Sunday, March 20, 2011

Speaking Well, Writing Good

I really do care about the English language and its future. This probably comes as a shock to my family and friends, many of whom think I do a particularly expert job of mangling it.

They may be right. I do, in fact, remember falling asleep in my public school grammar glasses and had no idea how to do the parsing thing teachers were so keen on.

That’s probably why I still don’t know, no matter how many times I’m taught, when to use ‘which’ and when to use ‘that.’ I’m forever putting quotation marks before a period. When I write long sentences, my subject and verbs often don’t match (I’m told), and I’ve never been particularlygood knowing whether my friend and me went to the corner store or whether it was I (who picked up the jug of milk).

Of course there are the debatable errors I make, as when asked “How are you today, Linda?” and I respond cheerfully with  “Good!” I think the “Well!” brigade may be losing this battle, but only time will tell.

My pronunciation and American accent don’t bode all that well here in Canada, either. It took a dear friend to point out that I left out the ‘d’s in  the words shouldn’t, wouldn’t and couldn’t, making them only one syllable. Shount, wount and count.  “It makes you sound dumb,” she said. I immediately reinserted the d’s  which automatically added another syllable.

I understood what my friend meant since I too have my own prejudices. When people mix up there, they’re and their, your and your’re, and it’s and its, I think they’re, well…not smart. 

My bungling of the language isn’t anything I’m particularly proud of, though I may have been in the past. But only slightly. Over 25 years ago I was working as a researcher on a current affairs television show. The producer was pleased with my work and thought I might make a good on-air host. She was interested in grooming me for the job. “But you’ve got to get rid of that American accent. And a brush up on your grammar wouldn’t hurt either.”

I took no umbrage about the grammar. She was right. It needed fixing. But I did get my back up about the accent. The issue of ‘accent reduction’ or ‘accent removal’ is a prickly one.

Where a person comes from is often a strong part of their identity (here’s an example of my subject and verb not matching, I’m afraid). Their accent is a reflection of that. Many people want to get rid of both the identity and accent the second they step on foreign soil, They’re seriously committed to leaving the past behind. I’m sure they have good cause.

Other people sport their accents with pride, or at least, acceptance. In my case, even though I had parted ways with my home country on many fronts, particularly political, I knew I was a product of my upbringing. I was American. Why pretend otherwise. I figured time would subdue my accent. It didn’t feel right trying to force it. It wouldn’t be me.

Okay, so I’m not a paragon of grammatical virtue, and accept the fact that my spoken language may be considered a bit unrefined. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know beautiful, expressive language when I see or read it.

I’m generally seeing less and less of the good stuff in day-to-day conversation and writing, unfortunately. And that’s why I say I really do care about the future of the English language. I’m worried that some of the most evocative and dramatic expressions handed down to us, particularly from the Bible and Shakespeare, may be disappearing.

So, in the wake of our growing use of the quick and expedient in our text messages, tweets and People-magazine-style writing, let us remember the many riches from texts past that still grace today’s language and continue to resonate with us.

I will start with words and expressions from the Bible: my brother’s keeper; salt of the earth; give up the ghost; scapegoats, an eye for an eye; casting your pearls before swine;  writing on the wall; the blind leading the blind; a house divided against itself (used by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysberg Address); dust and ashes; hold your peace; howling wilderness; how are the mighty fallen; out of the mouth of babes; through the skin of my teeth; my cup runneth over; broken heart; stumbling block; from strength to strength; heavy heart; woe is me; lamb to the slaughter; sour grapes; salt of the earth; safe and sound; eat, drink and be merry.

Now on to Shakespeare, who we have to thank for: all that glitters is not gold (Merchant of Venice); strange bedfellows (The Tempest); the naked truth (Love’s Labours Lost); wild-goose chase (Romeo and Juliet); bated breath (The Merchant of Venice); green-eyed monster (Othello); salad days (Antony and Cleopatra); short shrift  (Richard III).

Many of these words and expressions have been so overused that they’ve entered the realm of cliché. But isn’t that remarkable, considering their history and provenance? Talk about universality,  long-lasting at that.

Great orators like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this concept of universality. King also knew the power of language and how to use language as power.

His memorable speech, “I Have a Dream," was delivered August 28, 1963 before more than 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. as part of the March on Washington. (Note to readers: if you go to this link to hear King's speech, you'll also hear civil rights protesters sining "We Shall Overcome."  Highly recommended: a real piece of history).

The speech not only helped to galvanize the already growing civil-rights movement across the country at the time, it also became one of the most influential and inspirational pieces of rhetoric in American history.

The speech is littered with stunning allusion and resonances from the Bible. I’ll print some of them here, but highly urge you to read or listen to Dr. King’s actual speech. It may move you to tears. I first heard it when I was 15 years old. I cried then and still do today. The speech’s beauty and power are truly remarkable.

Now for the Biblical phrases:

“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

 “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

 “Every valley shall be exalted, and very mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

“It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

 “… weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

There are also other allusions in King’s speech, in addition to the Biblical ones. For example, “five score years ago” invokes the Gettysburg Address, and “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent” refers to Shakespeare, Richard III, act I, scene 1.

King knew how to use strong language from other sources to strengthen his own. I’m going to make a serious effort to do the same. Perhaps it will make up for some of my linguistic missteps. 

I’ll let Shakespeare do my plea bargaining:

“The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed- It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.”  

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