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calendar   Tuesday - January 29, 2013

How Degrading

A little tip of the hat to Rich K, who mentioned that Rachel Lucas was blogging again. I had an enjoyable half an hour this morning reading her current posts. She is an essayist, which makes her a rarity in the blogosphere. One of her posts linked to a small treatise written by Clark Whelton, titled What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness The decline and fall of American English, and stuff which I read and am obliquely responding to. It is a worthy quick read that I strongly agree with.

I was a very smart child. I had a large vocabulary at a young age, and was reading books far beyond my age group before I entered first grade. I also excelled at math and science and absorbed history and geography like a sponge. This won me no friends, and I was “Mr. Encyclopedia” and “dictionary Pearce” through many of my formative years. It occasionally got me in trouble too; I clearly recall being sent to the principal’s office because I gave the teacher an argument over a simple third grade exercise where you had to draw lines between pictures of objects and their written names. There was the word “fish” and there was a picture of a shark. I drew no line, and was marked wrong. Enraged that I only earned a 98 on the busy work “learning” project, I fought it. The principal had dealt with me before, and was highly aware of my precocious abilities. So instead of just making me sit in a corner for some time, he brought me into his office and asked me why I hadn’t drawn the obvious line. I told him that I felt it was a trick question, because a shark is not a fish. A shark is a cartilogenous elasmobranch. Yes, I said that. Third grade. I was that kind of kid. My parents had purchased us a nice set of moderate encyclopedias, which my brother and I devoured for many years, and one volume had one of those “tree of life” diagrams showing how all living things are related. I’d spotted the fish/shark split on one branch, and asked about it. This got me a rather exact answer from my father the professional biologist. Sharks and rays do not have bones, they do not have ribs, they do not have gill pumps, and they do not have swim bladders. Thus, they are not actually fish. To my everlasting chagrin, many years later that “tree” diagram was changed, and now has “bony fish” and “non-bony fish” sub-branching off of “fish” (well, in layman’s terms, which foreshadows the point I’m slowly making here). But in 1968 I was in accord with the textbooks of the day.

The lesson I learned from that and many similar experiences was “hide your lamp under a bushel”, and that lesson has been with me my entire life. And yet I still slip up sometimes. At bowling league the other week, talking about bowling with some of the other bowlers, without thinking I mentioned that certain lane conditions induce certain ball behaviors. The two ladies just looked at me for a second. Tick tock, tick tock, blink blink. “Induce”, says one, “that’s a good word.” I did some really fast mental reviewing to check that I had used the word properly. I had. “Yes”, I said, “it is.” End of conversation. Some things never change.

So I found Whelton’s analysis interesting. So did several hundred other people, who all left comments reinforcing his premise. Sadly, the degradation of our native language is even worse than Whelton realizes. Even discounting the snarky comments that tried to paint him priggishly pink, nearly every one of the 50 or so that I read contain grammar, spelling, or usage errors. That’s very sad. We should not dumb down our language usage; we should smarten it up. We should revel in our broad vocabularies, and we should endeavor to speak and write with precision and clarity.  And conciseness, my great failing. We don’t need to enverbiate incessantly when so many synonyms already exist and can be applied with only an additional word or two. English is the greatest and broadest language in the history of civilization, and maladroitness with our own native tongue will not give us any competitive advantage anywhere.

Blame PC. Blame the glorification of ghetto culture. Blame the school system. Blame the never-ending cradle to grave castigation of intelligence in America. Blame lazy parenting. Blame the computer revolution that has given us texting, online spell checkers and grammar checkers, which make learning the arcane arts of reading, writing, and effective communication nearly redundant. But if you read or hear a word that you are not familiar with, first blame yourself if your immediate reaction is not curiosity. If instead of “hey, what does that word mean, how is it pronounced, how do I use it, can I derive a general meaning from the context?” you instead just skip over it, or worse yet, feel resentful ... then you are not part of the solution. You are part of the problem. And that is degrading. 


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Posted by Drew458   United States  on 01/29/2013 at 09:34 AM   
Filed Under: • Education •  
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