Sometimes you have to prove things to yourself and this post is here to prove that is possible to be concise and succinct. I’m talking about blogging here but mainly about communication in general. OK, point made.
Yes, we spell it “localisation” round ‘ere. *
Quick addendum to the previous post about the difference between this blog and a fully bilingual website…
It’s amazing how many people get localisation and language wrong. Even Amazon and so on.
If I were creating a truly bilingual website then I would translate every single post, page, category and tag.
I would have two user-selectable language interfaces, which would be served based on browser language selection where possible.
The browser choice could be overriden by visible options for English and Cymraeg. There would be language-specific RSS feeds. If done correctly, the number of RSS feeds would double when the second language is added.
While I’m on it, there would not be any country flags on the interface. A massive bugbear of mine! A flag does not stand for a language. Never ever. **
If I were starting my own consumer-facing organisation or company in Wales, I would consider it important to offer both languages. (I would like to start doing this for work-related things where possible.)
For large companies in particular, usually this is possible but we sometimes get excuses (about demand but usually about cost) which add up to zero really. It’s about people feeling – and being – welcomed in their own country! There is help and expertise available for this, with design, “best practice” and so on.
If done well, it’s obviously a good PR move which can give an edge over competitors and boost your bottom line.
Besides, language itself is wealth.
* Or “lleoleiddiad”. But I couldn’t make a self-referential gag out of that.
** For example, I’ve seen the Union “Jack” flag stand for the English language. Can Jamaicans click this? Or is this some kind of joke on USA web visitors who might want English language, as if we’re now calling the Declaration of Independence into question? It’s hopeless to use the Welsh flag to stand for Cymraeg, it’s a country and not everyone living here uses it. Flags do have their uses though. Please join me in saluting the flag of the North Caucasian Emirate.
OK, just done a blog post on here in Welsh. It’s not my first use of Welsh online. I’ve emailed and used Twitter and commented on other blogs and things in Welsh. But a full blog post. Boof. It took ages to write!
I wanted to jot down some assorted observations and lessons learned.
Google Translate was a fun toy to use at the end. I enjoyed that. There was a surprise application – it actually picked up several typos. Example: I saw the word “penderfyny” in the result and was able to fix the spelling to “penderfynu” (decide) and so on. I suppose I could have got this from a dedicated grammar checker like Cysill.
Some things you think are obvious come out wrongly. “Dyn ni’n gwybod” becomes “Man we know”. And before now I’ve seen it render “Caerdydd” as “Bridgend” which is totally wrong. These are byproducts of its statistical approach. If it had a few cheeky rules in there it would be a killer.
Oddly when it translated “Islwyn Ffowc Elis”, a person’s name, it rendered it as “Elis Islwyn Fawkes”. I had a moment of mild disgust where I assumed it had got this from data originating on Wikipedia. It turns out “Guto Ffowc” is what the Welsh call Guy Fawkes. In theory this data could have been taken from any source in both languages. I don’t think it’s using Wikipedia, let’s hope not…
Some of it came out ultra-cryptic. It could be partly my Welsh as well as the translation algorithm. Occasionally it has a poetic quality.
I’m particularly fond of the intro
This is my first post in the old language. First post is usually quite difficult. She felt as a step in the new domain.
Although I think the ambiguity of the following, in relation to use and abuse of technology, is unfortunate.
They see abuse and will see good things.
For the WordPress freaks – and because it is such a fantastic piece of software, there are only non-users and freaks – I am using a plug-in called Basic Bilingual by Stephanie Booth for the summary bit. This automatically inserts HTML language code and allows you to tweak your design through the CSS. It gives you an extra admin field for the summary bit. Mine was an English summary for a post in Welsh but you can do it with any two languages. It worked for me first time.
[UPDATE: actually I just lost the summary for some reason, after fixing a typo and saving. So I’ve reverted just to pasting it into the post. It might be fixable with the plug-in…]
I had a minor quandry with tags and categories. (The quickest way to explain the difference is an analogy with a book. Tags form your index page and categories are your contents. Kind of.)
I have a back history of tags and categories here. My blog has an English-language interface, with most posts in English but now some posts (OK, one) in Welsh. In the end, I decided to stick with the English language categories. For tags I have used Welsh language and tagged again with English translations.
For proper names like Google I’ll be retaining them, rather than using things like Gwgl, Trydar (Twitter) and Gweplyfr (Facebook). Which I have seen in use! These recall a comic tradition apparently popularised by playwright WS Jones.
Here’s the problem. If you click the “Google Translate” tag you’ll see all posts that relate to it. If you click “blogging” you’ll see all posts that relate to that. But if you click “blogio”, you’ll only see posts in Welsh about blogging. I’ll see how it goes. I can always go back and re-tag (the joy!).
There’s always search, that will work.
(Incidentally don’t you think “blog” itself, the very sound of the word, fits very neatly into Welsh?)
I think I’ve covered everything except comments. The visitor comments here are a mixture of English and Welsh, which is fine by me. (Elsewhere on the web I suppose it could be good etiquette to comment in the language of the post – if in doubt. But that’s a possible guideline not a rule.)
This is a personal blog. I’m a human being and want this to be reasonably spontaneous, like talking to your face.
My blog, my way! If anything, blogging is about freedom.
So feel free to comment below. Or set up your own blog and comment there in the language of YOUR choice.
I’ve tried to avoid talking about blogging itself too much here. As in, I don’t do blogging about blogging. That’s not because there’s no value in that exercise nor because I have any particular aversion to meta (in fact quite the reverse). It’s just that I didn’t think I had anything new to say or contribute to the discussions. There are some great resources and conversations out there relating to blogging which are easy to find. This blog isn’t one.
Blogging has outlasted any forecast of its demise. Not a fad after all then. It’s been absorbed into our minds and society and new technologies. But some of those crazy myths still remain.
So let’s just shoot these down first. Some of the myths have re-emerged again around newer forms of blogging.
The general guideline is, if you find something of ultra-niche interest online – however boring or trivial – then maybe it’s not intended for you.
That includes somebody talking about their breakfast. I defend the right of people to “babble” and talk about their breakfast. It’s what people talk about.
As well as that, because of this kind of online sharing somebody can retroactively compile a pie chart of how many people had porridge this morning and so on, or rather talked about it. If they want to. There’s a cumulative set of data which might become interesting even if you don’t find the individual posts interesting. (Thanks to Mandy Rose for this observation.)
That said a blog doesn’t have to be merely a personal diary, again a common misconception.
My first blog was nothing like a personal diary anyway. It was and is named Sleeveface. It had a specific format, which has remained as I’ve continued to maintain it to the present day. It actually gets better and better because it has a “community” of amazing contributors. It clearly wasn’t really a place for my writings about anything.
One blog is rarely ever enough for one person. So last year I started this blog which has become a handy place for thoughts, sometimes of an experimental nature. If I just want to add a page to the web, I do it here. I have a couple of sekrit projects which will arrive here when I get around to them.
Starting was difficult because I didn’t want to repeat anything that people had done online. On the web there is always somebody else who is more expert than you. That is initially intimidating. What is the point of writing about ANYTHING? (Eventually you chill out with your status as an expert at just being yourself.) In time the activity becomes its own reward and sometimes I hardly think about who might or might not be reading. Then to get a little comment or to have someone mention it when I see them, those are bonuses.
But initially, thinking I could actually risk rehashing what other people might have said elsewhere, except in my own words was quite liberating. Originality is over-rated!
It’s all in the words. Which I why I sometimes love to use indulgent prose, long words and also refuse to kill my darlings.
From the start I knew what it wasn’t. “What not to blog?” is a useful exercise. Let’s just say that Twitter revenue speculation, cats and advice sheets for aspiring “thought leaders” were not on the agenda. Again, those interests are more than adequately served on the web if you look.
The fact it’s called Quixotic Quisling of all things should tell you I wasn’t aiming to be a “pro-blogger”. Likewise it’s not intended as a cross-section of my life. There are big bits of my life that haven’t made it to this blog.
Now that in 2009 the all-conquering domination of the mighty Welsh language continues apace, at least in my world, I’ve been looking online for things in that language. I’ve been banging on about how I’d like to see more Welsh language blogs in existence. Eventually I resorted to offering to set up some WordPress installations and otherwise help a few individuals who I thought would be interesting – out of the epic kindness of my heart. But people were too busy. And all the usual crap.
The most obvious partial solution was staring me in the face – just start your own. In line with the carefully constructed house brand for this blog (blobby at best), I have decided just to insert the Welsh language posts in arbitrarily.
There is actually a nice number of multilingual bloggers (in various countries), from which I’ve taken inspiration here, when it comes to the practice and conventions and so on.
I won’t be doing anything bilingually like writing something then carefully attempting to translate it. Pfft! The Welsh posts will have unique things. Each will have a quick summary paragraph in English so you can decide if you want to use machine translation to check it out.
Obviously if you understand Welsh, you can just look. And laugh at the mistakes.
If you’re something in between, i.e. a Welsh learner, you can do something in between.
I was chatting to nwdls about all this and also Daniel Cunliffe who does Datblogu. Often Welsh speakers choose 100% English for their blogs and maybe it’s because people buy into the idea of the big worldwide audience and the pro-blogger thing. Obviously there’s a bigger potential worldwide audience for an English language blog. Conceivably, at least. But it all depends which world you think you live in. If we really cared about maximising raw potential numbers, we’d all learn Mandarin right?*
When I went to Barcelona earlier this year I chatted to a German lady who pointed out “Ah, you speak Welsh. Well done. That will really help you in the world.”. This isn’t a general point about German people, it’s quite a common attitude.
One reason I originally decided to learn Welsh was because it’s the second most used language in My World. So it is helping me in the world, thanks very much for the insight lady. As much as it has been useful for work, it’s not just about utility.
It is actually bringing a tremendous amount of joy to my world.
So the actual reasons for blogging in the medium of Welsh are related to this point. It’s the bespoke, personal world within the web which I see. And would like to see. After the chat with nwdls, I realised there was no need to make a big choice. I’ll do both languages in one. And Google Translate could help non-Welsh language** readers to access the extra stuff.
So, thanks Google Translate.
Google Translate is not the first attempt at machine translation for Welsh (see also: Apertium project) and is also a bit wonky. But as with any machine translation, you’ll get the gist and it may not be long before we can truly link cyber-arms and skip to a better tomorrow.
If you’d like to read some proper research on Welsh language use in blogging and other social media then Datblogu is good.
Are you in a similar position? As in, you’re not monolingual but your blog is? Consider reconsidering.
* By the way, I would like to know Mandarin. But for different reasons.
** Incidentally don’t say “English speakers” if you mean “non-Welsh speakers”. The Venn diagram resembles a fried egg and Welsh speakers are the yellow bit. When you say “English speakers” you are ignoring the fact that it’s one of those bulbous fried eggs where the yellow bit actually includes the white directly beneath it. Heh heh. Enjoy white and yellow if you can.
I’m thinking about our obsession with “open”.
People work in “open plan” offices. If not then maybe their manager has an “open door policy” and offers an “open mind”. Maybe they conduct negotiations with “open palm”.
Then there’s open source software, now pretty familiar and widely used. Of which OpenOffice is an example (as well as Firefox). And there are examples of “open source” hardware and machines too. Check out Arduino.
Online we use web services that offer OpenSocial, as well as OpenID login. And OAuth – where the open is baked right in.
We’re familiar with Open University of course. They were well ahead of the current trend. Elsewhere, “open society” and “open government” are discussed. In the UK we have Open Rights Group, our counterpart to the EFF.
“Open” is becoming a byword for positive and good and progressive. “Open” is a hot word of now. Will it always be this way? Or will it be remembered as a passing enthusiasm – either superseded or perhaps absorbed everywhere to the extent that it becomes transparent?
I’m particularly interested in open source. I’ve benefitted a huge amount from open source software. Some great work has been done and some very successful companies of many kinds exist – all thanks to open source software.
How far can this approach be extended to non-software projects?
Creative Commons and approaches to copyright reform represent a form of openness, outside of software. Some (but not all) Creative Commons licences allow derivative works and adaptation.
Can you run a country using open source principles? (What’s going to happen when Tim Berners-Lee opens up government data in his new role? Will he enable us to spot and fix the bugs in Brown’s Britain?)
What about human relations? What about sharing? (And “over-sharing”?)
What about “proprietary” – the opposite of open, at least in a software context? At times, proprietary can be pretty good if you’re the proprietor. But you also miss opportunities.
I figured the best way to explore these questions would be to start documenting bits and snippets I find along the way. For this purpose I’ve started another blog called Open Season. I’ve just realised the term comes from hunting, that wasn’t deliberate. But it does capture some of the ambiguity of open. If you’re in the firing line, you’d prefer closed season. Open letters are similar – you don’t always want to receive them, especially if you’re a politician with responsibilities being identified.
Initially Open Season will resemble a scrapbook with the odd comment from me. I’ve chosen Tumblr as it’s ultra-quick blogging for anthologists and snippers and plagiarists. With the Firefox plugin, I can drag items to the bottom-right corner of my browser and they’re on. Then in the longterm I can turn them into properly thought-out posts here. Open Season is a pile of bits. Even more of a pile of bits I mean.
My aim is not to explore the benefits of open source in software. Those are pretty well documented and discussed. I’m looking at that, but I’m trying to grasp the wider issues of the open philosophy.
Usually computer software runs as object code – which is compiled from source code.
But any other creative work doesn’t have source code. This blog post doesn’t have source code. A car doesn’t have source code. A government doesn’t have source code. Your brain doesn’t have source code. Your body doesn’t have source code. (Don’t tell me DNA is source code! It isn’t.)
Any reference to “open source” outside of software is an analogy. Remember when we had to re-adapt everyday terms to describe what happened in and around computers? We would boot and store files, then at the advent of the graphical user interface came the window, paint, wallpaper, menu and the like. Now it’s the other way round – open source works for software, now we’re applying the term to other things.
All this has the potential for awesome results. But taking a software engineering methodology – that can clearly work – and thinking it could be applied to ANYTHING is possibly a bit rash. Let’s see.
Comment if you like. I’m “open sourcing” my thought processes on this one. Can’t get away from it.
So when I was learning to write English, back in the eighties, I used to mix up the symbols b and d. It’s an easy mistake to make – they’re mirror images and I had 24 other squiggles to learn.
Somebody (pretty sure it was my sister or possibly a teacher) helpfully pointed out that the word bed looks like a bed. This was a useful mental reference at the time and remained a curiosity, after the letter confusion ceased to be a problem. Since those early struggles, I have become a happy user of the handwritten English language and have been known to use it on shopping lists, correspondence and tax forms. Yay!
The word bed definitely looks like a classic bed – it has vertical posts at either side and the letter e is the centre.
Much later on I discovered the musician eYe. If you’re a fan of experimental noise music, you’ll know him as a member of cult Japanese band Boredoms. The cool thing about the word eYe is it looks like a pair of eyes with the capital letter Y representing the bridge of the nose. (Cheers to Paul for bringing it to my attention.)
I don’t know if the resemblence between eYe and a pair of eyes is deliberate. But we do know that Boredoms are not your average band, musically and when it comes to novel ideas.
The members of Boredoms are well accustomed to words which resemble their meaning. Japanese has a pictorial writing system called kanji. It also has two writing systems which are not pictorial, but kanji is our favourite today.
Examples of other writing systems which are pictorial:
washing symbols on garment labels
symbolic buttons on media players.
I tried to think of other examples of this, the bed phenomenon. Here are the next ones I thought of.
If the person speaking is a human rather than an animal, machine or deity then I is totally valid. It looks like a human standing up. I prefer a lower-case i because it has a little bobbly head. But you can’t write that in polite company because for some reason I’ve never understood, the personal pronoun must be upper-case. Unlike “me” which can be all lower-case. Where’s e e cummings when you need him?
CD stands for compact disc. But it also stands for a circular shiny thing in our new quest for pictorial English. Obviously the font we choose will have some effect on its resemblence to a physical CD. Can we handle the vertical line down the middle of our CD word? It could be the multi-colour rainbow shiny reflective line. Or it could be part of the “onbody” design as it’s known. I know the letter combination CD isn’t a word but it often behaves like one. It’s on the list.
Poo might cause a problem. It’s valid when it looks like three blobs, the first of which has a streaky line running off it. But not all poos look like that, as any reader of reasonable bathroom experience will know. Let’s add it to our provisional list anyway. Not all beds look like the classic bed, so no use being too strict.
By now I was having some mild fun with this. Which other English words look like their meaning? At first I assumed there would be other people demanding immediate answers to this vital question, as I was. I ran a few Google searches involving “bed”, “words which look like their meaning” and other variations. Not much relevant came up but the original fact about bed. It’s very difficult to do a web search for something if you don’t know what to call it.
As I said earlier, there might be some prior research in this area, but I’m not aware of it. And since I like thinking of names for things, often just for my own use, I gave this subset of English a name. If you combine English and a hieroglyph, surely you get Engglyph.
English + glyph = Engglyph
The word is unique in as much as currently there are zero results for the word Engglyph on Google. It looks foreign, which is nice.
Unfortunately the word Engglyph is not a valid Engglyph word itself. Unlike English, which is! Does English look like its meaning? I think it does. In a linguistic sense, what could be more English than the word English? So English is Engglyph.
I poo English CD. At the moment Engglyph vocabulary is looking a bit limited. But it’s not intended as a useful, complete language.
Here are some more. These are all Engglyph, without a doubt.
Four has some letters of unequal shape which nonetheless are four in number. The word four in all lower-case looks different but is equally valid.
It’s a similar thing for the words above with the suffix “ish” – which has to include the precise number too. For example, if I offered you sixish apples then it could actually be six apples. Take it up with a Greek philosopher if you don’t like it. Where’s Plato when you need him?
The following are kind of smug faced ones.
These three all relate to written language. I don’t want to dwell on them because this is already getting too meta. We ain’t here for no recursive brainache, we want the pleasing elegance of Engglyph.
All Engglyph words must be nouns.
They have to physically resemble the thing. They can’t be adjectives because adjectives are merely properties of nouns. If you’re interested in words which describe themselves, look up autological words.
That’s a different exercise to Engglyph. Although still a worthwhile and rewarding pursuit. 🙂
Incidentally there are some words which are both Engglyph and autological such as word.
But let’s get back to more examples:
I am starting to cheat with some of these, by allowing dangly extra bits and streaky lines.
So zig zag has got some zig zags in the zs – but it also has a bunch of extra letters. BOOBs has three pairs of boobs. Just saying. It also has a letter s which disrupts it somewhat. I should say that look is the noun not the verb, as in “a startled look”. The letter o is an eye and the l and k are like sides of a head.
Two household things with handles are the sA W and the jUg. The handles are sA and the g respectively. The j is the spout. After some cheating with capitalisation and spacing, they just about make the list.
There may be Engglyph-style words for other non-pictorial languages (such as your French, Somali, Malay, Welsh or your German). I may get back to you on that.
Contrary to some inspirational self-help guff out there, there is a time when one should quit. But like Edison and his lightbulb and Moses in the wilderness, this ain’t it. Despite the clear lack of any other similarity between me and those guys, this post is about that. Today’s blog post is about carrying on.
People often ask me “how’s the Welsh going?” and it’s good that they ask. When I started learning in 2007 I decided to fully commit. Part of that decision meant telling anyone who might care. I wanted to signal to Welsh speakers that I welcome them to try addressing me in Welsh and expect to get something back. I also ended up enlisting the indirect support and pester power of my friends, family, peers and colleagues at large, to progress this thing.
It turned out to be a good tactic. Enlist the crowd to hold you to a decision. You will limit your options to just two – to carry on with the project or to quit. And the quitting would be of the most public and humiliating kind. So it gets you through.
So how is the Welsh going?
Kindly permit me a tenuous analogy about the world of open source software releases. If my ability in Welsh were an operating system, right now you could say it was almost at the alpha stage. It’s messy, it’s buggy and the user interface is far from sorted. You will encounter crashes and blank stares if you give me unexpected inputs. Nevertheless the will to progress and develop the product is there and experienced people can test it (by speaking to me in Welsh). You can even expect some useful and worthwhile output as long as you have a bit of patience. If it all goes wrong you can boot to a different partition and use another operating system (English) which has been fully installed and tested.
Much as I like a tenuous analogy, the software one is weak because we’re not here just to function. To be sure, Welsh to me is a useful language: a language of business where you can get things done. But it’s also a language of self-expression. I want to express myself in it and I want to understand other people more fully when they express themselves. Whatever the language, in this world we understand each other merely approximately. Therefore I can try to reduce the distance of that approximation.
Ample research has suggested links between acquiring a second language and various kinds of wellbeing or something like that. If you want to read about that, you can probably find a study. However true any of it might be, it’s not enough of a strategy or day-to-day motivator to keep going – not for me anyway.
I’ve mostly been trying to stop trying to be clever and just think like a BABY. When I started the wlpan course in late 2007, I figured I was a grown-up in English and a baby in Welsh. This amused me but it was totally wrong of course. I’m a grown-up in everything. Not long after starting the course I was attempting to describe the weather and my day job, which are things babies rarely do.
I don’t envy much about the lifestyle or appreciations of your average baby. (He has no equivalent of beer – nor jazz.) But the way a baby learns a language is superb, just mapping words directly on to things. The language becomes set and the mapping of words to things never fails, except for the possibility that he becomes a structuralist philosopher later in life.
Thing – word, word – thing.
Peth – gair, gair – peth.
It’s babies who are exposed to yr iaith Gymraeg who I envy the most. Not only do they acquire Welsh without hardly caring, they also learn English and map both languages separately and directly on to thing-space. The fact I know, say, the word “investment” and its Welsh equivalent (“buddsoddiad”) while they probably don’t is not really any consolation.
Each time I learn some Welsh, I map it on to the English equivalent, which then maps on to the thing or concept or meaning. English is the middleman which is clumsy at best, but try doing it any other way. And the whole thing falls apart regularly for prepositions (“to”, “on”, “over”, “for” and the like) and which verbs they relate to. And also for things like verbs and possessives (dw i’n dy garu di and all that weirdness), I still struggle with that.
Different languages will not map directly on to each other. This is a truism about languages which also happens to be true. Welsh doesn’t map to English. The phrasebook can only be an aid. It’s mental scaffolding.
“Hwyl” does not mean “fun” or “good times” or “mood” or “fervour”, those are just rough guesses. “Hwyl” means “hwyl”. The only way to understand “hwyl” is to go out and experience some genuine hwyl. Preferably in Caernarfon, I might add, with an assortment of local characters. And so it goes for every other word and utterance.
In Welsh you don’t really say you own an object. You don’t say “I’ve got money”. In place of that, as a southerner, you might say “Mae arian gyda fi” which roughly translates as “There is money with me”. So ownership has a different perspective embodied in the expression. It could be a healthier and less greed-prone concept of relating to stuff. That’s a maybe. Anyway, it’s different. A truer understanding of the insights within will only come if one lives in the world of “Mae arian gyda fi” for a while. These are just examples and it’s enough to make a point.
The other method of language learning is to get magically zapped in the forehead. The downside to this method is it doesn’t happen. But even if it did you might miss the life bits.
The product is the process. So even if I can’t think like a baby anymore, I shall continue to walk like one.
Language is important.
Recently I found George Orwell’s seminal essay Politics and the English Language online, originally written in 1946. I’d heard of it before but never thought to track it down.
Here’s some of the intro:
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.
If you’ve ever enjoyed the Birtspeak section in Private Eye or wondered about just what our authorities and our local and national government(s) are really saying and not saying, do read the whole thing. Orwell does an excellent job of dismantling the slippery, cliched communications of our time, without the benefit of actually being alive right now. This is a real issue with real consequences and not just for pedants.
We had the perfect example last month. One way to judge UK chancellor Alistair Darling’s recent Budget would be to calculate its impact on your personal finances. (Disclosure: Darling has indirectly gifted me an approximate saving of £71.61 next year according to the BBC’s budget calculator.)
But another way to judge the imaginativeness, the clarity and the originality of the ideas would be to look at the language Darling used. Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times has examined the Budget speech and calculated a sharp increase in the use of cliched jargon words:
“Stakeholders”, “overarching”, “benchmarking” and “strategic” – all words recently banned by local authorities – were more in evidence this year than last.
It goes on. (In that sometimes annoying and self-defeating habit of newspapers, the entire column is produced verbatim on one web page without guidance – you have to skip past the first section to see it.)
As far as the English language is concerned, I’m always divided about the well meaning work of, say, the Plain English Campaign. Sometimes, more complex ideas do take more specialised words and longer sentences to describe. And often what I read of their earnest work strikes me as a bit precious or reductionist. For instance, from their site:
1. High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.
2. Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.
Does the admittedly clumsy sentence 1 retain any of the full meaning it might have been intended to have when re-expressed as sentence 2, I wonder?
You should have seen the Scrabble board tonight. It was violence, pure violence. Sheer lexical brutality. Above this paragraph could be a photo to illustrate my glorious victory – either a snapshot of tonight’s board or something from Flickr maybe, with a classic edition of the board in all its distinctive colours. But I refuse to kowtow to your relentless lust for the visual. You’ll have to content yourself with imagining it.
I’m by no means a veteran Scrabble player. I just got caught up in the whole Scrabble thing – as an indirect result of the buzz around the Facebook app I guess. (On that note, the URL of this blog post is a shout-out to those heady days of 2008.) I don’t think I ever played the Facebook app. It holds no interest for me. Call it a personal foible but for me Scrabble is an unmediated pursuit, very much like poker. It’s physical, it’s haptic. Scrabble involves tiles, racks, the board, a pen and paper. The match is completed in one sitting. Online play would be a completely different game. It would be a sprawling mess, allowing for ridiculous amounts of cheating. Also, it might be there all the time, distracting me from more important things I’m aiming to do, like work. (Or writing this, natch.)
So I’ve been playing the real Scrabble for a while. It’s reasonable to say I’ve been getting gradually better through practice. Most of what I’ve picked up is from playing and losing and learning. I know what to do with an “S” and I’m not about to leave some megapoints open just on a whim. “ZA” is allowed and is short for pizza. Yeah, I know! But it is. You can’t quibble with SOWPODS, the official dictionary. You’re not allowed to play “ZEN” for some reason. On a related theme perhaps, “QI” is allowed and is another way of spelling “chi”, the Chinese concept of a vital life energy.
The margin of 16 points was clear enough tonight. In any field of combat this would be a cause for celebration and reams of bunting. What’s more, I felt for the first time that I was making some kind of breakthrough – not only with Scrabble, but with finding any kind of game to call my own. Quizzes I can do, but otherwise in my life until now I could never claim any notable sporting ability. It’s just not my thing.
In physical sports, for instance, there’s a pattern. Generally I achieve mediocrity and then enter a negative spiral and very quickly settle into a relaxed state of very little ability or, for that matter, concern. I’m happy this way.
Imagine being some kind of sporting jock who took it really seriously! That’s not my style, dude. Tennis would be the worst. Charging up and down, earnestly trying to strike a ball like some pathetic trained animal. Then working up a red-faced fit of pique at the umpire’s decision. What folly. I tried playing tennis once, then immediately felt constrained and wanted to exit the game as soon as possible.
Most of the football matches I played were in school. I wouldn’t have minded being better at football. And I felt bad for the guy who got picked last for the team every time. I would be around fourth or fifth from last. So not really exceptional in my lack of sporting talent either.
Fact remains, if I have a “competitive streak” it has rarely ever surfaced in these kinds of pursuits.
And we’re back at the board of brutality. Recently every Scrabble match I have played has offered a real opportunity of victory. Therefore the victory is the focus and it must not be compromised. In Scrabble, as in life, I’m the kind of guy who cannot abide cheating. In my presence there will be no illegal words, prior dictionary research nor any deviation from the proper rules whatsoever. Last summer I ended up having a debate with somebody who was trying to play “IQ”. (As if that could ever be considered a word!) OK, it wasn’t a debate, it was more like an argument. Call it the unfamiliar feeling of actually being competitive and caring about winning a zero-sum game. I didn’t like that feeling.
Tonight I had a kind of flash-forward, which is like your flashback as a standard movie device except into the future. If I were to work at this Scrabble brilliance then I would have to become the best in the Riverside district of Cardiff. And then zoom out from there. Talent, fame, wealth and comprehensive knowledge of peculiar words awaited. Mostly the latter.
The vision became one of supreme Scrabble ability but I could already clearly see where it was leading. The pinnacle of vocabular skill promised so much. But were I to conquer it, I would feel empty inside. True, I’d emerged victorious in my future imagining: a real Scrabble overlord. Nevertheless, I felt my qi ebbing away.
In order to progress to this final stage and excel at Scrabble, I would have to proceed to the next stage. The next stage is to play more and better people. The training pathways are pretty much set and gradual improvement is almost inevitable, if you have a knack for it. You get some practice with superior players and spend time equipping yourself with heavier and more effective precision armoury, word patterns and the like. The shortest words are a good place to start.
Lists of the two and three-letter words are easy to find. Now and again I’ve tried. But every time I glance at such a list, I immediately question myself. What am I doing? What has my life become? The exercise seems so futile and I cast aside the papers in disgust. (More often than that I close the web browser window in disgust, but that would be to diminish the dramatic effect of this story.)
I know a guy who hates Scrabble. Let’s call him Matthew, because that is his name. He’s an intelligent guy and you could imagine him being quite good. But Matthew hates Scrabble, his body rejects it, because the words don’t mean anything. They’re just collections of letters that correspond to valid English words. It’s therefore a pointless pursuit in his mind. I don’t hold that point of view but I’m beginning to understand it. Especially when considering all this properly. What kind of person learns those words and pursues that kind of excellence? Sure, you could spend extra time learning the actual meanings of the words, but that’s peripheral to the goal of Scrabble prowess. The meaning is not intrinsic to the game. Did you know that there are, say, Asian people who can play the English version of Scrabble to international standard but who cannot understand English with any degree of fluency? I don’t know if that’s true or not but someone told me once and it could be true.
The learning of words is an arms race in which there can only be one winner. That winner could be me. It could! But it could just as easily be someone else. In order for it to be me, I’d have to really desire it and put time and energy into it. In that activity there is no incentive for me. I have this in its right context now. In any given Scrabble match I certainly wouldn’t mind beating you. But I no longer feel the need to beat you. And I don’t care if you beat me.
Incidentally, I also own a brand new Scrabble Yn Gymraeg set. It’s the official Welsh version with a different set of letters. As far as my Scrabble Yn Gymraeg is concerned, I am hopelessly impaired and stand a very good chance of losing utterly. And that retains a lot of appeal.
However you translate “epic FAIL” into Welsh, this recent Guardian error tickled me:
A letter to the editor, which touched lightly on English ignorance of Welsh matters, was attributed in an early edition to Hwyl Fawry. It should have been attributed to Gill Caldwell. She signed off her letter with hwyl fawr, which translates roughly as “all the best” (March frogs, 6 March, page 35).
From 11th March Corrections, sent to me by a friend.
Let it not be said that The Guardian is ignorant or dismissive of the Welsh language – last October they advertised for a Welsh-speaking online content editor based in London. Whoever grabbed that position could well be laughing now, as the salary was advertised at £21k per hour.