“Phoney” intertextualization: Skaz that never heals

Scott Gardner


Ever heard of skaz? A fusion of ska and jazz? The Russian plural for the hiccups? A rare lung disorder? You really have no idea, do you. Skaz is a Russian term for literature that is narrated in a strongly colloquialized voice, often first person. Standard boring literature uses an omniscient narrator who can tell us that Character A harbors murderous intentions toward Character B, while at the same time telling us that Character B has an itch in a place on his body that he can’t scratch in public without embarrassing himself. The narrator knows all.

In skaz, on the other hand, the narrator often is a character in the story, like Huck in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One effect of skaz is that written literature sounds more like listening to a story than reading it. It can be a struggle at times. If you don’t live in 19th century Mississippi River country, you’re going to struggle with Huck’s vocabulary, like sockdolager and actuly. Anthony Burgess in his futuristic Clockwork Orange created a narrator’s dialect for a Britain that didn’t exist yet. I’m currently working on a novel where every paragraph starts with “No wait, let me finish!”

As our attention spans grow shorter, we seek more correlation among our media: our books have to come out as movies, our movies have to advertise popular commercial products, our TV news has to have YouTube immediacy, analysis, and unchecked editorializing built in. (By the way, I’m still seeking a sponsor for the highly informative, witty, cutting-edge column you are now reading.) So skaz fits right into our sense that all forms of art and entertainment should look kind of like all other forms of art and entertainment, while all sense of formal objectivity goes out the window.

Let me digress here a minute to talk about Scanglish. Scanglish here refers to that peculiar variety of English often found online, when website content builders rely on scanned text from books as their material without correcting the faulty transfer from page to cybertext via an optical character recognition device. Here’s an example which comes, incidentally, from a web page about Catcher in the Rye and skaz. Italicized words are Scanglish:

The syntax is simple. Sentences are typically short and uncomplicated. Many of them aren’t properly formed, lacking a finite verb (“Stricdy Ivy League. Big deal.”) There are grammatical mistakes such as speakers often make (“He was die kind of a phoney that have to give themselves room...”). In longer sentences, clauses are strung together as they seem to occur to die speaker, rather than being subordinated to each odier in complex structures.


Now, either the authors of this text are providing readers with an example of the very technique they are describing by faking a German accent in writing (“die kind”; die speaker”), or they are practicing Scanglish. Let me give you another example from one of my own misadventures in scanning. This one never made it online, but it almost made it onto a handout for my ELT methodologies class, about teaching English to young children:

A calendar shows the days fio, H~n llriuell J992, p.44, 0PM”YO~LZ017giizni~) mother in each Tuesday, and so on. The children listen several times to the story-dialogue:

s: I wish I could swim like you, Croc.

c: I’ll teach you to swim.

s: Oh, will you?

c: Let’s start next week. Shall we go swi~nmingo n Tuesday?

s: No, sorry. On Tuesdays, I visit my grand~uothec

Sirqzila pattern for Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays.

Grand-uothec sounds like an Inca god, and sirqzila could well be a brand of carbonated alcoholic beverage. The string of characters on the first line, as a modifier of mother, has the appearance of an elaborate profanity. And right in front of the children!

The problem with analyzing Scanglish is that there are perhaps millions of varieties, some unique to one particular brand of scanner, others varying dependent on a myriad of factors such as resolution settings, font size, age of the paper, presence of coffee stains, etc. I suspect it would be a monumental task to try and document all the varieties of Scanglish that exist around the world. I’ve proposed a major research project on World Scanglishes, but die old Widder Tanaka in departmental affairs ben holden up my research grant application coz it aint ben filled up proper.