Written by Bob Woelk Tuesday, 13 January 2009 14:08
My son gave me a book on language, our language, for Christmas. It was probably a bad idea for him to give an English teacher such a present, but “Alphabet Juice” by Roy Blount Jr. is a great read for anyone who cares about English—both of us.
I’m nowhere near the finish of the latest offering from Blount, who can often be heard on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and is the author of 20 other books. But, I’d like to share a few gems so far.
Blount comes out in support of “ain’t” as a word, though my spell checker instantly underlines it as inappropriate. Blount writes: “Just as ‘y’all’ as a plural of you fills a gap in English, so does ‘ain’t’ as a contraction of ‘am not.’ Anyone attempting to pronounce ‘amn’t’ may attract a crowd of well-wishers admiring his or her pluck, but whatever other words the speaker surrounds it with will be lost.”
He poses the question, when comparing two lines, “I’m not going,” and “I ain’t going,” which one of the two is a lot more likely to be going?
And, where, he asks, would American song lyrics and titles be without “ain’t”? Examples: “I Haven’t Got Nobody;” “There is No Cure for the Summertime Blues;” “It Isn’t Me, Babe;” “Isn’t She Sweet?” or “Two Out of Three Isn’t Bad.”
Blount’s book includes an anecdote from Mel Blanc, that creator of comic voices such as those owned by Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny among many others. After he was injured in a car wreck, Blanc was in a coma for three weeks. A brain specialist came to see him every day, but the doctor could not induce a response from the comatose man.
As Blanc tells it: “One day he came in—and my wife and son were in the room, so I know it’s true—and he said, ‘Hey, Bugs Bunny, how are you?’ and I answered him, in Bugs’s voice, ‘Just fine, Doc.’ I was dead, but my characters were still alive.”
Former baseball player and memorably accidental linguist Yogi Berra is quoted quite often in Blount’s book. Berra once said, “You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.”
An interesting fact from the book, which really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with language: “A frog—perhaps the first animal to have a voice, unless you count rubbing legs together—has no diaphragm. It respirates by filling its mouth with air, closing its nostrils, forcing the air into its lungs by means of a swallowing movement, then opening its mouth so that the stretched lungs collapse and let out the air. A frog has primitive vocal cords…no pitch, only rhythm.”
Blount contends that computers have not brought the end to books as we know them and likely never will.
“Actually, holding a double handful of a substance made from trees…is handy. It gets your whole hands involved. Reading from a monitor, instead of a book, is like playing videogame football instead of tossing a football around.”
Another gem from the book, this one concerning nicknames: “I am sorry to have to tell you, especially if your name is Dorothy, that ‘dot’ comes from the Old English ‘dott,” meaning ‘head of a boil.’”
And, finally, because this is as far as I am in my reading of the book, Blount discusses editing and revising works in order to improve them. “Nearly everything anyone puts on paper can be improved, and most things, through several drafts, desperately need to be. No writer is too fine (though perhaps too defensive) to welcome a neat tweak by another hand.”
But, he cautions, the final decision on whether to make changes rests with the original writer. “Writing, no matter who manages to mess with it, is the responsibility of the writer, who should be its final arbiter: quality control. Compare the signs a catcher gives to the pitcher, calling for a fastball, a curve and so on. Pitcher has the last word, because he can always shake a sign off. Catcher may well know best, but the pitcher has to throw it.”