliterary relationship with some other work.

The Bat Segundo Show “started off a shameless excuse to interview David Mitchell.” Mitchell has a British accent that additionally includes the Elmer Fudd feature of substituting Ws for Rs. Every sentence seems to be the product of great concentration, sort of what you’d hear from a stammerer, which he is. When he has to go off topic, as when he wants to dig up a printed article and read from it, you can hear the gears grinding to a halt and starting up again.

And he’s got a tin ear. You know those people who don’t understand puns because they can’t even hear them? The kind of people who can’t pronounce any kind of foreign word or phrase, even if the word or phrase has an accepted English pronunciation already? (We get a lot of that in Canada. These people tortuously stagger through every phoneme and syllable of a French phrase instead of just pronouncing it with an English accent. Akin to Mitchell, their Titanic hits an iceberg on every R.) People who have genuine trouble with street names, because, outside of New York and Calgary, they are unpredictable proper names of mixed derivation? Who cannot order Indian food because they cannot decipher and utter even short phrases like saag paneer and chana dal (“China doll”)?

I find this group has a hard time telling where one word ends and another begins if the combination is in any way unusual; it comes up all the time, every single day. As an example, a gallery here in Leslieville opened with the name Anytem Gallery, an absurd intellectual trifle that obviously wasn’t going to work. (“Tem” is “time” in Russian. But “any” is pronounced “enny” in English. So we’ve got a non-obvious pronunciation mated to a foreign word originally written in a different script.) But the replacement name was much worse: Parts Gallery. It works OK in writing, but countless people cannot even hear the two words. All they hear is Parr Tskallery. What does that mean?

This is the same class of people prone to mondegreens and eggcorns. The amazing thing is that one member of this class writes books that revolve around linguistics. I couldn’t believe my ears as I listened to this passage in David Mitchell’s Bat Segundo interview:

ED CHAMPION: Are you aware of literary blogs?

DAVID MITCHELL (baffled, shocked): [Pause] Literary… blocs?

— Yes, there’s a whole world on the Internet, and in fact there’s actually been a lot of discussion going on about Cloud Atlas in – have you heard of a blog before, or…?

— Uh, this is a new one on me. Uh, c— uh, could you spell the word for me, please?

— It’s “blog”: B-L-O-G.

— OK.

— It’s short for “weblog.”

— Uhkay.

— And there are actually these sites that are available that chronicle the latest literary trends. I actually have a literary blog of my own if you go to EdRants.com, but there’s actually a number of them. There’s MaudNewton.com, there’s the Elegant Variation, ElegVar, E-L-E-G-V-A-R.com.

Here we confront the difficulty of dictating non-obvious URLs over the phone. Your blog software’s shitty slugs, or your own shitty habit of refusing to trim your slugs when using WordPress, make the matter an impossibility most of the time.

But there are all these literary blogs out there. And in fact, there has been an incredible amount of discussion going on about the Cloud Atlas. And in fact a lot of people I know, myself included, actually obtained your book from the U.K. before it was even published here in the United States. And, uh, because of all the excitement about it. You should really check these out, because there’s a lot of people who are interpreting your book.

— Um, what you… call a blog I may have called a… chatroom in the past. But, uh, I will, have a look with renewed interest. And, um, could you give me the name of yours again?

— Oh, yeah, mine is EdRants, E-D-R-A-N-T-S.com.

— E-D-R-A-N…

— T-S.com.

— Uhhh, I’m ever so sorry. E-D-R-A-N-T… X or zed?

Mitchell seems to think:

  • that the phrase “Ed rants” could possibly be spelled with an X

  • that an X could follow a T somewhere in an English word (or two of them put together: “dulcet xylophone”?)

  • that “ess” rhymes with “zed” (it doesn’t even rhyme with “zee”)

— T-S. It’s short for “Ed rants.”

[Laughs] OK. Uh, dot-com. Thank you.

(Mitchell, incidentally, is a big defender of Amewicanisms and Austwalianisms: “I’m weally impatient with puwist Bwitish English apologists who wegahd Americanisms and Austwalianisms as somehow cowwosive. Theya wonderful and wich and language-bwoadening and therefore concept-broadening.”)

A guy like this needs to be studied. In fact, there seems to be a coterie of semifamous authors with linguistic disorders. Peggy Atwood cannot spell (Jan Wong stumped her with “macaroni”). A.A. (Adrian) Gill is so dyslexic he really cannot write at all; I do not know how he actually composes and edits. Will Self relies on walls papered with Post-It Notes and apparently composes on a typewriter (a rather impressive feat considering his sentence structure).

Who would do the studying? Well, why not Geoffrey Nunberg, American public radio’s de facto in-house linguist? I find his pieces on Fresh Air do not work at all, as they are written pieces read out loud rather than spoken pieces, but that’s a matter of style. What surprised me more was an interview he did (2009.05.11) with Think, the very solid radio show and podcast, in which he disquisited fluently for minutes on end, then died like a ’76 Buick that ran out of gas whenever he couldn’t think of a word. Worst example:

Uh, who was it who said, um, uh… I’ve got it here and uh I’m damned while I find it. Uhhhh… uhhh… my favourite non-apology was [very quietly] um… uh… uhh… uhh… duhhh… uh… [normal voice] I-um-it’s not c— it’s-it’s-it’s-it’s not— it’s-it’s not coming to me. […] Oh! B-Bob Packwood!

Nunberg is the kind of speaker who could use training to just abandon the sentence, pause for any necessary length of time, exhale and inhale, and start a new sentence. That method takes a lot of chutzpah and it’s counterintuitive and scary, but it works. How do I know? I was just like him once, except with fewer books out and no Ph.D.

Linguist, heal thyself; linguist, study thyself.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.05.17 12:06. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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