n de Fens o da Speke

Saturday, 13 March 2004
Topic: linguistics

typewriterA few years back there were some motions to further amend the United States constitution, this time it would be to concretely define a certain word in legal and binding terms. Where I stand on the actual issue is not important, but I was mostly misunderstood when I tried to explain that I opposed the action strictly on linguistic terms, I was trying to avoid the actual issue, be it pro or con,  but from the point of view of the language itself.

I don’t like the idea of passing laws to define words. If you know what I am speaking of specifically, otherwise we should let it go, as I didn’t intend a political discussion.

Up until now, there have never been any set in stone rules to the English language. All the spellings we recognize are merely the ‘preferred’ spellings. In the late eighteenth century, eccentricity in spelling was deemed a sign of intelligence and originality; General Washington was often noted for his wild syntax. Even up until the 1960s there were alternate but acceptable spellings of words such as cigarets & connexion, and then somewhere along the lines ‘thru’ became acceptable in place of ‘through’.

Now, with the advent of the computer and instant global communications, the language is changing more rapidly than it ever has before. And it needs to be unhindered by legal binding of any sort in order to continue to adapt.

Yes, I learned ‘rules’ of English in school- more honestly, they taught it for twelve years, much of the time I had other things going on. But think about this one simple question concerning these rules. How do you prove them?

By the exception. “This is the exception that proves the rule,” the teachers use to say, amazing to me in retrospect that they were able to utter such nonsense with a straight face.

So therefore, ipso facto, the first rule of English is you have to break the rules for the rules to even apply. Sounds good to me!

This is more than a language, in fact it’s not even a language anymore. English is the only language where it is easy to take any sentence at least two ways. One of the hardest languages to learn just by the ever shifting qualities of words for different situations.

While it may be difficult to say exactly what you mean and impossible to shield it against how the reader will interpret it, it is extremely easy to be misunderstood. By this I mean to the point where random words can be strung together and come out decipherable as something intelligible a good majority of the time.

It has grown beyond being a language in this sense, that it is no longer strictly a means of transferring information. It is more off a means of artistic expression, ideal for abstract expression slightly more concrete, tangible than a symphony orchestra. What it is to a real language is comparable to what Velveeta is to real cheese.

But, linguistically it is the most important thing to ever happen. It is a constant study in human communication with ever-changing means of measure.

Sometimes it is fierce intellectual combat. Despite the number of languages colliding head on with English it remains a highly sophisticated tongue; in spite of environmental influences to revert to a form of Pig-English; the sprouting of dialects, the constant need for new words to describe what we are doing with the new things they are inventing, it is very important for the language to remain both extremely adaptable and easily accessible. Which means for the most part, it must border on chaos and nonsense at all times.

This is why I love this language. And I really do; the majesty, absurdity, profundity and playfulness of the English language. This is why I write, or maybe because I write I have fallen in love with the word. See what I mean?

This is why I write from where I do, from the fringe of reality. My favorite thing to do is to think up three completely impossible scenarios, and figure out how to write about them together so that it makes sense and, hopefully, seems plausible.

I think this sort of coherent explanation of the purely illogical, absurdly unthinkable, even abstractly implausible and just plain wrong is an important demonstration of what the English language is. By its own reasoning, we cannot know the full truth from the language until we have exhausted every possible exception to the truth.

Therefore when I write stories about couches that talk, I am helping to solidify some unspoken truth about furniture, or possibly linguistics (I think this is more true, but in a purely larval stage of my literary growth- I was still throwing random syllables together to see how they would stick).

I think it is a very important place for someone to write from, this little light shining in through  a crack in the semantic door; this little tree branch that caught my shirt as I tumbled over the steep cliff of sanity. It is important to show that even things deemed ‘impossible’ are possible within these words. And once you realize that you can, indeed, do anything here, you hopefully will see that this aspect of the language is very reminiscent of life itself.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter

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