Category Archives: English Language

There’s a Word for It

Sometimes, I lose sight of the purpose of language. I think of it as a tool, or something to be studied. I think of it as a trial, or something that others just don’t understand very well – and would they just get on with it because there’s really nothing very difficult about it, for christ’s sake.

Then, they orient me. That’s why I have students: reality check whenever I get too full of myself.

My students are there because they don’t have the language skills to get through an English class. Usually, they just don’t have the language to get through it; it’s a matter of naming the rhetorical devices so they can discuss them.

Of course, working with teenagers, most of them need words to describe sex. We don’t give them these words because we’re of the impression that – even though we all thought about it – our little innocents would never be thinking of such stuff. One student is trying to compare several books to Slaughterhouse Five (and I gave him Brian Francis’ Fruit as an ISU novel, which he’s enjoying immensely) so we talked about homoeroticism. “How’s that different from homosexuality?” Well, it’s more about appreciation for the body than use of the body. “Oh! There’s a word for that?” And I could see the little gears in his brain working it all out. He smiled as though I’d given him a gift.

ESL students need to describe things, too: Johnny Depp’s chest, to be precise. “Barrel-chested?” “No. By no means. You might describe Robin Williams as barrel-chested, but Johnny, well, he’s more fit. Or maybe even ripped.” The next day, her Skype status was “Johnny Depp is ripped.” Fortunately, most of the adults around her don’t speak English well enough to be concerned with this.

My daughter also needed some new words recently. “God, you can tell he’s gay. You wouldn’t call it so easily with the other one, though.” “Dear, that would be top and bottom.  No, you cannot decorate our apartment like a beach house.”

One of my students needed a word to deliberately annoy a teacher. “He talks on and on and he’s really boring, and I need to use a word so that he’ll stop boring us.” “Prosaic.” “Yep, that’s the one.” And she felt much better once she had a word to describe him. I didn’t even bother to ask if she used it on him – she just needed to have the word in her arsenal.

These are the kinds of words that need to be given to someone; the kids aren’t likely to Google “a word for Johnny Depp’s chest”. As well, smart phones are ostensibly banned in the schools. The authorities don’t want the students looking up the answers on the internet, much less chatting with each other to share information. But they’ve also chopped the budgets to the point where the schools are still using the same dictionaries that I used in high school. And the book is stored neatly on a shelf by the teacher’s desk, where a student would have to – very obviously – stand up and ask permission to get the book. The students aren’t provided with an up-to-date dictionary for perusing whenever they have a couple of minutes. They’re not given a thesaurus so they can have that perfect word to complete the essay, or perhaps even learn a new word because it’s sitting there right in front of their nose (how do you think I learned prosaic?). Parents are either banning their children from watching TV, or they’re letting them watch really stupid programming that makes limited use of vocabulary. And now the adults are claiming the next generation is ruining the language.

So, wouldn’t it behoove us to help them improve the language? How can we expect them to learn to use the tool if we don’t make it accessible?

My children both like words. My Perfect Nieces and Nephews all like words. If you use a new one (even one of those words which should not be used around Perfect Ones), they’ll try it out. In terms of language acquisition, it’s natural to consistently pick up new words. Those who assume that language acquisition trails off at a certain age, or those who assume an idea will not be thought just because one doesn’t have the language to think it, well, those people need to yank that sheep off their eyes. Newspeak has already been proven to fail.

I consistently learn new words. In fact, just last week I learned one that has solved a 40-year old issue: Sister #2 and her childhood friend both suffer from sophomania. I’m going to make up matching t-shirts for them. Is there a 12-step programme for them, do you think?

Losing to Language

Activity Being Procrastinated: nada. For once.
Music In My Head: Flightless Bird, American Mouth – Iron and Wine
Tea: green
Books Being Read: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë (yes, still: I haven’t had much time to read lately.)

Jack Layton died two days ago.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Canadian politics, he was the leader of the New Democratic Party, which is currently the official opposition.  I like the NDP, and I really liked Mr. Layton’s politics.  It’s sad to see him go.  He would have been a great prime minister.  (While the evidence may appear contrary, the one thing we demand of our prime ministers is that they be alive.)

Mr. Layton was very well-spoken (and/or had madly-skilled speech writers), and the legacy of his death seems to be… words.  Lots of words.  He wrote a letter to the people of Canada a couple of days before he died.  It’s not the most creative or poetic thing, but it’s clear and leaves no doubt as to what he had in mind for the country.  (Perhaps he had madly-skilled editors, too?)

This letter has sparked many a debate.  One of the debates that has come up is the terminology used with cancer: is one a “survivor”; can one “lose” or “win” a “battle” with cancer?  Cool.  I love these discussions.  Of course, I’m not going to get into the debate because I don’t have cancer, have never wrangled with it myself, and therefore don’t really have any weight to throw around.  But the weight of the words is enough.  It will be interesting to see if a wanna-be prime minister can change a whole area of language. (It reminds me of one of the times p.c. terminology changed for disabled people, though.  It was… maybe the late ’80s?  Suddenly, no one was “disabled”: they were “challenged”.  Yet one person was overheard to say, “It’s not a ‘challenge’ for me to get up those stairs.  I just can’t do it, no matter how hard I try.  I am ‘disabled’.”  So when people started making fun of the term, using “vertically challenged”, etc. I thought it was one more triumph for the awesomeness of language.  Keep it specific to the individual, dude.  The moment is now.)

Of course, Mnemosyne always has it in for me.  Being brilliant and having the answer to all things language-related, when I first read Bell Hook’s Language of Power, I was struck dumb.  I didn’t know what to think.  She based the essay on Adrienne Rich’s The Burning of Paper instead of Children, particularly around the lines “this is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you”.

The essay made me really upset.

Language has always been my tool – the only tool I wield with any dexterity.  When I’m in the presence of someone who speaks well, I don’t talk because I’m too busy trying to absorb their language.  It’s so freaking cool that this tool can be honed forever and never get to a point where it starts to break down.  I like learning other languages because it makes me feel stronger and more powerful.  It was devastating to discover that someone saw my language, my fortune, as just another part of the weapon.

But we are born into this world naked and crying, and it gets worse from there: I read Rich’s poem.

burn the texts said Artaud” – well, you know how I feel about book burnings: it’s equivalent to murder, but it’s not going to stop anything.

“A language is a map of our failures.” – seems cynical; why can’t she see the silver lining? Was it our language or our bodies that beat that out of her?

“The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language. “ – just kill me now.

Sometimes there’s a point where the tool gets too heavy to manipulate.  (I suppose that’s when it becomes a weapon.)  For a while, I can’t look at a simple word or phrase and not see all the facets: does everyone with cancer actually “fight a battle”?  Does being a “survivor” or a “victim” really imply that you could have done something differently?  Does being “disabled” mean you’re lazy in the face of a challenge?  Is an entire language corrupt just because a tyrant used it before you did?  Am I really using this tool as well as I think I do?

Any philosopher who looks at this blog will snort with laughter, I’m sure: you’re using language to discuss language?  Fret not, the irony has hit as hard as Rich’s poem did.

But irony is what sets humans apart from other animals.  Without irony, of course, a man’s death would have been nothing more than a man’s death.

Are You Attributing Tone, Sheila?

Huh.  Funny dude.  I would never attribute tone, particularly in the case of sports.

Yes, I was discussing sports.  No, no, it’s okay, Mum: it was in the context of writing.  No need for the cardiac arrest.

The conversation went something like this (we were talking about the fliers for the upcoming reading):

Anonymous Sports Writer: I’m tempted to irritate Philadelphia fans this season by referring to them as the Fliers.  But using that term actually lends the team more, not less, dignity.  Because Flier is the major domo term, really. According to those that ought to know.  You know.  Of course you know.

Me: Like I’d know a ******** thing about naming a sports team. :p  I’m only guessing it’s a sports team ’cause you’re talking about it.

ASW: You have retained enough to **** with the jersey-wearers.

Me: You say “jersey-wearers” like it’s a species of sub-primordial slime.

ASP: Are you attributing tone, Sheila?

Me: Never.  Was assuming, based on your noun-creation.

It’s true… okay, maybe I attributed a little of my affection for sports, but mostly it’s because he was messing with the language.  Certainly, in my family, the English language was sacred when one was being serious.  For instance, I was never told to stop fighting with my sisters in any other terms than “stop fighting with your sisters”.  However, if I was being told to, say, clean something (cleaning was a fairly inconsequential activity in our house), the terminology might include archaic words like bathe or cleanse or dampen followed by thyself or thine pigsty of a room.  Accents and dialects were also thrown around: worsh them dishes, if’n you pleases.  If the language was messed-with, you knew you had a little leeway; if not, you’d best hop to it.

The activity of verbing – or, in my friend’s case, nouning – makes me laugh.  Literally.  I assume that people who use the term referencing must be making a joke.  ‘Cause if you weren’t joking, you’d speak in a commonly understood manner, no?  Or, perhaps you were serious in that you didn’t want me to listen to the rest of your sentence, but instead wanted me to tune you out while I deliberate your meaning: make reference to, or refer to?

Okay, I can tune you out, no problem.

Last night, I bought a copy of (yes, I know, 20 years too late) Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue.  I’m thinking, as I read about etymology and pidgin and creole languages, that this is all fine but what about the recipient?  Use any word you like, but there’s no guarantee the other person is going to understand you.  Maybe they don’t speak your language, or maybe they’re deaf, or maybe they have some cognitive processing difficulty, or maybe they’re just stupid.

Or maybe they come from a sports-deprived culture where jersey-wearer must be an insult, ’cause no sane person would wear a sports jersey.

‘Cepting, of course, a van Persie jersey during the World Cup.  That’s different.  He’s Dutch.

Language is awesome.  But so are all the other methods of communication, the ones we don’t really acknowledge.  And the perspectives on communication.  I can never be sure how someone is going to relate to my writing, because I don’t know every aspect of every person from their birth.  Will their loathing of the word loathe attribute tone?  Will their devoutly atheistic upbringing make them bristle at “Oh, my god”?  Will someone fall in love with one of my characters who bears the same name as the reader’s first True Crush?

It happens.

This Is Hockey

This is a hockey game on paper… okay, on screen.  It’s perfect.  It perfectly describes absolutely everything about both hockey games I’ve ever had to watch.  It also perfectly describes everything I despised about both hockey games.

This is why I don’t watch hockey.

God, it’s like a horror movie.

Could All My Students Watch This, Please?

I just corrected a friend’s grammar mistakes on a presentation.  She sent me this as a thank-you gift.

He doesn’t explain about “the other this time of the year”, though.  Perhaps he understands that she isn’t talking about this this time of the year.  He must be a better teacher than I am.

The Lorax et al.

Started The Lorax with one of my higher-level Chinese classes today.  They really seem to like it.  I’ve been experimenting, of late, with exactly how far I can push their acceptance of new language; so far, there are no limits.  As long as I give them fair warning that some words are nonsense, they can accept that.  This class loved lolcat, and often make jokes.  I’m beginning to think that I was too cautious with some of the other classes.  Perhaps, just as I did with my children (I never bothered with traditional “babytalk”, although I did bring their words into daily conversation; we still describe fuzzy things as “feebie”), I should take even the most innocent and unsuspecting of non-English-speakers and fling them headfirst into the eccentricities of our language.  (My son’s first book was Timothy Findley’s Headhunter, ’cause I wanted to read it so I just read it aloud to him; if that’s not a brilliant introduction to English, I don’t know what is.  The boy is obsessed with language, and is capable of doing things to it that amaze me.  Nature or nurture?…)  I have a new lower-level class, and I think I’m going to use them as guinea pigs.  Shall keep you updated on their… evolution.

Last night’s writing workshop was freaky.  There were four of us (I love it when the group is small), and one of my favourites was there.  This guy is beyond the realm of the word poet, and is into – corny as it may sound, I can’t think of another way to describe it – word sculptor.  He has this absolutely mathematical approach to words that floors me; it’s like he’s some sort of literary Albrecht Durer.  (edit, March 8th: Just to prove my point, look what he put up: I like typing out Los Angeles in full when there is a chance. It just looks typographically appealing. The straight L and the angular A. The lower-case “g” adds an element of speed if you work it. They all work well together.)  In the piece he had us read yesterday, he described a man as “a small museum orator”.  One of the other writers asked him to explain what he meant by that, and I was really pleased that he couldn’t do it.  When I read his stuff, especially his prose, it’s not a matter of understanding so much as feeling.  I understand “small museum orator”; I can taste the scent of the man at the back of my mouth, hear the tone of  voice, feel that cold draught and the need to get out of there as fast as possible.

This writer’s latest thing, though, is the need to make storyboards.  He wants advanced storyboards, too – not just stickynotes all over the wall.  He actually used the term to diagram the plays.  He’s promised to show me what he comes up with; it’s fascinating…  like something from a horror film.  However, much as I am reviled by the concept (too many rules), it seems to make for incomparable writing.

It’s Friday; I don’t have anything I need to do until this evening.  One of my sisters lent me her laptop to test out, and I confess I’m already addicted.  Unless I can rouse my muse while sitting at a computer, I am usually left with no choice but to write everything by hand in notebooks and then transcribe it.  Yesterday, me an’ the laptop started out in my favourite chair, moved to the dark front hallway while I wrote an angry scene, then ended up in my bed while I calmed the character down.  Today, I don’t have to spend time typing everything into the computer: I can go right back to writing.  It’s warm enough that I might bundle up and go outside to write for a while.

This is the end of Luddism.

Rock and a Hard Place

Get this: I’m having to make them talk like real people.

I have three Chinese classes which are working at about the same level, and they’re all around the same age (11 – 13).  I decided it was time to get rid of the “textbook conversations” so they stop sounding like they’re walking grammar exercises.  Two of the classes can’t get enough: what does awesome mean?  Can I use it in this way?  How about in this way?  Can I call you “dude”?  Today, we were working on acronyms so I told them to look up lolcats.  I hadn’t even finished the sentence when I could hear the typing on the keyboards.

But the third class… ah, yes, the third class.  These guys are at the highest level – at least, when it comes down to right answers.  They get 100% on all their English exams at school.  They love quizzes and learning big words.  They don’t love informal language.

“Why,” one of them asked me today, “would you use TTYL when you could just say “goodbye”?”

Um, just ‘cuz?  No one says “goodbye” anymore.  They say “Bye” or “Later” or “See ya”.  Goodbye is an absolutely ancient word.  As well, I’m sure if you understood the etymology, you wouldn’t use it anymore because you heartily object to using any other phrase which refers to God.  But, hey, if you want to sound like you’re 100 years old, go ahead.

The ironic part is, I don’t really like the language of modern adolescents.  While speaking lolcat has certain twisted appeal, I don’t think everything is totally sick and I really wish my students would learn to use random properly.  No, I am not being random, so stop saying that.

So what do I do about my obstinate class?  Do I drag them into the 21st century?  Do I leave them in the 19th century where, quite honestly, they’re happy and I’m happy?

I’m gonna drag them.  Why?  a) It’s my job to teach them to speak English so they can communicate with other English speakers and b) there is some sadistic psychologist deep within me that really wants to see what happens.  Why is it these guys despise informality while the other two classes thrive on it?  How did they get so attached to a word like goodbye?  Is it a black/white mentality, or just a resistance to change?

Shall keep you updated on the torture sessions.