17 Sep 2011

Speaking Out: the Language Epilogue

I think this a fair description of all geekery


ALL WEEK, PEOPLE have been Speaking Out. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read, although it’s not a fraction of what’s out there. I intended to write several posts but life got in the way: it’s been a strange week for me. I’m going to address two important geek-related topics I had planned to talk about in this two-part (as the wonderful Jess Hartley called it) “epilogue edition.”

Today I’ll talk about language, and tomorrow about how weird is weird. A week of Speak Out with Your Geek Out should have seven days in it anyway!

I absolutely adore English. I always laugh to read this definition, which may or may not be properly attributed to writer James Nicoll: “English is a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary.”

I am, by turn, a grammar nazi and a free-adopter of jargon and slang. I have unabashed, unrestrained orgies with multisyllabic words so archaic my grandmother would think them old-fashioned. I take markers to signs in supermarkets that say “Vine-ripened Tomato’s” and I refuse to buy flowers from a street-corner seller offering “Bokays.” I believe in using the right word, and calling it le mot juste when it pleases me.

I recognize, and accept, that sometimes I am not heard or understood — that, in fact, I have actually failed in my effort to communicate — by doing that.

Here’s your “Geek Out” theme for this topic. Much of my youth I was hassled for “talking too smart.” Around 9th grade, I made a conscious decision to stop “talking smart.” Maybe people would not dislike me so much? Never mind that I wasn’t “talking smart” in order to “show off,” I was just talking the way I talked, using words that fit what I was trying to say.

I have no idea if it helped my social standing. I know that I grew hesitant and tongue-tied, second-guessing myself whenever I opened my mouth.

It deadened my vocabulary: use it or lose it. I discovered this as a college freshman, trying to write a (comparatively) scholarly student paper… and I couldn’t find the words. The language skills I’d developed had withered, the garden unwatered and unfertilized. I felt dumb (and I don’t mean “stupid”). Eviscerated. Castrated. And yes, stupid too.

It pissed the fuck outta me. I knew the words I was searching for; they weren’t that hard. I knew how to write better. And I couldn’t do it. I had allowed my desire to fit in to make me less than myself, less than the person I had been. And from that point on, I decided I would use any damn word I wanted, crude slang or les mots justes, and consign to the depths of hell anyone who didn’t bloody well approve.

This language is rich, vibrant, juicy, evocative, flexible, powerful, lively — evidently more so than almost any that has ever been used since humans started talking. The rules are firm, strong, and to be followed religiously — except when they’re not. The Academie Française made a different, sweepingly governmental choice to support only true French words, throwing out the creeping franglaise of the 1960’s, and (imnsho) thus they risk consigning a lovely language to the zombification of Latin. I know my tolerance for, and use of, non-standard usages marks me (in some eyes) as contributing to the degredation of our honorable mother tongue.

When I break rules, I make an effort to do so deliberately, to make my point. And yes, I will judge you, my fellow WoW guildie, when you type “how r u?” when I log in, because over the course of days it grows clear that (a) English is your native language, but (b) you can’t write normally if you wanted to. Yet I smile when greeted (all caps) “HAI WINTER!” by someone else, because I know they can, and I accept malapropisms from non-native speakers without a second thought.

I risk being pilloried for my mistakes, my typoes, my own ignorance. I recently mixed up “breech” and “breach” in print. (Since corrected.) Arguably, that’s a trickier distinction to learn than “they’re, there, and their” yet The Oatmeal got it (mostly) right. Everyone should have learned such things by their senior year of high school. Yet you can’t read five pages of the Net without bumping into such errors. (Read the wonderful Hyperbole and a Half on the abuse of alots. Read her even funnier one on how dogs don’t understand moving, but that’s off-topic. Read it anyway, when you get a chance. Heck just read them all; you’ll thank me later.)

Irregardless (a word I use here to make a point), English is endlessly changing. That’s part of its strength. Breech/breach isn’t going to change any time soon — and they’re/there/their should not — because both these examples embody valuable connotative differences. But I am amused by, and willing to use words like using teh and leet and imnsho and phail and irregardless, to write the unword outta (as in “it pissed the fuck outta me” up above, never mind the scatology and obscenity). These things have their places, bespeaking something that the “correct” word does not, or says in the not-quite-right way.

(For the record, I don’t use irregardless except in special cases like this. It’s still wrong, to me, but I accept it is probably going to take root and thrive in time.)

I believe that place is absolutely dependent upon breaking the rules deliberately and not out of ineptitude or ignorance. English usage is as much art as science. There is more than one way to correctly say almost anything. But there are an infinite number of ways to do a crappy, bad job of it too. Learn the damn rules and understand the history of the usages while you’re at it. Then you can bend and break the rules all you like.

WITLESS (Because brevity is not one of my soul’s virtues)
I don’t write short. I risk herds of teal deer (aka TL,DR for those of you not familiar with the use) for my walls of words. I’ve had co-workers offer phony smiles while telling me they were able to condense my emails to a sentence or two, to help someone else understand what I said.

I’ve also had co-workers say they have to take a deep breath before plunging in, but always knew that when I took the time to write long emails, it would be “all meat.”

I’ve been told that no one reads blog posts longer than 600 words. That won’t even take you to HAI WINTER, above. Yet those who read my long posts compliment me on what I have to say. Bloggers link to me, saying “This woman tells good stories.” So I conclude that, if you’re only looking for a soundbite, these are not the droids you are looking for. Move along.

I do understand that the ultimate purpose of language is communication, sharing ideas, and not bludgeoning someone with my vocabulary. I know that espousing egregiously excessive erudition, while entertaining, misses the point. I know that Churchill’s famous, brief “blood sweat and tears” speech is notable among those linguistically-inclined for being emphatically Anglo-Saxon in its word-choice. That is partly why it is such a forceful, persuasive speech.

(And yes, I also know that’s not the accurate quote but it is how the speech is known. My intent is to evoke your recognition over literal accuracy. It is always about the choices we make.)

I am trying to learn to be more concise. It is more difficult than my first three trips into Languageland: learning to love the language, unlearning my passion for it, then getting to know it anew. All those journeys taught me something, and this one is too. I will keep at it.

The language is a wonderful tool, and for me it is something of both game and hobby. I can use it to make you feel. Sometimes I can use it to make you think. If you let me get away with it, I’ll use rhetorical tricks and play with your head.

I make a distinction between grey and gray when I write, although it has no basis in any reality beyond the fact that people often agree with me when I explain that, to me, “grey” is a cool, blue-white silvery color and “gray” is a warm, almost taupe and thoroughly neutral non-color. I’ll use pop culture metaphors and I’ll make reference to writings hundreds of years old. Follow me if you can, because it is all more fun to play with than I can constrain.

I’m just glad I healed the high school breach in my language skills. I completely geek language and I hope you enjoy visiting the well-watered, well-fertilized garden where I play today.

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