Jun 262004

While my back was turned blogs again united to take the power back, this time over the English language:

Prior to the arrival of the Blogosphere, the Academics controlled the media. Not directly, of course, but the standards in which the media and journalists conformed to the literary fads. Journalists self-regulated, in consultation with their former professors, to rule on the standard use of “is.”

We reject it. We reject the intrusion. The people are no longer willing to surrender the media, the press, to today’s journalists. Now unfortunately, the Chomskys of the world didn’t get the memo. They’re finding out that the people have rejected their view, their standards, and their hold on the common tongue. It is OUR language.

The next time someone attempts to dismiss your message, your opinion, or your right to speak by attacking the structure or style you’ve used, tell them to stick it. This will get a lot worse before it gets any better. The fortresses of those ivory towers are pretty powerful. They’ll not surrender their power and position without a fight. And a fight is just what they are going to get.

Vox populi vox dei; but we might ask, before storming the barricades, what the enemy’s position really is. A brief multiple-choice quiz may clear this up. Who said “No native speaker can make a mistake”?

A. Me
B. The people
C. A famous 20th century linguist

The answer, of course, is C (Allen Walker Read). Mrs. du Toit has hold of the wrong end of the telescope. “Correctness” has been very much out of fashion for the last hundred years or so, since Saussure promoted philology and grammar to “linguistics.” Descriptivism dominates academic discourse. It may take a prole to speak Ebonics but it takes a professor to suggest that it be taught in school.

The popular reaction, understandably, veers wildly toward prescriptivism. The language column is the most popular feature of every newspaper and magazine; William Safire got several books out of his. The local bar is thick with grammarians. A badly punctuated guide to British punctuation becomes an American best-seller. (thanks to Our Girl in Chicago.) The phone lines clog every time Patricia T. O’Connor appears on NPR, every caller with his tiny axe to grind.

Carol from Woodbridge boldly comes out against “irregardless,” which is ugly, has a needless and confusing prefix, is not in the dictionary (except as vulg.), and differs from “inflammable,” which no one complains about, only in the last respect. Malik from Staten Island objects to “whom” where “who” is meant. But as the great language historian Otto Jesperson points out, flexion tends to disappear as languages age. “Habaidedeima” becomes “had.” “Cut” loses its endings, serving as present singular, present plural, past singular and plural, and past, present and future perfect, and we’re better off for the fact. “Whom” will eventually land in the dustbin with “whomever,” now rarely used and never correctly. Spelling “night” and “light” as the advertisers do sends Tony from Brooklyn into a towering rage, lest the words no longer betray their Old High German origins. These are the people on language; hear them roar.

Alleged vulgarisms are sometimes not merely harmless but useful. Second person singular and plural are identical in Standard English, which causes no end of confusion. The Southern “y’all” distinguishes them nicely. “Ain’t I” was a perfectly acceptable and euphonious usage 150 years ago — it shows up in Henry James — until the schoolmarms got wind of it and began to insist on “am I not,” or worse, the illogical “aren’t I.”

Languages evolve, for good and ill, though mostly for good: natural selection applies. They are spontaneous orders, like markets. “The people” cannot take English back, never having surrendered it in the first place. Educated speakers exert disproportionate influence over its evolution, and as more people can do their own publishing there will be more educated speakers. This is the kernel of the truth in Mrs. du Toit’s remarks. But her counter-revolution is wholly imaginary. “Blog” will shortly appear in the OED, though I won’t hold my breath, as she seems to be doing, for “blogosphere,” let alone “Instalanche.”

H.W. Fowler, a moderate prescriptivist, adopts a sensible mediate position:

Many idioms are seen, if they are tested by grammar or logic, not to say what they are nevertheless well understood to mean. Fastidious people point out the sin, and easy-going people, who are more numerous, take little notice and go on committing it. Then the fastidious people, if they are foolish, get excited and talk of ignorance and solecisms, and are laughed at as pedants; or, if they are wise, say no more about it and wait. The indefensibles, however sturdy, may prove to be not immortal, and anyway there are much more profitable ways of spending time than baiting them. It is well, however, to realize that there are such things as foolish idioms; an abundance of them in a language can be no credit to it or its users, and drawing attention to them may help to keep down their numbers.

Best, as Fowler suggests, to say no more about it and wait. But if you’re spoiling for a fight, fight for precision and clarity, and flog a live horse, not a dead one. “Shall” and “will” used to make subtle distinctions between prediction and intent. The whole business proved too complicated, and they have gone, mostly unregretted, the way of the dodo. But “masterful” and “masterly” may yet be saved. There is hope that “amazing,” “phenomenal,” and “awesome,” on the one hand, and “horrid,” “horrible,” “terrible,” and “awful,” on the other, will (shall?) be resuscitated before they congeal into synonyms for “good” and “bad,” respectively. Mrs. du Toit herself employs “academic” and “academician” interchangably. Doubtless she would consider me pedantic for saying so, but an academic has a job while an academician has a style. “Academician” has pregnant historical associations and is worth preserving. These are some of mine; you have your own. And don’t wait around for the revolution, it won’t be televised and it won’t be blogged either. It isn’t coming.

(Update: Jim Henley comments. Alan Sullivan proposes several principles for rating linguistic innovation, all of which I endorse.)

Jun 162004

Got my hand on your grease gun,
Ooh, it’s like a disease, son.
— Queen, “I’m in Love with My Car”

For the first time in my life, last week, vicariously and briefly, I owned an expensive consumer durable. This is profoundly out of character. I can’t be bothered myself, and Lisa is usually legendarily tight; the local deli guys are still laughing about the time they crazy-glued a quarter to the floor and she tried to pick it up. But she was feeling flush, with her tax refund in hand — the IRS kindly sends you all that free money in May — and she needed a new bicycle, so out she went to shop, and home she came bearing a Giant Prodigy DX, in Aspen Silver. Now this is one flash bike. No boring old wheel spokes for the Prodigy DX, just an inner aluminum frame. Disc brakes. Built-in front and rear lights. A computer that tracks your speed, mileage, and probably heart rate and bad-cholesterol count, although we never managed to figure out its finer points. Cantilevered body, like a Nike swoosh. Adjustable shock absorbers, allowing the rider to control, with precision, the amount of internal bleeding he sustains when he rides over a pothole. Retails for $1649, which our local bike merchant knocked down to $1200, special deal just for us.

Lisa rides the Prodigy home, and hauls it up the stairs to our third-floor walkup, not without difficulty. The bike weighs more than 30 pounds. The handlebars have the approximate wingspan of a California condor, and the cantilevered frame is a lot more fun to look at than to try to carry. We park it in the living room and admire it for a while. Finally she agrees to let me take it out for a spin. If you set the shock absorbers so you don’t feel the bumps the bicycle gives the strange sensation of being about to break in two. If you set them normally, then you feel the bumps. Still, it’s a pleasant, stately ride, the cycling equivalent of an expensive SUV.

Not twelve hundred bones worth of ride, but who cares? The raison d’etre of the Prodigy is to display it before an adoring public. I parked it in front of a line for the Staten Island Ferry. As the attendant came over and asked me, obsequiously, what I paid for the bike; as a hipster child strolled by, muttering “nice bike” out of the side of his mouth; as the tourists in line stared and elbowed each other in the ribs and stared again — then I understood, for the first time, rappers and their bling-bling and dork-knobbed* men and their Lamborghinis. You’re King of the Ghetto, Prince of the Streets. Soon you begin to resent the people who walk by without a second glance. Look at my bike dammit! Can’t you appreciate beauty when you see it?

There remained the small matter of hanging the Prodigy on the wall; we live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and cannot afford to leave it in the middle of the living room like sculpture. Lisa, who is extremely handy, nonetheless concluded, an hour and five gaping holes in the drywall later, that the Prodigy is so oddly balanced that it cannot be hung horizontally with any commercially available bike rack. Possibly it could be hung vertically, by the front wheel, but we don’t have the space for that.

If only I had read The Theory of the Leisure Class with more attention. What Veblen says about churches applies just as well to fancy bicycles:

…the sanctuary and the sacred apparatus are so contrived as not to enhance the comfort or fullness of life of the vicarious consumer, or at any rate not to convey the impression that the end of their consumption is the consumer’s comfort. For the end of vicarious consumption is to enhance, not the fullness of life of the consumer, but the pecuniary repute of the master for whose behoof the consumption takes place.

The inconvenience is an indispensable part of the program. You’re supposed to employ servants to manage these sorts of goods. I looked at Lisa. Lisa looked at me. We shook our heads sadly, in silent agreement that we were not cut out for the leisure class. We lack the wall space.

The protests of our bike dealer were in vain. Back went the Prodigy DX, to be replaced by a practical Stumpjumper, which rides better, is about 20 pounds lighter, has a crossbar for easy carrying, hangs on the wall just the way you’d expect, and is cheaper into the bargain. Lisa and I hereby abdicate as King and Queen of the Ghetto. We shall pass our remaining days in equanimity, without envious stares at our possessions. The old joke about Jaguars turns out to be true: the two happiest days of your life are the day you buy it and the day you finally you get rid of it.

*Dork-knob, n. A pony-tail on a man who’s losing his hair.

Jun 142004

Back from a blogging holiday, only to find that I’m a killjoy, a bully (check the comments to the last link: “fists raise to strike?” For the record, I haven’t hit anybody since 7th grade, and he hit me first), a “finely-tuned yay-boo machine,” and, my favorite, “ruler-wielding,” as if I were the evil nun from parochial school.

These bloggers are offended because I object to some work of art that they like. (Such quaint favorites too. I expect to catch grief for savaging Invictus, but Wordsworth, Shelley, Frank O’Hara, Yeats: who knew?) I understand, and I even sympathize, to a point. Polibloggers vastly outnumber artbloggers because people are less interested in politics, not more. Art is just too damn personal. What you like goes to the core of who you are.

Public discourse being what it is, you must expect to see your loves bruised a bit. Nothing personal. I do not, no matter what Ray Davis says, “argue against the possibility of taking pleasure in Frank O’Hara,” or W.E. Henley, or anyone else. The pleasure that people take in Frank O’Hara is real, I am sure, and they are welcome to it. But it is obvious to me that the Williams poem to which I compared O’Hara exploits the possibilities of free verse in a way that The Day Lady Died does not. I write in the forlorn hope that some of my readers might see this as well. It is piety, not destruction.

When I say that art is this, or poetry is that, I will happily entertain counter-claims and objections, even the objection that the questions are pointless. With few exceptions, like the estimable Jim Henley, who argues like a proper adult, these are not forthcoming. Instead it’s “but I like Frank O’Hara!” or “art is an affair of the heart!” or “poetry is magical and mysterious!” The Department of Defense has plans for a refinement of the neutron bomb, which will wipe out the humanities faculty while leaving the campus buildings and the science faculty intact. This is why.

Art is not a curiosity shop to nance about in. It is not a verdant meadow to which you hie your exquisite sensibility for a picnic and a sunbath. It is a discipline, with basic questions that remain unanswered. What is it? What use is it? What makes some works better than others? How do genres differ, and how do their peculiar techniques produce their peculiar results? One way to get at these matters is to disassemble the works, find out what makes them tick. This no more deprives of them of their beauty than knowledge of civil engineering prevents one from admiring the Hoover Dam. On the contrary, I would think.

Doubtless these questions are difficult. But progress in answering them for the last two and a half millenia — since, oh, Aristotle’s Poetics — has been near zero. Somehow, during this same time, human beings have managed to answer other difficult questions, like how blood circulates, what causes smallpox, what the relationship is between mass and energy, and whether arithmetic can be axiomatized. Is art really that hard to understand? Or are its devotees just not interested in understanding it?

(Update: George Wallace comments, generously. Jim Henley comments, estimably.)