A Sky So Blue

15 February 2009

In (Partial) Defence of the Ungrammatical

NO PROBLEM,by maasmeier ___, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic) What is it that keeps us on one path, that makes us entirely certain about what we know, or a least what we think we know? Robert Burton argues that it has little to do with conscious thought – the certainty of knowing arises from “involuntary brain mechanisms”. It is, in short, not a form of logic but a feeling, something that’s necessarily beyond our ken. So it pays to question motives, to probe presumptions, to break down certainties and ask “why is this so?”A recent comment from a customer made me start thinking about what it is that editors take for granted, the touchstone of our craft. Removing all the ancillaries, brushing off the day to day rigmarole, it all comes down to correcting grammar.

It’s not easy to defend grammar, which is by and large a thoroughly boring topic. And having spent a little time planning a series of writing workshops with two teachers on Friday I can attest that the merest mention of grammar will release a series of obscure terms and dire hints of convulsive and compulsive rules to come. Is it important that a writer knows what a present participle is, or just describes herself as a working woman? Written grammar is important only in that it offers a way of formalising on the page what we – at least most of us – instinctively do with the spoken word.

The extent to which we should belabour grammatical conventions is never the point of contention it should be in my profession. True, we need some sort of approbation to ensure that writing is readable, and I endorse most of the hidden tricks that shape written English. But every now and then I come across words in striking combinations that exceed grammar in their cleverness. Margaret Atwood, at once a novelist, poet and essayist, is particularly good at this.

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Babble On

25 January 2009

The Value of Minority Languages

2103512683_7bbf68822e_mLanguages are the commerce of life, the additions and subtractions of our days. Through them we communicate, but they often restrict us in what we can say, how we can say it. And when we can’t understand a language we baulk at the impediment to exchange, often without thinking much about whether there would have been any exchange anyway. People get uptight about minority languages in all countries, insist that they shouldn’t be part of the public conversation. To be an Australian, people will say, you must speak English. To be American as well, in the United States. But why? Surely a common language is convenient and translation for minority language speakers can be expensive, but so too are grants to sporting clubs, support for the arts, government-funded advertising campaigns, and so on. I’m sure you get the message.

We live in a world in which mutually incomprehensible languages are a fact of life. Voters in Nashville, a city of around 600,000 people, voted down an ‘English first’ proposal this week, which would have taken away translation support services for the 10% of the population who don’t speak English. Sure, Tennessee’s official language is English anyway, but this would have been a nasty jab at people who have recently arrived as refugees, and the long-term Spanish speaking population.

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Worthless Words

25 November 2008

Wherein the Editor Vents, a Little

One day this will seem like youth, by Greg Gladman, with Creative Commons licenceBad writing is my bane. I don’t mean the sort of writing that appears on blogs as streams of consciousness, a quick and ready reflection of the world as it changes. That can be excused because it doesn’t carry with it the pretence of anything that might even approach perfection. I can even reluctantly leave aside newspaper journalism, for much the same reason. And my concern is not so much with the elision of facts or any confusion of dates. That happens to the best of us, and most readers are wise enough to navigate through the discrepancies. No, my beef, and what pains me professionally, is with writing that should be good but isn’t, that has a message but can’t communicate.

Where does written communication start and end – how does it happen? All communication should be a two-way process. Speaking and listening creates a dialogue, an exchange, and in a similar manner writing should always acknowledge the reader. Quite obviously writing can’t be as dialectical as a conversation that reaches agreement, but writers should always imagine the reception of their account or argument before they begin. Even if you write for yourself you’re still an audience and things have to make sense. But how many times have you heard someone say “I don’t know what I meant when I wrote that”?

Bad writing by people who should know and do better can be intensely frustrating for someone like me, but it also has practical implications. Allow me to given an example. Last night I rewrote a domestic helper’s statement that originally described a situation in which she was given a letter telling her that if she didn’t improve her performance after a week of compulsory training she would be sacked. This, in itself, might not seem confusing, but the statement had been transcribed by a help agency that often deals with cases of unfair dismissal and knew the details of the woman’s situation. By passing on the statement without thinking whether it communicated the problem at hand, that problem could well have grown.

Even though things could better, by Darwin Bell, with Creative Commons licenceAlthough this missive was labelled a “termination letter”, what the statement actually described was an official warning, and it would have been considered as such under the law in Hong Kong. Had the statement been submitted to the Labour Tribunal unaltered it would have been considered evidence of the woman breaching her own employment contract by leaving after being given a mere warning, with the concomitant financial burden of having to pay her employer the equivalent of a month’s salary and make her own way back to the Philippines without a ticket provided as part of her severance package.  But what the woman had related to be written down was that she was given a termination letter that would be rescinded following the compulsory notice period of one month if she performed well after her training.

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The Contours of Language

29 September 2008

On Possibilities and their Problems

No language is purely descriptive. Each shapes our world in its own manner because it allows us to understand life in a particular way, defined not only by personal inclinations but also by vocabulary, grammar and syntax, those things that tell us we can say this but not that. All languages generate limits that we push against, borders that we find difficult to cross. We might think that all things exist before words, for instance, but some don’t and that holds us back.

Consider the phrase ‘premenstrual syndrome’. Before it became accepted terminology women suffered isolated symptoms, often misunderstood or denigrated. Afterwards it allowed an understanding of the complex ways in which the menstrual cycle affected the rest of the body, including the brain. In its generality it described anew, it created something that could be held against existing descriptions to prove them wrong at worst or inadequate at best.

Where once lay untroubled plains of life now rose hills and crags, a difficult geography that challenged just as much as it confirmed.

Language has that sort of capacity to both exceed and disturb only because people are willing to look beyond what is and consider what might be. Some brave souls travel outside the general conversation, turn aside from the conventions of words piled against each other, and then return with new ideas that become new words that describe age-old things. Discontent is their condition, and we’re lucky that they’re so troubled.

But in our more common grappling with language we open new territory far less often. We’re more likely to stumble over words, weigh ourselves down with presumptions rather than possibilities. Much has been said about the capacity of English speakers to shift rather effortlessly from ‘ought’ or ‘should’ to ‘must’, from describing an action that is morally or ethically correct to insisting that the same action is necessary. That we must do it, now. Instead of exploring new terrain we simply fall back on a familiar landscape of old ideas and comfortable words.

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The Rise of Little G

3 September 2008

On the Semiotics of Household Dominance

Every family has a dominant member – he who grabs the purse strings, she who brings order to the house, whoever defines the discourse of domestic life. In extended families a grandparent might hold sway, in single parent families the eldest child could well prevail. Depending on the extent to which physical space is at a premium, there may be a competition of interests, a battle of wills if you like. All of these scenarios apply to hamlets as they do to cities, and shift with relative ease across countries and cultures. People live to together and they have to get by. So one person emerges as the conciliator, the arbitrator, the boss. In my apartment, Little G reigns supreme.

Now let me tell you something about two-year-old children, if you don’t already know. They are, as you might imagine, just approaching and sometimes just passing the threshold of rationality. Those who speak early and easily take little time to insinuate themselves into higher levels of the hierarchy, on par with their elder siblings. Before they know it, your older children have no effective seniority, and they wish for a slightly dumber – but not too dumb – younger kid around their knees. But my step-daughter never had a chance.

Little G, now almost three, realised very early on that speech patterns determine thought, that convincing other people to speak in a certain way will limit, mould and direct the manner in which they think. From the moment her younger brother arrived, barely a year after her own grand entrance, she insisted on calling him Baby. She knew his name but spoke it not once in his first year. After a month or two of resistance her sister, my wife and I were all in line, using the now correct term for the kid. Then Little G began the second stage of her strategy – objectification. Her brother became The Baby, and we fell into line. She had risen above her station, breached mere childhood and entered the realm of personhood.

Soon, my step-daughter was The Ate (ate, for those or you who don’t know, is ‘elder sister’ in Tagalog). Little G had leapt up another level, into the embrace of adulthood – The Ate is eighteen.

Because parents love their children – or at least they ought to – we accepted this shift in the power balance with a certain calm naiveté. Cute little kid we thought, and strong willed. But we were just kidding ourselves. I soon became The Papa and my wife, as you might imagine by now, became The Mama, although Little G sometimes condescends to call her Aida. More recently we’ve had two women staying with us long enough for them to become de facto members of the family. Little G mostly calls them by their names, Beth and Yayah. She considers them her equals.

Little G can rise no further in this household – she’s already at the top.

Speaking in Tongues

23 June 2008

Michael Erard’s Flawed Take on the Future of English

Letters, by jmtimages, with Creative Commons licenceHistory has a habit of playing tricks on those who claim to see the future. Hindsight – that underrated ability to reflect rather than forget – makes easy mock of unquestioned presumptions as they fade into undignified obscurity. It’s common now to speak of English as the coming ‘global’ language, pointing to the multitudes who use it as their second tongue, but it’s impossible to predict what will happen next. Perhaps that’s why Michael Erard has a different take on the matter in the July issue of Wired.

Erard’s argument is that English, with a tightening grip on intercultural communication given the sheer diversity of its non-native speakers, will change rapidly to suit new circumstances. ‘Panglish’, or a global form of English with many linguistic influences, will emerge soon. This isn’t an original position – it’s been floating around the English-language media lately, with the Telegraph in the UK somewhat vaguely reporting a study mentioned in Scientific American last March. But Erard gives the Panglish line a little more substance, creating an important place for Chinese speakers of English in the change.

Writing first of English in the near future, Erard makes the unsupported claim that “by 2020 native speakers will make up only 15 percent of the 2 billion people who will be using or learning the language.” You could well ask why that particular year and not any other – futurists do like nice round numbers.

And by what calculation did Erard reach the figure of 2 billion people? He gives no answer but the inclusion of those only learning the language is a clue. It’s a guess, nicely rounded up. To include learners, who might never have a fully practical use for the language, as bona fide non-native speakers is a little like including passengers as train drivers. Well, you could argue, they’re both using the same vehicle.

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Conventionally Speaking

6 June 2008

How We Listen to Nothing

NO, by neil-san, with Creative Commons licenceWho speaks in the silence between words? In his masterly essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell wrote of hackneyed phrases, terms that enter the popular imagination deprived of their original meaning, devoid of context and “ready to think your thoughts for you”. They appeal to the emotions rather than the rational mind, and use silence as a shield, as a way to stop true understanding. Their intent is negative – by excluding something they allow someone or something else to speak quietly to you, urging you to ignore what you already know.

Some of these phrases are deliberate manipulations, others are unfortunate cultural lapses. All are dangerous.

Consider first a term that I often see in my professional capacity as an editor in Hong Kong – the ‘Tiananmen Incident’. Now regardless of the dubious capitalization, what does this describe? An event that took place in Tiananmen presumably, and anyone with a little curiosity could easily find that the site is a plaza in Beijing, a famous meeting place and home to Mao Zedong’s tomb. But what does the term refuse to say? That 19 years and two days ago the Chinese military, at the instructions of the government, massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, mainly students.

Speak out for Peace, by mudkat, with Creative Commons licenceThat’s common knowledge, right? Yes, but in China it’s not commonly spoken. And in Hong Kong, that little part of China which really isn’t China at all, academics tend not to use the term ‘massacre’. They sanitise the situation with ‘incident’. That’s the official government line, and as Hong Kong academic Carsten Holz argued in the April print edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review last year, those who don’t listen to the voice in the silence soon find that their research in China generates few useful results. Data are not forthcoming and the mandatory local research partner is unlikely to be found.

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