Category Archive: Language
David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage,” in spite of problems you can find discussed at various sites online (this essay sparked something of a firestorm and some of the criticisms seem just), was quite helpful. Ostensibly a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which Wallace praises highly, the essay wades into the stormy waters of the debate between those who believe that grammar ought to be prescriptive, laying down rules that speakers and writers ought to follow, and those who think that grammar (and dictionary definitions, for that matter) merely describe how English is being used today.
Wallace criticizes some of the rules laid down by the prescriptivists. He defends, for instance, the expression “Where’s it at?”:
For a dogmatic Prescriptivist, “Where’s it at?” is double-damned as a sentence that not only ends with a preposition but whose final preposition forms a redundancy with where that’s similar to the redundancy in “the reason is because” (which latter usage I’ll admit makes me dig my nails into my palms). Rejoinder: First off, the avoid-terminal-propositions rule is the invention of one Fr. R. Louth, an 18th-century British preacher and indurate pedant who did things like spend scores of pages arguing for hath over the trendy and degenerate has. The a.-t.-p. rule is antiquated and stupid and only the most ayotolloid SNOOT [Wallace's term for a grammar-stickler -- JB] takes it seriously. Garner himself calls the rule “stuffy” and lists all kinds of useful constructions like “a person I have great respect for” and “the man I was listening to” that we’d have to discard or distort if we really enforced it.
Plus, the apparent redundancy of “Where’s it at?” (a redundancy that’s a bit arbitrary, since “Where’s it from?” isn’t redundant [mainly because whence has receded into semi-archaism]) is offset by its metrical logic: what the at really does is license the contraction of is after the interrogative adverb. You can’t say “Where’s it?” So the choice is between “Where is it?” and “Where’s it at?”, and the latter, a strong anapest, is prettier and trips off the tongue better than “Where is it?”, whose meter is either a clunky monosyllabic-foot + trochee or it’s nothing at all (99; I moved the parenthetical comment from the footnote into the main text ’cause I’m not footnoting this blog entry).
I was told in university that I shouldn’t start a sentence with “hopefully” (as in “Hopefully, I’ll be home by 6:30 tonight”), because “hopefully” is an adverb and therefore this sentence means that I will be home, full of home, by 6:30. Well, no. Wallace explains:
And Hopefully at the beginning of a sentence, as a certain cheeky eighth-grader once (to his everlasting social cost) pointed out in class, actually functions not as a misplaced modal auxiliary or as a manner adverb like quickly or angrily but as a sentence adverb (i.e., as a special kind of “veiled reflexive” that indicates the speaker’s attitude about the state of affairs described by the rest of the sentence — examples of perfectly OK sentence adverbs are clearly, basically, luckily)…. (100-101).
So he’s not an old-school prescriptivist, imposing alien and Latinate grammar on English. But he points out that it’s still important for English-speakers to learn, at least alongside their various colloquial ways of communicating, Standard Written English. He helpfully compares usage rules to the conventions of etiquette: when you speak or write, you are not simply communicating the particular information found in your sentence; you are also communicating a lot about yourself — and how you want people to view you — not to mention how you regard the person you’re speaking to. If you want people to take you seriously in certain settings, you need to communicate in Standard English, even if that’s not the way you speak at home or with your friends.
On the other hand, the kid who speaks only in Standard Written English — imagine a child who never uses contractions or “whose response to striking out in T-ball is to shout ‘How incalculably dreadful!’” (102) — is going to get a lot of wedgies (a word Wallace mysteriously, and incorrectly, capitalizes) from his classmates, because he’s “actually deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect” (104).
This is one of the longest essays in the book and probably the densest. Wallace crams a lot in here, and, not surprisingly, this is one of the essays that has Wallace’s trademark footnotes-to-footnotes and interpolations, the result of which is that I can’t possibly summarize what he says. But I can say that I found a lot of what he says here helpful in thinking through how we teach grammar and, perhaps more importantly, why we communicate the way we do. It’s not just a matter of following rules because some Language Legislature imposed them in the past and language must never change. Instead, Wallace says, it’s a matter of communication and the rules of Standard Written English, for the most part, help us do that a lot of the time.
I was glad to discover recently that the local library has a copy of Cleanth Brooks’s The Language of the American South, a slim volume containing Brooks’s three Lamar Memorial Lectures given at Mercer University in October 1984.
The primary thesis of the lectures, to which Brooks devotes the second and especially the third lectures, is that “the strength of even the more formal Southern writers stems from their knowledge of and rapport with the language spoken by the unlettered. Most of our writers have in fact recognized the colloquial and even dialectical aspects for what they are: dialects of great vitality and power, dialects capable of eloquence and even of a kind of folk poetry” (17). The examples Brooks provides to support this claim were interesting enough to make me want to read the writers he’s citing.
But what particularly caught my interest was his claim in the first lecture that the language and idiom of the American South, which often seems quaint to outsiders, is not “a corruption of proper English” or a “discoloring of the clear waters issuing from the well of English pure and undefiled” (4), but is instead an old-fashioned form of English. “As far as pronunciation is concerned, we Americans speak an old-fashioned English. Contrary to what the layman assumes, in pronunciation it is the mother language that usually changes, not the daughter language” (5).
That sounds right to me. A friend of mine, who grew up in a Dutch-speaking home in Canada, went to visit the Netherlands. He knew Dutch well enough, he thought, and so he spoke it when he was there. The response? “Why don’t you speak English? When you speak Dutch, you sound like my grandmother.” And no wonder. My friend’s parents (or perhaps grandparents) had immigrated from Holland back in the late ’40s or early ’50s, and they continued to speak the sort of Dutch that was spoken at that time, while in the Netherlands the language continued to develop, certain words became archaic, other words were dropped almost completely, and so on. Similarly, a friend here in Louisiana recently had some visitors from France. When my friend spoke Cajun French, they told him that it sounded very much like the sort of French that you’d find spoken in France by old people who lived way out in the country. The mother country undergoes a change in the language, while immigrants tend to maintain the language as it was on the day they immigrated.
But if that’s so, then doesn’t that imply that older forms of American English, such as the ones preserved in the American South, actually maintain the English language as it was when America was first settled, while the language continued to change and develop in England? Yes, and that’s precisely what Brooks argues in this lecture.
The broad a which we associate with the English pronunciation of words like bath (“bawth”) and laugh (“lawf”), he points out, was probably not adopted into Standard English until the nineteenth century, so that the shorter a sound we associate with the American pronunciation of these words was probably closer to the original. In particular, Brooks argues, “The language of the South almost certainly came from the south of England” (13), where we find similar pronunciation.
Some more examples:
* Brooks points out that the dropping of the final -g in words such as going, doing, and thinking is not a corruption of the way English was once spoken. On the contrary, it is the way English was once spoken. There are many rhymes in poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats that work only if that -g is dropped (4-5).
* “Would you expect to learn that when Uncle Remus has Brer Rabbit remark that he is ‘gwine’ to town, he is using a word that Thomas Hardy, at about the same time, was putting in the mouths of the Dorsetshire countrymen who figure in his famous Wessex novels?” (7).
* What about pronouncing mercy as massy (“Law’s-a-massy”)? That was still heard in the southern counties of England in the twentieth century (7).
* Joel Chandler Harris has Uncle Remus pronounce muskmellon as mushmillion. A mistake? Brooks checked the Oxford English Dictionary and found that mushmillion is indeed an old English form of muskmellon, found in a letter dated 1592 and written by a man from Dorsetshire.
* When Brooks grew up in west Tennessee, he could hear someone say that a chiggerbite’s itch terrified him. Did he mean that it frightened him? No. An examination of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals “that in the standard language terrify once had as one of its meanings ‘to irritate or torment,’” and even John Milton used it in that sense (14). Brooks comments: “Though this meaning is now obsolete in Standard English, it is still to be found in the country dialects all over England, just as it is still to be found in our Southern states” (14).
* What about de, dis, and dat? Brooks spends a fair bit of time on these pronunciations, showing that they were common in east Sussex and Kent in the 1600s: “Thus, any of the common folk of east Sussex and the neighboring county of Kent who set out for Virginia or the Carolinas might have brought with them such a pronunciation” (10). Nor was that just an old pronunciation in England. Brooks cites a number of authorities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who attest to these pronuniations in these counties. And even as late as the 1960s, the d forms of these words could still be found, though rarely, in Kent and Sussex (11).
Brooks cites Mark Antony Lower’s translation of The Song of Solomon into Sussex English, which begins this way:
De song of songs, dat is Solomon’s,
Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth; for yer love is better dan wine.
Cause of de smell of yer good intments, yer naüm is lik intment tipped out; derefore de maidens love ye.
If you look up Lower’s translation online, you’ll find his guide to the pronunciation of the Sussex dialect, in which he points out that th often becomes d (as in dis, dat, dere), that the letter r is frequently suppressed (so that horse becomes hoss, children becomes childun, and I suspect barn becomes bahn and never might become nevah), that there are some different past tense forms (e.g., heared and brung), that the vowel a is often “very broadly sounded” so that it becomes ay-uh (so that taste becomes tay-ust or, as in the example above, name becomes naüm, pronounced nay-um), that ea is pronounced almost like the ai in pail (so that beans and peas sounds almost like bains and pays), that the d is dropped at the end of some words (e.g., hel’, han’, and stan’), that the g at the end of an active participle is rarely sounded (so that going becomes goin’), that oi is pronounced like a long i (so that spoil becomes spile), and that ask becomes ax. And I bet you thought those were all characteristics of southern American English.
Now this pamphlet was not printed until 1860, and I can assure you that the villagers and the countrymen of this essentially rural county had probably never seen a black man, let alone heard one speak, in their entire lives. If the resemblances between the Sussex dialect of 1860 and the Negro dialects of the Southern states just before the Civil War do amount to something more than pure happenstance, then what is the nature of the relation? Clearly the men of Sussex did not derive their dialect from the American blacks. Did the black people of our Southern states then derive their dialect from the dialects of such English counties as Sussex? If so, what was the link?
The only link I can conceive of is this: the Englishmen who emigrated to the Southern states and from whom the black man necessarily had to learn his English — from whom else could he have learned it? — must have come predominantly from the counties of southern England (9).
What that would imply, then, is that those who view the Southern dialects — and particularly the Southern black dialects — as corruptions of pure, standard English, perhaps springing from poor education or some other defect, have things backwards. If Brooks is correct, and his case seems pretty strong to me, it is precisely the Southern dialects that have preserved the older “standard English” from which the newer “standard English” has now deviated.
But what that also implies is that certain approaches to education can destroy this older dialect, along with its wealth of once understood but now almost obsolete words and idioms. Brooks writes:
I am confident … that I can identify its most dangerous enemy. It is not education properly understood, but miseducation: foolishly incorrect theories of what constitutes good English, an insistence on spelling pronunciations, and the propagation of bureaucratese, sociologese, and psychologese, which American business, politics, and academies seem to exude as a matter of course. The grave faults are not the occasional use of ain’t but the bastard concotions from a Latinized vocabulary produced by people who never studied Latin. Gobbledygook is a waste of everybody’s time (53).
Here’s something from a letter, dated October 18, 1919, from C. S. Lewis to his friend Arthur Greeves:
I am not very fond of Euripedes’ Media: but as regards the underworking of the possibilities which you mention, you must remember that the translation has to be rather stiff â€” tied by the double chains of fidelity to the original and the demands of its own metres, it cannot have the freedom and therefore cannot have the passion of the real thing.Â As well, even in reading the Greek we must miss a lot.Â We call it “statuesque” and “restrained” because at the distance of 2500 years we cannot catch the subtler points â€” the associations of a word, the homeliness of some phrazes [sic] and the unexpected strangeness of others.Â All this we, as foreigners, don’t see â€” and are therefore inclined to assume that it wasn’t there. â€” C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, 1:467-368.
What Lewis saysÂ hereÂ may be obvious, but itÂ jumped out at me in this letter as it hadn’t before.Â Â We must miss a lot of allusions and subtle hints, a lot of surprises and a lot of the richness of ancient literature.Â Perhaps we think some things are strikingly beautiful when theÂ original audience would have found them rather dull, or vice versa.Â Perhaps we thinkÂ that a conversation in an ancient play isÂ straightforward when an ancient audience would have been able to “read between the lines” andÂ hear how thatÂ superficially straightforward conversation operates on several levels at once.
What Lewis writes about here isÂ part of the challenge we face as interpreters of the Bible, too.Â We read passages and they mean very little to us, or we conclude that their meaning is very slight and all on the surface, in part because we’re reading these passages thousands of years after they were written.
So, for instance, we read the line in Exodus 15:27 â€”Â “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees; so they camped there by the water” â€” and we think that Moses must have suddenly felt the urge to provide a bit of color, a bit of description.Â Or, at most, perhaps he’s simply emphasizing how well the Lord provided for Israel after the hardships at Marah.Â But that’s it.Â Most commentaries simply skim over this verse or provide a pious comment (which is not wrong) about God’s provision.Â If we’re reading the text as people of our own day, this verse means little to us.
But to someone who was steeped in the Scriptures, the references to twelve and seventy, to trees and water, would stand out.Â He might see those twelve springs of water as aÂ symbolic reference toÂ the twelve tribes of Israel, for instance, and the seventy palm trees as a reference to the seventy nations of the world (Gen. 10).Â He might think about the connotations of water and trees, going back to the GardenÂ (Gen. 2).Â His imagination, shaped by the Scriptures, might run forward to the Temple with its bronze sea and garden imagery, to Ezekiel 47 where the water flows out to the world,Â to Revelation 22, and so forth.
Here’s anotherÂ example.Â When Mark starts his Gospel, he writes, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son ofÂ God.”Â We read through that verse and barely notice the words.Â But all of theÂ words are significant.Â What’sÂ the “gospel” here?Â Â Reading this verse superficially, we might think that it’s a reference to the book Mark is writing.Â Or we might take it simply as referring to how the good news about Jesus began with the coming ofÂ John the Baptist.
But if we were steeped in the Scriptures, we might think back to the prophecies of Isaiah where “good news” is proclaimed (e.g., Isaiah 40),Â which is, in particular, the good news that Yahweh is returning to rescue and rule His people.Â And if we wereÂ citizens of the Roman empire, as Mark’s original readers were, there might be another connotation,Â as well.Â Â A “gospel” was the announcement of the birth or the victory or theÂ rise to power of an emperor.Â Mark’sÂ Gospel is a “gospel” in theÂ Isaiah 40 sense, but it’s also a “gospel” in this Greco-Roman sense, since it is theÂ story of the coming of the King.Â Â But it’s easy for us to miss those connotations.Â
What Lewis writes may incline us to give up: We can’t understand all the meanings of words, the subtle allusions that a contemporary of Euripedes would have caught, and so forth, and therefore our understanding and appreciation of ancient literature (including the Bible) are always diminished.
I don’t believe that’s necessarily true of the Bible, though.Â Perhaps we will struggle to understand some things.Â Perhaps certain words won’t jump out at us the way they would to, say, Mark’s contemporaries.Â But I do believe that God has given us enough to understand His Word.Â That isn’t true of Euripedes, but it is true of Scripture.
We may learn new things as we study the ancient world, and that may help us understand Scripture.Â There are words we can’t translate because they appear only once in the Hebrew Bible.Â ForÂ now, we make intelligent guesses.Â Â But maybe someday we’ll discover something that helps us get the right translation of those words.Â But we still know enough to understand God’s Word.
But what is most important is that we be saturated in Scripture so that we catch more of the allusions, so that we know the flow of the story, and so forth.Â Will we ever fathom all of Scripture’s depths?Â No.Â Will our understanding always be that of foreigners who can’t grasp the richness of the story?Â Perhaps in some sense.Â But not in another.Â Scripture wasn’t addressed simply and solely to people of one generation.Â It was addressed to us also, and if we are followers of the Word then nothing in the Word can be completely foreign to us.
In hisÂ introduction to Fragile Things (p. xxv-xxvi), which, by the way, contains onlyÂ a few stories IÂ enjoyed,Â Neil Gaiman writes:
And on the subject of naming animals, can I just say how happy I was to discover that the word yeti, literally translated, apparently means “that thing over there.”Â (“Quick, brave Himalayan Guide â€” what’s that thing over there?”
It makes me happy, too, although I see that this etymology, which is presented here is not accepted here.Â It reminds me of the story, perhaps apocryphal, about the missionary who was trying to learn a particular African language.Â He pointed at something and said, “What do you call that?” and the African responded with a word.Â The missionary pointed at something else.Â “And what do you call that?” he asked.Â The African responded with the same word.Â No matter what the missionary pointed at, the response was always the same.Â Eventually, the missionary discovered that the word meant “finger”: no matter where he pointed it, it was still called “finger.”
What seemed obvious to the missionary, namely that you point with your finger and name the object you’re pointing at, wasn’t at all obvious to the African.Â In his tribe, you point with your chin and indicate the distance of the object with your pitch, deep and low for something up close but high and squeaky for something far away.
It strikes me that we take a lot of things like this for granted.Â Augustine thought that children learn language by having people point at something and name it over and over againÂ (“Chair … chair….”).Â That seems to be how it works for some nouns, but what about pronouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs?Â And what about this pointing gesture anyway?Â How come our kids know that when we point at the chair and say a particular word over and over again, we’re naming the chair and not our finger or the gesture or something else altogether?
Language-learning, as Wittgenstein pointed out in his response to Augustine (if I recall what Fergus Kerr says about it) is much more complex and much more mysterious than Augustine thought.Â Perhaps he should have observed some children more closely.Â My daughter, for instance, has grasped participles sooner than verbs.Â She doesn’t say, “Papa, hold me.”Â She says, “Papa, holding me.”Â Odd, but true.