"It would break my heart to see the Weblish u replace good old English you in…I was going to say, in print. Can it be that the very word print is beginning to look quaint, even to me?" And so, Roy Blount Jr. begins the "U" section of his latest alphabet book, Alphabetter Juice or, The Joy of the Text, which reveals much about his approach to language—current yet nostalgic.
Read more about new and notable nonfiction books out this May.
Blount's evolving infatuation with words is a public and private matter. In each section and every definition, he combines personal anecdotes, reflections and observations alongside historical, etymological and journalistic research. Though the “personal dictionary” is a growing genre, Blount's mix of comedy and cultural critique is certainly unique.
You have extremely wide-ranging interests, from political history to the Marx Brothers, yet you always seem to return to language. Where did this fascination begin and why do you return to it?
It began at my mother's knee. She taught me to read before I was school age, and she emphasized phonetics: "Sound out the words." The sonic consistency and myriad inconsistencies of American English have fascinated me ever since.
And that early attention gave me a leg up on first grade. It was like starting Little League already having a knuckleball. She read to me from Winnie the Pooh, for instance, and I studied the page as she went along. Recently at the New York Public Library I was photographed with the original Pooh, Christopher Milne's stuffed bear. It was a bittersweet moment, for me, I mean, because my relationship with my mother grew less and less happy over the years…But I still have the language.
How do you conduct your research?
I read books, magazines, newspapers, signs, mail, websites and shampoo bottles, and when I come to a word or phrase that arouses my curiosity I look it up on OED.com and on Etymonline.com and in several print dictionaries, abridged and unabridged, and in dictionaries of etymology. And I Google, and I poke around in Urbandictionary.com and in my travels I hear people talking, and I compare notes with friends. I've always done this for pleasure. Now that I'm writing Alphabet books, I devote more time to it.
You are as much a humorist as a linguist. What is the connection between comedy and language?
Language is funny to begin with. We communicate elaborately by moving our tongues around within our mouths and making mum and pop noises with our lips. Babies find this hilarious, and so, I'll bet, do lower animals—you must have seen, say, a zoo giraffe staring at chattering people and shaking its head. And then we undertake to represent these noises, and notions that transcend noise, with little squiggles of ink. Of all languages I have any acquaintance with, American English is the funniest because it embraces elements of everything from Yiddish to Shoshone.
Sonicky, your term to describe both the evocation of sound and the kinesthetic quality of words, seems to imply that language is not fundamentally arbitrary as many linguists suggest. What do you think is the primary connection between a word and its meaning?
The first words were surely produced by the mouth with manual punctuation. Language over the ages has evolved partly in the interest of expressing abstractions, but English abounds in words like abound and punctuation and language, which still smack of the oral. These words' expressiveness resides not only in general acceptance of their meanings but also in intrinsic sonic and kinesthetic value, in sounds issuing from the mouth and in manipulations within the mouth.
Take the word squelch. Its sound is clearly appropriate to its meaning but the sound of stepping on a grape, say, is not squelch. Squelch is inherently eloquent because it is produced by a squelching-like action of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, followed by the eminently catchy, see choo-choo, gotcha and itch, phoneme ch.
There is a lot of disagreement concerning the current state of the English language. Some think it is simply evolving, and others seem to think it is eroding. What’s your take?
It's like the Mississippi River, changing all the time. We can never entirely subject it to our will, but we can't just let the river be the river either. I can no more tell people how they must use English than a restaurant critic can tell people how they must cook or eat, but I don't have to be shy about appreciating what I regard as good food or deploring what I regard as bad.
And readers will appreciate and deplore what I write as they will. For instance, a customer reviewer on amazon.com faulted Alphabet Juice as follows: "I will not use most of the words discussed in day-to-day proffesional writting." I would call the spelling of those last two words a sign of erosion.