Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

17 MAY, 2013

Gender Politics and the English Language, Pete Seeger Edition

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“Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.”

“Since the only test of truth is length of life,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her meditation on language, “and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.” Indeed, language and culture are in constant osmosis, feeding and shaping each other.

From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — that remarkable collection of “social media” from the second wave of feminism, which gave us many brave women’s epistles of empowerment — comes this charming letter by legendary American folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger. At the time in his mid-fifties, he explores with equal parts wit and insight the gender politics of language:

The words congressperson and chairperson are awkward words, typical of the ugly words created by scholars and scientists. Working people traditionally simplify language. God bless the English peasants who gave us a hand, if irregular slanguage, by combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French and discarding the formalities of both.

Why not use a vowel like o: congresso or chairo? And for those who don’t’ want to use the syllable man, likewise change foreman, boilerman, anchorman, newspaperman. et cêtera.

The language, agreed, needs more neutral words. Now’s the time to make the changes more creatively. Incidentally, we might as well face it: we’ve got to invent some neutral pronouns. Saying “his or her” all the time is awkward unless we want to slur it into “hizar.”

As a man, perhaps I have no right to make such suggestions, but as a user of words, I think I do. Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.

P.S. I’ve been the chairo of many committees, and I like the word.

Pete Seeger
Beacon, New York
February 5, 1974

It’s always a bit disorienting to consider the history of the things we’ve come to take for granted, but Ms. editor and reconstructionist Mary Thom reminds us in the chapter on language, in which Seeger’s letter appears, that the cultural shift toward gender neutrality took a long time. June 19, 1986, was a major turning point for one such thing that shapes modern gender politics: Even after the Second Wave of Feminism had gathered critical mass, The New York Times had been a major holdout against using “Ms.” as a courtesy title for women, clinging instead to the only then-accepted addresses: “Miss” for single women and “Mrs.” for the married. But on that fateful spring day, the Times finally capitulated and joined, after having failed to helm, this seminal and symbolic shift toward women’s independence.

Though Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is long out of print, used copies are luckily still floating around and are very much worth a grab — the collection is absolutely fantastic from cover to cover.

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13 MARCH, 2013

The Adverb Is Not Your Friend: Stephen King on Simplicity of Style

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“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

“Employ a simple and straightforward style,” Mark Twain instructed in the 18th of his 18 famous literary admonitions. And what greater enemy of simplicity and straightforwardness than the adverb? Or so argues Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft (public library), one of 9 essential books to help you write better.

Though he may have used a handful of well-placed adverbs in his recent eloquent case for gun control, King embarks upon a forceful crusade against this malignant part of speech:

The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions . . . and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:

‘Put it down!’ she shouted.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

‘Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.

King uses the admonition against adverbs as a springboard for a wider lens on good and bad writing, exploring the interplay of fear, timidity, and affectation:

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

[…]

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior.

This latter part, touching on the contrast between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, illustrates the critical difference between working for prestige and working for purpose.

Complement On Writing with more famous wisdom on the craft from Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. P. Lovecraft, Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Mary Karr, Isabel Allende, and Susan Orlean.

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07 MARCH, 2013

The Speech Chain: A Vintage Illustrated Guide to the Science of Language

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A mid-century primer on how verbal messages progress from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener.

Given my documented soft spot for all kinds of vintage anatomy, I was intrigued to come across The Speech Chain: The Physics and Biology of Spoken Language (public library) — a short 1963 book that promises to cover “a significant subject in an interdisciplinary manner,” exploring the science of speech and featuring one of the most beautifully designed mid-century book covers I’ve ever come across. Today, in the age of constantly evolving textual and visual communication media, from Twitter to Instagram to Vine, the book reminds us why speech is the one — possibly the only — enduring and universal mode of relaying ideas:

Human society relies heavily on the free and easy interchange of ideas among is members and, for one reason or another, man has found speech to be his most convenient form of communication.

Through its constant use as a tool essential to daily living, speech has developed into a highly efficient system for the exchange of even our most complex ideas. It is a system particularly suitable for widespread use under the constantly changing and varied conditions of life.

It all sounds fine enough, until we realize the book — which makes such statements of questionable causal implication as “the widespread use of books and printed matter may very well be an indication of a highly developed civilization, but so is the greater use of telephone systems,” “areas of the world where civilization is most highly developed are also the areas with the greatest density of telephones,” and “countries bound by social and political ties are usually connected by a well developed telephone system” — was published by the educational division of Bell Telephone Laboratories. As we lament the the rise of “sponsored content” in contemporary media, a book from half a century ago reminds us that publishing and corporate propaganda have always coexisted, and have always elicited outrage.

That said, the book does offer a wealth of fascinating science, including a number of delightful diagrams:

'The Speech Chain: the different forms in which a spoken messages exist in its progress from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener.'

'The human vocal organs.'

'Outlines for the vocal tract during the articulation of various vowels.'

'The wavelengths and corresponding spectra of the vowels 'uh' (top) and 'ah' (bottom).

'Vocal tract configurations and corresponding mouth configurations for three different vowels. (The peaks of the spectra represent vocal tract resonances. Vertical lines for individual harmonics are not shown.)'

'Diagram of the auditory pathways linking the brain with the ear.'

'The cochlear portion of the inner ear.'

'Diagram of a section through the core of the cochlea.'

'Patterns showing the relationship between second format transition and place-of-articulation of consonants.'

In 1993, the book was reissued with cover art by Keith Haring:

Pair The Speech Chain with Lilli Lehmann’s 1902 illustrated guide to singing.

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