(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘prose

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”*…

Detail from the Constitution of India, 1949

Bulwer-Lytton had nothing on Indian jurists…

The English language arrived in India with the British colonists of the 17th century, giving rise to unique genres and variants, including some that characterize formal communications on the subcontinent to this day. Among these, the derogatory term “Babu English” was originally used by the British to describe the overwrought officialese of “babus” or Indian bureaucratsa style described at the British Library as “aspiring to poetic heights in vocabulary and learning, despite being full of errors.” 

“Babu English is the much caricatured flowery language of… moderately educated clerks and others who are less proficient in formal English than they realise,” wrote Rajend Mesthrie in English in Language Shift (1993). His examples include the clerk who asked his employers for leave because ‘the hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket’; the job applicant “bubbling with zeal and enthusiasm to serve as a research assistant”; and a baroque acknowledgement from a PhD thesis: “I consider it to be my primordial obligation to humbly offer my deepest sense of gratitude to my most revered Garuji and untiring and illustrious guide professor . . . for the magnitude of his benevolence and eternal guidance.”

The modern form of Babu English turns up most frequently in the language of India’s legal system. 

Take for example the 2008 case of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar, who was killed, together with a housekeeper, Hemraj, in the Talwar family home in Delhi; the murder rocked the nation. In 2013, a trial court ruled that the victims had been murdered by the girl’s parents:

The cynosure of judicial determination is the fluctuating fortunes of the dentist couple who have been arraigned for committing and secreting as also deracinating the evidence of commission of the murder of their own adolescent daughter—a beaut damsel and sole heiress Ms Aarushi and hapless domestic aide Hemraj who had migrated to India from neighbouring Nepal to eke out living and attended routinely to the chores of domestic drudgery at the house of their masters.” 

Had the judge accidentally inhaled a thesaurus? With its tormented syntax and glut of polysyllabic words, the judgment is a clear descendant and example of today’s Babu prose. In May 2016, a landmark judgment on criminal defamation written by a future Chief Justice pushed into new stylistic directions with phrases such as “proponements in oppugnation” and “made paraplegic on the mercurial stance.”

“It seems that some judges have unrealised literary dreams,” one former judge told me. “Maybe it’s a colonial hangover, or the feeling that obfuscation is a sign of merit… It can then become a 300-page judgment, just pontificating.”

Judges also retain a tendency to also quote scripture, allude to legends and myths, and throw in a dash of Plato, Shakespeare or Dickens. Some trace the legacy of flowery judgments to Justice Krishna Iyer, a pioneering and influential Supreme Court judge who served a seven-year term in the seventies. (“You had to perhaps sit with a dictionary to understand some [of his] judgments,” one lawyer remarked.)

But the former judge pointed out that this isn’t just a problem bedevilling judgments written in English. Even lower court judgments written in Hindi, he said, often deploy “words that were in vogue in Mughal times… It’s a problem of formalism.”

… 

Wherefore, qua, bonum: decrypting Indian legalese“: a colonial hangover, or unrealized literary dreams? Mumbai-based @BhavyaDore explores.

* George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

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As we choose our words carefully, we might send passionate birthday greetings to Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland; she was born on this date in 1901. A paragon of prolixity, Barbara Cartland wrote biographies, plays, music, verse, drama, and operetta, as well as several health and cook books, and many magazine articles; but she is best remembered as a romance novelist, one of the most commercially successful authors worldwide of the 20th century.

Her 723 novels were translated into 38 languages. and she continues to be referenced in the Guinness World Records for the most novels published in a single year (1977). Estimates of her sales range from 750 million copies to over 2 billion.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Good prose is like a windowpane”*…

 

Flaubert

From a page of Gustave Flaubert’s manuscript of Madame Bovary

 

Every writer, of school age and older, is in the sentences game. The sentence is our writing commons, the shared ground where all writers walk. A poet writes in sentences, and so does the unsung author who came up with “Items trapped in doors cause delays”. The sentence is the Ur-unit, the core material, the granular element that must be got right or nothing will be right…

A good sentence imposes a logic on the world’s weirdness. It gets its power from the tension between the ease of its phrasing and the shock of its thought slid cleanly into the mind. A sentence, as it proceeds, is a paring away of options. Each added word, because of the English language’s dependence on word order, reduces the writer’s alternatives and narrows the reader’s expectations. But even up to the last word the writer has choices and can throw in a curveball. A sentence can begin in one place and end in another galaxy, without breaking a single syntactic rule. The poet Wayne Koestenbaum calls it “organising lava”…

Orwell advised cutting as many words as possible, Woolf found energy in verbs, and Baldwin aimed for ‘a sentence as clean as a bone’. What can we learn from celebrated authors about the art of writing well?  Find out at “How to write the perfect sentence.”

* George Orwell

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As we perfect our prose, we might spare a thought for Lula Carson Smith; she died on this date in 1967. Better known by her married/pen name– Carson McCullers– she was an author who (with Faulkner, Wolfe, Welty, and Williams) embodied “Southern Gothic.”  She had many admirers among fellow American artists: Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, among many others.  From across the pond Graham Greene observed, “Mrs. McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility. I prefer Mrs. McCullers to Mr. Faulkner because she writes more clearly; I prefer her to D. H. Lawrence because she has no message.”

Carl Van Vechten’s 1959 portrait

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 29, 2018 at 1:01 am

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