Now you're speaking my language

Now you're speaking my language

Not everyone who is into books is also interested in language, but in my experience, there seems to be quite a bit of overlap.

It's hard not to love books and reading without being at least a bit curious about the elements of language that make it all possible. Recently, I read three fascinating books that appealed to my inner word nerd, each focusing on different aspects of the written English language.

— Keith Huston's "Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks" delves into an aspect of the written word that is essential but often overlooked. Once we learn how punctuation and other marks work, readers often take them for granted.

Huston illuminates the history of how these marks came to look and be used the way they are today, focusing each chapter on another piece of punctuation, from the mundane quotation mark to more elusive and mysterious symbols like the manicule (pointing hand symbol), the pilcrow (paragraph sign) and the octothorpe (pound sign).

Most of the marks he discusses have two parts to their history. The first phase has roots in the early days of the written word with the Greeks and Romans. Symbols were devised to make distinctions for pauses during oration, and over time, they became more standardized.

The second part of their development occurs with the advent of printing technology and how the various marks become codified for use on printing presses, typewriters and computers. One interesting exception he highlights is the interrobang, a hybrid exclamation point/question mark that was invented in the 1960s.

Huston gives the reader an entertaining overview of how early written language and modern typography combined to create the many symbols available to writers today.

— Have you ever wondered why English has such unintuitive spelling, riddled with silent letters and complicated rules that seem engineered to trip you up? I've always been a good speller (I give credit to all the reading), but I admit that I have never given much thought about why and how English spelling evolved to be the way it is today.

Language expert David Crystal tackles this topic for the general reader in "Spell it Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling," outlining the development of English spelling and what led to irregularities that challenge spellers today.

Crystal first delves into the development of written English, in which the first challenge was the use of the Latin alphabet for the original Anglo-Saxon language, which contained different sounds than those of the available letters.

Over time, a variety of conventions were developed to compensate for this discrepancy. Many additional complications have been thrown into English spelling since then, such as the eagerness of English to incorporate words from other languages and typographical practices of printing and publishing.

Crystal also explains how change continues today with technological developments and the Internet, so it seems the quirky challenges of English spelling will be with us long into the future.

— One aspect of language that I find especially intriguing is the way words and usages change over time while new words are coined and some become obsolete. I always love finding a word that has fallen out of favor but perfectly describes a situation.

Old dictionaries are a great way to explore, but reference works can be dry reading for all but the most dedicated word nerd. Mark Forsyth addresses this in his new book "Horologicon: A Day's Jaunt through the Lost Words of the English Language," presenting a host of fascinating and weird words in a witty and conversational style.

A horologicon refers to a book of hours, and Forsyth presents the reader with words that may be helpful during the course of their day. He begins at dawn, introducing the reader to uhtceare, a wonderfully evocative Old English term for "lying awake and worrying before dawn."

He continues with forgotten words that take you from your commute (where hopefully you aren't robbed by chariot buzzers) and on through your workday (where if you are pretending to be productive, you are fudgeling).

Some of my favorite new terms appear in the Drinking and Wooing chapters. I am looking forward to working some of these fabulous words into my vocabulary by declaring the start of quafftide next time I head out to the sluiceries with friends — and accusing flirtatious individuals of ogo-pogoing.

The written word is a powerful tool, as any book lover knows, and these three books gave me an even deeper appreciation of the English language. I now have a clearer picture of the complex elements that have evolved together to form such an infinitely useful form of communication, one that informs and entertains us every day — as it does in these three titles.

Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at khopkins@tufl.info.

Topics (1):Books

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