Sociological Impact of the Decriminalization of Marijuana
I. Introduction and Historical Background
Participants of perceived social deviance throughout the 1950s and 60s—the emergence of hippie culture, “free love,” the Civil Rights movement, and protest of the Vietnam war—were often directly (though not always fairly) associated with drug use; the most common and widespread association being the recreational use of marijuana. That association likely helped to facilitate marijuana’s inclusion into the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 by the Nixon administration. However, negative connotations with the substance began in the early 1900s, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 saw a massive influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States (Hay, 2015).
Recreational use of marijuana was an established and integral part of the Hispanic culture, and the drug quickly began to take root in the United States, particularly in the south. Prohibition of alcohol had almost immediately made marijuana an attractive, easily accessible, and largely unregulated choice for recreational pleasure (Schlosser, 1994). However, growing racism and prejudice against the influx of immigrants was further inflamed by narratives of the “Marijuana Menace,” a drug which was suddenly and intentionally purported to corrupt morality and incite violent crime (Frontline, 2014). Even the common name we now use for the drug—“marijuana”—was an intentional push to associate what had previously been referred to as “cannabis” with Mexican culture, and thus further inflame the growing anti-immigrant sentiments of the Depression era (Thompson, 2013).
Examples of anti-marijuana propaganda (Sullum, 2018)
Much of this misinformation and anti-marijuana propaganda was deliberately fueled by Harry Anslinger, the U.S. Narcotics Commissioner and leader of the federal Prohibition agency—the originating government agency which would later evolve into the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Anslinger recognized that he was facing potential unemployment when alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, and he swiftly turned his efforts instead to the criminalization of marijuana. Cultural stresses due to the massive financial recession had already created an atmosphere in which much of the white population feared a further shortage of resources and employment from the Hispanic population seeking asylum in the United States. Anslinger recognized and capitalized on the fears and prejudices of the time. In a 1937 testimony before Congress urging federal restriction on marijuana, Anslinger stated: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret [sic] can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions” (Thompson, 2013). These sweeping, stereotypical, and factually untrue assumptions point toward the deeply problematic and unsound correlations between race and criminality which still permeate every level of the American justice system today.
At the outset of marijuana prohibition, the federal government encouraged any concerned state governments to regulate marijuana independently. By 1931, twenty-nine states had outlawed the substance, and the 1937 Marijuana Stamp Act—again, largely facilitated by Harry Anslinger—effectively criminalized the drug for recreational use (Frontline, 2015). Later reports commissioned by the Kennedy administration supported decriminalization of marijuana due to the perceived low risks of its use. Substantial evidence contradicted previous claims of the dangers of marijuana, but the plant was ultimately classified as an illegal Schedule I Narcotic by the Nixon administration in 1970. This inclusion was made against a report made by the Shafer Commission, a bipartisan committee appointed by Congress to provide recommendations on the regulation of marijuana (Frontline, 2014). The Shafer Commission determined personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized; Nixon vehemently opposed this recommendation (Hay, 2015). Despite the effective prohibition of the substance, eleven states still made the decision to decriminalize marijuana throughout the 1970s and many more lessened their penalties for possession. Today, twenty-nine states have legalized medical marijuana, eight states have legalized recreational use for adults over twenty-one years of age, and almost all states have deprioritized marijuana-related offenses, but the substance remains illegal at the federal level.
II. Cultural Beliefs and Biases
In researching recent efforts in marijuana legalization, it’s become apparent that only a small handful of the total population in the U.S. still holds to the antiquated belief that marijuana is a dangerous or risky substance in need of stringent regulation. Most states now consider the substance legal in some capacity, and two-thirds of Americans support federal legalization (NORML, 2017). The cultural belief that marijuana is dangerous never actually stemmed from scientific evidence, but rather from lingering associations with negative stereotypes deeply rooted in racism and prejudice.
Staggering unemployment rates during the Great Depression fueled resentment and distrust of incoming Mexican immigrants, and their cultural association with marijuana was ample fuel for Anslinger’s newest crusade after the end of alcohol prohibition (Frontline, 2014). Likewise, marijuana also had a long history of being used as a sedation drug for slaves throughout Jamaica and the Caribbean; forced use of the substance eventually evolved into an accepted, recreational habit in these cultures as slavery slowly came to an end (Hay, 2015). Since hundreds of thousands of these slaves were eventually imported to the United States, recreational marijuana usage had also become a normalized part of the African-American culture. So, an existing association of marijuana with perceived “second-class citizens” or those who were “racially inferior” was further exploited and inflamed by political agenda.
The persisting cultural belief that minorities compromise the majority of drug users has led to institutionalized and systemic racism within the justice system. Historically, minorities have been arrested, convicted, and served time for minor drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites faced with similar charges (Drug Policy Alliance, 2018). This demonstrates how an issue that begins as an individual belief or bias can become deeply engrained in societal norms: a relatively minor cultural association between minorities and drug use is propagated and enflamed by political agenda; government propaganda causes this belief to become entrenched in our society; societal belief leads to targeting by law enforcement for these crimes; established bias also creates the more likely outcome of conviction by a jury after arrest. Perceived deviant behavior is most often regulated by law in our society, and we are only now beginning to see a shift in the legislation to reflect our culture’s changing perceptions on marijuana use. One major player with vehement resistance against legalization is the American pharmaceutical industry.
Though in the past, Americans often inherently believed and trusted the advising of government agencies such as the Federal Drug Administration, growing turmoil amid the opioid crisis and other public health threats has created an overwhelming sense of mistrust with many aspects of government regulation (Norman, 2016). The current quasi-legal status of marijuana is no exception. Despite threats to enforce federal laws, numerous representatives and state governors are standing their ground against the current administration’s threats against legalization (Tumulty and Sullivan, 2018). There has been a significant cultural shift against the idea that government agencies are diligently working with the peoples’ best interests at heart. The state-by-state legalization of marijuana is another example of how individualism can have a massive impact on societal institutions. Over time, both anecdotal and scientific evidence demonstrated that marijuana is in fact a beneficial drug, with a low rate of risk and dependency. As a result, our societal view on the supposed deviancy associated with marijuana use slowly began to change. A movement that started with a handful of grassroots activists has now swept the majority of states and the regulation of marijuana is being challenged at the federal level.
III. Social Roles
Despite the overall shift in cultural acceptance of marijuana, the acceptance of medical usage has been more widespread than recreational use. Stereotypes of “stoners” or associations with laziness and social deviance have persisted against those who choose to use marijuana recreationally, which has manifested in the slow progression of legality of recreational marijuana. Recreational users in legal states are also subject to more stringent purchasing limits than those who are medically licensed, and still cannot legally grow their own plants (Wells, 2017). All users are still subject to stringent local laws regarding where and when they can consume and under what circumstances.
Many recreational users still feel the need to hide use from employers, family, and friends due to lingering discriminatory attitudes against marijuana versus other recreational substances, such as alcohol, though that stigma appears to be waning nationwide (Brooks, 2016). A significant milestone in that shifting attitude was the 2017 introduction of legal “pot clubs,” in Colorado. Pot clubs are private venues where recreational users can smoke and socialize, much like your average bar (Markus, 2017). This filled a growing need in the marijuana tourism industry, as most tourists coming to Colorado risked fines from hotels for smoking privately or encounters with police for smoking publicly, effectively giving tourists the opportunity to buy but denying them the opportunity to smoke.
There are still issues of social inequality for medical and recreational users alike. It is important to note that in the process of obtaining a medical license, a doctor provides a recommendation for medical marijuana use, not a prescription. Due to marijuana’s persisting illegality at the federal level, there are no HIPPA protections for those that medically use. Many people have found themselves unemployed or unable to obtain employment due to corporate drug screenings – unlike prescribed medications, marijuana use can still be discriminated against by employers, even for those who are medically licensed (Flock and Taylor, 2012). Our culture creates a dysfunctional view of marijuana use because of the separation of these two roles. On the one hand, we are willing to give the sickest and most vulnerable of our citizens complete access to this drug, which was initially only available legally to those with terminal or life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or HIV (Thompson, 2018). On the other hand, despite zero associated deaths, a relatively low dependency rate, and a wealth of benefits (such as lowered opioid dependency, lowered crime rates, and benefit for those with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, epilepsy, and other non-life-threatening disorders), our society has stalled against access to marijuana as a recreational substance available for use to the public. Our major societal institutions—the law, the government, and most religions—still brand the drug as dangerous, addictive, and ultimately harmful to the quality of life. The unrelenting bias of the federal government, instigated by political agenda and fueled by corporate investment, creates a conflict of scientific evidence against law; our cultural conflict of allowing access to a relatively innocuous substance for those who are ill but restricting it for those who are not is ultimately divisive and perpetuates the myths surrounding marijuana use.
IV. Social Issues
There persists an issue of discrimination against those who have criminal records relating to marijuana use in now-legal states. Drug convictions can disqualify citizens from educational loans, housing, job opportunities, and most importantly, the ability to vote. California is leading the way in this aspect, with numerous counties now allowing prior marijuana convictions to be sealed or expunged from criminal records after a petition process (Quinton, 2017). Still, this process is slow and expensive; many of those with criminal records lack the means to be able to begin petition. The issue remains rampant in many other states, particularly those without recreational legalization. These convictions have largely plagued minority communities (Drug Policy Alliance, 2018). Though marijuana arrests have sharply declined due to deprioritization and legalization, this issue continues to feed the faulty belief that marijuana is largely used by minorities; they are simply more likely to be punished for it.
Gerrymandering via drug conviction is an example of how racism continues to influence our societal institutions. Societal bias causes minorities to be disproportionately targeted for drug offenses by police, which means minorities overwhelmingly carry criminal convictions throughout their lives (Thompson, 2018). As a result, large groups of people—primarily African-Americans—have lost their ability to vote for representatives in their communities and their government. It’s estimated that one out of thirteen African-Americans (seven percent of the national population) is currently disenfranchised (Green, 2016). The voices of these communities then go unrepresented year after year, which means issues such as the sealing of drug convictions are left unaddressed unless those without drug convictions choose to get involved in the matter. The constituents most in need of representation are effectively silenced; governing societal institutions are then slow to change; in reflection of our laws, negative cultural biases persist.
Additionally, prior drug convictions have barred tens of thousands of minorities from the ability to enter the legal marijuana industry: Almost all twenty-nine states have varying laws barring or restricting previous drug offenders from seeking employment in both the recreational and medical marijuana industries (Thompson, 2017). A massive report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union, based on nine years of data compiled by U.S. Census and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program from 2001-2010, concluded that the African-American population across the entirety of the U.S. is “3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates”; thus, people of color disproportionately hold criminal records related to drug possession despite a negligible difference in the reported rate of use between the minority and white populations (ACLU, 2013). The majority of legalized states include “Good Moral Character” clauses which entirely prevent individuals with any prior drug-related convictions to participate in the legalized marijuana industry (Thompson, 2017). Only Oregon and California allow those with prior drug convictions to hold a position within the legalized industry, and only after an arduous and expensive process of sealing or overturning former convictions (Thompson, 2017). For most, hiring a lawyer and participating in the lengthy legal process is simply not a viable option.
Essentially, minorities have been unfairly targeted for illegal possession and distribution of marijuana for decades; now that the substance is legal, they have been widely excluded from participation in the legal market. Because of the quasi-legality, the black market for marijuana has now dwindled, leaving the lucrative financial benefits of the industry overwhelmingly in the hands of the white population: the population which first demanded criminalization the substance; purported and encouraged associations between marijuana, minority races, and criminal behavior; and then demanded and shaped the substance’s legality for our own personal benefit and monetary gain. Those who distribute illegally are still subject to penalty under the law, which continues to perpetuate the harmful societal associations with minorities and criminal behavior. The gentrification of the marijuana industry is a reflection of the larger issue of racism that still permeates nearly every aspect of our society.
V. Challenging Social Conditions
Marijuana is challenging the current state of politics in its pseudo-legal status: while legal in some form in the majority of states, the drug remains illegal at the federal level. Despite bipartisan support of ending prohibition, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made numerous threats to begin enforcing federal laws regarding marijuana, something which was publicly “unprioritized” under the Obama administration (Angell, 2018). Legislation was introduced March of 2018 by 62 bipartisan representatives, requesting that the federal government not pursue prosecution of individuals and businesses complying with local state laws concerning medical and recreational marijuana (Angell, 2018). The provision was approved by the House floor and was adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but the Sessions is still able to direct the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Administration as he sees fit. This creates a dysfunction in our society because even those operating legally under state law have a looming threat of federal enforcement of their trade.
In the past, arguments against marijuana legalization often centered around two issues: increased adolescent drug use and increased crime rates (including DUIs). The newest data—still limited information, due to the brevity of the period of legality—has shown no negative correlation to these issues. In fact, legalization has decreased gang violence, illegal trafficking, and violent crime rates in border states; decreased crime rates overall in legalized states; and despite steadily rising teen drug use over the past two decades, has not been shown to further facilitate or encourage drug use in youth residing in legalized states (Messamore, 2017; Sarich, 2014; Ingraham, 2017). This preliminary data was surprising to opponents and even some supporters of legalization. However, it is still too early to definitively see the long-term impact that legalization will ultimately have on states and their communities; federal legalization would likely have a significant impact on accessibility and regulation.
Decriminalization of marijuana has also challenged social perceptions. As mentioned before, in the throes of a nationwide opioid epidemic, attitudes are shifting not only positively toward marijuana usage, but negatively toward the pharmaceutical industry as a whole (NORML, 2017; Norman, 2016). The pharmaceutical industry has spent the past decade under intense public scrutiny for unethical practices such as price fixing, artificial inflation, and offering extravagant kickbacks or incentives for doctors to unnecessarily or over-prescribe medications (Norman, 2016). One of the end results of these profit-driven practices has been a nationwide opioid epidemic; it recently became enough of a problem to be declared a “Public Health Emergency” by the current Trump administration (Allen and Kelly, 2017). Many states have turned to marijuana legalization not just as a source of tax revenue, but also as a means to combat exponentially rising opioid dependence and its related fatalities. The pharmaceutical industry has thus lobbied adamantly against legalization, funneling money to anti-legalization groups nationwide and keeping the pockets of powerful political figures – such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions – generously lined (Ingraham, 2016). The industry continues to purport the idea that marijuana is dangerous while simultaneously working to synthesize the drug artificially, the ultimate goal there being to have control over the trade of THC.
While many who used marijuana were previously subjected to negative stereotypes concerning “stoners,” “hippies,” or “drug users,” two-thirds of the American population now supports ending marijuana prohibition. As the declining opioid use in legal states shows, many people realize that the numerous benefits of marijuana are a viable alternative to often risky and highly addictive prescription medication. As with the ending of alcohol prohibition, the cessation of marijuana prohibition at the federal level will be a battleground slowly won, state by state.
Allen, Greg and Amita Kelly. (2017). Trump administration declares opioid crisis a public health emergency. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/10/26/560083795/president-trump-may-declare-opioid-epidemic-national-emergency
Angell, Tom. (2018). Stop Jeff Sessions from busting medical marijuana, bipartisan lawmakers demand. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomangell/2018/03/16/stop-jeff-sessions-from-busting-medical-marijuana-bipartisan-lawmakers-demand/#5e5932ab1a74
Brooks, Megan. (2016). More US adults using marijuana as attitudes change. Medscape. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/868282
Drug Policy Alliance. (2018). From prohibition to progress: A status report on marijuana legalization. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/legalization-status-report
Flock, Brian M. and M. Edward Taylor. (2012). Medical marijuana and drug testing – what employers need to know. MRSC. Retrieved from http://mrsc.org/Home/Stay-Informed/MRSC-Insight/Archives/Medical-Marijuana-and-Drug-Testing-What-Employers.aspx
Frontline. (2014). Marijuana timeline. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html
Green, Matthew. (2016). States where convicted felons can’t vote. KQED. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/lowdown/11897/map-felon-voter-disenfranchisement-by-the-numbers
Hay, Mark. (2015). Marijuana’s early history in the United States. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xd7d8d/how-marijuana-came-the-united-states-456
Ingraham, Christopher. (2016). One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/13/one-striking-chart-shows-why-pharma-companies-are-fighting-legal-marijuana/?utm_term=.2cdbd207e68d
Ingraham, Christopher. (2017). Following marijuana legalization, teen drug use is down in Colorado. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/11/following-marijuana-legalization-teen-drug-use-is-down-in-colorado/?utm_term=.12eef3b0e77b
Messamore, W. E. (2017). Marijuana legalization is reducing violent crime in border states. IVN. Retrieved from https://ivn.us/2017/07/06/marijuana-legalization-decreasing-violent-crime-border-states/
Norman, Jim. (2016). American’s views of pharmaceutical industry take a tumble. Gallup. Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/poll/185432/americans-views-pharmaceutical-industry-tumble.aspx
NORML. (2017). All time high: New poll shows two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization. Retrieved from http://blog.norml.org/2017/10/25/all-time-high-new-poll-shows-two-thirds-of-americans-support-marijuana-legalization/
Quinton, Sophie. (2017). In these states, past marijuana crimes can go away. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/11/20/in-these-states-past-marijuana-crimes-can-go-away
RAND Corporation. (2018). Link between medical marijuana and fewer opioid deaths is more complex than previously reported. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/news/press/2018/02/06.html
Sarich, Christina. Colorado crime rates down 14.6% since legalizing marijuana. Natural Society. Retrieved from http://naturalsociety.com/colorado-crime-rates-14-6-since-legalizing-marijuana/
Schlosser, Eric. (1994). Reefer madness. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/08/reefer-madness/303476/
Sullum, Jacob. (2018). Fear of Mexicans, not blacks, led to Kansas ban on marijuana. Reason. Retrieved from https://reason.com/blog/2018/01/10/fear-of-mexicans-not-blacks-led-kansas-t
Thompson, Beverly Yuen. (2017). As marijuana becomes legal, the legacy of structural racism still haunts many. Sociology in Focus. Retrieved from http://sociologyinfocus.com/2017/02/as-marijuana-becomes-legal-the-legacy-of-structural-racism-still-haunts-many/
Thompson, Matt. (2013). The mysterious history of ‘marijuana’. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/07/14/201981025/the-mysterious-history-of-marijuana
Tumulty, Karen and Sean Sullivan. (2018). ‘That’s the model’: Republican Cory Gardner stands up to President Trump. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/thats-the-model-cory-gardner-stands-up-to-president-trump/2018/01/05/b3b9b2b6-f17b-11e7-b3bf-ab90a706e175_story.html?utm_term=.195fd287a05f Wells, Joey. (2017). How much weed can I buy? A state-by-state guide. Leafbuyer. Retrieved from https://www.leafbuyer.com/blog/how-much-weed-can-i-buy/
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2018, all rights reserved.
“Völuspá” and “Norse Mythology”: A Linguistic Analysis
Another project. This is a comparative, linguistic analysis between a historic work and a contemporary one: “Völuspá,” an excerpt of the Poetic Edda, and “Before the Beginning, and After,” taken from Neil Gaiman’s magnificent Norse Mythology. If you know the guy, feel free to pass this along.
For this project, I plan to analyze and compare two works of Norse mythology. “Völuspá,” or “The Prophecy of the Seeress,” is a creation poem featured in both Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and the elder Poetic Edda of the Codex Regius (“Royal Book”), which remains unattributed to an author. “Before the Beginning, and After,” is an excerpt from Norse Mythology, a collection of Norse myths retold by best-selling fiction author Neil Gaiman. The English translation of “Völuspá” used in this paper was originally published by Henry Adams Bellows in 1936 and is now a work of public domain. Small fragments of the translated prose were altered in 2006 by Dr. Marion Ingham, to reflect a more literal translation of Old Norse. The original manuscripts of the Prose and Poetic Eddas date back to the early 13th century. In comparison, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology was published quite recently, in February of 2017.
Both versions of the narrative provide some measure of context for the entire Norse mythos, introducing the Nine Worlds and how they each came to be. The creation of gods, giants, men, and dwarves—and the conflict and chaos that eternally rules their existence—is laid out within these verses. The traditional telling of “Völuspá” is from the perspective of a certain volva, or wise-woman, raised from the dead by Odin to foretell of Ragnarök, or “The Fate of the Gods”. In Gaiman’s adaptation, the author serves in place of the oracle, imparting a quick and easily digestible framework for the Norse chaos/creation/destruction myths.
II. Morphological, Phonological, and Semantic Analysis
Before being recorded in piecemeal by Christian missionaries, Norse mythology was strictly an oral tradition. Gaiman had similar intentions for his own retellings of the Norse mythos—he himself is the narrator of the audio version of Norse Mythology, and his introduction urges readers to “…on some dark and icy winter’s evening, or on a summer night when the sun will not set, tell your friends what happened when Thor’s hammer was stolen, or how Odin obtained the mead of poetry for the gods…” (6). From a linguistic perspective, I thought it would be compelling to examine the shifts in language from traditional Skaldic poetry (translated) to English (U.K.) fiction. Because these works were intended to be spoken, I think a phonemic analysis may provide curious insights into how the sounds of our storytelling traditions have changed over nearly ninety years, since Bellow’s 1936 translation.
Verses 33 and 34 of “Völuspá” features more voiced constants than voiceless, the voiced of which are emphasized here:
33. From the branch which seemed | so slender and fair
Came a harmful shaft | that Hoth should hurl;
But the brother of Baldr | was born ere long,
And one night old | fought Othin‘s son.
34. His hands he washed not, | his hair he combed not,
Till he bore to the bale-blaze | Baldr‘s foe.
But in Fensalir | did Frigg weep sore
For Valhall‘s need: | would you know yet more? (33-4)
Reading the prose aloud, I was struck by the sound of these verses in particular; though not pure alliteration, there are similar voiced and voiceless consonant and vowel sounds repeated within each line. Alveolar consonant phonemes are the most prevalent, but they also appear to generally be the most prevalent within the English language—there are more sounds listed in that column than any other, so that may simply be expected. The third line of verse 33 and the second line of verse 34 repeat the bilabial / b / stop four times within each respective line. These stress of these word-initial consonants starkly contrast the nasal, glide, and liquid manners of articulation that comprise most of the sounds in these verses. The stops seemed to act as a sort of punctuation, causing the narrator to slow and annunciate each / b /, where the rest of the sounds behave in a way congruent to their descriptors: the mouth moves with a gliding, liquid-like buoyancy in comparison to the choppy / b / breakers.
In Gaiman’s “Before the Beginning, and After,” another alliterative sentence caught my attention: “Niflheim was colder than cold, and the murky mist that cloaked everything hung heavily” (14). Beyond the obvious repetition of consonant sounds seems to be an almost formulaic sound construction: Nasal, glide, stop, fricative, stop, nasal, fricative, nasal, nasal, fricative, stop, fricative, glide, glide. As they did in “Völuspá,” the / k / stops here—all the same phoneme—seem to serve as a rhythmic punctuation between silkier sounds, drawing the listener’s attention and forcing the narrator to articulate carefully to avoid slipping the tongue. Repeating the consonant sounds most likely to be stressed when speaking, you end up with something like [ kuh-kuh-muh-muh-kuh-huh-huh ] (colder/cold, murky/mist, cloaked, hung/heavily). The repetition of sound and stress here echoes the poetic and near-lyrical quality of the “Völuspá” verses.
“Before the Beginning, and After,” and “Voluspo,” are both works of fiction; the latter is more likely to be defined as literature than the former, though both cover the subject matter of the ancient Norse mythos. Due to the fictional nature of the two works, an examination of the figurative language contained within both pieces seemed the most appropriate choice in semantic analysis. According to Linguistics for Everyone (2013),figurative language is generally defined as “language that shifts meaning from the primary meaning of the word” (p. 310). However, there are many specific types of figurative language, a few of which will be explored in these selected works.
Metaphors are probably the most common and easily recognizable category of figurative language. We use metaphors in our everyday language to draw comparisons between one idea and another: something is like something else. Denham and Lobeck (2013) inform us that the word metaphor comes from the Greek metaphero, which means to “transfer” or “carry over” (p. 312). Metaphors are often heavily used in fictional writing as a means to convey an image, idea, or sensation to the reader through imagery and association: He said the words, and her heart cracked like an old mirror. In this example, the girl’s heart isn’t actually anything like an old mirror, but the figurative comparison allows the reader to draw a mental imagery and association of things broken, shattered, irreparable, and so on.
Gaiman is a celebrated fantasy author, but the writing in “Before the Beginning, and After,” takes an almost scholarly tone, and the information contained therein—though rooted in mythology and entirely fictional—is presented in a straightforward and largely factual manner, lending Gaiman’s voice an authoritative quality. This deliberate separation from commonly used figurative literary devices makes the creation story of Gaiman’s Norse mythos more comparable to canonized religious texts, such as the Bible; there is a marked difference in the writing here when compared to the other plot-driven and traditionally-presented narratives contained in Norse Mythology.
In order to achieve this scholarly tone, Gaiman’s writing in “Before the Beginning” is markedly restrained in the use of metaphors and other non-literal language, though there are still a select few buried within the text: “The land was aflame with the roaring heat of a blacksmith’s fire,” (p. 14) or “a person bigger than worlds” (p. 15). What is interesting about these metaphors is that, though they draw comparisons between two concepts or ideas—a piece of land as a blacksmith’s pit, or a humanoid entity larger than a planet—these ideas are still expressed in a way which maintains continuity of Gaiman’s authoritative and factual voice. Gaiman seems to deliberately avoid the word like: Ymir, ancestor of all giants, is not presented as like a planet, but “a person bigger than worlds” (p. 15). The latter phrasing lends more weight than the former, presenting the idea as concrete and indisputable rather than imaginative. The same presentation is given in Gaiman’s description of the flame-world of Muspell. The land is not like the heat of a blacksmith’s fire, but rather, the blistering heat of a blacksmith’s fire is undeniably contained within the land.
Personification is a specific type of metaphor, and another example of a commonly used figurative device. Denham and Lobeck (2013) define personification as the “attribution of human qualities to something that is not human” (p. 313). Personification is not always immediately obvious—a sentence like the tree’s branches grasped at her hair might not immediately strike a casual reader as personification, though in actuality, a tree’s branches lack the nervous system, muscle, nerves, tendons, and bones, and other tissues to be able to grasp anything the way a human hand would, as is suggested by the text. Thus, personification is simply a more specific characterization of something is like something else.
Personification is used heavily throughout the writing in “Voluspo”: “The sun, the sister / of the moon, from the south / Her right hand cast / over heaven’s rim” (stanza 5). The sun is entirely devoid of any true human attributes, but mythology across all cultures often utilizes personification in the description of many earthly and celestial elements. This particularly makes sense when you consider that many cultures’ mythology includes ideals of animism, or the belief that both animate and inanimate entities (animals, trees, rocks, rivers, stars, etc.) contain a human-esque consciousness, awareness, or soul (Solomon & Higgins, 2003). The heavy use of personification in many mythological works, including “Voluspo,” likely has ties to the animistic beliefs of pagan and Viking cultures.
Drawing comparisons between human beings and non-human objects, ideas, or entities may have been a more effective use of non-literal language and imagery versus other methods; in the early 13th century, when the oral traditions of the Norse peoples were first transposed to written record by Christian missionaries, worldviews and education were likely to be highly limited, particularly among the “common” folk these myths so often entertained. Drawing comparisons between human attributes and non-human entities/objects/ideas could be reasonably seen as one of the most effective and easily understood uses of figurative language. Human beings are inherently social creatures, intimately knowledgeable from a tender age of the expressions, movements, sounds, and other non-verbal cues that humans use to convey meaning. Thus, it would seem logical that personification would be a common well of comparison to draw from, easily understood and put into the proper context by the masses.
III. Register Levels
In any written or spoken work, the narrator’s selection of language affects the register of the text or dialogue. Denham and Lobeck (2013) define register as a “speech or writing style adopted for a particular audience” (p. 350). This means that humans adapt the style, word selection, formality, and tone of our language depending on the context of the situation and intended audience. In his article titled “What Is Register in Linguistics?” (2018), linguistics professor and English expert Dr. Richard Nordguist explains that there are five generally accepted forms of register: frozen (or “static”), meaning language that is intended to remain unchanged, such as the recitation of a formal prayer; formal, which is used in academic and professional settings; consultative, which is the register used when imparting specialized knowledge or advice; casual, which is the relaxed and informal register used between friends and family; and intimate, which is a private—often loving, sexual, or conspiratorial—register used between two people.
As touched on previously, the register level within “Before the Beginning, and After,” reads differently than the subsequent chapters. This part of the narrative is conveyed factually, with unadorned language, consistent grammar, few figurative devices, and no dialogue; Gaiman’s seeming canonization of an uncanonized belief system lends the opening chapter a consultative register, such as that of a scholar or historian. In contrast, subsequent stories in Norse Mythology heavily feature informal and non-literal language (euphemisms, idioms, similes, metaphors, etc.), slang, dialogue exchanges, expletives, and so on. Once the setting and cast of characters have been formally introduced by Gaiman, the register takes on a much more lively and unceremonious tone. Though the creation myth contained in “Before the Beginning” is highly imaginative and entirely fictional, Gaiman chose practical language and heavily favorited literal description in creating the readers’ context for the remainder of the mythos.
The register of “Voluspo” is a bit more difficult to ascertain, largely due to the archaic language and poetic structure of the narrative. In this story, Odin summons a volva, meaning a seer, oracle, or wise-woman, from her grave in order to discover the future which awaits the gods. The volva initially addresses the gods with a tone somewhere between formal and consultative, seeking to impress the gathering of gods with her formidable knowledge of past, present, and future events. However, despite the formality of the volva’s language, slang, euphemisms, personification, metaphors, similes, and other forms of poetic license are heavily at play. Thus, it is necessary to make a distinction between the register of the characters and the overall register of the writing, which is lively, highly imaginative, and grammatically impractical in comparison to contemporary language use (though this is common in all poetry, even modern). So, while the register of volva to gods reads as formal and consultative, the overall register of the piece can be perceived as casual: the imparting of a wildly imagined tale from storyteller to audience; the tone is engaging, and the language, vivid.
The dialect of “Voluspo” can make interpretation and analyzation of the piece more challenging than other works of poetry, particularly when compared to contemporary pieces. The edition of “Voluspo” analyzed in this paper was translated by Henry Adams Bellows in 1936; even considering how recent that translation is in comparison to the timeline of the Edda’s existence, there are still peculiarities in the dialect that stem from conversion from Old Norse to English, artistic license and interpretation, grammatical irregularities, and so on. The language, structure, grammar, and voice of “Voluspo” immediately indicate to the audience that this work is likely historic. When reading through the piece, it’s often necessary to laboriously rearrange and contextualize the language to properly comprehend the message conveyed by the writing. Though much must be left to the interpretation of the translator, Bellows’ likely prerogative was to preserve the integrity of the original work as much as possible; this potentially affects word choice in the translation and may result in some measure of grammatical or contextual oddities within the text.
Though Neil Gaiman hails from Portchester in the United Kingdom, there is a stark absence of regionally-specific English in his writing. I imagine this is likely the work of skillful editors and, were a reader to buy the U.K. edition of Norse Mythology, they would likely find discrepancies between the American-English version and British-English version of the books. This is not an uncommon occurrence; take, for example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which is alternately titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone throughout the European nations. The title change in the North American release was simply due to the fact that J.K. Rowling’s publisher did not believe American children would be interested in reading a book with the word philosopher in the title; sorcerer imparted a more exciting and magical inflection.
The dialect within “Before the Beginning” is difficult to specify, as the opening chapter reads more like the retelling of a myth that would perhaps be contained within a textbook on anthropology or philosophy or religion: factual (though it indeed is not), unembellished, and largely expository. The most curious feature within the dialect of this work are the names—both of geographic locations and characters—which efficiently inform a non-Nordic reader of the tale’s exotic origins: Niflheim, Hvergelmir, Muspell, Ymir, Ginnungagap, and so on. These are not words (or even arrangements of letters or phonemes) that would seem intuitive to a native English speaker and indicate to the audience that Gaiman’s story takes place in a time and/or location different than our own.
V. Stylistic Elements, Use of Language, Intended Message, and Recommendations
The writing of “Voluspo” certainly informs the audience of the period from which it originated, but that is not the most interesting stylistic element of the piece. “Voluspo” is narrated through one character—the volva, or oracle—and the stylistic elements of her speech to the gods takes an interesting journey through the sixty-odd stanzas that comprise the poem. Her recollections of past, present, and future are not presented to the reader or listener on a linear timeline, but they are effective enough in informing the audience of a general series of events that leads from the creation of the gods, giants, and the Nine Worlds to the eventual (and inevitable) destruction of the known universe—Ragnarok.
Word repetition seems to play two key roles within “Voluspo”. First, names and/or locations appear repetitious when signifying importance, either in status or relevance to the plot. For example, Othin (Odin) is almost exclusively referred to by his proper name throughout the body of the text. In contrast, many other major characters are described within the tale in more indirect ways: Freyja is “Oth’s bride,” Fjalar is “the rust-red bird,” Fenrir is simply “the wolf” (stanzas 25, 43, 40). The repetitious use of Othin’s name seems to set him apart from the other gods, which makes sense in the context of the Norse mythos: Othin is the All-Father, the Heerfather, the Old One; he is the most wise, ancient, and powerful of the gods. The repeated use of his name, in this instance, seems to serve as an honorific to distinguish Odin from the rest of the characters.
Secondly, repetition of certain phrases is used to convey and stress certain messages to the audience of gods within the myth, as well as the reader. Near closing of the prose, the volva presents Odin with a question at the end of each of her revelations: “Would you yet know more?” (stanzas 48-66). The repetition of this phrase creates tension in the plot, as the oracle flaunts her power (with a decided measure of haughtiness) in the face of the most powerful and terrible of all the gods. These demonstrations of prophesy and the challenge the volva presents to Odin at the end of each one also signals to the reader the impending climax of the narrative, which is the foretelling of Ragnarok, the “Twilight of the Gods”.
Where Gaiman’s approach is straightforward and studious, the originating poem is a madcap whirlwind of places, periods, events, and characters. The word choice is vivid and melodic; the prose is heavy with imagery, figurative language, and grammatical flexibility. Though the formatting of “Voluspo” reads as decidedly nonstandard in today’s world, without a proper understanding of the syntax of Old Norse, it’s difficult to ascertain whether grammatical inconsistencies are a result of translation or whether they are built within the framework of the poem’s original structure. Lines such as “Loud roar the dwarfs / by the doors of stone,” demonstrate nonstandard but not unintelligible grammar; were the sentence written in “plain English,” it would likely translate to “By the doors of stone, the dwarves loudly roar,” or some variation thereof. However, shifting the grammatical structure does a fundamental disservice—if not outright damage—to the lilt and rhythm of the prose. In contrast, Gaiman’s approach to grammar is entirely standard and fairly unremarkable: “The giant drank the milk, and grew” (p. 16). Much like the straightforward approach Gaiman took to language, voice, and style in this piece, this fastidiously minimalist approach seems rooted in a desire to mute the absurdity of the myth and instill in his audience a sense of factualness and believability.
VI. Changes and Differences Throughout Time
In “Before the Beginning, and After,” Gaiman lays an expository framework for his mythological retellings in the form of the Norse creation/origin story. “Voluspo” similarly deals with the Norse destruction myth, though only in its foretelling; “Voluspo” is not the poem of Ragnarok. Additionally, the volva featured in “Voluspo” through which the poem is narrated makes several passing references to the original creation myth; thus, “Before the Beginning” and “Voluspo” both deal with a small measure of overlapping subject matter. Because of this, it is not necessary to entirely speculate at what “Voluspo” might look like in modern interpretation; there are a few small examples of contemporary shifts hidden within Gaiman’s work. Consider stanzas three and four from Henry Bellows’ 1936 translation of “Voluspo”:
3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.
4. Then Bur’s sons lifted | the level land,
Mithgarth the mighty | there they made;
The sun from the south | warmed the stones of earth,
And green was the ground | with growing leeks. (Bellows)
In examining changes from a phonetic view, there are two notable phoneme shifts comparable between the Bellows’ translation of “Voluspo” and Gaiman’s “Before the Beginning”. First, the consonant evolution of the voiceless fricative / θ / to the voiced stop / d /, observable in shifts such as Mithgarth to Midgard and Othin to Odin; secondly, the vowel shift of the mid-central / ^ / (but) to the mid-back / o / (boat) in words such as Bur to Bor and Skuld to Skold (Denham and Lobeck, 74-85). The phonological processing of the consonants / θ / → / d / seems intuitive when you consider how frequently English (particularly American) speakers unconsciously shift / t / → / d /. For example, the word butter is generally heard as “budder” rather than “but-ter” in the majority of North American diction. The vowel shift from / ^ / → / o / is likely a form of phonetic assimilation, where one vowel sound is overtaken by a similar vowel sound depending on regional, cultural, or environmental norms. Consider the many different pronunciations of bag in the English language: bahg, baeg, baag, beag.
The fact that “Voluspo” is a work of prose lends the piece a large measure of flexibility concerning grammatical structure; poetry tends to violate grammatical rules of English more often than follow them, generally from a motivation of artistic expression. “Before the Beginning” is decidedly standard in its use of grammar. Compare Bellows’ translation of the aforementioned third stanza to Gaiman’s take on the same subject: “There was no sea and no sand, no grass nor rocks, no soil, no trees, no sky, no stars” (16). Gaiman makes a notable shift from the subject + adverb structure used almost exclusively in “Voluspo” to an adverb + subject form, which is more commonly used in standard grammatical English (“I walked the dog” versus “The dog I walked”). However, the non-standard use of grammar in “Voluspo” could easily be argued as artistic, and therefore still applicable in a contemporary, prose-driven interpretation of the work.
Beyond proper nouns—names of specific people and locations—the vocabulary of “Voluspo” is not wildly different than the word selection featured in Gaiman’s contemporary work. This is more likely due to Gaiman’s desire to maintain a certain amount of continuity and integrity between the original Norse myths and his reinterpretation of them. The register of Gaiman’s work in “Before the Beginning” is formal and consultative; had he chosen to write from a more casual register, the vernacular and style may have created a drastically different impression on its audience. In the 82 years between Bellows’ translation and Gaiman’s reinterpretation of the myths, the formal use of English has shifted only slightly, while the colloquial use of English has seen dramatic change—consider recent dictionary additions such as weak sauce (n.) or facepalm (v.), or the newly-introduced verb form of the noun ghost (Debczak). Gaiman, therefore, shows a good measure of restraint and reflection of the original work in his word choice in order to retain a certain formality and create an appropriately anachronistic feel to the narrative; his deliberate selection of language enhances his intended message, rather than hindering it.
VII. Environmental, Historical, and Cultural Influences
Though there are examples of now-dated language used throughout “Voluspo”—words such as oft, hither, girdled, trodden are infrequently used in contemporary English—context and semantics would likely allow for any average reader to discern their meaning. Confusion is more likely to arise from grammatical structure, which, as previously noted, often takes the opposite form of standard, present-day English. For example, take the first two lines of stanza 23: “On the host his spear / did Othin hurl, / Then in the world / did war first come” (“Voluspo”). Though the vocabulary is fairly unremarkable, the reader will likely make a mental rearrangement of the lines before discerning the intended message: “Did Othin hurl / on the host his spear / Did war first come / then in the world,” which can then translate to something such as, “Odin and the gods take up arms, and the first war of the Nine Worlds is waged.” Though the grammar used in “Voluspo” often requires the contemporary reader to carefully analyze and restructure the language to discern the intended meaning, poetry often presents this challenge, even in modern forms. Thus, it is necessary to consider that the intended message may include the artistic structuring of the language; the non-standard use of grammar often creates a distinction between prose and literature, and may be essential to maintaining the overall integrity of the narrative.
Gaiman’s general avoidance of slang, idioms, euphemisms, metaphors, and regionally-specific or colloquial language—even the marked absence of dialogue within the story—lends the piece a certain formality which could be argued as historically influential. The restraint and simplicity demonstrated throughout “Before the Beginning” allows the work to be easily connected to the original myth, where a more casual register or relaxed approach to vocabulary may have obscured the myth beyond recognition.
Still, Gaiman’s approach does away with the outdated vernacular seen throughout “Voluspo”—you rather than ye, had over hath. Likewise, Bellows’ translation of Old Norse demonstrates significant changes in English language use between the Cottle translations (1796) and his own (1936). Consider the format and vocabulary of this excerpt from Cottle’s version of “Voluspo”:
With magic rites the concave rung;
Necromantic airs he sung;
Hyperborean climates view’d;
Runic rhymes around he strew’d;
Deep the incantation wrought;
Then the maid sepulchral sought. (Cottle, 105)
Where Bellows’ vocabulary feels only slightly dated when compared with Gaiman’s language use, the word choice in Cottle’s translation adds an additional level of obscurity, more so than the prose structure alone: words such as hyperborean and sepulchral, or the seemingly peculiar use of concave, might require a good deal of mental gymnastics for the average reader to properly comprehend.Much in the same way Gaiman’s reinterpretation of the Norse mythos feels appropriately modern, Bellows’ translation likely read as quite contemporary in 1936, when compared to previous translations of the Eddas. The evolution of the same myths—from English translations dating two hundred and twenty-two years apart—demonstrates remarkable shifts in vocabulary, grammar, structure, pronunciation, spelling, and definition.
The evolution of storytelling, speech, mythology, and
narrative is directly tied to the evolution of language. Distinct and recognizable
shifts in pronunciation, grammar, slang, word choice, and so on are essential
to informing the reader of not just the when,
but also the where and likely
even the why of a given narration. The
stories contained within “Before the Beginning” and “Voluspo” are essentially
the same; it is the selection and application of language which makes these two
works entirely distinct from one another. However, through attentive and
meticulous analyzation, it is still entirely possible to trace the roots of one
myth to another. Understanding where language originates from, how it is used,
and how it changes over time lends a deeper and richer understanding of the
cultures built around language, the nuances and subtleties of human
communication, and the way those two elements converge to endlessly shape and
reshape the expression of unique ideas.
Cottle, A.S. “The Edda of Saemund Translated into English Verse”. Magdalen College, 1796, p 102, PDF, accessed 30 November 2018.
Debczak, Michele. “30 of the New Words Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary”. Mental Floss, 8 February 2017, retrieved from mentalfloss.com/article/92032/30-new-words-added-merriam-webster-dictionary, accessed 30 November 2018.
Denham, Kristin, and Anne Lobeck. Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth Publishing, 2013, pp 69-103, MBS Direct, accessed 30 November 2018.
Gaiman, Neil. “Before the Beginning, and After”. Norse Mythology, Bloomsbury Publishing, 7 February 2017, pp 6-14, Google Play Books, accessed 10 November 2018.
“Völuspá”. Poetic Edda, circa13th century, translated by Henry Adams Bellows (1936), edited by Marion Ingham, 2006, verses 33-4, retrieved from voluspa.org/voluspa31-35.htm, accessed 10 November 2018.
Nordguist, R. “What Is Register in Linguistics?” ThoughtCo, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/register-language-style-1692038
Solomon, Robert, and Kathleen Higgins. From Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Mythology, 2003, Rowman & Littlefield, MBS Direct, accessed 16 December 2018.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2018, all rights reserved.