Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fourteen centuries of excruciating composition (and counting...)

I feel like I’ve been banging on a bit lately about my perception that the quality of writing amongst otherwise well-educated and articulate people has been going to hell in a hand basket. And it seems I’m not the only one to think this, as these representative samples from Clio Bluestocking Tales and Dame Eleanor Hull testify.

Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong, this particular gripe usually makes me feel just a wee bit curmudgeonly. I start to suspect the real problem may lay somewhere in the intersection between my advancing age and retreating patience, rather than in any objective decline in standards. This charming little post by Alice Rio (from Jonathan Jarrett’s back catalogue at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe) tends to confirm my suspicions. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting the relevant chunk here, because it is just so apt. It’s from a seventh century manuscript that appears to have been written by a rather grumpy monk:

“Another text, addressed to young men who do not know how to write. I wonder that, after such a long time, my speech has in no way been followed on the page, and the borrowed writing tablets which you bring back soiled with your text, as if from dictation, are filled with the wrong words.”

I bet that after writing that, our monk got together with his mates over a pint of ale to moan about how “novices these days wouldn’t know what to do with a semicolon if it came up and bit them on the arse!”

Image: A novice monk being punished for misusing the possessive apostrophe.


Clio Bluestocking said...

As much as I gripe, I'm pretty sure that students haven't declined much in the past millenia, and it's nice to see a monk with the same complaints.

I just saw my aunt over the holiday. She used to work for a pretty big academic press. "I couldn't train anyone to replace me," she said. "Because no one knows any grammar these days." She left the press in 1989, which would have been right about the time that my peers would have been applying for such jobs!

Janice said...

This train of thought always leads me to that early scene in "The Life of Brian" when Brian is being schooled by the soldier on his misuse of Latin in the anti-Roman graffiti.

"What's this, then? 'Romanes Eunt Domus'? 'People called Romanes they go the house'?"

Ink said...

Ok, I am giggling rather loudly over your image caption!!! Nice.

Bardiac said...

Good one :)

There is nothing new that is not old. Or something like that... according to Chaucer. And he would know about old!

Anonymous said...

I don't mind you quoting me at all, but credit where credit is due, the translation and indeed the post itself were not by me but by a then-colleague, Alice Rio, who has now moved on to better things in London. She deserves the praise here if there's any going!

Bavardess said...

Apologies, Tenth. I've edited to add the credit.
Clio - that's a funny story about your aunt. I'm sure I have said the same thing more than once...
Janice - thanks for another reminder that I need to watch that movie again! A good one for Christmas holiday viewing, I think.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou Bavardess. I don't know if Alice put this fragment in her recent translation of Marculf, but I hope so. I need to get a copy of that.<

Digger said...

These young whippersnappers don't know anything from nothing. Why, in my day, we deconstructed sentences for breakfast! And walked 2 miles to school, uphill, in snowstorms, both ways! IN BARE FEET.

Yeah, I'm finding myself grumping a bit about the failings of the youth. More than anything, catching myself doing it makes me feel old! :)