Category Archives: Language

About words, rhetoric, doublespeak, maybe elegance on occasion

Many Thoughts From the Same Words

Greek pottery with a laurel wreath

Rewarded with a laurel wreath

On a warm sunny afternoon this past Saturday, I went with my girlfriend to Emory University, where I ignored a sign saying “Lot Full,” drove around it, and pulled into a parking garage where there were, in fact, empty spaces. Ha, lot not so full after all.

While I’m still parking the car, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “poet laureate,” a phrase with an interesting etymology. It’s odd in English to have the adjective “laureate” come after the noun, but we just think of the whole phrase now as a type of poet. The adjective refers to a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree, something started in ancient Greece as a way to recognize people who won contests, such as the Olympics.

So technically, maybe “poet laureate” means a poet wearing a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree. Or nowadays, it means the official poet of some place, such as the United States. This past Saturday, we were at Emory because my girlfriend had heard that the Poet Laureate of the U.S., Tracy K. Smith, would be giving a reading, and we wanted to hear it.

Thus we found ourselves at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, an impressive building with an extremely high ceiling, whose purpose appeared to be creating grandeur, although there could be an acoustic purpose as well, I guess. The building does have a two-story high organ against the far wall, behind a stage.

We had assumed we’d have to arrive well ahead of the event to be able to find a seat, so we got there at 3:00, an hour early. When we arrived, only five or six people were in the lobby, and I wondered if the place could be filled already. In fact—the doors had not yet opened. Those five or six people, plus us, was who had arrived that early. So my girlfriend and I sat and talked, and that was good, because we can both do that.

People drifted in gradually, and about twenty minutes till 4:00, the doors were opened, and we hurried to get seats, but we need not have hurried. We looked around and wondered whether the light turnout would be embarrassing to the poet. I said, however, that if the poet had reached the status of Poet Laureate, she had spent years going to small events, hoping to read her poetry to someone, and lucky if twenty people showed up. By the time the reading started, the auditorium actually looked quite full, though seats were still available.

Before that afternoon I didn’t know Tracy K. Smith, as I don’t really follow contemporary poets. There was something about her manner when she spoke that made her very appealing to me, a sort of calmness and intelligence. I found the reading interesting, and I was very glad to be there, but she only read for about thirty minutes, so I didn’t feel like I had been exposed to her poetry enough to say much about it.

At least from this reading, the main idea I got was Smith’s interest in history and for using that in her poetry. The use of history was not as simple as writing poems about events in the past, but rather writing with a sense of history, which might even form a kind of “substory” to a poem that takes place in our own time. I don’t know if I’m getting her exactly here, but maybe I have some sense of what has influenced her.

Smith also read some poems written with a technique I’d never heard of, using the original words from historical documents to create a poem. To me this felt a bit like pushing the envelope for what a “poem” is—though I’m in favor of pushing the envelope in art (maybe in life). She had one poem, for instance, that seemed to consist entirely of quotes from the Declaration of Independence (which I recognized), quotes that were pulled out and read to create a new sort of work from the fragmentary phrases.

I came away from this reading thinking about the concept of a poem, and more broadly, thinking about the concept of any kind of literary work. We had sat in an auditorium listening to the poet speak, and speech itself is, after all, just sounds. As those sounds reached us, our brains turned them into thoughts, then took those thoughts and went where they would go.

Every person in the auditorium was creating different thoughts based on the sounds of the speaker. Tracy K. Smith read us poems consisting of her words, or words from other documents, giving us the sounds to send our minds in multiple directions. Many thoughts from the same words. I suppose that’s part of what poetry does.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

Magical Words

surface of the sunIs this an English word: dkimbi?

I’m pretty sure it’s not. I don’t think any English word begins with those two consonants. It’s just a combination of sounds, a noise.

How about this one: stick?

Now that’s a word. Or a more interesting one: ribald. Words are so strange. Both stick and ribald are also combinations of sounds, but in both cases—if you know those words—the sounds bring a meaning to the mind. Every word in reality is just a noise, like “dkimbi,” but when we know them, they’re like magic spells that put thoughts and dreams in our heads.

And if we allow them to, the magical spells of words can take us places, so that inside our mind, where all our sensations are processed, we really are there. Assume, for instance, that you’ve never been to St. Petersburg, Russia, and therefore you’ve never been to a little café called Жили-Были (which might be translated as something like “Once Upon a Time”). The café is on the main boulevard downtown, Nevsky Prospect, so crowded with people and with bridges across the Neva River. If you go into the café, you find a small space with tables where people already sit eating and talking. Obviously the Russian language is all around you, so pretend you speak it. Then you can walk up to the glass case containing dishes of salads and other items, looking to see what you want. “What is that one, with the white?” you can ask the young woman waiting on you. She has black hair cut short, three silver earrings in each ear, and a tattoo of Mickey Mouse on her arm. Seeing what you’re pointing at, she says, “Спаржа,” and since you know Russian, you think to yourself that you’ve never seen asparagus that looked like that. Then you order an apple tart and a coffee and sit down at a small table to look at your phone.

Finishing your apple tart, what if it were now possible to get on a bus, close your eyes for a few minutes, and when you open them to get off, you’re only one block away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland? If that happens, you can enter the enormous cathedral and stand in the wide nave looking down the aisle at the high ceiling, the pointed arches along the sides, and the distant altar. When you finally look down, you’re just as struck by how exotically the floor is decorated with patterns of colored stones. And at that moment, a tourist standing near you, someone with an American accent, says, “Wow, look at this floor!” It also occurs to you that you never before thought about the fact that there’s such a thing as an American accent, but it’s pretty obvious that woman in the red T-shirt and straw hat is an American. As you continue to look around, near the door where you entered, you find a grave in the floor and—holy moly!—it’s Jonathan Swift. Jonathan Swift is buried here? A few minutes later as you walk around, a choir begins to practice, and the sound of their voices in that stone space is ethereal. You sit down, unable to leave, listening to them.

There seems to be literally no limit to where we can go and what we can do with words. I was thinking of taking a stroll across the surface of the sun, because I just crazy love the sight of those vast mountains of fire that rise up higher than the Himalayas, then collapse again. And there’s that strange crackling feeling from so many atoms being disrupted by the incredible energy. But I need to go get another glass of wine. When I do go walk on the sun, you can come, too.

That’s what writers do.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

This Is Not Rhetoric

angry little boyIs uninformed, emotional spewing of fleeting thoughts rhetoric?

The deliberate study of how to use language effectively, to my knowledge, has only been invented once, by the ancient Greeks. When the Romans began absorbing Greek culture and Greekifying themselves, they fell in love with rhetoric. The Romans thought of rhetoric more in terms of speaking than writing, and the ability to be a good orator was very important.

Rhetoric was important in the Roman republic, when elections were held, and the ability to be persuasive could be a factor in gaining office. One of the basic tenets of persuasion is convincing people that you have the truth, but later, in the empire beginning with Augustus, political power was concentrated in the ruler, and all “truth” came from the emperor. Truly free discussions about what was true were dangerous, so public rhetoric became less important.

I studied rhetoric as a graduate student, and my own definition is that rhetoric is the use of language to influence what someone is thinking and to persuade them to agree with what you want. From that point of view, even children use rhetoric, assiduously looking for every possible angle to convince their parents of things. In my definition (which I grant is broad), every person uses rhetoric, because we’re all after something, and using language is part of how to get it.

In analyzing political rhetoric, we can carefully examine what a politician is saying, to see, for instance, what underlying ideas they’re trying to connect with the audience on. Examining the words of a normal politician assumes that a certain amount of thought has gone into what is said, and analysis also assumes that some important things are not said (because politicians want to be elected and are careful).

What if a politician, however, seems to speak like a child, blurting out things that appear not to have been thought about at all? What if a politician also appears to have no foundational ideas that unify what is said, so that his or her speech makes no sense in any consistent way?

We can take a statement from President Trump and examine it in the way we would normally look at political rhetoric, but which statement to choose is like dipping a cup into the ocean. The vastness of this madness creates a problem with attempting to analyze the rhetoric of such a president. Is childish ranting the same as rhetoric?

Let’s look at a phrase Trump has made so common that dictators around the world have gleefully grabbed it with both hands: “fake news”. As we use the word “news” it means “something which has happened”. By implication, news also means something of interest (people went to the store today to buy food—something that did happen—but we don’t call that news).

The word “fake” means false, but the connotation is more than false, implying something that is not merely wrong, but is intended to be tricky, such as a fake designer handbag. For thousands of years things have been reported as news, later to be discovered as wrong. We already have a word for this—we call it a “mistake”, and most news organizations admit their mistakes and correct them. When Trump created the phrase “fake news” he did not mean that a news services had made a mistake. He meant they were trying to trick us with deliberately false information.

Such a phrase could be rhetorical, but what takes this discussion into dark authoritarian territory is that the President only uses the phrase “fake news” for reports that he just doesn’t like, even claiming “fake news” in support of ideas that are widely known to be false. It is difficult to believe that President Trump is actually so stupid or emotionally deranged as to believe things any rational person can see is false (such as the number of people in a photograph).

Thus it seems that he must be lying, and by now we’ve seen many examples of his breath-taking lying, such as claiming he did not call Africa “shithole countries” when other people standing there in the room have told us he did. Is lying the explanation for the “fake news” claims? And yet, incredibly, is it possible he believes what he is saying?

Stupid? Deranged? Lying?

Whatever the case may be, that is not rhetoric, and the emperor does not have the truth.

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Pins and Pens

painting of blue womanIf we stick you with a pin, you will cry out.

If we take away your friends, you will moan with loneliness.

Thoughts: impressions of sensory data, with abstraction and calculation using those data, all of which appears to take place in the brain.

Feelings: more of our animal nature, based on emotions, which definitely seem to take place in the brain.

If we experience both thoughts and feelings in the brain, which seems rather evidently true, another strange fact is also evidently true. If we stick you with a pin, you will make sounds and cry out. If we take away your friends, you will make other sounds, and moan with loneliness.

We might posit an imaginary world in which thoughts and feelings are experienced, inside the brain as now, and yet they stay there. In this imaginary world, there is no external indication of what is being thought or felt. This strange imaginary creature may think and feel many things, but from the outside, that creature is a quiet mystery from birth until death.

Obviously, not like humans. Things that we experience inside our brain must come out through the body. This exiting of thoughts and feelings necessarily requires movements of the body: eyes, mouth, tongue, muscles of the face and legs and arms. Thus we make sounds, thus we have facial expressions, we wave our arms in the air, we jump. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter exactly what we do, only that the body must move to release what is in the brain.

What I’ve just said is true, and anyone will have a hard time to question it. You might, however, question why the body must release our thoughts and feelings. I have thought about this quite a bit over the course of years, and it is an inscrutable puzzle for me. If we’re sad, why do we cry? Why not simply feel sad inside?

As evidence of how true it is that things must come out of the body, if for some reason we do not release thoughts and feelings, we will grow mentally ill and probably physically ill as well. People who have been prevented as children from expressing themselves (to an abusive degree) are emotionally damaged. There are types of therapy for both adults and children that consist of finding ways to encourage them to express themselves, such as art therapy for abused children. And of course, very many people are helped just by talking to a therapist.

In the complexity of human life, we have developed so many symbolic ways of expressing ourselves, that it is miraculous how many people are walking around holding in things that need to be set free. The options for letting it out is a long list—painting, dancing, playing music, cooking cakes, planting gardens, designing clothes, writing computer games.

But of them all, is there a more profound form of expression than writing? If you are dealing with a problem that is pulling you into the darkness, sitting and writing about it can sometimes bring light back into the room. Nothing is more quintessentially human than language, and using the symbolic sounds and shapes of language can let the heart fly like a bird.

I’ve often used writing, even in a fictional form, to deal with things. When the world felt like a hurricane made of knives, when love was only a distant word in a foreign language, when the simple fact of being born felt like a great mistake had been made, I could write, “The world stuck me with a pin, and I cried out.”

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It’s a Poem Because I Say It Is

woman talking about poetryRoses are red,
violets are blue,
anyway, bring me a beer.

I had a conversation with a literary friend this week, and that conversation turned in the direction of poetry. My friend raised a question that came out of something he had been reading, as to how poetry is defined. What is poetry?

I’ll come back to that question, but in addition my friend asked another question that I thought had an easy answer: “How does a poet ensure that the reader will get the point?” The obvious answer to me was that the poet doesn’t, because it’s impossible. No one can guarantee that the reader will get what the writer is after.

Nevertheless, there are things the writer can at least try, based on who the audience is intended to be. A capable writer, poet or otherwise, will try to address their audience. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but I’ve run into plenty of writers who I didn’t feel were trying. Any adolescent poet can pour out anguish or giddy delight in a poem, with great feeling. Spilling your emotions in a hot wash across the page and calling it done, however, is not trying. You could say such a poem is honest, and so it is. A dog biting a cat is also honest, but it didn’t require much effort on the dog’s part.

As to how poetry is defined, it seems to me that in English, we mostly gave up traditional poetic structures in the twentieth century, by which I mean rhyme, repeated rhythms, or predefined structures, such as rhyming every other line. You can still find those techniques in English, but people who write poetry and believe they are sophisticated will sometimes look down their noses at these traditional structures.

From the little I know, I think that Walt Whitman did much to help set us on the path to throwing out the old ways of writing poetry. As we launched on into the twentieth century, more and more poets were writing in blank verse, without the traditional elements of rhyme and meter.

Let’s note something about how we relate to language. Repeated sounds tickle our ear. This might be repetition at the beginning of words (alliteration), in the middle of words (so-called internal rhyme), or at the end of words (traditional rhyming). Why this is so, I have no idea, but it’s obviously true. We use alliteration to name businesses  (Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme), we have a type of joke based on similarity of sound (puns), and if someone says something that rhymes, we pay special notice to it.

For thousands of years, poetry made use of this love of sound, combined with repeated rhythms, to create a sort of musical feeling in language, plus you had meaning. It was amazing. Then in the twentieth century, at least in English, we said, “Never mind, we don’t want to do that.”

So what is poetry? If the lines do not go all the way across the page, is that poetry? In the old days, we could define poetry as short lines, more specifically as lines that rhymed in certain ways, that had certain rhyme schemes, that used various patterns of stressed syllables, and so on. It might have been horrible poetry, but we knew it was poetry, and everyone could agree that it was poetry. It’s more difficult these days to define what poetry is. Most of the rules, at least for now, are gone. I can say what I think poetry is, and another person can disagree with me. Let it be so.

I say that language is extremely important in poetry, with a concern for using just the right word, with finding a phrase with the right sound and connotations. Some prose does this as well, but not all. All poetry, by contrast, is concerned with language. (I’m ignoring the fact that there is vast plenitude of shit poetry that does not do this.)

A second concern of poetry is using language to capture something that is difficult to express. The topic of a poem may be a great social subject, but most often poetry only reaches just beyond the fingertips of the poet. Going back as far as the ancient Greek poet Sappho (in contrast to Homer), poetry has tried to capture the ephemeral moments of an individual human being: I fell in love, I saw a spiderweb, I felt a cold wind on my face and thought of death, I saw the light on a lake and thought of God.

I’m thus proposing two things, and two isn’t that hard to remember. Poetry is very concerned with language (it is not merely a vehicle of communication), and poetry tries to use that language to say things that are difficult to say. I like the traditional structures myself, when done well, but I also note that these things can be done even without traditional poetic elements.

And thus I will wish you a tongue of silver that strives to be gold.

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Filed under Language, Not Real Poetry

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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