January 2010 Archives

Language versus society

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"Believe it or not, this is the language that people in authority in America routinely use—officials in government and business and education and social work and health care. They think those long Latin words make them sound important. It no longer rains in America; your TV weatherman will tell that you we’re experiencing a precipitation probability situation." - William Zinsser from Writing Good English: A talk

I was once told that "If you want to sound smart, use words more than three syllables long." Well, these three plus syllable words are usually Latin aspects of the English language as Zinsser writes before the quote above. But is precisely these big, long words that tend to make listeners' and readers' eyes glaze over. That may be precisely why officials people in charge (or who want to be in charge) use such long, somewhat ambiguous words: to confuse those who like simple Germanic-based words in the English language. Using big words immediately sends a statement to whomever is listening/reading that you're smart and you know what you're going on about, so don't interrupt you.

But I wonder, if it was not tradition or society's expectation (Latin words) that people in high places use such words, would they use short ones instead? I think they would. Unfortunately, it is the common expectation that individuals utilize significant verbal designations. People seek to mostly cleave to society's traditions, because "that's the way it's always been done," but maybe its time to start a new tradition of using short, emotive words? Problem is, who wants to face the suits?

Just remember, I'm not the only one with ideas relating to Zinsser's article, check out my coursemates' replies.

Technology: one step forward, two steps back?


After reading Howard Rheingold's except of "Look Who's Talking" in Writing Material, I was immediately intrigued by Donald Kraybill's response to Rheingold's inquiries on how the Amish people of PA view the telephones. Kraybill replied that he "believes taboos about telephones are 'a symbolic way of keeping the technology at a distance and making it your servant, rather than the other way around.'" Despite the fact that the first images to surface in my paranoid mind at this statement were the mission of Terminator robots and the Borg's motto of "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated," it made me think of how dependent modern society is on technology.

Telephones can be useful yes, but what about those often annoying telemarketer calls? I know people who have plans set in place and entire commentaries made out to duck out of talking to telemarketers. It sometimes makes you wish you didn't have one at all, except maybe out in an outhouse that everyone could use. Wouldn't it be nice to get through dinner and not feel compelled to answer a ringing phone or worry about what e-mails are sipping into your inbox? With the advance of technology I think we've voluntarily chained ourselves to it, especially now that cell phones seem to have become sewn into our very clothes they're so vital.

But I often wonder what it would be like to physically receive a personal letter in the mail (a disappearing art form in my opinion), go out for a walk and not worry about who might be trying to get a hold of me via the phone, or just sit down by the firelight and read a book. Technology is something that has allowed us to move forward in productivity, though we might be sacrificing character building events like having a broken down car on the highway, walking significant distances, and enjoying time with friends and family without a screen of some sort as the medium. So for all of the "English" out there, I suppose we'll have to figure out where our individual technological immersion limits are, being consciously aware of what kind of a person we may become along the way. After all, I'm always on the look out for Skynet even as I think that remote controlled drones could be useful.

Take a look at what my colleagues have to say on this reading on our course website.

Silent paper answers


Within Writing Material's section on the Phaedrus, written by Plato, the character Socrates is conversing with the character Phaedrus and Socrates is arguing against the use of the written word. He views it as a plaything to be used for strict amusement when a reader already fully understands what is being told to them within writing, because if the reader cannot ask the written words a question and receive an answer if he/she doesn't understand something. This is the basis for the character Socrates' view on writing versus oratory. Speaking/physically telling someone something allows for the listener to fail at comprehension and be able to ask the speaker for clarification, while writing is always silent save for telling the reader the same incomprehensible words.

However, I don't think this to entirely be the case. Yes, it is a great boon to speak with a person and ask them to be more clear on a certain point in their dialogue if I don't understand it, but I also realize that not everything that is said is true. Now, not everything written down is true either, but both situations still allow you to puzzle through the words buzzing in your brain. Written words can give your mind a bone to chew on, turn over, slobber up, bury in a hole, and return to later on for a refresher or to figure out your own meaning of the words. I believe that finding an answer for yourself out of readings is one of the most fulfilling situations that someone can achieve. Both spoken and written words can bias you in your thinking, but serious answers can be reached from written words. After all, we wouldn't have the Socratic Method or Plato's philosophy if later generations hadn't read the words that had been written centuries ago.

To read or speak the Iliad, that is the question

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After reading the last two versions of the Iliad, written by Home, in Writing Material (because the first literally was all ancient Greek to me), I could definitely see why translators might choose to differ on their versions of the text. Lattimore's translation retains that "ancient/old" writing and style that immediately tells my mind that this text is of import and weight, if only because of it's age. This sense makes me take my time going through the text, searching for any details I might miss if I simply read over the words like a bulldozer going over fresh dirt.

However, Fagles translation instantly told my brain that this epic would be immensely enjoyed if read aloud. In my head these words ran in a sing-song pattern, but such patterns would help in listeners retaining information, as well as capturing their attention. I also feel that there is more literal information and detail to be gleaned from Lattimore's translation. In Fagles translation readers/listeners must rely more heavily on their imaginations to fill in the details of the story. There are pros and cons to both translations, I suppose it simply boils down to whether you will read it silently, or read it to someone else out loud. Then again, I'm not the only one with entry on this comparison, check out my course-mates' opinions.

Capturing avid listeners with Aesopic fables

"But the important difference between listening to a story and reading a book is that, while listeners simply allow the word to come to them, readers must themselves make the words move" (Bolter 76). - Writing Material

As soon as I read this line, I immediately thought back to last week when I was reading a book of Aesopic fables. Each night I read a few short tales silently, but before long I found myself reading the words aloud to myself. I even started altering my voice to give the animal characters more depth in the short fables. However much I liked reading the words by themselves, speaking them aloud and taking a bit longer to create individual voices while I read allowed the fables to come alive to me, just as Bolt writes above.

Bolt goes on to discuss Homeric tales of heroes and how these stories were written, yet flexible enough to be changed to suit whichever type of audience was listening to them. When I would read the fables aloud to myself I often imagined that I was reading a bedtime story to a group of children, or to some children in a library reading group. I could picture some of their faces: boys that were excited about a donkey trying to be a lapdog, and girls laughing at silly maids wanting to sleep in. If I could visualize what fables different children liked, then I could change my "funny voices" to play the perfect part to better catch their attention. This is similar to what ancient readers would have done when judging their audiences to make sure they were still interested, rather than nodding off in their seats.

To read what my classmates thought of this section, click the picture below.