Tag Archives: language

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.

Do You Know How Long I Contemplated The Question Mark Inside The Parentheses In The Last Paragraph?

I’m reading Marie-Claire Blais’ American Notebooks (Linda Gaboriau’s English translation).  She has a few sentences  in there about writing in a language which makes no sense; she is referring to English.  The woman must have spoken a fair amount of English at the time, as she had won a Guggenheim Fellowship.

I am dumbfounded by the thought.  Blais is one of those people I put up on Literary Mount Olympus, with all the other gods of language.  What the hell can she mean by “express myself awkwardly in a language I hardly speak”?  This doesn’t bode well for me, who gets so absolutely defeated by the English language (mother tongue and sole means of communication) that Roget’s thesaurus gets yet another flying lesson.

Sometimes my ESL students will growl in frustration when they can’t find a word.  I do laugh at them but it’s in empathy.  While all communication is certainly a large boulder in the path of my life, language is the most aggravating.  Humans invented language to make communication easier; you may ask my poor Roget’s how effective that’s been.

At least Blais seems comfortable writing in French.  Why have I chosen (wait, did I choose it or does some Fate have a sick sense of humour?) to make my living through language?

As a teenager, I made money by cleaning houses.  There is a certain appeal…

Need more bandaids

In his trailer for his readings of Oscar Wilde’s short stories, Stephen Fry (funny man) manages to explain language in a way I can never do.  This is what I want my students to understand: the power of language.  However, given some of them don’t like music, we might have to change the comparison to – God help me – the power of numbers?… the power of video games?

I’ve decided that most of my work with high school students is nothing but a bandaid on the belly of a hari-kiri victim.  Albert Cullum was right in suggesting children are never too young to be exposed to Really Good Literature (he went straight for Longfellow and Shakespeare), but we do grow too old for it.  There comes a time when our perspectives, our interpretations of language are just too set, too jaded.  I will never be able to enjoy The Berenstain Bears And The Big Road Race the way my son did (and does), because I just can’t take the subject matter; to my son, the words “and the little red car wins the race!” are still some of the most definitive words ever written.  I’m not too sad about not liking The Big Road Race.  I am sad no one else sees the brilliant humour in the Albus Dumbledore quote:  “Wool socks.  One can not ever have enough wool socks.  Yet another Christmas has come and gone, and I didn’t receive a single pair.  People will insist on giving me books.”  Are J.K. Rowling and I the only ones young enough to see how funny wool socks are?

So, should I give up on the teenagers and start teaching the younger kids, so they’ll love words and literature the way I do?  Maybe.  But then what do I do about all those gaping wounds in the wanna-be engineers?

Whole language

I’ve always taught English as a whole language, even before I knew the term.  It strikes me as utterly odd for anyone to even consider teaching a language from any other perspective.  No, not “strikes”, “pummels”.

I can see, perhaps, some people becoming interested in the linguistic aspects of a language after they have become fluent, but there is no logic in beginning a language that way.

Language is communication.  Language has nuances which cannot be put into a worksheet.  Language is entirely social: we don’t need language if there are no other people around.

Language does not make any sense in parts.  If one were to look at the process of walking, and break it down into a thousand muscle movements, and learn each of those muscle movements separately, how long would it take to learn to walk?  Would you ever learn to walk effectively, especially if you suddenly had to change one of those muscle movements just because you moved to a country where they turned their foot slightly out rather than in?

If you want a language which works well in parts try mathematics.