Thursday, June 08, 2017

How it's Made: hammers and sentences.

Made in Rosthern, ca 1907
I took a History of English course at the University of Alberta long, long ago. The prof was a linguist and the approach was consistent with evolutionary thinking. Anyone in the class who rejected biological evolution would still come away from that class believing in linguistic evolution. It became so darned obvious under the tutelage of someone like Dr. Cantrememberhisname.

There’s a program on the Discovery channel that I like to watch: How it’s Made, it’s called, and it follows the manufacturing processes of everyday objects beginning with raw materials and ending with, say, a hammer or a snowmobile. We can probably be forgiven for seeing a hammer that “just is” without paying attention to it’s origins; you just can’t know everything! But in that class at the U of A where we looked at our English language with the intensity of How it’s Made, I gained an appreciation for the fluidity of language, the way it begins and the ways in which it changes, usually in concert with changes in other aspects of our cultures: our ecology, our economics, our migrations.

(A tidbit: vulgar meant the common people early on in it’s life. It’s equivalent in understanding today might be “the middle class.” From it’s Latin base to the present, it’s evolved to be used to describe low, mean, highly objectionable persons and actions. How it went from its reference to the peasant class to its use in describing despicable persons and events would in itself make for an interesting cultural study. ((An aside to the tidbit: the Vulgate Bible was not a translation for rude, mean people; it was a translation for common use.)))

Historically, people didn’t have the benefit of scholarship like that of Dr. Cantrememberhisname, or of TV programs to explain How it’s Made. But some were understandably curious about how it was that when some people spoke, they couldn’t understand them, and when they themselves spoke, others heard gibberish. At some time, the myth of the confounding of language at the Babel Tower was given birth, a myth that gospel writers reversed in the de-confounding at Pentecost. Taken together, they illustrate that what went wrong is being made right with the coming of Christ and the upside-down nature of his teaching.

Understanding the story of languages—the How it’s Made of our mother tongues particularly—is far more important than knowing how the handle of a hammer is given its shape. In the case of the hammer, it doesn’t really matter if we imagine it to have arrived intact in its present form; lack of facility in and knowledge of the nuances in language starts wars, ends marriages, breaks communities up into parcels of misunderstanding.

We taught language facility in an earlier age—rhetoric and oratory, debating, grammar and penmanship—as the important subjects in school. Students were required to master basics of Latin (from which much of English vocabulary and grammar derive) and possibly some Greek as well. We deemed it important that people learn to express their thoughts well and that they comprehend the thoughts of others, well expressed. We understood how important it is to be able to write legibly, clearly and precisely; how important it is to be able to read and comprehend clear and precise writing; how crucial an adequate and growing vocabulary can be to all human interaction.

We once understood that language knowledge and facility are key to pretty much everything.

(A recent bit of satire chastised Barack Obama for deliberately humiliating President Trump by speaking in complete sentences with an actual verb in each.)

 Pointing-and-grunting might be language enough when we’re digging a ditch, but the demands of the times cry out for language more fluent, more precise, more poetic than that.

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