In the April 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly , critic B.R. Myers, in his review, “Keeping a Civil Tongue,” of Ian Robinson’s book on the English language, Untied Kingdom, wrote “People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.” 

My  first thought was “all right!  Finally someone writing about this, and especially how text messages, e-mails and disinterest have shredded a valuable reflection of our culture and made perfectly intelligent people appear stupid.”

My second thought was “oh, interesting way to look at a character, someone who may be extremely well educated but speaks like someone who isn’t.  That’s valuable in espionage, as is a talent for accents.  But what kind of a person doesn’t care about language?  It’s how people communicate.  Wouldn’t a person want to be understood?  Or maybe not….” 

Not exactly what Myers had in mind, my responses.  Ian Robinson is a critic of language and Myers was reviewing Robinson’s book, so he ranged over cultural influences such as advertising, morality, style and usage, and how language reflects (or not) a society’s belief system and/or tolerance for others, specifically regarding religion because Robinson approaches the subject from a conservative Christian point of view.  To read the entire review,   Myers has a slight curmudgeonly tone and a sharp eye for the ridiculous or brilliant.  I enjoy reading his reviews.

Back to language.  Writers need to concern themselves with language on two levels.  First, the way they use it to write and tell their stories, their style and sensibility, their voice, and clarity.  Second, how they use it to reveal character, create suspense, execute transitions, etc. I tend to think more about the second than the first until I begin the revising process.  And when I think of character, I think of how a character speaks — vocabulary, rhythm, accent — and thinks.  Creating a character with a unique voice is one of the hardest things to do in writing fiction.

A multitude of voices surround us on a daily basis.  Most people tend to tune them out (I think, but do they?), but I am a shameless eavesdropper.  Not for the content of what is said so much as for the speech patterns and use of words.  I listen everywhere.  This is research of a different kind that requires me to go out in the world among people.  On any given day downtown, I can hear Chinese or Spanish or some other foreign language (recently an African language that wasn’t Swahili but I don’t know what it was, and the rhythm of it reminded me of Bartok’s music), English spoken in a variety of ways depending on the ethnicity of the speaker or education level or region of origin or age, and highly creative expressions and uses of words.  This research informs my writing and my character creation. 

Coupled with speech is the behavior that accompanies it.  Also the behavior that accompanies silence.  Body language can say one thing while the words spoken communicate something else.  So, for me, language also includes behavior to a certain extent, especially in terms of its consistency with what is said, or its inconsistency. 

The example that pops into my head is Marlon Brando’s brilliant evocation of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.  (I gain much inspiration and learn from really good actors.)  Don Vito was an older man in this movie, powerful, and protective.  How he spoke reflected his origins as well as his age and his education.  He is not a man of sudden moves either, so his speech is neither fast nor loud.  The viewer sees immediately in how he moves, his gestures, that he’s powerful but older and his speech is consistent with that.  Contrast Don Vito with Michael and Sonny.  Sonny’s recklessness, especially, is reflected in his quick and facile physical movements and speech patterns. 

So, reading B. R. Myers’ review triggered thoughts on language in a different direction for me than the review took.  I also thought about how much profanity is used everywhere now, and how that can reflect on the speaker’s concern for clear, communicative language vs. bursts of emotional rant.  Another kind of character….


2 responses to “Language

  1. “… have shredded a valuable reflection of our culture and made perfectly intelligent people appear stupid.”

    Is this really any different than the (definitely not new) situation of stupid people saying “intelligent” things due to their choice of words?

    Language is a tool. Nothing more; nothing less. It is not some sacred cow. It is the means by which we express our ideas and our experiences to each other and to our selves. (Personally, I want a big toolbox.) There cannot be a single “right” version of a language. Nor can a language be static. A static language is a static culture and prohibits creativity. It certainly would prohibit good jokes.

    I really disagree in principle with the idea of a “good” language. By which, perforce all else must be bad. Who is he to sit in judgment of what constitutes the Good English? Balderdash.

    I’m all for having Standard English. This will then starve self-righteous Anglophiles of their fodder. Either one uses Standard English, or one uses a dialect of English. e.g. Urban American; Rural Southern American; Northern Anglo-Irish; etc. This would allow the regions to fiercely cling to their regional dialect without the self-righteous members of some other region claiming literary superiority.

    To whit:

    You all. The English language is annoyingly devoid of a different word for the 2nd person plural. The Southern Rural American dialect has solved this with the use of “you all” or “y’all”. I personally use this as a choice. Especially when speaking to my children to emphasize the collective nature of my statement. “Y’all need to get out of the car” emphasizes this is not directed to one or the other, but rather both.

    Or, another example: how I pronounce English is certainly not how the population of the Republic of Ireland pronounces is. Who’s right? I’m not going to start speaking like them. And I quite assuredly reject the idea that England is somehow the holy center of the English language. Maybe 250 years ago; by 1800 it was losing ground, and I would argue that by 1850 that claim to importance was gone. There is no center anymore.

    The problem I find is that people seem to use the term Good English to specifically eliminate certain vocabulary. I rarely hear it referring to grammatical heresy, i.e. double negatives or split infinitives. Selective vocabulary (with no other objections) is simply a tool of social discrimination harkening back to the class system England espoused or that we currently employ.

    Lest you think I’m a screaming hypocrite: I am forcing my children to use what I consider to be Standard English Grammar. “I got” is not to be used in lieu of “I have”. It might be okay in Urban American, but not in my house. I have told the kids that they need to learn Standard English so that they can use it in business or whatever. They need to have that tool in their linguistic toolbox.

    One’s linguistic toolbox needs to have more than one tool, too. Another language (sort of like having DeWalt and Black&Decker); a thorough grasp of poetic forms; a scathing wit; spelling properly; etc.

    Writing Carefully. Now that is something people screw up. I concur that the failure to be clear and exact when speaking is a sad reflection of the linguistically lackadaisical attitude most Americans have. This can, assuredly, overflow into other areas. However, Paying Attention To Detail isn’t a language only issue. My husband’s attention to detail is scary at times, as long as it is Mathematics. With regard to other things … c’est la vie.

    My Attention to Detail is going to bed…

  2. Yes, language is a tool, but unlike DeWalt or Black & Decker tools, the way a person uses language, says something about the character of the person. It can reveal educational level, place of origin, the way the person thinks. It is a valuable “tool” in showing character in writing fiction.

    So my point in this was that things like texting, e-mail, instant messages, and so on are having an effect on our language and the way we use it. I think it is to the detriment of our language. You have noted the use of “got.” I find myself using it, too, because it’s become so prevalent in American English.

    I applaud your thoughtfulness about language and how you’re teaching your kids. A lot of people don’t even think about it. Your thinking reminds me of German — high German and dialects. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is the way the language has developed, i.e. in England (British English) and in America (American English). Australian and New Zealand as well as Canada developed their own variations, but we can all understand each other with some exceptions.

    My problem is with shredding language via texting and instant messages, and the overuse of profanity. You make good points. I don’t really disagree. I think we’re coming at it from different directions…..

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