Why ‘mud’ is not ‘silk’

Why ‘mud’ is not ‘silk’
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First Published: Thu, Mar 11 2010. 09 57 PM IST

Updated: Thu, Mar 11 2010. 09 57 PM IST
Alpha but
American author Roy Blount Jr belongs to that endangered species of writers who care for words. His book, Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; with Examples of their Usage Foul and Savory, is not a dictionary but a “glossographia”. It presents an eccentric selection of words and phrases with comments (ranging from objective to idiosyncratic) on their usage, origin, etc.
You can dip into Alphabet Juice before going to bed, and dip into it again on waking up. Its entries are often illuminating, and sometimes funny. I just wish Blount had published it without its five-six-page introduction, where he takes linguists to task for proclaiming the arbitrary nature of language. He argues that words are not arbitrary: They often resemble, in sound, shape and texture, their meanings. The “grunt” of a pig, for instance, sounds like a pig; the “peep peep” of a chicken sounds like a chicken; it is not arbitrary that “mud” is not “silk”, and linguists make a “muddle” of such matters.
But, surely, no serious linguist has made the claim that language is arbitrary in that sense. Sounds and textures might have a role to play in the origin of a word, its development and its selection over synonyms. But language is arbitrary because words make sense due to the network of “relationships” they have to each other, not with the reality out there. Hence, “mud” is “mud” not because it sounds muddy (which it might), but because it is not “mug”, “mid”, “mat”, “mad”, “mull”, etc. It is in this sense that linguists talk about the arbitrary nature of language.
Logophile: Roy Blount Jr.
So skip the introduction and read the rest of an entertaining and often illuminating collection of words by someone who loves them, knows them well, and uses them with economy and elegance.
Danish gem
Having read Carsten Jensen’s Vi, De Druknede in Danish, it is a pleasure to learn that all 700 pages of it have just been published by Harvill Secker in English as We, The Drowned. Jensen is one of Scandinavia’s leading writers: A novelist, travel writer and newspaper columnist, he is a staunch champion not only of human rights but also, what is rarer, of human values.
We, The Drowned is a major historical novel of recent years. It is a sweeping, spell-binding tale of several generations from a small fishing town of Denmark, structured by a lucid narrative technique that seems simpler than it is. As one Danish critic, Ide Hejlskov, put it when the original came out, it is “a master-work about sailors’ lives, war and death, and love.” Read it!
Anarchist publishing
It is a common lament of literary, experimental and offbeat writers: The publishing industry in the West is getting more conservative by the year, and the current financial crisis has not helped. But the French writer, Sebastien Doubinsky, who also writes in English, has done more than complain: He is at the head of a new concept in Internet publishing. He has launched a free press and a free literary magazine, Le Zaporogue, which publishes known and unknown writers from around the world. The originality of his concept lies in the fact that all works and the magazine are downloadable for free, or can be bought on the print-on-demand principle. Inspired by an “anarchist idea”, as he puts it, publisher and writers share the same non-profit basis. Some of the writers discovered by him have later been noticed by mainstream publishers too.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author of Filming.
Write to Tabish at readingroom@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Mar 11 2010. 09 57 PM IST