David Brooks writes a column in the New York Times today about a Google database of books published since 1500 which can be used to tot up word usage. He notes that words such as virtue, decency, conscience, honesty, patience, compassion, bravery, fortitude, faith, wisdom, and evil have been used with declining frequency since 1930. He further notes that words such as preferences, self, unique, and many political words, such as economic justice, priorities, right-wing, and left wing have become more frequent. He facilely concludes from these lists that “…as [society] has become more individualistic it has also become less morally aware.”
This data set is not, in itself, informative. It is all in the interpretation, and I would reach different conclusions.
Who defines such words as virtue, faith, decency, and evil? After family, the first place that comes to mind is church; the second is political speeches. Recent studies have suggested that Americans have lost a measure of faith in both the church and the government, and we have refashioned the family. We are no longer sheep who flock to war when our government hails patriotism. A considerable segment of the American populace no longer reviles homosexuals or Jews because our churches tell us to. Many of us have noticed that formerly revered institutions like the church and the government are as likely to mislead as to lead, as likely to promote chaos as order. Somehow, we have claimed the confidence to think for ourselves, to construct our own conscience and behavioral guidelines, and in so doing, we have dropped definitions tailor-made by others. Many of us like and defend our gay cousins and our Jewish sisters-in-law, our Muslim neighbors, and our disabled classmates. We dare to set up companies functioning in new paradigms, marry whomever we please, and think new thoughts. In 1930, when Brooks’s favored set of words reigned, our behavior and even our thinking patterns were dictated by others.
Mr. Brooks is right about one thing — “gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture.” Mr. Brooks reviles the shifts that he detects, and I embrace the shifts that I detect. In academia, a battle of statistics, studies, and papers would ensue, but, according to my paradigm, it’s up to each of us to decide for him or herself what it all means.
You are, of course, invited to disagree…..
My friend Pamela Satran has a delightful blog called Nameberry which is a treasure trove about peoples’ first names, in American culture. As illustrated below, it would be of limited use elsewhere.
When my children were born, their father didn’t want any of the usual names and, since he was Australian, went searching in an aboriginal dictionary for inspiration. My son’s name is a variation on an aboriginal word for “fire” and my daughter’s name means “traveler.” You can make up a child’s name in America (the kids were born in America – it would be interesting to know what they thought in Australia) without being considered strange.
People in Iceland don’t have the same free-wheeling attitude. Here’s the Icelandic point of view, as expressed in a recent news release:
A 15-year-old Icelandic girl has won the right to use the name given her by her mother, after a court battle against the authorities.
Blaer Bjarkardottir will now be able to use her first name, which means “light breeze”, officially.
Icelandic authorities had objected, saying it was not a proper feminine name.
The country has very strict laws on names which must fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules”.
My former Chinese students tried to instruct me regarding Chinese first names, which come last. The first name, linearly, is the family name. Wang Zixiang’s “first name” is Zixiang. His family name is Wang. His sister (if Chinese children had sisters) might be named Wang Xiaobin.
This was just the beginning of their attempts to explain their names to me. Each family names their child for a hope they have for it; like “learned scholar” or “much gold.” Chinese words are made up of many layers, and name words are no exception. Without further study of Chinese, I cannot claim to understand the interaction of the layers.
The North Koreans obviously have some variation on the same protocols, because the recent grandfather-son-grandson trio of rulers have been named Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jung-un, with the family name coming first.
I ran across men named Lovemore and Givemore in Zimbabwe, and the name of the president of one African country is Goodluck. Givemore hinted that his name came from “Christianity.” These are names in English, but there are no English prime ministers or American presidents named “Givemore.”
Once again, we see how language is arbitrary, reflecting customs and beliefs of various cultures. The Icelanders feel strongly enough about their cultural choices to have a court case over a girl’s name.
Most of the argument is about the singular “they,” but the singular “you” also has an interesting genesis, and this article in The Economist tells the story, or at least part of the story.
The article concludes that social change has brought about this language change, though it does not draw any conclusions about why social change, meaning egalitarianism, did not also destroy the familiar “tu” in French, Spanish, and Italian, and the familiar “du” in German. What was it about English social change that was tied so tightly to language? That’s just something to think about.
We should watch our gun language. The New York Times has an article today, “In Gun Debate, Even Language Is Loaded,” documenting the pervasive gun references in our language. I speak six languages, and in thinking about each, I believe the article is correct — we have far more expressions, verbs, and nouns which come from gun culture than other languages do. It would be interesting to compare American English to British English and other World Englishes in this regard, too.
The parents from Newtown made the statement yesterday that they were in the gun debate for the long haul. Legislation can help, but the bigger changes have to come from the bottom up. There has to be a cultural change before this violence begins to subside. Just as we changed our language regarding race and gender, we might begin to change the national obsession with guns by changing our language. The first step to doing that is to increase our awareness of how often we use military and gun terms in our everyday speech.
My friend Lillian is a Chinese-American chef who has been living in China for the past few years. She has seen more of the country than most native Chinese as she has traveled from restaurant to restaurant, market to market, farm to farm, tea plantation to tea plantation. She is planning to write a book about China’s various farms (which I can’t wait to read.)
Last week she came to lunch on one of her whirlwind visits to New York, and she brought along a 15-year-old Chinese young woman, Yen, who is on her way to Pittsburgh to begin high school. She will live with 15 other young Chinese women, at least during her first year. We batted around this decision — was it best to live with other Chinese students, or should she jump head first into English? Her English was pretty good, but she had only been here for three days and was struggling to understand English spoken at our natural pace.
She picked at her lunch. There was no rice (I have since learned that I should ALWAYS serve rice to Chinese guests), but she soldiered her way through a popover, a roast beef sandwich which Lillian had picked up at a delicatessen, and a salad. I know enough about Chinese visitors to know that American food tastes bland almost to the point of being inedible sometimes, so I offered her some of the fruit salad, which she hadn’t touched yet. It consisted of small pieces of cantaloupe, raspberries, and blueberries.
I offered her a small piece of canteloupe which she regarded in the same way that I would look at the Chinese delicacy, fish eyes. But she ate it. ”It’s sweet,” she said, surprised. Then she tried the raspberry. “It’s — how do I say this — it’s, um, sour,” she said.
If a Chinese person doesn’t know what canteloupe is, you can assume similar distance between our ways and every other aspect of Chinese culture, including our language. You’ll have to go easy on your assumption that your Chinese guest will know how to greet a host and how to thank a host, how to shake hands, how to cross a street (the Chinese are astounded that cars stop for pedestrians, but might misjudge driver behavior and get in some trouble). Most young Chinese have never cleaned their room, washed their clothes, or cooked a meal for themselves. Their parents take care of all that so the children can study hard. My daughter teaches pre-school, and a two-and-a-half-year-old Chinese boy came to the school for the first time the other day who didn’t know how to use a fork or a spoon. His grandmother had always fed him.
Yen has had her first piece of canteloupe and her first raspberry. So far so good. She’ll have countless other sweet and sour experiences here in America. I wish her well. Now I would like to hear about the experiences of at least 15 young Americans who are studying in China.
At the end of the 19th century, a Xam/San man (we call them “Bushmen”) in South Africa looked at a figure in a prehistoric rock painting and said “That’s a shaman!” (This account taken from The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, published by Thames & Hudson in 2002.) Nobody knows for certain what happened 70,000 years ago in the mountains where the modern Bushmen still live, but scholars had been studying the prehistoric rock paintings they found there, and puzzling over what they meant. The Xam/San have been continuously living in this area since before history began, and until the 20th century took full hold, their lives had not changed much. They have always lived off of the meager takings in the Kalahari Desert. The Xam/San man’s reaction to the painting is a clue to what happened 70,000 years ago, when the painting was created.
The period in which the rock paintings were made is identified as the beginning of human abstraction. A symbolic figure like the shaman represented something that one could not touch, an abstract, godlike figure. There is also evidence from around the same period that ritual burials were conducted, and this suggests also that syntax had developed sufficiently to create verbal rituals which were shared by a large group and used to bury their dead, along with various artifacts. Archaeologists have uncovered many of the artifacts, but the language, of course, is lost, except for its traces among the Xam/San.
There are cave paintings showing women sitting in a circle clapping and singing, with a larger circle of men dancing behind them. What were they saying? There would have been text as well as rhythm. (The modern Xam/San man also recognized the dual circle type of ritual because they still performed it at the end of the 19th century.)
Humans 70,000 (or so) years ago were also experimenting with the mind, performing ritual dances like the dance above, which altered their state of consciousness resulting in trances. This suggests a level of self-awareness not experienced by any other animal, and also a control of language which could trigger, enhance, and then explain these experiences. Trances which alter consciousness are still part of religious experience today. Sometimes they have a linguistic result, Speaking in Tongues.
Without phonographs and television, there is no way to analyze the experiences of prehistoric man, man at the beginning of language. We have only tiny glimpses of the truth through the lives of modern men and women like the Bushmen, paired with rock paintings which portray human behavior, and artifacts which suggest the patterns of prehistoric life. All evidence is circumstantial. There will never be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Archaeology and anthropology have developed as rapidly as astronomy over the last century, and circumstantial patterns are emerging more and more clearly. The assumption at this point in their research is that humans emerged in southern Africa, where the Bushmen still live, and dispersed to Asia and then to Europe. Language probably began as part of burial and religious rituals in those early days, and later became the glue which held communities together and made possible their cooperative efforts as they took the long journeys to Asia and Europe.
In their new book, Linguistics (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2012), Anne E. Baker and Kees Hengeveld catalogue the differences between human and animal language. Neanderthals and the predecessors of homo sapiens communicated, of course, but language rose to a more complex intellectual endeavor at some point. Bees, for example, will perform their “wiggle dance” pointing to the source of the materials to make honey whether or not any other bees are watching, and will perform the same dance every time. They never “just do a little dance.” The bees cannot say what the weather was like, or that they encountered other bees en route. Human language requires cooperation – the interaction between one speaker and another; creativity – the ability to create unique sentences upon demand; spontaneity – the use of language whether or not there is a prompt; and arbitrariness – the use of vocabulary and syntax which is created without any natural reason. We call a bee bee, Greeks call it melissa, and the French call it abeille, for no particular reason. The important factor is mutual comprehensibility – cooperation — and we could agree on any word we chose to accomplish that.
This reflection on the beginnings of human language is not meant to be comprehensive, and certainly not meant to be right. Not even the greatest archaeologist would claim to be “right.” It’s food for thought as we speak our way through our lives.
In my opinion, language smothers our familiarity with the biological patterns which direct our lives just as powerfully as our minds do, but that blog belongs to somebody else.
I love my cell phone and would not like to go back to a world without them. But like Hal, the bossy computer in Stanley Kubric’s great film, 2001: a Space Oddysey, these little machines are messing with our heads.
I teach first-year university students, and have noticed two new developments this year: 1) cell phones have turned malignant, and 2) the English language seems to be falling apart. Each observation deserves its own column, and this is the first of two.
Remember the embarrassing old days, when ringtone snatches of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, or a creepy science fiction riff, or clanging church bells would interrupt the class, symphony performance, family dinner, or prayerful moment in church whenever a call came in? Those moments don’t happen so often now. Cell phone etiquette has finally settled in, and we have gotten used to silencing our bossy machines.
It is the very silence in which messages now seep through that is malignant. Students in my classroom can place their cell phones on a nearby surface and check for messages without any auditory interruption. They don’t even need an earbud any more because they communicate through text messages. There is no sign of activity other than the flicker of their eyes as they glance at their cell phones. Without moving their heads, they glance down to check messages. I tell them, “We need all of your minds engaged here,” but the messages are irresistible. They remind me of Ullyses in The Oddysey. In order to get home, he had to navigate the channel between the Sirens, and his crew lashed him to the mast to prevent him from being seduced by them. Where cell phones are concerned, the seduction is not physical but mental, and there is no way to lash my students to a mast.
It isn’t that simple. They are distracted by specific messages, but also by the POSSIBILITY that at any moment, a message might arrive. Their minds are sutured to the cell phone at all times, even if nothing is going on. Something soon might happen!
In this eternally distracted state, it was not uncommon for a student to lose track of our class activities and thus not be able to answer a question. They sometimes do not clearly draw the line between Siren and Class.
I needed to find a solution, or the class would fall apart. So at the beginning of every session I checked that there were no pending emergencies that would require them to monitor their cell phones, and with their affirmation that there was not, they were able to resist. Usually.
The problem is even more confounding. They use their cell phones to take notes, read assignments, and access the Internet for class-related activities. Not every person glued to a cell phone can be assumed to be on personal business. At the recent meeting at my university, the presenter asked the audience to turn off their cell phones before the speaker took over. When I saw a student typing furiously on his phone, I asked him to put it away. “I’m taking notes,” he said.
In one class, I asked students to read each others’ papers, and one student handed over his cell phone to his fellow student. It is difficult to read large amounts of text on a cell phone, but they are getting used to it. It would be impossible to make notes or corrections on the essay, but the cellphone manufacturers will soon integrate better editing functions.
The ubiquitous text messages are being written in a new, special language which features frequent lol’s, omg’s, btw’s, yolo’s, and wtf’s. Each person gets to make up his or her own style of punctuation and abbreviation, and there are usually no capital letters, and no more than a scaffold of a thought. Just enough to get the thought across.
Since students so often write in this playful, personalized style, they lose sight of the rules of language which we call “grammar” or “syntax.” Standard English lies buried under a pile of bits and pieces.
My second column will feature sentences taken from the last essay written by my class. You will be surprised.
Exercise: Have a discussion in class, maybe listing pros and cons on the board, of the usefulness and influence of cell phones in the classroom.
This weekend I saw Dr. Andrew Weil speak about mental health at the Book Fair in Tucson, Arizona. Dr. Weil is a well known author and doctor who advocates integrated health care, using both traditional and modern medical techniques.
Among the many elements of maintaining mental health, he mentioned gratitude. We should be grateful, he said, for the good things that happen to and around us. He went one step further — we should, he said, keep a “gratitude journal,” writing down the things we are grateful for.
This brought to mind one of the most interesting aspects of literacy; writing things down gives them power. We generally tend to believe what we read more than what we hear. “Give it to me in writing.” (Perhaps in pre-literate societies, of which some still exist, hearing is as powerful as the written word. That would be interesting to know, and I have not personally seen research on that issue.)
Students can test the power of the written word in with the exercise below.
Exercise: Take 5-10 minutes for students to summarize what has happened in their lives over the previous week.
Then ask the students to keep a journal for a week, writing down each evening the things which impressed them that day. At the end of the week, ask them to bring the journals to class, and ask them, again, to summarize their week, using the journals for reference.
A class discussion should reveal some of the benefits and disadvantages of the written word, revealing an important lesson about literacy. I don’t know what your students will say, but some possibilities might be: the journal helps them to remember, the journal limits their imagination, the journal reveals a personal philosophy or pattern of behavior, and so on…
The fiction-writing exercise described in the posts of February 2 and 7 was the first assignment of a class in which the students would later write essays on assigned subjects, using works of fiction and poetry as sources. The goal was to provide the students with some insight into what it takes to write fiction. (Poetry writing was addressed in another exercise). The greater goal was to engender a keener appreciation of fiction.
After creating the first draft of the essay, it was time to introduce some fiction techniques.
Exercise: The groups gathered to storyboard their work. The storyboard we used is a blank page divided into squares. The students were asked to represent graphically the high points of their story — the actions which move it along. Only a few students have the artistic training to do complex drawings, but they can use stick figures and simple designs. This exercise gives them a clear idea of how the story moves from point to point, and of where the tension is.
Exercise: The second exercise for the groups was to create a backstory for their two main characters. To do this, they created a history for each one. This exercise can give depth to the characters, and helps them create a story that is more organic and natural. I noted that storyboards are a conventional way of writers to present, say, a new television series to the producers, and asked them to treat the exercise as a such a presentation.
Both of these exercises have the benefit of bonding the class, and they are unfailingly fun for the students. While not strictly a Linguistics exercise, it shows the way a community mind works in creating language, and that aspect of the work can be pointed out after it is over.
Diversity is often just a concept. Many people live in a diverse town, yet never visit the “foreign” parts of it. Students can be members of a diverse class, yet never come into contact with the parts of their peers’ lives that reflect their different backgrounds. Students with an Italian background, for example, often think that EVERYONE eats lasagna for Christmas. The exercise suggested below can highlight and enrich the meaning of the word “diverse.”
This blog has readers all over the world. In some places the student population may be homogeneous, but in an American classroom, there are usually students with ancestors from different parts of the world, different races, and different language groups. While students with Italian ancestry may still eat lasagna for Christmas, they rarely speak more than rudimentary Italian. The exceptions are students who are only one generation away from their immigrant forebears, but even they may have had their linguistic heritage diluted by intermarriage or contact with other languages where they live or work.
By consulting the website Ethnologue, students will learn how many people in the world speak their heritage language. They can also learn what influence their heritage language has had on American Standard English, or on some other language, by Googling, for example, “Polish words in English.” Students these days have spent a lot more time surfing the Net than I have, and will undoubtedly be more adept than I at finding the needed information.
Exercise: Ask your students to find out where in the world their heritage language is spoken, and how many people speak it. Some students have more than one heritage language, and they can choose to report on one or all of those languages. They should also find out what words from their language have emigrated to America (or some other country) and now are widely used in English (or some other language). In the Polish example, we have imported babka and gherkin. This exercise would also be useful in ESL classes, or classes where students are learning a second language.