The Remote Beacon: An Open Letter to the Anglophone World of Tomorrow

The year is 2018.  Two thousand and eighteen years since, as much of the western world would say, Jesus lived on earth.  We mark [track, record, tally] our years using the Christian model [way, guide, style, custom], although I cannot give a reason more satisfactory [fulfilling, sufficient, solid] than that we have done it this way for many centuries now; simply stated, it is too convenient [easy, conducive, agreeable] for us to change it.

I will begin with my name.  I am [I call myself, I am known as] Joseph.  While this name pleases me enough, I did not choose it.  My mother gave it to me when she bore [birthed, gave birth to] me.

At the moment [point in time] of writing this sentence, I am almost twenty-five years old [have almost twenty-five years, am almost twenty-five years of age, have nearly completed twenty-five years of life].  A quarter-century.  One score and five years.  Five times five years.  I am, even now, a young man in the eyes of many other people.

I live in [reside in, inhabit, dwell in, abide in] the northeastern United States of America, a band of many smaller states [lands, areas, regions] united [made one, bound together] under a broader federal [national, country-wide] government.  Though we have and fill fifty states, we call ourselves one American nation [people, folk, populace] in the same way the people of the state of France call themselves the French nation.

I speak English.  And, oh, is this the point [matter, question, quandary]!

I speak what the world knows in this age [period, era, expanse of time] as “American English.”  One would distinguish [separate, differentiate, make distinct] this variety [kind, style, form] from that spoken in, say, the United Kingdom — “British English.”  Really, the term “the English language” means all varieties of it in any place in any period in the history of the language.  These “varieties” are often called “dialects,” but I have a personal distrust [problem, gripe, issue, distaste] in the treatment [handling, usage] and accuracy [truthfulness, veracity, faithfulness, exactness] of the word.  For the sake of smooth reading, however, I will not dispute [contest, take issue with, argue against] it more than I have already in other writings of mine.

So, I return to my point: I speak and write in English.

But I ask [enquire, pray, beg]: do you understand me?

I continue [proceed, go on] with this piece [work, composition] under the following assumptions [things taken as truth]:

  1. That you, the reader, also speak, read and write in English.
  2. That you are reading this piece some great length of time in the future — many, many years, I would prefer, if its purpose [point, intent] is to be fulfilled.
  3. That the English you use in your age is different enough from mine to warrant [call for] a composition asking you, “Do you understand me?

I am writing a sort of language time capsule, in other words.  I wish to write a piece that a user of English several centuries forward can read without too much effort [strain, trying, energy] of the mind and without consulting [referring to, getting assistance from] a dictionary, thesaurus or any other book that would clarify [make clear or plain] a possible foreign [strange, odd, otherworldly] word or phrase.

This task I undertake is proving [turning out, showing] to be as challenging [difficult, tricky] as I had foreseen [expected, predicted, anticipated].

As I knew would happen, I am struggling to find the middle ground between my writing being foreign and my writing being too boring [dull, monotonous, uninteresting].  It is true that I could reduce [bring down, break apart] the vocabulary [full collection of the words I use] in this piece to the same plain ten nouns, verbs and adjectives, but no one would want to read the outcome of that.  There would be no spirit [life, living force, vigour, excitement] or character [uniqueness, individuality] in it.

Still, I must be mindful of my choice of words.  A word I might use as naturally as I breathe air might be very strange or old-sounding, if not completely unknown to you, hundreds of years from now.  It is for this reason that I have been interrupting [breaking up, stopping the action of] my sentences with bracketed words and phrases that clarify what I think may confound [confuse, baffle, trip up, be beyond one’s understanding] a reader in the distant future, as I do twice in this very sentence.

Most words I use in this piece I presume [expect with great confidence or surety] not to change in meaning or frequency of use much in the next several centuries, and so I do not feel a need to clarify them.  Such words include:

  • pronouns like you and me and them
  • simple nouns like yeartimeway, and name
  • simple verbs like thinkgoknowspeak and give
  • simple adjectives like bigyoungstrangehappy and fast
  • words dealing with parts of language itself like wordphrase and sentence

Because understanding that last group of words is necessary [needed, essential] to understand this entire composition, I will define [give the meaning of] them now.  In all likelihood, I do not need to do this, but I am taking no chances [risks, gambles] here.

  • Letter – A, B, C, and so on
  • Word – grouping of letters to form one single item of a thought — eighteen in this very definition of word
  • Phrase – group of two or more words with its own semantic identity, like go on and for the most part
  • Sentence – a complete thought using one or more words, like “Go!” and “The man threw the ball.

Then, there are some words that might seem plain and yet I have chosen to clarify for fear that the reader take the wrong meaning.  The word chance above is a fairly common one, but in my age it can mean any of the following:

  • “opportunity,” as in, “I did not have the chance to meet with him.
  • “likelihood,” as in, “What is the chance you will change your mind?“; sometimes seen in the plural form the chances
  • “arrangement of fate or fortune,” as in, “Do you, by any chance, have a pen I can borrow?
  • “risk or hazard or venture,” as in the phrase take a chance

As I made clear in the sentence in which I used chance, I meant the last one, but I could not be sure that the reader knew this.

I confess: I did not receive a formal education in linguistics.  As of writing this piece, I never have gone to a school, college or university to learn the science from a certified [official, sanctioned, credible] instructor or practitioner.

However, I have passed uncountable hours of private study with what is perhaps the most invaluable [of immeasurable value or worth] resource in my age: the Internet.  The Internet, a worldwide electronic network of information (which, I would wager [bet, imagine, guess], will exist [live on, be around] long after I publish this work), has imparted [given, handed over to, provided with] me a rich, rounded knowledge and understanding of the principles [rules, pillars, truths, tenets] of the discipline [science, practise, study] of linguistics; therefore I call myself a linguist.

As a linguist, I find one thing to be certain: language does change.

Now, if I were to stay within the realm [area, bounds, governance] of certainty, I would end this piece here.  The more I write, the more I leave to chance my language to be misunderstood by you.  But to end here is to betray [turn against, break fidelity to, renounce loyalty to] my idea of completely filling a time capsule for you to discover [come upon, find] later on.  I should, at the very least, comment on the way I use language now, in the year 2018.

And I will.  But, before I do, I must begin by making a clear distinction:

— Writing and speech are NOT the same. —

Humans happened upon a need to write as a means to record [preserve, keep] what has been said or spoken.

But, for the single person, his private writings seldom [rarely, not often] match [are identical to, mirror, reflect] his manner of speech with a friend or stranger.

To converse [speak without preparation with another person or group of persons, make discourse] is to exchange [give, provide, trade, impart] thoughts upon the very instant [moment, stound, precise time].

When we write, we have all the time in the world to word our sentences and arrange [set up, organise] our disclosure [revealing, telling] of information.

My point is that the way we write is likely better worded and better paced and more grammatically tidy than the way we speak and is, therefore, a poor [bad, subpar, flawed, insufficient] indicator [guide, way of telling] of how we use language when we are in our most relaxed and natural states.

I tend to be [am habitually, am by nature, am wont to be] slow and careful with my speech, and friends and acquaintances often tell me that I use words that are bookish and unusual for casual conversation (I would say by 21st century American English standards).  But even I fall short of making my written and spoken words always agree.

Here are a few examples of what I consider [think, would call, view as] some of my more flowery, more potent [powerful, moving, poignant] compositions:

As much as I try to resist the waves and currents of the thought-ocean engulfing me, it would be nothing short of falsehood to deny that I am a product of my era.  I am a slave to the conventions and leanings of my time, perhaps with the occasional moment of profound clarity, and sometimes my writing will likewise transcend this life sentence of bondage.

Words […] serve as an allegory of a sort for their masters, the human species.  Their evolutions are proof of where man exhibited great folly — and also where he showed poetic brilliance […] To study words is to study human thought — and to study their scars is to examine our own image through the ages.

As I pulled each item from the box, I was given pause, just as I knew would happen.  I drank in the neatness and preservation of each note and picture.  I admired the beautiful simplicity of my personal collection — mostly tokens of the modesty and mundanity of my latter years of high school, anointed with stories romantic and dramatic.

Now here is an example of the way I use language in a conversation.  The following is an electronic text message I sent to a friend.  Almost no forethought went into this description of a walk I enjoyed one afternoon:

On my walk this afternoon I was startled by a couple ducks in a secluded residential suite parking lot.  It was a male and a female very close together.  I walked hardly a foot next to them without noticing them.  One of them made a very relaxed and soft quack and they both looked at me and didn’t budge an inch.

Rather plain, would you not say?  Still, though, it is writing and therefore lacks the pauses and many of the imperfections found in natural speech.  Below I will include a transcription of a video recording of me from my final stage performance as a student at my college.  In the recording, I talk about my time with the school before I introduce a song which I then perform — meaning this is completely unprepared, natural speech I used in the year 2016.

” […] So, this song is called “Dear Friends.”  Er, it’s a song from, er, Queen’s third album Sheer Heart Attack from 1974.  It’s a nice, little piano ballad.  Er, it’s, er, kinda my farewell from here, my last time on this stage as a student.

No, it is no “Gettysburg Address,” and I likely was more concerned with [worried about, focussed on, preoccupied with] my forthcoming vocal and piano performance than with dazzling the audience [spectators, watchers, patrons] with a rousing [exciting, lively] introduction, but this transcription does show that my speech does not always meet the standards to which I hold myself when I write.  This rule, I would argue, is true of anybody with a societal upbringing and schooling background similar to mine.

Even the works of the revered [deeply honoured, respected, highly esteemed] poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, show a disparity [inequity, difference, separation] in the way he used the English language.  While his sonnets and verses often are dense with metaphors, allusions and symbols, usually so much that the average [typical, everyday, standard, ordinary] reader in the 21st century cannot make sense of them, the Bard’s prose, by comparison, is rather straight and to-the-point and has not so many poetic embellishments [pretty additions, ornateness, flourishes].  As for the way he spoke, there is no way to be sure, but it is probable that he did not talk in poetic metre.  He likely spoke quite plainly — or, at least plainly by 16th and 17th century standards.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the five quotations above — as well as this whole piece you are reading — are my words.  They represent [stand for, show, betoken] only the way that I, Joseph, use English.  Do not think that they stand for anyone else, necessarily.  Do not read them and think, “Oh, this must be how EVERYONE in 2018 wrote and spoke.”  No.  Every person in my time speaks and writes in his own distinct style — following similar conventions, yes, but not without adding his own devices [techniques, ideas, patterns] — in the same way no two people in YOUR time write and speak precisely the same way.

Upon further thought, I realise [suddenly understand] that you, however far in the future you might exist, may not examine [study, look at, review] the work of Shakespeare as closely or as ardently [hotly, intensely, passionately] as we do in the 21st century.  You may not even know the name at all.  To me, he is very old.  He died over four hundred years ago now, and yet his work continues to be taught and studied and performed, even with the widening language gap.  If you are reading this in the year 2318, 2418 or 2518, then I am about as old to you as William Shakespeare is to me and the people of my era.  For aught that I know, there could be in your era a longing to study so reverently the work of those from the 21st century (or 19th or 20th).  I wonder who will be your Shakespeare.  Charles Dickens, perhaps?  Edgar Allen Poe?  Mark Twain?  J. R. R. Tolkien?  Ernest Hemingway?  Ray Bradbury?  Dare I mention my contemporaries J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin — or even Stephen King?  Then again, we do still study Geoffrey Chaucer, who predates Shakespeare by over two hundred years, so the latter may still be a prominent [stand-out, key, important] literary figure for you, if a bit more antiquated [old, archaic].

But if you think MY English is antiquated, then look at this brief sample of Old English:

Se wisa wer timbrode his hus ofer stan.
Þa com þær micel flod, and þær bleowon windas, and ahruron on þæt hus, and hit ne feoll: soþlice, hit wæs ofer stan getimbrod.

— from the New Testament parable “The Man Who Built His House on Sand”

Completely foreign, right?  Save for [ignoring, with the exception of] maybe two or three words like and and on and his, this is unreadable to anyone of the English-speaking world in my age who has not studied Old English, or “Anglo-Saxon,” as it is sometimes called.  In fact, this would have been unintelligible [not understandable, incomprehensible] by the 14th century.  But that was English in those days.  That was how it looked a thousand years ago.

Here is some Middle English:

These ben þe poyntȝ and þe articles ordeyned of the bretheren of seint Katerine in the cite of Londone, the whiche is founden in the chirche of seint Botulf with-oute Aldrichesgate.

The furste poynt is this, þat whan a brother or a suster schal be resceyued, þat þey schul be swore vpon a book to þe brotherhede, for to holde vp and meyntene þe poyntȝ and the articles þat be write after folwynge, eche man to his power, sauynge his estat; and þat euerich brother and suster, in tokenynge of loue, charite, and pes, atte resceyuynge schule kusse eueri other of þo þat be þere.

— part of a document from the 14th or 15th century¹

You likely can make out a few more words in this — and perhaps make good guesses about other ones if you have a sharp eye.  The common people in my age can, at least.  What we in the 21st century may find to be somewhat similar to our English may bear even less similarity to yours; this Middle English text could be hardly [barely, not much] less foreign to you than the Old English was.

Some Early Modern English (Shakespeare’s era):

The English speach doth still encroche vpon it [Cornish], and hath driuen the same into the vttermost skirts of the shire. Most of the Inhabitants can no word of Cornish; but very few are ignorant of the English.

— Richard Carew, The Survey of Cornwall (1602)

To a reader and speaker of English in the 21st century, this looks even closer to the language he knows today.  Besides a few words with unfamiliar spellings (i.e., speach speechencrocheencroachvttermostoutermost), someone in my era can, at the very least, read the whole thing.  He may not understand precisely its meaning, but he can read it without too much trouble.

Finally, some Modern English:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

— final paragraph of one of the several drafts of the Gettysburg Address, penned and spoken by United States President Abraham Lincoln, 1863

To the English-speaking world of my era, this looks fairly — well, modern.  From the first word to the very last, we can read this passage.  And, though Lincoln uses some rather old-fashioned grammatical constructions, the meaning is still clear as day to us, over a century and a half later.

Now, I am not so foolish as to believe that you, in your age, necessarily call these periods of English what we, in our age, call them.  These are names we have given them from our perspective (18th century onward) — therefore, we call our own “Modern English.”  As the history of English lengthens, the names of its periods may shift.  To you, my English could be similar enough to what we call “Middle English” and different enough from yours that you group our period with Middle.  You might know “Middle English” as lasting from around the year 1100 to some time in the 20th century, the beginning of the electronic, digital age.  It depends [hangs, hinges, is dependent] largely on how far in the future you are.

All this I say to come to my final point: what is YOUR English like?

This is a different game entirely.  Linguists have a hard time as it is telling how a language was wielded in the past; to make guesses about how it will look and sound in the future is virtually impossible.  There are too many variables [factors, potential ways of changing] to consider [account for, think about].  Some would even call such an endeavour [hope, dream, mission, goal] foolish.

One linguist predicted that, after two hundred years of separation, American English and British English would have changed so much that their speakers no longer would be able to understand each other.  Well, as of the time of composition, it has been nearly two hundred and forty-one years since the United States of America declared [announced, claimed, asserted] their independence from Great Britain, and over four hundred since the first British settlers came to the North American continent, and I have no trouble speaking to or understanding a Briton.

Perhaps, in a similar fashion [way, style], I am making an ass of myself in believing that a reader several centuries beyond me might find parts of this piece incomprehensible [not understandable, lacking sense].  You may very well have no difficulty at all nor have any need for these pace-ruining word clarifications I provide so often inside my text.  At the same time, you may indeed find yourself puzzled here and there.  There is no way I can be certain of either possible reality, nor could I in a thousand lifetimes guess correctly about the state [condition, quality] of the English language in your age.

But it is fun [amusing, enjoyable, entertaining] to try.

You might have noticed [taken note of, seen] that I have not used a single contraction yet in this composition (unless it was part of a quotation).  There is a good reason for this.  Contractions, throughout our language’s history, have had a habit [tendency, inclination] of changing and falling out of use.  To make a contraction is to combine [fuse, bring together] two or more words by leaving out letters and syllables and replacing them with apostrophes ( ‘ ).  We do this in writing to reflect the hasty way we speak the words.  Common ones in my era include:

  • I’m (I am)
  • you’ve (you have)
  • he’s (he is)
  • we’d (we would, we had)
  • they’re (they are)
  • there’s (there is)
  • isn’t (is not)
  • can’t (can not)
  • wouldn’t (would not)

Now here are some we do NOT use anymore:

  • cham (ich am) — ich is a Middle English form of the prounoun I
  • chave (ich have)
  • th’art (thou art) — thou used to be our you for addressing a single person with whom one is familiar; now survives mainly in religious texts
  • ’tis (it is) — still recognisable as an archaism, but replaced by it’s
  • ’twas (it was) — same as above, although it survives in fossilised expressions like, “‘Twas the night before Christmas.
  • in’t (in it) — popular in Shakespeare’s day
  • is’t (is it) — also popular in that time

Contractions are not going anywhere.  I say with full confidence that you have them in your time as well.  Here are some that are rather new in my time — perhaps they will be commonplace and even accepted as proper English after a couple hundred years:

  • not’ve (not have) — as in, “I would not’ve done it if I had known you would be so upset.
  • I’d’ve (I would have) — as in, “I’d’ve let you if you had only asked first.
  • wouldn’t’ve (would not have)
  • I’ll’ve (I will have) — as in, “I‘ll’ve been to every continent once we land in Europe.
  • you’d’ve (you would have
  • y’all’d’ve (you all would have) — y’all is already treated as its own element, meaning you all — frowned upon by prudes who think it a corruption from the American South

Maybe y’all and ain’t (am/are/is/have/has not) will be fully standard by your time as well.

Next and more difficult is the problem of words.

As you know quite well by now, I am choosing my words with great care.  Every word I use must pass through a series of gates, if you will.  They are:

  1. Does it satisfy precisely the meaning or idea I wish to say?
  2. Does it have only one, clear primary meaning — or one that is nearly impossible to confuse with other senses in its given context?
  3. Has its meaning stayed more or less the same over the course of the word’s existence in English?

If the answer is “yes” to all three gates, then I leave the word alone and move on.

If the answer is “no” to any of them, then I either find a different word or I underline it and immediately clarify the word with synonymous words and phrases or with approximations [words that are close enough].

Sometimes I do not clarify potentially foreign words because I trust the context to clarify them for me.

I believe I have done well so far, but foretelling how future English-speakers will use words is tricky.

The most obvious reason is that their meanings can change over time.

The word nice has enjoyed a remarkable [noteworthy, extraordinary] journey through meanings in the many centuries it has been in the language.  In the past, this little adjective has meant everything from “ignorant” to “foolish” to “stupid” to “inexperienced” to “naïve” to “petty” to “small” to “childlike” to “simple” to “quaint” to “pleasant” to “kind.”

Today, the term nice guy, a man who is outwardly agreeable to or respectful of women, seems to be taking on an ironic secondary meaning — of a man who is NOT respectful of or pleasant to women — by the idea that he would fake or pretend to be such as a means of gaining the chance to have sexual intercourse with them.

I could be wrong about this, but perhaps the word nice will continue to evolve, as it has so much already.  Perhaps in your era it means something like “disrespectful,” or “unkind,” or “ill-mannered,” or “rude,” or “insidious,” or “pretentious; given to pretending.”

The word nice demonstrates [shows by example] also how much a seemingly simple word can change — and why I feel so strongly about clarifying the words I use in this piece.

Then we have words that replace others.

There have been several words for “living creature” in the history of English.

In Old English, the word was deor.  This is the word that became deer.  Slowly, the meaning shifted to mean the creature with antlers.  The word in Old English for what we would today call a “deer” was heorot — which became the word hart.

In Middle English, the preferred word for “living creature” was beste (beast).

Now, in my Modern English, the most common word for this is animal.

Words simply die sometimes.

It has not been since the Old English period that we called a library a boc-hus — literally a “book-house.”  Nor is a male human anymore called a wer, for he is always a man — unless we speak of a werewolf, or a “man-wolf.”  Nor do we use the unnecessarily long word esperance when hope will do.

How am I to know that words today like ardentembellish and disparity will live on?  They are not the most common words to hear on an American street.  Can I reasonably expect them to survive when there are many other, more popular words for each?

Then, sometimes, words are dug up and revived.  

Blithe, meaning “happy” or “joyful” or “carefree” was rare after the 15th century and virtually dead by the beginning of the 20th.  The playwright, Noël Coward, reintroduced it to the English-speaking world when his play, Blithe Spirit, opened in the 1940s.

You may remember my inclusion of the obscure word stound earlier in the piece when I was clarifying the noun instant.  Almost nobody in my era has even seen the word stound, let alone knows what it means.  It is simply not used anymore.  It would make even the most learned people say, “What?” if I were to speak it.  It is an obsolete word for “a brief stretch of time; a moment.”  But who is to say that stound will not be in use several centuries from now?  Who is to say that stound never will be revived like blithe was?

Who is to say that ANY English word ever is truly dead?

Hyphenated words must stay as such for many years before people will accept them without the hyphen ( – ).  Very common words like todaytonight and birthday used to be written to-dayto-night and birth-day.

With this knowledge, I expect many compound words that take hyphens in the 21st century, such as half-jokinglyheart-wrenching and grade-school, will be embraced [welcomed, accepted heartily] one day without their hyphens.

I can make educated guesses about words.  The future of English grammar, however, is a bit hazier [cloudier, foggier, harder to make out].

That said, though, I do have some commentary about several specific matters of grammar.

First is that of whom; I fear that this pronoun will disappear in the next few centuries.  It is hardly seen in writing anymore, much less heard in speech, where who is greatly (and grammatically wrongly) preferred.  It is an object pronoun used in the same way him and her and them are used.  Compare:

You sold your car to him?” vs. “You sold your car to he?

You sold your car to whom?” vs. “You sold your car to who?

Next is that of the subjunctive mood — used to express a hope, wish, fear, request, command or a conditional clause.  This, I am afraid, also will disappear before too long.  When using the English subjunctive, the verb stays in the infinitive (unconjugated form).  Examine the following:

I desire only that she return my affections.

It is asked that he leave the restaurant.

The event will be held outside, whether it be raining or shining.”

And a sentence I used earlier in this very piece:

[…] and yet I have chosen to clarify for fear that the reader take the wrong meaning.

The subjunctive may also, in time, be phased out from conveying [carrying, supplying] a hypothetical situation, as in the following common constructions:

If I were you…

Well, if it were me…

Or, perhaps a sentence like this:

Were it so easy.

Set phrases and idioms like as it were, however, may yet persist [remain, live on] in your time.

Last is that of using the pronoun they to refer to [indicate, mean] one person.  This is a topic of some heat in the decade of the 2010s.  While pedants [those concerned with trivial or minor pursuits of correctness] will insist that they never be used for a single person, the fact is that the pronoun has been used this way for several centuries now — to refer to a hypothetical, unknown or unspecified person.  Very recently, though, there has been a push by cultural progressives [forward thinkers] for society to accept “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun, as many people in our modern 21st century are beginning to find themselves outside the gender binary — the social construct of being of either male or female disposition (NOT of possessing either type of genitalia — that is how we define sex) — and to seek a pronoun that implies neither man nor woman (i.e., not he or she); hence they.

I believe that, while both of these movements are being met with some resistance, language will find a way to make the change, as it always has done.  “Singular they” may be so natural in your era that there is never any question or second thought about using it.

Other parts of grammar, such as syntax [word order, grammatical arrangement of a sentence], verb tenses and conjugation, are more complicated [complex, convoluted, involved, elaborate] and thus harder to speak on, so I will not do so.

In the matter of predicting how your English will look and sound, I have yet to address (though I did mention it once much earlier) one blatant [obvious, stick-out] complication: the Internet.

I presume I do not need to teach you everything about this technology [advancement, device, machine, work], as I trust that it will be alive and well for a great many years.  Perhaps, though, I am blinded by the natural arrogance [elitist attitude, smugness, haughtiness] of existing in what anyone would call his own modern, up-to-date society — perhaps humans will create in the future a faster, more powerful, more tangible [of essence, touchable] means of communicating with each other over vast [large, stretching] distances.  Perhaps the Internet means nothing to you — perhaps you have something better in your age.

But, then again, I have used the Internet both to compose this work and to publish it.  This is what we call in my age a “blog post.”  Blog is a shortened form of the term web log, the “Web” being the “World Wide Web,” which many people wrongly (but understandably) confuse with the Internet.  As this work is a product of and for the Internet, and as you are reading this because you are on and familiar with the Internet, I will take off my philosopher hat and return to my point.

The Internet has made most modern languages ripe for study.  Users all over the world have found ways to shorten words and expressions and phrases in all their languages.  In a span of fewer than thirty years, slang specific to the Internet has popped up, changed and fallen out of use.  To put it briefly, this worldwide network of communication is making languages evolve quite rapidly.

Older English speakers might maintain [hold as true, argue, claim] that these evolutions are harmful and that younger generations’ English has decayed [decreased in quality/structure, deteriorated, crumbled, atrophied] because of the Internet.

At the same time, the Internet is also responsible for [behind, answerable for, the reason for] a convergence [bringing together, homogenisation, unification] of English.

Because of the lightning-fast travel of information and language on the Internet, the English used around the world is becoming more unified.  Internet users are becoming familiar all at once with all the same new words and slang and ideas.  The generations that have matured [grown up] with the Internet, plus those that will do the same in the future, across the world have and will have a unique “Internet English,” or “Internet-speak,” through which to write (and, to a lesser extent [reach, degree], speak) to each other.  It is their variety of English.  And possibly the future world’s English.

But this is but a symptom [sign, showing, manifestation] of a larger process [action, development, unfolding, occurrence] — one that has been affecting [changing] the language since the days of Middle English.

That process is standardisation.

Since William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476 has the country been promoting a national language standard.  Official [legal, of government] documents were printed in London, the seat of power of the state, so the English from the city and surrounding areas began to take on a sort of social prestige [height, status, superiority, dominance], while regional variation came to be “nonstandard.”  Other Englishes needed to conform to [become more like] the budding standard.

It is thanks [due, owing] to this emergence [growth, sprouting, coming out] of a language standard that English has not changed much since the 16th century, the Early Modern English period.  Or, rather, change since that time is much smaller and finer than the difference between Old English and Middle English.

In the 20th century, the new technologies of film, television and radio helped unify slightly the Englishes of the world in a way akin to that of the Internet at the end of the century.  In an effort to sound less “regional” and to sound more like the standard Englishes on news networks or in motion pictures, people’s regional accents [word pronunciations and vowel quality] began to dull, and those of younger generations seem to be “disappearing” [fading away] altogether.

The reason I speak of standardisation is that its agents (chiefly the Internet) further obscure [make unclear, make cloudy] the future of English.  On one hand, I know fully well that the nature of word and grammar evolution can sever [cut off, separate] your English from mine; on the other hand, I am aware of the endless progression [advancement, going forth] of technology and that both the Internet in my age and whatever exists in yours may help keep English from changing too much.

In other words, without these standardisations in play [active, in effect], I would KNOW that our Englishes would be greatly different.  I would KNOW that there would be change.  But with the wild Internet, I do not know what to predict.

Finally, there could be much to be said of a difference in Englishes from planet to planet, if space travel is common in your age and humans have visited and settled on other heavenly bodies.  You may perceive [see, note] a gap between “Earth English” and, say, “Mars English” in the same way American English grew distinct from British English.  And then, perhaps, you will perceive a spreading and changing of English within each planet you go to.  And I imagine that English will not be the only Earth language to be carried over.

As I conclude [come to a closing, finish, wrap up] this piece, I ask [request] of you two things:

First, I ask that you remember my biases.  My upbringing, my schooling and my region all colour my perception of English and how it is used in my age, in the year 2018.  My position and my usage of English are unique, one of a kind.  They are my own.  Any person in my age could have written this piece for you.  But you are reading mine.  Do not withhold from yourself any further study of English of my era.  Read some books from the 20th and 21st centuries.  Use the Internet to view old messages, old forum posts, old videos.  Perhaps, on occasion, you will read or hear language that is so similar to yours that the author’s or speaker’s hand might seem to reach out to you.

Second — remember your own.  Remember your own biases as you read my English, yes.  But remember YOUR English.  Foster a self-awareness for your speech and writing like I have done myself.  Know that the future is watching you as well.

Permissions

 

¹ These texts may be copied freely by individuals for personal use, research, and teaching (including distribution to classes) as long as this statement of availability is included in the text. It may be linked to freely in Internet editions of all kinds, including for-profit works. Redistribution by commercial or not-for-profit content providers is expressly forbidden.

 

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Best Music From HALO (Part 2)

Part 2 of my countdown of my favourite music from the video game series Halo.  If you are not familiar with Halo and haven’t visited Part 1 first, then I have the following to say to you:

  1. How did you even find this blog post?
  2. Go read Part 1.  It elucidates any story elements and character relationships I refer to that would trip up someone who’s never touched a Halo game before.
  3. Ignore the previous point and live your life as you see fit.

 

Back To Business

 

10. The Trials (Halo 5: Guardians)

Is this a losing battle?
Only if we intend on losing it.

— Spartan Kelly-087, followed by Master Chief

Many fans (including me) were disappointed with the lack of musical nods in the Halo 4 soundtrack.  We get that the point of a new soundtrack is to have new music, but it’s important to honour those that came before as well.  Kazuma Jinnouchi was promoted to sole composer for Halo 5’s OST after being a minor contributor in H4’s, and this was one of Halo developer 343 Industries’ smartest decisions.  Jinnouchi understood this music composition tenet with Halo 4 and continued by it with 5.

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Spartan Blue Team; from left: Linda, John (Master Chief), Fred, Kelly

The Trials plays at numerous parts in the campaign in which you play as the Master Chief (John) and his friends, Fred, Linda and Kelly (these four comprise Spartan Blue Team, the only remaining Spartan-II fireteam) and is a clear remake of the classic Halo theme.  Of course, Jinnouchi adds his spin by combining it with his own composed theme from Halo 4, and the result is an unexpected delight.  He proves with The Trials that the two major Halo themes — the one from Bungie’s original trilogy and the one from 343’s so-called “Reclaimer” saga — not only can coexist, but are seamlessly marriageable.


 

9. Farthest Outpost (Halo 3)

Brute ships, staggered line!  Shipmaster, they outnumber us three to one!
Then it is an even fight.”

— brief exchange between an Elite and Shipmaster Rtas ‘Vadum

This piece opens with a distant, enigmatic-sounding choral section.  After a fade-out, a steady rock beat commences alongside some low winds.  There’s a drum fill, and the choir part repeats with the winds section, now joined by the rest of the orchestra, playing a melody underneath.  This plays during a cinematic in which humans and Covenant separatists (who have allied with each other to stop the Covenant from activating the Halo array, a series of enormous ringworlds scattered throughout the Milky Way and designed to kill all sentient life in the galaxy) deploy dropships from orbit onto the Ark (basically the control centre for the Halo array).

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Arriving at the Ark

The Ark is a world of its own, and the music as you descend onto it beautifully captures the wonder it imposes on you.  There is a brief bass guitar interlude that plays during a fight with two hunters (giant, heavily-armoured Covenant ground troops) — sometimes called the “hunter theme” because the same bass part was used during a hunter fight in Halo 2.  The third and final section is a remake of the bright and adventurous Perilous Journey from the first Halo.

(I don’t know why it is that all the Halo tracks with “peril” in the title don’t sound very perilous.)


 

8. Follow Our Brothers (Halo 3)

Our fight is through the portal, with the Brutes and the bastard Truth!

— Shipmaster Rtas ‘Vadum to all

Chronologically and on the soundtrack, this one comes just before Farthest Outpost.  This is roughly halfway through the campaign, and a LOT of stuff is going on in this long cinematic.  The Covenant have just bailed from Earth and entered a slipspace portal toward the Ark.  The Flood, an ancient, deadly parasitic species (which you fight throughout Halos 1-3), landed on Earth and infected a great portion of Africa within an hour.  Humans and the Elites have teamed up and sterilised the local infestation and now need to decide how to deal with the Covenant at the Ark.  After much bickering between the leaders of the two factions aboard a ship in a scene whose dialogue I consider to be some of the best in the series, they resolve to divide up forces — you (the Master Chief), the Arbiter and numerous other key characters take a few ships through the portal while the rest stays back to hold out on Earth as long as possible.

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The leaders of each faction meeting at the bridge of one of the carriers.  From left: Shipmaster Rtas ‘Vadum, Arbiter, 343 Guilty Spark (the floating orb), hologram of Cortana, Master Chief, Lord Hood, Commander Miranda Keyes.

The music, which begins with a string revisit of a melody from the first Halo, comes in once all the decisions have been made.  Around two minutes in, we have a remake of the fan-favourite Brothers In Arms, also from the first game.  While isolated parts of this piece are heard at various moments earlier in the H3 campaign, this patriotic anthem about loyalty and courage and banding together is finally whole, just in time for us to see humans and Elites, bitter enemies merely weeks ago, preparing for combat together as allies.  The string coda plays as Lord Hood, commander of the Earth forces, takes one last look at the Master Chief before the door on his transport ship closes.


 

7. Walk Softly (Halo 5: Guardians)

Your Commander Palmer thought you would find these useful.

Elite commander Mahkee ‘Chava to Spartan Fireteam Osiris

So, there’s a track from Halo 4 called Mantis.  It’s named after the large, bipedal mech vehicle that is part of the human arsenal.  It has a machine gun in the left “arm” and missiles in the right.  It’s pretty boss, and its theme music is just as boss.  But, just when we all thought the track couldn’t get more boss, Kazuma Jinnouchi comes along and says, “Hold onto your dicks, boys, because I just remade it for Halo 5 and it’s gonna blow your fucking minds.”

h4-mantis

Sure enough, Walk Softly outdoes Mantis on every front.  It’s as if Mantis had steroid injections in every part of its body and started hitting the gym.  It’s bigger and badder.  The most obvious difference is that, in Walk Softly, the recurring funky synth riff from the original (that sounds like something ripped from a Stevie Wonder record) has been amplified and is now used as filler between the heavier sections.  Then, the exciting, fast string melody at around 1:00 in has been extended four phrases longer than it was in the H4 predecessor — and it has been reinforced with electric guitar to punctuate the “double punches” at the end of each phrase.  The guitar is used in a similar capacity for the rest of the track — never the lead (and just power chords), but this minimalist use of the instrument is surprisingly effective in that it gives each chord that extra oomph as you beast-mode your way through waves and waves of Covenant in your unstoppable mantis.

Also, Kazuma Jinnouchi didn’t actually say that.


 

6. Winter Contingency (Reach)

You picked a hell of a day to join up.

— Spartan Jun-A266 to Spartan-B312, the new recruit to Noble Team, 2009 game reveal trailer

If the first side of Halo: Reach’s soundtrack is a symphony, then each track (which is named after its corresponding campaign mission) is its own movement.  After the Overture, the first mission is “Winter Contingency,” and the track of the same name is number six on my list because I feel it is the strongest and most diverse suite of mission music in the campaign, and most of its eight distinct sections are memorable.  It is also the longest Halo track to date, clocking in at just over twelve minutes.

The first couple minutes are devoted to the game’s signature majestic, foreboding string-choral theme, which evokes awe and sympathy for the doomed planet, just as the Gregorian chants of the earlier Halos solicited wonder about the mysterious Halo ringworlds.  The next section is one of Reach’s orchestral action themes, titled “Lone Wolf.”  These first two sections both make frequent appearances throughout the rest of the campaign.  A later bit in this track is an isolated, booming electric guitar riff (at 9:40) that plays as you and another Spartan enter a dark corridor to flush out any remaining Covies, making for a sequence tastefully reminiscent of the video game DOOM.  A quiet, intimate piano outro is the last thing you hear on this track, and — you guessed it — it comes back later.


 

5. The Menagerie/Skyline (ODST)

Pick a turret, Romeo.  Conserve your ammo — this is gonna get hot.

— Buck to Romeo as shit gets real

Atop a skyscraper in the warzone of New Mombasa, you (Romeo, the ODST squad’s sniper) and Buck (the former leader of the squad — Nathan Fillion provided his voice and likeness, by the way) fight through Covenant as you make your way toward the rendezvous point — a crashed police pelican atop an adjacent skyscraper, where your heavy weapons specialist and demolitions expert, Dutch and Mickey, respectively, await your arrival.

The low-key, tense, ambient music that underscores your covert sniping soon yields to fast, complex percussive beats with rhythmic winds playing over them as you engage in more up-close-and-personal firefights.  Finally, you cross a makeshift bridge to meet up with the other two ODSTs, thinking the mission is over, but then you hear a rock drum beat with brass horns start playing.  Covenant dropships, loaded with infantry, are inbound.  Nobody’s going anywhere till the airspace is clear.  The string-drums melody from an earlier mission (that track is The Menagerie) is now playing again, but now topped with a killer electric guitar solo that seems to duel with the strings and brass for the lead as you and your three ODST comrades, armed to the teeth with anti-air and other heavy weaponry, proceed to hold off wave after wave of Covenant air vehicles.  Get to work.

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Romeo, firing a rocket at a Banshee, a swift and deadly Covenant air vehicle

The genius of Skyline is the way it is divided into sections, with each part louder and more instrumentally diverse than the previous, making the piece one big crescendo toward the guitar solo climax.  The mounting tension and volume of the music mirror the action of the mission.  I compare this protracted, gradual crescendo technique to the structure of Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece Stairway to Heaven, another piece I adore.

The Menagerie is really just the base track for Skyline, but I actually prefer the stripped-down Menagerie ending section (which starts at the 4:00 mark) — without the embellishment of Skyline’s horns or guitar solo.  It still has guitar and bass and drums, but they take a back seat to the dirty cello section.  It altogether sounds rawer and grittier.  I have joked with friends that, if I were a professional wrestler with WWE, this part of The Menagerie would be my entrance music.  The same music even made a return in Halo: Reach during the mission, “New Alexandria,” when you provide air support for Buck, the aforementioned ODST.


 

4. In Amber Clad/Trapped In Amber (Halo 2/Halo 2 Anniversary)

Off the Rock, Through the Bush, Nothing But Jackal

— chapter title of corresponding segment of mission “Delta Halo”

I have a love/hate relationship with this pair of tracks.  How can a piece of music I hold so dear bring me such great frustration?  In Amber Clad is the quintessential Halo 2 track.  It has one of the most pleasing overall sounds of any Halo track on record, incorporating thick, brooding orchestral blankets of sound, dreamy choral parts, stark percussive beats and a distant-sounding electric guitar melody with electric bass playing parallel beneath it.  But it’s so damn short.  Clocking in at a mere 1:39, In Amber Clad is one of the briefest tracks in Halo music.  When I found out that 343 was re-recording all of Halo 2’s music for the 2014 Anniversary release, I was giddier than a schoolgirl.  Did Trapped In Amber live up to expectations?

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“You always bring me to such nice places.”

Well… yes and no.  It was so close, too.  I find the mix to be superior to the original’s; I like that the new version puts more emphasis on the percussion and vocals and less on the guitar.  I think it fits better the atmosphere of the particular area of the campaign — sniping jackals (Covenant tactical ranged units) and Elites in a vast gorge with lush, green vegetation and with waterfalls and streams running through it within the tropical paradise region of Delta Halo.  Moreover, the arrangers were kind enough to extend the track, so the female vocal solo is absent the first time through but comes in for the repeat — and, man, is her voice enrapturing here.  And the chorus’ descant is radiant and glorious, seemingly sung by angels themselves.  All these arresting vocals were barely audible in the original mix, smothered by guitar and orchestra.  So, where did the remake fall short?

The strings and the ending.  The strings in the beginning are the first instruments you hear, and, despite having a full orchestra with which to record this time around instead of having to record them with a synthesiser, they actually sound worse.  Where, in the original, the chords seemed to flow into each other, in the remake, the chords sound disjointed and deliberate — it’s almost as if I can see the violinists and cellists sitting down, hesitating with each next chord as they struggle through a cold read of their sheet music in front of them.

Even more unforgivable, though, is the ending.  The original ended with a cessation of all instruments, save for guitar, bass and percussion.  It was a mini-outro that concluded with one final guitar lick.  In the remake, it just kinda… fizzes out.  It still ends with only guitar, bass and drums, but it is abrupt and lacklustre and does not match the spirit of the rest of the piece — a disappointment only magnified when I consider how much of a net improvement the majority is.  Imagine shaking a bottle of soda for two and a half minutes, and then you start to twist the cap off, expecting a huge explosion, but all you get is a pathetic puff of air.  That was the remastered ending to one of my favourite Halo tracks.

Fortunately, a crafty YouTuber has combined both versions into a new one, which takes the best elements from the original and the remake and creates the ultimate edition (which, because it is fan-made and therefore not on any official soundtrack, cannot fairly be included in my list).  Really, though, I wouldn’t have ranked In Amber Clad/Trapped In Amber number four in my countdown if I didn’t think they were worthy.  I suppose I complain about them so much because they’re so damn near perfection, but a few nit-picking-y things hold them back.  Needless to say, they have enough good things going for them that their faults can, at the end of the day, be overlooked.


 

3. 117 (Halo 4)

Before this is all over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.

— Cortana to Master Chief

I think I speak for most, if not all, long-time Halo fans when I say that, in general, the music that Martin O’Donnell (and his partner, Michael Salvatori) created for Halo is vastly superior to the music of newer Halo games.  Before I get to talking about 117, though, let me take a minute to explain my hypothesis as to why so many people prefer Marty’s music over the music from and 5.

***Feel free to skip the next three paragraphs if you’re concerned only with details immediately pertinent to the track on the list.***

I believe that this phenomenon can be attributed in part to the nostalgia blindfold.  But I knew that there had to be something else.  Something out of our control that made the newer stuff pale in comparison to Marty’s work.  Then, one day, as I was humming a classic Halo tune in the shower, it dawned on me.  I could sing it.

I then realised that the most important things lacking in the H4 and H5 soundtracks are singable melodies.  With Halos 1-3ODST and Reach, I would wager that one could sing along to at least 90% of their tracks, whether the melody be from voice, strings, piano or guitar.  Being able to sing/hum along to a piece fosters a deeper connection between listener and music.  It’s what makes so many tracks in those games timeless and memorable.  In Halo 4, these kinds of tracks are few, and even more so in Halo 5.  My main problem with Halo 5’s OST is that too often I feel like I’m being attacked by the music instead of being allowed to participate in it.  It’s basically an action movie soundtrack; it’s all so fast-paced and intense and gives you very little time to breathe (to be fair, though, it’s actually quite appropriate for the campaign).

Neil Davidge gave us a few good ones to hum with (like Arrival from earlier), but they still didn’t quite sound like Halo.  Kazuma Jinnouchi, on the other hand, managed to nail both criteria with his 117.

***pertinent track information resumes here***

This track, named for our hero, the Master Chief (his Spartan designation is John-117), plays during the final mission of the game (funny how Halo 4’s best music came at the end).  Piloting a Broadsword (agile spacecraft fighter), MC is racing through tunnels within the Didact’s personal spaceship (this spaceship is bloody huge) to deliver a nuclear device and blow everything up and save the day.  The whole set piece is strikingly reminiscent of the Death Star assault sequence from the original Star Wars.

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No convenient 2-metre exhaust port, though.

The track begins with horns playing what is now referred to simply as the “117 theme,” a melody that we hear reprised in Halo 5’s Blue Team, #20 in my countdown.  The original is in C-sharp minor.  It is a melody of passion and conviction.  There is also a sense of urgency when the strings come in with the rapid secondary melody (the same one used to counter the classic Halo theme in The Trials); Jinnouchi sure loves his polyphony.  This mixture of moods could not be more fitting for this part of the campaign — in a race against time, the machine soldier in Chief is set about completing the mission (to stop the Didact and save humanity), while the human side of Chief is desperate to save his deteriorating A.I. companion, Cortana, who is easily his closest friend.  This human-machine dichotomy is a major theme in Halo 4.  Finally, a choir adds substantial depth and power to the sound to this section of the piece.

At the 6:10 mark, we hear one of the very few vestiges of the original Halo theme in the game with the horns and male voices doing the classic, recognisable rising “dun dun dun DUNNN” motif (just listen to it to know what I mean).  At 6:27, the high strings begin to frantically play a prolonged series of rapid-fire pitches while the low strings and voices and percussion punctuate beneath them.  It’s the grand finale of this wonderful piece, and it never fails to give me goosebumps.

The last thing we hear, once all the instruments have given one final jab, is the sound of a lone wolf howling — the ensign of the nature of John-117.


 

2. Under Cover of Night/Cloaked In Blackness (Halo: Combat Evolved/Halo: CE Anniversary)

Hit it, Marines — go, go, go!  The Corps ain’t payin’ us by the hour!

— Sgt. Maj. Johnson

For number two in my countdown, we’re going all the way back to the very beginning.  One of the most iconic tracks in all of Halo happens to come from one of the most iconic missions in the series, “The Truth and Reconciliation,” the third from Halo: CE‘s campaign.  The objective: Rescue Captain Keyes, who has been captured and imprisoned aboard the Covenant’s stationary battlecruiser, Truth and Reconciliation.  You (Master Chief) and a squad of marines are deployed into a grassy, mountainous region on Alpha Halo in the middle of the night.  Armed with the advantage of surprise, night vision and a sniper rifle with enough ammunition to last you through two apocalypses, you quietly eliminate any Covies patrolling between you and the ship.

The gaseous melody has been recycled numerous times throughout Halos 1-3 (it was that string melody I hinted at in my description of Follow Our Brothers from #8 above), but none compares with the original track (and the remastered Anniversary version).  Under Cover of Night is a prime example of when the music suits the action.  Its instantly recognisable melody, the female vocalist’s mystifying wails and the mean bass guitar line over a smooth, simple drum beat — that’s it — that’s all you need.


 

1. Never Forget (Halo 3)

Many classic Halo fans know this one simply as “the relaxing menu music.”  Halo 2’s Unforgotten was so well-crafted, Marty O’Donnell decided to bring it back for Halo 3.  Never Forget is astonishing.  It’s beautiful.  It’s soothing.  It’s evocative.  The tender strings slowly ebb and flow like the tide on a beach.  It’s utterly peaceful.

Never Forget differs from the original in that there is a piano-choral interlude between the string-only first verse and the string-piano second verse.  The voices are divine, and the piano is touching.  Additionally, the first verse has been lowered a half step in pitch and sounds more hopeful; the original, more solemn and thoughtful key of F minor is restored for the second verse.  And, of course, having a full orchestra certainly improves the sound quality.

If you happen to have a choral background and/or are familiar with the gentle piece, The Seal Lullaby by Eric Whitacre, its piano accompaniment and overall tone sounds remarkably similar to Never Forget.  If you’re not familiar with it and are curious, I won’t embed the music here, but a quick search of “the seal lullaby eric whitacre” on YouTube will yield the results you need.

Never Forget is my number one because you don’t have to be a Halo fan or even play video games to appreciate it.  It never plays during any Halo campaign, and its title doesn’t necessarily refer to any character or event in the Halo universe.  There’s no context.  It’s meant to be subjective.  We all have memories that we don’t ever want to lose, whether they’re of a passed loved one or of the innocent days of our youth.  Never Forget puts you on that figurative beach and allows you to take a moment and look back.

Me, I remember playing Halo 3 with my buddies from high school and staying up well past midnight.  You know, back when the people I played with on Xbox Live were actually people I knew.  And we’d talk about it the next day during school before going home and playing some more.  No college or careers to think about — just the typical school stuff like classes, music and concerts, plays and athletics before goofing around on Xbox.

Who put these chopped onions here?


 

Honourable Mentions

 

Ashes (Reach)

This one probably would have made the list were it not for the whiny childlike vocals.  Otherwise, nothing short of beautiful.


 

Behold a Pale Horse (Halo 3)

A remake of On a Pale Horse from the first Halo, plus part of the Truth and Reconciliation Suite, also from Halo: CE.


 

Broken Gates (from “Mombasa Suite”) (Halo 2)

Broken Gates is the “hunter theme” I mentioned earlier in my #9, but with the whole rock ensemble.  It was remade as Out of Shadow for Halo 3 and once again for the Anniversary re-release.


 

Cast Aside (from “No Stone Unturned”) (ODST)

The first part of another wonderful, ambient track from The Rookie’s harrowing night of investigation through the streets of New Mombasa.


 

Delta Halo Suite (Halo 2)

A bunch of cool pieces in this lengthy collection of music from Chief’s wacky adventures on Delta Halo, including the original Leonidas and a heartwrenching, string-only version of Heavy Price Paid, the #14 in my countdown.  Lots of sentimental value in this one for me, as Halo 2 was the first Halo campaign I ever played.


 

Earth City (Halo 2)

One of my favourite piano tracks in the series.  Just an all-around great sound combination in this one.


 

Opening Suite (Halo: CE)

The first thing you ever heard when you fired up Halo: CE on the original Xbox.  The string refrain at 2:39 is the only bit of music in the entire series that can be heard in every campaign, from Halos 1-5.  It’s the only musical link between the five main games, a distinction earning the piece immeasurable value.


 

Push Through (Halo 4)

Halo 4‘s heaviest and most badass track.  This one accompanies you as you do some tank trail-blazing through debris and Covenant encampments on your way to the downed and invaded UNSC Infinity, humanity’s largest and most ambitious space ship.


 

Roll Call (Halo 3)

This excellent track begins with a brighter take on the classic Halo Gregorian chant theme and transitions to the opening to Farthest Outpost, which, in turn, transitions to another Under Cover of Night revisit, but now with the bass line to In Amber Clad.  The last couple minutes are a gentle piano-string tune.

This track played during the end credits for Halo 3, and part of it was used in the menu music for the multiplayer-only Halo 3 Mythic disc, which shipped with ODST in 2009.


 

Unyielding (Halo 2)

Sorry, Reclaimer fanboys.  As much as I love Steve Vai’s face-melting guitar solo in that particular track, I much prefer the vanilla version, Unyielding.  This piano-guitar rocker plays in the mission, “Uprising,” once you (Arbiter) get in a Ghost (Covenant light hovering land speeder with twin front plasma cannons) and rush through a gorge, slaying any Brutes who stand in your way.

This track has elements of the Halo theme in it, and the main piano riff was repurposed for Halo 3’s Three Gates and One Final Effort.


 

Warrior World (Halo 5: Guardians)

Finally, some love for the acoustic guitar.  This track is about as close as Halo 5 gets to rock.  Good theme for the Elites’ homeworld.


 

Final Thoughts And Acknowledgements

 

So much for keeping things brief here.  If you made it through the whole post (both parts) and read every single word I wrote, consider me in your debt.  I love Halo and its music, and it’s easy for me to ramble on about them.  If you’re a fan of the series, then I hope that this list made you look back fondly on the times you’ve had with its games.  If you’ve never touched a Halo game in your life and just felt like indulging me and my writing, then I hope that I was able to expose you to some quality music!  If you like what you heard, you can find PLENTY more Halo music on YouTube (this post contains but a fraction of what the franchise offers), and every soundtrack is available for purchase on iTunes.

Speaking of which, I need to take this time to acknowledge YouTube and all its users who have uploaded all the music I unabashedly embedded in this blog post.  I didn’t ask for their permission, but I don’t believe I’m doing anything wrong, as the music isn’t their work, either, and I’m not making money with this blog.  I have bought most of the soundtracks myself, but I couldn’t upload any of the music to this post because I do not have a WordPress Pro or WordPress Business plan (mine is the free basic plan for peasants).  Otherwise, I would have.  That being said, you’re more than welcome to visit any of the users’ YouTube pages by clicking on the titles of each embedded video, which double as links.

Finally, no matter your experience with Halo, feel free to let me know what you thought!  Any tracks you thought missing from my list?  Give me your top ten!  Or twenty-five, or whatever.

Till next time.

Science is the Sh*t: The Epic Journey of a Word and Its Kin

No, really — science is shit, etymologically speaking.  But we’ll get to that later.

Partial click-bait titles aside, consider this blog post the spiritual successor to my “Language Tint My World” entry from spring 2016.  In that post, I described my humble beginnings as curious schoolboy and my transmutation to bona-fide linguist; here, I present a more specific fascination: the word.

Shove It Up Your Arsenal

Words are funny.  Some prove highly resistant to transformation and hardly change at all in a millennium, while others seem to change at the drop of a hat.  Humans, armed literally to the teeth with imperfect diction and hearing, have taken their word-ingots to the forge and have beaten the forms of those most malleable, sometimes leaving them so altered that they would no longer be recognisable in pronunciation or spelling to a speaker of the same language mere centuries prior.

Here are but a few mild processes by which a word may change:

Misdivision – The difference between “an ice cube” and “a nice cube.”  This is the faulty separation, or “mis-dividing,” of two words next to each other.  A few modern English words lost an N several centuries ago to the preceding indefinite article a.

“a napron” ⇒ “an apron”
“a nadder” ⇒ “an adder”

Works the other way, too.

“an ewte” ⇒ “a newt”
“an eke*-name” ⇒ “a nickname”

*Eke, here, is an archaic English word for “an increase, augmentation.”  Therefore, a nickname is literally an “additional name.”

These misdivisions, of course, occurred in the Middle and Early Modern periods of English.  Want a more recent example?  Look no further than “a whole nother.”

IMG-1586

“an ice cube” vs. “a nice cube”

Misdivision sometimes will manifest itself not in a word’s spelling, but rather in its pronunciation.  Here are a couple modern examples I’ve observed:

Painstaking (meaning one “took pains” to accomplish something) is often pronounced “pain-staking.”  I don’t know what it means to “stake pain,” but a word separation more faithful to the intended meaning of the compound would be “pains-taking.”  Say them both.  “Pains-taking.”  “Pain-staking.”  They should and do sound different.

Each other, in casual speech, sounds more like “ee-chother.”  Very subtle difference, but a particularly careful speaker will make sure the /ch/ sound is attached to the first word and not to the second.

Metathesis – Sometimes we jumble the intermediate sounds of a word.

The Anglo-Saxons had a word for a beaked, winged creature: bridd.  Over time, the R and the following vowel switched places, so now we spell and pronounce it bird.

The same people had a couple variants of the verb meaning “to call for an answer; enquire of somebody.”  They were ascian [AHS-kyahn*] and axian [AHK-syahn].  (We know this verb today as ask.)  The /s/ and /k/ sounds were pronounced in either order.  Both verbs survived into Middle English as asken and axen, and Chaucer used both.  Until around Shakespeare’s time, to “ask a question” and to “ax a question” were equally appropriate.  (Such a construction would not have been formed back then, but you get my point.)

*In Anglo-Saxon phonology, S followed by C represents the /sh/ sound, as in the word scip (“ship”), so the verb ascian should have yielded Middle English ashen, but the Old English form was altered by the Scandinavian cognate, hardening the C, hence the metathetic X variant axian.  Remember that the /x/ sound is really the consonant cluster /ks/.

Syncope – Sometimes called syncopation.  Because music has a monopoly on most of the latter’s meanings, though, I prefer the original Greek.  Anyway.

Syncope is the disappearance of an unstressed syllable in a word.  It is usually the second of what should™ be a trisyllabic word.  Some examples (and I got a million of ’em!):

  • family ⇒ “FAM-lee”
  • different ⇒ “DIFF-rint”
  • chocolate ⇒ “CHAWK-lit”
  • opera ⇒ “OP-ruh”

In British English, medicine is often “med-sin” and library is often “lie-bree.”

Sometimes, syncope yields new words.  This is where it gets fun — at least for me.  Here:

  • courtesy ⇒ curtsey
  • fantasy ⇒ fancy
  • jettison ⇒ jetsam

Back-formations – When we derive a new word (usually a different part of speech) from the original.

A prime example is donate.  This is a relatively new contrivance.  The noun donation existed in English far longer than the convenient verb we designed after it.  I guess people grew tired of saying “make a donation” all the time.  That’s all well and good.

Here’s where the process becomes problematic — sometimes we create unnecessary or superfluous back-formations.

The verb that has traditionally corresponded to conversation is converse.  But now we have “conversate” for some reason.

Many of the readers who are thinking, “Well, *I* don’t say ‘conversate’” are about to be caught with their pants down — what verb corresponds to obligation?

Oblige is the traditional verb form, not “obligate.”  “Obligate” was born of the same ignorance that spawned the abomination “conversate.”  They are equally hideous to my ears.  You can denounce the use of “conversate” all you wish, but you had better not let me catch you saying “obligate.”  Either stop saying “obligate” or introduce “conversate” to your vocabulary — you can’t have it both ways.

Some quick examples of back-formations not from -ation words:

  • statistic from statistics
  • couth from uncouth
  • diplomat from diplomatic
  • sleepwalk from sleepwalking
  • injure from injury
  • greed from greedy (the original noun form was greediness)

Parasitic Letters – New sounds sometimes latch on to other sounds in the same word.

Empty didn’t always have a P in it.  But say the word as if there were no P.  “Em-ty.”  Hard NOT to say it without one, huh?  Our lips close to form the /m/ consonant before immediately hitting that /t/ plosive, so it’s only natural that a brief “puh” sneaks in there.  It was in the Middle English period that scribes began writing the word with a P, which means that, even centuries ago, people were hearing a sound that wasn’t there to begin with.

Same thing probably happened with surnames like Thompson (“son of Thom”) and Sampson (“son of Sam”).

More recent examples of both processes include yep/yup and nope.  These affirmative and negative word variants come from clipped pronunciations of yeah and no, typically given as very quick, one-word responses.  A subtle P latches on to the end of each word as the lips abruptly shut.  An even more recent example is welp, a curt variant of well, as used interjectorily to introduce a clause (e.g. “Well, would you look at that.”).  Welp is the same word, but its abbreviated vowel length conveys an even greater tone of surprise or vexation, as in the sentence, “Welp, there go my plans to relax tonight!

But English words aren’t the only ones susceptible to these processes; we can see their mark on Latin words as well.  To form a noun from the verb assumere (“to take up,” and origin of English assume), let’s add the suffix -tionem.

One would think that assum(ere)tionem = “assumtionem.”  But note the M and T next to each other.

The compound was actually written A-S-S-U-M-P-T-I-O-N-E-M.  With a P.  Meaning that ancient Romans must have fallen prey to the same “parasitic P” that infected the English word empty.

Don’t feel guilty for making an assumption; just make sure you don’t “assumpt” anything.

Associative Alteration – Changing a word to make it conform to an unrelated word.  More examples that you probably won’t bother to read:

  • perform – From Anglo-French parformer, alteration of Old French parfo(u)rnir.  The second element fornir is related to the word furnish but was changed by association with the word forme.
  • admiral – From Arabic amir-al or amir-ar-rahl.  The D was added possibly by influence of Latin admirabilis (“admirable”).
  • island – Very old English word that never had an S in it until scribes stuck one in there to make it cosmetically similar to the Latin-derived and unrelated isle.

“Pend”-House Magazine

Now that the dense stuff is out of the way, let me regale you with less-dense stuff!

Words can change in sound and appearance, but what truly enthralls me is to examine how they change in meaning over time.

This process is referred to as sense evolution or sense shift, and I will use both terms throughout this blog post.

How often does one use spearhead to refer to the “tip of a spear?”  Of course, that is its original, literal meaning.  But its more common meaning of “anything leading an attack, operation or undertaking” is a figurative understanding of the word.  And it’s often used in the verb form, as in the sentence, “She spearheaded the initiative to help ex-convicts rejoin society.”  We’ll return to this principle in a bit.  In the meantime, however, I want you to take a gander at the picture below:

balance20scale

This image of a scale is absolutely critical in understanding this next part.  Keep it in your mind for the next few paragraphs.  There’s a family I’d like for you to meet.  I present to you the Pends.

In this household live pendantpensivepensionpound (unit of measurement and money), ponder and all the -pend verbs you can think of (impendsuspendexpend/spend, etc.), plus others.

They aren’t what you’d call an idyllic, classic American nuclear family, though.  There are no parents or children living there — only cousins — and you’ll hardly ever see any two of them in the same place at the same time.  They’re a family that’s as large and extended as it is dissociated.  But they’re all blood — this much is certain.

All the words listed in the “Pend” family are united via the notion of hanging and weighing.

Their origin, the Latin verb pendere, means “to hang.”  And that’s how things were weighed.  On scales like the one depicted above.  What did the ancients weigh?  Why, money, of course!

This is what we call the ground sense.  The ground sense of a word is its initial, primitive idea.  The base from which all other meanings are derived.  The ground sense of all the “Pend” words is hanging and weighing; this is the universal sense felt, no matter how faintly, amongst all of them.

pendant is a hanging ornament.  Something suspended is hanging in the air.  Your impending doom is hanging over you.

A pound of weight and a pound of money, if we go back enough centuries, are one and the same in England.

Pensionsexpenses and spendings all are things being paid out, a sense conferred by the notion of weighing money.

Word senses generally shift from the literal to the figurative, as I demonstrated with spearhead earlier.  We connect the contemplative meanings of pensive and ponder to the hanging and monetary meanings of the other words by using the scale as a metaphor for thought.  When one is pensive or pondering, he is taking the time to “WEIGH things out,” thus, “consider.”

I know — I’ve got goosebumps, too.  But wait — it gets even better.

What if I told you that this sort of sense shift can occur in parallel between two completely unrelated word groups from two separate languages?

The Latin verb capere carried meanings of “grab, seize, take hold, catch” and is the root of many French-derived English words such as captive and capture.

The same verb exists in Italian, albeit with an evolved meaning.  Capere in Italian means “to understand.”  Many Americans are familiar with the second-person-singular conjugation, “Capisci?” or rather, “Capeesh?

How does such a physical, forceful verb take on a more intellectual meaning?

That’s right, class!  Through figurative use!

When one understands something, he “grasps” it.

Latin/Italian capere and English grasp underwent the same literal-to-figurative sense evolution.  Their initial “grabby” meaning is physical, but a figurative meaning of “to get a hold of mentally; comprehend” emerged over time in both words independently.

You TAKE my meaning?
You CATCH my drift?
You GET what I’m saying?

Here’s another pair of unrelated words that enjoyed remarkably similar sense evolutions.

Latin causa (“judicial process, lawsuit, case”)
Proto-Germanic* thengan (“appointed time”) – ancestor of English thing

*Proto-Germanic is the reconstructed, theoretical common language of all the Germanic tribes that was spoken several millennia ago when they all lived in relative proximity to one another before splitting off and developing what would eventually become the modern Germanic tongues of German, Dutch, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, etc.

Many of the Germanic languages held on to this word — thengan.  In most cases, it came to mean “meeting, public assembly, council,” which more closely resembles in meaning the Latin causa.  Then it shifted to mean “that which is DISCUSSED at a public assembly,” hence “matter.”  From “matter,” it shifted again to refer to various nouns like “entity,” “body,” “being,” “act,” “deed” and “event.”  Today, in many Germanic languages, the word means simply what we would call “a thing.”

dscn7044

The building for “Althing,” the parliament of Iceland.  The second element of the name keeps the original sense of “public assembly.”

This sense shift was mirrored in the Romance languages.  The descendants of causa, which bore judiciary and public assembly meanings, include the French chose and Spanish/Italian cosa, all of which likewise now mean “thing.”

One more pair to demonstrate a parallel sense development:

English friend
Latin amicus (“friend”)

Friend comes from the Anglo-Saxon word freond, which is a noun derivative of the verb freogan, meaning “to love.”

Amicus is related to the Latin verb amare, meaning — can you guess? — “to love.”  Anyone who’s taken a course in a Romance language should recognise amicus as the ancestor of the Italian amico, Spanish amigo and French ami — “friend.”

(Those especially keen might recognise it as the source of English words like amicable, amiable and amity.)

But here’s a Latin-based English word that gives me an internal chuckle every time I see it: enemy.

Hard to tell from looking at it now, but that word is the descendant of the Latin inimicus, which entered English via the Old French inimi.  Let’s break down the original Latin word and see just how ridiculous it is.

inimicusin- (“not”) + amicus (“friend”)

Therefore, enemy literally means “not friend.”  Real imaginative, Romans.  That’s right up there with fireplace for least-inspired words.

What A Load Of Crap

Sometimes our prejudices keep us from seeing the truth.  Two words that look nothing alike and with completely separate meanings still could be related etymologically.

Science is the word of academia.  It encompasses the virtues of observation, concentration and patience.  It is the embodiment of pure, humble intellect.

Shit is…well…none of those things, really.  I suppose one could argue that patience is required for — actually, no, never mind.

These two words have nothing in common (save for their starting letter).

…Or do they?

Rewind, say, seven millennia or so.  Before there was any Latin.  Before Greek.  Before any of the Germanic languages.

Linguists have reconstructed what is known as Proto-Indo-European (henceforth written as PIE), another theoretical parent tongue.  This would have been the common language of the earliest settlers of the Eurasian landmass.  As this first group of people began to disperse (over the course of several millennia), they developed their own dialects — e.g. Proto-Germanic, Proto-Celtic, Proto-Slavic, etc.  And, of course, each of these became a language family in its own right.

IMG-1588

The PIE root for “to cut, split, divide, separate” is skei-.  This root, like many other PIE words linguists have reconstructed, was the progenitor of numerous nouns and verbs still in use in the extant Indo-European languages.

The prehistoric word served as the base for a couple Proto-Germanic verbs.  They are skaithan and skit-.  Both these verbs remained more or less faithful to the literal sense of “separating.”  Skaithan yielded English shed (as a snake does to its old skin or a tree to its leaves) and German/Dutch scheiden.

The other Germanic verb skit- manifested itself in English as shit (dialect shite preserves the Old English vowel), in German as scheissen and in Dutch as schijten.  All these verbs came to mean “defecate” on the notion of excrement being SEPARATED from the body.

PIE skei- was present in Latin words as well.  It was used to form the important verb scire, meaning “to know.”  But how could the verb for splitting or separating something mean that?

*cue angelic choir* FIGURATIVE SENSE SHIFT!

To “know” is to “separate one thing from another; distinguish.”  The Roman verb became a metaphorical separation, whereas the Germanic verbs remained literal separations.

The noun derived from scire was scientia, meaning “a knowing; knowledge.”  This is the obvious origin of the English science and all the Romance cognates.

(Bonus: The Greek verb skhizein (“to split”) comes from the same PIE root and is the origin of the English word schism.)

To recap:

PIE skei- ⇒ Proto-Germanic skit- ⇒ English shit

PIE skei- ⇒ Latin scire “to know” ⇒ Latin scientia “knowledge” ⇒ English science

Therefore, science and shit are distant cousins.

bioscience_logo

Carry On My Way-“Word” Son

What a journey some words have!  Sometimes they need to make pilgrimages across vast lands over great stretches of time to find themselves.  It may take centuries for some words to settle at long last on one primary sense.

Nice is one of these “journey words.”  (Not a technical term — just something I call them.)  Nice was a Middle English borrowing from French, which in turn was an evolved form of the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware.”  The Latin is an adjectival compound of the prefix ne- (“not”) and scire — yeah, that verb we JUST covered — meaning “to know.”  It literally means “not-knowing.”  (And, yes, that makes it related to shit as well.)

In French and when it entered English, it wasn’t too far-removed from the Latin, carrying meanings of “foolish, stupid, senseless, silly.”  The sense development in English is remarkable, having shifted across “simple,” then to “petty, fine, minute, (a sense preserved in nicety)” to “childlike,” to “delicate,” to “agreeable, pleasant,” to “kind, thoughtful.”  The Oxford English Dictionary says this about the word:

“In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken.”

The adjective slight originally meant “smooth, sleek,” then moved to “slim, slender,” to “feeble, not strong, inferior,” hence “not good,” before resting on “small in amount.”  The German cognate schlecht followed a similar path, moving from “smooth, plain, simple” eventually to “bad, mean, base.”

Words can weaken and strengthen over time as well as narrow or broaden.  The Old English yfel (Modern English evil) was the go-to adjective for anything negative or displeasing.  The Anglo-Saxons used “evil” where we would use badcruelunskillful and defective; the sense of “morally wicked” also was in Old English, but it did not become the main one till the 18th century.  Slay, like its Germanic cognates, originally meant “beat, strike.”  The English form, however, strengthened to “kill, destroy, especially with a weapon” later on.

Starve comes from Old English steorfan, meaning “to die.”  Its main modern meaning is specified and weakened: “to be in the process of perishing from hunger or suffering severely from it.”  German cognate sterben still means “to die.”

The Old English noun deor (ancestor of deer) meant “animal.”  Today, it refers to a specific, antlered animal, while the Dutch and German cognates (dier and Tier) retain the broader sense.  Linguists reason that the word narrowed to mean this creature in particular because that which we now call a “deer” was the favoured beast of the chase.

The verb try has assumed various meanings in the past few centuries.  In Middle English, it was restricted to the legal sense of “put on trial,” but it has since expanded to “put to test” and “attempt to do” and “put forth effort.”

A word’s journey might take it so far that it ends up a complete 180° from its initial meaning.  Moot, from Old English gemot, was the noun form of the verb meet.  Much like thing, a moot was an assembly where matters were discussed.  A “moot point,” therefore, was that which was “up for discussion or debate.”  The modern opposite meaning of “not debatable; not worth discussing; impertinent; irrelevant” must go to show how effective those meetings were.

Before Our Very Eyes

Sense evolution and sound changes are not a purely historical study.  If you squint hard enough, you will take notice of the more recent changes occurring in words.

Mad, for most of its history in the English language, meant primarily “insane,” but its newer meaning of “angry” has eclipsed the former in common use.  Madman and maddening retain the traditional sense.

Oblivious did not mean “unaware” until the 19th century; before then, it meant “forgetful.”

Only a purist or a pedant (like me) might insist that words like these can mean only what they did originally.  But that reasoning is flawed; nobody is going to call his dim-witted coworker a “nice” man to mean he is a simpleton.  Similarly, most people don’t use decimate to mean “remove one tenth of,” as the ancient Romans did.

The hard truth about sense evolution is that, when a word acquires a new primary sense, the older one often falls into disuse, sometimes earning the label “archaic” or, more absolute, “obsolete,” at which point that particular sense is no longer understood by the common people.  The old sense of obliviousness or oblivion, perhaps fittingly, may well be on their way to “the state of being forgotten.”

(Some old senses end up getting fossilised in idiomatic expressions.  One such lucky specimen is large, in the sense of “free from restraint.”  This sense is obsolete, except in the phrase at large, as in the sentence, “The murderer is still at large.“)

Take a moment sometime to listen to the way we use our words to convey specific shades of meaning.  Soon and anon both originally meant “at once; immediately; without hesitation.”  Because of human procrastinative nature, however, they relaxed to a more lenient “shortly; in a little while.”  Can you detect a similar shift with now?  When we say that something needs to be done “now,” is there implied leeway?  Maybe a few moments?  How might your response differ if you were asked to do something “RIGHT now?”

In a similar vein, literally has shifted so much in popular use that speakers and writers may find it necessary to precede it with the word quite in order to express that something ought to be taken truly “literally,” that is, “precisely as worded.”

In merely the last century, the syllabic stress of harass and harassment has shifted from the first to the second.  Second-syllable stress for those words has recently become the primary pronunciation, at least in American English.  There are some, though (including me), who still prefer the traditional stress pattern.

The Internet is a trove of examples of linguistic shift in action.  In this new era of instant communication and self-broadcast, we find that words, abbreviations, phrases and slang come into existence and develop in the online world at a rate unseen in the natural world.  They obey the same linguistic evolution principles as their real-life counterparts, but their changes occur at a rapid, observable rate.  I believe that they have a place in academic scrutiny.  A few terms for thought:

  • LOL – “Laughing Out Loud.”  Possibly the best-known — and it is certainly one of the earliest — product of shorthand in online communication.  Originally meaning that the person behind the keyboard is actually laughing; has been used at least as early as the new millennium to indicate that something is mildly humorous, even if no actual laughter occurs.  Now often used as filler or placed at the end of a serious message to soften its impact, as in, “Car broke down today, lol.”  Phonetic pronunciation “loll” or “lawl” is not uncommon.
  • Netflix and chill – It did not take long for this once-innocuous phrase meaning “to watch programmes on Netflix in a low-stress environment, usually with another person,” to acquire a “wink, wink” undertone.  Users on websites like Twitter pounced on this sort of Internet inside-joke and accelerated the phrase’s development to imply sexual interaction between the participants — with or without the Netflix.
  • RIP – “Rest In Peace.”  Popular in online video gaming culture, this solemn real-life initialism has been hijacked by the Internet.  The phonetic “rip” pronunciation in online gaming was facetious at first but quickly became the standard.  Originally used as an interjection for when a player dies in a video game; meaning has expanded to refer to the end or destruction of any non-human thing or institution; then applied to anything unfortunate, whether in a game or in real life.

Person 1: “Ugh, my earbuds are tangled again.”
Person 2: “Rip.”

  • Own, Wreck – Another instance of gaming culture appropriating common words for its own stylistic needs.  In competitive gaming, to say that one has been owned or wrecked (spelling variants include wreck’d and rekt) is to say that one “was utterly dominated or defeated.”  Noun forms wreckage and ownage (and ironically misspelt variant pwnage) are also common.  On a personal note, I am elated that the word rape, as used in this way, is not as pervasive as it was a decade ago.
  • GIF – Image format that has had Internet users arguing over its pronunciation for over two decades.  Once disparaged by know-betters as an ignorant corruption, the “ghif” pronunciation (hard G) is now just as valid as “jif” and is perhaps more prevalent.  Also, I may or may not have written a blog post on it last year.

How “Nice”

Words, whether in the spoken or written form, serve as an allegory of a sort for their masters, the human species.  Their evolutions are proof of where man exhibited great folly — and also where he showed poetic brilliance.

We are the words we use, in a way.  To study words is to study human thought — and to study their scars is to examine our own image through the ages.

Reminds me of that classic speech from Hamlet:

“…to hold, as t’were, the Oxford English Dictionary up to nature, to show poetry its own coinages, slang its own etymology, and the very speakers and writers of the time their pronunciation and usage…”

Like Night and Day

“Last year sucked!  Who cares about last year?”

– Jim Greene, instructor and independent act

Well, *I* do.  At least I did.  I mean, my 2016 season with the Sterling Renaissance Festival was great — I wouldn’t have exalted it with an entire blog post if it weren’t — but if last year were a full meal, then the 2017 season was an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Because I’m unimaginative and terrible with transitions, let’s talk about my living situation.

Site Life

When the creative director was sending housekeeping e-mails to the 2017 cast this spring, he asked for everyone’s living preference (i.e., onsite lofts, offsite housing, indifference).  I made the naïve decision to forsake all sense of adventure and voice my desire to live off site as I did last summer, citing convenience of shopping and household amenities as my chief reasons.

The decision was ultimately up to the director, however, and he countered my request by assigning me to a loft at the Armoury.  He was right.

Living on site was the single most important change from my experience last year.  What was lost in the convenience of Walmart just down the road and the kitchen mere feet away from the bedroom was more than recompensed by a firmer connection with my castmates and with the playing space we would call Warwick.  I finally could state truthfully that Warwick was my home, a claim to which I was not entitled last season.  Such a bond with my people and my space provided the groundwork for more effective improvisation and street-work on my end.  More on those later.

Still, where I had good fortune, I remembered.  I harboured limitless empathy for the five who lived in the offsite housing, especially the three among them who were virgin to the Sterling experience.  Despite our best efforts to reach out to them and include them, they were, at times, cut off from the rest of us, often missing out on the more impromptu cast gatherings or plans.

I shared the Armoury attic with four other men.  My loft was actually quite nice — I daresay superior to my pathetically small room (which was more like a glorified closet) in the city house last year.  In my loft, I could put all my clothes and other belongings into various shelves and drawers, freeing up an immense amount of floor space for walking around and changing garments.

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My loft, facing inward.  Note the draping mosquito net.

Living out of a loft was nothing like my preconceptions of it.  It might have helped that Armoury lofts were arguably some of the finest on site, at least in terms of size and privacy.  Each room had a proper, functioning door and was enclosed by complete walls; I had envisioned flimsy, rotting plywood separating the chambers and hanging cloth where a door might be.  I had plenty of electrical outlets and a good main light.  These lofts were less like cabins in the woods and more like gently furnished, low-rent apartments.

My biggest fears about living in a loft were relieved swiftly; there were no leaks, there was a privy (restroom) directly next to the building and bugs were not nearly as significant an issue as I had predicted — besides a few wasps over a ten-week period, insects and the like were virtually nonexistent — the ant infestation in the offsite house last year proved to be a far greater threat to my comfort than anything I encountered in my loft this year.

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My loft, facing the doorway.

There were two major drawbacks of onsite living.  In addition to longer grocery trips, we also needed to travel to do laundry.  The cast’s (and many of the independent performers’) preferred laundromat in Fair Haven was only about a five-minute drive away, but, man, did it make you bleed quarters.  Even more if you didn’t bring detergent.  At least the place had air conditioning and free Wi-Fi.

Then, there was what one cast member called the “dance of the kitchen” — the charlie-foxtrot of three dozen actors trying to evade one another to access their respective cabinets and refrigerators in what was maybe a 10′ by 20′ food preparation space — a dance I avoided by waking with the small 6:00 early breakfast club, but a tango I had no choice but to learn during the cast’s lunch break every June rehearsal.  It was as much a lesson in trust and cooperation as was anything we did during our ensemble-building exercises.

The Ensemble

How’s that for a transition?

Maybe it owed to my living on site; maybe it was an inherent respect that came with being a second-year Wyldewood Player; maybe it was simply the luck of the draw.  I will not mince words here: this year’s ensemble felt warmer, more together and absolutely more welcoming to me than last year’s did.  And I wasn’t the only returning cast member to sense these things.

I felt comfortable speaking with everyone in the cast, and it seemed like anybody could jump into and from any group conversation in the kitchen.  Cliques existed, sure, as they form naturally in any large group of people, but the key difference this time around was that these subgroups were not as potent — that is to say they lacked the exclusivity that last year’s had.  This year, there appeared to be an inviting atmosphere with every social outing and gathering, and I never felt bashful or ashamed to join up with any particular set of cast members.

Furthermore, the tone of this season’s ensemble, to me, was more laid-back than last season’s — in a good way.  While the work produced by the 2016 cast was unquestionably magnificent and inspiring, I can’t help but feel in retrospect that everything seemed so damned serious far too often.  The 2017 cast had a temperament that beckoned me to loosen up, let down my hair (sometimes literally) and play, the last one being the core of our show at the festival.

Rehearsals

Rehearsals were more or less identical to last year’s.  Morning warmups (physical and musical) followed by hours of various workshops in improv, imagination, styles/language and character development.  Not much to say here that I didn’t already cover in my first Sterling blog post.

Nay, instead, the change came from within — from the way I approached rehearsals.

During dialect workshops, I toned down greatly on my inclination to jump in and give unwarranted explanations of various rules and concepts.  I restrained myself this season and deferred always to the several instructors thereof, despite language being my domain.  Though holding my tongue was often frustrating, I found a sort of relief in embracing my subordination.

In improv, I retained the techniques I picked up last season and went forward with a no-fucks-given mindset, knowing that something is always better than nothing and that, even if you have a less-than-adequate scene, people generally will quickly forget about any embarrassing missteps you may have made.  My equipped, unbound mind yielded me much greater success during rehearsals and proved my viability in the discipline of improvisation.

This was a Joseph Scott that those who knew me last season did not recognise.  During a first-impressions exercise in which everybody revealed to every other person in thirty-second sessions how he/she initially perceived the other, all the staff members and cast veterans said something similar to me — they all seemed to note a confidence in me that was lacking last year.  One described the change as “like night and day.” (*roll credits*)

Side note: Wisdom is the child of hardship.  I learnt from my mistakes last year and brought plenty of warmer apparel for those cold rehearsal days in June.  The first week was brutal this year.  Also, rain boots were easily my smartest purchase all summer.

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Faire Days

At the heart of the Sterling Renaissance Festival’s entertainment is interactive theatre, conducted by the actors, the Wyldewood Players.  The actor’s job on a faire day is to, in character, find problems and activities and solicit the involvement of patrons and other characters.  The goal is immersion — to fill the space and make it truly seem like a bustling English town in the year 1585, inhabited by a host of wacky denizens who all have relationships with one another.  There is a specific interactive technique we actors learn in rehearsal and utilise every faire weekend.

Overall, my work in the lanes (the paths that patrons take on faire days), or street-work, was objectively better than what I did last season.

One of my biggest hangups last season was language and dialect.  My obsession with having impeccable grammar and with avoiding linguistic anachronism (using words/phrases/ideas that were not used in Elizabethan England) often inhibited my improvisational potential on the street.  I discovered this season that, in relaxing my language somewhat, ideas for street bits suddenly started flowing more rapidly and I was able to maintain patron attention much better.  It hurt my soul a bit to be so lax, but perhaps this was a necessary trade-off.

My street-work improved also because I finally understood how to throw an extraordinary offer/assumption at another character — and to do so confidently — in order to ignite some sort of meaningful interaction, or encounter.  And, when all else failed, it was quite fun to spew the first thing that came to mind.

Finally, some of the greatest rehearsal advice I employed on faire days was the notion of permitting my character to get involved with other characters’ problems — that any character, regardless of social station or personality, can and will, under extreme circumstances (meaning an encounter’s stakes have been raised appropriately), perform some action that he/she may find unpleasant or out of character.  I began to realise that the characters in Warwick were not designed to be two-dimensional archetypes of their occupations, but full, real people.  For example, the barber surgeon is a middle-class fellow who deals with medical issues primarily, but that does not and should not preclude him from being dragged into helping, say, a lower-class washer wench with a laundry-related problem or some non-occupational encounter like picking flowers for a bouquet.

Similarly, a lower-class beggar could be seen in the company of a member of the Queen’s court, doing things not typically associated with begging.

Speaking of which…..

The Sailor, not the Tailor

When I learnt that the two other beggars from last season would not be returning, any doubt that I would create a new character was removed.  I wished to embody a wholly different person to exist alongside and play off the likewise different persons my new “mud brothers” would generate.

Much to my surprise, my beggar character, William “Will” Taylor, was green-lighted by staff during rehearsal.  I feared that he would resemble too closely the namesake on whom I based him, the titular character from the folk song “William Taylor,” whose opening lyrics are, “William Taylor was a brisk young sailor, full of heart and full of play.”  I later found out that this very song was performed by one of the festival’s musical acts on faire days.

William was much stronger a character than the one I developed last season, Peter.  Will’s choices were more playable to audiences, his nautical backstory more easily related in conversation, whereas Peter’s convenient amnesia was an unwise actor choice.

I made sure to distance William from Peter in almost every way conceivable.  His voice tended to sit in the chest, his lower, neutral growl much more biting than Peter’s shy, bouncing cadence, even decaying into the sarcastic on occasion.  Will’s movement stemmed from his forehead and right breast to contrast with Peter’s right knee-led gait — a change perhaps corresponding to the actor behind the characters as he evolved from one of insecurity to one of confidence.  While Peter’s vestments were a potpourri, Will was accoutred specifically to reflect his nautical background, complete with a sailor’s hat and spyglass.  Finally, Master Taylor had different motivations, goals and habits, which meant stick-collecting and leaf-munching had to go.  Will was headstrong and ambitious and had little time to devote to such petty diversions.

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Photo credit: Andrew Lesny

William’s passion (character’s driving force in life) and foible (trait that interferes with the character’s attainment of said passion) were clear and identifiable where Peter’s were, at best, vague and nebulous.  It was visible that Will was out solely for thrills, at sea or otherwise, while his pride often kept him from achieving his short-term goals, begetting other foibles such as forgetfulness and obliviousness.

I also added some other character minutiae to Will that, while not necessary for playing in the street and creating encounters, helped flesh him out and made for humorous moments upon their invocation.  The two main flourishes were his probable homosexuality and his recently-acquired fear of birds; not being seduced by the singing of Sirens and cowering before the festival’s trained hawks and other birds of prey were recurring gags this season.

Just Add Water

Mud is mud, so no updates there.  “Ye Mudd Pitt” required the same maintenance it did last summer, the most notable change being that the dirt came from a different supplier this year and required us to sift through it before we could dump it into the pit.  Another difference was that all three beggars lived on site this time, so we didn’t have to make special trips out between faire weekends to maintain the mud.

We turned to ancient Greek myth for our newest mud show, basing it on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, specifically the Quest for the Golden Fleece.  The basic plot — that is, which scenes we wished to portray and the order thereof — was a combined effort of the three beggars, while the specific dialogue was written by the director.  He intelligently wrote the script with provided room for variation and jokes we could insert on the fly.

“Myth and Muddy Mayhem,” as it is titled in the festival’s programme, was a tall order.  First, it was a longer show that made heavy use of stage properties; second, it called for several important character endowments (like Heracles and Eros) to be hand-picked from the crowd; third, it demanded full audience participation during moments at which sound effects and scene transitions were needed (like screeching harpies on the plateau or rowers aboard the ship).  These three qualities rendered for us a worthy show to fill a stylistic void created by the unavailability of the classic “Dante’s Inferno” this season.  I was very pleased with what we produced.

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Photo credit, clockwise from top: Andrew Lesny, Philip R. Frey, Andrew Lesny

The biblical show the beggars wrote last year, “The Prodigal Son,” returned in all its glory (or shame), still as sacrilegious and scatological as it was last summer, and perhaps more so.  The show continued to grow this season as the two new beggars embraced it and made it their own.  Very proud of my lads.

Oh, yeah — we performed four shows per faire day, eight per weekend, where it was only three a day last season.  The addition of a fourth performance each day at 5:00 proved to be, at least initially, more draining than expected and forced me to manage my voice more wisely — to pick my battles, as it were.  I had trouble speaking every Monday after the first three weekends, but my body eventually acclimated, I’m thankful to state.

What did not change, at least not in great measure, were the size and enthusiasm of the 5:00 crowd.  Most days, it was a mass of miserable, tired people who were simply trying to find somewhere to sit before the final joust, after which they could make their sorry, daunting trek up the hill and finally leave the festival.  It was difficult to incite any spirit in them, and even the funniest, most outrageous jokes in “Prodigal Son” often failed to get reactions.  Perhaps the inclusion of a fourth show was not worth it and the time we beggars took to set up for it, perform it and clean up afterward would have been better allocated to our already meagre street time, of which we had virtually none after 1:15.

Parade bits were a welcome addition to the beggars’ antics.  The first weekend, we three decided to forgo a shower after the second mud show, knowing that taking the time to clean up and change would make us miss part of the Queen’s midday procession.  So, naturally, we walked around completely covered in filth so we could make it to the beginning of the parade in the upper shire in time to greet Her Majesty.  It’s beyond me why we didn’t try this last summer.  We very quickly discovered that our swarthiness was a wide, paved avenue for performing bits, and you had better bet your bottom shilling we rode it every weekend.  Each faire day, we did something different to entertain the parade and the patrons around it, whether it be pretending to be tea-sipping Frenchmen or creating tableaux of various Stages of the Cross or overtly crossdressing as ladies of the court of the washer wench, Nerys, whom we appointed our Fairy sovereign.

Other Thoughts I Couldn’t Find a Section For

Some readers may recall that last year I developed an awfully strange physical intolerance — an allergy, even — for cold water.  I was unable to swim in any body of water — lakes, ponds, wash pits, etc. — cooler than corporeal temperature, lest my skin break out into what looked like hives (showers didn’t do this to me because I bathe with very warm water).  It was often painful.

Well, I ended up swimming in the “Dunke Ponde” a couple times this summer without such a reaction.  And the oft-cold shower after my 5:00 mud show (no more hot water by the end of the day) didn’t seem to affect me, either.  Fingers crossed, but I may no longer suffer this curious condition.

I failed to maintain my run-whenever-it’s-pleasant-out regimen.  In May, I imagined that I would end most days in Sterling with a solid, hearty run and a refreshing shower.  Nope.  Turns out I befriended all my castmates and found it difficult to reconcile my exercise custom with my busy social calendar.

The final and most important miscellaneous thought I wished to share is my newfound appreciation for poetry and verse, a fondness I fostered with my own authorial contributions.  Two and a half months of living amongst trees, creatures and artistic peers untethered my mind and took it to places it had never been.  I ended up penning numerous sonnets and other poems that are packed with nature-inspired imagery.  While my prose already has a poetic tinge, I loved the challenge of assigning my words to metre and finding novel methods of describing ordinary things.  My sonnets come in iambic hexameter (not sexameter) and classic pentameter, and I even wrote one in octameter (what?).  And I had the opportunity to read some of my works at a couple in-house events held on site.  It was gratifying to know that my poetry was received as well as it was.

But I’m Not Ready to Leave…

You can leave all your “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because happened”s and “You’ll get out of this funk soon”s and “Where one journey ends, another begins”s and other hackneyed epitaphs at the door.  I’m sad.  I’m really fucking sad.

This summer was an absolute privilege and a delight that somehow surpassed last summer.  Pardon me while I redeem my saved-up originality tokens for one trite paragraph and say that this summer was basically a dream.  A bubble where I didn’t have to worry about everything for a little while.  And I’m not wearing my nostalgia goggles — I realised this as the fantasy was unfolding.  Because I experienced that bliss once… and I finally had it again and knew I had to relish every moment.  And then I had to give it up again.  And now I’m back in the crappy real world.  And it sucks.  So much.

Never enough time.

If you’ll indulge my conceitedness once more, I’ll end with the verse I composed for our pub song, “Health to the Company.”  My fellow players already heard me sing it, but I think a reprise befitting.  I meant every word.

Thus to you, dearest brethren, my final remarks:

You forgive me my missteps, to my jests do you hark;

You’ve return’d me my happiness, this virtue been depriv’d;

Never ere has this dead man felt quite so alive!

Also, if you think I waited till September to write this blog post, then you think erroneously.  I didn’t make it twenty-four hours after returning home to start this.

Derailing the Stage Choo-Choo

According to a friend and director with whom I have worked on many productions, there are two kinds of train in acting.  Both are bad.

The first is the locomotive that crosses the stage whenever there is a worryingly long gap between lines of dialogue (his own hyperbolic figure of speech meaning that there was a silence long enough for an entire train to traverse the performance space before the next line was delivered).

The other is the choo-choo of poor diction.  This is the one on which I will be focussing for this post.

A Sick Pleasure

A year ago, the same director asked me to assist him with his college production of Hedda Gabler.  I was a “diction monitor” of sorts.  At each rehearsal, I would sit in the audience with my iPad and do nothing but listen to the words the actors were saying.  I cared not for characters or line delivery or the way they carried themselves.  My job was to note every garbled syllable and any otherwise unintelligible word they spoke, and, boy, did I have a field day with it.

Scores of spoilt lines of dialogue I scribbled hastily on my Apple device, day after day.  I took no prisoners; every actor in the show was guilty of sloppy diction at least once, and I made sure to embarr — I mean inform — each of them of their slip-ups at the end of every rehearsal.  Some missed their final T’s, there were some dropped H’s, we had some “yers” and “fers” instead of “yours” and “fors” and some even travelled across the Atlantic mid-play and said “git” when the word was actually get.

But the most common errors, by far, were those that occurred when words like did and won’t preceded the word you.  The results, all too often, were abominations such as “dijoo” and “wonchoo.”  And examples of these littered my notes every evening.

Constructions like those are the namesake of the aforesaid Theatre Tank Engine to be avoided — the choo-choo.

Prolonged Linguistic Explanation Inbound

But it’s hard to blame the actors.  That’s just the way English speakers speak, generally speaking.

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General Lee speaking.

They’re naturally-occurring sound developments, the dijoos and the wonchoos.  And they occur on both sides of the pond.  To illustrate:

Would_you come here for a minute?
Don’t_you see it?

The areas in bold denote the consonant clusters [dy] and [ty], respectively.  However, this /y/ sound isn’t a true consonant; it is just a clipped long /e/ vowel.  (To demonstrate: say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you.  /Y/ and long /e/ are produced in the mouth precisely the same way; the only difference is that the latter is held longer.)  When used this way, /y/ has a tendency to alter the quality of the /d/ and /t/ sounds (the English dental stops/plosives, for those interested in knowing the technical term).

To form perfectly the words “would you” and “don’t you,” the tongue must perform some degree of gymnastics.  When articulating the /d/ or /t/, the tip touches the alveolar ridge (the flesh immediately behind the upper incisors) before retreating; the sides of the tongue then press against both sets of upper molars, creating a valley through which air passes to form the /y/ (or long /e/) vowel before relaxing somewhat whilst the lips become pursed to form the final “oo.”

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Note the locations of the alveolar ridge and hard palate, colloquially the “roof of the mouth.”

In rapid or casual speech, however, we often cheat a bit.  Too much travel for the strongest muscle in our bodies.  We can’t be bothered to make either the plosive consonant or the /y/ vowel, so we combine them; the tongue lands somewhere in the middle and calls it a day.  Well, the “middle” happens to be hard palate territory, which is where the blade of the tongue goes to make the palato-alveolar affricate consonants.  Most Anglophones know these as the /j/ and /ch/ sounds.

The outcome of such shortcuts, therefore, are our esteemed friends, “wooja” and “doncha,” who are here in the places of “would you/ya” and “don’t you/ya.”

Wooja come here for a minute?
Doncha see it?

Turns out “got you” and “what you” couldn’t attend the party, either, so they sent “gotcha” and “whatcha” in their stead.

But wait — it gets crazier.  This phonetic process also occurs with the clusters [sy] and [zy].  The sibilant consonants /s/ and /z/ are also affected by the /y/ in some words, becoming the palato-alveolar sibilant consonants, /sh/ and /zh/.  We just don’t notice them because many such words underwent this sound change several centuries ago, and the resulting pronunciations are now the standard.  Some examples:

  • pressureassuresure (all these words used to end with a “syoo-er” sound)
  • words ending in -tion (words like temptation used to be pronounced with a final “see-yuhn” but are now reduced to “shuhn” — my Renaissance festival castmates should be quite familiar with this rule
  • the Z and Y used to be unassimilated (i.e., distinct) in words like measure and vision (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but have merged into /zh/

Historical instances of the assimilation of the [dy] and [ty] clusters can be heard in the words soldier and nature, which are decidedly “SOHL-jer” and “NAY-cher.”  Never will you hear a sane English speaker pronounce them “SOHL-dyer” and “NAY-tyer.”

The word education is overwhelmingly pronounced “eh-joocation” and issue is most commonly “ISH-oo.”  These differ from the above in that they are not quite universal, but only the most careful and posh (or pretentious) pronounce them “eh-dyoocation” and “ISS-yoo.”

So, to recap:

/t/ + /y/ ⇒ /ch/, as in statue
/d/ + /y/ ⇒ /j/, as in soldier
/s/ + /y/ ⇒ /sh/, as in pressure
/z/ + /y/ ⇒ /zh/, as in vision

This phonological shift is called yod-coalescence.  When we palatalise, or bring to the palate, any one of these clusters, the two individual sounds are said to be “coalescing,” yielding a new, single sound.  Yod is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and represents the same sound denoted by the English Y.  Not related to the little, green Jedi master from Star Wars.

Yod-coalescence is responsible for peculiar word pronunciations in dialects that retain the “liquid U” after T and D.  Liquid U is in words like cube and fume — you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/ — not “coob” and “foom.”  In chiefly British and Australian dialects, this brief /y/ sound still prevails in “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke.  But, as we observed earlier, the palatalisation of the [ty] and [dy] clusters gives us /ch/ and /j/.  So, while an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his.  While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Aussies might engage in a sword “jewel.”  An American knows that the day following Monday is “Toosday,” but an Englishwoman might know it to be “Chooseday.”

This principle also explains why I say “s-CHEW-dent” instead of “student” and “YouChewb” instead of “YouTube.”

And why Sean Connery does not assume things — he “a-shooms” them.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can “re-zhoom” what we were doing.

You get the point.

But what if I told you that yod-coalescence happens in other languages, too?

Let’s examine for a minute the Latin word diurnus, meaning “day.”  It would have been pronounced roughly “DYOOR-noos.”  Note the [dy] cluster.  Both the Italians and the French inherited this word, but its pronunciation evolved in each language.  The Italians say giorno “JOR-noh,” not “DYOR-noh.”  And the French say jour (“zhoor”).

A Latin word for “eat” was manducare, literally meaning “to use the mandibles; manducate; chew.”  Again, both the regions that would become France and Italy kept this word, but their speakers dropped a syllable or two and changed the quality of the /d/ consonant.  In Italian, the verb is mangiare, while its French cousin is manger (source of the English word of the same spelling, which is that from which horses eat).

Got All That?

Lesson over.  The stage choo-choo is demonstrably natural in speech, and not just in English.  And it’s not a recent linguistic development; it’s well-grounded in our language.

I’ll even go so far as to say that the other side of the spectrum, hyper-articulation, is equally harmful to an actor’s performance, if not more so.  I’ve seen several different actors hit with a wrecking ball every single consonant of every line they delivered, and I couldn’t take any of their characters seriously.  Over-enunciation made them sound pompous unintentionally and made me focus on the words they were saying instead of the acting behind them.  And this is coming from someone who over-enunciates even when not on the stage.

Conversely, the Railed Passenger Vehicle of the Playhouse can be an instrument to bolster an actor’s performance.  Knowing exactly where to enunciate and where not to can make lines sound more natural and believable.  A couple choo-choos here and there can lend themselves to the appearance of a more laid-back character.

All that said, I do not necessarily endorse the Thespian Multi-Carriage Machine of Transportation.  A performance space with less-than-ideal acoustics may not permit more relaxed diction.  Get the words out, but don’t be too forceful.  And go easy on Ol’ Tommy.

thomas the tank engine

Verdict?  Let your own discretion be your tutor.  Or “chootor.”

Confessions and Repentance of a Cisgender Refuser of “Singular They”

About a year ago, I squared off with somebody on Facebook over the prospect of “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun.  Except I was not arguing on the side you may hope I would have been.

When I learnt in the spring of 2015 that some people who are outside the gender binary actually identify as they, I knew that it would not bode well for me and my penchant for immaculate grammar.

My initial thoughts were, “How did we, as a society, screw up so royally that these people had no recourse but to hijack the third-person plural pronouns to suit their singular needs?  Surely the English language has a fail-safe, a provision for a situation like this.

Historically, the pronoun he was always used to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a member of a mixed group, as in the sentence, “Any in favour should raise his right hand.”  Many popular adages begin with the words, “He who…” without regard for the subject’s gender.

This usage of the masculine third-person singular pronoun is analogous to the usage of man in certain contexts.  When one speaks of “when man first walked the earth,” he means the human species — not men or women specifically.  Similarly, when Neil Armstrong proclaimed as he set foot on the moon (or a film set) the words, “…one giant leap for mankind,” he wasn’t referring to the male half only.

With these facts in my utility belt, I jumped into the aforementioned argument on Facebook.  My goal was to convince the other party that, for people who identify outside the binary, using gender-neutral he is just as, if not more viable than using singular they.  The former is more historically supported and is arguably less clumsy.  My argument was never about potential ambiguity in writing — let me be clear on that.

The debate ended amicably, I’m happy to state.  But it got me questioning my stance on the matter more than ever.  It’s become increasingly clear that my linguistic rhetoric is irrelevant when feelings are in play.

Reflection And Potential Solutions

I wouldn’t classify my former self with bigoted assholes who refuse to adopt “singular they” for the sake of quashing the non-binary cause.  I always counted myself among the more sympathetic, those seeking alternative solutions through the application of logic and reasoning.  To the oppressed, however, there is hardly a difference between the two groups.

The unoppressed telling the oppressed that they shouldn’t feel a certain way because of “X, Y and Z” is about as effective as telling someone who suffers from depression to “cheer up” or someone with anxiety to “just relax.”

As a cisgender (meaning my gender aligns with my birth sex) man, no, I do not and will not ever understand the dysphoria that some people experience when they are misgendered.  I do understand the discomfort of being misaddressed, however.  I refer to myself as Joseph and nothing else.  I have never gone by Joe, and it genuinely hurts when people call me that.  It also hurts when people use the wrong surname to refer to me.  I can only imagine the pain of those who are denied their preferred personal pronouns.

Honestly, though, the whole notion of being attached to a certain pronoun is foolish to me.  Personal pronouns, by nature, are not personal; they are, paradoxically, quite the opposite.  Their primary function is to play substitute for your name — your true identity.  They make sentences im-personal.  But I suppose all that’s easy for me to say because I have no qualms with being referred to as a he.  Maybe I don’t get to make that call.

And, because it is unrealistic to do away with third-person pronouns altogether, we need to work with what we have.

Contrived pronouns such as ze/xe and zir/xem simply will not do.  I admire the effort put forth by wordsmiths within the gender-queer community, and I appreciate that they are proposing solutions that would please everybody, but I sincerely doubt that their inventions will catch on.

I’m aware that Sweden recently (1960s) coined the gender-neutral pronoun hen to exist alongside han (he) and hon (she).  It might work in a country of that size and with a population that small speaking Swedish, but English is an anomaly.  There are so many varieties in so many regions with hundreds of millions of speakers worldwide.  Thanks a lot, Great Britain.  The sun never sets on your empire, right?

The pronoun one does not work when referring to a specified individual, as in the sentence, “Taylor tied one’s shoes.

So, we come back to they.

Nice Try

Proponents often point to uses throughout history by prolific writers.  Jane Austen was known to use “singular they” rather frequently.  Even the Bard himself used it on occasion.

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

—  Antipholus, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene iii

Moreover, rhetoric like that featured in the following image has been employed recently to illustrate that we already use “singular they” in casual conversation:

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These are pretty compelling arguments.  One problem, though.  These usages of “singular they” are not the same as the usage of referring to a known, specified person.

I will do my best to articulate exactly what I mean here without sounding too abstract.

In the above example, Person 1 says, “Oh no, someone left their cell phone.”  In his mind, this “someone” could be ANY PERSON — male, female, gender-nonconforming, whatever.  Anybody can lose a phone.  The image in his brain is of MULTIPLE PEOPLE, that is, a pool of options, if you will.  Therefore, this group of potential persons logically requires they.  We do this all the time.

Now, let’s say we’re dealing with someone named Taylor.  (I don’t know why I keep using the name Taylor — it’s just the first unisex name that came to mind.)  Taylor prefers the pronoun they and is known personally by the people in the following exchange.  Taylor is not some hypothetical human within a group of possible candidates.  Taylor is real, definite and specified.  Here’s how the exchange might sound:

Hey, I saw Taylor hop in their car.  Where are they going?

I think they have to go to work.

In those sentences, someone less acquainted with Taylor would have, without hesitation, used “his/her,” “is he/is she” and “he has/she has.”  This is because Taylor was understood to be a certain individual.  In a less-acquainted person’s mind, Taylor is one person and therefore logically requires a singular pronoun like he or she.

Furthermore, someone listening to this exchange who is not familiar with Taylor’s pronoun preference would have been baffled by the grammatical inconsistency, having heard the explicit name Taylor.  Had the sentence been, “I saw SOMEONE hop in their car,” nobody would have batted an eye because the pronoun someone evokes the “pool of options” mental image of multiple people I described earlier.  Hearing a singular, definite name changes the logic inside the mind of the listener.

I hope that this accurately illustrates the reluctance of well-meaning people to use “singular they” the way non-binary persons wish — even when they might do it all the time in conversation anyway.  I know that this is how it works in my mind.  I might be totally wrong about others, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track.

Not Unheard-Of

But… a year of rumination on the subject has shown me that my mild discomfort in this novel usage of “singular they” does not compare to the distress and cognitive dissonance suffered by those less fortunate than I — those who are not content with English’s admittedly flawed gender system.  These people should not need to change to accommodate something that humans crafted; our craft should change to accommodate them.

And it has in the past.

The Old English words for “he” and “she” were he and heo/hio.  By the 13th century, natural phonetic evolution made the pronunciations of he and heo/hio converge.  Apparently to avoid confusion, the word seo/sio (used in Old English to mean “the”) soon supplanted heo/hio.  This replacement evolved in pronunciation as well and became she.  Parallel developments occurred in German and Dutch with their pronouns sie and zij, respectively.  Also note that we say her, as opposed to “sher” — her represents the survival of the original H-form from Old English (hire).

She, an integral word in our language, was re-purposed and became the dominant feminine singular third-person pronoun through persistent use.  Circumstances demanded it.  And now we have circumstances that require that we find a new word for the genderless singular third person.  It is with great regret that I say I fear that it may be too late for English, as a whole, to adopt a new word.  But our best shot is they.

And, if it makes them happy, I’ll use it.

Ownership Of The Video Game

Games, historically, have been for the player or players.

The word game comes from Old English gamen, which carried meanings of “joy, fun, amusement.”  Gamen is a common Germanic compound; cognates include Old Frisian game “joy, glee,” Old High German gaman “sport, merriment,” Swedish gamman “merriment” and several others.  All these are combinations of the Proto-Germanic elements ga- (collective prefix) and mann “person,” the latter being the ancestor of the English word man.  This compound thus conveys the sense of “people together.”

The primary goals of games are to pass time and to foster companionship.  Games have always been for our entertainment in some way, whether they be displays of athleticism in sports, wit-battles in chess or brief amusements that children make up for themselves.

Video games, a subset of electronic games, involve interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device (as opposed to audio games, whose feedback is solely audible).

From Humble Beginnings

Some of the earliest video games were simply pongdigital recreations of games and sports that had been around a long time.  Pong (1972) was nothing more than an electronically-rendered game of table tennis.  Pong and the like had the same player-centric goals as their “real-life” counterparts; the only difference was that they now could be played on a screen.

Those who created, or developed, these primitive softwares vied merely to provide the most functional and accessible product in the infantile market.  Any other gimmick was secondary.

With the advances in hardware of the next couple decades, however, came more complex and sophisticated video games.  Games were no longer just a couple moving pixels.  Better technology meant superior graphics and more detailed game environments — and thus greater room for creativity.

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1994’s platformer Donkey Kong Country, a pioneer of 3-D graphics in console gaming.

While early computer role-playing games (RPGs) had involved personal player narratives for quite some time, games of other genres were beginning to incorporate set, unchanging plots for the player to experience through gameplay.  Some game development studios were building video games with story in mind and started employing cinematics, or “cutscenes,” for the player to watch between levels.

By the early years of the new millennium, many games being created were fully voice-acted and required significant amounts of animation.  Music had evolved from the beeping melodies of Super Mario Bros. to full orchestral scores with dynamic and layered sounds to complement the player on his journey.

After a few more years, it became commonplace for major game development studios to utilise motion-capture (mo-cap) technology in their animation.  Video games now have an unprecedented level of detail in their characters and can present more nuanced stories.  Games that do this particularly well, such as Heavy Rain and The Last of Us, have been known to evoke sincere emotional reactions from players.

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A scene from 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  On left, actors performing in mo-cap garb; on right, the same scene rendered in the game.

Today, the development of major video games (referred to as “triple-A” titles) is not unlike that of a film.  A video game no longer is exclusively about gameplay.  The typical group behind a AAA video game project now has hundreds of employees.  In addition to the requisite programmers, studios now hire writers, directors, actors, sound designers, music composers and sketch and concept artists, among others, to bring a game to life.  And they have ludicrously large budgets to accomplish this.

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Big-budget franchises like Call of Duty can afford to put Kevin Spacey in their games.

The amount of work involved in the development of the well-made video game is staggering, to put it lightly.  The process is a far cry from the early days of a group of computer geeks, numbering no more than fifteen or twenty.  Video game development had established itself as a multi-disciplinary artistic medium on par with other artistic media like literature and cinema.

That Pesky Missing Piece

However, video games as an artistic medium are unique in that they require player input via a controller or a keyboard and mouse.  What happens on-screen is directly influenced by the player, whereas a novel or a film or a painting is the same every time it is viewed.

This means that the player is still the key component or ingredient that makes a video game a video game (after all, a video game without the game part is really just images on a screen).  And this, in turn, means that the game needs to be engaging and fun.  If it is boring, then it’s more of a chore or work than it is entertainment, and people won’t play it.

The expectations of gamers have always leant toward immersion.  They want an escape from the harshness of real life, to be immersed in a fictional world where they can do things they could not or would not do in the real one.  Immersion is achieved chiefly through stimulating gameplay and realistic visuals, although there are other methods.  Some of the most popular video game franchises in the industry that employ these pillars of immersion fall into the genres of action, open-world and first-person shooter (FPS).  Grand Theft AutoThe Elder Scrolls and Call of Duty all are wildly successful commercially because they adhere to what the average gamer expects of an immersive experience and do it well.

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Hijacking a car in Grand Theft Auto V

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Engaging a frost troll in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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Campaign mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Developers understand all this, but, at the same time, they have an artistic vision that they want to realise.  A vision that may be thwarted by being tied down by the tried-and-true gameplay mechanics and tropes of yesteryear.

So, is the video game primarily a toy for the consumer’s enjoyment — or is it primarily a creative vehicle for the developers?

It may be true that the developers do not owe the consumer anything, and it also may be true that nobody is forcing anybody to buy the developers’ product, but, at the end of the day, it’s the consumer’s dollar that keeps the developers afloat.

An independent game development studio must take this risk into account when crafting its games, but developers owned by a publisher (a relationship akin to a musician signed on with a record label) have no choice but to bend to the will of their financial overlords, who make broad creative decisions in accordance with what they know gamers like and will purchase (or will beg their parents to purchase for them).  These decisions often hamper the creative potential of the developers and, in some cases, can undermine the essence of a beloved franchise.

One Loud, Confused Voice

There is a great deal of evidence that the story of Halo 5: Guardians was substantially weakened (if not microsoft_studiosruined altogether) through interference from the publisher, Microsoft Studios.  While developer 343 Industries’ debut Halo game, Halo 4, boasted a strong, powerful and critically-acclaimed story, many fans were displeased with it — mainly because its tone was starkly different from that of the original trilogy and because one of the series’ most treasured characters halo_guardianswas killed off.  It is believed that, following such poor reception from the fans, the script of Halo 5 underwent a number of significant rewrites relatively late in its development upon the urging of Microsoft, most notably the senseless revival of the dead character and her asinine relegation to villain status.  The story was supposed to be the best and most riveting to date, but it fell flat because the developers were forced to abandon their original vision.

Conversely, the multiplayer side of Halo 5 flourished because of fan input.  The general consensus is that it is superior in almost every aspect to that of Halo 4, and it’s largely because of the whining—er, I mean constructive feedback—of the community that ensued following 4’s release.

But I digress.  The point I am trying to establish is that, with a video game franchise like Halo, the ownership may be ambiguous.  It could be argued that the members of a fanbase with that much creative influence are the true “owners” of the game.

More conservative gamers might say that this is the way it should be, for the developers to listen to the buyers and to tailor their games accordingly.  Those more liberal in the matter might say that the developers should not be total pushovers by allowing the consumers to dictate what goes into the studio’s product.

Me?  Well, I suppose I have an obligation to take a stance here, as it is often considered bad creative etiquette to raise philosophical questions without even attempting to answer them.  Interestingly, my doing so is, itself, an instance of yielding to consumer pressure to alter my content.

I’ll cop out and say that I’m middle ground.  I feel that the player absolutely does have a say in the video games he buys.  But it cannot be denied that there has been a shift from the player-centric goals of the video game to goals more artist-centric.