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.


Putting Aside Woolf: Libertarian Suffering

In talking with my brother yesterday, I was trying to explain to him, a translator of German literature—some obscure 19th century romantic, in particular—why it is that I feel I can put a book aside without finishing it. I was perhaps preparing him for the possibility of not finishing his recent translation of Wilhem Rabbe’s “At the Sign of the Wild Man,” just in case. Putting aside a book seems one of those things that people either do, more or less frequently, or don’t do, shuddering with irreligiosity at the thought. And it is with some irony that I feel I may put a book aside or a short story or any other piece of writing, as I have put aside the very writer who gave me this permission on two occasions.

I put aside Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, both by V. Woolf. I’m not saying I would never try Woolf again, but there are so many other things I would read in the stream of consciousness school of about the period. I have of enjoyed rather very more such alternatives—J. Joyce in fact. I have enjoyed The Dubliners, piecemeal and as a collection, and I am enjoying again Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man—my first reading 33 years ago I recall as enjoyable but I couldn’t say why or have recalled much about the book except that it took that very strong personal voice of narration. I bought my first copy of The Dubliners in Dublin in 1990, though I had read a couple of the stories long before, as have most English majors. And I enjoyed the study of the stories of the collection as a set in the lectures of Mark Sutton at Cambridge in 2011. Oddly and also perhaps ironically, while attending downstream at the colleges, I have twice had tea at the Orchard, the tea shop with tables, chairs and even stinging insects among the trees of an old apple orchard near Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, once a haunt of Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, and others—and have come away from there enjoying much of Brooke’s works, though that liking became muted by a certain redundancy, but I have not felt the least inclined pick up Woolf again.

So why is it that I can so much enjoy one and dislike to the point of turning away the other of two of the greatest stream of consciousness writers of the English language? I wonder if it is the gender of the narrator. Yet if it were only the narrator’s gender and presumable my ability or inability to identify with it, then why would it be that I loathe, and do not finish, reading Henry James—I nearly gagged on the first half of The Portrait of a Lady before quitting it—and quite enjoy Edith Wharton? No, it is more than just gender. I wondered if it has to do with class. Yet my two all-time favorite writers are Thomas Hardy—well the classes are certainly in his novels, but in all their colors—and Jane Austin for whom class is not a factor, as anything in a lower class would, like a toilet, be well used but never mentioned, and anything in a higher class would have been—well—quite Olympian. No, the issue for my choosing not to finish a Woolf book is not one of social justice of gender or class.

I would, I believe, have to read a great deal of something that I don’t like to determine why I don’t like it. I might also have to read other writers I consistently disliked to see a common thorn. Suffering for the sake of analyzing that which makes me suffer? I think not. So I have taken Woolf’s advice, gotten I know not where, of putting aside a book I am truly not liking and moving on to something else. Yet here I am writing about this choice as if to justify it. Yes, there is a monitor in my reader’s heart that tells me to read on, finish what I’ve started. And I have. Reading The Last Temptation of Christ, for a class I imagine, was a nightmare. It was, all the same, the first book about which I could say, “I hated reading it, but I love having read it.” So, I will read on. Who knows but that I may discover a greatness in the last page, the last word. The very best things in life are those unlooked for, but not overlooked, after all. I’m just not looking for them in Woolf.