Saturday, March 01, 2008

Walking the cat back

At the Times, Ben Macintyre on spyspeak.

Also--Marina Warner's essay on Beckett in this week's TLS had some lovely bits on Mallarme and strange English proverbs:
Thèmes anglais contains a gathering of a thousand English phrases, proverbs, adages and saws, all conscientiously marshalled in order to illustrate a rule of English grammar: first the definite article, then the indefinite, first the possessive pronoun, then the relative pronoun, etc. The contrast between the austerely dry objective of the examples and their fantastical oddity, the disjunction between the scrupulous lexical and grammatical rigour and the free-association lexical chain of words, achieve an exhilarating absurdity. A native speaker of English would know precious few of these locutions at the very most, and use them – never. The ones that you might know you would find stale; and you would have done so then, in the late nineteenth century – since some of the proverbs Mallarmé cites were already archaic by the seventeenth. He was using an anthology he had come upon in Truchy’s bookshop to glean a myriad equivalents to “My postilion has been struck by lightning”, regardless of current usage.

What is entirely seductive about his lists is their irreducibly foreign character. But this strangeness turns his collection into a kind of prose poem, sometimes beautiful, sometimes weirdly comic: “Under water, famine; under snow, bread. / Prettiness makes no pottage”. These enigmas are offered to illustrate how, where French uses a definite article, English does without. Besides “Who can shave an egg?”, phrases such as “You can’t hide an eel in a sack” are included in order to illustrate the use of the indefinite article. The quirkiness of these rules inspires a riddling sequence:

It is hard for an empty bag to sit upright.

To cut down an oak and set up a strawberry.

Undone, as a man would undo an oyster.

You ask an elm tree for pears.

You shall ride an inch behind the tail.

These adages – proverbs or whatever – teeter on the verge of incomprehensibility. But their cumulative effect is melancholy: failure stalks them, regardless of syntactical exactitude.
Who can shave an egg?!?

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