More Thoughts on Intimacy

England is, to use Bill Bryson's phrase, a "small island," it's true. But that only makes it all the more pleasantly surprising when you discover that for its size, it's a startlingly diverse place. Not in terms of melanin or world cultures, although there is some of that, albeit probably restricted to the urban areas. I mean that in a country with only 4,000 more square miles than the state of Pennsylvania, the accents of people who were born and raised a thirty minute train ride away from each other are distinctly different enough that an outsider can distinguish them and identify their places of birth.

Things have changed a bit with the advent of television and, before that, radio. I'm led to believe that there's a sort of "BBC English" that has subtly or not-so-subtly standardized spoken English like a verbal version of what the King James Bible was for written English. But what I said before still holds true: Norfolk speech is clearly distinct from Yorkshire speech is clearly distinct from Welsh speech and so on.

And that's just the ways of speaking--that's not even accounting for the language itself. Which is, of course, what I'm really interested in. England's history is dense and rich, such that you could spend weeks in one place and barely scratch the surface of all that's there. And a huge part of that is the language. What with different conquests and industries, the languages of different regions have developed entire dictionaries of hyper-specific terms. Okay, so they might be smallish dictionaries, but still more than you might expect for an area the size of, oh, Philadelphia County.

The thing about this rich, complex language is that it's born out of an intimate familiarity with a particular place. It arises when you're paying attention, and you've paid attention for forty years in a row, until your knowledge of the land (or a craft) has become minutely detailed. The shape of the land makes itself known in the shape of your speech, and your life is molded to its peculiarities, from the question of what vegetables grow in the local soil to the easiest route to walk from here to there to the terms you use to describe the weather today.

I say walk, because driving is the enemy of familiarity. As we speed up our lives, the spaces between where we're coming from and where we're going begin to blur, losing their right to claim our attention and becoming alien to us. Our lives are defined by choice, here the choice to attend only to spaces that form the points at either end of a line, so that we rarely have to attend or adapt ourselves to the circumstances of all that's in-between. But setting that aside.

Robert MacFarlane's book, Landmarks, is partially a glossary of the wildly unique, regional terms that have arisen in response to the particular local features of terrain and climate. Just to give a selection...

Many of these terms have mingled oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognizable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw, a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name. Shetlandic has a word, f'rug, for 'the reflex of a wave after it has struck the shore'; another, pirr, meaning 'a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat's paw on the water'; and another, klett, for 'a low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore'. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for 'the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal'; now I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.


As well as these untranslatable terms, I have gathered synonyms - especially those that bring new energies to familiar phenomena. The variant English terms for 'icicle' - aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Wessex), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham), shuckle (Cambria) - form a tinkling poem of their own. In Northamptonshire dialect 'to thaw' is to ungive. The beauty of this variant I find hard to articulate, but it surely has to do with the paradox of thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift - an addition to the landscape that will in time be subtracted by warmth.

While he's attempting to capture some of the words that have been used in the past, MacFarlane notes that this is an ongoing process. It has not stopped simply because most of us have lost touch with rural life and the land. Perhaps it has slowed, although he doesn't say that. But languages are fluid, flexible things, more like water, shaping itself within its banks, even as it changes those banks with its motion. As long as there are people speaking, there will be new words, new combinations, to express the range of human experience, new words and new combinations to shape our understanding of those experiences. But they can only arise when we're paying attention.

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