1.14.2014,7:46 PM
On becoming a word slut

What??? Me?

Jon Evans, a columnist for the online E-zine (okay, 'blog'), TechCrunch, published an essay today on the continuing evolution of modern English. Starting with a reference to an essay, Tense Present, on modern English written by David Foster Wallace in 2001, Jon updates the evolution of our English language in the context of computers and social media. Prior to the last five or six years, the major impact on our language use was through audio and visual media formats such as television and movies. Even radio lost it's foot hold long before that.

Now we have instant impact via social media platforms: blogs, FaceBook, instant and text messaging, Twitter, and so on. The meme machine at work is now operative at warp speed around the globe. Even scientists are now present on these social media formats, which introduces a revolution in cut and dry language.

We had our bohemians prior to this: e.e.cummings with his shape-shifting poetry and lack of capitalization and punctuation, the spontaneous prose of Jack Kerouac, the uninhibited and often rhythmic rambling of Dan Walsh as he traveled the world on a motorcycle..... There are many revolutionaries preceding modern social media that stretched the boundaries and broke the rules of the English language. Hell, even the esteemed and celebrated co-author, E. B. White, of The Elements of Style broke his own rules.

Then there is the dry, disconnected, structurally perfect technical writing, exemplified in scientific writing for journals. There is a reason why scientists are portrayed as stiff white men in white coats and women with glasses and bound hair in baggy lab gear. Evans refers to such clinically-correct writing as Clinical Standard Written English. I extend that to Clinical Standard Scientific Written English.

I remember two hours across the desk from a PhD discussing what words we were going to use in a paper to describe how we killed the mice used in the experiments. "What words are politically and ethically acceptable?", he asked. "How about 'guillotined'?", I responded. We ended up using the term 'sacrificed'. It took me several attempts to type that in the manuscript draft because I couldn't stop laughing at the sheer irony of how using such a word would change the fact that the poor mice were killed for the sake of studying a few proteins. The word 'sacrifice' sure didn't make us feel any better about their futile existence for the sake of science.

A fantastic hit-home excerpt from James Nicoll right states the reality:
"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary."
Then this excerpt hit home. It was a mirror in my own earlier writing:
"And nowadays — this is where things get interesting — people who write in CSWE [Clinical Standard Written English] actually mark themselves as untrustworthy by doing so. Because the new usage, call it Modern Written English, is everything CSWE is not: first-person, colloqiual, breezy, open, and personal. That’s what readers understand and trust. But if you write like a high-school essay, or the Wall Street Journal? That is now a big red flag.Your readers don’t know you … but they do know that you have deliberately hidden who you are, by donning that mask called CSWE . And on some level they do not like it."

This is true. How do I know? I got called on it back in 2000. I was too used to my nice comfortable cocoon of dispassionate technical writing while conveying autonomic but complicated physiology and biology. Trying to explain complex concepts about our own bodies and how they all worked as if our brains were not attached to those bodies.

Then a commentator asked me once if I had a soul. "Do you have a life? Do you possess a soul? Are you really a human being, or some automatron in a straight jacket typing away that has no feelings?"

That hurt. And rightly so. I was ejaculated from my comfort zone.

Evans quoted George Orwell, "Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style." It is true. I knew this to be true, for I was a closet reader of Harlan Ellison, Kerouac, Cummings, Walsh, and Trickster coyote stories. I started writing more in first, second narrative modes, and the hell with conventional third person!* Then I started mixing narratives and even adopting animal voices. I wrote one story that broke every rule I could identify and giggle like a naughty schoolgirl the entire time. Oh, glorious indeed! Writing became fun again!

Another motivation was oral storytelling. Anyone that has listened to stories told in personal contact will know that they contain a life all their own. Irish, Native American, Australian Aboriginal, even your own family oral stories. They are words and stories that are alive, outside the writing rules and boundaries. Unlike the single-dimensional and sometimes dead words you read in a book or paper.

I have wondered for years how I can merge the two: writing with written word and oral storytelling. How to make the words an interactive process rather than a passive dread.

Wallace wrote,
"When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (the actual information I’m trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part is stuff about me, the communicator. Everyone knows this. It’s a function of the fact that there are uncountably many well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. “I was attacked by a bear!” to “Goddamn bear tried to kill me!” to “That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!” and so on [...] “Correct” English usage is, as a practical matter, a function of whom you’re talking to and how you want that person to respond — not just to your utterance but also to you."

The words we choose to use become alive in different contexts. They can invite participation of the reader, an exchange between the writer and reader, or they can be a collection of dead signs pointing in one way. An excellent example of merging storytelling with written word is Sherman Alexie, a descendent of Coeur d'Alene tribal heritage. Alexie “blends elements of popular culture, Indian spirituality, and the drudgery of poverty-ridden reservation life to create his characters and the world they inhabit.”** His success extends into film and audio, marrying oral storytelling and other media forms.

Evans wraps up his essay eloquently with,
"Because it seems to me that Standard Written English, for all its virtues, has become something of a desiccated undead corpse. I submit that whatever can breathe new life into it — even bizarre memes, subversive polemics, and the mad ravings of anonymous redditors; hell, even 4chan — should be welcomed with open arms. Because words matter. Language matters. And, with respect, it’s past time for last century’s Standard Written English to give way to something a little more lively."

I agree, despite that this old writer and scientist is still in the process of learning and in transition. And for the person I lived with for many years that would become enraged if I mispronounced a word, "you say tomato, I say tomatoe". I'm glad we called the whole thing off.

Confession: I still cringe when every other word in a sentence is 'like'.........


* See the inspirational and critical book, Unnatural Voices. Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction, by Brian Richardson.

** Quirk, Sarah A. (2003). "Sherman Alexie (7 October 1966-)". Dictionary of Literary Biography. Seventh 278: 3–10.

Labels:

 
posted by Macrobe
Permalink ¤