THE LEANING TOWER OF BABEL

by Richard Mitchell

I
ON THE NATURE OF LANGUAGE

Hopefully, We Could Care Less
The Leaning Tower of Babel
The Proud Walkers
To be to Some Chewed Books Tasted Are Swallowed...

 

Hopefully, We Could Care Less

The shame of speaking unskilfully were small if the tongue onely thereby were disgrac'd: But as the Image of a King in his Seale ill-represented is not so much a blemish to the waxe, or the Signet that seal'd it, as to the Prince it representeth, so disordered speech is not so much injury to the lips that give it forth, as to the disproportion and incoherence of things in themselves, so negligently expressed. Neither can his Mind be thought to be in Tune, whose words do jarre; nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous; nor his Elocution clear and perfect, whose utterance breaks itself into fragments and uncertainties. Negligent speech doth not onely discredit the person of the Speaker, but it discrediteth the opinion of his reason and judgement; it discrediteth the force and uniformity of the matter and substance. If it be so then in words, which fly and ‘scape censure, and where one good Phrase asks pardon for many incongruities and faults, how then shall he be thought wise whose penning is thin and shallow? How shall you look for wit from him whose leasure and head, assisted with the examination of his eyes, yeeld you no life or sharpnesse in his writing?

READERS often ask about the source of the elegant and old-fashioned sentence that appears somewhere in almost every issue. It is from Timber, or, Discoveries made upon Men and Matters, by Ben Jonson (1573?-1637). It was to Jonson, habitué of the Sun, the Dog, and the Triple Tun, that Robert Herrick, another such, addressed his not entirely frivolous prayer: "Candles I'll give to thee, and a new altar; and thou, Saint Ben, shalt be writ in my psalter." The words of the wise are as goads, and we might all grow more thoughtful through declaiming, in solemn ritual, before we put a word on paper: "Neither can his mind be thought to be in Tune..."

And if you'd like to be more fussy than we, you can add the part that we leave out: "nor his Elocution clear and perfect, whose utterance breaks itself into fragments and uncertainties. "

Many of our readers are more fussy than we. They often write, asking why we don't "do something" about people whose utterance breaks itself all too regularly and predictably into fragments and uncertainties. Culprits most frequently indicted are teenagers, television reporters--especially sports reporters, athletes answering silly questions put by television sports reporters, government functionaries, and Howard Cosell. There seems to be a pattern there. However, while the abolition of television, athletics, and teenagers would, of course, bring many happy returns, none of them would be linguistic. And we would, in any case, still be left with the government functionaries. And everyone else.

Our fussy readers are mostly too astute to complain about the obvious nonsense of social amenity, although some of them are saddened when instructed to have a nice day, or to hear, from some putative grown-up on the telephone, "Bye-bye." They begin to itch when they hear things like "irregardless," "between you and I," and the much castigated but apparently invincible "hopefully." They are exasperated, at the least, to hear that style of discourse in which not only young people but also many entertainers (including athletes), artsy-craftsy folk, populistical professors, and even some vegetarians, seem forever trapped, the wandering recitation copiously punctuated with "see?" "like," and "y'know."

Hopefully, we could care less about such things, and hopefully is exactly how we would care less if we did care less. We care a little, just enough to preclude hope, but not enough to make us want to "do something."

There is a big difference between talk and writing. They are not merely optional ways of expressing the same substance. Talking is normally a social act; writing, unless it is simply copying the given, must be private. It needs the "leasure and head, assisted with the examination of the eyes," time, solitude, a visible record, and attention.

How we speak, in the press of the moment, is usually the result of habit. How we write, in solitary thoughtfulness, can be the result of choice. Our educationists are socializers with political intentions. They fear the choices of the solitary mind, which is why they prefer "teaching materials" to a book by a person, and they imagine understanding in the collective, which is why they "teach" by rap session and send out questionnaires. If you nag about speech habits that annoy you, those people will gladly offer "literacy" through other habits inculcated by more courses in speech and interpersonal communication.

The substitution of genteel habits for vulgar habits is not education. It's just a different indoctrination. So try to put Howard Cosell like out of your mind, you know?

[V:7, October 1981]


The Leaning Tower of Babel

____________________

A Little Heavy Thinking

from Gerald W. Brown

Professor of Education

California State University

How can we justify eight years of study of a foreign language when the foreign travel of the student may (probably ten years later) be in an entirely different sphere?

How can we justify intensive study of a foreign language when our "track record" in achieving fluency is so poor?

How can we justify the study of foreign language when such a large percentage of our population never meets up with a native speaker? Not only does the student get no practice, but also he acquires no motivation.

Some attention should be given to [the] claim that the failure to study a foreign language is [a] detriment to international understanding. Although such a statement would be difficult to demonstrate one way or the other, it is difficult to see how a knowledge of French would help understanding of the international situation in China, Japan, etc.

In my own sphere the people who are multilingual do not stand out as having a significant international understanding nor as educated men. I admit that monolingualism may be bad for business, and business may very well provide opportunities for their employees to learn, in a commercial language school, the specific language they need at the specific time they need it. Three essentials of language study come together at that point: (1) an able learner, (2) motivation to study, and (3) a ready opportunity to put the study into practice.

As for teaching every student in our schools and colleges a second language, how are we doing with English?

HERE at Glassboro State, we have no language requirements. Nor do we have any foreign language requirements. This may seem strange to someone out in the world, but most of us think it a very good and proper thing. In fact, to suggest the possibility of a language requirement around here is like asking for a bacon sandwich at a bar mitzvah in Brooklyn.

There are--let's face it--certain subjects that are just not suitable for study in the schools, and one of them is foreign language. The study of any foreign language is an egregiously unhumanistic enterprise in which even good students can actually make an indubitable error! That's humiliating and undemocratic. The students who make many errors will suffer regular and irretrievable diminutions of self-esteem, and those who make only a few will stand in danger of becoming elitists. Those are risks that we cannot and will not take, especially with all those earnest young people who truly love children and, resisting the lure of the lucrative but inhumane careers that they might have found in commerce and technology, have come to us to be made into professionals of schoolteachering.

And fortunately, while we do still permit the study of a few foreign languages here, we find that most of our incipient schoolteachers don't even need to be advised to choose Puppetry Workshop or the History of Jazz rather than French or German as what we call "humanities electives." They know a humanity when they see one.

There's nothing humane about irregular verbs, and an obsession with foreign language is even more dehumanizing for the teachers than for the students. The teachers are supposed to know the irregular verbs. And the case endings--all of them. And the use of the imperfect subjunctive. And thousands of un-American idioms. You can be pretty damn sure that any teacher who is actually an expert in some foreign language has put more effort into rote learning than into relating to self and others, and will almost certainly be more interested in the mere facts of a narrow discipline of dubious relevance than in the true goals of education: appreciation, awareness, global and/or environmental consciousness, and rap sessions on death and Gay Rights. We are not the least bit interested in turning out that sort of teacher, thank you.

And furthermore, these people who indulge in foreign language study often pick up some uppity, anti-social notions about language itself. They start getting persnickety about what they are pleased to call "accuracy," and they snootily pretend that they can't understand what it means to experientially enhance some aspects of remediation implementation in the sphere of interpersonal communication, which tells you how little they really care about self-expression and creativity, a couple of our other true goals.

But there's nothing to worry about. Our Division of Professional Studies--an airborn division at that--will see to it that there is never a foreign language requirement here. Why, just last year, when our little foreign language department proposed a few reading courses that just might, some day, be required by a couple of other little departments with no discernible future and thus little to lose, our professionals, who make the rules for the curriculum committee, thank goodness, nipped that little old foot in the door right in the little old bud. Those ivory tower foreign language teachers had neglected (heh heh) to list the expected student outcomes of foreign language reading courses! You see? The teachers themselves can't find a good excuse for studying foreign languages.

However, while there is no danger of an eruption of foreign language study at Glassboro, trouble looms elsewhere in Academe. We have heard reports of schools, and some of them public schools, once again offering courses in Latin! And of students actually taking them instead of alternative lifestyle education or the poetry of rock and roll. And, even worse, along comes a certain Cynthia Parsons, suggesting (we guess), in the Christian Science Monitor, that teachers should study foreign languages as part of their training! Can you believe it? How long do you suppose our teacher academy, or any other, could survive such a bizarre requirement? Hell, if our teacher trainees were that kind of people, the kind who memorize and fuss about trivial details, they wouldn't make very good teachers, now would they? And many of them probably wouldn't even have to become teachers!

We haven't actually read Cynthia Parsons' essay, of course, and we're not about to. We've heard it all before. Besides, we have read Gerald W. Brown's cogent answer to Parsons, excerpts from which we have reprinted below for your edification.

That Brown is a man with plenty on the sphere. Notice how wisely he eschews any vain discussion of that tired old elitist notion that the study of foreign language has some sort of effect on the habits and discipline of the mind. He sticks to the facts. And it is a fact, by golly, that many of those kids suckered into foreign language study could find themselves, ten years later, if then, in that entirely different sphere. And for the hapless student of Latin, it could take even longer.

By the same logic--and it's high time that we started paying it more than lip service--we've been wasting a lot of time, time that could be devoted to career education, on stuff like physics and trigonometry. We have, to be sure, seen to it that very few students will actually take such courses, but their mere existence is a continuous drain on energies and funds that could better be spent in truly humanistic enterprises. How many of our students, after all, will ever end up, never mind in ten years, in physics spheres or trigonometry spheres?

And any who do can always, as Brown correctly points out in the case of those few who choose to learn some foreign language purely for personal profit, learn all the physics or trigonometry they please, along with any other narrow specialization that suits them, at one of those commercial schools. The commercial schools do not share our high standards. They'll teach anything, anything at all, without the least concern for its social utility or its potential for creativity enhancement or even its suitability for mainstreaming. All they do is teach. They don't even care about behavioral objectives.

And, as only a professor of education could, Brown explodes the old "international understanding" myth by discovering that a knowledge of French will not help you with the international situation in China. Or even Japan. Professors of education know all about international understanding and the right way to foster it. They're the ones who showed us how to enhance intercultural multi-ethnic appreciation through folk-dances of many lands, and how to teach children to relate to the Eskimo experience by chewing blubber.

Brown makes many fine points, but his last is his best. What is it with you laymen? We've already shown you that we're not even teaching English, and here you are nagging us to teach some ridiculous foreign languages! And if, as Brown astutely reminds us, our poor track record in achieving fluency proves that it is pointless to teach a foreign language for eight years, what does our track record in twelve years of teaching English prove?

Brown is right. If you want your kids to learn narrow academic specializations, why don't you just send them to commercial schools? Our business is quality education.

[V:9, December 1981]


The Proud Walkers

When I hear the hypercritical quarreling about grammar and style, the position of the particles etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules, … I see they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute, or an interjection: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, artificial or father tongue. Essentially, your truest poetical sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb's bleat. The grammarian is often one who can neither cry nor laugh, yet thinks he can express human emotions. So the posture-masters tell you how you shall walk, . . . but so the beautiful walkers are not made.

THOSE are Thoreau's words, and we wish that we had read them years ago, instead of just last week. It has taken us years to reach an understanding that Thoreau could have given us in less than a minute. No matter how hard you try to be thoughtful, ignorance must set you to reinventing the wheel.

We once did fuss a bit over "particles, etc., etc.," but even then we held that the splitting of infinitives, for instance, was, like the celibacy of the clergy, a matter of discipline rather than doctrine. We have not been deaf to the lamb's bleat. "It is often true," we have said, "that the language of the unschooled [so unlike the language of the schoolers] is clear, accurate, powerful, and even beautiful, for those merits do not depend on tricks of grammar." And we have often lacerated the inane or mendacious language of the schoolers who can not achieve any one of those merits even when they have achieved the "basic minimum competency" thought suitable to their kind.

So we are far less chastened than encouraged and enlightened by Thoreau's words. He has given us the key, the mot so juste that we suddenly remember that juste is a word that goes with justice. How better can we understand the affected and improbable language of the educationist than as the unwittingly ludicrous display of the smug posture-master?

But Thoreau gives even us more. The proper work of the wise is surprisingly often nothing more than providing the rest of us with exactly the right words. So it is that new ways of understanding come forth, for understanding is the making of statements, and statements about statements. In one happy phrase, Thoreau has made the fine and unexpected distinction between Mother Tongue, a concept so familiar that we usually don't stop to think about what we might take it to mean, and the unfamiliar Farther Tongue, which has always been lurking in the possibilities of language. Thinking, after all, is nothing more than rummaging about in the possibilities of language. And the thinker is one who regularly answers the question that ordinarily puts an end to thought: What more can I say?

Accordingly, we have gone rummaging through back issues looking for examples through which we might understand that "artificial or father tongue." It was easy. We quickly found these three:

The findings suggest that psychosexuality constructs of agency/communion can be meaningfully operationalized to reflect the degree of psychosexuality integration, with different modes of manifestations and different correlates of interpersonal behavior associated with various levels on the integration continuum.

The multiple issues raised suggests that a particular type of structure and composition…is required. Thus, the accomplishment of the aforementioned aims require that the meeting be from a more comprehensive perspective.

Linguistics has become a magic word in language instruction of today. Vigorous activity …has stretched linguistics beyond…esoteric enclaves…and brought it cascading down through the high school and elementary grades.

The first of those passages is the prissy pirouette of the practiced posture-master. Ah, what skills. How prettily he prances from the operationalization of constructs to the reflection of the degree of integration, and gracefully glides on into modes of manifestation and correlates associated with levels on the continuum. Ah, how smart he must be. And how professional. How proud of him his mother must be, although probably not, we'd be willing to wager, nearly as proud of him as he is of himself. The attribute that always leaks out of such writing is that supposed virtue that educationists have chosen, ignoring logic in the service of sentimentality, as both a requisite to education and its best reward--Self-esteem.

The voice of that passage, however, is not just the voice of self-esteem. It is the voice of a man full of self-esteem. It is the pompous voice of self-awarded authority, the voice of command, the mighty voice from "above," in which no decent human should speak. It is Father Tongue.

The second passage is an example of failed Father Tongue. Close, but no cigar. The writer is evidently an apprentice posture-master. He does want to strut with the proud walkers, but he keeps on stumbling because he hasn't learned to tie his shoelaces. He is Huxley's snotty little seminarian, who dresses up in the bishop's flashy regalia. His grammatical gaucheries would be inconsequential if his language were "vital and natural," but in the context of that pretentious jargon, they are laughable calamities.

The third writer's just a little boy who thinks it would be really neat to grow up to be a posture-master some day. So far, he has neither the words nor the tune, but he is quite as eater to be a proud walker as Tom Sawyer is to be a highwayman, who will hold his victims for "ransom," as it says "in the books," even though he has never felt the need to stop and reckon what that means.

Our habitual scrutiny of language has confirmed us in sexism. Men and women are different, essentially and (we hope) ineradicably. Men don't grow up. Pure seriousness seizes only a few of them, and only from time to time. They pretend to be something. They pretend to be sages or soldiers, or anything in between. Even the most witless and inept can find some system, made by men and for men, that will pay him for pretending to be a superintendent of schools, or a language arts facilitator, or something. And the score is kept in those sad games not by what one gets done, but by how one plays, which means, among other things, doing one's "work" exclusively in Father Tongue.

The crusty Dr. Johnson, in one of his most outrageous wisecracks, opined that listening to a woman preaching a sermon would be like watching a dog walking on its hind legs. We would be astonished not that she might do it well, but that she does it at all. Tsk, we used to think. That is not a nice thing to say. We were wrong. In fact, nice is exactly what it is--look it up, if you must--for it makes a fine and subtle distinction.

Johnson knew the difference between Father Tongue and Mother Tongue. He knew what he meant by "preaching," an exercise in the artificial language used by men for saying exactly what they are supposed to say. Misogynist though he was, Johnson knew that no woman, uncompelled, would ever do such a thing.

Yes, we do know that there are dippy women who want to speak Father Tongue, who understand no more than most men how pitiable a display they make of their captivity, for it is captivity, not liberation. A man who speaks Mother Tongue can make his own place. A woman who speaks Father Tongue might fill a vacancy in the ranks of the proud walkers. And she'd better have good, strong hind legs.

[VI:5, May 1982]


To be to Some chewed Books

Tasted Are Swallowed to digested,

and Others be, and Some be Few

NEVER spoken truer were words. And out are to quickly some spat be. Unfortunately, however, the natural good sense which instructs even very small children to spew noxious substances clean across the room is suppressed in the schools as anti-social and little conducive to the self-esteem of the teachers. The wretched little tykes, once the iron door of the schoolhouse clangs shut behind them, are required by law to swallow everything fed them by the bold, innovative thrusters who make up the ever-changing menu. Peanut butter guacamole yesterday, potato chips in aspic tomorrow, but never a smidgen of jam today.

Nevertheless, however improbable and nauseous their concoctions, it is usually possible to figure out what it is that they either imagine or pretend that they will accomplish. But now, in an unbook called Expressways, a sixth-grade "reading" text, we have a disgusting mess of unidentifiable substance whose supposed purpose we cannot even begin to guess.

It pretends to be an exercise in "correcting word order," and begins by asserting that "word order affects the meaning of a sentence," as some precocious (and thus, as you will see, disruptive) children will have noticed even before they reached the sixth grade. The exercise asks the students to do something about some supposedly garbled sentences. Some of them actually are garbled:

magician a Merlin was

Arthur enchanted an stone of pulled out sword of

Not quite as much fun as a barrel of monkeys, perhaps, but close. Even the dullest students should be able, as instructed, to "rewrite each group of words to make a clear and sensible sentence." But why, dammit? Why?

Is this what those educationists mean by "problem-solving"? Do they imagine, or pretend, that a garbled sentence is a "problem" for which all readers must be prepared lest they fail to comprehend deliberate distortions? Is it some "life-skill" enhancement intended to insure that the students will still be able to check the right boxes on comprehension tests when all the printers have gone mad? Are students, in fact, likely to write such garbled sentences?

To make a bad thing worse, the concocters of this silliness can't even garble skillfully. Having vouchsafed that "word order affects the meaning of a sentence," and having asked that students assemble "clear and sensible sentences" from "groups of words" that could never occur naturally, these reading experts proceed to dream up "problems" of this kind:

the knights made out of marble sat at a round table

persons in distress rescued the knights

some knights went in search of holy objects on quests

Try now to imagine the plight of those unlucky sixth graders--there are plenty of them--who can see, as anyone but a reading expert might, that those "groups of words" are "clear and sensible." If there is anything at all "wrong" about them, it is only that they will not win approval from the teacher, who can easily discover, by looking it up in the handy teacher's guide that comes with Expressways, that those clear and sensible sentences are not the clear and sensible sentences that the reading experts had in mind, not the "correct" solutions to "problems" that would never have existed in the first place if it weren't for the fact that the reading experts always need tricky new gimmicks to put in their unbooks.

The exercise pretends to ask a question about grammar, the system of principles by which we all, sixth-grade children included, can and do form any of an infinite number of possible sentences, including the three supposed "problems" cited above. But in fact, it asks a question to be answered out of that minimal kind of reading that is really nothing more than the reception of communication. And, probably for the remediation of those obstinate students who persist in suspecting that it is by form, not content, that a sentence is a sentence, there is a postscript to all this absurdity. It's called "Interaction":

Make up your own scrambled sentences about how Merlin could help you. Have a classmate unscramble your sentences.

It's not enough, you see, although it is required, that educationists commit nonsense. They are, as they are always saying, such giving and sharing people. And when they commit nonsense, everyone commits nonsense.

___________

Lazy over brown the jumped
dog fox the quick?

[VI:8, November 1982]


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