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Fremantle Press publisher Georgia Richter shares her 3 am brain explosions and wrestles with the question: how do etymologists sleep at night? - Comment

Fremantle Press publisher Georgia Richter shares her 3 am brain explosions and wrestles with the question: how do etymologists sleep at night?

December 1, 2020

The roar on the other side of silence

‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,’ George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, ‘it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’

I copied those words down when I was 20. I still think about them: Eliot’s simile captures the way we move between conscious apprehension and blessed thoughtlessness. What does language do, if not make our own lives clear to us?

Lately, though, I have been wondering how etymologists sleep at night.

I work with an author who experiences insomnia and he put me onto a podcast called The History of English. He did point out the risk: sometimes listening to the gentle burr of Kevin Stroud has the opposite effect of lulling one back to sleep, because for someone like this author (and me) hearing the squirrel roar on the growing lawn can be too horribly exciting for words.

It’s 2.42 am and I am tuning in to Kevin in order to distract myself from worrying thoughts by learning about what was happening to the English language nearly 900 years ago.

Cadge,’ says Kevin. ‘The stick on which the falcon stood.’

Cadger,’ he adds. ‘The person who carried the stick that held the falcon – usually an old fella, not good for the more active parts of hunting anymore. And with the Great Vowel Shift between 1400 and 1700, the word became codger.’

See that old codger in the supermarket? Who is that standing behind him but another old man with a bird on a stick?

My 3 am brain explodes.

‘Here are two phrases that come from falconry,’ says Kevin. ‘The bird of prey was controlled by a leather strap that is held under the thumb. Or else, the leather strap was wrapped around the little finger.’

I lie awake and wonder if behind every word and every metaphor is something that happened. Some literal, actual thing.

Sometimes change to language comes swiftly. William the Conqueror and the Normans arrived in England in 1066 and they and their language overtook the Anglo-Saxons. Old English began to give way through absorption via marriage and trade, administration by those who governed, and forceful occupation of those who would not bend to Norman rule.

Seventy years later, Empress Matilda of Germany arrived in England to claim the throne. Nobody wanted her. Perhaps it was because of her high-handed ways and the fact she was the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor. Or because she was arriving in a country where there had never been a woman monarch, a country in which there was not yet a pronoun for the word ‘she’. But that pronoun would arrive as surely as Matilda herself.

As the Empress Matilda (granddaughter of William the Conqueror) battled her cousin Stephen, Duke of Normandy, for the throne, England gave way to civil war. This period from 1135 to 1153 was called the Anarchy. Anarchy, from the Greek: the rule of no one. Or, as Yeats put it in another context, when ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer, things fall apart.’

During the Anarchy, from the top down, there was widespread torture and a concerted genocide by the Normans, Scots and Welsh of the English, and the English of each other.What happened to Old English as its speakers were decimated? Well, it contracted further still. Dialects became intensely regional. Things fell apart. No writing in English survives from the time of the Anarchy. Because who has time to write when fighting for survival? And who has time to preserve writing when everything is being razed to the ground? Language reflects what is happening to us, just as what is happening to us alters language. When order returned in 1154 as William the Conqueror’s great-grandson Henry II assumed the throne, Middle English had displaced Old English.

Maybe you remember all this from high school history. I certainly don’t. It is only now, when history is explained to me in terms of language, do I finally comprehend those events from long ago.

Once I read a story written by a blind man who said only when it rained could he ‘see’ his garden, because that was when he heard the rain describing shapes as the water poured over unseen objects and gave them new dimensions. Just like that, in the early hours of the morning, the etymologist Kevin Stroud makes history come alive for me.

I lie awake and wonder: what happens when you pause to really think about the fact that the language we use is heavy with history? In language lies the history of conquest, and war and defeat and tyranny and every little thing in ordinary human life that happened along the way – like the cadger and the codger and the pronoun ‘she’.

The language of my place

In the south-west of Western Australia, the Noongar language that is at least 45,000 years old was absorbed and dispersed by English. But when I began to learn Noongar, I realised that language flows both ways. It is there in the towns of Koorda (‘brother’) and Nornalup (‘place of the snake’) and the suburbs of Balga (the grass tree or xanthorrhoea), and Mindarie (the long needle-like leaves you find on the balga). Noongar bears imprints of colonisation too: the word manatj carries the double meaning of cockatoo and policeman.

Language can be robust where there are people to speak it and defend it. Noongar has survived devastating colonisation. Today it lives in each Welcome to Country that begins our public gatherings, and throughout this state it is being reclaimed in classrooms and family rooms and language programs. One of the most potent places of revival is within Western Australian prisons where Noongar prisoners who learn their own language find a way to speak beyond the system that contains them.

Who is speaking for whom?

Not so long ago, I was judging a book-length manuscript competition. I know from experience that any collection of manuscripts is going to reflect the Zeitgeist. This particular cohort demonstrated a preoccupation with diversity. Why? Because language is expanding in a way to better contemplate a multiplicity of voices and subject positions? Because the audience is expanding who wants to read it? Because publishers are finally starting to see that such audiences were always there?

As I read the novels with their characters representing different and diverse speaking positions, I wondered each time who was speaking for whom. It seems, in this time, as if it is not enough for a writer to inhabit different voices in work that appears to be ‘inclusive’ or ‘representative’ just because that writer feels they should. The manuscripts I read shared preoccupations with marginalisation and difference but not all of them felt equally authentic or as if their author was writing a language they knew from the inside out.

As an editor, my role is to help people to tell stories. If you asked me, I would say that I am anti-censorship. Writers should be able to tell the stories that they want to tell and they should be able to tell them how they want.

And yet, I find myself asking writers to stop and think about whose voice they are occupying and what that occupation means. When we use language, how do we also acknowledge who is speaking and who is being spoken for and over?

I ask: should you be writing from that point of view? Should you be deploying language in that way?

These are the questions of a censor, aren’t they? Who am I to tell other people what they can and cannot say? I don’t know if the questions I put to my authors mean that I am living in a radical time or a very conservative one.

In the end, I think, any interrogation of language is better than none. When we use language, we should think about who is in control and who is not. We can be alert to this, even if we also know that language changes not always because we choose to change it but because something about who we are and what we do has changed.

Recent history

The beginning of the twelfth century and the end of the twentieth are two histories that are currently inside my head. Right now I am reading my diaries from when I was a teenager. My 15-year-old self could not conceive of her 50-year-old self reading her work, but anyway, here I am.

These diurnal records contain apocryphal stories: the day my best friend left me; the day of the humiliating Easter egg I gave to my first crush; nights with bad dreams about nuclear war. In my sense of self (the one that I cart around with me), my own past is writ large with key defining moments. But in the diary, with a day and a date, what I have thought of as momentous parts of my history become fragments, casual and oddly diminished. Ordinary human life is rarely remarkable in the moment. History is the thing we come to call it later.

Standing ahead of that 15-year-old girl is a 50-year-old woman. The woman is the future and she cannot be imagined by the girl, partly because the language that is coming with her belongs to another world.

Go back and read your old diaries if you dare. And when it’s night and you can’t sleep, tune in to the etymologists. Let language be the rain that falls on the dark and silent garden.

Georgia Richter is the co-author with Deborah Hunn of a new book How to Be An Author: The business of Being A Writer in Australia to be released in February 2021.