Monday, October 12, 2015

Politically Correct Language Learning--(oops)--Acquisition.

Dummy, it's Istanbul (not Constantinople).

I am amazed at what a dumb teacher I used to be before I learned all the "correct" terminology (i.e. "words") for language acquisition (i.e., "learning"). Here is a modest sampling:

  • world languages (not foreign languages); 
  • productive communication (not speaking and writing);
  • receptive communication (not listening and reading); 
  • multiple intelligences (not drawing pictures and dancing in class); 
  • diversity instruction (not "share your grandma's favorite dessert"); 
  • administering a formative assessment (not giving a quiz), 
  • administering a summative assessment (not giving a chapter test); 
  • student self-esteem (not bratty defiance of classroom rules); 
  • real world language (not grammatically incorrect speech); 
  • enhancement (not games and memory gimmicks); 
  • closure (not homework assignment); 
  • instructional technology (not slideshows and movies); 
  • communication/proficiency /standards-based instruction (not teaching in whatever way gets the kids to learn the language and like the culture). 

Ah well, now I know the Truth. Too late, though. I'm retired--and thinking about taking a cruise to Constantinople. Or a windmill-tilting trip to La Mancha.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Freedom from Prophets! Deo Gratias.

Let us declare our independence from prophets!

I despise prophets and their prophecies. Moreover, I both loathe and fear all the sanctimonious exegetes who take it upon themselves to explicate such prophecies to "lesser" folk-- the profane and unenlightened masses. (Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Mike Huckabee--yes, I mean you.)

I have arrived at this conclusion only very gradually, after much emotional wrestling with all the biblical ghouls that haunt the recesses of my Sunday Schooled mind. It is this personal battle between what I know and what I have been taught to believe that at last convinced me to exorcise the ghosts and to acknowledge the historical evidence, i.e., that the prophets--Moses (or the writers of the Torah), Jesus (or the writers of the Gospels), Muhammad (or the writers of the Quran), St. Paul, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy--all these self-anointed dispensers of beatitude--are in fact the world's most notorious oppressors. Through the "holy" scriptures attributed to them--and, of course, through the "infallible" interpretations of their brown-nosing exegetical overseers, the masters of the Abrahamic faith-plantations have enslaved the minds of countless millions.

Even sadder, of course, is that--as Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor saw--the subjugated millions seem actually to cherish their bondage to the hoary old myths and maxims. Yes, it appears that we (and I include myself, for most of my life) simply do not want to be liberated from the prophets: for wouldn't emancipation render us too uncomfortably free of facile, unreflective answers for all of life's uncertainties?

Wouldn't freedom make us die?

Well, we will die in any event--again all the historical evidence points to this inevitability--no matter how many blindfolds we fearfully and fretfully don. So freedom from the prophets would merely make us face that fact and see the world as it is. And, released from blindfolds and fetters imposed by the prophets, isn't there a chance (one that we could never have in bondage) that we might live more richly and humanely--fully aware of both our potentials and our limits, until we die? 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Freedom, then, from prophets! This I maintain: they were fallible humans like us. Though they undoubtedly possessed charisma, self-confidence and persuasive skills, they were no more innately holy than we; they had no greater access to the divine than we; they were no more enlightened than we potentially can be. Thus, to rephrase a formula from the conclusion of the Mass, I urge us all to "go in peace to love (ourselves and others) and to serve NO lords!" And yes, Deo Gratias!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fiddling Around: Nero and Donald Trump

Quite by accident, while refreshing my memory about the plot of Racine's Britannicus, I discovered this photo--a bust of the emperor Nero (whom many, including Racine, blame for the untimely death of Britannicus, Nero's rival for the throne).

However, what struck me had nothing to do with Britannicus and everything to do with Donald Trump, who bears an astonishing physical resemblance to Nero, despite the latter's superior hair style. Then, as I read on about Nero's life and career, I realized that these two scowling, thick-necked politicos, from eras and empires vastly separated, also share a fascinating number of similarities in psychology, character, and life-events. For example:

•Nero (possibly) decreed that real estate in Rome be burned--the Great Fire of 64AD--in order to make way for his own grandiose  building projects; Trump (possibly) engaged in dubious real estate transactions and four declared bankruptcies in order to acquire the wealth necessary for his grandiose building projects;

•Nero considered himself a great artist and not only fiddled (on a lyre) while Rome burned, but established and /or performed in theatrical festivals (the "Neronia," the Olympic Games); Trump, as everyone knows, relishes theatrics of all kinds (perhaps that is the principal reason that he is running for president)--with swellheaded roles in reality TV ("The Apprentice," "Miss USA Pageant") and, yes, even WWE wrestling!

•In other words, then, both Nero and Trump were/are unapologetic exhibitionists and certifiable narcissists!

•Nero married three women; Trump has also married three women (so far). Nero, however--at least according to Wikipedia--also married two male freedmen--first Pythagoras and, later, Sporus, whom he had castrated. Same-sex marriage and testicular dismemberment are areas which Trump has not yet explored, but given his predilection for wrestlers, who knows what the future holds?

•Once the Great Fire had cleared out inconveniently plebeian structures, Nero appropriated the liberated land for the edification of the great Domus Aurea, the Golden House, a gaudily tasteless monument to his supposed good taste. Similarly, on land wrested from "inferiors," Donald Trump has erected his very own ostentatious Domus Aurea in midtown Manhattan, modestly christened the Trump Tower, wherein he holds court--when he is in residence, of course.

•Nero's primary foreign war took place in Parthia, modern-day Iran. Though his armies were initially successful, Parthia eventually regained its autonomy and, after many unsuccessful bids to establish
hegemony, Rome ultimately withdrew from this area. Trump, in his newfound advocacy of confrontation with Iran, might well meditate on Rome's wasteful misadventures and failures in Parthia.

•Nero had his mother assassinated; Trump is merely a misogynist (women are "fat," "pigs," "ugly," etc.), so he gains a few points here.

•Nero committed suicide (or in any event ordered a servant to kill him); Trump's fate is yet to be seen, but it may not be pretty if his wacky, unorthodox version of Republicanism wins the enmity of both the Republican National Committee AND Fox News.

I'm quite certain, though, that when The Donald finally expires, as even the most imperious of mortals are wont to do--whether or not they have been president of the United States--he will utter something vaingloriously equivalent to Nero's dying words, "What an artist dies in me." Or at the very least, (castigating the Almighty for His unhelpful role in The Great Artist's Final Scene), "You're fired!"


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Decay and Decadence

Decay is everywhere, of course; it is part of the natural cycle of all that is material: stuff falls apart and then, in the course of time, it takes on new shape only, inevitably, to fall apart again. The process itself does not inspire any particular critical or moral meditation on my part: unalterable laws of physics just are. 

But what does interest me, insofar as I am myself a deteriorating hunk of matter, is the various attitudes and behaviors that humans adopt in the face of this universal law.

It seems to me that our views on decay tend to fall into three main categories:  1) decay should be embraced and celebrated as proof of our moral superiority to the material universe: the more dilapidated and wretched we are, the holier we are in some supernatural plane; we are proud of our deterioration; 2) decay should be acknowledged but fought against: selves and stuff should be maintained as much as possible in order to provide comfort and stability for as long as possible; we are neither proud nor ashamed of the inevitable, but we don't particularly like it; 3) decay should be ignored and denied: all signs of dissolution should be hidden or covered up or unacknowledged; everything must be sanitized and prettified; decay is shameful and must be "treated" with either paint or pharmaceuticals.

Attitude 1: Life is shit, but by God, we're just gonna live in it and love it.  Attitude 2: Let's clean up this shit and stop tracking it in.  Attitude 3: What's shit? I've never heard of it. We don't have it here.

There's actually a fourth attitude--in fact, it's an attitude toward an attitude--decadence (and camp).  This uber-attitude acknowledges that things are falling apart and says, well, fuck it then, let's have fun with it: dress it up a little, make your shabby shack even shabbier by hanging Thomas Kinkaid pics on walls; revel in your immobility by gilding your wheelchair with glitter; highlight your obesity by eating so much that you throw up at a Chinese buffet; call attention to your bodily deficiencies by inadequately disguising them beneath garish outfits and outrageous hairstyles; glorify your crumbling infrastructure by stringing tinsel and Christmas lights along ancient streetcar tracks. Obviously, San Francisco and New Orleans come to mind in this context--but almost any city in which people know they're both rotting and rotten will do.

Though I am definitely one such person, and though I frequently find decadence amusing, even perversely consoling, I am nonetheless most drawn to Attitude 2--if only because it seems less belligerently defiant and more intellectually viable than the others. I note, however, that Attitude 1 is very popular in religious societies, most especially in the Deep South, where people are inclined to regard decrepitude (in both body and possessions) as a badge of honor. And Attitude 3, of course, belongs to the fairytale world of cuteness and cleanliness--to Switzerland, to Singapore, to Beverly Hills and, unquestioningly, to all the eternally photogenic Disneylands of the world.

So what do I conclude from these extensive musings about falling apart? Not a great deal, really. What I should do now, I suppose--if I really want to distill some useful meaning from my reflections--is attempt to figure out WHY certain attitudes have come to dominate in certain cultures. But dang, I'm just too tired and run down to tackle that project right now. Frankly, I'm pooped. So further analysis will just have to wait until another day--sometime when I'm not feeling so damned decrepit!

Priority Access or Taken for a Ride?

I think of airport priority lanes as a metaphor for our rather pathetic human attempts to acquire elite status, i.e., salvation, by lavishing love, treasure and lifelong fealty upon a remote Sky Power that supposedly "cares" for those who abjectly serve Its inscrutable ends. In spiritual parlance, this divine favor is usually termed "grace," whereas in airport lingo, it is more prosaically called "priority access." Now priority access, like Dante's heaven and hell, contains within itself a number of hierarchical levels, each designated by the name of a precious metal or stone:  platinum, gold, diamond, emerald, ruby, sapphire, etc, and each entitling its members to privileges slightly different from those granted to members of the other tiers (an extra carry-on, say, or maybe 10 points of Delta Dividends). Nonetheless, and these piddly distinctions notwithstanding, in the great scheme of Airline Advantage Rewards, priority--any priority--is still priority--and the essential for all those who bear any elite status whatsoever is that they are all chosen, and they all therefore get to board first. 

Undoubtedly, it is this boarding process which most clearly demonstrates the incalculable value (or, as I will later suggest, inconsequence) of priority. We all know how it works. The Sky Power, having set up a little access sign in the gate area, rewards its Prioritized Chosen with the absolute coolest privilege It can, in Its omnipotence, imagine--the exclusive right to board the plane via the lane to the RIGHT OF THE SIGN. This is presumably such an honor that it must be qualified, in religious terms, as a sort of "rapture"--a direct and immediate translation into the heavenly chambers of the awaiting Boeing, a sort of bodily Assumption, whether or not one is a virgin.

Needless to say, of course, such ethereal access must necessarily be denied those travelers bearing no gold, platinum or gemstone boarding passes. Verily, verily, these unlucky infidels, assigned merely to a lowly "zone," can never, ever, be allowed to experience the exaltation of passing to the RIGHT of that sign. Instead, wretched unaffiliated any-carrier travelers, they are eternally condemned to pass--after all the rightwing Prioritized Chosen--to the LEFT OF THE SIGN. Oh, the shame and humiliation! The precious sheep having already entered the fold, they, the riffraff left behind, count as nothing but despicable leftwing goats.

And yet...wait, oh ye of too much over-eager faith. Let's think about this a bit.

Because, after all, isn't the distance to the plane exactly the same from either the right or the left of the sign? Hmm... And don't we all, sheep and goats alike, board the same plane? And don't we all leave at the same time? Don't we all journey to the same destination? Uh, well...yes, that's about right. Oh, I know that some of the rightwing Prioritized Chosen get free drinks; some get 4 inches more leg-room; some get microwaved chicken enchiladas even on ridiculously short flights. But in the end, grosso modo and in the final analysis, isn't this Life Journey for which we are all ticketed still roughly comparable for all--for both the rightwing prioritized and the leftwing unaffiliated? In short, I have to ask, is the payoff for a lifetime of submission, tithing and conforming to SkyPower restrictions really worth the cost? Well, perhaps--especially for those who love microwaved chicken...

But there's also the possibility that in our desperate quest for heavenly delights, we are just being jerked around--tricked by a Priority Access sign into thinking that the rightwingers will get a scepter (and the others the shaft), when in actual fact, all of us, on both sides of the sign--rightwingers and leftwingers alike--are just getting taken for a ride.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Linguistic Morality

I recently read an article in The Guardian entitled "Achingly Unacceptable." The author, Jeremy Butterfield, is a linguist who claims, early in his rant, that he genuinely endorses De Saussure's maxim that languages, like people, inevitably change--and that, accordingly, it is futile to cling obsessively to linguistic norms that are no longer, well, all that normal. Butterfield asserts that he is trying, honestly trying, to be a neutral observer of linguistic behavior (i.e., a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist).

Clearly, though, as the remainder of the piece indicates, Butterfield is far from successful in this endeavor to reject prescriptivism and embrace descriptivism. Indeed, he devotes the bulk of his article to denouncing English usage which he considers (in spite of his good intentions) as bad, wrong and, yes, deep down, absolutely immoral.

Prominently featured in this veritable Leviticus of linguistic abominations are: the letter "H" pronounced as "haitch" rather than "aitch"; nouns transformed into verbs ("to leverage," "to medal"); brief archaisms substituted for longer modern terms ("to wed" instead of "to get married"); feeble, euphemistic words ("unacceptable," "to address"); Americanisms ("to reach out"); Latin plurals used as singulars ("a criteria"); and, finally, a congeries of random words, phrases, and expressions that defy categorization but that just, well, set his teeth on edge ("achingly," "in terms of").

So, it would seem that this self-proclaimed "enlightened" linguist is not, in actual fact, so very neutral, tolerant, and evolved when it comes to the nitty-gritty of linguistic morality. Butterfield acknowledges, intellectually and rationally, that English speakers manifest a great range of language behaviors. And he knows, in his head, that he should simply accept those behavioral threads as part of the tapestry of the Mother Tongue.

But like the politically correct liberals who "support" gays as long as they (the PC liberals) don't have to see or think about what gays "do," Butterfield--in his heart of hearts--can tolerate English usage that differs from his own only as long as he doesn't actually have to hear or read it. Because that would be, well, too icky. Or perhaps (as I suggested above) immoral--at least "in terms of" (haha), well, Absolutely Good English.

Lest we begin to feel too sanctimoniously superior, let us admit that a great many of us, even the most adamantly descriptivist, have very similarly hostile reactions to linguistic behaviors that we regard with distaste. We know it's OK to write "alright," but we would never write it; we know it's OK to say "at the end of the day," but we would never say it. In short, we resemble the well-meaning but hypocritical fundamentalists who proclaim, vis à vis homosexuality, that they "love the sinner but hate the sin." We love the people who talk "wrong," (and we even acknowledge that it isn't even necessarily wrong), but we just truly hate the icky words they use.

Because I confess to feeling this way quite frequently, I began to reflect upon what I previously termed the "morality of language." IS all language equal or are some ways of speaking and writing more equal, i.e., inherently and morally superior? In short, are there any circumstances in which a universal, verifiable truth might justify at least some of my visceral "prescriptions"?

What I'm seeking, here, of course, is some sort of objective criterion against which the "goodness" or "badness" of linguistic behavior can be ascertained. Clearly, all human beings are endowed with some measure of verbal free will: even those poor souls who have never seen a dictionary, written a nice G in Palmer Method cursive, recited mnemonic ditties about I before E--even the illiterate and unschooled exercise linguistic choice on a daily basis. And where there is free will, there is, of course, sin--i.e., in our context, deliberate defiance of some categorical absolute of Absolutely Good English.

The vital question thus remains: how do we distinguish "valid/appropriate" linguistic behavior from "invalid/inappropriate" (sinful) behavior? What is that damned criterion?

Though I'm not very familiar with linguistics as an academic discipline, I do understand the descriptivist notion of "correctness conditions"--i.e., those language patterns which are observed and respected uniformly by all speakers of a given language unless they choose to be ridiculed and condemned for speaking gibberish. The subject/verb/object word order of English, for instance, is such a pattern. Only folks unfamiliar with English (e.g.,Yoda--who may be briefly forgiven)--and certain government agencies (e.g., the CIA--who have an obfuscation agenda and cannot be forgiven)--deviate from this pattern with any regularity.

So the first and most basic of our Universal Commandments for Moral Language is:

I) Thou shalt honor the internal logic of thy Mother Tongue; thou shalt not employ structures or patterns which render thy utterance unreliable or incomprehensible to other speakers of the language thou hast been given.

This First Commandment is a moral absolute; if it is broken, the very purpose of language is subverted and communication is prevented or severely impaired.

The Second Commandment, however, contains a substantial dose of relativism. This commandment demands that language not only be OBJECTIVELY understood, but that it also be effective in accomplishing a SUBJECTIVE purpose (conveying information, explaining an idea, creating beauty):

II) Thou shalt use language which will produce in the listener/reader the effect that thou, the producer, intendest; thou shalt not employ morphology, diction, syntax, spelling, punctuation, or pronunciation which doth impede or compromise the achievement of this goal.

This commandment, as I mentioned earlier, is much more subjective than Commandment I--insofar as the linguistic "intent" depends upon the presentational subjectivity of the speaker/writer and the "effect" depends upon the interpretive subjectivity of the listener/reader.

Finally, the third Commandment dismisses all other prescriptivism as unessential, as style rather than substance, as forme rather than fond, as fashionable dress rather than content of one's character:

III) Thou shalt grit thy teeth and accept as "acceptable" all language that conforms to Commandments I and II. Thou need not thyself employ language which thou findest, in thy none-too-humble opinion, "icky" or "inelegant" or "unattractive" or "too American" or "too pissy" or "too low-class," but thou shalt not condemn such language as "sinful" and thou shalt not judge unworthy those who do not dress their speech in the same fashion as thou dost thine.

So, to summarize: moral use of language demands that a) we respect the language's fundamental internal order without which meaning cannot be conveyed from producer to receptor, and that b) we introduce into that fundamental order building blocks (word choices, syntax, pronunciation, spellings) that serve a specific communicative end vis à vis an intended audience. Immorality is either misuse of basic structures AND/OR deliberate or inadvertent building-block choices that "miss the mark" and do not accomplish their intended task. All else--we must say it again--is mere fashion.

I conclude, therefore, that both Butterfield and I (as well as almost everyone I know), are generally faithful to Commandment I. Sin, when it occurs, consists principally of "missing the mark"--of using language that is ill-suited to the purpose for which it was framed. In Butterfield's list (above), it is quite possible that, within certain contexts, the following choices could violate Commandment II: "in terms of," "to reach out," "unacceptable." But much depends upon the intent and upon the audience ("to reach out" might be just the right expression for certain, generally American, interlocutors).

Otherwise, it seems that most of Butterfield's verboten list--like most of my own--is less about constitutive correctness than it is about regulations--less about what is essential and more about "how to do it the way it most appeals to me."

Butterfield's objection to pronouncing "aitch" as "haitch" is, of course, nothing but his personal Home Counties prejudice, and can be dismissed as frivolously irrelevant to the fundamentals of English. On the other hand, his fussing about the "verbing" of nouns is more seriously ill-founded : this process is thoroughly natural to English and surely should not be decried by anyone (see Commandment III). Finally Mr. Butterfield's grumbling about "achingly," and "to address," and "to wed"--well, these usages certainly do not break Commandment I; they might, in certain contexts, I suppose, break Commandment II--but I think it unlikely. Essentially, then, aren't they merely fashions, like bellbottomed trousers, that a certain person may find (in a given time and context) unappetizing and unattractive, but certainly NOT linguistically immoral or intrinsically offensive to Mother English?

Mr. Butterfield, it looks as if you--and I--will just have to snap out of our lingering prescriptivism. Yes, style is important--and good delivery will generally make us better followers of Commandment II. But overall, in matters of grave linguistic importance, Oscar Wilde probably had it wrong: sincerity, honestly conveyed--not style--is the vital thing. "Achingly"(alas) is "acceptable." Word.