(from a conversation with students)
New Kanye. Ye. Not ye, as in ‘come all ye faithful’, but Ye as in Kanye. Kan-yay. But Yeezy. It’s pronounced Yee-zee, not Yay-zee they said. Yes, but that’s with the extra ‘e’. And since when has Kanye cared about phonetics? He rhymes live with serious, them with apartment, and cousins with dumb.
Kanye even changes the words themselves to suit, apologising becomes apologin, and some would argue that cray is the word it is today because of N*ggas in Paris. Cray is crazy of course, but I can’t help but be reminded of London’s crime Moguls The Kray Twins.
This is something I see all the time: the adolescents before me warping and changing language. The more words I teach them, the more they produce. I teach them the word clue comes from the clew of thread given to Theseus for him to find his way out of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, and that somewhere Monday dropped its extra ‘O’, and like Sunday, was once Moonday. Moonday they say. Trying it on their tongue, and then walking in a little bit smug when Monday arrives. And there’s also scintillating, subterranean, and seraph. And in turn I learn lit means not only illuminated, but also intoxicated, and its most common use – cool, or awesome (in contrast to lit, these words now somehow seem lesser). Garms are clothes, extra means excessive, and savage (my favourite) describes one that just does not give a fuck. Even grammar shifts as quick as time. An ellipsis versus a mere two dots are completely different. The number of exclamations hold emotional meaning, as does a dash.
So language, as we know it today, is not static but fluid (like so many other things that were originally seen as static – gender, sexuality, politics). The root of language is in mythology, and as archaic as the classics appear to be, students are playing with mythology in their conversations, their statements. And the dictionary can’t keep up. WHAT DOES THE DICTIONARY SAY they yell when we argue over the meaning of a word, but spoken language moves faster than written. And sometimes, the dictionary fails to actually define. Instead it lists synonyms, hopeful that the reader will grasp meaning from the linguistic bible’s failings.
Words and mythology and identity and how closely they are tied in the eyes of the youth is a notion that’s realised in Daisy Johnson’s forthcoming novel Everything Under. Gretel grew up in a world where words meant everything. Living on a canal boat with her mother, they had a language that was unique just to them (like so many families do), and now, as an adult, Gretel works as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary (the shifts in language seemingly personified).
Ultimately Johnson uses language as a metaphor for all things that warp and change and flood with time – memories, myth, identity, gender, sexuality, and of course, the river. Is the river a metaphor for all these things too? I think so, and how, like language, it can drown, can bury, reveal, be an identifier of class. Because language is an identifier of class, and class can never be separated from the mythology of England. There’s this moment in the novel when teenaged Gretel, recently abandoned by her mother, attends school for the first time. The words she uses, the ones from her childhood, alienate her. “You’re a wild child” she is told, “not even taught how to talk”.
If you think class has nothing to do with it, think back to the thoughts you had when I first mentioned Kanye, something (or someone) that surely shouldn’t be hustled alongside literary fiction. If you think class has nothing to do with it, consider how you feel when you hear the twang of a teen speaking a word that society sees as lesser. If you think class has nothing to do with it, remember the shame associated with mispronouncing a word – which brings us back to Kanye, and his voluntary mispronunciation. Maybe youth culture is shifting the shame, allowing for identity and class and gender to bring their own pronunciation, their own rules.
As a lexicographer Gretel now has control of language, but she is still unable to control the narrative surrounding her. A perfect retelling of classical myth, Daisy Johnson has created a multi-faceted novel that speaks not only to my aesthetic sensibilities (and damn, that cover), but allows me to notice the language before me, and reminds me of the fluidity of all things.