Category Archives: language (vocabulary, usage); language in the abstract as it pertains to writing

“I like it the way it is.”

 

 

Call Me ‘They’ – NY Times 7-10-2019

 

 

This post concerns the following op-ed in yesterday’s Times:

 

Call Me ‘They’

‘The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

By Farhad Manjoo

The New York Times

July 10, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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The Spanish have el mano and the French la fenêtre.

Should we ban these “gendered” articles and insist they be replaced with new ones invented in the “language laboratory” / “incubator” staffed by technocrats in lab coats?

Our glorious English tongue has been around for some 1,200 years.

I like it the way it is.

 

 
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SOME SPECIFIC COMMENTS ON THIS ATROCIOUS OPINION PIECE (Quotations from the op-ed are in italics. My comments are in boldface.)

 

 

The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

‘[T]he stifling prison of gender expectations.” Is this an op-ed about children in cages? I thought we were talking about grammar.

 

 

I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad.

What the f____ is “cisgender”? It’s a buzzword I can do without.

 

 

… most people guess that I go by “he” and “him.” And that’s fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

But “he” is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

How about moving to Laputa? You would fit right in there. Maybe you could secure a language policy making post there. … Oops, have you heard of Laputa? Did you ever read Jonathan Swift? Why do I doubt it?

 

 

So why does standard English impose a gender requirement on the third-person singular? And why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering? To get to my particular beef: When I refer to an individual whose gender I don’t know here in The Times, why do I usually have to choose either “he” or “she” or, in the clunkiest phrase ever cooked up by small-minded grammarians, “he or she”?

No requirement is imposed. This writer is out of his (“gendered” possessive pronoun) depth. The language evolved that way. The writer probably prefers genetically engineered foods and hothouse plans. Has he ever stopped to admire a dandelion or oak tree?

 

 

… why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering?

Before opining any further on this topic, about which you are ignorant, I suggest you take a couple of English courses, grammar and lit; and a course in a foreign language would be very helpful too. This might enable you to begin to grasp and maybe even appreciate the beauty of languages, both grammar and structure, their uniqueness, distinctive features, how precious this is, as a flower to botanist or layperson. Read a Great Book or two. (Please don’t advocate “scrubbing” them.) It won’t hurt. You will see that the King’s English — now spoken all over the world — has a glorious history and the magnificence of a mighty oak.

 

 

I suspect my call will be dismissed as useless virtue-signaling, but there are several clear advantages, both linguistic and cultural, to the singular “they.” One of the main ones is that it’s ubiquitous. According to linguists who study gender and pronouns, “they” and “them” are increasingly and widely seen as legitimate ways to refer to an individual, both generically and specifically, whether you know their gender or not — as I just did right in this sentence.

Your “call”? As in a ministerial calling? Why do I get the impression that you — a would be word maven and “word watcher” (read language policeman) — have no facility in (as in infelicitous phrase) or reverence for correct usage?

 

 

That’s probably why the singular, gender-neutral “they” is common not just in transgender and nonbinary communities, for whom it is necessary, but also in mainstream usage, where it is rapidly becoming a standard way we refer to all people. If you watch closely, you’ll see the usage in marketing copy, on social media, in app interfaces and just about everywhere else you look. For instance, when Uber or Lyft wants to tell you that your driver has arrived, they send you a notification that says something like: “Juan is almost here. Meet them outside.”

Whom should we entrust with setting language standards? Uber execs, advertisers? Heaven help us.

 

 

Other than plainly intolerant people, there’s only one group that harbors doubts about the singular “they”: grammarians. If you’re one of those people David Foster Wallace called a “snoot,” Lyft’s use of “them” to refer to one specific Juan rings grammatically icky to you. The singular, gender nonspecific “they” has been common in English as long as people have spoken English, but since the 18th century, grammar stylists have discouraged it on the grounds that “they” has to be plural. That’s why institutions that cater to snoots generally discourage it.

They” is plural! you idiot.

 

you
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Basta. (That’s Spanish for enough.)

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 11, 2019

the ABUSE of bad words

 

 

 

Pee.

Shit.

Fart.

Fuck.

I recently went to a doctor for a checkup. He asked me how frequently I urinated. He cautioned me, “Don’t drink water in the evening and before you go to bed. If you don’t drink water, you won’t wake up so often during the night because you need to pee.”

He’s a professional, an MD. Couldn’t he have said urinate?

I used to see a therapist who was from an older generation. He was careful about language. He wrote a book about Charles Darwin’s medical history and an illness the latter suffered from most of his life that was never diagnosed and may have been psychosomatic. He noted that Darwin often suffered from flatulence. That was the right word to use for the context.

Now we have the “pee tape.”

As discussed in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times.

 

“Lordy, Is There a Tape?”

By Michelle Goldberg

Op-Ed

The New York Times

April 16, 2018

 

Whatever you think of the former F.B.I. director James Comey, he has started a long overdue national conversation about whether the pee tape is real.

“I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey said in his hotly anticipated interview with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday night. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”

Comey was referring, of course, to a claim in the dossier about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia compiled by the British ex-spy Christopher Steele. While in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, Trump reserved the Ritz-Carlton’s presidential suite, where Barack and Michelle Obama had stayed previously. Citing multiple anonymous sources, Steele reported that Trump had prostitutes defile the bed where the Obamas slept by urinating on it, and that the Kremlin had recordings. …

Like Comey, none of us know what really happened at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, and we may never find out. As outlandish as the rumor is, however, the idea that Trump would shy away from good press out of principle is far more so. To seriously discuss this presidency, you have to open your mind to the truly obscene.

And so on.

 

 

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The whole discussion makes me feel uncomfortable. I am not interested in what happened in a hotel room in Moscow.

So does the use of words such as pee in connection with the President or, generally, in formal discourse.

The pungent Anglo-Saxon words we have in our language are an essential part of it. In private conversation, in situations that call for explicitness or frankness, sometimes (if not often) in literature, occasionally in public, such words are not inappropriate and are called for. They certainly shouldn’t be banned, any more than one should, say, try to pretend that parts of the human body do not exist.

Such words can be effective in private or in public when used sometimes for emphasis or shock value. They can liven up a conversation. (At other times, they can deaden it.) Using pee or shit, say, in conversation where there is a familiar relationship already and politeness or restraint is not required; using fuck for emphasis at times. Salty sailor’s talk is not necessarily out of bounds.

But such words often become overused, or are used inappropriately in public or in the wrong contexts and situations when they are more likely than not to cause embarrassment or discomfort, and where a more polite (usually Latinate) alternative exists. And, their overuse can cheapen discourse, or deaden the impact of a potentially powerful word such as fuck, which one sometimes hears repeated over and over again to the point where it becomes annoying to the ear, just as a too loud, monotonous, second rate punk rock band can.

And some words — such as fart — can sometimes make you squirm, make one feel downright uncomfortable.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 18, 2018

vocabulary redux

 

 

 

People have told me over the years, many times, that I have an excellent vocabulary.

I never stop looking up words.

Here are some ones I have recently looked up. They are all from my reading. Some I more or less knew or could guess the meaning of from context. Others I had encountered before, but did not know the exact meaning.

 

 

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prosy

adjective

showing no imagination; commonplace or dull (said especially of speech or writing)

I love this word for how it can be used to apply in this particular sense; it was used by Charles Dickens.

 

 

demotic

denoting or relating to the kind of language used by ordinary people

synonyms: popular, vernacular, colloquial, idiomatic, vulgar, common

 

 

revenant

noun

a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead

 

 

midden

a dunghill or refuse heap; a term more commonly used in earlier times (e.g., the nineteenth century) when waste disposal methods were more primitive (I came across it in a Dickens work)

 

 

parataxis

The stringing of simple clauses together in rapid, spontaneous talk. Example:

Look, having nuclear – my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at M.I.T.; good genes, very good genes, O.K., very smart, the Wharton School of finance, very good, very smart – you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you’re a conservative Republican they try – oh, they do a number – that’s why I always start off: “Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune”– you know I have to give my life credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged – but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me.

 

 

miry

adjective

very muddy or boggy

“the roads were miry in winter”

used by Dickens

 

 

Brummagem

cheap, showy, or counterfeit

“a vile Brummagem substitute for the genuine article”

 

 

pule

verb; literary

gerund or present participle: puling

cry querulously or weakly

 

 

periphrasis

the use of indirect and circumlocutory speech or writing

example: “not a shadow of a shade of doubt”

 

 

anaphora; anaphoric

a rhetorical term for when a writer or speaker repeats the same beginning of a sentence several times. Writers and speakers use anaphora to add emphasis to the repeated element, but also to add rhythm, cadence, and style to the text or speech.

example: “The wrong person was selected for the wrong job, at the wrong time, for the wrong purpose.”

 

 

alembic

something that refines or transmutes as if by distillation

“filtered through the alembic of Plato’s mind”

 

 

exordium

the beginning or introductory part, especially of a discourse or treatise

 

 

repine

verb; literary

to feel or express discontent; fret

used by Mary Shelly in Frankenstein

 

 

slough

1. a swamp.

2. a situation characterized by lack of progress or activity

 

 

chamois

1. an agile goat-antelope with short hooked horns, found in mountainous areas of Europe

2. a type of soft pliable leather now made from sheepskin or lambskin.

 

 

 

keeping (term used in the arts)

“It is true that I have thought more and that my daydreams are more extended and magnificent, but they want (as painters call it) keeping …” — Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Keeping, in painting, signifies the representation of objects in the same manner that they appear to the eye at different distances from it, which is only to be done with accuracy by attending to the rules of perspective.

 

 

flagitious

marked by scandalous crime or vice: villainous

 

 

ungenial

rather than uncongenial

used by Mary Shelley; author’s introduction to Frankenstein; “a wet, ungenial summer”

 

 

lubricity

1. capacity to lubricate: “the wonderful lubricity of this new oil”

2. instability; shiftiness; fleeting nature: “the lubricity of fame and fortune”

3. (formal or literary) lewdness; lustfulness: lasciviousness; salaciousness

4. something that arouses lasciviousness, especially pornography.

from Old French lubricité, from Medieval Latin lubricitis, from Latin lubricus (slippery)

 

 

flapdoodle

noun; informal

nonsense

can also mean a fool

 

 

mumblespeak

an attempt to cover something up by giving information that says absolutely nothing

“Devin Nunes used mumblespeak to try and divert the public’s attention from the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia.”

 

 

dottle

noun

a remnant of tobacco left in a pipe after smoking

 

 

fetor

a strong, foul smell

“the fetor of decay”

used by Walt Whitman in his poem “This Compost”

 

 

tarn

noun

a small mountain lake

used by Theodore Dreiser in his Dawn

 

 

pinchbeck

an alloy of copper and zinc resembling gold, used in watchmaking and costume jewelry

as an adjective: appearing valuable, but actually cheap or tawdry

 

 

lowery; also spelled (more commonly) loury

adjective: ““A lowery sky, and from it flecks of silvery light dropping lightly, like mirrored feathers.”

lour (English word) is a verb; it has the meaning of look angry or sullen; scowl (“The lofty statue lours at patients in the infirmary.”)

Used as a noun, lour can mean the dark and gloomy, or threatening, appearance of the sky or a landscape.

Lour comes from the Middle English lour (“sad or frowning countenance”), louren (“to frown or scowl; to be dark or overcast; look askant, mistrust; wither, fade, droop; lurk, skulk”); and from the Old English lowren, luren. Compare Dutch loeren, German lauern (“lurk, be on the watch”), and English leer and lurk.

 

 

synesthesia

the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body

 

 

afflatus

a divine creative impulse or inspiration

 

 

noisome

adjective, literary

1. having an extremely offensive smell

“noisome vapors from the smoldering waste”

2. disagreeable; unpleasant

“noisome scandals”

 

 

metonymy

a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated (such as “crown” in “lands belonging to the crown”)

A place is often used as a metonym for a government or other official institutions, for example, Brussels for the institutions of the European Union, The Hague for the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court, Washington for the U.S. government (as well as capitol), the White House and Capitol Hill for the executive and legislative branches, respectively, of the United States federal government. A place can represent an entire industry: for instance, Wall Street is often used metonymically to describe the entire U.S. financial and corporate banking sector. Common nouns and phrases can also be metonyms: red tape can stand for bureaucracy, whether or not that bureaucracy actually uses red tape to bind documents. In Commonwealth realms, The Crown is a metonym for the state in all its aspects.

 

 

pathetic fallacy

the attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals, especially in art and literature

 

 

humblebrag

noun: an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud; used as a verb: to make an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud

“She humblebragged about how ‘awful’ she looks without any makeup.”

“At times, Brown seems capable of writing in only two registers: brag and humblebrag. I prefer the straightforward brag — at least all the brass horns are playing in the same key — though I do admire how she twice manages to reveal, by Page 10, that she was quite shapely in her youth, both times under the guise of a complaint.” — review by Jennifer Senior of The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 by Tina Brown, The New York Times

 

 

asyndeton

noun

the omission or absence of a conjunction between parts of a sentence

 

 

declension

1: noun, adjective, or pronoun inflection especially in some prescribed order of the forms; a class of nouns or adjectives having the same type of inflectional forms

2: a falling off or away: deterioration

3: descent, slope

“Schlesinger kept writing books he hoped would ‘serve the liberal cause,’ as he had intended for his past works. But they were jeremiads about America’s declension rather than heralds of its rendezvous with a destiny of progress.” — Michael Kazin review of Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian by Richard Aldous

 

 

ferity

archaic

the quality or state of being feral; also, barbarity

used by Thoreau in one of his essays

 

 

glossed (past tense, participle)

1. apply a cosmetic gloss to (synonyms: shine, glaze, polish, burnish)

2. try to conceal or disguise (something embarrassing or unfavorable) by treating it briefly or representing it misleadingly: “the social costs of this growth are glossed over” (synonyms: conceal, cover up, hide, disguise, mask, veil, shrug off)

used by Theodore Dreiser as a verb:” He would talk to me by the hour … of the French Revolution and the great figures in it, of Napoleon, Wellington, Tsar Alexander, Also of Peter the Great and Catharine of Russia, Frederick the Great and Voltaire, whom he admired enormously. But not the silly, GLOSSED, emasculated data of the school histories with which I had been made familiar, but with the harsh, jagged realities and savageries of the too real world in which all of them moved.”

 

 

tussock

1. a small area of grass that is thicker or longer than the grass growing around it.

2. a woodland moth whose adults and brightly colored caterpillars both bear tufts of irritant hairs. The caterpillars can be a pest of trees, damaging fruit and stripping leaves.

 

 

emprise

an adventurous, daring, or chivalric enterprise: “He always seems to be having the sort of high emprise that most of us experience only in our dreams.”

synonyms: adventure, experience, exploit, gest (or geste), happening, time

 

 

gad, gadding

go around from one place to another, in the pursuit of pleasure or entertainment: “help out around the house and not be gadding about the countryside”

used by Thoreau in one of his essays: “the gadding town”

 

 

clamber

to climb, move, or get in or out of something in an awkward and laborious way, typically using both hands and feet: “He clambered out of the trench.”

The meaning is not unfamiliar, but it was used interestingly in the following sentence: “[Ulysses S. Grant] armored himself with simplicity. Grant’s style is strikingly modern in its economy. It stood out in that age of clambering, winding prose, with shameless sentences like lines of thieves in a marketplace, grabbing everything in reach and stuffing it all into their sacks.” — T. J. Stiles, essay in The New York Times

 

 

perspicacious

having a ready insight into and understanding of things.

a well-known word, BUT NOTE:

perspicuous

plain to the understanding especially because of clarity and precision of presentation: “a perspicuous argument”

 

 

skirl

verb

(of bagpipes) make a shrill, wailing sound

 

 

phatic

adjective

denoting or relating to language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions. Utterances such as hello, how are you? and nice morning, isn’t it? are phatic.

 

 

granular

1. consisting of or appearing to consist of granules; grainy

2. finely detailed: “granular reports”

“Ms. Cummings was called to testify for two days during the trial, speaking in sometimes GRANULAR detail about her work for Mr. Skelos, as well as the inner workings of Senate campaigns and the Republican conference.” — “More Corruption Trials? Possible Reprise Makes Albany Groan”, The New York Times, October 4, 2017

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 2018

the effervescent (sometimes typographically challenged) pedant

 

 

I am blessed to come from a family that is very verbal, that delights in oral and written exchanges and expression and in word play. It seems as if they always put things just right, and often they amuse or provide a pleasant surprise with verbal ingenuity.

When I was in college, my brother and his wife gave me a book as a Christmas gift: Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Oxford History of the American People. On the flyleaf, my brother wrote an inscription: “To the effervescent pedant / With love”

I thought of this because of an email exchange I had with my brother this morning.

In the email to my brother, I quoted from my post

 

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/12/20/her-instead-of-him-ms-and-what-else/

 

as follows: “The PC types are all for conversation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.”

 

and, in the email, said:

See any problem with this?

The PC crowd does tend to be loquacious.

 

 

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My brother responded as follows:

Cute typo.

Reminds me when you confused “martial relations” with “marital relations,” an apt malaprop that sent Mom into gales of laughter — loving laughter because in part she was enjoying your early advanced vocabulary.

 

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I wrote back:

All very true, Pete.

Aptly described.

Your memory is impressive.

I had forgotten how I used to get “martial” and “marital” mixed up.

Sometimes, I would make words up, which amused Mom … I used to say, “It’s just the INTRACITIES of life.”

Once I wrote Mom a letter using several big words I had just learned. I said that if she had no objection, I would DESCANT upon a few things. (To descant means to talk tediously or at length.)

She wrote back a letter beginning with, “So, cant me no descants.” She loved word play.

 

 

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This was brilliant usage by my mother. The intransitive verb cant (the meaning of which I did not know) is defined thusly:

1: to talk or beg in a whining or singsong manner

2: to speak in cant or jargon

3: to talk hypocritically

I’m trying to remember in which work of literature I first encountered the word descant.  I usually don’t forget such things.

It will come to me.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 22, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

 

 

The reflections of mine which follow concern a point of grammar that bothers me. The usage which I object to occurred in the following article which I was reading on Monday.

 

“Casualties of the Cashless Society: Those Who Get Seasonal Tips”

by Douglas Quenqua

The New York Times

December 18, 2017

 

 

It is not a unique occurrence or example. The passage in the Times article was as follows:

“It’s a peculiar quirk of modern city life. The stock market is on fire, unemployment is down, and the average price of a Manhattan apartment is now more than $2 million. Yet good luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse.”

 

 

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Note “HER purse.”

I have a problem with this.

The reporter, if he wanted to be politically correct, could have used the awkward locution “his or her” (i.e., “his or her purse”), which I don’t particularly care for. (Nevertheless, I myself use it when I feel called upon by context to do so. But, I don’t feel obligated to use it. It depends upon my writerly instincts. In my opinion, that’s the way it should be. My or anyone else’s writing should be based upon personal preferences in matters of style, not a ukase from a language czar.)

But, the Times writer wants to show off his PC credentials with his in your face “her.” It is meant to produce a frisson in male chauvinist types. But, it actually amounts to “incivility,” so to speak, when it comes to conventions of language and audience expectations. By “audience expectations,” I mean those of  the Times’s readers. If you think this is an extreme point of view, see discussions of how a writer should always keep his or her audience uppermost in mind as a “first principle” of composition in books such as June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. The unexpected “she,” rather than “he,” or “he or she,” produces a sensation of disorientation — and temporary confusion — in the discriminating reader.

 

 

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“[G]ood luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse” annoys me. I quoted the passage to a friend of mine (a male) with an advanced degree who has very liberal views on politics, affirmative action, sexism, homophobia, and other issues and asked him what he thought. He agreed with me. He didn’t like the use of “her” in this instance and said it annoyed him too.

 

 

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Re pronouns indicating gender, such as Ms.

I consider Ms. to be an abomination.

The abbreviation Mrs. signifies a beautiful honorific pronounced as Missus, and the honorific Miss, which is not abbreviated, has a beautiful sound (unlike the atrocious and downright ugly Ms., which is unpronounceable, but who cares? — we shall not have sexism in the workplace!). We are talking about ancient words embedded in our glorious language.

The French have the abbreviations M., spelled out and pronounced as the elegant Monsieur; and Mme and Mlle, pronounced and spelled out, respectively, as the euphonious Madame and the even more euphonious Mademoiselle. What a beautiful word.

What about the Spanish Srta. for the beautiful sounding honorific Señorita? Have the language police come up with an ugly substitute (one that does not indicate marital status) yet? I fear that they have.

I wonder if “Mademoiselle,” the 1970’s hit by the rock band Styx, will have to be retitled in the name of political correctness.

And what about the hit song “Adios Senorita” by Ivory Joe Hunter, which is still played? Title change? It’s never too late to correct the past sins of a benighted, politically incorrect lyricist.

More ominously, what about the musical Miss Saigon? Should the title be allowed to stand? Should it be changed to “Ms. Saigon”?

 

 

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This is not nitpicking on my part, and it is not a trivial matter. Ask New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris, author of the best seller Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. As she says, “Pronouns run deep.” The PC types are all for conservation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.

If a reader of this blog disagrees with me, she is welcome to post a comment.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 20, 2017

Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble

 

 

On Thursday, November 16, 2017, I heard a performance at Carnegie Hall of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K. 428 by the Tetzlaff Quartet. Mozart’s K. 428 is one of his Haydn Quartets, a set of six string quartets that he dedicated to Joseph Haydn.

It is a flawless work. It exemplifies Mozart’s genius. It also brought to mind a sentence in my first-year Russian textbook — written by a famed Slavicist and foreign language teacher, Alexander L. Lipson — which was as follows: “Как и Моцарт, Пушкин написал только шедевры” (Kak i Motsart, Pushkin napisal tol’ko shedevry. Like Mozart, Pushkin wrote only masterpieces.)

The Russian word for masterpieces, shedevry, is the same as and is derived from the French. (Makes me think of the French used by the aristocracy in War and Peace.)

The Mozart piece brought to mind the comparison between Mozart and Pushkin made in the textbook from my college Russian course, and the course itself.

 

 

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I was eager and thrilled to be able to take introductory Russian in my sophomore year at Brandeis University. The course was taught by Charles E. Gribble. Professor Gribble, who held a doctorate from Harvard, began his teaching career at Brandeis. When I took the course with him, he was in his late twenties. At that time, Professor Gribble was in the preliminary phase of founding an important publishing house for Slavicists: Slavica Publishers. He was the firm’s editor for thirty years.

I was motivated to study Russian for several reasons:

I had discovered the works of the Russian émigré scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin in my senior year in high school. I was totally engrossed in books of his such as Leaves from a Russian Diary. This led to a fascination on my part with Russian culture.

At the time, the Soviet Union was regarded with outright hostility, fear, and suspicion. Being by nature a contrarian, I tended to think differently. Politics aside, I saw, as did Sorokin (to quote from one of his works), “an essential similarity or congeniality in a number of important psychological, cultural, and social values” between the USA and the USSR: vast territories with all that implies (such as various climates, topography, and regional characteristics); rich natural and human resources; major cultural and urban centers; the fact that both countries were world powers; and so on. I was a sort of Slavophil without knowing it.

Russia as I imagined it was a country with vast expanses like us and a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnic groups and with a rich, continually growing culture, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whom at this stage of my educational development I had not yet read) and composers such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich (whose works I had already become acquainted with and admired — in fact, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony almost in and of its itself made me a Slavophil). Just like America, Russia was huge, diverse, all encompassing, culturally fertile; and with a vibrant economy. And, I felt intuitively, a rich language.

 

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My previous language study had consisted of a year or two of French in junior high school (a complete waste); four years of high school French, on the basis of which I was placed into third year French at Brandeis University; and two years of high school Latin. Romance languages.

It was a thrill for me to be studying a Slavic language and one with a different alphabet.

Learning the Cyrillic alphabet, in both cursive and print form, was a stumbling block for me, a hurdle to be overcome. It often felt like I was back in the first grade learning my letters and being taught to sound out words phonetically.

Our professor, Charles Gribble, knew the author of the textbook we used, Alexander Lipson, personally. Lipson taught at either MIT or Harvard; I forget which.

Lipson’s first year Russian textbook was in developmental form; it hadn’t yet been published. It consisted of pages that had been copied and bound, but not in book form. Without covers.

It was a clever and entertaining text, besides being well conceived from a pedagogical standpoint.

I was fascinated to find that Russian had cases — six of them — like Latin. (I love studying grammar and cannot understand why modern day self-appointed language “experts,” as they style themselves, want to emend or simplify, essentially emasculate — in the name of political correctness or conforming to their misguided, benighted theories of how language and English composition should be taught — language instruction. See Addendum below.)

 

 

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The genitive case (possessive) in Russia was introduced early, as follows. There would be an entertaining reading with a lot of words ending in –ого (-ogo), indicating the Russian form for a noun such as doctor’s used in a phrase such as “the doctor’s office.” Even Russian proper nouns have a possessive form, so that “Tolstoy’s house” becomes “Дом Толстого” (dom Tolstogo).

In the next or a subsequent chapter of Lipson’s textbook, the genitive case and its usage and endings would be formally introduced and explained. Since one already had a rudimentary familiarity with it in the previously encountered reading, one assimilated the grammar point with ease. This is sound pedagogy. It’s how we learn the grammar of our native language.

 

 

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Despite being motivated, I had difficulty with the course.

Some of the students had already taken Russian in high school, which, in the case of a language like Russian with a steep learning curve, put me at a competitive disadvantage, so to speak.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I tried very hard. I spent hours in the language lab, but — despite my best efforts — I always seemed to be a couple of lessons behind the rest of the class.

Professor Gribble said he would take into account class attendance and effort in grading. He kept his word. I got D on practically every quiz and exam. My final grade for the 6 credit course was C.

I have always had a very high aptitude for foreign languages. In French and Latin classes in high school, I was usually (but not always) the best student in the class. The same was the case when I took Spanish as a postgraduate student at Columbia University.

So how does one account of my struggles with introductory Russian? My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., had an explanation. He regarded it as a case of what one might call “learning inhibition.” When a student feels uncomfortable with the classroom setting and the instructor. This was true of my experience with Professor Gribble. Strangely enough, he was actually a good guy. I went to a web site containing his obituary at

https://slavic.osu.edu/news/memoriam-charles-edward-gribble-1936-2016

and it was clear that this was the case. (The obituary mentions his concern for and rapport with students.) In the following year (I did not enroll for second year Russian), I would occasionally run into Professor Gribble in the snack bar. He was always pleasant and seemed interested in how I was doing.

 

 

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Alexander Lipson died in 1980 at the age of fifty-one. He was the author of a three part textbook, A Russian Course, which in its prototype/preliminary form, we had used as our text in Professor Gribble’s course.

In a review published in The Slavic and East European Journal of the book Alexander Lipson in Memoriam (1994), Catherine V. Chvany refers to Lipson as follows:

… language pedagogue extraordinaire, maverick entrepreneur, linguist’s linguist, travel tour designer, and enfant terrible. Though Lipson never completed his own Ph.D., members of his now gray-haired cohort have claimed in my hearing they learned more from Alex Lipson — about language, about Slavic, and about teaching — than from any of their professors.

She also notes “Lipson’s broad interests [which reflected] Lipson’s profound if irreverent knowledge of Russian literature and culture.” One could sense this in the text of his we used, which was much more fun and informative than most language textbooks. And, often, downright funny.

For instance, I will never forget how Chapter One began:

Хулиганы сидят в парке весь день и курят. (Khuligany sidyat v parke ves’ den’ i kuryat; Hooligans sit in the park all day and smoke.)

This was a mockery of Soviet attitudes towards deadbeats.

Another chapter had a reading devoted to the topic of навозные мухи (navoznyye mukhi): manure flies. This was a satire on life on the Soviet колхоз (kolkhoz; collective farm). After this chapter, the Russian word for fly, муха (muka), was permanently implanted in my mind.

Then, there was the aforementioned chapter with a reading on Pushkin. It included a short poem by Pushkin, “Ты и Вы” (“Thou and “You,” 1828) that was accessible to first year students and from which I got a feeling for the enchanting musicality and the sensuality and power of Pushkin’s verse.

 

Пустое вы сердечным ты
Она, обмолвясь, заменила
И все счастливые мечты
В душе влюбленной возбудила.
Пред ней задумчиво стою,
Свести очей с нее нет силы;
И говорю ей: как вы милы!
И мыслю: как тебя люблю!

 

Pustoye “Vy” serdechnym “Ty”
Ona, obmolvyas’, zamenila
I vse schastlivyye mechty
V dushe vlyublennoy vozbudila.
Pred ney zadumchivo stoyu,
Svesti ochey s neye net sily;
I govoryu yey: kak vy mily!
I myslyu: kak tebya lyublyu!

 

She substituted,
by a chance,
For empty “you” — the gentle “thou”;
And all my happy dreams, at once,
In loving heart again resound.
In bliss and silence do I stay,
Unable to maintain my role:
“Oh, how sweet you are!” I say —
“How I love thee!” says my soul.

 

Russian — as with the French tu and vous or Spanish tu and usted — has two forms (formal and familiar) of the second person pronoun.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 18, 2017

 

 

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Addendum :

 

The 1960’s, a learned friend of mine once opined, was the Golden Era of American education. I would not dispute this. I experienced it in English and history courses, in foreign language courses, and in mathematics instruction. To get an idea of how low conceptions of foreign language pedagogy have sunk since Alexander Lipson’s time, one might take a look at the following article:

“Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy,” by Carmel McCoubrey, op-ed, The New York Times, November 16, 2017

 

will “ladies and gentlemen” go the way of the dodo?

 

 

 

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is replacing the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” in announcements with gender-neutral words in an effort to be more inclusive.

Instead you’ll likely hear, “Good morning, everyone,” or, “Hello, passengers.”

It’s just one of the changes to the conductors’ script that started earlier this month.

… This morning you may hear the train conductor say something like: “Good morning, riders.”
— “New York Today: Subway Announcements Get a Human Touch,” by Jonathan Wolfe, The New York Times, November 13, 2017

 

 

 

 

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The language commissars are pernicious. Yes, pernicious. Defined as “having a harmful effect, especially in a gradual or subtle way.” They are gradually eroding and stripping of its vitality our precious English tongue.

What, in God’s name, is wrong with saying “ladies and gentlemen”? It’s a polite phrase. It needs to be replaced with something “gender-neutral”? Meaning, no words or phrases that indicate gender will henceforth be permitted?

Language is a living, breathing thing. It’s organic, just like nature. Don’t let the over the top, politically correct language czars ruin it. Not only are they totally wrong in their excessive zeal and fanaticism to eradicate words in the language as it is spoken, they are ignorant, and their stupidity is dangerous.

George Orwell was prescient in inventing a language, Newspeak, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, that would replace English, getting rid of supposedly superfluous words, so that a word such as bad would be replaced with “ungood.”

I can just see it, an announcement or sign on the subway or in a subway station: “Be careful with perambulators carrying passengers under age five to avoid the possibility of their getting caught in an escalator or being too close to the edge of a subway platform.”

I thought baby was a gender-neutral world, but perhaps it will someday be deemed politically incorrect and will have to be replaced by an alternative such as “parentally supervised minor.”

God only knows.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017