Tired, Tired, Tired, Tired, Tired, BTW I’m Doing a Freewrite, Tired

You don’t need to be Bruce Springsteen to be nothing but tired (whaddup, ancient song reference!). When I think about all the uni work I have to do I freeze. I mean, the inevitable deadline stress will, in all likeliness, kick my brain into gear just in time, because I work better under stress even if I feel like dying. Works every time. It’s kind of worrisome.

Then there’s the topic of supervisor and how everyone freezes in terror likewise when confronted with a topic that isn’t Shakespeare, isn’t British culture, and isn’t applied linguistics. Sorry, people who are much farther ahead in academia than me, I ain’t doing boring topics. Had enough of those as a lowly undergrad. And as a lowly grad, too, to be honest. But we’re not going into that.

I don’t understand how a single person can feel so stressed out when there’s objectively speaking not so much to do. I mean, there’s uni work, and then there’s chores, with a minuscule sprinkling of actual work in between. So… how is that stressing me out? I mean, I’m definitely not getting enough sleep. That’s one thing. And I dunno, I mean, academic writing on literature is at least a half-creative task (mostly because bullshit takes time to come up with) and you can’t rush creative shit. Half creative because you have to stick to a certain register, jargon, and layout, but you also can’t write the same style sentence fifteen times in a row. And you can’t start sentences with ‘and’, not even if it would make everything easier. You can’t just line up quotes, which is basically all you do anyway, but still you can’t. You can’t just not quote, because this isn’t the 1700s anymore, you can’t just have original thought if not at least two other people had the same thought within the last 15 years (otherwise the source is too old, which by implication means your thought is too old). You can’t just say there’s this thing, and this thing, and this thing and because of all the things there is that thing. You suddenly find yourself writing items such as ‘therefore’ and ‘furthermore’ and ‘moreover’ and ‘theretofore’ (I’m not even kidding, and I swear that’s not even a real word.) It’s all patently unnecessary, says I, long-term lover of terribly long words as long as I have spell-check, and we’re bullshitting each other in amicable agreement.

That’s a lot of hating on academic writing. I usually like that shit. But there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing (again with the things, there’s too many things). Why couldn’t I have been a milkmaid? Oh right, because I’m allergic to cows and milk and hay and nature in general. Also, that’s not a proper job title anymore. I wonder if they call it lactic specialist now. If they can call a janitor ‘surface technician’ it’s not that big of a step.

No, really. ‘Oberflächentechniker’. It’s a thing. It’s the thing about German, you can make anything sound super serious. In English you have to work a little for it, throw in some Latin. Like I once advised my mom to call herself not a housewife but a self-taught, self-employed domestic management specialist.

Academic writing is a lot like this. Take a concept, throw some fancy sounding words at it. That’s all there is to it, really. It’s surprisingly difficult. I better get back to doing the thing, then.

It’s like the things never end.

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Manic Monday Freewrite: Too Much Damn Noise will Ruin What’s Left of Your Mojo

Racket and clamour and uproar and much ado about nothing in particular. My day is nothing but annoying noise. Noise of construction work outside. Noise of a neverending party in the house across the street that, yes, I can hear from here. I can feel bass pumping through the walls. Walls that are a a couple of dozen yards apart. Now noise from a football match in the background, Idontcare vs. Whothefuck, Boyfriend attending more closely to the ballchasers than to anything I said in the last two weeks. Now he yells “Incredible!”

No, the Higgs boson is incredible. Someone getting a ball into a really large rectangle? Not so much.

I saw A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night the weekend before last and it was awesome. Of course my inner linguistic nerd was sitting there sound shifts at the ready; the movie’s in Farsi. Farsi’s remotely related to most European languages. Know your sound shifts and you can reconstruct word and geek out over the fact that you just discovered a word that is similar to one in another language. It’s good fun, for a linguist.

Anyway, good movie, very different which is much appreciated between the comic book heroes and the umpteenth remake of some cheesy film from yesteryear, though at times, with some scenes (random guy in drag dancing with a balloon, what?) bordering on too artsy. Don’t you like Iranian vampires in ghost towns? Oh, and the soundtrack! Bit of an obsession there.

I also had chocolate popcorn. There is apparently a place in my town that sells all manner of weird popcorn flavours like apple strudel and strawberry and white chocolate and I give you three guesses where my spending money went.

Finding it hard to concentrate through the background noise and the ever possible threat of having someone looking over my shoulder. People are a disturbing presence. It brings you out of wherever you where while you were writing.

I’m still not enthusiastic about my next two presentations, not least because of the group setups. And the topics. I’m so bored this semester, yet always so busy. Busy with a dozen boring things when I’d rather finish my research proposal and start writing.

Now Boyfriend’s saying something that doesn’t interest me. He should know that. Is he talking to the TV again? I mean… so there’s people in blue and people in red hurrying after a ball, what is there to comment on? Isn’t it ultimately so whatever who wins? They’re all overpaid and their entire organisation is making the mafia look like a charity event.

And he just keeps talking! Why is he still talking? Stop talking! Yes, they do have funny names, your running men in colourful shorts, now stop talking! Turn that infernal nonsense off and stop bothering me!

Of course he won’t.

To Whom It May Concern: When Was This Ever a Good Idea?

So this prompt just had to come when I’m scouting for useful quotations in Altered Carbon. The first word on page 29 that stands out, pun very much intended, is “hard-on”, because the protagonist has just informed us that he was “swinging a hard-on like a filled fire hose”. Just for the record, this is sci-fi, not porn. I appreciate that you keep the readers informed, however I wonder if you cringe if a woman mentions her period. “My underpants presented a picture not unlike the first Biblical plague. My kingdom for a tampon!, I thought.”

I’m being besieged by penis here. This comes hot on the heels of a class that discussed Lacan and Derrida’s critique of Lacan’s concept of the phallo-logocentric Symbolic order and the order of the phallus. Which made me giggle like hell because it sounds like a porn parody of a Harry Potter movie. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phallus!

So I’m using the very first word on the page. It’s “when”.

Dear When,

thank you for being one of the more flexible words of the English language. Do you know how awesome it is that you can be an adverb, a conjunction, a pronoun and even a noun? And you can start questions! That’s pretty rad! Was there ever a time when you did not do a good job, When? How many kids have you inspired, how many have started whole long-winded rants with “When I grow up”? Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up? No, When, you just kept on going. And look at your sleek new style! I remember when you used to be Hwanne, but you completely transformed yourself. Since when has this been going on? You look nothing like your German cousin Wenn anymore. You go, When. Thanks for being part of the where and when.

xoxo,

an admiring half-linguist

 

P.s.: Dear fiction writers, if you could stop sending us notes from your protagonists’ boners that would be great. No love, me.

 

P.p.s.: To whom it may concern, your mum.

They Looked Like Nice Little Old Ladies But They Were Actually…

So for the past few weeks there were people ringing my doorbell in the early morning (as evidenced in posts here and here) and I never opened because, like hell am I going to open the door for strangers when I’m home alone.

But then I thought, what if they’re debt collectors? What if they’re just making sure they have the right address? What if they break down my door and take all our stuff because they have the wrong address and I never corrected them?! (Don’t laugh, that happened, the family had to buy all their own stuff back at auction, their stuff that the state effectively stole.) Okay, admittedly, I have a habit for paranoia.

But nevertheless. What if they just sell magazine subscriptions? I can just say no thanks! What if they sell anything else? I can say no thanks! What if they’re from house management? I can say it was the neighbours!

So I sat myself down and told myself, the next time they ring I’ll open and see what I’ll see.

Today was that day. The doorbell rang. I check through the door viewer and sure enough, it’s them. Two little old ladies, still decked out in their winter gear with trademark huge old lady handbags. I have a day off, so I yell “Just a moment!” while I struggle into some clothes and hunt for my keys.

I open the door, just a smidgen, ask them to identify. They hand me a piece of paper.

It’s not a note of debt.

It’s not a subscription.

It’s not even a business card.

I look at it and my face falls. How do I react now? It don’t feel right being rude to old ladies, so I play along.

“We’d like to invite you…”

I smile and nod.

“…this is the most important day…”

I smile and nod and brace myself.

“… the day that Jesus died…”

Whoomp, there it is.

“…the death of Jesus is the most important event…”

They hand me a pamphlet and sure enough, it’s the Watchtower. They want me to come to their Easter gathering.

When I was younger I used to have my fun with Jehova’s Witnesses, telling them we’re a family of Satanists, that we’re looking for willing sacrifice, sometimes I’d just act possessed. But I’m not a teenager anymore. I’m a grown woman (say it with me like Beyonce: groooown woman), the only Watchtower I want anything to do with is this Jimi Hendrix song, and I feel sorry for these poor lonely people ensnared in a cult that gives them the sense of community and purpose missing in their lives.

So I’m being nice. I thank them. I tell them I read the Bible four times already (What? It’s true. Know your enemy and all.). They say they’d be glad if I came to their meeting. I tell them I’ll think about it and bid them goodbye, wish them a nice day. I think the three of us already know I won’t be going. We’re screwing each other in good understanding.

But what can I do? I’m not even a Christian and I have no intention of ever being one. I have intention of being a researcher. Science is my religion substitute. If anything, I was getting ready to prepare a libation to Ostara, Ishtar, Astarte and all their related incarnations for Easter. I mean, it’s Easter. Even if you have no knowledge of historical linguistics you should be able to see how those names are related. They all go back to an Indogermanic word meaning dawn. That’s why the sun rises in the East, it literally means ‘hey, dawn’s that way’. It’s literally older than Jesus.

(You may also have noticed the absence of bunnies and eggs at the crucifixion. That’s because they have nothing to do with it but are in fact tokens of much older feasts. Eggs have always been associated with fertility and March and April is the mating season for hares (you may have heard the phrase ‘mad as a march hare’, they’re mad because they’re horny), which is why they’re also considered symbols for fertility. Which is why they’re associated with traditional spring festivals all over Europe. Pretty powerful symbolism too, seeing as it has survived the switch to a completely different religion.)

So that’s the mystery of the doorbell ringers solved and you learned another little titbit about etymology! Now how’s that for a twist?

When Did Life Turn Into an Endless Round of Q&A with People Who Have Boundary Issues?, or The Neverending Question of Doom

Whoever said “There’s no such thing as a stupid question” must have led a blissfully isolated life.

There are not many questions I genuinely hate. I usually have a comeback for every standard annoying question encountered during human interaction. Don’t believe me? Just watch:

“How are you?” – “Alive, thanks, yourself?”/”My own awesome self, but what happened to you?”

“How was your weekend?” – “*squints suspiciously* Why, what have you heard?”

“How old are you?” – “Multiply your IQ with the value of a unicorn soul, that’s my age in Mars years.”

“How much do you weigh?” – “As much as your mum when your dad is on top of her.”

“Are you dating anyone?” – “Do we still call it dating after close to ten years?”

“Why aren’t you married?” (This one follows usually after the ten year remark.) – “Because the Temple of the Howling Priests of Chaos is all booked until at least next year.”/”Because white clashes with my skin tone and marriage clashes with my life.”/”Is that a proposal? No, I’m serious, are you proposing right now? I got around 250 family members to invite, I need to let them know.”

“Are you going to have kids?” – “Yeah, with barbecue sauce. Why, you think they go better with teriyaki?”/”Sure, right after I’m back from my five year Mars mission.”

“Are you pregnant?” (Unless you’re a doctor asking me this for actual reasons, you’ll get this:) – “Well, I’ve volunteered to hatch some eggs from an endangered alien species discovered on Titan, so in a  manner of speaking, yeah, I am.”/”Why? Are you? I’m not sure I can give you advice there, honey, do you have a good gynaecologist?”

“What do you do?” – “Right now? Breathing, beating my heart like a motherfucker, digesting the hors d’oevres I just had, thinking about the state of the nation, making a mental note to drop by the dry cleaner’s tomorrow, oh, and talking, I’m also talking. Why, what are you doing?”/”I’m a group instructor at a zombie survival training camp.”

“How much do you earn?” (Kidding, no one asks me that, but anyway.) – “Not enough to buy my own planet, but I’m getting there.”/”I could afford your soul on a fixed monthly rate.”

“Are your nails real?” – “Yes, and they can cut glass.”

“Are your boobs real?” – “Well, they used to be my balls, so yeah, I guess. Never go to a discount surgeon, that’s all I’m saying.”/”Do I look like I have the kind of money to get a boob job? I can’t even buy my own planet!”/”Is your brain/face/dick real, because if not you should get a refund.”

“What’s the matter?” – “It’s 2015 and we don’t have hoverboards! My life is a lie!”/”Everything. Everything is matter. Oh, except energy.”

“How much did you study for X exam?” – “*hands held about two feet apart* About this much, give or take.”

“Why don’t you have a drink?” – “Because I don’t fucking want to right now, get off my case or I’ll whoop your ass as soon as you’re too drunk to fight back!”/”Because I don’t feel like throwing something in your face yet.”

Or: “Because of my legs.” – “Why? Do they swell?” – “No, they kick people. In the face.”

But the one question I can never get over is one that has haunted me for most of my life. It is the most annoying, most mind-numbingly flashback inducing string of words I can think of:

“Are you from Germany?”

I have been asked this question since about the moment I could talk. Why? Because I have an accent. During my school days this used to be the prelude to further verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse. Austrians hate Germans. The only ones who can out-hate Austrians are the French, and they just hate everything and everyone that isn’t French. They don’t mean anything by it. But Austrians? Oh, it’s on. Long has the brave little mountain monkey suffered under the yoke of its bigger brother (a struggle that basically amounts to “Baaaaww, they’re bigger and more well-known than us!”), but now it’s time for revenge! Which is delivered Austrian-style, that is, completely inefficient on a large scale.

During college it was merely polite interest and lack of conversation topics, and well, we do have a lot of German exchange students, but the damage was already done. And my face flushed and my heart raced and like a nightmare from beyond time itself…. I’m an Austrian with a German accent, and this is my unanswerable question. Why? Because people, that’s why. People ruin everything. Let’s suppose I say, no. Simply, no, I’m not from Germany. What is going to happen?

“But you sound German!”

Hrrrrnghgn, yes, I know, but I appreciate that you keep me informed. Now what do I do? Explain the complex process of language acquisition, the reason we call it “mother tongue”, effects of exposure to dialect patterns over time, as well as the influence of foreign TV on a young brain that is still acquiring it’s first language to people who think a phoneme is an android app? Why don’t I read Shakespeare to my aunt’s cat, or teach a politician honesty, or sell sunglasses to a flock of owls while I’m at it.

I could say, “I sound German because my grandparents are from Berlin. My mother acquired that accent from her mother. When I grew up, I acquired it too, because my dad, being not home that often, didn’t have that much linguistic influence on me during the formative years of language acquisition. Also, German TV. Lots of it.”

And then the asker just stands there dumbfounded, like this was somehow perverted linguist TMI. It probably was, because most people have no idea how language works.

I could say, “Sorry, shall I switch to Austrian?”

Because I can. I ‘speak’ a lot of accents and/or dialects (depends where you draw the line, really). I can do Berlin, Cologne, general northern German, Hochdeutsch, a general Austrian sounding one, and my Viennese has gotten a lot better over time. In English, I can do RP, some Northern sounding English, an East Coast sounding American English thing, and Valley Girl (because it’s fun, suck it up.) It’s all a matter of manipulating a few choice sounds.

But then the asker looks at me like I’m crazy, because dialect switching? The fuck is that? Never mind that absolutely everyone does it subconsciously. You talk to your boss? You use something close to the standardised variety. You talk with your mates? You use deepest dialect from the streets you grew up on. It’s not fucking rocket science and you’re not even trying.

I could also say, “You look like a moron, are you from Moronia?”

But that’s mean. So I don’t do it. Unless I lose my temper because I’ve been asked the same damned question all day long and actually all life long! Make it stop! Just accept that accents don’t mean a damn thing, not with the way people are running around the planet at an ever growing pace! Make it stoooooop! Ask me about my day, my pets, my sex life, my parent’s sex life, anything, just stooooop!

Deck the house in puffs of bug spray, falalalala lalala…aaaaahhh!!!, or Linguistic Woes and Other Stories

“So long and thanks for all the blisters”, I wistfully said to my sandals, as I took them from their spot on the floor and returned them to the shoe rack. The view through he window presented a gloomy, not to mention cold and windy, outlook, and it seemed I wouldn’t have need of my trusty Roman styles in a very, very long time.

Jup, it’s autumn alright. Every autumn I return my designated walking shoes to a place where they won’t be in the way and think “Dammit! It’s officially cold now!”

Also every autumn, as if I’d send out invitations, golden lettering and engraved envelopes and all, the bugs return.

I live in a house that was built in 1930. The windows have never been changed, just painted over and over with white paint. Those windows are… well, for lack of a better word, they’re leaky. (Stay in school, kids, this is what happens when you’re poor.) Everything gets through. I dread every storm because I have to rush to soak up all the water building on the wooden inside window sill before it seeps into the the cracks, making them bigger. And apparently, there’s gaps big enough for giant, nasty, annoying bugs to climb through.

I have no idea what kind of bugs they are. They are about two centimetres (a bit less than an inch for my non-metric peeps) long, they’re a dark brown, and they’re annoying. They seem to be some kind of tree bug things but I’m not going to check their catalogue number before screaming discretely and diving for the can of instant-death-to-bugs. Forget catching them and throwing them out. I tried; those things have wings and just come right back, as if they think I’m just playing a game with them. “Weeee! Throw me again, human!”

Bug killing is the only thing where my usual procrastinational (that’s a word now) tendencies do not hit me. Like, for obvious reasons. And speaking of procrastination (cower before my segue powers!), that brings us to today’s Blogging101 thing, because The Metamorphosis of a Wallflower hit the nail on the head with her post about this well-known topic. And then I ran around her blog for a bit longer and found a post about her fight with the IPA chart, which is relevant to my interests or lack thereof. (See here)

And my face flushed and my heart raced and like a nightmare from beyond time itself….

For once upon a time, I was an English undergrad struggling to understand the diabolic nature of Linguistics. I hated it and sucked at it, so my only choice was to become very, very good at it to pass the tests and then never hear about it again (or so I thought, until I checked the curriculum for the Master’s programme. Let me shake my fist at you, English department!).

[Random personal aside] I also flunked the pronunciation course three times. You see, the curriculum is just a teensy bit stupid: In the intro lecture for Linguistics they tell you over and over how most adult people cannot, even after years of living in another country, successfully change their natural accent. Then, two semesters later, they stick you in a course all like “Here! Do exactly what we told you is not possible in just three months!”

This was hell. This was also one of the reasons it took me so long to finish my degree. Because for some reason, speaking RP or speaking GA is SO IMPORTANT that they’d rather you drop out (and yes, I’ve seen it happen, and my thoughts go out to all my fallen brethren and sistren) than not be able to, y’know, change your natural accent to another one. I’m a German native speaker. Of course I’m not going to sound like some git from Oxford, godammit! You, person teaching the course, are a native speaker of German, and you sound it. Don’t tell me what to do. [/Random personal aside]

I have this theory that the field of Linguistics was started by engineers, because the whole idea of the thing sounds like something my dad would do. “Hm, how can we make it easier for people to learn a language? More importantly, how can we make it easier for academics to sound clever and academic-y? I know, dress everything in confusing symbols that do not at all represent what a sound might look like, slap some arbitrary not-always-the-case-but-sometimes rules on it and derive some formulas, I mean, it works for maths, right? Efficient communication is now rendered impossible but who needed that anyway? If you want to communicate, that’s what 1’s and 0’s were made for.”

Anyway, the poor Wallflower apparently has to learn the entire IPA chart. For anyone who has no idea what we language nerds are talking about here, it’s a chart of symbols that supposedly represent the sounds of human speech. No, I have no idea how that was done, seeing as there are some 5000 languages being spoken on this planet and some of them sound like they consist entirely of clicking sounds. Actually, learning symbols is not so much the problem as recognising them when they are spoken. Now, when they are spoken in isolation, that’s still sorta easy. In a sentence… not so much, especially in a language you don’t know.

Or even in a language you know, because in German? You’re lost. Sometimes I’m lost, and I’ve been speaking German for more than two decades now. Unlike British English and American English, German does not have an established spoken standard (RP for BE, and GA for AE, if you’re interested). I know people believe what we call “Hochdeutsch” (High German – misleading name if you as me) to be the standard, but it’s not official. Apart from that, speaking Hochdeutsch gets you beaten up in Austria anyway (trust me, I speak from painful experience). So spoken German is basically a hotchpotch (what we might call “Sammelsurium”) of dialects, and as we all know, dialects have different pronunciations as well as grammars.

But a problem all of them share is what we call “deutsche Auslautverhärtung” (German final devoicing. Man, you’re learning a lot today, aren’t you?), which is the reason most of us have so much trouble in English (besides “th” sounds and the vowel in words like bird) and which despite the big scary words only means: we mumble. Terribly. You know your consonant pairs like p-b, k-g, t-d? They are not readily discernible in German. In English, for example, tank and dank don’t sound much the same (okay, they sound the same except for one sound – what we Linguists call minimal pairs!). In German, you have to rely on context to find out what the flying fuck that German speaker just said, because the t and d somehow merged into one entity. (And yes, I know the same phenomenon exists in English dialects of every continent, but I’m talking about German here, so shut up and lemme finish.)

Interestingly, you have a better chance at distinction towards the north. Towards the south, once you cross the borders of Bavaria and head ever further down, forget it. “Bank” (bank) will be the same and “punk”. You think they’re trying to say English “dish”, but what they mean is “Tisch” (table). You come to the border and wonder if the custom officials are starting a band because they keep asking for your “Bass” (okay, it’s only funny if you know that passport is “Pass” in German.)

The distinction is supposed to be clearer in Hochdeutsch, because after all, it’s a northern variety. But even here, if you come from a language that has a very clear distinction, you might have trouble.

And that’s only a few tiny facts about pronunciation in German. Now multiply that by all other human languages. So to Wallflower I say, stay strong, hang in there, make your ear a warrior, because by damn, you’ll need it. And hope to a deity of your choice no one will make you pronounce stuff.