Monthly Archives: March 2013

Introducing the Count …

The extract below is taken from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written in 1897. It is the entry in Jonathan Harker’s diary written after his first meeting with Count Dracula.

588px-Dracula-jpgHis face was a strong – a very strong – aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion.

The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they seemed rather white and fine;but seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice they were rather coarse – broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder.  

(Chapter II)

Bram Stoke creates a strong visual image of Dracula here.  The description is designed to alert the reader to key characteristics – but while appearing to tell us a great deal, Stoker reveals very little. He manages to keep his readers guessing.

The adjectives describing Dracula are important:

  1. many are visual, representing physical features (aquilinehigharchedloftybushy, heavyfirm, fine) – they suggest Dracula is a rather distinguished man
  2. some begin to hint at his larger than life presence (massive, pointed)
  3. others characterise his physical strength (strong, broad, squat)

The most important adjectives, however, have negative connotations:

  1. fixed and cruel-looking begin to hint at Dracula’s underlying nature – so far, he has shown himself to be a gracious host, and Harker has no more than a vague sense of unease
  2. long and sharp (Dracula’s nails) and sharp (his teeth) have dramatic significance – though Harker and the reader do not yet recognise this 
  3. repeated references to white and pale, and extraordinary modifying the noun pallor set him apart from humanity
  4. the repetition of the adverb intensifier peculiarly and the adjective remarkable reinforce his difference
  5. opposites (fine/coarsestrong/thin) suggest the Count is a man of contradictions – someone Harker should not trust

Many of the adjectives come before the noun they describe (lofty domed forehead) – we call these attributive adjectives. Others, however, are in a more prominent position after was/were (stative verbs).  We call these predicative adjectives. They are interesting because they have a greater semantic significance when they stand alone. Stoker is implicitly drawing our attention to: 

  1. Dracula’s physical presence (massive, broadstrong)
  2. his pallor (pale, white)
  3. his underlying potential for evil (fixedcruel-lookinglongfine)

The tension between appearance and reality is central. In the beginning, we have to believe Harker’s account; we have to believe that the Count is no more than a foreigner, with unfamiliar customs and habits. In his description of Dracula’s hands, however, Stoker begins to prepare us for an alternative point of view. The stative verb seemed suggests that we cannot trust appearances. It hints at the Count’s potential for deception – his hands betray his true nature.  The image of the hairs in the centre of the palm and Harker’s comment clause Strange to say reinforce the sense that his difference is threatening. And his touch makes Harker shudder.

It is important to remember that while Dracula is a familiar figure in the twenty-first century, contemporary readers will have come to the text with no expectations. Their view of the Count will have been shaped by the limitations of Jonathan Harker’s first person narrative: his blindness will have made them blind. The clues that Stoker builds into this description begin a process of revelation, a process which moves inexorably towards recognition of the Gothic horror of Dracula’s blood-thirst.

(Adapted from Mastering Practical Grammar)

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Word order and meaning – shaping reader response

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In the caves, between spells of fitful dozing and fearful waiting, were being born the nightmares of generations yet to be.

 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

 

Why is this such a dramatic sentence? Because it makes us wait … it holds back the most important part of the sentence (the subject) until the very end.

We are given all the elements of narrative in a mere twenty-one words. First we have a place: the prepositional phrase In the caves. Then we have an implicit sense of character: the verbal nouns (dozing and waiting) provide the ‘action’, while the adjectives (fitful and fearful) tell us something about the inner life of the protagonists.

And finally, we have the drama. The post-modified noun phrase the nightmares of generations yet to be (the subject of the sentence) builds on the image of disturbed sleep. The language is emotive and the position emphatic.

For dramatic effect, the writer has used two linguistic devices:

fronting puts linguistic units other than the subject in the initial position: the prepositional phrase of place (in the caves) and the prepositional phrase of time  (between spells of fitful dozing and fearful waiting)

inversion of subject and predicator changes the order of information; here it further delays the subject until the end of the sentence, where end focus gives it added semantic weight

The shape of the sentence draws us on, then leaves us haunted by the negative connotations of nightmares and the timelessness of their capacity to affect future generations.

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Language change – free interactive activities

Have you heard of Saisiyat? Ancay ouyay eadray isthay? Why is Miss Muffet eating curry and chips? Do you know what a dwile is? Has granny been cotchin’ on da couch again? 

To find out, follow the link:

https://hwb.wales.gov.uk/cms/hwbcontent/_layouts/NGFLSolution/MaterialDescription.aspx?LearningMaterialId=50768&lang=en

Last year, I created a series of activities based on language change commissioned by the National Grid for Learning, Wales (NGfL Cymru) and the Welsh Joint Examination Board (WJEC). These are now available to anyone at Hwb, the Welsh Government virtual learning platform.  They can be used direct from the Hwb site or downloaded.

After a broad introduction, there are four key sections:

  1. How can we recognise language change?
  2. How can we define language variation?
  3. What is Standard English?
  4. How can we describe language variation?

There are lots of examples and the interactive features so cleverly programmed by the teams at NGfl and the WJEC make this an entertaining way to start thinking about the topic. You can work on the screen or download printed copies of the material and commentaries.

The aim is to get you thinking about language change, and asking questions about the way different times, places and contexts affect language use.  With luck along the way, you’ll also have some fun …

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Evolutionary biology, mathematical models and language study – an unexpected mix

Language is an inherited system of information – we inherit the language of our parents in much the same way that we inherit their genes …

And why is that useful? Because we can use language to study questions about human history. That’s what the Radio 4 programme Material World discussed on 28 February 2013.

Evolutionary biologists at Reading University have been looking at the language of Homer’s Iliad so they could work out exactly when it was written.

800px-Heroes_of_iliad_by_Tischbein

So what did they do?

  • they looked at the many different copies of The Iliad to put together an ‘original’ version of Homer’s oral poem
  • they compared the vocabulary and turns of phrase with Modern Greek
  • they studied the rate of replacement of two hundred common words (e.g. body parts, colours, family relationships, pronouns, numbers)

Using their mathematical model, they found that closed class words evolved slowly and open class words more quickly. 

To find out more – including a ‘precise’ date for Homer’s poem – use the link below :

Scroll through to 22:11 to find the start of the discussion.

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It’s all in the names

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Do we have lots of DNA junk or not? Many scientists believe that up to 90% of the DNA in our genome has no biological function and is therefore not vital to life. Recent research by the Encode project has challenged this. And now a dispute has broken out.

 

Were the people who carried out the research ‘scientists‘? Or were they ‘badly trained technicians‘, as claimed by a critical paper published in the Genome Biology and Evolution journal.

Naming is a powerful thing … and there’s a linguistic attack on three levels here …

1. the denotation (dictionary meaning)

SCIENTIST: a person who studies or practises any science

TECHNICIAN: a person skilled in a practical or mechanical art; a person who does the practical work in a laboratory

2. the connotations (associations)

SCIENTIST: associated with intelligence, logic, and the capacity for original thought

TECHNICIAN: practical and skilled, but not necessarily associated with academic learning or breaking new ground with life-changing discoveries

3. the confrontational pre-modification (badly trained)

the past participle trained functions as an adjective pre-modified by the negative adverb of manner badly

We are meant to respond to scientists as a positive label, and to badly trained technicians as a negative label.  The names are designed to undermine the new findings and to reinforce the prestige of previous research.  

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