Random Thoughts on The Changing Nature of Language (and the Eken M-001)

A couple of weeks ago, I bought one of those Eken M-001 devices that have received such scathing reviews throughout the blogosphere. What the heck is an Eken M-001? It’s a seven-inch touch-screen tablet computer that runs Google’s Android operating system, that’s what. It’s sometimes called a “tablet notebook” or even a “tablet netbook”, and gets compared really often to the Apple iPad, for obvious reasons.
The comparison is never flattering, of course. Partially this is just Apple fanboys being Apple fanboys, and partially this is haters of Chinese electronics being haters of Chinese electronics. But, sure, there is room for complaint. Android is not really an operating system meant for “computing”, and doing “computing” things with only a touchscreen and six buttons is far from ideal. The Eken runs a slightly older version of Android, meaning some newer apps can’t be installed easily. Battery life when the wifi is on is fairly unspectacular – two to three hours, tops. The 350MHz processor combined with the software isn’t really beefy enough to play high-bitrate video files. Sound through the speakers is decent; sound through the headphone jack sucks sweaty donkey balls.

But, as a $99 e-book reader, this thing rocks.

Forget the Kindle, and the Nook, and all the other dedicated e-book readers. The Eken runs FBReader, which allows you to read – among other things – epub files. (It can also display PDF files fairly well, too.) This works beautifully. It’s fast, responsive, reliable, and the controls are easy to use. Turn the wifi off, and the Eken gets about eight hours of battery life as an e-book reader.

Seriously. Ignore the apps and the wireless features and the stunted excuse for multimedia capabilities, and just think of this thing as an 800×600 color touchscreen e-book reader with a couple extra bells and whistles. For $99, it’s hard to go wrong.

As I said, I’ve had one for a couple weeks, and I’ve been using it extensively as an e-book reader in that time, mostly reading old adventure novels from the very early 1900s. I am rather a fan of E. Phillips Oppenheim, and Google Books has a lot of his stuff in epub format, so I’ve been having some fun reading dashing adventure stories from way back when.

This brings me to the second part of today’s random thoughts – the changing nature of language over time. Reading hundred-year-old novels is not for the faint of heart, or at least those who don’t realize just how much some bits of the English language have changed in that time. Oh, sure, we all (hopefully) know about how “queer” and “gay” had somewhat different meanings way back then, but there are other words and expressions whose nature have changed, and which can seem exceedingly surprising if you’re ill-prepared.

Consider Oppenheim’s Anna the Adventuress. It’s a fun and entertaining read, though it’s rather atypical of Oppenheim’s style and there’s – by modern standards – rather less adventure than the title promises. It was published in 1904, and contains a couple of passages which I assure you were quite innocent and harmless Way Back When, but which now seem slightly less so:

Ennison at once seated himself. “I feel justified then,” he said, “in annexing his chair. I expect you had been snubbing him terribly.”
“Well, he was presumptuous,” Annabel remarked, “and he wasn’t nice about it. I wonder how it is,” she added, “that boys always make love so impertinently.”
Ennison laughed softly. “I wonder,” he said, “how you would like to be made love to – boldly or timorously or sentimentally.”
“Are you a master of all three methods?” she asked, stopping her fanning for a moment to look at him.
“Indeed, no,” he answered. “Mine is a primitive and unstudied manner. It needs cultivating, I think.”
His fingers touched hers for a moment under the ledge of the box.
“That sounds so uncouth,” she murmured. “I detest amateurs.”
“I will buy books and a lay figure,” he declared, “to practice upon. Or shall I ask Colonel Anson for a few hints?”
“For Heaven’s sake no,” she declared. “I would rather put up with your own efforts, however clumsy. Love-making at first hand is dull enough. At second hand it would be un-endurable.”

“I like your brother better than any other man I know,” Anna said at last.
“Well, I don’t think you told him as much as that, did you?” Lady Lascelles asked.
“I did not,” Anna answered. “To be frank with you, Lady Lascelles, when your brother asked me the other day to be his wife I was under a false impression as regards his relations – with some other person. I know now that I was mistaken.”
“That sounds more promising,” Lady Lascelles declared. “May I tell Nigel to come and see you again? I am not here to do his love-making for him, you know. I came to see you on my own account.”

“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Limp,” he answered. “As a matter of fact, I deserve to. I was engaged to dine with your sister and her husband, and I sent a wire.”
“It was exceedingly wrong of you,” Anna declared. “Before I came to England I was told there were two things which an Englishman who was comme-il-faut never did. The first was break a dinner engagement.”
“And the second?”
“Make love to a single woman.”

Now, I dare say that those three excerpts are probably sufficient to get this book banned from most school libraries today, as they would seem to be rather racy indeed. But this is only true if you don’t realize that “making love”, back then, meant something akin to “courting” or “flattering” or “flirting”.

Another term that caught my eye recently was an advertisement in the back of a different book for Myrtle Reed’s Master of the Vineyard, a 1910 romance novel I haven’t read and have no intent of reading. The advertisement described the book as:

A pathetic love story of a young girl, Rosemary. The teacher of the country school, who is also master of the vineyard, comes to know her through her desire for books. She is happy in his love till another woman comes into his life. But happiness and emancipation from her many trials come to Rosemary at last. The book has a touch of pathos and humor that will appeal to every reader.

Wait, did they just describe their own book as “pathetic”? Yes, yes they did. In 1910, however, that word didn’t mean what it does today.

PATHETIC (pa-thet’ik), adj. Affecting the emotions.

So, yes, reading older literature can be a bit disconcerting, sometimes. And it’s hard not to occasionally giggle when someone quite innocently asks how a woman wishes to be made love to, or whatever. But, seriously, don’t let that turn you off the gajillion old novels of yesteryear which are now freely downloadable in the public domain. Many of them are quite enjoyable indeed. Just keep a vintage dictionary handy…

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on July 6th, 2010| Comments Off on Random Thoughts on The Changing Nature of Language (and the Eken M-001)

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.