As a librarian and a reader, I have spent more time than I’d care to admit meditating on the power of words. I have often considered the seemingly infinite amount of English grammatical rules alongside the fluidity of language and the interesting things that can happen when these rules are stretched or broken, either intentionally or not.
The structure of grammar offers control and clarity, but also does its part to supply a healthy dose of frustration, irritation and a bounty of exceptions that get the best of us all on occasion. A good handle on grammar is frequently paired with a feeling of superiority and power – while knowing the “correct” way to state something can be a tempting soap box to leap upon, it’s worth noting the all-too-real obstacles and challenges that may prohibit others from standing up there, as well.
Cathleen Schine’s novel, “The Grammarians” (2019, Sarah Crichton Books) is a love letter to grammar, word play and the complicated topic of language, as well as a heartfelt and quirky study of family relationships – subjects that no doubt have been visited time and time again, but that are fundamentally relatable when touched on effectively.
Laurel and Daphne are identical twin sisters who are obsessed with grammar from an early age. They spend their childhood enthusiastically reading a dictionary, remembering fondly its ceremonious arrival and placement upon a wooden stand, or altar, by their father. The sisters speak in their own language practically from birth, but they are all too eager to learn the intricacies of English and use them to their advantages much to the marvel and, at times, irritation, of those around them. Inseparable for much of their lives, Laurel and Daphne’s bright red hair and their habit of sometimes dressing alike, even as adults, causes many a head turn, as does precociously introducing themselves as “Diplopia” and “Ibid” in a practiced bit. The sisters are frequently described both as individuals and as two halves to a whole. While they constantly argue, they just as frequently finish one another’s sentences.
As time goes on and the sisters grow older, Daphne gains national recognition for her regular newspaper column, the People’s Pedant, where she regularly rants on the topic of language. While reflecting to a colleague, she notes: “grammar is good. I mean ethically good. If you think of all these words just staggering around, grammar is their social order, their government.” Daphne holds tight to this sentiment, but Laurel’s similarly firm beliefs are questioned when her supervisor ponders if Daphne’s column sometimes causes one to “suspect that language is not very different from fashion or manners… Table manners, for example… Using a fish fork, even knowing what a fish fork looks like. That’s a sign that you grew up in a certain milieu. In a certain era. In a particular culture…. It’s not a sign of virtue or truth… Both the fish fork and the possessive gerund are signs, all right. But they’re signs of age, social convention and class.”
Considerations regarding language are front and center in The Grammarians, but the heart of the novel focuses on the tighter-than-tight bond between Laurel and Daphne, their identities both together and separate, and the family and friends who, while an integral part of their lives and the story, seem to merely orbit around the bright, shining sisters. When faced with tragedy, even the People’s Pedant notes that “words were supposed to illuminate and clarify. Words were meant to communicate information and feelings, from one person to another. But today, words stood numb and in the way.”
Check out “The Grammarians” at your closest Denver Public Library location, and find more information on this title and its author at www.cathleenschine.me.
Hannah Evans is Senior Librarian at the Smiley Branch of the Denver Public Library.