LESS THAN WORDS CAN SAY

by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Five
"let's face it Fellows"

The Jiukiukwe have, you will remember, many different verb conjugations so that they may speak appropriately to their relatives. They have, also, all those words to designate every imaginable degree of relationship so that they will be able to choose exactly the right verb form to match those relatives. This seems to us quaint and curious and probably typical of a bunch of shiftless savages who haven't enough to do. Some similar system, however, is not at all unusual in languages. We have such a system in English, although it isn't always a matter of grammatical form and is much less complicated than the Jiukiukwe verb system.

People who speak the same language are always announcing not only their own membership in a society but also their recognition of the membership of others. When you present a paper to the Philosophical Association, you choose your diction and devise your sentences in such a way as to suggest that they haven't made too big a mistake in inviting you. When you are out boozing with your motorcycle buddies, you do the same. The choices are available in the language, and, just as well as the Jiukiukwe, we can make our language match the social meaning of the occasion upon which we speak. For them, the language works well because it can make the distinctions important to them: familial distinctions. For us, the language works well because we can make the distinctions important to us: social, educational, and economic distinctions. Those distinctions simply do not exist for the Jiukiukwe, and, just as we are amused by their vast vocabulary of family relationships, they would laugh at our swarms of words to make subtle distinctions in social, educational, and economic status.

It would bewilder them, for instance, to discover that there are words like "sofa" and "couch" that mean the same thing but that we use the one or the other according to our social status. They would find it hard to understand why we claim to have "correct" forms like "It is I" but feel perfectly free to say "It's me" under certain circumstances. They would marvel at our seemingly capricious use of our few surviving subjunctives and shake their heads at our extensive arrays of near synonyms among which we have to choose with delicate precision. When is a co-worker a colleague? When is a colleague an associate? When is an associate an accomplice? When is an accomplice a partner? When is a partner a sidekick? We know which word to use because these arrays of words point at cultural values familiar to us. The poor Jiukiukwe tribesman trying to learn English would ultimately have to learn our culture and all its unspoken values and beliefs before he could make such choices. This is true of anyone who undertakes to learn any language. Among other things, a language is an elaborate and complete display of the ideas of the culture that speaks it.

If you could ask a Jiukiukwe why he takes such pains to address his mother's only brother's eldest daughter in just that way, he would probably have to say that he does it because it's "right." He's right. That's why we do things like that too. They're right. They are "right," however, entirely in a social sense. Language is arbitrary, but it's not anarchic. Although there's no reason why this or that in a language should be "right' and something else "wrong," it does not follow that you can do whatever you please in it. At some point, of course, when you wander too far from what is "right" you'll cease to be intelligible. But long before you reach that point you will send out the news that you are not a member in good standing around here.

Politeness is not a special social refinement added on, if possible, to the everyday life of members of the same culture. It has its origin in something far more important than social convention, and it is expressed primarily in language, which serves to display the values of the culture. The origin of politeness is probably a religious feeling. One of the other worlds into which language points is the world of the numinous. It is in myth and legend, therefore, that we can detect the origin of politeness in language.

Imagine that you are reading a fairy tale. Here's a cocky young prince on his way to kill some monster who guards the water of life. The prince stops to eat his lunch in cool shade by a brook. A loathsome frog asks for a bite of his sandwich, but the hero will not lower himself to sup with a slimy amphibian and says so in as many words. Well, there's no doubt. He's going to come to a bad end. When his younger brother comes by next year, however he'll be glad to give that frog bites of his peanut butter sandwich, a little Kool-Aid, and even some polite chitchat. You can just bet that that boy will bring back not only the water of life but a comely princess as well.

Behind this common theme lies the suspicion that the palpable world we see before us conceals other worlds from our view. What inklings we have of those worlds we have in the suggestions of our language, and it is in our language that we have access to those worlds. Almost every culture has a taboo against being rude to strangers. Ours has it, and a good thing too, or you'd never be able to find a bathroom in a department store. The purpose of this taboo seems to be to prevent us from saying or doing anything that might have some bad consequences for us in another world. You never know who a stranger really is, and it never hurts to be polite. In some cultures, even more care is taken, and woodsmen apologize to trees before they chop them down, and fishermen ask forgiveness of the fish. After all, what can you lose?

Our culture is not much concerned with the numinous, but in language we preserve many of the marks of a culture that is. We talk to animals and machines. We talk to teddy bears and tools. We say, of course, that we don't really mean to communicate with these things, but an anthropologist from another planet might not see it quite that way. We talk in different words, too, depending on how we are related to the persons we address. In this we are not different from the Jiukiukwe. We are different, however, in that we need more finesse in our language to get those modes "right" consistently, since we haven't the clearly visible grammatical apparatus in which to express them. All the Jiukiukwe have to do to speak in the proper fashion is to get their verb forms right. We have to do much more, not only in speaking "correctly" but in discerning exactly that mode of speech which is suitable to the circumstances. In fact, the task is so difficult that we often say "the hell with it" and speak any old way we can. Could they know this, the Jiukiukwe, and the extraterrestrial anthropologist as well, might conclude that we are a culture presently in the process of disintegration, a culture that no longer cares to represent its values in its language.

The Jiukiukwe who speaks his language accurately speaks it politely, that is to say, in precisely that way which best suits the context in which he speaks. Speaking so, he pronounces his allegiance to the values that hold his culture together. We do even more than that when we speak to each other, and especially when we write to each other, in a mode suitable to the context. Ours is, unlike the Jiukiukwe's, a highly technological society. To get this society through the day, more or less successfully, we have to perform with precision thousands and thousands of tasks. For us to proceed in good order requires a vast company of citizens at all social levels who are dependably accurate and precise in whatever job they may hire themselves out to do.

Accordingly, we have traditionally taught the young of this tribe certain disciplines intended to inculcate the habits of accuracy and precision. One such discipline, for instance, is mathematics. All schoolchildren ask, when they finally think to ask it, why they have to study things like geometry and algebra when any reasonable view of adult life reveals that grown-ups are not called upon to do geometry and algebra. In fact, grown-ups have all forgotten those things, as any child will discover when he asks for help with his homework. We used to answer that we taught them those things not so that they might do them in later life, although some few must and will, of course, but because such studies cause certain habits to form in the mind. Nowadays, we simply agree with the children that geometry and algebra are useless, and instead of wasting all that time we let them rap about interpersonal adjustment instead. This does not somehow, make them "well adjusted," but it does provide that the techniques and devices that they will someday be responsible for won't be very well adjusted either. Even Steven.

Many similar habit-forming studies are possible in language. Consider spelling. Strictly speaking, there is no spelling in language. Spelling is peculiar to writing; language is a set of sounds and gestures. The sounds either make intelligible speech or they don't. The Jiukiukwe children don't study spelling, and, as things stand between us now, we would not be able to explain such a strange business to the Jiukiukwe at all. In fact, you can understand the social and technological importance of the study of spelling just by imagining all the things a Jiukiukwe tribesman would have to understand first before you could tell him why we make our children study spelling. Once he knew all that stuff, though, he would also be able to see the sense of studying other absurd things like punctuation and capitalization.

Furthermore, once he knew all that stuff, as we, of course, do, he might be able to see the social and technological meaning of this sad story: There was a young lady in Pennsylvania who was incensed when she found two typographical errors and even an error in grammar in her local newspaper. Fortunately for the course of Western culture, she knew the right thing to do, and she did it. She fired off a stiff note of protest to the editor. And who better to do it? She was, after all, a schoolteacher, and rightly mindful of the baleful influence of the popular media on her impressionable charges.

Among other things, she wrote: "In writing I teach my third graders to proofread their work and I don't expect them to find all mistakes. But, let's face it Fellows you are not 8 and 9 year olds and this artical should have never gotten past you let alone printed in the form it was." That's what she wrote. Those are her words, her syntax, her punctuation, her capitalization, her spelling. Her spelling of "artical" appears in three more places, so it's no fluke, and in one place the word "allowed" comes out as "aloud."

Here's another sad story: Your car has broken down at night in a strange town in Alabama, perhaps. A man who claims to be a mechanic is trying to find the spark plugs. You point them out, but he is unable to remove them because he is turning the wrench the wrong way.

Here's an even sadder: Just as you are about to sink into unconsciousness in the operating room, you hear the surgeon asking the nurse which of those doohickeys are the clamps. Good luck to you. Good luck also to a batch of third graders out in Pennsylvania.

The schoolteacher's errors are what we call "small." An equivalent failure of technique in the man who has checked your airplane might be something like forgetting to tighten one lousy little bolt. There may well be a good chance that this trivial oversight will not kill everybody on board, depending on exactly which bolt it was. But who knows? Airplanes are very tricky devices, and there may well be some bolt or other that had damn well better be tightened if the contraption is to fly. However, when a schoolteacher writes "artical" for "article" and overlooks a few silly little commas, her students do not at once crash to earth in flames. Not at once.

There is a sense in which her children don't have to study English at all. Even third graders can say very complex things, quite understandably, without having, or needing, any notions at all about grammar and spelling. When we do set about to teach them a language in which they are already at home, perhaps even fluent, we have two things in mind. One of them is a social goal: a social goal not much different from what we have in mind when we teach them to use knives and forks at the table. Children who grow up without having learned to use knives and forks at the table may be charming and valuable human beings, but they will often be passed over for promotion. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that only that portion of their rearing could have been neglected. When you have lunch with a man who eats his lasagna with his fingers, you have reason to suspect that he may have one or two other social deficiencies.

Accordingly, we try to teach our children to spell correctly because, for one thing, they'll look bad if they spell incorrectly. It may, in the course of their lives, even cost them money if they can't spell. As things are with us, we would generally like our children to make more money rather than less, if only because so many of us are supported by the taxes other people pay. But it's more than that, of course; bad spelling just isn't respectable. You may, perhaps, want to lament this fact. You are free to do so. The fact remains.

Consider the social consequences that might be visited on that third-grade teacher. Suppose your child were in her class--the chances of this, by the way, are about even. There she is, that teacher who teaches her third graders to proofread their work, loftily not expecting them to find all their mistakes. Are you confident that she would be able to see whether or not they had found all their mistakes? We know one thing: She wouldn't be able to see that one of her students misspelled "article." She seems likely, also, to be unable to distinguish between "aloud" and "allowed." She will certainly be confused, and without knowing that she is confused, about some conventional punctuation and capitalization.

Does it seem possible that those two words--"article" and "allowed"--are the only words that she can't spell, and that it was only a calamitous coincidence that they happened to appear in her letter? It does not. A person who can misspell "article" and "allowed" can probably misspell something else. Would that something else be one other word? No, it would be more than one other word. Two? Ten? Seven hundred fifty-three? Does it matter? It does not.

What does matter is that you--remember, you're still supposing that your child is in her class--can now pick up the phone and call your neighbor down the street, the one you voted for last November when he was elected to the school board. You can don righteous indignation or mild bewilderment or anything in between, but, however you do it, you'll be able to speak as one having knowledge. You know how to spell those words, right? So what the hell is going on here? Who hires these people? Where do they come from? What could be more satisfying than a legitimate and documented complaint against those people in the schools who tell us so haughtily that they know what they're doing?

The questions are good ones. Who does hire teachers who can't spell? Where do they come from? The questions grow more ominous the more we think about them. Just as we suspect that this teacher's ineptitude in spelling is not limited to those two words, so we must suspect that she has other ineptitudes as well. We see already that her education has been less than perfect. Is her knowledge of arithmetic, for instance, also less than perfect? How well informed is she about history and science? Those very misspellings--don't they seem characteristic of a person who simply hasn't done much reading? That is, after all, the way most of us learn to spell correctly. When you've seen "allowed" and "aloud" thousands of times on the page, you just know which is which. And if this teacher hasn't done much reading, how likely is she to be well informed about history and science, or any of those things in which we expect her to instruct our children?

Well, who did hire her? Some principal, presumably, or some committee, or somebody. Let's imagine that it was a committee. What did they look for in her credentials? In her letter of application, were there errors? Would the members of the committee have been able to detect them? Would some of them say, even now, that a silly misspelled word here and there is too trivial to worry about?

And where did she come from? Some school graduated her, and some board granted her a certificate to teach. Did she just slip through the cracks in the system? Is she the only member of her class, the only graduate of her college, whose spelling is shaky? Of all of those teachers and incipient teachers, is she the only one who doesn't seem to have done much reading? The professors who wrote her references--did they mention that she had some problems with spelling? Did they know that she had some problems with spelling? Had they read any of her writing? Did she do any writing? As much writing as she did reading, perhaps? If your physician's elementary training in anatomy were as uncertain as this teacher's spelling, would you think it too trivial to worry about?

This is not a quiz; don't answer any of those questions. For now, leave it at this: If social acceptability is one of the goals of the study of English, it will be but poorly served by this teacher and, it seems, just as poorly served by the system that made her a teacher. But there is another more important goal in mind when we subject children to the study of a language they already know. It is the habit of correctness and precision.


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