24 March 2009

Language Alive

When i posted my first blog, i wasn't expecting to get much response. At least, i wasn't anticipating an interesting, but short, conversation to break out in the comments. They bring up some good questions, as well as some talking points.

Matthew asked how i think language has weakened. This blog is a response to that question.

I feel that the danger we are facing with the breakdown of language isn't so much grammatical. Sure, there is danger in that, simply because the entire purpose of grammar is to enable clear communication. If our grammar if faulty or broken, we cannot effectively communicate with one another. A sentence that is read easily with a properly placed comma becomes a puzzle without one, and who's to say the reader will answer the puzzle correctly.

But what i was really talking about is the loss of imagination in language. One of my teachers at Sac State talked about two different kinds of writers. He said the majority of writers were used by language; that is to say, when they wrote, what they wanted to say was limited by their language because they could not effectively wield it. Then there were writers like Joyce who used language. They were the ones who were able to reimagine language, to not just breathe life into it in a way that allowed them to say exactly what they wanted, but they breathed life into it for the rest of us.

See, language, like the rest of us, changes with time. In one of my favorite books, Walking on Water, Madeleine L'Engle says, 'Language is a living thing; it does not stay the same; it is hard for me to read the language of Piers Plowman, for instance, so radical have the changes been. But language is its own creature. It evolves on its own. It follows the language of its great artists, such as Chaucer.'

Someone could argue that we have artists today who are reimagining language, breathing life into it yet again. They could toss out names like Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, or Thomas Pynchon. They could easily be right. But at the rate we are assaulted with unimaginative language--in everything from television sitcoms to billboard advertisements to text messages--we need all the help we can get. We need more Shakespeares.

By some counts, Shakespeare introduced over 1700 words into the English language. If the Oxford English Dictionary is any reckon, that number can be increased to over 2000. (That's the number of entries that have his work listed as the oldest source.) Language should change with the people, but that change should be driven by good art.

Like all things, left to itself, language falls apart. It ages with time and entropy pulls it apart. Old and rusty clich├ęs become normal, littering the floor of our collective consciousness so that those ideas that once seemed new and novel and helped us see the world in a bright and wonderful way have lost all meaning. We still say 'foot of the hill' but we no longer see the hill as a giant with feet and a head (crown); we see a hill with a base we call a foot.

Since it takes the artists to push language to new territory, to new imagination, everyone else is off the hook, right? Not quite. If Joyce had never been read, and talked about, and grappled with, if Shakespeare had been put on a shelf and forgotten, or never again performed after his death, language would still be floundering. It is up to everyone who speaks the language to continue to grapple with it. The artist is the source, but everybody is the conduit. We, each and every one of us, are part of the solution, part of the reimagination, part of the growth of language.

19 March 2009

I Salute You (or do i?)

Before i go further, there are some things i should clarify.

I don't capitalize the letter 'i' when it is by itself, unless it starts the sentence. I just don't. And i have very good reason for it. (Whether i can convince some future publisher to listen to me, i don't know.)

English is the only language that capitalizes the first-person pronoun. French and Spanish use all lowercase letters for their pronouns. German capitalizes 'you' but leaves 'i' to its diminutive status. English is the only language that exclusively capitalizes the word 'i'. Why is that?

According to this great article in the New York Times, it comes from scribes prior to the 13th century who began capitalizing it to differentiate it from the rest of the letters. That is, without being a capital, it could be misconstrued as a vagrant letter, straying from a word to which it belongs. Yet, on that same token, the word 'a' is left untouched. There is no way to know that when i say 'a round' i didn't instead mean 'around,' unless you look at the words contextually.

If we can understand 'a round' versus 'around' and know that the letter 'a' is good enough on its own without being accentuated, why not also do the same for the letter 'i'?

Because of this precedent established over 800 years ago, we speakers of English have taken on a characteristic of the capital word 'i' that we will be hard-pressed to undo.

Western society is know for its focus on the individual, in contrast to Eastern focus on the collective, the community. I'm not going to say that this contrast was set up because of a single capital letter. Western society is formed from more than just those of us who speak English. However, I will argue that those of us in the Western world who speak English, especially Americans, are far more individual-minded than our non-English-speaking counterparts.

It's been said repeatedly in the news recently that the United States is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not have universal health care. Whether or not you agree with it, it does say something about our America. We are so individualistic, we don't think it's up to the collective to care for the health of the individual; it's up to each person, or family, to work that out.

Or look at our politics. Since the beginning of our country, America has been involved in 21 different wars. The only countries that have been involved in more than us are the United Kingdom and France, both of whom are middle-aged compared to us. This is probably why other countries consider America a bully, or imperialist; we enter wars, or start wars, or provoke wars across the globe, treating rival nations as if we have the right to govern them.

Again, i'm not saying that giving the word 'i' has caused all of this. It hasn't. We have. Yet our language both forms the way we think and instills in us our view of the world. Is it any wonder we are so selfish and individualistic when we place our own selves higher and taller than the others around us? Instead we say, through our language, 'he and she aren't as important as I am, and you are less than I am, too.'

We are a selfish people. Why should we capitalize the first-person pronoun the same way we would the name of God?

There are a couple solutions. We can, like Germany, flip things around. Make 'You' the word we capitalize as we leave 'i' small. Or We can equalize everyone with capitals and give every pronoun that jump in size.

I choose to leave all pronouns small, unless they fall under other rules of capitalization, just as this sentence did. So unless 'i' begins the sentence, i'm keeping him small.

(Just for the record, i've written on this before in my other blogs, but rather than copy it here, or even expand on it, i didn't even consult my previous blog. Every sentence is newly constructed, only the thoughts remain the same, but even then, some new ones entered the fray in this blog.)

17 March 2009

Reason Why

This blog is an experiment.

I have a myspace and a livejournal where i share my thoughts already. Even with those blogs, i stay away from too much personal blogging. Never have i ever written a blog where i've bemoaned my life, or canvassed my week for my loyal 'readers' to know what is going on with me. (I put that in quotes because my readers are my friends, so i consider them friends first and, by far, foremost, but they are my readers.) I'm not a person who likes to share the every details of his life with people, especially the details that i would not enjoy reading.

That's my reasoning anyway. I actually enjoy reading about the lives of my friends, because it gives the illusion that i have more than a cursory connection to most of them. I realize this is hypocritical of me, not to share with my friends what consists of my life, but to enjoy reading about their lives. Part of it comes from my disinterest with writing about my life. I've already lived it, i don't need to re-live it through a blog.

With two blogs alredy under my belt (but to be honest, i need to confess that those blogs are, in all honesty, simply two venues through which to read the same blog), there is no need for a third. Really.

Yet here it is. My experiment. This is going to be a blog unlike any other i've written. This is going to be themed. No '80s night. Nothing centered around ugly articles of clothing, or television shows, or your gender. This is a blog built around language.

I fear that the language we use today has weakened, especially as followers of God. I do include myself in that. I am part of the problem as much as, if not more than, i am part of the solution. This blog is an attempt to combat that, even if only for myself. If language dies, not only does our communication with each other, but so does the communication with ourselves and with our God.

Before i can write about language, i need to get a few things out of the way about myself, or at least about myself in regards to language.

I love stories. I always will. It's part of my personality, part of my wiring. I believe the ability to create and craft stories, as well as enjoy them, is integral to what makes us human. We best learn through the use of stories, hence the fairy tale stories we hear growing up, stories infused with morals, stories that subsequently shape the way we view the world.

That is who i am. I believe in the power of language, yet i have become slightly fearful and largely annoyed with how it has been degraded and weakened. This blog will be an experiment in strengthening language.

High task, to be sure. I know i'm not up for it.

Still, i cannot stand by any longer.

Besides, it's another excuse to write.