Thursday, January 8, 2015

Stoppard's Secret Language

The book I got included several other plays in it. You can get The Real Inspector Hound and Other Plays by Tom Stoppard on Amazon.
I did a book review a while back. You might’ve read it. This is a new book review. If reading isn’t your thing, then make it your thing because reading is a magical activity that everyone from me to your mother will nag you into enjoying

So I’m cheating a little bit because I’m actually reviewing a play that I read. Well, technically two plays. I’m a big fan of Tom Stoppard, a Czech-turned-British playwright who’s portfolio ranges from the script of “Shakespeare in Love” to Arcadia, my all-time favorite play. A Stoppard-obsessed teacher I had recommended that I read Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, two one act plays that are meant to be read and performed together.

The crossover between the one acts is obvious. For starters, both plays feature an abridged version of a Shakespeare play (Hamlet and Macbeth) told using original lines from the great playwright himself, albight out of context. However, intermingled with the abridged Shakespearian works Stoppard simultaneously tells the story of the people putting on the play, doing so in a combination of English and a made up language called Dogg. Dogg uses English words but assigns them a new meaning. For example, the phrase “Cretinous git” in Dogg actually means “what time is it,” while in English it’s a particularly creative insult. There’s a circular continuity to Stoppard’s use of Dogg. In the first act, “Dogg’s Hamlet,” there’s a character named Easy who only speaks English but slowly catches onto Dogg. Easy is then reinitroduced in the second act, “Cahoot’s Macbeth,” now only speaking Dogg in front of an English speaking array of characters. He speaks exclusively in Dogg until everyone else “catches” the language and transitions into Dogg as well.

I won’t spoil the plot, but the two plays are hilarious. The layers of plots, ranging from Shakespearian inventions to miscommunications due to the language barrier, are rich in jokes, if one reads between the lines. They’re also a quick read and can be done in a night, making them perfect for the school year. Plus, for anyone into Shakespeare, the puns are plenty.

What really struck me about the play was the language barrier that Stoppard set up. As I mentioned before, Dogg and English use the same words, but give them different meanings. I can’t help but relate that to slang and the stuffy English my parents and teachers use (sorry adults, but you’re out of touch). To illustrate my point, did anyone else have that cringe inducing moment in middle school where the math teacher says the correct answer is 69 and you hear the boys in the back break out laughing? No, just me? Well, that number might have a different meaning to people of different generations, if you know what I mean. We all speak English, but we all speak different versions of English.

How many times have you used the words thot, fleek, or bae, and the adults in the vicinity had no idea what you just said? Clearly, even these cool(er) adults had no idea what any of that slang meant. Again, all of it’s English, just different versions of English. The generation gap creates the same sort of language barrier that Dogg does in Stoppard’s work. Older people even catch onto slang the more time they hear it the same way Stoppard’s character’s catch onto Dogg.

Stoppard was trying to make a lot of points in not a lot of space with Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, but what I really took away from it was his comments on language. The two plays show that language is largely an arbitrary set of sounds that are assigned a meaning, something we often forget. Languages evolve and change, much as the people who speak them. I think we forget how much of a role we play in changing the phonetic landscape of a language, especially when it comes to slang. Stoppard’s plays were a fresh and funny reminder of both the power and powerlessness of words, all in just seventy pages.

So, I have nothing left to read. Comment with a book recommendation for me, or use #theyouthemisms on social media with your book recommendation so that I can see it!

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