Snakes and Ladders

by Alan Jacobs

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Tag: language


In 1878 a man named William Barnes published a book called An Outline of English Speech-Craft. “Speech-craft” is a word Barnes prefers to “grammar” because “grammar” is not an English word but a Greek one. Barnes’ self-chosen quixotic task — as outlined in his Preface Fore-Say — is to describe English speech-craft using only English words. The task is quixotic because linguists and lexicographers and grammarians typically use words borrowed from Latin and (less often) Greek. They speak of prepositions and participles, of the nominative and the subjunctive, of transitive and intransitive. Here are some of Barnes’s alternative terms — I’ll leave it to you to guess what Latinate terms they are meant to replace:

  • speech-breathing
  • breath-penning
  • pitches of suchness
  • outreaching
  • unoutreaching
  • time-taking
  • thought-wording
  • sundriness

Notice how many of these are kennings. Notice also that he can’t escape the influence of Latin altogether.

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“a large superfluous establishment of words”

We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannise over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.

— Dickens, David Copperfield 

N.B.  Quote posted by a man who has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Christian language policing

Mary Eberstadt:

The word gay and related terms like LGBTQ should be avoided for a deeper reason. They are insufficiently respectful of the human beings who are described in this way. Such identifiers sell humanity short by suggesting that sexual desire amounts to the most important fact about an individual. However well-intentioned (or not), these terms advance a reductionist view of men and women incommensurate with the reality that we are infinitely rich and complicated beings, created in the image of God.

It is bad enough when the wider culture, interested in exploiting carnal desires for commercial or prurient reasons, objectifies human beings in this way. When religious authorities do the same, the damage is worse. I’m reminded of Fr. Arne Panula, a prominent Washington, D.C., priest of manifest goodness and wisdom who died last year. In one of our last conversations, he mentioned meeting a friend-of-a-friend in Italy. This friend felt compelled to tell him, “Fr. Arne, I’m gay.” To which the priest replied, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.” Fr. Arne was making the point that the most important fact about this man was not his erotic leanings.

I have heard some version of this argument many times and I have never understood it. Are there any other adjectives or descriptors that Eberstadt sees as having the same character?

For instance, imagine that I had just met Fr. Arne, and as we chatted he started telling me, with the evident sense that this would mean something to me, that he loved the city of Montreal and thought that the RCMP is an especially admirable institution that other countries should imitate. Imagine further that, in order to head off any misunderstanding, I said, “Fr. Arne, I’m American.” Would he reply, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God”? And if not, why not? (We can easily imagine other situations in which I might say “I’m white” or “I’m Southern.”)

Adjectives and similar descriptors tend to be circumstantial in this way. Were I to say, in the imagined context, “I’m American,” I would not therefore be affirming that being American is intrinsic to my identity or the most important thing about me. I would, rather, be affirming that my status as an American was contextually relevant. And aren’t there other contexts in which “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” would be similarly relevant?

At this point in writing this post I realized that what I’m saying sounded familiar to me, and I thought a while, and remembered that Ron Belgau has already made my point: “English speakers say, ‘I am X’ all the time without meaning that ‘X’ is either a defining or constitutive element in their identity….” Belgau concludes, definitively: “I do not think that ‘gay’ describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ.” And yet no matter how many times he and his colleagues make these denials, someone always turns up to say Yes you do, you totally think that.

The insistence I see in so many quarters on policing this very particular bit of English usage is very strange to me, and I am losing the ability to see it as anything but a power play, a way of saying to gay and lesbian Christians You’ll use the language we decide you should use, or else. It’s become a non-fatal shibboleth, this demand that a certain word or set of words be used or not be used as a precondition of full fellowship. Isn’t it past time just to let this go?

excerpts from my Sent folder: on exhausted languages

What I really am, by vocation and avocation, is a historian of ideas, and when you’ve been a historian of ideas for several decades you’re bound to notice how a certain vocabulary can take over an era — and not always in a good way. Consider for instance the period of over half the 20th century in which Freudian language completely dominated humanistic discourse, despite the fact that it had no empirical support whatever and was about as wrong-headed as it is possible for a body of ideas to be. Some tiny number of people flatly rejected it, a rather larger group enthused over it, and the great majority accepted it as part of their mandatory mental furniture, like having a coffee table or refrigerator in your house. (“It’s what people do, dear.”) Eventually it passed not because it had been discredited — it had never been “credited” in the first place — but because people got tired of it.

This exhaustion of a vocabulary happens more and more quickly now thanks to the takeover of intellectual life by a university committed to novelty in scholarship. But that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, when you do this kind of work you develop — or you damn well ought to develop — an awareness that many of our vocabularies are evanescent  because of their highly limited explanatory power. You see, in a given discipline or topic area, one vocabulary coming on as another fades away, and you don’t expect the new one to last any longer than the previous one did. I think this makes it easier for you to consider the possibility that a whole explanatory language is basically useless. But while those languages last people get profoundly attached to them and are simply unwilling to question them — they become axioms for their users — which means that conversations cease to be conversations but rather turn into endlessly iterated restatements of quasi-religious conviction. “Intersecting monologues,” as Rebecca West said.

Often when I’m grading essays, or talking to my students about their essays, I notice that a certain set of terms are functioning axiomatically for them in ways that impede actual thought. When that happens I will sometimes ask, “How would you describe your position if you couldn’t use that word?” And I try to force the same discipline on myself on those occasions (too rare of course) when I realize that I am allowing a certain set of terms to become an intellectual crutch.

Moreover, I have come to believe that when a conversation gets to the “intersecting monologue” stage, when people are just trotting out the same limited set of terms in every context, that says something about the inadequacy of the vocabulary itself. Not just its users but the vocabulary itself is proving resistant to an encounter with difference and otherness. And that’s a sign that it has lost whatever explanatory power it ever had.

I think that’s where we are in our discourse of gender. And that’s why I am strongly inclined to think that there’s nothing substantial behind that discourse, it’s just a bundle of words with no actual explanatory power. And even if that’s not the case, the only way we can free ourselves from bondage to our terministic axioms is to set them aside and try to describe the phenomena we’re interested in in wholly other terms.

This, by the way, is the origin of all great metaphors, the “metaphors we live by”: the ones that make a permanent mark on culture are the ones that arise from an awareness of how our conventional terms fail us. Those coinages are (often desperate) attempts to throw off the constricting power of those terms. It was when Darwin realized that the explanatory language of natural history had reached a dead end that he coined “natural selection,” a term whose power is so great that it is hard for most people to realize that it is after all a metaphor. Our whole discourse of gender needs Darwins who can’t bear those constrictions any more and decide to live without them. And the first term that should go, as I suggested to you earlier, is “gender” itself.


About “It”

Consider these sentences:

Wilson nailed it.

Jones just doesn’t get it.

It’s about ethics in games journalism.

It’s not about politics.

It. And: about. This kind of language is useless — worse than useless, in fact. Substantively, such phrases say nothing more than “I agree” or “I disagree,” but they add a layer of blurry obfuscation. Whole vast complexes of ideas and experiences disappear in the dense fog generated by a two-lettered pronoun. Wilson nailed what? Jones doesn’t get what? Put your brain in gear and figure out what you mean by “it.” Then write or say what you’ve decided you mean. Maybe then you can contribute something more than the mere announcement of what team you’re on.

About just thickens the fog further. What is this “it” that can only be “about” one thing? What does it even mean for an it to be about? All you’re really saying when you employ this locution is, “I would prefer us to debate certain topics that are different than the topics other people want to debate.” Again: vacuous.

So don’t use these locutions, ever. Just remember: It’s about clarity of thought and precision of expression.

Stefan Fatsis is Wrong

This post by Stefan Fatsis is remarkably dumb. Let me explain why.

When people disagree with dictionary-makers’ decisions about which words belong in a given dictionary, here’s what Fatsis says they do: they “panic.” They “grouse.” They “bemoan.” They “howl.” They “tsk-tsk.” He imagines them saying “Think of the children!” — presumably in a squeaky voice. Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t we, Stefan?

So for Fatsis any criticism of such choices is simply absurd, period. Why? Because “evolution of culture”! Because “language changes with time”! Disagreement with the dictionary makers is “manufactured” — by whom he doesn’t say — and “trumped up” — he doesn’t assign a perpetrator there either. Shadowy forces, setting themselves against “evolution of culture”! Who do they think they are?

Basically, Fatsis is making a “wrong side of history” argument: The evolution of culture rolls inexorably on — oppose it not, lest ye be crushed beneath its mighty wheels! But that’s just silly. These lexicographers are not, like Napoleon marching through Jena, embodiments of the Weltgeist. They are people making a product for sale. Those who might buy and use that product have every right to form opinions about its contents, and to argue for those opinions. Isn’t there more than enough passive consumerism in the world already?

Fatsis thinks it’s self-evidently ridiculous for people to want the word “acorn” in a children’s dictionary in preference to the word “broadband,” largely because he thinks such people have no status to question their lexicographical overlords, who embody “evolution of culture,” but also because he says we live in a world where kids simply use computers more than they play outside, “like it or not.” Here he’s just failing to understand that children’s dictionaries are tools that parents and teachers employ in child-rearing: debates over what forms those tools should take cannot be resolved by appealing to the current status of lexicographers’ self-description. Lexicography can be descriptivist; child-rearing cannot. It’s perfectly reasonable to want children to learn more nature-words and not to worry so much about how many internet-words they pick up.

This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies. Even acorns.

So, Stefan Fatsis, enough of your panicking, howling, grousing, bemoaning, and tsk-tsking. Think of the children!

My great-grandmother was born in Mississippi, in 1890, and lived in Mississippi for the whole of her long life. But her own grandparents, who died long before I was born, were Scottish, and vestiges of this Scottishness still survived in her nursery talk. In the same way her husband, my great-grandfather — generations removed from his French ancestors — instinctively corrected naughty dogs and children as his old French aunties had done, with a sharp and very Gallic non! a particular lilt crept into my great-grandmother’s voice when she sang and when she read to me aloud. It was dreamy and gorgeous to my ear, this special voice of hers, the very stuff of warmth and love; it was, I believed, peculiar to her alone of all the world, a voice which, like a cat’s purr, was specific to hearth and home, reserved for her dearest ones. Not until I was older — and, rather to my shock, heard the private lullaby voice being spoken in public by a perfect stranger on a television program — did I realize that the beloved musicality which for many years I’d confidently believed was mine alone was in fact a Scots accent.

And so, among Jews, Braun now becomes a familiar figure: a shanda fur die Goyim. The Yiddish phrase translates, roughly, to “a shame before the non-Jews.” The idea is sort of two-fold: That more is expected of Jews, specifically by Jews; and that when a famous Jew fails to live up to those high standards, it makes us all look bad in the eyes of the rest of the world. Madoff is a shanda. Maybe Weiner and Spitzer. You get the idea. And Braun, now, will surely join their ranks.

This is something relatively assimilated Jewish people still say, and still mean sincerely; it’s not just, like, a Twitter thing. But it is interesting that the phrase persists in the original Yiddish. That language, essentially a German dialect written in Hebrew script which is now spoken only by a handful of native speakers from Eastern Europe as well as by members of several Hasidic sects, is explicitly ethnic (yid is Yiddish for “Jew”) and as such unavoidably paints the world in expressly ethnic, tribal terms. To call someone a shanda, in other words, is to think in ethnic terms doubly.

There are many dying languages in the world. But at least one has recently been born, created by children living in a remote village in northern Australia.

Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade and has concluded that they speak neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole, but a new language with unique grammatical rules.

The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue. Dr. O’Shannessy has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, the most recent in the June issue of Language.

“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” said Mary Laughren, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in the studies. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, she said, “is that she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”