Standardized language considered doubleplusungood

A few days ago I received a PDF of the first pass of The Ionia Sanction. The first pass is not actually the first pass; it's more like the last pass. When a book is ready for the printers, the operations people typeset the entire book precisely as it will appear on the printed page. They send me a PDF, and that "first pass" is the final check before I say it's okay and they press the button to print real copies.

As soon as I opened the PDF I went straight to page 274, where I read this sentence:

"So you dealt with the farmer."

And I breathed a prayer of thanks to Editor Kathleen, because there's an irregular verb in that sentence. Yay!

One of the biggest differences between North American English and everyone else's, although it's hardly the most obvious point, is the ruthless elimination of irregular verbs. I guess there are still a few lurking around, but they're probably running scared.

I wrote that sentence as you see it. Irregular verbs are very normal to me and, frankly, sound better. Also, if you're writing historicals, irregular forms sound older to give a patina of age. The copyeditor, quite correctly and in accordance with the deified Chicago Manual of Style, struck through my lovely -t, and replaced it with an ugly -ed.

"So you dealed with the farmer."

This to me means the farmer is a pack of cards.

When I saw that change in the copyedits, I wrote in the margin that if I couldn't have the irregular form, then let me know and I'd rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem. Because the regular form sounds totally wrong. Very luckily for me -- and I suspect few authors have this luck -- my editor actually listened to my concerns. Thanks Kathleen!

I'll be in therapy for years to get over it, but I totally accept standardization as a general rule. That's what most of my audience are used to. Why make life hard for readers? That would be a crazy thing to do.

But the fact is, standardizing English also has the effect of sterilizing it. There's a subtle rhythm to good English prose that everyone responds to, even if many people can't hear it. If every word follows the same pattern then it's like music with only one beat.

"So you dealt with the farmer."
"So you dealed with the farmer."

Say them both together and you'll hear the second is a beat longer. It lacks punch. The whole rhythm is changed when you standardize the language to a metronomic regularity. I'm sure most writers would agree that we hear the sound values before ever we write the words, and the rhythm matters a lot. Having the option to insert a punchy -t participle is an important part of the toolkit for controlling how the reader feels about what they're reading.

Does it really matter if we have two different past participles for the same word in a single book? The counter-argument goes that standardization makes text easier to read, but watch any teenager write a text message and you'll see that standardization is the last thing on their minds. Yet they understand each other just fine.

The greatest ever writer of the English language was a man who couldn't spell his own name the same way twice. Clearly standardization isn't necessary to quality!


I received a query from a reader the other day about the use of the word corn. It's apparently a common source of confusion, so I thought I'd post the answer for all to see.

In The Pericles Commission, Nico reports seeing corn sold in the agora. This might look wrong to North Americans, who strongly associate the word corn with the squishy, sweet, yellow stuff that originated in the Americas, and could not possibly be in the agora of ancient Athens.

Has Gary blundered with an anachronism? Actually, no.

The word corn comes from Old Norse, I believe, certainly long before the European discovery of America, and means any type of cereal grain. In North America, dictionaries uphold that meaning, but people usually only use the word to refer to the grain that is more precisely known as maize. There are of course grains other than maize, and they all fall under the general term of corn.

This is why, for example, Demeter is called the goddess of corn, but when you see images of her she is invariably holding sheafs of what you might call wheat. Likewise, it's always written that Vespasian in Roman times came to power by withholding the corn shipments from Egypt, even though the grain on board was definitely not yellow. The Golden Bough by James Frazier is probably the most important book ever written on ancient mythology, and he uses corn to refer to all cereal grains. These are all correct usage!

So when Nico sees corn in the agora, he does indeed. The specific type of corn is probably barley or wheat.

Gary guest posts at Novel Adventurers

Today I have a guest post at Novel Adventurers:  Off the beaten track: A Visa to the Ancient World, in which I discuss whether it's truly possible to bring the past to life.

Thanks to Heidi, Alli, Supriya and Lina of Novel Adventurers for the invite!

Liturgy, and the joy of antidosis

A lot of modern church terms come direct from the civic administration of ancient Athens. The classic example is the ecclesia, which was the world's first democratic parliament, but today means a collection of priests (and the root word means gathering). Likewise, an episcopos was a public inspector in ancient Athens. These days episcopal means relating to oversight by a bishop.

Here's another one for you: liturgy.

Liturgy to us means public worship. Liturgy to the ancient Greeks meant a public service, to do something or make a donation, for the public good.

The first liturgy probably happened when a few wealthy men donated to the state out of the goodness of their hearts, but by classical times the liturgy had become a formal institution. Every year the archons--those are the city magistrates--would decide what liturgies needed to be performed--in effect, they declared a public works program--and then they waited for volunteers to take on the jobs. In return for performing a liturgy, the volunteer would receive great honour and kudos.

There were certain standard liturgies, and some were more popular than others.

The wealthy and powerful probably queued up for the privilege of being a choregos. That meant funding and putting on a play at one of the great arts festivals. All the famous Greek tragedies were funded as a liturgy. The honour of being choregos was so great that I wouldn't be surprised if sometimes money changed hands, or unscrupulous deals were done to win the job.

Pericles got a choregos gig very early in his career. He hired Aeschylus, the inventor of tragedy, to write and put on a play called The Persians. Pericles and Aeschylus between them probably designed the play to score a political point about the superiority of the Greeks. Interestingly, The Persians is the oldest play to survive to modern times, so in a very real sense it's the beginning of drama.

Likewise, sports fanatics very happily volunteered to manage the athletics teams. That liturgy was called the gymnasiarchy and was done at the gymnasium.

The liturgy called the trierarchy was of the greatest importance, because it meant to maintain a trireme in the Athenian Navy. The wealthy man who took this on became the ship's captain for the year, and was entitled to call himself Trierarch. Who wouldn't want to be captain of Salaminia or Paralos, the two most famous warships of the ancient world? The modern equivalent would be if, say, Bill Gates paid for a nuclear powered aircraft carrier out of his own pocket, and then became it's captain in return.

The liturgy of the trierarch gets a mention in passing in my second book. Nico is being wafted to a vital mission aboard Salaminia, and he says this to the captain:
"Have you been a sailor all your life, sir?"

The Trierarch laughed. "Me? A sailor? Poseidon protect me, no."

"Then, why are you...that is, what–"

"What am I doing here? I paid for the ship, young man; every board, every rope, every fitting, every plank. It's my gift to the state, because I am wealthy, part of my obligations under the liturgy, the convention that says wealthy men must spend their wealth to the benefit of the state. So I get to call myself Trierarch, and strut about the deck as if I know what I'm doing. The truth is, the best sailor on this ship is him," the Trierarch pointed to the helmsman; a grizzled, burnt, unsmiling man. "I'm the one who gets the glory of command; he's the one who gives the orders when it really matters."

The Trierarch wandered off to do some more strutting and glorying.
But not everyone wanted to do a liturgy. These things cost a fortune and not everyone is public-spirited. After the popular liturgies were taken there'd always be leftovers. What happened then was, the archons assigned them to the richest men who hadn't volunteered.

Usually the victim just sighed and paid the money. To this extent, the liturgy was like a wealth tax.

But the law gave him another option. The victim could name another man wealthier than himself to do the job, someone who didn't already have a liturgy assigned.

A man who's been assigned a liturgy--let's call him Ariston--could point out a fellow citizen--let's call him Braxas--and say, "Braxas over there has more money than me, so he should fund the public feasts."

If Braxas really did have more money, then the law required him to take on the liturgy, and Ariston didn't have to pay a thing. So the liturgy was like a wealth tax with some elements of a hot potato.

But if Braxas refused, and said Ariston was the richer, then Ariston could either give up and pay the liturgy, or else he could invoke the rule of antidosis. Antidosis means "to give in exchange". This rule said that if Ariston still maintained that Braxas had more money, and if Braxas insisted that he didn't, then the two men were required by law to swap everything they owned. Every. Single. Thing. They. Owned.

Ariston was then required to pay for the liturgy, but since he now, by his own insistence, has more money than he did before, he's hardly in a position to complain.

Antidosis meant that Ariston would have to be dead sure of his facts, or he'd end up with less wealth and still have to pay the liturgy anyway. Conversely, Braxas would have to be honest about his holdings, or he might avoid the liturgy at the cost of losing even more wealth.

I imagine that when antidosis got invoked, it must have been a tense situation, and caused both parties to eye the other's property in minute detail. The antidosis rule effectively outsourced to private citizens the much hated problem of tax auditing, in such a way that you knew they'd do it with great accuracy.

You can imagine how much fun everyone else would have had watching one of these cases in process. We only know of antidosis being invoked a few times, and every time the man on the Braxas side backed down. But there surely must have been more cases than we know of.

I'd love to see the liturgy and the rule of antidosis in use today. It's a tax system that doesn't cost the state a cent (or a drachma) to administer, because the citizens themselves do all the enforcement. Even amongst all the genius ideas that the Athenians came up with, this surely must be one of their greatest.

Dwine is my word of the day

Did you know that dwine is a verb closely related to dwindle? It means to pine, or waste away.

Dwine is totally going into my next book. I can't wait to see my editor's reaction.