Back in mid-February a newspaper title caught my eye. It insisted on forcing the conversion of a very English verb – “to bluff” – in tight, latin suffix-ed, shoes. This lead to a heated debate in a close circle of language afficiandos. We argued language is a living organism, but we failed to reach an agreement on what kind of healthy food it should eat. The case of natural growth was argued, neck and neck with that of academic trimming.
Are the new imported words part of an unnatural ‘particle zoo’ of the linguistic kind, or just the result of ageing in diversity?
Below, I will delve in the intricacy of language innovation, enlisting the help of a methodical words crafter that goes by the pen name noViolet Bulawayo.
Elizabeth Zandile Tshele is a talented and meticulous words crafter. Only four years my senior, the Zimbabwe-born author spent her formatting years in a place imbued with story barely waiting to be told. And when she started writing down the words, a powerful narrative came to play. Her novel, We need new names was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Her short stories are ready for their readers within the pages of Guernica mag.
She took to writing using the pen name NoViolet Bulawayo: NoViolet translates as “with Violet” and it is an homage to her mother (who passed away when the author was only eighteen months old); Bulawayo is the author’s home city.
Longing is ever present – both in style and in name. The stories are grown on a backbone of objective narration, but they blossom out of the factual and they shine with glistering new language dew. Because even though we know the words, when we read noViolet’s stories we realise we don’t know these words that swirl about, forming a new language of the soul. Adjectives and nouns fall differently in place and work in a different harmony and rhytm. This is partly because English is by no means a sufficient ambassador of the African spirit and partly because the author took to the language and internalised it in a unique way.
In the case of noViolet’s stories, it feels as if the author is not speaking, but wearing the language.
As far as the author is concerned, English stays awkward and foreign:
The problem with English is this: You usually can’t open your mouth and it comes out just like that–first you have to think what you want to say. Then you have to find the words. Then you have to carefully arrange those words in your head. Then you have to say the words quietly to yourself, to make sure you got them okay. And finally, the last step, which is to say the words out loud and have them sound just right.
But then because you have to do all this, when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And, because you are speaking like falling, it’s as if you are an idiot, when the truth is that it’s the language and the whole process that’s messed up. And then the problem with those who speak only English is this: they don’t know how to listen; they are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying. – from We need new names
She wears English like a well-tailored suit and she has successfully weeded out the obstacles in the way of story-telling.
But there is another thing: nurturing. If you are to transplant a plant from one pot to another, you always make sure it has some of its original soil and you always make sure it is nurtured enough. We can argue the same about language: if you are to internalise a foreign language to the point of making a first hand creative use of it, you must nurture it. So, if we return to the well-tailored suit analogy, the relationship between language and words-crafter is symbiotic. This is not unheard of: Shakespeare alone is considered responsible for some two thousand new English words. The language is the words crafter’s tool and if it isn’t sharp or broad enough, it is up to the words crafter to adjust it.
So what of the particle zoo, then? Well, not everyone is a cunning enough words crafter, ready to internalise and improve a language that isn’t capable of expressing the exact message conveyed. Some simply resort to ungracefully jamming an obviously foreign word into latin sufix-ed shoes. Hence the odd-looking particle zoo-like result.