I’m probably one of the “pedants” Stephen Fry so articulately criticizes.
I’ll admit, my favorite error in high school and college, and one I still commit frequently, is the “split infinitive.” And part of me agrees that language ought to be played with and enjoyed. Or to playfully be enjoyed.
See what I did there?
But I also think there’s sort of a deconstructionist, nothing-really-has-meaning, there-are-no-rules flavor underlying his comments that is both seductive and untrue.
Yes, language does change according to convention. And perhaps there is no such thing as “correctness” as the grammar nazis conceive of it.
But what’s truly amazing is that all languages DO have a certain order, a certain logic and sense to them. You know, kind of like buildings do. Yes, we made them up, so we imposed order on blocks and stones and “worse than senseless things” — but the reason the Pyramids of Giza and Hadrian’s Wall are still standing is because these structures we made up also adhere to the mysterious logic of physics. I would argue the reason language holds up is very similar – because it adheres to a certain logic of the world, of reality.
And it’s the mark of a humble and educated person to try to learn and adhere to that logic. If you break the rules for the sake of creativity and newness, fine – but you should be aware that you are breaking them – as Picasso was aware, and Shakespeare, other great artists.
Otherwise, you’re just a little kid throwing paint or words at a wall, hoping it sticks.
My students are finishing up Julius Caesar and preparing for their speech recitations on Monday. That’s right – they have to memorize a speech from the play and deliver it to the class. The minimum requirement (for a C grade on that particular section of the rubric) is 10 lines. But a few of them are tackling Mark Antony’s entire speech, or Brutus’, or Cassius’ manipulative tirade back in Act 1.
Here’s one of the best speeches ever, performed by one of the best actors ever – Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Act 3, Scene 2:
Here’s another version we looked at in class that shows a much more emotional Mark Antony. This Mark Antony seems genuinely upset that Caesar has been murdered. He is a lot more sympathetic and seems a lot less sneaky than Marlon Brando’s version:
So when I first showed the second video by the Royal Shakespeare Company (above) to my classes, my 6th hour class started whispering and laughing.
It didn’t take more than 2 seconds to figure out what was amusing them so much.
I rolled my eyes and said to them – “Okay, the cast is black. Get over it, people.”
“Ms. Shea, are you showing us this version because we’re your ‘black’ class?” one of my black students asked. Everyone laughed, including me.
“No, I’ve been showing this version to all my classes today.”
It’s strange to me. The school I teach at now is very diverse, and so race is an issue that people laugh about more than anything else. I had to correct a student a few weeks ago for pretending to be a slave and bowing before her white master (she was black, her friend was white). But the issue seems so distant to many of my students here. They don’t know why I take it so seriously. “Come on, Ms. Shea. We’re just kidding.”
It’s like they think racism doesn’t exist anymore.
In Louisiana, my students were not laughing when we were discussing racism in Huckleberry Finn, and whether or not they thought it was okay for Mark Twain to repeatedly employ the “N” word. They were very divided about the issue. And some of them got angry. And it was uncomfortable because it’s something that continually brims beneath the surface but no one ever wants to talk about.
Back in liberal, middle class Boston I was taught that race doesn’t–or shouldn’t–matter.
But then I became a teacher and have realized that it does matter, whether we like it or not.
This may be controversial of me to say, but I’m going to say it anyway:
In my experience I have found that students who don’t know how to “speak white” and “talk white” are at a huge disadvantage. English is, like it or not, a white man’s language. It has evolved and changed over time, certainly, and will continue to do so. But as of right now, my Mexican students, black students, foreign students from Korea and Poland and Argentina and various other parts of the world will always struggle in school if they do not learn how to “speak white” and “talk white.” As an English teacher, it’s not just my job to teach all my students correct grammar and good writing habits. I also have to teach them the rules of the game, whether or not we really like the rules.
Some of my non-white students (both here and in Louisiana) know how to negotiate these boundaries and play the game from both sides. But the ones that don’t know how, or refuse to accommodate, tend to really struggle in school. They don’t speak “white English” at home or with their friends, and therefore they have difficulty using it at school.
I mean, I guess I do believe there is such a thing as “proper English,” but I am well-aware it is far more fluid and arbitrary than a lot of people think it is.
The Pope went on to express how when Moses prayed, he did so freely, courageously and with insistence, stating that prayer ought to be a “negotiation with God” to which we bring our “arguments.”
Drawing attention to how the scripture passaged describes Moses as speaking to God “face to face, like a friend,” the pontiff observed “This is how prayer should be: free, insistent, with debate, and should also scold “the Lord a little: ‘But, you promised me this, and you haven’t done it…’”
“Open the heart to this prayer,” he implored of those in attendance, stating that after his encounter with God “Moses came down from the mountain invigorated: ‘I have known the Lord more.’” (Catholic News Agency)
Wow. Some theologians and experts on spirituality might be rather uncomfortable with “scolding” the Lord and “arguing” or even “negotiating” with Him.
And yet I think Francis is right. Prayer must be honest. Too often I think we (Catholics in particular) dress up our prayers with pieties that aren’t really true. I would venture to say it is better to pray “Lord, I don’t feel like doing your Will right now. Help me to want to. But I don’t feel like it” than to pray “Lord, thy will be done” inauthentically.
On the other hand, one of the reasons we pray “The Our Father” is so that our desires can be formed and shaped by Jesus’ words. We want to be able to say “Thy will be done” with all of our hearts.
Via Leah Libresco at Unequally Yoked: “every story Jesus tells and enacts is really a story about the Mass:”
The Healing of the Deaf-Mute Man. I love this story, because it summarizes the entire Gospel. Jesus heals us, and says Ephphatha, be open. Be open! Be open to grace. Be open to the Gospel. (By the way, the grace of God opens us, but then it’s up to us to cooperate with that grace. #CatholicPitches) What else happens? Jesus puts his saliva on the man’s lips and tongue. What an incredible gesture! I can’t ever shake that image. Jesus and the deaf-mute man, face to face. Jesus licking his fingers and putting his saliva on him. Imagine Jesus Christ, the Lord, touching your lips so tenderly. It’s a kiss. In some ways, it’s even more intimate than a kiss. He’s the Word of God! He doesn’t need to mess around with saliva to heal a deaf-mute man. But he wants to! It’s communion. Jesus puts His body on the man’s tongue. That’s what opens him. He receives the Body of Christ.
The Emmaus Pilgrims. This is the most striking one. The story of the Emmaus Pilgrims is one of my favorite from the entire Bible. Are we not all the Emmaus Pilgrims, wandering around, totally clueless, with Jesus walking on our side, and us not noticing Him? That’s the superficial (and true) meaning of that story. The other superficial (and true) meaning of that story is that, yes, Jesus of Nazareth really did bodily rise from the dead–people saw it. But what is the story of the Emmaus Pilgrims? What is its structure, its nature? It’s a Mass! It follows the Order of the Mass. First the Pilgrims hear Scripture, and expository preaching on Scripture. Then they come to a table, for what? The Eucharist! Jesus blesses the bread and the wine, and that’s when their eyes are opened. What just happened? Christ the High Priest performed the sacrament of the Eucharist! You just got ephphatha’d, bro. (“Everything in the Gospels is About the Mass”)
Also via Leah Libresco, but I really couldn’t resist posting this one:
I’ve always dreaded being asked for my “teaching philosophy.”
For years, I gave nonsense or scattershot answers. “Logic and critical thinking are paramount.” “I care more about conceptual understanding than computational skill.” “A balanced, student-centered approach is always best.” “We buzzword to buzzword, not for the buzzword, but for the buzzword.” At best, each of my disjointed half-theories captured only a piece of the puzzle.
Worse still, none of my replies explained why I devote so much class time to plain old practice. If I was such an enlightened liberal educator, why did I assign repetitive computations for homework? On the other hand, if I was a traditionalist at heart, why did I fall head-over-heels for high-minded progressive rhetoric? Was I an old-school wolf, a new-school lamb, or some strange chimera? (Math With Bad Drawings)
I wonder what I would say my “teaching philosophy” is…
Mali’s point about speaking with conviction is a very good one: “In case you haven’t realized, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about?” He’s being very meta, of course, by actually enacting the phenomena he is describing — using an interrogative tone when he is actually making declarative statements, interjecting with mindless phrases like “you know what I’m sayin’?” etc.
He is basically showing us the way the average teenager speaks all of the time, and the way many adults speak too much of the time.
I plan on showing this video to my kids next semester.
But I think his video raises other questions, like: What is the relationship between language and thought? How does the way we speak reveal the way we think?
Yet the funny thing about language is that it not only reflects our thinking — it also shapes it.
A lot of people think of language this way:
you think something —- THEN —- you say it
ie: language REFLECTS thought.
When really you should take into account this phenomenon:
you say something —- THEN —- you think it
ie: thought REFLECTS language.
That is, you have to be very careful what you say. Because you might start actually believing it.
People who go around searching for compliments by saying things like, “Oh I look so horrible today!” or “I don’t think I’m going to do well on that test!” — not because they actually believe it, but because they want affirmation, often end up believing those statements if they say them often enough.
What you say and how you say it shapes what you think and how you think it.
I see this all of the time with my students.
But to be more precise, the commonly accepted temporal succession between language and THEN thought, or even thought THEN language, is really quite silly. Thought and language are more like the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Well…
Your average dualist would probably say thought came first, then language.
But I’m not so sure.
“In the beginning was the WORD” (John 1:1). The nicely ambiguous thing about logos though, in Greek, is that it kind of means both “word/speech” and “rationality/thought” at the same time.
One of the things my kids say to me all the time is: “I know the answer, Ms. Shea, I just can’t say it.” Or “I remember it, I just can’t put it into words.”
We have all felt this way, but we are all deceiving ourselves. As a teacher, I have found that if you cannot put something into words, then, practically speaking, you don’t really know what you’re talking about at all.
When you really and fully know something, you can also articulate it.
*Caveat: For certain people with certain learning disabilities, there may be some kind of gray area here. But for the average person without said learning disabilities, I think my claim holds up pretty well.
What’s the point of all this?
1. I think an English teacher really needs to ponder this relationship between language and thought if she plans on helping her students write, read and think coherently. So much of the difficulty in teaching, after you get past the classroom management / grading / parental horrors, comes down to getting inside the heads of the kids and figure out what the heck is going on and how to help them fix it. That’s why I try to focus on “metacognition” so much in my classes.
2. The famous Catholic “both/and” of grace and nature shows up everywhere. Separating thought and language, soul and body, grace and nature, scripture and tradition, form and matter is the kind of Gnosticism our culture suffers from very badly these days. When you separate things like that you are unable to see either of them clearly.
3. The mysterious immateriality of language and thought shouldn’t make us forget how intimately tied both are to the “stuff” we are made of — neurons and gray matter etc. But neither should it make us reduce language or thought to our neurons and gray matter either. If that is *all* thinking is, then we have really no reason to trust it.
Poets seem to understand this language-thought, word-world thing better than most.
Here is one of my very favorite poems by Richard Wilbur. Note his description of how the English language works — and his Edenic imagery at the end. For him, in Paradise, language and thought, word and world, were not separate as they are now.