Burns Night

Address to a Haggis

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Robert Burns

Get tae Falkirk, Rabbie, ya bass!

I’ve been writing a wee bit in Scots, or Scots forms (Lowland Scots, to differentiate from Scots Gaelic), a lot in recent weeks. Firstly, for a short story that I’ve submitted for workshop tomorrow, and secondly for the Nerd Bait Liederbuch.Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. The workshop story was originally for a Scots-language writing competition — it’ll be a while until I hear how that went — and I’ve translated it into “standard English” for my cosmopolitan workshop group. And while I’ve been told that the ballad is a form that seems to lend itself to the rhythms of Scots speech, I originally wrote The Ballad of Cenn Fáelad mac Ailella in English.

“Why don’t you speak Standard English, innit?”

It’s the first time I’ve written anything in Scots since… ever? I mean, I guess it’s never really been encouraged. And already, it’s all hammering back into English.

Except, it’s a little more complicated than that. At school, we studied poetry in Scots, and read Sunset Song, and I had a head of history who steered us towards the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745 before the Scottish Education Board steered us towards the American Revolution, the Communist Revolution, and the First World War.

As I understand it, though, this isn’t necessarily representative. My generation’s teachers and parents had been taught in no uncertain terms that tae huv a guid Scots tongue in yer heid was to invite a host of negative assumptions about one’s background, education, and so on.

“Now, my good sir, I’m going to have to insist that you don’t jump to any unfortunate conclusions.”

This week, though, I heard a story on Radio Scotland about how kids are increasingly being encouraged to talk in school the way they would at home, which sounds like a good idea.

Translating my short story into English was an interesting experience. The fact of narrator’s voice in my head had been in Scots had, I think, created a story that I wouldn’t otherwise has written. What’s more, suddenly hearing her voice in a difference language when I knew her otherwise lent the new version an air of inauthenticity — this wasn’t the character I’d written.

I’m fascinated by the act of translation in any event. In 1990, I saw Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s movie Cyrano de Bergerac, based on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, using the original French. The subtitles were written by Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame. Take it away, Ian Wiki:

[Burgess’s] translation of the text… uses five-beat lines with a varying number of syllables and a regular couplet rhyming scheme, in other words, a sprung rhythm. Although he sustains the five-beat rhythm through most of the play, Burgess sometimes allows this structure to break deliberately: in Act V, he allows it collapse completely, creating a free verse.

“Je m’appelle C.D. Bales. J’ai quarante et un ans, et je habite à Washington.”

More recently, long-suffering readers of the blog may recall that last year, Beth and I went to see a multi-media presentation of Camus reading his L’Etranger. I’d read it in French, in high/senior school, but my French is now almost entirely forgotten. Nevertheless, there was a pleasure in being lost in just the sound of words. And just as Scots tends to different forms of poetry to English, French poetry differs to English poetry in that its metre is determined by syllable length, not stress. Which I think is interesting.

And at the end of last semester, my Acts of Story-telling class read read Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star. In the first pages, I was really positively disposed to it, but in the end, was disappointed. Then when our prof read an extract from her copy, we realised that a new translation from the original Brazilian Portuguese has destroyed much of the pleasure of the text.

I’m a doctor, Jim, not a literary critic!

All this brings me to the reflection that the language we use surely impacts upon how we think. It’s interesting, though, to reflect that aphasia, a common effect of stroke and a phenomenon that Nerd Bait has examined in the short-form musical, Wrong Word Write Time

…is an acquired communication disorder that  impairs a person’s ability to process language, but does not affect intelligence.” However, because of the related communication problems, some people may jump to incorrect conclusions.

And there we are again, talking about conclusions and assumptions. It’s tiring, no doubt, being aware of all the conclusions and assumptions to which we may leap, but I’m trying to be more and more aware of the possibility of being proved wrong. Even though, as a scientist would instinctively recognise, that doesn’t preclude the possibility of treating something as a truth.

But, getting back to the starting point, do I even have to be keeping my eyes open for this?

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2 thoughts on “Burns Night

  1. “All this brings me to the reflection that the language we use surely impacts upon how we think.”

    I wouldn’t phrase it with such emphatic surety. That’s sounds pretty much like the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which as I understand it, had a lot of favour for a while and then was more or less completely trashed and rejected as false, and is now being seen as possibly correct in slight, small ways.

    As someone who’s semi-multilingual, I would say anecdotally that I can’t see how the language I’m thinking in affects my thoughts, but it does certainly affect how I communicate. That’s cultural though. If I’m speaking Thai for example, I’d naturally take into account things like relationships/social hierarchies and Thai senses of propriety and Thai ways of expressing things. The same would be true in different social situations in English though. The way I’d communicate with friends would be different than how I’d communicate in a business situation or when meeting somebody’s grandparents.

    Also, one of the things that I thought was so cool about Tamil was that the grammar worked so differently from English or any other languages I knew. You could express things in really interesting ways (from a native English speaker’s perspective). It would be hard to get into it though without a long linguistic discussion and an intro to some basics of Tamil. (AHHH! THE PERILS OF LANGUAGE!) So just take my English word for it.

  2. So I’ve read the ballad poem. It is rhythmic and musical and subtle and violent and visceral. Other languages can do that surely.

    But also there are good and bad translations of things. See the recent spate of that husband and wife redoing all the Russians

    So how we think? Mebbe. But how we interact between culture and each other. Sure.

    An interesting book if you want to super geek is “the atoms of language” which is basically a review of parametric language theory. Short version: languages are choices (it is raining; vs “raining” – is there an actor for rain). If you take all the languages there are about 40 or 50 “switches” and the rest is just labels. Curious. So that also supports Rons caution about the thinking as a postcedant of language (as opposed to language being the solidification of structural choices in some ur-grammar)

    But really: the little fugue that the middle of your ballad is inspiring me towards makes all this sort of beside the point. I’m glad that the last thing you saw was not, in fact, a cairn and is instead something yet to be found (which I guess could be a cairn – but let’s hope you don’t find out for a long time)

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