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A little less than a happy high
Reasoning why
Occasionally, in the course of conversations with people, my mind comes up with questions that don’t have ready answers. These usually get filed away, but remain active in my thoughts, gnawing at me until I either give them enough attention to finding a solution (or manage to stumble blindly into one.) The experience is not unlike that last bit of a bagel’s skin that gets stuck to the roof of your mouth. It’s nothing, a speck, but for some reason you can’t leave it alone.

A while back, one such question came up around "proper" use of language. It seems that there’s a fair amount of consternation around the idea that other people be required to write and speak correctly. The idea was baffling to me. I can be obsessive about my use of language, often to the point of rereading things I’ve written and rewriting passages that are awkward or don’t reflect my meaning as well as I should like several times (and then repeat the process several times) before I am comfortable (though never satisfied) with the results. On the other hand, I seem to be far more forgiving of the personal quirks that other people bring to their writing and speech.*

I tend to look at language and usage as incredibly fluid. Perhaps this stems from my studies in history where I worked with primary sources that predated the great trends towards standardization (which itself is a relatively modern contrivance). I’ve read beautiful letters penned by incredibly literate souls that would have driven me up the wall had I obsessed over the accepted usage of the day or what simply may have been their casual errors. Perhaps I’m just more forgiving because it is the meaning behind the symbols and not the symbols themselves that are of import to me.

Since the question came up, I’ve actually been reading about language sporadically, trying to get a better understanding of my relationship with it and puzzling through why I am comfortable with people using it as they see fit. A couple of days ago, I stumbled across this:

There is more or less effective use of language, more or less fashionable use of language, but to introduce the concept of correctness is usually only to confuse one’s thinking. In mathematics, the correct answer for two-times-two is four, and answers like three and five are incorrect – incorrect for everybody, not just for mathematicians – but in language, the difference between I saw and I seen is not well described by saying that one is correct and the other is incorrect. The difference is that I saw is characteristic of the most fashionable dialects, and I seen is not; the locutions have different impacts. Anyone who wishes to be accepted in the United States as a cultured person had better say I saw and avoid I seen, but such choices are too subtle and varied to be well described by the rigid distinction involved in correctness. Linguistic preferences tend to grow from dialects and to reflect their complexities; in the main, they are best understood on that basis.
-Charlton Laird, "Language and the Dictionary"

I like it.

*I do notice differences, but they don’t upset me. I’m certain that wisdom_seeker will remember my teasing her over her long "o" in potato, but that was more in fun than out of a desire for correction. It’s along the same lines as her smiling over my unintentional archaisms like, "If I had my druthers," or, "You will rue the day."

Current Mood: interested

17 comments or Leave a comment
c_m_i From: c_m_i Date: January 14th, 2003 08:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Being a staunchy English major, I shake my fist and say, "It's crap!"

There is an obligation to communication. That is, you must make the effort to be as clear as possible with as many people as possible. Otherwise, what you wish to communicate will die a death of limited understanding.

There are, I believe, Universal Truths. The medium of these Truths affects the message ("2 B R not 2 B?" "OMG! 1 m0r N2 th br33ch!"). These Truths can be translated, sure, but the translator must be equal to the task. Joe Guy who knows Hebrew can not simply translate the Psalms ("Something about a Death Valley and unspooky evil..."). Therefore, while I have no problem with evolving language, I don't think most people (including me!) are up to the task.

komos From: komos Date: January 14th, 2003 09:39 am (UTC) (Link)
I’m merely attempting to understand why I’m more forgiving of usage than others. I am not defending someone’s right to communicate in such a way as to fail utterly to convey meaning. And while I’ll agree that there is an obligation to communication every time one uses language, I think that obligation extends to the "intended target audience" as opposed to "as many people as possible." The latter is far more rigid, and I think that it ultimately limits the artistry of language.

Under this idea, Shakespeare’s genius must be questioned because his works are not readily accessible to the majority of modern readers. His writing is beautiful, but it incorporates so many archaisms that a reader who has not been trained to understand them may well lose a great deal of the meaning. House of Leaves’ non-linear and occasionally architectural structure becomes an obstacle to communication rather than integral part of the work. While I’ll agree that communication is of paramount importance, I don’t believe that the writer is forced to accept such rigid rules that he must structure his work to accommodate what is effectively the lowest common denominator.*

Translation is another matter, and most translators will offer the caveat that their work is an interpretation more than anything else. The translator understands that any effort may come close, but will ultimately fail to convey the Truth of the original. In some cases (as with the Koran) it is actually believed that a translation cannot even be called by the same title. Incidentally, the King James Bible received a treatment similar to that which you are describing. Granted, it wasn’t as extreme, but "cleaning up" the text to better accommodate the mores of the time as opposed to giving a truer interpretation of the original text does not necessarily mean that it’s value is completely lost. It merely creates a new document.

*I think there are responsibilities on the part of the reader as well, but that may fall into a different discussion. Thinking about who is responsible for conveying understanding is reminding me of the "Big Yellow Dot" in the MFA, a piece I still have yet to grasp. I make fun, but on some level I think it's my failing.
riverbank From: riverbank Date: January 14th, 2003 12:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
yes! have fun with words. they can be used in an abstract way to convey feeling or solidly to get a cross a statement.
komos From: komos Date: January 15th, 2003 08:54 am (UTC) (Link)
Just thought of this... workswithwords has posted some remarkable abstract pieces that do much to convey feelings. On some level they could be seen as not making sense because there is not a clear linear structure evident, but they are brilliant.
riverbank From: riverbank Date: January 15th, 2003 03:26 pm (UTC) (Link)


thanks i'll take a look

in my own free ramblings i get caught up in description. i'm so visual, writing is new to me.
From: uruz Date: January 15th, 2003 06:10 am (UTC) (Link)
If I can express my opinion without fanning any flames... let's see.

Ironically enough, I barely understand the English language. We're taught how to speak, and how to read and write, but very rarely do anything but scratch the surface of understanding. I say 'we', meaning, the common person, without a literary degree. Myself, I've only begun to appreciate correcter speech and writing patterns. There's many grammatical faux pas I have committed, and I strive to correct myself when I am informed of my error.

That said, I must defend Shakespeare's writing as what it is. At the time, and still today, it is literary genius. The language is correct for the time in which it was written, and it gives us a glimpse as to the trends and styles of that time. And in defense of House of Leaves, while I've not read the book, I've heard about the odd style that it has, and I think it's innovative and interesting.

I suppose my whole peeve centers around the common man's communication, and not in great works of literature. If you participate in a medium where the written word is used, then your utmost concern should be ensuring that those who would read your communications have the easiest time on understanding them. There is no dialect in correct English, although someone using the phrase "y'all" would be acceptable if the person was from the South, for example. You don't type "yall", as that's an entirely different word.

Punctuation, capitalization, grammatical correctness and spelling are what's important to me. Without those, whatever meaning your opinion or idea has is cheapened.

What would you think if the Wall Street Journal was published with typos, bad grammar, and l33t sp34k?
komos From: komos Date: January 15th, 2003 07:31 am (UTC) (Link)
Shakespeare’s works also predate the great movements towards standardization in spelling and usage, and he takes great liberties for the sake of making words fit his meter. Even if we forgive him this, it’s not clear that he managed to meet the IA’s requirement to "be as clear as possible with as many people as possible" if we assume that he was writing for the time. A good deal of his work challenges the viewer even once you become familiar with his dialect, and I’m not sure that he intended to communicate greater truths to the "groundlings" in the audience for his plays, or that he wrote his sonnets with English pig farmers in mind.

I think you picked up on the issue with IA’s tack, however. It would be very easy to stray into a discussion of what does/does not make great literature, and that was never my intent. I wanted to talk specifically about language, and yes, language in common usage.

The problem with applying rigid standards to internet communication poses its own problems. For instance, for the sake of speed, there is a tendency to abbreviate to the point of incomprehensibility. IIRC, BRB, ROTFLMAO have all fallen into common usage, but have absolutely no meaning to someone who has not spent a fair amount of time in the medium. Other adaptations for the sake of speed are truncated spellings and the tendency to drop apostrophes, capitalization, and punctuation. Someone posting on IRC can write, "brb i nd 2 get fd," and reasonably expect to be understood by a certain audience. A fair number of people reading this, however will look at it and see an incomprehensible string of cononants. Similarly, because there is such an emphasis on speed, these trends tend to be accompanied with unintentional mistakes in spelling, grammar, and usage.

Your own aggressive online footprint is itself a kind of adaptive abbreviation for the sake of speed. While it’s quicker to toss out a quip or call someone a "retard" in response to something they said, I think it’s been demonstrated pretty clearly that the meaning behind those quips is often lost because the natural response to aggressiveness is defensiveness. You certainly convey a message, but the real meaning of what you are attempting to say is lost to the greater part of your audience.

The short answer? Basically, a forum allows anyone to have a voice, where everyone is attempting to use that voice as quickly as possible, breeds sloppiness.

Talking about the Wall Street Journal is another matter entirely. The WSJ is a document that is purchased specifically for the information that’s contained therein. The writers, editors, and analysts employed by the organizations are professionals. Since I am purchasing goods and services from individuals who are being paid to present accurate information in a manner that is as clear as possible, then yes, they are held to a different standard. I will hold books, business correspondence, magazines, and websites to that standard as well. Personal email, journal entries, and IRC communication? These tend reflect the personal quirks of the author or are reflective of a developing dialect in and of themselves.
From: uruz Date: January 15th, 2003 08:00 am (UTC) (Link)

I agree with most of the points you present above (and interesting how you tie in my quick off-the-cuff utterances into a similar vein of thought - touche, and well done) but I have to pick apart one statement, if you don't mind:

The short answer? Basically, a forum allows anyone to have a voice, where everyone is attempting to use that voice as quickly as possible, breeds sloppiness.

The last time that I checked, my Internet usage or words-per-minute score isn't being monitored second by second. Speed really isn't of issue, even for the hunt-and-peck typists. And while I might cross my eyes at an obvious typo (and I would most certainly *not* layeth the retard smackdown on someone for a simple typo) or an unnecessary abbreviation or acronym, my anger is directed mostly towards people who purposefully ignore simple rules like homonyms (there/they're/their) and text rules (your/you're) on a forum board or chat room under the premise of "its the internet, who cares, n00b".

Ignorance, my dear panda, is not bliss. And it makes Uruz angry.
komos From: komos Date: January 15th, 2003 08:51 am (UTC) (Link)
No, no one is being monitored, but because the forum allows communication that is effectively instantaneous, there is the perception that speed is vital. This is especially true in the case of IRC/IM, but also applies to message boards and lists. Responses that hit the list first receive the most attention. Generally, they make most of the salient points and make use of our natural short attention spans. This allows the author to grab the kudos (if there is any) for original thinking, or for the smackdown of someone who is obviously wrong thinking. Perception being 90% of reality, it really has become a factor.

Incidentally, in this thread alone, I’ve managed to drop a comma, used it’s instead of its, and at one point used the wrong verb form of to be. This was partly due to the speed of my responses and partly due to poor editing. (Either way, you can call it carelessness on my part.) In spite of these obvious and flagrant flubs, I’m pretty sure that I’ve managed to convey the desired meaning. The meaning is not entirely dependent upon the symbols. Yes, choosing the currently accepted use of the symbols does tend to convey meaning more concisely, but the meaning does not necessarily become obscured simply through poor usage. I can recognize that "your going to understand me" is non-standard usage, but I can infer that "your" is a sloppy use of "you are" as a subject/verb because its use as a possessive is non-sensical. There are other examples that could be more confusing, such as "your going to the store," but most of the time the intent is easily discernable from the context in which the structure falls. So while the meaning-centered argument is perhaps the strongest in support of a hard-line stance for accepted usage, I tend to think it falls short when applied to certain forums and certain audiences. (This isn’t to say that when meaning is obscured I won’t hold the author responsible for being unclear, but my experience online has been that such occurs most often because of errors in logic or just bad writing.)

At any rate, the post was intended to be an exploration of why I tend to be a lot more forgiving of these errors where others are driven batty. I can say, "they’re just not that important," but it was important to me to puzzle through why that’s the case.
skilletfriar From: skilletfriar Date: January 15th, 2003 07:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have always had a gut reaction against language. For some reason I have always thought without language. Lots of people say that that's how they think as well, but I am not sure. I can never prove this entirely, all I can do is ask people what they mean by "think in english." Personally I have realized that there is a level of thought more instantaneous than language; a level of thought that is translated by the brain into english (etc.). I have always described language as: a level of thought where the concept of the thought is rolled flat like cookie dough, and then cutters following the rules of grammer, dialect, semantics, etc, come along and chop the thought to bits. These bits are then lined up in a widely acceptable manner so as to be understood by another human thinking similar thoughts. (If I walked down the street wearing headphones and at an epiphanal part screamed at the dude next to me about it, he would [ hopefully] just toss his wallet and keep running.) Now, an overheard conversation at the bar, most likely this is an intance of any-joe taking his friends to the bar with his gums flapping.
(In my experience there are nearly always girl in those parties that would be happier with yours truly, but maybe they just don't know it..wink, wink)

However, the Poet might follow this rule that you mentioned: "Translation is another matter, and most translators will offer the caveat that their work is an interpretation more than anything else. The translator understands that any effort may come close, but will ultimately fail to convey the Truth of the original."

I think this is more of a metaphysical concept of what is a real thought before authentic translation can be judged. A true poet can take the cookie cutters of grammer etc. and throw them away because to him the subtlety of language has been taken over basic usage of language. The Poet can view language (and the grammatical rules therein) as the best tool available to describe a multi-dimensional flow of thought. SHe sees it as not a flattened amount of dough, but a river. Upon this river The Poet has access to a sequence of sticks floating end to end. As verbose, as eloquently used as The Poet's language is, SHe can only jump from stick to stick. Unfortunately for The Poet, SHe is stuck within the confines of the one-dimensionality of one word following another.

The Master Poet can frogger-style jump back and forth, word-chain to word-chain, and give true two-dimensional meaning to the words reprinted. This is a level of combination that is rarely overcome. I mean, Joe-Frat Party has never come close to this nonlinear level of lingual control. I think that people who truly master the translation of thought into language have fallen far short of thought in its entirety. The Hermit watches people jumping log to log, Frogger style and thinks about the fishes swimming beneath the logs. Or maybe SHe thinks about the delta at the end of the river, or maybe the ocean beyond.

I just think of how much language is thrown around that doesn't contribute to the actual description of any of the primary senses. At what level do I describe my own senses, and at what level am I playing The Part?

Next comes the example of the Poet: I heartily agree with your statemen
skilletfriar From: skilletfriar Date: January 15th, 2003 08:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have always had a gut reaction against "language."

Language is what one human uses to define/describe/relate Her/His experience to another. The master Linguist can explain the point at which the concept falls short (or) looms large. The master Story Teller can get you to picture the wallpaper on the walls without saying a word about it. The master Poet can provide a sequence of words that give the (educated) Reader a description of the undersides of the clouds hinted at in the poem. The experienced Frogger Player knows how this is possible.

As a thought pops into a person's mind, it arrives much as flattened dough might. A series of cookie-cutters based on grammer, semantics, dialect, social accessibility, come and cut out a one-dimensional version of the original thought. This arena of contention is well and good in the realm of immediate politics, but the Master Poet knows better.

The Master Poet can be described as the Master Frogger Player. As the thoughts float from one end to another, SHe can break the contemporary rules of following one linear thought to its end. This usually results in The Poet's recognition coming after all possible linear thoughts have come to an end, and only the combinations of each individual train of one dimensional linguistic thought have yielded cleverness.
Unperverted thought can be viewed as a nebulous blob of dough, or more astutely, a river. The direction and speed of the river is of course dictated by contemporary concept of the flow of time, but it is the debris in the river that interests me. The Poet's mad-crazy Frogger skills come to be tested as SHe jumps from stick to stick perpendicular to the flow of the river. The summation of each "Frogger Game" is of course the poem available for viewing. The concept of the river of thought is what comes under my scrutiny.

If a frog can jump from the right to left or from up to down, how is the depth of my thought conveyed? Unless this is this what you meant when you said, "Translation is another matter, and most translators will offer the caveat that their work is an interpretation more than anything else. The translator understands that any effort may come close, but will ultimately fail to convey the Truth of the original."

The Master Poet doesn't think about the possibilities of the frog jumping left or right or back and forth, but of the fish swimming beneath. There is also always the possibility of the delta or the oceans beyond.

Many people read books about meditation or ritual magick to reach a level of fundemental denial of what is considered to be the one absolutely unique human instinct: language. Instinct defined as an extremely complex behavior that is uniformally practiced by all members of that species. Globally, the snapshot of any language, whether or not it evolves absolutely independently of the others, is equally complex as the rest. This indicates that each language (however one might differentiate between them), has evolved independently of the rest.

The end result of these Crowelian books on meditation is nothing more complicated than seeing the sticks of language floating in front of you, the sticks floating next to you, and the fishes swimming beneath you, simultaneously.
I think that there is level incorporating all of this abstract thought and bring all abstraction to an end. Unfortunately I have no friggin idea what this might be.
I guess James Joyce might have summed this up with his Finnegans Wake, too bad I'm not smart enough to get it.
komos From: komos Date: January 17th, 2003 08:59 am (UTC) (Link)
I was actually only delving into translation in the sense of putting something into the words of another language, though I think the same idea may be applicable to the problem you’ve suggested. The reality is that it is never possible to fully communicate your ideas, your feelings, or your experiences. Still, I tend to think that all higher order thought is dependent on symbols. These symbols may vary greatly, but communication takes the form of expressing symbols that you have in common with your audience. From the same essay:

The earliest orderly thinkers of whom we have any record were aware that they could not think or speak with any precision unless they could first agree upon the terms they were using.

This discussion is possible because we both see characters of the Roman alphabet forming words in a language we share, and additionally because where you believe that language was insufficient alone, you were able to rely on metaphor which you could reasonably expect to hold meaning to me. You were able to talk about words being "twigs in a stream," the poet being capable of a kind of "Frogger" approach to her use of language, or the sage contemplating "the fish swimming below the surface." Similarly, I could do an ink-brush rendering of a plum blossom, and others who have similar experience with that symbols or similar training in its use would understand the idea or experience I was trying to convey. I believe that symbols extend far outside of the realm of language, and nearly every form of expression that’s been explored by humankind is driven by a desire to communicate.

What I find fascinating is that it is when this exchange of symbols is complete enough and complex enough to sufficiently convey an expression of what was believed to be ineffable. This, I think, is where communication is elevated into the realm of art.
riverbank From: riverbank Date: January 14th, 2003 12:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
great quote

accents and dialects are what makes languages so interesting. i get quite annoyed at the television for having the majority of vanilla (not meaning particularly white) american accents. my favorites are drawly or gutteral whatever the proper terms are (southern, rural, and outback).

i'm not very proper in language usage, having a fading rural accent where beginnings and ends drop off occationally. never was a good speller either. gets on my nerves that it's still alright in this country to think someone with a hick accent or an innercity dialect is somehow uneducated.a
komos From: komos Date: January 14th, 2003 02:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it's ultimately human nature to look upon some dialects with greater awe than others. This is one of the reasons why someone with a proper Queen's English dialect are initially assumed to be more intelligent than, say, someone from Downeast Maine. I think this is where the "more or less fashionable" comes into play.
komos From: komos Date: January 14th, 2003 02:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have poor editing skills. Should read "...is initially assumed..."
guitarcries From: guitarcries Date: January 14th, 2003 01:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
And why are you saying "You will rue the day!" to your poor innocent girlfriend?
komos From: komos Date: January 14th, 2003 01:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh... it was less that than her making reference to a post I made here after someone stole my Phoenix from my office where I promised that that person would rue the day.

The strangest thing I've said to her in recent memory involved the "twisty bell" that she claims she never had in her house.
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