School is out in most places, so I will spend the summer posting about background subjects, with or without exercises to go with them.
I’ll write for a while about where language comes from, and more specifically, where English comes from.
On a recent trip to the Dordogne region of France, a group of us rented a house directly opposite the Roque St. Christophe, a hulking cliff with deep caves where humans lived 50,000 years ago (all years are approximations, of course).
Near the Roque St. Christophe are the Caves of Lascaux, where remarkably modern looking, abstract paintings of animals can be found on the walls, drawn with coloring and sophisticated perspective which take advantage of the natural contours and colors of the caves. The most recent estimates are that modern humans have been developing for as many as 250,000 years, and perhaps forms of art have existed for much of that time. The oldest examples of this kind of art date back 32,500 or so years.
The Earth’s Children series of books written by Jean M. Auel, beginning with The Clan of the Cave Bear, depict how people lived in these older-than-ancient times in the area now called Western Asia and Europe. Auel’s botanical, anthropological, and historical research has been commended by scholars. According to her, Neanderthals grunted and gestured, and communicated very well, but the main character in her books is not a Neanderthal, she is a homo sapiens, and has a voicebox which is able to produce far more sounds. The development of specialized speaking organs was necessary in order for language to develop.
The orally transmitted stories and myths of these ancient people are lost to us, and the meanings of their symbolic cave paintings are opaque. They may also have used sign language. Some of the earliest known cave paintings are the outlines of the human hand, and the hands could have been transmitting meaning through certain signs.
Dr. Holly Pittman of the U. of Pennsylvania opined in a New York Times article (Who Began Writing? Many Theories, Few Answers, April 6, 1999) how writing came about. Writing “arose out of the need to store information and transmit information outside of human memory and over time and over space.”
The Sumerians seem to have “invented” writing around 5,000 years ago. We don’t know exactly where everyone was or what was going on in the 27,000 years between the creation of the oldest cave pictures and the first discovered writing, but archaeologists suggest that there was increasing trade, and more settled communities as mankind mastered agriculture.
It wasn’t until the first discovery of examples of ancient written language that we were able to examine the syntax, vocabulary, morphology, and constant evolution of human language.
Some scholars argue that writing began first as a way of keeping track of financial and economic information. How many cows were traded? What is in the jar? I recall recently seeing that in some illiterate societies, political candidates choose a symbol which appears on the ballot. People vote for the parrot or the camel. We can learn much about how society functioned from this sort of graphical representation of facts, but it wasn’t until writing began communicating more sophisticated ideas that we could understand how their languages were formed.
One interesting (probably unresolvable) query is whether alphabets, and perhaps language, developed independently, or whether one proto-language branched out into different sforms. The Sumerian, Chinese and Mesoamerican alphabets are so different from one another that many scholars think that they developed independently.
On the dark side of literacy, Dr. Piotr Michalowsky of the U. of Michigan is quoted in the same NYT article as saying, “Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Stalinist Poland, but I say coercion and control were early writing’s first important purpose, a new way to control how people live.” Today, that is still something to think about. Storytelling, recording sales, and identifying candidates are cooperative activities, while writing can become edicts, instructions, and rules issued by an oppressive elite.
From these fragments of information, I found several key ideas.
First, the human brain was capable of artistic thinking long, long before we became literate. Our babies today show a similar evolution. Perhaps we should value these separate talents more equally.
Second, some of the most important human activities do not require writing. Religion, politics, art, and music do not require graphic representation or words (though they sometimes use it). It is worth thinking about what the true value of writing is.
Third, it seems that as the human population multiplied and became more settled, in Asia, the Americas, and Europe, trade became necessary, and trade required keeping and alphabets were developed. In other words, a common human activity, trade, became the mother of invention – we invented writing. Think what we, as the human race, are all engaged in these days which will require a similar invention, and what will that invention be? Will we be required to enhance our intelligence and our bodies in order to, for example, sail into space? Will humans be divided into those who can manipulate the present technologies and those who cannot, with those who cannot being dominated by their tech-competent overlords? Will we develop a new means of communication as we plumb the capabilities of the human brain?
My French textbook, French Reference Grammar (1993), has an index entry for the “conditional,” and in the section devoted to it, calls it “the mood of verbs tied to a condition.” My Greek grammar, Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language (1997) also has a section on the conditional mood. My English grammar, Discovering Grammar: An Introduction to English Sentence Structure (2000) does not have a listing for the conditional in the index, including the “conditional” forms in the section on “modals” instead. However it is phrased (and perhaps the re-phrasing adds to the confusion), this form is used to express complex thoughts, and my students do not know how to use it.
Modals express possibility, permission, volition, necessity, and other conditions which express far more than a simple action. There is the old chestnut “can/may I do something?” with “can” implying physical ability, and “may” implying that you have permission to do it. The modals bring into play our imaginations and predictions, and often embody opposites. “Should I leave the room?” suggests that there is a reason why you should not leave the room. Perhaps Mary may arrive while you are absent, or maybe there is a gunman standing in the hall, or maybe the room is on fire. In each case, you are questioning your decision to leave the room because there are reasons for and against.
“Will you come to the party with me?” requires the other person to guess what he or she will be doing at some point in the future. He or she is only expressing an intention. Even if the answer is “Yes,” it still might not happen – there might be a hurricane, or one of you might get sick, or the party might be cancelled. It is quite a different animal from the simple past tense, “You came to the party with me.” That happened, and no further analysis is required.
There are usually two parts in a conditional sentence, and in English the present tense is matched to the future (If he wants to, he will come), the past tense (although the action doesn’t occur in the past) is matched to the would form (If he wanted to, he would come), and the past perfect goes with the would have form (If he had wanted to, he would have come.) There are permutations, of course, but my students don’t know how to use even the easiest ones. They struggle to express complex situations, and usually do not succeed in creating graceful sentences. Here are some examples:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone could enjoy what the earth has to give him or her.
It seemed as though I’ll never write my best seller,
This is when I realized I have gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face is getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It will mentally and emotionally harm me and the guys.
These sentences should have been expressed this way:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone can enjoy…
It seemed as though I would never write…
This was when I realized I had gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face was getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It would …..
Without the conditional, these sentences depend heavily on the reader’s ingenuity to make sense.
Sports announcers have produced another variation on the conditional. Here is a recent gem from Ron Darling, commenting on a Mets game in May, 2012:
He throws a knuckle ball curve on the third strike, that guy was not there.
This convention has become so common in baseball that fans understand it. They have just seen the action on the field on their television screens, so they can scramble together Darling’s meaning. I also remember sentences like, “That ball goes one inch higher, it’s a home run.” It’s almost as if baseball grammar were different from the rest of the world’s, but from my students’ sentences, I conclude that the rules for the conditional are collapsing everywhere.
Darling’s sentence would have been a lot clearer if he had said, “If he had thrown a knuckle curve ball on the third strike, that guy would not be there.” That is a sentence of 18 words, versus the confusing sentence, which only has 15. Perhaps this is a case of the language trying to simplify, economize, be more efficient. Languages do that all the time. Some of the efforts work, and some don’t.
These changes in the conditional are not adding anything to the language – they are confusing us, breaking up timelines and removing the “possibility, permission, volition, necessity,” elements of the sentence. Since there is no replacement for these forms, omitting them causes only confusion.
There are several ways to approach this, but perhaps the most efficient first attack should be aimed at improving fluency with the basic forms. Choose sentences from student papers which use the conditional correctly, ask all the students to express the sentences in the two other tenses.
If he wants to, he will come
If he wanted to, he would come
If he had wanted to, he would have come.
As I head off for a few weeks in California (during which I will post from time to time, as I find interesting things to write about), I leave you with a smile on your face.
Let’s begin with an homage to Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame baseball player (and founder of a baseball museum on the campus of the university where I teach, Montclair State), who has contributed as many smiles to American faces as anyone alive. Here are some of his aphorisms:
This is like deja vu all over again.
Baseball is 90% mental — the other half is physical.
It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.
The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase.
You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.
I didn’t really say everything I said.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
You can observe a lot just by watching.
You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.
Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.
I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early.
I can barely stop quoting him – these tickle my funny bone, no matter how many times I hear them.
The New Yorker used to feature snippets of headlines and other reportage, my favorite of which was (I write from memory – it was a long time ago. See how funny stuff sticks in your brain): Correction: Page 46 should read ‘pull your rip cord,’ not ‘state your zip code.’ The editors have discontinued the practice. I still subscribe, but miss my favorite part of the magazine, such a welcome antidote to their sober, well-researched articles.
Richard Lederer has compiled some gems from his years as a teacher at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in the book Anguished English, An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language.
A passive verb is when the subject is the sufferer, as in ‘I am loved.’
The Gorgons had long snakes in their hair. They looked like women, only more horrible.
The difference between a king and a president is that the king is the son of his father, but a president isn’t.
His students write of the River Stynx and Mount Montezuma where Abraham was set to sacrifice Isaac. King David was known for fighting the Finkelsteins, and Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.
The malapropisms are legion:
She has unmedicated gall.
In many states, murderers are put to death by electrolysis.
The marriage was consummated at the altar.
Mr. Lederer goes on for 117 pages – much too long to read in one sitting:
Man arrested for possession of heroine.
Panel agree to much sex on television.
Reagan goes for juggler in Midwest.
– but enough already.
Another classic of humor is The Devil’s Dictionaries, by Ambrose Bierce and Chaz Bufe. It begins with:
Abnormal, adj. Not conforming to standard. In matters of thought and conduct, to be independent is to be abnormal, to be abnormal is to be detested…
sails through Mafia, n. An uncommonly straight shooting group of businessmen.
Ending with Yes, Dear, excl. For women, an indication that the speaker is not listening to them. Synonyms: “Yes, honey,” “Of course, honey,” “Anything you say, dear,” and a self-deprecating definition of Zeus, under “Z.”
So don’t take your language for granite, as Mr. Lederer’s students might say. It could be one of your favorite toys.