The delightful snares of ambiguity

There’s the lame of joke that has to do with a husband asking his wife “What’s wrong” and she says, “Nothing.” In this case, “nothing” means “something.”

If somebody laughs and says, “You’re the world’s greatest lover” it means you aren’t.

Satire, sarcasm, irony, words with multiple meanings: these things can be a writer’s greatest joys and for others the greatest hell.

If you live in North Florida, then you know that if my response to you is, “No, yeh” it means yes, but that if it’s “Yeh, no” it means no. Slang and dialect and passing language fads ad to the mix of joys and hells.

Years ago, if somebody was called “badass,” that meant nasty, trashy, murderous, unkempt. Now, it’s a badge of honor. The changing meanings of words and phrases through time add to the fun as well as the snare of language. And then there are all those words and phrases that are perfectly fine in the U.S. will get you in big trouble in England, another example of two countries separated by a common language.  (That phrase doesn’t quite tell you if “common” means low class or if it means “the same.”)

And heaven help us if parents try to understand what their children are talking about, especially if they’re texting.

No wonder people have trouble communicating with each other when they have the best of intentions.

I always have fun yanking people’s chains when they say things like “nothing is sacred.” I know what they mean, that is, that people are not treating sacred words, songs, motions, ceremonies, etc. as sacred. But if I pretend to take the person who says that literally, I ask how it’s possible for nothing itself to be sacred. Or, when they say, “Nothing’s certain,” I ask how it can be that the only certainty comes from nothing.

“Nothing” is one of those words that begs to be played with.

The delightful snares in language work to a writer’s advantage if s/he is writing mysteries, satire, comedy, and ghost stories. The snares are also quite common in the hands of politicians. Meanwhile, the reader assumes the writer (or politician) is writing to reveal when they’re writing to conceal.  ‘Struth, maybe none of us are any better than PR flaks.

The only way I can think of to end this post is: “Can you see what I’m saying.”


If you love double meanings and nasty wordplay, you’ll enjoy “Special Investigative Reporter.”




Creating Language Anew

“I am constantly finding ways to create language anew, or to represent spoken tongues.” – Bernardine Evaristo, in an April 2020 interview in The Writer’s Chronicle.”

In 2019, Evaristo was the first black woman to with the Man Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. Vanity Fair wrote last December that the novel was written in “a free-flowing, prose poetry style that she’s dubbed ‘fusion fiction.'”

Many writers struggle with the linear nature of language as we commonly use it, one thing after enough, rather like the way computers have been processing coded instructions prior to the coming age of quantum computing.

In “real life,” a person might be carrying on a conversation with his neighbor while they cook steaks in the back yard about last night’s football game. Meanwhile, each person is watching the steaks, hearing what the children are doing in the background, wondering about tomorrow’s projects at work, and feeling the pain of several fire ant bites. There’s a lot going on here that’s difficult to convey to the reader if what is shown on the page is a passage of dialogue about the ball game.

One might get around this by using impressionistic techniques (variously abstract and subjective),  intruding into the dialogue with multiple snippets of information in parentheses, by displaying the dialogue in the traditional way and then following it up with omniscient narrator passages that say (essentially) what each character was thinking and aware of while appearing to be devoting his focus completely on the back and forth conversation with his neighbor.

Dan Brown (and many others) have shown simultaneous–or nearly simultaenous events–by writing in a series of short chapters and/or short scenes. This is like saying such and such happened and then adding, “meanwhile back at the ranch.”

My feeling has always been that the closer a writer gets to portraying real events in the true complexity in which they occur, the more likely it is that s/he will end up with material that most readers find unreadable. It’s odd, I think, that while we accept our knowledge of simultaneous thoughts/events/feelings in our own lives without question, we don’t know how to handle that reality when it gets to the page.

When writers, such as Evaristo find new ways of creating language anew that end up being accepted by readers and critics, I very pleased/impressed/jealous. I really don’t like seeing these new ways labelled as “experimental” (as in the Washington Post review snippet below) because that implies that the writer swept up the scanned in the remnants of partial drafts, notes, and ideas from his or her desk, shoved them between covers, and called them a novel. I believe most readers consider something labelled that way believe that the work is not ready to be published yet.

A lot of people–many who’ve never read it–say Finnegans Wake is that kind of novel. It’s one of my favorites. Creating language anew may be–from the writer’s point of view–an experiment to see whether or not a new form and structure approach “works.” When the author decides that it does work, the book leaps out of the laboratory and into commerce and ceases to be an experiment.

I’m a bit biased in favor of “something new) because I’ve always fought editors and English teachers for years about many of my sentence and format constructions. I’ve abandoned tinkering with format because–for example–Kindle cannot handle the multiple columns I saw as one way of showing multiple things happening at once. I wrote an early novel in this format and reviewers called in “experimental” and readers said they couldn’t figure it out.

I probably didn’t help my case when people asked which column they were supposed to read first, and I answered: “it doesn’t matter.” The novel is out of print. And early edition of my contemporary fantasy The Sun Singer had several brief instances of side-by-side columns. They were very short. The print version looked fine. The e-books didn’t; so I displayed the material from the columns in the same old linear way I’ve always been trying to get around in my work.

I  think artists have a better chance of creating acceptable non-linear paintings that show the true nature of reality because the viewer can see and grok the entire painting at once. That’s really not possible with a 100,000-word novel or even a 10,00-word short story. But I want readers to be able to see the scenes in the way they would if each one were a painting. I keep working on it.

As for now: good for you Bernardine.

from the Washington Post

‘Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other…is a breathtaking symphony of black women’s voices, a clear-eyed survey of contemporary challenges that’s nevertheless wonderfully life-affirming… Together, all these women present a cross-section of Britain that feels godlike in its scope and insight…just as crucial to this novel’s triumph is Evaristo’s proprietary style, a long-breath, free-verse structure that sends her phrases cascading down the page. She’s formulated a literary mode somewhere between prose and poetry that enhances the rhythms of speech and narrative. It’s that rare experimental technique that sounds like a sophisticated affectation but in her hands feels instantly accommodating, entirely natural.



Rebel in English Class

I never understood why I was forced to take English courses since I was fluent in the language. Consequently, the rules made no sense to me because they seemed to be applied after the fact to something I did naturally. Also, I associated the rules with drill which was tedious and boring and seemed to have no practical application to speaking or writing.

Think of something you do naturally–like walking. Suppose you were forced to take a class in walking which was based on all the scientific things known about a person’s body and how it walks. Quite likely, you might think–unless you wanted to become a doctor–that the science of walking had little to do with your ability to walk. Yet, your school system mandated a course in walking because, after all, people need to be able to walk.

In today’s world, immersion-style approaches to learning a language seem to get the best results. Languages, such as Scots Gaelic, Blackfeet, and Hawaiian that were on the verge of extinction are being rescued through an immersion approach. I often wonder whether I would have been less at war with my English teachers if they had focused on immersion rather than atomistic drill.

Being a rebel had some unfortunate consequences when it came to learning other languages. When I took courses in Spanish and German, those courses were based on formal grammar rules. So, when the teacher said, “Today we’re going to talk about the XYZ rule,” I had no idea what that referred to because I hadn’t retained any rules by name from my English classes. So, I was behind the eightball since I had to figure out what kinds of phrases those rules applied to in English before I knew what the Spanish teach or German teacher was talking about.

It seemed to me that everyone who wasn’t a rebel in English class and who went to the trouble to learning all the rules had a much easier time when they showed up in a German, Spanish, or French class. When the teacher said, “Today, we’re going to look at the future perfect conditional,” everyone but me seemed to know what that was.

When I was taking German and Spanish in high school and college, I think an immersion-style course or study abroad approach would have helped me rather than approaching the languages in courses based on rules and drill. The rules make no sense to me in English, so I have no jumping-off point for learning new languages in a rules-based approach.

With a Scots ancestry, I’ve always wanted to learn Scots Gaelic (Gàidhlig), a language that I think might be coming back after years of being banned and slandered by the English. I also wished I was capable of learning Blackfeet because I began my writing career with a focus on Montana and also Hawaiian because I love the Islands. Knowing the language is the key to many things because it’s tied directly to the soul of the people who speak it. No wonder the U.S. banned Hawaiian and Blackfeet for years.

But, I digress. When the Blackfeet Nation started a school in Browning, MT that would help people recover their own language, they corresponded with experts in Hawaii who were using immersion techniques to save the Islands’ language from extinction. I corresponded with educators in both groups about 20-30 years ago. I felt bad because my country tried to destroy those languages just as the English tried to destroy my ancestors’ language. But I was stuck: I couldn’t learn any of these languages by going to the places they were taught/spoken and I couldn’t learn them based on language structure drills.

My view is that we need to find ways of saving dying languages and better ways of teaching our own. I have no clue what those ways are, but as an author, I know I’d be lost if my own language suddenly became illegal due to the edict of one conqueror or another. The theft/destruction of a people’s language is about as low as one can go; it’s unconscionable.  Goodness knows I can’t help fix the problem because being a rebel in English class had more far-reaching ramifications than I knew.

My view is that we should spend time and resources restoring all the American Indian languages we tried to destroy.


My ignorant love of languages has led to the use of Hawaiian, Blackfeet, Tagalog, and Gàidhlig in my books with a lot of help from native speakers. I appreciate the help of an instructor from the University of Hawaii for the translations in this novel.





Words in good order are a treasure

As I re-read Amanda Coplin’s The Orcharist (2012), I’m reminded–as I always am when I read a great book a second or third time–of the treasures the author’s words present that might be overlooked the first time through by reader’s focus on the plot.

David Abram (The Spell of the Sensuous) speaks of the languages of the forest that most of us miss because we either don’t understand them or aren’t paying attention. In addition to animal tracks and calls, there are things that move (leaves blown across the sand, for example) that are another language we could learn if we wanted to understand the planet.

When I took a typesetting course in college as part of my journalism degree, the professor said that the best way to learn about a new typeface was to take a printed copy of it and trace every letter on an overlaid sheet of tissue paper. To know type, you need to see all of the thick and thin places, the ascenders and descenders, the legibility of the face on the page, and whether or not the type works best for headlines or text.

When we pay attention to a novel on a second or third reading, rather like noticing the language of a forest or the personality of a typeface, we see more than we saw the first time we read it. I’ve read The Prince of Tides and A Scot’s Quair at least five times, and each time I find a new nugget of gold or a hidden diamond. I usually let a fair amount of time go by before I’ll read a book again. That tends to make it seem newer when I pick it up for another reading.

I see on the Internet that some people track the number of books and their titles each year. I’m not sure why. I guess that’s okay, though it might emphasize quantity over quality, including making it harder to insert time in the schedule for re-reading one’s favorites.

Reading a book once seems to me to be similar to buying anything else and using it only once. Okay, maybe it’s not similar at all. But once the book is there on the shelf or on the display in one’s Kindle library, it still has things to say to us.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat.