Friday, January 4, 2019

--- Watching your language ---

A few notes on the choice of words........

Chameleons and the big word

I've never been punched because of something I've said. Amazingly, I've never been punched. A few times I should have been.

I'm a chameleon - you know, those lizards that change colors to blend in with their surroundings. I pick up accents, gestures, expressions.... I can't, say, affect a New Zealand accent if I try but sometimes one just comes out. I got that accent from a welder I worked with offshore.

I was driving around Montgomery, Alabama with a friend and we pulled into a fast food restaurant to pick up something to eat. The check-out person asked if I was from Australia and I said, "Yeah. I'm from Sydney." She oozed as I snagged my bag of food.

I don't typically lie by nature, but it was just too tempting, and it made her happy.

I was in a check-out lane at WalMart when I was suddenly rattling on in an Hispanic accent, and I turned around to see a big Hispanic guy and his pequena espousa glaring at me. I apologized profusely.

Sometimes, I can't pull out the word I want to use. I combat that problem by having a big vocabulary so, if I can't retrieve one word, I'll just use a synonym. Unfortunately, the synonym might be a $20 word where a half dollar word would be more appropriate. It makes me seem to be trying to impress people with my erudition.

It's tough being a lizard.

But, all in all, I've gotten along pretty well with my language problems. Here are a few things that I've picked up.

Big sentences

The Teaching Company has a course called "Building Great Sentences: Exploring The Writer's Craft" presented by Professor Brook Landon. One of his points was that Strunk and White was wrong in their "The Elements of Style" when they counseled to always use short sentences.

I agree.

Long complex sentences can be awful - a misery to try to decipher, but they can also be beautiful and fun to read if they are well crafted.

It's a matter of style. I hope my style in this blog is enjoyable to read.

The way I try to ensure that my long, complicated sentences are well crafted is: I read them aloud (or I listen to my computer read them to me - I put each blog through a screen reader before I post it.) If a sentence doesn't flow well, if it doesn't sound natural, if it's hard for me to get it out, then I start looking for a problem.

The age of belle letres is gone and I lament it's passing. I read letters of Civil War soldiers writing home or pioneers writing to their families back east and, although the writer is obviously illiterate, to the best of their ability, I can tell that they are trying to make their letter enjoyable, readable, beautiful. Even scientific works were crafted to be read - not like the dry scientific writing of today.

I want these blogs to inform, but I also want them to entertain. I hope you enjoy my stories of adventures in learning.

What is vulgar?

"Vulgar" is dirty, right? At the very least, it's uncouth.

Actually, it's Germanic.

The word "vulgar" actually means "common". For instance, the Bible was written in vulgar languages. The New Testament was written in a form of Greek called "koine" which literally meant "common". And, of course, the Vulgate Bible was called that because it was written in the vulgar Latin.

Today, vulgar usually means Germanic. I'll try not to be too offensive but I will talk about "ass". Of course an ass is a donkey and when you are calling a person an ass, you are likening them to a donkey.

But the use of "ass" (a word of Germanic origin) to refer to the "posterior" or "gluteus maximus" (both words from Romantic languages) is considered obscene, or, at least, boorish. Why? They mean the same things.

Well, there is an answer. It's the same answer as to why we raise pigs, but we eat pork. We raise cattle, kine, bulls, and cows, but we eat beef. Deer run in the forest, but when we eat them, they are venison.

On Christmas Day 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned king of England. "Conqueror" is a bit strong for what actually happened. William might have been French, but he was also related to the childless king of England, Edward the Confessor, so when the king died, William became a valid contender for the crown. Many in England, in fact, supported William.

When William became the king of England, one thing he brought with him was the French language, and it became fashionable to speak the king's tongue.

So, just think about the vulgarities that I'm not going to talk about in this article. How many of the inappropriate words are of Germanic origin while their appropriate alternatives are from the French, or Latin, or Spanish, or Greek?

Responsibility for being understood

I've mentioned James Kilpatrick as one of my favorite linguists. He held that the primary purpose of language was to be understood, and if your hearers understood you, then your language was correct. (I might also heartily recommend June Casagrande's book, "Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies: a guide to language for fun and spite".)

I would like to go a little further and suggest that people are responsible for being understood. Both the speaker/writer and the hearer/listener share 100% of the responsibility to be understood, for what other purpose is there for language except to be understood. Even double talkers carefully craft their language to be understood to be saying hilarious gobbledygook.

In speaking, the way you make sure that you are understood is by looking for nonverbal cues that you are making the right impressions on your hearers, and by flat out asking them if they understand you as saying what you meant to be saying.

When writing, well, you have to rely on the responses you get and those are not often forthcoming. But you use the same language speaking as you do writing, so you have some prior knowledge as to how others understand what you say. You should also be sensitive to the fact that persons from other cultures often use the same words differently, so, if your communications are to be consumed abroad, you should not be too surprised if you are sometimes misunderstood.

In that case, you should be the last person to be offended and the first person to be willing to correct misconceptions.

Choosing your words

Certainly, if you want to get a point across (or a concept, or an emotion, or a lesson) you should choose your words carefully and put them together in a may that will cause the consumer to be more likely to receive what you have to say rather than to wonder away, disinterested.

Humans have two advantages over all the other animals: excellent opposable thumbs and an exquisite technical language. It is entirely fitting that we should take the utmost care in crafting with both.

Develop a habit of listening to what you say and reading what you write. Don't be afraid to critique yourself and ask for others' feedback.

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