Tag Archives: language

De ratificatie van de Vrede van MunsterOver several years in the 1870s, composer Bedrich Smetana wrote a series of six tone poems for orchestra that he titled Ma Vlast, or “My Country.” Although the patriotism explicit in Smetana’s music is genuine, the fact is Smetana was a citizen of the Habsburg Empire and grew up speaking German. His most popular piece of music is “Vlatva,” a glorification of the river that runs through what is now the Czech Republic, but is almost universally known by its German name, “Die Moldau.”

It is one of the stranger and unremarked oddnesses of history that most of those Nationalist composers of the 19th century had no nation to call home. Dvorak had no Czechoslovakia, Liszt had no Hungary, Edvard Grieg’s Norway was ruled by a Swedish king, and despite all the mazurkas and polonaises that Chopin wrote, there was no Poland on the face of the earth. Even the Germany extolled in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” was only a gleam in the eye of Otto von Bismarck.

In truth, they were not so much “nationalist” composers as composers of ethnic awareness. Which brings up an important point. What we mean by a “nation” is a fairly recent concoction, and although we tend nowadays to assume that a map divided into colors bounded by border lines is a natural and inevitable reality, history tells us otherwise.

We hear politicians and demagogues harangue us about national sovereignty and the threat of immigrants diluting our national character, and we tend to regard our country — regardless of whether it is the United States, Germany, China or Iraq — as a fixed and permanent “thing” consecrated by history and natural law. But a closer look tells us otherwise. Our idea of a nation-state is rather new in history, and may have been merely a temporary thing. To take it as unchanging and unchangeable is a serious miscalculation.

Going back before reliable history, kingdoms were just areas successfully defended by military leaders who demanded taxes in a kind of protection racket. No one spent much fret over what languages the subjugated people spoke, or what their ethnic descent might be.

Through the Middle Ages, when we speak of Henry V at Agincourt what we are talking about is real estate. Henry ruled land, not people. He owned most of the British Isle and a good chunk of the Continent. The people living on his land owed him taxes and fealty — meaning a term in the army when needed. There was no legal construct known as England or France or Germany, but feudal cross-relations and family ties securing deeds of title to chunks of real estate. The idea of a nation as we know it didn’t exist.


It wasn’t until 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia that the concept of the nation-state emerged, and we developed a sense that France exists whether or not a Bourbon sat on the throne, and that national borders were somehow permanentized — although, of course, they weren’t. Wars — now between nations instead of between kings — kept those boundary lines in flux.

Later ideas gave us different concept of nationhood, often in conflict with the Westphalian ideal. Ethnicity gave many people a different sense of identity, even though ethnicity itself is a slippery thing, and can swell and shrink through time, including and excluding various groups and subgroups. Are you European? Are you Polish? Are you a Slav or a German?

Ethnicity sometimes falters in face of language identity. We talk of “Russian speakers” in Ukraine. Are they Ukrainian or Russian? Certainly they are Slavs. Where do we draw the line?

The historical result of all these shifting ambiguities can be seen in the unstable borders seen on maps. Let’s take Poland as an example. If we think of the country as it exists currently, stuck between Germany and Ukraine, we might assume this was somehow the true and ultimately proper place for Poland. But the country has rolled around the map of Europe like a bead of mercury on a plate. At times it reached the Black Sea, at times it vanished from the face of the earth. You can see this in a clever You Tube video at:

Poland pre-war outlined in blue; postwar outlined in red.

Poland pre-war outlined in blue; postwar outlined in red.

At times Poland expanded, at times, joined with the kingdom of Lithuania, after it was split into pieces and annexed by Prussia, Russia and Austria in 1795 it ceased to exist as a nation, until it was reconstituted in 1918 at the end of the First World War. It was invaded in 1939 by both Germany and the Soviet Union and essentially disappeared again. After World War II, because Stalin refused to give back his half, the entire country lifted up its skirts and moved some 200 miles to the west, where it set itself down again and became the Poland we have now — although that is no guarantee that it won’t move again sometime in the future. The eastern half of Poland became part of the Soviet Union until it split off and became Ukraine, while the eastern third of Germany, having lost the war, turned into the western half of Poland and millions of German-speaking inhabitants were politely asked to relocate in East Germany — which later reunited with West Germany to be the Germany we have today.


You might consider Yugoslavia, which is now several different sovereign nations, or the “sovereignty” of Czechoslovakia, which finally gave Smetana and Dvorak their own nation, only to dissolve into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

These constantly unsteady borders should not be seen as anomalies, but rather the norm. You can find another entertaining video displaying the bubbling ferment of national border from roughly AD 1100 to now at:

(It should be noted that the dates in the animation are not terribly accurate, and should be taken as a general indication of the era demonstrated by the time-lapse maps rather than a precise year-by-year definition.)


We have talked primarily about Europe, but the same sense of unstable borders and the comings and goings of nations can be seen worldwide. Another video worth watching:

So when some knucklehead politician tells you that the U.S. should defend its “natural” borders, consider the phantom nature of nationhood and its outlines. The United States itself began as a group of 13 separate nation-states joining together for the common good and soon spread outward and westward, eating up other nations, evicting other peoples and other national authorities, stealing most of northern Mexico and reconstituting that nation’s “natural” borders.


All across the world, there are people corralled inside those lines screaming to get out: Basques and Catalans in Spain, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, Chechens in the Russian Federation, Russians in Ukraine, Scots from Great Britain, Quebecois from Canada, Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium, Uighurs in China. Driving around southern France and the Camargue, you will come across angry graffiti demanding Occitan separatism

Nationhood is a dynamic; it is not permanent. Russia is altering the map around the Black Sea and globalization is destabilizing the Westphalian arrangement. Corporations are now transnational, the European Union is subverting ancient sovereignties (with considerable pushback from rising nationalisms) and the post-World War I national borders in the Middle East seem ever more tenuous and artificial. Can the Kurds create their own ethnic state? Can Shia and Sunni ever coexist in a multi-sectarian state?

Instead of assuming that the world cannot change and the Rand-McNally maps we grew up with are the way things should be from now into posterity, we should recognize nations as transient entities momentarily agreed to by whoever is powerful enough to maintain a stalemate.

“What do you read, my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”

words words words

For 25 years, I made my living by writing words. In all, some two and a half million of them, writing an average of three stories a week. Yet, in all that time, I had an underlying mistrust of language, a sense that, even if I could still diagram a compound-complex sentence on a blackboard, the structure I saw in chalk did not necessarily mirror the structure of things I saw around me in the world before it is named. The one was neat and tidy, the other was wooly and wiggly.

A good deal of misery and misunderstanding derives from a failure to recognize that the logic of language and that of the real world are not the same.

tomatoWe find this in simple form whenever someone tells you that, for instance, “a tomato is not a vegetable, it is a fruit.” This is a sorry assertion. A tomato is neither animal nor mineral, therefore, it is a vegetable. But, of course, that is not what is meant. In common usage, we use the word, “fruit,” to name a sweet edible and “vegetable” to name a savory. But “vegetable” is also an umbrella word, describing all things vegetative. To aver that a tomato is not a vegetable is to confuse these two usages, and therefore to make an assertion both pedantic and ignorant.

More importantly, this doesn’t really say anything about the Solanum lycopersicum, but about the categories we use language to establish. It is an argument not about the berry (and that is the technical term for the red globe you slice onto your salad), but about the English language.

Whales GoldsmithOr consider this: “A whale is not a fish.” When such a statement is made, it does not discuss whales or fish, but rather, makes a claim about language. The whale is unaffected by the words and fish swim happily past it. But it is a discussion about the categories of nouns: We choose to make the definition of the two classes mutually exclusive. A whale is a mammal.

But it needn’t be so. Through the 18th century, a whale was a fish. Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Anything torpedo-shaped that swims in the sea by the action of its fins was considered a fish. A whale was a very large fish, who just happened to be one that gave birth to live young and suckled them. It was an idiosyncrasy of the whale, just as it is an idiosyncrasy of the salmon that it swims upriver to spawn.

spinous and testaceous fish goldsmithgoldsmith crustaceous fishIn fact, if you read Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” the best-selling nature book of its century, the category “fish,” also included many other things that live in the watery parts of the world. Whales were “cetaceous fishes,” flounder were “spinous fishes,” sharks were “cartilaginous fishes,” crabs and lobsters were “crustaceous fishes,” and clams and oysters were “testaceous fishes.” It was a perfectly natural way to divide up the various denizens of the undersea. It wasn’t till Carl Linne decided to slice up the world in a new way, based on a combination of skeletal morphology and reproduction, that the whale was surgically removed from the universe of fishes and told to line up on the other side of the room with lemurs, llamas and raccoons. Did the whales even notice?

The basic problem is that language is an intercessor. It sits between experience and understanding. When we approach language, we see only the intercessor — we mistake the priest for the deity.

Words always distort, they always lie. Yet, at bottom, we trust words more than we trust our own eyes. We judge politicians by the labels they are tagged with, not by paying attention to what they actually say or do: Conservative or liberal — when applied to reality, the labels are close to meaningless.

The case may be a little easier to understand in terms of Greek. The ancient Greeks were the first logarchs, they valued verbal meaning over experiential meaning; they actually thought language was a one-to-one descriptor of reality. Their faith is naive to us now. For instance, Zeno’s paradox is only possible in words. Set a tortoise and Achilles out on a race and see if Achilles can’t catch it. No problem. Set it in words, and suddenly, it can’t be done: The problem is entirely in the words, words, words.

sunspotsIt is the logic of language that frustrates Achilles, not the tortoise. It guided how the Greek thought about the world. Polarity, opposites, hidden ironies and surprising conjunctions,  it’s how the language is organized,  even before you even consult reality. So, when the Greek saw language as a mirror of the reality and language posits polarity, it must be because the world is polar. But is it? Opposites are only a linguistic trick. Hot and cold are just relative points on a single thermometer: Sunspots are “cold” places on the sun, even though they are thousands of degrees Farenheit; liquid nitrogen is “warmer” than absolute zero. Linguistic legerdemain.

Even liberals and conservatives are just guys in the same blue suits. They don’t look like a dime’s worth of difference to the Fiji Islander.

By the logic of language, the world is divided into nouns and verbs; look out the window, however, and what you see is the conflation of noun and verb: something very much closer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a constant velocity of things ever growing and changing. No noun is static; no verb without its referent.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher PlatoThe issue I have with Plato — aside from his totalitarian fascism — is his faith in an “ideal” of things. The ideal bed, unlike any real bed, is a stultified noun, not a bed. To Plato, the world is cataloged with nouns, only nouns. The perfect human is a form of arrested development. For Plato, the perfect human form is a male figure, age of about 25, all muscle and lithe, with little fat. But a real person is born tiny, grows, ages, marries, has his own bairns, gains experience, grows feeble and dies. Just as a rose isn’t the pretty flower, but a shoot, a bud, a flower, a rose-hip bursting to seed and once more from the top. Over and over. All the world is at every moment changing, growing, shrinking, spreading, running, molting, squawking, collapsing, weeping and rising. It is a churn, not a noun. “Panta horein,” as Heraclitus says: “Everything changes.”

Language is this thin veneer, the shiny surface, the packaging we are cajoled by. Break open the box, and the reality is something else.

It is much like the belief that geometry transcends embodiment. In other words, a triangle is a universal possibility, no matter if one was ever built. It is one of Plato’s ideals. God himself cannot create a four-sided triangle. But to change this “truth,” all we have to do is change our definition of the word. We don’t need a deity to do that, all we need is a lexicographer.

Or better, we can look at the problem a different way: I have written elsewhere ( that a triangle is a five-sided figure — the three usual sides, plus the top, looking down on it, and the bottom, resting on the desk. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. triangleIf triangles exist in the world of things, they must have five sides. Language, like the axioms in geometry, pales in comparison to the real world of mud and bricks. There are 300,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, but that is an infinitesimal number compared with the number of things, acts, colors and sizes in the phenomenological world. There are an infinitely large number of things in the universe for which there are no words.

Take this, for instance. Here, where two walls meet is a corner. But where the wall and the ceiling meet? What is its name? In English, it has none.

Or this place on the wall — it is named the “center.” But this point, just as real, only a few inches from the center, is nameless and so is the one a few inches beyond that.

starsNames are like the stars in the sky, only points, between which is an infinity of space, just as real as the stars.

Language is feeble. It is up to us to see the space between the words, to recognize the feelings between the signpost emotions of hate, joy, anger, sadness — this million slight inflections that are nameless.

Up to us to explore the confusing rush of sense data, the confusing signals of society and nature, the overwhelming input that we censor with our language, allowing only those portions that sport nametags, as if they were Shriners at a convention.

It is up to us to recognize and celebrate all the things, times, places, acts, flavors, feelings, breath and abysses that don’t have names, to enjoy the cold floor and sunlight coming through the window in the morning when the birds haven’t yet begun chattering.

Johnson dictionary

I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.

Johnson by Joshua ReynoldsNeedless to say, my love of such sentences caused me some embarrassment during my years as a practicing journalist, where I was encouraged to keep my sentences simple and clear. I am sure I must have tested the patience of many an editor over those years. I did pick up one countervailing habit: My paragraphs tend to be short. Often a single sentence per.

It is not only 18th century writing I enjoy. The same love of the trailing, dawdling sentence gives me pleasure in William Faulkner, James Agee and Lawrence Durrell. I want to settle into each sentence as if it were a good book.

I remember in the second or third grade learning to diagram sentences. Noun, verb, object; subject, predicate. This was the armature upon which was built increasingly baroque structures. (When we had assignments to use our newly learned vocabulary words in sentences, I always tried my best to use the entire list in a single sentence.)

What kind of sentence am I talking about? When Gibbon talks ironically about how the spiritual “gifts” of early Christians as well feathered their own nests as proved their piety, he follows with: “Besides the occasional prodigies, which might sometimes be effected by the immediate interposition of the deity when he suspended the laws of nature for the service of religion, the Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling daemons, of healing the sick and of raising the dead.”  I like that: “suspending the laws of nature for the service of religion.” Gibbon has a way of making clear his own skepticism through irony while at the same time never crossing the line into a simple “Nya-nya.” It is a performance of extreme delicacy.tristram shandy hogarth

Tristram Shandy lays the (comic) misfortune of his life to the interrupted coitus of his conception, explaining in one grand run-on sentence: “Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, etc., etc. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world, depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracts and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to it, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.”

The extreme pleasure of the book is as much linguistic as it narrative.

Or from The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling: “For the reasons mentioned in the preceding chapter, and from some other matrimonial concessions, well known to most husbands, and which, like the secrets of freemasonry, should be divulged to none who are not members of that honourable fraternity, Mrs. Partridge was pretty well satisfied that she had condemned her husband without cause, and endeavored by acts of kindness to make him amends for her false suspicion.”

Simple thoughts may be satisfied with simple sentences, but knotty thoughts, thoughts of subtlety and complexity, require longer compound and compound-complex sentences; sentences in which ideas are parsed, turned over, elucidated, tested and rubbed up against themselves.

(I am reminded that in The Bear, a portion of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, a single sentence continues for 11 pages. To say nothing of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Hurrah.)

These sentences I admire and enjoy, are not mere coagulations of verbiage, but rather like puzzle pieces that fit together ultimately to make a perfect construction. Or the worms and gears of an intricate machine turning smoothly. They might be compared to their advantage to the miserable word salad of unfinished thoughts and undefined terms of the blather of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump: long empty strings of cliches and bigotry, and cliched bigotry, in a never-ending stream of inanities and incoherencies that never reach that concluding peroration that brings all the eggs into a single meaningful basket. It is language spewed, not built. My heroes learned their lessons from the classical languages, whence Aeschylus can have his opening speaker in The Agamemnon go on for a full page before punctuating his speech with the single concluding verb that ties the whole performance up in a word that makes sense of all that came before. Grammar can be used to effect: Trump hardly knows there is such a thing as grammar. He is a bilge pump.

But all this is only prolog to my actual subject for today: The odd and magical concatenation of entries, definitions, etymologies and examples found in the famous dictionary of Dr. Johnson. Johnson has his many prejudices that today strike the reader as comical, as when he defines “oats” as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Or defines “stateswoman” as: “A woman who meddles with publick affairs. In contempt.”

rhinoNevertheless, if you consider the immensity of the task he set himself in 1746 — a task that wound up taking away nine years of his life — you must admire his profound sincerity and deep devotion. He put together the first comprehensive English dictionary, and in doing so, pretty well had to come up with the plan for it ab ovum. (There were glossaries and word lists, and a few dictionaries before him, but none complete or even attempting to be so). If his definitions sometime seem a trifle punctilious, it must be remembered he was pretty much inventing the whole idea. The definitions range from those that hardly convey what we would consider sufficient information (“Rhinoceros: A vast beast of the East Indies armed with a horn on his front”) to those that seem to do verbal somersaults to convey their meaning (“Network: Anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” By the way: “To Decussate: To intersect at acute angles” and: “Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.”)swine

We are so used to a more casual and informal speech these days, that it is a pleasure to see these words in their after-five formal dress. (“Rosin: Inspissated turpentine; a juice of the pine.”) Remember, Johnson had to invent his definitions from sheer air. How would you do if you were faced with defining several thousand words from scratch? How would you define “lard,” for instance. For Johnson, it was “the grease of swine.” There is both an elegance to that terse explanation, but also, to our ears, a kind of humor. We don’t speak that way anymore.

Or how would you explain “smoke?” Johnson: “ The visible effluvium, or sooty exhalation from anything burning.” “Sun?” “The luminary that makes the day.”

Den? “A cavern or hollow running horizontally, or with a small obliquity, under ground; distinct from a hole, which runs down perpendicularly.” The nicety of the distinction is deeply felt for someone who cares about language.

“Mouth: The aperture in the head of any animal at which the food is received.”

“Tree: A large vegetable rising, with one woody stem, to a considerable height.”

“Wolf: A kind of wild dog that devours sheep.”

“Orgasm: Sudden vehemence.”

Can you do better? Well, in some cases, yes, but only because we have several hundred years worth of lexicography behind us (and less delicacy about sex). Remember, Johnson was inventing the thing, a first draft.

I like it when the language is wearing its white tie and waistcoat: “Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. it is pronounced coff.” If you flip the pages, you find also: “To Vellicate: To twitch; to pluck; to act by stimulation.”

Or: “Whey: The thin or serous part of milk, from which the oleose or grumous part is separated.”

Some of the definitions bear the wisdom of Johnson’s worldview, giving us more than we may actually need to know: “Compliment: An act, or expression of civility, usually understood to include some hypocrisy, and to mean less than it declares.”

There are many words that no longer survive in any meaningful form: “Stirious: Resembling icicles.” And there are words where Johnson threw up his hands: “Stammel: Of this word, I know not the meaning.” (OED says, “A coarse woolen cloth,” and “a shade of red in which the cloth was commonly dyed”).

There are moments where the lexicographer simply got things wrong, or took a metaphorical use as a second definition. He defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse.” It is rather, part of the foot of a horse. When a woman  asked Johnson how he came to make such a mistake, he answered, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

But by and large, his work was an admirable thing, for which I thank him. And thank him for the pleasure I gain both from his formality, his erudition, and the not infrequent (and often unintended) humor. It is impossible to read through the dictionary and not sense the very particular and idiosyncratic man behind it. Most dictionaries feel distant, academic, objective. Not Johnson’s book: Who read it, hears the blood and bones behind it. Everything in it — and especially its preface — its intensely personal. Its triumphs and its failings are human and profoundly so.

This shows nowhere more than in his botany and zoology. There were many animals with which he clearly had no first-hand information. Some of these were merely legendary, and often a skepticism of such hippogryphs comes out in his entry. Sometimes not.

alligator crocodile“Alligator: The crocodile. This name is chiefly used for the crocodile of America, between which, and that that of Africa, naturalists have laid down this difference, that one moves the upper and the other the lower jaw; but this is now known to be chimerical, the lower jaw being equally moved by both.”

“Salamander: An animal supposed to live in the fire, and imagined to be very poisonous. Ambrose Parey has a picture of the salamander, with a receipt for her bite; but there is no such creature, the name being now given to a poor harmless insect.”

“Tarantula: An insect whose bite is only cured by musick.”

camelopard“Camelopard: An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick. He is so named because he has a neck and head like a camel; he is spotted like a pard, but his spots are white upon a red ground. The Italians call him giaraffa.”

It is fun to read through the dictionary as a kind of bizarro-world view of 18th century natural science, punctuated by Johnson’s peculiar phraseology and word choice: “Tadpole: A young shapeless frog or toad, consisting only of a body and a tail; a porwiggle.” As for the tail: “That which terminates the animal behind; the continuation of the vertebrae of the back hanging loose behind.”

I wish I could go on with so many more entries, but I can only end with a few.

starfish“Starfish: A fish branching out into several points.”

“Frog: A small animal with four feet, living both by land and water, and placed by naturalists among mixed animals, as partaking of beast and fish. There is likewise a small green frog that perches on trees, said to be venomous.”

“Toad: An animal resembling a frog; but the frog leaps, the toad crawls: the toad is accounted venomous, I believe truly.”

“Wasp: A brisk stinging insect, in form resembling a bee.”

“Serpent: An animal that moves by undulation without legs. They are often venomous. They are divided into two kinds; the viper, which brings young, and the snake, that lays eggs.”

“Lizard: An animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it.”

“Shrewmouse: A mouse of which the bite is generally supposed venomous, and to which vulgar tradition assigns such malignity, that she is said to lame the foot over which she runs. I am informed that all these reports are calumnious, and that her feet and teeth are equally harmless with the mouse. Our ancestors however looked on her with such terrour, that they are supposed to have given her name to a scolding woman, whom for her venom they call a shrew.” (vide:  “Shrew: A peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman.”)

elephant“Elephant: The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence , and even understanding, may surprising relations are given. This animal is not carnivorous, but feeds on hay, herbs and all sorts of pulse; and it is said to be extremely long lifed. It is naturally very gentle; but when enraged, no creature is more terrible. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a large trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise a prodigious weight with it. His teeth are the ivory so well known in Europe, some of which have been seen as large as a man’s thigh, and a fathom in length. Wild elephants are taken with the help of a female ready for the male: she is confined to a narrow place, round which pits are dug; and these being covered with a little earth scattered over hurdles, the male elephants easily fall into the snare. In copulation the female receives the male lying upon her back; and such is his pudicity, that he never covers the female so long as anyone appears in sight.”

And the elephant also brings us back to the GOP and its excrescences: “Trumpery: Something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems.”

marigolds“Ooooh, language,” Stuart said. “It’s why I hate Plato.”

“Surely only one of the reasons,” I said. “Let’s not forget Plato was a fascist pig,” I said, only half jokingly. “But why ‘oooh, language.’?”Marble statue of  the ancient greek philosopher Plato

“I can’t blame only Plato for this, but most of us habitually think of the world in terms of nouns; we name things and believe we have described existence. Plato’s so-called ‘forms’ are little more than sanctified nouns, nouns privileged as ultimate reality. But truly, nouns are only resting places for things in motion, as if a snapshot could be more real than a movie.”

“I’ve been writing about that for years,” I said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve reiterated, ‘Nature is a verb.’ The Heracleitan flux rather than the Platonic stasis.”

“Yes, yes.” There was a tone of impatience in Stuart’s voice.

“I mean,” I continued, “that Plato would have us believe in an ideal  marigold, say, and any real flower can only approximate the ‘real’ one. But I say, the marigold is not a thing, but a process. Depending on where you start, it is a seed, a seedling, a sprout, a plant, a flower bud, a flower, a fruit that bursts into seeds, which fall and start the whole thing over. A verb.”

“And that doesn’t even task Plato with the question of whether an ideal marigold is a red one or a yellow one, or if there are separate ideal forms for red and yellow marigolds, or whether that is different from an ideal flower, or from an ideal plant, or ideal living thing: Where do you take your category from when positing these damnable ideals?”

“So, nouns are only place-holders, parking spots for verbs. Being Greek, Plato has in mind an ideal human being, which is, of course, male, and young, maybe 20 years old. But a man, like the marigold, is always on the move — an infant, a child, an adolescent, a youth, a grown man, a father, a middle-age man, an old man, a geezer, a corpse. We move through it all. Panta horein.”

“Let’s not forget women, too, with perhaps their own verbal cycle, parallel, but often diverging from the man’s.”

“And let’s also not forget,” I added, “that the hangover from Plato’s noun-based reality is the demotic Christian sense that when we get to heaven we’ll be our ‘ideal’ selves, not the decrepit senexes we have become before we die. Heaven is full of beautiful people, in their ideal perfection — which is defined, as Plato would have it, as ourselves when we were, say 20. Maybe 25.”

“This is all well and good,” Stuart said. “But I have a quibble.”

Stuart always had quibbles. This explained the earlier impatience. He wanted to get on to what he was really thinking about.

“The view of existence — metaphorically of course — as a verb is existence seen objectively, as if we were gods looking at the universe and seeing a vast process in motion. But if we were to look at the cosmos subjectively, from our individual points of view, then the essential word-form is the preposition. The preposition and the conjunction.”

Now I knew the trolley had arrived in Stuartville.

“These tiny words, barely noticed as they whiz by in a sentence, are the key words that describe our place in the universe, and our relation to it. They are the most important words. They create whole plots, whole novels in two or three letters. ‘By,’ ‘over,’ ‘near,’ ‘but,’ ‘and’ — they force us to create at least two nouns — they give birth to the nouns — and make us see those two nouns in a relationship, and what is more, they imply movement, or at least imply a temporal situation.

“In the beginning was the word, and that word was a preposition.

“The Greeks recognized that certain sentence formations had meaning in and of themselves. Like, ‘on the one hand, blah blah, but on the other hand, blah blah.’ or ‘He says blah, but his actions prove blah.’ The sentences can be filled in with various content, but the structure of the sentence carries its own meaning, a description of a part of reality.

“But I am saying that the same thing can be said for the simple ‘but.’ You don’t need the whole sentence. Just a ‘but.’

“It implies a stop sign; a motion forward, but a redirection. There you are, a point in the universe at motion, under the rule of inertia, unstopping unless another force is applied, and suddenly, ‘but,’ and that force is applied. The conjunction has cosmic meaning.

“You can say something similar about ‘and.’ There is something in the universe, and suddenly, there is something else. ‘And.’ point in motion

“The prepositions do the same. You are that point, with no defined volume, mass or blood — at this moment, completely undefined except for your beingness, your awareness, and then, you are driven ‘under,’ ‘around,’ or ‘through,’ and with the advent of the preposition, you have a relationship to that cosmos.”

“It all sounds very, well, cosmic.”

“Yes, it is. Or at least, it is like a thought experiment. You don’t need to have a dog or a truck or a marigold to have the relationship. It is inherent in the ‘if,’ ‘and’ or ‘but.’

“Which is why I say that the verb is a description of the objective, divinely- observed universe, but the conjunction and preposition are the same for a subjectively sensibility-observed universe.”

“But — and I use the word advisedly — you are an atheist.”



Goldsmith whales 1horizontal
“What do we believe?”

Stuart said that with an emphasis on the “we.”

“Yes, I don’t mean ‘What do we believe?’ the way so many people question what our nation or society stands for, or if we anymore stand for anything. I’m not asking what we as a culture believe in, or if we have a common spine of belief to stiffen our civic polity. I leave that to the punditocracy.

“No, what I’m wondering about these days is what do we take so for granted we never even think about it, the way ancient people believed the earth was flat, or that the daytime sun moved in procession across the sky and ducked under it at night. goldsmith fish 1What we believe to be true without question, indeed, we don’t even recognize it as a question, or a possible question. What is the water we swim in?”

“You mean like the Medievals believed in a Christian god, or the 18th century believed in a rational order to the universe?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. I’ve been wondering because it is such a tough question. It is asking to see the invisible, to step out of the zeitgeist and look at it from above, like we were watching rats in a psychology lab wander in a maze. Can we even begin to see what we don’t recognize as the ether of our universe?”

“Maybe what we’re talking about is a slow dawning,” I said. “I mean like slavery. At one point in history — actually, in most points in history — slavery was seen as right and proper, the order of the universe, even sanctioned by God. In Greece and Rome, slavery was as much a part of everyday life as bread and wine. In America when they made the Constitution, slavery was accepted by a large segment of the population as being the natural order. But there were those who saw it differently. Slowly, the majority began to see slavery as an evil and nowadays, we unquestioningly assume slavery to be indefensible.”goldsmith fish 2

“Of course, that hasn’t stopped slavery, but only changed its face: Slavery is still accepted in parts of Muslim Africa and the sex trade is hardly anything but slavery.”

“Yes, but the issue you have raised is whether slavery was at one time the water we swam in — that for most people, there was no issue at all. The sky was above, the earth below, kings ruled the domain and slaves had their eternal link in the Great Chain of Being. It was only the exceptional person who asked if the scheme were moral or just.”

“This is true, but it is also such a hot-button item that we may fail to grasp what I’m really asking. In the case of slavery, we can now feel superior and look back on our forefathers and judge them for their failure to see the obvious. But I’m certain we are no less blind today than they were, but in other areas. What are we going to be judged for a hundred years from now?”

“Animal rights, perhaps?”goldsmith fish 3

“Maybe. Certainly, there will be those who wonder why we didn’t do anything about carbon dioxide or overfishing or nuclear proliferation. But in part, these are political failings rather than what I’m asking about.

“I’m asking rather, what do we not even question. The issue came up when I started rereading Plato. God, I hate that man. But it was the Greeks in general I’m talking about. They had a peculiar relation to their language. They had what we now take as a naive belief that language and existence were one: If there was something in creation, there was a word for it, and likewise, if there was a word, it described something real in the world. There was no disjunction, no sense that language had its own structure and limits, and they were different from the structure and limits of existence. No sense that if there were a word, it might describe something false, something that doesn’t really exist, or really happen. The fact that there was a word was proof that the thing existed. They could not see outside their language. This led to some kinds of absurdities, like Zeno’s paradox. The language describes a problem: Achilles and a tortoise are in a race, but with the latter given a head start, Achilles can never catch up to it, and hence can never win the race.”goldsmith fish 4

“Yes, I remember: Before Achilles can catch up to the tortoise, he has to go halfway to catching up with the tortoise, and then before he can close the gap, he has to cover half the remaining gap, and then half that, and half that, onto infinity, and therefore, never catch up.”

“An obvious absurdity if you set the experiment up and see what happens. The problem is only in the language, not in the reality. ‘Half’ and ‘half,’ and ‘half’ are merely concepts, not observable, not physical.

“There are many versions of this problem: It is the essential problem of Plato, who sees his ideals in terms of language, in terms, more specifically, of nouns. His ideal forms are ideal verbal forms. Being Greek, he cannot transcend that constraint. Language is reality, reality language. That is all they know and all they needed to know.”

“Sometimes, I think we’re not much better,” I said. “We still seem to believe words more than experience. Politics is rife with such things: Welfare mothers, for instance, or trickle-down economics. Make the verbal classification and you have proved that such a thing actually exists. Maybe you can’t really find any out there, but you’ve set up the idea with the word.”goldsmith fish 5

“My favorite has always been the international conspiracy of Communist Jewish bankers. Communist bankers — have they thought this one through?”

“Of course, philosophy these days — especially in America — is practically nothing but philology, a study of in how many ways language obscures reality or is at least in serious disjunction with it.

“So, what is our equivalent of Greek language blindness?

“I can think of a few things that might count, but I despair of being able to escape my own swimming water.”

“We still have the language problem,” I said. “We cannot always separate the language from the experience.”

“Certainly. But what do you mean?”goldsmith whales 2 horizontal

“Take a sentence like ‘Whales are mammals, not fish.’ It seems to most of us that this says something about cetaceans, but in fact it is a statement about language, not biology. It says ‘We have created a language class — a noun — that we apply to some sea creatures and not others. ‘Whales are mammals not fish,’ is a statement about language.”goldsmith crustaceous fish

“God, yes. I have a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1825, and he divides fish up into ‘spinous fishes,’ ‘cartilaginous fishes,’ ‘testacious fishes’ — that is, shellfish — ‘crustaceous fishes’ and ‘cetaceous fishes.’ A whale, after all, is shaped like a fish, swims like a fish, has fins like a fish and lives in the ocean. Like the old saying, ‘If is looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ goldsmith shells 1But nowadays, we accept the Linnean classification system as describing reality, while in fact, it is merely one way — one very useful way in a scientific and technological society, I might add — but only one way or organizing reality. The Bible doesn’t say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a ‘great fish.’ We naturally make the leap, because a whale is, in some manner, a big fish. Just one that breathes air and gives birth to live young. There are many ways of organizing experience, but we assume the primacy of only one.

“Genius is being able to shift from one to the other seamlessly.”

Stuart got up and left the room, looking for his copy of the book. He came back with it and opened up to the chapter on fish.goldsmith fish 6

“This is one of my favorite passages,” he said. “ ‘Our philosophers hitherto, instead of studying their nature, have been employed in increasing their catalogues; and the reader, instead of observations of facts, is presented with a long list of names, that disgust him with their barren superfluity. It must displease him to see the language of a science increasing, while the science itself has nothing to repay the increasing tax laid upon his memory.’ ”

I took up the book and leafed through it. The illustrations were exceptional. I thought they might be worth showing off in borders of this discussion.

“I have another good example,” I said. “Anti-abortionists say that abortion is murder. But murder isn’t a fact, it is a legal class. And we change laws all the time. Taking of life comes in many forms, some which we justify and others we criminalize, and different people draw the line at different points. Would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1933 to prevent the millions of deaths in World War II? Would it have been justifiable to suffocate the infant Hitler in his crib? There is homicide, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, and, of course, war. Eichmann maintained that the Holocaust was merely the justifiable death of war, but we have chosen to draw the line differently. And what now of those we kill by drones in the Middle East. So, is abortion murder? It is killing, but for some it is justifiable, even necessary. Many on the anti-abortion side nevertheless justify executions for some crimes, but for that, they don’t use the word, ‘murder.’ For some it isn’t. But ‘murder’ is a verbal classification, not a fact.”goldsmith fish 7

“It is hard to recognize what is mere language and what is genuinely out there, existent in the world, divorced from the language we use to describe things.

“Perhaps one thing — and this is related to the Greek problem — is our belief, unexamined, in the permanence of certain things.” Stuart went on.  “We have a tendency, not only to believe, but to actually create wars to defend the idea that national borders are something other than temporary lines drawn by powers that be. Just look at Poland: It moves around the map like a ball of mercury in a dish. First it’s here, then it’s there. It grows, shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s an idea that national borders depend on ethnicity, but that clearly isn’t the case. Poland, when it has existed, included Polish speakers, German speakers, Ukranian speakers, Lithuanian speakers, Yiddish speakers and Czechs, among others. Yes, most French speakers live in France, but some live in Quebec, and others in Belgium, where half the population doesn’t speak French at all, but Flemish …”

“‘In France they speak French; in Belgium, they speak Belch.’”

“… and just look at the shifting borders of the United States through the 19th century. Nationhood is always a momentary thing. Yet we think of it as heaven-ordained.”goldsmith fish 9

Stuart considered this a moment and then brought up his own.

“I would offer the belief in opposites and pairs. We think opposites exist, but it is really just a trick of language, enforced by habit. There is the lit end of the cigar and the end we draw smoke from, but there is really only one cigar. Hot and cold are thought of as opposites, but they are really only sliding marks on a single thermometer: Sunspots are ‘cold spots’ on the sun, but they are hotter than anything normally found on earth. Hot and cold, rather than being opposites, are relative.

“The corollary is that we think of many things that are not really opposites at all as fitting into the brain-slot we save for opposites.”

“Like salt and pepper,” I said. “Like chocolate and vanilla.”

“Exactamente. It is habit alone that gives us these pairs. We swim in an ocean of conceptual habits that we seldom give any thought to. Like our expectation of a beginning, middle and end. We want that in a play we watch or a song we sing. But there is no beginning, middle and end in our existence: It is all just flow. ‘Panta horein,’ Heraclitus has. ‘Everything flows.’ But the idea of beginning, middle and end is how we think of our own lives, not just that we are born and die and have a few years in between, but that each step in our life is a story that follows, episode on episode, in a coherent pattern that we recognize as our ‘self.’ We tell stories about our lives as though we were writing novels or short stories. The connection we make — the through-line — is something we cast over events, not something inherent in them.”

“Experience, like the stars in the heavens, is a welter, a chaos of instances, but we make constellations out of them to be able to make sense, but if we take the constellations as something ‘real’ — like astrology does — then we mistake the pattern for the substance.”goldsmith fish 8 horizonntal

“The other example I can think of is hierarchy. This is perhaps beginning to be exploded, but we reflexively think of things in hierarchy. The real world of experience doesn’t provide immutable hierarchies, but in our thoughts, we make them line up in marching order and pretend there is this rank and file. Where once we had kings, knights, yeomen, vassals and serfs, we still have this idea that some organisms are “higher” on the evolutionary scale than others. The vestigial concept of the ‘great chain of being’ remains in our culture, even when the full-blown version has disintegrated into a confetti of vestiges.

“We decry the ‘patriarchy,’ or at least some of us do, while a good part of the population unthinkingly assumes as the default that the husband is head of the household. Real families are no longer like that.”

“And the internet is stuffed with ‘top 10’ lists. As if one movie were provably better than the number two choice. ‘Ten worst dressed politicians.’ ‘5 most influential bloggers.’ The scalar nature of these is another mental figment, a meme, that gets reproduced like DNA.”

“Don’t get me started,” Stuart said, but the horse was out of that barn. goldsmith shark horizontal

“The number of things we accept without thought is probably infinitely more than those things we do think about. Seven day weeks? Any real reason for that? Weekends are such a part of our experience, yet, I doubt cavemen ever thought about constantly recycling work weeks. And the decimal system. A duodecimal system would work just as well, or even a system based on 8 or 15. The 10 is just a convention.”

“Well, we have 10 fingers…”

“And 10 toes, so why not base it all on 20? In fact, I’ve seen this — in some cultures the counting is based on 12 because if we use our thumb as a counter, we can reel off a fast dozen, by first counting the fingertips of the remaining four fingers, then the second joint and then the third, adding up to 12. And with the other hand, we can keep track of the groupings of 12, and count quite efficiently on our fingers up to 144. You can see the foremen doing this on South American rivers as they load bales onto the boats. Inventory is kept on the knuckles.

“I’m sure there are so many more things we accept without thought. But my original point is that it is so hard — nearly impossible to discover what you don’t know to be mere convention.”

Genevieve called from the other room. “Dinner is ready, if I can cut through the chatter.”

What awaited us was a pork roast, crispy with a rind of fat across the top, Brussels sprouts in butter and a rice pilaf and salad.

“This is the real stuff,” she said. “It’s not words.”

word 4
“I’m confused by language,” said Stuart.

I wasn’t sure what he meant. His language confused me. I assumed he meant that he found certain sentences and paragraphs deliberately obfuscating.

“Many people are confused,” I said. “Politicians use language deliberately to confuse, and so do corporations. Mystify. Mystify. Vague it away.”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Stuart. “This is all true, and I am always scratching my head over what comes out of a politician’s mouth. But my confusion is much more basic: Language itself. Speaking. How does it work? How does it function?”

Stuart had the look of a bunny rabbit looking at a hatchet, with the concentration and intensity, but also the complete lack of comprehension.

“I mean, take the same sentence or phrase said by an Alabaman, a Brooklynite and a Calcuttan. The sounds they utter are utterly different, yet, we can understand each immediately. So, it cannot be the sounds alone that convey meaning. The Awe-stryl-yin ‘Good Die’ is never taken in New Jersey to be about death. We can parse it out just fine.

“The New Yorker who asks his friend, as Woody Allen had it, ‘Jeet jet?’ and answered, ‘No, jew?” It just means they’ll go to the deli and get a pastrami sandwich.

“So, of course, we don’t speak in words. How could we? Just try it. Speak the sentence out slowly and with clear articulation for each syllable: ‘Did you eat yet?’ and ‘No, did you?’ and you realize you sound like a synthetic recording, like Stephen Hawking or something.

“No, we speak in whole sentences, or at least in well-rehearsed phrases. ‘I’m going to go to the store’ is really ‘Ime gonna go tooda store,’ or, ‘tooda stow,’ if you are in a different region, or in another place, ‘staw.’

“In fact, the letter ‘R’ by itself is a summation of the problem. Howcum we can understand words with the letter ‘R’ even though it varies from the veddy veddy British ‘D’ version to the rolled burr of the Scottish, to the little flip of the tongue in Spanish and then to the back-of-the-throat gutteral French ‘ghghgh…’ the voiced uvular fricative.”

And here Stuart gargled something in his throat that sounded very much like a possum expiring on a kitchen floor.

“Merci,” he says, “Meghghgh-see.”mr yunioshi

“And then there’s the undifferentiated liquid of Asian languages, which we make fun of, not understanding that ‘L’ and ‘R’ are such close relatives. ‘So solly,’ says the vaudeville Chinese stereotype. And ‘flied lice,’ and its opposite, ‘rotsa ruck.’ You cannot help but throw up a little in your mouth, thinking of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s really embarrassing.”

“More than embarrassing; even more than offensive. It is tin-eared. That’s not what’s going on with the undifferentiated liquid.

“But then, there’s the American ‘R,’ which is probably the single most distinguishing giveaway to an American accent whenever an American attempts to speak another language. ‘Moochas grrrassee-aas.’ That rhotic  ‘R’ hangs in the mouth way too long. ‘RRRRRRRRR,’ like some dog growling when you get too close to his bone. ‘Murrrrr-see boe-cooo.’ Americans speak in such a rhythm that you almost have to stretch the ‘R.’

“But then, we stretch out our consonants, too. Listen to Mexican speaking and you hear the clipped, quick syllables rattle by. Then hear the American imitate him and you see a slow train entering the freight yard. I am grateful whenever one of our presidents attempts to say a few phrases in Spanish, but I also cringe at the wrong rhythm. It’s like a Republican playing jazz. The beat is all wrong, to say nothing of the nasality of the American voice, which — thanks to the prevalence of Valley-girl speak — is only becoming more and more unavoidable in American speech. At some point, American English will pass French for the ‘most-nasalicious’ trophy.

“I used to love English, the sound of it, the sense of vocal pleasure achieved by sounding out those luscious consonants. We conventionally say that French is such a beautiful sounding language, or Italian. And they are, in their own way. But usually we say such things to distinguish our own lack of appreciation for the language we were born into.”

“Yes, my wife likes to try to ‘hear’ human speech the way we hear bird calls or cattle lowing,” I finally get a word in edgwise. “She asks, ‘What is the sound of human speech,’ not meaning what is the content of the language, but what is its animal timbre. She tries very hard to filter out the semiotics and syntax and hear what is said the way we hear whale singing or coyotes howling. It’s nearly impossible, because we understand our mother language so instantaneously as it is spoken. There is almost no time lag there to climb down into and grasp the sound waves. The closest she gets, she tells me, is when she hears children playing in the schoolyard. A human flock of cackling birds. But it’s hard to hear it without being blocked by knowing what is said.”

“Yes,” said Stuart, “and if you do manage to do something of the sort, you realize now what an ugly direction American speech is taking, how whiny it has begun sounding, with all that torpor and nasality. I think of, say, John Gielgud speaking Shakespeare and I love the words that leap crisply from his lips, the deliciousness of them, lovingly shaped and tasted as they are spoken. And then you compare that with, say, Taylor Swift — and I’m not picking on her for any reason other than she is so typical of young American English — and you hear a slow, unconsidered whine. Valley-girl-ism. It’s everywhere. Even our best actors and actresses are now infected with it. In our own lifetime, we have seen the evolution of American English.

“And if it has changed so much in so short a time, I mean the sound of it, the way it is produced in the throat and mouth, imagine how much it has changed since the time of Chaucer. ‘Whan that Aprille with its shoures soote …’  How long before the language of, say, Franklin Roosevelt in an old newsreel, sounds as archaic as that? And I’m not referring primarily to the change in vocabulary, but merely the alteration in vocal production, the next great vowel shift.”

“Yet,” I said, “we can still, if we pay attention, hear Chaucer and understand it. At least for the most part.”

“That is precisely my original point,” Stuart said. “How can it be that when a New Yorker says, ‘youse guys’ or a Virginian says ‘y’all.’ The fact is, as I said, we don’t speak words, but sentences and phrases, all balled up into a little melodic jingle.

“Take a simple sentence, like ‘Please hand me the lamp, I want to plug it in.’ What we really say is something like, “Pleez/ hanmedalamp/ eye wanna plugidin.’ Words elide into tiny musical phrases, like ‘hanmedalamp.’ If there is a single linguistic unit there, ‘hanmeda,’ it is that tune. But the tune changes radically when you say it in another regional accent. In a Yiddish accent, you ask for the ‘lemp.’ In a Downton Abbey voice, you call it a ‘lahmp.’ In a Southern drawl, you ask for the ‘layump.’ These accents cannot even agree on the number of syllables in the word.

“Yet, we absorb the meaning of the sentence easily, no matter which version we hear.

“This tunefulness is that makes it so hard to learn a new language after a certain age. You want to hear the words a Frenchman speaks to you, but he isn’t speaking words, he’s speaking phrases. You are trying to parse out the sounds you have heard into discrete vocabulary, but you cannot do it in anything like real time. The lag is too long. You need to learn a new language not by reading it, where it is separated with little lacunas between type, but in the long swirl of phrase and sentence, as she is actually spoke.

“So, ‘Como esta Usted’ become ‘co-mwes-taoos-ted.’ And I’m not even taking into account the problem of hearing a Hispanic ‘D,’ which slides between the tongue and teeth like an Old English thorn.”

“You mean the ‘TH’ sound?”le monde

“Yes. You know, when I go to France, I have little trouble reading Le Monde or Le Figaro. But I have the hardest time understanding the concierge or waiter when he asks me a question. I can navigate the type fairly easily because it is all divided up into words, many of which are cognates in English. And it isn’t just that French is so differently pronounced from its spelling. I have the same situation in Mexico with Spanish. Easy to read, harder to hear. And the Spanish is not pronounced at variance with its orthography. But the problem is that the French waiter isn’t speaking in words, but in phrases, in melodies. And I am a toddler, having learned words built with my alphabet blocks.

“The point here is that I can hear my own language spoken in a variety of melodies or accents, even radically different from my familiar usage, and seem to have no difficulty accommodating the changed pronunciations, but have such a damnedly hard time wrapping me ears around even the most proper spoken French.

“I remember the character actor Luis van Rooten, who wrote a series of nursery rhymes in French, which, when spoken out loud, sound like English spoken with a comic French accent. ‘Un petit d’un petit s’etonne aux Halles,’ or ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.’

“I am certain that a Frenchman has the same situation hearing the Marseille accent or the Parisian one, and sails through the different melodies with no problem, but has the devil of the time hearing clarity in English spoken even by Gielgud.”

“You remind me of Lady Mondegreen,” I said. “Hearing language not in words, but in a smear of sound in a phrase. Our hearing is amazing, when you think about it, how we can absorb whole sentences, or chunks of them, without ever thinking of them broken into words. But we can also mishear them. Which only proves it is the melody we are listening to and not the words.”

“Lady Mondegreen? Who dat?”

“You know, a mondegreen, when you mishear something. Like in the folk song, ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray and Lady Mondegreen,’ which was originally ‘and laid him on the green.’ It’s now the official word, like a pun or Spoonerism or Malapropism, for misheard lyrics, or misheard language in general, like the famous ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ in the Jimi Hendrix song.”

“Yes. Mondegreen. I’ll remember that. It’s my point exactly. When we speak in phrases, we often elide the sounds in them into other sounds, not always clearly related. I remember the story of the kid who drew the Nativity scene with all the usual figures and a fat man beside the manger. ‘Who’s that?’ she was asked. ‘That’s Round John Virgin.’ As we speak it, the ‘D’ of ‘round’ and the ‘Y’ of ‘yon’ scrunch our tongue into making a ‘J’ sound, not a simple ‘DY’ sound. And we hear it in ‘John.’ ”glodderbin toad 1

“An old friend of mine remembers when he was camping with his girlfriend and he was inside the tent trying to wrestle with the tent poles while she was outside giving moral support. Then she yelled with some joy and excitement, ‘Look, look, a Glodderbin toad! A Glodderbin toad!’ He poked his head out of the canvas looking at the ground all over. ‘No, up there, in the air — a glider being towed.’ You have to say it in a Southern accent.”

“Ah, the Bufo glodderbinensis. Perhaps one day, some scientist will give a newly discovered toad that name and your friend will be vindicated.”

cigarette butts

There is a creeping locution that turns my teeth inside out: When one says ”Thank you,” and the answer comes back, ”Uh-huh.”

I first began noticing this a few years ago when a local TV reporter habitually responded ”Uh-huh” when the anchor thanked her at the end of a report. Every time. ”Uh-huh.” All I could think was, ”You slack-jawed cow.”

”Uh-huh” is a dismissive response, one that says, ”I don’t think enough of you to take the time and effort to form actual words in answer.”

I understand that etiquette is a fluid thing, that it changes over time and that Americans by nature tend to be somewhat informal. There is a sort of casual affability that marks us as a people; this is especially true since the end of World War II.

We are Joe and Willie in the trenches, Pogo in the swamp. We are Hemingway and Fitzgerald, not Trollope and Thackeray.

And our sense of manners is rooted not in superannuated ritual but in the democratic ease we feel with one another. So I am comfortable with the easy swagger of American speech, with its energy and its drive to the short, concise, pithy and colloquial. In a sense, American etiquette is an attempt to share that ease, to make others feel as comfortable as we do.

Manners, whether formal or casual, are a cultural means of granting the other person respect, of recognizing his existence. As such, they lubricate the engine of social intercourse.

But ”uh-huh” does no such a thing. It is a barnyard snort, an insulting spit from the back of the throat.

Certainly there are times when a formal ”you’re welcome” seems artificial. You hold a door for someone and he says ”Thanks.” ”You’re welcome” makes too big a deal out of it.

But any number of other responses can acknowledge the word and the person who spoke it. Comment on the weather or ask after his health. The exchange isn’t a real conversation, but it is recognition of someone’s right to exist on the planet.

”Uh-huh” is the verbal equivalent of crushing the person out like a cigarette butt in a grimy ashtray.

square into skull

If you want to be really smart, you have to learn to be stupid. 

Now, I don’t consider myself to be particularly intelligent, but I have noticed when other people are, there are a few things they have in common. One of them is the ability to be blunt pig-iron stupid. 

What I mean is that intelligence can best be found in ”volitional ignorance,” or a willed erasure of everything you know. I am certain of this: What you know prevents learning. 

People create for themselves a model of reality, or more accurately, many models. These models derive from experience. When anything new makes itself felt, it is immediately tested against the model most appropriate. 

If no model is right, the new fact can be dealt with in one of two ways. More commonly, it is squeezed into the model like a square peg hammered into a round hole. The new is shaved and jiggered until it conforms with what we already know. In the end, we have learned nothing; we may only have renamed what we already knew. Unless the square is a brownie and the round hole is a mouth. eating a brownie

But intelligence is what makes us throw out the old category rather than mangle the nonconforming fact. And those who are genuinely brilliant throw out the categories before even considering the new fact. This is what I mean by volitional ignorance. It forces us to reinvent the wheel every single time and is the only way to discover anything genuine about the problem of wheels. 

It means you accept the experience fresh and start for yourself rather than relying on the culturally accepted model. 

I was talking of this with someone recently and he said, ”You mean, like coloring outside the lines,” and because I am not particularly quick of mind, I agreed. 

This worried me later. For it is not like coloring outside the lines, not at all. When he said that, he was in fact squeezing my square peg into his mental round hole, translating what I was saying into something he already understood. 

We all do this constantly, and I am not criticizing him for it. I am frequently guilty of the same thing. In fact, we cannot do otherwise without becoming yammering idiots. A certain amount of structure is needed to function in our daily lives: We cannot question the egg at every breakfast. 

But still, intelligence is the ability to get past the quotidian. I call the ignorance ”volitional” because it is something I make a choice about. Those who have no choice and are forced to see everything fresh at every second of their lives are called schizophrenic; they cannot edit the information coming into their brains. 

Yet, we need to be able to allow ourselves to enter that state on cue if we are ever to learn anything new and genuine. 

Coloring outside the lines implies a disregard of the structure of the drawing we are coloring. Intelligence doesn’t mean the mere disregard of structure, but the discovery of yet another structure, as if, looking up at the night sky, we were able to ignore all the constellations and create new ones, entirely our own, and what is more, that the ones we create are better and truer than the old ones, just as the Big Dipper is easier to see than the Great Bear. 

There are also several other aspects of intelligence that need mentioning, I think, although they are all related. 

First is that intelligence can apprehend the similarities of disparate things. It recognizes in what way the horse is the same as the fork. It makes us transcend the accepted categories of things and redefine the categories. Perhaps, instead of thinking of the categories ”mammal” and ”silverware,” we might discover that through human history, both horse and fork have been used as parts of the common category ”tool.” 

Or we might compare four legs with four tines. 

I remember a segment on Sesame Street where they played the game, ”Three of these things are kind of the same,” where they show us four items and ask which doesn’t belong, and which three do belong. 

In this case, they had a red ball, a tomato, a green apple and a ruddy pear. Well, there are four different answers: The ball is different because it is inorganic; the pear is different because it is not round; the apple is different because it is not red; the tomato is different because it is soft. 

The ability to see multiple answers is another sign of intelligence. Intelligence is not afraid of ambiguity. 

And finally, intelligence understands things metaphorically, that is, it thinks in images and discovers in them reductions of complex thoughts in small, understandable packages that resonate emotionally. 

Einstein first discovered his theory of relativity not in a mathematical equation, but in a mental picture. It gave him the insight he needed to later forge the math proving his insight. But the picture came first. 

Speaking of one thing while meaning another is the heart of intelligence. This is not a game, merely substituting one thing for another as in a rebus, but rather it is the recognition that our vocabulary is limited by what we know already. When we confront something genuinely new, we cannot speak of it in language we already have, we must speak of what it is ”like.” 

As for instance: Human love is infinitely complex. When we feel it, we almost always decide the word ”love” is inadequate to describe what we feel. We can either do what Woody Allen does in one of his films, and try to invent a new word: ”I glom you, I snorfle you,” but such a course is meaningless to anyone else. 

Or we can make a metaphor and say, ”My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June,” or ”Love is the valence of pheramones.” 

In each case, we are trying to convey something of the complexity and subtlety of what we feel, not allowing it to die the death of the normal, the bland, the banal. We are insisting that the particular emotion be understood and felt by the stranger to whom we are talking. We want exactness in our language, and we can reach it only through inexactness. Metaphor is the means of doing it. 

All our highest and best thoughts are metaphorical. All the most banal come straight from the dictionary. 

The more precise a word is, the less it describes. Meaning depends on ambiguity. 

Intelligence is the lightning bolt that arcs from one thought to another, fusing them together like glass. 

All intelligence is a form of recognition.

leo gorcey

Americans have always had a cultural inferiority complex. In other areas, we may walk with a swagger of a bully, but from our earliest years, when the colonists imported all their music and tea, to the 20th century, when we looked to France for our avant garde, Americans have not had the self-confidence to be who they are.

And so, we often try our hardest to climb the social ladder by imitating others.

Certainly this impulse is behind the current epidemic of saying ”you and I” when we mean ”you and me.” As in, ”He left a message for Harry and I.” The hair twitches on the back of my neck every time I hear it.

I know where this ugly solecism comes from: We have been told not to say, ”Me and Harry are going down to the shop to work on the carburetor,” but rather, ”Harry and I are going.”

”It’s a question of breeding,” our matronly third-grade teachers told us, lorgnette over nose.

Henry Thoreau noticed that when a cat jumps on a hot stove and is burned, it will never jump on a hot stove again. But then, it will never jump on a cold one, either.

And we transfer this delicacy to the wrong place, saying ”you and I” whether as subject or object.

It’s like holding up our pinkie when we pick up our teacup.

In the process, we often make ourselves look foolish, as we attempt to be more French than the French or more English than the queen. Only this attempt to borrow class can explain the success of such monumental bores as Masterpiece Theatre.

But America ain’t Cole Porter; America is Leo Gorcey.

This has been brought back to me hearing local TV news anchors attempt to stuff self-consciously correct Spanish pronunciations into the middle of middle-brow English sentences.

”In the latest news from ‘Nee-hah-RAH-wah’ . . .,” the anchor will say, and I am embarrassed for him. Not because he’s trying to be politically correct, but because he doesn’t seem to know that ”Nicaragua” is an English word. Sure, it is spelled just like the Spanish word, but like so many formerly foreign words, it has become naturalized.

The American pronunciation falls off the tongue better, certainly, than the British pronunciation: Nick-uh-RAG-yoo-wa.

”But we need to show respect for Hispanic culture,” he says.

And I agree. Americans are miserable when it comes to learning second languages. I am all for a bilingual America; we should not be so provincial as we are. But my simple answer is a question:

What is the capital of France?

Are we showing disrespect for the French when we blithely mispronounce ”Paris”? Why should it not be ”Par-ee?”

Well, because it sounds pretentious, that’s why. Pronunciation is guided by usage. We say ”Paris” in English and ”Par-ee” when we speak French.

Which is why the same news anchor isn’t consistent and doesn’t bring us news from ”Meh-hee-ko,” our neighbor to the south. It would sound silly. Long usage in English makes us pronounce the ”X” in Mexico as a ”ks” sound, its habitual sound in English.

Are we dissing Russia when we say ”Moscow” instead of ”Moosk-vah?” And after all, what do the Chinese call their country? Certainly it isn’t ”China.”

Are you suggesting we should say ”Nihon” instead of ”Japan”?

This isn’t really about respect but about communication: Usage allows our hearer to understand our words.

And conversely, is the Puerto Rican immigrant showing disrespect for American when he calls our largest city ”Noo Jork?” Of course not, but certainly respect has to be a two-way street. Those who demand we show respect for other cultures often share the familiar lack of ”cultural self-esteem” for their American roots.

If it is a moral question to give up our American pronunciation of familiar foreign words, why is it not also a moral question for others to give up their accents when they speak English?

Put that way, the silliness of it all becomes clear.

English is a wonderfully rich and adaptable language, and it has borrowed from almost every other language on the planet over the years. But it changes the words it borrows and makes them fit comfortably on the English-speaking tongue.

Certain words and names through long usage have developed idiomatic English pronunciations. We listen to the mazurkas of ”Show-pan” and look at the canvases of ”Van-go.”  It puts people off — and certainly puts me off — when people attempt to be more correct than necessary. In essence, they are merely showing off.

It is that unattractive element of social climbing.

When there is not a habitual English idiomatic usage, I’m all for pronouncing words as accurately as possible in their original language. But some things have become English.

I remember an object lesson listening to classical music radio in North Carolina many years ago.

The station was traditionally run by engineering students who were more interested in radio than in music. They couldn’t pronounce anything right. They mangled composers’ names. Bach was ”Baytch,” Chopin was a phonetical ”Chop-in,” as in ”there’s a pork chop in the freezer.”

We suffered for years, until they went the exact opposite way. One day they got an announcer who was more French than De Gaulle, or thought he was.

All of a sudden, Chopin’s name was ”Fray-der-EEK France-WAH Show-(something swallowed in the back of the throat and simultaneously sneezed out the nose after wrapping around the adenoids).”

It was a pretentious-sounding rectitude.

That same announcer later gave away the game, demonstrating what level of sophistication he’d actually achieved, when he played a Mahler symphony and he called out the name ”Goose-TAHV Mah-LAY.”