Monthly Archives: July 2015

So I Go “You Go”

women talking and laughing

(Painting by Alonsa Guevara)

Most people, I’d guess, believe there is a proper form of English. If there is, do you think you use it? Although I have very strong preferences for what I like in language, I do not believe there is a “proper” English. There is language that communicates well or badly, language that is beautiful or boring, and so on, but to me, language is alive, so it changes according to the context. I might stride the avenue of refined and polished discourse, but I ain’t got no problem with slipping down a green path, neither.

Every Monday after work I go to a library to meet a man from West Africa, where I tutor him in English. Although I had a few days of training in tutoring, I always wonder what I’m doing and whether it helps. Such doubt is the nature of language instruction, I think, because language is so slow to learn that you can’t easily see it happening. When I was teaching college writing, and I certainly had some training there, years of it, I always thought, “Does anything I do here make the slightest difference?”

Anyway, about my African student, I generally use an article from a newspaper to look at vocabulary and idioms. This may be useful as a way of looking at living language (I hope so), but it’s also an easy way for a lazy person like me to tutor. This past week we were reading a section that quoted someone speaking, and the speaker used the verb “go” to mean “speak”, which I’m pretty sure most Americans do. It’s slangy, of course, but common: Sheila goes, “We’ll be ready” and I go, “Right, like last time.”

That’s an interesting little metaphor, that “go”, like looking at speech as forward motion, but odd usage like that, interesting or not, makes it so much harder to learn a language. Every language has idioms that don’t make sense until you just flat out memorize them (like “a close shave” for something that could have gone badly but didn’t). Every language also uses plenty of metaphors, and every language I know much about—granted, not all that many—has rules as well as irregular damned exceptions that don’t follow the rules, I am, you are, he is.

So I go to my African student, “You’ll hear this a lot if you listen to people talk.” Later I got to thinking about how hard it would be to change countries as an adult and have to learn a new language. I’ve heard people in America complain about foreigners who don’t learn English well, as if the person saying that learned even 10 words of another language in school. Immigrants to America want to learn English, but desire does not make a heavy weight light.

About 25 years ago—a quarter of a century already, my God—I worked in Atlanta with people who had refugee status. I was their Russian interpreter, because many of them didn’t speak English. The people I worked with ranged in age from small children to elderly people. The young children were going to be speaking English without an accent in only two years, but I wondered about the older people. How much would they learn? How hard would it be? Sometimes I would imagine my own mother, if she had to suddenly move to another country. I would think of China, and I tried to picture her learning Chinese. Which would never ever happen.

Those Russian immigrants, or my student from Africa, embody a common American experience. It’s an experience that our ancestors struggled through but which is easy for us to forget about, going to a place where you suddenly become either a child or a stupid person in your language. I felt a bit of this experience the first time I went to Russia, thinking I knew something about the language, after studying it for years. Wow, did I find out different. I still remember a day trying to do something simple like buy stamps, standing at the window in the post office, not knowing even the three or four words that would have made it happen, and feeling like a complete dumbass for even trying in the first place.

A new language often feels like an ocean whose only purpose is to drown foreigners who try to speak it.


I’m posting tonight from Savannah, Georgia, and next week I’ll say more about the visit here.

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Get Out of this Place!

Death figure on a ship

Immigrants bring diseases: cartoon from the 19th century

Here in the United States, as a nation of immigrants, we have a long history of trying to slam the door behind us. From the Know Nothing party in the 1850s (a real party, you can look it up) to the Republican party in 2015, that aspect of America hasn’t changed. What does change is that the immigrant group being despised changes, so there’s a weird sense of deja vu with historical updating.

This is not a history blog, so I’m randomly pulling bits and pieces for illustration, but let’s look at some American rhetoric against immigration. One basic motif against immigrants is to dehumanize them and show that they are not civilized like us, that in some sense they are not fully human. A second, extremely common, motif is to show that they pose a serious danger. The exact nature of the danger varies, but there are plenty of examples claiming rape, murder, diseases, destroying the nature of our culture, and refusing to accept our way of life.

Dehumanization is wonderfully illustrated by an 1881 cartoon that literally shows a monstrous creature in a cage, titled “The Most Recently Discovered Wild Beast”. The cartoon is meant to show a man from Ireland. The Irish were regarded by native-born Americans as lazy, undisciplined, drunken criminals who would take orders from the Catholic church.

In 1891 a group of nine Italian men were accused and found not guilty of murder, but before they could be released, a mob broke into the jail and dragged them all out (along with two unrelated Italians just for good measure) and lynched them. Following this news, Italians across the country were attacked. Commenting on the events, an editorial in the New York Times referred to the murder victims (those who were lynched) as “… sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” In this phrasing, we can see the motif of dehumanization, claiming the victims were “sneaking and cowardly” and furthermore that they were “Sicilians” as if that word needed no explanation. The motif of danger appears in describing the immigrants as “bandits and assassins”. Speaking of the lynchings, Teddy Roosevelt said they were “a rather good thing”.

The rhetoric regarding the Chinese took a slightly different approach than with the Italians, not only referring to the danger they posed, but viscerally emphasizing their difference from Anglosaxon Americans. Anti-Chinese posterThus the newspapers of the time would refer to the Chinese collectively as the “yellow peril”. Such a phrase embodied both danger and difference. A labor leader of the time, Samuel Gompers, said that “the superior whites had to exclude the inferior Asiatics, by law, or if necessary, by force of arms.” Notice that open threat of violence. Yet what else could you do against a peril?

I hardly need to go into much detail discussing hatred toward the Jews, but I include one little bit that so astounded me, I sat gaping when I found it. During the Civil War, General Ulysses Grant wrote a directive reading “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled …within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” Grant was expelling all Jews from the area he controlled in Tennessee, reminiscent of how they were expelled from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella.

So here we are in 2015. Among some of the cynical, vicious assholes running for president, the current newsmaker is Donald Trump. Personally, I don’t think he actually has strong feelings one way or another about illegal immigrants. Trump cares about Trump, and that’s the end of it. But as his ego expands outward like the universe after the Big Bang, he has found it convenient to latch onto the kind of malicious nativism I’ve illustrated above from previous American history.

Trump recently said in reference to Mexico: “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Who knows why he tacked that last bit on there, as if that would help. You can easily see the old motifs that were applied at one time to the Irish, to the Italians, to the Chinese. Exactly the same rhetorical approach. We’ve gone from wild beast to bandits to yellow peril to criminals and rapists.

In that short quote from Trump, he actually invoked four things: a vague “problems” so you can fill in the blank, plus drugs, crime, and rape. This is the old danger motif, such as Italian assassins, combined with dehumanization of people so vile they combine all these awful qualities.

The truly disturbing thing is that while we may not be surprised to see a raving idiot like Donald Trump grasp at demogogery to gain attention, he does not rave in a vacuum. The Republican party has spent years laying the groundwork in preparation for him. Even now, most other Republican presidential candidates refuse to openly condemn what Trump says, and Ted Cruz (also a cynical asshole) even praises him. Furthermore, look at this quote from the National Review, a conservative journal not known for calm rational discussions, commenting on a statistic of low crime rates among legal immigrants: “One would expect legal immigrants to have low crime rates, since they are, by definition, the type of people who follow the law.”

This quote implies that illegal immigrants, people who will break the law to find work to feed their families are, by contrast, inherently people who will commit crimes (rape and murder, for instance). Such an attitude is not only logically wrong and despicable on a human level, but it is also cretinously stupid politically, when the people who you degrade are increasingly numerous.

It is not a good sign when one of our major political parties has lurched into angry nativism, when GOP stands for “Get Out of this Place!”

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Stand Back, I’m Setting These Words On Fire


Can you read this?

For some writers, words on a page are not enough. The writers want the words to whirl out like comets, to shimmer like rainbows, grow and twine like a jungle, until normal language seems like concrete blocks compared to a Tiffany window. Various writers handle this impulse in different ways.

For some, using more than one language creates the linguistic tension that stretches outside the routine. Many modern American writers with a Spanish language background, for instance, might mix English and Spanish in their writing, such as the Puerto Rican writer Giannina Braschi with her novel Yo-Yo Boing! As an older example of language mixing, Leo Tolstoy uses a surprising amount of untranslated French in his novel War and Peace.

Still other writers address the impulse to set comets free by using their native language but seeing how much they can twist it into new forms, new styles, new ways of doing things. Faulkner did this back in 1929 with the novel The Sound and the Fury, which can still be very difficult to read. James Joyce stretched even further with his novel Finnegan’s Wake, which is completely impossible to read. In poetry, e. e. cummings set his linguistic imagination free, with lines like “till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers”.

Possibly the most ambitious approach to breaking free from the surly bonds of, well, an actual language, is the rare example of writers who literally try to create a new language. The most famous example in literature is surely J. R. R. Tolkien, who puts not just one but multiple invented languages in The Lord of the Rings books. In addition to being a writer, Tolkien was a linguist, and he has said that his real interest was in his created languages, like Elvish (actually, he created many different Elvish languages). Probably more famous as an invented language was the example popularized by TV and movies, the Klingon language from “Star Trek”.

What would it take to create a language? One thing it would take to make a real language is more than one person. No matter how smart the creators of these languages were, and in spite of clever subsequent games like a version of Hamlet written in Klingon (I didn’t make that up), could either Elvish or Klingon translate the sentence “While my laptop was booting up I went up to the counter to order a latte”?

Outside of literature, there is a real language that was invented just as much as Klingon. Way back in 1887, L. L. Zamenhof created the language Esperanto, which he intended to be a neutral international language. Esperanto is not as linguistically neutral as some people might claim, as it is based on the Indo-European (basically European) languages, but no artificial language could really be neutral, since human beings would be making it up, and they would be influenced by what they know. The idea of Esperanto as an international language was a beautiful idea, though eventually English has come to play that role, with Esperanto not even in real competition. The popularity of Esperanto has grown, however, so someday, who knows?

There are two ancient languages (that I know of) that pretty much died as spoken languages, yet which continued to be used. If we think of a “living language” as one that babies learn from their mothers, then both Latin and Hebrew were completely dead, yet for centuries people continued to learn both in school and used them as adults. From the point of view of babies, Latin is still dead dead dead, although look at this news report from 2003 in Latin. The fate of Hebrew, however, has been an inspiring linguistic miracle, brought back from the dead to become a true living language in Israel.

A careful reader of this blog entry—not that I’m accusing you of that—might say I’ve wandered mighty far off topic, from writers playing with language to creating languages to reviving dead languages. That accusation would be true, if I had started out with any intention of being coherent. But that would take so much effort, and this is only a blog, n’est-ce pas? I mean really, ylDoghQo’ (Klingon for “don’t be silly”).


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Maybe I Need New Boots

old boots

Who could write with boots like these?

There are evenings like this: I come home from work thinking “Alright, hours ahead of me. No exercising tonight, and dinner already fixed. I’ll get some writing done.” Now, if we took that scenario and nudged it just a teeny little bit, into total wildass fantasy, I would come in the door, put my stuff down, turn on the computer, and a few minutes later I’d be staring at the screen, thinking my creative literary thoughts and writing my creative literary sentences.

Since my memory has gone to hell along with all the other stuff I’d like to have back, I can’t say for absolute certain that not once in my whole life have I ever walked in the door and sat down to write. So maybe once or twice I actually did that. But here in the real world, it ain’t gonna happen.

Occasionally I bemoan the lack of time to write, and I have many ideas I don’t even pursue (a series of humor stories, a three-act opera libretto, some short stories), because there isn’t time, there isn’t going to be time, and it’s best to not even think about it. In contrast, when I’m really caught up in the writing, I feel good about it, and the more I write, the more contented I feel.

So one would think that I’d take every possible minute, but it’s like this: the “place” where I write is like a gazebo, and once I get into it, I’m at home in the world, thinking my creative literary thoughts and all. But that gazebo is at the top of a hill, and there is no way to get into it without walking up the hill. If we can stick with this metaphor for a minute, every time I write, it begins by walking uphill. Now, maybe you love walking up a hill, including metaphorical hills. Apparently I don’t. Every time I write it begins with a struggle.

First there is just reaching the bottom of the hill. I should wash the dishes in the sink. And what the hell?! Those clothes were washed two days ago, why are they still in the basket? And I didn’t do yoga yesterday or use the hand weights in a couple of days, but health is important, I really need to do that.

Or if I make it to the bottom of the hill, and sit down at the computer, I can’t remember that I’m supposed to be walking to the top. Better check my email, because I think I only checked it ten times today, and even though I just checked it twenty minutes ago, maybe somebody wrote. Wouldn’t that be nice if somebody wrote? Then I wouldn’t feel like I’m sitting here alone. And look at this news article, Mike Huckabee went off again. Who is he pretending not to hate now? Ohh, and these photographs are so cool. What is she wearing, are those butterflies?

I suppose all this makes me sound unfocused, undisciplined, and unsmart. It’s kind of like, if I’m going to just piss my life away, I’ll piss in a circle while I’m at it. But finally, finally, I pull up the file I’m working on, read the last few paragraphs I wrote the day before, thinking, “Hmm, well, it could be worse, I can probably make that good with enough effort” and I begin at last to write.

Even then, however, I’m not really at the top of the hill, because I still have to make the emotional commitment to sit there, focus, and write, when suddenly I really want to get up and go get chocolate or something.

Do other writers do this? Did Charles Dickens wander around the house looking for things to do instead of writing? Does Kate Atkinson do this? Kate, write me and tell me.

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