Awaken Your Tongues

There is an article in the Telegraph today (another article) rejecting the idea that we shouldn’t require correct English from students. As someone who has used English professionally for most of my working life, the argument that language matters resonates strongly with me. And thus the article spoke to me: specifically, it said Χρησιμοποίησα έναν μεταφραστή για αυτό.

The article makes the valid point that transmitting ideas requires a coherence and thus there must be a shared structure of language in education. This education, they suggest but do not explicitly say, will build the foundation for a better future, one based on the Western civilized ideals that have grown from Aristotle, Augustine, Voltaire, and so forth. And we see a shared structure in the lives of these greats:

Aristotle learnt from texts written in Greek and wrote in Greek.

Augustine was one of a long line of Christian scholars who read the Bible in Latin and wrote commentaries in Latin.

Voltaire’s work is considered by some the best expression of philosophy in French ever.

And, as someone who had what some call a classical education, I studied Greek, Latin, and French while at school and fully agree that contributed to my facility with language and thought. Of course, each of those languages is (self-evidently) not “correct English”; the education the Telegraph author would likely hold up as an example of the right way to educate also expressed the idea that some thoughts are better in their thinker’s own language than in some arbitrarily privileged language.

And it is arbitrarily privileged: after all, English was the language of the uneducated before it wasn’t. English is a superbly expressive language; there is more than Imperialism that makes it the language institutions and businesses in so many other countries use it for international dealings. But English, especially a particular dialect of English at a particular point in time, isn’t the perfect language against which all others fail in some way and none exceed in any way.

What the article misses is that there are two types of transmission: the transmission of things such as laws and technologies, where technical accuracy is important, where an uncertain meaning or a change in spelling might cause unfairness or harm; and the transmission of experiences such as emotion, where every expression is personal.

It is this second use of language that those who want to embrace Englishes other than the “correct” one seek to honour. As we rightly honour the works of Shakespeare. A writer who Englished so hard in the expression of human experience that he verbed the nouns and nouned the verbs, then just plain made up more words, a writer who spelt words differently on different days, sometimes on the same page.

The poster child for English language culture is also the poster child for not being technically accurate in spelling one’s own name.

I love English. I love the way it tastes. I love the way it can express a complex rule in a way that can be applied to an unexpected future with reasonable fairness. And so I fully believe studying it can help with other areas of life, just as studying Latin or any other language can help. But I also know that correcting the spelling in a flawed argument doesn’t make the argument valid.

4 thoughts on “Awaken Your Tongues

  1. Ultimately, isn’t all writing petrified speech? And even if the spelling was etched phonetically, the speech would suffer not at all?

    How often have I heard the phrase, it loses something in translation. Lost in translation is no doubt a given when bopping from culture to culture, language to language, no?

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    1. Writing is more than petrified speech: some instances of writing are the fixing of speech in time and space; but typography can add information that isn’t in the words themselves, making some writing more than the speech it includes. Phonetic spelling—or the lack thereof—is a good example: writing can explicitly distinguish between homophones (such as read and red) in a way that speech only does by implication.

      However, any one form of encoding speech is definitely a subjective (sometimes even arbitrary) rather than objective symbol set, shaped—as you say—by the culture &c. of the “creators”.

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      1. OK, so here’s the next question: will there be any writing that is strictly for reading and should not be or cannot be spoken aloud and understood by a listener?

        Yes, only context can separate homophones during the listening process. But why would that process be differentiated from the reading process?

        He peeked at thirty years of age.
        He peeked around the corner at the girls.
        He peeked the interest of the inspector.

        Spoken, those all make sense. Read, they do not. Is this a failure of language’s relatively recent adaptation to being written?
        Or, perhaps, is this some molding of the written word to more quickly and accurately communicate meaning and intent?

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        1. Warning signs, emoji, and such might qualify as writing that is unspeakable—or at least close to.

          I think all methods of communication fail in certain ways and succeed in others, often due to the same trait: for example, the sound of spoken language can convey additional meaning through tone but also inhibit comprehension through accent.

          Written word being different from speech because a drive for accuracy has moulded it more strongly feels plausible: speech developed being used in real time between people in the same place, so if it wasn’t clear a listener could ask questions, and that ability remains common even with modern technology removing the need for proximity; whereas, notices, letters, &c. are often a replacement for a conversation so are more vulnerable to lack of clarity.

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