Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Language of Riddley Walker (part 2)

In my last post, I talked about the portrayal of dialect in Riddley Walker and how author Russell Hoban clearly established the rules of the narrator's speech. Today, I am going to focus on what the grammatical rules of "Riddleyspeak" are. This is more than an academic exercise, as it relates to how people think about language and the ways people relate linguistic difference to culture and cognition.

This relationship between language and culture is most apparent with those who view the differences between Riddleyspeak and Standard English as reflecting a loss of important qualities. For example, literature scholar Jeffrey Porter (1990) calls the language "neobarbaric" (p. 451).1 Similarly, science fiction author Norman Spinrad (1990) refers to the narrator's language as both "degenerate English" and "degenerate patois" written in an obtuse and "inconsistently-worked-out devolved orthography" (pp, 37–38; he also likens it to inauthentic renderings of British dialects by American comedians).2 From a linguistic standpoint, these judgments have little merit. No form of communication is intrinsically better than another. The prestige given to one language variety or another has more to do with social conventions than with intrinsic features of a given variety. In actuality, comments like these say a lot more about those making them—namely that they are language snobs, ignorant of how languages actually function and change—than about Riddleyspeak. Porter and Spinrad aren't alone in this sort of pedantry. Comparative literature scholar Robert Detweiler (1995) characterizes Riddleyspeak as "butchered English" and also links the linguistic features to unfortunate historical and cultural changes, saying that they show that those of Riddley's time and place have degenerated (p. 161).3  Other critics echo this link between arbitrary-but-socially-governed views of language structure and judgments on culture. Political science scholar Ernest Yanarella (2001) refers to the language as "a garbled, patched-together English which reflects the badly-damaged cultural communication processes underlying it…" (p. 68).4  Ruppert (1999) summarizes this link by saying that, "along with everything else, English grammar and syntax have broken down, degenerated" (p. 254).5  Poet Nancy Drew Taylor (1989)  goes even further, calling Riddleyspeak "a broken language" and saying that, like other trappings of modern society, "language was almost destroyed during Bad Time…"6

Like other authors, Taylor also links the notion of "phonetic" spelling (or, rather, what is simply just a more regularized spelling system) to rudimentary language and thinking, saying that Riddleyspeak "is generally read phonetically, yet [Hoban] manages to imbue its crudity with a poetry and irony all its own."  Reflecting a similar view, novelist Keir Graff (2008) refers to Riddleyspeak as "…devolved, phonetic English…" (p. 32).7  Writers James Parker and Dana Stevens (2014) even call it "pig-iron English" that is different only because the apocalypse "blasted [it] into poetic-phonetic lumps" (p. 35).8 While these authors show ignorance about orthography, and the above critics mentioned so far display ignorance about language, literature professor Peter Schwenger (1991) combines these with bone-headed views about culture itself, referring to Riddleyspeak as "Quasi-illiterate, largely phonetic" and arguing that it "slows us to the pace of an oral culture…" (p. 254).9  There is no such thing as an oral culture. There are groups that have no written tradition, or that function more-or-less without writing, but such groups are too varied to make this a meaningful cultural category. This is not just an issue of semantics; given that most of these groups come from Africa and the Americas, Ruppert has basically lumped extremely diverse non-Western peoples into one group and strongly implied that their ways of life are as slow as someone struggling to read through unfamiliar, difficult prose.

These sentiments about language, orthography and culture are echoed in numerous Amazon reviews, with readers calling the language "devolved" or "broken English." One reviewer even says that Riddleyspeak "reflects the primitive speech of his society, constructing jagged sentences and spelling words phonetically." 

Even the author himself seems to accept this view. In the Afterward, he characterizes the linguistic changes as a "grammatical decline." In an interview with Hoban,  English professor Sinda Gregory says that Riddleyspeak embodies the fall of human society by itself being "debased" (p. 127), which Hoban doesn't contradict.10  

A new language?
Beyond the uninformed judgments on linguistic change, there is dispute among both scholars and Amazon reviewers about how different from Modern English Riddleyspeak really is. In the same interview with Hoban, Sinda Gregory characterizes his process of developing the narrator's speech as creating a whole language.  Hoban didn't correct her on this, meaning he either agreed or was being unnecessarily polite. Among Amazon reviewers, judgments of Riddleyspeak as degenerated English are closely connected to beliefs that it is an entirely new language (usually referred to as a "pidgin") or a strikingly different dialect. One skeptical Amazon reviewer even says that the linguistic changes seem too far-fetched, as the "pre-civilized patois" or "proto-language" reflects the "reversion of language to some more primitive version" that they can't accept, even 2,000 years after a societal collapse. These views also tend to echo the link between language change and societal decline. Literature professor Mária Minich Brewer (1986) says that Riddleyspeak is "a new language" invented "out of the shattered remnants of English" (p. 159).11 Ignoring the sociohistorical requirements of pidgin and creole development (particularly their place in situations of linguistic contact), for Riddleyspeak to be an English-based pidgin, there would have to be a huge amount of morphological, phonological, and even syntactic simplification. True pidgins don't even allow for embedded clauses. If grammar and lexicon are the motivating factors in one's assessment of Riddleyspeak as a separate language, the narrator of Riddley Walker would need to speak in a way so different as to impede communication. In other words, if you can understand the narrator of Riddley Walker, then he speaks English. As my last post demonstrates, once you correct for spelling, Riddley Walker is readable to a native English speaker. That can't be said for any of the English-based creole or pidgin languages spoken today.

The notion that Riddleyspeak is actually English is shared by a number of critics, though there still may be a connection made between language, culture, and thought. Zigo and Moore (2004) say that the "fabricated future dialect" of Riddley Walker suggests "social, political, and cultural influences on the story line and characters" (p. 87).12  One generous Amazon reviewer refers to Riddleyspeak as "a futuristic dialect of english" that Hoban invented "by mimicking and grossly exagerating[sic] the peculiar pattern of linguistic evolution which resulted in current english…" This characterization tends to view the differences as a mixture of some sort. Levitt (1996) characterizes this mixture as one between "phonetic Cockney, mixed regional [dialects], and corrupted remnants of computer-speak…"13 An Amazon reviewer refers to it as "phonetic slang with a healthy helping of dialect based on guesswork as to what terminology might survive" and Maynor and Patteson (1984)  say that Riddleyspeak "evokes simultaneously medieval usage, the patois of pre-school children, fragments of cybernetic jargon handed down from our own era, and essays written for remedial English classes" (p. 18).14 A number of readers, perhaps missing a few of the grammatical nuances, fail to even recognize Riddleyspeak as a separate dialect from Standard English. Granofsky (1986) says that, while Riddleyspeak is "fragmentary and neologistic", it is "still recognizably our own language" (p. 175).15 Literature professor Jack Branscomb (1991) says that it is merely "unconventional spelling and punctuation and an occasional metathesis" and reflects twentieth-century English "transmitted orally" (p. 107).16  Similarly, one Amazon reviewer argued that the language presented on the page is "English, written the way it sounds." Finally, a particularly unsatisfied reviewer said that "[w]hat apparently appears, to many readers, to be a refreshing, daring, and unique take on post-apocalyptic language just looks, to me, an awful lot like the unedited first drafts of my students who read and write far below grade level."

While I have argued against viewing Riddleyspeak as another language, it would also be too much to say that it was identical to either Standard English or even one of the many English dialects found throughout the world. With an understanding of this debate about the grammatical difference between Modern Standard English and Riddleyspeak, I present to you the grammatical rules that differ from Standard English. 

Linguistic features
Devoicing of -ed.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the -ed suffix is prototypically devoiced. Devoicing this suffix is actually something we do in Standard English in certain contexts. For example, lopped is written loppt, which reflects how we already pronounce it (with a final /pt/). The major difference occurs after sonorants (/l/ /n/ /m/ /ŋ/ /r/) and vowels, where we typically use the voiced /d/ variant and the narrator uses the voiceless variant.  While we would expect that adding this suffix to a voiced obstruent (such as /b/, /v/, or /dʒ/) would trigger the voiced variant, words like grabbed, moved, and foraged are written grabbitmovit, and foragit, suggesting that an epenthetic vowel may be inserted to maintain the voiceless pronunciation. This parallels the practice of inserting an epenthetic vowel in the past tense of verbs like divide, pad, and need.

Reduction of posttonic o.
The vowel of GOAT (often represented in British dictionaries as /əʊ/) seems to be reduced to /ə/ in unstressed post-tonic (that is, after the stress) syllables. Because this is reflected with the spelling of er, it's clear that Riddleyspeak is non-rhotic (or at least stems from a present-day non-rhotic dialect). Shadow becomes shadderTomorrow becomes ter morrer. Affixes don't seem to interrupt this rule, as following is spelled follering and borrowed is spelled borrert. This also means that fagger, an undefined unit of measurement, would formerly have been faggow. I don't know what that would come from.

Issues with clusters
One of the more noticeable features of Riddley's speech is his simplification of consonant clusters. Thankfully for the reader, Hoban is quite inconsistent with this rule. However, some general tendencies arise. /t/ is frequently lost in clusters (last becomes las, kept becems kep) and /d/ typically is lost when next to /n/ or /l/ (didn't is spelled dint, underneath unner neath, and world ⟨worl). It's not clear how much of this is crystallized into the Riddley's underlying grammar and how much of it reflects a sort of surface-level deletion process, but I did notice that Riddley writes shift as shif but shifting as shiftin, meaning that the word is underlyingly |ʃɪft| and the |t| is lost when not followed by a vowel.

There are also a few words that reflect clipping, which is more severe than cluster simplification. Around becomes round (notice that the d is still written), certain becomes cern, Parliaments becomes Parments, etc.

Some other changes may also reflect issues with clusters. /dr/ becomes /gr/ in a few words (drizzle becomes girzel, drooling becomes grooling), /sn/ becomes /sm/ (snarling becomes smarling), and the metathesis of /r/ and a vowel may also be motivated by cluster simplification: e.g. great becomes girt, proper becomes parper. Since most speech in England is non-rhotic, I'm not sure if this metathesis re-introduces /r/ in the syllable coda or not; that is, would girzel (from drizzle) be pronounced [ˈgɪrzəl] or [ˈgɜːzəl]?

Teeth becomes teef, throat becomes froat, and breathe becomes breave. This is a very British thing to do and is probably the main reason why some of the above reviewers invoked Cockney in their assessment of Riddley's speech.

Back vowels
There seems to be some vowel merging going on. Assuming that Kentish has the same three low back vowels of Received Pronunciation (/ɑː/, /ɔː/, and /ɒ/), writing thought as thot and moss as maws implies a merger of /ɔː/ and /ɒ/. It is possible that this was actually intended as eye dialect: while American English speakers tend to merge the /ɒ/ with either /ɑː/ or /ɔː/ (depending on context) and west-coast speakers like myself merge them all to /ɑː/, Hoban lived in London most of his life and may have had an understanding of the extra vowel contrasts of British English.  But this inconsistent treatment can't be attributed to American ignorance, since Americans still use /ɔ/ for words with or. So when the word farms is spelled forms, it implies a merger of /ɑː/ and /ɔː/, even if this rule is inconsistently applied. We d indeed find an inconsistency here, as the words arm and harm are spelled the same as in Standard English. Even the first syllable of Parments, which comes from parliaments, still maintains the ar spelling, despite it containing an already altered pronunciation. Similarly, Hoban spells bombs as barms implying a different merger of /ɒ/ and /ɔː/.

Morphological leveling
A few irregular verb forms are eliminated. So knew becomes knowit, afraid becomes afeart and across becomes acrost. Was is eliminated for wer.

Relativizing conjunctions
Normally, the words that and which are used to introduce relative clauses, particularly for non-human antecedents. For example, "The robot that ate my thermometer" or "my house, which is currently on fire." In Riddley Walker, the narrator uses what in this position, which is not allowed in Standard English.

  • "…in there with his red jumper what they all ways wear."
  • "…Big Boar what makes the groun shake."
  • "All what Ive wrote jus now gone thru my head in a flash…"
Who is used the same way for human antecedants. The narrator instead uses as:

  • "The man as knows that shape can go in to the nite…"
  • "The man as got the hevvyness took off him wer ready to take on some mor."
  • "The name as comes 1st is the man as works the figgers and does the voyces
Miscellaneous changes
There are also a number of changes that don't necessarily reflect a broader pattern or that I haven't been able to generate a general rule from. Whisper is spelled hisper, though no other wh words are altered to indicate an /h/ sound. Whole and hole, which are pronounced the same in modern English, are spelled woal and hoal in Riddleyspeak, suggesting that they are pronounced differently. This could reflect a current contrast that Kentish people make (the author has visited Kent, after all) or it could be a sort of oversight. Why else would they be pronounced differently?

Baby becomes babby, there are a few non-standard contractions (Isn't it becomes innit, why not becomes whynt, and more than becomes more'n), and fucked becomes forkt. Initial consonants are haphazardly added (indicator becomes nindicator) and removed (loansome becomes oansome.  A few words are changed to reflect a seemingly different morphological analysis. Himself becomes his self, million becomes millying, been becomes bint, and compensation becomes comping station. Similar to this is the strange change of charcoal to chard coal. Clearly, we are getting a reversion of the modern term back in the direction of its etymological source (charred coal), which is weird enough. But this also goes against the rule about a devoiced –ed suffix.  

How different is it?
As it should be clear, many of the changes involve minor tweaks of Standard English grammar. As mentioned with cluster simplification, they may actually reflect merely surface-level differences. Some of them may even be commonplace in our own time but under the radar. Particularly in fast speech, the /t/ of kept can easily be deleted so that people pronounce it [kɛp], though people don't typically take note of this because the meaning is understood.  Because of the way this can reflect merely surface-level differences, it is clear that the underlying grammar of Riddleyspeach closer to Standard English than many non-standard varieties of English are. 

Even with the potential vowel mergers, there is no question that Riddley's language is English. If all the back vowels merged into one phoneme, it would make Riddleyspeak much like the California English that I have been writing in this whole time

[1] Jeffrey Porter “‘Three Quarks for Muster Mark’: Quantum Wordplay and Nuclear Discourse in Russell Hoban's ‘Riddley Walker’ Contemporary Literature 31.4 (1990)
[2] Norman Spinrad Science Fiction in the Real World (1990).
[3] Robert Detweiler Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction (1995)
[4] Ernest J. Yanarella The Cross, the Plow and the Skyline: Contemporary Science Fiction and the Ecological Imagination (2001)
[5] Peter Ruppert “Riddley Walker” Utopian Studies 10.2 (1999)
[6] Nancy Drew Taylor “‘…You bes go ballsey’: Riddley Walker’s Prescription for the Future” Critique 31.1 (1989)
[7] Keir Graff “Core Collection: Before and After The RoadBooklist 104.18 (2008)
[8] James Parker and Dana Stevens “Which Book is Begging to be Made Into a Movie?” The New York Times Book Review (Aug. 17, 2014)
[9] Peter Schwenger “Circling Ground Zero” PMLA 106.2 (1991)
[10] Sinda Gregory “An Interview with Russell Hoban” in Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory (eds.) Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s (1987)
[11] Mária Minich Brewer “Samuel Beckett: Postmodern Narrative and the Nuclear Telos” boundary 2 15.1/2 (1986)
[12] Diane Zigo and Michael T. Moore “Science Fiction: Serious Reading, Critical Reading” The English Journal 94.2 (2004)
[13] Jennifer Levitt “Russell Hoban: Overview” in Susan Windisch Brown (ed.) Contemporary Novelists (1996)
[14] Natalie Maynor and Richard F. Patteson “Language as Protagonist in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker.” Critique 26.1 (1984)
[15] Ronald Granofsky “Holocaust as Symbol in ‘Riddley Walker’ and ‘The White Hotel’” Modern Language Studies 16.3 (1986)
[16] Jack Branscomb “Knowledge and Understanding in Riddley Walker” in Nancy Ansfield (ed.) The Nightmare Considered (1991) 

See also 
R.D. Mullen. “Dialect, Grapholect, and Story: Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker as Science Fiction” Science Fiction Studies 27.3 (2000).

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