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.
On Sunday at the cathedral in Denver, the vicar of the Archbishop gave a beautiful homily on humility. And in a gesture of humility, he read to us the entire text of Pope Francis’ Sunday Angelus – which you should also read, in full. Here is a taste:
With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons: I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable! Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence.
I repeat forcefully: it is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace. May the plea for peace rise up and touch the heart of everyone so that they may lay down their weapons and be let themselves be led by the desire for peace.
To this end, brothers and sisters, I have decided to proclaim for the whole Church on 7 September next, the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world, and I also invite each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative.
(Pope Francis, Angelus of Sept 1, 2013)
After reading us the full text, the vicar noted that, in honor of our Pope’s request, there will be Eucharistic Adoration and Prayer for Peace at the downtown Cathedral in Denver. Likewise, many other diocese are doing the same. Please go, even for a little while. Even if you aren’t Catholic. Go anyway and pray.
I’m trying to find ways to additionally challenge and stretch my honors students. However, since I want to do this with ALL my students, sometimes I have a hard time differentiating and offering different assignments. I think all of them are important! To be honest with you, I don’t 100% believe in “Honors” classes, as much as I benefited from these in my own high school career, and as much as I benefit from them now as a teacher (totally makes it easier to teach).
A good friend of mine suggested this interesting blog post to me, and I thought I would share it with you. I am requiring my Honors class to read it for Thursday and to thoroughly annotate it.
A taste (don’t you love tastes? They really make you want to click those links, don’t they?):
Yes, words are wonderful things, a kind of shorthand. But words can also get in the way, especially when we think that because we have named something, we have fully described or comprehended it. Not so, reality is always richer than the words or thoughts that we “reduce” it to. It is perhaps necessary for us to do this sort of reduction in order to manage, and not be overwhelmed, but, again reality is always richer than the thoughts or words we reduce it to. (Msgr. Charles Pope)
Okay, yes. But then he goes on to say:
There’s yet another old saying, likely from the far East, which says, “Those who know do not say, those who say do not know.” That is, words for fall short of the reality of what is known, and the wise person grasps this.
One of the Eastern fathers, when asked to explain this saying to his disciples said, “How many know the smell of a rose?” And all of his disciples raised their hands. But when he said to them, “Put it into words” everyone remained silent. (Ibid.)
I guess I’m causing my kids some “cognitive dissonance” with this one, because I just spent today introducing them to Flannery O’Connor’s intriguing description of her own creative process: “I write to discover what I know.”
In other words, despite my student’s common protest, “I know what it is, Ms. Shea, I just can’t put it into words”– Flannery would probably reply,
“Nope. Until you can put it into words, you don’t really know it.”
I want to side with Flannery here, although I agree that there are some things (most especially in the realm of grace) that human language cannot grasp or even remotely gesture toward. Nonetheless, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1) and there is something of that fundamental desire (and ability!) to articulate in all of us, and in all of our languages. One of the first things Adam did, after all, was to name all of the creatures of the Earth (Genesis 2:20). God gave him that dignity, and that gift.
And it’s that same ability to speak that lets me teach – that allows me to communicate with my students.
And it’s that same ability that allows political leaders to wage war, and seek peace, and kill thousands, and save millions. The word indeed, in many ways, is “mightier than the sword,” though perhaps not in the way that Edward Bulwer-Lytton meant it.