Bad Sex, LOLcat lit, and the hardliners on language change

Russell Valentino

This news: Rowan Somerville's novel The Shape of Her won the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award "for a scene in which a nipple is likened to the upturned 'nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing in the night,'" Bloomberg reported. The author nabbed the U.K.'s "most dreaded literary prize" by besting a shortlist that included Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart, Craig Raine's Heartbreak, Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, Alastair Campbell's Maya, and Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. "There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you," Somerville said in his acceptance speech. The humor of the award, and the obvious good humor of the author’s acceptance quip, are reassuring, especially after my recent encounter with the hardliners on language change in Libya. They were from the Syrian delegation, and they had this to say about the topic: “What the enemy refers to as Modern Hebrew has nothing to do with the Ancient variety.” I might have just made that a little more elegant than the source, but the gist, which almost manages to be anti-Israeli without being anti-Semitic, is clear. It accords with other comments by the same source about the unacceptability of allowing foreign words into the “pure” idiom of one’s own language. As if that were possible, or good.

The best short explanation I’ve come across for why it is neither comes from Mikhail Bakhtin (in Discourse in the Novel, if I remember correctly). Language is always pushing and pulling, flying off at the margins and getting pulled back at its center. So you have things like slang (surfer speak, language poetry, geek jargon, etc.) and you have things like dictionaries, schools, and literary magazines. Dialects push at the margins, l’Academie francaise pulls toward the center. It’s not that one is better than the other; they work together, assuming the language is living, breathing. Dead languages don’t have slang except as an object of study. There’s plenty of politics in this, too: a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot ( At the far end of the innovation spectrum there’s LOLcat speak, and now LOLcat lit. I recently had the undergraduates in one of my classes do their “own” translation of five stanzas from Dante’s Inferno. I gave them five English versions, they made a fifth. I provided them with a lot of leeway, and one gave me a LOLcat version, explaining that this was an innovation of the English language itself. I thought of Roman Jacobson’s dictum that poetry is violence done to language. My student also pointed out that there is a LOLcat Bible translation. Here is its first line: “Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.” Whole thing’s available on Amazon for those who are interested. Especially recommended for praying cats and adult companions with a healthy sense of language change.