Category Archives: Language

About words, rhetoric, doublespeak, maybe elegance on occasion

And Who Decided That?

spelling error sign

Maybe it tastes better that way

You’ve probably heard the phrase “the King’s English” and perhaps wondered which king. As I’m writing this now, it occurs to me that there may be people who think it means King James and has something to do with the King James’ Bible. Which it doesn’t. Back in the history of England, the power and prestige of the king were such that, when the king spoke, whatever grammatical dumbassity came out of the king’s mouth, it was—by definition—perfect English.

Because, you know, who was going to say to the king, “Hey, you used a double negative, buddy. Where did you go to school?” There surely were people who thought the king spoke badly, but if those people wanted a piece of that big pie the king had, they imitated the speech of the king. It was about power. Thus, the King’s English.

In countries with a literary history and a widespread educational system, there is an strong belief in a proper form of the language. In every case and with no exceptions, the “proper” language is the one used by people with power. “Good English” spoken by people with power is the modern version of the King’s English. If you want some of that power, you will learn to use the language the way powerful people use it. We don’t talk about it that way, however. We just call it “good” English.

“Good” is a sort of moral quality, and a language does not actually have a moral component; it either works to communicate or it doesn’t. Every dialect of a language can be used to communicate. But if you don’t speak like a lawyer, banker, politician, or doctor—if you don’t sound like you went to school and learned that way of speaking, then we will call your English bad, no matter how well you communicate.

If we are going to continue to have “proper” English (i.e., a language of power), then someone must work on the barricades to keep out the hillbilly hordes with their drawling accents, varied grammar, and alternative past participles (as in “I ain’t never went nowhere”). Most of the language guardians are professors and editors, watching with the rapacious ferocity of eagles for any slight offense.

A cosmic irony is that the people who do this guardian work to protect the language of the wealthy and powerful are themselves working jobs where they generally earn shit salaries (if they even get a salary and don’t just put together a little work here and there). Many of those gatekeepers are college adjunct professors without full-time jobs, unable to even afford health insurance, but they are adamant about protecting the language of power, of which they have so little.

I have been and still am one of those people. I spent twenty years teaching college writing, like Moses come down from the mountain with a grammar book to declare what is correct and what is incorrect: thou shalt not drop the ending from third person singular. Now I continue this holy mission from a different vantage point, as an editor. Because I edit a medical journal, however, and because our articles come from around the world, I’m not as picky as I would be if I had more time.

Here is an example of a phrase describing the results from a study, and whether those results might apply to types of people who were not in the study: “…their [the results’] extrapolation to other populations is strongly precluded.”

I would say that in general, a thing either is precluded, or it is not. It if it precluded, then it will not happen. Otherwise, it will. The adverb “strongly” does not make sense in such an either/or case. When I was looking at this phrase, I thought it really should read “strongly discouraged”, which would make more sense. Do not try to use these results with other populations.

But I let it go. Maybe I got lazy. Maybe I thought “Oh, it’s only medical writing, what the hell.” Maybe I let another hillbilly climb over the wall. Maybe linguistic standards have been abandoned, and the language has gone to hell. If anybody asks me, though, I’m going to say, “I ain’t never done nothing like that.”


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Hitz Egin Euskara

Basque girl

Let her speak

(A, А) In Tampa, Florida, in the section of town called Ybor City, there is a newspaper named La Gaceta. In the most recent issue of the paper is an article that says, “One of the Ybor City tour companies tells us it is still getting calls from people who are canceling their travel to Tampa because of the hurricane.” I am not one of those people, and I’m in Tampa now as I write this.

(B, Б) In the newspaper La Gaceta, above the title, a line reads “English ● Español ● Italiano”. Ybor City was once home to 300 cigar companies (I find that hard to believe, but that’s what they say in the history museum). In the past, Ybor City had a heavy influx of immigrants from Spain, Cuba, and Italy, and many of those immigrants sat at desks rolling cigars by hand.

(C, В) These immigrants continued to use their native languages, as every human being obviously would. The language we learn from our parents with no effort, if we speak it long enough, is the language, our native tongue, one that we not only communicate with, but one that helps to create our sense of ourself as a human being.

(D, Г) Reflecting the history of the people who came to Ybor City, La Gaceta has articles in all three languages (very little Italian, but it’s there). This newspaper is a good representation of the phenomenon of people wanting to hold onto their language for cultural reasons.

(E, Д) Last week I read an article on the BBC website about the Basque language, which is not known to be related to any other language on earth. Basque is spoken in northern Spain and a little bit in southern France. As with so many small languages (such as Irish), Basque is used much more in the small villages and towns away from the big cities.

(F, Е) Like all people, the Basques wanted to use their language, first, because their mama spoke it, and who needs more of a reason than that? Secondly, the language preserved their cultural identity as a people. During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, however, it was illegal to speak Basque, and they were required to speak only Spanish. In the cities, in particular, people were afraid to speak their own language because someone might turn them in to the police. Can you imagine being arrested because of the language you speak? Surely only grim, dark barbarians would do that.

(G, Ё) Trying to destroy the language people speak is an attempt to destroy the culture of that group, so that they cease to exist separately. It is not genocide as literal killing, but it is cultural genocide. Here in the United States, I used to know a woman from Alaska, a member of a native tribe who said that in the American school she attended as a girl, they were forced to use English and were punished for speaking their home language. Can you imagine being punished for the language you speak? Surely only grim, dark barbarians would do that.

(H, Ж) Trying to destroy the cultural identity of a group by taking away their language is not rare. Dictatorships understand the power of language, and they not only censor it, but they standardize and control it. Control is obviously important to a dictatorship, but in addition, another language creates a sense of foreignness. Fear and hatred of foreignness must be basic human nature, as it exists all over the earth. There are many people right now in the United States who hate the idea of any language other than English in this country. Some of them, I am so sorry to say, are in my family.

(I, З) How would you feel to have your language taken away?

(J, И) I can say from a lot of personal experience that struggling to learn a foreign language makes you feel like a child, and you assume that you must sound actually stupid to other people. At the beginning of every paragraph for this blog post I’ve listed the first letters of both the English and Russian alphabets. What if suddenly all those English letters were illegal and you could only use the Russian letters? Would you hate the people who did that to you?

(K, Й) The title for this post, Hitz Egin Euskara, means “Speak Basque” in the Basque language.

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Don’t Just Me

man with tape on mouth

An improved programmer

In the last few days I’ve been eyeing one of my peeves. I try not to make pets of them, knowing how they can mess up the furniture. My non-pet peeve is a linguistic issue, which of course it would be, given my hyperattentive language-nerd mania.

We’ve been updating our technology at work, maybe a good thing, I guess. I mean the old stuff was working perfectly for me, and in terms of what I have to do, it’s difficult to think of any possible way the new computer could improve what I do, but at least the disruption to my work has been considerable. So there’s that. And of course any change of computers is likely to come with new software, because . . . who knows why the fuck software changes every seventeen minutes. At the sound of the dire phrase “new version of a Microsoft program” the very dead in their graves begin to weep.

Anyhow, that’s not what I was going to say, and I am getting around to the language thing. I’m just coming in the back door. At work we’re also getting new copier/printers, also vastly updated, and based on the training session I attended this week, these copiers are only a few years away from being able to colonize Mars by themselves. They can also staple, fax, scan, squinch the edges of the paper together (I’m not kidding, because maybe there’s one person on earth who would want that), call your cellphone to send you Mongolian emojis, and slice tomatoes thin enough to read through.

So like I said, we had training, and since none of us already knew how to fly the Space Shuttle, some of it went over our heads. In going through the eye-glazing instruction on how to change which email to send a scanned document to, or whatever it was, at one point the woman doing the training began a sentence with the phrase, “You just . . . ”

Now wait. You know what “just” means when it’s used like this? It means something like “simply”, already wildly out of place in a technical discussion, but for me “just” has a deeper connotation. It implies that a thing is SO simple it hardly bears mentioning, yet since you insist on mentioning it, you just press this button.

Back when I was raising a teenager, I became sensitized to this word “just”, and maybe that’s why I notice it now. Back then, it was used to mean something like “The thing you are asking me, Stupid Adult Unit, clearly does not require this interrogation, but since you’re asking, I’m just going to be out until midnight.”

Within the last few years I’ve encountered another example of someone telling me how to use sophisticated technology, in that case a cell phone, by telling me how you “just use this pull-down screen” or “just swipe over”. He may as well have looked up and said, “And what about you, simple drone with blank eyes, are you sure you can handle these childishly easy things that I shouldn’t even have to explain to you?”

In regards to technology, the complexity of complex material is not diminished by using language that pretends it is simple. The ideal situation would be for people who are familiar with the technology to learn how to actually communicate and then explain it. But what are the chances of that? Seriously, people, what are the chances of that?

Years ago when I was teaching various forms of business or technical writing, I would collect examples of writing that was badly done to show my classes. Some samples were almost too easy to find, like insurance letters, but another reliable source of gob-smacking communication incompetence came from people who were involved with modern technology. I finally decided that rather than teach computer programmers how to write, it would be easier to pass a law making it illegal for them to write at all. And maybe they shouldn’t speak, either.

We should just do that.

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Well, Hell

The band REM

Part of what we do here in Georgia

On America’s birthday, this past Tuesday, I went to a party where a woman referred to her American regional background, talking about her southern accent. Her husband, I think, said, “When a woman has a southern accent, people think it’s charming. When a man has a southern accent, they think he’s dumb.”

I think there’s something to that, even if it is overstated. There are times when people do find a certain charm in the sounds of southern accents, whether spoken by a man or a woman. But it is also definitely true that in other circumstances, for some people a southern accent symbolizes a lack of intelligence. The ironic fact is that only a fairly stupid person would truly think that, rather than judge the individual, but if you’ll spend the rest of the day looking, you’ll probably find a stupid person. They’re all over the place.

On the positive side, why is a southern accent admired? I’m also thinking of other accents that—at least in my experience—are sometimes thought of as elegant or charming. One of them is an upper-class British accent, and I’m also thinking of Italian. As I’m sitting here now, I wonder if part of the answer might be vowels. One of the obvious characteristics of a southern accent is the addition of extra vowels in comparison with standard American English. As an example, take a phrase a person down here in Georgia might say, perhaps to show mild surprise: “Well, hell”.

As I grew up speaking, the two words in that phrase would be pronounced not with a single vowel (sounding rather like “eh”), but with three vowels (a, y, u) blended together, something like “way-uhl, hay-uhl”. Since there are no rational people here in this room to stop me, I’ll propose a theory that human beings have a natural fondness for vowels. This partiality means that in general we will prefer the sound of a language (or dialect) with a good healthy sprinkling of vowels.

Who knows whether something like that could be true? An accent is simply pronunciation, but a dialect also involves vocabulary, grammar, and general ways of using language. Yet I suppose most people will not make these distinctions, so that someone might say, “He has a strong southern accent and says ‘yall’ all the time,” which has nothing to do with an accent. That’s a vocabulary term. I’ve spelled “yall”, by the way, as it will be spelled in the future, without that cursed apostrophe (and damn my phone for trying to add the apostrophe when I’m texting).

At that same party I was at on Tuesday, someone mentioned, with stern disapproval, the use of a very common verbal practice here in the south, what is called a “double modal”, such as this: “I might could be there after two o’clock on Sunday.” I’m going to guess that the use of such phrases as “might could”, “might would”, and “might should” is probably dying out, which I think would be a damn shame. I think it’s a beautiful way of speaking.

I’ve also heard native southerners condemn the double modal as being a kind of ignorant speech. This condemnation happens, though the speakers would deny it, because the attitude I mentioned above, that southern speech makes a person sound dumb, is—are you ready for this?—also believed by many southerners.

That’s weird, right? But it’s dead true. This little blog is not the place the try to explore the historical reasons that produced such a strange situation, in which people agree to condemn their own speech. And we are certainly not the only place on earth that combines extensive cultural richness with sulking neurotic insecurity (hey, Russia, I’m looking at you, buddy).

I hope we keep our southern accents. I say that even though I’ve lost most of my own, after acquiring too many college degrees and living almost everywhere you can live in America. My speech is most markedly filled with southern honey when I’m with people from back home, or when I drink as much as I should. I might should drink more, I guess, and then my words will sound like they come out of Jesus’ mouth when he’s home sitting on the porch.

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I Believe Myself, Sometimes

earth from space

What is that?

Now that it’s fairly easy to look things up on the internet (i.e., most of the people you know stopping a conversation dead in a restaurant to look up some trivial, unnecessary fact), why do people believe so many things that are wrong? I read an article this past week talking about why, and the article used as a context the shrieking psychotic clusterfuck that constitutes contemporary American politics. From the article, we can see that instead of reacting to politics by saying “Aaaaaaaaah!!” and banging our head on the wall, we can instead say “What is the foundation for other people’s knowledge?” The origin of knowledge is called epistemology, in case you wanted that word.

Some interesting examples of alternative facts were in the article. Why do some people believe we need to spend billions of dollars to build a wall on the Mexican border, when illegal immigration has gone down, more people are returning to Mexico than are coming here, and most illegal immigrants work hard and add to our economy? Or why do so many people oppose eating genetically modified organisms when there is no evidence that they are harmful and the potential benefits are so huge, such as nutritional benefits and using fewer pesticides?

Why don’t we all just seek out real facts to the best of our ability, and go with them? Before I proceed with the factual part of this discussion, I have a philosophical answer: we don’t necessarily like facts. There’s a Russian proverb that says something like “would you rather be happy or would you rather have the truth?” Umm, let me think a minute.

Part of the truth is that none of us are walking around with pure facts, the way we think we are. But I want to make a point here first, so let’s consider an important question: how do you know the earth is round? Did you personally fly or sail around it? If you did, fine, but most of us did not, and yet we still think it’s round. We have trusted people who did fly or sail around it to tell us. We know it is round because of language.

But Ah! some will say, now we have photographs from space, and we can look at it and see that it’s round. OK. I’ve attached a space photo of the earth to this blog entry. Look at it. Now look out the window. Looks the same, doesn’t it? The only way you know that’s a photo of the earth is because someone told you. You know it because of language.

So follow this chain of logic for a moment: (1) much of our knowledge—like the earth being round—comes from communication, (2) most communication is through language, (3) and language is inherently rhetorical. Therefore, much of our knowledge comes from a process that is not based on pure reporting of truth, but rather it’s a process that is shaped by attempts at persuasion (i.e., rhetoric).

One of the basic aspects of rhetoric is that the person using language must be trusted by the audience, or no communication will take place. As I would sometimes tell my students, at the moment you start to speak, in terms of being trusted, what you actually know doesn’t much matter. It’s what the audience believes you know that matters. If they trust you, and if they think you know what you’re talking about, they will listen—whether those things are true or not.

Over time, you may change what the audience believes about you, and you may affect how much they trust you, but at any given moment, what the audience already believes is critically important as to whether it’s possible for communication to take place.

Our use of language has a profound effect on what we think we know. And whether we seriously look for true information, judging and considering our sources, looking for verification of facts, or whether we just lazily wash along in the river of what our friends believe, our knowledge is not just about what we know, but about what we choose to believe. “Knowledge” is less about truth than about belief. We have caught some fish from the river, but there are others that swam away without us knowing about them.

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Happy Delight Cookie

small bridge

Don’t forget a pillow

You’ve been to a Chinese restaurant, I would imagine. So you know that after you finish your General Tso’s chicken, or whatever you might have, they generally bring you little clear plastic packets with strangely folded, pale brown objects inside, sometimes served with orange slices. Thus appears the fortune cookie.

Whenever I’ve ripped open the plastic packet and cracked my cookie in half, to read what is written on that tiny slip of paper, I’ve never liked the uninteresting fortune. They say things like “Plan for many pleasures ahead” or “The time is right to make new friends” or “Your ability to juggle many tasks will take you far”.

What the hell? Those are fortunes? Those little slips of paper should have all said, “You will open cookie of very great banality.”

No sir, if I were the fortune cookie writer, we’d get some literary interest in there. Now I understand there’s only so much you can say. There’s not a lot of space, so the fortunes are kind of the pastry equivalent of Twitter messages. That just means the limited space available needs to be devoted to imagination.

I don’t think every fortune has to come with an implied smiley face. Has anyone ever used the phrase “feel good” about Tennessee Williams’ plays? And yet they’re highly regarded, even though they plumb the darkness of our existence. Can’t a fortune cookie do the same? So here are some suggestions for improved fortune cookie messages and why I think they would be good.

You will live briefly under a bridge.

At first glance this sounds negative, but note that very optimistic adverb—briefly. It’s not like you’re going to spend the rest of your life down there.

If you are having trouble dating, maybe you are thinking of the wrong gender.

Here is an inducement to self-examination, and in these more enlightened days of the twenty-first century, this happy fortune says “Look how broad your options are! Twice as many!”

Many people are more ugly than you.

Imagine how this statement will raise the self esteem of someone who has just finished their fried rice and is feeling insecure. Then the cookie arrives, and suddenly, they feel better about themselves.

As an adult, you can be glad you didn’t waste time learning math.

This happy fortune makes the diner feel good about the time they spent in high school not paying attention in class.

I might also add a few fortunes invoking whimsy, because Whimsical would be my middle name if my parents had named me that.

You will get very drunk and shave off all your body hair.

The person reading this might take it as a prediction, as something to look forward to, perhaps, or they might take it as a warning of something to avoid. It is their choice.

Your elephant will become flatulent tomorrow.

This could be a very useful fortune, telling you what to do—put the elephant outside—and telling you when you need to do that, tomorrow.

Your intestinal flora rejoice at your good fortune.

I’m pretty sure that must be true. I mean, why wouldn’t they?

You see how much better fortune cookies could be? It just takes a willingness to go beyond the norm, and I frequently go beyond the norm. You will eat happy delight cookie, then search for car in parking lot.

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Believe Me, I’m Totally Honest

Woman thinking about a crazy person

They just send out another tweet.

If you’ll come to my house this weekend, I think we’ll have a good time. And if you’ll come to my house this weekend, I’ll give you a thousand dollars.

The first statement above is an example of rhetoric. The second is merely lying. While some people may not understand the difference between rhetoric and lying, it’s a difference as enormous as the one between ethyl and methyl alcohol. You don’t have to understand it for it to make you blind.

If I was late for work, and someone asked me whether I got there on time, I could say (1) Just a few minutes late, or (2) I was really trying to get here on time, and suddenly there was all this traffic. Both answers are trying to do something different. In answer (1) the phrase “just a few minutes” tries to diminish the amount of time. In answer (2) the phrase “all this traffic” combined with “suddenly” emphasizes the idea that some outside, uncontrollable force prevented me. With each answer, I want the listener to believe that (1) my lateness is not that important, or (2) I’m not really at fault.

Each of the answers above is basically “yes” I was late, so neither is a lie, yet the speaker also wants to persuade the listener of something. Choosing words to persuade someone is rhetoric. We are particularly aware of the use of rhetoric by our politicians. Yet all humans choose words this way, because we all want to persuade people to think certain things and to do certain things. Using rhetoric is a natural aspect of being human. Talk to any four-year-old if you’re not sure of this.

We may not like the rhetoric of politicians, but using it is, after all, human. Even a “plain spoken” politician is using their own kind of rhetoric: Look how straightforward my language is. That must mean it’s especially honest, and you can trust me even more.

Let’s take some examples of rhetoric from our contemporary politics. In the past year, we’ve begun to hear the phase “alt-right” to refer to particular attitudes. Alt-right is a fairly innocuous-sounding phrase, as if it might be merely a particular variation (or alternative) of rightwing, or conservative views. In reality, however, it refers to racism and white supremacy, which is not conservative, but choosing a new name to sound more innocent is a rhetorical act.

Another example of rhetoric that came up in the past week was when Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to President Trump, was asked about the White House claim of historically large crowds attending the inauguration. The claim was easily shown to be false, but instead of admitting what was obvious, Conway said the spokesman was using “alternative facts”. This phrase makes it sound as if the actual facts were not clear, as if, perhaps, there was disagreement over interpretation. In essence, however, Conway was using a nonsense phrase, because the reality about crowd size was so visible. She was not exactly lying, but she was clearly avoiding the truth.

These two examples, “alt-right” and Conway’s language, show why so many people hate rhetoric. It is often used to try to hide reality, to avoid admission of the truth, and so rhetoric begins to seem like a way of being dishonest. Perhaps we can say that a politician may do one of three things: tell the cold truth, use rhetoric to hide what is being said, or tell a lie. But maybe it’s not so simple.

Let’s look at two further examples, also from our current politics. Back during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that after 911, Muslims in New Jersey were celebrating on rooftops. Then people investigated, and this claim was shown to be very obviously wrong. There was no mixed evidence. It was not a case of some people said one thing, some said another. It was not a question of interpretation. It was just wrong, but Trump continued to say it.

Then in the past week, Trump has said that up “five million illegal votes” were cast, and that not a single one of those votes (which would have been cast in secret) went to him. No one—including Republican Secretaries of State—has supported the idea that millions of illegal votes were cast. It is just wrong, but Trump continues to say it.

When something has been shown conclusively to be false, one possibility is that the person who continues to repeat it may be mysteriously uninformed of what most people know. Another possibility is that the person might be an incredible liar who doesn’t care.

There is a third possibility. A person who continues to repeat what is known to be wrong might be mentally incapable of recognizing reality. Maybe Donald Trump is not lying, as people are saying. Perhaps he is either remarkably uninformed, or he is so unhinged from reality that he doesn’t know what is real, and he believes what he is saying.

Either way, lucky America.

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