How progressed we are!

Do you remember when writers knew what their words meant and could use them in a way that produced clarity, even precision? Of course you don’t. Probably because such a time never really existed. Perhaps I should say—Because such a time probably never existed. If you do not see the difference in the two causal clauses, you may struggle a bit with what follows.

We have achieved an unintended consequential situation through almost universal education—a situation exacerbated by the science-technology-engineering-math emphasis in that education. I won’t belabor what I believe is the broadly detrimental effect of that emphasis, but I hope you will be able to discern its complicity in the changes we see in writing today. The situation is that more and more often I see uses of the English language that would have earned an editorial circling in any middle school English classroom as recently as 50 years ago. And yes, in a language that only had two changes of amount in the last 400 years, those being the loss of the second person singular pronoun and the loss of the final “t” on the end of singular third person verbs, the last 50 years represent a recency.

I hasten to add here that 400 years ago, the written English word sprung from an attempt to capture the English spoken word of the day. Greek and Latin came to Tudor England as print, and so were as formal and consistent as the few Greeks and Romans, who were educated enough and had the time to write, had written them. Ben Jonson wrote English words that sounded like the 16th century courtiers among whom he lived and for whom he wrote. William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd wrote a broader language for an audience of all levels of wealth and education in London among whom they lived and for whom they wrote. They spelled and arranged the spoken language as they heard it every day.

And that brings me back to my point: we are now a 21st century loosely applying 16th century spelling and grammar strategies. Unfortunately as writers, many of us lack the command of all the variants of English as spoken by perhaps a billion people around the world. So modern writers cannot match Shakespeare who had only to negotiate English for the several hundred-thousands of Londoners.

On average, current writers probably have less than half of Shakespeare’s writing vocabulary, and of that, many writers are weak in the nuances among our rich vocabulary amalgamated from so many language sources. Writers tend to avoid many of the most precise words, because they haven’t heard them in contexts enough to feel comfortable using them. Worse however, some writers boldly misuse these words, usually to their detriment. Sometimes the misuses result in misunderstandings, more often they result in readers’ dismissal of an entire text as ill-informed or ill-conceived.

Evidence of our current lexical limitations is the trend toward “verbing”. Shakespeare observed that things in the world existed without names. Many of these as yet unnamed things were brought to light by the sciences and explorations of the times. Many of today’s writers have had to respond similarly. Such responses have been appropriate to the evolution of the language. As it happens however, “verbing” new words has become a trend, and trends can create blind inertia. Such inertia has taken us down to courses.

One course trends can take us is to general meaningless, the other to redundancy. Both courses lead to a diminishment of complete lack of clarity. In the first case, a word is applied to a new thing, but failing any prior knowledge of the use of the word, its inertia pushes it to further applications to other more or less related things. Eventually the word’s clarity of meaning begins to wander away from its original meaning into a cloud of impression. An historical expression of this type is the word “wonderful.” In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus was, as witnessed, wonderful. That is, it was full of wonder, that which is exceptional for which we can have no explanation. We wonder how that could be. So how did it transmogrify into the expression, “I had a wonderful time?” Certainly this does not mean the speaker had a time so exceptional that he or she wonders how it could have happened. Yet It creates the impression that “wonderful,” in this case, is more courteous than the plain word “good.”

“Verbing” exemplifies our penchant for the appearance of creativity with the result of demonstrating a pointless effort. “Verbing” is simply using words, usually nouns, as verbs. There is a long history of it. “Housing” people or things almost certainly took the idea of providing a house or shelter for someone or something into a verb, “to house.” (how-s to how-z) So well established are some of these words that they can take on all the functions of verbs, actions, participles and gerunds, which may then act as verbs, adjectives and nouns respectively. Hence, the gerund “housing” can be a house or shelter provided for someone or something other than the provider, e.g. public housing. “Verbing” is easy; decline a noun. In most cases, “verbed” nouns replace currently used and understood words or phrases, while suggesting that there is some difference from that word or phrase. Is “gifting” then different from “giving” or is it just a stop on a pointless trend? Ironically, the word “give” appears to have evolved from the word “gift” through the dropping of the final “t.” English has a particularly rich vocabulary. It contains roughly 100,000 words depending on how you count various forms of a word. Why would we ever need to invent new verbs from old nouns when there are tens of thousands of old verbs we simply never knew about or used? “Verbing” does not show creativity; it show a poverty of vocabulary.

We misuse and invent words precisely because we have not been taught the use of nearly the numbers of words necessary to cope with the broad, deep and complex topics with which we must deal. We don’t hear enough words in the crib, at the dinner table, on the bus, in the school or office or laboratory. A hundred years ago, few people wrote anything that received a wide reading. Serious writing was academic or legal, and it was read by academics and lawyers. Journalism was “yellow,” sensational and often misleading. Literature was a luxury of a growing, but much smaller, educated middle class. But now writing is free and easy via the Internet, reading is done by the vast majority of the population, many of whom lack the knowledge or the cognitive skill necessary to distinguish the appearance of the language from its deeper conceptual content. The greatest amount of what appears in print, ink or electronic, is vapid, ill-informed and sloppy, roughly emulating the casual register of speech, applying 16th century coarsely phonetic spelling—for which spell-check is both cure and disease—and devoid of any sense of rhetoric that would make a complex idea comprehendible. It is because nearly everyone can write for the masses and neither the mass of writers nor the mass of readers have been adequately taught their language that our expectations have been so reduced that we can accept the use of ”then” for “than” in a respectable national press article. Perhaps knowing that most readers don’t know the difference, the writers and publishers don’t care about being precise.

The quality of writing has not changed over time, but the numbers of writers and the number of readers to whom they are exposed has mushroomed in the past 100 years or so. Education has changed however. The trend in education and in American society in general has been to broaden into the workers language and away from the language of scholarship. An education in which language, rhetoric, structure, semantics and syntax figured has always produced writing that is clear and precise. A lack of attention to the components of clear discourse or a simple lack of education has left thoughtful writing and reading out of the lives of many. We are left to wonder what would have precipitated from an alternative trend that would have broadened the language of the workers into the language of scholarship, if that were even possible. And assuming that such a trend was not a selected natural mutation, what agenda has promoted and supported the dumbing down of our language?

How handy is curbing the language in which citizens think for shaping the structure of a society. In the Middle Ages of Europe, landed gentry and the Church held wealth and power; aristocrats held the land and the Church held the word. Is it in anyone’s interest in the Post-modern Age not to have most, if not everyone, competently educated in the finer points of our language and its uses? And if it is not in their interest, how might they manage educational affairs to limit who has the access to such a powerful tools?

Perhaps we are progressed just as much as we are meant to be.

 

Advertisements

I paraphrase Camus’s The Rebel

When they have finally gone too far, you draw the line and say “No more.” And “No” to all you have put up with so far. Then you have defined who you are and left behind who you had been told to be. Now you speak for all, in chains and free of chains. This is freedom.
Someone may say, “I have a right to be above you. I am better because I am who I am.” Such a person may believe that, but there is no support for such a belief. We are all who we are; therefore no one can be above another any claim of birthright. Only when we submit to that false belief, and are who it says we are, and thus accept the inequity do we support the inequitable superiority of anyone else. We are complicit in mastery and slavery as we are in government and citizenry.
Leadership and citizenry are not rightful. They are an agreed partnership, and they systematically advantage both the leader and the citizen. Any actions or situations that precipitate from that partnership advance the greatest good for the greatest number and disadvantage the fewest the least. This a common social contract with specified rights and limits, expressed in both letter and spirit.
Mastery and slavery are not rightful. They are a contrived falsity, and they systematically advantage the master and disadvantage the slave. Any actions or situations that precipitate from that contrivance violate our most fundamental human value. This is the basic and universal human right. When any leadership attempts to force itself on its citizens, it violates the spirit of agreement in its social contract. It goes too far and negates the freedom to choose to follow. The actions of even a single rebel then both affirms and negates un-rightful mastery. No counter action is required, only non-complicity in the broken social contract.
This is only my reading of Albert Camus’s essay, The Rebel, which I find quite informing to discussions of right and wrong in modern society, and guiding in my actions.

Ethical Authority

2,500 years ago, Aristotle had it right. There are several ways to make a point and move opinion. At one end of the list is reason. At the other end is passion. And this has been how it has been all this time.

Reason tries to get at the truth, because truth like justice should be the best of all conclusions. To get there, the reasoner puts together all the available facts, the evidence. He then presents these facts that anyone can see for themselves in an order that shows how one fact leads to the next and finally gets us to the truth of the point. However, this process takes time, even a lot of time. We have to sort through all these details to get to a point which, if it’s true, ought to seem right on its own. This is where passion comes in.

Passion tries to get at our feelings, because as good and fair people, our feelings should tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. To get there, the empassioner tries to determine what our strongest feelings are. He then lines up his point with those feelings. That point then looks like what is right because it feels right. However, this process does not show anything about how good the point is; it simply ties the point to our feelings about things. That conclusion we blindly take on faith, and faith is good for what is beyond human knowledge. Most of what we make decisions on however is not beyond our knowledge. So, there needs to be another way.

We need something between the pointy-heads’ information-overload and the snake oil salesmen’s slick talk. There is something. In the middle of the making-a-point list is the voice of authority. When we go to a friend we trust, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a butcher or grocer who sells good products, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a licensed doctor or pharmacist, we are going to a voice of authority. In each case, we go to these people in good faith, knowing about their history or their credentials, and we accept what they say as right. However, authority is power, and it can be misused to deceive or mislead us. There needs to be some way to tell if a voice of authority is really trustworthy.

There are two keys to deciding if a source of advice, a provider of services or a seller of products is deserving: having a good track record and showing little or no benefit to himself.

If the authority has a proven track record, he is more trust worthy. If we’ve done business with him before and the outcome has been good, that’s a good track record. If he has the regular legal certificate or license, and puts it out where we can see it, that’s a good track record. If he’s been around a long time and not received bad reports in the past, that’s a good track record.

If the authority shows little or no benefit to himself in our decision, he is more trust worthy. If the authority offers to share the sources of his information, that shows little or no benefit to himself. If the authority offers ideas on both sides of a question, that shows little or no benefit to himself. On the other hand, if the voice of authority asks us to join him, that shows some benefit to himself. If the authority tell us what we should do, that shows more benefit to himself.

If the supposed authority talks a lot about why we should believe him, we should doubt him. If the supposed authority talks a lot about us rather than someone or something that is neither us nor himself, he may be trying to play on our feelings. If the supposed authority buries us in an avalanche of details, he may be trying to hide something under all that manure.

The voice of authority should sound calm and clear. If it is not, it may be pulling the wool over our eyes or firing us up to do what he wants. An ethical authority tries to help us figure out for ourselves what’s best, because an ethical authority trusts that we can.

 

To Be a Goldfinch

The goldfinches gather at the feeders by our kitchen window.

They cling to the metal netting surrounding the nyjer seed,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

They must eat nearly their weight in the diminishing seed

To provide the heat to endure the cold

In the eight windy, sub-zero hours of daylight.

 

They cling and peck and eat and peck and eat and peck and eat.

And they will start all over again at dawn tomorrow

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

And they will do so the day after, and the day after,

Until the weather warms and they begin to molt.

And soon come the eggs and the young.

 

Then they can flit and sing into summer’s warmth,

When their melodic songs trill out

And their yellow plumes light up the days.

They cling and peck and eat only sparingly now,

Awaiting the harvest of autumn when they will begin to prepare

To survive another winter of deep cold and bitter winds.

 

They will come around again to where they were before and before and before.

Gathering at the feeders by our kitchen window,

Clinging to the metal netting surrounding the nyjer seed,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

 

And when they fail to find enough,

And they drop to the ground,

To be eaten by cats and rot and time,

They next generation will carry on,

Clinging and pecking and eating,

Day after day, year after year, generation after generation,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

 

January 2017