Behind the Silence

07 December 2005 · 8 comments

If I haven’t written much here lately, it’s because of a combination of three factors:

  1. I’ve been sick and mostly feel like sleeping, or just sitting in one place doing nothing.
  2. At work I’ve been busy, a condition which has manifested itself by requiring me to drive all over Portland and Salem.
  3. As happens a couple times each year, I have a mild case of writer’s block.

My illness seems to be ebbing, at last. “You must be feeling better,” Kris said this morning after I marched around the house singing “The Simon cat is grey, the Simon cat is grey, hi-ho the derry-o, the Simon cat is grey” and “Kris Gates has no hot water, Kris Gates has no hot water, hi-ho the derry-o, Kris Gates has no hot water”. At this very moment, I’m able to breathe freely through both nostrils, which is a major achievement in Roth health. (I can hear Jeff in his office, coughing, however. His cough has declined, but still lingers.)

For some reason, December always means driving at work. Customers seem to order more samples, big projects come to fruition, and, of course, there are holiday baskets to deliver. It’s beginning to look as if I’ll be on the road every day this week and every day next week.

As I drive, I continue to listen to lectures from The Teaching Company. I’ve finished the How to Listen to and Understand Great Music course, and have moved on to The History of the English Language. This course has its moments, but on the whole is less engaging than the music course. The instructor is less dynamic, and he spends too much time reading lists of words. We’re supposed to marvel at how, for example, the pronunciation of “line” has changed over the centuries, but it’s not that fun to listen to him recite the differences. “So what?” I find myself thinking. “Tell me something interesting.”

Sometimes the course is interesting, as when the instructor discusses how English was once a much-more inflected language, a language in which nouns had gender and case endings, much as modern European languages do today. He suggests, indirectly, that this might be the reason the words “he” and “his” linger in the language as placeholders (and objects of feminist wrath).

I was also interested in his discussion of the formalization of the language. English comprised many regional variations until the middle of the fourteenth century. At this time, official scribes began to adopt Chancery English, a sort of London legal dialect, as the language of record. Over the next hundred years, this Chancery English gradually became the language of Parliament (a position French had occupied since the Norman invasion in 1066). When William Caxton set up the first English printing press in 1476, he hastened the adoption of a standard English by employing Chancery English as the dialect in which he published books.

These sorts of bits are interesting; the history of word pronunciation is not.

Sometimes, however, I don’t listen to anything as I drive. Sometimes I drive in silence, looking out at the fields and the rivers and the hills. I especially like to drive in the fog. Yesterday I took the long way back from Salem, driving home through the Silverton hills, sailing my car through seas of fog, surrounded by oceans of green pasture. At one point, I slowed and stopped to watch a pencil-legged blue heron: it stood in a field, watching, watching, watching. And I watched it.

As for the writer’s block, there’s little I can do about that. It’s a state that comes and goes. I don’t often suffer from the condition, but sometimes I do feel tapped out, as if I couldn’t possibly write another word. Fortunately, this state generally passes after a week or two. There are signs it may already be passing.

On Monday, as I was driving to Hillsboro, I passed a dead cat and was struck with an idea for a story. I pulled to the side of the road and spent five or ten minutes scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, sketching a character, outlining a plot. If I ever post the tale of a young man who can raise animals from the dead, you’ll know when the idea hit me.

1 JENEFER December 7, 2005 at 17:16

I’m glad you feel better. I’m glad you can breathe again. Amazing how just being able to breathe through your nose for a nose-breather is ‘heaven.’ Glad the gas prices went down some just as you are having your heavy driving month.

2 John December 7, 2005 at 17:52

Ad dow I’b god id. I ca’d breed dru by doze. :(

3 J.D. December 7, 2005 at 17:56

Ha! Kris is home and now she’s feeling sick and she’s blaming me and Jeff. “It’s all your fault,” she says. “I sat next to both of you at dinner the other night.” She’s in a pouty mood, which means she wants to be waited on hand and foot. The illness just keeps going around and around…

4 Marcia December 7, 2005 at 18:42

I took that course at Willamette. It was taught by a guest professor whose teaching style and course content fits your description. I can’t find the text to tell you his name. The course was much less engaging than I expected with occasionally interesting facts. Glad you are feeling better. Maybe you should get a surgical mask to ward off the next round. I’ve gotten the same cold several times already this winter.

5 Jeff December 8, 2005 at 08:05

“Kris is… sick and she’s blaming me and Jeff.”

Unless I have some kind of super virus, I really don’t think I can be to blame. My cough is now at 5 weeks and this current round of the sinus cold/flu is at ~10 days… and I’m not even sure my woes are being caused by a virus.

If Kris develops a hoarse, raspy, persistent cough then I will retract the preceding statement.

6 Lisa December 8, 2005 at 09:32

The one piece of pronounciation trivia that I found interesting concerns “ye,” as in “ye olde pub.” In Old English “ye” was actually pronounced “the,” so if you were reading it correctly today, you’d say “the old pub.” I don’t remember my source and can’t swear it’s true, but it certainly makes some sense. (Wikipedia touches on it, but not very thoroughly… )

7 John December 9, 2005 at 01:28

On being sick:

If you need relief from a cough, get some “Fisherman’s Friend” lozenges. Anything else might as well be candy. These things are so potent that you’ll want to spit it out. If you can stand the taste, you’ll get relief within minutes.

8 Josh December 9, 2005 at 16:44

In response to Lisa’s comment about “ye,” my recollection is roughly the same as the Wikipedia entry. Old English had two letters not present in middle or modern english: namely, thorn and eth. I’ll paste these into this message, though they may only appear correctly on Windows, since I am copying them directly from Character Map rather than looking up the appropriate HMTL entities.

Uppercase thorn: Þ
Uppercase eth: Ð
Lowercase thorn: þ
Lowercase eth: ð

Thorn is the unvoiced “th” sound (as in “thick”), whereas eth represents the voiced “th” sound, as in “the.” I don’t know whether “the” was originally spelled (or spelt, if you’re English or a snob, not that the two are in any way related) with eth or thorn, but if Wikipedia is correct (and when is it not? ;), the implication is that “the” was originally pronounced with an UNvoiced “th” sound.

There ya go, J.D. Is that bit of pronunciation trivia a bit less stultifying than that to which you’ve become accustomed?

(FWIW, I also took History of the English Language at WU. Adele Birnbaum — aka Adele Birdbrain — was teaching it that semester.)

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