Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

As for language, the philosophes might remind us that the written word and an oratory based upon it have a content—a semantic, paraphrasable content. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion, an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence, a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenthand nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

It is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A printed sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said. And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect. This is especially the case with the act of reading, for authors are not always trustworthy. They lie, they become confused, they over-generalize, they abuse logic and, sometimes, common sense. The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because the reader comes to the text alone. In reading, one’s responses are isolated, one’s intellect thrown back on its own resources. To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading is by its nature a serious business.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

Think, for example, of how the words “community” and “conversation” are now employed by those who use the Internet. I have the impression that “community” is now used to mean, simply, people with similar interests, a considerable change from an older meaning: A community is made up of people who may not have similar interests but who must negotiate and resolve their differences for the sake of social harmony. …

Think of how television has changed the meaning of the phrase “political debate” or the word “public”; or the phrase “participatory democracy.” In his book The Electronic Republic, Lawrence Grossman argues that new technologies will make representative democracy obsolete because they will make it possible to have instant plebiscites on every issue. In this way, American voters will directly decide if we should join NAFTA or send troops to Bosnia or impeach the president. The Senate and the House of Representatives will be largely unnecessary. This, he says, is participatory democracy as it was in Athens in the fifth century B.C. I have no objection to borrowing a phrase from an older media environment in order to conceptualize a new development; we do it all the time. But it has its risks, and attention must be paid when it is done. To call a train an “iron horse,” as we once did, may be picturesque, but it obscures the most significant differences between a train and a horse-and-buggy. To use the term an “electronic town-hall meeting” similarly obscures the difference between an eighteenth-century, face-to-face gathering of citizens and a packaged, televised pseudo-event. To use the term “distance learning” to refer to students and a teacher sending e-mail messages to each other may have some value, but it obscures the fact that the act of reading a book is the best example of distance learning possible, for reading not only triumphs over the limitations of space and co-presence but of time as well. As for participatory democracy, we would be hard-pressed to find any similarity whatever between politics as practiced by 5,000 homogeneous, well-educated, slaveholding Athenian men and 250 million heterogeneous Americans doing plebiscites every week; it is dangerous to allow language to lead us to believe otherwise.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.

Pills indeed! Some day, no doubt, the dreadful offspring of that hapless couple will invent flavorless capsules which, when swallowed, will give the user a complete command of any desired language. Let us hope only that when he does, the sane among us will lobby for a law to keep such people from writing poems. Language is no utilitarian abstraction; English, French, Greek, and Latin are concrete delights, relishings by which the flavor of words and syntax are rolled over the tongue. And so in their own way are all the declensions and conjugations of beef, lamb, pork, and veal. Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful. Necessity is the mother only of cliches. It takes playfulness to make poetry.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection 

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Even at the origin, terms are often not entirely arbitrary. Some words are obviously onomatopoeic. Hummingbirds go “hum,” and the sound bees make really is something like “buzz.” Linguists have also noted that even words that are not strictly onomatopoeic have sound qualities connected with the thing they name. A rock may not be rocky, but the sharp -ck sound seems appropriate to name something with sharp edges. The diphthong fl- is, across languages, associated with fast-moving things: flash, flip, flicker, flap, flop. Sn- is a nose-sound: sniff, sneeze, snout, snuff, snore, snooze, snuffle, snort, snicker. When people are shown arbitrary shapes and asked whether it is a “pling” or a “plung,” they show a remarkable consistency. Shapes with sharp edges are “plings,” whereas smoothly shaped things are “plungs.” Vivian Cook writes that “vowels with high frequencies such as ‘i’ go with small size and sharpness. . . . Vowels with low frequencies such as ‘u’ go with large size and softness”

— Peter Leithart, Traces of the Trinity

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A satisfying click

I remember my feeling that I possessed only part of the meaning of the word, like one of those fragmented friendship necklaces, and I had to find the other half in the social world of speech. I remember walking around as a child repeating a word I’d overheard, applying it wildly, and watching how, miraculously, I was rarely exactly wrong. If you are five and you point to a sycamore or an idle backhoe or a neighbor stopped over his garden or to images of these things on a television set and utter ‘vanish’ or utter ‘varnish,’ you will never be only incorrect; if your parent or guardian is curious, she can find a meaning that makes you almost eerily prescient – the neighbor is dying, losing weight, or the backhoe has helped a structure disappear or is glazed with rainwater or the sheen of spectacle lends to whatever appears on screen a strange finish. To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it: Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified? I think that’s poetry. And when I felt I finally mastered a word, when I could slide it into a sentence with a satisfying click, that wasn’t poetry anymore – that was something else, something functional within a world, not the liquefaction of its limits.

— Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry

(via Peter Leithart)

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Spelunking the O.E.D.

“Infinite Jest” is a genuinely groundbreaking novel of language. Not even the masters of the high/low rhetorical register go higher more panoramically or lower more exuberantly than Wallace — not Joyce, not Bellow, not Amis. Aphonia, erumpent, Eliotical, Nuckslaughter,phalluctomy! Made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words — Wallace spelunked the O.E.D. and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographic reality. But nerdlinger word-mongering or “stunt-pilotry” (to use another Wallace phrase) can be an empty practice indeed. You need sentences to display-case the words, and here, too, “Infinite Jest” surpasses almost every novel written in the last century, maintaining a consistent and mind-boggling descriptive mastery.

Tom Bissell

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If someone says you’re on the wrong side of history, it is their smug and stupid way of telling you that you are wrong and they are right, no more. Conservatism is always on the wrong side of history because it is innately opposed to profound social change. Social change is always good, you see, even when it is utterly calamitous or pointless or unnecessary.

Ron Liddle, “When words are added to the dictionary, what about banning some? Here are ten suggestions”

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