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Take My Word

Disrespect of Language Takes Its Toll


We saw Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" at the Doolittle last week. If you love the English language, don't miss it. First of all, Stoppard handles words the way Art Tatum used to handle a keyboard. On top of that, his leading man is a playwright who talks about writing and about words. What he says about words should be engraved on the front wall of every schoolroom in the English-speaking world.

The playwright, Henry, says of words: "They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more. . . . I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead."

Unfortunately, words haven't received the respect they deserve in American education in recent decades. I think the trend is being reversed at long last, but for too many years, heavy thinkers in the field of education started studying linguistics and, in a half-baked way, analyzing language, its origins and its functions, and it seemed to me that all that intimacy with the way language "works" bred a certain contempt for what some of us like to think of as the precision of words. Stoppard says, through his leading character, "They're innocent, neutral, precise."

That is wishful thinking, acceptable as dramatic license, but we all know that words are no more innocent, neutral, and precise than we make them. Alas, having come to that less-than-earthshaking realization, a fair number of educators leapt to the conclusion that there was no such thing as "wrong" usage. This thought was part of the genesis of the "students' right to their own language" movement of the '60s and '70s.

I used to lecture on the same platform with teachers who argued eloquently for "the students' right to their own language." The idea was that since language was not something given to us on tablets of stone by the hand of God, but was created by mere mankind, to hell with "elitist rules" and "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts." Ultimately, that notion led to a loss of respect for any established standards. And so perhaps most of the members of an entire generation of American students have completed their "education" with only a general "ya know what I mean" comprehension of the magnificence that is the English language, gained at a distance and through a sullied scope.

I suspect that it was a member of that generation who wrote me last week. The writer is evidently an educated man, by today's standards. He notes that I didn't mention a schwa where he thought I should have in a recent column, and he jumps to the conclusion that I don't know what a schwa is (it's an indistinct vowel sound, like the e in "haven't").

He jumps to the further conclusion that I know nothing about linguistics. I'm not an authority on linguistics, it's true, but I know that, over the years, much of the mail I've received from linguisticians (I still hold that a linguist is one who speaks several languages well) has been badly written. He writes: "Writing about language without studying linguistics is like a gardening expert whose entire experience of flowers is his memorization of Latin names."

Writing about language is in no way like a gardening expert, nor is it like a cowboy, a policeman, or a politician. Writing about language might be compared to writing about gardening, but it is not even in the same category with "a gardening expert."

To be fair to him, I must say that elsewhere in his letter he explicitly disdains logic and clarity as goals to be aimed for in writing, so he is at least consistent. Nevertheless, I fear that his is an example of the poor young minds shortchanged by the gang that learned not to respect words.

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