Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Void Indeed

A man named George Perec wrote a novel, La Disparition, in which he did not use the letter E even a single time. The book has also been translated into English, following the same strictures; the translation by Gilbert Adair is titled A Void. Daughter Michelle made me a gift of this book a while back, and it is fun to read within it. Here and there it contains famous English poetry but rendered entirely E-less.

Brigitte and I, yesterday, dictionaries in our laps, held a fascinating discussion. The subject? The differences between English and German, specifically that in German it is quite easy to avoid using words with Latin and Greek roots—and roots in other languages derived from these originals. Then A Void occurred to me—namely that writing a novel in English while avoiding “derivative” words like that would be far more difficult to do than simply to dispense with a single letter.

This and the next two sentences might be a case in point. The more abstract the concepts used, the more difficult to avoid employing words and phrases born somewhere else than in the British isles pre-Norman conquest. I’ll give it a college try and translate this paragraph into pure English next.

This and the next two sets of meanings marked by an ending dot might bring out what I have in mind. The farther from stuff the thought-marker in our head, the harder it is to side-step putting to work words or clusters born somewhere else than on the British island before the Norman overwhelm. I’ll give it a higher-learning-clan-abode stab and put this cut of writing into sinless English next.


  1. Pity the French! They have a similar problem describing their "entrepreneus" in good French.
    I learned only about 3 years ago that there is no such word in the French language as this important and good American word...

  2. Reading your post, I suddenly realized that our Queen's English is probably derived from a Pidgin Anglo-French that was developed by the population of England to communicate with the Norman imperialists at the time, creating this mish-mosh of Anglo-Saxon and French.

    I mean, I have read about this development before and no one ever just said it was a type of pidgin. And that would have been very nice, because there are living pidgins to observe and listen to, Nigerian Pidgin being noted now since the show about Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician.

    Of course, the Nigerian Pidgin was developed for the various tribes to communicate with the imperialist British back in the day.

  3. Montag: Yep. Patterns left by language tell me that the Romans failed to defeat the Germans. The English language tells us that the French-speaking Normans were successful against the English, however, and this would be true even if the Battle of Hastings had been forgotten.

  4. Yes, indeed. Living, breathing history.


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