Friday, October 28, 2011

Ralph Fiennes engenders mixed feelings

So it seems that actor Ralph Fiennes is taking a stand as a defender of the English language, which he sees as being eroded by microblogging services like Twitter. I applaud Fiennes's position, but cringe at his ungrammatical utterance in defense of our beautiful tongue:

Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.

Last I checked, Mr. Fiennes, a compound subject must be treated as plural. For purposes of subject-verb agreement, then, the phrase should be "are being diluted," not "is being diluted."

We may as well have enjoined the LOLCATS to defend our language.

Mr. Fiennes was later spotted asking a McDonald's cashier, in the stentorian tones of a trained Shakespearean player, whether he "can has cheezburger."



John from Daejeon said...

How soon we forget:

"The young recruit is silly -- 'e thinks o' suicide;
'E's lost 'is gutter-devil; 'e 'asn't got 'is pride;
But day by day they kicks 'im, which 'elps 'im on a bit,
Till 'e finds 'isself one mornin' with a full an' proper kit.
Gettin' clear o' dirtiness, gettin' done with mess,
Gettin' shut o' doin' things rather-more-or-less."

--Rudyard Kipling

Gawd knows there's no contest between the two of them as to the one with the greater command of our ever-evolving, and highly arbitrary, use of sounds and symbols to shoot the breeze with one another. However, time, and English, wait for no one, especially, those mired in languages past (translation--"sticks in the mud that can't get with the latest version of the current program"). Where would you be if you didn't upgrade from the horse and buggy to the automobile, from the fan to air conditioning, from the abacus to the latest in personal computers, etc.

Personally, I hate that commas in a series before the "and" are being dropped, but what good does going on a crusade against it do when 300 million Chinese and countless young people in English speaking countries are happy to see it fade into oblivion? Hell, we already are the latest version of our lamenting ancestors moaning about the "good ol' days" about how we had to use archaic tools known as typewriters, cassette tapes, and rotary dial phones and that these young punks nowadays just don’t seem to “get it.”

Kevin Kim said...

It works both ways, though: novelty and evolution are inevitable, but so are structure, continuity, and stability.

I was once accused of being a language "prescriptivist" by a commenter, when nothing could be further from the truth: I accept that languages evolve. But evolution is never the whole story; if "using a language" simply meant "speaking and writing in whatever way we see fit," then I could alter my grammar and vocabulary according to my changing moods and whims.

So I strike a middle path, which is something I've learned from Buddhism: structure and fluidity imply and need each other.

I liked your Kipling quote. I'll reply with Lewis Carroll:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t-- till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

Impenetrability is the result of letting go of any sense of stricture and structure. The flip-side, of course, is that Humpty Dumpty has a point: if words come to rule us, then language stultifies, which in turn stultifies the human imagination. I suspect you and I are in basic agreement on this.

And so I end with this remark:

Harlaver boondock trial me phronesis. Laxly.

Charles said...

I'm with you on this one, Kevin.

Not only is the sentence ungrammatical, but it's not even elegant.

You can lump me in with the prescriptivists, but I don't want to live in a world where you can't make fun of someone for their awkward use of language.

John from Daejeon said...


You might want to check out the website. Right now, the site is having some technical difficulties, but it's pretty interesting.

Some of the words up for adoption include:

Jobler | One who does small jobs.
Pamphagous | Eating or consuming everything.
Cynicocratical | Pertaining to rule by cynics.
Icasm | Figurative expression.
Sparsile | Of a star, not included in any constellation.
Lagenarious | Flagon-shaped.
Gleimous | Slimy, full of phlegm.
Isangelous | Equivalent to the angles.
Squiriferous | Having the character or qualities of a gentleman.
Pigritude | Laziness.
Canitude | Greyness, hoariness; whiteness.

I might just have to adopt "squiriferous."