Thursday, February 28, 2013

Texting Changes Things


I saw a couple having breakfast in a local eatery this morning. They were not sitting directly across from each other but at a 45 degree angle. Both he and she were facing emptiness across the table. I don’t think they looked at each other a single time while they were waiting and even during the meal. They were both zeroed in on their electronic communication devices, texting up a storm. You would have thought they were conducting some kind of urgent business because of the energy and conviction evidenced in the process. The only way I knew it was social communication on the devices was the occasional twinkle and grin from both parties—not to each other, but to themselves.

That is not the first time I have witnessed the phenomenon of closed-off private communication in an otherwise social context. It is as if some people want to control conversations to such an extent that they throw away the give-and-take skills of true discourse. It is very difficult to have rational discussions these days. At the college were I teach most students have and abundantly use fancy cell phones. They are not allowed to employ the devices in the classroom, but everywhere else on campus I see texting galore. They would be lost without these little idols, some of which are elaborately decorated to suit the personality of the owner.

And, there is a spin-off problem with such rampant cell-phone use. I am sure you have noticed that even in formal compositions, people are using texting type language. The word “you” has been replaced by “u.” The word “see” is often written as “c.” The phrase “I am going to lunch,” sometimes looks like this: “im gong 2 lnch.” The word great has a number in it: “Gr8.” “Alright” is “Aight.” I’m not sure what the long-term implications of this texting shorthand slaughter will be for Standard English, but I think things are changing more rapidly than we realize. Many are becoming more tolerant of simplified language forms. Many people spell “through” on signs like this: “Thru.” I have also seen “night” spelled “nite” on signs.

All languages have a way of simplifying themselves both in pronunciation and spelling over time. The word “Lord” for example used to be “Hlafweard” in Old English. The pronunciation and spelling changed gradually through the years. You have only to read Shakespeare or the 1611 King James Version of the Bible to understand how radically a mere 400 years can alter a language. Modern English seems a lot simpler because it is. It has become so.

The first line of Chaucer’s famous “Canterbury Tales,” composed in the late 14th Century, looks odd, even though most eighth graders can read all but one of the words: Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote. The word “sote” is the only unfamiliar one. It means sweet—it became “soda,” a sweeting agent. We call sweet soft drinks sodas. So the line translated would be “When that April with his showers sweet…”

I’m not complaining about the way languages change over time. I just hope we can retain, or in some cases, regain the ability to have civil discourse without texting.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Good Old English


I hear a lot of people complaining about the horrible climate in England. I’ve never been there, but if it is anything like Germany, where I lived for a few years, they have a right to complain: cold winters, foggy springs, cloudy summers and miserable autumns. Apparently Julius Caesar didn’t like England very much either. I imagine he considered those islands to the north insignificant, never to play a role on the world stage because of weather and location.

He was wrong about that, of course. If Caesar had liked the British Isles, though, you and I would be speaking Latin today, just like the other countries he conquered. Italian is a variety of Latin, as you know. When Caesar conquered Spain and Portugal, he required them to speak Latin, which they did with their own quirks. The same is true for France and Romania. These countries speak a language that is completely Latin at its root. If you took Spanish or French in school, you were really studying a variety of Latin. That’s why Spanish speakers on this side of the Atlantic are called Latinos.

Why didn’t Julius Caesar force the Angles and Saxons, those guttural-talking, smelly inhabitants of what is now England to speak his lofty tongue? Historians surmise that he thought these people were undeserving of Latin. So these inhabitants kept on speaking Anglo-Saxon until 1066 when William, a French-Latin speaker, took over the land. But, like Caesar, he didn’t share his language with the Anglo-Saxons either. What he did was to dump the entire French-Latin vocabulary on the Anglo-Saxon tongue. What I’m telling you is that English is not Latin at its root at all. It is Germanic. We got all our Latin-based words from the Norman Invasion, led by William the French-Latin speaker.

Consequently, we have more words in English than in any other language on earth. French and Russian, for example, have fewer than 200,000 words each. Mandarin Chinese, the world’s most spoken language, has just a few words over 200,000. Professor Eliot Engel of North Carolina State tells us that as of this year, English has well over 600,000 words. The simple ones like “me, he, go” are all Anglo-Saxon German. The complex ones like “interrogate” are French-Latin. That word in Anglo-Saxon is “ask.” If we want to be polite or sophisticated, we tend to use French-Latin. We perspire (French-Latin) but don’t sweat (Anglo-Saxon-German). We get mad (Anglo-Saxon). Some people get discombobulated (French-Latin). RSVP is sophisticated; BYOB is not. You get the point.

In English we can say the same thing in a variety of ways thanks to the richness of our vocabulary. “I am leaving for school” could be “I now depart for the halls of learning.” “I’m eating lunch” could be “I’m having my mid-day repast.” “I love your outfit” could be “I dig your threads.” “That’s a beautiful car” could be “cool ride, man.” So, in a way, English is a poetic language, in that we can bring to bear the ancient poetic technique of parallelism upon everyday speech. The earth is the Lord’s and all that dwell therein, the world and the inhabitants thereof.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Get up and Move


Dr. William McPheeters was a surgeon for the Trans-Mississippi arm of the Confederate States of America. I recently read the journal he kept during the war years in a book published by the University of Arkansas Press, “I Acted from Principle.” In it, I learned about many hardships of that cruel war, including that of camping out and travelling by foot and horseback perpetually for long periods of time. I developed a great admiration for man and beast alike, especially on the long trek to Missouri and back through Indian Territory, enemy ambushes and with scant rations for soldiers as well as horses and mules.

Another recent read was Garner’s “Sam Houston: Texas Giant,” which detailed the hard life of soldiers in the struggle against Santa Anna’s forces for Texas. Houston himself rode hardy horses that could swim the Red River in the cold waters of December, shake the freezing water off and carry the heavy rider and packs 40 or 50 miles in a day. Sometimes both McPheeters and Houston were so weary at night that they didn’t bother to pitch a tent but slept out in the open or under trees.

When I was a boy, I loved to ride horses and sleep outside. Maybe that enjoyment came from an appreciation of the past that I only intuited. Or, perhaps it emanated from an unspoken conviction that I had it too easy in my suburban house, with running water and a good warm furnace. Whatever the motivation, I continued to go camping even a long time after marriage. Our whole family would go to the lake so we could rough it in the great out-of-doors, even though most state parks and Corps of Engineers parks we used had bath houses with hot water.

At one point, towards the end of the war, McPheeters wrote that he was blessed to have remained healthy throughout the long ordeal. Only once or twice in the journal did he mention anything about being ill, and those were either a headache or the sniffles of a cold. Houston was never reported to have been ill, except for the life-threatening wound he received at San Jacinto. Even that seemed to be a minor setback and he apparently never thought it would stop him—and it didn’t.

I think we would be a lot healthier with less pampering, less medication, less air conditioning and more ruggedness, more outdoor exercise and more aerobic fitness from traveling that requires breathing. Sometimes I think it is too bad that the horse got replaced by the internal combustion engine.

People would look at me funny if I rode a horse, mule or donkey to work. Some folks even lift an eyebrow when they see me on my bicycle. One female employee at a former place of work said she though commuting by bicycle was stupid. And, Heaven forbid if someone should actually walk a mile or two. Heaven forbid if we have to park a block from where we are going.

Sitting too much is bad. Moving around is very good.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Home on Valentine's Day


On this day when we celebrate romantic love, I wanted to mention that the words “home” and “family” bring happy feelings and warm memories to some and dismal feelings and regret to others. The word “homeless” is possibly the saddest of all words. In the Bible story of the first murder, the guilty party’s punishment was a life of homeless wandering. The Land of Nod where Cain had to dwell was said to be no land at all but a condition that required people to keep moving. It would seem--at least in the literary imagination--that the homeless wandering state was inherited by the descendants of Cain. Even in the early Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” the monster who keeps raiding the home of the Danes is said to do so because he is of the lineage of Cain and is consequently jealous of people who have a permanent roof over their heads.

As to the word “family,” people who appreciate their heritage, protect their relationships and desire the best for their children and their children’s children, value familial relationships in ways second only to their relationship with God. When I was teaching in Magnolia, I applied for a job at a college in Wyoming. One of the people at the college in Magnolia who wrote a letter of recommendation in my behalf mentioned that I was a strong family man. That person told me the recipient called him and asked him why he thought it was important to write that about me. Apparently the Wyoming professor thought the fact that I was a family man was irrelevant to the position for which I had applied. I didn’t get the job. Oh, well.

To me, what the Magnolia reference wrote is the most relevant thing one could say about any professional. One who values family probably is a faithful and diligent worker. On the other hand, those who are unappreciative of their heritage and foster hateful and unforgiving relationships are doubtless lousy workers. Like all generalizations, those I just made are not true in all situations, but it has been my experience that those who value family are almost always more honorable than those who do not.

One reason so many people love Norman Rockwell’s paintings is the fact that he obviously recognized the importance of home and family. Stereotyped and idealized though his paintings may be, they do convey the warmth and joy of home, of belonging, of being part of a family.

Because we are so busy today trying to make ends meet, let’s not forget why we are working so hard. Isn’t it because we want a home and family? Isn’t it because home is more than just a place, but a condition of the heart? Don’t we work so hard so that our children and children’s children can have a good life—homes and families of their own?

Two final thoughts: there used to be a guy on the radio who had a short editorial that ended with the words, “It takes a heap of living to make a home.” And the final thought: there is a song performed on “Prairie Home Companion” that has this lyric, “Why do we work so hard to get what we don’t even want?” Happy Valentine’s Day.