12 May 2009

Kookaburras and other fossils

For reasons which remain slightly unclear to me, and which I will not bother to retrace, I found myself discussing with a group of British teenagers the following song fragment:

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
King of the whole wide bush is he.
Laugh! Kookaburra, laugh!
How gay your life must be.

It was entirely impenetrable to them. In terms of overall meaning, it may almost as well have been written in Sanskrit.

A lot of it is down to geohistorical context. Three key words in there, though derived from rural experience, would make perfect sense to an Australian of their age, however urban: kookaburra (a bird, whose cry sounds like wild laughter), gum (eucalyptus), and bush (wild, open, extensive, semidesert scrubland).

One word, though, is different: it has been subject to a massive signification slippage in the forty years which separate these young people from me, and it leads them to misconstrue the one line which they think they understand.

They know only two meanings for the word 'gay'. One is the “old, original meaning” (as one of them expressed it): homosexual. They regard that meaning as now very nearly a linguistic fossil, to be used only when talking to “teachers, and old people”. The second is the “real meaning, in real life, nowadays”: sad, embarrassing, pitiable, evoking derision. The idea that this word might once have meant joyous, happy, lively, bright, colourful, playful, merry, pleasure-loving, etc, met with total incomprehension. No, they had never heard of that. Was I sure? Was it Shakespearean?

Long ago, in several FidoNet "echoes" (discussion forums) I met a stimulating contributor called John Marks. He responded to my own belief that we should modify linguistic usage to correct historical injustice that he deplored the "truncation of language". That's a good formulation. I have no problem with enrichment by newer meanings; but the idea that an old one is being so rapidly lost saddens me.

There is a more practical issue, though. One meaning lost is neither here nor there; but if language loses many significations that rapidly, a discontinuity arises not just between usage and older literature (which has always happened) but also that written within the lifetime of the reader.

Intending illustration of usage, I quoted to "my" teenagers the opening lines of a Tom Springfield song, Island of Dreams:

I wandered the streets
And the gay crowded places
Trying to forget you...

They understood this to mean depressing crowded places – the places were not happy to their inhabitants, having become (through pathetic fallacy) unhappy to everyone at large because of the narrator's loss.

Literature (in its widest sense which includes blogs, kookaburras and Tom Springfield), already evolving rapidly in many other ways, is a collective memory store and one of the glues which hold modern societies together. The "memory store" function has already migrated wholesale from the library to the web, but that's OK; text on screen is literature just as much as text on paper. But if the language of which it is composed loses its coherence at a fundamental signification level, the longitudinal "glue" function will greatly weaken. Presumably, new ones will evolve.

13 comments:

Ray Girvan said...

Oh, yes, that one's also indelibly in my memory, from infants' school. Version we did was:

Kookaburra sits in an old gum tree
Merry little king of the bush is he.
Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh, Kookaburra.
O how gay your life must be.

It came back to me quite recently, as on Classic FM they often play a Beethoven (I think) piece that has a motif identical to the "Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh" phrase.

Felix Grant said...

It's interesting that the two versions scan differently, the third line differs by three syllables and the fourth by one.

Presumably, if we met to sing them (!) we would find corresponding differences in the tunes to which we learnt them.

Such variations are common in folk song, of course ... even within a single academic year at one Australian school, I learnt five different sets of words and three different tunes for Waltzing Matilda.

Poor Pothecary said...

Well, this is the version I remember:

Kookaburra.mp3.

I guess with the current meaning of "gay" it needs revising:

Kookaburra waits for the 10:03
Charting all the trains that arrive is he.
Graph! Kookaburra, graph!
How gay your life must be.

Dr. C said...

Much to ponder in this post. It is interesting that in a number of our recent collective posts we have used images and literature from the past (sometimes beyond the memory of the writers) to embellish current ideas. Wonder Woman means very little to someone who was born after, say, 1970. To others, who remember the comics from the 40's, the startling concept of a "super" female is firmly implanted. JSBlog seems an unlimited store of hooks to earlier literature. But mostly cultural references from before our time have little meaning (think how shocking a "black" President would have been to the average 19th century American; or even the idea of an independent India to the Victorian).

On the other hand, in many ways I feel as if I have lived in those times mainly by reading Anthony Trollope. I have even gained an insight into my ancestor's plight in the greatest Irish potato famine (Trollope's Castle Richmond).

But, I wander. Still, we should continue to examine these "hooks" to the past which, in many ways, are similar to the serial photographs of "Just one thing after another." i.e., serial photographs tell a story better than a single one or a video.

Poor Pothecary said...

Much to ponder in this post. It is interesting that in a number of our recent collective posts we have used images and literature from the past (sometimes beyond the memory of the writers) to embellish current ideas.Interesting, given the very different backgrounds and foci; but it appears to come from a common interest in the way different threads of the past weave their way into the present.

Wonder Woman means very little to someone who was born after, say, 1970. To others, who remember the comics from the 40's, the startling concept of a "super" female is firmly implanted.Well, it's one of those things that goes with one's vintage. I didn't encounter the originals (which come across as very fetishy, and naively drawn) but mainly know Wonder Woman through the campy TV version with the wholesome Lynda Carter. Younger comic readers will know the new revisionist versions (I love the strong and scary Alex Ross incarnation, though some reviews have described it as a bit fascistic). But with superheroines being commonplace, it's hard to appreciate how radical the idea must have been. I may well post something on this.

Ray Girvan said...

Development on this at Kookaburra fossil exposed.

Ray Girvan said...

They regard that meaning as now very nearly a linguistic fossil, to be used only when talking to “teachers, and old people”.

Pertaining to this, I'd just been asked, did you find out what term(s) they use to mean homosexual-gay?

Anonymous said...

@Ray: I have no idea, but I'd imagine they definitely weren't the kind of words one would use in polite company.

Anonymous said...

How many people know that "bad" used to mean "effeminate man"?

Felix Grant said...

Anonymous: "How many people know that "bad" used to mean "effeminate man"?

It's certainly possible (and one theory) that "bad" came from ME "badde" and it's also possible that in turn came from OE "bæddel" and/or "bædling" ... but by no means certain.

Ray Girvan said...

Yep: a large grain of truth, but definitely over-simplifying. OED says:

Origin uncertain. Perhaps related to Old English bæddel hermaphrodite, effeminate or homosexual man (quantity of stem vowel uncertain: see BADLING n.1): it has been suggested that BAD adj. could perhaps show the reflex of bæddel, with loss of -l as also in MUCH adj. and WENCH n., although the phonetic environment differs significantly; with the semantic development perhaps compare more general use of BADLING n.1 (a derivative of bæddel) as a term of abuse or contempt, although this is poorly attested; with the assumed development of adjectival use compare WRETCH adj., ARMING n.1

Felix Grant said...

Ray: you're not the first to have asked what words they use for homosexual, so I went back and asked.

Anonymous: you're wrong about them being the sort of words you can't use in polite company, except in the sense that you can't use them at all, because...

These teenagers turn out not to have any words at all of their own for "homosexual". They seemed to regard the question as odd, indicative that I was unhealthily obsessing on the subject.

To summarise the various replies: "We don't; why would we? We don't bother to use different words for people who like different kinds of food, and we don't bother to use different words for people who like different kinds of sex."

These are not young people who ever hesitate to vehemently express their many prejudices, so I can only conclude that this particular prejudice, in this particular area has ceased to operate.

Yesterday I asked a couple of entirely different teenagers whom I know well (home context, not work, and in a small town rather than the city where I work with the other group) how, if they had to do so, they would refer to homosexuality. They agreed that it would depend on context. In a formal setting, they would say "homosexual" for males and "lesbian" for women. In an informal setting they would say "he prefers boys" or "she prefers girls".

Jasmine said...

Intriguing! I fondly remember the kookaburra song from school days, and didn't struggle to understand the meaning (being reared on a steady diet of nature documentaries may have something to do with that). But have a niggling memory of talking about the fact that gay used to mean happy, at the time. Whether our teacher was aware that this meaning was becoming lost to a new generation, I don't know.

The word seems to have taken on a whole variety of meanings even in my own (late twenties) generation, most people I know will still use the word gay to describe homosexuality, with no slur intended, but many now move away from it since it has been used as a slur "that's so gay" referring to something being bad - a usage that always makes me wince, so I tend to consciously avoid the word.