Grammar

 

Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.

~

After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.

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Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.

 

 

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Language acquisition & its opposite

When my children were learning to talk, I developed a fascination with language  acquisition. The process of learning to communicate with other human beings in the lingua franca of the culture (speaking US English to adults) was taking place in front of me. I felt awed by the intelligence required to decipher language and delighted by the myriad ways the process and behavior unfolded. For about a year, I seriously considered enrolling in university to pursue a Master’s degree in some sort of language/linguistics-related discipline.

But I had two toddlers and lacked the energy, time, and money to devote to diligent scholarship of that sort. Instead, I took my usual autodidactic approach: reading and observing. One thing of vivid interest to me at the time was how differently my children each approached “learning to talk.” In retrospect, I recognize that their differences in personality and their differing cognitive strengths made significant impacts upon language acquisition, implementation, expression, and use.

ponchos~

 

At present, my interests in language revolve about the other end of the lifespan of human communication–the loss of language abilities as people age. The elderly Beloveds in my life are displaying markedly differing changes in how they experience, and express, cognitive gaps. Often the expression of such gaps appears in the way they speak.

This would be the opposite of language acquisition. Memory losses, or slower memory retrieval functions, are common to most adults over age 70; but those issues do not necessarily affect sentence structure, vocabulary, pronunciation, descriptive abilities, and emotive communication through language. Strokes, neurovascular constriction, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other physiological alterations, can exert marked effects on verbal and written communication, however. Hearing loss and diminished vision exacerbate these problems.

All too often, the human being seems “lost” beneath the symptoms or becomes isolated as a result of the immense challenges to human relationships we have taken for granted for decades of being relatively “non-impaired.”

The loss of language skills intrigues me as much as the acquisition; my readings in neuropsychology and neurobiology have taught me that there is so much yet to learn about the brain and how it processes–well, almost everything (but my special interest is communication).

And my experience with people who are aging, or in some cases–my hospice volunteer work–dying, demonstrates on a personal or anecdotal level how uniquely individual each one of us is. How we communicate, how we express ourselves, our neurological processes, our physiology, temperament, environment, genetic makeup…so gloriously complex, random, fascinating.

Maga

The late Edna Smith Michael in 1990. Her language skills stayed quite intact until her last hospitalization.

~

Some recent reading–

Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology (Paul Broks); Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body (Jo Marchant); The Language Instinct (Steven Pinker)

A post I put up awhile back contains my poem “Age as a Foreign Language.” Apropos here, I think.

~

And no, I am not tempted to enroll in further formal study on this topic. But reading suggestions will be gratefully accepted!

 

Back to metaphor

I recently read James Geary’s entertaining book I Is an Other–The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. Geary takes his title from one of Rimbaud‘s letters, calling this phrase metaphor’s “principal equation”:

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things–jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike–and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.

I like this definition because it feels more complete than the typical definition of metaphor as a comparison without the use of the adverbial comparative (i.e., no “like” or “as”). Indeed, metaphor probably forms the basis of language itself; while that conclusion’s much debated in semiotics, linguistics, and other scholarly disciplines, common sense and common usage strongly suggest that even thought itself–in terms of how we think internally about the world–employs metaphor as an underpinning.

Maybe I believe so because I’m a poet. Geary, as it turns out, has written some poetry, though he’s best known for his books about words, word origins, wordplay, aphorisms, witticisms, and the like. (He’s also got a TED talk…everybody’s got a TED talk…)

As to poetry, and how metaphor behaves in the poem’s context, I like what Geary says here (although in this excerpt it’s not actually poetry he’s discussing, but rhetoric):

Readers actively retrieve a metaphor’s meaning, just as a punch line requires listeners to resolve a joke’s incongruities for themselves…though the speaker may make the metaphor, the hearer makes its meaning. Hearer and speaker are accomplices; the one unpacks what the other presents. In terms of creativity, producing a metaphor and penetrating one are almost the same act.

I think the above lines go far to explaining why I love to read poetry and also provide implications as to why poems can be so damned difficult to compose. The poet endeavors to create a context and container for an often-unknown audience who will nonetheless need to invest, one hopes willingly, in the process of reorganizing the surprising (metaphor) into the recognizable.

And what a fine task that is!

2011A-rainbow

Poetry & paradox

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“Language is a profoundly mysterious technology, so constitutive of the human mind that we can only get glimpses, from inside the fishbowl of consciousness, of how it works.”
sea inside Charnine

 The Sea Inside. Charnine.com features information on surrealist artist Charnine and Surrealism – copyright © 1994 – 2011 Samy Charnine – All rights reserved

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How do we get from language to poetry? However we do that, consciously or not, it must be as fluid and natural as it is damned difficult! I sometimes wonder whether paradox may be the basis of art. At least, if there exists a “something” that inspires me to compose a poem, paradox–and the way it requires effort to explore contradictions and ambiguities–could stand in as my motivating flame.
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Paradox, randomness, juxtapositions and contradictions evoke imagery, dream, the realms beyond the rational consciousness we humans claim to possess. Poet and fellow poetry blogger Susan Rich recently posted about the surrealist painter Remedios Varo, an artist whose name and art I had never before encountered; and I felt an urgent pull to introduce her work to my friend David Dunn–he loved surrealism and appreciated it more than I ever have, and such paintings (particularly early de Chirico) exerted a large influence on his poems.

David, however, died in 1999. I share my memory of him here, by writing it on a blog, the same as I share the names of Varo and de Chirico and of the many poets and philosophers I have mentioned during my years of posting to this forum. It’s a form of immortality, if only a temporary immortality (another paradox…)
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Here is Menand again, who wrote poetry in his youth but moved into journalism and critical reviews in prose later on: “… I got the same painful pleasure out of writing prose that I did out of writing poetry—the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order.” Painful pleasure. That mysterious technology, language, rises to the occasion of inherent contradiction.

 

“And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”
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Do you know what you have to say before you write a poem? Or does what you have to say appear in the process of writing? Or after the poem seems complete? Or once someone else has read it and decided what it is you had to say?

Jargon & rhetoric

This is a kind of continuation of my last post, in which I alluded to euphemism and jargon and the weightiness of words. Herein, I take the unpopular stance and argue that the Centers for Disease Control‘s suggestion that proposals avoid certain words is not entirely about censorship but about rhetoric and persuasion and in this case–given the makeup of the current Congress–was actually appropriate. This is a situation in which jargon–wording–makes all the difference in the persuasiveness of an argument.

The CDC needs to send its annual proposals for research, for agency budgeting, and more to Congress; and each set of documents requires Congressional Justification. If the Congress does not agree to certain proposals, those which have justification withheld will not be funded. (It is possible that many citizens, myself included, are not fully informed as to how these government-funded agencies operate.) Therefore, the possibly-skeptical audience must be convinced of the value of these proposals.

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letter I

 

f this were an essay for my students, I would prompt them to think about the audience for their arguments. A writer can employ jargon effectively to help persuade a skeptical audience. Use the terms of the discipline, I tell them. That usage may seem superficial, but it actually works to prove to the audience that you know what they are seeking; you are a member of that community, you know the lingo, you’re on that side and your research will advance that cause.

It may be that your research is something well beyond the audience’s understanding, but you know how to sound like one of them; so, chances are, they’ll get on board with whatever you are conducting.

Even if they have no idea, really, what it is you’re proposing. Even if what you are proposing in fact runs counter to the audience’s ideology, effective proposal writing can hide the fact.

The CDC, from what I have been reading, has not banned those seven words nor the research or public policies concerning them; instead, the agency is cautioning its researchers and policy proposal writers to avoid language that would ring the wrong bells in the ears of this particular Congress’s majority ideology. I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, as a person who guides others in writing arguments based upon research, I encourage it.

Gotta know your audience, or your proposal will fail no matter how excellent its logic, science, and methodology may be. I hope the resourceful writers at the CDC will find ways to convince our Congress to keep the agency and its research funded. A future Congress may be less sensitive to evidence-based information. In the meantime, use the jargon in proposals–whatever works! But use the best words, and the most clear and accurate words, in other forms of discourse.

#7words

7wds

 

 

 

Writing self

Among the students I have tutored over the years was a young woman recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Writing was difficult for her on several levels. Reading on the screen or page tired her eyes and made it hard to focus; while using voice-activated software helped for that part of the writing issue, it did not resolve her larger cognitive loss: she found she could no longer tell a story. The ability to tie together research, concepts, and chronological moments to compose a logical narrative evaded her.

As we worked together, I learned how writing can restore the self. She began to reflect, through writing, on her process and her memories and to tether things together on the page so that they “made sense” to me–her sounding board. When something made sense to me, she would re-read it and decide if it reflected what it was she had been trying to say. Gradually, she felt more restored to herself, a slightly altered-by-trauma self, but a cohesive self who could tell a story again.

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When I tutor students who are multilingual, particularly if they are fairly new immigrants here, I find that writing plays a similar role in reflecting or re-creating a self. These students learn to work and write using American English as their mode of persuasive communication, and in the process they develop as people who live in the United States and who consciously employ those terms, phrases, writing techniques, and concepts. They are much more conscious than “native” speakers about the fact that they are using Americanisms and writing in an American style; what they end up with is a self that they can deploy when necessary in American society.

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Brain diseases, strokes, and dementia dismantle the story-telling ability. Whether we use the metaphor of braiding, warp & weft, or nuts & bolts, we mean that story has structure–and in dementia, structure comes undone. With that structural demise all too often comes the unraveling of the self. Each gap weakens the links that give us our own story-made self and leaves the human bereft of that consciousness we rely upon for being. The person whose brain has stopped constructing self stories is no less human, physically; but the self–that sentient, much-valued ego–disappears.

When I am with a hospice patient whose mind has stopped composing narratives, I see that the narrative of pain and envy and sorrow seems to depart. Is there a story that contains only peace? Could that even be a human story?

I don’t know what to make of all of this.

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Sometimes, I wish I had the peace and confidence of a house cat.

Face to face

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The physical, corporal power of poetry; the need for language and expression to originate in the body–these are concepts that resonate with me as a poet and that make poetry such a difficult art. For how can one be in the body through words? Words remove the physical language of the body which is so important a component of communication. That is why tweets and social media posts and email often work to the detriment of genuine understanding.

What follows are three rather diverse chunks of thinking concerning the corporal and the intellectual.

Ren Powell writes in her blog:

And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.

It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of language”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowel, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.

And counter-wise (which should be a word),  we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body.

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Reading Ren Powell’s words, I thought immediately of two poems of Gregory Orr‘s, from his book Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved. Here they are:

How small the eyes of hate.
I’m not making this up
Or being metaphorical.
A man held a gun against
My head and I saw how
Small his eyes were
With what they refused
To take in of the world.
This happened beside
A small highway
In Alabama in 1965.
What history called
The Civil Rights
Movement; what I call
The tiny eyes of hate.

~

How large the eyes of love.
How the pupils dilate
With desire (I’m not
Making this up: science
Has proved it’s true).

Those eyes wide
And glistening: gates
Thrown open. What’s
Inside, free to flow
Out as feeling,
And the whole world
And the Beloved
Welcome to enter.

~~

I just saw the movie “The Arrival,” a science-fiction film based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life.” Any movie whose main character has a PhD in Linguistics sounds intriguing to me. The narrative uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a kind of plot point: the theory that language molds culture. An underlying possibility in the movie is that perhaps it is language that gives us consciousness, transforms us into sentience, and–possibly–has the capacity to unite and heal us.

But it needs to be face-to-face, as in the movie, wherein Amy Adams encounters aliens in person, insisting that in order to interpret any new language she must experience the process of “speaking” personally, to judge body language, movements–not just sounds or written “text.” How we communicate teaches us who we are. In order to understand one another truly, we need authentic encounters, not slogans.

We need to bid each stranger as Beloved, “Welcome to enter.”

 

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