Theatre Thursday: So much for stage fright

The one thing I miss most of all during these strange days, other than hanging out with friends, is being able to go on stage and perform. I know that it’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t miss because they’d never do it in the first place, but I’m feeling the loss, and so are my many actor and improviser friends.
Studies seem to show that the one thing people fear the most, beyond death and spiders, is public speaking… and I just don’t get it. Then again, I’m a performer. Put me on a stage, give me an audience, and I am on. And it doesn’t matter whether I have pre-planned words to speak, like doing a play or giving a speech, or whether I’m totally winging it by doing improv.
To me, an audience is an invitation to entertain.
On top of that, to me, the more the merrier. I’ll take an audience of hundreds over an audience of dozens or fewer any day. The energy of a large house is infectious, and whenever I’m with a cast that’s in front of a big crowd, we all can feel it in each other’s performances. The intensity level and connections between us all go way up.
And it’s not an ego thing. It’s not about “Oh, look at ussssss!” It’s the people on stage thinking, “Look at them.”
We can see and hear you out there, and speaking for myself, if I’m doing comedy, there’s nothing I appreciate more than hearing a good laugh. If I’m doing drama, then there’s nothing more satisfying than the silent intensity of dozens or hundreds of captive eyes and minds.
Every time I go onstage, I have to wonder why anyone would fear doing it. Because here’s a simple truth that performers just know but which muggles might miss: The people watching you in the audience are a lot more afraid than you are.
Why is this? Two reasons. The first is that the audience gets to sit in the dark and be anonymous, while the performer doesn’t. You’d think that this would put the performer on the spot, but it’s quite the opposite. In fact, being in the spotlight gives the performers all of the power — and if you’ve ever been in the house of a large professional theater with a name actor onstage when someone’s cell phone rings audibly, or people are taking pictures, you’re seen this power being used with a vengeance.
This touches on the other reason for the fear: That an audience member is going to wind up being forced to participate somehow — that’s been a hazard of modern theatre ever since Bertolt Brecht broke the fourth wall, if not even earlier. Audiences can get spooked when the actors notice them and interact with them.
I’ve seen it as an audience member most obviously when I went to a production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which is a piece of environmental theatre first created in the 90s that casts the audience as the wedding guests. (A modern example of the form: escape rooms.) The audience starts out just sitting in the chairs under the outdoor tent for the ceremony, which is not without its family drama, although this part plays out a little bit more like a traditional play.
It’s when everyone moves inside to the banquet hall for the reception that things get interesting. Well, at least the cast tries to make them so. The audience is seated at various tables, with one or more actors planted at each. Now, I have to assume that each table had a similar set-up facilitated by a different family member. At ours, the Tina’s mother came over to tell us that Tina’s ex had come to the wedding uninvited, but that was okay. He was fine as long as he didn’t drink, so she was putting him at our table and asked us to make sure that he didn’t.
I wound up sitting next to the actor, and I sure played my part, making sure to vanish his champagne and wine glasses before he could get to them, but not only was no one else playing along, they weren’t even interacting with him. Now, I’m sure the inevitable arc for that actor is to figure out how to get “smashed” no matter what, and the character gets really inappropriate later on, but nobody at my table was trying, and I’m sure it was true at others.
I finally got to the point of abandoning my table and chatting with anyone who seemed to be a player, and damn was that fascinating — not to mention that they seemed grateful as hell that somebody was interacting with the character they’d bothered to create. I learned all kinds of things about what was going on, family dirt, some of the Italian wedding traditions, and so forth.
That’s what you have to do as an audience member when you go to environmental theatre. That’s the contract! So if you’re not into it, don’t go see those kinds of shows.
On the other hand, I’ve seen it from an actor’s POV more than a few times, and in shows that were not necessarily advertised as environmental theatre, or were not even announced as happening beforehand. In those cases, I can understand the audience discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun to put them through it, at least in those situations.
Those situations have also been some of my favorite show memories, though. I was in a production of an Elaine May play, Adaptation, that posits life as a game show with a large ensemble cast. I think that only the host and star of the show-within-the-show played one character. The rest of us played a ton and our “offstage” was sitting in the audience, meaning that we had plenty of asides delivered directly to whomever we wound up sitting next to between scenes. Or, sometimes, we’d turn around and deliver the line to the people behind us or lean forward and deliver it to the people in front of us, which startled the hell out of them.
I also performed in a series of Flash Theatre performances done all over Los Angeles over the course of an entire year and staged by Playwrights Arena, and a lot of those involved interacting directly with our audience, which were a combination of people who knew about it beforehand and (mostly) whichever random folk were in the area when it happened. That is perhaps the most immediate and real fourth wall breaking because there was never a fourth wall in the first place. Or, rather, the audience is inside of it with the cast, even if everyone is outside, and a lot of the shows were. It’s the ultimate environmental theatre, staged with no warning and no invitation.
Even when the play wasn’t designed to break the fourth wall, a director’s staging can make it happen, and I had that experience in a production of Tennessee Williams‘s Camino Real, where I basically played Mexican Jesus.
It’s one hot mess of a show that only ran sixty performances originally in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his powers, and I can say for certain that while it’s really fun for the actors to do, I felt sorry for every single audience we did it for. And I am really curious to see what Ethan Hawke manages with his planned film version of it. Maybe that medium will save it, maybe not.
But… our big fourth wall break came when the actress playing my mother (aka “Thinly Veiled Virgin M”) held the “dead” hero in her lap, Pietà style (while I was secretly getting a workout using my right arm to hold up his unsupported shoulders under the cover of the American flag he was draped in), and during her monologue, which was a good three or four minutes, every actor onstage except Mom and “dead” hero (there were 26 of us, I think) started by locking eyes with somebody in the audience house left and then, over the course of the speech, very, very slowly turning our heads, making eye contact with a different audience member and then a still different one, until, by the end of the speech, we were all looking house right.
Ideally, the turning of our heads should have been imperceptible, but our eye contact should have become obvious as soon as the target noticed. I should also mention that since I was down center sitting on the edge of the stage, the nearest audience member to me was about four feet away — and I was wearing some pretty intense black and silver makeup around my eyes, which made them really stand out.
Good times!
I’m glad to say that what I’m doing now — improv with ComedySportz L.A.’s Rec League — is designed to never make the audience uncomfortable, so that no one is forced to participate in any way. And that’s just as fun for us on stage, really, because the participation we get via suggestions and audience volunteers is sincere and enthusiastic. And if our outside audience happens to be too quiet or reticent during a show, we always have the Rec League members who aren’t playing that night as convenient plants who will take up the slack after a decent pause to allow for legitimate suggestions.
Yeah, I won’t lie. I definitely enjoyed those times when I got to screw with audiences. But I enjoy it just as much when we go out of our way to bring the audience onto our side by making them feel safe. I never have anything to be afraid of when I step on stage. I’d love to make our audiences realize that they don’t either.
Image by Image by Mohamed Hassan via mohamed Hassan from Pixaby.

Research everything, believe nothing

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surrounding a very jittery bunch of spread-out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

(There are actually a lot more forms of matter than these, but you can go read about them yourself if you’re interested.)

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-power radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to lift that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

How to structure your writing

You see it mostly in the film industry, rarely in TV, sort of onstage, and well-hidden in novels: An obsession over getting a story’s structure “right.” But what is the right structure, anyway?

Certain people who shall remain nameless have made way too much money presuming to teach the “right” way to structure a story, particularly screenplays, but the truth is that there is no magic formula to structuring a script. Sadly, in the film business, you have to make a screenplay look like it follows whatever flavor-of-the-month structure is preferred by the accountants running the show — they don’t know how to read scripts otherwise — but it really is a lot of obsession over a problem that isn’t as difficult as it should be.

There’s a term that comes out of the world of architecture but which really applies to any art: “Form follows function.” That is, if you’re building a bakery, you shouldn’t design it like it’s a library and vice versa. Otherwise, you’ll just wind up with a bad bakery (or a loathsome library).

Likewise, the overall structure of the piece you’re writing should reflect the story you’re writing, and you can see examples of this everywhere. A Beautiful Mind, for example, told the story of a man whose schizophrenia began to develop in college and it told that story from his point of view — it wasn’t obvious that he actually had mental issues until well into the movie.

Pulp Fiction takes inspiration from its title to structure the story, which is more episodic and novelistic — and also rattles the old rule that movies had to follow a strict three-act format.

You see this even more strongly onstage. For example, the musical Chicago was designed to mimic a vaudeville show of the era — the 1920s — a convention that was sort of kept and sort of not in the film version. Film and TV, by necessity, almost always have to be more literal than other formats, although there are those rare films, like 2003’s Dogville, a Lars von Trier movie in which the “set” is just a schematic diagram of the town it’s set in on the floor of an empty soundstage.

Of course, films like that don’t often find wide audiences.

But to meander back to the subject at hand, structure really works like this, and it’s worked like this for as long as people have been telling stories: There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.

That’s it. Oh, except that each of those has its own beginning, middle, and end, so you eventually wind up with three sets of three.

  1. Beginning: This is the part in which we find out who the characters are, where the thing is happening, and an idea of what the situation or conflict will be — what is the event that makes the story happen?
  2. Middle: This is where the main story happens, with all the stuff set up in the beginning developing and complicating itself and the conflict building until we hit the climax at the end of the middle — the point where it looks like things couldn’t get any worse or more complicated. Or can they?
  3. End: This is where everything plays out and is resolved. If the story is a comedy, then the protagonist gets what they were after. If it’s a tragedy, then they don’t. Note that these are the strict, classical definitions of the two — meaning that yes, technically “The Martian” was a comedy and won its Golden Globe in the right category.

Now, here’s the fun part: Arranging things this way absolutely does not mean that you have to tell your story in strict chronological fashion. Pulp Fiction jumps all over the place but still progresses forward dramatically. Memento goes in one direction and out the other. Run Lola Run tells its story three times. Merrily We Roll Along is still backwards.

In all good art, the structure is not temporal. It’s emotional. Think of how different Citizen Kane would be if you found out what “Rosebud” meant in the first scene instead of the last — and yet it’s entirely possible that the revealing moment (in “real life”) may have actually happened much closer to what we saw as the beginning of the story rather than near the end.

So when you set out to tell your story, first find the form to follow your function, then pick two points: What’s the beginning, and what’s the ending? Next, figure out what complications and conflicts happen in the middle. Now subdivide your beginning, middle, and ending into their own beginnings, middles, and endings, and fill up those nine little boxes.

There’s your structure. Now build the thing to look like the form you came up with originally. Don’t worry that much about things like page count or what exactly happens when. If you can explain what happens in your story when and why, then you’ve already got the pitch that will make it look like your script tastes like the structure flavor-of-the-month — and if you’re writing for theatre, you’re going to be much less limited in that regard to begin with.

Don’t be afraid of structure. Embrace it and make it your own.

Nerding out on Star Wars: Why The Rise of Skywalker worked for me

In which I unleash my inner Star Wars nerd. WARNING: Spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen The Rise of Skywalker yet, stop here, unless you want major plot points revealed. And, most importantly, remember that like all artistic criticism, this is just my personal opinion. Your mileage may vary, and you’re not wrong. I’m not wrong. All art is entirely subjective and personal to the observer. 

Okay. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a major Star Wars fanboy since forever and why not? It was the major mythology of my childhood, and has carried on through three trilogies, two spin-off movies, and a couple of series.

I will admit to a few things, though. One is that I never really got into Clone Wars because the 3D animation style just didn’t mesh with the Star Wars universe I knew. Two is that while I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the Mandalorian (and Boba Fett was one of my favorite original trilogy characters) I don’t subscribe to Disney+, so rely on friends for viewings.

Three, finally, is that I never got into all of the extended universe stuff in terms of books, comics, etc., but, apparently, that’s all non-canon now, so I guess I won on that front.

All that said, my personal Star Wars film rankings are as follows…

  1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Episode IV: A New Hope
  3. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
  4. Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
  5. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
  6. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
  7. Solo: A Star Wars Story
  8. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  10. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  11. Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The Rise of Skywalker had big shoes to fill but, honestly, I think it filled them by paying off all of the promises made and, no, it did not erase anything set up in The Last Jedi, which did not erase anything set up in The Force Awakens. Remember: Characters lie, or see things from a “certain point of view.” That was established way back at the beginning in Episode IV.

To me, Episode IX played out in the inevitable way it had to. My only complaint about the saga is that a certain character who debuted in Episode VII and was set up to be the villain did not survive through IX, although they died nobly and redeemed. Still, I somehow knew from the first moment we met that character that they’d be doing the ol’ Anakin in reverse saga. And if that wasn’t and isn’t obvious to complainers, I don’t know what movie you watched. Also keep in mind that Luke saved his father from the dark side while Ben was saved from the dark side by his father, or at least what was most likely a force projection that took all of his mother’s energy to make happen, so that we also got a nice little symmetry with the Skywalker sibs, who both performed their last heroic act on a far-away planet in order to turn Kylo Ren back into Ben Solo, and wound up force-ghosting because of it.

And there’s your explanation for that last scene, by the way, you’re welcome.

Lucas is famous for saying that his films rhyme, and a triple trilogy is actually the ultimate act of Aristotelian drama. Ari is the one who created the three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end, even if he was doing it in five act plays. But if you want to take that to its logical extreme, each part of that also has its own beginning, middle, and end, as does each part within that.

Now, just taking the three trilogies and ignoring the extra films, what do we get? Nine three-act films. And it’s always the second act that gets messy (Episodes II, V, and VIII) and the third acts that sometimes wrap it up too quickly (Episodes III, VI, IX.) First acts have to deal with introducing the characters and themes sometimes successfully, sometimes not (Episodes I, IV, VII.)

End result? Three by three by three, which is three cubed, which is twenty-seven. If you’re writing any kind of three-act structure, that is your basic beat-sheet right there.

Thematic rhymes

First acts, Episodes I, IV, and VII (Phantom Menace, A New Hope, The Force Awakens): Intro the innocent: Anakin, Luke, Rey. Send them on a quest they didn’t ask for. Pop them out the other end as a hero.

Second acts, Episodes II, V, and VIII (Attack of the Clones, The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi): Show your heroes a taste of failure, put them at odds with their mentors, and let the villains seem to win in the end.

Third acts, Episodes III, VI, and IX (Revenge of the Sith, Return of the Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker): End your hero’s arc, although this one gets interestingly tricky, because it’s different for each trilogy. In the prequels, Anakin goes from innocent to Sith Lord Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Luke goes from naïve farm boy to master Jedi, although it’s also the story of Darth Vader going from evil Sith Lord to destroyer of the Empire (although not really). In the sequel trilogy, we start with Rey, but it’s as much Kylo’s story, so while she goes from innocent scavenger to “Be All the Jedi!”, he goes from Big Bad to redeemed hero, perfectly echoing his grandfather Anakin’s storyline in the first six films.

Don’t forget the ultimate big bad, Palps himself. More than any other character, his arcs repeat in each of the three trilogies. In the original trilogy (IV-VI), he only appeared as an idea in the first, had a couple of brief cameos as a hologram in the second, and then came on full force in the third.

Likewise, in the prequel trilogy (I-III), Palpatine starts out as a dedicated servant to Queen Amidala, becomes Chancellor in the second film, and reveals his true self and takes over power in the third.

Finally, in the sequel trilogy (VII-IX), Palpatine is nowhere to be seen in the first episode, apparently not present in the second, although the third makes it clear that Snoke was really his Count Dooku so that he was there all along, and then in the third film he comes back full force and nastier than ever.

Anyway… I’m happy with how it turned out, and I’m not the type of fan who feels it necessary to flame creators who don’t get it “right.” Why? Because, ultimately, I’m not the one creating it, so I have no right to complain. And that’s probably the most important lesson. If it ain’t your franchise, try appreciating what the creators do with it instead of explaining why they screwed it up.

Why you should learn another language (or two or three)

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been a major language nerd. I think it started when I was about seven years old and discovered that the stationary aisle of the local grocery store sold pocket dictionaries meant for travelers and I wound up buying the entire set because they were within the means of my first-grade allowance. I remember for sure that I had Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian. I think that Latin was another one, although I’m not as sure.

This began a life-long adventure, and I collected dictionaries and books on foreign languages left and right. I remember one dictionary that translated twenty-six languages side-by-side, and at its biggest, my library covered everything from Arabic to Vietnamese and nearly everything in between.

Sadly, I lost most of that about a decade ago in an abrupt move. However, all of those same resources are now online, so I didn’t really lose as much as I thought. And, since languages evolve, books may not be the best resource anymore. For example, when I first started learning Spanish, Ch, ll, and rr were considered separate letters, something that the Academia Real Española changed a few years back.

Speaking of school, when I found out on the first day of 7th grade that we had to take a language class and I was assigned to Spanish, I was ecstatic. I studied it for the next four years and when, after my junior year of high school, I had satisfied my language requirement, I said “What the hell?” and took a year of German, followed by another year of German as a Freshman in college. Fun fact: I swear that we learned more in the first two weeks of college German than I had in an entire year of high school German.

Other languages I’ve toyed with over the years, in no particular order: Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Gaelic, Japanese, and ASL. However, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in any of them, although (for reasons that will become obvious below) I’ve actually become pretty good at being able to understand a lot of French, Italian, and Portuguese when I read it, and a lot of Italian when I hear it.

After school ended, I really didn’t keep up with studying or using Spanish or German, and so over time they faded — German more so, because I’d studied it less, obviously, but a lot of the Spanish as well and, while I could still understand more of it than the average gabacho, the finer points had escaped me.

Flash forward to about six years ago, when a play I’d written much closer to my high school years got produced, and a big part of it was set in Mexico City, meaning that there were two police characters who spoke a lot of Spanish. When I first wrote the play, that language was a lot fresher in my head, but because we were doing a lot of development and I was doing a lot of rewriting in rehearsal, it became necessary to write new dialogue for them. Fortunately, I had two native speakers in the cast who helped, but I realized that it was probably time for a refresher course, so I dove back in.

Six years later… I am surprised at how fluent I have become. I’m actually able to have conversations with people without getting lost and, it probably goes without saying, that in America’s current climate, being a white guy who speaks Spanish is probably as much a political statement as it is a cultural one. Apoyo ciento por ciento nuestros hermanos y amigos de Latinoamérica. Somos una gente y una familia todas conjuntas. And if you can understand that without running it through Google translate, good for you. (Oh, by the way… do not trust Google translate.)

So… about six years after I started to relearn Spanish as an adult, I’m at the point where I’m tackling an entire book in the language, and I’ve been reading the Spanish version of “Ready Player One.” Oh… one other thing. A few years ago, I tried to read «Rebelión en la granja», the Spanish translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and I couldn’t even get through the introduction. Now, I’ve been breezing through the Spanish version of “Ready Player One,” and I’m really enjoying it. It’s funny and entertaining and all the jokes are coming through. I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m not stopping to look up words and I’m not translating into English in my head, and I am picking up new vocabulary by the bucket-load.

This isn’t a humble brag or anything. Rather, it’s encouragement. Americans whose first language is English are notoriously terrible when it comes to other languages, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are tons of resources online for learning another language, as well as groups of learners and speakers helping each other all over the place. And it is never too late to learn or to relearn. I had forgotten enough Spanish that I’d really dropped to near Peggy Hill levels of literacy. Now, I read the news in Spanish every day, I’m plowing through a YA novel in Spanish, I watch TV shows and movies and YouTube videos in Spanish, and I’m doing just great with it.

Can I pass myself off as a native and get away with it? Oh, hell no. I know that I make stupid mistakes all the time, like forgetting to plop the pronouns in the right place or messing up the gender of nouns or using present tense when it should have been preterit or imperfect, and being clueless on subjunctive and por vs. para. But… in making the effort, I find that native speakers are just as forgiving to me as I am to someone who is clearly not a native English speaker but gets the idea across. “Ooh, I can’t understand this person because they said ‘I has’ instead of ‘I have’ said no one with any empathy ever.”

And that’s really what it’s all about. The story of the Tower of Babel is a metaphor, but it is a very powerful one. It probably wasn’t a god that created all of those languages, but rather human nature, because we love to word play and make stuff up and create tribes based on common knowledge and in-jokes. But the end result is the same: We have turned different languages into a divisive thing when they should not be.

It never ceases to boggle my mind that so few Americans whose first language is English ever learn any other language. The figure is around 20%. And I know from experience — because I like to use other languages in my writing — that a lot of American Anglophone’s heads explode on sight of anything that isn’t English. And that’s just ridiculous.

Fun fact: Some of the founding fathers wanted to make America’s official language Hebrew instead of English. And when it comes to how languages work, Hebrew, like all the other Semitic languages, is about as different from English as you can get. They’re the Wheel of Fortune of Languages — “I’d like to buy a vowel.” (If you get that joke, I love you.)

If you speak more than just English, chime in in the comments and let us know which languages you speak and whether you’re American or not. If you are American but only speak English, then here’s my challenge to you. Think of a language you would like to learn, then go and learn it, and also tell me in the comments which language it is and why. And remember, like I said above: It is never too late to learn, and learning a new language is nowhere near as hard as you think it is.

After all — you learned your first language when you were a baby, right? And you probably spent at least the first four or five years with no official training other than people speaking it at you. See? That’s how easy it is to learn.

 

Rewind

If you could go back in time to your younger self — say right out of high school or college — what one bit of advice would you give? I think, in my case, it would be this: “Dude, you only think you’re an introvert, but you’re really not. You just need to learn now what it took me years to understand. No one else is really judging you because they’re too busy worrying about how they come off.”

But that worry about what other people thought turned me into a shy introvert for way too long a time. At parties, I wouldn’t talk to strangers. I’d hang in the corners and observe, or hope that I knew one or two people there already, so would stick to them like your insurance agent’s calendar magnet on your fridge. Sneak in late, leave early, not really have any fun.

It certainly didn’t help on dates, especially of the first kind. “Hi, (your name). How’s it going?” Talk talk talk, question to me… awkward silence, stare at menu, or plate if order already placed.

Now this is not to imply that I had any problem going straight to close encounters of the third kind way too often, but those only happened when someone else hit on me first. Also, I had a really bad habit of not being able to say “No” when someone did show interest. I guess I should have noticed the contradiction: Can someone really be an introvert and a slut at the same time?

What I also didn’t notice was that the times I was a total extrovert all happened via art. When I wrote or acted, all the inhibitions went away. Why? Because I was plausibly not being myself. The characters I created or the characters I played were other people. They were insulation. They gave me permission to just go out there without excuse. (Okay, the same thing happened during sex, but by that point, I don’t think that introversion is even possible or very likely.)

However… the characters did not cross over into my real life. I was awkward with strangers. I was okay with friends, but only after ample time to get to know them.

And so it went until I wound up in the hospital, almost died, came out the other side alive — and then a funny thing happened. I suddenly started initiating conversations with strangers. And enjoying them. And realized that I could play myself as a character in real life and have a lot of fun doing it. And started to not really care what anyone else thought about me because I was more interested in just connecting with people and having fun.

The most important realization, though, was that I had been lying to myself about what I was for years. The “being an introvert” shtick was just an excuse. What I’d never really admitted was that I was extroverted as hell. The “almost dying” part gave the big nudge, but the “doing improv” part sealed it. Here’s the thing. Our lives, day to day and moment to moment, are performance. Most muggles never realize that. So they get stage fright, don’t know what to do or say or how to react.

But, honestly, every conversation you’ll ever have with someone else is just something you both make up on the spot, which is what improv is. The only difference is that with improv you’re making up the who, what (or want) and where, whereas in real life, you’re playing it live, so those things are already there.

Ooh, what’s that? Real life is easier than performing on stage?

One other thing that yanked me out of my “I’m an introvert” mindset, though, was an indirect result of doing improv. I’ve been working box office for ComedySportz for almost a year now — long story on how and why that happened — but I’m basically the first public face that patrons see, I’ve gotten to know a lot of our regulars, and I honestly enjoy interacting with the public, whether via walk-ups to the ticket counter or phone calls. Young me would have absolutely hated doing this, which is another reason for my intended message to that callow twat.

And so… if you’re reading this and think that you’re an introvert, do me a favor. Find something that drags you out of your comfort zone. Remind yourself that no one else is really judging you because they’re too busy worrying about themselves, then smile and tell way too much to the wait-staff or checker or usher or whomever — and then don’t give a squishy nickel over what they might think about it.

(Note: “squishy nickel” was a fifth level choice on the improv game of “New Choice” in my head just now. Which is how we do…)

The voice

Recently, I was working at what’s called the Small Business Marketing Plan Bootcamp, run by two old friends of mine, Hank and Sharyn Yuloff. Well, I’ve known Hank longer, lost touch with him for a while, then re-encountered him at random because we had a friend in common we’d both met long after, and then Hank absolutely hated the movie The Blair Witch Project. Long story, but it was another one of those weird moments in which the most random of events somehow led to big things later on.

If you come to their bootcamp and I’m working it, he’ll probably tell you the whole story. Short version, he sent an email rant about the film to one of my friends, A, who’d co-founded the site with me and D (all three of us had been in a band together way the hell back in my “stupid enough to be in a band” days), and A also told him he should write a review for Filmmonthly.com. When the review popped up, I saw his name and, since it’s an unusual one, I contacted him to say, “Hey… didn’t I know you once?”

As for the Filmmonthly website, it’s still there, although A, D, and I passed it on to other people a long time ago, but since all three of us were the publishers for a long time, it’s unfortunately kind of hard to search for any of our reviews specifically there because our names are pretty much embedded in every page, although I can at least lead you to my deep analysis of the movie A.I., and my review of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut. And, to top that all off, my other in-depth analysis, of The Big Lebowski, wound up enshrined forever in that mythos in the book Lebowski 101.

But I do digress… All of that intro was by way of saying that I’ve known Hank and Sharyn forever, they are amazing people, they have certainly plugged me a lot to their clients, and in this latest seminar, Hank said something that initially really pissed me off.

It was a day dedicated to the importance of social media, and during the portion about blogging. (Side note: This blog itself only exists because they gave me a freebie bootcamp a couple of years ago, although Hank told me that it wasn’t me getting a freebie from them. Rather, it was them investing in me, and he was right.) Anyway, after they’d talked about the importance of creating content and so on, somebody asked, “What if you can’t write? Should you hire a ghostwriter?”

Hank’s immediate answer was, “No. You have to write it because it has to be in your own voice.”

And, honestly, my sudden instinct was to jump up and yell, “Oh, that’s bullshit!” I mean, one of the words on my business card is “ghostwriter,” and it’s basically what I did for a certain cable TV star for five years, creating a weekly column for his readers, along with maintaining the marketing and corporate voice for his website and magazine that entire time. Hell, my titles were Senior Editor and Head Writer.

On top of that, as an experienced and award-winning writer of plays, TV, film, short stories, and long-form fiction, I’ve got a lot of experience in writing in other voices. That’s what writers of fiction do — we speak as other people. And so one of the biggest talents I think that I bring to the corporate world is exactly that: the ability to write as someone else. Give me your voice, I’ll imitate the hell out of it.

But I refrained from saying anything during the bootcamp because, after all, it’s his and Sharyn’s show, so I’ve got no place in rocking the boat (or, as we say in improv, not “Yes, Anding” them), but then after he said it, I started to think a bit more on the concept, and realized that we’re sort of both right in different ways, especially as he explained his reasoning.

See, most of the people at this seminar were entrepreneurs — small business people, either running their own show or with a very small staff. And that does make a difference in establishing a corporate voice because they are most directly the voice of their own corporation or company. Why? Because when they go out to recruit or meet potential clients, it’s just them. It’s not their CFO, or CEO, or Marketing Team, or Social Media mavens, or copywriter because those people do not exist in their organizations. And, so, if all of those blog posts sound one way but, in person, they sound another, clients are going to rightfully sense the difference and nope right outta there because the person they met online and the person they met IRL don’t mesh up, so the person IRL sounds inauthentic.

Brand killer.

That was my own a-ha moment. Keep in mind that I can get tetchy when anyone says, “Hey… anyone can write!” My knee-jerk reaction is, “No. False.” But, you know what? It’s partly true, but let’s go through all the steps.

We all grow up using language. It’s what humans do. And, honestly, it’s what a ton of animals and birds do. Most primates, most cetaceans, pretty much every mammal, parrot, crow, octopus, and even some trees and fungus, whatever. Linking together a bunch of signals — whether words, sounds, images, smells, or chemicals — and having those linked signals relay a message from one entity to the other… that’s pretty much what all intelligent life does.

Boom. Communication. That is what language is. If you can successfully tell that driver, “Hey, hit the damn brakes so you don’t run over my baby,” whether you do it with words, screams, frantic hand waves, a sudden bouquet of smells or hormones, or a well-timed text, then you have communicated very effectively.

But… there’s a huge difference between “effective” and “well,” and I think this is where my feelings and Hank’s feelings on it both part and converge again.

Yes, everybody has their own unique voice, and that has to do with words they use and patterns of speech, and so on. But… the really important part is how all of those separate phrases and sentences and what not add up into a coherent story. And this is where what I do comes in.

If you’re an entrepreneur, should you write your own blogs? Oh, absolutely, but only sort of. Absolutely because, honestly, if you can talk, you can put words down in a written medium. Even if you can’t talk — most humans learn how to communicate with words, whether it’s in spoken language, sign language, or even just written down.

What most humans don’t learn is how to structure the mass of those words into an interesting and compelling story. This is where I come in, and where Hank and I came back into agreement not long after.

He phrased it the best, although I paraphrase it now, in terms of attorneys. “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” He followed that up with, “The person who edits their own writing, likewise,” and I could not agree more.

And that’s really what I do — I’m the third eye on your manuscript, I’m the midwife who makes sure to clean up and swaddle your baby before we dump it in your lap. I’m the guy who jumps in the way before you step out into traffic and shoves you back onto the curb, and I’m also a pretty big history and science nerd, so I will stop you from looking silly by knocking the anachronisms out of whatever you’re writing and polishing up the science. Final bonus points: I was raised by an amazing grammar-Nazi English teacher, so I’ll give you the same.

I’m not cheap, but I’m worth it. Trust me. If you want to raise your marketing antlers above the herd of crap that’s all over the place out there, then drop me a line. Rates are negotiable, and depend a lot on subject and page count. Hint: If you’re doing history or Sci-Fi, or your word count is under 40,000 let’s talk discounts. Scripts, plays, and screenplays also considered. But if you want to invest in your future and get some returns, then invest in me first, because I will definitely steer you there.

Four expressions that are older than you think

One of the things I do when I edit and fact-check other people’s books and scripts is to check for anachronisms, which are things that are out of their proper time. For example, let’s say that a major plot element in a thriller is a stolen thumb drive with the names of every undercover agent on it. That’s a great MacGuffin… unless you set your script before 2000, when USB thumb drives were not commercially available. (At a stretch, I’d give you 1999, since we’d be dealing with governmental agencies and all that.)

A very common one that I’ve seen so many times that it’s one of my first searches on period pieces is use of the term “Ms.” Well, not all period pieces, since any story set before 2009 is now considered a period piece, but definitely those that are set before about 1972, which is when the term started to become part of mainstream vernacular. Oddly enough, though, it was first proposed as a neutral alternative to Mrs. and Miss as early as 1901, although it was used as a written abbreviation of “mistress” only as far back as the 17th century. Keep in mind, though, that this usage had nothing to do with treating women as equals and everything to do with male scribes figuring out how to spare themselves writing six letters by hand every time they recorded a record about a single female.

But this brings up an interesting point. Technically, yes the term “Ms.” is a lot older than you’d think. On the other hand, its usage in its modern sense pretty much began as noted above, in the early 1970s. There are other expressions, though, that really are a lot older than you think, so in the spirit of my story about inventions that are older than you think, here we go.

Robot

We haven’t quite perfected the fully autonomous humanoid robot, although Honda’s ASIMO has come close. Keep in mind, though, that they’ve been working on it for over thirty years now. And, surprisingly, while there’s a certain resemblance to the name of a famous science fiction author, the name ASIMO really refers to “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.”

The author in question, Isaac Asimov, is famous for writing a lot of both science fiction and science fact, but one of his series, I, Robot, is famous for establishing the Laws of Robotics. However, while they’ve always been popular with science fiction fans, they really didn’t explode onto the scene until a kind of lame 2004 film adaptation, although if you’ve ever owned a Roomba, Scooba, Braava, or Mirra, then you’ve done business with the iRobot. But either of these would probably make you think that robots are a fairly recent invention.

Of course, if you owned any kind of modem between the 1970s and mid-1990s, it might have come from the company US Robotics. Guess where they got their name… That’s right. Also Asimov.

But if you’re only a film fan and not a tech or science fiction nerd, you might think that robots were created in the 1950s, with the appearance of Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Never mind that, at least in literature, Asimov got to robots by 1940, because that’s still too early.

The actual origin of the word “robot” is in a 1920 play by Karel Čapek called R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. He adapted that word from an old Church Slavonic term rabota, which meant slave or serf. And if you’d like to, you can listen to a reading of the play itself.

To do someone

If someone were to say to you, “Hey, do me,” you’d probably take it in a sexual sense, right? And that also seems like a really modern usage of the phrase. Just thinking back through pop culture, I have it my head that Austin Powers said something like, “Oh, do me, baby” (he didn’t,”) but the slang must have begun with the Beatles in 1968 on the White Album, with the song “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”

I really couldn’t find any clear sources for “do it” or “to do” in a sexual sense back from 1968, but I did find one from 1588, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which reads as follows:

                                   DEMETRIUS
     Villain, what hast thou done?

                                     AARON
     That which thou canst not undo.

                                    CHIRON
     Thou hast undone our mother.

                                     AARON
     Villain, I have done thy mother.

If you doubt this reading, then just take a look at this scene from Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation, and you’ll see that it’s exactly how Willie Shakes intended it to read.

Motherfucker

You might think that this one was invented by Samuel L. Jackson, who uses it so eloquently, or maybe it was a product of the 1960s. While the movie M*A*S*H infamously was the first major motion picture to use the back half of the word, it was Myra Breckinridge that turned things on its head by using the word in full, but bleeping “mother” instead of “fucker.”

Prior to the 1960s, this term is alleged to have been used by slaves in America before the Civil War to describe owners who would rape the slaves’ mothers as a psychological breaking tactic, but this probably isn’t true. The earliest attestations come from a court case in 1889, so its origin probably dates back a bit earlier than that, although in the case documents it’s an adjective, motherfucking, instead of the noun, motherfucker. The noun form didn’t pop up until 1917, when a black soldier referred to the draft board as “low-down motherfuckers.”

Seeing pink elephants

This is an old expression to indicate either that someone was habitually drunk or they were an alcoholic experiencing DTs due to lack of booze. Nowadays, the expression has mostly fallen out of use with the understanding that alcoholism is a disease, and nothing to joke about, although it’s still a part of pop culture because of Disney’s original 1941 version of Dumbo, but that isn’t the origin of the expression or the idea. And while it is frequently attributed to Jack London in his 1913 novel John Barleycorn, it actually goes back a bit farther than that, to sometime between 1883 and 1903, ten years before that book came out. It had a lot to do with the disappointment of audiences who were expecting to see a rare white elephant — white because of its albinism — but the beasts actually turned out to be closer to pink. In case you haven’t seen it, the scene in Dumbo is an incredible bit of animated surrealism called “Pink Elephants on Parade” — and I swear that the animators hid one of those infamous Disney toon penises at about the 2:40 mark. Watch the elephant’s trunk.

What’s your favorite slang expression that’s a lot older than people think?

Words both common and not

Knowing other languages can teach us a lot about our own. Not only can common sources for words between our native and target languages help us learn vocabulary, but sometimes an unknown word in our target language can teach us a word we didn’t know in our native language. Here are examples of both.

One of the first sounds that a baby makes, regardless of culture or language exposure, is some sort of “Mmm,” usually associated with an “ah.” If you think about the human mouth for a second, this makes total sense. Close your mouth and try to exhale, and what sound do you make? Now open your lips mid-exhale, and what are the combined sounds?

Ma.

Once a baby realizes they can control the sounds they’re making, it’s a simple step to “mama,” and this sound refers to all things mother in so many different cultures and languages that it’s ridiculous. In Chinese and Japanese both, the word is pronounced mama, and you find very similar things in Zulu (umama), Thai (maaa), Punjabi (mami), and Irish Gaelic (mam). Even in Basque, which is said to be not related to any other known language, the word is ama.

Although less universal, in a lot of Western languages, the M sounds still holds when you get formal: mother, madre, Mutter, mère, mama, matka. And extending the concept via Latin into Romance languages, you find the official word for breasts coming from the same place: mammaries — which makes total sense if you keep in mind that one of a mother’s major functions after giving birth is to feed her child. And that’s true of any animal that is classified as… a mammal.

In case you were wondering where that term came from, ta-da!

I was reminded of this linguistic evolution when I ran across a story in La Opinión with the headline “Policía amamanta a bebé cuya familia sufrió un accidente.” The word that stuck out because I didn’t know it was amamanta, but in the context of the rest, I took a guess and then looked it up to find out that I’d been right. The infinitive form of the verb is amamantar, but if you get rid of the prefix, “a,” and the verb ending, “tar,” you’re left with maman. The prefix “a” is the Spanish word for “to,” but it is also often used when the direct object of a verb is a person, in which case it’s referred to as the “personal ‘a.’” (It even appears in the headline, right before the word bebé.) I won’t get into that here, except to say that affixing an “a” to a verb often means that the verb indicates that the subject is doing something for someone else.

If you haven’t guessed the meaning already, the rest of the sentence is talking about a police officer, and a baby whose family was in an accident. Think of the verb as “mothering-to,” and you can see how it means to breastfeed. The mammaries are right there in the word, so to speak. It just takes a little breaking down to get to them.

And then there are those cases where not knowing a word in our target language at all leads us to look it up only to find out that we don’t know the word in our native language, either. In my case, it was the Spanish word álgido, which I ran across recently. I couldn’t figure it out in context no matter how hard I tried, so resorted to looking it up, only to learn that the English word was… algid.

Okay, that was a new one to me, too. The form of the word in both languages told me that it was probably an adjective — many Spanish adjectives end in –ido/-ida or –ado/-ada because the past participle of the verb is often used that way, just as it is in English: he’s baked, you’re stoked, all the leaves are raked, and so on. Also, a lot of English adjectives end in –id, e.g. rigid.

Otherwise, guessing the meaning really didn’t help. Sure, a lot of Spanish words borrowed from Arabic start with “al,” like alfombra (carpet), or algodon (cotton). Even English got the word algebra from Arabic, but all that the “al” prefix means in Arabic is “the.” Compare this with the Spanish masculine the, “el,” so el algodon is technically redundant. And if you take the al off of álgido, all you’re left with is gido, which means nothing because the only logical verbs it could be derived from would be ger or gir, which do not exist.

And so looking up the translation for álgido in English led me to algid and taught me nothing, so I finally had to resort to an English dictionary, where I looked up the word, doubting that I wound find anything — except that I did. The words in both languages mean frozen or cold, and they come from the Latin word algidus, which means exactly the same thing. It came into English in the very early 17th century as a medical term, and since Latin was still all up the butts of academics and religious at the time, this is probably how it came into Spanish, too. The only difference was in how both languages liked to make their adjectives, so Spain went the –o/–a ending route, while English cut it short.

And there’s another English word that looks a lot like this one and means the same thing: Frigid. Ironically, this word also came into English from Latin, but about a generation before algid. Why one persisted in every day speech and the other didn’t is a mystery I’m not going to try to solve.

And yes, the word for frigid exists in Spanish, too — but I’ll bet you a quarter you can figure out what it is without me even telling you.

Foreign accents

As a language, English is relatively accent-free, although that wasn’t always the case. Until fairly recently, we still used diaresis in words like cöordinate and naïve, although that has fallen out of fashion and my spellchecker is insisting that the first word is wrong. The only English word I can think of off the top of my head to use any sort of marking is façade — but we borrowed that one as-is from French.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you may occasionally see advisory accent marks in the text for very good reason: Pronunciation has changed since the Bard invented modern English. In his time, the last syllable of past participles was pronounced, so that the word “pronounced” would have actually been three-syllables — “pronoun-sed.” Nowadays, that –ed ending generally comes across as sounding like a single “d” or “t” is stuck on the end of the word. In Shapespeare’s day, “looked” would sound like “luke-id.” Now, it sounds like “lookt.”

So if you’re reading Shakespeare and see a word rendered like lovéd, it means to pronounce that last syllable as its own. Conversely, if the text isn’t marked like that but you occasionally see “lov’d,” then it means the syllable is pronounced by default and elided when marked with an apostrophe.

The lack of accents in English can be problematic because where we place emphasis in words almost seems arbitrary and, in fact, someone who otherwise sounds like they’re from the U.S. can give themselves away as Canadian by putting the emphásis in a place where we don’t normally hear it, and vice versa. A classic U.S. vs. UK example is the word “laboratory,” where the U.S. stresses the first syllable and the UK stresses the second, although at least the accents overall are a bigger giveaway of someone’s origin.

This is one of those areas where languages that use accents have a big advantage, especially if they have simple and consistent rules for where emphasis belongs. For example, in Spanish there’s what English speakers call the NOSE rule. If a word ends in N, S, or any vowel, than the natural emphasis is on the next-to-last syllable. If it ends in any other consonant, then the emphasis is on the last syllable. The accent marks are there to indicate deviations.

For example, the word for English is inglés. Without that accent, the stress would be on the first syllable because it’s the penultimate one and the word ends in S. Likewise, corazón, “heart,” has that accent there because otherwise the emphasis would be on the A. Unlike French, you can only have one accent mark per Spanish word, although you can have other markings, such as the tilde and diaresis along with accents. The Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu’s last name is a perfect example of this.

As for diaresis, it’s rare in Spanish but it does happen, and one of my favorite examples is the word for penguin, pingüino. Without that mark over the U, the word would be pronounced “pin-GHEE-no,” with the second syllable the same as the gui in guitar. With it, it’s pronounced “pin-goo-EE-no.” It’s a subtle distinction, but important. This accent only appears over the letter U in Spanish.

Finally, there’s the tilde, that little squiggle above the letter N — and only above the N. In fact, Ñ and ñ are still considered separate letters from N and n in Spanish. This is the last holdout after revisions made in the 90s. Before that, Ch, Ll, and Rr were also considered letters on their own, but have since been removed, reducing the alphabet from 30 to 27 letters. (If you happen to have a Spanish dictionary or grammar that does include all 30 letters in the alphabet, you might want to toss it and get something more up-to-date.)

As for other languages, German is famous for its umlauts, which is the same thing visually as diaresis, and you can find them over the letters A, O, and U. The effect is basically like trying to pronounce the base vowel while shaping your lips into the form they’d make saying the letter E. Oddly enough, the end effect is more like you’re blending the vowel into the letter R. A famous example is the beer brand Löwenbräu, which sounds more like “Lervenbrye” because of those marks.

The other famous German letter, though not an accent, is the Eszett, or ß which, despite its appearance, is not pronounced as the letter B. Rather, it represents a double S sound, and it’s often replaced with those letters when German words are rendered in English documents, so that a word like “heiße,” which means hot, becomes “heisse,” which is technically wrong. Then again, so is writing “senor” instead of “señor,” but since most English keyboards don’t accommodate these characters easily, it’s hard to avoid.

Believe it or not, the Eszett sort of has a relative in English in the form of a lost letter known as the Long S. If you’ve ever looked at handwritten documents from the 18th Century and earlier, then you’ve probably seen it. It is eʃsentially a replacement for the initial lowercase S in a pair or a solo S in the middle of a word, but can easily be mistaken for a lowercase F. Other languages have similar variants in letters. For example, Arabic has different versions of letters depending on whether they’re at the beginning, middle, or end of a word, and Greek specifically has two different versions of its S, Sigma, one of which is only used at the end of a word. The Long S was basically killed off in the 1790s as foundries started to design new typefaces that favored what was originally called the Round S.

And this brings us around to the curious concept of Upper and Lower Case letters, in case (pun intended) you’ve ever wondered where those terms came from. Once upon a time, in the dark ages before digital layout, before photosetting, and before linotype, anything printed on a press was laid out by hand, and it was done with letters cast in lead. Generally, it was one letter per one piece of type, called a sort, although ligatures were common. These were combinations of letters frequently used together cast as one piece — ff, fi, fl, ffi, and ij were very common ligatures in English.

All of that type had to go somewhere to make it easy to pick and place quickly, so type cases were invented. These were literal wooden boxes with compartments in which the letters were sorted in a specific, though non-alphabetic order, although those orders varied from place to place. On top of that sorting, capital letters were kept in a separate case from miniscule letters, and the former was generally stored above the latter.

And there you go. The capital, or majuscule, type was kept in the upper case, and the miniscule letters were kept in the lower, and although physical typesetting like this has long since gone by the wayside, the terminology — like the legacy accent marks in English — linger on as an echo of history.