Monday, December 29, 2008

41 F in our non-sybaritic house, or On the GRE



"Ninety percent of the game is half mental." - Yogi Berra

"I might just fade into Bolivian, you know what I mean?" (meaning to say, oblivion) — former professional boxer Mike Tyson


It's 41 degrees fahrenheit in our non-sybaritic house, 9 degrees celsius.

That's the only sentence I wrote in a blog entry I abandoned on December 16. I was sitting at my desk and I could see my breath puffing in the air. I was so happy: a goal achieved. Phaedra and I continue our enterprise of living without heat in the house. So far we've had to cheat only twice: once when our nieces came to visit and the first thing Bronwyn, age 3, cried when she walked into the house was, "I'm cooooold," and we figured we'd spare her the experiment; and once, actually, last night. Phaedra had injured a muscle in her neck (while toweling off her wet hair) and we didn't see any reason to compound bodily pain with a shivering body.

Austin climate really is moronic. On December 9 we awoke to a temperature of 78, and slightly, Zeus be cursed, muggy. Sweaty muggy! Later that night we crawled into bed as the temperature sunk to 34. That's a forty-four degree change. It's a wonder Texans don't go crazy en masse. La coquetta mercurial, that's what our weather is. And today the evil cedar allergens have descended upon the city.

I'm taking the GRE tomorrow morning. Today I test-drove the route to south Austin to see how I'd fare in early morning traffic. I did fine, thank God. The ProMetric testing center was standing exactly where the map had promised. A month ago I put myself on a study plan. In the first week I fulminated against the stupid thing. Seriously, what does my ability to do Algebra have to do with my ability to research 16th-century Anglicanism? Nothing. It's ridiculous.

In the second week I chose Zen; I relinquished my passions. Nothing was to be gained by my complaining every morning and evening to Phaedra who, God bless her, endured my constant interruptions to tell her how wonderful it was to know how to find the area of a triangle again. The GRE was a game that disguised itself as a test and I might as well learn it.

Then I came across these "GRE vocabulary" lists and promptly forsook my Zen in order to shake my fists at the ETS gods. I had copies of both Princeton's and Barron's study books on my desk. Each had compiled a vocabulary list--one of 500, the other of 3,500--it deemed essential for the beavers who wished to ace the test. One of the words was "sybaritic." True confession: I've never noticed that word in my life. I've likely read it. But I had no clue what it meant when I first stared at it on my flash card.

And then the gall. I'm at Barnes & Noble flipping through Sports Illustrated's Year in Pictures and there it is: a photo with an image of a sexy Monte Carlo Formula One race-car on the left with two sunbathing "sybarite" beauties on the right. In Sports Illustrated no less! Sybaris is an ancient Greek city that was destroyed in 510 BC. But before it was destroyed the residents lived in and were renown for their luxury; and then they were destroyed.

And the funny vocab words just kept coming: die and wag and toady. There was martinet. There was tyro, that made me think of my happy visit in 1985 to the state of Tyrol, Austria, but it had nothing to do with the snow-skiing that made its capital Innsbruck famous. There was desuetude. But that just sounded like a lot of unnecessary bluster to say "disuse." There were the four cousins: panegyric, paean, eulogy and encomium, all which were very popular in the days of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. There was demur which was not to be confused with demure. There was quaff. With that I thought of Tom Bombadil--as well as all of Ireland. Meretricious derives from the Latin "meretrix," or prostitute. And jejune sounded like a Japanese-Brazilian martial art, but it really meant vapid--or nugatory--and I memorized it by thinking of the movie American Pie.

How can you not love good words.

But I do worry about our English language. This morning on NPR I heard a scientist say "irregardless." On national public radio. I yelped in the car. Speaking back to the radio I said: "It's either regardless or irrespective, not irregardless. Lady, that's like saying very unique. I know J.D. Salinger used it that way once, but mostly unique is either one of a kind or it ain't. It can't be very one of a kind. It's the only-one-of-its-kind." And I've virtually given up on the hope that people, including journalists, will keep their subject-verb agreement straight. "There's three men over there." "There's a lot of wars going on." And me is crazy. And forget about the who/whom deal. It's a lost cause.

William Safire, whose column "On Language" ran for over twenty-five years in the New York Times Magazine, tells this funny but truly sad story about Mick Jagger at Super Bowl 40 in 2006:

"During halftime at Super Bowl XL (Extra Large? No, 40), Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones performed "Satisfaction," their 1965 hit. He pointed out in his introduction to the song that it could have been sung at Super Bowl I, adding, 'Everything comes to he who waits.'

"That was a verbal malfunction more shocking than a previous Janet Jackson halftime. Because he is the subjective case of the third-person male pronoun, it cannot be the object of the preposition to. The pronoun must be the objective case him. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in an 1863 poem that called up the image of a patient falcon carved in wood, had it right: 'All things come round to him who will but wait.'"

My linguist scholar friend, Amy Hamilton, rebuked me once for my grammatical puritanism. She said language was organic, not ossified. She said there was a difference between correct speech and understood speech. A regional dialect might not match the Queen's English, but folks understand each other just fine and with that understanding comes relationship--which is awesomely unique. For instance, I recently heard in the library a very tall man ask a very pregnant woman, "How pregnant are you?" That's an example of understood speech. "How far along are you?" would be an example of correct speech. But it's much more fun, I think, to say the former: How pregnant are you? Very, rather, magnificently pregnant, thank you for asking.

This makes me think of Eugene Peterson's story of William Tyndale. Working in the 1520s, Tyndale, a uncannily gifted polyglot, had a long-standing desire to translate the Bible out of the Latin into the English language, indeed so a plowboy could understand. It was not a popular sentiment. He was forced to flee to Hamburg where, in 1526, he finally completed the New Testament. Copies were smuggled into England, only to be condemned and ordered burned. Ten years later Tyndale was charged with heresy. He was strangled to death then burned at the stake. And that, boys and girls, is a lesson to us all not to mess with the English language.

Some seventy years later King James' best minds translated Genesis 39:2 in this way:

"And the LORD was with Joseph and he was a prosperous man."

It's a fine translation. But Tyndale, with an ear to the ground, to the way people actually spoke and related to each other, wrote, I believe, a more colorful and perhaps accurate translation:

"And the LORde was with Ioseph and he was a luckie felowe."

And, yes, Lord is translated LORde, perhaps in a nod to the two-syllabic pronunciation of so many preachers. In the end the King's men made use of 75% of Tyndale's work, but coming under the influence of an aristocratic culture that preferred high poetry to the people's poetry the KJV dropped the luckie felowe for the prosperous man and the English-speaking world has ever since struggled with how we should be talking to God. Or He to us. William Tyndale maybe one of the fathers of English literature, as the latest Economist avers, but he's a sober reminder that words are never just words.

Ok, enough blogging for today. I need to drive over to the central library to take my last GRE practice test. I'm at Wholefoods right now. The cedar pollen seems to have subsided. There's Pythagorean problems to take down. And Phaedra, her is so awesome and pretty, even if her does drink up all the hot chocolate in our non-sibaritic cold house.

6 comments:

Rosie Perera said...

Hey, thanks for letting me know what sybaritic means! I've seen it lots, in the name of Vancouver's Sybaritic String Band, which plays at Contra Dances and such, several of which I've been to over the years. But I never bothered to look up where they got the name of their band. Now I know! :-)

I'm a great fan of William Saffire and correct English, though I pick and choose whom I will bug about it, based on how strong our friendship is already and how badly I want it to stay that way, and the context of the error (e.g., I'll never point it out in email, but if it's in a piece someone has written for publication that they're asking me to review, of course I will point it out).

Dave said...

I think you commented on your own point when condemn the use of "very unique" by "it is or it ain't."

I feel your pain on wildely fluctuating temps...Virginia is much the same. My best on your GRE. Algebra just isn't necessary in any faction of life :-)

Laura said...

Methinks you have opened up Pandora's Box... or at least a can of worms! I'm no expert so I will respectfully leave the final verdicts up to Dr. Amy, et al. But I just completed a linguistics class at St. Edwards and was pleasantly surprised at several things. First, a plethora of studies reveal that what is considered "correct" English is strongly tied to socio-economic class. In other words, "correct" = how the more powerful/prestigious members of a society utilize language, especially in terms of syntax and morphology. It made me think of my east Texas, blue collar-raised grandmother, who quit school at 16 but was absolutely RABID about prescriptive grammar. She was motivated a great deal by wanting to be seen as "proper" by her high-society friends, and in fact was taken under the wing of one who aimed to help her fit in with that crowd.

Second, I learned that - among other things - dialect can be directly tied to identity. My professor cited a study that analyzed the use or omission of the phoneme /r/ among residents of Martha's Vineyard. It seems that those who wanted to be associated with the town and its residents did not pronounce the /r/, i.e. I'm going to pak the ca." A majority of those who did not necessarily identify with the community, including summer visitors and high school kids who purposed to leave and never look back, did pronounce the /r/, i.e. I'm going to park the car."

Interesting stuff. Grammar is PREscriptive, while linguistics is DEscriptive. Language is constantly changing, and anthropological linguists have a lot to say in terms of how that happens. Did you know that irrespective is actually listed in some dictionaries? Yes, there is controversy and there are some solid arguments for why it is "improper." But I imagine there's a good chance that somewhere down the road it will become standard.

WOW. I didn't know I enjoyed that class so much :)

the line/the fragment said...

Hello, Hello, Hello,
My name is Jake Dockter. I am an author up here in Portland, Or. I am writing a book on the convergences of art and faith, exploring their connections. I would love to connect with you about interviewing you on your thoughts, or using some of your writings. I love to collaborate, pick people's brains. Being an artist and a christian I also love meeting others of this persuasion.
email me jake.dockter@gmail.com

w. david o. taylor said...

Rosie: I have friends who grew tired of my grammatical nosiness, so mostly these days I don't meddle, except when it comes to my nephews and nieces, and with them I wield the power of the great and might Oz, er, Uncle, upon them. "How did you sleep last night?" "Good." "Ahem...?" "Oh, yes...well." Actually, they're sharp on the "well" vs "good" front. They correct us sometimes.

Dave: nice to meet you. I agree that for most of us Algebra is just not necessary, but I have to say, when I took the GRE this past week it felt really great to solve for X.

Laura: Hello! It's so nice to see your name pop up. Love the grandmother story. And I'm very fascinated by your thoughts on the socio-economic dimension of language.

Here are my two thoughts in response to your comments.

One, language is organic and therefore constantly growing, morphing, becoming otherly and the notion of a single "correct" English is nonsense. The issue, I think, is not conformity to the Queen's English (of which era exactly, one might ask) but coinherence within each language or dialect variant. Does the particular language hold together? Is this dialect beautiful in its inner unity and complexity? I don't have to understand it or even like it to find it beautiful. Ebonics? Appalachian? Martha Vineyardian? To my mind this is as true for verbal language as for the many languages, say, of dance.

Two, having said that I don't believe that should give us license to do whatever we want with language. I think all too often we excuse our laziness by appealing to a notion of self-expression, "I'm just being me, man." If anything goes we'll just get a lot of sloppiness. Email-speak is often plain ugly. Real bad ugly.

I don't think any of this is simple. It's not. It's complicated. And that's why it's dangerous to make grand pronouncements as I just have!

Jake: Greetings. I'll be sure to give you a shout-out in the real world of e-mail communication.

livingpalm said...

[this is me too terrified to speak for fear of "verbal malfunction"]

: )
Congratulations on working hard and completing the GRE with excellence!