Archive | April 2014

9 First Sentences

Despite being in grad school, I’m still reading books at a fairly brisk pace these days (not as brisk as last year when I wasn’t in school, but brisker than when I was in college). Lately, I’ve been more excited than usual each time I get to start a new book (maybe because I think things like If I finish making a handout summarizing this infant language acquisition study tonight, I can start that book I borrowed from the library two weeks ago!), and so I’ve been especially struck by how delicious a well-crafted opening sentence is. I decided to take a closer look at some first sentences by rounding up all the books in my apartment (excluding ones like Phonetic Data Analysis and Everyday Thai Cooking), collecting their first sentences, and deconstructing them. Much has already been said about the importance of a fantastic opening line, but rather than abstractly pondering the ingredients of a good first sentence or musing about whether the perfect first sentence is actually necessary, I just wanted to wax lyrical about some examples. Without further ado, here are the opening lines of the books I currently have around:

“The night breathed through the apartment like a dark animal.” Reckless Cornelia Funke Trans. Oliver Latsch

I really like this. The personification (zoomorphism, technically?) makes the night seem alive and sentient, which heightens the sense of dread and foreboding that nighttime already evokes. The idea of the night breathing like an animal gives it a creepy, lurking presence. The “dark” might be redundant since night is, well, dark, but it contributes all its connotations of fear, evil, and danger. There’s also something claustrophobic about the sentence as a whole. This opening line immediately thrusts you into this shadowy apartment where the night might be stalking you, or at least watching you.

“He still wasn’t back.” Fearless Cornelia Funke Trans. Oliver Latsch

The opening line of this companion to Reckless is less compelling to me than the preceding example, but it still raises questions, which is one of the best things for a first sentence to do. You want to know who “he” is, and who is waiting for him. The “still” implies that whoever is waiting has been waiting for a long time. There’s a sense that something might have gone wrong, which creates tension and makes you feel the character’s worry.

“I remember being born.” Seraphina Rachel Hartman

Like the previous one, this sentence immediately raises questions: What kind of person remembers their own birth? It’s powerful in its unexpectedness and its brevity. The book opens at the most fundamental of beginnings, suggesting the start of a bildungsroman or an epic, but it does so in a unique way since the narrator is professing awareness of the experience of her birth. Moreover, there’s something special about the way it’s put: “being born.” Not “the day I was born” or “when I was born” or “my birth” but “being born.” It’s punchy, its progressive aspect sounds unusual, and it emphasizes the actual moment of entry into the world.

“I don’t feel the presence of God here.” Charm & Strange Stephanie Kuehn

This is the only first sentence from a book I haven’t actually read yet, so these are the only impressions that won’t be colored by my knowledge of all that comes after the opening line. I like this first line. I want to know where “here” is. Like in Seraphina, the first person POV is established immediately, only this beginning is grounded in a specific moment and place. Right away, I’m “there” with the narrator even though I don’t yet know where “there” is. The pronouncement in this first sentence is bleak and speaks of barrenness, isolation, despair, perhaps hiddenness. Also, mention of “the presence of God” lends this line a sense of the cosmic or the spiritual that makes it rather grand.

“You think it’s so easy to change yourself.” This Song Will Save Your Life Leila Sales

This opening really deserves to have its second sentence included too: “You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.” This first sentence is attention-getting in the way it directly addresses the reader. The narrator is challenging what she assumes is a widely held belief and promises a story that proves why this belief is wrong. The tone can be interpreted as bitter, defiant, resigned, or world-weary, but it’s the bluntness of these statements that really draws me in. Why is the narrator so sure of these things?

“It’s Sunday afternoon, and the phonograph player is jumping like a clown in a parade the way Jolene and I are dancing.” Flygirl Sherri L. Smith

This opening sentence feels more ordinary to me. It sets the scene and the mood and introduces a couple of characters. The mention of the phonograph player is very effective in revealing the time period, and the slightly odd turn of phrase from the simile to “the way Jolene and I are dancing” gives the narrator a distinctive voice, but otherwise there’s nothing too striking or unexpected here. However, when you consider the fact that this first sentence comes right after the section title December 1941, it takes on a new meaning. The section title creates dramatic irony because the reader knows what happened in the U.S. in December of 1941, but the carefree girls dancing at the beginning of the book don’t.

“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater

This is a masterful example of opening with a sentence so specific and unusual the reader has to know more. First off, knowing that one is supposed to kill one’s true love sounds just a bit troubling, not to mention dramatic. Secondly, the fact that this character can no longer remember how many times she’s been told this means it’s become ordinary to her. What must it be like to be accustomed to people telling you you’re going to kill your true love? Who is this character surrounded by? Who are the people telling her this? And how do they know? Thirdly, I have a weakness for first sentences that include an unusual character name in full. Blue Sargent qualifies. In short, I love this first sentence. Bonus points for invoking the classic themes of death and true love with a twist.

“A secret is a strange thing.” The Dream Thieves Maggie Stiefvater

This first sentence is very different from that of The Raven Boys. It’s gone to the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of specificity. This is a generalization, though the fact that it’s about secrets, which are inherently mysterious and compelling, still makes it intriguing. This opening line is like This Song Will Save Your Life‘s in the way it makes an observation about life, detached from any details of setting or character. This sort of first sentence works when the observation is striking enough to make the reader want to know more. Generalizations can also be good for raising questions. What is strange about a secret?

“I just got back from Celia Forester’s funeral.” Rose Under Fire Elizabeth Wein

Speaking of raising questions, this is another first sentence that does just that! Who is Celia Forester? How did she die? And what was the narrator’s relationship to her? We actually do know a little more because this opening sentences comes after the heading “Notes for an Accident Report,” and we can tell by the date and place at the top of the page that this is a journal entry. But I still want to know more. The sentence has a certain heaviness, due to its subject matter. I have the impression that the writer is sad and weary and needs to unburden herself (she certainly gets straight to the point), and I want to know what burdens she’s carrying.

So there they are, the first sentences of all nine novels in my apartment! Maybe next I’ll trace the evolution of the first sentence of Sparkers through its many drafts… Actually, though, in a departure from my regular schedule, I’ll be back tomorrow with something a little bit different. Until then!

Datvebis Gundi at World Voice Day

Datvebis Gundi is the Georgian choir I joined when it was founded in January. It was originally called the Kartvelian Chorus, but eventually we renamed ourselves. Datvebis Gundi means “choir of bears” in Georgian, a reference to the Bruin, UCLA’s mascot. Anyway, our choir had its first public performance last week at UCLA’s World Voice Day. World Voice Day is an international, interdisciplinary celebration of the human voice. UCLA participated for the first time this year, and our event was a collaboration between Linguistics, Head and Neck Surgery, Electrical Engineering, and Musicology. There were larynx models to play with, a station to measure one’s vibrato, free impromptu voice lessons, and, of course, Datvebis Gundi’s lunchtime performance! Lots of linguists came down to hear us sing, which was lovely of them (currently, our choir consists entirely of linguists, though we welcome everyone), and a number of passersby stopped to listen.

The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, even printed a story about our Georgian choir the day of our performance (the front page story was about World Voice Day generally). You can read it here, but be advised that it isn’t always 100% accurate. For instance, many Georgian songs in fact have words! And I’ve already gotten a lot of humorous mileage out of the phrase “crudely written letters.” No matter; at least we’re famous now!

One thing the article gets right is that we do learn our songs by ear. Our director gives us lyrics sheets with the Georgian texts transliterated into Roman letters (sometimes with English speakers in mind, sometimes with Slovene speakers in mind!). As she teaches us our parts, we add in whatever rhythm or pitch cues we need to remember the tune, in whatever notation we prefer. I’ve seen fellow choir members writing in actual notes to record rhythms, but I rarely put in rhythm markings. I’m not sure if this is because I don’t have much trouble remembering rhythms once I’ve learned a song or because I’m a lot worse at transcribing rhythm by ear than pitch.

For notating melodies, I use numbers corresponding to the notes of the scale. This involves choosing a tonic (first note of the scale) to be represented as 1, though what the tonic should be is not always clear, given the polyphonic nature of Georgian folk music. In one song, those of us using numbers for pitches discovered that we’d chosen three different tonics, depending on what part we were singing. And not all choir members even find the concept of the tonic to be useful in trying to learn their parts. The other potential pitfall of using numbers lining up with the Western scale is that Georgian songs, at least traditionally, have a different tuning. I suspect our choir mostly adapts these songs to the Western scale (I perceive most of the tunes we know to be minor), but occasionally our director will sing an interval that I can tell doesn’t fit into Western tuning.

Instead of using numbers to record tunes, some choir members draw lines conveying the relative rises and falls in pitch. Last week, I learned that these markings are called neumes! Before the development of modern musical notation, neumes were written above the words of a piece of music to give a general indication of the pitch contours they were to be sung with. Neumes seem to be most closely associated with plainchant. So if you, like me, enjoy gazing at medieval musical manuscripts, just do an image search for “neumes.”

Lunar Eclipse

I was lucky enough to get to watch the full lunar eclipse two nights ago; we had clear skies, and the eclipse occurred before I went to bed. Apparently I didn’t stay up late enough to see the “blood moon,” but what I did observe was still a stirring sight, and it was cool to see Mars shining brightly nearby. Here is a photo I took just as the Earth’s shadow was beginning to creep across the face of the moon:


In honor of the lunar eclipse, here are three books, all highly recommended, in which an astronomical event plays an important role:

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson

Part I of this book is entitled “The Transit of Venus,” the phenomenon in which Venus passes between the Earth and the sun and can thus be seen from the Earth as a black dot moving across the sun. In the 18th century, scientists observed the transit of Venus from different points on the globe in an effort to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun. In this book, Octavian Nothing travels to the New York wilderness with his philosopher masters and witnesses the transit of Venus of 1769. Incidentally, the most recent transit of Venus occurred in 2012, and I’m happy I got to see it (from Minnesota) because it won’t happen again in my lifetime.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

In 1926, Evie O’Neill, a young woman with a supernatural talent, races to find a serial killer terrorizing New York City. The fictional Solomon’s Comet will soon appear in the heavens again, and there may be a connection between the sinister murders and the approaching celestial event…

The Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy by Kate Constable

This might be stretching it a bit, but in this trilogy’s beautifully rendered world, there are three moons. People measure time by counting “turns of the moons,” and different cultures have different names for the various combinations of moon phases, like the Whale’s Mouth or the Goat and Two Kids.

A Special Stamp

Last week, I hosted a prospective student while she visited our department. When not linguisticking, she enjoys crafting, and at the end of her stay, to thank me for hosting her, she presented me with a gift: a rubber stamp she made just for me, while she was here!


“For your book signings,” she told me. (How she found out about Sparkers is another story: There’s an ARC floating around in the department–surprisingly, not my doing–and it surfaced at the informal phonologists and phoneticians’ lunch I brought this prospective student to.)

For those unfamiliar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the word in the center of the stamp is a phonetic transcription of writer (more on this in a moment). This present was completely unexpected, and it’s one of the most unique and thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. And this from someone who had only met me days earlier and whom I may never see again (though hopefully I will)! Just to give you an idea of how much thought she put into this, the prospective student apparently discussed with another grad student whether I “raise” in words like writer in an effort to make the transcription match my variety of English. They actually guessed wrong, but this stamp is so fantastic I’m not complaining! I love how it’s simultaneously the stamp of a writer and of a linguist, and it makes me smile to think of sending signed copies of Sparkers out into the world inscribed with a bit of IPA.

Speaking of the IPA, who’s ready for a little phonetics? Let’s deconstruct “ˈraɪtər”. That apostrophe-like mark indicates that stress falls on the first syllable of writer. The first sound in writer is of course an “r”; despite the spelling, there isn’t a “w” sound in the word. The American English “r” is actually represented by the IPA symbol [ɹ] while [r] represents the trill (or rolled “r”) used in languages like Spanish. However, in broad transcriptions, which omit precise phonetic details, the symbol [r] is often used for the American English “r” anyway .

The first vowel in writer is the diphthong /aɪ/. Now, I actually pronounce this diphthong differently in words like writer because I do something called Canadian raising. Essentially this means I pronounce writer differently from rider, specifically the sound represented by i. You can test yourself to see if you do this too. (I tend to think that everybody does this, because I do, and it doesn’t jump out at me if someone doesn’t Canadian raise in a word like writer. Clearly they don’t, though. This year, both my phonology professors used my speech as an example to demonstrate Canadian raising in class because I was the only U.S. student present who did it.) If you’re curious, the IPA symbol for the vowel I say in writer is [ʌɪ], and the sound change is called Canadian raising because the vowel raises, i.e. becomes higher, i.e. is pronounced with the tongue higher in the mouth. If you’re more curious, Canadian raising (at least the kind I have) changes /aɪ/ to [ʌɪ] before voiceless consonants like /p/, /t/, /k/, and /s/ but not before voiced consonants like /b/, /d/, /g/, and /z/. Hence the difference in vowel sound between write and ride (and, consequently, between writer and rider).

The “t” in writer is actually pronounced [ɾ] in American English. This sound is called a tap, and it’s the middle consonant in both writer and rider (which is why these words sound identical if you don’t have Canadian raising). Still, you can transcribe the “t” in writer as /t/, as in my stamp, because it starts out as a /t/ and only turns into a tap because it’s in between two vowels. The second vowel in writer is the upside-down e [ə]. This is called a schwa. And of course, writer ends with another “r” sound, though one often sees the entire ending –er transcribed with the pretty symbol [ɚ].

So, there you have it! If you see me this fall, I might be stamping this design in your book!

Spring Break: Nature, Culture, and Gastronomy

Last summer, when my parents and I drove out to Los Angeles, we tried to have dinner at Newport Seafood (新港海鮮), a restaurant in San Gabriel famous for its Chinese-style lobster. When we arrived, having driven across the desert from Arizona, we found ourselves in a parking lot that looked a bit like that traffic gridlock game Rush Hour. My mother went inside the restaurant to reconnoiter and reported a scene of chaos: an entryway teeming with small children while grandmothers propped themselves up against the walls. Needless to say, we failed in our quest to eat there. Over my spring break, though, we tried again. This time, we arrived before the restaurant opened for lunch, and my brother and I camped out on the sidewalk with half a dozen other families while my parents checked out the Chinese bakeries down the street. And…success! We ordered our lobster, and it was amazing.


The next day, we visited Topanga State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains and went on a gentle hike through live oak groves and chaparral. There weren’t many wildflowers in bloom, probably because it’s been so dry, but we saw some lizards and a California lupine, and we heard the call of the wrentit.


On the way back from Topanga State Park, we stopped by the beach and watched some sandpipers.


The following day, we took a winding road up into the San Bernardino Mountains and rose above the clouds to reach the Rim of the World. We went on to Lake Arrowhead Village, a kitschy tourist town on the shores of a blue-green reservoir populated by mallards, coots, white geese, and other waterfowl. We also walked around the nearby Lake Gregory.

Rim of the World

On our way back, we stopped for dinner at 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra. They had delicious dumplings and hand-torn noodles with minced pork and long bean, but the star of the show was this Shandong beef roll. It’s a giant fried pancake wrapped around thinly sliced beef, cilantro, and other greens, with a bit of sauce that tasted like hoisin sauce. Very different from the kind of Chinese food I grew up eating, and so incredibly delicious.

Shandong beef roll

We spent the next day in downtown LA, prowling around Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; visiting the Japanese American National Museum; and exploring Little Tokyo. I really liked this flower-shaped fountain made of shards of blue and white china in the Disney Hall community park.

Fountain 1

Fountain 2

Fountain 3

Fountain 4

Fountain 5

Before walking to Disney Hall, we’d put our name down at Daikokuya, a very popular ramen shop in Little Tokyo. When we returned, there were even more people waiting on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant than when we’d left. The sheet with our name on it was gone, replaced by a new one, but my mother got a server to fish the old sheet out of a wastebasket and find us on it and thus finagled us three red vinyl-covered stools at the counter. And that’s how I got to eat this savory bowl of ramen.


After lunch, we explored the nearby Japanese American National Museum, particularly the exhibit on the history of the Japanese communities in the United States, which rightly devoted significant space to the Japanese American internment. I particularly liked this biwa, though, a traditional Japanese lute related to the Chinese pipa.


Finally, to wrap up this spring break post, here is me at The Huntington Gardens, with a purple-flowered vine whose names include Queen’s Wreath, Blue Bird Vine, and Fleur de Dieu.

Huntington (36)