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Reading between the lines

Teaching the world to speak

Munira Mirza tests the limits of 'World English'

  • Encarta World English Dictionary, Bloomsbury/Microsoft, £30 hbk

One in five of the world's population speaks English. Approximately 375 million speak it as their first language, while another 375 million speak it as their second. Microsoft's new Encarta World English Dictionary cites these statistics to remind us that English is the lingua franca of the global age. A joint project with the distinguished publishing house Bloomsbury, the Encarta is the first new dictionary to be written in 20 years and is the work of 320 experts worldwide. Microsoft hails this tool for global communication as a stepping stone to international goodwill - the hope of community spirit in this brave new globalised world.

As an exercise in data collection, the Encarta stands as a brilliant testament to modern technology. Lexicographers had the money, time and hardware to study language usage across the globe, and to complete the project in just three years. With the click of a button, editors can access wild and wonderful words in the 'Corpus of World English', an immense computer database of words gathered from fiction, non-fiction and journalism. But with all this technology in their hands, the publishers of the Encarta have decided to step away from the usual ideas of dictionary-making - with new and rather disturbing effects.

Because the Encarta's sales gimmick is 'World English', it stresses that it 'covers everything'. It includes words like 'wame', meaning 'womb' in Scotland, which is ignored by standard English dictionaries because it is used only in a localised part of the English-speaking community. The first principle of this dictionary is that it is inclusive, refusing to privilege one kind of language usage over another. This sounds wonderfully egalitarian, but it shows a major departure from the lexicographical principle that a dictionary should principally contain words which can be used by the whole language community. Dialect dictionaries usually come in their own volumes, because dialect is seen as too localised to be included in a standard dictionary.

While the range of words offered by the Encarta might be vast and fascinating, there is no sense that they are common to a single speaking community. For example, the offensive word 'reffo', from the Australian derivation of 'refugee' after the Second World War, is particular to a certain society but not my own. How likely is it that I would use or hear such a word, which has such a specific and alien context? The Encarta provides good novelty value for kids but is not particularly useful to adults who wish to inquire in depth about the words they hear used, or may wish to learn to use themselves. Rather than depth, the Encarta can only give us breadth. This is fine if you just want to impress your philologist friends, but useless if you want to explore the subtle connotations of a word like 'imagination', which is more worthy of the space.

The Encarta sneakily hides the preoccupations of its age up its sleeve. By prioritising the importance of inclusion, the publishers have sacrificed any satisfying depth of explanation for their readers.

Despite claiming its roots in scholarly tradition, the Encarta is a deliberate reaction to the Oxford English Dictionary and its offshoots this century. The OED, finally completed after 40 years in 1928, remains long and arduous even in its second edition, listing a plethora of definitions in its pages and using examples from literature to support each one. One editor who came in at the final stages of the proofing process for the Encarta told me, 'the OED is fine for people like you who have had a scholarly training. But most people want something quick and easy'. The Encarta is proud of its accessibility, and in order to appeal to such a cross-section of world speakers, the dictionary has dispensed with all those complex rules (what the chief editor in the preface calls 'dictionary jargon'): word pronunciation, citation, etymological variations and exhaustive grammatical structures. But this simply assumes that the average non-university trained individual is incapable of understanding the in-depth explication of a word beyond its spelling.

The result of not defining an exclusive language community is that you get a shallow recovery of language. A word only acquires its subtle meanings through continued usage in a definite social context. By ignoring the connotations behind the real-life use of words, it falls to the editors to judge, for example, whether a word is 'offensive'. Predictably, editors resort to what is offensive in America, regardless of how the word might be interpreted anywhere else. So the word 'nigger' is described as 'arguably the single most offensive slur in the English language'. But depending on who is on the receiving end of an insult, I can think of worse: 'paki', 'wog', 'squaw', or even 'reffo'. If you want a common meaning, you must strip a word of its context and complexity, acquired through years of writing and publication, and render the word ultimately meaningless.

The consequence of relating to a 'World English' which no community actually speaks is that the Encarta refuses to define any common standards for the language. The fear of excluding anybody results in the ultimate exclusion of everybody. Of course, people's uses of language spread beyond national borders, blending together when cultural influences spread across the globe. But our cultures only mix together when societies grow closer in reality. A commonly shared language may represent this reality but it cannot drive it.

The Encarta had the financial and technical potential to explore a language system in depth, unveiling subtle shifts and turns in the history and development of a word, telling us something about the evolution of our cultural consciousness and human commonality. But this exciting possibility was seen as less important than using the dictionary as an educational tool to 'raise awareness' about other cultures. By doing so, the Encarta reduces the language we use worldwide to a kind of code which we all understand, but none of us can enjoy.

Character building

Review by Helene Guldberg

  • Design For A Life: How Behaviour Develops, Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, Jonathan Cape, £16.99 hbk

  • The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do, Judith Rich Harris, Bloomsbury, £9.99 pbk

What role do parents play in shaping our behaviour and personalities? Are our childhood characteristics fixed, or can we change as adults? Both The Nurture Assumption and Design for a Life set out to answer these questions.

The strength of The Nurture Assumption is that it demystifies parenthood - encouraging parents to worry less about how they bring up their children. Parental fears about making mistakes are unfounded, argues Judith Rich Harris, because ultimately parental influence counts for less than other influences in a child's environment: their peers, for example. Even if parents should occasionally lose their temper and hit their children it is unlikely to cause any lasting damage. Harris is most convincing when she appeals to our common sense to challenge the assumptions of those who give child-rearing advice. She shows, for instance, that children are perfectly capable of differentiating between relationships. They do not behave the same way towards, or expect the same behaviour of, their teachers and peers as they do of their parents. So if parents have treated them badly, children do not necessarily expect everybody else to act the same way. But it may of course damage their relationship with their parents - possibly forever.

Harris also challenges the pressure on parents to raise children's self-esteem. She argues, contrary to the current orthodoxy, that self-esteem is based on what we do, not on how we are encouraged to feel. So although parents can boost a child's ego, school-age children soon learn that the world outside home can be tough. They are perfectly aware of how they compare to, and are regarded by, their peers - and therefore need to develop mechanisms for coping with difficult situations when they arise.

Unfortunately, The Nurture Assumption raises more questions than it answers, and contains a number of theoretical and methodological flaws. Harris uses the crude tool of meta-analyses - the pooling of several studies' results - to survey 'socialisation' research, and then claims to find no conclusive evidence for an effect of parenting styles on children's personalities and development. Her theoretical framework - 'group socialisation theory' - is also limited. Her thesis builds upon key concepts drawn from social psychology such as 'assimilation' and 'differentiation' to argue that we continually hover between the urge to conform and the urge to be different. These concepts may provide a framework for understanding some of the processes that shape our behaviour, but they are so simplified as to be essentially misleading.

Harris implies that these processes can explain everything from patriotism to school achievement and truancy. But by adopting such simplistic formula the complexity of the human development is lost. Harris fails to appreciate the wealth of research, not least from developmental psychology, that has elucidated the many transformations human beings go through throughout their lives.

Design for a Life, by Cambridge professor Patrick Bateson and behavioural biologist Paul Martin, goes beyond simple processes to explore some of the big changes we go through from the fertilised egg to mature, self-aware adults. Between the ages of two and four years, for instance, with the emergence of language and an awareness of self, qualitatively new patterns of behaviour emerge and old ones disappear. Here, Bateson and Martin show that changes in development take different forms at different stages, inviting unique explanations.

The book is interspersed with analogies from both the physical and social sciences, as well as from literature and culture, to help shed light on the human condition. When exploring the relationship between continuity and change in human development, the authors use the properties of material objects - elasticity and plasticity - as metaphors for the human resistance to change and changeability. Adults' behavioural characteristics and attitudes show degrees of plasticity: adults may vary but remain recognisable as the same person in a variety of situations. Yet they also show elasticity: having the capacity to change fundamentally.

When the authors turn to literature - in particular Shakespeare - to elucidate their theories, the pages of the book come to life in ways none of the physical or animal analogies do. Shakespeare provides insights into our ability to change personalities, values and notions of self in Henry IV Part II. On becoming king, Henry V puts his past firmly behind him - including turning his back on his long-time friend Falstaff: 'Presume not that I am the thing I was; For God doth know, so shall the world perceive, That I have turn'd away my former self.' Or as Ophelia said in Hamlet, 'Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be'. As adults, we tend to settle into familiar habits whereby we minimise stresses and restrict opportunities for change. But the capacity for change is nonetheless there.

Both The Nurture Assumption and Design for a Life draw attention to the pessimism of popular beliefs about the irreversible effect of childhood influences, showing that children are in fact psychologically very resilient. Harris even recounts a case study from Czechoslovakia of twin brothers who were kept by their father and stepmother in a tiny unheated cupboard, undernourished and often beaten. When they were taken from their home to an adoptive family at the age of seven they were malnourished, could hardly walk and had language skills below the level of an average two-year old. However, by the age of 14 they had caught up with their classmates and were found to have no 'pathological symptoms'.

Each of these books has its limitations. But it is this belief in human changeability and resilience that makes them so refreshing.

Killing and being killed

Review by Ray Smith

  • Wars, Angus Calder, Penguin, £12.99 pbk

A review of an anthology usually needs nothing more than a reprint of the table of contents. But Angus Calder's Wars is so broad, so surprising, that even specialists will want a close examination before judging.

Anybody who knows Calder's breadth of vision - the Blitz, the Russian novel, theatre criticism, poetry - and his profound humanity (see his Revolutionary Empire, available in a new abridged edition from Pimlico) will find Wars fascinating as both literature and history. It is grim but compelling reading about war in Europe during the first half of this century. It is not about Churchill fighting them on the beaches or Monty hitting Rommel for six, not about the strategy of the Soft Underbelly or the ingenuity of The Wooden Horse. 'This book is about killing and being killed', Calder explains.

Among the inevitable, indispensable contributors are Owen, Yeats and Graves; TE Lawrence, Orwell and Fitzroy Maclean; Vera Brittain and Marguerite Duras; Trotsky, John Keegan and Martin Gilbert. Given the editor's Scottish and leftist sympathies, others are not surprising: Sorley MacLean and Hamish Henderson; Hasek and Brecht. But he also includes such non-PC writers as Céline, Kipling and Waugh. (Calder also edited the new one-volume Penguin edition of Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy.)

The greatest revelation of the collection is the number of translations - about half the entries, many from central and Eastern Europe. Some, such as Akhmatova, Remarque, Böll and Levi, are inevitable. But many are serendipitous. Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, an RAF Mosquito pilot, recounts a Pathfinder sortie in a characteristically wry Dutch voice. Luis Buñuel mourns the death of Lorca and the chaos of Civil War Madrid. Jacques Brel's 'Next' has the bite of any Brecht-Weill collaboration. The account by Rudolf Höss of his time as commandant of Auschwitz left me drained... without words.

While anthologies invite dipping and browsing, Calder has organised his with the hope that an ideal reader will treat it as a continuous account, beginning with 'Prelude: voices prophesying war' (Conrad, Heym, and Lichtenstein) and concluding with a moving excerpt from The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kis. Most sections follow chronologically from the First World War, through Revolution and Civil War, to the Second World War, but several are thematic. 'Swimmers into cleanness leaping' addresses the question of why men fight, and fight on. 'Grief and guilt' and 'Reckonings' cast cool, ironic, bitter, anguished eyes back. Here are accounts of bonding under fire in Stalingrad from Vasily Grossman; of the chastened Lord Curzon's ordering of memorials and ceremonies; of the GI who accidentally killed Anton Webern; of the return from Dachau of Marguerite Duras' husband.

A superior anthology is like the display in a bookshop window: one speculates in awe on the ranks of shelves from which this superb collection has been gathered.

Ray Smith is a novelist based in Canada. His most recent novel is The Man Who Loved Jane Austen

Read On Read On Read On Read On

Review by Jennie Bristow

  • Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason, Helen Fielding, Picador, £12.99 hbk

  • If Only, Geri Halliwell, Bantam Press, £16.99 hbk

Like the original Bridget Jones's Diary, the sequel is witty, well-observed and keeps you turning the pages. Telephone conversations between singleton Bridge and married-with-toddlers Magda ('Bridget, hi! I was just ringing to say in the potty! In the potty! Do it in the potty!') are as fresh as Bridget's appraisal of New Labour: 'Labour stands for...sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela as opposed to braying bossy men having affairs with everyone shag-shag-shag left, right and centre and going off to the Ritz in Paris then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme.'

But this book should never have been written.

Fielding's success with Bridget Jones's Diary elevated Bridget Jones from a character to a cultural icon. In the public mind, Bridget has come to represent a generation of women and her diary a literary trend. Now, bringing her back down to Earth as a character simply does not work. The Edge of Reason reads like copycat fiction - even though Fielding is the one everybody else is copying. Bridget's expressions (Gaaah! Hurrah! Grrrr, etc) read like irritating clichés - even though she created them. See what I mean? When the story degenerates into pure feel-good, with Bridget surviving a Thai jail and a death threat to end up cosily coupled with her bloke and a great career opportunity on the horizon, you definitely know it is time for Fielding to move on. And not to the diaries of single men.

The word on the street is that Geri Halliwell wrote her own autobiography - and tragically, this seems like it could be true. Five times too long, the style of If Only wrecks a good yarn. Geri's story is of a working-class girl made good, if not through talent then through sheer determination, throwing herself into everything from topless modelling to game-show hostessing in Turkey, before ending up with the Spice Girls. You have to admire her chutzpah.

The only insight in 366 pages of bad prose is just how upfront Geri will be about her lack of musical passion. She may have reached number one (with a little help from a mega marketing blitz), but as she explains, 'being a pop star isn't a long-term career. It's something you do when you're young'. Hopefully that will end all comparisons between the Spices and The Beatles. But who needs an interest in music when your goal is to be the new Princess Di?

Read On Read On Read On Read On

Review by Sandy Starr

  • Digital Leatherette, Steve Beard, Codex, £8.95 pbk

Digital Leatherette is a piece of 'ambient hyperfiction' comprising fragmentary pieces of imaginary journalism, film scripts and web pages, connected only by the author's desire to be as hip as possible in the obscurity and eclecticism of his references. There is occasional humour when Beard lampoons pop personalities such as Morrissey and Dr John. But there would be far more humour if Beard accepted that lightweight satire was the limit of his ambition. Some of the material in this book would make for an entertaining website: whether it works as a book is another matter.

Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000



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