Where in the World?

On Friday, WordPress told me my viewing stats were going through the roof, with 30 views in one hour. A closer inspection showed that these views came from Pakistan; what’s more they all appeared to originate from the same person.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was formed in 1947 and has a population of 199,000,000. Its official language is Urdu, with more than a dozen recognised regional languages, none of which are English.

So I’m curious to know what someone from this country would gain from my writings, when I speak only English and come from a culture with such different values. Or perhaps my mystery visitor is a British expat, or simply wanted an insight into my world.

If you are, or you know, the person in question, do leave a comment below or e-mail purple@gavincameron.co.uk.

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Irregular behaviour.

Anyone who’s attempted to learn English as a foreign tongue can tell you how weirdly different it is from other languages. I’d like to focus on just a few of these absurdities, prompted by the recent decision of the American Dialect Society to award their Word of the Year to the singular they.

To refer to yourself, you use I; to refer to a group you’re part of, it’s we. The English language has this sorted. However, a third party group is given the pronoun they, while a third party that’s not part of a group is given he, she or it. These latter three pronouns are often fine to use, but there can be problems.

English: Grammatical Person / Pronouns - third...
English: Grammatical Person / Pronouns – third person singular (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Supposing you’ve received an anonymous letter. How would you refer to the author? It would be inappropriate to say it because it wasn’t written by an animal nor an inanimate object. Similarly, it’s unwieldy to keep saying he or she. So like a trooper, they steps up to the challenge.

To compound matters, there are people who are not necessarily transgender but who identify as a mixture of both genders or as neither, and therefore it would be incorrect to write he, she or it. Again, they volunteers for duty.

So on the whole, they fills the gender-neutral gap in our language, and it has done for hundreds of years. Yet it falls foul of another uniquely English grammar quirk.

Let’s use the verb to run. Substituting the to for a pronoun gives us: I run, you run, we run, but he, she or it runs. So when we use they as a singular, it ought to be correct to say they runs, but it sounds wrong.

Why, then, hasn’t anyone come up with with a suitable substitute? Folk have tried, but none have caught on. The Guardian gives a detailed account of the search for the magic word while the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provides a guide about using personal pronouns.

If you’re unsure about word usage, you could do worse than follow Hannah McCall. She’s a qualified proofreader who writes about the trickier points of English in her blog, yet in an accessible manner. I’m also aware she can probably find a dozen holes in this entry alone.

But I don’t want you to go away feeling that English is the worst language in the world. After all, we have some words that no other language has.

One of these is serendipity, when you make a beneficial or pleasing find by chance. Another biggie is trade-off, which won an award a few years ago as it’s so difficult to translate. It’s not a mere compromise, but where you exchange one quality for another, while understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each.

No Thanks, No Translation.

Last week, Scotland’s voters chose to keep the country as part of the United Kingdom. Rather than make a political post, I’ve decided to take advantage of this country’s moment in the world spotlight to present a few uniquely Scottish words to you. So unique, in fact, that there is no direct English equivalent.

I have a strange relationship with the Scots tongue. I don’t naturally speak the dialect, just standard English. Yet if I’m reading a poem written in Scots, I can understand it slowly, and if someone drops a word here or there in a conversation, I’ll be able to recognise it first time.

Of the three words below, the top two are in common usage, but I’ve yet to hear the third in the wild.

  • Dreich, adjective. A one-syllable word to describe damp and drizzly weather. The first four letters are pronounced dree, while the last two take the slightly guttural sound found in the name Bach. The closest single-word English equivalents would be dull or miserable, but these could easily be applied to a person or an event, whereas dreich is exclusively for weather. The word sometimes makes it into local BBC weather reports.
  • Skite, verb. Related to skating but nothing to do with that online phone service. To skite is to skim or slide along a surface, usually by accident. It can be applied to a person or an object. In English, you could say slip, but that implies the person or object has fallen over, whereas someone who skites might remain standing.
  • Tartle, noun. This is where a person hesitates while introducing someone because they’ve forgotten the other party’s name. Most sources have this down as a verb, yet the example sentence usually given is, “Pardon my tartle.” In that context, it appears it be used as a noun, although I welcome any corrections.

The End of Days.

I know you can’t see me, but I’m blowing a whistle as we speak, indicating the final dying minutes of National Novel Writing Month. I breached the 50,000-word target by only 29 words; that’s 13 less than my very first novel in 2010.

Last year’s total was 60,000 and I’d barely scratched the surface, but this time around, I don’t have the material to go much higher, so I’m happy with my haul. Many congratulations if you’ve also hit the benchmark.

My aim is for this to be the last time I bore you with this subject for the next eleven months.

I’ve been to a number of literary events this week, including a fiction writing and a life writing class, and I’m pleased to say I’m enrolled in the continuation class for the latter.

On Thursday, I attended a literary salon where I heard current English students read out their best pieces. Then on Friday, a poetry and cabaret event. A number of pieces were in the Dundee dialect, which must have confused the last act, a songwriter from New Orleans.

I’ve lived in the city most of my life and understand most of the vernacular, yet I’ve never naturally spoken it. It inspired me to write a poem exploring the theme, and I completed it before the event ended. I’m not known as a poet, and I’m not at the stage where I would describe myself as one, but I have been dabbling in the form.

I’ve also been working on another piece, but I need to give you a bit of background. If you didn’t know, I’ve only been a writer since October 2010. To put that in context, I was 27 when I wrote a fictional story for the first time since high school. The piece was that first NaNo novel.

However, when I was at school, I fancied myself as a singer-songwriter, not to mention an actor. I’d tried to write song lyrics, and I recently rediscovered a four-line fragment with two internal rhymes. Moreover, I can still remember the tune, and the words still resonate as much now as they did then.

At the time, I tried to expand it by writing extra verses, but nothing seemed to work until I turned to Google+ earlier this week. With the help of a community, I preserved the rhyme scheme but expanded the number of syllables, and I’ve now squeezed nearly four verses out of it. If I keep making progress, I finally hope to perform it on December 9th after all these years.

After a conversation with my former NaNo Municipal Liaison a couple of weeks ago, I raked out my school qualifications. I’d correctly remembered I’d earned only a C for English, although I have criticisms about the way it was taught. Perhaps that’s why I never pursued it, or perhaps I was too fixated on music to realise my strength was in words, not instruments.

I’ve got to make up for the time I wasted setting up blogs writing factual events without realising that I was able to write fiction. I kick myself every day about my late start, although I take some comfort from the careers of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Richard Adams. Their first books weren’t published until they were over 40 and over 50 respectively.

But I need to work fast if I want to reach a state of parity. I want to reach the point where I’ve produced as much work as if I’d started as a teenager. I have around 200 pieces in total, but that could have been 1,000 if I’d begun at age 15.

I won’t rest until I’m satisfied I’ve made up for every minute of wasted time.