Grammar and Culture

Fenster writes:

Thaddeus Kozinski asks the perennial question: Can Studying Grammar Save Our Culture?

Hint, he is writing for The Imaginative Conservative so I think his answer will be yes, don’t you?

And I think I agree with him.  Don’t you?

On the topic of having a way with words Kozinski quotes the always-readable Anthony Esolen, someone who has a way with words himself:

The writing of most students is irreparable in the way that aphasia is…. The students make grammatical errors for which there are no names. Their experience of the written language has been formed by junk fiction in school, text messages, blog posts, blather on the airwaves, and the bureaucratic sludge that they are taught for ‘formal’ writing, and that George Orwell identified and skewered seventy years ago. The best of them are bad writers of English; the others write no language known to man.

Kozinski continues:

Wyoming Catholic College has been consciously acting to shape our rapidly degenerating discourse for almost a decade now by a sequence of courses called the Trivium, Latin for the “three ways” of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In the words of the great trivium Master, Sister Miriam Joseph: “Grammar prescribes how to combine words so as to form sentences correctly. Logic prescribes how to combine concepts into judgments and judgments into syllogisms and chains of reasoning so as to achieve truth. Rhetoric prescribes how to combine sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into a whole composition having unity, coherence, and the desired emphasis, as well as clarity, force, and beauty.”

This seems reasonable to me but it is time for a bias check.  Language pedants we will have with us always, and perhaps I am one, and perhaps it is even OK that I am.  But are the objections above only language pedantry, or do they have real weight?

Linguists often say that all complete languages are generally capable of transmitting thoughts and we should not be so quick to condemn things like slang or language change or even Ebonics.  Linguists acknowledge that pidgins, or truncated languages that occur temporarily as two language systems meet for the first time and blend, are not complete languages and cannot do what complete languages do.  But they also contend that human beings being what they are all pidgins will morph eventually into complete languages, even if they carry forward combination aspects as so-called creoles.

I get that but.

For one, even if Ebonics is as many linguists argue a complete language does that mean it is OK to say that’s all the language you need?

Sure “I be” might be a perfectly acceptable way of saying “I am” or “I was”.

But though I have not studied the matter it is hard to see how Ebonics would express something like “I would have wanted to have done so.” I suppose it would do it in a truncated way and the context and delivery might make it clear how to distinguish from a meaning of “I would want to do so.” But I am not sure about that, and would have wanted a linguist to ‘splain to me how Ebonics would do the trick.

Then there’s vocabulary. Ebonics may be a complete language in how it allows its speakers to communicate–there’s a word for potato and a way to say you want one. But is there a word for hyperventilate? Precocious?

Even in standard English the full vocabulary is hypothetical. Only a specialized few will know the meaning of tmesis. But some will.  Is it fair to say that since Ebonics is a variant of English that tmesis is part of the vocabulary of Ebonics? No, not really.  If no one speaking Ebonics knows what tmesis is then it is not in the vocabulary, and the concept cannot be expressed in a word.

Maybe this no big deal since some words can be explained with other words. Tmesis, for example is

cutting a word in two and sticking another word in the middle – and the other word is usually a swear. As in “abso-fucking-lutely”. From the Greek tmēsis, “cutting”.

A person could practice tmesis in Ebonics and could explain it in the event it came to that.

There are other English words that connote states of mind and subtleties that cannot be explained easily, and if you don’t have a word for it (if it is not necessary in your culture to express the concept) then you can’t express the thought.

But Esolen is not writing about Ebonics or other languages as much as he is about bad English, and that is a separate, but related, matter.

Yes, some bad writing is explicable in a somewhat parallel manner to how Ebonics is explicable. Some usages that drive grammar pedants crazy are just newfangled and slang ways of saying things. As such, they may be perfectly understandable to the writer and perfectly understood by a “like minded” reader.

For instance, bad writers have always use the plural “their” when referring to a singular. That was incorrect but clear to most readers, and preferred by many to the proper “his”.  Now, of course, “their” for “his” is for the most part considered correct, so as not to produce distress to the fairer sex.

Can’t have fainting in class.

Further, a good deal of bad writing is not even this. It is as Esolen suggests just unclear writing.  Bad because it is inherently unclear, with the lack of clarity a function of the writer either not having a cogent thought in the first place, or having a cogent thought without the requisite skill to get it out in ways that make it understandable.

I see a lot of this as a professor.

Finally, as the trivium concept suggests good writing is not just about correct grammar. Style? Structure? Persuasiveness? Argumentation?

These things are among the highest products of civilization.  If and when they get left by the side or the road they are very, very hard to find.  But the effort should be made given that there are no reasonable alternatives.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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2 Responses to Grammar and Culture

  1. ironrailsironweights says:

    Speaking ebonics or a pidgin is fine if one does so only among members of the in-group and uses standard English (or whatever other language) with outsiders. Using it beyond the in-group risks marking the speaker as an ignoramus.



  2. Fenster says:

    I agree that reliance on Ebonics is not helpful in non-Ebonics culture. But if it was only a matter of preferred style it would be one thing. Proper usage and enunciation have long been a way to create a barrier. Sometimes such markers denote other things worth noting, sometimes not. The barrier can be used by a delicate atrophying class against a rougher rising one. But yeah this is not the case with Ebonics. A hospital or law firm built on Ebonics is a non-starter.


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