Short Fire Forms. I often wonder whether the classical view of language is the right one or, at least, the only valid one. Once more to the bar, my friend, to ponder short words and lost souls.
Monthly Archives: March 2015
What a nice beer. The great thing about speaking is that it shares a lot with drinking – we have a wealth of bodily functions that we can use to make the point that we are trying to make clearer, anything from a slight change in tone to swinging a mighty, nuclear hammer that mysteriously deposits us face down on the floor. For writing, though, once we lift our pen from the page and depart from the room, our words lose their essential physicality and become mono-coloured, two dimensional shadows on the page.
Ghosts of our presence.
Many cultures have shown a distrust of mirrors of cameras, accusing them of stealing part of their soul. And perhaps it is true, in a way, since everything we see in a mirror or a camera arrived there by light that earlier interacted with the surface layers of our body, and every interaction results in an exchange. I myself am more concerned with the interactions we have with books; as soul stealers I believe they have much greater potential than mere mirrors and cameras. Think about it. A mirror or a camera is made try and show you what is there. A book is created in attempt to change what is there. You.
That is not to say there are not people out there who will misuse cameras and mirrors, there are, just as there will always be publicans who store their beer badly, or water it down. However, whenever we pick up our pen there is usually something we wish to change – ourselves or others. If we keep on reading then we must keep on changing. If we keep on reading what other people are reading, then surely we and they must steadily become more alike yet different from what we were. Reading steals our soul, a piece at a time.
Writing itself does give a certain permanence to our ideas, without demanding that the reader maintains our pace of monologue: the thoughts will not be lost if the reader chooses to linger over one particular phrase, or abandon them part way through. This shadow world has less to engage our senses, leaving us more opportunity to consider other aspects of the message, and one of these is the repetition of vocabulary and structures. ‘This is a nice book, it is nicely written, and has quite a nice cover’ could be spoken successfully as we distract our audience’s attention by waving around the gaudy block of printed pages we have firmly grasped in our hand, but it loses its essential now-ness once it becomes a shadow on the page. Rather like a freshly emptied glass, which we have to picture full by using our mind rather than by using our senses, although if it is someone else’s glass our imagined brew may not match the former occupant of the glass.
Another aspect is that of patterns. If we were to step into an unknown bar we would have to be specific in asking for what we want, because no one would know what we wanted. When we become more acquainted with the bar, we can arrive and order our usual beverage with no more than a raised finger, relying on the barkeep’s finely tuned brain to spot and learn patterns. While writing has evolved how we think about language, and how we share those thoughts, it has not really altered the way language works. Sometimes the idea of writing causes people to wander off course, into believing that the idea of story was born on a page, or that present day European languages are all the bastards of a true Latin parent – to me a sure sign that these people have sold their remaining souls to the dark letters of the page. Writing is like the foam on the top of beer, in that while it might look different to the rest of the beer it is nothing more than beer with a few more bubbles in it.
In terms of learning a foreign language we need to explore what is considered acceptable and what not in the various uses of language. One significant area involves speed words, those multi-meaning packets that we can pick from our memory with little effort and know that the listener or reader will fill in the gaps.
Nice – pleasant, good…
Big – large, significant…
Spot – location, dirty mark, seek
Keep – maintain, continue, hold…
Get – receive, obtain…
Fuck – oh no, whoops, copulate…
Whether we are asking for a drink or jotting down a note these short forms are a brilliantly effective way of expressing ourselves, and deserve great respect. Yes, some of the boring bookworms of this world do tend to drone on about an imaginary world in their head where the worst thing that could happen would be a girl having her pigtails pulled, but language has many important functions that are not worthy of belittlement. One cannot fairly judge their usage as being a lazy, simplistic form since formal language is nothing more than the replacement of speed words with a set of stock phrases. In terms of language, comparing speed words with formalisms is like trying to describe one sandwich as being better than another based on a list of ingredients used for the filling, forgetting that the major part of both sandwiches is the bread.
When we write all that many of our readers know about us is contained in those few words, leaving us as a mere shadow in their minds. What is more, we cannot be sure that their understanding of what we describe is any more substantial than the ghost of our presence, and so we must be careful to use description that attempts to prevent the reader from forming mistaken assumptions. This requirement for more care does tend to make writing appear more formal than the spoken language.
Our use of shortcuts can be problematic due to their multiple meanings. When we say ‘get’ do we mean ‘receive’ or ‘obtain’, for example, as these have very different meanings: when we buy a beer the barkeep should not be obtaining our money (by taking the money out of our purse or wallet) but be receiving it (we take the money out). Shortcuts work well in writing when we can be sure that the reader will have the experience or training to follow the instructions, or we know that the reader may have reading difficulties or a limited reading vocabulary. A simple ‘Get milk’ on a scrap of paper is still writing, and since we are hardly likely to give it to a stranger, then who does receive it should be experienced enough to interpret its meaning.
Finally we have a special one, aside from its use in relation to speech, that we use in place of ‘for example’ when we are estimating or suggesting something for something we are having to guess. “Let’s get twenty people, say, and see if we can…’. For some strange reason, some translator schools seem to teach it as meaning ‘precisely this value in words’, as in: “2,000,000 (say: two million)” instead of just using the precise phrase of ‘in words’: “2,000,000 (in words: two million)”. ‘Say’ is an informal shortcut, rather than a formal phrase, which is what makes its use seem strange.
Well, that’s enough waffle for now, it is time for me to put away my keyboard and do something useful – like dozing in front of the TV.
Or the problem when there is a lack of feedback in education.
Or discovering you don’t know as much as you think you do
Sometimes when I can find a quiet place in a bar I examine the causes and effects of the things that surround us, of the things that we so often take for granted or which take place over a length of time such that they are beyond our possibilities to notice. How could we tell, for example, back in the 1960s and 1970s, that the eventual result of buying those refrigerators would be the endangering of our atmosphere through the release of the gases that allowed them to work, or that we would become nations that wasted up to forty percent of the food we buy?
It is the same with education – at the beginning of our working life we may only guess what we will need to know in our jobs in fifty years’ time, as all that we know for certain now is that by then the world will have changed. Well, one thing will not have – there will still be people moaning that the beer is not as good as it used to be.
In the teaching of foreign languages we often start out by learning phrases that allow us to exchange names, and for English we might learn ‘My name is Jan’. As we then rise through the schooling system we get handed from teacher to teacher, teaching material to teaching material, yet there is no one in full control of our education path. If someone in the teaching system does notice, for example, that graduates cannot do basic math then questions get asked and the basic math teaching may even be reassessed. However, if no one notices such an effect, then how can we seek out the cause?
We know what we know, and we know what we do not know, but we do not know what we do not know.
So, students of English here in Poland get their early bite of vocabulary in the word ‘name’, and then at a later point in the curriculum this is joined by ‘surname’ amongst a whirlwind of other words and structures. Eventually the words ‘name’ and ‘surname’ arrive together in a single phrase: name and surname. No questions are asked, because no one knows that there is a question to ask.
The word ‘name’, though, is a general word, on the same level as ‘beer’. If someone arrives in a bar and asks for a beer and a brand-X lager, they should not share the barkeep’s surprise. ‘Surname’ is a specific noun, on the level of ‘Brand-X lager’, one designed to describe a specific product.
Beer and brand-X lager.
Name and surname.
Logically, we might think, this error should not happen, for the usage of name will be explored many times in the curriculum, as well as appearing in other sources, such as general culture.
My name is Bond, James Bond.
If we were a university lecturer and we somehow failed to comprehend this information in the blizzard of information that is a second language, although a fraction of that collected by a native as part of his or her life’s experience, then the error may start appearing in our work. The result of our failure could be whole generations of students becoming teachers and repeating it in their work, as some kind of truth. This is not untypical in a classical world where we value repetition over observation of unharnessed raw data, learning specific things by rote and then crying when too few people appear to create anything these days.
Those typical errors which do appear regularly in second language use are often there due to a lack of feedback from real life events. University lecturers continue to smile and teach, repeating their past to each new set of students without taking an effective part in actual language use. This failure goes unnoticed by the people who pay the lecturer’s wages – us.
As the effect of second language use is largely hidden to us in the mists engulfing the recipients, living and speaking elsewhere, it is very difficult to track an error back to its source. In foreign language study the connection between what someone does and the result is weak, and as a result the participants are often unwilling to accept that they have a responsibility to society to actively seek the failures. After all, they are doing what they were trained to do – why should what they do be queried? Even better, since the teachers attend the same courses as the translators then many errors in translation go unnoticed by other people in the nation as they have been taught the same errors by their teachers.
This sad lack of quality and quantity of contact with foreign natives does leave the lone translator, often working alone at home, in a rather difficult situation and under a great deal of pressure when required to produce work that is ‘native’. One could compare language teaching to a bar in a village, where the villagers rarely venture forth beyond their borders, never tasting what the world has to offer, yet with no specific training attempting to deduce the world from an advertising card depicting a scantily clad lady, with the final two packets of peanuts still obscuring our vision.