As part of my general loin-girding for the rewrite of Vellum, I’m reading John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, which is full of riches. This guy is a bigger word-nerd than I am, and knows all kinds of things about all kinds of languages. Right now he’s talking about Scots, which is a beautiful and often hilarious language, at least to my ears. Listen to the Scots version of the Prodigal Son story:
There was aince a man hed twa sons; and ae day the yung son said til him, “Faither, gie me the faa-share o your haudin at I hae a richt til.” Sae the faither haufed his haudin atweesh his twa sons. No lang efterhin the yung son niffert the haill o his portion for siller, and fuir awà furth til a faur-aff kintra, whaur he sperfelt his siller livin the life o a weirdless waister.
A faur-aff kintra, a weirdless waister—it’s fantastic. If we’d had that back when I was Rod or Todd Flanders, things might have turned out very differently. But it got me wondering: is Billy Connolly actually funny, or does he just talk funny? I mean, imagine if I came up to you at a party and said:
What is it with McDonald’s staff who pretend they don’t understand you unless you insert the “Mc” before the item you’re ordering? It has to be a “McChicken burger”; a “chicken burger” gets blank looks. Well, I’ll have a McStraw and jam it into your McEyes, you fucking McTosser!
Well, it’s kind of funny, but it’s not that funny. You’d probably think I was a bit of wanker. But if Billy Connolly says it, it’s hilarious. Even when he’s out flogging superannuation products, you can’t help smiling. I’ve got a brilliant friend from Glasgow who’s written a book called The Moral Limits of Law: Obedience, Respect, and Legitimacy, which goes like this:
This enquiry seeks to determine whether, inter alia, the mere fact of legal validity confers a prima-facie or more categorical obligatory character upon each legal directive. Where this is the case, there is a moral obligation to obey each valid legal directive, and each violation of a valid law may be doubly wrongful.
Yes, it’s blindingly clever and serious, but if she read it aloud it would also sound just the faintest bit funny. Is that terrible?